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The Hand of the Sun King

Fantasy novel about straddling cultures and collecting powers

This was the next set book for my fantasy book club, which I had to dial into because I caught COVID-19 at the end of June, and then almost as soon as I recovered, I caught a cold.

Image is of “The Hand of the Sun King” by J.T. Greathouse. The eBook cover is of a hand covered in intricate designs. In the background is a mountain, river and bamboo leaves in blue and a partially obscured yellow sun.

“The Hand of the Sun King” by J.T. Greathouse is the first novel in the fantasy series “Pact and Pattern” about a young man who grows up in two cultures. In his father’s household, he is Wen Alder, studying for the Imperial Examinations to obtain a prestigious position serving the Emperor. However, in the dead of night, under the tutelage of his maternal grandmother, he is Foolish Cur studying the old ways. Trying to balance both identities, and unable to keep his own ambition in check, he finds himself propelled into a life of politics and intrigue, of rebellion and conflicted loyalties.

This was a really interesting novel with a complex and well thought out magic system. Greathouse is consistent and detailed with the use of magic and fans of epic fantasy will not be disappointed reading about Foolish Cur’s efforts to master various powers. The novel is paced in a way that the reader gradually learns more about reaches of the Sienese Empire and the effects of colonialism at the same rate that Foolish Cur does, creating a sense of connection with him and an investment in his story. I have mentioned a couple of times on here that I have been enjoying books where the primary motivation is ambition, and this was no exception.

However, I did find the book takes a while to get started. While I appreciate the earlier chapters lay a lot of essential groundwork for the overall premise of the book, it was initially slow to gain momentum.

An enjoyable book (once it got going) with unique and well-considered magic, few boring fantasy tropes and plenty of complexity.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy

Cantik Itu Luka (Beauty is a Wound)

Perhatian: ulasan buku ini akan ditulis dalam Bahasa Indonesia dulu, dan Bahasa Inggris berikut.

Note: this book review will be written first in Bahasa Indonesia, then English afterwards.

Novel sastra tentang seorang perempuan Indo, keluarganya dan jiwa Indonesia melalui sejarah abad 19an

Peringatan pemicu: perkosaan, perbuatan sumbang, kebinatangan, penelantaran anak, penyalahgunahan, perang, penyiksaan, penculikan, pedofilia, pernikaan anak, bunuh diri, keguguran

Walaupun saya tinggal di Indonesia untuk jumlah enam tahun, dan belajar Bahasa Indonesia di SD, SMP, SMU dan Universitas, sebelum ini saya belum pernah membaca buku novel dalam Bahasa Indonesia. Waktu saya masih remaja, bapak saya kasih kepada saya “Harry Potter dan Batu Bertuah”. Saya coba membacanya, tetapi kosa katanya terlalu susah dan saya tidak mebaca lebih dari si kembar Weasley yg ditemu pertama kali oleh Harry Potter di kereta api Hogwarts Express. Saya pernah dengar tentang buku ini dari teman-teman dan penulis lain (khususnya tentang hal realisme magis). Walaupun ada terjemahan Bahasa Inggris, saya punya keinginan untuk membaca buku ini dalam Bahasa Indonesia. Saya sekarang membaca beberapa buku untuk proyek tulisan dan buku ini ada tema relevan. Oleh karena itu, saya pesan edisi Indonesia.

Foto ini menunjukkan “Cantik Itu Luka” ditulis oleh Eka Kurniawan. Bukunya di tengah kotak batik dan tiga buku catatan batik. Sampul buku ada gambar pantai, kota, hutan dan gunung dengan warna merah dan ungu. Ada tokoh hitam yang duduk di perahu, berkelahi di pantai, gadis dan anjing yang berlari.

“Cantik Itu Luka” ditulis oleh Eka Kurniawan adalah sebuah novel tentang seorang perempuan bernama Dewi Ayu yang tinggal lagi sesudah dua puluh satu tahun kematian. Novel ini menjelaskan kenapa Dewi Ayu menutuskan untuk mati sesudah anak perempuan keempatnya lahir. Berbeda dari kakak-kakaknya, anak perempuan ini sangat jelek dan sebelum mati, Dewi Ayu kasih satu hadiah: nama Cantik. Terus, kita membaca tentang hidup Dewi Ayu sebagai orang Indo di kota Halimunda. Halimunda diokupasi oleh tentara Jepang pada Perang Dunia II dan Dewi Ayu terpaksa menjadi pelacur. Sesudah perang, Dewi Ayu menjadi pelacur yang paling terkenal dan dicintai di Halimunda. Dia punya tiga anak dari tiga bapak berbeda dan setiap anak lebih cantik dari pada yang lain. Akan tetapi, masa sesudah perang merupakan kesempatan untuk mendapat kemerdekaan dari Belanda dan membayang negeri baru. Ada tiga cowok yang menjadi sangat berkuasa pada waktu ini: Shodancho, Kamerad Kliwon dan Maman Gendeng. Siapa yang menang perang untuk jiwa Indonesia dan menikah anak perempuan cantik Dewi Ayu?

Novel ini mencerita sejarah Indonesia dari perspektif unik. Dengan pergunaan realisme magis dan tema yang mengerikan, Eka Kurniawan menunjukkan peristiwa yang paling jelek pada periode Perang Dunia II, Revolusi Nasional Indonesia, Penumpasan PKI dan mungkin juga Petrus. Tokoh-tokoh Dewi Ayu, anaknya dan suaminya mengalamkan peristiwa ini dengan berbeda dan jelas bahwa orang perempuan sangat mudah diserang oleh tentara, preman dan bahkan keluarganya. Dewi Ayu sangat praktis, dan tanpa emosi dia menderita dan mengambil tindakan untuk memastikan dia dan anaknya aman. Kadang-kadang ada peristiwa yang tidak bisa dijelaskan seperti orang yang hidup lagi, cium yang berapi, babi yang menjadi manusia dan kutukan yang tidak bisa dipatahkan. Eka Kurniawan menggunakan hal ini untuk membuat emosi Halimunda semakin keras. Gaya menulisnya sering seperti dogeng.

Akan tetapi, buku ini tidak mudah dibaca. Walaupun memang ada banyak kosa kata yang saya belum tahu (sesudah selesai buku ini, saya mengisi tiga buku catatan dengan kosa kata Bahasa Indonesia!), itu bukan masalahnya. Masalanya sebetulnya tema. Ada banyak kekerasan, banyak perkosaan dan banyak hal yang didaftarkan di atas yang sulit dibaca. Walaupun saya paham ada hal yang harus didiskusikan, Eka Kurniawan menulis tentang hal jelek dengan terlalu banyak perincian, dan saya merasa tidak nyaman membaca buku ini.

Walaupun ini buku yang penting dan menarik, itu juga buku sulit dan sering mengerikan.

Literary novel about an Indo woman, her family and the soul of Indonesia through 19th century history

Content warning: rape, incest, bestiality, child abandonment, abuse, war, torture, kidnapping, pedophilia, child marriage, suicide, miscarriage

Although I lived in Indonesia for a total of six years, and studied Indonesian in primary school, high school and university, before now I have never read a book in Bahasa Indonesia. When I was still a teenager, my dad gave me a copy of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. I tried to read it, but the vocabulary was too difficult and I didn’t read further than the Weasley twins met for the first time by Harry Potter on the Hogwarts Express train. I had heard about this book from friends and other writers (especially about the issue of magic realism) Although there is an English translation, I wanted to read it in Bahasa Indonesia. I’m currently reading several books for a writing project and this book has relevant themes. As a result, I ordered an Indonesian edition.

Image is of “Cantik Itu Luka” written by Eka Kurniawan. The book is between a batik box and three batik notebooks. The cover is of a beach, city, forest and mountains in red and purple. There are black figures sitting in a boat, fighting on the beach, a girl and dogs running.

“Beauty is a Wound” by Eka Kurniawan is a novel about a woman called Dewi Ayu who lives again after twenty one years of being dead. This novel explains why Dewi Ayu decided to die after her fourth child was born. Unlike her sisters, this girl is extremely ugly and before dying, Dewi Ayu gives her one gift: the name Beauty. Next, we read about Dewi Ayu’s life as an Indo person in the city of Halimunda. Halimunda was occupied by the Japanese army during World War II and Dewi Ayu is forced to become a sex worker. After the war, Dewi Ayu becomes the most famous and beloved sex worker in Halimunda. She has three children from three different fathers and each child is more beautiful than the next. However, the time after the war is an opportunity to achieve independence from the Netherlands and imagine a new nation. There are three men who become very influential during this time: Shodancho, Kamerad Kliwon and Maman Gendeng. Who will win the war for the soul of Indonesia and marry Dewi Ayu’s beautiful daughters?

This novel depicts Indonesia’s history from a unique perspective. With the use of magic realism and horrifying themes, Kurniawan whos the most ugly events during World War II, the Indonesian National Revolution, the Indonesian Communist Purge and perhaps even the Petrus Killings. The characters of Dewi Ayu, her children and their husbands experiences these events differently and it is clear that women are especially vulnerable to the army, thugs and even their own families. Dewi Ayu is very practical, and without emotion she endures and takes action to ensure that she and her children are safe. Sometimes there are events than cannot be explained like people coming back to life, fiery kisses, pigs who become people and curses that cannot be cursed. Eka Kurniawan uses these elements to make Halimunda’s emotions even more intense. His writing style is often like fables.

However, this book is difficult to read. Although there is plenty of vocabulary that I didn’t know yet (after finishing this book, I had filled three notebooks with Indonesian vocabulary!), that wasn’t the problem. The problem was actually the themes. There is lots of violence, lots of rape and lots of the things listed above that are difficult to read. Although I understand there are things that need to be discussed, Eka Kurniawan writes about gross things with far too much detail, and I felt really uncomfortable reading this book.

Although this is an interesting and important book, it is also a difficult book that is often horrifying.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Magic Realism

The Summer I Turned Pretty

Coming of age young adult novel about family and summer at the beach

More running, more audiobooks. I had seen trailers for a TV adaptation of this book that looked alright so I decided to listen to this one next.

Image is of “The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han and narrated by Lola Tung. The audiobook cover is a picture of a teenage girl and two teenage boys in swimsuits running along a dune at the beach.

“The Summer I Turned Pretty” by Jenny Han and narrated by Lola Tung is the first novel in a young adult trilogy about a teenager called Belly who is on summer vacation. Every summer, she and her family stay with her mother’s best friend Susannah and her family. The four kids grow up together: Belly, her brother Steven and Susannah’s two sons Conrad and Jeremiah. Belly is the youngest and she has always felt like the little kid running after the boys. Nevertheless, she looks forward However, this summer, Belly is determined that things are going to be different. They are, but different in ways that she never could have expected.

This is standard coming of age novel set in the idyllic fictional beachside town of Cousins Beach. Han uses flashbacks to previous summers to build the groundwork for the dynamics between the two families, and Belly’s long-term crush on the handsome, brooding Conrad. This book is beautifully narrated by Lola Tung who also plays Belly in the TV adaptation, and she has a way of bringing all the sweetness, optimism and drama you could want in a young adult novel.

However, I frequently found this book frustrating. Although I suspect that Han was often trying to make a point, in reality Belly came across as extremely superficial. This summer, Belly’s primary currency is attention and she is constantly observing who is giving her attention, who could be giving her attention and who is getting attention instead of her. Belly is so self-involved, she completely misses what is going on with everyone around her. However somehow, despite multiple instances of incredibly selfish, bad behaviour, things do work out for her.

I have to say, this is one of those rare instances where I prefer the TV adaptation to the book. Through the series, all of the characters are much more filled out, especially Belly’s mother, Jeremiah and Belly’s brother Steven. I also felt that the TV show was a lot more diverse. Unlike the book, Belly is clearly cast as Eurasian with her cultural background mentioned more than once. There are queer characters and the debutante ball, not present in the book, was a great backdrop against which to explore ideas of beauty, tradition and class. I also felt like Belly was much more relatable in the show, and had some keen hobbies and interests outside boys.

A really nicely narrated audiobook, but while I think I’ll stick with the TV series, I don’t think I’ll read any more in the series.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Young Adult

Runemarks

Fantasy novel inspired by Norse mythology

As I have mentioned several times on this blog, I have been a fan of this author for a long time. I adored the “Chocolat” series and have really enjoyed most of her original folklore and fairy tales. I also realy liked her psychological thrillers. However, this book has been on my shelf for years and years and I have not managed to read it. I really enjoy runes, and I really enjoy fantasy, but for some reason every time I have tried to start this book I just haven’t been able to get into it. It probably isn’t helped by this cover design which, despite the embossing and gold foil, remains, tragically, quite ugly. The illustrator has actually designed some pretty iconic book covers so I am not sure what happened here. Anyway, I am trying really hard to get through my to-read pile as part of the Mount TBR Reading Challenge and when I actually made my own set of runestones recently, I figured it was finally time to tackle this book once and for all.

Image is of “Runemarks” by Joanne Harris. The paperback book is placed next to a hessian drawstring bag with runestones spilling out; each a smooth grey pebble with a white symbol painted on.

“Runemarks” by Joanne Harris is a fantasy novel about a teenage girl called Maddy Smith who has always been an outcast in her small village Malbry. Maddy has a strange birthmark on her hand, a dark orange ruinmark in the shape of a rune. With the mark comes something else: an ability to wield magic. While the townsfolk discourage anything that requires any amount of imagination, when Maddy was small she met a travelling man called One-Eye. Every season, near a large hill with a red horse carved into it, One-Eye teaches her more about runes, lore, and cantrips from old times. When he is away, Maddy practises her magic in small ways such as chasing away goblins. However, when One-Eye finally returns, he has a special request: to open a way beneath Red Horse Hill and retrieve something that will change the world.

This book draws heavily on Norse mythology, especially the gods and realms that make up the Nine Worlds. While drawing on similar motifs and themes to many of her other stories, in this one, Harris explores a different style of writing. This book is action-packed with a focus on battles for overt power and the fate of the world rather than the subtler themes often touched on in her other work. I think my favourite parts of the book were actually the Examiners, their distorted morality and struggles for control over themselves and each other. Harris explores how fanaticism can breed intolerance and hate, echoing similar messages in some of her other work. Of all the characters in the book, I think perhaps my favourite was Ethelberta who underwent the most character development and was perhaps the most relatable character in the book.

However, in finally finishing this book I was reminded why I had so much trouble with it the other times I have read it. I’m not sure if I am just not very inspired by Norse mythology or if there just wasn’t the same kind of balance between the wonder of magic and horror or danger that you find in some other fantasy novels. Maddie’s time in the oppressive, stale tunnels of Red Horse Hill just felt relentless, and each setting after the next was more and more grim. I appreciate it is a dark story, but there was no respite; no Rivendell-equivalent where we could catch our breath, get to know the characters and understand what was to come next. I think ultimately Maddie’s world didn’t really seem like one that deserved to be saved. Her town was awful, the tunnels were awful, the Examiners and whatever was in the Outlands was awful, the realms they visited were awful and all the people and gods: also pretty awful. I didn’t come away from this book feeling inspired by humanity, I came away feeling like Maddie left a bad place for several that were arguably worse.

While the use of runes to cast spells was a fun way to conceive magic, so much time was spent explaining how the magic was limited that when it came down to it, it did seem quite implausible that the Good Guys (difficult at any time to ascertain due to constantly shifting alliances and morally grey and ambivalent gods) would even be strong enough to fight the final battle. I get that the gods are meant to be fickle and fallible, but I just wasn’t cheering for any of them.

Ultimately not my style of fantasy and I think perhaps Norse mythology is not for me.

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Heartstopper: Volume 1

Queer romantic young adult graphic novel set in the UK

Content warning: homophobia, sexual assault, disordered eating, mental illness, bullying

I saw lots of trailers for the Netflix adaptation of this graphic novel and suddenly copies of it were for sale everywhere. It looked unbelievably cute and I had a book voucher leftover from Christmas, so I picked up a paperback copy of the first volume.

Image is of “Heartstopper: Volume 1” by Alice Oseman. The paperback book is resting against a legal graffiti wall beneath a simple representation of the Ukraine flag, blue and yellow, twisted in the middle, partially covered by a hot pink tag. Above the flag are two stylised leaves, also in blue and yellow, which reflect the colours used in the TV adaptation to represent Nick and Charlie. The cover is of two teenage boys in school uniforms, one with dark hair and one with light hair.

“Heartstopper: Volume 1” by Alice Oseman is a graphic novel about a quiet teenage boy called Charlie who goes to Truham Grammar School for Boys. At the beginning of the year, his school starts a new ‘vertical’ form group to take attendance and Charlie’s seat is next to a boy called Nick, the captain of the school rugby team. Although they are quite different, they become fast friends, and begin spending time together outside school. Charlie is the only openly gay student at Truham and even though he is developing feelings for Nick, all his friends are adamant Nick is straight. But maybe, just maybe he might like Charlie back.

This is an incredibly sweet and readable graphic novel that gently and courageously tackles a number of different social issues but especially coming to terms with your sexuality and identity as a teenager. I just adored how respectful Charlie and Nick are with each other and that only becomes more apparent as the series progresses. Oseman brings to light the loneliness of being the only openly LGBTIQA+ student in the school and how being forced to keep things secret can leave you vulnerable to abuse. I really liked how Oseman struck a balance between the supports Charlie has around him, especially his friends and his sister, and his vulnerability to bullying, negative self-talk and restricted eating.

One of the most unique and striking things about this graphic novel is the use of motifs like leaves, flowers around the panels to emphasise what is going on emotionally in the story. Oseman’s art style overall is quite simple yet expressive. I really liked that they shared earlier drawings of the comic from years before it was published online as a webcomic (which I was inspired to read and which is still being updated). From reading many webcomics, and even trying a couple myself, I know how difficult it is to find a consistent style while your art steadily improves from all the practise. While maybe not my favourite graphic novel from an aesthetic point of view, Oseman’s style is definitely unique more than adequately conveys the story.

Which brings me to the Netflix adaptation. If I liked the graphic novel, I loved the TV series. It was beautifully filmed, immaculately edited and very well-acted. I understand Oseman was one of the writers for the show, and I almost think this story really came to life in film. The show kept some of the embellishments of the comic with certain scenes split into panels like a comic or animated leaves and flowers floating across the screen. The secondary characters felt much more filled out as well, and while the TV series remained very faithful to the comic, almost scene for scene, it seemed like a much richer story. So much thought was put into characterisation, sets and even colour palettes. I watched it while I was sick at home with COVID and am not ashamed to admit that I watched the entire thing three times. The music was exceptionally curated and you can listen to the Heartstopper ‘mixtape‘ as well for the full sensory experience. Sometimes it feels like everything on TV is really depressing or intense or dark or scary, and it was so lovely to watch something that was warm and sweet, yet utterly compelling.

A thoroughly enjoyable and inclusive story that you can check out for yourself in book, webcomic or TV format.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels, Webcomics, Young Adult

The Forty Rules of Love

Historical fiction novel about Sufism and love

Content warning: sexual assault

Quite some time ago I started collecting these beautiful Penguin by Hand editions. There were six books written by women published with embossed covers inspired by different types of craft. I have three in my collection (so far) but have only reviewed “The Help” and “The Postmistress“. This book is just as beautiful as the others with a gorgeous tactile embossed design inspired by cross-stitch. I actually can’t believe it has been over five years since I last reviewed a book in this series. I feel like I have picked this one up and put it with a handful of books to read on several trips, but it has never made it to the top of the pile until now.

Image is of “The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak. The paperback book is resting on a red scarf with dark amber beads laying diagonally across the top of the photograph. The cover has a cross-stitch design with whirling dervishes and a border of a dark and light blue zigzag design.

“The Forty Rules of Love” by Elif Shafak is a novel within a novel. The first story is about a mother called Ella who lives with her husband and three children. Her days are mostly spent on housework and preparing elaborate meals for her family. Despite being in the family home day in, day out, her family seem to be drifting away from her and her life feels meaningless. However, when she gets a part-time job reading for a literary agency, suddenly everything changes. The first book she is asked to read, the novel within this novel, is called Sweet Blasphemy by an author called A. Z. Zahara. This, on the other hand, is a historical fiction story set in today’s Iran in the mid-1200s about a Persian poet called Shams who befriends and becomes the spiritual instructor of an Islamic scholar known as Rumi. At the beginning of the story, we learn that Shams had a pivotal impact on Rumi’s poetry and that he was murdered. As Ella reads the story of Shams and Rumi, she begins to feel more and more inspired by love and decides to email the author.

I am no expert in poetry, but this book has just reaffirmed to me the strength of Iran and Persia‘s poetry tradition. My favourite parts of the books were by far the Sweet Blasphemy chapters. Shafak uses a range of characters to examine different parts of Persian society: a novice, a beggar, an alcoholic, a sex worker, Rumi, members of his household and even the person who killed Shams. There was an incredible magnetism between Shams and Rumi and even if their relationship was strictly platonic, it certainly felt very romantic. I also really enjoyed Shams’ rules and how each rule tied into the theme of each chapter. It was also a fascinating history of the origin of whirling dervishes.

I did find, however, that I was much less invested in Ella’s story. Somehow compared to the historical significance of Shams and Rumi and the mark they made on poetry and religion, Ella’s difficulties with her family, love life and career just weren’t as engaging. I could see that her story did serve to bring modern relevance to Shams and Rumi, but I’m not sure it was enough to keep me compelled.

A beautifully written novel, especially Shams and Rumi’s story, but a little unevenly paced.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Penguin By Hand, Pretty Books

Conversations With Friends

Fiction novel about writing, sexuality and infidelity

Content warning: self-harm, alcoholism, chronic illness

A couple of years ago I listened to a book by this author and I thoroughly enjoyed it. A couple of months ago, I saw a trailer of a TV series adapting another of her novels. So when I was choosing my next audiobook to listen to while running, I thought I would try it out.

Image is of “Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon. The audiobook cover is yellow with stylised drawings of two young women with their eyes covered by small strokes of coloured paint. There is a small circle in the bottom right corner with a photograph from the TV adaptation.

“Conversations with Friends” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon is a novel set in contemporary Ireland about a young university student called Frances who is also a poet. She performs her poems together with her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi. After their performance is noticed by renowned writer Melissa, she invites them to her home to be photographed for a feature article. There, they meet Melissa’s husband, an actor called Nick. As the novel progresses, Frances and Nick are drawn to each other, and the interplay between the four characters becomes more and more complicated.

While sometimes it can be difficult to discern pace listening to an audiobook, this is a slow-paced book that explores the power dynamics between emerging and established figures in the literary world. Outwardly quiet and composed, Frances has a tumultuous inner life where she is constantly evaluating and weighing up her complex and fraught relationships. Frances obscures her family life and financial situation from her new community and remains acutely aware of class differences.

I have to say, I did not enjoy this book nearly as much as “Normal People”. The magnetism and impeccable tension between Marianne and Connell was absent in this novel; replaced instead with awkwardness, repressed feelings and many, many things left unsaid. There are a lot of parallels between this story and “Normal People”: isolated young university student, a sexual relationship devoid of commitment, a summer trip to France (replaced with Croatia in the TV show). While the novel is hyperaware of Frances’ inability to confide in others and discomfort navigating all these complex relationships, it does nothing to get the reader onside. Despite McMahon’s excellent narration, there was no humour in this book. I didn’t feel invested in these characters or sympathetic to their lives. I didn’t feel like I learned anything or got a unique perspective. At the end of the novel, I was indifferent to Frances and who she might have a relationship with.

I have tried watching a few episodes of the TV adaptation, and I just couldn’t get into that either. I think, ultimately, this was not as engaging a story and ultimately I was left feeling disappointed.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction

The Binding

Fantasy novel about trapping memories in books

Content warning: homophobia, exploitation, sexual assault

After a bit of a slow start, with members moving away and people going overseas and this never-ending pandemic, we did manage to have another meeting of our fantasy book club this year.

Image is of “The Binding” by Bridget Collins. The eBook cover is an intricately painted floral design in indigo, bronze and beige with a key in the middle.

“The Binding” by Bridget Collins is a fantasy novel about a young man called Emmett Farmer who is summoned by a Bookbinder to work as an apprentice. Although he has been too unwell to work on the farm recently, Emmett initially resists, insisting he will be able to resume his duties very soon. However, with his family strangely eager to see him go, he reluctantly agrees and travels to the isolated cottage to start his new trade. His master is an elderly, taciturn woman called Seredith who refuses to answer any of his questions about the magical art of binding: taking a person’s traumatic memories and encapsulating them safely in a book. Instead, he is set to work learning the practical skills of bookbinding. However, when Seredith falls ill, Emmett’s future suddenly becomes very unclear and he realises that even less clear is his own past, and the location of his own book.

There were some very strong elements to this book. Collins has a knack for capturing mood, and I admittedly found the first part of this book extremely bleak, though this was balanced out with the beautiful summer scenes in the middle of the book. I liked the idea of bookbinding as an arcane art, and that there was a whole economy and apprenticeship system built around it. The highlight of the book was the interplay between Emmett and Lucian, and the various circumstances in which they meet.

However, I did find the use of seasons to delineate mood a little heavy-handed at times. I also found the magic and society felt a little unfinished. If books are only ever the bound memories of people, how were they invented? Why can’t you bind a memory into a letter? Why, in a fantasy society without a clear religion such as Christianity, is homophobia so rampant? While there were a lot of beautiful scenes and pieces of writing, I wasn’t sure the plot and setting held up very well under close scrutiny.

An interesting concept with some lovely prose but at times a bit grim and unfinished.

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Nettle & Bone

Fantasy novel about a forgotten princess and a quest

Content warning: family violence

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I have actually been a huge fan of this author and artist for many, many, many years and was thrilled to buy a copy of an omnibus edition of her Hugo Award-winning webcomic “Digger” almost 10 years ago. The physical book has been out of print for some time but! there is currently a Kickstarter campaign open for 7 more days republishing it in all its enormous glory. One of my favourite short stories of all time is the Nebula award-winning “Jackalope Wives“. Anyway, I have been meaning to read some of her adult fiction so jumped at the chance to read this book.

Image is of “Nettle & Bone” by T. Kingfisher. The eBook cover is of a woman’s back wearing a green cloak made out of nettle and bones.

“Nettle & Bone” by T. Kingfisher is a fantasy novel about young woman called Marra who happens to be the youngest of three princesses in a small yet politically advantageous kingdom. When her older sister is married to a neighbouring prince in a strategic alliance, Marra is sent away to finish growing up in a convent. The only times she sees her family is after tragedy strikes, and in the rigidly controlled palace there is no time to talk. However, one thing becomes abundantly clear: her second sister is in danger. Determined to save her, Marra must find a gravewitch and complete three impossible tasks. Only then, with the help of a newfound group of friends, does Marra have a chance to save her sister and her kingdom.

True to Kingfisher’s style, this is a warm, understated story with a very smooth flow. There is a strong focus on friendship and an enjoyable sense of reluctant kindness that underpins the book. All the characters were eminently likeable, but I particularly liked the gravewitch and her demon-possessed chicken. Marra is a surprisingly normal for a princess. Dressed as a nun, she blends into the background in many of the different places she visits. She isn’t especially beautiful, or smart, or talented but as a reader, it is easy to admire her courage and relate to her determination and patience. Kingfisher draws on classic fairytale themes like fairy godmothers, magical blessings and markets in another realm.

I also really liked how Kingfisher dealt with the themes of family violence. Without judgment, she explores how abuse can happen even in wealthy, powerful families and how sometimes the families themselves can be complicit. I also really liked how she explored sisterly relationships and how although it can be hard to forget the dynamics of being children, siblings can redefine relationships as adults. The romance unfolded gently, and there was even a delightfully surprising relationship.

A really easy read and a refreshing take on princesses and fairy godmothers.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Fantasy

Bestiary

Surreal novel about a Taiwanese family in the USA

Content warning: family violence, child abuse, racism

I first saw this debut novel being promoted on Twitter back in 2020 when author events were being cancelled left, right and centre. Now that we are starting to resume some in-person events here in Australia, I was very keen to go back to Asia Bookroom’s Book Group. Members can nominate books and volunteer to lead the discussion and I proposed this book. Unfortunately I missed the previous meeting but I was excited to prepare to present the book and facilitate a discussion. There is a lot going on in this book, so I will adapt my presentation to inform the review below to highlight some of the many themes and stylistic choices as well as to share my own thoughts.

Image is of “Bestiary” by K-Ming Chang. The paperback book is resting on muddy ground next a navy blue shovel. The cover is of a yellow stylised tiger that appears to be battling a garden hose that looks like a snake gaainst a navy backdrop with a moon and leaves.

“Bestiary” by K-Ming Chang is about three generations of women in a family: Grandmother, Mother and Daughter. Grandmother moved from Taiwan to Arkansas, USA with her second husband and two youngest daughters (including Mother), leaving her three eldest daughters behind. Years later, Mother has her own children including Daughter and her brother. The book goes back and forth between perspectives and stories of the three, linking them together with their shared history, shared heritage and shared experience as migrants in America. After becoming obsessed with digging holes in her backyard, Daughter begins to receive letters from the ground written by Grandmother to each of her daughters, sharing stories about their family history and revealing what happened to her four aunties.

This is a rich and complex book that is surprising and original at every turn. The book is divided up into chapters, each told from either Grandmother’s, Mother’s and Daughter’s perspective. Some of Grandmother’s chapters are told in the form of translated letters, with annotations by Daughter and her girlfriend Ben. There are parables, poetry, family histories and first person accounts all drawing on oral storytelling traditions and leaning into extreme subjectivity bordering on unreliable narration. I really felt that this book transcended what we would usually consider ‘magic realism’ and arrived squarely in surrealism. Chang certainly drew on plenty of examples of mythology and brought them to life in a literal way. I felt that the style and the structure were both chaotic in a complimentary way, and both served to highlight and obscure what was happening with the family. 

I think one of my favourite parts of the book was Daughter and Ben’s relationship, and how parallels are drawn between that and Grandmother’s Grandfather (the pirate and his lover) and even Grandmother. I really liked how mythology and queerness are woven together, especially with children being created from queer love in quite fantastical ways. Chang said of writing queer relationships in her interview with LitHub

they are transformed by each other, that they are literally alchemizing each other. I wanted their desire to feel fully embodied and sometimes even mythic, world-defining, almost supernatural, completely defying any definitions of what’s real or possible. Everything they want is possible. Their relationship felt like pure potential to me—while I was writing Ben in particular, there was this sense of rebellion and irreverence and redefining the rules she’s been given. Their desire is literally magic, and I wanted to channel that hunger. It felt so liberating to write them into the past and the future, to write them in a way that felt boundless.

I think one of the most striking (and honestly quite shocking) things about this book was the role bodily functions played in the story-telling. In addition to her characters frequently creating water (by spitting and urinating) like they enter water (lakes, rivers, the sea), Chang also writes a lot about digesting. The holes that Daughter and her brother dig in the yard consume offerings and vomit up letters from Grandmother. In an interview with the Rumpus, Chang says that she grew up talking openly about bodily functions and that she likes to balance the beautiful with the grotesque. She said something interesting about deciding what is clean and unclean is often a question of class. She also talked about how stories are told through the mouth, and so too is everything processed by the body. Stylistically, the way Chang engaged with bodily functions reminded me a lot of “The English Class” by Ouyang Yu, which was the first Asia Bookroom Book Group I attended.

Family violence is a significant part of the book and hand-in-hand with this is abandonment. In many ways the family is fractured and at times there are even threats with knives and thoughts of how to best defend oneself from violent family members. I think family violence ties very closely with the intergenerational trauma experienced by the family, not just because of the war and the occupation of Taiwan (set out with far more clarity in “Green Island“!) but also as immigrants in the USA. There were some very compelling moments of Mother and Daughter experiencing racism in schools. I also wondered if the surrealism style was a way to cope with some of the things that happened; treating trauma “irreverently” (like Chang says in an interview) and focusing on seemingly trivial things rather than the bigger, more traumatic memories. 

As you may have extrapolated, this was not an easy book to read. As a reader, you have to put in a lot of time and thought into understanding this book and the things Chang is trying to convey. There are so many layers of metaphor, parable and surrealism that at times it is hard to know what should be taken literally and what should be taken with a grain of salt.

A challenging and at times confusing book full of colourful stories interlaced with beautiful poetic writing.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism