A couple of years ago I listened to a book by this author and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A couple of months ago, I saw a trailer of a TV series adapting another of her novels. So when I was choosing my next audiobook to listen to while running, I thought I would try it out.
“Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon is a novel set in contemporary Ireland about a young university student called Frances who is also a poet. She performs her poems together with her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi. After their performance is noticed by renowned writer Melissa, she invites them to her home to be photographed for a feature article. There, they meet Melissa’s husband, an actor called Nick. As the novel progresses, Frances and Nick are drawn to each other, and the interplay between the four characters becomes more and more complicated.
While sometimes it can be difficult to discern pace listening to an audiobook, this is a slow-paced book that explores the power dynamics between emerging and established figures in the literary world. Outwardly quiet and composed, Frances has a tumultuous inner life where she is constantly evaluating and weighing up her complex and fraught relationships. Frances obscures her family life and financial situation from her new community and remains acutely aware of class differences.
I have to say, I did not enjoy this book nearly as much as “Normal People”. The magnetism and impeccable tension between Marianne and Connell was absent in this novel; replaced instead with awkwardness, repressed feelings and many, many things left unsaid. There are a lot of parallels between this story and “Normal People”: isolated young university student, a sexual relationship devoid of commitment, a summer trip to France (replaced with Croatia in the TV show). While the novel is hyperaware of Frances’ inability to confide in others and discomfort navigating all these complex relationships, it does nothing to get the reader onside. Despite McMahon’s excellent narration, there was no humour in this book. I didn’t feel invested in these characters or sympathetic to their lives. I didn’t feel like I learned anything or got a unique perspective. At the end of the novel, I was indifferent to Frances and who she might have a relationship with.
I have tried watching a few episodes of the TV adaptation, and I just couldn’t get into that either. I think, ultimately, this was not as engaging a story and ultimately I was left feeling disappointed.
Content warning: homophobia, exploitation, sexual assault
After a bit of a slow start, with members moving away and people going overseas and this never-ending pandemic, we did manage to have another meeting of our fantasy book club this year.
“The Binding” by Bridget Collins is a fantasy novel about a young man called Emmett Farmer who is summoned by a Bookbinder to work as an apprentice. Although he has been too unwell to work on the farm recently, Emmett initially resists, insisting he will be able to resume his duties very soon. However, with his family strangely eager to see him go, he reluctantly agrees and travels to the isolated cottage to start his new trade. His master is an elderly, taciturn woman called Seredith who refuses to answer any of his questions about the magical art of binding: taking a person’s traumatic memories and encapsulating them safely in a book. Instead, he is set to work learning the practical skills of bookbinding. However, when Seredith falls ill, Emmett’s future suddenly becomes very unclear and he realises that even less clear is his own past, and the location of his own book.
There were some very strong elements to this book. Collins has a knack for capturing mood, and I admittedly found the first part of this book extremely bleak, though this was balanced out with the beautiful summer scenes in the middle of the book. I liked the idea of bookbinding as an arcane art, and that there was a whole economy and apprenticeship system built around it. The highlight of the book was the interplay between Emmett and Lucian, and the various circumstances in which they meet.
However, I did find the use of seasons to delineate mood a little heavy-handed at times. I also found the magic and society felt a little unfinished. If books are only ever the bound memories of people, how were they invented? Why can’t you bind a memory into a letter? Why, in a fantasy society without a clear religion such as Christianity, is homophobia so rampant? While there were a lot of beautiful scenes and pieces of writing, I wasn’t sure the plot and setting held up very well under close scrutiny.
An interesting concept with some lovely prose but at times a bit grim and unfinished.
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.
“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.
Fantasy novel about a forgotten princess and a quest
Content warning: family violence
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I have actually been a huge fan of this author and artist for many, many, many years and was thrilled to buy a copy of an omnibus edition of her Hugo Award-winning webcomic “Digger” almost 10 years ago. The physical book has been out of print for some time but! there is currently a Kickstarter campaign open for 7 more days republishing it in all its enormous glory. One of my favourite short stories of all time is the Nebula award-winning “Jackalope Wives“. Anyway, I have been meaning to read some of her adult fiction so jumped at the chance to read this book.
“Nettle & Bone” by T. Kingfisher is a fantasy novel about young woman called Marra who happens to be the youngest of three princesses in a small yet politically advantageous kingdom. When her older sister is married to a neighbouring prince in a strategic alliance, Marra is sent away to finish growing up in a convent. The only times she sees her family is after tragedy strikes, and in the rigidly controlled palace there is no time to talk. However, one thing becomes abundantly clear: her second sister is in danger. Determined to save her, Marra must find a gravewitch and complete three impossible tasks. Only then, with the help of a newfound group of friends, does Marra have a chance to save her sister and her kingdom.
True to Kingfisher’s style, this is a warm, understated story with a very smooth flow. There is a strong focus on friendship and an enjoyable sense of reluctant kindness that underpins the book. All the characters were eminently likeable, but I particularly liked the gravewitch and her demon-possessed chicken. Marra is a surprisingly normal for a princess. Dressed as a nun, she blends into the background in many of the different places she visits. She isn’t especially beautiful, or smart, or talented but as a reader, it is easy to admire her courage and relate to her determination and patience. Kingfisher draws on classic fairytale themes like fairy godmothers, magical blessings and markets in another realm.
I also really liked how Kingfisher dealt with the themes of family violence. Without judgment, she explores how abuse can happen even in wealthy, powerful families and how sometimes the families themselves can be complicit. I also really liked how she explored sisterly relationships and how although it can be hard to forget the dynamics of being children, siblings can redefine relationships as adults. The romance unfolded gently, and there was even a delightfully surprising relationship.
A really easy read and a refreshing take on princesses and fairy godmothers.
Content warning: family violence, child abuse, racism
I first saw this debut novel being promoted on Twitter back in 2020 when author events were being cancelled left, right and centre. Now that we are starting to resume some in-person events here in Australia, I was very keen to go back to Asia Bookroom’s Book Group. Members can nominate books and volunteer to lead the discussion and I proposed this book. Unfortunately I missed the previous meeting but I was excited to prepare to present the book and facilitate a discussion. There is a lot going on in this book, so I will adapt my presentation to inform the review below to highlight some of the many themes and stylistic choices as well as to share my own thoughts.
“Bestiary” by K-Ming Chang is about three generations of women in a family: Grandmother, Mother and Daughter. Grandmother moved from Taiwan to Arkansas, USA with her second husband and two youngest daughters (including Mother), leaving her three eldest daughters behind. Years later, Mother has her own children including Daughter and her brother. The book goes back and forth between perspectives and stories of the three, linking them together with their shared history, shared heritage and shared experience as migrants in America. After becoming obsessed with digging holes in her backyard, Daughter begins to receive letters from the ground written by Grandmother to each of her daughters, sharing stories about their family history and revealing what happened to her four aunties.
This is a rich and complex book that is surprising and original at every turn. The book is divided up into chapters, each told from either Grandmother’s, Mother’s and Daughter’s perspective. Some of Grandmother’s chapters are told in the form of translated letters, with annotations by Daughter and her girlfriend Ben. There are parables, poetry, family histories and first person accounts all drawing on oral storytelling traditions and leaning into extreme subjectivity bordering on unreliable narration. I really felt that this book transcended what we would usually consider ‘magic realism’ and arrived squarely in surrealism. Chang certainly drew on plenty of examples of mythology and brought them to life in a literal way. I felt that the style and the structure were both chaotic in a complimentary way, and both served to highlight and obscure what was happening with the family.
I think one of my favourite parts of the book was Daughter and Ben’s relationship, and how parallels are drawn between that and Grandmother’s Grandfather (the pirate and his lover) and even Grandmother. I really liked how mythology and queerness are woven together, especially with children being created from queer love in quite fantastical ways. Chang said of writing queer relationships in her interview with LitHub:
they are transformed by each other, that they are literally alchemizing each other. I wanted their desire to feel fully embodied and sometimes even mythic, world-defining, almost supernatural, completely defying any definitions of what’s real or possible. Everything they want is possible. Their relationship felt like pure potential to me—while I was writing Ben in particular, there was this sense of rebellion and irreverence and redefining the rules she’s been given. Their desire is literally magic, and I wanted to channel that hunger. It felt so liberating to write them into the past and the future, to write them in a way that felt boundless.
I think one of the most striking (and honestly quite shocking) things about this book was the role bodily functions played in the story-telling. In addition to her characters frequently creating water (by spitting and urinating) like they enter water (lakes, rivers, the sea), Chang also writes a lot about digesting. The holes that Daughter and her brother dig in the yard consume offerings and vomit up letters from Grandmother. In an interview with the Rumpus, Chang says that she grew up talking openly about bodily functions and that she likes to balance the beautiful with the grotesque. She said something interesting about deciding what is clean and unclean is often a question of class. She also talked about how stories are told through the mouth, and so too is everything processed by the body. Stylistically, the way Chang engaged with bodily functions reminded me a lot of “The English Class” by Ouyang Yu, which was the first Asia Bookroom Book Group I attended.
Family violence is a significant part of the book and hand-in-hand with this is abandonment. In many ways the family is fractured and at times there are even threats with knives and thoughts of how to best defend oneself from violent family members. I think family violence ties very closely with the intergenerational trauma experienced by the family, not just because of the war and the occupation of Taiwan (set out with far more clarity in “Green Island“!) but also as immigrants in the USA. There were some very compelling moments of Mother and Daughter experiencing racism in schools. I also wondered if the surrealism style was a way to cope with some of the things that happened; treating trauma “irreverently” (like Chang says in an interview) and focusing on seemingly trivial things rather than the bigger, more traumatic memories.
As you may have extrapolated, this was not an easy book to read. As a reader, you have to put in a lot of time and thought into understanding this book and the things Chang is trying to convey. There are so many layers of metaphor, parable and surrealism that at times it is hard to know what should be taken literally and what should be taken with a grain of salt.
A challenging and at times confusing book full of colourful stories interlaced with beautiful poetic writing.
Gothic fantasy novel about identity, ethics and murder
Content warning: sexual assault, gendered violence, facial difference, suicide
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The Bone Orchard” by Sara A. Mueller is a gothic fantasy novel set predominantly in a brothel called Orchard House in the land of Borenguard. Mistress of the house is Charm who manages the other young women she has created: boneghosts called Shame, Justice, Desire, Pride and Pain. Throughout the week Orchard House is open to Borenguard’s elite who do business, socialise and enjoy the company of Charm’s young women. Except, that is, on Tuesdays when Orchard House is closed and Charm fulfils her duties as the mistress of the Emperor. However when Charm is summoned to the Emperor’s palace and asked to solve an unthinkable mystery, it soon becomes clear that there is more than just Orchard House and the empire at stake. Sometimes, Charm is not actually Charm; sometimes she is the Lady. With the mindlock that keeps Charm and many other denizens of Borenguard under strict control loosened, the Lady is no longer relegated to the backseat. The careful management Charm has over Orchard House is beginning to fray and the Lady and the boneghosts have their own ideas about what to do next.
This is a book with a really interesting premise with a strong focus on character and worldbuilding. Unlike many fantasy novels, the world remains quite small with only Pain venturing out regularly from Orchard House. Mueller instead focuses on the intricate relationships between Charm and her boneghosts, and the people who visit them in Orchard House. I think the most compelling thing about this book is the self-actualisation of the boneghosts and how Charm reacts to them developing their own feelings and desires that do not always align with hers. There are lots of examples of unexpected relationships and friendships in this book and Mueller has a particular strength in fleshing out alliances and enmities. I also really enjoyed the descriptions of each of the boneghosts and some of my favourite moments in the book are the quiet observation of their interactions with one another. I found it really interesting that each of them has a disability or facial difference of some kind and how Mueller explains this as part of the plot.
While many parts of the book were very compelling, there were some parts that felt muddier. Magic is something to be strictly controlled in this world, and what happens to those with certain magical abilities is a pivotal part of the story. However, when it came to understanding exactly how Charm and the Lady’s magic worked, I felt that Mueller skipped over the detail somewhat which left the scenes in the laboratory perplexing rather than mysterious. The creation of the boneghosts is really the heart and soul of this story and I was left feeling like I had plenty of what but only some why and not nearly enough how. I also found the murder mystery plot to be a little underwhelming. This is really a fantasy novel with some court intrigue rather than a crime or mystery novel, and any suspense about who the perpetrator is was thoroughly diluted by a backdrop of somewhat incomprehensible war and a lack of viable red herrings.
An enjoyable and thought-provoking book with plenty of questions about morality and individuality.
Non-fiction audiobook about practical ways to tackle racism in yourself and others
Content warning: racism, racial violence
It was time to choose my next running book, and I was in desperate need of an ear-cleanser after the last one. I already had a shortlist of books that meet my criteria for length and this one was on it.
“So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo and narrated by Bahni Turpin is a non-fiction book that seeks to help readers better understand the causes, nuances and impacts of racism in America and learn how to take action. With a particular focus on the racism experienced by Black people in America, each chapter tackles an ostensibly tricky question ranging from ‘Why am I always being told to “check my privilege”?’ to ‘What is cultural appropriation’?
This is a patient, informative book that uses a compelling blend of research and personal experience to make theory and practice around eradicating racism accessible to a white audience. By tackling some of the most common questions about race that people want to ask, Oluo acknowledges ignorance without coddling the readers. Oluo is also extremely aware of the breadth and limits of her experiences as a biracial woman in America and at no point seeks to speak for people of other racial minorities. However, she promotes broad understanding of the factors at play that cause racism and provides detailed explanations of why we should be thinking less about intent and more about avoiding harm to others. Bahni Turpin again showed her range with a clear but at times slightly exasperated tone that matched the intent and impact of the book really well.
I think the only thing I want to note is that this book is very much targeted towards white people in America, and as a result has a very strong focus on American racial inequality. While a lot of principles are applicable in other contexts, if you are looking for a book about racism in, for example, Australia you may want to try some by other authors.
A generous and easy to understand book that is perfect for those of us who want to learn more about racism and how to tackle it in our everyday lives.
Historical fiction novel about family and political upheaval in Taiwan
Content warning: torture, mental illness
I bought this book in keen anticipation of attending one of my favourite book clubs: the Asia Bookroom Book Group. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend on the day, but I nevertheless was very keen to read one of this year’s set books.
“Green Island” by Shawna Yang Ryan is a historical fiction novel set initially in late 1940s Taiwan. Shortly after delivering his fourth child at home, an attentive and energetic young doctor called Dr Tsai is disappeared by Chinese Nationalists after speaking at a community meeting in favour of democracy and Taiwainese representation. Years later, he returns a different man to a family who almost don’t recognise him and a community who shuns him. Nevertheless, he forms a close relationship with his youngest daughter and takes a keen interest in educating her. As the years progress, the unnamed daughter finds herself married and in a comfortable situation in America. However, the tension and surveillance of mid-century Taiwan is not over, and as she is forced to revisit her father’s decisions and ask herself what she would do to protect her family.
This is a well-written and challenging novel that says as much in the scenes we don’t see as it does in the scenes we do. Rarely do people who have been disappeared return home alive, and Dr Tsai’s experience challenges the reader to consider the impossible situation a person is placed in, the extremes they are pushed to through torture and threats, and how far they will go to survive. There was a pivotal scene in the book where Dr Tsai is convinced that he is being followed and kept under surveillance, and his family dismiss his concerns as paranoia. However, it transpires that his instincts were correct and he was being watched, and this experience is repeated for his daughter.
Yang Ryan also explores the idea of betrayal and living with your decisions long after they are made. I also quite liked the juxtaposition between the narrator’s life in Taiwan and her life in America, and how in some ways it seemed so easy for her to slip into this sophisticated, erudite, American lifestyle and yet how difficult it was to escape the reach of Taiwanese politics. Yang Ryan weaves in themes of intergenerational trauma and the impact of tension in households on children. I found that the sessions with the psychiatrist were some of the most illuminating in the book and they leave you wondering what difference access to mental health support and financial security would have made to the narrator and her family back in Taiwan.
However, this was not always an easy novel to read. The focus is certainly on the characters and themes of family and while I certainly could understand the impact of the Martial Law Era, I found it difficult to understand the history of it. This is almost certainly a result of my ignorance, and I think if you are reading this book it would be worth doing a bit of background reading to help understand the broader historical context. Although a key character in the book, I found Jia Bao quite unfathomable and there were a number of tense scenes involving him, the narrator, her husband and Jia Bao’s family that I struggled to make sense of. The narrator has a complicated relationship with him and as a reader, I was left with a disconcerting sense of missed opportunity.
A compelling and tense novel that explores the emotional and moral toll of living under an oppressive regime.
Thriller about marriage and infidelity on an Italian holiday
Content warning: child grooming
After recently moving house, it has come to my attention that my to-read pile is too big. In my heart, I already knew this, but in unpacking and repacking my shelves I have had to face the reality of the situation. In 2020 I had a go at The Quiet Pond’s #StartOnYourShelfathon challenge and managed to get through 21 books languishing on my shelf (which was over a quarter of my books read for the year). This year, I’m trying a new challenge: The Mount TBR Reading Challenge. I am not doing very well so far! It has been a busy and challenging year so far but I have finally had a bit of time to try to get back in the swing of reading. I was looking for some inspiration to help me choose my next book and this book caught my eye after reading about the Siracusa Principles recently for work. I can’t quite remember where this book came from (perhaps an ARC from Harry Hartog?) but it will hopefully be the first of many form my to-read list.
“Siracusa” by Delia Ephron is a thriller novel about two couples who decide to holiday together in Italy. When Journalist Lizzie and renowned writer Michael find out their friends Finn, Taylor and their daughter Snow are going to be in Europe at the same time, they organise a trip together in Siracusa, Italy. However, as the book progresses it becomes clear that the trip may not have been as innocent as it initially seemed.
This novel was told from the perspective of each of the adult characters, with Lizzie, Michael, Finn and Taylor each offering their take and thoughts on the events of the trip. Ephron is a clear writer and draws on the seascape and architecture of the city to underpin the growing tension in the novel between and among the two couples. Although she didn’t get any point-of-view chapters, by far the most compelling character is Snow. There seems to be an inexplicable discrepancy between how the characters talk about her and the things that she does and this, I believe, is the most interesting thing about the book.
However, ultimately I felt the book frustrating and hard to finish. All four characters are inherently unlikeable, and it is a strange position to be in when you find yourself spitefully hoping that characters cheat on each other. I’m not sure the structure of four points of view worked; even though it is a relatively short book, the chapters seemed to drag the same dirt over and over. I also didn’t find the voices distinct enough from one another to be truly compelling or to provide unique insight into the ill-fated trip. There was something quite uncomfortable about the way Michael and 10-year-old Snow interacted with each other. While all the characters applaud Michael for the “special attention” that he gives to Snow, the way their discussions are described (including, at one point, as a “flirtation”) just felt ick to be honest.
A novel with plenty of the pieces of a compelling story but perhaps not the right.
Content warning: family violence, coercive control, physical abuse, sexual assault, disability, trauma
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“To the Sea” by Nikki Crutchley is a crime thriller novel about Ana and her family who live on a coastal New Zealand property they call Iluka. At 18 years old, all Ana has ever known is the house, pine plantation and cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In her family, everyone has a role to play: Ana and her mother Anahita manage the housework, her grandfather Hurley builds furniture, her uncle Dylan looks after the land and her aunt Marina organises artist retreats to supplement the family’s otherwise self-sufficient existence. Everything they need is at Iluka and there is no reason for Ana to ever leave. However, when she meets a man on the beach one day who seems to know who she is, and photographer Nikau on an artist retreat takes an interest in her family, Ana begins to ask herself questions like why she has no father. As the narrative shifts between Ana and her mother Anahita 20 years earlier, the answers to Ana’s questions grow more and more deadly.
This was a dark and tense book that showed how insidious and entrenched gender roles and violence can become in a family. Crutchley juxtaposes the sinister events of the books against an beautiful if unforgiving landscape, and I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the harsh coastline. It is a bit strange to write this, but there was considerable creativity in cruel ‘punishments’ meted out by Ana’s grandfather and some of the scenes feel etched into my memory. At the heart of this story is control, and as the book progresses it is gradually revealed why Hurley and, by extension, Anahita, are so obsessed with controlling everything and everyone in Iluka. This book is an excellent reminder of how two siblings who grow up in the same family can have radically different experiences. The different ways that Dylan and Anahita relate to their father highlights the diversity in how abuse and control can play out, even under the same roof. Crutchley prompts to the reader to think about the meaning of safety and how far is too far to keep a family ‘safe’.
Although overall this is a strong novel, there were some parts that did not feel as strong as others. Some of Ana and Anahita’s chapters probably weren’t necessary to the plot and could have been pared back to quicken the pace of the book. I also thought that some of the peripheral characters like Nikau felt a bit less developed. While I appreciate we were getting the story largely through Ana’s eyes, I think some of the later events would have felt more significant if the characters were more fleshed out. There was also a reveal at one point about a character’s identity which I had guessed way, way earlier in the book and I wasn’t sure that story arc added much either (except perhaps to reinforce the idea that people are awful and the outside world should be shut out completely).
A tense and well-written book that explores in depths the dynamics of an insular family.