Collection of poetry and essays about food, love and identity
I have been following this author and poet on social media for quite some time. I am a big fan of books with recipes in them and I was thrilled to find out she has a collection filled with recipes and ordered a copy immediately. I knew it was an ideal choice for my Short Stack Reading Challenge.
“Uncommon Feast: Essays, poems, and recipes” by Eileen Chong is, as described, a collection of essays, poems and recipes. At the heart of this book is Chong’s upbringing in Singapore, and the rich culinary culture that underpins her family and her identity.
This is a beautiful book with a comforting, nurturing tone. Using the same care with which we prepare food for our loved ones, Chong carefully prepares her writing for the reader. I particularly enjoyed reading the recipes. Recipes are often a rather dry format, but Chong invokes her inner aunty to make her recipes feel warm, eminently readable and achievable. Unfortunately I’m mostly vegetarian these days, but the multi-part recipe in Diana’s Hainanese Chicken Rice had me salivating. I found that Chong’s poetry had a slightly different tone: nostalgic with a sense of longing for family and times past. Burning Rice was especially evocative and juxtaposes the labour of generations past with the small errors of the present. In her poems, food is shared memories and shared language with family. However, it is in the essays that Chong is more frank about her experiences living as a migrant in Australia and how through food, family and words she navigates her way through the world.
Young adult novel about a young boy’s affinity for foxes
I am currently doing my Short Stack Reading Challenge, and I raided all my shelves for some very short books to see out the end of the year. I picked up this book at the Lifeline Book Fair some time ago. I can’t remember if I chose it because someone recommended it to me, or because this author was one I read as a kid because my (admittedly very annoying) year 5 teacher was obsessed with her. Either way, this was the next book in my short stack. It is actually a signed copy, addressed to someone called Katie in the year of publication – 1994. Edit: I was just reminded that I have read this author more recently, I had just forgotten her pseudonym.
“Foxspell” by Gillian Rubinstein is about a young boy called Tod who, after his father returns overseas, has moved with his mother and two sisters to live with his grandmother on a property in South Australia. Despite being a talented artist, Tod struggles with school and feels the strain of the arguments at home. When he comes across a dead fox and is moved to bury it, he unknowingly creates a connection between himself and a fox spirit. Spending more and more time in the area nearby called the quarries, Tod attracts the attention of Shaun, an older teenager whose gang vandalise property and who is interested in Tod’s sister Charm. As things at home become more and more difficult, and Tod falls further behind in school, the temptation to run with a fox and run with a gang becomes greater and greater.
This was quite a surprising book. Even though it was written nearly 30 years ago, it still felt fresh and relevant. Although not ever said explicitly, it is suggested that Tod has a learning disability like dyslexia and instead of blaming him for his difficulties, the book explores how the people around him are failing him. I also thought that Rubinstein did a good job of weaving earthy magic into the story while acknowledging that white people, like foxes, invaded this country and that Traditional Owners’ beliefs and connection to country persists. There were also lots of other interesting parts to this story. Tod’s mother is an aspiring comedian and uses anecdotes about her family in her sets, and I thought that the dichotomy between her lack of involvement in her kids’ day to day lives, and her disrespect for their boundaries by using their lives as material for her shows was a fascinating subplot. I also really liked the character of Tod’s sister Charm, and the complicated relationship between her, Shaun, Tod and Shaun’s younger brother.
An unexpectedly complex story that I liked a lot more than I remember liking Rubinstein’s other books.
If you follow my blog, you may have seen my post about my new reading challenge: the Short Stack Reading Challenge to read as many short books in December as you can. I knew exactly what I wanted my first book to be. I have been reading this author’s books for years and years, and when I saw that she had an illustrated collection of fairy tales, I had to have it. When the edition arrived, I was amazed at how beautiful the book was in person. The gold foil on the hardcover is stunning and it came with a lovely illustrated card with black silhouettes with gold detailing.
“Mother Thorn and Other Tales of Courage and Kindness” by Juliet Marillier and illustrated by Kathleen Jennings is a collection of four original fairy tales. The Witching Well, inspired by a Scottish version of the Frog Prince story, is about a young woman called Lara whose difficult mother requires water from a special well to bake bread with. One day after the long journey there, Lara finds the well dry and must make a bargain with a talking frog. Mother Thorn is an original fairy tale set in medieval Ireland about the dogs and the loves of our lives. Pea Soup is a retelling of The Princess and the Pea with a more modern and cosy perspective. Copper, Silver, Gold is a reinterpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinder Box about military trauma and the three magic dogs.
Marillier’s work is the ultimate in comfort reading and this book is infused with warmth. Despite visiting some familiar territory in Mother Thorn, Marillier proves again that she is a flexible author who works comfortable in a variety of settings and lengths. The Witching Well was an incredibly sweet story that was tempered with a realistic exploration of managing a relationship strained by anxiety and control. I really liked how in Mother Thorn, things don’t go to plan, but Niamh finds happiness through the different stages of her life. In Pea Soup, Marillier shares the perspective between two characters and highlights a less traditional but no less vaild form of masculinity. Copper, Silver, Gold was probably the most heart-breaking of the stories. Unlike many stories that focus on the ‘glory’ of war, this story instead grapples with the aftermath and the work and support people need to heal.
This was a lovely little collection, as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside, and I enjoyed it from start to finish.
Novel about friendship, sex and betrayal living in a university residential college
Content warning: sexual violence, relationship power imbalance, possible suicide
I have been doing significantly more running recently, so I have been getting through audiobooks a little more quickly than usual. I have seen this book being recommended and when I saw it was available as an audiobook, I got a copy without even finding out what it was about.
“Love & Virtue” by Diana Reid and narrated by Emma Leonard is a novel set in a university residential college in Sydney. Scholarship student Michaela arrives in Sydney for her first year of university to live at the women-only Fairfax College. From Canberra, Michaela is a little set apart from her much wealthier friends from Sydney private schools. However, she throws herself into O-Week and campus drinking culture and soon makes friends with confident and opinionated Eve who lives in the room next door. They party together and have deep conversations about things like philosophy, misogyny and privilege. However, when their friendship is shattered by betrayals on both sides, Michaela finds herself having to reckon with the events of the past year and the harsh reality of campus life.
This is a fresh and authentic exposé of what it is like in the microcosm of a residential college in prestigious Australian university. Nearly 15 years ago I moved into a residential college myself and I was surprised at how much of the ritual and culture (except, of course, the ubiquitousness of social media now) still rings true. Drawing on her own experiences as a recent graduate, Reid’s story realistically explores the brittle friendships that form in these environments and the competitiveness and elitism among students. Toxic cultures on university campuses has been increasingly the subject of media storms with my alma mater (an elitist term right there) no exception. In her book, Reid explores the events that lead up to Fairfax’s own media storm and how the stripping of Michaela’s agency is almost worse than the trauma she can barely remember. The reader is asked to consider the morality of writing and publishing a story that is not your own, and the inevitable loss of control associated with either remaining anonymous or coming forward in a #MeToo moment.
At the same time, Reid explores the taboo of a student/professor relationship; slowly wearing away the gloss and power of an older man until what is left is just a man, banal in his mediocrity. I liked that Michaela was not a perfect character. She makes some ethically questionable decisions herself in both her studies and her relationship, and Reid captures the complexity of an 18 year old oscillating between extreme youth and mature intelligence very well. Leonard’s narration initially had a bit of a newsreader vibe to it but after only a chapter or two she found her stride and I found her very compelling with a bit of wry humour to her voice.
While I related a lot to Michaela’s shock of an essay mark in the 60s after coming from high school, I didn’t find the parts of the book about her studies, her quest for constructive feedback and her conversations about philosophy with other characters as interesting. I completely understand that the author was drawing on her own studies, but whereas the conversations with Eve about privilege were dissected internally by Michaela as either extremely insightful or downright hypocritical, the musings on philosophy did not really serve to move the plot or character development in the same way and felt more contrived. I found myself tuning out during Michaela’s conversations with the professor, and while her early conversations admitting her ignorance were believable, her intellectual sparring only a matter of weeks or months later seemed less so.
I think the pacing was not quite there either. Michaela puts an enormous amount of significance on a handful of individual events and courses, and seems to have an equally enormous amount of spare time where not a great deal was happening. I felt like either the sense that university is a blur of classes, working, studying, partying and meeting people could have been better captured, or a lot of the long conversations that weren’t contributing much to the overall plot could have been cut back.
I am enjoying reading books about ambition at all costs, and I thought that this book captured modern campus culture, what it means to be a victim and the spectrum of privilege well.
I am currently on a bit of a fantasy bender in an attempt to get through my to-read shelves, including some which are taken up by fantasy series. In a previous post, I talked about how my book club and I won a fantastic trivia event: well, this was my prize! A series of four books including one signed by the author. I hadn’t read them before, but the covers are all quite beautiful with a reflective, pearlescent effect. They have waiting on my shelf for three years collecting dust and now was the time to read them.
Image is of “Betrothed” by Wanda Wiltshire. The paperback book is resting on top of some shiny purple wings. The cover has a silhouette of a young man and a young woman holding his hand in hers. They are standing on a rock with ocean and mountains behind them. The cover has a pearlescent effect and behind the man is the faintest outline of wings.
“Betrothed” by Wanda Wiltshire is the first book in the urban fantasy young adult romance series of the same name. The story is about a 17 year old girl called Amy who has had a challenging upbringing. Living in Sydney, her delicate health and countless allergies have drastically impacted her life, not to mention the fact that she is adopted. While she has some close friends, school is difficult and she is frequently picked on because of her skin reactions to just about everything. When she starts having incredibly realistic dreams with a voice calling out for someone called Marla, Amy initially doubts that they could be true. However, when the mysterious Leif arrives in person, Amy begins to question exactly who she is.
This is a light-hearted that is about love and identity. Wiltshire doesn’t take herself too seriously, and Amy leaves upbeat Sydney for even more upbeat Faera, and we gradually learn the truth about her heritage. Wiltshire gently explores some of the real difficulties of living with severe allergies, and Amy’s struggles with her health are counterbalanced by the enjoyment she is able to derive from the simplest things like scented baths and lavish food in Faera. Wiltshire introduces some tension with a loose love triangle and intergenerational grudges, and a countdown to Amy’s 18th birthday upon which her future hangs.
While not overtly religious, there are certainly some very traditional ideas about male and female roles including the idea that female faeries are created from a piece of a male faery’s soul which is all very Eve made from Adam’s rib. A lot of the book is spent examining Amy’s feelings and disbelief in relation to her newly discovered identity, and everyone in the human world seems happy to exist as a supporting cast for her. I found the Faera world a bit disconcerting. Wiltshire describes a utopia with no money, nothing wanting and no aging, and I found it hard to wrap my head around a society where everything appears to be predetermined. I felt that although a lot of information and conflict had been introduced early on in the book, the plot plateaued and it didn’t feel like much was happening for the second half. Amy didn’t really undergo much character development, and I would have liked to have seen more depth to her than romantic interest.
Readable enough but not particularly ground-breaking in terms of concept or themes.
Low-key thriller novel about an unconventional health retreat
Content warning: suicide, mental health
I received a copy of this book ages ago courtesy of Harry Hartog. I have been on a real adaptation kick recently so when I heard that a TV adaptation was being released, and given my very real lockdown attempt to finally get on top of my to-read shelf, I was inspired to finally read it.
“Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty is a low key thriller novel about 9 people who sign up for a wellness retreat at a place called Tranquillum House on a property in rural Australia. A bestselling novelist, a couple with relationship issues, parents and their adult child, a mother, a lawyer and a cynical man everyone seems to recognise each find themselves hoping to change their lives for the better. The charismatic Masha, director of the program and supported by her staff Yao and Delilah, is eager to lead each person on a personalised 10-day journey of wellness and healing towards a new life. However, after the first few days it becomes apparent that Masha’s methods are unorthodox, illegal and potentially deadly.
This was a very readable book with Moriarty’s signature character-driven style. The book changed focus from character to character, but was primarily told from Frances the writer’s perspective who was particularly endearing. Moriarty really teased out each character’s personality and traumas, and even though his family’s story was one of the more challenging ones, I really enjoyed the character of Napoleon and how Moriarty unpacked his nerdy cheeriness to expose the pain beneath. I also thought Ben and Jessica had a really interesting dynamic, and Moriarty explores how a drastic change in life circumstances can impact a relationship and different perspectives on cosmetic surgery. I thought she really captured the spirit of the wellness tourism industry with just the right amount of foreboding to keep things interesting. I really felt that Moriarty must have spent quite a bit of time researching, because the way she wrote about certain elements of the book was very realistic. The tension between the projected confidence about finding the answers to a fulfilling life and the self-doubt that affects us all was done really well, and Masha’s hubris was something to behold.
As readable and amusing as it is, this book is a little bit extra and there were a few parts where the drama felt a little excessive. While I really enjoyed Moriarty’s descriptions of Tranquillum House, there was maybe a little too much celebration of the colonial project and the house’s convict history and no recognition of traditional owners of the land. Seeing the modern timber and glass building in the (American) adaptation of the book, I felt that perhaps it was the better setting. The ending was maybe a little too drawn out and neat, but in these times far be it for me to begrudge a happy ending.
A spirited and enjoyable read with a good dose of histrionics and a very tidy resolution. While the TV series is maybe a little too Americanised and a little melodramatic, so far it seems well-cast and fun enough to watch.
Dark mystery about a wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family
Content warning: family violence, racial violence
When I first heard about this book, I knew immediately that it was a book I wanted to read. I lived in Indonesia for 5 years when I was very young, and another year for university, but have not read nearly as much fiction by Indonesian authors or set in Indonesia as I would like. I was already familiar with this author from her translation work, and after a bit of trouble finding a physical copy of the book (it has been republished in America under a different title), I found out that it was available as an audiobook. I was training for a run with one of my dogs (that we ended up not being able to go to anyway), and it was the perfect length and topic for my next listen.
“Under Your Wings” (published in the USA as “The Majesties”) by Tiffany Tsao and narrated by Nancy Wu is a mystery novel about a young woman called Gwendolyn Sulinado who is the sole survivor of a mass murder. As she lies in hospital on the brink of death, she reflects on her life and upbringing and tries to piece together what caused her twin sister Estella to poison her entire wealthy Chinese-Indonesian family.
This was a very enjoyable book for me and had lots of elements to hook me and keep me hooked. I have been lucky enough to attend some enormous Chinese weddings in South-East Asia and have experienced first hand some of the opulence that comes along with them, and I loved Tsao’s casual yet compelling descriptions of the wealth enjoyed by Gwendolyn’s family. While at university, I wrote a paper on the racism experienced by Chinese-Indonesians, particularly during the May 1998 riots, and I thought Tsao’s novel explored this historic racial tension from a unique and insightful point of view. Tsao acknowledges the privilege enjoyed by the Sulinados and other families in similar positions, and the necessary political deals and exploitation that leads to such extreme wealth. Tsao also acknowledges the tension between pribumi and Chinese-Indonesians goes two ways as discovered by Gwendolyn when exploring her family’s history.
Tsao also examines the issue of intermarriage between powerful families and how money, prestige and reputation are sometimes put before the safety and wellbeing of individual family members. One of my favourite parts of the book, however, was reading about Gwendolyn’s work mixing genetic engineering (something I love to read about), her passion for entomology and fashion to create beautiful dynamic garments. Wu was a perfect narrator for this story and her ear for accents captured the nuance of Chinese-Indonesians not only of different genders and ages, but who had studied in Australia as compared to the USA.
I think probably the only thing that I wasn’t completely sure about was the twist at the end. Without giving anything away and not to say that the ending didn’t fit the narrative, I felt that the story was already so delicate and complex, I didn’t think that it needed one more final reveal to make its point.
A beautifully written and beautifully narrated book that had me from the get-go.
Content warning: family violence, child abuse, animal abuse, emotional abuse
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I actually read some of this author’s work when I was a teen and particularly enjoyed her biopunk novels, though this one is a significantly different genre.
“Shelter” by Catherine Jinks is a thriller novel set outside a small country town in rural Australia. Meg is a middle-aged woman who lives alone in a small property. A survivor of family violence herself, she agrees to take in a young woman called Nerine and her two small children and let them hide out for a while. Despite the secrecy, remoteness and lack of reception, Nerine is adamant that her violent ex while find a way to track them down. As more and more strange things happen, Meg begins to wonder if it is her own ex-husband they should be worried about and how safe her hideaway really is.
This is a tense read and Jinks really demonstrates her prowess at setting pace and a sense of place. Meg is a believable character who is at once capable and independent yet ultimately very vulnerable. The scars left on her psyche by her ex-husband grow more and more evident as the pressure in the book continues, and I felt that Jinks really captured the long-term harm that being in an abusive relationship can have on you and how insidious emotional abuse in particular can be. Throughout this book, Meg second-guesses herself and her hesitation and lack of faith in herself ultimately impacts the way other people treat her and leaves her open to further exploitation. Heartbreakingly, I felt that Jinks wrote about how abusive families can impact children very authentically and the scenes with Ana were particularly compelling and upsetting.
However, this is not a feel good story and ultimately the ending felt very unsatisfactory. I appreciate the point I believe Jinks was trying to make about the justice system and how an emotional abuser can continue to indirectly cause you harm long after the relationship has ended. However, as the climax of the books unfolds and the impact of what happened becomes clear, I found it a little hard to suspend my disbelief. I know that Jinks has likely been inspired by (slight spoiler if you click through) this case, but I think that the Epilogue just felt a bit off to me. As I finished the book, I had a bitter taste in my mouth and I’m not sure Meg got a fair shake of the stick. Perhaps that was Jinks’ intention.
A complex, challenging and deeply uncomfortable novel that explores emotional abuse from a fresh and disturbing perspective.
This is the third book in the series, so if you haven’t started it yet check out my reviews of the first and second books. It hasn’t been an easy winter, and I have been a bit distracted from reviewing what with lockdowns etc, but I was so excited for this book pre-ordered this book when it came out at the beginning of August and harangued the poor staff at Dymocks Canberra on release day and they had to open the box for me! I definitely needed a little winter pick-me-up.
Image is of “A Song of Flight” by Juliet Marillier. The paperback book is resting on a timber table next to grey and black feathers and a silver belt buckle. The cover is of a woman in profile in the foreground holding a large knife, gazing across water at a stone tower in the background.
“A Song of Flight” by Juliet Marillier is the third book in the historical fantasy series “The Warrior Bards”. The book begins a short while after the events of the second book, back on Swan Island. Experienced after several successful if challenging missions, Liobhan has been given the new responsibility of helping to train new recruits. Her comrade and lover Dau spends most of his time training recruits on the mainland, and they take what few moments together they can. However, when news arrives that a prince is missing and his bodyguard Galen, Liobhan’s brother, is seriously injured, Liobhan and Dau are dispatched on separate but complementary missions to discover what happened. Meanwhile, Liobhan’s adopted brother Brocc, who is now a father, is having serious difficulties with his wife and queen Eirne in the Otherworld about the increasing presence of the mysterious and dangerous Crow Folk. When he is exiled with a precious burden, Brocc must use all his training and powers to ensure the Crow Folk are not used for evil.
This book had a different tempo than the other two books, and one of the overarching themes in this book is overcoming adversity without violence. Introduced in the earlier books, the Crow Folk make a much bigger appearance in this story and the main characters must untangle myth and culture to get to the heart of why the Crow Folk have come to their land. Whereas the previous book was Liobhan and Dau’s, this time I felt that Brocc’s story really became centre-stage. As I have often said, Marillier is a master of romance so it was really interesting to read her take on a relationship breakdown. Although Brocc has always been accepted completely by his adopted family, Marillier hints tantalisingly at who his biological family may be and what the implications of that may be. Brocc is pushed to his limits in this book and asked how far he would go for the ones he loves.
I enjoyed finally getting to meet the third child of Blackthorn and Grim, Galen, and seeing another side of their family. Blackthorn and Grim make an extended cameo in this book and it was nice to see them in a happy home, regardless of the circumstances. Although not as prominent as the previous book, Liobhan and Dau’s relationship (limited as it is by time, distance and their commitment to Swan Island) is tested in this book. Will they be able to put Swan Island missions before all else, including their love? Although many threads of this story were tied up very tidily, Marillier left enough questions unanswered and doors unclosed to make me wonder whether this truly is the last book, or whether we shall be seeing more of Brocc, Liobhan and Dau in future.
An excellent example of Marillier’s work and a satisfying ending to the trilogy without completely extinguishing the hope that perhaps there may be more to come.
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.