Meagan Kimberly reviews From A Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan

From A Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan

This paranormal fantasy novella follows “you,” who is Phyllis Avis Symons. She’s a young girl living in New Zealand in the early 1930s, in the years leading up to World War II. Her contentious relationship with her parents leads her to run away and fall in love with an abusive man that becomes her downfall.

It’s hard to give a concise summary, as Phyllis lives multiple lives throughout the novella. But her first life takes up the majority of the story’s space. This book can’t be discussed as a linear narrative or in terms of character relationships and development. That doesn’t mean it was a bad book. Far from it.

From A Shadow Grave is a compelling array of connected stories told through the second-person point of view, putting the reader in Phyllis’ shoes. This perspective creates a matter-of-fact tone, giving a degree of emotional distance despite the subject matter. No matter what events occur and all the bad things that happen to the main character, the point of view puts it in a voice that indicates this is just how things are.

Phyllis’ relationships with George, Aroha, and others throughout her various lives indicates she is on the bi/pan spectrum. But it’s never explicitly stated. However, she does give voice to her hesitation and fear, as she recognizes the feelings she has for women and how it’s unacceptable in the society she lives in during the 1930s.

But that “you” perspective once more creates a factual tone, showing how Phyllis presumes life is just what it is, and there’s no use getting attached or worked up about anything. It’s her defense mechanism.

One aspect that pops up throughout is her learning disability. She’s written as someone with dyslexia, but because of the time she lives in, she’s deemed a stupid girl. What really breaks the reader’s heart is how she believes that’s true and accepts that as fact and reality.

Phyllis is also described as someone living with mental health issues. One sentence, in particular, stands out: “You were born with demons in your head, an unexplainable wish to self-destruct…” It’s especially fascinating as a description as the story takes place with a paranormal aspect, so the main character deals with magical demons as well as metaphorical ones.

The paranormal powers that exist in this world are never explained. They are accepted at face value and considered a normal part of everyday life for Phyllis and Aroha. It makes the narrative structure easier to accept, as the audience never needs to be told when another life jump has been made. It just is. This is strengthened once more by the second-person point of view.

The biggest detriment to the shortness of the novella and “you” perspective was a lack of depth in secondary characters. There were scattered details hinting that Aroha is a woman of color, but it’s not obvious that she’s an indigenous woman of New Zealand, Maori, until near the end of the book.

It’s difficult to give a specific analysis of this story without spoiling it. So many of the events and relationships are tied up in the plot, and it’s a great plot to enjoy on a first read without spoilers from a review. The best summary to give is it’s a ghost story, a love story, and a series of fragments of one person living multiple lives.

Carmella reviews The Confession by Jessie Burton

The Confession by Jessie Burton

Elise Morceau is enjoying a winter’s walk on Hampstead Heath when a striking older woman catches her eye. It’s attraction at first sight for the pair of them. Soon Elise is being whisked away by Connie – a successful author whose book is being developed into a Hollywood film.

Does this sound like the plot to a romance novel so far? Although romance is an important part of the book, the genre’s about to turn into a mystery.

Three decades later, Rose Simmons is looking for the mother who left while she was still a baby. All her father will tell her is that Elise’s disappearance is linked to two books from the 80s.  Between her unfulfilling job and her failing relationship, Rose is ready for some intrigue. When she tracks down the author, she manages to bluff her way into a job interview using a fake identity. Now she suddenly finds herself assistant to this arthritic stranger, Constance Holden, helping her to work on a third novel after a long spell of inactivity. But how did Constance know Elise, and how will Rose get the truth out of her?

The Confession is Jessie Burton’s third novel too – and one that’s been hotly anticipated after the bestselling success of The Miniaturist and The Muse. I loved Burton’s attention to historical detail and the authentic character voices in her other books, so I couldn’t wait to get my hands on The Confession to see if it lived up to them.

Just like in her previous work, the bonds between characters are Burton’s greatest strength: the rocky passion between Elise and Connie, Rose’s fizzling-out love for her boyfriend, the guarded intrigue Rose feels for Connie, and – at the centre of it all – the absent space where a mother-daughter bond should connect the two timelines. All of these are written so believably that I really felt transported into the psychologies of the characters.

Although I (of course) love a tumultuous romance between two women, the most compelling strand for me wasn’t actually the story of Elise and Connie’s relationship, but the modern-day plot where Rose tracks down Connie. I really enjoyed watching Rose trying to unpick the mystery of what happened to her mother, and the tension of whether Connie would uncover Rose’s true identity. It’s like Chekhov’s gun: you know it has to go off at some point, so you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time waiting for it to happen.

I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t enjoy the sections set in the 80s more. I think it was an issue of pacing: the start of Connie and Elise’s relationship unfolds so quickly that I didn’t feel like I’d had the chance to watch them fall in love. Because of this, I wasn’t so invested once things start to get difficult between them.

Even so, the modern day sections had enough drive behind them that I was still propelled through the book.

I also appreciated Burton’s refreshing take on writing about motherhood. Without spoiling too much of the plot, it doesn’t fall back on the tired narrative of motherhood as the ultimate fulfilment. Burton isn’t afraid to write about postpartum depression, [Spoilers:] or to show that, for some women, a happy ending is deciding not to have children at all. [End spoilers]

Burton has definitely continued the momentum of her first two novels in The Confession, and I’m excited to see where and when she’ll take us next. Hopefully she won’t follow in Connie’s footsteps and make us wait three decades for another book!

Trigger warning: abortion, child abandonment, postpartum depression

Susan reviews My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 by Nagata Kabi

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2

My Solo Exchange Diary Volume 2 is another set of autobiographical essays about Nagata Kabi’s life and depression. Where Volume 1 followed her attempts at independence and romantic intimacy while unpicking her relationship with her family, whereas volume 2 finds Nagata Kabi enjoying friendship and emotional intimacy, while her mental health takes a nosedive.

Just like with the first volume, My Solo Exchange Diary can be a rough read. Nagata Kabi is frank about her mental health and the setbacks she suffered – being equally unable to cope with living alone and living with her family, drinking, and voluntary hospitalisation – and that is often harrowing! Sometimes funny, but definitely hard sometimes. Her cartoony style still doesn’t soften any of the blows, and sometimes make it worse, but her art is clean and striking, so it works! (And just on a purely over-analysing level: I love that the cover is finally her reaching out to herself and talking, because I feel like that drawing alone represents so much growth in her attitude to herself and her own pain.)

I think what really struck me for the first time as I read this is that because of the format – a collected edition of visual essays that were originally serialised monthly – it’s actually really tense to read, because you don’t have the same reassurance that the creator must have been fine because they finished the book as you would in a more standard autobiography. It accounts for the significant shifts in tone and subject between the chapters, and the way that she is much more enthusiastic and loving about her family than she was in the first volume, even as she talks about the pain they have caused and still cause her. It makes sense, because My Solo Exchange Diary is very much about the ways that Nagata Kabi’s family hurt her, but still rallied around when she needed them, but it was a little surprising to read.

The depiction of her struggle with independence and her stay in hospital felt very relatable to me, especially in her reactions to being stuck in the hospital without being able to articulate her fear and despair at the idea of having to stay there for months on end. It doesn’t feel advisory or demonstrative, it’s not a “here is what staying in hospital for mental health reasons is like,” it’s just what it was like for her, and the ways in which it helped her and scared her.

Unsurprisingly, My Solo Exchange Diary is still hard and harrowing to read, but it feels more hopeful than the previous volume. Nagata Kabi specifically talks about her support network that cares for her, and there is an epilogue where she recognises that packaging her life in neat little chunks for an audience is maybe not the best choice for her right now, which I’m honestly in favour of because I’d rather she focus on her recovery. Seeing her asking how her future self was doing at the end of some of the chapters broke my heart a little, but gave me hope that she was going to be okay. … Especially because she FINALLY got the hug that she’s been waiting for, and I nearly cried for her.

[Caution warning: alcoholism, depression, hospitalisation, self-harm, suicide attempt]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Kelley O’Brien reviews Camp Rewind by Meghan O’Brien

I’ve been excited to read Meghan O’Brien’s Camp Rewind since I first read the synopsis last year. A book about two women of color dealing with very real and contemporary problems like social anxiety and online harassment and misogyny? Sign me right up!

Despite my excitement for the book, it somehow got pushed back due to my own real world problems. But when I found that I had a few Audible credits to use up, I grabbed the chance to listen to a good book.

It’s been a while since I’ve listen to a book because I’ve lost some of my hearing and can only listen in quiet rooms. However, I had a really great experience listening to Camp Rewind and might just give it another listen again soon.

Alice Wu and Rosa Salazar meet at the titular Camp Rewind, a camp for adults who want to unwind for the weekend. However, the heroines both have other reasons for being there. Alice has extreme social anxiety and wishes to expand her social circle, so she applies for camp at her therapist’s request. Rosa, however, just wants to forget who she is for a little while after publishing an article about a video game that some men took offence to and decided to ruin her life over. The two meet and connect right away, entering into a “what happens at camp stays at camp” sort of relationship. Soon, they must deal with feelings that weren’t supposed to happen.

I should probably warn that this book contains a lot of sex. It’s all very well-written and didn’t feel out of place to me, especially given the way O’Brien describes their connection and Alice’s desire to finally be with a woman and her finally coming out as a lesbian.

There is also a lot of pot smoking and mentions of rape threats and other threats of violence against women, though I don’t recall it going into too much detail.

Alice and Rosa fall for each other very quickly in the novel, which might be a genuine concern for some. However, it felt organic to me. They were exactly what the other needed. Not that they needed to be in a relationship to grow as people, but that they needed someone to support them and be there for them, something they each lacked in their lives.

As someone with anxiety, I can honestly say that O’Brien does a great job crafting a mentally ill character. Alice never overcomes her anxiety. It’s always still there, even when she’s pushing herself to be braver, to do things that scare her because she wants to help or to be with Rosa. The relationship doesn’t magically cure Alice of being mentally ill. She still has her bad days and is a work in progress.

The most interesting aspect of the novel is O’Brien’s feminist critique of online harassment, particularly towards women in gaming and the men who disagree with and subsequently harass them. She doesn’t get too preachy about her opinion of them. She doesn’t have to, letting it show through Rosa’s character and the growth she experiences as someone who lets herself believe she isn’t worthy of love and affection to someone that embraces it.

If you enjoy books about characters who are allowed the room to grow and develop, books about women of color who are given agency, books with delightful side characters, and books with feminist themes, I highly recommend giving Camp Rewind a shot.