Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: New Releases (page 1 of 30)

Lapvona – Ottessa Moshfegh

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In Lapvona, the much-anticipated new novel from Ottessa Moshfegh, a disabled shepherd boy living in a medieval fiefdom finds himself an unlikely replacement for the murdered son of a tyrannical lord, but it’s not enough to replace the love he imagines for his mutilated mother (whom he was told died in childbirth).

So, yeah, it’s Moshfegh’s usual lighthearted fare. A rom-com romp guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Seriously, folks, if you pick up Lapvona just because you enjoyed My Year Of Rest And Relaxation and you recognised Moshfegh’s name, you’re in for a rude shock. This is a guttural story about the most grim and grotesque aspects of human nature.

One review of Lapvona went viral a few weeks ago (in #bookstagram networks, anyway), describing it as “[a] new novel of medieval brutality [that] aims for the Marquis de Sade but ends up closer to Shrek“. That’s a spectacular roast, but it just made me all the more eager to read it (and all the more grateful to Penguin Books Australia for sending through a copy for review).

It’s every bit as horrifying as it sounds (and then some), with moments of insight so searing and quotable it’s like looking into the sun.

Marek guessed that Villiam could use his wealth to influence God’s will. That was the way things worked, Marek thought. If you didn’t have money, you had to be good.

Lapvona (page 53)

A comprehensive trigger warning would be longer than your arm, but of particular note: animal cruelty (there was one specific incident with a dog that made me put the book down and cuddle my own), abuses of power, sadism, self-harm, cannibalism…

Lapvona is masterful and revolting. I’m glad to have read it, and glad that it’s over. I’d imagine that’s exactly what Moshfegh was going for.

(Bonus: I loved this Vulture piece about – among other things – Moshfegh’s apparent obsession with the scatological.)

The Strangers – Katherena Vermette

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The Strangers is “a searing exploration of race, class, inherited trauma, and matrilineal bonds that – despite everything – refuse to be broken”. Katherena Vermette is a Red River Métis (Michif) writer, from the heart of Métis nation (Canada), and her heritage permeates this incredible First Nations novel. The wonderful team at UQP Books were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

The first thing that struck me about The Strangers (after the truly stunning cover art) was the perfect content warning provided before the story began. I hope they don’t mind me reproducing it in full here, because it’s truly a masterclass in how trigger warnings should be done: thoughtful, encouraging, and helpful.

This book is about coping within the systems that have been imposed upon us, so there are plenty of triggers for those whose lives have been traumatically affected by them. These include depictions of child apprehension, solitary incarceration, suicide ideation, some drug use, and some physical violence. (It’s not just about that, hey? And I do try to cram as much love and hope in between as possible.)

The Strangers (Trigger Warning)

The Strangers is told in five parts, vignettes from five consecutive years in the lives of three generations of Stranger women. Margaret is bitter and weary; her daughter, Elise, is addicted and broken; Elise’s eldest daughter, Phoenix, is angry and incarcerated; and Cedar, Phoenix’s younger sister, is lonely and confused.

I found Elise particularly infuriating, and came to dread her chapters – but in a good way, somehow. I really wanted to empathise with her, and I swear I tried my best, but it was a tough row to hoe. The “dangerous criminal”, foul-mouthed Phoenix, was actually a lot more relatable and enjoyable to read. I suspect every reader will have their own affinities and preferences for these four very different women.

Despite the (very) heavy subject matter, and Vermette’s talent for stark realism, The Strangers is surprisingly readable. The pages fly by! It really exceeded my expectations, and I’m still mulling over it days later.

Bone Memories – Sally Piper

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Bone Memories is the immersive new novel from Sally Piper. It examines the repercussions of a terrible crime, across three generations of a family. The wonderful team at UQP Books were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Jess, a young mother, was murdered – in front of her toddler, by a complete stranger – sixteen years ago. Her mother, Billie, clings desperately to her memory and believes she lives on in the land she walked in life. Her son, Daniel, is desperate to move on and not let this tragic event define him, but struggles with the feeling that he’s abandoning his grandmother. Carla, Daniel’s stepmother, also feels trapped by the memory of Jess, and is pushing the family to move on and move away, for a fresh start.

The first thing that struck me while reading Bone Memories is that, even though Jess’s murder is unsolved, the story isn’t about the search for her killer. The crime doesn’t propel the story. Rather, it’s the relationships between the people left in the event’s fading wake that drive everything forward.

My allegiances shifted, several times, as Bone Memories played out. Hyper-sensitive Billie, conflicted Daniel, and frustrated Carla are all relatable in different ways. They’re all trying to build a future while adequately honouring the past; the trouble is, they all have different ideas about the best way to do that. There’s no clear “winner” in this story. They’re all right, and they’re all wrong, in the way they go about things.

Readers of Australian literary fiction and family dramas will really enjoy Bone Memories, for its intensity and keen insight into grief, family, and place-memory.

Our Members Be Unlimited – Sam Wallman

Our Members Be Unlimited is a beautiful and often moving guide to union organising that’s in touch with the reality of work today,” according to Bhaskar Sunkara (the founding editor of Jacobin magazine), and I can’t come up with a better way to describe it myself. I was lucky enough to receive a copy from the publisher Scribe for review.

Sam Wallman is a comic artist/cartoonist and committed unionist, so clearly Our Members Be Unlimited combines his two great loves. He describes it as “a longform comic book informed by [his] time working as an elected delegate in a call centre, as an organiser for a lare blue collar union, and as an undercover union activist at Australia’s first Amazon warehouse.”

The latter aspect of his experience is detailed most in Our Members Be Unlimited, but thankfully it doesn’t seem to have been quite as horrific for Wallman as it has been for his comrades in the United States (he never had to pee in a bottle… though he did pee into a urine bag strapped to his leg).

Mostly, though, Our Members Be Unlimited focuses on the history of unions, what we owe them and why we need them. It’s shocking, at times, but mostly encouraging. Wallman works from the thesis that work needn’t be the most miserable part of our lives, and while workers’ collective action is as subject to pitfalls as any other movement, it’s still the most powerful tool at our disposal to improve our lives under capitalism.

And don’t skip the glossary in the Appendix! I considered myself fairly well-versed in union lingo, and even I learned a lot (and got a few lol’s into the bargain). Our Members Is Unlimited‘s fun format and beautiful rendering belies the significance of its subject – a must-read for fans and followers of Jorts The Cat.

Abomination – Ashley Goldberg

Abomination - Ashley Goldberg - Keeping Up With The Penguins

For a while in the 2010s I lived in St Kilda, right on the edge of Melbourne’s Jewish enclave. Despite my proximity, grocery shopping on Balaclava Road was as close as I ever got to this unique community – which I suppose is not surprising, given the stark divide between the worlds of the secular and the Orthodox. Still, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about them via Ashley Goldberg’s debut novel, Abomination (kindly sent to me for review by the wonderful team at Penguin Random House Australia).

The chapters alternate between the perspectives of two childhood friends, Ezra and Yonatan. Both attended the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Yahel Academy in the late ’90s, and both were shocked by the accusations of sexual abuse levelled at beloved pillar of the community, Rabbi Hirsch. As teachers, students, and parents reeled, Ezra and Yonatan lives were set on different tracks, until they reunite 20 years later at a protest regarding Hirsch’s escape from justice.

If any of that sounds familiar, it’s by design; the crimes of Rabbi Hirsch, and the ultra-Orthodox community’s reaction, are based on the real-life case of Malka Leifer. Leifer stands accused of shocking abuses in her time as principal of the Adass Israel School, but has evaded criminal prosecution for years. Tireless advocates and victims have finally brought enough scrutiny to the case, forcing the hands of authorities regarding Leifer’s extradition from Israel, and she will stand trial in Australia later this year.

Naturally, Abomination warrants a couple of trigger warnings – for sexual abuse (though it happens off page and is not exploited for shock value in the narrative), and also bullying and mental illness.

It’s a strangely stressful read, for its intensity and Goldberg’s deft sidestepping of the beats you might expect a story like this to hit. Goldberg doesn’t rely on shock-value or voyeurism, making this a remarkably deep story about crises of faith and the ripple effects of secrets and scandal. It’s important not to try to “binge” Abomination – this is a book that needs to be sipped like fine wine, not chugged like cheap beer.

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