Fiery Words of Judgment

The birth of a dictionary seen through feminist eyes, and a fast-paced thriller about the burning of evidence.

Issue #44, Sunday 14 May 2023

Bookish News

New and Upcoming Releases

Yellowface by Rebecca F Kuang

Everything about R.F. Kuang’s novel “Yellowface” feels engineered to make readers uncomfortable. There’s the title, which is awkward to say out loud, and the cover, which features a garish racial stereotype — cartoonish slanted eyes imposed on a block of yellow.

Then there’s the story itself. In the opening chapters, a white author steals a manuscript from the home of a Chinese American novelist who has died in a bizarre accident, and plots to pass it off as her own. What follows is a twisty thriller and a scorching indictment of the publishing industry’s pervasive whiteness and racial blind spots.

If people in the literary world bristle at Kuang’s withering depiction of the book business — or cringe in recognition — well, that’s exactly the point, she said.

from article by Alexandra Alter, New York Times

I really enjoyed this author’s Babel, or the Necessity of Violence. This new novel will be a ‘must buy’ for me, I think.

Buy it at Readings

Age Book of the Year Award

The winner of the 2023 Book of the Year Award from The Age is Limberlost by Robbie Arnott.

A very worthy winner, if you ask me. And it follows on from Arnott’s winning the same award for his second novel, The Rain Heron.

I reviewed The Rain Heron here, and Limberlost here.

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

In this debut novel, Pip Williams cleverly entwines a feminist story into the factual history of the compilation of the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, an enormous effort which took over four decades beginning in the late 1800s.

We’re introduced to Esme Nicoll when she is a very young child. Her father Henry Nicoll is one of the scholars working in the Scriptorium, not much more than a large garden shed, located in the grounds of Dr. James Murray, the Editor of the Dictionary. Esme’s mother died in giving birth to her, and so she is being raised only by her father, though with a lot of help from Dr. Murray’s servants, particularly the maid called Lizzie, who plays an important part in the story as Esme’s friend and guide.

Esme grows up literally at the feet of the Dictionary scholars in the Scriptorium, spending much of her time before she is old enough to go to school crawling about under the tables and desks where the scholars work. It’s here that she picks up a slip which has fallen off a desk, a slip with the definition of the word “bondmaid”. She’s only just learning to read, so she has to spell it out letter by letter. Her father has told her that not every word sent in by volunteers will go into the great Dictionary, and so she thinks this is a discarded word and puts the slip into her pinny and takes it away.

This ties in cleverly with the fact that “bondmaid” was indeed accidentally ommitted from the first edition of the Dictionary. Here is the author’s fictional explanation of where that word went.

Over time, as she grows older, Esme keeps other discarded words, and starts to become interested in which words are being left out of the Dictionary, not by accident but by a conscious choice of the scholars, who are all men. Unsurprisingly to us, many of the words left out this way deal with women, women’s bodies and women’s issues, and/or are words considered to be obscene. When she becomes old enough, Esme sets out to collect such words herself. She keeps her notes in an old wooden trunk, and scratches inside the lid the words: “The Dictionary of Lost Words”.

Esme’s development as a character is full of interest, as is her life story, which is not free from its tragedies. Her struggles against the prevalent and unthinking misogyny of the times is a constant theme of the book. These times also encompass the rise of the suffragette movement and the First World War, and the personal impact of these events on Esme is well handled. And of course the background of the compilation of the English Dictionary adds a great deal of fascination to the story.

I liked this a great deal, and I’m keen to get hold of William’s subsequent novel, The Bookbinder of Jericho. As I understand it, that is related to this one, but not quite a sequel.

Fire With Fire by Candice Fox

Candice Fox is probably my favourite Australian crime writer. I like her novels which are set in Australia most of all, such as her debut trilogy Hades/Eden/Fall, but she’s also been writing some terrific thrillers set in the United States, which are all very worth while reading.

Fire With Fire starts with the dramatic rescue by a young woman of a drowning man just off the coast of California. After she drags him ashore, she sees that he’s very badly injured. Nevertheless he fends off treatment, manages to get hold of a phone and gasp out a cryptic one-word message before lapsing into unconsciousness.

The next scene is of an eager young woman, Lynette Lamb, who has just joined the Los Angeles Police Department after completing her training at the Police Academy. On her first day, she’s shown her locker, and after changing into her uniform, she’s taken up to see her boss. Who tells her that she’s been responsible, albeit unknowingly, for the exposure of a police officer who had been working undercover for several years with a gang of criminals. And she’s fired on the spot. It turns out that the man saved from drowning at the start of the book was this officer, Charlie Hoskins, who managed to escape the criminals who were set to kill him but not before they had bashed and tortured him.

It’s at this point that a drama unfolds at the police forensic laboratory, where a married couple, driven to desperation by the lack of police investigation into the disappearance of their young daughter two years ago, occupy the premises and take several hostages. They demand the police locate their daughter that very day, or they’ll start to destroy the evidence stored at the laboratory, sample by sample.

This threat begins to open up deep rifts in the police force between the senior officers whose prime responsibility is to ensure the safety of the hostages, and the working police who see the critical evidence which will resolve the cases on which they’ve worked so hard being destroyed. The couple occupying the laboratory have somehow found out which case each sample is related to, and announce this information just before destroying that sample. The police chief finds herself having to fight mutiny in her ranks as sample after sample goes up in flames.

While all this is going on, Charlie Hoskins sets out to try to find out what happened to the couple’s daughter, but of course the trail is now cold. To his astonishment, he finds that Lynette Lamb, the dismissed rookie police officer, has tracked him down and insists on helping him in his investigation. Their relationship during this long day, and the way they end up working effectively as a team, is very cleverly and convincingly handled.

The tension mounts throughout, made more intense because the criminal gang from which Hoskins has escaped are intent on finding him and killing him.

The ending here is certainly not one I saw coming, and there are a number of twists in the plot which are very well done.

My only mild criticism is that I felt a little more could have been done to put the reader into the minds of the desperate parents of the missing girl and how they came up with the plan to occupy the laboratory. We don’t get much of that at all.

Nevertheless, definitely recommended.

Currently Reading

The Moon Maid Trilogy by Edgar Rice Burroughs

I’m reading this purely because I’m producing it as a free ebook for the Standard Ebooks organisation. I’ve been working very hard on a really tough production, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, LLD, which is going to take me several years to complete, and so I picked this up as a bit of light relief. Classic pulp SF from Burroughs, written as a serial between 1919 and 1925.

Exiles by Jane Harper

Jane Harper is another great Australian crime writer. This is the third in her series featuring the ex-forensic accountant Aaron Falk, who first appeared in her bestselling The Dry.

Waiting on the Shelf

About Paid Subscriptions to this Newsletter

I’ve added a paid tier, but never fear, almost every issue will be still available for free. I may very occasionally post a longer article, such as a retrospective of the work of a particular author, which will be for paid subscribers. But I still have to write those!

And that’s all for this issue. See you next time!

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