Tag Archives: books

Singapore, very old tree

A collection of photographs and stories about the trees of Singapore

I first came across this project on Tumblr (remember Tumblr?) where I followed this great Singaporean bookshop called BooksActually that sadly this year transitioned to a fully online store. I spent a lot of time in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore growing up, and this celebration of South-East Asian trees and history really resonated with me. I ordered this beautiful pack that included a book, postcards and a poster back in 2016 but, like many of my books, it sat on my shelf waiting for the right time. After chatting to a friend online recently about banyan trees and thinking about how long it will likely be before I can go back to South-East Asia again, I figured now was the right time to read this book.

This photo was taken at the National Arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Collection, and this particular Bonsai is a fig

“Singapore, very old tree” curated by Zhao Renhui is a collection of stories and photographs about trees in Singapore. The collection is inspired by a postcard dated 1904 and titled “Singapore. (very old tree)” with an enormous tree towering over a small figure. The photographs and accompanying stories highlight the relationship between individual Singaporeans and individual trees, and weave in themes of history, urban planning, environmentalism and horticulture. The contributors are represent a diverse cross-section of genders, race, age and class in Singaporean society united by a love for the trees that have given them shade, fruit, peace and comfort.

This is a beautiful project and book that I am so, so glad that I supported. It features 30 different trees, and the photographs are edited in a way inspired by the techniques used in the original postcard. The introduction to this project was really helpful to provide some political context for this project and Singapore’s own identity as a Garden City. However, this project also includes the real tension between maintaining this arboreal identity and the pressures of development, and the times where protests have saved trees through compromise. Many of the trees featured in this book are banyan trees, a species of fig that is great not only in size but in spiritual significance.

This is a beautiful collaboration and while the first edition of this project is now sold out, you can now order the second edition online. If you are looking for something incredibly soothing and beautiful to take your time over, I cannot recommend this project enough.

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Over the Woodward Wall

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I think it is worth noting that this book is a companion novel to Seanan McGuire’s book “Middlegame” and (though I have not read it) this book is in fact a fictional book mentioned in the original novel, now brought to life by the author under a pseudonym. While it is a standalone, there may be things that readers of McGuire’s book may have picked up on that went over my head.

“Over the Woodward Wall” by A. Deborah Parker is a fantasy novel about two children, Avery and Zib, who despite living on the same street have never met one another. One day on their way to different schools, Avery and Zib each must take a detour which finds them standing side by side before a wall blocking the street. Without even noticing each other, they both climb the wall and find themselves in a peculiar world called the Up and Under with no clear way to return home.

This is an unsettling book that draws upon fantasy and science fiction canon to produce something quite different. Parker is a clever yet oblique writer and the books is narrated in the third person with the omniscient narrator switching between describing the events and feelings experienced by the characters and providing broader commentary about their lives. Despite being a book about children, I don’t think that this is a book for children. Parker spends a lot of time considering the impacts of different parenting styles on the straight-laced Avery and the carefree Zib, and how that affects their ability to make their way through not only the Up and Under, but life generally. Zib and Avery meet several unusual characters along the way and struggle not only to assess who is friend and who is foe, but to manage a blossoming friendship between two such different perspectives.

I have heard a few people compare this book to “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz“, presumably because of the superficial resemblance between the books because each has a road to be followed. However, I found the premise more similar to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” with the well-known playing card royalty replaced by queens and kings affiliated with more mysterious and sinister Tarot suits. The improbable road reminded me a lot of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and the infinite improbability drive. However, while there are glimpses of wonder, this book has a much darker tone than these predecessors and while it is certainly surreal and quirky, it doesn’t have the same amount of humour.

This is a compelling and cryptic book that ends on a grim note which makes me feel that Parker is probably not done yet with this story, and I’m curious to see what happens next.

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Beloved

Historical fiction about a mother’s trauma in the wake of slavery

Content warning: slavery, racism, infanticide

Last year, the renowned author Toni Morrison sadly died. She was the recipient of countless awards for her work including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 (a display of which I was able to see when I visited the Nobel Prize Museum last year).

I have only read one of Morrison’s novels, “The Bluest Eye” and I had been debating for a while which of her books I would read next. I found out that many of her novels are available as audiobooks narrated by Morrison herself, and despite this year being a bit shaky for my gym/audiobook routine, I had been doing a bit of running and lawnmowing in lieu of the gym, and decided that I would listen to this one next.

Beloved cover art

“Beloved” by written and narrated by Toni Morrison is a historical fiction novel set in Ohio, USA just after the American Civil War. Sethe, an African American woman and former slave, lives in a haunted house with her 18 year old daughter Denver. The presence in the house is furious, chasing off Sethe’s two sons, and the mother and daughter live an isolated life together. However when Paul D, another former slave from the plantation Sethe escaped, arrives, he challenges the spirit and encourages Sethe and Denver to leave the house. He takes them to a fair, but when they return, they find a girl waiting at the doorstep. The girl, who calls herself Beloved, Sethe believes is her daughter who was killed as a baby.

This is a complex, subtle novel narrated beautifully by Morrison herself. She has a soft, breathy yet expressive voice with each sentence punctuated for excellent dramatic effect and the characters each brought to life. Sethe is a particularly interest character who, up until this point, appears to have been operating on two parallel levels. When Beloved manifests at the house at 124, and Paul D arrives with his questions and memories of the plantation, the two layers of Sethe’s psyche are unable to continue to exist separately. Denver, also initially drawn to Beloved, is the perfect lens through which to observe the changes in Sethe as a result of Beloved’s arrival and goes through significant character development herself. This book is a critical exploration of the multifaceted traumas caused by slavery, and the interplay between memory and identity.

I will admit that despite Morrison’s beautiful narration, this wasn’t a great book for me to listen to as an audiobook. I do have some difficulties with listening comprehension sometimes, and I think the subtlety and the cleverness of this book meant that each time I started daydreaming, I missed a critical part of the book. However, it was captivating enough that I think I would like to reread it in text so if I do, I will come back and update this review.

An excellent and provocative piece of fiction that I would very much like to revisit.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Stone Sky Gold Mountain

Historical fiction about Chinese siblings during the Queensland gold rush

Content warning: racism, mental illness, sex work

When I heard this book was coming out, I was really excited. I absolutely loved the author’s first book “The Fish Girl” and was really looking forward to this release. Unfortunately, this book came out around the same time as the pandemic starting which meant that lots of authors missed out on the usual author events and publicity that accompany a new release. However, one advantage of everyone going remote is that I didn’t have to worry about travelling for an event, I was able to sign up and livestream. The cover is really pretty – my photo doesn’t quite do it justice but it has little flecks of gold foil in the lettering.

“Stone Sky Gold Mountain” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novel about two siblings, Ying and Lai Yue, who have travelled from China to Far North Queensland to seek their fortune on the gold fields. Older brother Lai Yue takes responsibility for saving the little gold they find, purchasing supplies and making decisions. However, when Ying, disguised as a boy, begins to weaken from the hard labour and lack of food, the siblings eventually must move to Maytown to seek more stable employment. With Ying settled in as a shop assistant, Lai Yue takes a job with a team of men headed for a sheep station and the siblings must each make their own way in this strange and hostile country.

This was a fantastic book. Riwoe is a phenomenal writer and in a full-length novel really stretches her muscles to bring to life an era from somewhere that is now nothing more than a ghost town. Ying is a curious, resourceful and flexible character who quickly adapts to her role as shop boy. Enjoying the freedom that a male disguise buys her, she pushes boundaries and befriends a white woman called Meriem – another point of view character. I really found myself cheering Ying on and enjoying her delight in the world and her adventurous spirit playing different roles. Meriem is a complex character who has run from her past to work as a housekeeper for a sex worker. Riwoe does an exceptional job of examining Meriem’s initial prejudices against Chinese people and sensitively handles the stigma and allure of sex work in the Maytown community.

However, I think the real masterpiece of this book is Lai Yue. Laden with the responsibility as the older brother, Lai Yue buckles under the weight. I was initially reminded of the older brother Seita in the film “Grave of the Fireflies“, with Lai Yue initially hoarding the gold they find away instead of using it to buy food Ying so desperately needs. However, as the book progresses, we learn that there is a lot more going on with Lai Yue. Riwoe’s exploration of how mental illness and self-esteem are intertwined is heartbreaking, and initial frustration with Lai Yue quickly makes way to empathy. Riwoe also doesn’t shy away from the many types of racism experienced during this period of history. Unflinchingly, she depicts Chinese people participating in brutal acts of violence against Aboriginal people while back in town, Chinese people themselves are victims of racist attacks and discrimination. At a time when people of Asian heritage are increasingly experiencing racism, it is an important and timely reminder that racism is a part of our history and that we can and must do better.

This is a rich, touching novel and I honestly could continue to wax lyrical about it but instead I very much recommend you read for yourself this critical and necessary contribution to Australian historical fiction.

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The Philosopher’s Daughters

Historical fiction about two English sisters drawn to the outback

Content warning: racism, colonialism, sexual assault

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I previously reviewed one of her books which I quite enjoyed, so I was looking forward to seeing her work in another genre.

“The Philosopher’s Daughters” by Alison Booth is a historical fiction novel about two sisters, Harriet and Sarah, who are brought up by their father in London in the late 1800s. Musical Sarah accompanies her father to a meeting about women’s suffrage where she meets Henry, a friend of a friend, who has returned from working in New South Wales. When they marry and move overseas to the colony on an extended honeymoon, artistic Harriet remains to assist their father with his work. However, when the unthinkable happens, Harriet finds herself adrift, she decides to join her sister and see if she can capture the light Sarah keeps writing about on canvas.

This is a gentle, flowing novel that carries the reader from a relatively privileged, intellectual life in London to a rather idyllic, if physically demanding, experience in the Northern Territory. Despite being raised in the same household, Sarah and Harriet have quite different takes on women’s empowerment and Booth uses the sisters to examine how there is no one correct way to practise feminism. While Harriet is practical and a fierce advocate in her own right, it is Sarah who finds adjusting to horse riding, hot weather and even wielding a revolver. However, although independent and forthright, the sisters are not invincible and I thought that Booth was convincing and sensitive in the way that she handled the aftermath of a sexual assault.

I enjoyed Booth’s use of art and music to help forge connections between the characters, and how the change in lifestyle, climate and landscape necessitates flexibility in new instruments and artistic styles. Booth also does not shy away from examining some of the violent and racist practices and policies of the colonies, tackling issues from forcing Aboriginal sportsmen to play cricket with sticks all the way to massacres. Stockman Mick was an interesting character whose education and experience set him apart from the other Aboriginal characters in the book, and through Mick, Booth explores questions of legal identity, stereotypes and even stigma around interracial relationships.

I think a lot of white Australians, who did not learn about the realities of the Terra Nullius myth, the Frontier Wars and the Stolen Generation until recently, are currently finding themselves having to grapple with their ancestors’ history and participation in colonialism. This novel is a good example of trying to make sense of what happened and write about early allies to feminism and racial equality in the beginnings of a colonised Australia. This was a really interesting book to read having recently read “Talkin’ Up to the White Woman“, a thesis on Indigenous women and feminism, especially because this book is very concerned with the beginnings of feminism as we know it.

Reading this novel with Moreton-Robinson’s words in my mind, I think there were two things missing from Booth’s book. The first is a critical assessment of Sarah and Harriet’s role as white women perpetuating the subjugation of Aboriginal women, including Bella and Daisy. There is no real explanation in this book of how the two women become housemaids, whether they are paid wages and how their land has been appropriated for white profit. I felt that there was less nuance in Bella and Daisy’s characters than, for example, Mick’s. I think this could have been rectified by the second thing which was missing: consultation with Aboriginal people.

While Booth’s book is very well-researched, using a number of contemporary sources, family history and observations from her own travels around the Northern Territory, one thing conspicuously absent from the acknowledgements section are any Aboriginal academics or writers. There is no shortage of Aboriginal academics, and I think that given what we know about bias, erasure and self-serving lies in colonial texts, it is critical that when we write about Aboriginal people, we include Aboriginal perspectives.

Nevertheless, this is an enjoyable, easy read that will appeal to historical fiction buffs.

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

The Raven Tower

Fantasy novel about power, faith and intrigue inspired by Hamlet

This was the most recent set book for my fantasy book club, which unfortunately I couldn’t attend due to losing my voice. I’ve been a bit uninspired by fantasy recently so I wasn’t particularly excited by the thought of reading this book, even though I really enjoyed other books by this author. I decided to buy an eBook and see how I went.

“The Raven Tower” by Ann Leckie is a fantasy novel told in the second person about Eolo, a young trans man from a rural area who is aide to Mawat, the heir to a position called The Raven’s Lease, a person sworn to serve a god known as the Raven until their death when the Raven’s bird form dies as well. However, when Mawat returns to the city of Vastai expecting to ascend the throne, he finds his father missing and his uncle sitting on the throne as the new Lease. Mawat, who struggles with his temper, hides in his quarters for days before emerging to publicly accuse his uncle of foul play. Meanwhile, Eolo explores the city and meets many different individuals to try to uncover what really happened, all the while being observed by the book’s mysterious narrator.

This was a fascinating take on the fantasy genre and Leckie’s writing continues to impress. Although I frequently lament the lack of diversity and originality in fantasy, especially Western medieval fantasy, Leckie has taken the hallmarks of fantasy and explored them through several different angles. Eolo is a great main character who, although initially underestimated due to his poor background and trans identity, quickly garners respect as someone who is intelligent, courageous and sensible. The second person narration was an interesting style choice, and although it is one that I have seen before, I think in this case it was done very well and kept Eolo’s true thoughts and feelings ultimately unknowable.

Although this is a fantasy novel, Leckie weaves in elements of science fiction by asking the question what if? and imagining how a world where gods could speak things true would unfurl. To complete the tapestry, Leckie also expertly uses a narrative structure more often seen in genres like mystery and horror. She creates a palpable sense of unease and foreboding, and even until the very end it is impossible to assess whether the narrator is good or evil. I absolutely love that this is a standalone novel, and I think that fantasy writers should take note and write more powerful, punchy novels like this.

I really enjoyed this book, but Leckie introduces incredible complex concepts to her readers that occasionally felt a little muddled. While I totally appreciate the value in not handing everything to the reader on a platter, for me at least it felt like there were quite a few questions left unanswered about e.g. the difference between the Ancient Ones and newer gods, why a particular god decided to go to Vastai and what the whole spinning thing was about.

Nevertheless, this was an incredibly engaging novel and Leckie continues to demonstrate how strong and flexible a writer she is. I’m really looking forward to seeing what she writes next.

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Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism

Non-fiction book about the invisibility and dominance of whiteness in feminism

During National Reconciliation Week this year, while sharing recommendations of books by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, I came across this tweet:

I hadn’t even read this book let alone included it on my list, so I immediately bought a copy.

“Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism” by Aileen Moreton-Robinson is a thesis on the whiteness of Australian feminism. Across six chapters, the book explores:

  • Indigenous women’s own life writings,
  • the representation (and invisibility as the “norm”) of white women in feminist theory,
  • representations of Indigenous women in white women’s ethnographic writings,
  • representations of Indigenous women in white Australian feminism,
  • white women’s self-presentation in white feminist academia, and
  • Indigenous women’s self-presentation within white Australian feminism.

Moreton-Robinson argues that because of feminism’s inherent but insufficiently examined white perspective, Indigenous women are excluded, minimised or merely tolerated conditionally. She argues that because race is considered to be something that is “other”, white feminists are unable to acknowledge their own race and associated privilege, their own role in perpetuating racial discrimination and are therefore unwilling to relinquish some of that power. Moreton-Robinson stresses that because of this, white women are unable to recognise that for Indigenous women, sexism is inextricably linked to racism, and that until racial oppression is addressed, sexism cannot be adequately dealt with.

This is a complex and well-researched book that highlights an enormous barrier to intersectionality in feminism: a lack of self-awareness among white feminists. Moreton-Robinson combined literature reviews, oral history, writing by Indigenous women and other women of colour and interviews with white feminist academics to produce this work. This is an original and critical text and even though Moreton-Robinson wrote this book 20 years ago, the messages are just as relevant today as they were then. The University of Queensland Press has just released a 20th Anniversary Edition which came out a month or so after I bought my copy, which I understand includes additional commentary by Moreton-Robinson that reflects on the book’s reception by white feminists. I’m tempted to buy a copy of that as well!

Although the book is not very long, it is not an easy read. Moreton-Robinson uses an appropriately academic tone to explore complex and challenging concepts, and asks the audience – predominantly white feminists – to critically examine their own assumptions, privilege and complicity in continuing to centre whiteness in feminism. For readers new to feminist theory, this book is a great starting point because Moreton-Robinson provides an excellent historical overview of feminism. However, although Moreton-Robinson is a succinct writer, it is a lot of information to take in and this book unearths some uncomfortable truths about the role white women have played in facilitating racial oppression in Australia, especially in relation to the removal of children and stolen wages. I think the most challenging parts for me were considering mistakes I had made in the past, the diversity of perspectives I surround myself in and roles played by myself and my ancestors in perpetuating racial oppression.

This is an extremely important book that is just as relevant (if not more so) today as it was at publication 20 years ago. I recommend white women reading this book with an open mind, an open heart and a willingness to commit to taking on board the lessons the book has to offer to improve feminist practice starting with acknowledging whiteness and its associated privilege.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

The Ask and the Answer

Young adult science fiction novel about fascism, colonialism and sexism

Content warning: fascism, colonialism, slavery and sexism

This author is one of my favourite young adult authors, and I was thrilled to meet him some time ago at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. After the event, he signed a copy of my book and was quite excited to see my name. He told me that he had a talking horse with this name in his series “Chaos Walking”, which at the time I hadn’t read yet but was thrilled to hear. Angharad isn’t exactly a common name in books. Since then I read the first book, but had yet to meet Angharrad the talking horse who it turns out is introduced in the second. If you haven’t read the first book yet, I recommend you read my review of “The Knife of Never Letting Go” instead. Like the previous book, this 10 year anniversary edition has striking black tinted edges and very subtle embossing of slightly shiny black text on the matte cover. It has been sitting on my shelf for far too long.

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“The Ask and the Answer” by Patrick Ness is the second book in the young adult science fiction series “Chaos Walking”. After discovering the truth about what happened to the women of Prentisstown, and meeting Viola, the girl who came from offworld, Todd and Viola arrive in Haven to find that it has been surrendered Mayor Prentiss, who now refers to himself as President of New Prentisstown. Todd and Viola are quickly separated, and Viola is placed in a healing clinic with women healers while Todd is locked up with the former Mayor of Haven. While recovering from her gunshot wound, Viola discovers that there is an underground resistance movement. Meanwhile, Todd is put to work supervising enslaved individuals of the planet’s native species, the Spackle. Unable to contact one another, Viola and Todd start to question their trust in one another.

This is an incredibly hard-hitting novel that picks up immediately where the previous one left off. Ness had already begun to explore the inequality between men and women caused by men developing Noise – the unchecked ability to project their thoughts to everyone around them – as a consequence of colonising the planet in the previous book. However, in this book he explores this issue far deeper and makes vivid connections between the way the Spackle are enslaved and controlled, and the way the women of New Prentisstown are enslaved and controlled. Towards the end of the book, Todd asks men who have been complicit in detaining, assaulting and marking women who they believe is going to be next.

Ness does an excellent job of character development in this book, really exploring what it means to be a man in Todd’s world. Juxtaposing Todd against Davey, Mayor Prentiss’ son, he examines how the two boys react to being made to brand Spackle and direct them to engage in slave labour. He also explores how Mayor Prentiss introduces Todd to control and violence so gradually in a way that is reminiscent of the progression of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, and little by little Todd becomes complicit himself in the very things he condemned. I also found Mayor Prentiss’ use of information as a means of control equally chilling, and Ness draws all these themes together, driving the story towards an explosive conclusion.

One thing that always stands out to me about Ness’ writing is its sophistication, and his ability to reckon with complex themes in a way that doesn’t speak down to young adults but converses with them. A frequent complaint I have of second books in trilogies is that they are often a bit of a sagging bridge between the first book and the last. However, similar to “The Secret Commonwealth“, I actually thought this book was stronger than the first.

A compelling and insightful book that weaves in themes of politics and history while still being a fast-paced and exciting story. I would highly recommend this, and all of Ness’ books, to young adults.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Pretty Books, Science Fiction, Tinted Edges, Young Adult

She Ran Away From Love

Teddy bear picture book about finding yourself

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author, whose other book I reviewed previously.

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“She Ran Away From Love” by Mawson is a picture book about a teddy bear called Frilly who isn’t sure she is being her authentic self. She consults her friend Mawson for advice, but ultimately decides that she needs to go on a journey to find the answers herself.

This is a sweet book that gently explores the idea of personal development and wanting more from yourself and from your life. Frilly is an interesting character who tries to reconcile being true to herself with personal growth, and I particularly liked the part where she is very assertive about the type of quest she is going on and declines Mawson’s offer of swords, shields and horses because they are neither quiet nor pink. I also like that the book examines different methods for finding happiness, concluding ultimately that you have to do what works for you. The scenery in the photographs is arranged using things around the house that a teddy bear may well use and the author has grown more confident using different editing techniques to bring more emotion to the photos.

A thoughtful, uplifting book suitable for all ages.

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Dead Man Dreaming

Novel about coming to terms with a genetic illness

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author.

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“Dead Man Dreaming” by Uday Mukerji is a novel about a man called David who is going through the final interviews for a prestigious position at a Canadian hospital as a heart surgeon. However, when the panel ask him a question about whether or not he has Huntington’s Disease, David is taken by surprise. Suddenly he is forced to confront the possibility that, like his father, he has Huntington’s Disease and impact it could have on his career, relationship and desire to have children. David’s drastic life changes as a result have him seeking and finding fulfilment in new places.

Mukerji is a clear, realistic writer with believable characters and premise. This is an interesting book that raises a number of pertinent ethical questions: is it reasonable to ask people about their genetic information during a job interview where hereditary conditions may impact performance? is it reasonable to encourage, or even require, people to undergo genetic testing prior to having children? These are questions that David himself ponders as he comes to terms with taking his own genetic test. Mukerji also asks the reader about openness in relationships, and the extent to which we need to make time to communicate with our partners and be honest with them.

The only thing that I found a bit challenging was that Mukerji relies heavily on David’s thoughts as a narrative device, and a not insignificant proportion of the book is David going over events and conversations again and again and mulling over his own worries. While this is probably a very accurate depiction of what it would be like for a real person in David’s situation, there were times where I felt the book needed a little more plot or conversation to help propel the story along.

A well-written story that explores issues arising from testing for hereditary conditions from a number of angles.

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