Review: Smokehouse by Melissa Manning

Originally a 2020 release, the publication of “Smokehouse” has been pushed back to 2021

“Smokehouse,” Melissa Manning’s superb debut collection of intertwined short stories, takes a novel’s worth of emotional density, strips away all the fat, and crushes what’s left into ten masterfully poignant tales. Two titular pieces (that would comprise an amazing novella all on their own) bookend eight vignettes set mostly in southern Tasmania.

Hollywood has engendered a cinematic scope to the life-changing moments that shape our lives, but “Smokehouse” evocates these turning points in far more realistic and subtle fashion. The characters in each of Manning’s stories endure a transformative experience. For Nora, in “Smokehouse: Part One” it’s her husband’s decision to move their family to the coastal town of Kettering, on the D’Entrecasteaux Channel opposite Bruny Island. Dissatisfied with the trajectory of her life, and disenfranchised by her marriage, it is here she meets Ollie, and begins a relationship that obliterates the life she had. “Smokehouse: Part Two” explores this relationship many years later, as a neurodegenerative disease unthreads the happy tapestry they’ve knitted together.   

In “Nao,” the death of a Japanese woman’s adoptive mother resurrects her childhood memories, and unlocks long-concealed grief and trauma. In “Faal,” Gurj arrives at a restaurant for his blind date “carrying the wight of low expectations.” Before the night is over, Graham has leaned across the table and kissed Gurj full on the lips, sealing their fate. And on it goes, Manning delicately and affectingly memorializing the manner in which the places we live and the people we meet shape our destinies.

Manning demonstrates unerring control of her craft. The length of the stories in this collection varies, but their richness does not.

Format: Paperback
Publication: 30 Mar 2021
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
ISBN: 9780702263026

Review: Casino by Peter Corris

After turning down the job as head of security at the new Sydney casino, private investigator Cliff Hardy recommends Scot Galvani for the role, and moves on with his life, flattered by the offer, but a stickler for his unshackled lifestyle, which doesn’t allow for the structure of 9-5 office hours, or the wearing of a suit. When Galvani is murdered weeks later, his wife Gina hires Hardy to investigate.

Published in 1994, “Casino” is the eighteenth instalment in the Cliff Hardy series, and one of my favourites; its elements a perfect cocktail for my particular crime fiction proclivities. The plot is straightforward, as they all are, but peppered with a cast of nefarious villains and love interests, and bolstered by Hardy’s snide insights into Sydney in the early nineties. Hardy loves his city, that’s obvious, but can see beyond its sheen, and has trudged through its mud.

Cliff Hardy exists on the softer side of the hardboiled spectrum. Oh, he can rough ‘em up like the best of ‘em, and isn’t afraid to crack a few heads, but it’s always a last resort, when his actions have been reduced to a singular course. He identifies and marinates on his own personality flaws. Jealousy, and a sexual attraction to Vita Drewe, threaten to destroy his (relatively) long-term relationship with Glen Withers; and Hardy knows he drinks too much (by the cask, in fact) but doesn’t view it as a fatal flaw; not yet, at least. He is perfectly imperfect: the kind of hero readers follow to hell and back.

Every undiscovered Corris novel I dig up at second hand bookshops is a treat. I’ve maybe half a dozen to go, and (so far) I have resisted the urge to “cheat” and acquire them online.     

Paperback : 216 pages
ISBN-10 : 9781760110208
ISBN-13 : 978-1760110208
Publisher : Allen & Unwin (19 November 2014)

Review: Tell Me Lies by J.P. Pomare

J.P. Pomare’s “Tell Me Lies” is a spellbinding psychological thriller that was originally penned as an Audible Original. I can’t tell you whether its prose form has been edited or expanded upon in any way. What I can tell you is that it’s slick and twisty, constructed like a Michael Robotham novel on speed, but forsaking none of the psychological acuity.

I won’t go into plot details. The less you know, the more you’ll enjoy the ride: Pomare’s plot twists explode like percussion grenades. But its opening hook is genius. Psychologist Margot Scott — who lives a tranquil life with her husband and two kids, essentially the epitomised lifestyle of the Australian dream — approaches one of her clients on a busy Melbourne train platform. As the train approaches, she makes a fatal decision. She shoves her client onto the tracks. We then smash-cut to a month earlier, and learn what has led to that moment: the (almost) complete destruction of Margot’s personal and professional life.

“Tell Me Lies” uses the tricks of the thriller trade well, but why it really works is that it withholds essential information from the reader until Pomare is ready. What I admired most about the novel is how tightly constructed it is. It’s conventional in the sense that Pomare is not reinventing anything; but he’s polishing its requisite elements to a perfect sheen.

ISBN: 9781869718169
ISBN-10: 186971816X
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 272
Available: 29th December 2020

Review: The Iron Tiger by Jack Higgins

Sometimes I think people get the wrong impression when I call a novel “great airplane reading,” which is how I’d label Jack Higgins’ 1966 thriller “The Iron Tiger.” It’s not a derisive comment, rather (I hope) emblematic of a book’s particular style: something that’s intended to be swallowed quickly, that might not exactly live long in the memory, but annihilates hours; which is all you want it for.

“The Iron Tiger” is a thriller of another era, when potboilers were somewhat more fashionable and marketable. I’m not sure you could tell the same story today; at least not without fleshing out its non-white characters, and giving them more agency. Higgins’ novel creaks because of its reliance on archaic ideals, in which the white outsider — in this case ex-Navy pilot Jack Drummond — is the British hero who must rise to the occasion to lead a rag-tag group of survivors out of the (fictional) India-China border country of Balpur, through dangerous, mountainous terrain, to the Indian border, while hunted by the Red Chinese army.

The book clocks in at less than two-hundred pages. Character development is minimal; bar the opening chapters, which provide a couple of evocative descriptions of India, the writing is sparse. The action goes down smooth, but doesn’t exactly get the blood pumping; despite the perilousness of their situation, the characters never really feel in jeopardy. But these scenes slide noiselessly into gear and the result is lightweight, page-turning fun.

Paperback : 192 pages
ISBN-10 : 0330307193
ISBN-13 : 978-0330307192
Publisher : PAN BOOKS; New Ed Edition (January 1, 1989)

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “The Doors of Eden” is a compulsive and extraordinarily entertaining labyrinth of parallel Earths and alternate dimensions threaded together with endearingly human (and non-human) characters. Punctuated with frenetic action scenes and interspersed with fascinating evolutionary histories of the multiverse’s “other” Earths, this is blockbuster science-fiction writing, as smart as it is exhilarating.

The premise is magnificently uncomplicated: interdimensional cracks are forming in the multiverse. Earths are overlapping; “a pick-and-mix of realities slopping together,” which is causing chaos, and signifies the end of all things. Nothing is safe. Everything is unravelling. Unless a conglomeration of the multiverse’s greatest minds can find a solution.

The cast is suitably diverse: you’ve got Lee Pryor and her girlfriend Elsinore “Mal” Mallory; transgender genius theoretical mathematician Kay Amal Khan; MI5 agent Julian Sabreur (more office administrator than 007); ex-army, now private security goon Lucas May, and his villainous boss; and a whole host of others, who snake in and out of story, which shifts seamlessly between their perspectives, building towards an epically intricate finale. Leaving room for a sequel, perhaps? I’d be down for more.

The science of “The Doors of Eden” stayed just the right side of palatable. Hard science fiction scares me a lot of the time. But despite its complexity and immensity, Tchaikovsky never tries to outsmart the reader. He’s got big ideas, but he understands his role as a storyteller. This is a breathless sci-fi masterclass.

ISBN: 9781509865895
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 25/08/2020
Imprint: Tor UK
Pages: 608
Price: $32.99

Review: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

“Is this all his life is meant to be, the accumulation of other people’s pain?”

It’s hard to describe Brandon Taylor’s Booker-longlisted “Real Life” in a way that conveys its brilliance without making it sound archetypal. It’s one of those novels that defies its plot description through its execution, its greatness stemming from its specificity of character. Ostensibly it’s the coming-of-age story of a college student named Wallace. That Wallace is black, and gay, is significant; so too that events transpire over one weekend. I think what makes “Real Life” truly special is that although Wallace’s struggles are universal, Taylor’s novel doesn’t set out to achieve a universal statement. This is Wallace’s truth; the honest portrayal of his character is what makes his story more than a mere “campus novel.”

Hailing from Alabama, where he grew up poor and abused, Wallace is a graduate student in the Midwest, who keenly monitors his genetic experiments on nematodes (multicellular insects) with little time in his life for anything else, let alone a potential boyfriend — Miller — who’s not actually certain he’s gay, and has some repressed anger issues. Wallace is burdened by his own traumatic past, and continues to struggle with the “whiteness” of his college world, and the bubbling undercurrent of racism that permeates his every moment; it’s the subtle infractions that seem to cause the most damage. Taylor colours Wallace’s world with friends who feel fully-realised and three-dimensional, despite our brief dalliances with them. Their dynamics vary depending on who is present and who is missing from their gatherings.

“Real Life” is a story about the complexity of trauma, forgiveness and prejudice, and a searing snapshot of white middle-class. I was mesmerised.

Format: Paperback
Publisher: Daunt Books
Published: 4 August 2020
Pages: 336
ISBN: 978191154774

Review: State Highway One by Sam Coley

After the sudden death of his parents, Alex returns home from Dubai to New Zealand, where he and his twin sister Amy set off on a road trip down State Highway 1, which runs the length of both main islands. They hope to heal old wounds and revive their familial bond. Alex also hopes to reconnect with his home.

“State Highway One” settles into the rhythms of the road trip novel, with lots of beautifully-evocated drive-by-scenery, soul-search talks during long stretches across the blacktop, and unpredictable encounters with locals and fellow road warriors.

The narrative regularly cuts back in time to present readers with glimpses of the Alex’s adolescence. As the queer son of famous film directors, Alex never wanted for anything tangible; but Alex and Amy’s was a youth deprived of paternal love, and their unconventional upbringing, which saw them basically raise themselves, has warped their relationship; twisted it into something possibly unsalvageable.

The moment he could, Alex fled New Zealand for Dubai, taking up an internship and cutting all ties with his family. His specific reason for this, the catalyst for his departure, is hinted at but never explicitly stated until the novel’s climax, which adds an unexpected layer of suspense. But what ultimately elevates “State Highway One” above the cascade of fiction about homecomings is Sam Coley’s handling of repressed grief and trauma; an undercurrent that spills over into Alex’s every day. It’s a poignant, powerful excavation and Coley belies his status as a debut novelist by not providing an easy, aesthetic resolution. Real life doesn’t work that way.

ISBN: 9781869714260
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Hachette
Publish Date: 25-Aug-2020
Country of Publication: New Zealand

Review: Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

“I would be lying,” narrates Antara in Avni Doshi’s brilliant Booker long-listed debut, “if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.” Which reminded me of Sofia in Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk,” when she intones, “My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep.”

Levy fans, I think, will find much to enjoy in “Burnt Sugar.” This is novel of great emotional complexity, which challenges assumptions about motherhood and memory, as Antara manages the cognitive decline of her mother Tara, and struggles to reign in her burning resentment about a childhood suffused with neglect. It’s a book about love and anger, twisted like the double helix of a DNA strand.

Set in Pune, India, “Burnt Sugar” is Antara’s retelling of her tumultuous history with her mother. In her youth, Tara abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram, quickly married its leader, then endured a period of time as a beggar, and spent years chasing the affection of an artist — all with Antara as an unwanted passenger, who is adamant her mother never cared for her, and is infuriated that she must now demonstrate a kindness that was never bestowed upon her.

The question beating at the novel’s heart is whether Antara’s chronicle is the truth, or an edited version; her interpretation rather than an actual representation. And therefore is her anger righteous or misplaced? “Maybe she doesn’t remember because it never happened,” Antara’s grandmother suggests. The subjectivity and fragility of memory pulsates in every scene.

Doshi shows herself to be a forensically-brave writer who refuses to provide easy answers in this intensely disquieting, exquisite excavation of a relationship between a mother and daughter.

ISBN: 9780241441510
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 240
Published: 14th August 2020
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd

Review: Kill Your Darlings New Australian Fiction 2020 edited by Rebecca Starford

The teeming diversity of Australian writers is reflected in this anthology edited by Rebecca Starford, whose hand-picked cavalcade of short fiction demonstrates the pliability of the form and reflects the tumultuousness of our lives, albeit with the exemption of COVID-19, musings on which will have to wait until next year’s collection (although Mirandi Riwoe’s opener, “So Many Ways,” touches on its impact).

This is a collection of uncommonly high value. Personal highlights include Madeleine Watts’ “Floodwaters,” in which a woman witnesses the unravelling of a friend following a sexual assault accusation. Ka Rees explores the commodification of a nuclear disaster in “Among the Ruins,” as her protagonist Hetty surveys a nuclear wasteland for a role playing videogame she’s developing.

“The Fingerprint” by Donna Mazza might be my favourite; it’s creepy and subversive as it dives into the world of genetic experimentation and its entanglement with art. “I Go To Pieces” by Elizabeth Flux is a much quieter story, involving an unnamed narrator retracing an international holiday, from Rome to Barcelona, with the ashes of the friend she originally travelled with.

Jack Kirne’s “Holy Water” is unsettlingly compelling as two men do some work on the house of a troubled woman, who keeps bottled holy water in her fridge. And in “Long Road: Becoming” Mykaela Saunders spotlights a day in the life of a young man awaiting the visit of his parole officer. 

The stories here avoid narrative experimentation and excessive stylistic virtuosity. They are heavy in thematic depth, but written in plain, artful language. Nothing is exclusive or elitist. These are stories for everyone. And with these tidbits, I’ve opened my eyes to a whole host of new-to-me writers I want to read more of.

ISBN: 9780994483362
ISBN-10: 0994483368
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 224
Published: 1st September 2020
Publisher: Kill Your Darlings Pty Ltd
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 19.8 x 12.8

Review: Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby

“Blacktop Wasteland” is a Greek tragedy, its characters performing actions long-inscribed in the books of their lives. It’s pitch perfect noir, as S.A. Cosby viciously and violently unspools the implacable fate of Beauregard Montage, getaway driver turned mechanic, who is unable to escape the world of criminality.

Beauregard needs cash: a lot more than he can make in illegal drag races in his classic duster. His repair shop in Red Hill County, Virginia is haemorrhaging; his cancer-stricken mother is about to be kicked out of palliative care; his daughter needs tuition; and his son needs braces.  A big heist —last one, he swears, to himself and his wife — could make all his worries go away.

Or, as eventuates, lead to devastating consequences.

The Montagues have a family tradition of violence and bloodshed. Beauregard’s father was a wheelman too, until he disappeared, leaving a shattered family, and a young black kid scrounging for ways to fill the gaping hole left by an absent father. Beauregard wants that tradition to end: but the only way he can withdraw his family from that life is to throw himself into it. The shattered man holding his life together with trembling fingers (despite Beauregard’s outward swagger) is great noir fuel. You want Beauregard to claw his way out of trouble, but you despair at the choices he makes. “Blacktop Wasteland” has a simple narrative, textured with piercing insights into racial tensions, fatherhood, and the yearning for a better a life. It’s gritty, violent and action-packed; think “Fast and Furious” thrills meshed with the depth of Dennis Lehane’s great crime novels.

ISBN: 9781472273741
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 304
Imprint: Headline Book Publishing
Publisher: Headline Publishing Group
Publish Date: 2-Jul-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom