Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

The Night Circus

Historical fantasy novel about a magical circus

It is starting to get rather late in the year, and it occurred to me that I really haven’t been making much of a dent in any of the reading challenges I started at the beginning of the year. So I’m trying to at least tackle the StoryGraph‘s onboarding reading challenge. This book was from the “Popular this Week” when I was adding my books from the challenge, and happily I already had a copy that I had picked up from the Lifeline Bookfair some time ago. The cover is very eye catching, with embossed text, black and white silhouettes and a dash of colour with a red scarf.

Photo is of “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern. The paperback book is standing on black, brown and silver striped fabric next to a book with pages of light, a roughly folded origami tiger and a ticket that says wonderland on it. The cover is black and white with silhouettes of a man, a woman and a circus tent in Victorian clothing. The woman is wearing a floating red scarf.

“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern is a historical fantasy novel set in Victorian England. The book is about a travelling circus known as Le Cirque des Rêves that arrives in towns around the world with no warning. It opens at nightfall, it closes at dawn, and the tents inside contain wonders that its visitors have never seen the like before. However, there is much more to the circus than meets the eye. At its heart is a contest, and the players nominated are Celia, the daughter of an enchanter, and Marco, chosen by a mysterious sorcerer as an apprentice. However, the masters did not reckon on the desires of their players, and the players did not reckon on the community that would grow around the circus.

This is a sweet, intricate novel that leans into the romance, whimsy and transience of circuses. Morgenstern creates layers and layers of magical spaces, exploring the limits of magic and imagination. As the circus grows more and more intricate, we begin to see the toll on Celia and Marco, and those around them. I think my favourite part of the book was Bailey’s story, a young boy who falls in love with the circus, and I felt that Morgenstern handled his arc so delicately and so satisfyingly.

While I liked the writing and I enjoyed the premise, I think I found the overarching plot less compelling. The romance seemed to rely on predestination rather than real chemistry. There were things that I wanted to know more about, like the nature of the man in the grey suit, and there were things that I probably could have taken less of, like the listing of the various experiences in the circus which, while creative and beautifully described, did not necessarily contribute much to the plot.

A captivating book with an appealing premise that was a little light on with story.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction

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

Green Island

Historical fiction novel about family and political upheaval in Taiwan

Content warning: torture, mental illness

I bought this book in keen anticipation of attending one of my favourite book clubs: the Asia Bookroom Book Group. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend on the day, but I nevertheless was very keen to read one of this year’s set books.

Image is of “Green Island” by Shawna Yang Ryan. The paperback book is resting flat on a wooden shelf with its green and yellow spine visible. On a lower shelf is a jade bangle, and in the foreground is a glass cup of bubble tea with a paper straw siting in a woven basket.

“Green Island” by Shawna Yang Ryan is a historical fiction novel set initially in late 1940s Taiwan. Shortly after delivering his fourth child at home, an attentive and energetic young doctor called Dr Tsai is disappeared by Chinese Nationalists after speaking at a community meeting in favour of democracy and Taiwainese representation. Years later, he returns a different man to a family who almost don’t recognise him and a community who shuns him. Nevertheless, he forms a close relationship with his youngest daughter and takes a keen interest in educating her. As the years progress, the unnamed daughter finds herself married and in a comfortable situation in America. However, the tension and surveillance of mid-century Taiwan is not over, and as she is forced to revisit her father’s decisions and ask herself what she would do to protect her family.

This is a well-written and challenging novel that says as much in the scenes we don’t see as it does in the scenes we do. Rarely do people who have been disappeared return home alive, and Dr Tsai’s experience challenges the reader to consider the impossible situation a person is placed in, the extremes they are pushed to through torture and threats, and how far they will go to survive. There was a pivotal scene in the book where Dr Tsai is convinced that he is being followed and kept under surveillance, and his family dismiss his concerns as paranoia. However, it transpires that his instincts were correct and he was being watched, and this experience is repeated for his daughter.

Yang Ryan also explores the idea of betrayal and living with your decisions long after they are made. I also quite liked the juxtaposition between the narrator’s life in Taiwan and her life in America, and how in some ways it seemed so easy for her to slip into this sophisticated, erudite, American lifestyle and yet how difficult it was to escape the reach of Taiwanese politics. Yang Ryan weaves in themes of intergenerational trauma and the impact of tension in households on children. I found that the sessions with the psychiatrist were some of the most illuminating in the book and they leave you wondering what difference access to mental health support and financial security would have made to the narrator and her family back in Taiwan.

However, this was not always an easy novel to read. The focus is certainly on the characters and themes of family and while I certainly could understand the impact of the Martial Law Era, I found it difficult to understand the history of it. This is almost certainly a result of my ignorance, and I think if you are reading this book it would be worth doing a bit of background reading to help understand the broader historical context. Although a key character in the book, I found Jia Bao quite unfathomable and there were a number of tense scenes involving him, the narrator, her husband and Jia Bao’s family that I struggled to make sense of. The narrator has a complicated relationship with him and as a reader, I was left with a disconcerting sense of missed opportunity.

A compelling and tense novel that explores the emotional and moral toll of living under an oppressive regime.

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Bridgerton: The Duke and I; The Viscount Who Loved Me

Romance novels set in the Regency era recently adapted into a TV series

Content warning: spousal rape

Unless you have been living under a rock (no shame if you have!), you will have heard of the hit TV series “Bridgerton“. This lush, colourful TV series reimagines the Regency era of the United Kingdom’s history as racially diverse with characters of colour in leading, powerful roles instead of relegated to servitude or slavery. I was looking for my next running book, and I saw that the book that inspired the series was available as an audiobook. I was really interested to see how the original compared to the adaptation. I didn’t realise at the time that the second season was just about to be released. After binge-watching it (ahem, twice), I had a bit of a family health emergency that involved a lot of driving to and from hospital. With so much stress and time in the car, I decided to listen to the second book as well, so today I’ll review both books.

Image is of “The Duke and I” by Julia Quinn. The audiobook cover is a still from the TV adaptation “Bridgerton” and shows a tall black man looking down at a white woman who is looking at the camera, pouting. Behind them is a lush background with wisteria, a pond and a bridge.

“The Duke and I” by Julia Quinn and narrated by Rosalyn Landor is the first book in the “Bridgerton” series. The story is about Daphne Bridgerton and her eight siblings Anthony, Benedict, Colin, Eloise, Francesca, Gregory and Hyacinth who belong to a wealthy family in England in 1813. The Bridgertons are a tight-knit family and known for their parents’ decision to choose names based on letters of the alphabet corresponding with their birthday. As the sister of a viscount, there is a lot of pressure on Daphne to marry well. However, it is her second season out in society and she has yet to secure interest from any eligible suitors. When she manages to fight off the interest of a very ineligible suitor, she has a chance meeting with Simon, an old friend of her brother Anthony who also happens to be an extremely eligible duke. Simon has sworn never to marry, but the two agree to pretend to be courting to keep the women away from Simon and pique the interest of the bachelors in Daphne. However, once they start spending more time together it becomes harder and harder to distinguish between what is pretend and what is real.

Season 1 of the TV series drew heavily on the main elements of this book, and while not identical, the stories certainly followed a very similar path. I think I actually preferred book Daphne in some ways: the focus was less on her beauty and grace, and rather on her personality and gumption. I felt that apart from his race, the duke’s character was very similar in both the original and the adaptation, and considerable time was spent on his backstory and his ongoing anger and shame about the way he was treated as a small boy. One of the features of the TV series is the ensemble cast and we get to see snippets of many of the Bridgertons and other characters as well as the main romance. In comparison, the book had a much narrower focus, and we barely get a glimpse of the other characters at all. I found the writing of the first book reasonably compelling and Quinn goes into a lot more depth when it comes to some of the more compromising situations the characters find themselves in. I enjoyed Landor’s narration and felt that she did an admirable job distinguishing between the different characters with dynamic voices.

Not to be an English purist, but it became swiftly clear to me that the author, although trying to emulate a Jane Austen-esque tone, is herself an American. Using phrases such as “off of” in place of “off”, saying “spit” in both present and past tense and referring to buttocks as “fanny” (which any Australian is going to raise an eyebrow at” did break the illusion for me a little. The audiobook included a little additional epilogue about the characters much later on, and I’m not entirely sure that it added much to the story.

Without trying to give too much of the plot away, I did want to mention a pretty universal criticism of both the book and the TV series. There is a particular scene in the book where one male character is drunk, and one female character takes advantage of this and has sex with him. It is pretty clear from the story that he was likely unable to give consent and had he been sober would not have consented to the sex. The scene in the book was far less ambiguous than the corresponding scene in the TV series (where the male character is not drunk but is certainly reluctant and feels there has been a considerable betrayal of trust) and it left me feeling very uncomfortable that there was not much remorse or condemnation of this act which fell within the definition of spousal rape. Instead, the reader is left with the sense that the ends justify the means. I felt that had the genders been reversed, it would have been completely unacceptable and while the book was published over 20 years ago, it really isn’t an excuse.

Image is of “The Viscount Who Loved Me” by Julia Quinn. The audiobook cover is of a white man holding a croquet mallet next to a south Asian woman throwing a black ball in the air. Behind them are the green lawns and large house of a British estate.

“The Viscount Who Loved Me” by Julia Quinn and narrated by Rosalyn Landor is set in the following year, 1814. This time, the story is about Anthony Bridgerton, a viscount who inherited his father’s title at just 18 years old and notorious rake, who has finally decided to marry. The caveat, however, is that he has decided that the marriage must be business only and that he will absolutely not fall in love. Half-sisters Kate and Edwina Sheffield have come to London to be presented to society in the same year. Dedicated older sister Kate is determined to find her beauty of a younger sister a successful match and Edwina is determined to have Kate’s approval. However, when Edwina catches Anthony’s eye as a sufficiently beautiful and intelligent woman, Kate refuses to consider someone with such a bad reputation as suitable for Edwina, no matter how wealthy and powerful. As Anthony persists in courting Edwina, he and Kate spend more and more time together and soon find that first impressions aren’t always correct.

I found the second book far less engaging. The chemistry between Kate and Anthony was lukewarm at best and what little tension there was resolved very early in the book, with many, many chapters spent on self-realisation rather than any meaningful plot. In fact, the plot was in many ways very similar to the plot of the first book with themes of compromising positions, love growing over time and the man withholding something until he realises his love for the woman. The writing seemed even less inspired, and I lost count of how many times characters “murmured” or “swallowed convulsively”. Quinn goes into absolute minute detail in her scenes, labouring over each character’s thoughts and observations. I felt that she was hamming up the English imitation a little much and wasn’t quite able to capture the humour or irreverence of other American writers writing about England like Connie Willis or Mary Ann Shaffer. Again, there was an extra epilogue in the audiobook that again, didn’t add much.

In contrast, Season 2 of the TV series was absolutely fantastic. Kate was reimagined as Kate Sharma who travels from India with her younger sister to try to find a match in London. The Kate of the TV series, played by Simone Ashley, was haughty, imperious, spirited and stubborn and is as fun as she is frustrating to Anthony. The way culture was woven into the story has attracted a lot of discussion, and questions of authenticity and consistency aside, it certainly added to the richness of the show. Anthony, played by Jonathan Bailey, brought a smouldering intensity to the character that generated white hot sparks against Ashley’s Kate – a testament to his acting skills as he is gay in real life. The pacing of the TV adaptation was exquisite, with the incredible tension between Anthony and Kate maintained throughout the entire series. Similar to the first season, the rest of the characters all have engaging and interactive stories so the romance is not in a vacuum, and I especially enjoyed the Queen’s interactions with Eloise and Edwina.

Although I was looking for something light-hearted during a particularly difficult time and this book certainly met that criteria, I think I will stick to the TV series from now on.

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The Little Stranger

Gothic novel about a declining English manor

Content warning: post-traumatic stress disorder, war, self-harm, paranormal themes

I saw a trailer for the film adaptation of this book a few years ago, and saw that the novel was by Sarah Waters who I have never read, but who is quite well-known for her lesbian fiction. It looked really well shot with beautiful filmography and an eerie vibe. I tend to prefer to read the book before watching the film, and kept an eye out for the book in second-hand bookstores. However, it wasn’t until a couple of years later I finally saw the book at the Lifeline Bookfair. Hilariously, the film doesn’t appear to be available to stream anywhere online in Australia at the moment, so I still haven’t seen it, but I did finally get a chance to read the book.

Image is of “The Little Stranger” by Sarah Waters. The paperback book is in front of a sandstone wall with weeds around it. The cover is a film-tie in with a picture of a young white woman with dark hair in a blue dress sitting in a chair, with an older white woman in a lavender dress and a young red-haired man in a tuxedo standing behind. Two children are off to the side and in the distance is a sandstone coloured manor.

“The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is a gothic novel about Dr Faraday, a general practitioner in his mid-30s who lives in Warwickshire in the West-Midlands, England. Growing up poor, a pivotal memory for Dr Faraday is visiting Hundreds Hall, a grand Georgian house, as a small boy. Now grown, he is called out to Hundreds to attend to a young maid. Although the house has withered since the war, Dr Faraday is just as mesmerised as he was as a boy, and he soon forms a friendship with Mrs Ayres and her adult children Caroline and Roderick. However, it is more than the house that has changed at Hundreds. Initially concerned that the family members are experiencing mental health symptoms, even a rationalist like Dr Faraday begins to find it harder and harder to explain the things that are happening in the house. Increasingly involved, Dr Faraday must ask himself who, or what, is the catalyst.

This is a deeply unsettling book that really seeps into your bones. Waters maintains an exquisite amount of tension throughout the book by giving the reader just enough to spark imagination but not enough to ever result in a satisfying resolution. As the house slowly crumbles so too does the Ayres family. With one misfortune after another, I found myself looking for the culprit. Was it one person, was it another, or was it an inexplicable, sinister force? In the end, nobody seemed trustworthy, not even the narrator Dr Faraday. After the book was finished, I felt like that math lady meme, trying in vain to put all the pieces together. I always feel that a sign of a good book is that you keep thinking about it once it is done, and I definitely kept thinking about this one. Also, even though nothing too overt happens, I found this book genuinely eerie to the point of being actually frightening. At one point, I was reading the book at night while my husband was in the same room playing computer games, and he shouted at something happening on screen, and I just about jumped out of my skin, I was that on edge. I had to abandon reading it that evening and try again the next day during daylight because it was too stressful.

It was such a well-written and well-paced book that there wasn’t really anything negative to say about it except that given it was published in 2009, there were some things that perhaps may not have made it past editors today. One example being Caroline’s elderly Labrador retriever dog, who shares a name with a slur used to refer to Romani people.

A lingering and haunted book that is just the thing if you’re looking for a gothic winter novel.

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Song of the Crocodile

Spiritual historical fiction novel about multiple generations of an Aboriginal family

Content warning: racism, segregation, sexual assault

I heard about this book when it was first published in 2020, and it was longlisted for the Stella Prize and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (Indigenous Writing) and the Indie Book Awards (Debut Fiction). I picked up a copy some time back from the National Library of Australia and I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a while.

Image is of “Song of the Crocodile” by Nardi Simpson. The paperback book is standing on an ironing board between a stack of folded clothing on the left and an iron on the right. The cover is of a dead gumtree standing in the middle of a grassy plain with a sunset behind that turns into a starry sky.

“Song of the Crocodile” by Nardi Simpson is a historical fiction novel interwoven with spirituality. The story opens with Margaret, an Aboriginal woman who works at a hospital in a country town called Darmoor laundry for pay and caring for otherwise neglected Aboriginal patients for free. When she loses her job through injustice, it is but one of a long series of injustices that are inflicted upon her family directly and indirectly by the white settlers of Darnmoor including her daughter Celie, her granddaughter Mili and her great-grandsons Paddy and Yarrie. Meanwhile, a sinister and ancient force lurks beneath the town, emboldened by plans to change the course of one of the town’s rivers. It is up to Jakybird, a songman created from a piece of his mother’s hair, to gather together spirits and ancestors to sing the monster Garriya back to where it came from.

This is a beautiful and complex novel that explores the bonds of family, and the violence of colonialism, from every angle. Simpson’s strength is character development and she excels at depicting the irreparable and cumulative damage inflicted upon each generation of the family by white supremacy. The characters themselves were very interesting, and I enjoyed the earthiness of Celie, the otherworldliness of Mili with her reflective eyes and the pain and self-hatred of Paddy counterbalanced by the love of his brother Yarrie. Simpson honours traditional storytelling and it is through Jakybird and the duty he is charged with that we try to make sense of the ongoing and evolving harm perpetuated by colonialism.

A challenging book full of heart and truth-telling and one that stayed with me for quite some time after I finished it.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction, Magic Realism

Devotion

Queer historical fiction about Prussian immigrants to South Australia

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

Image is of “Devotion” by Hannah Kent. The eBook cover is light grey with a dark grey, banksia-shaped shadow and white, long-stemmed plant.

“Devotion” by Hannah Kent is a historical fiction novel set initially in Prussia in 1836. Hanne, her twin brother and her parents live in an Old Lutheran community. Hanne has always struggled to fit in with the other teenaged girls and the expectations of her mother, and prefers instead to spend time in nature. However when Hanne meets Thea, the daughter of a new family who joined the community, her whole world changes and suddenly she doesn’t feel so alone. When the community flees religious persecution for the colony of South Australia, Hanne and Thea’s bond is put to the ultimate test.

Kent is a beautiful writer and this book shows off her prowess bringing the diverse and untold stories of women in history to life. I found this to be a really relatable story, and Kent expertly captured the mutual love and frustration of mother-daughter relationships and how faith is interwoven in the community’s daily life. The connection between Hanne and Thea was both gentle and electric, and watching their friendship and relationship bloom was the highlight of the book. There were some elements of magic realism and spirituality that were interesting as well, with Hanne’s affinity for listening to nature underpinning and enriching a lot of the events that unfold.

It is a little hard to review this book because something incredibly significant and life-changing happens in the middle of the book which I can’t really mention without spoiling the story. Suffice to say that while it was creatively courageous, I’m not sure it added to the overall plot and I think I might have preferred it if Kent had taken another direction.

A unique story with plenty of depth, plenty of emotion and plenty of heart.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, eBooks, Historical Fiction, Magic Realism

Where the Crawdads Sing

Novel about social isolation and finding your place

Content warning: child neglect, family violence, sexual violence

This book had generated quite a bit of hype following its release and I had a few people recommend it to me. The audiobook met my parameters (not too long) and after making a deal with my husband last year to go running 3 times a week, I have had plenty of opportunity to listen to audiobooks. Around the time I bought this audiobook, I stumbled across this rather damning 2019 article that (in addition to containing spoilers about the book) revisits some historic claims about the author’s ex-husband and his son while working as conservationists in Africa.

Image is of “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. The audiobook cover is of a person paddling a kayak on water between two dark trees below a big, apricot sky.

“Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens and narrated by Cassandra Campbell is a historical novel about a young girl called Kya who grows up in marshlands in North Carolina in the 1950s. The novel alternates between Kya’s early life and a murder investigation nearly 20 years later. When she is 6 years old, Kya’s mother leaves her and her siblings to the care of her abusive father. One by one her siblings leave, until it is just Kya and her old man together in the shack on the edge of the marsh. For a time, the two of them begin to form a bond and her father quits drinking and takes an interest in teaching her how to fish in his boat. However, when a letter arrives that illiterate Kya is unable to read, things change for the worse and soon Kya is all alone in the marsh. As the years pass, her few interactions with the people of the nearby town Barkley Cove are cruel and exclusionary, and soon she realises that she can only rely on herself. However, when her brother’s old friend Tate strikes up a friendship with her, she is unsure whether she will be able to open her heart and trust someone again. Meanwhile, in the late 1960s, local police investigate the suspected murder of local star footballer Chase.

This is a compelling book full of the pain and loneliness of a young girl abandoned by her family, and the delicate hope she has that someone might be able to love her. Kya’s repeated rejection by her parents, her siblings, her town and her lovers is heartrending. Owens counteracts Kya’s extreme isolation with the solace she draws from the natural environment around her and the very few friendships she cultivates among the locals. I’m not sure if there is a word for nostalgia for something you’ve never experienced (if there is, please comment!) but there is something quite compelling to me reading about natural sciences in the mid-20th century. I think perhaps the romanticism of going to remote places to observe the world around you and contribute to the knowledge of humanity. Anyway, Owens certainly captures the salve the wilderness can be to the modern world. I also really enjoyed Campbell’s narration. There were elements of her style that actually reminded me of Moira Rose from the TV series “Schitt’s Creek“; something about the vowels and the clipped enunciation.

However, there were a lot of elements of this book that I found either trite or unrealistic. One of them was Kya learning to read. I think having read books like “A Fortunate Life“, and reading the far more realistic depiction of illiteracy in “Unsettled Ground“, I wasn’t quite sold on Kya taking to reading and writing so quickly being taught by Tate. Absolutely people can improve and gain literacy as teenagers and adults, but it is not the breeze that Owens makes it out to be and I cannot recommend enough the SBS TV series “Lost for Words“. I also found the murder mystery/court trial portion of the book far less engaging than Kya’s experiences growing up, and I found myself tuning out until the story jumped back in time. I also wasn’t sure about the Jumpin’ narrative arc: Kya’s friendship with the African-American owner of a petrol store (gas station for American readers). It just felt very tropey to me, and like a lot of these types of stories, Jumpin’ seemed to just be there as a plot device to solve problems for Kya in a very one-sided friendship.

A listenable story with lots of points of interest, but with some parts that were either dull, questionable or both.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction

The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson

Dramatic reimagining of Henry Lawson’s short story

Content warning: sexual assault, graphic violence, child removal, racism, family violence

I have been doing quite a lot of running recently, so I am getting through audiobooks a little faster than usual. This has definitely been on my list. We all know the iconic Henry Lawson story about the drover’s wife up against a snake, but I was very interested to try out this gritty retelling.

Image is of the audiobook cover of “The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson” by Leah Purcell. The cover is of a pregnant woman (Leah Purcell) in period clothing and a wide-brimmed hat holding a shotgun and standing in a paddock. The text says “Now a major motion picture”.

“The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson” written by and narrated by Leah Purcell is a historical fiction novel that retells Lawson’s famous short story about a drover’s wife left alone with her four children for months at a time in the outback. Molly is pregnant and almost due to give birth, and all she has to protect her and the children is her gun and her dog Alligator. Vulnerable to intruders, natural disasters and poverty, when Aboriginal man Yadaka arrives at her property on the run from the law, she is reluctant to trust him. However, they gradually form a careful bond and Yadaka spends time telling stories to her eldest son Danny who craves a father figure. Meanwhile, Louisa Clintoff has moved from London to the alpine town of Everton with her husband Nate who is to be the new lawman. While they settle in to a completely different lifestyle, Nate’s big task is to solve some local murders. However, what he uncovers is even more shocking than he could ever have expected.

This is a tense, gritty novel that pulls absolutely no punches while re-examining 1800s colonial Australia. While there are plenty of nods to its inspiration, this novel is absolutely its own story and Molly has a voice and a history that shines through more loudly and clearly than ever did in Lawson’s book. Yadaka was a fascinating character as well, with a colourful, complex and painful backstory, he travelled the world while still maintaining a very strong connection with family, country and culture. Purcell’s world is a dangerous one, and in this story snakes are the least of Molly’s problems. The fear and the heartache Molly has for her children’s safety is visceral, and the horrors she encounters as an isolated woman in the bush are all too realistic.

Purcell clearly lives and breathes her story, and she was the perfect choice to narrate it. A seasoned actor herself, she does an excellent job of giving each character a voice and I particularly loved how she portrayed young Danny. While listening to this book, I found myself thinking that it felt like it could have been written for a film. Little did I know that Purcell originally wrote the story for stage and that it has in fact been adapted into a film slated for release next year. This book tackles head-on the treatment of Aboriginal people, and instead of being dismissed as convenient assistants to the white colonial project as Lawson did in his story, Purcell closely examines the many attempts to sever Aboriginal identity and connection to land by settlers. At the end of the audiobook, Purcell shares a bit about the creation of her story and her creative practice as an artist including the consultation with local Aboriginal communities from alpine country in New South Wales as well as her own heritage as a Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman.

One thing I did find a bit challenging was the number of narrative perspectives that were in this book. The prose shifts from first person to third person, and there are several characters who take turns in the spotlight. I did find that listening to the audiobook occasionally made it a bit difficult to keep track of who was whom. It is an action-packed book and full of some truly horrifying scenes, a couple of which I missed (with some relief) while out running.

An excellently research story laden with insight, emotion and commentary, I cannot wait to see the film adaptation with Purcell herself in the leading role.

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

The Lifeboat

Historical fiction about being stranded in a lifeboat

Content warning: suicide

I picked up this book some time ago from the Lifeline Book Fair for an obvious reason: the beautiful tinted edges. They are such a deep turquoise colour and the cover design itself is really striking. The endsheets have a map showing shipping routes across the Atlantic Ocean. I’m still chugging away at my to-read shelf, and it has been a little while since I have read one of my books with tinted edges, so I chose this one.

Image is of “The Lifeboat” by Charlotte Rogan. The hardcover book is resting on a dark navy surface with an empty blue tin cup on its side next to it and a boat made out of newspaper just above. The cover has a small image of a lifeboat silhouetted against light on the horizon, with the sea below and the sky above almost identical in colour: dark turquoise.

“The Lifeboat” by Charlotte Rogan is a historical fiction novel about a young woman called Grace who is on trial with two other women. Weeks earlier, she finds herself on a lifeboat as the ocean liner she and her husband were sailing on is sinking. Before long it becomes clear that the lifeboat is overcrowded and is riding too low in the water. Despite taking turns to bail out the water, the passengers realise that to survive, some will have to be sacrificed. As Grace presents her testimony to the court, the reader is left wondering what truly happened on that boat?

Shipwrecks and being stranded at sea are almost always interesting stories because they place an often large number of people within a very limited amount of space and put them under the enormous pressure of surviving in extreme conditions until they are either rescued or die waiting. The absolute highlight of this book was the perspective. Grace is a deeply enigmatic character who initially seems very innocent but who later lets slips moment of ambition and manipulation that leave the reader questioning exactly how reliable her recollection of the events was. Rogan is a strong writer and the juxtaposition between the crowdedness of the boat and the emptiness of the sky and sea around them was truly unsettling. I felt that Rogan really captured the discomfort and pain that comes along with exposure and starvation and the book felt really realistic and well-researched.

While I thought it was well-written, I’m not quite sure the ending was landed. While I appreciate that Grace was the main character we were concerned with, I didn’t feel connected to any of the other characters except perhaps Mr Hardie. Grace, in true narcissistic form, talked about her interactions with them but not really much about their natures. I would have liked to have known a lot more about Hannah. While I understood that Rogan was angling for subtlety when suggesting what was truly happening on the ocean liner before it sank and how Grace came to be on the boat on the first place, I think a bit more depth or a few more moments of leaning into Grace’s unreliability would have made the ending more hard-hitting.

A well-written and easy book to read that left me with plenty to think about but wishing for a little more punch.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges