Annie The Fate of Food by Amanda Little and Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
A couple of non-fiction titles have held my attention this month.
Amanda Little’s search for answers about the future of food production has led her over the course of several years to write The Fate of Food: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World. Following the release of a report stating that climate change with irrevocably alter our world over the next 30 years (alongside all the other science that says we’re headed for disaster) I was feeling quite despondent. This book gave me some hope that while our situation is indeed dire, there are some very clever people working to solve or work around the issues that will arise for farmers and food producers in years to come.
Little has traveled from Uganda to Mexico to talk to people who are combining technology and traditional farming methods to varying degrees of success in order to battle drought, frost, rising sea levels and water shortages. She is frank about the mental hurdles she comes up against – for example her deep-seated prejudice against GMO food, which is challenged by multiple farmers and scientists. Far from being a stodgy science book, Little also weaves her own discoveries and experiences as a parent, a foodie and a failed gardener into the writing to create a fascinating look at how food is produced currently as well as how we will need to adapt into the future.
The other book that I’m part way through at the moment which is totally engrossing is Lisa Taddeo’s much-hyped Three Women. It is being hailed as Truman Capote for the #MeToo generation and it is a truly astounding work of longform journalism. Over the course of eight years, Taddeo found three women who agreed to share their stories and truly immersed herself in their lives, attempting to uncover female desire.
Maggie was a student when she began an affair with one of her teachers, which she remembers as her first love. Now that she is older, however, she is attempting to prosecute him for his inappropriate sexual conduct while she was still a minor – but does she want justice or attention? Sloane is a successful business woman living in Rhode Island who is happily married to a man who likes to watch her having sex with other men, which she also finds exhilarating. Lina is a small-town woman in an unhappy, sexless marriage and has recently taken up an affair with her high school boyfriend, with whom she split up after being gang raped at a party in her youth. By submerging herself in these women’s very different and quite extreme stories, Taddeo manages to reveal truths about female relationships, self-esteem, bodies, sexuality and the desires that underpin all of our actions – whether they are acted upon or not. The writing is lyrical, hypnotic and sometimes painfully real, but Taddeo manages to honour and uphold her subjects with great dignity even as they share their most vulnerable thoughts.
I am having a great time reading the 5th book in Kate Atkinson’s private eye series revolving around her beloved character, Jackson Brodie. But don’t worry if you haven’t read the others, this one stands alone and you will be rewarded. Some of this is laugh out loud funny, some very detailed human experiences, a cast of fabulous characters and a very sinister storyline running through it.
It has taken 9 years for this 5th book in the series and you won’t be disappointed.
Annie City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert and Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
I’ve been reading a couple of incredibly fun books that have transported me far from dreary Adelaide.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls is a fizz and bubble of a book which centres female sexuality and joy. Vivian Morris is blissfully rich (and blissfully unaware of the fact) when she moves to join her theatre director aunt in New York City in 1940, at the ripe age of nineteen. Obsessed with glamour, clothing and her own reflection, she is also blissfully ignorant of the violence that is threatening to encroach upon her newfound freedom. Wickedly funny and delightfully debauched, Gilbert’s sentences are luminous as always and the characters are authentic and lovable. This book will get you high kicking with abandon while you knock back all manner of strong drink – a marvellously pleasurable read to be enjoyed without a shred of guilt.
Like most people, I’m a sucker for a good cover, and I think this one is a real doozy! Magic for Liars is a gritty crime novel that takes place in an academy for magical teens and the book is just as fun as it sounds. Washed up PI Ivy Gamble is called in to solve the grotesque death of one of her estranged twin’s colleagues and she immediately becomes enamoured with the lifestyle and promise that Osthorne Academy appears to offer. This is no Hogwarts; Osthorne is filled with real teenagers who would rather turn their magic to creating indelible graffiti or float vulgar shaped clouds past classrooms. But as Ivy begins to unravel the mystery, she also reveals the dark secrets that lie beneath the Academy’s facade – and also the family truths that she has tried for so long to keep under wraps. Complex, witty and dark, this is a great read for anyone who has enjoyed Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series or Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.
Kate Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata
Two sittings with this little gem is all it took to race through Keiko’s intriguing world. Keiko does not live her life the way others think she should. As a child, she doesn’t get along with other children and doesn’t seem to understand basic social rules. When she gets a job in a convenience store when she’s 18, it seems she’s finally figured it out. We meet Keiko when she’s 36 and still works at the same convenience store, and she loves it. She lives and breathes being a store worker and marvels at the sounds, smells and routine of the shop. It is in this role that Keiko has found her life purpose, but feels pressure from her family and friends to have bigger aspirations. It is a strange and funny journey we go on with Keiko as she wonders about what to make of her life and if her connection to a convenience store is enough. This is a very touching story about finding ones place in the world.
Annie The Forest of Wool and Steel by Natsu Miyashita and Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi
If you’re looking for dreamy reads, I’ve got a couple of great recommendations this month.
First up, The Forest of Wool and Steel is a gentle, gorgeous book that follows a young piano tuner as he learns his craft. Tomura first hears a piano being tuned in the gymnasium at his high school and it gives definition and purpose to his previously aimless life. As he listens to the freshly tuned piano, a beautiful mountainous landscape appears in his mind. He commits to years of training and apprenticeship in an effort to recapture the beautiful images that were conjured by a master tuner. A Japanese best-seller and winner of the prestigious Japanese Booksellers Award, this is a meditation on perseverance, success and what makes a good life.
Helen Oyeyemi is one of my favourite writers, and her latest novel is no disappointment. Gingerbread is a loose retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story, but Oyeyemi brings her characteristic wit and quirky charm to the story, adding elements of magical realism, feminism and class to ensure it’s a completely modern take on the old story.
Harriet Lee has made gingerbread according to the family recipe for years, but her daughter Perdita has never quite believed that they hailed from the tiny, undocumented land of Druhástrana. Determined to reunite her mother with her childhood friend, Gretel, Perdita unknowingly sets off a chain of events that will force these exiled Druhástranians to confront their past and share long-hidden family stories. A funny, rollicking read that weaves an enchanting spell, give this book a go if you’re willing to suspend disbelief and indulge in some playful literary storytelling.
Kate Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt
One of the best feelings as a bookseller is when you arrive at work to find one of your favourite authors has released a new book! This is a sort-of biography of Siri Hustvedt’s younger self. As 60 year-old SH clears out her 94 year-old mother’s house, she finds a manuscript she wrote for a detective novel when she was 23 and had freshly arrived in New York. She also finds her diary from that time, and pieces together the person she was. As SH communicates between her younger and older self, she meditates on memory, time, and physics.
The voices of SH patch together the story of a young writer navigating New York City, friends, relationships and intriguingly, her next door neighbour who she listens to through the wall with a stethoscope. She’s drawn into her neighbours nightly monologues and discovers a world of women who open up a door to her own self-knowledge. This was such a joy to read. I was taken into the mind of young SH and felt her pain, anger, excitement, and intelligence blossoming. I would highly recommend! And if you haven’t read Siri Hustvedt before, please do.
Lou No Friend But the Mountains by Behrouz Boochani
Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani’s award-winning account of life in Manus Prison reveals the Australian government’s “systematic torture” of asylum seekers. It initially seems like a harrowing read: a refugee’s journey from Indonesia to Australian waters by boat, and a bureaucratic prison system whose goal is degradation and violence. But No Friend But the Mountains reaches deep into the psyche of imprisoned people, and incorporates the finest literary traditions and Kurdish storytelling to create a work of enormous dignity, beauty and power. Boochani’s voice is compassionate without being sentimental, ruthless but never cruel. Not only is this an essential read for all Australians, but it joins the ranks of prison writing and world literature, and is a testament to the transforming power of words.
Jess Beyond the Footpath: Mindful Adventures for Modern Pilgrims by Clare Gogerty
Everyone needs time out, an opportunity to step out of a life consumed by day-to-day worries and concerns, an opportunity to rest the mind and rejuvenate the spirit. The lost art of pilgrimage provides us with just such an option if we choose to embrace it. Clare Gogerty’s beautiful book provides a modern pilgrims guide to stepping out of everyday life, whether for personal, spiritual or religious reasons and on to your own pilgrimage journey. She uses both her own personal stories and historical grounding to give the reader an understanding of pilgrimage and what it can mean today. There are practical tips and mentions of well-known pilgrimage routes, but also encouragement to seek out your own path wherever you may be in the world. A book which smudges the boundaries between travel, history, spirituality and personal growth in a wonderful way.
Annie All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #1) by Martha Wells
This punchy science fiction novel is superbly well written and a thought-provoking look at both humanity and artificial intelligence. Narrated by a taciturn, self-aware AI creature, the self-dubbed ‘Murderbot’ has been deployed as a security robot for a team of scientists attempting to ascertain whether a new planet is suitable for commercial activity. When a rival mission ceases communication on the other side of the planet, the team take Murderbot to investigate. A story of corporate espionage and greed plays out as our aloof protagonist has to decide how much of itself to reveal to its human charges.
Charmaine A Universe Of Sufficient Size by Miriam Sved
I have just finished reading Australian author Miriam Sved’s new book (available in April), A Universe Of Sufficient Size. This wonderful story moves between 1938 pre-war Hungary where 5 brilliant young, Jewish mathematics students have been expelled from University just prior to the devastation that is about to to be wrought, and 2007 in Sydney where one of these (Ildiko) now lives following her escape. One of the five, Pali Kalmar (a character loosely based on the great mathematician Paul Erdos), is visiting Sydney on a lecture tour and the 2 are about to meet for the first time in 70 years. Long buried secrets are revealed. This incredible story is loosely based on the true story of Sved’s grandparents. I highly recommend that you read this book, it is excellent storytelling about brave and talented people.
Kate Transit by Rachel Cusk
I’m currently reading the second book in Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy. As in the first book, the narrator is a blurry character who mostly reflects other people’s lives. We rarely get much insight into who she is. In the first book she is running a writing workshop in Athens and we learn about the personal lives and struggles of the people she meets. In Transit, Cusk offers a little more insight into the character, Faye, yet we still learn about her mostly through the questions she asks other people.
In this book the character moves back to London with her two sons. She goes about buying a house and is advised by a friend to value location over building quality. She buys a dilapidated apartment in a block above a grumpy and menacing couple. She goes about making the apartment livable and settling back into London life. She has conversations with the homesick Polish builders and friends from former London days. She also runs into her ex-partner who still lives in the house they shared together many years earlier. These books are satisfyingly curious. Through the stable yet vague character of Faye, characters reveal details about their personal lives, desires and fears. Faye attempts to transform herself and her life but through brilliant insights and comic moments, struggles to meet the expectations she’s set up.
What a wonderful Writers’ Week we had this year. We were gifted stimulating conversation and eventually some beautiful weather. The topics presented to us this year were challenging and fresh and were often the kind that needed some time to reflect on. We each made it to a few sessions and wanted to share our thoughts with you after some time to ruminate. We’re still stocking the Writers’ Week books so if you missed out on a title, we’re happy to help you find it.
As I have done for the past few years, I took a glorious week off to work at Writers’ Week as a driver. It means that I get to meet many of the authors and have hugely interesting conversations on the way to and from the airport, but don’t get to see many sessions in their entirety. The car air-conditioning was certainly welcome on some of those hot days though!
Communicating Complexity with Rose George and Carl Zimmer
One of the sessions I did get to was Rose George & Carl Zimmer talking about complexity. They are both science journalists and reflected on the current state of affairs in reporting complex issues in this world of post-truth, truthiness and fake news.
Both George and Zimmer lamented the rise of unregulated platforms like YouTube that can spread misinformation – for example, the millions of videos that support the idea that the Earth is flat. Neither author had a simple answer about how to change this dire situation, but agreed that journalists and the media must continue to provide clear, concise and engaging summaries of scientific and other complex information, as well as educating the public about how to evaluate truth in media. They also urged writers and communicators in specialized fields not to remain in isolation.
I have since read Rose George’s book Deep Sea and Foreign Going, which documents her time spent on an enormous container ship as she investigated how 90% of the things we use in everyday life are transported around the world. I think this is a great example of how to blend scientific reporting (on the marine environment, in this case) with the economic and political realities that seafarers face today.
We That Are Young with Preti Taneja
Another session I was lucky to catch was Preti Taneja talking about her debut novel We That Are Young. It is a modern-day King Lear, transposed (or translated, as Taneja put it) onto contemporary India through the voices of five young characters. Themes of division, identity, loyalty and family are immediate links between Shakespeare’s text and this novel, but Taneja has also taken much of the language of the original and adapted it into her setting. The resulting pastiche sounds incredibly rich, poetic and powerful. I am yet to read the novel but am fascinated by the blend of old and new that, from the passages read during the session, seems at once fresh and familiar.
Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre with Aunty Sue Blacklock and Lyndall Ryan
I’m embarrassed to say I’d never learned about the massacre Myall Creek before I came across this book in the lead up to Writers’ Week. If I had heard of it, I hadn’t learned about the scale and horrific details. In 1838 twenty-eight unarmed Indigenous Australians were brutally killed by eleven British colonists. Lyndall Ryan is an academic and historian and began the huge project of mapping the colonial frontier massacres in Australia. The Massacre Map details and approximates locations of massacres and provides sources of corroborating evidence. The map is an important step in acknowledging the extensive violence used against indigenous people in Australia’s history.
Her most recent book details the massacre at Myall Creek. This massacre was unusual in that eleven of the twelve assassins were arrested and brought to trial. Out of these eleven, seven were hanged. Lyndall was joined at the Writers’ Week conversation by Aunty Sue Blacklock, whose ancestors were murdered in the massacre. She spoke of her family history and the significance of growing up with this painful story. Aunty Sue was the leader of a committee who recently finished a memorial at Myall Creek. The conversation centred around the details of the trial and why it was one of the rare cases where the perpetrators were convicted but also the importance of remembering and acknowledging the extent of the violence that Australia’s First People experienced and ways toward reconciliation today. One of the most powerful moments of the conversation was when Aunty Sue said that in finishing the memorial she could feel her ancestors being set free.
Too Much Lip with Melissa Lucashenko
This is one of the most energetic Writers’ Week conversations I’ve been to. Melissa Lucashenko is a Bundjalung writer and a born storyteller. It was a joy listening to her speak about her most recent book, Too Much Lip.
She started the session by reading a scene from an early chapter where Kerry, the main character, watches four waark (crows) eating roadkill before tearing off on her motorbike to visit her family after years of separation to say goodbye to her dying pop. Hearing Lucashenko’s voice and sound of the Bundjalung language gave the book such guts that I wanted her to keep reading. She spoke about wanting to convey the complexities and violence in the Salter family while keeping her characters nuanced. I was interested in hearing her speak of the importance that her characters have humour and moments of pleasure in order to paint a realistic but whole image of Indigenous characters, one that included sexiness and playfulness. I was already enjoying the book when I went to the session but afterwards I raced off to finish it.
Red Birds with Mohammed Hanif
I hope that everyone had a wonderful Writers’ Week and heard plenty of good discussion and got inspired to read some new authors.
I went to hear Mohamad Hanif talk about his life as a journalist and author on Sunday afternoon, and I liked his relaxed, easy and humorous style whilst at the same time he was talking about very serious issues in Pakistan. He talked about how long years of dictatorship and censorship has led to finding ways of speaking out by making fun of them.
Hanif is an author who uses satire to highlight these problems and in his most recent book — a dark comedy about human ugliness — Red Birds, he critiques US Foreign Policy, war and America’s role in the destruction of the Middle East. The book is set in a refugee camp and has 3 narrators — an American pilot who survives his plane crashing and ironically ends up in the camp that he was supposed to bomb, Momo who is a young boy who has become a refugee businessman who finds and rescues the pilot and a Philosophical dog called Mutt. In this story Hanif asks some big questions. How can we have safe sheltered lives when half the world is getting bombed? What role have we had in ruining their homeland? Where do our lives and theirs co-exist? And do we have base urges for conflict/war?
Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a little gem. It follows an academic as she mourns the loss of a dear friend and colleague, but her grief is complicated by the inheritance of his very large dog. As she forms a close bond with Apollo, the Great Dane, the narrator debates ideas around animal-human relationships, art, writing and philosophy. It is sharply written, witty and wry and will ring true to anyone who has lost someone close to them.
I’ve also recently had the chance to catch up on a hit from last year, Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton, in which Haruki Murakami meets Elmore Leonard in a small town coming-of-age story. Dalton’s writing is “full florist”, enabling him to create beautifully deep characters in an unexpectedly dark mid-80s Queensland. Magic realist elements mix well alongside a good old fashioned Aussie yarn, with a cracking crime story at its heart.
Charmaine Political Correctness Gone Mad?
Political Correctness Gone Mad? is ultimately a gripping little book, even though the title suggests otherwise. The ‘Munk Debates’ in Canada have led to a few of these, each a summary of a public debate that draws live audiences of several thousand, and millions more on Canadian and US public broadcasters. The books consist of individual conversations between the moderator and the speakers beforehand, the debate itself, then individual conversations afterwards. This fleshes out the contributions of the speakers, before during and after the theatre of the debate itself. The four speakers, Stephen Fry, Michelle Goldberg, Michael Eric Dyson and Jordan Peterson, each bring strong and very different perspectives to the topic, and any reader is likely to find their views wobbling a little as the debate progresses. The exact topic is ‘What you call political correctness I call progress.’
Kate Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
I’ve been reeling ever since I finished this beautiful biography by Audre Lorde, self-described ‘black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet’. This is Lorde’s coming-of-age story — and what a life she had! She paints a picture of what it was like growing up black in 1950s Harlem. Her insight into the social and political climate of the time is so interesting and hers is a perspective I haven’t learned about before. Lorde’s mother was strict and her parents tried to protect her from racism by pretending it didn’t exist, leading to some confusing childhood lessons. She was a strong-headed child and determined to find her own way in the world. She writes poetically about discovering her sexuality and talent as a writer. Her approach to life is unique and refreshing. While she has fun with her misfit group of friends who support one another to be the women they want to be, she works at libraries, hospitals and factories, always becoming more herself and never giving in to societal pressures. The stories of her exclusion from work spaces and public life show the terrible structural racism of that time, which continues today. Her beautiful honesty about the women she loved was heartbreaking and exciting in its tenderness. I was totally wrapped up in her life and energy and didn’t want her to leave.
For those lucky enough to be in a book club, we’ve got twelve recommendations that might have gone under the radar for your next year’s worth of reads.
FICTION Happiness – Aminatta Forna
A novel of coincidental meetings and the unseen side of London A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles
Charming historical fiction that paints a picture of Russia after the fall of the Czar The Death of Noah Glass – Gail Jones
A beautiful and lyrical novel about grief and love, with a compelling mystery at its heart Circe – Madeline Miller
This feminist retelling of The Odyssey pays homage to the original while breathing new life into the ancient myth Pachinko – Min Jin Lee
A sprawling family story over several generations of a Korean Japanese migrant family Normal People – Sally Rooney
Two young people orbit each other in this intimate and beautiful novel about class and power An American Marriage – Tayari Jones
A young married couple is ripped apart by injustice – will they find their way back together?
NON-FICTION Eggshell Skull – Bri Lee
A gripping look at the justice system for victims of sexual abuse, from both sides of the courtroom The Trauma Cleaner – Sarah Krasnostein
The biography of an incredible woman, working with society’s most vulnerable Amateur – Thomas Page McBee
Page McBee analyses the complicated relationship between men and violence as he trains to fight in an amateur boxing match Built – Roma Agrawal
Humans have sought to build higher and higher throughout history, but what advances have we had to make along the way to satiate our need for height? The Feather Thief – Kirk Wallace Johnson
The invaluable theft of bird specimens from the British Natural History Museum is examined in compelling detail
Annie My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite and Still Lives by Maria Hummel.
I’ve just read a couple of smart, edgy crime thrillers that don’t quite fit the mould but succeed nonetheless.
My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite is a dark, inventive and blackly funny take on what it means to have a mass murderer in the family. Korede, a Nigerian nurse, is forever cleaning up her sister’s mess, but lately, that has extended to an unfortunate spate of dead boyfriends. When Ayoola’s attentions turn to the attractive doctor at Korede’s workplace, her loyalties will be split and her morals challenged. This is a novel take on the serial killer and explores deep-set family tensions with all the punchiness and zest of a Shane Black film.
Still Lives, by Maria Hummel, uncovers the seedy underside of the art world when an artist fails to arrive at her own opening. The new show happens to be about famous murder victims, as the artist paints herself into each scenario. But is this just another stunt, or something more sinister? A young gallery worker begins to dig deeper, at once entranced and repelled by the artist’s subjects and life. Hummel has previously written historical fiction and this is her first foray into crime, so it may displease some fans of the genre, but I loved the complex and gendered picture she painted (pun not intended, I promise) of the art market and women’s fascination with violent crime.
Robin Just Add Glitter by Angela DiTerlizzi, illustrated by Samantha Cotterill and Little Brothers & Little Sisters by Monica Arnaldo.
This month I’d like to recommend two lovely new picture books. Just Add Glitter has exploded onto the shelves, bursting with energy and guaranteed to delight any child (or adult) with a penchant for all things spangled and sparkly. Angela DiTerlizzi’s exuberant rhyming text follows a little girl who receives a mysterious package of glitter in the mail, and proceeds to joyfully bedazzle everything in sight. But can there ever be such a thing as TOO MUCH GLITTER? We shall see! Samantha Cotterill’s unique illustrations combine line drawing, 3D collage, photography – and LOTS of glitter – to create a playful wonderland of shimmering splendour. This is a perfect book to read aloud and enjoy together.
Much more down-to-earth, but no less charming, is Little Brothers & Little Sisters by Monica Arnaldo. Her understated text and detailed, animated illustrations combine to catalogue the frustrations and joys of sibling life. This is a warm and well-observed picture book to snuggle up and share.
Charmaine Becoming by Michelle Obama
I devoured Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, in a week. I am an admirer of hers and this book confirmed my thoughts that here is a woman who is passionate about using her influence to improve the lives of children globally. The book is an easy and insightful read into her life — from very ordinary beginnings through to an extraordinary life as First Lady. Throughout the book she remains grounded, with a few reminders from her mother without whom she could not have done her job. This is a great holiday read and the perfect present for your loved ones.
Kate I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
I have heard all about Malala Yousafzai in the media and watched videos of her speaking, but reading her biography offers intimate insight into her incredible, and terrible, experiences. Reading about her picturesque childhood in the Swat Valley in Pakistan gives a new perspective on the sudden terror imposed by the Taliban. Her bravery is unbelievable as she stands up for girls right to go to school, writing of her experiences at such a young age for the BBC and having her life threatened when she was shot by the Taliban when she was just 15. While many expected she would die, it is astounding to hear about how she instead became a Messenger of Peace for the UN and the youngest nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She writes with clarity and with a charged but humble voice, sharing personal stories that are a pleasure, and privilege, to read. I am in awe of Malala’s strength and integrity and her book is a reminder of the potential people have to create change in the world.
Jess The Mystery of Three Quarters:The new Hercule Poirot mystery by Sophie Hannah
From the outset of this story you are hooked simply because the within the opening few pages such odd things happen. You follow Hercule’s trail through the eyes of his friend and fellow detective Inspector Edward Catchpool of Scotland Yard as Catchpool and Poirot try to work out what is actually happening. Hercule has been falsely accused of accusing three other people that they committed a murder – a murder which nobody seems to be sure ever actually took place! As the detectives dive deeper into the lives of Poirot’s accusers it becomes clear that every one of them have secrets to hide, but do those secrets include something so dark as murder? I thoroughly enjoyed following this story through its twists and turns. Engaging, intriguing and easy to read, choose this book if you love a good mystery and love the at times laugh out loud eccentricities of the one and only Hercule Poirot.
Annie Wundersmith by Jessica Townsend and The Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius.
In Wundersmith, we return to the world of Nevermoor with our intrepid hero, Morrigan Crow, as she begins her first year at the magical academy, WunSoc. But everything is not as it seems and Mog’s loyalty and bravery will be tested. I think this second instalment in the instant classic series is even better than the first – without the need to introduce the world, Townsend has more time to develop her characters and plot. I giggled with delight at her magical inventions, shivered with fear at the action sequences and am so excited to urge this upon readers young and old.
The Murderer’s Ape was released before Christmas last year in hardback, but I’ve just gotten around to reading the new paperback edition. Full of gorgeous illustrations, this is a noir crime thriller set in early 20th century Portugal and India. Sally Jones is a sensitive and intelligent ship’s mechanic, who also happens to be a gorilla. When her captain is wrongly arrested for murder, she sets out to try to clear his name. A fun romp for anyone aged 10 and up.
Robyn The Afterwards by A.F. Harrold, illustrated by Emily Gravett
The Afterwards is a compelling, thoughtful and dark new illustrated novel, for confident young readers. Dealing with loss and grief, with an inventive vision for the afterlife, A.F. Harrold’s story is ambitious and imaginative. Emily Gravett’s illustrations are the perfect accompaniment: very gloomy, but in a friendly way. Fair warning: this book is deeply sad, and sometimes genuinely scary. But it’s also exciting and original, and has an immense amount of heart. Those eager readers from 8 to 12 years of age who can handle heavier themes will find plenty to enjoy, and to think about.
Charmaine Not reading by e-reader
This is a comment about how I am reading, not what I have read. I downloaded Anna Burn’s Milkman (this years Man Booker winner) while I was travelling on my bicycle recently. But I didn’t read it – I found I did less reading on this holiday because I didn’t have actual books with me. So I started reading it last week and whilst I am loving the style of writing and the content, I have now decided to get a hard copy and read it. I wonder what your experiences are with e-reading because I really don’t like it. For me when I read, I am looking for an experience of relaxed luxury and immersion and I just can’t get this on an e-reader. When I hold a book, smell the book, turn the pages, see the words on paper, admire the cover – all in my comfy chair or in bed in the evening – I am having a special experience. One that I relish daily and look forward to. I would be very interested to hear your experiences of reading. Next month I will tell you what I thought of Milkman.
Kate Milkman by Anna Burns
I’m luxuriating in Anna Burns incredible experimental form in Milkman. Set in the Troubles in Ireland in the 1970s, Milkman unfolds in an unnamed town where the narrator is strategically fighting off creepy advancements from a much older man. I’m learning a lot about Irish history and the social climate of this period of time. The narrator is a smart, witty eighteen year old who offers nuanced insight into insidious social control and surveillance. This is a book about a particular time but the pervasive control of women is something still so relevant. I’m loving the writing and empathise so deeply with the narrator. I am yet to finish it and am waiting on the edge of my seat to find out what happens to such a memorable character.
Annie The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright and In the Distance by Hernan Diaz
I’ve been reading a couple of books that examine the idea of home and the role that the spaces that we inhabit play in our lives.
Fiona Wright’s The World Was Whole is a series of essays that continues on, loosely, from her 2015 collection Small Acts of Disappearance. She has been struggling with mental ill health and disordered eating for many years, but this book posits that struggle more structurally. Issues of housing, inconsistent or unreliable work, racism and other tensions of contemporary Australia contribute to her feelings of dissociation and dislocation. Wright is a poet and academic, and these voices shine through, but the book as a whole is a triumph of cultural commentary and vulnerable memoir.
Hernan Diaz’s In the Distance is a Pulitzer-nominated historical novel set in mid-1800s America. The main character, Håkan, emigrates from Sweden with his brother but they almost immediately become separated. He decides to walk across America to find his lost sibling in New York, meeting many strange characters along the way. The book is atmospheric and unnerving, with the unfamiliar landscape and language dominating all of Håkan’s observances.
Charmaine Unshelteredby Barbara Kingsolver
I have just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s new book Unsheltered, due for release this week – I read it in 3 days – fabulous writing, a wonderful cast of characters and a range of relevant issues. Basically the chapters alternate between a house and those it shelters in the 19th century, and a house and its occupants on the same land in the 21st century. In both cases the house is crumbling and unlikely to continue to provide shelter for its inhabitants. Of course this a metaphor for events in the lives of those who dwell within. Thatcher Greenwood, his young wife, her sister and his mother-in-law all live in the house during Charles Darwin’s time. Thatcher is a teacher of science, a believer in the theory of evolution but finds it difficult to hold his position in a school where the Christian principal insists on interfering with his teaching.
Here Kingsolver bases her story around a real person – Mary Treat who was a Naturalist and who had correspondence with Charles Darwin. Thatcher finds a friend in this passionate nature studier and as his house and relationship is collapsing, he and Mary find strength in their friendship. The concerns of those living in the house in current times include broader political issues of the American economy – loss of jobs, the rise of Trump (although his name is not mentioned), impacts on mental health (there has been a suicide in the family), caring for older parents and maintaining a roof over the family’s head. At the centre of this story are Willa and Iano Tavoularis, their 2 adult children, a baby without a mother and Iano’s sick and dependent father. This all makes for such a wonderful read, the dual narrative works well and the resolution for each and every character is realistic and satisfying. Kate Outline by Rachel Cusk and The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc
I’ve recently read the first book in Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. The first book offers musings on human nature through ten chapters, each one a different conversation. The narrator is a writer from London who is running a workshop in Athens. We don’t learn much about her except from her observations of other people. Through their conversations people divulge concerns about their partners, careers, children and thoughts on art. This is a quiet book and there is something curiously satisfying about these beautifully observed little snippets of people’s lives. Heidi Julavits in The New York Times wrote reading ‘Outline’ mimics the sensation of being underwater, of being separated from other people by a substance denser than air.
I’m also part way through another quiet book by a French author I’ve never heard of before, Violette Leduc. Written in 1965, The Lady and the Little Fox Fur is a portrait of a lonely woman in Paris. The character is in her 60’s and lives in a little attic in Paris. She counts her coffee beans every morning and wanders the city, alone and hungry, observing the people around her with a curious playfulness. One day she wakes with the desire to taste an orange but when she goes searching in rubbish bins for one, it is not an orange she finds but a discarded fox fur scarf. This discovery is a salvation and propels her further into her imaginative life. This book is only ninety or so pages but I’ve been reading it for almost a week, marvelling at the characters observations and moments of joy in an otherwise bleak existence.