A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu

“A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing” is subversive, abrasive, and brilliant. Jessie Tu’s brazenness rips through the landscape of Australian fiction like a tornado as she ruthlessly excavates themes of race, sex, womanhood and patriarchy through the lens of Jena, an exceptional violinist, a former child prodigy, now a young adult, living in Sydney while she grapples with the fallout of her breakdown on stage years earlier, and re-establishing her career as a soloist.  

Jena relationship with her mother is strained. She sabotages her friendships. And she uses sex as a refuge from her overriding loneliness; the pain and affection of intercourse a fleeting escape from the monotony of rehearsals, concerts, auditions and relentless practice. Tu’s descriptions are brutal and raw. Her prose is no holds barred. There’s not a trace of emotional saccharinity. Jena burns bridges, and they remain ablaze. Life is difficult, particularly as an Asian woman in a dominantly white, upper-middle-class industry. This isn’t a story about overcoming those discriminations. Nothing is wrapped in a neat bow. This isn’t fantasy. That’s the genius of “A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing.” It’s about a character facing up to the truth of her foibles without downplaying the toxic and discriminatory verisimilitude of her reality.

ISBN: 9781760877194
ISBN-10: 1760877190
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 304
Published: 2nd July 2020
Publisher: Allen & Unwin

The Law of Innocence by Michael Connelly

In “The Law of Innocence,” as reports of a deadly virus in China with possible global implications begin to gather steam, Los Angeles defence attorney Mickey Haller takes on the most important case of his career: his own.

After an open-bar celebration of a not-guilty verdict at the Redwood on Second Street, Haller — a teetotaller, definitely not over the limit, and most assuredly not driving erratically — is pulled over by an LAPD cruiser. During a terse exchange with officer Milton, the cop notices a blotch of blood-like liquid beneath the bumper of Mickey’s car. The Lincoln Lawyer is handcuffed and made to watch from the backseat of the police cruiser as Milton pops the trunk. Inside is the corpse of a former client.

Charged with murder and unable to make the $5 million bail, Haller opts to defend himself. He assembles a defence team from his jail cell in the Twin Towers Correctional Centre in downtown LA, which includes his half-brother, former LAPD detective Harry Bosch. But this frame-up is far more extensive, and watertight, than Haller could’ve ever imagined.

Bosch’s investigation leads him to the port of Los Angeles, and a biofuel company run by a serial scam-artist with connections to the mob. He believes they’re running an elaborate scheme involving illicit supplementary government subsidies payouts. Which means the feds are involved. And unwilling to get involved in Mickey’s trial.

The tension rises steadily as Haller prepares his defence, and the courtroom drama is as nail-biting and riveting as anything else you’ll read this year, grounded in authenticity rather than pyrotechnics. We know Haller is innocent. The question is, can he prove it? Michael Connelly, the unequivocal master of the police procedural, again proves himself the master of the legal thriller, too. Grisham and Turow might do it more often — but nobody does it better.

ISBN: 9781760878917
ISBN-10: 176087891X
Series: Mickey Haller
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 432
Available: 10th November 2020
Publisher: A&U

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

“Red at the Bone” reads so smoothly you’ll want to imbibe it in a single swallow.

You shouldn’t.

Pace yourself, dear reader. Savour the cadence and poetry of Jacqueline Woodson’s words. Admire the extraordinary artistry and economy of her sentences, the construction of her paragraphs, the architecture of the novel as a whole; restrained but replete. Yes, “Red at the Bone” can be read in a couple of hours, but it demands and deserves more.

It opens on 31 May 2001, at sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming-of-age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Through the voices of five characters spanning three generations of her family, and slicing backward and forward in time, from the 1921 Tulsa Massacre to 9/11, “Red at the Bone” sketches the history of Melody’s parents and grandparents to show how they arrived at this moment, and what their future holds. Her mother, Iris, gave birth too young, and fled across the country for an education, leaving Melody in the care of her father, Aubrey, who feels untethered as he witnesses his daughter’s transition into adulthood.

A wrenching, beautiful book, whose graceful sparseness still allows space for intense examinations of parenthood, race and family.

ISBN: 9781474616454
ISBN-10: 1474616453
Audience: Professional
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 208
Available: 27th January 2021
Publisher: Orion

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

“Being a heterosexual woman who loved men meant being a translator for their emotions, a palliative nurse for their pride and a hostage negotiator for their egos,” observes 32-year-old successful food writer Nina Dean as she awaits the arrival of her new boyfriend in the company of her ex, Joe, who remains a close friend and confidant.

She met Max on a dating app, where she’d had “twenty-seven conversations on the go with twenty-seven different men,” which seems a lot, until you realise Nina spent “approximately four hours of each working day on the app, green-lighting hundreds upon thousands of men.” That a mere twenty-seven wanted to match her back “seemed meagre.” Her gregarious (and perennially single) friend Lola explains matches halve when women turn thirty. So Nina feels comparatively lucky to have met Max, who declaratively states “I’m certain I’m going to marry you” after their first date, which would be cringeworthy if uttered by anyone else, but Max is the perfect cocktail of earnestness and charm. She believes him. Until the day he vanishes from her life.

Dolly Alderton’s “Ghosts” is one of the best novels of the year. It’s a very smart, very funny, and very touching snapshot of a woman in her thirties coping with the rigmarole of adulthood. As her father’s dementia razes the bedrock of her family, and her closest friends start dissipating from her life as they focus on marriage and parenthood, Nina is reminded constantly of the gendered double-standard of the biological clock: “the female population [is] just an endless source of chances” for men, she realises. They have the luxury of being able to decide when they want to fall in love and have a family, and grow up.    

“Ghosts” flows like running water, punctuated with poignant moments, lightning comedy and searing social commentary. In one scene, Lola is asked what her love language is. She deadpans “Anal, probably.” In the next, they’re discussing politics; “I’m fiscally conservative but socially liberal,” remarks a fellow wedding guest. Nina retorts, “I’m not sure that really exists… ‘I love the gays but don’t care about the poor’ can’t be described as liberal in any sense.”

“Ghosts” is warm-hearted, sharp-edged, and unmissable.

Published: 20 October 2020
ISBN: 9780241465332
Imprint: Fig Tree
Format: Trade Paperback
Pages: 352
RRP: $32.99

Review: Honeybee by Craig Silvey

In this wrenching coming-of-age story more than a decade in the making, Craig Silvey grabs readers by the throat from his opening sentence, and whip-lashes us through the full gamut of emotions as he unspools a tale of childhood trauma and identity.

You won’t read it on the blurb, but Sam Watson, the protagonist of “Honeybee,” is a young trans woman struggling to navigate the world, saddled with the scars of her excruciating childhood. It’s impossible to honestly discuss the novel without “exposing” Sam’s trans identity, which makes its concealment slightly discomforting. The identity of cisgender characters is never obfuscated in media, and doing so in this instance presents the revelation of Sam’s as a spectacle, manufactured as a bombshell, in a narrative that manages a nuanced and compassionate depiction of an adolescent seeking vindication of her self.

We meet fourteen-year-old Sam as she walks onto the Clayton Road overpass in Perth, determined to launch herself onto the road below, pausing momentarily when she spots an old man, Vic, smoking a cigarette, also on the wrong side of the railing. They form an unlikely friendship, which has a lasting impact on Sam, and leads to a series of similarly unconventional but indispensable friendships with the daughter of Vic’s neighbours, Aggie, and drag queen Bella Fitzgerald.

Through a series of flashbacks we discover Sam’s grievous past. She is the only child of a mother who fell pregnant at nineteen, and raised Sam alone, funnelling her loneliness into drugs and alcohol; until she met Steve, a con artist (and the epitome of toxic masculinity) who terrorised Sam for her loathing of outdated masculine pursuits. Sam’s unreserved (and undeserved) loyalty to her mother is truly heartbreaking. Silvey’s rendering of this relationship is exquisite.

That a straight white man has chosen to examine trauma through a trans character warrants unpacking and discussion. I can’t vouch for its authenticity of voice. But I can attest to its devastating portrait of depression, abuse and self-mutilation. I can say that “Honeybee” moved me to tears, that I couldn’t put it down, and that I won’t soon forget it.

ISBN: 9781760877224
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Pub Date: September 2020
Page Extent: 432
Format:Paperback – C format

Review: Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld

When she approaches a table of strangers she mistakenly assumes have crashed her friend’s birthday party in “White Women LOL,” the first of three stories in Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Help Yourself,” Jill is aware she is “trying harder than usual — harder than she would have with a group of white people — to seem friendly and diplomatic.” Her motivations for dispelling the group are honest, her methodology rather more questionable, and the situation devolves into a cataclysmic misunderstanding. Her tense exchange with the group is recorded, and proves incendiary online, establishing her as the latest pin-up of white privilege, which is a label Jill marinates over, recollecting every interaction she’s ever had with a black person as she tries to establish her place on the spectrum of racism, much to the chagrin of her blasé husband, who’s dismissive of her plan for redemption, which involves finding the missing shih tzu of a local black celebrity.

In “Creative Differences,” a young photographer named Melissa wrestles with art and commerce, deliberating over the compromises she must make to achieve her ultimate goal. A while back her series on black pre-schoolers went viral, and now a producer from Wichita is shooting a documentary on American creativity, and Melissa is one of its subjects. The opportunity offers great exposure, but Melissa is adamant brushing her teeth on camera — as mandated in her contract  — is a seismic concession, and a devastating blow to her artistic integrity.

“Great literature was never written by a beautiful woman,” Ruthie heard more than one in her postgrad creative writing course. Many years later, now a bestselling author of women’s fiction, and the narrator of “Show, Don’t Tell,” she reminisces on her anxieties clashing with the gallingly indestructible  entitlement and elitism of her male cohorts.

The women at the centre of Sittenfeld’s stories are navigating their aspirations alongside society’s expectations, complications and inequalities. These bite-sized snapshots of their lives offer nuanced commentary on the complexities of gender politics, race and commercialism. I just wish the collection was heftier.

ISBN: 9780857527479
Format: Hardcover
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 96
Published: 29th September 2020
Publisher: RANDOM HOUSE UK

Review: V2 by Robert Harris

Given his proclivity for audaciously varying his recipe — his books have spanned Ancient Rome, the early 1900s, WWII, the present day and beyond — Robert Harris’ latest, “V2”, is comparatively unenterprising in scope, but a certain crowd pleaser nonetheless.

This is a crisp, unpretentious thriller set in the dying weeks of the Second World War, when the Nazi’s launched their erratic V2 rockets at Britain in a final act of desperation, the writing of their defeat already on the wall. It’s taut, compelling, and laced with the historical detail Harris’ legion of fans expect, but its narrative is mired in an inexorable sense of predicability.

Set over five helter-skelter days, “V2” features two parallel perspectives: Dr Rudi Graf, a friend and collaborator of Wernher von Braun, the head of the Nazi rocket program; and Kay Caton-Walsh of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force who is tasked with extrapolating the parabolic curve of the rockets back to their launch points so the RAF squadrons have targets. The novel ping-pongs back and forth between these two characters, detailing snippets of their backstory, and exposing the tumultuousness of their lives.

Graf struggles to reconcile the fact his life’s work to build a space rocket has been hijacked by the Nazis to create weapons of mass destruction. He is a decent man forced into doing evil. Caton-Walsh is desperate to find a meaningful role in the war effort, and uses the fallout of her illicit affair with a married superior to land herself a role at RAF Medmenham in Belgium, where she boards with a Dutch family, and is warned about remnant Nazi sympathisers in the village.

The architecture of the novel reads like a lit fuse burning to the explosive consequences of Graf and Caton-Walsh finally meeting. When they do, it’s disappointingly anticlimactic, and more of a coda. But despite falling short of his spellbinding best, “V2” is brilliantly cinematic and breathlessly entertaining. Robert Harris tells these type of stories with tremendous verve and expertise, and his talent shows no sign of diminishing.

ISBN: 9781786331410
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 320
Published: 15th September 2020
Publisher: Cornerstone

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: 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)