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What we read in February

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Book Blog

Trauma, disquiet and unsettling narratives

If you enjoyed the darkly comedic social outcasts in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and Convenience Store Woman, meet Gilda, the protagonist of Everyone in This Room Will Someday be Dead. Gilda's a socially isolated lesbian with crippling anxiety, and an unexpected job offer lands her as the secretary of a local Catholic church (despite being an atheist). When the mystery of her predecessor's death throws her life nd the church into further disarray, Gilda's solution is both hilarious and ill-advised. This darkly funny novel is perfect for those who enjoy a touch of morbid humor.

But prepare to be disturbed by Boy Parts, Eliza Clark's unsettling exploration of power dynamics. Here, "explicit" photographer Irina becomes the predator, reversing the usual male gaze and leaving her vulnerable male subjects powerless. Both Boy Parts and Everyone in This Room are alluring, unsettling, and will leave a lasting impression. Just be sure you have a strong stomach for both laughter and discomfort.

Another unsettling and beguiling read was Pet by Catherine Chidgey,set in a Catholic school in 1980s Wellington, where a charismatic new teacher has students, staff and parents in her thrall. Justine is 12, grieving the loss of her mother and struggling to navigate the murky waters of the pre teen years, friends, boys, and drama. When Mrs. Price picks Justine as the new class 'pet', a much coveted position, Justine is immediately under her thrall. But when small items belonging to the children start to go missing from the class, Justine's loyalty to her friend Amy is tested and she is forced to choose between Amy and Mrs. Price. Apart from a deep sense of disquiet, Pet also brings forward memories of childhood in the 1980s and 1990s, and is very evocative of life in New Zealand at that time.

Read Pet as a book club set.

Diverse Voices

While I'm drawn to stories that grapple with difficult themes, nothing prepared me for the emotional rollercoaster of Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens. This seemingly gentle novel, brimming with "cosy rest home vibes," unexpectedly takes a deep dive into the heart of suburban Australia. Shankari Chandran's powerful narrative explores the experiences of immigrants facing aging, racism, violence, and political turmoil, all with the backdrop of infidelity, trauma, and loss. It's a stunning and surprisingly emotional read.

On a different note, Monique Ilboudo's So Distant From My Life offers a thought-provoking exploration of a fictionalized Burkina Faso. We meet Jeanphi, a young man from a middle-class family, struggling to find his place in the world. After repeated failed attempts at migrating to Europe, he's presented with a life-altering opportunity from a disillusioned French humanitarian. Ilboudo's debut, the first English translation from a Burkina Faso woman author, tackles complex issues like immigration, homophobia, and the pitfalls of "white savior" narratives. Both these books have made a lasting impression on me.

And Paul Lynch's Booker Prize winning novel Prophet Song is the very definition of traumatic, but Beyond the Sea, published in 2021 is equally impacting. Two fisherman, Bolivar, an old hand, and Hector, who is not yet a man, are swept out to sea in their small boat in a devastating storm. As they struggle to survive, they must learn to live with each other, but also their own selves.

Fantasy and sprawling world building

Never fear, I did read some less traumatic books this month two, including two fabulous and very different fantasy books.

While Witch King delivers a thrilling adventure with well-defined characters, Piranesi takes you on a more introspective journey, questioning reality and perception. Both novels, however, excel at world-building, captivating storytelling, and leaving you with a sense of wonder long after the last page.

In Witch King by Martha Wells, Kaiisteron, Fourth Prince of the Underearth, mind hopping Demon, has been murdered and his conscious mind imprisoned and he's not happy about it. Determined to discover his killer and uncover a conspiracy that seems certain to disrupt the fragile peace Kai spent years brokering in their war ravaged world, he teams up with a orphaned waif, a mute witch, a soldier with dubious credentials and his oldest friend and supporter Ziede, whos wife has also been disappeared. Witch King is Martha Well at her storytelling best. Her world is lush and fully realised, full of political machinations, really nasty baddies, well thought-out races (the Saredi, to whom Kai belongs are a Mongol like nomadic tribe, and I would love to see more of them) and bucket loads of action and magic.

Piranesi lives in House, a sprawling complex of great rooms, where the sea brings him food and treasures, and The Other, whom Piranesi assists with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge, brings him everything else he needs. Piranesi's world is vast but also tiny, as he catalogues the Rooms, Vestibules and Statues of the House, quantifying and explaining his existance. But as a darkness settles over The Other, and spreads to Piranesi's small world, everything he thought he knew about his reality is challenged.

Piranesi is a difficult book to quantify. It's part dark academia, part thriller, part fantasy, but it feels like a Greek myth or a fable, and a puzzle, the characters challenging to pin down, with meanings hidden in the darkness. The Women's Prize winner from 2021, Piranesi is a rewarding and surprising read.

The ultimate storyteller never lets me down

Daisy Jones & The Six, loosely based on Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s, tells the story of the meteoric rise and fall of the titular rock band. Fronted by the ingenue vocalist Daisy Jones and the enigmatic guitarist/vocalist Billy Dunne, the band's story unfolds through present-day interviews, creating an utterly immersive reading experience. Taylor Jenkins Reid is a wonderful storyteller who writes books I just want to consume.

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