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

Review: A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom by John Boyne

John Boyne’s bold, swashbuckling new novel “A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom” stretches one narrative over two millennia — from AD 1 to AD 2080 — with each chapter dropping the reader behind the eyes of its unnamed narrator at different junctures in history.

In fact, its structural audacity belies a very straightforward plot: an artistic boy grows up in the shadow of his violent father and favoured missing brother. Over the course of his life he suffers many great tragedies: not least a savage betrayal by his cousin, which leads to a quest for vengeance at the expense of everything else. The same characters are reincarnated, time and time again, in various settings — from Palestine, Somalia, Yemen, Greenland, England, and more — who mesh with real history, and mingle with prominent people from those periods: expect cameos from the likes of Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Lady Macbeth and Attila.

The expediency of Boyne’s storytelling means its historical texturing is modest rather than rich, which works in favour of its pace, but lacking the rich detail some readers might crave. This vast canvas is compressed into 430 pages: it’s more exhilarating thriller than it is Hilary Mantel facsimile, and therefore more in line with my personal sensibilities. I don’t want a thousand page slog through history: I want a rollercoaster.

“A Traveller at the Gates of Wisdom” is a seismic epic. It solidifies Boyne as one of the most interesting writers at work today. It’s a work of genius, that begins to creak a little as it reaches its conclusion, bearing the weight of all that’s come before, but wildly entertaining and intensely compelling.   

ISBN: 9780857526205
ISBN-10: 0857526200
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 448
Published: 21st July 2020
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd
Country of Publication: GB

Review: Afterland by Lauren Beukes

“Afterland” caps a trilogy of brilliant thrillers I’ve read recently about mothers in extremis. Following Leah Swann’s “Sheerwater” and Kate Mildenhall’s “The Mother Fault,” Lauren Beukes’ “Afterland” follows Nicole (Cole) and her son Miles (Mila) who are on the run after escaping a United States government quarantine compound, in a world decimated by the human culgoa virus.

The H.C.V. pandemic wiped out 99 percent of men. Miles is a rare survivor, and a lab rat for scientists determined to find a cure. All Cole wants is to return with her son to South Africa where things may, or may not, be better — Beukes doesn’t elaborate — but at least they’ll be home. It’s just an unfortunate coincidence they were in America when the virus emerged.

“Afterland” is a  road trip novel involving mother and son (masquerading as daughter) working their way to Florida, where they hope to board a boat. They’re hunted by The Department of Men, who enforce the reprohibition law that forbids women to get pregnant, and prohibits the freedom of anyone with a Y-chromosome; and  Billie, Cole’s sister, who had plans to sell Miles’ sperm on the black market before Cole slammed a tire iron into the back of her head and fled.

The world of “Afterland” is perpetually dangerous and unpredictable, but not as despairing as Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road:” life, lead by women, has carried on. Though every facet of it isn’t explored — such detail would grind the narrative to a halt — it reads like Beukes knows every inch of her 2023 dystopia. Her novel is less about pell-mell action and hairbreadth escapes than it is about establishing relationships between its humans and demonstrating the changing landscape and shifting mindsets of its population. Indeed its best parts are devoted to the relationship between Cole and Miles, which flits between affectionate and antagonistic. Both have been hardened by their experiences, but their familial bond always conquers.

Beukes brings into sharp focus just how far a mother can go to justify certain actions in the name of her child. What comes first: being a decent human, or protecting who you love? In “Afterland” you can’t have both.

Published: 20 October 2020
ISBN: 9780718182816
Imprint: Michael Joseph
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 464
RRP: $32.99

Review: Punisher – Soviet by Garth Ennis & Jacen Burrows

Garth Ennis returns to “The Punisher” with the six-part miniseries collected here in “Punisher: Soviet,” illustrated by Jacen Burrows, Guillermo Ortego and Nolan Woodard.

When Frank Castle discovers a battalion of Russian monsters shot to death, he admires the craftsmanship of the killer. The Punisher couldn’t have done a better job himself. But if it wasn’t him, who was their executioner? Frank’s hunt for their killer leads him to a Russian named Valery Stepanovich, who served time in Afghanistan, and witnessed the brutal torture of his comrades at the hands of the Mujahideen. The nightmares that have plagued him ever since have twisted him into a killer with just one target in mind: the man in the Russian military who sold out Stepanovich and his unit, Konstantin Ponchenko, now kingpin of the Russian mafia. That’s a mission Frank is more than willing to support.

Garth Ennis has always used The Punisher as a tool to explore the darkest and nastiest elements of society: from street violence, terrorism, corporate greed and war, Ennis has exposed it all through the lens of Frank Castle. He understands: The Punisher is not a hero. He is vengeance personified, fixated on simple solutions — murder — in a complex world. And in “Punisher: Soviet” he delves into the broken psyche of a man scarred by war, with nothing left to lose. Ennis has done this all before, but honestly, I’ll return to it every time he does.

The artwork is fantastic. If anything, it’s too crisp and clean given the violence and bloodiness of the story. I’d love to see Burrows and Ortego on a classic superhero comic, with Woodward’s bold colours in support. I detected a touch of Tom Grummett the pencils — who is probably one of my all-time favourite Superman artists — and I’d love to see this art team’s take on the Man of Steel.

ISBN: 9781302913410
ISBN-10: 1302913417
Series: Punisher
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 136
Published: 18th August 2020
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Review: Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Evolution by Brian Freeman

There is a moment in Brian Freeman’s “The Bourne Evolution” when Miss Shirley — the book’s primary antagonist — stands up inside a helicopter racing above the ocean, tugs off her bikini, and tosses it out the open door, where it’s whipped away by the wind. She looms naked over the man she is about to kill — who is stuck in a no man’s land between aroused and terrified — then sinks to her knees. She nudges apart his legs, leans forward seductively — then unclasps his seatbelt and hoists him out the door in one smooth motion. That’s Miss Shirley for you: partaking in mind-blowing sex one minute, ending a life the next. Which I found neither titillating or menacing, and actually kind of garish and exploitative; like something from a bygone era. Books like this thrive on brilliantly wicked villains: Miss Shirley isn’t one of them. Women have so much in their arsenal; aren’t we done with thrillers using sex as the only weapon they utilise?

A year ago, a man with no known history of criminality or mental illness (and no motivation) opened fire on a crowd in Las Vegas, killing 66 people. In the present, a New York congresswoman about to expose a large-scale data hacking scandal in big tech is killed by a sniper. Bourne is the prime suspect, and so Treadstone — the organisation that created him — start hunting him. Abandoned by his allies, Bourne turns to Canadian journalist Abbey Laurent to aid his investigation into the mysterious organisation called Medusa, and their connection to a software application called Prescix, which has garnered acclaim for its ability to predicts what its users are going to do before they know.

Everything about Brian Freeman’s take on Robert Ludlum’s iconic Jason Bourne is perfunctory, lacking the “evolution” promised in its title. There’s nothing declaratively deficient about it, but it adheres so strictly to the “rules” of the genre, it basically asphyxiates itself. Mark Greaney and Gregg Hurwitz excavate similar material with far greater gusto; perhaps because their heroes are modern creations, and Jason Bourne’s adventures should’ve ceased with Ludlum’s original trilogy.

ISBN: 9781789546514
ISBN 10: 1789546516
Imprint: Head of Zeus – GB
On Sale: 05/08/2020
Pages: 416

List Price: 29.99 AUD

Review: In the Heat of the Night by John Ball

When I was a kid, borrowing tapes from the local Video Ezy every weekend, I knew when I slid a movie into the VCR I had a few minutes before the film started. What played in the interim was the requisite legal copyright verbiage, and a two minute featurette that was basically clips of various movies, the audio of which I unconsciously memorised, one line in particular, said by Sidney Poitier: “They call me Mr. Tibbs.”

Without context, those words lack the gravitas they merit in both Norman Jewinson’s 1967 film, and the John Ball novel it was adapted from, and published two years earlier: “In the Heat of the Night.” Despite their different intonations — Poitier’s voice is wearied and hardened, whereas it reads a little softer (though no less weary) — the Virgil Tibbs in both mediums are absolutely exhausted by the racial animus saturating the American South, and his simple response to the Chief of Police mocking inquiry about what he’s called back home in Pasadena is searing because of its coolness: in California, Tibbs is a person.

Ball’s novel is a conventional mystery involving the murder of music conductor Enrico Mantoli, whose body is found in the middle of the highway. Chief of Police Bill Gillespie orders Wood to round up any suspicious characters, and Virgil Tibbs fits the bill, waiting for his train back home at the local station. One telephone call to Pasadena later, Tibbs is cleared, and is roped into aiding the Wells police investigation; a scapegoat for the blame to be pinned on, should the case go unsolved.

Noxious racism coruscates through the town of Wells, and Tibbs is a character created by Ball to shatter the townspeople’s preconceptions. He’s almost too good to be true: a brilliant investigator, unruffled in the face of bigotry, impossibly intelligent. These facets are important to the story, but read contrived. Tibbs isn’t human: he’s an archetype. But we accept it, because that’s exactly what the narrative calls for. This is a snapshot of race relations in mid-sixties America during the civil rights movement with a side of murder and mystery. I’m keen to read more in the series, just to see whether Tibbs develops more as a character, and whether the plots become more intricate.

Published: 18 July 2016
ISBN: 9780241238622
Imprint: Peng. Mod. Classics
Format: Paperback
Pages: 176
RRP: $19.99

Review: Nothing Can Hurt You by Nicola Maye Goldberg

Nicola Maye Goldberg’s kaleidoscopic “Nothing Can Hurt You” explores the aftermath of a college student’s death through a chorus of disparate voices. In 1997, Sarah Morgan was killed in the woods near her liberal arts college in update New York. She was not the victim of convicted serial killer John Logan. Her death was tragically prosaic. Blake Campbell, Sara’s boyfriend, confessed to her murder. He avoided prison through a plea of temporary insanity. Today he is married, and has a daughter.

Goldberg’s novel uses a restrained voyeuristic approach: it watches, it observes, it does not do much editorializing. It is powerful precisely because it doesn’t preach, or offer pointed epiphany’s about the ripple effect of violence, or marinate on its consequences.  Goldberg presents her readers with a smorgasbord of characters — the woman who discovered Sara’s body; her half-sister; the teenager Sara used to babysit, who is writing to John Logan in prison; the local court reporter; and that’s barely the tip of the iceberg —and offers a snapshot of their lives; years, months, or days after Sara’s death, which has affected them in various ways; some obvious, some subtle. But the scars are there.

These anecdotes are transcribed in different styles and narrations: first-person, third, letters. Some characters fleetingly reappear, but the point of “Nothing Can Hurt You” isn’t to develop a contrived relationship between its cast. It doesn’t build to a grand crescendo where they unite. It’s refreshing and impactful because it ignores the conventions of the archetypal crime novel. This is a story of violence and its aftermath. It’s unsettling because it doesn’t provide answers — there are none. There is just life, which carries on, mercilessly and mercifully.

ISBN: 9781526619488
ISBN-10: 1526619482
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 224
Published: 4th August 2020
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Country of Publication: GB

Review: The Force by Don Winslow

x293The Manhattan North Special Task Force operates by one primary principle: if you don’t intimidate the street, the street will kill you. Which means you’ve got to work outside the law to maintain it. And to keep the peace, you broker deals. You can’t exterminate crime, so you work with the gangs. You maintain a status quo. You get dirty, but you don’t get bent. You walk right up to the line, but you don’t cross it. Until the day you do.

“The Force” is Don Winslow’s epic novel about an elite NYPD task force. It’s savagely violent and unambiguous in its portrayal of corrupt cops, so overwhelmed by their toxic egos and merrily lining their pockets, they’ve forgotten why they became police in the first place. If they’re not entirely morally bankrupt, they’re down to their last cents. Their decision to skim $4 million and 20 kilos of heroin from the scene of a major bust is the most extravagant of their wrongdoings; the coup de grâce before their fiefdom crumbles. And as it falls apart, readers learn just how far the corruption extends.

Winslow does a good job of establishing his characters in their own lives. Events are narrated through Detective Sergeant Denny Malone: Irish American, son of a cop, who grew up in Staten Island, whose brother was a firefighter who died on 9/11. Malone’s also in the middle of a protracted divorce, and in a new relationship with a black, drug-addicted nurse. But the nature of the tale is that its characters’ ambiguities are lost as it gathers momentum. When the FBI starts squeezing Malone for information, turning him into a rat — the thing he most despises — I was eager to see how he could possibly extricate himself from his predicament. But I wasn’t emotionally invested in his survival, because to be frank, Malone is a bad guy, and deserves to go down for his crimes. It makes for a peculiar reading experience, rooting against the central character of a book. But it’s not a feeling I marinated on, such is its velocity.

“The Force” is punctuated with blockbuster action scenes. Punchy sentences and short paragraphs make these sequences kinetic and frenetic. They read like a crude, bloody ballet. Impressively Don Winslow takes a derivative concept, shakes it, and gives it new energy. “The Force” is terrific entertainment. A cop novel only he could write.

ISBN: 9781460753545
Format: Paperback
Number Of Pages: 496
Published: 19th June 2017
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers (Australia) Pty Ltd