Category: Reviews

What We’re Reading: May 2019

Annie 
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams and Things in Jars by Jess Kidd

This month I’ve been reading two novels with
lovably quirky protagonists. 

Queenie is a funny, honest and sometimes heartbreaking novel about a young woman trying to find her feet in the world. The titular Queenie is vivacious, neurotic and recently dumped. She launches into the world of dating with an open mind, but quickly discovers that modern relationships aren’t as straightforward as they may seem. And perhaps she has to resolve her personal baggage before she takes on anyone else’s? 

I have read and enjoyed both of Jess Kidd’s previous novels, and her new one is no disappointment. It follows the Victorian lady detective, Bridie Devine, as she tries to track down a lost child – who may or may not be a merrow (a relation of the mermaid). The first problem is that her father doesn’t want Bridie to tell anyone what’s missing. The second problem is that she is being haunted by the ghost of a boxer … and he has developed a crush on her. Delightfully creepy and strangely tender, Things in Jars is based in Victorian-era London but people with thoroughly modern characters. Fans of The Essex Serpent and The Rivers of London series will enjoy this fantastic historical romp. 

Charmaine
Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson 

Jeanette Winterson has been one of my favourite authors since the late 80s when I was given a copy of The Passion. I was totally amazed at this magical fairy tale and have read most of what she has written since. Later this month her new book Frankissstein will be published and this one is a must read (I haven’t loved everything that she has written). The story is set in two time frames. One in 1816 when Mary Shelley is writing her story about creating a non-biological life-form. The other in Brexit Britain where a young transgender doctor is falling in love with a prestigious professor who is leading the debate on Artificial Intelligence, another character is launching a new generation of sex dolls and in America, men and women who are medically and legally dead have used cryogenics but are waiting to return to life. The writing is daring, funny and pacy – the issues are provocative and timely. 

Kate
Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

I’m enjoying reading this book slowly, taking time to research and write down quotes along the way. I haven’t read like this for a while and it’s a pleasure to be so interested and in the moment with a book. Lost Children Archive follows a family of two sound-artist’s and their children from New York City to the Apacheria, the regions of the US which used to be Mexico. The parents are working on their own projects and have become distant from one another while in their own worlds. The father is working on a project about the history of the Apaches, retracing the steps of the last Native Americans conquered by European settlers; and the mother is working on a project archiving undocumented children travelling between the border of Mexico and the US.

As they travel, it feels as if you’re part of the family holiday with all the food stops, motel decor, quibbles in the car, map reading mishaps. It is a work-focused family travel trip, told through the lens of capturing moments through sounds. Alongside this narrative is that of undocumented children travelling from Mexico to the US border, hoping for safety, but facing the brutality of a system that doesn’t want to help them. The comparison between the children in the car and the children travelling without adult protection is an obvious but powerful one. The narrator wonders if it’s ethical to make art with someone else’s suffering and I’m not sure she finds an answer, but I think this book succeeds in humanising the border crisis and in turn, humanising the readers, so often desensitised by the news.

What We’re Reading: April 2019

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.

What We’re Reading: March 2019

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. 

Writers’ Week Reflections

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.

Annie

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.

Kate

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.

Charmaine

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?

What We’re Reading: February 2019

Annie 
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez. 

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.