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Red Sparrow

A thriller about Russian and American spycraft

Content warning: objectification of women, torture, sexual assault

It is the time for film adaptations, and this book is actually the tie-in edition. I remember seeing quite a slick trailer for this film (though I had never seen it), so on a whim I picked up this book at the Lifeline Book Fair. I have been reading a lot of books that have been adapted into films or TV shows recently so I thought I would stick with this trend and chip away at my to-read shelf.

Image is of “Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews. The paperback book is sitting next to a bowl of borsch, Eastern European beetroot soup garnished with sour cream and dill. The cover is red with a picture of Jennifer Lawrence who plays one of the main characters in the film adaptation.

“Red Sparrow” by Jason Matthews is a thriller novel about Russian and American spies. After her career is stymied, former ballet dancer Dominika is pressured by her uncle to join Russian intelligence and train to become a ‘sparrow’, a secret agent trained in seduction. Her target is Nate: an American CIA agent who is forced to leave Russia and take up a much less exciting post in Finland. When Nate and Dominika cross paths, they are instantly drawn to one another and begin a game of spycraft made even more dangerous by attraction.

Image is of the book in a paper bag filled with ingredients in reusable containers.

I was able to forgive a lot in this book for one simple reason: at the end of each chapter was a recipe. I absolutely love fiction books with recipes, and this book had a recipe at the end of every chapter. The story had quite a lot of potential, and the earlier chapters in particular were tense and surprising. I enjoyed reading about Russia, and even if the parts about the sparrow school weren’t even remotely true it made for compelling (though disturbing) reading.

Image is of the book next to a plate of potato fritters that were absolutely delicious, and a creamy spinach dip that didn’t quite work.

As enjoyable as it was to cook recipes from the book, the rest of the book left a lot to be desired. I thought that the set up would have been perfect for a Spy vs. Spy thriller, where both Dominika and Nate use their spycraft skills to try to hook the other into betraying their country and spilling state secrets. Unfortunately, this book suffered from classic American exceptionalism, the tension between Dominika and Nate is broken way too early on and the book swiftly becomes more about the mechanics of passing on state secrets which, while of great interest to a former CIA agent, was of far less interest to me. This decision to shift focus meant that the pacing felt sluggish for the rest of the book, and I was much less invested in the characters. One thing I was shocked about was how frequently the author referred to breasts. Perhaps I’m not the target audience, but I was really shocked at how frequently the narrative was interrupted with superfluous references to breasts.

I’d like to say that the film was better, but it was not. They made the torture more gruesome, the sex more rapey and there was, disturbingly, more chemistry between Dominika and her uncle than there was between Dominika and Nate. An OK book peppered with fun recipes that did not need a film adaptation.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller

Nevernight

Italian-inspired fantasy about a school of assassins

Content warning: sex, very mild spoiler about one character

This was the most recent set book for my fantasy book club and, given lockdown, likely to be the last one for a while. I have seen these books for sale with that typical white cover, black silhouette with a splash of colour that is pretty standard across the epic fantasy genre.

Nevernight (The Nevernight Chronicle, Book 1) | Rakuten Kobo Australia
Image is of a digital book cover of “Nevernight” by Jay Kristoff. The cover is of a black crow overlaid with other images such as a cat, a barrel, a sword, hands, stars, a cross, a vial and a mask.

“Nevernight” by Jay Kristoff, the first book in “The Nevernight Chronicle”, is a fantasy novel about a teenage girl called Mia who is gearing herself up for an assassination. In a world with three suns, it is very rarely dark yet shadows creep through the city she calls home and Mia has been in hiding since she was a child. Once she collects her tithe she, and the mysterious catlike shadow she calls Mr Kindly, flee the city to try to find the Red Church: a school of assassins full of students driven by revenge. However, the Red Church may be even more deadly than the city of bones she left behind.

Once this book got going, it was an engrossing read. Kristoff’s Italian-inspired Senate and city of Godsgrave was a unique setting, where geography meets anatomy under an almost never-ending daylight. I liked the magic in this book, and Kristoff manages to strike a good balance between maintaining the mystery of Mia’s abilities yet keeping the reader satisfied by exploring them in a variety of situations. He also is ruthless about who lives and who dies, and particularly in the later parts of the book, keeps you on your toes. I really liked the politics between the students and it was in these scenes that Kristoff’s writing really shone.

However, I found the first half of the book way too overwritten. Kristoff used a particular sentence structure multiple times along the lines of “all [noun]-[adjective] noun, and [noun]-[adjective] noun” which grew a bit tedious:

  • “all open mouths and closed fists”
  • “all milk-white skin and…bow-shaped lips”
  • “all crushed red velvet”
  • “coal-black eyes”
  • “feather-down smile”.

I did feel like Kristoff found his groove as the book progressed, though he did like to write a passage, go back in time to give it context, then write the passage again which felt a bit repetitive. There was a really, really long chase scene through a desert that seemed a bit unnecessary, and it was after that the book started to come into its own. There were a few other things that bugged me. In the opening scenes, Mia loses her virginity to a “sweetboy” (a sexworker) and it is a painful, bloody cliché that is treated like a universal occurrence even though it isn’t. Unbelievably, she paid for the experience even though he was clumsy and she didn’t orgasm. It is not until page 326 that she realises perhaps she paid the sweetboy too much.

At some point Mia acquires a horse she nicknames Bastard, and although he is described as being 20 hands high, she easily is able to jump on him. It always disappoints me a little reading fantasy where the author gives away how little they know about horses, and this was a classic example: 20 hands is the size of the Guinness World Record holder for tallest horse, it is absolutely ludicrous that Mia could mount him without a stepladder. On top of that, Kristoff says that he is a thoroughbred which Wikipedia will quickly inform you ranges from 15.2 to 17 hands high i.e. a foot shorter than Bastard. Slight spoiler: another thing that didn’t make much sense was the character Hush. Although Hush is frequently described as beautiful, it is revealed at one point that he has no teeth. Another quick Wikipedia search indicates that loss of teeth can result in a sunken face and a shrinking jawbone.

A readable book with good worldbuilding and an interesting premise that annoyed me from time to time.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy, Young Adult

The One Dollar Horse

Young adult pony fiction about rescuing a horse to become a champion

Content warning: racial stereotypes, slurs

When I was young, I was an avid pony fiction fan and have even written about how it is at heart a feminist genre of books. So when I saw this book at the Lifeline Book Fair with fuchsia page edges, gold lettering and a pretty grey horse on the cover, of course I bought it. I realised despite this blog’s namesake and my shelves being full of them, it’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a book with tinted edges and this one caught my eye.

Image is of “The One Dollar Horse” by Lauren St John. The paperback book is resting on a green ribbon with gold fringe and lettering that says “Finalist” next to a small horseshoe. The book has pick page edges and a grey horse on the cover.

“The One Dollar Horse” by Lauren St John is a horse fiction novel about a teenage girl called Casey Blue who lives in East London. With her single father recently out of prison, Casey does not have many resources to support her pie in the sky dream: winning the Badminton Horse Trials. However the closest Casey can get right now is volunteering at a local riding school and riding one of the ponies after all the students have finished. However when she comes across an emaciated and wild-eyed horse on his way to the knackery, her split-second decision to save him changes everything.

This is a classic horse story of overcoming adversity, finding a pony and achieving greatness. In some ways, St John had an interesting premise: the impact of incarceration on a family. I felt that this aspect of the story was handled quite sensitively and St John explores how discrimination on the basis of an irrelevant criminal record can haunt someone, even after they have done their time. I thought that Storm Warning’s storyline was strong, and the trauma he experienced takes a long time to heal from. A high-spirited horse with physical and psychological damage is a big challenge, and I really enjoyed the patience and creativity Casey used to build trust and win him over.

However, there were quite a few flaws in this book that I was not able to overlook. First of all was the sheer number of dei ex machina. Nobody can fault Casey’s passion and drive, but ultimately, despite her lack of experience and resources, things just work out for her. She ultimately receives a trainer, accommodation, stabling, farrier services, tack, clothing and money all through luck and generosity of others. I certainly appreciate that many of the riders Casey is up against come from extremely privileged backgrounds with all the money and support in the world, and that eventing is an incredibly expensive sport. I’m not too proud to admit that perhaps some of this is envy, and that any teen girl with a pony wishes that everyone would drop everything and throw money and time at them to fulfil their dreams of competing. However, there were just too many things that fell into Casey’s lap, as much as I appreciated that she’d had a tough time and deserved a bit of luck.

However the real issue I had with this book was the inadvertent racism. One of the volunteers at the riding school is of Chinese heritage, and St John refers to her as “the Chinese girl” Jin multiple times (instead, of course, just by her name Jin), and her sole role in the book is to spend her time assisting Casey and facilitating her uncle dressed in “black martial arts pyjamas with a dragon embroidered on the pocket” to administer acupuncture, whose speech St John writes in an exaggerated “Chinese” accent. I’m sure you don’t need my assistance to identify the stereotypes. She also describes a character as “g*psy dark” and is disparaging towards characters who are overweight. Despite being quite understanding of Casey’s situation, St John writes in rather a sneering, snobby tone about the other people who live in her apartment block and who she goes to school with. You would think, given her sympathy for Casey’s background, she would be more sympathetic towards people of similar backgrounds but sadly no. Even poor Mrs Smith cops it a bit being described at the tender age of 62 as an “older woman”.

While I enjoyed the fantasy of rescuing a horse to build an unshakable bond, and the complexity added by Casey’s father’s challenging background, ultimately I had to suspend disbelief just a little too often and the effect was frequently interrupted by St John’s likely unconscious but nevertheless pervasive sense of superiority.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Tinted Edges, Young Adult

A Song of Flight

Historic Celtic fantasy novel

Content warning: spoilers for the first two books

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.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction

The White Tiger

Novel about ambition and inequality set in India

Content warning: graphic death

This book was a Man Booker Prize winner and I picked up a copy ages ago from the Lifeline Book Fair. I actually tried to start reading it a while ago but wasn’t quite in the right headspace, so put it back on my shelf where it sat for even longer waiting its turn. Sat, until, I saw a trailer for the new Netflix adaptation. There’s nothing like a film adaptation to motivate me to read a book, and I was pretty confident this was going to be good.

Image is of “The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga. The paperback book is sitting in front of a redbrick wall next to a crystal tumbler and a small bottle of rum. Above the objects embedded into the wall is a small gold figure of the Hindu god Ganesh. The cover is white with large stylised writing in black and red and letter Is dotted with orange tiger eyes, with an image of an orange car striped liked a tiger.

“The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga is a novel set in India about a young man known as Balram who gets a job as a driver for a wealthy family. Structured as a series of dictated letters recorded over a number of late nights, Balram, a successful entrepreneur, decides to write to a Chinese Premier who is visiting Bangalore about how he rose from poverty to success. Of key importance is how Balram secured a job driving for the young heir Mr Ashok and his wife Pinky Madam, and it quickly becomes clear that Balram’s path to fortune had some morally suspect hurdles.

This is an incredibly clever book with an utterly charming protagonist. Balram has a keen natural intelligence, only limited by his experiences and education, and his commentary about business and politics is an excellent example of dramatic irony being used to comedic effect. However, Adiga’s novel is also a piercing commentary on the inequality caused initially by colonialism and cemented by corruption. His use of metaphor describing roosters in a cage never rising up against their masters who slaughter their friends was chilling, and even more so every time Balram’s grandmother writes to him demanding he marry and promising to make him a chicken curry (which Balram pointedly refuses). There was also an interesting queer subtext to this book that is only ever hinted at (like Balram referring to his former boss Ashok as his “ex”) and for anyone interested, Fernando Sanchez wrote a detailed essay about this subject.

However, alongside all the levity in this book comes some very challenging topics. Adiga does not romanticise poverty, and there are some very difficult scenes in this book including each of the deaths of Balram’s parents. When Balram moves to Delhi with Ashok and Pinky Madam, the living conditions of drivers are shocking, and almost as disheartening as Balram’s realisation that his life is likely never going to improve. A large theme of this book is betrayal, and in this context, Adiga challenges the reader to consider the morality of Balram’s ultimate actions, and whether they can truly be justified.

Regardless of how brilliant this book was, there were some elements that I felt could have been done without. Apart from Pinky Madam’s rather minor role, there are not a lot of women in this book and the way Balram and other drivers speak about women was grotesque. I felt that the film, while remaining faithful to the book, smoothed out some of these rougher edges and gave Pinky Madam a much larger role. It also made the excellent choice of casting a woman in the role of the politician known as the Great Socialist.

A bold and innovative take on the rags to riches theme that has been adapted into an equally excellent film.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction

She Who Became the Sun

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!

Image is of “She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan. The paperback book is resting on a black tangzhuang-style men’s jacket with white lining. The cover is ombre yellow and orange with a dark orange Chinese dragon and black text.

“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.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Signed Books

Half of a Yellow Sun

Historical fiction about briefly independent African nation Biafra

Content warning: civil war, starvation, sexual violence

When you have a to-read pile as large as mine, it can be very challenging choosing the next book and I am always looking for inspiration, in any form, to help me make that decision. I had definitely heard of this author and have had one of her books (which I picked up from the Lifeline Book Fair) on my shelf for a really long time. When the author last month posted an essay on her website about virtue signalling on social media, there was some backlash about some views the author had posted previously about transwomen. I am absolutely the last person qualified to weigh into Nigerian LGBTQIA+ discourse, but seeing the author’s name made me realise that her book had been waiting its turn far too long.

Image is of “Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The paperback book is in front of a cream coloured retro style radio / record player with silver dials and speakers. The cover is an African woman in profile wearing brightly coloured clothing, out of focus.

“Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a historical fiction novel set in 1960s Nigeria. A teenager called Ugwu moves from his small village to work as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a charismatic lecturer who regularly hosts friends and colleagues for academic debates in his home. Allowed to attend school again, Ugwu soaks up the atmosphere and the political rhetoric. Odenigbo’s partner, Olanna, has given up her privileged upbringing to live with him. When the Igbo nation of Biafra secedes from Nigeria, the reality of their idealism is a far cry from the life Olanna is used to. Meanwhile, Olanna’s quiet twin sister Kainene is dating Englishman and aspiring writer Richard. Learning fluent Igbo and becoming swept up in the nationalism of this new nation, Richard is forced to examine the role of white people in African nation-building and how even during an African civil war, an Englishman’s word is worth more than a Biafran.

This is a compelling and challenging novel that uses three diverse, intersecting perspectives to tell the story of the rise and fall of Biafra the nation. Through the eyes of a poor young man, a wealthy woman and a white man, Adichie examines the leadup to and fallout from the civil war and the ensuing food scarcity. Ugwu in particular was a really powerful character who undergoes a lot of character development and who as a young man with the opportunity for significant social mobility finds a lot of opportunity through this historical period. I also thought that it was really interesting to see the sacrifices, financial and social, that Olanna and Odenigbo had to make and how the more doggedly they clung to the idealism of Biafra, the worse their individual circumstances became. Adichie writes unflinchingly about starvation and it was really hard reading about children suffering. I thought it was a courageous narrative choice for Adichie to explore the issue of sexual violence during war from the side of both the victim and the perpetrator. It was also surprisingly hard going reading about roads and borders being closed and not being able to check on family during these times when borders closures are becoming more and more commonplace.

An emotionally and politically complex novel that brings microhistory to microfiction.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

The Boy from the Mish

Queer young adult fiction set in a rural Aboriginal community

Content warning: alcohol, intergenerational trauma, sex

I received this advance reading copy from the publisher.

Image is of “The Boy from the Mish” by Gary Lonesborough. The paperback book is in front of sketches and concept designs of an Aboriginal graphic novel character. The cover is of two young Aboriginal men wearing white paint on their faces.

“The Boy from the Mish” by Gary Lonesborough is a young adult novel about Jackson, a 17 year old young Aboriginal man who lives in a rural Aboriginal community near the coast called the Mish. Although Jackson is having troubles with his girlfriend and deciding whether he will return to school for year 12, his life exists more or less in a balance. However, when his aunty comes for Christmas with Tomas, a boy from the city she is fostering, Jackson’s world is turned upside down.

This is an incredibly important book with a fresh and unique take on the young adult genre. Although books that are queer and Aboriginal are becoming more common, this book really engages with what it means to be queer in an Aboriginal community, unpacking masculinity and the importance of culture in navigating identity. Jackson and Tomas are great characters who show some of the diversity of experiences among Aboriginal teenagers. Lonesborough writes frankly about sex and the physical side of exploring sexuality and learning about how bodies work.

There are some really powerful scenes in this book, and some challenging scenes and conversations that deal with racism, police, domestic violence, the care system and intergenerational trauma. Relations between the people at the Mish and those in town are clearly tense at times, and I thought that Jackson’s approach to dealing with these problems was an interesting way to explore both queer stereotypes and stereotypes about Aboriginal men. There is plenty of romantic tension in this book, and I really liked how Lonesborough explores consent, sexuality and respect. I also really liked how Lonesborough highlights the importance of art and how creating art together – either a large traditional piece or a graphic novel – or even working on individual artworks at the same time is a bonding experience.

One thing that stood out to me a lot about this book compared to other young adult novels was how much drinking there was. Certainly there is drinking and parties in other books in the genre, and certainly there was drinking and parties when I was that age – especially around Christmas, but I was surprised at how many of the events in this book involved alcohol. Far be it for me to moralise about alcohol, but I will admit I was a bit taken aback at how ubiquitous it was in this story.

A necessary book that brings queer and Aboriginal perspectives to the forefront and relevance to the young adult genre.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, Young Adult

The White Book

A meditation on grief and the colour white

Content warning: death of a child

I first read a book by this author five years ago and I have been so eager to read more of her work ever since. I actually presented on this book for the Asia Bookroom‘s book club, so when I saw this book listed on this year’s reading list, I put it directly in my diary and made sure I was there. It’s a really great book club full of really knowledgeable, thoughtful people and as always I had a wonderful time and learned a lot.

Image is of “The White Book” by Han Kang. The paper back book is resting on white lace fabric surrounded by white paper, a small white bowl of uncooked rice and two white dog paws. The cover is completely white with black text in English and Korean.

“The White Book” by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith almost defies being placed in a genre but I think perhaps it falls somewhere between creative non-fiction, fictionalised autobiography and experimental writing. Broken into micro-essays each centred on a different white thing, the book reflects on how trauma echoes through a city destroyed by war decades on and how family trauma similarly echoes across a lifetime.

This is an excellent book that is utterly mesmerising. The structure forces you as a reader to take your time and savour each part but it is at the same time completely readable. Kan is a writer of exceptional talent and not a single word in this book is superfluous. Smith, who is also the founder of Tilted Axis Press, should also be commended for her translation. Some of these micro-chapters are absolutely haunting and although this book is only of novella length, there was no shortage of themes to discuss during the book club. One of the most poignant parts for me was the narrator’s reflection that after the loss of her childhood dog, she was so afraid of getting close to another dog and risking that grief again that she wouldn’t even pat one. Similarly, the reverberated pain of the narrator’s older sister dying shortly after birth affects her own willingness to have children. The other harrowing thoughts that occupy the narrator’s mind include the guilt of having lived, and whether, had her sister survived, she would have been born at all. Although never mentioned by name, Warsaw in winter provides a bleak backdrop but also a blank canvas against which the narrator meditates on the colour white and all the things in her life it symbolises. The book ends with multiple white pages, and I thought that was an excellent touch.

I think the only thing that didn’t quite work with this book was, actually, not the writing. There are black and white photographs interspersed throughout the book of the author interacting with white objects. I didn’t mind the photography per se, but I didn’t feel like the design within the book itself worked well. For example, one image was spread across two pages but the book binding didn’t allow for the whole image to be seen which made it lose a lot of impact.

However, this is without a doubt a beautiful book at the cutting edge of literature and that cuts right to the heart of our humanity.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Novella

Gulliver’s Wife

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.

Image is of “Gulliver’s Wife” by Lauren Chater. The paperback book is resting in a bed of purple irises. The cover design is of dark red orchid-like flowers and greenery and a small brown bird with bronze foil around the edges.

“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.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction