Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Award Winners (page 2 of 16)

The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides

If you’re not intrigued by The Silent Patient, I don’t know how to help you. You’re certainly the exception rather than the rule. It debuted in 2019 at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List, and went on to win the Goodreads Choice Award (Mystery & Thriller). Even now, years later, it remains a #BookTok darling and I still see it all over #Bookstagram. So, naturally, my curiosity was piqued.

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Michaelides has said he rewrote the draft of The Silent Patient about fifty times before locking it in. I suppose he was trying to mix the strange bedfellows of his influences in just the right measure. He drew from the Athenian tragedy Alecstis for the plot, and Agatha Christie novels for its structure and tone. That should give you a pretty good idea of what to expect.

The story begins with a forensic psychotherapist, Theo, drawn to the case of a woman at a psychiatric facility called The Grove. She has not spoken in over six years. Theo finagles his way into a job there, convinced that he’s the only one who can reach her and find the real reason for her protracted silence.

The crime? Well, it’s a doozy. One day, Alicia shot her husband Gabriel repeatedly in the face, and then cut her own wrists. There was no financial motive for the crime, and no apparent conflict in the marriage. She hasn’t said a word to anyone in the years since, not even in her own defense. The judge sent her to the asylum instead of jail, on the grounds of diminished capacity (that’s “insanity”, to our Law & Order watchers), but her elective silence has endured even the staff’s best efforts and powerful psychotropic medications.

So, you’re curious, right? I sure am! I dove headfirst into The Silent Patient, desperate to find out why Alicia wouldn’t speak. It’s easy and interesting reading, and reminds me very much of Don’t Say A Word (one of the few psychological thriller films I’ve seen more than once). I think Michaelides’s background as a screenwriter shines through; he knows just how to set up a story to hook the audience, and pace it out to keep them there. It turns out he also spent a bit of time working at a secure psychiatric facility for teenagers when he was a student, which gives the setting a ring of authenticity.

As The Silent Patient progresses, you realise that both Theo and Alicia have been victimised by a nameless, faceless man in their lives. For Alicia, it was her stalker. For Theo, it was his wife’s lover. As the man gets closer to each of them (which feels like it’s happening in real time, with extracts from Alicia’s diary punctuating Theo’s timeline), the tension rises to almost unbearable heights. Is it just therapeutic countertransference between Alicia and Theo? Or are they actually connected?

If you plan on reading The Silent Patient for yourself, this is where you’re going to want to stop. If you’re just here to get some answers or you don’t give a shit about spoilers, work away.

Alicia finally does speak, around page 270 (in my edition). The Big Shock Twist(TM) comes about 30 pages after that. It turns out, Theo hasn’t been completely clear with the reader about the timeline of events. He’s led us to believe that his wife’s affair has been concurrent with his treatment of Alicia, but actually it happened six years prior – yep, in the lead-up to Alicia murdering her husband. Alicia’s husband was the one sticking it to Theo’s wife, and Theo was the one “stalking” her, figuring out how to insert himself into her life and reveal to her the truth of her husband’s infidelity. He basically goaded her into murdering her husband, and then tries to kill her once she starts speaking again so she can’t dob him in. He gets his just desserts, though, because Alicia magically manages to scribble out one last diary entry pointing to him as her killer.

Looking over that paragraph, it all sounds a lot more complicated than it felt as I was reading The Silent Patient. I suppose the frequent allusions to Greek mythology and the clues that Michaelides peppered throughout the novel made it all feel quite natural and inevitable as it played out. So, this might be one you just have to read for yourself to form a complete picture. I’m not sure it *quite* lives up to the unbelievable hype, but it’s definitely a decent, pacy read for the next time you want some twists and turns in your literary life.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Silent Patient:

  • “The author did as much as he could to wreck the plot, and he succeeded.” – Donna
  • “Yet another “bestseller” glamorizing a psychopathic man-baby who deals with infidelity by torturing and killing innocent women.” – Dave
  • “OOOOh, how mysterious! Why is the patient silent? She likely didn’t want to be included in this boring novel. But she had no control, poor thing.” – frances henry

The Natural Way Of Things – Charlotte Wood

The Weekend is one of my all-time favourite books, but even I can acknowledge that The Natural Way Of Things is the book for which Charlotte Wood is better known. It was released in 2015 to massive popular and critical acclaim here in Australia, and it won the Stella Prize the following year.

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The Natural Way Of Things is told in three parts, across nine months (Summer, Autumn, and Winter). It begins with Yolanda waking up “in the middle of absolutely fucking nowhere”. She doesn’t realise, at first, that nine other women are in the exact same situation. They’re disoriented, drugged, and shuffled between holding cells. When their gaolers emerge, they shave the women’s heads and dress them in scratchy parochial outfits, complete with perspective-limiting bonnets.

If you’re catching a whiff of The Handmaid’s Tale there, you’re not the only one. I suspect it’s a deliberate homage, as The Natural Way Of Things tackles a lot of the same themes and ideas as Margaret Atwood’s iconic feminist dystopia. It’s different, though, in the sense that Wood doesn’t require us to imagine any kind of societal collapse or fertility crisis to make her scenario a reality. What happens to Yolanda and Verla and co. could be happening in our world, right now (some might argue a version of it is).

These women have been abducted, imprisoned, and abandoned because they were all involved in some kind of sexual scandal. Wood offers just enough to give us the “gist” (the political staffer who had an affair with her boss, the footballer’s girlfriend who was sexually assaulted by his friends, the church girl who was abused by a priest), without any gory exposition of the incidents. They’re almost beside the point: any woman could be these women, their stories are all too familiar. They are being punished for the sin of womanhood.

In the days to come she will learn what she is, what they all are. That they are the minister’s-little-travel-tramp and that-Skype-slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll-number-twelve and bogan-gold-digger-gangbang-slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.

The Natural Way Of Things (Page 69)

As if that isn’t horrifying enough, The Natural Way Of Things is set in a remote and derelict sheep-shearing station, somewhere in the Australian outback. They are completely cut off from the world (no internet, no phones, not even an operational fax machine). They’re kept within the boundary by a giant electrified fence. This is enough to strike fear in the heart of any city rat – I know it made me shudder.

And so, a lot of the punishments these women face are natural ones: the heat, the isolation, the wear and tear of bush life. There are also cruel twists of fate; the one that really fucked me up was the box of tampons that was only discovered in a storage shed after the women had been bleeding through their skirts for months.

At first, the women – and their guards, come to that – hold onto hope that this is a temporary situation. Either they will be “rescued” by their families or their lovers, or they will serve their time and be released, free to return to their “normal” lives. As the months pass, and supplies dwindle, the reality of their dire situation starts to hit home – for the reader, too.

Would it be said, they ‘disappeared’, ‘were lost’? Would it be said they were abandoned or taken, the way people said a girl was attacked, a woman was raped, this femaleness always at the centre, as if womanhood itself were the cause of these things? As if the girls somehow, through the natural way of things, did it to themselves.

The Natural Way Of Things (Page 223)

In many respects, The Natural Way Of Things is a level-up on feminist dystopia or psychological thriller – it tips the scales into outright horror. There are scenes and realisations that literally made me recoil as I read them. I found it really hard to “shake” this one, for days after I turned the final page. If there was ever a book that required a palate cleanser right after, this is it.

I couldn’t help but think back to a news story I read years ago, about 5,000 copies of The Natural Way Of Things being distributed to every student and staff member at the University Of Canberra. They call it the “UC Book Of The Year” and it is required reading for every single undergrad. Having read it now, I kind of feel for those students – I can see why the university would want to put the ramifications of sexual violence front of mind, but it feels like a bit of a baptism of fire.

Wood is a masterful writer, at the top of her game in this one, so The Natural Way Of Things is a fantastic read – but it’s also traumatic and difficult and fascinating and provoking and nuanced and scary and gut-wrenching. Make of that what you will!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Natural Way Of Things:

  • “This has to be, without doubt, one of the worst books I have had the misfortune to read in a very long time. I read to the end in the vain hope that it might improve – it didn’t – and felt soiled. There is no plot or characterization, only a series of defilements that leave one astonished at the cesspool of a mind that vomited out such a succession of ugly scenes, with no connection to one another. One star only because a star rating required to submit the review. Avoid this one like the plague.” – Anne Greiner
  • “This has to be the single worst book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s 12:30am right now, but I felt the need to open up my computer and write this before I went to bed. I just finished this book and it was awful. No plot, horrible character development, and 300+ pages of nothing happening. Am I supposed to believe that it’s a moral struggle to eat rabbit when you’re starving? This book went absolutely nowhere and served no purpose. I would recommend any other book over this. Seriously, a dictionary would be a better choice.” – SMITH
  • “Sickeningly believable premise, which I think must lead to the negative reviews.” – S.E. Vhay
  • “Miss Wood can write and win awards but I don’t watch horror films and this was one. Why take the reader into such hideous bestiality? Could she not make her point without a broken jaw causing starvation and suppurating lesions? At that scene I flipped to the back page only to discover that our protagonist escaped on that same last page and may not survive even then. I closed the book. It will not find space on my shelf. I do not willingly jump into the cesspool” – Amazon Customer

The Sellout – Paul Beatty

I’m a sucker for a wild premise, so as soon as I heard about The Sellout, reading it became inevitable. The 2016 Booker Prize-winner has a gob-smacking conceit: a pissed-off protagonist comes before the U.S. Supreme Court on a litany of charges that effectively amount to reinstating slavery and segregation in his small California hometown. Seriously? Seriously!

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The Sellout is “an absurdist comedy for our times”. You’d think, given the premise, that Beatty was inspired to write it after seeing the increasing volatility in race relations across America – but nope! He told an interviewer that, simply, “he was broke”. With the book sales and awards he’s won, I hope that’s no longer the case.

The story is largely set in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, a fictional Californian town that is mostly black and mostly poor, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The narrator (who is technically unnamed, but referred to as “Me” or by his nickname, “Bonbon”) is outraged when Dickens is summarily wiped off the map, unincorporated by the powers that be. He sets about trying to return his hometown to its former “glory”, and stumbles upon an unusual way of doing so: segregating busses and schools, allowing a former child actor to be his slave, and revisiting the racist films of old.

I’ve been charged with a crime so heinous that busting me for possession of marijuana on federal property would be like charging Hitler with loitering.

The Sellout (page 20)

From the outset, The Sellout has strong Portnoy’s Complaint vibes – and that’s even before the narrator starts talking about his father. They had a tenuous relationship, rooted in the fact that Daddy was an unorthodox psycho-sociologist who performed unethical and unapproved experiments on the narrator as a child. He bastardised psychological schools of thought and twisted them into strange games to test his kid’s Blackness. Reading it gave me some flashbacks to my psychology undergrad, I must admit.

I laughed out loud reading The Sellout too, frequently – but in a way that made me feel oddly ashamed. It’s a deeply satirical book. At times, I found myself wondering whether it was really “okay” for me to be laughing, given that I’m clearly not the intended audience, and many of the nuances of race relations in America would escape me. It’s the taboo that makes it funny, a lot of the time.

(Oh, and heads up: there’s a pretty graphic description of a calf castration about halfway through, and that’s really the least of The Sellout’s disturbing and distressing content.)

Beatty uses stereotypes and parody to provoke the reader, to both laughter and anger. He works in some strange moments of insight and poignancy, despite the surreal nature of the story and its characters.

When I did what I did, I wasn’t thinking about inalienable rights, the proud history of our people. I did what worked, and since when did a little slavery and segregation ever hurt anybody, and if so, so fucking be it.

The Sellout (Page 39)

Academics and reviewers who are smarter than me have positioned The Sellout as a critique of the idea of America as a post-racial society. Basically, Beatty uses comedy and over-exaggeration to draw attention to the embedded systemic racism that persists even after a Black man won a Presidential election.

Reni Eddo-Lodge puts it well in her review, I think, when she calls The Sellout “a whirlwind of satire”. She says: “Everything about The Sellout‘s plot is contradictory. The devices are real enough to be believable, yet surreal enough to raise your eyebrows.”

I’m kind of flabbergasted, having read it now, that The Sellout won the Booker Prize. It seems like it would have been a controversial choice, to say the least. Even setting aside the racial components, it was the first American book to win the prize (traditionally reserved for English-language books not from the U.S.) since they were made eligible with a rule change back in 2002. Hats off to the judges who flew in the face of what was surely considerable opposition to get this scarily funny surreal satire the attention it deserves.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Sellout:

  • “I read for pleasure and this book was not pleasurable.” – Mary McBeth
  • “Kind of like the current president. outrages but no redeeming value.” – Bahmadan
  • “If you’re a hipster, a literary critic who wants to sound hip, an academic, a Jeopardy fan, or a masochist, you’ll love this pointless mishmash filled with cultural references designed to show how brilliant the author is.” – Michael Engel
  • “Erudite vomit.” – John Updike
  • “Not really my cup of tea. If you’re OK with prolific profanity, extensive use of the N-word, and a story line that compares unfavorably to a hairball then maybe you’ll like it better.” – Craig VanArendonk

Eggshell Skull – Bri Lee

The title of Bri Lee’s debut memoir, Eggshell Skull, is taken from an old legal doctrine. It’s the principle that a defendant cannot use a victim’s unknown weakness as a defence in a criminal trial. If you punch a guy, you can’t use the fact that you had no way of knowing his skull was made of eggshell as an excuse for killing him. The phrase takes on new meaning over the course of Lee’s story, as the man who abused her has to reckon with her unknown strength.

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Eggshell Skull begins with Lee as a law graduate, commencing a highly-coveted position as a judge’s associate in the District Court of Queensland. She knows it’s going to be a tough gig, with overwhelming responsibility for keeping the cogs of justice turning. What she doesn’t know – but finds out very soon – is that the cases her judge will hear are almost exclusively those that involve sexual violence, harassment, and abuse of women and children.

Day after day, all around the state, Lee sits in court and listens to women and children testify about the horrific trauma they have experienced, and – most of the time – watches the (aLlEdGeD) perpetrator walk free. Of course it’s difficult for her, as it would be for anyone, but especially so because it evokes memories of the abuse that Lee herself experienced as a child.

If people didn’t believe these women, why would they believe me?

Eggshell Skull (page 29)

The details of the abuse are revealed gradually, as Lee herself comes to terms with the emotional impact of recovering feelings and memories she has long repressed. She’s faced with a barrage of others’ emotional trauma at work, and then her own demons at home. She’s “lucky”, as she herself acknowledges, as a victim in that she has a strong support system (in the form of her long-term boyfriend and her loving family) and the relative privilege of being white, educated, and articulate. That’s not enough to shield her, though, from the mental and emotional fall-out of both her work and her past (CW: suicidality, substance abuse, self-harm, disordered eating).

The crux of Eggshell Skull comes two years into Lee’s job, when she decides to bring forward her own case against Samuel, the family friend who abused her. That’s the point where the memoir truly shines, as Lee transitions from observer to warrior doing battle in the system herself. The retraumatisation of her experience seeking justice – even with her legal education and career, even with her father being a cop – is heart-wrenching and eye-opening.

Lee’s radical vulnerability in sharing her story is, I think, the reason it’s been so well received and widely acclaimed. She’s won multiple awards for Eggshell Skull (the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards, the Davitt Award, and the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime), in a just-barely post-MeToo society where we still turn away from many victim’s stories and feel uncomfortable shining light on awful truths.

I will say, though, that this is one of the rare times when the quality of the writing (very, very high) makes the book difficult to read. I had visceral, physical reactions to reading it. At various points, my stomach churned and my heart rate skyrocketed. In the final chapters of Eggshell Skull, I unwittingly gave myself a headache because I didn’t realise I’d been clenching my teeth.

It’s not just the abuse that Lee experienced, or that she saw on the job, that’s so distressing (though, of course, both are awful). It’s the frustration of the failure of our “justice” system to support and protect victims in the most intensely vulnerable moments of their lives.

The more I learned of the huge, ‘blind’ justice system, the more I learned that it was just as human and fallible as everything and everyone that created and preceded it.

Eggshell Skull (page 33)

So, Eggshell Skull falls into the category of an incredibly good book that it’s incredibly difficult to recommend to anyone – I’d certainly say to take great care reading it, even if you think that you’re unlikely to feel triggered. It will be a five-star read for anyone who enjoyed Roxane Gay’s Hunger. It will be a rude shock for anyone who’s ever asked why a victim would “wait so long” to come forward.

The Dry – Jane Harper

I was feeling increasingly ridiculous being an Australian reader who had not read a single Jane Harper novel. She’s one of our biggest authorial exports of recent years, up there with Liane Moriarty. Her novels are crime thrillers set in regional areas – real “small town with a dark secret” stuff – and they’ve won more awards than you can poke a stick at. I decided to start with The Dry, her debut novel first published back in 2016, which went on to sell over a million copies.

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The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a fictional town five hours’ drive from Melbourne. It’s an El Niño summer (like the one we’re predicted to have later this year), and severe drought has hit the town hard. A farmer, Luke Hadler, shot his wife and son in cold blood, before turning the gun on himself – or so it seems. Most of the townspeople are happy to assume that it was the last desperate act of a depressed man driven to the brink, but Luke’s parents think something more sinister might be afoot. After all, why would Luke leave his 13-month-old daughter unscathed?

They call in Aaron Falk, Luke’s childhood friend, who now works as a financial crimes cop in the big smoke. Falk’s not overjoyed to be returning to his hometown, after he left amid scandal as a teenager. He thinks he’s just going to attend the Hadler family funeral, shake a few hands, and be on his way. Of course, they reel him back in, and he finds himself working with the local cop to find out the truth of the Hadler deaths.

All of this suggests that The Dry is a quintessentially Australian story. There have, after all, been several tragic murder-suicides along these lines in regional communities over recent years, and anyone who’s spent more than a minute in a drought-affected area can tell you that it’s thoroughly believable.

You can understand, then, why I was a bit put off by Harper referring to a Hill’s hoist as a “rotary line” in the Prologue. I have never, in my whole life, heard an Australian call it anything other than a Hill’s hoist. What the fuck is she playing at? There were also flies eating the freshly-shot corpses of the Hadley family, but honestly I found that less disturbing than the patois fail.

Aside from a few qualms like that one, The Dry is remarkably well written. The prose is taut and evocative, a step above Liane Moriarty in my view (though it would certainly appeal to readers who like her books). Take, for instance, the way that Falk is lured back to Kiewarra – he receives a note from Luke’s father that reads “Luke lied. You lied. Be at the funeral.” In context, it struck just the right ominous note, compelling you to read on without over-egging the pudding (as first-time thriller writers are wont to do).

I will concede, though, that most of the plot twists were very predictable. At one point, I literally shook my copy of The Dry and said – out loud – “ISN’T IT OBVIOUS?! HE’S GAY!” as the obtuse characters stumbled around, stymied by their own terrible gaydar. Given that Harper has nailed the “voice” for her thrillers, I’d imagine she’ll come around to better plotting with time.

(Because this is My Thing now, I will give a trigger warning for a dog death: it’s just a mention, a sad one, but very brief and the dog doesn’t actually feature as a character.)

I can totally see why they cast Eric Bana as the lead in the film adaptation of The Dry. He’s the perfect Aaron Falk, exactly as you’d picture him. I’ll definitely be watching it, as soon as I get a chance, now that I’ve read the book. When it was finally released (after COVID-19 delays) in 2021, it broke box office records, becoming one of the highest-grossing Australian film opening weekends ever. If I’m honest, I’m more excited for movie night than I am seeking out any more of Harper’s books. The Dry was good, mostly, but not so good that I simply must read more.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Dry:

  • “I do not like to read about the shooting of rabbits and all kinds of cruelty to other animals. I know the people in the town it takes place in do it to survive and feed their families but I still don’t want to read about it. The villain was no surprise either. I guessed it was him by about the second time his character was introduced. No, I am not that smart. It was just obvious.” – Sabrina
  • “Found this dry all around. Main character dry. Supporting characters dry. The weather was dry…but I only felt it when it was directly mentioned.” – thom coco edwards
  • “It was a laborious read and I forced myself to get to the end. The mist “gratifying” part of the book was deleting it from my kindle.” – An Avid Reader
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