What I’ve Been Reading

My author website and blog have had major technical issues over the past month, but everything’s now restored with a new web hosting service, so hopefully there won’t be further problems. FitzOsborne Press is also back with a new website, for those who’d like to buy a copy of Dr Huxley’s Bequest for Christmas/New Year/winter vacation/summer holiday reading.

I’m also very relieved that my local library is open again and I’ve been reading some good books (also some not-very-good books, but I don’t blog about them).

'When the Ground is Hard' by Malla NunnWhen the Ground is Hard by Malla Nunn was a fascinating YA novel set in a Christian boarding school in 1965 Swaziland. Sixteen-year-old Adele, the daughter of a Swazi woman and a white South African married man, is a sweet, rule-abiding student until she’s abandoned by her mean-girl friends and forced to share a room with angry, rebellious Lottie. The two girls’ growing friendship is beautifully portrayed as they face profound challenges, including a fire at school and the disappearance of a classmate. There are grim, constant reminders of how class, race and sex determine who has power in their society and there are no easy resolutions to Adele’s problems, but female friendship and family bonds are celebrated and Adele’s kindness and optimism are shown to be strengths. Malla Nunn is best known in Australia for her adult crime fiction, but she has another YA novel out now, Sugar Town Queens, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

'Room for a Stranger' by Melanie ChengI also enjoyed Room for a Stranger by Melanie Cheng. This is a thoughtful, empathetic novel about two vulnerable people — an elderly white woman living alone in her Melbourne house and a lonely university student from Hong Kong who is struggling with his studies — who are brought together through a homestay program. The writing is incisive but compassionate, the story is moving without lapsing into sentimentality, and even the minor characters are multidimensional. I read this in a single day because I was so invested in how things would turn out. I’d previously liked this author’s collection of short stories, Australia Day, but this novel, her first, is even better.

'The Apothecary' by Maile MeloyFinally, The Apothecary by Maile Meloy was an enthralling, fast-paced fantasy set in Cold War England in 1952. Fourteen-year-old Janie has been forced to leave her Hollywood home because her screenwriter parents are under suspicion of being Communist sympathisers. Arriving in London, Janie meets a mysterious apothecary and his teenage son, and soon she’s caught up in an international conspiracy to save the world from destruction, led by a secret society of alchemists who can freeze time, become invisible and transform into animals. It did seem as though the publishers weren’t sure whether this was young adult or middle grade fiction – the main characters are fourteen, there’s romance and kissing, and there’s a lot of discussion of Cold War politics, but the illustrations make it look like middle grade and the serious moral dilemmas aren’t explored in any depth. I also must point out that despite enjoying most of this book, the final few pages really annoyed me. Without being too spoilery, the good guys do something to Janie that completely removes her agency and is a terrible invasion of her privacy and dignity, so that they can escape the bad guys. Worse, when Janie finds out what they’ve done, she isn’t angry — she giggles. I can understand why the author thought this was a neat magical ending. But why on earth didn’t her editor point out that this destroyed the Girl Power message of the rest of the book and suggest some changes that gave Janie some choice in the matter? It bothered me enough that I’m not inclined to read the next two books in this trilogy, but if anyone has read them and liked them, please do let me know. This was otherwise a really engrossing adventure with an interesting historical setting.

3 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading”

  1. I’ve read The Apothecary — it was years ago and I remember being slightly disappointed, I thought I would like it more than I did given the setting and the magic. I didn’t read the sequels and I haven’t even kept the copy I had, so I must have felt the same as you…

    The other two sound really great though.

  2. Yes, the Cold War London setting drew me in and I did enjoy most of The Apothecary’s story – the ending was just so annoying, though!

    The two Australian books are excellent.

    Also, belated congratulations on your Prime Minister’s Literary Award shortlisting! Such a great shortlist this year.

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