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July 2020

A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu

A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing - Jessie Tu - Keeping Up With The Peguins

Child prodigies are cute, but have you ever wondered what happens to them when they grow up? The story of one such prodigy unfolds in A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing, the debut novel of Australian writer Jessie Tu. It’s not a stretch to imagine that at least some aspects of this story are autobiographical, as Tu herself trained for fifteen years as a classical violinist. Still, I hope from her sake that her story isn’t too close to that of her central character… The fine folks at Allen and Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Jena’s career as a violinist came to a screeching halt as a teenager, after a public humiliation that “blew up the lives” of her, her family, and her teacher. She has retreated from the spotlight, playing as part of an orchestra, and uses self-destructive sex to fill the void (heads up: it’s not one for the prudish, Jena is… unabashed). A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing interrogates female desire, relationships, and power – it’s Ottessa Moshfegh meets Lisa Taddeo.

June 2020

The Safe Place by Anna Downes

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Emily Proudman is down on her luck. Her acting career amounts to no more than a couple of bit-parts in commercials. Her temp job as a receptionist barely covers the rent, and then she’s fired from that, too. Then, her now-former boss – enigmatic and charismatic Scott Denny – offers her the opportunity of a lifetime, working as a live-in housekeeper-slash-personal-assistant for his wife and six-year-old daughter on their secluded but luxurious French estate. That’s the premise of The Safe Place, the debut novel of former-actress and former-live-in-housekeeper herself Anna Downes, and the fine folks at Affirm Press were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Obviously, the offer is too good to be true. Creepy house, creepy kid, a million miles away from anyone – The Safe Place has all the classic motifs of a gothic thriller. It was all very reminiscent of Ruth Ware’s The Turn of The Key, which I quite enjoyed. Unfortunately, some of the psychological elements in this one just seemed a step beyond believable, and I stumbled into a couple of plot-holes (that I won’t reveal because spoilers, suffice to say they bugged me). The Safe Place is an easy read that will keep your interest, but it unfortunately falls short of the high bar for women-centered domestic thrillers set by writers like Liane Moriarty.

Get The Safe Place here.

Paris Match by John Von Sothern

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The American-man-abroad (and specifically the American-man-in-Paris) memoir is well-trod ground, to say the least. John Von Sothern enters a pretty saturated market with his new book, Paris Match. Still, even though David Sedaris and his ilk have set the bar pretty damn high, I couldn’t resist giving this one a go. The New York Times Book Review called it the “Holiday Book Of The Year”, after all, and I always get a kick out of tales of culture-shock and things lost in translation. The wonderful team at Profile Books (via Allen and Unwin) were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

It all begins with Von Sothern falling in love with a French waitress. With a bun in the oven, marriage on the horizon (“Bah, we can always get divorced!” she says, to warm his cold feet), and the events of September 11 hanging over their heads, they move to her native Paris to begin their new lives. He struggles to assimilate, but he turns those struggles into (mostly) hilarious anecdotes and insights for our enjoyment. The chapter that had me in stitches – knee-slapping, snort-laughing stitches – was “Wesh We Can”, about his fumbling attempts to make himself understood in French, absolutely the highlight of this generally charming book.

You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here by Frances Macken

You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here - Frances Macken - Keeping Up With The Penguins

You know that old saying, “you can’t choose your family”? Well, sometimes you don’t get to choose your friends, either. Katie grows up in the (fictional) Irish town of Glenbruff, where she has no choice but to become friends with the glamorous troublemaker Evelyn, and the wet blanket Maeve. They dream of escaping their small-town life someday, but in the meantime (as the title suggests) You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here. When Pamela – the “city girl” – moves to Glenbruff, the natural order of things is disrupted and this coming-of-age novel takes a dark turn… The fine folks at Oneworld (via Bloomsbury) were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here explores the intricacies and intimacies of intense female friendship against the backdrop of the Emerald Isle in the ’90s. Macken nails the traditional Irish blend of humour and horror, in short, sharp chapters that keep the story moving quickly. As a narrator, Katie is intriguing, and full of astute insights. This admirable debut lands right at the intersection of the Netflix series Derry Girls, and Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (both of which I love).

Get You Have To Make Your Own Fun Around Here here.

The Codes Of Love by Hannah Persaud

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It is always glorious to encounter a book about a marriage that deftly side-steps all the “how-we-met” or “how-we-killed-each-other” tropes. The Codes Of Love is an intimate, perhaps even voyeuristic, window to the ever-tantalising spectacle of an open marriage. When Ryan proposed to Emily, he envisaged for them a traditional monogamous union, but she insisted on a series of rules. One of them marks the beginning of each chapter: “Rules of an open marriage #12: Have no secrets from one another”, “Rules of an open marriage #14: Never treat each other like second-class partners”. Reader, it’s no spoiler to say that both Ryan and Emily break these rules, and that’s what makes this a story. The fine folks at Muswell Press, via Bloomsbury, were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

The Codes Of Love lands somewhere between Sally Rooney’s perennially popular Normal People and Simone de Beauvoir’s oft-overlooked She Came To Stay. When Ada sweeps into Ryan and Emily’s lives, she leaves a wake of deception and duplicity in her path. The timeline does jump back and forth a bit as events unfold, but the story takes place over such a short period (and the events are so closely interwoven) that it never feels disorienting. Steering clear of melodramatics and cliches, but always passionate, Pernaud delivers what she promises: “a page turning portrait of a contemporary marriage”.

May 2020

Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs

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Have you ever seen a whale? Face-to-face with the world’s largest creature, sadly beached on the coast of Western Australia, Rebecca Giggs was captivated. The dying humpback “inspired wonderment, a dilation of the ordinary”. She went on to write Fathoms, an extended meditation on whales and their place in history, ecology, economy, and mythology. The wonderful team at Scribe were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Much of our general knowledge about the whale is derived from its symbolic significance for the burgeoning green movement of the ’70s – we’ve all heard the catch-cry, seen the bumper stickers, “Save the whales!”. Giggs takes us back much further than that, to when the whale’s evolutionary ancestors walked on land. She brings us further forward too, to a world where the whale faces more threats than ever before. Plastics, sound pollution, even supposedly-responsible eco-tourism – all could be death knells for the whale. Fathoms is a meticulously researched book, rich in detail and emphatic in tone, one that draws our attention to something perhaps even larger than the whale: the legacy of humanity’s impact on the sea and skies.

Get Fathoms here.

The Animals In That Country by Laura Jean McKay

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From my review on Primer: Few authors would consider themselves lucky to be releasing a book in the midst of a global pandemic. Laura Jean McKay might be the only exception. Her new novel The Animals In That Country revolves around the outbreak of a highly infections sub-type of influenza that threatens the very fabric of society – sound familiar?

It’s an eerily prescient premise, right down to the conspiracy theories that proliferate on Facebook and the government ads that encourage people to “keep calm and stay indoors”. McKay is a masterful storyteller, and her talent truly shines in this story of family and belonging.

Get The Animals In That Country here.

Breasts And Eggs by Meiko Kawakami

Breasts And Eggs - Meiko Kawakami - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It’s not every day you come across a book recommended by Haruki Murakami – in fact, I think this might be the first I’ve ever read. He called it “breathtaking”, and has described Meiko Kawakami as his “favourite novelist”. That’s some high praise, right there! It turns out Kawakami is already quite a superstar in Japan – as a singer, blogger, and now award-winning literary writer – but Breasts And Eggs is the first of her books to be translated into English (by Sam Bett and David Boyd, #NameTheTranslator!). It was a true pleasure to receive this copy from Pan Macmillan Australia for review!

The story is told in two parts, each of which could stand alone but are brought together by their narrator (Natsuko, a writer living in Tokyo) and themes (womanhood, motherhood, and self-discovery). In Book One, Natsuko’s sister comes to town to get a breast enhancement surgery consultation, with her selectively mute daughter in tow. In Book Two, ten years later, Natsuko is forced to confront her ambivalence about sex, whether to have children, and her relationships with the other women in her life. What really shines is Kawakami’s eye for the mundane – the grocery shopping, the weather, the features of a flat – and her razor-sharp insight into the pressures women face, in Japan and everywhere. It would seem that some of the nuances of Osaka dialect are lost in translation, but Breasts And Eggs remains a riveting and revelatory read.

Get Breasts And Eggs here.

Mammoth by Chris Flynn

Mammoth - Chris Flynn - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Having just read his new release, Mammoth (sent to me by the fine folks at UQP), I’d imagine author Chris Flynn gets one question more than any other: “Mate, how the heck do you even come up with something like that?”. The premise is bold, ludicrous even: thirteen thousand odd years of natural history narrated by the fossil of an American mammoth (Mammut americanum, though he goes by Mammut). It sounds like it couldn’t work, it shouldn’t work… but it does.

On the night before the New York Natural History Auction in 2007, Mammut tells the (startlingly accurate) story of his life, death, and resurrection as a fossil. He’s been bandied about across the world for centuries by humans, “hominids”, to their own (often nefarious) ends. Through this unique perspective, Flynn is able to draw our attention to the entrenched racism and sexism that has underwritten our understanding of natural history, not to mention the inherent problems of turning nature into a spectacle in the name of capitalism, but miraculously the tone is never preachy or demoralising. In fact, this is a warm, charming, disarming, and funny book. Its critiques are perfectly balanced with revelations that made me snort-laugh (such as “Egyptians have a jizz god!”, courtesy of a fossilised penguin who is, in turn, called a “deformed duck” by the mummy with whom he shares a display). Mammoth reads as if Bill Bryson turned his hand to writing fiction. It’s one for the eco-conscious and sentimental among us, who are (clearly) in dire need of a good laugh and a bit of optimism about the state of the world.

Get Mammoth here.

Come by Rita Therese

Come - Rita Therese - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Our collective curiosity about sex work is probably only (very) slightly younger than the profession itself (being, as it is, the world’s oldest and all). However, it’s only recently that we’re seeing spaces open up for sex workers to tell their own stories, in their own words. That’s the basis of Come by Rita Therese, a memoir of her life as herself, and as Gia, the topless waitress, stripper, erotic masseuse, and escort. The wonderful team at Allen And Unwin are bringing it to the world, and they were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Therese has split her story into three broad sections: Sex, Love, and Death (which, in itself, should give you a pretty good indication of the tone of the book). It’s only vaguely linear – more like a series of vignettes cobbled together into a rough timeline, but flitting back and forth as she excavates the agonies and the ecstasies of her life. She is frank and forthright about her experiences of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll (okay, fine, more the former two than the latter), and she takes a really admirable warts-and-all approach to sharing her story. This is one for fans of Kate Holden’s In My Skin, or Belle de Jour’s Intimate Adventures Of A London Call Girl.

Throat by Ellen Van Neerven

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Throat is the sharp and stunning second poetry collection from award-winning Mununjali Yugambeh author Ellen Van Neerven. It throbs with recollections of country, family, love, and anger. The fine folks at University of Queensland Press published it as part of Van Neerven’s receipt of the 2020 UQP Quentin Bryce Award, and they were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Van Neerven’s poetry is at times sarcastic and satirical, at others simply searing, but always in the most deeply satisfying way. They never shy away from the political (“This country is a haunted house, governments still playing cat chasing marsupial mouse”) or the personal (“The Only Blak Queer In The World” is a heart-wrenching insight into the isolation of intersectionality, and the search for community and solace). The cities that ate Australia is particular perfection, as is Politicians having long showers on stolen land. I devoured Throat in a single sitting, and I’m sure I will savour it again over many more.

Tender Is The Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica

Tender Is The Flesh - Augustina. Bazterrica - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not going to lie: I copped a few surprised looks when I told people that I was reading (and captivated by) a book about cannibalism. I mean, in my defense, it’s a prizewinning Argentinian dystopia about the power of language, the bounds of humanity, and a searing critique of our exploitation of the earth… but still, they got all hung up on the cannibalism part. Weird, eh? Anyway, it’s Tender Is The Flesh by Augustina Bazterrica, translated into English by Sarah Moses and published by the wonderful team at Pushkin Press.

It has an eerily pertinent premise: a virus has ripped through the entire animal population, wild and domestic, making all meat entirely poisonous to humans. Companies and governments conspire to legalise and legitimise the breeding and consumption of humans for food – or, in the post-Transition parlance, “heads” for “special meat”. The protagonist is Marcos, a bigwig at a factory that raises and slaughters humans for butchers, tanneries, laboratories, and (hold onto your hat) a game reserve. Bazterrica never goes easy on the reader, not for one second – every aspect of her imagined world is described in stomach-churning detail, and every parallel to the current practices of factory farming and sanctioned animal abuses is well and truly hammered home. In fact, it could be read as something like a vegan rallying cry – and it’s up to the reader whether that resonates or rankles. Naturally, a trigger warning, but an extra-special one for folks like me who can handle all the human flesh consumption just fine but are absolutely destroyed when bad things happen to dogs in books (so many bad things, so many tears!). Tender Is The Flesh is a brilliant book, with much to say… just maybe don’t read it right before dinner.

Get Tender Is The Flesh here.


April 2020

The Recovery of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel

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Stephanie Wrobel’s debut novel, The Recovery of Rose Gold (called Darling Rose Gold in other regions), explores the twisted co-dependent relationship between mother and daughter that develops as a result of the mother’s Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. Penguin Books Australia was kind enough to send me a copy for review. It has all the hallmarks of a pacy thriller, but I tell you what, it’s refreshing to read one that doesn’t revolve around dead bodies and bloodshed. The Recovery of Rose Gold isn’t a “whodunnit”, but a sinister cat-and-mouse game of power and control.

MSBP is a relatively rare psychological condition, and as a premise for a thriller it’s fresh and fascinating. The story begins where most thrillers might end: with the mother, Patty, being released from prison and her daughter/victim, Rose Gold, accepting her back into her life in an apparent attempt at reconciliation. The story is told through their alternating perspectives, with Patty depicting the events of the present, and Rose Gold’s account of the past – the two, naturally, meet at the end when “all is revealed”. I would caution readers against reading this as a realistic portrayal of MSBP (the attempt at drawing linear causation for Patty’s condition is over-simplified at best), nor should it be read as a direct fictionalisation of the real-life case of Gypsy Rose Blanchard. Still, it’s satisfying and compelling without being hackneyed or overwrought.

Get The Recovery Of Rose Gold here.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor

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After the American Dirt controversy earlier this year, I was eager to pick up more #ownvoices Central and South American literature. That’s why I was overjoyed to receive this copy of Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor (translated into English by Sophie Hughes) from the wonderful team at Text Publishing. Recently short-listed for the 2020 International Booker Prize, this murder mystery (of sorts) set in rural Mexico is actually inspired by real events, an honest-to-goodness witch hunt, near Melchor’s hometown. It all begins when a group of children discover a decomposing body in a canal, that of the local Witch, and the story unfolds through the perspectives of bystanders, accomplices, and (of course) the perpetrators…

That sounds benign enough, but I’ve got to tell you: this is a HEAVY read, more horror than whodunnit. Trigger warnings for literally everything you can imagine. It has these beautiful long lyrical sentences that lure you in, but the visceral, carnal, brutal nature of the events it depicts are not for the faint of heart. This is a challenging and confronting read that will certainly stand the test of time – if you need a “light” read right now, though, it might be best to save Hurricane Season for later.

Get Hurricane Season here.

Mazel Tov by J.S. Margot

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In 1987, J.S. Margot was a mini-skirted university student, and she took a job as a tutor to a family with four children. There would be nothing remarkable about that story, except that the Schneider family were Orthodox Jews, and their household was a world entirely unfamiliar to her. Her memoir, Mazel Tov, traces the strange nature of their relationship, right through to the present day. Though Margot has previously written five novels, this is her first book of non-fiction, and the first to be translated into English. The translation was undertaken by Jane Hedley-Prôle, and the fine folks at Pushkin Press were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

I was expecting a cutesy strange bedfellows read, full of funny anecdotes about culture clash and sweet moments of revelation. Mazel Tov is nothing like that. It’s a reserved, but provocative, account of family and religion, and also language, politics, marriage, history, and oppression. The children of the Schneider family are curious, but pious, and in many ways end up teaching Margot more than she teaches them.

March 2020

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

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Zelda is 21 years old. She lives with her older brother, Gert, and she’s obsessed with Vikings. Not the TV show, or the football team – literal Vikings, the Norse people who kicked around Northern Europe up until the 11th century. Zelda’s a little bit different, and she knows that, but she’s figured out how to get by in the world. Then, she figures out that Gert has made friends with some not-nice people who are getting him to do not-nice things for money… and she decides to take matters into her own hands, the way her Viking heroes would. Simon & Schuster were kind enough to send me a copy of When We Were Vikings for review.

Despite dealing with some very dark themes (trigger warnings for violence, abuse, and rape), this is a surprisingly charming and endearing novel from debut author Andrew David MacDonald. Zelda’s differences make her awkward and difficult to deal with at times, but she’s also earnest, enthusiastic, and caring. I liked that MacDonald told her story tenderly, without making Zelda a spectacle or an object of pity. When We Were Vikings is never condescending, always compassionate, and achieves the perfect balance between drama and humour. This is a must-read if you’re in the mood for an uplifting story about what to do when life deals you a shitty hand.

Get When We Were Vikings here.

Going Dark by Julia Ebner

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By day, Julia Ebner is a journalist and a research fellow, working at a counter-extremism think tank that monitors the activity of radical groups right across the spectrum. You’d think that after a long day at work, she’d want to come home, put her feet up, and binge-watch ’90s sit-coms. But, no: Ebner spends her spare time going undercover in the online world of extremists, taking on secret identities to gain access to the darkest corners of the internet that you can imagine. She shares her experiences in Going Dark, and Bloomsbury was kind enough to send me a copy for review.

The question nagging at the back of the mind of anyone who picks up a book like this is “could I become radicalised online and not even know it?”. The scary answer is: probably. We have all felt as lonely and hard-done-by as the people that Ebner finds in groups for trad-wives, in-cels, jihadists, and white supremacists. She goes above and beyond to provide this multi-dimensional view of online extremism, but shows remarkable restraint in not sensationalising the subject matter. Everyone should read Going Dark, if for no other reason than what you don’t know can hurt you.

Get Going Dark here.

the lactic acid in the calves of your despair by Ali Whitelock

the lactic acid in the calves of your despair - Ali Whitelock - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

It will come as no surprise that Ali Whitelock’s follow up to and my heart crumples like a coke can is every bit as glorious, gory, witty, and wonderful as you hoped it would be (and then some). I never cease to be amazed by this poet’s incredible talent to tickle, tantalise, delight, and devastate. Personal favourite from this collection has to be NOTES from the six week course entitled: ‘a beginner’s guide to writing poetry’, but an honourable mention must go to if you have no eyes where do the tears go?, and (of course) the poem that became a viral sensation during the Australian bush fires earlier this year, this is coal don’t be afraid. Ali Whitelock continues to give ’em hell, and it’s an honour to watch her do it.

Get the lactic acid in the calves of your despair here.

The Temple House Vanishing by Rachel Donohue

The Temple House Vanishing - Rachel Donohue - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Twenty-five years ago, a teenage student of Temple House vanished, along with her enigmatic and charming art teacher. In the (roughly) present day, a journalist with a childhood connection to the girl decides to investigate. She uncovers multiple stories of unrequited love, artistic passion, obsession, fantasy, and betrayal. That’s the premise of The Temple House Vanishing, the debut novel from Irish writer Rachel Donohue. The fine folks at Corvus (via Allen & Unwin) were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

It might sound like your standard girl-goes-missing mystery/thriller, but Donohue manages to use a well-worn plot to interrogate all manner of very literary themes: class, religion, jealousy. I was particularly taken with the way she presented the ramifications of our collective obsession with true crime. The Temple House Vanishing starts with a bang (major trigger warning), then simmers, until it boils over once again in a dramatic conclusion. It’s a must read for fans of Picnic At Hanging Rock, or The Secret History.

Get The Temple House Vanishing here.

The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

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How can we distinguish sanity from insanity? It’s a personal question for Susannah Cahalan, who was destined for a psychiatric institution before a doctor corrected her misdiagnosis and saved her life. It was also the life’s work of a psychology professor, David Rosenhan, who published an explosive study back in the 1970s. He set out to prove just how little we know about how to diagnose and treat mental illness, by having eight “sane” people committed and testing the flawed and arbitrary system of psychiatric diagnosis first-hand. That study had huge ramifications for the provision of mental health treatment, right through to the present day… but can we trust its findings?

Now, don’t mistake The Great Pretender for a anti-psychiatry conspiracy-theorist beat-up. In fact, it is a clear-eyed examination of a turning point in the history of mental health care, in the style of Susan Orlean or Jon Ronson. Cahalan has done the legwork, chasing shadows and ghosts through the annals of the asylums, trying to establish the veracity of Rosenhan’s claims. This is a must-read for anyone affected by mental illness (which, as we know, is pretty much everyone… isn’t it?).

Get The Great Pretender here.

The Love That Remains by Susan Francis

The Love That Remains - Susan Francis - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Susan Francis’ self-declared “obsession” with writing about the truth began with her search for her biological parents. She was privately adopted as an infant, and with her adoptive mother declining in late-stage Alzheimer’s, she went looking for answers about her past. Along the way, she found Wayne, the love of her life. Don’t make any snap judgements or assumptions, though: the story that unfolds in The Love That Remains is not the one that you’d expect. The fine folks at Allen And Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

These events – finding and meeting her birth parents (“Finding My Past”), and finding and meeting Wayne (“Finding Love”) – unfold in the first two parts of the book. The third part (“Finding Myself”), is something different entirely. In it, Francis discovers new truths that challenge everything she thought she knew about the man she married. She’s forced to confront uncomfortable questions: how well can we ever really know a person? Where are love’s bounds? Should we seek out our past to find peace, or focus on the present? The Love That Remains will be a great late-summer read for any fan of Liz Gilbert’s memoirs, with an interest in the big Ls (love, loss, and lies).

Get The Love That Remains here.

February 2020

Fauna by Donna Mazza

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Fauna is perhaps best classified as “eco-gothic speculative fiction”, but that’s a bit of a tongue twister. It falls somewhere between feminist dystopias, like The Handmaid’s Tale, and contemporary Australian climate fiction, like Dyschronia. In it, Donna Mazza imagines a too-near speculative future where a company, Lifeblood(R), offers huge incentives for women to join an experimental genetics program splicing non-human DNA into embryos for in-vitro fertilisation. My thanks to Allen & Unwin for this review copy!

I can’t tell you too much about the plot of Fauna, because – as is the way with speculative novels – most of the impact comes from the slow unveiling of the truth. What I will say is that it grapples with big themes (the nature of personhood, motherhood, grief, yearning, and reckoning with one’s deal with the devil), and it will surely spark a lot of debate at book club!

I Choose Elena by Lucia Osborne-Crowley

I Choose Elena - Lucia Osborne-Crowley - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Every book lover I know, at some time or another, has sought solace in a book. I Choose Elena, a long-form literary essay from Lucia Osborne-Crowley, explores that impulse at its very extreme. For over a decade, Osborne-Crowley suffered horrific, debilitating symptoms stemming back to a sexual assault in her teens. Now, she expands upon her struggle to come to a place where she could choose what defines her: the actions of a violent man, the illness of her body, or the joy and wonder she found in the works of writers like Elena Ferrante. As the title might suggest, she chooses Elena. Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

You don’t need to be familiar with Ferrante (or any other of the dozens of writers Osborne-Crowley references) to find yourself deeply immersed and irrevocably moved by this story. It’s not often that a book will bring me to tears, even less so a literary essay, but this one did (more than once): tears of anguish, tears of fury, tears of gratitude. I Choose Elena is a must-read for fans of Fiona Wright, Gabrielle Jackson, and Bri Lee.

Get I Choose Elena here.

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

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Evie Wyld’s new novel, The Bass Rock, stretches across centuries to examine the various forms of violence visited upon women by men. There are three protagonists: Sarah, in the 1700s, accused of being a witch and forced to flee into the woods; Ruth, navigating a new home, a new husband, and a new family in the wake of WWII; and Viv, in the present day, forced to reckon with the weight of inter-generational trauma and dysfunction. In their shared setting, the west coast of Scotland, their connections emerge gradually and deftly, like the weaving of a spider’s web. The fine folks at Penguin (Vintage Books) Australia were kind enough to send me this copy for review.

It’s hardly an easy read, disturbing at times, in line with Wyld’s comment that she “writes around things that scare her”. The shifts in perspective are disorienting by design, and each scene is painted so vividly that one can practically smell the salty sea air. Unsettling, uncanny, and unforgiving, there is an eerie timelessness to this story that will stick with you long after you’ve turned the final page.

Get The Bass Rock here.

Jane In Love by Rebecca Givney

Jane In Love - Rebecca Givney - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A romantic comedy for book lovers, and just in time for Valentine’s Day! Imagine that Jane Austen travelled through time to the present day, and fell in love. Would she stay, knowing that choosing love meant erasing herself from literary history? Or would she go back, knowing that it meant missing her chance at a happily-ever-after? That’s the premise of Jane In Love, the debut novel of Sydney screenwriter and filmmaker Rebecca Givney. The fine folks at Penguin Books Australia were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

This probably isn’t one for the Austen purists. I mean, I’m only a casual fan, and even I was a bit perturbed by Austen as the boy-crazy love-hearts-for-eyes type of heroine, and also by the relative absence of her sister, Cassandra, from the narrative (given her importance in Austen’s “real” life). Still, this was a delightful, warm, and easy read that seamlessly merged the 19th and 21st centuries – definitely a great bookish gift for your historical-fiction-loving Valentine.

Get Jane In Love here.

In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

In The Dream House - Carmen Maria Machado - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

A blurb that promises a book “revolutionises” a genre, especially one as saturated as memoir, seems quite literally unbelievable. But I’m here to tell you the truth: Carmen Maria Machado has done it with In The Dream House. It is an intimate, horrifying, beautiful, defiant, heartfelt, multi-dimensional account of her formative – and abusive – love affair with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. I am extremely grateful to the fine folks at Serpent’s Tail and Allen & Unwin for sending me this copy to review.

This is a Rubik’s cube of a book, examining the subject from every possible angle, twisting and turning upon itself until all the edges line up. Some of the chapters are fragments, some are longer recollections, some mine the depths of pop culture and literature and art and critical theory in search of representation. I gulped this book down greedily, like a strong drink at the end of a particularly hard day.

Get In The Dream House here.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

American Dirt - Jeanine Cummins - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

From my review on Primer: American Dirt is already shaping up to be the most divisive book of the year. On the one hand, it’s been heralded as The Grapes Of Wrath for the 21st century. It’s Oprah’s first book club pick of 2020, and Ann Patchett has said she’ll “never stop thinking about it”. On the other hand, critics have derided the author, Jeanine Cummins, for misrepresenting cultures and experiences that are not her own, and proliferating “trauma porn”. So, which is it? A masterpiece, or a mangled mess of misappropriation?

Get American Dirt here.


January 2020

Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain

Big Lies In A Small Town - Diane Chamberlain - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

I’m not too big to admit when I’m wrong (it’s rare, but it does happen). I took one look at Big Lies In A Small Town and thought “ugh, another domestic thriller pot boiler, snooze”. Lies are the new Girls in book titles, after all. But, once again, there’s something to that whole not-judging-a-book-by-its-cover thing. Many thanks to the fine folks at Macmillan for sending me this copy for review, and inadvertently keeping me humble…

The story centers around a Depression-era mural: the woman commissioned to paint it (who disappeared under mysterious circumstances), and the woman charged with restoring it for installation, nearly eight decades later. Big Lies In A Small Town is fictional, but the town of Edenton and the themes Chamberlain explores (race, privilege, and opportunity) are very real. Don’t skip past this one at the airport – it’s worth it!

Pssst: Christine at The Uncorked Librarian featured my write-up of Big Lies In A Small Town in her fantastic round-up of books set in North Carolina here!

Get Big Lies In A Small Town here.

Shark Arm by Phillip Roope & Kevin Meagher

Shark Arm - Phillip Roope & Kevin Meagher - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The first line of Shark Arm sets it up beautifully: “On 25 April 1935, a 4.4 metre tiger shark – caught one week earlier off the coast of New South Wales – horrified onlookers at a Sydney aquarium when it vomited up a human arm.” This is one of the most bizarre and unlikely true crime stories in recorded Australian history, and this new book turns every stone in an attempt to get to the truth of the decades-old cold case. Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

The “shark arm”, as it obviously became known, led police down a rabbit hole of smuggling, insurance fraud, and – not one, but two – grisly murders. Though it’s presented in classic true crime fashion, complete with glossy photograph inserts, Shark Arm is the perfect read for Aussie history buffs, particularly those with a keen interest in law enforcement bungles.

Get Shark Arm here.

Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Such A Fun Age - Kiley Reid - Book Laid On Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Such A Fun Age is the debut novel from American author Kiley Reid. It might look like a sweet summer read, but underneath lurks a serious critique of race, class, and good intentions. The fine folks at Bloomsbury were kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Emira is a young woman still struggling to find her feet. As she stumbles through her twenties, she makes ends meet with a baby-sitting job, employed by the feminist advocate and “personal brand” Alix. One night, at a supermarket, Emira is pulled up by security, suspected of kidnapping the young (white) child in her charge. The whole incident is filmed by a witness, Kelley, but he swears to Emira that he’ll never release the footage. As love blooms between Emira and Kelley, she discovers that he and Alix are connected in a way she never could have predicted. Each has their own account of their history, and their own opinions about what’s best for Emira’s future…

Get Such A Fun Age here.

Rabbits For Food by Binnie Kirshenbaum

Rabbits For Food - Binnie Kirshenbaum - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Bunny lives in New York. She’s 43 years old. She’s a writer. She’s a middle child. She’s married to a zoologist, named Albie. She has a cat named Jeffery. She also has depression. Rabbits For Food is split into two parts: the events that lead up to her breakdown on New Year’s Eve 2008, and her experiences in the psych ward of a prestigious mental hospital after the fact. The fine folks at Allen & Unwin were kind enough to send me this edition from Serpent’s Tail for review.

Bunny is flawed, no doubt about it, but she is also wry, sarcastic, and extremely endearing. I’m almost certain I’ve already found one of my best reads of the year. Before I was halfway through Rabbits For Food, I knew I wanted to press it into the hands of all of my friends. If you have a dark sense of humour, and appreciate searing insight into the ridiculousness of social niceties, this is the book for you.

Get Rabbits For Food here.



Want even MORE ? Check out my reviews of the best book releases of 2019 here.


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