Tag Archives: fiction

Swing Time

Novel about race, class and fame

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog, and gosh did I take a long time to get around to reading it. I’m not quite sure why, but I picked it up from my to-read pile, thumbed through a page or two, the put it back down more times than I can count. By the time I did read it, it was well past the publication date.

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“Swing Time” by Zadie Smith is a novel about an unnamed biracial narrator who grows up in a London housing estate with her mother, who has Jamaican heritage, and her white father. Obsessed with black and white dance musicals, the narrator takes lessons at a community dance class where she meets another biracial girl called Tracey. Despite living in the same disadvantaged area, the narrator’s autodidact mother is scornful of Tracey, her white mother and her absent father. Nevertheless, Tracey and the narrator become fast friends, united by location and a love for dance (although Tracey is far more talented). As the narrator grows up, she gradually loses touch with Tracey and eventually becomes the personal assistant for a white, narcissistic pop star called Aimee. When Aimee decides on a whim to build a school in a West African country, the narrator is the one left to implement the plan. Although growing up black and disadvantaged by British standards, the narrator is initially unprepared for life in West Africa, and struggles to connect with the people that they are trying to help. As time goes on, the narrator’s relationship with her parents, Aimee and Tracey begin to bleed together and become more and more fraught.

This is a complex and ambitious book that tackles issues of race, class, fame and identity. Smith is clever not to ever name the narrator, because I think one of the overwhelming themes in this book is how much she lives her own life and how much is spent in the shadow of Tracey, Aimee and her own mother. Smith effectively uses the contrast between the housing estate and the West African village to explore the extremes of living as a biracial person. I also thought that she brought a unique perspective to what life must be like working for a famous person, and how mercurial a lifestyle that must be. Smith is a strong writer and it is certainly a readable book.

There is no question that Smith covers a range of interesting issues in her book, but I think that as a whole, this book was missing a uniting factor. I get that part of the narrator’s problem is that she is a bit lacking in personality and relies on anchoring to other people to help propel her through life. However, where the narrator should have been the one connecting the experiences of being a friend, a personal assistant and a daughter, she ultimately just wasn’t engaging enough as a character to bring the whole story together. I think if the story had been just about having a troubled best friend, or just an overbearing mother, or just a egocentric boss – it might have been able to firm up and tease out the narrative a bit more. However, as it is, the narrator just feels a bit like a leaf in the breeze and just a little too complacent about where her life goes to be able to find any meaning.

A well-written book that tackles a lot of interesting issues that ultimately doesn’t have the connecting factor to propel the story.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Scottish novel about routine, denial and coping when it all crumbles

Content warning: trauma, childhood trauma, mental illness, substance abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman is an eponymous novel about Eleanor, a 29 year old woman who lives her life completely by routine. Every week she works in her administrative job, reads the newspaper, completes the crossword, listens to public broadcasting, watches television and drinks two bottles of vodka over the weekend. Eleanor has no friends, no family and no social interaction aside from unsolicited marketing calls and jokes at her expense by colleagues. Eleanor tells herself that everything is completely fine, but when she develops a crush on a musician, and inadvertently opens herself to the possibility of change, she may not be ready for everything else that comes flooding in.

This is an extremely readable book. In a style not dissimilar to Graeme Simsion, Honeyman has a real knack for dramatic irony. I’m always very impressed with authors that manage to carry this off, because let’s be honest – it’s always a smug feeling when you feel smarter (or in this case more socially adept) than the character you are reading about. Eleanor’s bumbling is particularly endearing, but I think that Honeyman importantly gets the balance right by allowing for enough character development and conflict so that the story is not just a series of cringeworthy exchanges. I also really enjoyed how she took really mundane, everyday things and made them new with Eleanor’s unique perspective.

A criticism I have made about many, many, many books I have read is the use of trauma, especially childhood trauma, as a plot device – but I’m going to make it in a slightly different way for this book. I feel like a lot of novels use the idea of repressed memories as a means for exploring difficult issues such as childhood trauma. Now, I’m not going to pretend that I’m a psychologist and give a commentary on the controversy around the idea of repressed memories. However, I do want to note that for an unacceptably high number of people, trauma is something they have to live with everyday. There are already far too many barriers to people disclosing traumatic events as it is, let alone the phenomena of repressed memories, and I think that I’d like to see authors explore some of those issues instead.

However, unlike another book I read, I did really appreciate that Honeyman emphasised the importance of counselling and social support in recovery, and I felt that she did a really good job of depicting Eleanor in crisis.

A well-written, enjoyable read that emphasises the importance of human connection.

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Sweet Bitter Cane

Italian-Australian family saga

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

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“Sweet Bitter Cane” by G S Johnson is a family saga about a young woman called Amelia who, after a wedding with a stand-in for the groom in Italy, moves to Queensland to meet her new husband Italo and support him in growing sugarcane. Although young, Amelia is smart and resilient and soon overcomes her language barriers and finds her place managing the financial side of the farm. However, haunted by a connection she has with her neighbour’s son Fergus and increasingly isolated by her social and political choices, when the war breaks out and Italians are targeted, the secrets and nationalist pride Amelia harboured to keep herself safe suddenly threaten to destroy everything her family has built.

This is an epic story that traces the life of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who leaves everything she knows behind to start a new life in a country that largely doesn’t welcome her. Johnson does an admirable job of setting the geographic and political scene of a seemingly hostile new life and has a particular flair for character development. Amelia hardens as the story progresses, and it’s unusual (and refreshing!) to see such an evolution of a character while still retaining the essence of who she is. Johnson isn’t afraid to explore Amelia’s mistakes to their full consequences and her flaws and poor choices juxtaposed against her successes make her all the more relatable. The internment of Italians during WWII is another forgotten pocket of Australian history, and Johnson written a nuanced account of something that truly happened to people living here.

For the most part, I was impressed at how Johnson told Amelia’s story but one thing that I was perplexed about throughout the book was the appeal of Fergus. While Amelia’s character remained interesting and engaging throughout the novel, I wasn’t always on board with her relationships and how she managed them, and most particularly so the connection she had with Fergus. Although for the most part the pacing of the novel was good, I did feel at times that some of the writing was a little too descriptive and could have been condensed a little more.

Regardless, this is an interesting and important story about the experience of women during a period of Australian history rarely discussed.

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An American Marriage

Domestic drama about institutional racism

Content warning: racism, sexual assault

I first heard about this book when I saw the author speak at the opening event of last year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival. She told the most amazing story of how her book came to be, and after the event I ran to the foyer to try to get a copy for her to sign. Unfortunately, for reasons unclear to me, they weren’t doing book-signings so I have had to make do with an unsigned copy. With a jolt of inspiration, while I was writing this review, I decided to go on Spotify and see if anyone had made a playlist, and would you believe it? Someone had. Thank you to the Free Black Woman’s Library LA. 

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“An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones is an American literary fiction novel about Roy and Celestial, a couple settling into marriage and emerging success. Roy is making a name for himself in business while Celestial’s hand-crafted dolls are starting to sell for a significant amount of money. However, while staying in a motel while visiting Roy’s parents in a small town in Louisiana, Roy is arrested and accused of raping a white woman. Sentenced to 12 years in jail, he and Celestial write to each other while he tries to have his conviction overturned. However, the chemistry and fire that sustained them doesn’t seem to translate in the letters, and it gradually becomes less certain that when Roy gets out, there will be a marriage left waiting for him.

This is a wonderfully subtle book about a very real issue and the devastating impact that incarceration has on individuals and their families. Jones has an incredible sense of empathy, and is utterly convincing in exploring each of her character’s perspectives. For a book that was apparently inspired by an overheard conversation, you can certainly tell that Jones is a people-watcher and perceptively draws from each character their own voice, thoughts, desires, dreams, anxieties and observations about the characters around them. As the book progresses, and an additional layer of complexity is added with Andre’s point of view, Tayari’s flexibility as a writer shines through.

I honestly cannot get enough of books like this. Although Jones certainly does address issues of race in modern America, like “Letting Go” by Maria Thompson Corley, this is not a book about stereotypes and disadvantage but rather about the pursuit of love and excellence – black excellence – and the barriers that still remain in American society regardless of class.

As much as I enjoyed this book, I’m not sure that it will be for everyone. It moves with a quiet intensity that mirrors the way life feels: with some highs, and some lows, but mostly with a relentlessness as things unfurl in ways that you can never guess in advance but can always see in hindsight. This is a book that demands that you put yourself in another’s shoes, and walk these lives yourself. It’s an easy read linguistically, but it is not an easy read emotionally.

This is an excellent book about love, hubris and making the best of the life that you have. I can’t wait to see what else Jones publishes.

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Like Water for Chocolate

Mexican magic-realism romance

This is one of those books that everyone seems to nod knowingly when you mention its name. The title just rolls off young tongue when you say it, and is so evocative. I always thought it referred to the craving for water you often feel after eating chocolate. However, I later found out that it actually refers to a Spanish phrase meaning emotions almost boiling over, referring to how hot chocolate is made in Mexico. After watching the film adaptation of the book, I managed to somewhere find an incredibly battered copy of the book. The copy was so battered, it is literally the first book I think I’ve ever seen with an actual bookworm. Nevertheless, I was very ready to read it.

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My attempt at making one of the book’s recipes, cream fritters,. I think I under-cooked the custard, or under-beat the egg white, but anyway I only managed to fry up three of them before everything essentially disintegrated, so if any colleagues are reading this, I was going to bring this into work, but be grateful that I didn’t! Also, after the fiasco of trying to fry a fourth fritter, there was no chance I was going to attempt the complicated syrup recipe in the book (more egg white) so I just went went with golden syrup. They tasted OK in the end, like very rich eggy pancakes, but a far cry I’m sure from what Esquivel had in mind.

“Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Instalments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies” by Laura Esquivel and translated by Carol and Thomas Christensen is a Mexican magic-realism romance novel. The story follows Tita, the youngest of three daughters in the De La Garza family, who falls in love with a man called Pedro. However, as the youngest daughter, Tita is forbidden to marry by her mother who instead forces Tita to look after her until she dies. In an interesting twist of logic, Pedro decides to instead marry her sister Rosaura in order to remain close to Tita. However, confined by her duties and relegated to the kitchen cooking the most sumptuous meals, it isn’t long before Tita’s emotions start to seep out.

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My first book worm!

This book is simply delightful. I have a real soft spot for books that have recipes in them, and this entire book is peppered with traditional, hearty Mexican recipes. Real soul food. I love how intertwined Tita’s cooking was with her emotions, and I loved the subtlety of the magic that sweeps through the house whenever Tita becomes emotional. I also loved the story of Gertrudis, the middle sister, who is a beacon of sexual liberation and girl power. It’s a wild tale, with increasingly outrageous and unlikely events, and it is immensely fun to read. I really enjoyed Esquivel’s writing, and there is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to it throughout the entire novel.

I think that there were just a few things that were a bit annoying about this book. I found the interlude where Tita leaves the manor in a great state of depression to be really quite tedious, and the characters that were briefly introduced at that point to be pretty beige (although an interesting insight into the ethnic diversity of Mexico). I also wasn’t that sold on Pedro either, who seemed to be throughout the story an irredeemable idiot.

Nevertheless, a magical Mexican romp that will leave you in a state of incredulity. Definitely worth a read if you want something that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

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Like Water For Chocolate

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Too Much Lip

Aboriginal family comedy-drama about love, land and luck

A new book club has started up at my work so of course I’m in the thick of it. We put together a list of critically-acclaimed and diverse books and encouraged people to choose whichever books piqued their interest from the list. Although this author’s work has been published extensively, I hadn’t heard of her before. I have been making a real effort to read more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, so I thought I would start with this one.

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“Too Much Lip” by Melissa Lucashenko is a family drama about a woman called Kerry, on the run from police, who drops in to see her dying grandfather before fleeing across the border. When she arrives, her brother Ken is on edge, her mother Pretty Mary is a mess, and her nephew Donny won’t speak to anyone. Her girlfriend is in jail and she’s just met a dugai man who is very keen on her. The family’s beloved river is in danger, her backpack is missing and to top it off Kerry can’t keep her bloody mouth shut.

This is a necessary book that brings to life a dysfunctional but completely relatable family. Lucashenko has a real talent for realism and the small town of Durrongo and the Salter family are effortless to imagine. Piece by piece, she unpacks the family’s dynamics to uncover not only past traumas but to uncover a way forward. Kerry is a great point of view character through which Lucashenko explores the themes of power, racism and morality. Morally ambiguous herself, Kerry dances a fine line in almost every action she takes, seemingly pulled in several directions by respect for family, culture, money and doing what’s right. I thought Lucashenko did a really brilliant job of building empathy for the family while still being critical of their less-than-savoury actions.

Although I really enjoyed Lucashenko’s writing, characterisation and exploration of themes, I think the one thing I struggled with a bit was the plot. I completely get that part of the comedy was the outrageous actions and coincidences and everything being a bit extra, but there were a couple of parts in the story, particularly towards the end, that I would have liked a little more subtlety. I felt that Lucashenko already engaged the reader enough with the way she tackled real-life issues and wrote her characters, and some of the mayhem at the end of the book felt a bit superfluous.

Whichever way you look at it, this book is definitely a reality check. If you’re looking for an Aussie family drama about the kind of family that doesn’t get written about so often, this is a great book to try.

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The Well of Shades

This book is incredibly special to me, not just because of what it is or who it’s by, but for how I came to own it.

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you might have noticed that I have a bit of an obsession with Juliet Marillier. This obsession has been long in the making, and I first read some of her books when I was a teenager in desperate need for sexy feminist fantasy.

One of her latest series that I’ve read (and have been blogging about) are the Bridei Chronicles. I read the first book, and the second book, but because I am completely anal when it comes to my books, I hadn’t yet found a copy of the third book that matched the first two that I had in my collection. That is, until, my thrice-annual religious holiday rolled around: The Canberra Lifeline Bookfair.

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For those playing at home, the Lifeline Bookfair is a huge fair selling secondhand books that have been donated in order to raise money for Australia’s biggest suicide prevention hotline. There is nothing not to like about this. The bookfair takes place in an absolutely ENORMOUS convention centre and pretty much every time I go (I always go) I nearly die with sheer happiness and excitement at all the books.
Anyway, I digress.

Last year I went to the September Lifeline Bookfair and I finally found a copy of the third book in the Bridei Chronicles: “The Well of Shades”. Unfortunately, this copy was wrapped in plastic as part of a set. I already had books one and two, I just wanted book number three. I asked one of the volunteers whether it would be possible to just buy book three, but she said no. I was dismayed. Another volunteer came over to ask if she could help, but I had to tell her what the previous one had said. She said she’d keep an eye out in case another copy turned up.

A little while passed, and there was an announcement over the PA. I don’t have great hearing, so it took a few seconds for me to process that the person they were after was someone who had been looking for “The Well of Shades” by Juliet Marillier in the sci-fi/fantasy section; i.e. me. I raced over to the guy with the microphone, and he pointed me towards that second volunteer (whose name was Petra). She said that she had bought the entire set herself, just so she could give me the third book. I was completely dumbstruck by her kindness. I clumsily tried to offer her money, but she politely refused and said that she’d give the first two books a crack. After I’d paid for my books, I snuck around to the front of the bookfair and left a note with reception thanking Petra for her generosity. I hope she got it, because it meant so much to me that she’d been so kind. She was definitely my Lifeline Bookfair Angel!

So, to the book! “Well of Shades” is the final novel in the Bridei Chronicles by Juliet Marillier. It is completely engrossing and focuses even more on Faolan, the troubled but trusted adviser of Bridei, king of the Fortriu. After having his heart awoken then promptly broken in the previous book, Faolan returns home to the Gaels to face his past and finds that things are not even remotely as he had expected them to be. Meanwhile, Bridei’s foster father Broichan leaves White Hill to go seek spiritual guidance after being faced with a painful revelation. Without his two closest companions, Bridei must rely on his own judgment to find out who is friend and who is foe in his court.

This series just gets better with each book. The story is heart-wrenching and the characters and relationships are beautifully rendered. Marillier spends a lot of time explaining Pictish religion, politics and culture and the result is very immersive. This is historical fiction with a dash of fantasy and romance, and I just adore it.

I am trying (for your sake) to space out my Juliet Marillier reads, so I promise that this will be the last for a little while. If you haven’t read any of her books, while perhaps not my favourite of her series, this series is still a fabulous read and as good as any to begin your inevitable Marillier love affair with.

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