Review: New Animal by Ella Baxter

“If anyone ever asks me how I dealt with this grief, I will tell them honestly: by killing the light of everything that reminded me of her.”

Ella Baxter’s striking debut novel “New Animal” is a blazing cocktail of icy honesty and heart-wrenching tenderness, told in starkly beautiful language.

Amelia — a twenty-something cosmetician at her family’s mortuary business — reminded me a lot of Jena from Jessie Tu’s “A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing.” She’s having a lot of sex with a lot of random men, trying to blunt and distract from the trauma of her every day, struggling to find (but not really looking for) further connection.

But when her mother dies suddenly, a flood of unfamiliar emotion overcomes Amelia, and she escapes to Tasmania to stray with her biological father, where the memories of her mother lack the piercing sharpness they possessed closer to home. She inadvertently stumbles into the world of a BDSM club, and a group of people hoping to diminish their own pain through their experiences in a place that demands trust, consent and clear and constant communication.

Elements of “New Animal” are viscerally confronting, one scene in particular — Amelia’s first experience as a “dom” — still reverberating in my brain days later. But for all its braveness and boldness, and the savagely deadpan wit enmeshed in every scene, what stands out most is Baxter’s magisterial insight into the human heart and mind. She has fashioned an intense and unflinching account of a young woman’s journey through grief. And it’s all told in a style distinctly her own.

Category: Fiction
ISBN: 9781760877798
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: March 2021
Pages: 240

The Best Fiction of 2020

Maybe it’s indicative of the year we’ve had, but my favourite fiction of 2020 was almost universally harrowing, sometimes outright devastating. The endings of several still haunt me weeks and months later. I’ll never forget the final pages of Leah Swann’s “Sheerwater,” or the coda to Aravind Adiga’s “Amnesty,” or the epilogue to Sophie Laguna’s “Infinite Splendours;” never mind the total gut-wrenching experience of Tiffany McDaniel’s “Betty.” This was the year I demanded books that shook me to my core, that shredded me emotionally, or at the very least induced the smallest cut.

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Review: The Second Son by Loraine Peck

In Loraine Peck’s debut crime novel, the eldest son of Croatian crime boss Milan Novak is shot dead in his driveway, and the titular “second son” is called upon to exact retribution, which threatens to reignite a violent gang war with the Serbians.

Johnny Novak — the (relative) pacifist of the family — must wrestle with his reluctance to murder another man, and slide deeper into the murky underworld fiefdom of his father (thus permanently fragmenting his relationship with his wife Amy and their ten-year-old son) as well as identifying Ivan’s killer. Because if it wasn’t the Serbians, who pulled the trigger, and why?

Alternating between Johnny and Amy’s narration, “The Second Son” probes the toxic masculinity rooted in the Novak family, as Amy demands her husband free himself and their son from the demands (and expectation) of bloodshed and vengeance, and the sheer brutality that coruscates in each of them, that has touched even Amy in the cruellest way. For all his talk of the importance of family, Milan’s is awash in secrets and lies, which come to the fore as the story builds to its climax.

“The Second Son” is quick-plotted union of gangland thriller and domestic suspense set in Sydney’s western suburbs. Amy’s descent into a churning vortex of savagery and mayhem, and her determination to escape it, makes for captivating reading, while Johnny’s struggle to find equilibrium between the conflicting desires of his family hits all the requisite emotional touchstones. Peck keeps the plot boiling with an epic drug heist, a kidnapping, and action aplenty. The relentless velocity will guarantee her plenty of fans, who’ll eagerly await the Novak’s return in the planned sequel.

ISBN: 9781922330437
Format: Paperback
Pages: 464
Imprint: The Text Publishing Company
Publisher: Text Publishing
Publish Date: 2-Feb-2021
Country of Publication: Australia

The Top 10 Crime Novels of 2020

Say what you will about 2020, but it’s been packed with some phenomenal crime fiction and thrillers, and it was so difficult culling my list of favourites to a measly ten. In any other year, Peter Swanson’s “Rules For Perfect Murder” would feature; so too the new Rankin (“A Song for the Dark Times”), at least one of Connelly’s (“The Law of Innocence” and “Fair Warning”), and Silva’s “The Order.” But when I sat back and reflected on my year of reading, these were the ones that resonated.

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Review: Missionaries by Phil Klay

“Men are weak. Don’t ask if they are good or bad. We’re all sinful. Ask if they’re better or worse than the times they lived in.”

Phil Klay follows up his sensational short story collection “Redeployment” with an ambitious decades-spanning excavation of war and violence centred around America’s prolonged asymmetric warfare in Colombia.

Through the eyes of an expansive cast — burned-out war reporter Lisette Marigny, Marine medic Major Mason Baumer, cartel foot solider Abel, Colombian military officer Juan Pablo, and Chilean mercenary Diego — Klay unspools his players’ backstories, full of trauma and the scars of war, in the early sections of “Missionaries.” These first-person narrated passages act as psychological portraits, and are shuffled brilliantly to establish a sense of momentum; sheer page-turnability glittered with acute observations about humankind’s addiction to warfare.

Later in “Missionaries,” for its final act, Klay shifts to a third-person perspective, where each of his characters converge spectacularly, if not somewhat convolutedly, and not altogether seamlessly. Klay’s ability to write about war — the violence, the chaos, the ambiguities — is unequalled. He’s been there, done it, lived it, and it shows in the smallest details. But where “Redeployment” read like short-burst dispatches from Iraq, and Klay’s authorship was ethereal, here you can feel a slight heavy-handedness when his characters intersect for the finale. It feels like fiction.

Which is the trouble, perhaps, writing realistically about war, where the only things guaranteed, regardless of our justifications for it, are bloodshed, mayhem and death. Klay has no qualms detailing the true costs of it; I’m just not sure whether that always makes for a great novel. But if anyone’s going to prove me wrong, it’s Klay.

ISBN: 9781838852320
ISBN-10: 1838852328
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 416
Published: 17th November 2020
Publisher: A&U Canongate

Review: Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

“Leave the World Behind” is a psycho-horror more interested in maintaining its constant aura of unease (periodically ratcheted to outright terror), exploring the degrading psyche of its characters, and skewering class and race in America, than it is providing answers. Rumaan Alam channels Stephen King with his premise, but in its unravelling he attempts something more substantive, which for me, proved rather more unsatisfying; a novel two-thirds genius, just lacking the adroit denouement that would’ve rendered it one of the year’s best.

“Leave the World Behind” opens with white, exceedingly middle-class Amanda and Clay, and their children Archie and Rose, driving from Brooklyn to a luxury homestead in remote Long Island for their Summer vacation. It’s picturesque and perfect, the escape from the city they wanted. Until night falls, and there’s a knock-knock-knock at the door.

Turns out it’s the owners of the home, a prosperous Black couple, George and Ruth, with news from New York: the city has been plunged into a blackout, which we quickly learn is the prelude to something far grander and apocalyptic, but the precise details of which are never quite determined. The families merge into one unit, sheltering in place while the world around them seemingly crumbles, witnessing inexplicable happenings, like hundreds of deer materialising on the lawn, and an ominous thunder-like crackle in the sky above, of unknown origin. It’s against this extremis that Alam examines inequality, racism, and fear. What would we do at the beginning of Armageddon? Quite possible nothing. Terror stifles our heroic instincts. We seek to protect what we have. Our world shrinks.

I loved so much of “Leave the World Behind.” It’s out-and-out horror, with deep and disturbing subtexts and rich characterisations found only in the best of the genre. But its ambiguous ending haunted me for all the wrong reasons. I wanted a firmer resolution. Even so, this is definitely one to consider for your Summer beach bag.

ISBN: 9781526633095
ISBN-10: 1526633094
Audience: BAU
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 320
Published: 20th October 2020
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Weight by Jeanette Winterson

“Weight” is Jeanette Winterson’s straightforward retelling of the classic story of Atlas, who carried the world on his shoulders, and Heracles, the half-god hero, from Greek mythology. She infuses her protagonists with human flaws and foibles. Heracles is depicted as noxiously egocentric, driven purely by his own desires; Atlas is blinded by his own self-importance; both learn humility as their tales intertwine, their transformations complete by tales’ end.

Winterson bejewels the familiar narrative with autobiographical and universal contextualisation and understanding, underlining that the weight we carry in our daily lives is often unnecessary; these burdens are things we deem important, but actually things only matter — have “weight” — when we ascribe significance. We can lead happier lives if we learn to distinguish between what actually matters and what doesn’t.

As eminently readable as one would expect, but with Winterson’s name attached, I was hoping for a more subversive reimagining.

ISBN: 9781786892492
ISBN-10: 1786892499
Series: Canons
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 176
Published: 27th June 2018
Publisher: A&U Canongate

Outlawed by Anna North

“I wanted the town the Kid imagined to exist… I imagined treating a barren woman at the surgery in Pagosa Springs and telling her I knew of a place she could go and live without fear.”

In Anna North’s subversive, feminist western, eighteen-year-old newlywed Ada, daughter of the town’s chief midwife, worries she’ll be accused of witchcraft following several unsuccessful attempts at conceiving a child. The year is 1894, the world is a hard place, and such allegations have lethal consequences.

When her friend miscarries, she accuses Ada of jealously casting a spell, turning the townsfolk against Ada, and forcing her on the run. At first she turns to a nunnery, then to the infamous Hole in the Wall gang and its enigmatic leader, the Kid. No gender pronouns are assigned to the Kid; the Kid, as Elzy, one of the gang members underlines, is simply the Kid.

The Kid envisions a town where “nonconforming” people can exist in harmony; where people are valued because of who they are rather than on the form of their genitals, and are uncategorised by centuries-old obsolete structures. A community, in the truest sense, where the Kid’s female and nonbinary outlaws can live in peace. With her medical background, Ada becomes the gang’s doctor, and joins them in tense, action-packed adventures and holdups, which build in intensity and stakes as the novel rushes to its conclusion.

The roughness and ruthless of North’s world is contrasted by her insightful, evocative and sensitive prose. This is taut, trim storytelling at its best: a reworking of classic Western archetypes, begging for a cinematic adaptation.

ISBN: 9781474615358
ISBN-10: 147461535X
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 256
Available: 5th January 2021
Publisher: Orion

The Searcher by Tana French

If you stripped its parts bare, the components that comprise Tana French’s “The Searcher” are emblematic of a plethora of conventional crime novels: a retired cop named Cal Hooper, an outsider from Chicago recently relocated to a small town in Ireland, takes one last case.

But French makes this well-trodden territory distinctly her own, obliterating the artificial distinction between genre and literary fiction by creating a gracefully paced character study punctuated with flashes of intense violence and explosive revelations. Most crime writers, I think, would start their version of this tale at the point when a kid named Trey comes to Cal for help. You’ve read that opening a million times before: the client knocking on the investigator’s door because someone is missing who needs to be found. In this instance, it’s Trey’s brother, Brendan.

But this moment, the ostensible “inciting incident,” occurs 70 pages into proceedings. French is happy to lay the groundwork gradually, develop her characters and the township, the relationship between Cal and Trey, explore moral ambiguities, and delve deep into Cal’s backstory, in order to make its dramatic moments truly reverberate.

This slow-burn psychological mystery seamlessly transitions into a white-knuckled thriller in its final third, before a perfect endcap confirms French as a maestro of the form.

ISBN: 9780241459416
ISBN-10: 0241459419
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 400
Published: 17th November 2020
Publisher: Penguin UK

The Decameron Project: 29 New Stories from the Pandemic by The New York Times Magazine

Inspired by Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” the editors of The New York Times Magazine assembled a conclave of twenty-nine authors for “The Decameron Project” — an anthology of short stories memorialising the COVID-19 pandemic.

But however ripe our present is for depressive, maudlin and despotic fiction, “The Decameron Project” features stories that explore the entire emotional spectrum, and sometimes touch on the virus abstrusely; the pandemic merely the spark for an idea on which these writers expand upon in tales kept to fewer than 10 pages, some grounded in reality, others dipping into the supernatural. It’s a stylistically eclectic collection, but the quality of the fiction is universally high, and their brevity means even those that don’t quite connect are worth persisting with.

My favourites include Victor LaValle’s “Recognition,” which stars a Black woman in a rapidly emptying apartment building, who connects with one of her neighbours; “Outside” by Etgar Keret hauntingly explores the first steps outside the confines of one’s home after 120 days of isolation; Dinaw Mengestu’s “How We Used to Play” examines the relationship between a nameless protagonist and their taxi driver uncle; Karen Russell’s “Line 19 Woodstock / Glisan” is centred around the driver of a bus and her passengers frozen in a moment in time; “The Perfect Travel Buddy” delves into the complicated relationship between a man, his wife, and his step-son during lockdown; and “Barcelona: Open” by John Wray spotlights Xaxi, who realises he can monetize strangers walking his dogs: a loophole in lockdown rules means people are allowed outside their homes to exercise their canine companions.

More than a mere snapshot of 2020, “The Decameron Project” is a wonderfully tantalising taster of fiction by authors I’ve never sampled, but who I’m determined to read more of.

Publisher: Scribner UK
Publication date: November 18, 2020
Length: 320 pages
ISBN13: 9781398502147