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Sunday, January 21, 2024

'Witch of Wild Things' by Raquel Vasquez Gilliland

 


From the BLURB: 

Legend goes that long ago a Flores woman offended the old gods, and their family was cursed as a result. Now, every woman born to the family has a touch of magic. 

Sage Flores has been running from her family—and their “gifts”—ever since her younger sister Sky died. Eight years later, Sage reluctantly returns to her hometown. Like slipping into an old, comforting sweater, Sage takes back her job at Cranberry Rose Company and uses her ability to communicate with plants to discover unusual heritage specimens in the surrounding lands. 

What should be a simple task is complicated by her partner in botany sleuthing: Tennessee Reyes. He broke her heart in high school, and she never fully recovered. Working together is reminding her of all their past tender, genuine moments—and new feelings for this mature sexy man are starting to take root in her heart. 

With rare plants to find, a dead sister who keeps bringing her coffee, and another sister whose anger fills the sky with lightning, Sage doesn’t have time for romance. But being with Tenn is like standing in the middle of a field on the cusp of a summer thunderstorm—supercharged and inevitable.

I am a seasonal reader, and that’s a very hard thing to be in Melbourne at the moment where we’re swinging between heatwaves and downpours. So I find it interesting that in a bit of a reading slump, I randomly decided to reach for a witchy book that includes a character whose mood can change the weather … 

This is my first read by Gilliland - and it’s her third book, but first adult romance. Her second YA book - ‘How Moon Fuentez Fell in Love with the Universe’ - won and was shortlisted for a slew of awards, and was already on my radar. But TikTok actually put me onto ‘Witch of Wild Things’ - about a Mexican woman who returns to her hometown where her dead sister haunts her, another curses her, and the boy who made her swoon over AOL until he broke her heart has grown into a hot man with forearm tattoos.

The fact that we come from dirt, and eventually turn to dirt, is spooky and incredible to think about it at the same time. My sister is dirt by now, surely. All of our ancestors are, too. This must make dirt holy, holy enough for the old gods to walk upon it from time to time. Holy enough that Nadia gives it a little cup of espresso to drink every single morning.

 I’m so glad I started with this book because it *hit the spot* - was lovely and spicy, but also made me weepy and tender-hearted. Our protagonist Sage has a particular story-arc about being the oldest sibling to her two sisters, and defaulting to a parental responsibility role that’s so rarely explored in fiction like this … imagine Luisa Madrigal’s ‘Surface Pressure’ song from ENCANTO, made into a novel. 

It’s also very ‘Practical Magic’ by Alice Hoffman (BUT - it’s actually more of the 1998 Sandra Bullock/Nicole Kidman classic movie ‘Practical Magic,’ with its cottagecore-comfy and whimsy, whereas the book is … not? It’s darker. So if you prefer movie ‘Practical Magic’ then *this* is the book for you … not the actual Hoffman book, FYI and lol) 

You can *kinda* tell that this book struggled to find a strong plot, however. And Gilliland hints at this in her acknowledgements, where she talks about a severe bout of writer's block from which this story was borne, from the scraps of an abandoned and unworkable idea. It does have a little bit of that feeling, like; she was immersed in this town and this family, the universe, and an actual strong through-line of story had to be somewhat shoehorned in. 

So while I loved this - I maybe would have liked a few threads to be more deeply explored and wrapped up, and *maybe* it got slightly too easy by the end … but those are minor quibbles in an otherwise very sparkly and lovely book.

4/5

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

'Everyone and Everything' by Nadine J. Cohen

 


From the BLURB: 

When Yael Silver’s world comes crashing down, she looks to the past for answers and finds solace in surprising places. An unconventional new friendship, a seaside safe space and an unsettling amount of dairy help her to heal, as she wrestles with her demons – and some truly terrible erotic literature. 

Funny and tender, Everyone and Everything is about friendship, grief and the deep, frustrating bond between sisters. It asks what makes us who we are and what leads us onto ledges. Perfect for fans of Meg Mason, Nora Ephron and Victoria Hannan, this is an intimate, wry and wise exploration of one woman’s journey to the brink and back.

---

'Everyone and Everything' is the 2023 debut by Australian author, Nadine J. Cohen - from Pantera Press.

I've just come off an absolute roll with a certain type of new (millennial?) women's fiction. I've been calling it 'Fleabag'-esque. I don't like the term "well-dressed and distressed," for how some of the covers are often stylised - but I'd take "Women's Fiction with Bite." So I was in a bookshop the other day with a legit legend bookseller (Jaci from Hill of Content) who knows I have devoured 'Crushing' by Genevieve Novak, 'A Light in the Dark' by Allee Richards,' and 'Search History' by Amy Taylor ... when we were browsing the shelves and she just gently placed Nadine J. Cohen's debut into my hands and said; "Trust me," and reader - she was right. 

This is the story of Yael Silver who joined the 'orphan's club,' far too young, and when the book begins has just made an unsuccessful attempt to end her life because of her latent grief over the deaths of both her parents and Nanna, an f-boy who emotionally wrecked and ghosted her and a general feeling like she's become a burden to her older sister, Liora. 

Yael is on a long and slow pathway to recovery that largely begins in earnest when she starts regularly visiting the McIver's Ladies Baths in Coogee - perched on a cliff-face and offering her a scenic place to cry and read bad erotic fiction in peace. Until she meets older woman Shirley and they form an odd and healing friendship. 

At one point Liora asks Yael; 'Is that what it's like in your head all the time?' after she shares another random and disturbing thought, to which Yael replies; 'Yup.' And this is essentially the book, too. Chapters are broken down by months spanning a whole year, but they're made up of almost vignette fragments; wisps of memory and tangents (sometimes deeply emotional, recounting her childhood or the lead-up and come-down of her Nanna, mother and father's deaths - other times pop-culture heavy; "Pacey Witter cures all ills.") It's all cogent, I must stress, and brilliantly done for reading like a patchwork of a healing mind, and the memory-squares amounting to so much insight as to who Yael is as a person. She's deeply funny and relatable (from Cher Horowitz praise to 'Gilmore Girls' marathons, she reads like a friend) but also very broken and fragile, and I found myself both smiling and crying in equal measure. 

Jewish identity is also tenderly touched on in this book in a way that I really don't feel like I've read much in contemporary Australian fiction. Like how Yael looks back on her Nanna, mother and father's mental states at various times in their lives - how she retrospectively wonders what her grandparents being Holocaust survivors must have done to those lines of generational trauma;

I think about her often fraught relationship with mum, who, like all children of survivors, grew up with irrevocably damaged parents, and six million ghosts. 

... and musing on how comfortable Jewish people are with death, compared to gentiles. 

I absolutely adored this book. It wasn't easy, but it was beautifully wrought and Yael was a fine companion.

5/5

Monday, January 8, 2024

'Gwen and Art Are Not in Love' by Lex Croucher

 


From the BLURB: 

Gwen, the quick-witted Princess of England, and Arthur, future lord and general gadabout, have been betrothed since birth. Unfortunately, the only thing they can agree on is that they hate each other. 

When Gwen catches Art kissing a boy and Art discovers where Gwen hides her diary (complete with racy entries about Bridget Leclair, the kingdom's only female knight), they become reluctant allies. By pretending to fall for each other, their mutual protection will be assured. 

But how long can they keep up the ruse? With Gwen growing closer to Bridget, and Art becoming unaccountably fond of Gabriel, Gwen's infuriatingly serious, bookish brother, the path to true love is looking far from straight …


'Gwen and Art Are Not in Love' by Lex Croucher is; "an outrageously entertaining take on the fake dating trope."

I know, I know - I am forever forgetting about my first bookish social platform love, my blog. I can't promise I'll be any better about updating on here in 2024, but I don't want to let the cobwebs entirely take over so I wanted to at least shout out a *little* something.

This 2023 YA historical queer title is my first Lex Croucher read, but it won't be my last by the British author because I absolutely fell head-over-heels in love with this book! 

It exists in a post-King Arthur world, where the legend of Camelot and the Round Table still live on as myth and legend and the latest crop of teenage young royals are dealt the unfortunate blow of being politically and patriotically moulded into the second-coming of that once-great reign. Down to the political marriage alliance between princess Gwen and wealthy Lord, Arthur - who have been betrothed since childhood, and hated each other since then too. 

Their feelings towards each other are particularly clouded because both are queer and develop feelings for others throughout the timeline of a tournament that Gwen's father has thrown to highlight the prosperity of new Camelot. 

For Arthur, it's Gwen's brother and the next King of England - Gabriel - who perhaps feels the weight of Arthur Pendragon more than anyone. For Gwen, it's the only female knight competing, Bridget LeClair. 

I cannot stress enough how much I loved this book; not least for the wide themes it addresses about weight of expectation, what history highlights and hides, and how much of courage takes fear. 

'To be truly brave, first you must be afraid—and to be afraid, you must have something you cannot bear to lose.' 
 
There's also plenty in here about how cruel families can be, and how your chosen family can come to mean more and see you so much clearer than you see yourself; 


‘You know … fathers aren’t always right, just by virtue of being fathers. Or even … just by virtue of being king.’


This was also a deeply, deeply funny book. One of my favourite character's was Arthur's steward, Sidney and the brotherly/jovial relationship they had with one another. 

But hands-down, the romances are stand-out. I was swept up in Bridget and Gwen, Arthur and Gabriel and every heart-palpitating glance, kiss, up-against-a-wall make-out session ... all of it! I actually loved them all so much, I'd have been fully onboard had Croucher announced this as an ongoing series following the foursome as they stand to rule over a very new England. 

Alas, she's moving on to another queering of a beloved myth next; Not for the Faint of Heart, a Robin Hood re-do! *squeeeeee*!


I can't wait! 

5/5



Sunday, September 10, 2023

'Falco: The Complete BBC Radio Collection' by Lindsey Davis

 

From the BLURB: 

Full-cast BBC Radio 4 dramatisations of the first five Falco novels by Lindsey Davis, starring Anton Lesser as Marcus Didius Falco.

The Silver Pigs:

 One fine day, AD 70, Sosia Camillina quite literally runs into Marcus Didius Falco on the steps of the Forum. It seems Sosia is on the run from a couple of street toughs, and after a quick and dirty rescue, PI Falco wants to know why. Hoping for future favours from Sosia's powerful uncle, Falco embarks on an intricate case of smuggling, murder, and treason that reaches into the palace itself.

Shadows in Bronze:

 Rome, AD 71. Against his better judgment, Marcus Didius Falco secretly disposes of a decayed corpse for the Emperor Vespasian, then heads for the beautiful Bay of Naples with his friend Petronius. But this will be no holiday: they have been sent to investigate the murderous members of a failed coup, now sunning themselves in luxurious villas and on fancy yachts in Neapolis, Capreae, and Pompeii. 

Venus in Copper:

 A small accounting error has left Marcus Didius Falco sharing a cell with a large rat. But the Roman Empire's most hard-done-by investigator is finally bailed out and promptly accepts a commission to help a family of freed slaves fend off a professional bribe....

The Iron Hand of Mars:

 Falco is dispatched to one of the most hostile parts of the empire to deliver a new standard, an iron hand, to one of the legions. Germania is cold, wet, dismal and full of dark forests inhabited by bloodthirsty barbarians, but Falco has an even bigger problem to worry about: he has forgotten Helena Justina's birthday, and she is being pursued by the Emperor's son Titus Caesar. 

Poseidon’s Gold:

 Returning to Rome after his mission to Germania, Falco finds that his mother is being harassed by a centurion named Censorinus, who says he is chasing a debt owed to him by Falco's late brother, Festus. When Falco refuses to cough up the money, he and Censorinus end up fighting...and later, the centurion turns up dead. Under suspicion of murder, Falco must confront his past and uncover his brother's secrets before he can clear his name and solve the mystery.

These funny and fast-moving adaptations are a treat for all Falco fans.

***

Ahhhhh!!

Okay, I started listening to the first X5 'Marcus Didius Falco' books by Lindsey Davis, adapted for BBC radio (Dramatised by Mary Cutler, Directed by Peter Leslie Wild) because my library had them on the BorrowBox app.

I'd been vaguely aware of this series as a great recommendation of a Historical Crime - but given that they were first published in 1989 and there's currently 32-instalments across two series, it just seemed like a huge investment of time, money and resources .... step in local library and BorrowBox, not to mention how entertaining and *wonderful* this condensed BBC Radio Play was!

I think this series is absolutely brilliant; a gumshoe Roman-noir detective series set in AD-70 and featuring a wiry, jaded and sleazy 30-something ex-soldier who is somewhat scarred from his time fighting against the Boudica-uprising.

The first book in the series 'Silver Pigs' has Falco getting entangled with a Senator's family with a missing daughter whom Falco stumbled across and tried to help ... this has him becoming embroiled in a far great conspiracy scandal against the Roman Empire that Falco finds himself being hired to investigate (difficult, since he's also an avowed Republican - given he still has memories of Rome under psychotic Nero).

From the first book he meets the missing girl's cousin, Helena Justina - and she becomes his HEA and one-true-love throughout the rest of the series. I absolutely *love* this aspect, since I can only get invested in ongoing crime-series if there are relationships and romances established from the jump (hello, Karin Slaughter) and I rather love that Helena is far too good for Falco (and he knows it) but she sees and brings out the best in him, and the two spar and sizzle on the page.

Lindsey Davis does a marvellous job of bringing Rome to life and moulding her crime-of-the-week plot-lines around fascinating tidbits of Roman history; from their Legions to their love of art and culture, all within the seedy underbelly of Rome - the literal centre of the universe and first Empire. It has actually made me want to visit Italy for the first time, if only because the history Davis paints is so vivid I feel compelled to reach out and touch what's left of it ...

The BBC Radio Play truly is marvellous, and with a rich acting list;

Falco — Anton Lesser

Helena — Fritha Goodey/Anna Madeley

Petronius — Ben Crowe

Ma — Frances Jeater

Pa — Trevor Peacock

Vespasian— Michael Tudor Barnes

Titus —Jonathan Keeble

I cannot even begin to tell you how awks it is that I found Anton Lesser's voice to be so sexy in this (he who played Qyburn in 'Game of Thrones') and now that I'm getting deeper into Falco fandom, I also appreciate that many of them Fan-Cast Andrew Scott in the role, if it is ever adapted (and that is *spot-on*!)

I do know some fans were disappointed that to condense the books down to 2-4 hour radio-plays, much of Falco's interiority got cut for pacing - and that's apparently where he truly shines, and we see his cleverness and humour - so I am most looking forward to hunting down secondhand copies of ALLLLLLLL these books (R.I.P. my wallet) and getting stuck into a book-reading of the series to properly meet un-edited Falco. I might skim-read the first 5 books, just to make sure the BBC put me in good-standing and foundation for the rest of the series, but overall I'm just so grateful that they offered me a taster into this far-reaching and epic series and now I know for sure that it's right up my alley.

5/5

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

'Dirt Town' by Hayley Scrivenor


From the BLURB:  

My best friend wore her name, Esther, like a queen wearing her crown at a jaunty angle. We were twelve years old when she went missing. 

On a sweltering Friday afternoon in Durton, best friends Ronnie and Esther leave school together. Esther never makes it home. 

Ronnie's going to find her, she has a plan. Lewis will help. Their friend can't be gone, Ronnie won't believe it. 

Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels can believe it. She has seen what people are capable of. She knows more than anyone how, in a moment of weakness, a person can be driven to do something they never thought possible. 

Lewis can believe it too. But he can't reveal what he saw that afternoon at the creek without exposing his own secret. 

Five days later, Esther's buried body is discovered. 

What do we owe the girl who isn't there?

I am so late to reading this novel that came out with Pan Macmillan last year, but after hearing author Hayley Scrivenor speak about it at Brisbane Writers Festival I simply had to dive in.

And - wow! - I was blown away.

This is the tale of Esther Bianchi; who goes missing from her small Australian country community, called Durton ('Dirt Town' to the local kids). We follow various characters in town - including Esther's best friend Ronnie, Detective Sergeant Sarah Michaels who has come to town to try and solve the mystery, Lewis another friend of Esther's with a big secret and abusive father ... and then interspersed throughout their accounts are the 'We' chapters - a Greek chorus of Durton children which is how Scrivenor came to write this story in the first place. She wrote her PhD in creative writing in 2016 all about collective narration, and this (from what I gathered at BWF) largely influenced 'Dirt Town' and the 'We' of Durton children who are an omniscient, playful and secretive Greek Chorus to the events unfolding ... it's an eerie and imaginative overtone to the whole tale which works so perfectly, and harmonises beautifully with the over-arching mystery.

I absolutely loved this; having listened to the audiobook via BorrowBox and narrated by Sophie Loughran, it totally consumed me for a couple of weeks and was a brilliant walking and train-riding companion.

Scrivenor is a real talent, and I'm sure she'll be compared to Jane Harper for the small-town-Australia angle ... but I think she has a particularly beautiful and distinct wandering eye to dying rural communities and claustrophobic townships, and especially the angle of how this sociology impacts the next generation. This is the real over-arching thread in the book - "what do we owe the girl who isn't there?" - and what wounds are we inflicting by our actions or silence?

I'll be so keen to read whatever Scrivenor writes next. I do wonder if it will be more Sarah Michaels or another Greek chorus overseeing a mystery as the thing that hinges her books together. But no matter - I'll be there.

5/5

Saturday, July 1, 2023

'Crushing' by Genevieve Novak

 


From the BLURB; 

Getting over someone is not that difficult. All you have to do is focus on every negative thing about them for the rest of your life until you forget to stop actively hoping for their slow and painful death, then get a haircut ...

Serial monogamist Marnie is running late to her own identity crisis. After a decade of twisting herself into different versions of the ideal girlfriend, she's swearing off relationships for good. Forever. Done. No more, no thank you.

Pretty inconvenient time to meet Isaac: certified dreamboat and the only man who has ever truly got her. It's cool, though, they're just friends, he's got someone else, and she has more important things to worry about. Like who she is, what she wants, and what the hell she ever saw in the love(s) of her life in the first place.

Flanked by overwhelmed new mum Nicola, terminally single Claud, and eternal pessimist Kit, Marnie reckons with the question: who are we when we're on our own?

'Crushing' is the new adult fiction novel from Australian author, Genevieve Novak. 

I absolutely adored this book.

It was not on my radar, but I went into a cute little indie bookshop called 'Heads and Tales' in Barwon Heads (Victoria, Australia) and literally just asked "what's good?" and had 'Crushing' handed to me and THANK GOODNESS!

So ... look; I've been a romance reader for a while now. I read every genre of romance (save for, maybe, medical romances?) and I get my reading-recs from authors and booksellers I love who frequently and generously share their TBR's. Blogs ('Smart Bitches, Trashy Books' being a fave). General chatter on socials and Goodreads ... but nothing - NOTHING - would prepare me for what a garbage-fire of spicy chilis the TikTok algorithm's thoughts on "romance" would be.

I've struck out on that app with its BookTok recs so many times now - *especially* in romance. It's bad, bland, or downright disturbing (and yes, my generation had 'Fifty Shades of Grey' so everything is a wheel and Colleen Hoover's spoke is currently at the top, but hopefully it'll topple soon)

Why am I mentioning this?

Well, because I think 'Crushing' is a little sneak-attack for female readers especially, who need their imaginations subverted and stretched. And this is the book to do it, as we follow a nearly 30-something protagonist called Marnie who has just been dumped. Again. And this one has hit so hard it's made her look inward and acknowledge the ways she doesn't know herself. How she's warped and pretzel'ed herself into being the type of woman each one of her ex's wanted - to the point that alone again, naturally, she doesn't actually know herself.

Marnie decides to move in with a new roommate - the fabulous and instant-bestie Claud - and start filling her spare days not-working at a little inner-city (Pellegrini's-esque) cafe, with any amount of classes and gym routines until she begins to meet herself for the first time in decades.

The one spanner in Marnie's plan is the appearance of Isaac. A bloke who is definitely off-limits because he has a girlfriend, but who Marnie connects with instantly ... how can she juggle this need to find herself, while she's also keeping her eyes-peeled on Isaac? That's the 'Crushing' conundrum of it all.

So I feel like this is probably a book being called a Melburnian 'Fleabag' and if that wets your whistle and gets you onboard, then - YES! - it's a Melburnian 'Fleabag' revelling in what it means to be young and messy, not-feminist-enough, self-deprecating, isolated and isolating, and not know what to do and where to put all this love you have ... it's definitely that, and more Season 2 than Season 1 vibes to boot.

But god DAMN, is it more complex and fun than that too.

The fact that I want to press this book into the hands of so many female friends and family members, for the ways that Marnie's crisis of identity has her seeing clearly (for the first time) the way that other women in her life short-change themselves constantly;

She tugged on the arm she was holding, and Jesse was pulled into frame.

I felt guilt before I'd even identified why: my first thought when I saw him was Oh.

Nothing prepared you for the distinct blandness of someone else's boyfriend. After all their gushing and mooning, you began to expect a prince. Reality and more objective eyes eventually revealed that they were ... just some guy.

Which is SUBLIME and has the same energy as @hellolanemoore's September 2020 Tweet; "every one of my female friends is too good for her boyfriend. I don't know how to explain it, but even if I had a female friend who was just a pile of rats on a step ladder she'd still be too good for Brandon"

I don't think this is a romance book (but I also don't think it's a bad thing if readers come to this under that misapprehension either) I do think it's a very pure and glorious form of Women's Fiction ... one that will by its very virtue of sneak-attacking under the premise of endlessly pursuing romantic love; raise the bar for the genre and the reader. You'll be surprised, delighted, stretched and challenged reading this one - without feeling "ripped off" for no neat HEA by 'The End'. Because that's kinda the point. And it's a crafty point that Novak is making - with humour and heart in the right place.

Like I said; I want to press this book into so many women's hands.

5/5

Saturday, June 3, 2023

'Yellowface' by Rebecca F. Kuang

 


From the BLURB: 

Authors June Hayward and Athena Liu were supposed to be twin rising stars: same year at Yale, same debut year in publishing. But Athena’s a cross-genre literary darling, and June didn’t even get a paperback release. Nobody wants stories about basic white girls, June thinks. 

So when June witnesses Athena’s death in a freak accident, she acts on impulse: she steals Athena’s just-finished masterpiece, an experimental novel about the unsung contributions of Chinese laborers to the British and French war efforts during World War I. 

So what if June edits Athena’s novel and sends it to her agent as her own work? So what if she lets her new publisher rebrand her as Juniper Song—complete with an ambiguously ethnic author photo? Doesn’t this piece of history deserve to be told, whoever the teller? That’s what June claims, and the New York Times bestseller list seems to agree. 

But June can’t get away from Athena’s shadow, and emerging evidence threatens to bring June’s (stolen) success down around her. As June races to protect her secret, she discovers exactly how far she will go to keep what she thinks she deserves.



Yellowface is the new novel from American author R.F. Kuang – or, Rebecca F. Kuang – it is already a New York Times Bestseller and being touted as *the* book of the year. And for good reason. 

First and foremost – no, I don’t know how I was able to read this via an ebook loan from my library (and I happen to know one of my besties was listening to the audiobook last week!) so it looks like the electronic versions have been out in ANZ (Australia New Zealand) since May 16 – but the paperback is not out until June 7? Baffling! 

So why is this *THE* chosen novel of the year? Why are you going to keep seeing that instantly-iconic yellow cover with the cartoonish eyes everywhere – and even that title Yellowface (used to refer to the practice of wearing make-up to imitate the appearance of an East Asian person, typically as part of a performance. This practice is generally regarded as offensive) is pure genius at every story-level and for discoverability. 

Why? 

Well. I first got wind of this novel coming, around the time last year of the Harper Collins union strike – when R.F. Kuang was one of the biggest-selling authors to come out in solidarity with the striking workers (against her own publisher, btw!), and it was alluded to that hers was a natural affiliation, given that her next novel would be a departure from her betselling-fantasy, to an epic contemporary take-down of the publishing industry. 

Pardon?!

So my interest was piqued given that I am part of the book publishing industry, and everyone in my circle was gearing up for a spilling of tea. And now that I’ve had the privilege of reading ‘Yellowface’ I can confirm, the tea is piping hot … 

The actual plot is a clever conduit to discuss much larger issues. The idea of two writing friends – one successful, one considerably less so – and what happens when the bestseller dies, leaving behind her conveniently only written out on a typewriter; pages of her next sure-to-be smash-hit novel … ripe for the taking. It’s an idea that’s been explored (like in the 2012 Bradley Cooper movie The Words – and no doubt there are other examples) but Kuang brings an important layer to the ethical and moral dilemma, because the dead bestseller was of Asian background, and her fabulous idea was all about Chinese labour workers in World War I … and the thieving writer is white. So this isn’t just a plagiarism story for the ages – exploring intellectual property and copyright, but big-time cultural appropriation. 

Kuang’s nuances in this discussion are too numerous to list, and clever to do a summary injustice. But something I loved was the repeated instances when our white protagonist author (June Hayward … writing as Juniper Song – her full first-name, and the middle-name her once-hippie mother gave her) finds herself in book-promotion predicaments where she’s invited to speak to Asian-American readers or on diaspora panels … as a white woman, who wrote a historical fiction novel inspired by Chinese history. A white woman with a deliberately ethnically-ambiguous name, and new author photos that have also given her a slight tan – to aid the confusion. This is something so rarely discussed in matters of cultural appropriation in art. You may well have done the research and had a heart in the right place – but what happens when people from the minority background you mined and stepped into, come calling and want to hear you speak? Well; 

For the first time since I submitted the manuscript, I feel a deep wash of shame. This isn’t my history, my heritage. This isn’t my community. I am an outsider, basking in their love under false pretences. It should be Athena sitting here, smiling with these people, signing books and listening to the stories of her elders. 

Juniper is a deliciously awful character. Not so cartoonishly villainous throughout that your teeth are constantly grinding – but it’s a melting into awfulness, a slow oozing that starts to stick and gum up the page; making you feel faintly nauseous (like when she has a real “are we the bad-guys?” moment, upon discovering that right-wing media pundits are rallying behind her when she’s accused of cultural appropriation.) And how magnificent that as I was reading, I kept thinking how brilliantly Kuang gets into this white-woman’s head. She has us read to rights and filth; and I found that my instinct to guffaw and say “we’re not all that way though,” was part of the wonderful ploy at play. The moment you feel the urge to say; ‘not all white women,’ it’s a stark reminder, right? 

But as I was reading, I was really trying to think how others would read it. Particularly for the minutiae of publishing which Kuang also hits with an absolute bullseye. From capturing the neuroses of writers; 

People always describe jealousy as this sharp, green, venomous thing. Unfounded, vinegary, mean-spirited. But I’ve found that jealousy, to writers, feels more like fear. 

Jealousy is the spike in my heart rate when I glimpse news of Athena’s success on Twitter – another book contract, awards nominations, special editions, foreign rights delas. Jealousy is constantly comparing myself to her and coming up short; is panicking that I’m not writing well enough or fast enough, that I am not, and never will be, enough. Jealousy means that even just learning that Athena’s signing a six-figure option deal with Netflix means that I’ll be derailed for days, unable to focus on my own work, mired by shame and self-disgust every time I see one of her books in a bookstore display. 

Every writer I know feels this way about someone else. Writing is such a solitary activity. You have no assurance that what you’re creating has any value, and any indication that you’re behind in the rat race sends you spiralling into the pits of despair. ‘Keep your eyes on your own paper,’ they say. But that’s hard to do when everyone else’s papers are flapping constantly in your face. 

To saying the quiet part out loud; that (especially in America) 1% of authors get 99% of a publisher’s time, effort and budget – by design; 

… author efforts have nothing to do with a book’s success. Bestsellers are chosen. Nothing you do matters. You just get to enjoy the perks along the way. 

And then the occasional thought that feels *very* inside-jokey. Case-in-point, that I marked this line as getting a real laugh-out-loud moment from me (because it’s so true); 

We’ve sold rights in Germany, Spain, Poland, and Russia. ‘Not France, yet, but we’re working on it,’ says Brett. ‘But nobody sells well in France. If the French like you, then you’re doing something very wrong.’

… but I wondered; will regular people care? 

No. Sorry. When I say “regular people,” I don’t mean that like a bad thing. I mean people who are not close to book-publishing in any way, beyond enjoying what it produces. I wondered if Kuang’s book was too close to the bone, and regular readers wouldn’t be able to appreciate the forest for the trees? The literary equivalent of; we’re too online. I also wondered this because I have noticed that on BookTok (what did I just say about ‘too online’?) I did notice that criticism of the book is largely about slow-pacing, and it being boring? But I didn’t get that, at all. I found it to have a cracking pace and brilliant plotted set-up … much of which took place in corporate emails that gave me second-hand anxiety for the very realistic and awful conversations I know are being had behind closed doors, and they are alluding to. I wonder if these micro-aggressions and corporate blunders are too mired in the world of book-publishing to be of significance to people outside of it? 

But then I thought; I loved Gabrielle Zevin’s ‘Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow’ which is about developing video-games (which I know nothing about). Also that I loved TV show ‘Succession,’ and just nodded along whenever they spoke of corporate take-overs and what the stock-market was doing or whatever. I’d gloss over it as “business stuff,” and get the gist. Andrew Sean Greer’s ‘Less’ is also about the sad side to literary life, and that got a wonderful critical and commercial reception. For a few months there so many people were obsessed with Caroline Calloway and the ghost-writing friend who broke her silence; everyone got the broad brush-strokes of that scandal, and I am sure they will in ‘Yellowface’ too? They might come away thinking complaining about book-publishing is all a bit “my glass slippers are too tight,” bourgeois clap-trap and we are all chronically online, but … I mean; yeah. Kind of. Accurate. 

But to the online of it all – my other question was how future-proof Yellowface would prove to be? Already the novel delves deeply into Book Twitter fuelling scandals and gossip, and already it reads slightly outdated for the weight Juniper ascribes to “blue-check mark” Tweeters … which; Elon Musk has ruined. There’s lots of name-dropping of current social media apps and the indiscretions and pile-on’s they’ve fuelled; and as writers, we’re constantly told not to do that, because it will age a book. And I think that’s true here, but – does it matter? Kuang is commenting in a very zeitgeist-y way on art, culture, media, and illusions of community happening *right now* and the book being touted as The Read of the Year means it’ll be read in a timely it-just-hit-shelves-and-I-have-to-read-it fashion. It’s Kuang very much capturing ~a moment~ in time, and if it ends up reading more like a time-capsule that might be baffling to future-readers in a decade; is that a bad thing? Maybe not? 

But Twitter is real life; it realer than real life, because that is the realm that the social economy of publishing exists on, because the industry has no alternative. Offline, writers are all faceless, hypothetical creatures pounding our words in isolation from one another. You can’t peek over anyone’s shoulder. You can’t tell if everyone else is really doing as dandy as they pretend they are. But online, you can tune into all the hot gossip, even if you’re not nearly important enough to have a seat in the room where it happens. Online, you can tell Stephen King to go fuck himself. Online, you can discover that the current literary star of the moment is actually so problematic that all of her works should be cancelled, forever. Reputations in publishing are built and destroyed, constantly, online. 

I loved this book. I inhaled it – even as I squirmed, and it made me look uncomfortably inward at the gate-keeping role I play in the very industry Kuang is bemoaning, and beloved by. I honestly think it’s a very special book precisely because it feels like absolutely nobody else could have written it – and how ironic, given the plot! – but it feels like a right place, right time, right author type of deal … and it reads kismet and electric; you absolutely feel that pulse on the page of “ohhhhh, this is almost unbearably special.” I’ve never felt such second-hand, heart-palpitating anxiety while reading, or such painful self-reflection that it felt like a cleansing of sorts. 

I’m only still on-the-fence about how “outsiders” will perceive it, and how future-readers might be baffled by the weight we placed on an app that is currently being run into the ground by a maniacal Musk. 

But my gosh … what a feast of hot-tea. What a wake-up call that my industry needs, and only this author could deliver in such a decisive and well-packaged blow. What an ‘American Dirt’ meets John Hughes plagiarism, Caroline Calloway ghost-written, Mary Hallock Foote being stolen, James Frey, and ‘The Hand that Signed the Paper’ (I could go on) what a gem of a book. 

4.5/5 


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