Tag Archives: #startonyourshelfathon

The Good Girl of Chinatown

Memoir about burlesque dancing in Shanghai

Content warning: racism, drug use, family violence

Three years ago I went to an event at Muse Bookstore where I saw this author speak about her new memoir. Even though it was a great talk and I was interested enough to buy a copy of the book for the author to sign, for one reason or another, this book has waited very patiently on my bookshelf since then for its turn. This year I have been making a bit more of an effort to get through my to-read shelves, and it was high time I read this book.

“The Good Girl of Chinatown” by Jenevieve Chang is a memoir about her experiences as a burlesque dancer in Shanghai, China in the late 2000s. After moving to the UK from Sydney to study dance, Jenevieve marries a man of Nigerian heritage called Femi. Although she envies his close-knit family, living with three generations under the one roof eventually becomes too much, and the couple jump at a job opportunity for Femi as a yoga teacher in Shanghai. Despite her family being from China, Jenevieve struggles to find a place in the performing arts scene in a city looking for Western faces. She mixes instead with an eclectic mix of “expats“. Her marriage slowly unravelling, when an opportunity comes up to star as a showgirl in a vaudeville, Jenevieve jumps at the chance. Cecil’s dreams of a club called Chinatown are intoxicating, and it’s easy to overlook some of the issues with payment, venues and transparency in the beginning. However, when things begin to really fall apart, Jenevieve is forced to face up to who she is beneath the costumes and performance and the traumas that ripple through generations of her family.

As I have mentioned many times on this blog, memoir is a genre that I often struggle with. However, this was an excellent memoir. Chang is a natural storyteller blending hard truths and entertainment on every page. The structure of this book was very effective using three key perspectives: Chang in the first person, Jenevieve as a child in the third person and fictionalised accounts of family history. I think it is a really courageous thing to write about your family, and although Chang provides plenty of empathy and cultural and historical context, she does not shy away from writing about the impact of corporal punishment on her family. One of the most powerful parts of this book, after having learned as a reader about Chang’s grandparents being exiled to Taiwan after the fall of Kuomintang in 1949 and Chang’s own estrangement from her parents, was her connection with family who still live in China.

However, Chang’s experience as a burlesque dancer and “Chinatown Girl” was also riveting reading. Cecil is the classic charming con artist, winning supporters over with his plans for Chinatown as the next great thing while quickly succumbing to greed and siphoning invested money instead of paying staff and contractors. Despite little to no pay, the performers are whisked along on a journey of late nights, flowing champagne and many creative differences. There was a particularly striking part of the book where many of the performers are taking an experimental drug that just seems to be available all the time, and it is strongly suggested that whoever is providing it is using the performers as guinea pigs. A big turning point in the book is Chang’s realisation that the Chinatown concept is a nostalgic colonial fiction that bares no resemblance to her family’s experience of 20th century China.

This is a captivating memoir and a testimony to Chang’s flexibility as an artist. In a time where the possibility of Australians travelling to and living in Shanghai in the near future is extremely low, and anti-Asian racism is on the rise, this is an important book as well as a great read.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Signed Books

The Buru Quartet (Tetralogi Buru)

Content warning: colonialism, racism

This series was given to me as a 21st birthday present by some family friends, and I must admit that was a very long time ago. They were no longer banned in Indonesia, and although I was nevertheless a little nervous about it, I decided to take them with me when I studied in Java for a year. I definitely finished the first book and had at the very least begun the second, but while I was over there, my third book went missing. It took some time of scouring op shops and the Lifeline Book Fair before I finally found another copy in this set. It’s a beautiful set, and it’s been gathering dust on my shelf far too long. Some relevance to research I’ve been doing recently and the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge finally encouraged me to give this series another go. I also found out that last year the first book was adapted into a really great and well-cast film which is currently on Netflix.

“The Buru Quartet” by Pramoedya Ananta Toer and translated from Bahasa Indonesia by Max Lane is a series of four historical novels called “This Earth of Mankind” (Manusia Bumi), “Child of All Nations” (Anak Semua Bangsa), “Footsteps” (Jejak Langkah) and “House of Glass” (Rumah Kaca). The series is largely about Minke, a young Native Javanese man of significant family standing who, at the end of the 19th century, is permitted to study at the HBS – a secondary school typically reserved for students of Dutch or Eurasian (Indo) heritage. One day, an Indo classmate invites him to visit another Indo friend at his family’s home. Despite being on of the most educated Natives in Java, Minke is struck by the impressive Nyai Ontosoroh, a Javanese woman who is both concubine to a Dutch man and single-handedly managing his estate and business without ever having been formally educated. Minke is also struck by Nyai’s beautiful Indo daughter Anneleis. Growing close to this unusual family sets Minke on a new path of enlightenment and understanding about the true nature of colonialism. Already a published writer, Minke begins to write about his observations of inequality under colonial rule. When he experiences an unthinkable tragedy, he focuses his attention on how to wake a sleepy Java and navigate the subtleties of class and culture to bring a national awareness to his readers.

I cannot stress enough how excellent this series is. In it’s own right, it is a masterpiece of historical fiction combining meticulous research, characterisation (my absolute favourite character was Darsam the bodyguard) and political insight. However, I cannot write about this series without mentioning the circumstances around how it came to be published. Not unlike the historical figure Tirto Adhi Soerjo upon which his books are based upon, Toer was imprisoned under the Suharto regime and forbidden from having any writing materials on an island called Buru which became the novels’ namesake. Toer, who had spent many years researching this story before his personal library was burned, recited the story of Minke to his fellow prisoners and was eventually able to write it down. After release, Toer published his books himself where they were subsequently banned for nearly 20 years in Indonesia despite being available to great acclaim around the world. The fact that they exist at all is a veritable miracle and it is a privilege to be able to read them in Lane’s well-considered and nuanced translation.

There are so many things that I could write about these books, but I think that I’ll limit it to two key things: it’s brilliance as a piece of historical fiction, and how well it has stood up to the test of time. If this is the result of a narrated story after a library’s worth of research was destroyed, I cannot fathom what this book would have been like had Toer not gone through so much hardship in writing it. The book is crammed full of cultural references from the Dutch East Indies at the end of the 1800s and early 1900s. Toer refers heavily to literature, art and music of the times, Native and European alike, bringing the story alive with context and colour. Toer helps the reader to understand the extremely complicated social hierarchies made up of traditional Javanese feudalism, white supremacy imported by the Dutch, emerging roles for educated and elite Javanese within the colonial bureaucracy and the uncertain position of Indos and Chinese people. Language is extremely political, and Toer introduces the reader to the concept of Malay as an egalitarian language through Minke’s initial internalised prejudices about Dutch and reluctance to write in his native Javanese. I was fascinated by the way in which Toer leads Minke to nationalistic ideas by referring to news of political movements in the Philippines and China through conversations with Dutch friends because news in the Indies was so suppressed by the colonial regime. Lane did an admirable job of capturing this nuance and providing informative yet unobtrusive notes, commentary and a dictionary in each book to help readers to understand some of this cultural context.

I think one of the most delightful and surprising things about this series is its progressiveness given it was published in the 1980s. Toer is without a doubt a feminist and the women in his books are fierce, intelligent and determined. A cornerstone of these novels is the lack of rights over children and property under Dutch colonial law that nyai have as compared with their Dutch masters. Minke is a lover of women and throughout the novels has a number of wives and lovers of all ethnicities. Each is adroit, beautiful, capable and brave and unlike his compatriots, Minke refuses to have more than one wife at a time. However, it is the issue of racism that is at the heart of this book. Minke, whose nickname is itself a distortion of a racial slur, observes racial inequality in the home, in the street and in the courts. His own education is limited by both his race and the availability of further education in the Indies and his only option is a medical school though his heart lies in writing. He observes stolen land, debt bondage and Javanese women traded to Dutch men for position and money. He observes the hierarchical nature of traditional Javanese society and how that hierarchy was exploited by the Dutch to place themselves firmly at the top. He observes how the riches of the Indies are extracted and exported with no financial benefit to his people. Eventually, Minke’s observations begin to be published and people begin to listen.

There is so much more I could write about this series, including the emergence of organisations, Toer’s handling of mental illness and the troubled policeman Pangemanann. However, I’ll stop here and just say that there is only one thing I regret about reading it which is that I didn’t read it sooner. I hope one day I can read it again in Bahasa Indonesia.

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

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

Green Rider

Fantasy novel about elite messenger riders

I have seen this book around for quite some time. It has a really appealing cover, and I picked up a copy some time ago at the Lifeline Book Fair (back when it was still on). It sat on my shelf gathering dust until it was chosen as one of the books for my fantasy book clubFlying horses, I thought. Exactly what I need.

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“Green Rider” by Kristen Britain is a fantasy novel about a teenage girl called Karigan who runs away from her prestigious school after an incident with another student. Travelling alone through a forest, she comes across an injured rider with two arrows in his back. When he implores her with his dying breaths to carry his message to the King, she has no choice but to agree. Taking his horse and his gear, she begins the perilous journey through strange and dangerous lands.

Before I even get started, I have to make it quite clear: there are no flying horses in this book. If that’s what you are hoping for, forget it, you won’t find it here. The book started out quite strong, and is a typical Western-style medieval fantasy novel with swordplay, court intrigue, ghosts, feudalism and a couple of different humanoid races. Although it was a little at odds with the pace and tone of the rest of the book, I enjoyed the interlude with the Berry Sisters and their father’s house full of magical artifacts.

However, not long into the book it becomes clear that this is quite a rambling story that moves from one disaster to the next. As a character, Karigan does not have much agency and her problems are solved again and again not by her own skills, knowledge, instinct or talents, but by the dei ex machina of a myriad of external forces who always seem to arrive in the nick of time. Not that Karigan comes away unscathed; the number of head injuries she sustains in the book left me wondering whether she had developed an acquired brain injury. Distance is a little bit confusing, and this is one occasion where I felt the book really needed a map – for the author as much as for the reader. Despite riding what appears to be the fastest horse imaginable, Karigan always appears to arrive places later than other characters, and the route she takes seems to be no safer or faster than any other route. Furthermore, for all the time Karigan spends riding her horse (which she names, unimaginatively, “The Horse”), I would have expected Britain to spend a little more time on horsemanship. Apart from being given food occasionally, Karigan spends almost no time caring for the horse.

Now, speaking of horses, I cannot understate how disappointed I was that there were no flying horses. Britain hints at them when a character says “[d]o you know there is a legend that…the messenger horses of the Sacor Clans could fly”, and the badges Green Riders wear depict winged horses. Apart from that, flying horses appear to be simply a metaphor, and let me tell you: when I am reading a fantasy novel, I don’t want flying horses to be a metaphor. In fact, there isn’t a great deal of magic and the magic that is there is not clearly explained. Some characters have talents, but why that is or how that  manifests outside obtaining a particular item is never explained. Throughout the book, despite acquiring a Green Rider’s horse, clothing, gear and, for all intents and purposes, profession, Karigan is constantly proclaiming that under no circumstances will she ever be a Green Rider. The lady doth protest too much, methinks. A merchant’s daughter and the equivalent of a high school dropout, it isn’t really ever explained why she is so reluctant to become a Green Rider and other characters maddeningly spend all their time offering her more Green Rider paraphernalia, nodding, smiling and alluding with all the subtlety of a brick to the calling of hoofbeats.

A slow read that doesn’t bring much to the genre that hasn’t already been done, let alone been done better.

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

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy

(Adults Only) Letters for Lucardo

Queer erotic graphic novel about vampires

Content warning: sexual themes

I really enjoy webcomics, which is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, incredible artists can enjoy complete creative freedom and publish beautifully illustrated long-form stories that readers can often enjoy for free. Sometimes these stories get picked up by publishers and turn into award winning books that you can buy. However, the downside is that without anything but positive feedback from fans, maintaining enthusiasm for webcomics can be difficult, and many that I have followed over the years have been discontinued. One such webcomic was called “Judecca”, an eerie, compelling comic about a sharkman, his roommate (a talking rabbit) and a girl with facial scars. Unfortunately, the author discontinued the comic and although you can find bits and pieces scattered around online, there doesn’t appear to be any archive anywhere. However, the author has started publishing graphic novels and although it’s not “Judecca”, I have been keen to check them out. I ordered a copy via a Kickstarter, but this one has been sitting on my shelf for a while. After Marie Kondoing my books recently, I decided to finally read it.

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“Letters for Lucardo” by Otava Heikkilä (the name is different because the author has transitioned since publication) is a graphic novel about the immortal son of a vampire lord called Lucardo who falls in love with a 61 year old human scribe called Ed. Shy and conscientious, Ed is shocked when Lucardo confesses his feelings but they quickly develop an intimate relationship. However, unspoken between them is Ed’s mortality and although Lucardo seems unconcerned by the future, Lord von Gishaupt has his own agenda.

This is an interesting story that explores the idea of queer relationship between two men of significantly different ages. Lucardo is 33, and visibly much younger and stronger than his partner Ed and Heikkilä gently explores some of the insecurities Ed feels about his trim but aging body. Heikkilä also explores enthusiastic consent and clear communication during sex, as well as how sex can involve negotiation, creativity and flexibility. In the years since I read “Judecca”, Heikkilä’s art style has continued to improve and his depiction of male bodies is refreshingly realistic, gentle and true to his artistic style.

I do have to say that when I picked the book up and opened it for the first time, I was disappointed that the illustrations are all in black and white. I totally understand the reason for this – expense and effort – but when you are expecting colour, black and white can be a bit of a let down. The other thing was that I felt that while the overarching story did have tension, there wasn’t quite as much worldbuilding, context and depth to the story as I would have liked. While I am often very happy with a story that focuses on relationships, I like a bit more drama.

An engaging and very inclusive graphic novel with some great illustrations and messages which could have used a little more colouring in, literally and figuratively.

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

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels

Red Dirt Talking

Mystery novel about field research in an Aboriginal community

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

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“Red Dirt Talking” by Jacqueline Wright is a novel about Annie, a recent anthropology graduate who receives a grant and ethical permission to research massacres for her master’s thesis in a remote Western Australian Aboriginal community called Yindi. In her late 30s with plenty of personal issues left behind in Perth, Annie is eager to get started with her research and ignores Mick, the community project officer, when he advises her to take things slowly. When the connections she starts to build in Yindi take her research in a different direction, she finds herself in the middle of a child’s disappearance.

This is a very rich, considered novel that unflinchingly explores the hubris of academia and the disconnect between urban and remote Australia. It is hardly surprising that it was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2013.  Annie is a fascinating, idealistic character who, despite the dysfunction in her own personal life, is convinced that interviewing Aboriginal people is going to solve all their problems. Wright does an excellent job of lancing Annie’s presumptions about both the magnitude and the nature of her own importance. I also think that academic failure and practical difficulties following research plans that are scrupulously checked by supervisors and approved by ethical committees is a really interesting concept to unpack. Quite a few years ago, I conducted field research in Indonesia for my own master’s thesis and the cringe-worthy mistakes I made and dead ends I hit helped me really empathise with parts of Annie’s story.

I also felt that Wright did a really good job critiquing Annie’s white saviour complex. The extent to which white authors should be writing about the stories of people of colour is something which is being debated hotly, most recently through discussion of the novel “American Dirt” and the #OwnVoices movement. However, I think that Wright struck a good balance with this book because of her obvious research, lived experience and, most importantly, consultation with Aboriginal elders and authors. Wright effectively used the perspectives of lots of different types of characters to explore white attitudes to Aboriginal people and the lingering impacts of massacres, deaths in custody and the Stolen Generations on Aboriginal people. Maggot in particular was an interesting character who, as the garbage collector, collects snippets of gossip as he drives around Ransom, the town closest to Yindi. Through Maggot’s eyes, we get to see the people that Annie has met through a different, sometimes more sinister light. Wright is a very flexible writer who convincingly captures the essence of the many characters.

This is a good book, but it is not always an easy read. Wright packs in a lot of information in a relatively short novel, and there is a broad cast of characters, some with more than one name, that can take some time to get your head around. I also felt that all the threads that had been so carefully laid down by Wright did get a little tangled right at the very end.

An enjoyable, engaging novel that explores different points of view, tackles important issues and is worth the work.

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

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Pachinko

Historical family saga novel about Japanese occupation of Korea

Content warning: suicide, HIV

I have heard a lot about this book and so when a copy made its way to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation’s Great Book Swap I hosted at work last year (go team Yirrikipayi!), I snaffled it up. This year is the 10 year anniversary of this incredible fundraising event, so make sure you sign up (using appropriate social distancing, of course). This is another book that has waited patiently on my shelf for a while, and ticks the box for two reading challenges I’m doing this year: the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge and #StartOnYourShelfathon.

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“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is a historical family saga novel that spans from 1910 to 1989 in what is now known as South Korea and Japan. The book begins with the birth of Hoomie, a stoic, sensible man with two visible disabilities in a south-eastern seaside village in Japanese-occupied Korea. As the story progresses, the focus shifts to his young, pragmatic wife Yangjin and their beloved daughter Sunja. Seduced by an older, wealthy man, when Sunja discovers he is married, she is determined to forget him and raise their child alone. However, when a young Christian minister called Isak boarding at their home offers a solution, she travels with him to Osaka, Japan to start a new life. There, the reader meets Isak’s brother and sister-in-law, and we watch Sunja, her children and her children’s children unfurl in a country that, decades on, looks down on ethnic Koreans.

This book is a very compelling read and particularly in the beginning hooks you in. Lee has done exceptional research and the settings and era are fully realised, particularly through food, clothing and cultural norms. I have never been to Korea (and sadly had to cancel my honeymoon to Japan), but I had a number of Korean friends and classmates when I was in high school. A beautiful and unbelievably sweet Korean friend who only studied with us for a year had a similar facial difference to Hoomie. Lee’s exploration of how stigma associated with visible disability, intellectual disability and mental illness impacts not only the individual concerned, but their parents, children and even grandchildren, especially in relation to marriage prospects, gave me so much more understanding of what my friend must have gone through growing up.

I had another classmate who people used to say was part Japanese, was in gangs and had connections with yakuza. Reading this book really unpacked some of the meaning in this kind of talk for me, and how precarious the position was for Koreans who stayed in Japan after the war and ingrained racism became for these people who were no longer as Korean as the people left behind, but also not Japanese enough to be recognised as citizens. Disadvantage is something that marks Sunja’s family – evolving from poverty to racial discrimination. Even after Sunja’s children and grandchildren manage to claw their way to success, they are still marred by their ethnicity and for some, the knowledge that they will never be Japanese is too heavy a cross to bear.

I think one of the most interesting things about this book is it is only the second book I have ever read about a non-Western nation colonising another. I think these stories are incredibly important because it is a Eurocentric idea that the only examples of colonialism were Western examples, and because these themes of power imbalances, direct discrimination, stereotypes and structural inequality are universal themes that still play out around the world today. The title of this book, pachinko, was absolutely perfect. It references a key industry for several of the characters, but it also captures the struggle of trying everyday to win success in life when so much is left to chance and overnight someone tampers with the machine in such a succinct metaphor.

However, there were a few things about this book that I wasn’t completely supportive of. Lee introduces an ensemble cast, and the story skips from one character to another, highlighting a lot of the various social issues they are exposed to. As is tempting in a book of this magnitude, I think there were times where Lee tried to include too many things. Some of the stories As strong a proponent I am for inclusion, the parts of the book that deal with same-sex attraction felt gratuitous and lacking in the depth accorded to their heterosexual counterparts. I felt that while Lee very convincingly describes the situations her characters found themselves, I would have liked a little more development of the reasons why her characters found themselves there. Lee writes about suicides, and perhaps this is me showing some ignorance about the significance of cultural belonging in Japan, but I felt that the reasons weren’t expounded upon enough.

Anyway, a gripping book about a very important part of history in which it was occasionally a little difficult to see the forest for the proverbial trees.

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

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Cedar Valley

Small town mystery set in 1990s Australia

Quite a few years ago now, I received an Advance Reading Copy of a book by a debut novelist, and absolutely loved it. I was very excited to go along to see the author talk about her second book about 18 months ago and get myself a signed copy. However, like several books, this one has sat on my shelf patiently waiting its turn until now.

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“Cedar Valley” by Holly Throsby is a small town mystery set in a fictional town of the same name. On the day that Benny Miller, a 21 year old university graduate, arrives in Cedar Valley trying to connect with her recently deceased mother, a man is found dead out the front of a shop on the main street after sitting there alone for hours. While the town tries to make sense of what happened, Benny begins to learn more about the people who live there, especially her mother’s best friend Odette, and more about the mysterious life of her own mother.

Throsby is a thoughtful author who gently explores a number of issues peripheral to the main mystery at the heart of the novel. There are three main point of view characters including Cora, the owner of the curios shop outside which the man was found dead, Tony, the police officer investigating the case, and Benny. Cora and Tony both have a fair bit on their plate, including coping with the sudden decline of Tony’s mother who is also Cora’s best friend. I really enjoyed how Throsby subtly but critically portrayed Tony’s home life, and how he was both unlikeable yet relatable. I also really liked Odette and her warmth towards Benny, despite them never having met before. It soon becomes clear that the book is less about the mystery of the man, which the characters soon realise is very similar to the Tamam Shud case, and more about Benny coming to terms all the questions she has about the truth of her mother’s life.

I’m just going to pause the review there, and mention an incredible coincidence that happened while I was reading this book. Throsby is very upfront about the influence of the Tamam Shud case on her book, and late one night while reading the book, I started reading up a bit about the case. I was familiar with it, but I couldn’t remember a lot of the details. One of the first things that comes up when you start researching the case is the origin of the phrase tamam shud. It is the last line in a book called “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”. Now, this book sounded extra familiar to me because just that weekend, I had ordered a care package curated by Beyond Q Books, which completely coincidentally included a copy of “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”.

There is a lot of speculation, but some people believe that the particular edition of the book the line tamam shud was torn from may hold the answer to a mysterious code that was found inscribed in the back of the same book, which has since been lost. One of the most well-known researchers of the case advised that he had been searching for a FitzGerald edition of the book with no success. My heart was pounding now, and I jumped out of bed to check inside the title page of my book. “Rendered into English Verse by Edward FitzGerald”. No. Way. I flipped to the last page and quickly googled a photograph of the original torn out phrase: not a match. It was a different font. Feeling both disappointed and relieved, I was finally able to go to sleep.

Anyway, back to the book. I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed Throsby’s first novel. In “Goodwood”, I was very invested in Jean as a main character and despite all the leads and speculation throughout the novel, the ending was incredibly satisfying. In this book however, it was the peripheral characters I was more interested in. Benny felt like more of a lens than a leading character, and I didn’t really feel particularly invested in her. I found myself wanting to know much more about Odette, and how her own interesting life had unfolded. I think I was also hoping that with no resolution about the Tamam Shud case, that Throsby would allow the reader a bit of closure in this book, but alas it was not to be.

A meditative novel that carefully examines the relationships that form between residents of small towns, and leaves you perhaps with more questions than answers.

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

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller, Signed Books

A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Wide Window

Children’s book series about three hapless orphans

After a very long time between reading book 1 and book 2 of this series, I thought I might not wait so long for the third. Plus, I’m really enjoying the Netflix adaptation (especially Patrick Warburton and Neil Patrick Harris), and I have to read the books before I watch each episode. I picked this book up recently, and in the bookplate inside it adorably has the name of the owner written, in pink cursive, as “Everyone”. I also really love these hardback editions with the deckle edges.

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“The Wide Window” by Lemony Snicket is the third book of 13 in the “A Series of Unfortunate Events” collection. After the disaster that befell their previous guardian, the Baudelaire children Violet, Kraus and Sunny find themselves placed with a new guardian: Aunt Josephine. Nice enough, she lives in a precarious house atop a cliff looking over an ominous lake. However, the children soon discover that Aunt Josephine is wracked with fear and unable to do the most simple tasks such as answer a telephone for fear that she’ll be electrocuted. When Aunt Josephine befriends a suspicious looking boat captain, the children’s efforts to warn her go, unfortunately, unheeded.

The tone of this book is decidedly more grim than the previous one, and the children barely have the opportunity to get to know their new guardian before things go horribly wrong. I think I’m warming up to the series quite a lot, and I’m enjoying that the orphans are starting to waste a little less time reasoning with the litany of unreasonable adults they are faced with and are taking things into their own hands.

However, I feel that by book 3, there should probably be a slightly stronger overarching plot linking the books together. I feel that the TV adaptation has filled this gap and has provided a lot more hints and snippets of things that, as yet, remain undiscovered in the book.

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

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Tinted Edges