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The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey
Caitlin is sure she’s going to die. That’s why she joins meetings of The Morbids every Tuesday, a support group that promises “a unique first-step program for treatment of anxiety, specifically as related to death and dying”. Every other day of the week, she self-medicates by plunging head-first into anything she thinks will keep the Thoughts at bay: walking, work, booze, boys… When she finds out her best friend Lina is getting married, though, she realises none of it will be enough. She’s going to have to tackle her demons for real.
The Morbids is a strange, sparkly novel (literally, the cover is pink glitter!). Even though it’s heavy on trigger-warning-worthy content (depression, self-destructive behaviour, death), it’s also a romantic comedy, with a charming leading man and an evil ex to boot. I loved the Sydney setting, as Caitlin spent a lot of time walking streets I know well. It would be a great pick for fans of Georgina Young’s Loner, released earlier this year. All told, this is a wry but graceful novel about love, friendship, and a fixation on death – who can’t relate to that, just a little, at the moment?
Get The Morbids here.
Ordinary Matter by Laura Elvery
Since the establishment of the Nobel Prizes in 1901, only twenty total have been awarded to women (including Marie Curie, twice). Laura Elvery’s new collection, Ordinary Matter, draws upon each of these awards to create short, slice-of-life stories, all rich with lush sensory detail (just like the gorgeous cover!). The collection gives us glimpses into worlds past, present, and yet to come. The amazing team at UQP were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Let’s be clear, however: the stories in Ordinary Matter aren’t about the women who won the Nobel Prizes, or even necessarily the work they did to win them. I wish that had been clearer from the outset. Instead, the stories are inspired by them, often only tangentially related to their discoveries. Without the link highlighted by the winner’s name and commendation appearing at the beginning of each story, you’d probably never make the connection. A (slightly) longer biography is provided for each woman in the final pages, and I would highly recommend reading that first, for context. Some of the stories are a bit forgettable, but others linger, like Something Close To Gold (the story of a baby washing up on a beach, and the mysterious government department charged with handling the discovery), and The Bodies Are Buried (a speculative projection into a future that seems realistic, but sinister). Even with Elvery’s close attention to detail, each story feels like it stops just short, all of them withholding something from the reader. Overall, Ordinary Matter is a mixed bag, but the premise alone will be enough to draw you in.
Get Ordinary Matter here.
I Give My Marriage A Year by Holly Wainwright
How far would you go to save your marriage? That’s the question facing Lou on New Year’s Day as she weighs up whether to leave or stay with Josh, her husband of fourteen years. She sets herself a deadline, one year from that day, to make up her mind. That’s the premise of Holly Wainwright’s third novel, I Give My Marriage A Year (kindly sent to me by the folks at Macmillan for review). The year unfolds between Lou and Josh’s alternating perspectives, with much wistful recollection (i.e., painfully nostalgic exposition) of how they met and fell in love to begin with.
I’m sorry to say I didn’t enjoy I Give My Marriage A Year; in fact, I found myself struggling to care about it or its characters at all. It lacked the passion of Sally Rooney, the sharp perception of Charlotte Wood, and the suspense of Liane Moriarty – without those, there’s not much left. Wainwright tried her best to tell a “relatable” story, and unfortunately ended up hashing over very worn ground: a white, middle-class couple with kids, the wife underappreciated, the husband’s masculinity threatened. I found myself wishing desperately that one or both of them would shit or get off the pot. In fairness, this book is probably aimed at an older crowd, and I’m sure many other readers will enjoy it… but it’s not a stand-out, and it’s not for me.
Get I Give My Marriage A Year here.
When I Was Ten by Fiona Cummins
The most sensational crimes always involve children, as victims… or perpetrators. The latter is the focus of Fiona Cummins’ new crime novel, When I Was Ten. Chronologically, the story begins with Dr and Mrs Carter found stabbed to death with a pair of scissors, and their daughter – ten year old Sara Carter – incarcerated for the crime. Through alternating perspectives and weaving timelines, Cummins reveals the truth of what really happened that night, and the ripple effects that have irrevocably changed the lives of three women. The amazing team at Macmillan Australia were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Crime thrillers aren’t just crime thrillers anymore: it’s impossible for fiction writers to ignore our collective obsession with true crime journalism. When I Was Ten will not satisfy the die-hard fans of the old-fashioned whodunnit, because the answer is abundantly obvious from the start (and the red-herrings half-hearted at best). However, the political ramifications of the crime – and the resurgence of media interest upon its anniversary – are resonant and timely. What I found most captivating about this novel, I must admit, was trying to picture Cummins sitting at her computer writing some of the cruelest forms of abuse and degradation I have ever read; her search history must have her on a watch-list somewhere. When I Was Ten is unlikely to change your life, but it will at least turn your stomach and make you want to hug your children.
Get When I Was Ten here.
Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron
I know we shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover… but judging it by its title is fine, right? Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls is a corker. I would’ve picked up this book no matter what it was about. Luckily, Nina Renata Aron has the chops to back it up. This is an incredible memoir about love and addiction, from the perspective of the one who loves the addict. As Aron herself points out, the literature on addiction written by addicts is vast and varied, with her role too-often relegated to that of “supporting cast”. She clearly took Toni Morrison’s advice to heart: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it,”.
The central narrative of the book is Aron’s relationship with K, an addict whose first taste of opioid painkillers came after a cancer recurrence. But Aron also joins the dots with her sister’s addiction, and that of her mother’s boyfriend, and the broader view of the historically gendered labour of addiction, to explain how she found herself raising a child with a man who couldn’t start the day without using. Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls is a unflinching account of a life of co-dependency, a must-read for fans of Kate Holden, Cheryl Strayed, and Susannah Cahalan.
Get Good Morning, Destroyer Of Men’s Souls here.
Reasonable Doubt by Xanthé Mallett
You can’t swing a bookmark without hitting a true crime book these days, or an earbud without hitting a true crime podcast. We are obsessed with stories of high-tech sleuthing that solves cold cases and justice found for victims. Some of us even develop our own theories about what went wrong in an investigation… but we pay relatively little attention to convictions gone wrong, to the miscarriages of justice that lead to innocent people being imprisoned. Dr Xanthé Mallet, internationally-renowned forensic scientist and criminologist, sets out to restore the balance and shine a spotlight on this neglected issue in Reasonable Doubt (which the team at Macmillan were kind enough to send to this true-crime junkie for review).
Mallett uses a series of case studies to explore the systemic failures of our criminal justice system. My stomach churned as I read case after case of wrongfully convicted people released after years, their lives in tatters, with little more than a “lol soz”. She focuses on the factors of a case that increase the likelihood of a wrongful conviction, with particular attention to race and disability, and carefully explains forensic and legal processes that might otherwise escape your average armchair detective (e.g., do you understand the important distinction between “new” and “fresh” evidence? I didn’t, until I read Reasonable Doubt). By examining how and why miscarriages of justice occur, Mallett reveals opportunities for us to avoid them, and highlights the importance of making adequate restitution where they do occur.
Get Reasonable Doubt here.
Nothing Can Hurt You by Nicola May Goldberg
Nothing Can Hurt You starts where just about every thriller starts nowadays: a dead girl, brutally murdered, in the woods. Nicola Maye Goldberg sets out to do something different, though, a deliberate reinvention (some are saying subversion) of the “dead girl” trope. Instead of a hard-drinking cop playing cat-and-mouse with a serial killer before he strikes again, the story unfolds through the perspectives (one per chapter, like self-contained short stories) of people peripherally or directly affected by the murder: the woman who finds the body, a school friend, a crime reporter, a fellow patient at the perpetrator’s rehab clinic…
You know whodunnit right from the start (Blake, the victim’s boyfriend, in a state of psychosis). There’s no shock twists or big reveals to come. Instead, the story follows the ripple effects of a momentous act, and in so doing reveals how gender-based violence exists in our day-to-day lives. This is a thriller for the #MeToo era, one that examines how and why male killers become celebrities while female victims are forgotten. My eternal gratitude to the team at Raven Books for sending this one through for review!
Get Nothing Can Hurt You here.
Loner by Georgina Young
Lona has dropped out of uni, and no one is sure why – least of all her. She’s still hanging on to her high-school job at the local roller-skating rink, but other than that she doesn’t seem to have a whole hell of a lot going on. Why would she rather be at home binge-watching Buffy than out at parties with her best (and really only) friend, Tab? Why has she given up on her artistic dreams? Will she ever get her shit together? You’ll have to read Loner by Georgina Young to find out (as I did, courtesy of the wonderful team at Text Publishing).
In short, sharp chapters, Loner explores some lofty stuff – what is Art(TM)? What’s the difference between being lonely and being alone? How should we navigate “growing up”? But Young uses a light touch, examining the anxieties and complexities of contemporary youth in a way that feels realistic and grounded. Loner lands in that liminal space between Young Adult and Adult-Adult, the millennial love-child of John Green and Sally Rooney. It’s a novel that will make all young Australian introverts feel seen, and appreciated.
Get Loner here.
How To Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa
How To Pronounce Knife is the debut short story collection of Toronto-based poet Souvankham Thammavongsa (kindly sent to me for review by the fine folks at Bloomsbury Publishing). Fourteen slices-of-life depict the vastly different lived experiences of Lao refugees of all ages, genders, and creeds. These are stories of humour, hurt, hope, and honour. What they have in common, the through line, is the pursuit of a place to belong and the discombobulation of see-sawing between cultures.
Every piece in this collection is deeply affecting, that strange combination of sweet and soul-crushing. The story of the printer of wedding invitations – The Universe Would Be So Cruel – moved me to literal tears. The fear and sadness is offset by moments of absurdity and insight (“A laugh, in any language, was a laugh” says one protagonist on page 43, such a simple and beautiful piece of wisdom we would all do well to remember). I gobbled these stories down, but in retrospect I wish I hadn’t: How To Pronounce Knife would benefit from slow and careful consideration (so I’ll definitely read it again, and soon).
Get How To Pronounce Knife here.
Sex And Vanity by Kevin Kwan
Sex And Vanity begins with 19-year-old Lucie attending the Capri wedding of her former babysitter, escorted by her older cousin who intends to “keep her out of trouble”. Of course, trouble finds Lucie regardless, in the form of the charismatic and enigmatic George Zao. All of the players are rich beyond measure, and the wedding is an exercise in especially-conspicuous consumption, exactly what you’d expect from the pen of Kevin Kwan (of Crazy Rich Asians fame).
I came to this one with high hopes for a light-hearted summer romp through the lifestyles of the rich and famous. It delivers, but unfortunately the sparkling premise is let down by flat prose. Every page is littered with adverbs (how often can your main character do something “nervously”?), the dialogue is stilted, and the story (loosely based on E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View) just didn’t have enough substance to compensate for its lack of style. That said, even though it wasn’t for me, I’m sure Sex And Vanity will still find its audience.
Get Sex And Vanity here.
A Room Made Of Leaves by Kate Grenville
I don’t tend to read a lot of Australian historical fiction, mostly because I resent the wistful, whitewashed, romantic versions of our colonial past that it tends to present… but when the wonderful team at Text Publishing sent me a copy of Kate Grenville’s A Room Made Of Leaves for review, I set my skepticism aside and gave it a go. This book is an imagined memoir of Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850), the wife of wool baron John Macarthur, whom history has all but erased. Grenville dedicates it “to all those whose stories have been silenced”, and it speaks to those gaps in the archive – a work of historical fiction for the #metoo era.
A Room Made Of Leaves tells the story of how young Elizabeth Veale came to marry the pompous, volatile Macarthur and move with him to the penal colony of Sydney Town. While Grenville doesn’t explicitly explore the violence wrought upon the First Nations people the Macarthurs encountered (as she has done in previous books), she does portray those early interactions in a way that feels true to the story and its characters. All told, this book is like True History Of The Kelly Gang meets Jane Austen – despite myself, I was absorbed, intrigued, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Get A Room Made Of Leaves here.
The Phone Box At The Edge Of The World by Laura Imai Messia
Each year, thousands of people undertake a pilgrimage to a garden in the north-east of Japan, one of the areas worst affected by the 2011 tsunami. There stands a phone box, the Wind Phone, that anyone is free to use to speak to loved ones who are lost or missing. It sounds like fiction, but it’s true – I first heard about it on This American Life. Laura Imai Messia is an Italian author who has been living in Japan for the past fifteen years, and she has taken this remarkable true story and used it as the basis of her new novel, The Phone Box At The Edge Of The World (translated into English by Lucy Rand). The wonderful team at Bonnier (via Allen and Unwin) were kind enough to send me a copy for review.
Yui lost her mother and daughter in the tsunami. When she seeks out the Wind Phone, hoping for answers and strength, she meets Takeshi, who is doing the same. He is a bereaved widower, whose young daughter stopped speaking altogether in the wake of their loss. The story unfolds around Yui and Takeshi as they return to the phone box, again and again. It’s a beautiful premise, but for me the prose fell a little short. I guess I was expecting something like a blend of Sayaka Murata and Elena Ferrante, but the tone of The Phone Box At The Edge Of The World is closer to Cecilia Ahern or Marian Keyes. It’s a fine story of losing and finding family, but unfortunately it doesn’t quite live up to the heart-wrenching stories of the real-life Wind Phone.
Get The Phone Box At The Edge Of The World here.
A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu
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.
Get A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing here.
The Safe Place by Anna Downes
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
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 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
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”.
Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
The Recovery of Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel
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
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
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.
Get Mazel Tov here.
When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Fauna by Donna Mazza
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Big Lies In A Small Town by Diane Chamberlain
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
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 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
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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