Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Ella Baxter, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher

‘New Animal’ by Ella Baxter

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 240 pages; 2021.

Ella Baxter’s New Animal is one of the best books I have read all year. And I have read a lot of great books in 2021, so many in fact I’m wondering how on earth I am going to choose just 10 for my best books of the year post, which I generally publish on New Year’s Eve.

If I had to sum up in one word what this novel was all about, it would be this: grief.

This doesn’t make it sound all that interesting. And this may be why the blurb makes it sound like it’s a novel solely about sex. While sex — specifically one-night stands and BDSM — does feature heavily in this story, that’s not the prime focus. Indeed, sex is used by the narrator, 28-year-old Amelia Aurelia, as a displacement activity, a way to feel something with her body while her emotions remain very tightly held in check, but there’s more going on below the surface.

This is a blackly comic tale about what it is to be alive when everyone around you is dead — literally — for Amelia works in a funeral parlour, where she’s employed as a beautician: she applies make-up to those bodies that will lie in an open casket.

I hold up a few of the foundations next to Jennifer’s face so I can see which one will suit, and settle on two. It’s good practice to use the client’s personal make-up mixed with some industry standards. For an undamaged face like Jennifer’s, you can just use an oil-based, full coverage foundation. Chemist brands are highly pigmented and do the job well. Most of us are already using the make-up that we will wear at our funerals, unless something severe happens.

 

UK edition

Despite most people thinking Amelia’s job is creepy, she loves it, not least because she gets to work with her beloved mother and step-father, who owns the business, and her brother who is in a live-in relationship with two other people. (It’s a proper family business, in that sense.)

But when her mother unexpectedly dies, Amelia is thrown into disarray. She does not want to attend the funeral, so books herself a ticket to see her father, who lives in Tasmania. It is here, holed up on his rural property, that she takes her sex life up a level by attending a bondage party with a bloke she meets online.

What ensues is horrific, but it doesn’t seem to put Amelia off. Instead, the pain and humiliation seem to be something she begins to seek out, begging the question: why is she doing it?

Quirky and humorous

This might make the story seem oppressive, but it’s not. It’s quirky, blackly funny and features some terrific one-liners and brilliantly humorous dialogue.

And while the characters are unconventional, they’re not caricatures. In fact, they are well-drawn, alive and believable.

The BDSM scenes are outrageously funny, although they’re also rather concerning because they indicate that Amelia is acting out in an attempt to obliterate past traumas. In as much as I never like to medically diagnose a fictional character, I can’t help but wonder if Amelia might be suffering from PTSD of some form.

Millennial angst

It could be argued that New Animal fits into that new genre of “Millennial angst” (see Sally Rooney, Naoise Dolan et al), but it’s nowhere near as navel-gazing as most of those stories and is highly original. I’d go as far as to argue that Amelia is relatively happy. She has a job she loves, a supportive family and doesn’t dream of bigger, unattainable things.

Her problem is that she’s unable to emotionally process her feelings (or lack thereof), especially in relation to all the dead bodies she deals with in her job, many of them the result of suicide or accident, and uses sex as a means of escape.

What I needed was to be flattened, squashed and folded under another person. I can’t just remain all stretched out from the day. Like all the people I see in the late afternoons, or evenings, or early hours of the morning, he [her latest hook-up] was going to move me out of my head and into my body. He was going to fill me up with physical feeling to the point where emotions and thoughts were wrung out. And then, sayonara, thank you very much.

US edition

New Animal will be published in the UK by Picador and the US by Two Dollar Radio next February. (For the record, I much prefer the Australian cover.)

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessica Tu: This Australian novel is an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out.

‘Queenie’ by Candice Carty-Williams: Set in modern-day south London, this compelling debut novel follows the ups and downs of a young Black journalist, Queenie, as she navigates life without her beloved (white) boyfriend, Tom.

This is my 25th book for #AWW2021. 

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘7½’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 360 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In 1963, the Italian film director Federico Fellini directed a film called in which a troubled filmmaker struggles to get a new movie off the ground. Weighed down by the project, he retreats into the inner world of his thoughts, recalling past and present romantic entanglements, which, in turn, begin to affect his film work so that it becomes increasingly more autobiographical.

Christos Tisolkas’ new novel, 7½, transposes that idea into the world of literature, placing himself as the central character who is working on a new novel, all the while getting lost in his own thoughts, remembering his childhood and writing a memoir of sorts.

Three storylines woven together

I have three stories I wish to tell. The simple nature of our craft is to vomit these stories out on a page. It is an ugly analogy but I think it is apt.

The book is comprised of three main threads, which evolve over time, and criss-cross over each other like an intricately woven tapestry. It’s a book that merges meta-fiction with auto-fiction, throws in some nature writing, offers lots of musings and thoughts about art and beauty, love and eroticism, and attempts to explain the meaning of literature and why novelists do what they do. But despite these many disparate threads, it feels like a seamless, effortless whole.

In the first thread, we meet a writer called Christos Tsiolkas who has headed to the southern NSW coast for a couple of weeks solitude to focus on his writing. Here, in a beach-side cottage, he goes for daily swims, breathes in the beauty of the world around him and shuts out all distractions, including his mobile phone which he locks away in a room, only using it to call his partner who remains behind in Melbourne.

The second thread is about writing and why Christos has decided to shun the usual topics — “Morality or Politics or Race or Class or Gender or Sexuality” — he covers in his work. We find out about the genesis of his new novel, which may or may not become a screenplay for a film.  He tells us how he came up with the idea, why it’s important to him and how he is struggling to write it — and then we get to read it in what feels like real-time as the story develops. This novel is about an American porn star, Paul Carrigan, who lives in Australia and is married to an Australian woman with whom he has a teenage son. Carrigan is offered $180,000 to sleep with an ageing fan in California, and the novel follows what happens when he makes the trip.

The third and final thread is the story of Christos’ own life, beginning with memories of his childhood in working-class Melbourne where he was raised by his Greek immigrant parents. Much of what he writes tries to explain how his personal beliefs, his homosexuality and his appreciation of art and beauty have all been shaped by his experiences.

A book about beauty

It can sometimes be a risk for a writer to include different threads in the one work because there’s always the danger that a reader will prefer one over another. But I enjoyed all of the storylines in 7½, perhaps because they were woven together so skilfully but also perhaps because they inform each other: you know, for instance, that Christos watched porn as a young man and that informed his decision to write a novel about a porn star.

I especially enjoyed his musings on literature — he doesn’t claim the novel is dead, but he does say it has become  “timid” and “cowardly”, with writers looking over their shoulders seeking approval from peers, colleagues, friends and social media, instead of being true to their selves. Later he accuses novelists of becoming homogenised:

Every bloody novelist sounds the same now, whether they are American or Austrian or Angolan or Andalusian or Australian. All the same cant, all the same desire to shape the world to their academic whims and aspirations. All this compassion and all this outrage and all this empathy and all this sorrow and all this fear and all this moralising and not one sentence of surprise in it.

Perhaps one of the most telling scenes in the book is when Christos has a frank conversation with his friend Andrea about his work. He confesses that he is writing a novel about beauty because it’s a challenge to capture beauty on the page.

“I want it to be simple, almost straightforward in its intent. If I were a poet, it would be easier. Or if I were a musician. It is harder to distil beauty into prose. The novel is treacherous.”

But she accuses him of taking the easy option, of no longer wanting to change the world with his writing.

“You can’t write about beauty,” she says calmly. “You  don’t have the talent.”

The usual topics

Despite what the author might say, doesn’t shun the usual, sometimes controversial or confronting, topics that are present in his earlier work (see all my reviews here), because you can’t write about beauty without discussing morality and politics and gender and class and so on. The topics might not be capitalised but they are still there.

He’s often at his “Christos Tsiolkas best” when writing about the erotic, the sensual and the pornographic, albeit seen through the lens of a gay man (he’s obsessed, it would seem, with men’s hands and armpits — indeed sweaty, smelly, unshaven armpits are mentioned a lot in this book, you have been warned). But if you have read his work before, this won’t surprise you.

But where this novel works best is in that grey space between memory and imagination, where creativity collides with memoir, and how noticing a particular fragrance or hearing a familiar song can transport us back to another time and place, and how that is deeply connected to our emotions and, in turn, our sense of self.

might not be your usual Tsiolkas novel, but it’s just as powerful and thought-provoking, if not more so, than anything he’s written before.

I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2021), Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, Greece, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘The Broken Book’ by Susan Johnson

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 306 pages; 2004.

Susan Johnson’s The Broken Book is a novel inspired by the work of Australian ex-pat writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston, who moved to the Greek islands in the 1950s (and which is depicted so beautifully in Clift’s twin memoirs Mermaid  Singing and Peel Me a Lotus) to concentrate on their creative lives while bringing up a young family.

I read it hot on the heels of Polly Samson’s A Theatre for Dreamers, another novel that uses the Clift-Johnston story as inspiration, but found Johnson’s novel more eloquent, more literary — and more heartbreaking.

Multi-layered story

The Broken Book is complex and multi-layered. It reimagines Charmain Clift as a would-be writer called Katherine Elgin who is working on a manuscript called ‘The Broken Book’.

‘The Broken Book’ is about a character called Cressida Morley who falls pregnant at a time when unmarried mothers were frowned upon, bringing great shame upon her family, which is headed by a local newspaper editor.

Cressida Morley, as it turns out, is the name of a character that pops up in George Johnston’s novels and is said to be based on Clift. (And for those who don’t know, Clift had a secret child who was adopted out before she married Johnston, so everything in this extraordinary novel mirrors real life albeit with a creative spin.)

Twin narratives

These two narrative threads — Katherine’s story, which spans three decades and includes her time living in Sydney, London and Greece, and the half-written manuscript she’s working on about Cressida — are interleaved to create a complex tale that explores what it is like to pursue a creative life, how difficult it can be to balance marriage and motherhood, and how a woman’s beauty (and sexual agency) can stifle all else.

It is written in elegant prose dripping with metaphor and meaning, the kind of writing that isn’t afraid to explore emotional truths.

I used to believe there was a pattern to life, or at least you could see in retrospect where a particular life had twisted itself into the wrong shape, buckled by rogue bad luck. I used to think my moment came when a handsome young man who smelled like Sunlight Soap burst like a firework inside me, turning me incandescent. Now I don’t think there is any pattern, any shape whatsoever. All is randomness, chance.

2006 edition

I ate this book up in a matter of days. There’s something about the mood of it  — romantic, melancholy, nostalgic — that is hard to pin down but which envelopes the reader even after this extraordinarily wise and passionate novel has been finished.

I realise I haven’t really explained much about it, but it’s a difficult story to describe. The joy of the book is just letting the dual narratives, which inform one another as they jump back and forth across decades, wash over you.

The Broken Book was shortlisted for the 2005 Nita B Kibble Award; the Best Fiction Book section of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award; the Westfield/Waverley Library Literary Award; and the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal Award for an Outstanding Australian Literary Work. It can be ordered “print on demand” via the publisher’s website.

This is my 18th book for #AWW2021 and my 19th for #20booksofsummer 2021 edition. I bought it secondhand earlier this year having read, and loved, many of Susan Johnson’s previous novels.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, crime/thriller, Debra Oswald, Fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, Southern Cross Crime Month 2021

‘The Family Doctor’ by Debra Oswald

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 368 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I repatriated to Australia in June 2019 (after almost 21 years living in the UK), one of the first things that struck me was the number of domestic violence incidents, most of them homicides, in the news. This came to a head in February last year with the shocking and distressing case of Hannah Clarke, who was burned to death in the family car with her three young children, after her estranged husband set fire to the vehicle.

But despite the vital national conversation that ensued about the ways in which women are abused (physically and psychologically) in the home, it’s still clear that the media views such cases as individual events rather than as a systemic problem (something highlighted by this recent study published in The Conversation) — and nothing has changed to make women safer.

More recently, the treatment of women in the workplace has also come to a head, with disturbing revelations about sexual misconduct, including rape, in Parliament House (see this Wiki article for a good summary).

Our own Prime Minister seems incapable of understanding the extent of the problem. He says he is listening to Australian women, but actions speak louder the words. (He refused to meet with organisers of last week’s rally outside Parliament citing “security reasons”, which is ironic, given that it is the lack of safe spaces that was the crux of the whole Women’s March 4 Justice in the first place.) This curated letters page in the Sydney Morning Herald, addressed to the PM, highlights how deeply entrenched this issue is in Australian society.

I mention all this because it is important context for Debra Oswald’s latest novel, The Family Doctor, which puts domestic violence firmly in the centre of its compelling, page-turning plot. In fact, the book’s confronting subject matter — in which a family GP decides to take the law into her own hands — couldn’t be more timely. I ate this book up in a couple of days and came away from it having gone through ALL THE EMOTIONS from laughter and sadness through to a slow-burning righteous fury.

A crime novel with a difference

At its most basic level, The Family Doctor is a crime novel that strides two fences: on one side, it looks at a series of domestic violence cases from the victim’s point of view; and on the other it looks at what happens when a normal law-abiding citizen, infuriated by the abuse she sees on a daily basis, decides to dole out her own form of justice. But it’s also a book about female friendship, romance, the importance of family and wider societal issues, including toxic masculinity, support services, policing and the court system.

When the story opens, Paula Kaczmarek, a suburban GP, has opened her home to Stacey, an old school friend, and her two young children who are on the run from an abusive, estranged husband. One day Paula returns home to find the trio have been murdered. As someone used to helping others, she finds it difficult to come to terms with the fact that she couldn’t protect one of her dearest friends when she needed it most. It is this sense of guilt and her slow-burning anger that propels Paula to do more to help other women she believes are being abused in the home.

Later, when patient Rochelle Ferguson brings her ill six-year-old boy into the surgery for treatment, Paula notices Rochelle’s suspicious bruises and her son’s heightened anxiety. Rochelle admits that she is scared of her husband and that he hurts her, but she can’t leave for fear that will escalate the violence and put her son in danger. So when the husband turns up at the surgery a few days later with an injured hand demanding to see a doctor, Paula ushers him into her consulting room and makes a spur-of-the-moment decision that could have career-ending repercussions.

I can’t say much more than that because I don’t wish to spoil the plot, but what follows is a heart-hammering ride that explores a host of thought-provoking ethical issues including whether it is ever justifiable to take the law into your own hands. Is it permissable, for instance, to be proactive in order to prevent a likely tragedy than simply reacting to the aftermath even if that means you have to do something illegal? Can you ever justify taking harmful action if such action will stop more people being harmed? Where do you draw the line between playing God and letting events unfold naturally?

Murder trial

Interleaved with Paula’s storyline is that of her friend, Anita, a seasoned court reporter, who has been working on a feature article about the failure of the justice system to protect women (and children) killed by men.

This issue is demonstrated very clearly in a trial she is asked to cover in which a super-confident, good looking 36-year-old man is accused of murdering his girlfriend. He is said to have pushed her off a motorway overpass into oncoming traffic when she was fleeing him, but he claims she was mentally unbalanced and had committed suicide. He pleads not guilty.

As part of her coverage of this disturbing case, Anita befriends Detective Rohan Mehta, who is part of the prosecuting team, and becomes unexpectedly romantically involved with him. This relationship serves as an important message in the book: not all men are bad; some even go out of their way to help women and try to make the world safer for everyone.

The strength of this book lies in the ways in which it highlights, from multiple viewpoints and situations, what happens when the system continually fails the people it should be helping. Oswald, who writes with insight and care, shows the patterns of behaviour, the coercion, the power and the fear that is wielded by malevolent men to control the women in their lives, and she looks at the heartbreaking impact on the victims and their families.

This is a gripping story, never showy or sentimental, but brutally honest on all accounts, whether in its depiction of male violence or the ways in which women are conditioned to care for others or become subservient. Her cast of characters are all-too real, if deeply flawed, and their reactions and behaviours entirely credible.

Powerful, heart-rending and topical, The Family Doctor is the kind of novel that stays with you long after the final page. It deserves a wide readership.

About the author¹:  Debra Oswald is a playwright, screenwriter and novelist. She is a two-time winner of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award and author of the novels Useful (2015) and The Whole Bright Year (2018). She was creator/head writer of the first five seasons of successful TV series Offspring. Her stage plays have been performed around the world and published by Currency Press. Her television credits include award-winning episodes of Police RescuePalace of DreamsThe Secret Life of UsSweet and Sour and Bananas in Pyjamas. Debra has written three Aussie Bites books for kids and six children’s novels. She has been a storyteller on stage at Story Club and will perform her one-woman show, Is There Something Wrong With That Lady?, in 2021.  (1. Source: Allen & Unwin website.)

Where to buy: Currently only available in Australia.

If you liked this book, you might also like:

‘An Isolated Incident’ by Emily Maguire 
A literary crime novel that explores the outfall of one young woman’s murder on her family and the local community in rural Australia.

This is my 8th book for #SouthernCrossCrime2021 which I am hosting on this blog between 1st March and 31st March. To find out more, including how to take part and to record what you have read, please click here. It is also my 6th book for #AWW2021.  

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, New York, Publisher, Setting, Susan Johnson

‘From Where I Fell’ by Susan Johnson

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 352 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I do love a good epistolary novel, and this new one by Australian writer Susan Johnson is a good one!

From Where I Fell is composed of a year-long exchange of emails between two women on opposite sides of the planet whose correspondence is sometimes fraught but always frank.

It begins when Sydney-based Pamela Robinson emails her ex-husband in Paris, only to discover she’s got the right name but used the wrong email address: her heartfelt missive has landed in the inbox of New York-based teacher Chrisanthi Woods by accident. What follows is a strange and wonderful correspondence in which two women, at different stages of their lives, develop an online friendship free of the burden of up-close-and-personal contact.

The two are polar opposites in temperament and outlook. Newly divorced Pamela is self-obsessed and nursing old wounds, struggling to raise three boys alone in strained financial circumstances having repatriated to Australia after living in France for many years, while Chris, married but child-free, is opinionated and independent, a woman who does everything to help others but rarely gets the credit. One is well travelled and supposedly worldly-wise, the other has lived in the same city her whole life.

An unlikely friendship

Over the course of their correspondence, the women share confidences and problems, offer moral support and encouragement to each other, but occasionally one offends the other and long silences ensue.

Are you there?
From:
Pamela Robinson
To:
Chris Woods
Hi Chris,

Just wondering if you’ve forgiven me. I miss your emails.

With love,
Pamela

Through their emails, we come to understand the circumstances of each character’s day-to-day existence, their struggles and triumphs, their ups and downs and everything in between. We see how they evolve over time, how they adjust to change and move on with their lives.

And we also begin to recognise their personality quirks — Pamela’s constant need to talk about herself, to moan and complain, and Chris’s tendency to cut her down to size or take umbrage at what’s been said  — albeit framed through a single, one-dimensional lens, for we can only see these characters through their ability (or inability) to express themselves in written language. We do not really know how the people in their lives see them.

Re: A dream
From:
Chris Woods
To: Pamela Robinson

Don’t you get sick of talking about yourself all the time?

The story works because we are following the narratives of their lives, which are filled with dramas, and we want to know how things will pan out.

Pamela, for instance, is losing control of her three sons (her eldest is physically abusive) while her ex-husband refuses to speak to her. Chris, on the other hand, is losing control of her aged mother, who wants to repatriate to Greece, and is constantly fighting with her sister who is her mother’s favourite.

These domestic grapples are set against a larger backdrop that puts everyone’s problems into perspective: Chris is giving English lessons to two Syrian teenage refugees who fled the bombing in Raqqa with their mother and do not know what happened to their father.

An unlikely friendship

From Where I Fell is an easy read, the kind that slips down like silky smooth hot chocolate on a cold winter’s afternoon.

It’s full of delicious little moments, snide comments, funny barbs and forthright confessions. It’s about the passage of life — marriage, divorce, motherhood, making a home and building a career (not necessarily in that order) — and all the pain, regret, sorrow and joy that make us human. It’s witty, warm and heartbreaking.

I very much enjoyed being in the company of these wonderfully resilient women.

This is my 2nd book for #AWW2021.  

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Craig Silvey, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, general, Publisher, Reading Projects, TBR 21

‘Honeybee’ by Craig Silvey

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 432 pages; 2020.

Craig Silvey’s latest novel, Honeybee, is a nice reminder that I ought to always come at books with an open mind. For various reasons, I had not expected to like this book*, but I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining I found it.

It deals with some universal issues, some of which might be triggering, including drug use, criminality, suicide, domestic violence and sexual identity, but does so in an empathetic manner, free from sensationalism.

And it’s super easy to read, not because the prose is pedestrian, but because it lacks literary flourish — indeed, I would brand it as “general fiction” and it could certainly slot into the Young Adult genre with no problem. (I say all this by way of putting the book into context, rather than being snobby about it.)

An unlikely friendship

The story is set in and around Perth (Silvey is a local author) and focuses on a troubled teenager trying to figure out their identity.

When the book opens, 14-year-old Sam Watson, who also goes by the pet name of “Honeybee”, is contemplating suicide by jumping off a bridge. By sheer coincidence, an elderly man called Vic is on the same overpass planning the same thing. The pair end up saving each other and forge an unlikely friendship.

Honeybee charts this friendship through enormous ups and downs as Sam’s family loyalties are tested (his alcoholic mother is addicted to drugs and his step-father is abusive and domineering), while Vic is coming to terms with the loss of his beloved wife after a long and happy marriage.

PLOT SPOILER

It’s almost impossible to write about this book without mentioning the key issue at its heart: Sam is a boy who wants to be a girl, and it is this confusion over his sexual identity that is the cause of so much heartache. When he becomes homeless, he moves in with Vic, who provides the moral support required to become his true, authentic self — but there’s a few bumps along the way.

END OF PLOT SPOILER

The story, which is essentially about learning to love and accept yourself before you can love and accept others, is narrated in the first-person by Sam, who is a naive soul, full of kindness, sensitivity and confusion. He loves fashion and food, tolerates his mother’s bad habits and circle of friends, but dreams of a better life: he knows he lives in the margins but can’t see a way out.

The narrative moves forward via a series of set pieces in which Sam develops his talent for cooking (the descriptions of food are so mouth-wateringly delicious I often felt hungry reading this book), befriends a drag queen, enters therapy and plots a bank robbery.

There’s a few farcical moments, some scary moments, sad moments and violent moments. But there are also a few moments which strain readerly belief; for all its focus on important “issues” there is an element of far-fetched boys’ own adventure that might not be to everyone’s liking (and which I had problems with in Silvey’s debut novel, Jasper Jones, written 11 years earlier).

An entertaining fast-paced read

But all that aside, Honeybee is an entertaining — and tender — read. It’s full of heart and warmth and humanity. Don’t expect anything highbrow. This is a fun read with fun, vividly alive, characters and you’ll race through it in no time! Sure, it’s probably not Silvey’s tale to tell, but I think his intentions come from the right place.

At this stage, Honeybee, which was Dymock’s Book of the Year for 2020, is only available in Australia. (I can’t find a publication date for it in other territories.)

The author is appearing at the Perth Festival this weekend (20 February) and if you purchase a ticket you can watch the session online at home, wherever you are in the world, for up to two weeks after the event. To find out more, visit the Perth Festival website.

For another take on this novel, please see Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List.

* I was not a fan of his debut novel, Jasper Jones, though the rest of the world disagreed with me, and having heard a little bit about what this new book is about, I had to wonder about his right to tell a story that is not his lived experience and might be better coming from someone in the trans community.

This is my 4th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. 

And because Silvey is from Fremantle, this book also qualifies as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction, Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, Jessie Tu, literary fiction, Literary prizes, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing’ by Jessie Tu

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2020.

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing is Jessie Tu’s debut novel. It’s an uncompromising look at a talented young violinist trying to fill the void left behind when her fame as a child prodigy has died out. It’s about trying to find your feet as an adult, breaking free of the shackles of your (infamous) past and starting again. But it’s also about love, sex, self-esteem, self-worth — and self-destruction.

Rebuilding a career

Written in forthright first-person prose, Tu rarely pulls her punches. She lays bare one young woman’s pain and confusion as she tries to rebuild a massively successful career that went bung when she had a breakdown on stage. Here, she presents Jena Lin as a dedicated and hardworking musician trying to reinvent herself in a small, incestuous classical music world in which she’s long been pegged as a child star whose flame has burnt out.

She has twin struggles to juggle. Professionally, she endures a chaotic schedule of rehearsals, concerts, auditions and relentless practice, while personally, she has to “manage” an overly strict mother, who finds it hard to let her little girl go.

One of Jena’s coping mechanisms is to use sex with almost-strangers to make her feel alive or to give her a sense of being grown up. When she meets Mark, a much older man, she becomes consumed by him, to the point that it begins to affect her friendships and her working life, including a potential opportunity to go to New York to join one of the world’s leading orchestras.

Brave and audacious tale

It’s a brave and audacious tale, told in a refreshingly frank voice. I wasn’t sure it would be a story for me. I seem to have read a LOT of novels about millennial young women lately and I didn’t think this would anything new to the mix. But I was wrong.

A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing turned out to be a gripping, occasionally shocking read (there’s a lot of sex in it, you have been warned), but its real strength lies in its perspective of an Asian-Australian trying to succeed in a closeted world dominated by the white and the privileged.

I really loved its originality, its fierceness and its unflinching attitude. I reckon this one might just appear on my Books of the Year list for 2020 I enjoyed it so much.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Exciting Times’ by Naoise Dolan: Another story of a millennial woman trying to reinvent herself, who hooks up with an older man before realising her heart desires other things.

‘Adèle’ by Leïla Slimani: A confronting and deeply thought-provoking tale about a married woman who has a penchant for rough sex with a succession of strange men she picks up in the unlikeliest of places.

This is my 5th book for #2020ReadingsPrize for New Australian Fiction and my 21st book for #AWW2020.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book review, Fiction, general, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Sophie Hardcastle

‘Below Deck’ by Sophie Hardcastle

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2020.

If any book was going to slot into the #MeToo genre of novel, Sophie Hardcastle’s Below Deck would be right in there.

This simple yet moving story of a young woman coming to terms with a sexual assault that happened in her past should probably come with a trigger warning. And while the assault is just one aspect of this story, it comes like a sucker punch to the stomach and its aftermath informs everything that follows.

But this is not a heavy tale. Hardcastle writes with a lightness of touch. She sandwiches the traumatic event with more light-hearted aspects so you never feel too weighted down by it.

Oli at sea

The story follows 20-something Olivia — Oli — who is estranged from her parents and lives with her grieving (and grumpy) grandfather while she goes to university. She has a boyfriend, whose controlling behaviour foreshadows her future relationships with men — he doesn’t think she should accept the offer of a postgraduate internship with a prestigious investment bank, for instance, because that would make her more successful than him — but when she finds herself “kidnapped” on a boat her life takes a different turn.

The “kidnapper” is, in fact, a lovely older man called Mac, who loves to go sailing, and his partner is Maggie, a blind woman with synaesthesia — “It’s where you see colours when you think of or hear sounds, words, numbers — even time” — with whom she develops a fond friendship. Oli, too, has synaesthesia, processing her world and her feelings via colour. Maggie, for instance, is “velvet lilac”, Wednesdays are “blood orange”, two is “red” and nine “dark pink”.

Islands come into focus the way you wake up on a Sunday morning: slowly, like a painting, layer by layer. Block blue, at first. Then daubs of green, the outlines of trees, a band of white sand. A brown slab takes shape, all wrinkled and folded rock, until the cliff face opens its eyes.

It is the guiding light of this older couple that gives Oli her new-found strength to escape her controlling boyfriend, to come to terms with the sudden and unexpected death of her grandfather and to seek new adventures. She reinvents herself as a sailor, but it is a fateful trip several years later that puts her in danger. She sets sail with an all-male crew from Noumea to New Zealand and finds herself the subject of unwanted sexual attention.

Several years later, now a curator at an art gallery in London, Oli falls for a man who is perfect for her. He’s gentle, kind and devoted, but her past keeps holding her back.

Overcoming trauma

Without wishing to sound dismissive, I think I am probably too old for Below Deck to truly resonate, but I imagine if you’re a young woman this story would have a lot to say. It’s about misogyny and standing up for yourself, of finding your own voice, of learning to trust people, of making better life choices and dealing with past traumas so that you can move on.

Hardcastle deals with the issue of sexual assault with delicacy. The actual scene — “rape is the deepest red I have ever seen” — is deftly written, skirting over descriptions of the physical act, focussing instead on the ways in which Oli chooses to survive the assault, the voice that screams in her head, the emotions she goes through along the way. It is haunting and claustrophobic and harrowing.

But sometimes the narrative feels forced and lacks detail, jumping ahead too quickly. And yet when Hardcastle does focus on detail her writing really sings, especially when she focuses on the sea.

She enters the sea the way you come home, dropping your keys on the table, breathing out. A sigh of relief, the way the ocean holds her.

She has a particular penchant for similies. A gaze, for instance, drifts “across my skin like clouds across the sky”; waves lap at the shore “like gentle kisses in the middle of the night”; where cold weather is all-consuming “like falling in love. Total and unapologetic”.

Below Deck is an ambitious novel about an emotional reckoning, the beauty and language and colours of the sea, and about a young woman trying to navigate parts of her history she would rather forget. It won’t be for everyone — what book is? — but it will appeal to those looking for a quick-paced read with an emotional depth.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2020 and my 1st novel for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I bought it earlier in the year, partly attracted to the cover I have to admit. 

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Bri Lee, long form essay, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Beauty’ by Bri Lee

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 150 pages; 2019.

Earlier this year I read Bri Lee’s memoir Eggshell Skull, which was long- and shortlisted for many literary awards and was named Biography of the Year at the 2019 Australian Book Industry Awards. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year and will undoubtedly make my top 10 when I compile it in a few days’ time.

Beauty is Lee’s latest work of narrative non-fiction. It’s essentially a long-form essay, which was initially written as part of the author’s MPhil in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland, and has since been published by Allen & Unwin in an attractive small-format book with a striking cover image (the painting is by artist Loribelle Spirovski) and French flaps.

It focuses primarily on body image and the ways in which young women are conditioned to think that being thin is the only route to happiness and acceptance. It charts Lee’s own struggles with body dysmorphia and eating disorders (topics she also addressed in Eggshell Skull) and examines how her own obsession with thinness has eaten away (no pun intended) at her self-esteem and self-worth.

These issues may not be new, but Lee’s book is the first I’ve read that focuses on how the obsession with thinness as a beauty ideal has worsened in recent times thanks to the influence of social media. She talks about the need to be “photo-ready” at every minute of the day because camera phones are so prevalent.

Until the proliferation of smartphones around 2010, we would only feel conscious of being observed in scenarios that were laden with photo opportunities, but now, with social media being the omnipresent mass-reaching norm, we self-police in perpetuity.

She goes on to explain why young women now spend extraordinary amounts of money on make-up and take forever to “put their face on” and highlights how this peer pressure can cripple everyday decisions such as what to wear at work and play.

Admittedly, as compelling and as readable as I found this highly personalised essay to be, it did make me feel about 40 million years old. It’s clear from Lee’s experience that Millennials feel enormous pressure to be thin and that they associate this (wrongly) with being successful, beautiful and sexually desirable.

I grew up in the 1980s. Yes, there was pressure to be thin — mainly conveyed via airbrushed magazine covers — but our pop stars weren’t sexualised (Kim Wilde, my hero at the time, was always covered up in a white t-shirt, and Banarama often wore overalls/dungarees as if they’d just done a shift on a building site). Nor were we under the constant surveillance of social media where our peers could judge us instantaneously and so unkindly. We weren’t living under the weight of having everything we did (or said) validated by a “like” or “share” button.

Nowadays (how old does that make me sound, starting a sentence with that word), it seems that young women feel so little in control of any aspect of their life that the only thing they can attempt to wage war on is their weight and the way they look on Instagram. It just makes me feel desperately sad.

Beauty isn’t pitched at women of my age, but I think it is probably required reading for teenage girls if only to make them aware of the social constructs that can make their lives so miserable and competitive and psychologically damaging. Lee’s experience should serve as a warning that appearances are not everything…

This is my 25th book for #AWW2019.

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book lists, Book review, Catherine Jinks, dystopian, Fiction, Five fast reviews, Fourth Estate, Heather Rose, historical fiction, literary fiction, Meg Mundelle, Michelle de Krester, Nikki Gemmell, Publisher, Setting, Text, University of Queensland Press

5 Fast Reviews: Michelle de Kretser, Nikki Gemmell, Catherine Jinks, Meg Mundell and Heather Rose

The past two months have been fairly hectic around here, mainly because I started a new job and I’ve had to learn a whole new role in a new industry and I’ve really not had the energy to read books much less review them.

The books I have read haven’t exactly set my world on fire — perhaps because I’ve been distracted by other things — so I haven’t been inspired to write proper full-length reviews. Here’s a quick round-up of what I’ve read recently:

‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 96 pages; 2017.

I’ve read a couple of Michelle de Kretser’s novels before — The Life to Come was one of my favourites last year — so I was delighted to find this novella in my local library. Billed as a ghost story, it’s not typical of the genre. Indeed, I’d argue it’s not a ghost story at all but a richly written tale about what it is like to begin a new life in a new city. The “ghosts” — for want of a better word — are the memories associated with the place you leave behind.

The story is about a married couple, Frances and Charlie, who are grappling with a move from Melbourne to Sydney. Everything feels unfamiliar and strange to them. Frances spends a lot of time exploring on foot with her dog — there are lots of lush descriptions of the city’s parks and gardens coming into bloom written with de Kretser’s typical literary flourishes  — and it’s while she’s on her wanderings that she comes across a haunting sight in a neighbour’s garden. This “apparition”, which alarms her greatly, could also be seen as a metaphor for the ghosts in her husband’s past, which she is trying to decipher.

Easily read in a sitting, Springtime is about ghosts of the past haunting a marriage as much as it is about the eerie goings-on in the neighbourhood. I’d argue that it’s really only for die-hard fans of de Kretser; it felt slightly too ephemeral for me to get a real handle on the story. For a more detailed review, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers.

‘The Bride Stripped Bare’ by Nikki Gemmell

Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 375 pages; 2011.

Originally published in 2003 under the author “anonymous”, The Bride Stripped Bare is an erotically charged tale about a married woman’s sexual awakening. Written in diary form as a series of lessons numbered from one to 138, it tells the story of a young woman who has never felt sexually fulfilled in her marriage and then acts, somewhat foolishly it has to be said, on her impulse to take a lover.

Her relationship with Gabriel, a handsome older man who turns out to be a virgin, gives her the chance to explore her own needs and desires without fear of judgment. Intoxicated by the power of her newly developed sexual prowess, she begins to take chances she shouldn’t and the double life she’s leading pushes her perilously close to the edge.

Admittedly, this book got me out of a reading slump, probably because it’s written in a compelling tone of voice (in the second person) and surges along at an octane-fuelled pace, helped no doubt by the exceedingly short chapters, but I didn’t love it enough to want to read the two follow-ups, With My Body and I Take You. And the whole idea that you could find a willing 40+-year-old virgin hanging around London seemed too ludicrous for me to take the story all that seriously…

‘Shepherd’ by Catherine Jinks

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 240 pages; 2019.

Shepherd tells the tale of a teenage poacher from Suffolk who is transported to New South Wales as a convict in 1840. The narrative swings backward and forward in time, detailing Tom’s old life in England, and then contrasting it with his new life assigned to a shepherd’s hut, where he helps to protect a flock of sheep with a trio of violent prisoners.

This fast-paced story is essentially a chase novel, for it follows what happens when Tom becomes caught up in events that may lead to his death at the hands of a vicious killer known as Dan Carver.

Initially, I really liked this tale, especially Tom’s warm, empathetic voice, his wisdom, his concern for the “blacks” and his desire to know the plants and animals of the Australian landscape, but it soon began to wear thin when I realised there was not enough show and too much tell. There was too much violence in it for me, too, and the chase dragged on for too long to sustain my interest. Without wishing to damn it with faint praise, it actually felt like a novel that teenage boys might like, so it comes as no surprise that the author has several award-winning children’s books to her name.

‘The Trespassers’ by Meg Mundell

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 278 pages; 2019.

If ever a novel was to be a nod to the shenanigans of Brexit or Australia’s shameful immigration detention policy, this is it. The Trespassers is a dystopian tale set on a crowded ship bound for Australia. Onboard are Brits escaping the disease-ridden UK. They have all been carefully screened, but midway through the voyage disease breaks out, someone is found dead and an unplanned quarantine situation arises.

The story is told through the eyes of three different characters, all superbly drawn, who take turns to narrate their side of events in alternate chapters: there’s a nine-year-old Irish boy who is deaf, a singer-turned-nurse from Glasgow and an English schoolteacher in need of money.

By the time the ship gets to its destination several people have died and there’s no guarantee the immigrants will be allowed to disembark on Australian soil. This is a riveting story that reads like a thriller but has all the intelligence and wisdom of a literary novel not afraid to tackle big issues such as healthcare, immigration, human trafficking and politics. I really loved this book and hope to see it pop up on literary prize lists in the very near future.

‘Bruny’ by Heather Rose

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 424 pages; 2019. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tasmanian writer Heather Rose will be known to most people for her award-winning The Museum of Modern Love, a book I loved so much I convinced my book group to read it even though it hadn’t yet been published in the UK (we all bought it on Kindle). Bruny, her latest novel, has arrived with much fanfare, but it’s completely different in almost every possible way to what preceded it.

Set in Tasmania some time in the very near future, it tells the story of the bombing of a massive bridge being built to link mainland Tasmania with the island of Bruny, just across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel. The terrorist attack brings the bridge down, but it also brings worldwide attention to this usually quiet and sleepy part of the world. New York-based UN conflict resolution expert Astrid Coleman returns home to help her twin brother, the state premier, soothe troubled waters. Matters are complicated further by a dysfunctional family: her sister is the Opposition Leader; her mother barely talks to her; and her father, who is slowly dying of Alzheimer’s, can only communicate in Shakespeare quotes.

A sharp-eyed and intelligent political satire come thriller (reminiscent of Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon), the book is fast-paced and written with wit and verve. But as much as I enjoyed reading it, I just didn’t buy the premise — that a massive bridge would be built in this part of the world and that terrorists would take the time to blow it up — and had a hard time taking it seriously. And even though I went to the Perth launch and heard Rose talk about the story in great depth (she was very careful not to give away crucial plot spoilers), I’ve come to the conclusion that the book is simply preposterous — but I’m sure that won’t stop it being shortlisted for awards aplenty.

These books are all by Australian women writers. They represent the 19th, 20th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd books I have read this year for #AWW2019.