Review: The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey

9781760877538“The Morbids” by Ewa Ramsey is about a self-punishing, traumatised, anxiety-ridden young woman who slowly comes back to life through the power of love, friendship and kindness. On the surface, this would all appear to be another take on a familiar formula: it’s elevated beyond the sum of its parts thanks to Ramsey’s ability to create perfectly-drawn characters who haunt your heart, and its exploration of the heaviest of themes — personal tragedy, crushing guilt, and loneliness — with a dry wit that keeps it buoyant.

The titular ‘Morbids’ are a support group for people living with death-related anxiety. Caitlin attends meetings every Tuesday as a result of a fatal car accident two years ago, when she walked away unscathed, but laden with an irrational sense of culpability; a brutal form of survivor’s guilt that effectively eviscerated the life she knew, which had her climbing the corporate ladder and planning international vacations with her best friend Lina.

Now Caitlin is a borderline alcoholic, works the bar at Sawyer’s, and has isolated herself from Lina; not maliciously, but unconsciously; a manifestation of her trauma. When Lina announces her upcoming nuptials in Bali, and a handsome doctor named Tom enters her life, Caitlin is forced to confront her anxieties, possibly rooted in events preceding the car crash…

“The Morbids” is quietly devastating but ultimately heartening and life-affirming. It’s an intimate and moving account of the myriad ways in which kindness can change the notes and beats of our existence. Ramsey is a new voice in Australian fiction to celebrate.

ISBN: 9781760877538
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: September 2020
Page Extent: 368

Review: Rules For Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson

9780571342358The only thing wrong with Peter Swanson’s “Rules for Perfect Murders” (published in America as “Eight Perfect Murders) is that it spoils — by necessity — the plots of eight classic crime novels. But if you’re okay with that, or better yet, have already read them, and you’re a crime fiction connoisseur, Swanson’s latest is tremendous fun: a twist-filled, pacey psychological thriller, and a love letter to the golden age of crime fiction.

Deception and duplicity course through these pages like a river. Nothing is what it seems, and everybody has a secret. Malcolm Kershaw is the co-owner of the Old Devil’s Bookstore in Boston, which specialises in mysteries and thrillers. It’s a routine day until FBI agent Gwen Mulvey arrives at the door with questions for Malcolm about a blog post he wrote years ago titled ‘Eight Perfect Murders,’ which described the ingenious methods and strategies used by killers in eight classic crime novels. Mulvey believes a serial killer is re-creating those ‘perfect’ murders, and wants Malcolm’s analysis.

The murders in question stem from Agatha Christie’s “The A.B.C. Murders;” A.A. Milne’s “The Red House Mystery;” Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train;” James M. Cain’s “Double Indemnity;” Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History;” Ira Levin’s “Deathtrap;” Anthony Berkeley Cox’s “Malice Afterthought” and John D. MacDonald’s “The Drowner.” Swanson — through the lens of Malcolm — evocatively summarises the details of these murders. Spoilers abound, certainly; but I was more enticed than discouraged to read the four books on Malcolm’s list I haven’t yet imbibed.

“Rules” boasts a wildly charismatic and eclectic cast; authors, bookstore customers and colleagues, and dark web correspondents. They’re diverse and distinct, and though savvy readers might identify the killer before Swanson gets to the big reveal, there’s more to this story than the ‘whodunit.’ This is about unravelling the complex psyche of Malcolm; understanding how the tragedy of his past has affected his present. Honestly, “Rules” is one of the most purely entertaining mysteries of the year: a throwback to the mystery novels of yesteryear with a contemporary sheen, and a mystery I’d happily hand across to  any trepidatious crime reader.

ISBN: 9780571342365
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 288
Imprint: Faber & Faber
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Publish Date: 5-Mar-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Fogging by Luke Horton

9781925849592_final2There is a lulling quality to Luke Horton’s writing — emblematic of its narrator, Tom, who suffers from a panic disorder that often makes social interaction traumatic — that makes his acute examinations of the complex ecosystem of a deteriorating relationship, and machinations of friendship, all the more piercing. His prose is spare and disarming, but purposeful; choreographed, even; a writer at the height of his powers, unspooling his narrative with remarkable precision.

“The Fogging” is ostensibly the story of a break-up, but without the hyperbolic trappings or tropes synonymous with such stories. There is no major cataclysm that sparks the demise of Clara and Tom’s relationship — the unexpected fumigation (or fogging) of their resort is the one moment of heightened drama, when things threaten to spill over. But the rot is there, festering, even before we meet them; two Australian academics, in their mid thirties, on their way to Bali for a holiday.

“The Fogging” is told exclusively from Tom’s perspective, so our view of his relationship with Clara is tainted and biased; but that’s the point. Its weapon is its absolute sincerity and dedication to a singular viewpoint. It’s pure in its solipsism. Horton’s work is a study in control of tone. It is a penetrating and moving portrait on a relationship reaching its climax, and a man undone by a hyper-awareness that borders on narcissism. And it’s affecting because so many of Tom’s flaws are reflections of our own.

FORMAT: Paperback
EXTENT: 224pp
ISBN: 9781925849592
RRP: $29.99
PUB DATE: 2 Jul 2020

Review: Infinite Splendours by Sofie Laguna

IMG-2346In “Infinite Splendours” Sofie Laguna exquisitely, compassionately and wrenchingly transmutes the legacy of trauma into art.

This story, framed as a tragedy from the start, ominously builds towards a heinous act that shapes the life of a young boy named Lawrence, then cuts forward in time to suffuse readers in its consequences: the shame; the loneliness; the hurt; the gnawing sense of something undone and the elusive chase to make oneself whole again. In “Infinite Splendours” there is no mechanical plot that grinds to a Hollywood conclusion. There is no contrived test for Lawrence to pass in order to move forward with his life. This is a novel about the transmission of trauma, and how a single act of child maltreatment can derail a life, and diminish its potential. For victims of abuse, the past is always present.

When “Infinite Splendours” opens in 1953, Lawrence is ten years old and his brother Paul is eight. They live in a property named Beverly Park, next door to Mrs Barry, with their widowed mother Louise; their father died in the war. His medal is a gaping reminder of what their family is missing. “It was only ever Paul and me, Mother and the medal,” Lawrence narrates bittersweetly; but there is an equilibrium to their family unit. Circumstances have cultivated a permanent bond between the siblings. But it’s shaken to its core when their Uncle Reggie arrives to stay with them.

At first, Reggie seems almost too good to be true; the man of the house they’ve been missing. He gifts Lawrence a copy of ‘Letters from the Masters’ to foster his artistic development, to go alongside the sketchbook provided by Mrs St Clair. It soon transpires something is wrong with Reggie, which Louise is blind to, but Paul (and Mrs Barry) can sense, but can’t articulate.

Horror-struck readers can do nothing but bear witness to his grooming of Lawrence, and subsequent rape, which destroys Lawrence; he develops a stammer and becomes dangerously reclusive and emotionally stunted. He isolates himself in Beverly Park, a blip amongst the Grampian mountains of Victoria; his art his only companion. Salvation, or destruction, comes in the form of the two adolescent boys he befriends over his remaining years, as Lawrence’s desire for tenderness and warmth manifests through the prism of his trauma, and he’s allowed one final opportunity for redemption.

Absolutely confronting, but absolutely brilliant. The material is dark, but the prose is luminous. Laguna — a generational talent — has crafted a harrowing masterpiece.

ISBN: 9781760876272
Pub: 27-Oct-20
RRP: $33.00
Pages: 448

Review: Trust by Chris Hammer

9781760877415In “Trust” Chris Hammer creates a microcosm of secrets, scandal, and skulduggery enmeshed in the threat of constant violence. In his hands, Sydney becomes a city of shadows; a place where menace lies around every corner, and dark intentions brew within every building. A malevolent cabal has spread long tendrils of corruption through every facet of the New South Wales government — and veteran newspaperman Martin Scarsden is determined to expose it.

“Trust” is so tightly wound up, it’s like a rubber band ready to snap; already stretched to breaking point after its opening dozen pages, by which time Tarquin Molloy has stolen confidential data from the trading floor of a bank, and Mandalay Blonde — Scarsden’s partner, but deserving of equal billing here, such is her importance and prevalence — abducted from her home in Port Silver. These events are tied to a subversive criminal enterprise that exists at the highest echelons of New South Wales politics.

This is Hammer writing pedal-to-the-metal, with a hook as enticing as “Scrublands,” enhanced by superior writing and plotting. Rather than rest on his laurels, Hammer has pushed himself beyond his previous mysteries, which were already A-Grade. In “Trust” he has crafted a byzantine plot with so many threads that never tangle. There’s a pulse-pounding shootout, a horrific torture scene (that stops short of being grossly visceral), and countless revelations and twists. Hammer orchestrates it all with virtuosic aplomb.

ISBN: 9781760877415
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 480
Available: 13th October 2020

Review: Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars. by Joyce Carol Oates

x293When John ‘Whitey’ McLaren witnesses an act of police brutality against an Indian man mistaken as black, the former mayor of a nearby town attempts to intercede. Tased to the ground, he suffers a stroke and soon dies — ‘soon’ being a relative term, because “Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” is Joyce Carol Oates at her most loquacious.

Whitey leaves behind his wife Jessalyn and their five grown-up children; white, privileged Americans who are grievously discombobulated by the abrupt disgorgement of their family’s lynchpin. But this is not the simple tale you might presume it at heart: that of a family experiencing the most primal of heartbreak and pain, and their redemptive path away from it. Instead, Oates steeps her cast in the most excruciating and toxic forms of grief, and lets the McLaren’s stew in it for the novel’s entirety, evocatively detailing its metamorphic effect, as their sadness contorts into outright despair and ferocious anger. The siblings transform; grotesquely in most cases, as if Whitey’s death has vanquished any semblance of decency. The children’s handling of their mother’s attempts to move on (and out) from Whitey’s shadow is unsettling; their focus on the estate rather than her happiness is demonstrative of their greed and selfishness, once hidden behind polished veneers, now stripped and laid bare.

“Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars.” is an astonishing piece of storytelling; a domestic masterpiece textured by Oates’ willingness to probe the forbidden places of grief, and extract its intrinsic blackness. It is a work of intense, forensic observation; a microscopic examination of a family undone by a tragic loss against a portrait of modern America.

ISBN: 9780008381080
Imprint: 4th Estate – GB
On Sale: 16/06/2020
Pages: 928
List Price: 32.99 AUD

Review: True Story – A Novel by Kate Reed Petty

9781787478459Do we own our stories, or do they own us? And how do we claim ownership, reconcile our past and move forward, when our own recollections are defective? When our memories are based on the testimony of others?

Kate Reed Petty’s “True Story” is a propulsive and unconventional psychological mystery about the repercussions of a devastating high school rumour, and a meditation on trauma. Fifteen years ago, something happened to Alice Lovett while she was passed out in the backseat of a car. Two members of Nick Brothers’ Maryland High School lacrosse team drove Alice home after one of their ‘legendary’ parties, and at some point — according to subsequent gossip — sexually assaulted her. The precise details are hazy. Alice has no memory; which makes the vividness of the rumour — the gross, precise detail that spreads through the town; allegations that are denied by the boys — all the more unsettling. And its impact is long-lasting; eternal. Whatever happened on the backseat of that  car will shape the rest of her life.

“True Story” flits between Alice and Nick’s stories, and Petty employs a collage of mediums to tell their inextricably linked tales as Nick descends into alcoholism, and Alice is continuously drawn into toxic relationships; scripts, emails, chapters in first and third person, and in present and past tense. This bold mesh of narrative types is seamless, and makes for a compulsive reading experience — and a masterful way of blindsiding readers to the book’s ending, where everything takes on an intriguing new dimension.

An innovative and harrowing examination on the nature of truth and the power of finding your voice. Petty is a writer of immense talent, and definitely one to watch.

ISBN: 9781787478459
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 400
Imprint: riverrun
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Publish Date: 4-Aug-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

9780349701455Mallard, Lousiana is a town so small it can’t be found on a map. It’s a town of light-skinned black people — a town where “nobody married dark” — and its inhabitants are raised to make future generations lighter still. But its citizens are still susceptible to unjustifiable and endemic racism of the time; and of today. They work menial jobs for white people; and they’re the target of extreme prejudice and violent hate crimes. Take the father of the Vignes twins; lynched once in his front yard, then again in the hospital. Which is just one of the factors that leads to their abandonment of Mallard in 1954, when 16-year-old Desiree and Stella Vignes abscond to New Orleans.

United until this point, here their story fractures. Desiree marries “the darkest man she could find” and eventually returns to Mallard with her 8-year-old daughter, determined to hide from her abusive spouse. Stella, meanwhile, camouflages herself in white society, hugging her ability to pass for white like a blanket, because it offers opportunity and security; things Stella has never been able to take for granted. Mallard — its oppressiveness, and the family she left behind — becomes a memory. The more time passes, the easier it is to cut those emotional tendrils tying her to that town. Until years later Desiree’s daughter Jude — tending bar as a side job in Beverley Hills — catches a glimpse of Stella.

“The Vanishing Half” is no rehash of the traditional ‘estranged sibling reunion’ narrative. Brit Bennett is incapable of writing something so simplistic. This is a novel about identity: how civilisation has constructed, cemented and propagated our understanding of race and gender over thousands of years, and how difficult it is to break away from society’s imposed categorisation of every faction of humankind. But there’s not a lick of ostentatiousness here. Bennett’s agenda — the novel’s themes — are masqueraded behind rich, graceful prose and characters portrayed so honestly you can almost see into their souls. It works on a macro level because the smaller stories within are so vivid. There is not one false note in this extraordinary novel.

ISBN: 9780349701455
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Dialogue Books
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Publish Date: 2-Jun-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Betty by Tiffany McDaniel

9781474617536“A girl comes of age against the knife… but the woman she becomes must decide if the blade will cut deep enough to rip her apart or if she will find the strength to leap with her arms out and dare herself to fly in a world that seems to break like glass around her.”

Inspired by generations of her own family, Tiffany McDaniel’s “Betty” is the story of Betty Carpenter’s agonising childhood. Born in a bathtub in 1954 — the sixth of eight siblings — to a white mother and a Cherokee father, Berry’s childhood is suffused with tragedy and heartbreak, pockmarked by the poverty, racism and violence imbedded within the DNA of Breathed, Ohio; degraded further by the corrosive secrets imbued within each Carpenter, which gradually corrupts their familial unity. This toxicity is more potent in certain members than it is others, which comes to the fore as the novel ratchets towards its climax. Some are broken; others merely damaged; but nobody is untouched.

Reading “Betty” reminded me of Roxane Gay’s “An Untamed State,” Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” and Sofie Laguna’s “The Choke.” It is viscerally confronting with its depictions of violence and abuse. It is not for the faint of heart. Certain scenes — which should be discovered during Betty’s narration rather than spoiled in a review — will be lodged in my memory forever, both for their unflinching depiction, and their heartbreaking consequences for our young protagonist.

The narrative thrums with evocative descriptions of the landscape, and marinates in Betty’s father’s stories about native Cherokee traditions. We witness how Betty’s endless exposure to brutality shapes her view of the world, and fear what it means for her future. We hope, and pray, that she finds agency through the power of words, even as she buries her scrawled recounts of the horrors she has witnessed deep in the dirt. McDaniel offers no reprieve. She pulls no punches. She tears into the noxiousness of patriarchy; the aftermath of abuse; the trauma of unrepentant racism. What does it take for a young girl to survive that?

“Betty” is an absolutely gut-wrenching coming-of-age story, graced by powerful and poetic prose.

ISBN: 9781474617536
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 464
Imprint: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 18-Aug-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall

the-mother-fault-9781760854478_lgIn her second novel, Kate Mildenhall writes about a woman in extremis.

Her engineer husband is missing, last seen at the Golden Arc mine site in Indonesia. Everyone is looking for him. But the Department — the all-seeing body of the an enigmatic Australian government — is hunting him. Ben’s tracking chip — implanted beneath his skin, like the rest of the population, because ‘you want to know where your people are when the world becomes a shifting, wild, hungry thing’ — has gone dark. And now The Department vultures are circling. They’ve taken Mim’s passport. They’ve threatened to resettle her two children at the notorious BestLife. Their instructions are simple: remain in place until the matter is resolved.

In a society intently stripping its population of their autonomy, it’s a routine request. But Mim — for so long shackled by the expectations of motherhood, of being a wife, of being a sister, of being a good citizen; dominated by fear, pain and helplessness — decides to escape the horrors of bondage. With her children in tow, she flees; across the Australian outback, and on a perilous sea voyage to Indonesia, Mim is pushed to her absolute limits as she seeks to reunite her family. Liberated from the confines of her identity, she becomes something else; a consequence of her circumstances: a trailblazing heroine. A hero of our times, displaying unimaginable ingenuity and resourcefulness.

“The Mother Fault” is a rare creation. It is a work of powerful urgency, a literary thriller decorated with luminous sentences and meditations on motherhood, totalitarianism, love and independence. In painting a realistic portrait of tomorrow, Mildenhall sounds an urgent clarion for today. She has crafted a brilliantly pacy, visceral and intimate adventure story, demonstrating an unparalleled ability to convey tenderness as acutely as violence. “The Mother Fault” is an emotional and political powerhouse.

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Australia
Pub date: September 2, 2020
Length: 336 pages
ISBN13: 9781760854478