Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Publisher, Scribe, Setting, Tania Chandler

‘Please Don’t Leave Me Here’ by Tania Chandler

Please-dont-leave-me-here

Fiction – paperback; Scribe UK; 304 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

For someone who supposedly likes to champion Australian literature, I’ve not done a very good job of it this year — indeed, I’ve only read two Australian books (a novel and a short story collection) — so when Tania Chandler’s debut novel, Don’t Leave Me Here, arrived unsolicited from her UK-based published, I bumped it to the top of my pile. It proved to be an excellent move, for this psychological thriller is a proper page-turner, one that not only had me guessing right to the end, but gave me goosebumps all along the way…

A puzzle to put together

The story reads very much like a puzzle that Brigitte, the protagonist, is trying to put together in her head, and you, the reader, follow her every step of the way. There’s a murder victim, a hit-and-run accident, a sordid extra-marital affair, a shady past as a stripper, domestic violence, childhood neglect, a police investigation and dreams of Kurt Cobain wearing a brown sweater — and somehow all these “clues” come together in a rather dramatic, and satisfying, ending.

The beauty of the present tense narrative, which is told in the third person but largely from Brigitte’s point of view, is that you’re never quite sure how much you can trust her version of events. Is she the loving wife and devoted mother of twins she purports to be, or is there something more calculating and conniving about her?

The author offers a steady, well-paced drip feed of information that constantly has the reader reassessing their opinion of Brigitte, who goes from being a busy and stressed out young mum one moment, to a woman capable of having sex with a man who is not her husband in her own home, the next. But as her back story is fleshed out, as we come to learn of Brigitte’s troubled past and her uncertain future, there are times when you begin to wonder if Brigitte might simply be paranoid or mentally unbalanced. Is she, perhaps, suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder? Does she actually need medical help? Is she popping one-too-many painkillers?

An exciting read

I realise I’m not really summarising the plot of this remarkably plotted book. To do so would be counterproductive to those who want to read the story for themselves, because it is the narrative journey — sometimes confusing, often unsettling and always tinged with sadness and regret — that makes Please Don’t Leave Me Here such an exciting read.

I especially like the way the author plays with memory and links it to music — there are lots of music references from the early 1990s in this novel, including a heavy dose of Nirvana and Nick Cave — because we all know that hearing snatches of songs from our past can pull us back to different times and places. The author also explores the notion of whether people alter over time — can a leopard, for instance, really change its spots? And she’s very good at showing how a person, who so desperately seeks normality in her domestic life, can easily slide into an unhealthy mindset following a personal tragedy. This passage, midway through the book, is a good example of a woman going off the rails:

Brigitte pushes a supermarket trolley aimlessly around the plaza. The twisting involved in controlling a trolley hurts her back more than anything, but not today — this morning she took enough medication to stop the pain. She can’t understand why she didn’t think of this before.
Giant gold-and-silver decorations hang from the glass ceiling and she sings along with ‘Winter Wonderland’. She’s done the grocery shopping — extra flour, eggs, and butter for more cakes — and bought wine and the last of the twins’ presents from Father Christmas. Still, she feels she’s forgotten something. If she keeps wandering around, maybe she’ll remember what it was. Something from the chemist? The newsagent? The butcher? The crowd of shoppers is reflected on the ceiling — people walking on the roof. It’s too bright, and she can see auras. A headache claws at the right side of her head; it’s going to turn into a migraine.[…] She gives up trying to remember what she’s forgotten. If it was important, it’ll come back to her. […] Maybe Aiden will join them? No, he’ll spend Christmas with his wife. She thinks about his lips, his deltoid muscles, the tattoo on his arm — whatever it says, his… Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. She shakes her head.
Kurt Cobain walks with her. Sometimes she sees him, but usually he’s just a voice in her head.

All in all, Please Don’t Leave Me Here  is a sexy and stylish debut. It’s dark and intriguing, the kind of story that gets under the skin and leaves you feeling a little dirty and sordid. Interestingly, Tania Chandler is currently working on a sequel. I’m already itching to read it…

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, short stories, Text, Wayne Macauley

‘Demons’ by Wayne Macauley

Demons

Fiction – paperback; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of publisher.

A couple of years ago I read Australian writer Wayne Macauley’s The Cook, a deliciously dark satire about modern gastronomy, which amused and disturbed me in equal measure. Indeed, it was one of the most memorable — and original — books I’ve read in, say, the past four or five years.

His new book, Demons, has just been published in the UK and, for obvious reasons, I was keen to read it.

The narrative, as such, is structured around a group of (annoyingly) middle-class (snobby and pretentious) friends, who spend a  weekend together in a holiday home by the coast on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. There’s no TV or internet at the property and they’ve all agreed to leave their phones and tablets behind so that they can truly unwind from their busy lives. It’s winter and the weather is rather wild, which makes the getaway rather conducive to sitting around the fire, imbibing wine (there’s a lot of wine in this book) and telling tales.

All right, said Lauren, once everyone was seated in the living room. The sky had darkened and a full moon was rising over the water. The sea was loud, but faraway loud. All right, she said, I’m going to start. My story is called Woman Killed By Falling Man.
Are we going to give them titles? said Evan.
Adam, said Hannah, do you think we should give them titles?
Titles are good, said Adam.
Wait, said Megan. She handed Lauren the piece of driftwood she’d brought back from the beach. The story stick, she said.

Dark tales

The book is structured around these individual tales, each one more ludicrous and outlandish than the last. They span all kinds of dark and edgy themes, including adultery, suicide and murder, with a good smattering of politics, crime and corruption thrown in for good measure.

Most of them are embellished and dramatised to a ridiculous degree, yet no one ever seems to challenge or question the authenticity of what they’re being told. And all the stories, most told second- or third-hand, expose the failings and foibles and prejudices of the people telling them.

There’s some terrific and truly memorable short stories here. In particular, almost two months after having read this book, I’m still thinking about the city couple who have their heart set on buying a farm only to find the farmer doesn’t want to sell it to them. They way in which they resolve this situation is truly shocking — to say the least — and left me feeling slightly ill at ease.

Microcosm of Australian society

The book’s strength lies in the way in which it shines a light on modern Australia, where everybody should be happy, but no one seems content. Or, as one character puts it, “everyone’s so bloody negative; they can’t see what they’ve got ’cause they think they’re entitled to more”.

Look at us, Ad, said Leon, without looking at him: a bunch of well-off, well-educated fucks, the generation in charge, and yet we don’t know shit. We went to uni, and it didn’t cost us a cent. We found jobs, made careers. We’ve lived off the fat. We saw the world, conquered every corner of it, but what did we ever do but stare at ourselves?  […] We could have done something, left a legacy. But what did we do? Talked crap, argued, bickered, ate, drank — we’re always eating and drinking, stuffing our faces, telling everyone what we had for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s obscene. We’ve let the world go to the dogs, Adam.

And so the weekend getaway that is depicted here — with its focus on food and wine and fanciful fireside tales — is a (cleverly written) microcosm of Australian society.

But (the appropriately named) Demons is not so much a novel but a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel and you either like that kind of format or you don’t. Admittedly, I’m not a fan, and while I admire Macauley’s silky and immediate prose style, his masterful way with dialogue and his clever expose on pertinent Australian issues — land rights, refugees, the dream of owning the quarter-acre block, 21 years of economic growth et al — I felt the book was weakened by the format. In other words, the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts. You may beg to differ.

Australia, Author, Book review, Brooke Davis, Fiction, Hutchinson, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Lost & Found’ by Brooke Davis

Lost-and-found

Fiction – hardcover; Hutchinson; 320 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Advance warning: Brooke Davis’s Lost & Found is going to be everywhere and you are going to have trouble avoiding it. And with good reason: this is a lovely feel-good novel. It’s quirky and sweet. It’s funny and joyful. It’s tender, poignant and heart-rending.

The book has already garnered lots of attention in the author’s native Australia, where it has been a best-seller since its release last year. And it sparked a bidder’s war at the London Book Fair, suggesting that the publishers knew a good thing when they saw it. It has since been sold into 25 countries and translated into 20 languages.

I cracked it open last weekend not quite knowing what to expect and then I went on a wonderful little journey with a trio of remarkable characters that were a pleasure to spend time with. I felt sad when I came to the end of the story, not because the ending was sad (it’s not) but because I had to say goodbye to seven-year-old Millie and her two older chums, octogenarians Agatha Pantha and Karl the Touch Typist.

Obsessed by death

When the book opens we meet Millie, who is obsessed with death and dead things. She’s recently lost her pet dog Rambo and then, more tragically, her father. By page six she’s “lost” her mother — in the literal sense, not the euphemistic sense — when she’s told to wait in a department store’s “Ginormous Womens Underwear” section, while her mum disappears into the distance — never to be seen again.

Millie will carry this around with her from now on, this picture of her mum getting smaller and smaller and smaller. It will reappear behind her eyes at different times throughout the course of her life.

An overnight stay ensues, hidden under the giant undies, and then she meets Karl the Touch Typist, an 87-year-old man who has escaped his nursing home and is living in the department store without anyone’s knowledge. The pair form an unlikely friendship.

Later, when Millie makes her way home alone, thwarting the best efforts of the police and social services, she meets her neighbour, 82-year-old Agatha Pantha, who hasn’t left her house since her husband died. Instead, she spends her time shouting insults through the window at passing strangers, earning a reputation as the neighbourhood’s “crazy lady”.

Together the trio set off to find Millie’s mum. What follows is an exciting — and somewhat manic — cross-country road trip involving buses, trains, a stolen car — and a department store mannequin.

A kooky cast of characters

What I loved most about this book is the characters. They really get under the skin and feel real: Agatha with her tendency to shout inappropriate Tourettes-like “sound bites” at all and sundry, Karl who constantly taps, taps, taps his fingers in memory of his life as a typist, and Millie with her dogged determination to avoid the police and find her mum.

While 80 years separates the oldest from the youngest, the three have one thing in common: they are all grieving: Millie for her dad (and her mum), Karl for his beloved wife Evie, and Agatha for her husband Ron. Interestingly, Brooke Davis wrote Lost & Found as a way to deal with her own grief after the sudden death of her mother seven years ago, and with this knowledge in mind, the reader can’t help but see Millie’s sense of abandonment as a reflection of the author’s.

It’s important to have your mum. Mums bring you jackets and turn on your electric blanket before you get into bed and always know what you want better than you do. And they sometimes let you sit on their lap and play with the rings on their fingers while Deal or No Deal is on.

But while the novel is about grief and death, it’s also about the joy of living and posits the idea that you’re never too old to do new things or start again. Yes, it is moving in places, but there’s an undercurrent of mischievous delight and black humour that stops it from being sentimental or emotionally manipulative. And Davis reigns in the “cutesy” factor so that it never succumbs to schmaltz, either.

Lost & Found  might be whimsical and comic, but to dismiss it as a “frothy” read would miss the point: this is a novel that has deeper philosophical meaning, one that will make you feel good about the possibilities that life offers when you grab it with both hands — no matter how young or old you might be.

Australia, Author, Book review, Helen Garner, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text, true crime

‘This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial’ by Helen Garner

This-House-of-Grief

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2014.

One spring evening in 2005, a car veered across the Princes Highway in rural Victoria, Australia, crashed through a fence and plunged into a farm dam. The male driver escaped; all three passengers —  aged 10, 7 and 2 — were unable to get out and drowned.

Was it an accident, or did Robert Farquharson deliberately drive the vehicle into the dam in order to kill his three young sons, whom he was returning to their mother after an access visit on Father’s Day?

The police thought the latter. They charged him with three counts of murder, and he was tried at the Supreme Court of Victoria in August 2007. This House of Grief examines the court case in exacting detail.

In-court guide

I’m not going to chart all the dizzying twists and turns of the case — that’s what the book is for — but Helen Garner proves a kind and competent guide throughout. Her observations are often incisive and cutting, and I like the way she explores the accused’s back story and adds in extra detail gleaned from conversations she has with members of his family and other witnesses.

Much of the detail that happens inside the courtroom is soporific owing to the technical nature of the case — the speed of the car when it left the road, what sort of pattern the tyre treads left, what the skid marks proved and so on — which makes for an occasionally frustrating read, but Garner is at her best when she focuses on the people. Here’s how she describes the jury, all bored out of their brains by that aforementioned technical detail:

Their eyelids drooped. Their necks grew loose with boredom; they were limp with it, barely able to hold themselves erect. Once I glanced over and saw four of them in a row, their heads dropped on the same protesting angle towards their left shoulders, like tulips dying in a vase.

I read this book in one blistering fever of furious page-turning — or should I say Kindle button-clicking? — on a wet Saturday eager to discover answers to my questions: Did Farquharson deliberately kill his children? Was it a failed suicide bid? Or was it a freak accident, caused by him having a coughing fit at the wheel? By the end, I felt completely wrung out. It was a feeling I couldn’t shake off for days; the story had really wormed its way into my psyche and deeply affected me.

To leave such a mark on the reader in the wake of completing the book is testament to Garner’s skill as a writer and journalist. And yet her reportage style, in which she inserts herself into the story, often comes in for criticism. But it’s a style I quite like. Her all-too human reactions and her inner-most thoughts are there on the paper for all to see — removing the illusion that the journalism is utterly objective — and it feels very much as if she’s going on a journey of discovery and you’re coming along for the ride.

Here’s an example of how her thoughts and reactions become part of the narrative:

This testimony filled me with scepticism, yet I longed to be persuaded by it—to be relieved of the sick horror that overcame me whenever I thought of Farquharson at the dam, the weirdness of his demeanour, the way it violated what I believed or hoped was the vital link of loving duty between men and their children. And, as I listened, the phantom of failed suicide shimmered once more into view. Nobody in this whole five-week ordeal had yet said anything that could lay it to rest.

While I knew of the Farquharson case — I remember being shocked when I read the initial news story on The Age online all those years ago — I hadn’t followed it closely, so reading this book was very much a journey of discovery for me. I’m not sure how it works if you already know the outcome of the case (perhaps Australian readers can enlighten me?), but for me it was a fascinating, sometimes frustrating, always intriguing and passionately written read. I like that Garner is open and honest about her fury, disbelief and sheer inability to comprehend certain aspects of the accused’s behaviour, because they were the reactions I had to… and I wasn’t even sitting in the court room.

Unless you live in Australia, This House of Grief is currently available to purchase in ebook form only. It will be published in paperback in the UK next month and in the USA in April.

UPDATE: This edited extract published on The Australian website will give you a taster of the book.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Hybrid Publishers, literary fiction, Publisher, Robert Hollingworth, Setting

‘The Colour of the Night’ by Robert Hollingworth

The-colour-of-night

Fiction – paperback; Hybrid Publishers; 321 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I first came to the UK in 1998 and told people I came from Melbourne, the first thing they wanted to talk about was the Australian soap Neighbours, which is set there. At that time Brits were such fans of the show it was screened twice daily. I still remember staying in a youth hostel in Glasgow and being holed up in my room by a backpacker from Northern Ireland who knew all the characters and storylines inside out but mistakenly thought many of the locations, including the suburb Erinsborough, were real places.

I mention this because if Neighbours is your only reference for what life in the Melbourne suburbs is like then this book by Robert Hollingworth will shatter all your illusions — but in a good way.

The Colour of the Night follows the lives of a group of neighbours living in a terrace of three houses on Frederick Street in an inner-city suburb. They don’t know each other when the novel opens but by the end they’re all familiar with one another in ways that are sometimes surprising and sometimes shocking.

Meet the neighbours

Stefanie and Simon are married artists, with two children — 18-year-old Jess, a Goth with a drug habit who self-harms, and James, who lives in a bungalow in the back garden and has a job in roadworks.

Next door lives divorcée Adele, who has given up a career in nursing to make more money as an escort, and her son, Elton, who has dropped out of university and spends his entire time online.

Then there is Nikos, a Greek landlord, who rents out the terraced house on the corner to two tenants: Arman, a refugee from Afghanistan who now drives a taxi, and Benton, an Englishman who has an unhealthy interest in children.

Drawing all these neighbours together is Shaun, an 11-year-old boy, orphaned by the Black Saturday bush fires. He has a great affinity for nature — “He entered the bush as other children entered an interactive game, although Shaun’s console control was little more than a snapped stick, his keyboard the whole forest, his mouse a mouse” — so when he moves to the city to live with his aunt, Adele, and cousin, Elton, it comes as somewhat of a shock.

Technological advance

The author, who takes his time to introduce each of these well-drawn characters chapter by chapter, explores many themes in this intriguing novel, including the city versus the country, and nature versus digital technology. He deftly builds up a series of interconnections between everyone (which occasionally relies on a smidgen too much coincidence, but that’s by the by) and in doing so shows how the concept of community in the real world has often been lost, perhaps because we’re too busy building up our social networks online.

There are minor disasters — a DIY basement excavation has repercussions for the entire terrace, for instance —  a blossoming love affair and a case of adultery, but Hollingworth doesn’t resort to cheap operatics: he keeps things fairly restrained and, to his credit, doesn’t let his narrative succumb to predictable outcomes.

It feels like a thoroughly contemporary novel, focussing as it does on how quickly our world is moving in terms of technology. This exchange between Elton and Shaun, whom are just eight years apart in age, is but one example:

… Shaun asked on an impulse, ‘Elton, what did you do where you were my age?’
‘What I do now, I guess. But the computer games were pretty basic. Google was new, no Instagram, no Twitter or Vine, no Tumblr or Kik or…’
‘What did you do when you were five?’
Elton tried to think. ‘It was a different world then, Shaun. You couldn’t do stuff that we take for granted today. Just 64 kilobytes. Unbelievable.’

The Colour of the Night also asks important questions about spirituality, our connections with the natural world and our relationship to art and culture. It’s filled with great dialogue, intriguing characters (with even more intriguing back stories) and brilliant descriptions of people and places. But when all is said and done it’s just a great story well told about contemporary life in modern Australia. And, needless to say, it’s far more authentic — and entertaining — than any episode of Neighbours.

Please note that you won’t find The Colour of the Night in book stores outside of Australia. However, you can order a copy direct from the publisher or buy an electronic edition from Amazon US and Amazon UK.