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 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.
“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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
Young adult novel inspired by Black Lives Matter and police brutality
Content warning: racism, police brutality
Searching for my next audiobook that was long enough to be immersive but short enough to be achievable with my attention span, I came across this bestselling and award-winning book that I had heard of but hadn’t had the opportunity to read yet. It is narrated by Bahni Turpin, the narrator of “The Underground Railroad“, so I was very keen to give it a go.
Image is of the audiobook cover of “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. The cover is a picture of a teenage girl in sepia against a black background with white and pink text.
“The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and narrated by Bahni Turpin is a young adult novel about Starr, a 16 year old African-American girl who lives in a poor neighbourhood called Garden Heights but goes to an affluent high school called Williamson Prep. Straddling two worlds and two identities, when Starr witnesses a police shooting that kickstarts protests in Garden Heights and a high profile court case, her role as a key witness shatters the delicate equilibrium. With every decision now politicised, Starr is forced to confront the racism in her life, personal and systemic, while still dealing with the everyday dramas that come with being a teenage girl.
This was a fantastic book that had me hooked from the beginning. I was actually shocked to read that this was Thomas’ debut novel, it was so good. Thomas reinvigorates the young adult genre by bringing realism and urgency while maintaining the hallmark youthfulness of young adult fiction. Starr is an excellent protagonist who juggles a myriad of issues. I really liked the way Starr compartmentalised her complex family, her white boyfriend, traumas from her past, the influence of gangs on Garden Heights, microaggressions from kids at her school and the looming court case, and how, as the stress begins to compound, the firm boundaries she has set begin to waver. I also really enjoyed Turpin’s narration of this book. She brought a completely different mood to this book compared with “The Underground Railroad” and gave Starr a full emotional range.
One issue this book is very concerned with is justice, and some of the most confronting parts of the book include the way Starr is interviewed by police and the way the incident is reported in the media. In the wake of the trial for George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter, the questions Thomas asks about justice and fairness are as relevant as ever. Through the conversations the characters have and Starr’s own experiences and observations, Thomas asks the reader to really engage with racism and inequity, the cumulative effect it has on people’s lives and how difficult it can be to speak out against it.
A truly well-written book and I cannot wait to read more of Thomas’ work.
Poetry collection about colonisation, queerness and the tension between city and country
Content warning: family violence, racism, colonisation
I first heard of this award-winning writer and poet when unacceptably they were harassed and abused online after their poem Mango was selected for a New South Wales Higher School Certificate English examination paper. Although I have been meaning to buy their work, it was not until I found myself standing in the poetry section of a book shop a couple of months ago looking for a different book that I saw their newest collection.
“Throat” by Ellen van Neerven is a collection of poetry that explores the intersection of being both queer and Aboriginal. Through her poetry, van Neerven grapples with issues that are both personal and political and invites the reader to engage with issues such as racism, deaths in custody, calls for treaty, gender, urbanisation and identity.
Although I am no poetry aficionado, one thing that really struck me about this book was van Neerven’s exceptional and innovative use of structure. Their poem 18Cs, a clear reference to the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the protection against offensive behaviour, lists 18 reflections relating to words beginning with the letter C. Similarly, Acts of protection refers to historical legislation that gave governments the power over Aboriginal people’s lives, and uses Roman numerals to emulate subsections of legislation in actually listing things that bring van Neerven comfort. Another poem, logonliveon, uses an Aboriginal flag emoji to punctuate their thoughts about being Aboriginal online. At one point, van Neerven invites the reader to sign a treaty they have drafted in relation to shared power.
I really enjoyed Chermy, in which van Neerven, tongue-in-cheek, reminisces about the “cultural” connection she and her family have with Westfield Chermside, and then more seriously considers the ongoing impact of colonisation and gentrification on connection to country. Van Neerven also writes about issues such as dysphoria, navigating queer spaces, loneliness, longing for country, language and family. Expert was particularly heart-breaking; writing about family violence in a queer relationship where Aboriginal identity is used against them and the stereotype of who is the perpetrator is turned upside down.
There is so much to think about in this book, so I won’t go into much more detail except to say that van Neerven is a deeply profound poet whose work is the finger on the pulse of this nation.
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.
Queer steampunk fantasy mystery set in early 1900s Egypt
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark is a fantasy mystery novel with steampunk elements set in an alternate Cairo, Egypt in 1912. After the barrier between our world and the magical world was removed half a century earlier, countries have been trying to manage the influx of magical beings. In Egypt, where Djinn now live amongst people, Fatima is the youngest woman who works at the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Fuelled by confidence and a snappy style of dress, a new mystery soon has Fatma stumped. After members of a secret British society are murdered by someone claiming to be the very man they worship, Fatima must solve the crime before the tension in the city boils over and and all is lost. Meanwhile, she has an unwanted new partner at work and her hot and cold girlfriend is more than who she seems.
This is a fun novel that reimagines Cairo at the turn of the century in a new light. The introduction of magic and Djinn in the world shifts the international power dynamic and in Clark’s Egypt, the British have withdrawn early and colonialism is becoming a distant memory. Djinn and the mysterious Angels bring with them new technologies, which Clark shows off to great effect during some of the action scenes. Fatma is a great, imperfect character whose brilliance is tempered by her vanity and her stubbornness. I really enjoyed Fatma’s new partner Hadia, and their interactions were a really good comment on how scarcity of opportunity for women (or people who belong to any marginalised group) can force unfair competition, but also how valuable mentorship and camaraderie can be. I also really liked the romance. Clark explores what it means to come from more than one background, and how critical trust and safety is in a relationship. The Djinns as well were really well done and I thought Clark brought a lot of complexity and humanity to these new citizens of Cairo.
I think something to keep in mind is that the characters refer to events earlier one quite often, and I though perhaps he was setting the story up for a prequel. It turns out, he has actually written a short story set in the same world. While I don’t think you need to have read it to enjoy this story, given how often it is referred to it might help. Although set in a steampunk fantasy world, this is at heart a mystery and I probably would have liked it to be a little, well, mysterious. Clark introduces several red herrings and plenty of action, but ultimately I guessed the twist early.
A fast-paced and enjoyable novel with a lot of interesting social commentary if not a particularly surprising ending.
Content warning: sexual assault, religious themes, rape apologism, violence
When I was growing up, animal fantasy was one of my favourite book genres. Some of my absolute favourites included “Watership Down” and “Black Beauty“. It is a broad genre, with plenty of books out there, but one that I have not explored very much as an adult. I picked this book up at a Lifeline Book Fair quite some time ago and it has been sitting on my shelf with a small collection of other animal fantasy novels that I haven’t gotten around to reading. The cover is extremely autumnal and very in season, and I thought it was high time I gave this genre another go.
“Duncton Wood” by William Horwood is an animal fantasy novel about two moles: Rebecca and Bracken. Born at a similar time in the declining system of burrows called Duncton Wood, Bracken and Rebecca’s upbringing couldn’t be more different. Bullied by his siblings but with a flair for exploration, Bracken leaves his unhappy burrow early and forges his own path. Rebecca on the other hand is the cherished daughter of Mandrake, an enormous mole from a far away system who has taken control of the Duncton moles. Mandrake suppresses the moles’ spiritual beliefs and encourages violence, and outright bans the ritual of visiting the revered Stone in midsummer. Between them, Rebecca and Bracken must rebel against Mandrake and help the Duncton Moles regain their faith.
This is an epic and sprawling story that follows the lives of Rebecca and Bracken as they mature and overcome physical and spiritual adversity. From the outset, Rebecca and Bracken are identified as star-crossed lovers, and Horwood spends a significant amount of the book navigating their complex yet inevitable relationship. I think Horwood’s real strength is nature writing, and his descriptions of the English countryside and changes of the seasons are very beautiful.
However, there were so very many problems with this book. While there is nothing wrong with this, a cursory glance at the cover would not indicate to a reader just how strong the religious overtones of this book are. An enormous proportion of this book is about moles finding and maintaining their faith in the Stone, and meeting other moles from other systems to talk about their own Stones. The overwhelming message in this book is that discarding spiritual traditions is bad, however it was never really made clear in the book what the social decline in Duncton was caused by. For example, the traditions were not replaced by technology, and Mandrake didn’t exactly fill the moral void.
Speaking of moral voids, I cannot in good conscience write about this book without mentioning the sexual assault. Essentially one mole rapes another mole in a horrific breach of trust and an enormous proportion of the book is spent trying to understand the perpetrator mole’s background and circumstances that lead to his violent and controlling behaviour. The perpetrator then commits unthinkable violence against children. However, despite this, the survivor spends a large amount of time empathising with the perpetrator and even later coming to think of the rape almost fondly. Reading these parts of the book honestly felt pretty gross and overshadowed the better elements.
Although I was really interested in reading about Horwood’s mole culture, ultimately it felt underdeveloped and contradictory. For example, some mole systems have books, but Horwood fails to explain how the books are made and how their language was written. This was such a missed opportunity in worldbuilding, and also raised questions of why there were no other technological developments. The emotional development of the characters was also quite superficial. Moles love and show reverence for each other almost immediately without any real reason. Horwood could have leaned into a more realistic explanation (moles like the smell or body language of other moles) or a more character-driven explanation, but mostly moles just made snap judgements about one another for no apparent reason.
I also thought it was a bit anglocentric that the Siabod (Welsh) moles had to speak English, but the English moles didn’t know or bother to learn Welsh and regularly described the language as harsh. The older moles constantly lamented that they did not have the words to explain what they meant, and the dialogue between the moles frequently didn’t say much at all. Harwood’s own language felt quite repetitive, and he mentioned the terms ‘peace’ and ‘love’ over and over and over.
A slow burn with strong religious themes and some very questionable narrative decisions, I would think twice before reading this.