Review: Kokomo by Victoria Hannan

9780733643323Kokomo | Victoria Hannan | Hachette Australia | August 2020 | RRP $30.00  | 9780733643323


“Mina wondered what other secrets lay between these people, wondered if maybe every family was built on an intricate web of lies, or at least things people chose not to tell each other. She’d learned that not every truth deserves air: some truths were better smothered, extinguished before they could take hold and burn everything to the ground.”


Victoria Hannan’s seriously impressive debut Kokomo charts the complex, resilient relationship of a mother and daughter, and the toxicity of decades-long secrets finally surfacing. It’s a sharply-observed portrait of devastating loneliness and human fallibility, and what it means to belong.

When Mina’s agoraphobic mother leaves her house for the first time in more than a decade, she rushes from her life in London to be by Elaine’s side in Melbourne. On the one hand, it’s to commemorate her mother’s decision to unshackle herself from the house; on the other, it’s to untangle the mystery of why Elaine has chosen this moment to return to the world. But Elaine is reticent to explain, or delve into the agony of the past; and Mina’s homecoming engenders emotional fallout of her own with people she thought she’d left behind long ago.

Smart and sensitive, punctuated with moments of real humour, Hannan has crafted a novel in the mould of Anne Tyler’s finest work. Like Tyler, Hannan trades expertly in the themes of the struggle for identity, the lack of meaningful communication between loved ones, and individual isolation; and although it positively glows with poignancy, it’s somehow free of gross sentimentality. This is first rate fiction from a writer to watch.

ISBN: 9780733643323
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 320
Available: 28th July 2020

Review: Braised Pork by An Yu

9781787301870It’s been some time since I last read a novel that so beguiled and baffled me in equal measure as An Yu’s debut. In an unsettling, utterly captivating opening, Jia Jia discovers her husband Chen Hang drowned in a half-filled bath. Next to him is a strange sketch of a “fish man,” which Jia Jia believes is related to a dream he had during his time in Tibet, of a similar lurid creature. Was Chen Hang so haunted by his nightmare that he chose to end his life? Or was his demise just an unfortunate accident?

Either way, the death of her husband completely upends Jia Jia’s life. Although theirs was a marriage of convenience, the repercussions are devastating on a practical and emotional level. As she struggles to regain equilibrium, Jia Jia determines the best path to closure is by recreating Chen Hang’s trip to Tibet to find this mysterious “fish-man.”

Boasting overtones of Murakami, An Yu has crafted a novel saturated in magical realism that totally runs against my literary proclivities. Braised Pork worked best for me when Yu explores the human relationships rather than the ‘unreality’ of the water world, and the mystical figures Jia Jia meets in Tibet. Metaphors abound, but for me, they’re elusive; I didn’t quite comprehend all of the symbolism, which is less the fault of the author’s, and more the fact I’m not the smartest reader. When I was done, I was left oddly dissatisfied; not because of the quality of Yu’s fiction, or indeed her prose, which is beautifully lyrical; but because of my inability to truly understand it all. This’d be a great one for book clubs.

ISBN: 9781787301870
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 240
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 9-Jan-2020
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Selection Day by Aravind Adiga

9781509806485A magnificent coming-of-age novel about two young boys from Mumbai, raised by their tyrannical father to be the number one and number two batsmen in the world, that tackles the weighty themes of corruption, class, sexuality and religion with extraordinary elegance.

When Selection Day opens, seven-year-old Manju is overshadowed by the supreme cricketing prowess of his brother Radha, but still a tantalising prospect for a prestigious gatekeeper named Tommy Sir, who brings both boys to the attention of a venture capitalist, which suits their father; he is determined to maximise the commercial potential of his sons. Readers familiar with the real-life story of cricketers Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli — the former a cricketing legend, the latter retired at 24 — might think they know where the story is headed, but Adiga is far too an intelligent writer than that to simply emulate history. As Manju and Radha get older, they begin to rebel against their father’s strict rules, and cavort with the temptations of youth, which threaten to derail their journey towards stardom. And just when you think the narrative is going to zig, it zags; and it feels right, and true.

Honestly, one of the best books I’ve read this year, or any year.

ISBN: 9781509806492
Format: Paperback / softback
Pages: 352
Imprint: Picador
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publish Date: 10-Aug-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Below Deck by Sophie Hardcastle

9781760876388“I scream not in the way the damsel in distress screams from the tower. I scream the way tectonic plates tear apart on the ocean floor, silt and sand and cracked rock. Lava spewing from the abyss. Hot lava spewing from me. I roar.”

Sophie Hardcastle’s Below Deck is the kind of book that cracks open your heart, then knits it back together,  leaving you scarred. It sears a place in your memory, not only because of its characters and the legacy of trauma experienced by its protagonist, but because of Hardcastle’s luminous prose and quite brilliant implementation of colour. The savagery of its subject belies the beauty of its writing. It’s a powerful, unforgettable synthesis; a painfully page-turning read, a vividly three-dimensional, lacerating dissection of female abuse at the hands of men.

Below Deck charts several years in the life Olivia; from waking up on a boat as a twenty-one year old, with no recollection of how she got there, which introduces her TO Mac and Ollie, who will become the two most important people in her life; to four years later, when she works among a group of men on a yacht sailing from Noumea to Auckland, where she experiences below deck; to her time in London, when the events of that day continue to haunt and resonate.

Fierce, poetic and uncompromising. There’s a lot of hype surrounding Sophie Hardcastle’s Below Deck. It’s warranted.

ISBN: 9781760876388
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 296
Available: 3rd March 2020
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Country of Publication: AU

Review: This is Pleasure by Mary Gaitskill

9781788165037Mary Gaitskill’s beguiling novella dares to explore the ambiguities and broad-brushed generalisations of the #MeToo movement — and it works, assuming you believe there are two sides to the debate, and are comfortable with an author stoking the flames of sympathy for an accused abuser.

This is Pleasure paints a vivid, complex portrait of a man accused by several young women of inappropriate behaviour in his privileged position as a highly-esteemed book editor in New York. The narrative shifts between two perspectives: Quinlan Maximillian Saunders (known as Q), the accused, who spends his time on the page defending his actions, not by acknowledging the atrociousness of his actions, but by suggesting the power between men and women has shifted, and he was merely caught unaware; and Margot (M), also an elite editor, and a friend of Q’s, who must examine her relationship with the man in the light of these allegations.

Honestly, I struggled with this book, and I think that’s the point. It’s provocative, it’s controversial, and I do think it’s important that authors address the seminal issue of our time; but I just struggled to sit in the head of a man so obviously out of touch,  unrepentant, and plainly awful, however he or anyone else attempt to skew the narrative. Who learns nothing. Absolutely nothing. Maybe that’s the point of Gaitskill’s book. Which is fucking deplorable and immensely sobering; but incredibly effective.

ISBN: 9781788165037

Pages: 96
Imprint: Profile Books Ltd
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
Publish Date: 7-Nov-2019
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: A Time to Scatter Stones by Lawrence Block

cover-block“It would take me longer these days, because my pace is slower than it used to be. And it would take energy, of which I seem to have a finite supply.”

More than forty years since he debuted in The Sins of the Father, and almost a decade since he last appeared in The Night and the Music, unlicensed private investigator Matthew Scudder makes a return in a book that’s less of a mystery and more of a meditation on mortality.

By his own admission, Scudder is an old man now, retired, living a quiet life with his longtime partner, Elaine. He no longer chases trouble, and it rarely finds him. That is until Ellen, a friend of Elaine’s — a prostitute trying to quit the life — asks Scudder for help escaping an abusive client who can’t let her go. Scudder isn’t quite the man he was, but that doesn’t stop him getting involved.

This is a novel that thrives on the readers’ sense of nostalgia for one of crime fiction’s most enduring protagonists. I’ve read most of the series, and appreciated spending another couple hundred pages viewing New York from Scudder’s perspective as he laments the changing face of the city. The narrative engine is a tad too languid for my tastes, and made me miss the days of the younger, swashbuckling Scudder, who was full of blood and thunder. I love it when authors age their protagonists in real time, or semi-real time; Rankin’s done it perfectly with Rebus, and so has Connelly with Bosch; but some characters only work in their pomp, and maybe it’s best to let characters live their lives off the page.

Fans of Block or Scudder will inhale A Time to Scatter Stones in one sitting, and find much to enjoy; a final hurrah But newcomers should look elsewhere, and come back to this one later, when you’ll truly appreciate its nuances and callbacks.

ISBN: 9781596068933
ISBN-10: 1596068930
Series: Matthew Scudder
Format: Hardcover
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 160
Published: 31st January 2019

Review: Where the Truth Lies by Karina Kilmore

where-the-truth-lies-9781925685862_lgAn investigative journalist haunted by her past scrutinises the exorbitant number of  injuries and deaths of Grange Industry personnel at the Port of Melbourne in Karina Kilmore’s debut crime novel. But despite some compelling subject matter — big business clashing with the unions, the changing face of journalism, the government’s infringement on the public’s right to know — Where The Truth Lies is a low octane mystery laced with interesting elements that never quite mesh into an intoxicating page-turner, and frequently upends its own dramatic potential.

Take its main character, Chrissie O’Brian, a pill-popping, alcoholic journalist with The Argus, who is desperate to prove herself in the patriarchal newsroom, and desperate to escape her tragic past, for which she has assumed all blame. It would make sense (to me, at least; but who am I?) to prolong the the revelation of why she left New Zealand for Melbourne; build tension, make the reader question the veracity of O’Brian; yes, we want her to uncover the truth behind the deaths at Port of Melbourne, but what is she guilty of? Instead the events from her past are described in a simple flashback, stifling its gravitas.

Kilmore provides column-inches of background expertise on the harsh reality of the newspaper business and the Australian media landscape — she has 25 years of experience under her belt, so she has walked the walk — and the novel ticks along nicely during these moments; in fact, I’d love to sit in these scenes for longer, have the focus on breaking a story, pushing it through internal bureaucracy and dealing with government heavy-handedness. But these insights can’t buoy a plot that never really shifts out of neutral. My hope is that with the introduction of her lead out of the way, Kilmore’s sophomore novel leans into the aspects that sparkled here.

ISBN: 9781925685862
Pub: Simon & Schuster Australia
Pages: 352