Queer Imperial Chinese fantasy about ambition and power
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author. I also received a paperback copy of this book from Paperchain Bookstore‘s recent VIP science fiction and fantasy After Dark event which came with a signed bookplate. It was a really fun event with some local fantasy authors, however I have to say it is dangerous having a bookshop open with wines on offer because it turns out a little loss of inhibition means buying a lot more books!
“She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan is a fantasy novel set in Imperial China. The story is told from two perspectives: an orphaned girl who appropriates her brother Zhu Chongba’s identity in pursuit of the great destiny he was promised and a eunuch called Ouyang whose loyalty to the Mongols who adopted him is undermined by his vow to avenge his family.
This is an epic novel that explores the idea of fate, and how much our lives are predetermined and how much our determination can shape our lives. Zhu was a fascinating character who refreshingly pursues ambition using wits, willpower and an impeccable sense of timing. Parker-Chan challenges the reader to consider gender identity from very unique perspectives: being forced to assume a gender to survive, and having your sex stolen from you without your consent. I really liked that in this book, ambition trumps everything and I felt that this made the character’s motivations really refreshing. Parker-Chan’s characters are surprising in their ruthlessness and I enjoyed how they used hardship as a springboard to greatness, no matter the moral implications. The magic in this book is really understated and Parker-Chan did an excellent job maintaining ambiguity about who is responsible for fate and who grants the power to conjure light.
I am actually a bit reluctant to write much more about this book because it is such a journey. A ground-breaking addition to the fantasy genre, and I cannot way for part 2 of this duology.
Historical fiction inspired by “Gulliver’s Travels” from the perspective of his wife
2020 was a tough year for authors with new releases and unfortunately this was another book that missed out on its due publicity. I first heard about this author through her amazing cookie art. She is also a really lovely person and sent me a gorgeous note and gift when my wedding was postponed last year. It’s a beautifully designed book with bronze foil and I was really excited to read it.
“Gulliver’s Wife” by Lauren Chater is a historical fiction novel that asks the question: while Lemuel Gulliver sailed around exploring previously uncontacted lands as depicted in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels“, what did his family do without him? Moreover, it asks what did his family do when he comes home after years of being missing, presumed dead, telling stories of tiny people? Set in London, UK, in 1702, this book follows his wife Mary and his daughter Bess as they navigate the change his return brings to their home’s dynamic, the financial impact his presence has on their lives and their increasingly strained relationship with each other.
This is a meticulously researched book about life as a woman in 1700s England. Using the tension between Mary’s lack of individual rights as an apparent widow and the family’s increasing economic needs as a framework, Chater explores what options are available for a woman of Mary’s background and station, and how they are further limited when her husband resumes his position as head of the household. Choosing midwifery as Mary’s career was a really clever choice: one of the few roles for women with minimal male influence. I thought that the interaction between midwives, surgeons and the church was really interesting as well as the lenses through which decisions are made about who was best placed to handle the work of delivering babies. Mary is a fully rounded character with hobbies (gardening), a love interest (not her husband) and
One of the most powerful elements of this book was the mother-daughter relationship. With utmost sensitivity, Chater teases out the complexities of the way Mary and Bess relate to each other, and how they are at once too close and too distant. Bess idolises her father, and I thought that there were some interesting questions posed about whose responsibility it was to disabuse her of reverence. Should Mary have been more frank with her and risk further teenage derision, or should Bess have been more realistic and let go of her childish ideas about her father’s promises? I really liked the way their relationship evolved over time and how space was made for a new type of respect. Alice, the family’s sole domestic worker, is a great counterbalance to the tension between the two as well as having her own complex family background.
One ever-present challenge for historical fiction is being as true as possible to the era while while still writing for a modern audience. I think that for the most part, Mary’s tolerance for others and openness in relation to social issues is done really well. A career as a midwife creates more room for Mary to be exposed to a variety of different circumstances and creates a bit of distance from an otherwise very religious, patriarchal society. However, there were a couple of situations in which I thought Mary was perhaps a little too understanding for a person of her time.
A creative take on a classic novel. Unlike other works of historical fiction that have used classics as inspiration, I think that this novel has a very clear purpose and prompts the reader to consider what life may have been like for the people literary heroes left behind.
I have had this ARC sitting on my to-read shelf since I got it from Harry Hartog…gosh, about 5 years ago? I’m making a big effort to get through my reading backlog, and because of the title, I always felt like this was the right book to read in winter.
“The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” by Sunni Overend is a romance novel about Kit, a young woman who has just secured a job as a food photographer for a highly regarded lifestyle magazine with a slick and minimalist style. Kit is engaged to successful if somewhat uptight furniture designer and is about to start planning a big wedding at her family’s vineyard. However, when she visits her family to hear about her father’s new venture, she meets the farmhand Raph and is inspired to start taking much more creative, suggestive photographs. As the tension between her own creativity and desire begins to clash against the path that her work, her fiancé and even her own mother have set out for her, Kit must decide what kind of life she really wants to lead.
This is a fun and very readable romp that I absolutely whipped through. The perfect blend of idyll and serendipity with just the right amount of drama, I was up late at night flipping pages to get to that ending. Overend writes about food with the same sensuality that is drawn from Kit. This book is full of cozy and evocative scenes choosing wines in cellars, making pastry and even participating in cooking classes in France. Although not wildly surprising, there was a good twist later in the story to keep things interesting. Overend writes eroticism well and there are plenty of creative scenes to warm readers up on cold winter nights.
It probably should be said that this book is pure romantic fantasy, so even though it is written with realism in mind, there are enough coincidences, privileges and special opportunities that you’ll have to suspend some considerable disbelief. There are also a couple of scenes that felt a little superfluous. Also, I know it was the point of the book but Kit’s fiancé was so unbelievably boring, every scene with him in it made my eyes roll.
A spicy food-lover’s fantasy with not many truffles but nevertheless a quick and enjoyable to read.
Family saga novel about racism, Aboriginal identity and intergenerational trauma
Content warning: racism
2020 was not a great year for authors. Usually when an author publishes a book, especially with a well-resourced publisher, the author has the opportunity to promote the book through events such as interviews, panels and readings. For many authors last year, social distancing, lockdowns and curfews meant that promoting books in person simply was not possible. This book was published last year and although I saw a lot of discussion about it on social media, unfortunately I don’t think it got anything like the publicity that it deserved. I bought a copy and it is a beautiful book with a striking design including gold foil on the cover. I haven’t been very active on here recently, but this is my next book to review, and given that today is the first day of Reconciliation Week, it is an ideal time to boost an Aboriginal author.
“Where the Fruit Falls” by Karen Wyld is a family saga set in Australia in the mid-1900s. After the end of a family chapter, Brigid, a young woman with a white mother and an Aboriginal father who was killed in action, leaves her grandmother’s apple orchard to make her own way. Following a willy wagtail, Brigid finds her way to lost kin to have her twin babies on country and to gradually make peace with her identity. However, in a changing world, her daughters must face their own challenges and survive the prejudices levelled against them for the colour of their skin.
When I’m reading, I usually take notes of my impressions of the book and things I liked or didn’t like. For this book, the only note I wrote was this: “This story feels like a pebble that has rolled up and down a beach, over and over. It may not be the same shape as the original stone, but it is still the same stone; just smoother and a nice weight in your hand”. This book feels like a story that has been told over and over, perfected a little more with each retelling. Some people have described this book as magic realism, however Wyld elaborates a little more on how she considers it a literary device rather than a genre and how she inserts fractures in her her writing to draw the reader’s attention. Embellished in some parts, abridged in others, this story flows with a familiar rhythm.
However, this is by no means a typical story. Wyld makes some fearless narrative decisions that are devastating in their impact and reverberate throughout the whole novel. Brigid is a complex character who struggles to break free from the lessons she was taught about her skin colour and her worth as a child. Through her daughters Tori and Maggie, Wyld explores the stark difference in how people are treated based on their appearance and the assumptions made about their connection to country and culture. Although Wyld never refers to any particular region or city, this book has a really strong sense of place and I really enjoyed seeing the land through Brigid’s eyes and the city through the twins’.
A beautifully constructed and heartbreaking story. Not just this week but every week, I implore you to follow, support and listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers to learn about and empathise with this country’s history and the continuing impacts of colonialism, and this book is an excellent place to start.
Part self-help book, part memoir about finding your inner glow
Content warning: cancer
I think it’s pretty obvious why I picked up this book: it is breathtaking. The unique hardcover design is covered in subtle, intricate silver foil and it is truly eye-catching when you walk past it in a bookshop as I did. I saw Julia Baird speak some years ago about her biography of Queen Victoria, but I haven’t yet managed to tackle that very large book. However, this book seemed much more manageable and I think we can all agree we need a bit of brightening up.
“Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark” by Julia Baird is a non-fiction book that blends memoir with self-help. Drawing on her own experiences in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, Baird considers what it is that nurtures us during challenging times and how we can foster our own phosphorescence. Baird divides her book into four main sections that loosely deal with our physical environment, our identity, friendship and finding hope.
There are a lot of thought-provoking ideas in this book. Baird incorporates snippets of various philosophies and research to support the things that she does in her life that she finds helpful. I enjoyed the earlier chapters about nature the most, especially about the physical phenomenon of phosphorescence. Reading Baird’s account of swimming at Manly Beach has made me want to get into distance swimming even more and Baird’s awe for cuttlefish was nice to read around the same time as I watched “My Octopus Teacher“. Baird is a spirited writer who beautifully captures the awe nature inspires in us. I was also quite interested in reading about the movement within the Anglican Church to allow women to be ministers and how instead of accepting the idea, the patriarchs doubled down on including women.
However, for a lot of the book, I didn’t feel very engaged. I think the book that I was hoping for was something more like “H is for Hawk” with phosphorescence in the natural world as more of a central theme. I’ve always been captivated by things that glow, and some of my happiest memories are seeing unexpected fireflies at dusk and swimming with bioluminscent plankton, so I was expecting a blend of memoir and natural history. Unfortunately, this book only touches briefly on this phenomenon and the majority of the book is about Baird’s experiences living in New York, surviving cancer and, directly and indirectly, her religion. Without a clear central theme, it did feel a bit more like a collection of Baird’s essays and ruminations vaguely organised by theme. This book actually reminded me a lot of Leigh Sales’ “Any Ordinary Day“, except rather than forensically trying to figure out why events happen in anyone’s lives, Baird is more concerned with sharing the details of little decisions she has made to try to make sense of her own life. She also included two chapters that were letters to her own children which, while I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure really aligned with the rest of the book. I also felt that the audience this book is written for was quite a narrow one, and Baird doesn’t really acknowledge that a lot of her experiences are the result of significant privilege.
A book that will certainly cheer you up sitting on your bookshelf, but could have used more glowing jellyfish.
2020 was not a good year for book releases. During the before-times, when someone has a book published, you could reasonably expect that they would do some local events and, if they were lucky, some interstate events to discuss the book, sell the book and meet readers to have their copies signed. Unfortunately for writers, in these uncertain times book events are often limited or cancelled altogether by social distancing restrictions. Some authors flexibly promoted their book through livestream events, but they are tricky to set up and you don’t have the opportunity to sell copies at the door. Although restrictions had eased in September last year, my at-the-time undiagnosed voice issues meant that I was reluctant to attend even the smallest events. I ended up buying a copy of this book by paying the author via PayPal and collecting my signed copy from her letterbox.
“No Matter Our Wreckage” by Gemma Carey is a memoir about the death of Gemma’s mother and about being groomed online and sexually abused as a child. Although aware of the abuse, Gemma’s mother never spoke to her about it and Gemma was left to take the extraordinary action of reporting the abuser to police alone at the age of 16. In the wake of her mother’s death, Gemma asks herself the question she was never able to ask her mother directly: why didn’t her mother stop the abuse? Using her skills honed in her career as an academic, Gemma forensically researches her family history to find answers to why her otherwise privileged upbringing left her so vulnerable to and unprotected against abuse.
This is a fearless book. To write so frankly about your experiences, let alone about your family, takes guts and Carey has guts in spades. Growing up in a family where things were kept secret, Carey’s decision to throw open the doors and air out her family’s trauma is not just an act of defiance against a culture of silence but a commitment to breaking a cycle. Similarly to Caroline Baum, Carey explores how a seemingly well-to-do family can nevertheless foster an unshakable sense of loneliness in the context of inter-generational trauma. Just before I read this book, I had watched a TV series called “Patrick Melrose” which is about a man addicted to drugs who struggles to deal with being sexually abused as a child. The series is excellently done, and the character Patrick is played by a compelling Benedict Cumberbatch, but the part I couldn’t understand was why Patrick’s mother didn’t protect him from the abuse. Carey’s book answers this question. Although the chapters about Carey’s research into her own family’s secrets are incredibly confronting, what she finds goes a long way towards better understanding her mother and making peace with what was left unsaid before death.
One of the most interesting parts of this memoir was Carey’s writing about the abuser. As easy as it is to assume that an abuser is an obviously scary stereotypical bad guy, the reality is that abusers are often otherwise ordinary and unimpressive people who use extreme manipulation as a tool over time to get what they want. Carey provides a nuanced, objective view of a man whose life and already poor mental health are made even worse by his actions. Comparing her own life trajectory to his, Carey examines how factors other than class can leave a person vulnerable to abuse. From a legal perspective, Carey’s case is very interesting as one of the earliest matters prosecuted in Australia involving the use of the internet to groom a child, and provides a first-hand perspective about one of the dangers of being online. It was also really interesting to compare Carey’s experience of the court system with author Bri Lee‘s experience, including the abuser’s rationale for pleading the way he did.
This is a challenging book that refuses to simplify serious issues and instead faces them head-on in all their complexity.
Third book in children’s fantasy series “Nevermoor”
Content warning: pandemic
If you haven’t yet read the first two books in this series, I would skip this review and go to the beginning.
“Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow” by Jessica Townsend is the third book in the children’s fantasy series “Nevermoor”. In her second year as a scholar at the exclusive Wundrous Society, Morrigan is finally permitted to study the so-called Wretched Arts of the Accomplished Wundersmith. She eagerly jumps into her lessons, keen to master her new abilities. However, only able to watch records and without the guidance of a teacher, Morrigan’s progress is frustratingly slow. Meanwhile, a mysterious illness has struck Nevermoor throwing the city in chaos. Worse, it only seems to affect Wunimals, taking away their ability to reason and leaving only their most basic animal instincts. Morrigan is suddenly under even more pressure to master her abilities to save Nevermoor and her Wunimal friends.
This is a series that is getting better and better as it progresses. Townsend explores a plethora of social issues in this book from stigma and discrimination to diplomatic relations. Where I found the magic a bit chaotic and confusing in the first book, Townsend has settled into the story and created a great structure for Morrigan to progress through her education mastering different skills. I’m really enjoying the dynamics of her friends in Unit 919, and some of the personalities are really starting to develop in interesting and amusing ways. There were also some really lovely new characters like Sofia. However, the highlight of this book was without a doubt the visit to the Gobleian Library. Without spoiling anything about it, it was a wild couple of chapters that really captured the spirit of Nevermoor. Unlike some authors, Townsend has also introduced with little fanfare a same-sex relationship which was a nice addition.
I think my only warning is that if you’re a bit exhausted hearing about public health issues, then a book about a disease that races through a city sending society into panic might not be the book for you right now. I think from a kid’s perspective, this would be a good lens to consider some of the human rights issues that arise as a result of trying to protect individuals from the unknown, but in that respect it may be a bit heavy and too close to home for some.
A cracking read that has really hit its stride, I am looking forward to the next book in the series.
This novel won the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award, so it was already on my radar. I bought it a couple of months ago, but was inspired to make it my next book by the recent IndigenousX #BlakBookChallenge.
“The Yield” by Tara June Winch is a literary novel about a fictional place called Massacre Plains. The story is told from three point of view characters: Aboriginal man Albert Gondiwindi, his granddaughter August Gondiwindi and Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf. Albert has found out that he does not have long to live, and spends his last living days recording the language of his ancestors in a dictionary that uses vignettes from his life to explain the words and their meaning. Shortly afterwards, August finds out her Poppy has died and returns home from the UK for his funeral after many years of estrangement. Things in Massacre Plains are both exactly the same and completely different as she reconnects with her Nana, cousin, aunties and an old flame. In 1915, Reverend Greenleaf pens a letter to the British Society of Ethnography to tell the truth about what happened in the Mission he established in Massacre Plains.
This is a brilliantly crafted novel that combines three narrative techniques to create a compelling and multifaceted story. Albert’s dictionary in particular was such a unique way of storytelling. Albert, who was taken from his family as a child and placed in a Boys’ Home, is visited by his ancestors who lead him through time to gently and patiently teach him the language and culture that would have otherwise been lost to him. His chapters are all the more poignant because they cast into relief how much was stolen from Aboriginal people through colonial violence and racism, making the knowledge bestowed by his ancestors critical. Greenleaf’s chapters are also interesting because they provide the dramatic irony of someone who genuinely believes that they are doing the best for the people in their care, but who is ultimately contributing to their loss of culture and who is powerless to protect them, especially the women, from slavery and sexual violence perpetrated by settlers.
Although less avant-garde in structure than the other chapters, August’s story is no less compelling. When she returns to the home her grandparents raised her in, she struggles to make sense of Prosperous House’s painful memories and the plans for it to be repossessed by a mining company. August’s chapters are in some ways the most heartrending. August has to confront the old trauma of losing her sister Jedda, who went missing when they were young, and face the new trauma of being displaced from her home. These traumas take their toll on August, who throughout her life has struggled with disordered eating. Her journey to the city with her aunty to visit the museum and see her people’s artefacts showed how painful it is that so much Aboriginal history is not even accessible to the people whose heritage it is. Through this experience Winch touches on the idea of repatriation, consistent with the strong theme of returning home that underpins this novel.
Finally, I also really enjoyed reading the Author’s Note and Acknowledgements which provide plenty of recommendations for further reading, some historical context for the compilation of Wiradjuri language and a little bit of insight into Winch’s own research, writing process and family. Winch is a fantastic writer and this is an excellent and original novel committed to truth-telling and full of heart.
Historical fiction about Chinese siblings during the Queensland gold rush
Content warning: racism, mental illness, sex work
When I heard this book was coming out, I was really excited. I absolutely loved the author’s first book “The Fish Girl” and was really looking forward to this release. Unfortunately, this book came out around the same time as the pandemic starting which meant that lots of authors missed out on the usual author events and publicity that accompany a new release. However, one advantage of everyone going remote is that I didn’t have to worry about travelling for an event, I was able to sign up and livestream. The cover is really pretty – my photo doesn’t quite do it justice but it has little flecks of gold foil in the lettering.
“Stone Sky Gold Mountain” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novel about two siblings, Ying and Lai Yue, who have travelled from China to Far North Queensland to seek their fortune on the gold fields. Older brother Lai Yue takes responsibility for saving the little gold they find, purchasing supplies and making decisions. However, when Ying, disguised as a boy, begins to weaken from the hard labour and lack of food, the siblings eventually must move to Maytown to seek more stable employment. With Ying settled in as a shop assistant, Lai Yue takes a job with a team of men headed for a sheep station and the siblings must each make their own way in this strange and hostile country.
This was a fantastic book. Riwoe is a phenomenal writer and in a full-length novel really stretches her muscles to bring to life an era from somewhere that is now nothing more than a ghost town. Ying is a curious, resourceful and flexible character who quickly adapts to her role as shop boy. Enjoying the freedom that a male disguise buys her, she pushes boundaries and befriends a white woman called Meriem – another point of view character. I really found myself cheering Ying on and enjoying her delight in the world and her adventurous spirit playing different roles. Meriem is a complex character who has run from her past to work as a housekeeper for a sex worker. Riwoe does an exceptional job of examining Meriem’s initial prejudices against Chinese people and sensitively handles the stigma and allure of sex work in the Maytown community.
However, I think the real masterpiece of this book is Lai Yue. Laden with the responsibility as the older brother, Lai Yue buckles under the weight. I was initially reminded of the older brother Seita in the film “Grave of the Fireflies“, with Lai Yue initially hoarding the gold they find away instead of using it to buy food Ying so desperately needs. However, as the book progresses, we learn that there is a lot more going on with Lai Yue. Riwoe’s exploration of how mental illness and self-esteem are intertwined is heartbreaking, and initial frustration with Lai Yue quickly makes way to empathy. Riwoe also doesn’t shy away from the many types of racism experienced during this period of history. Unflinchingly, she depicts Chinese people participating in brutal acts of violence against Aboriginal people while back in town, Chinese people themselves are victims of racist attacks and discrimination. At a time when people of Asian heritage are increasingly experiencing racism, it is an important and timely reminder that racism is a part of our history and that we can and must do better.
This is a rich, touching novel and I honestly could continue to wax lyrical about it but instead I very much recommend you read for yourself this critical and necessary contribution to Australian historical fiction.
I hadn’t even read this book let alone included it on my list, so I immediately bought a copy.
“Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism” by Aileen Moreton-Robinson is a thesis on the whiteness of Australian feminism. Across six chapters, the book explores:
Indigenous women’s own life writings,
the representation (and invisibility as the “norm”) of white women in feminist theory,
representations of Indigenous women in white women’s ethnographic writings,
representations of Indigenous women in white Australian feminism,
white women’s self-presentation in white feminist academia, and
Indigenous women’s self-presentation within white Australian feminism.
Moreton-Robinson argues that because of feminism’s inherent but insufficiently examined white perspective, Indigenous women are excluded, minimised or merely tolerated conditionally. She argues that because race is considered to be something that is “other”, white feminists are unable to acknowledge their own race and associated privilege, their own role in perpetuating racial discrimination and are therefore unwilling to relinquish some of that power. Moreton-Robinson stresses that because of this, white women are unable to recognise that for Indigenous women, sexism is inextricably linked to racism, and that until racial oppression is addressed, sexism cannot be adequately dealt with.
This is a complex and well-researched book that highlights an enormous barrier to intersectionality in feminism: a lack of self-awareness among white feminists. Moreton-Robinson combined literature reviews, oral history, writing by Indigenous women and other women of colour and interviews with white feminist academics to produce this work. This is an original and critical text and even though Moreton-Robinson wrote this book 20 years ago, the messages are just as relevant today as they were then. The University of Queensland Press has just released a 20th Anniversary Edition which came out a month or so after I bought my copy, which I understand includes additional commentary by Moreton-Robinson that reflects on the book’s reception by white feminists. I’m tempted to buy a copy of that as well!
Although the book is not very long, it is not an easy read. Moreton-Robinson uses an appropriately academic tone to explore complex and challenging concepts, and asks the audience – predominantly white feminists – to critically examine their own assumptions, privilege and complicity in continuing to centre whiteness in feminism. For readers new to feminist theory, this book is a great starting point because Moreton-Robinson provides an excellent historical overview of feminism. However, although Moreton-Robinson is a succinct writer, it is a lot of information to take in and this book unearths some uncomfortable truths about the role white women have played in facilitating racial oppression in Australia, especially in relation to the removal of children and stolen wages. I think the most challenging parts for me were considering mistakes I had made in the past, the diversity of perspectives I surround myself in and roles played by myself and my ancestors in perpetuating racial oppression.
This is an extremely important book that is just as relevant (if not more so) today as it was at publication 20 years ago. I recommend white women reading this book with an open mind, an open heart and a willingness to commit to taking on board the lessons the book has to offer to improve feminist practice starting with acknowledging whiteness and its associated privilege.