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)

Review: The Doors of Eden by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s “The Doors of Eden” is a compulsive and extraordinarily entertaining labyrinth of parallel Earths and alternate dimensions threaded together with endearingly human (and non-human) characters. Punctuated with frenetic action scenes and interspersed with fascinating evolutionary histories of the multiverse’s “other” Earths, this is blockbuster science-fiction writing, as smart as it is exhilarating.

The premise is magnificently uncomplicated: interdimensional cracks are forming in the multiverse. Earths are overlapping; “a pick-and-mix of realities slopping together,” which is causing chaos, and signifies the end of all things. Nothing is safe. Everything is unravelling. Unless a conglomeration of the multiverse’s greatest minds can find a solution.

The cast is suitably diverse: you’ve got Lee Pryor and her girlfriend Elsinore “Mal” Mallory; transgender genius theoretical mathematician Kay Amal Khan; MI5 agent Julian Sabreur (more office administrator than 007); ex-army, now private security goon Lucas May, and his villainous boss; and a whole host of others, who snake in and out of story, which shifts seamlessly between their perspectives, building towards an epically intricate finale. Leaving room for a sequel, perhaps? I’d be down for more.

The science of “The Doors of Eden” stayed just the right side of palatable. Hard science fiction scares me a lot of the time. But despite its complexity and immensity, Tchaikovsky never tries to outsmart the reader. He’s got big ideas, but he understands his role as a storyteller. This is a breathless sci-fi masterclass.

ISBN: 9781509865895
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: 25/08/2020
Imprint: Tor UK
Pages: 608
Price: $32.99

Review: Real Life by Brandon Taylor

“Is this all his life is meant to be, the accumulation of other people’s pain?”

It’s hard to describe Brandon Taylor’s Booker-longlisted “Real Life” in a way that conveys its brilliance without making it sound archetypal. It’s one of those novels that defies its plot description through its execution, its greatness stemming from its specificity of character. Ostensibly it’s the coming-of-age story of a college student named Wallace. That Wallace is black, and gay, is significant; so too that events transpire over one weekend. I think what makes “Real Life” truly special is that although Wallace’s struggles are universal, Taylor’s novel doesn’t set out to achieve a universal statement. This is Wallace’s truth; the honest portrayal of his character is what makes his story more than a mere “campus novel.”

Hailing from Alabama, where he grew up poor and abused, Wallace is a graduate student in the Midwest, who keenly monitors his genetic experiments on nematodes (multicellular insects) with little time in his life for anything else, let alone a potential boyfriend — Miller — who’s not actually certain he’s gay, and has some repressed anger issues. Wallace is burdened by his own traumatic past, and continues to struggle with the “whiteness” of his college world, and the bubbling undercurrent of racism that permeates his every moment; it’s the subtle infractions that seem to cause the most damage. Taylor colours Wallace’s world with friends who feel fully-realised and three-dimensional, despite our brief dalliances with them. Their dynamics vary depending on who is present and who is missing from their gatherings.

“Real Life” is a story about the complexity of trauma, forgiveness and prejudice, and a searing snapshot of white middle-class. I was mesmerised.

Format: Paperback
Publisher: Daunt Books
Published: 4 August 2020
Pages: 336
ISBN: 978191154774

Review: State Highway One by Sam Coley

After the sudden death of his parents, Alex returns home from Dubai to New Zealand, where he and his twin sister Amy set off on a road trip down State Highway 1, which runs the length of both main islands. They hope to heal old wounds and revive their familial bond. Alex also hopes to reconnect with his home.

“State Highway One” settles into the rhythms of the road trip novel, with lots of beautifully-evocated drive-by-scenery, soul-search talks during long stretches across the blacktop, and unpredictable encounters with locals and fellow road warriors.

The narrative regularly cuts back in time to present readers with glimpses of the Alex’s adolescence. As the queer son of famous film directors, Alex never wanted for anything tangible; but Alex and Amy’s was a youth deprived of paternal love, and their unconventional upbringing, which saw them basically raise themselves, has warped their relationship; twisted it into something possibly unsalvageable.

The moment he could, Alex fled New Zealand for Dubai, taking up an internship and cutting all ties with his family. His specific reason for this, the catalyst for his departure, is hinted at but never explicitly stated until the novel’s climax, which adds an unexpected layer of suspense. But what ultimately elevates “State Highway One” above the cascade of fiction about homecomings is Sam Coley’s handling of repressed grief and trauma; an undercurrent that spills over into Alex’s every day. It’s a poignant, powerful excavation and Coley belies his status as a debut novelist by not providing an easy, aesthetic resolution. Real life doesn’t work that way.

ISBN: 9781869714260
Format: Paperback
Pages: 384
Imprint: Hachette
Publish Date: 25-Aug-2020
Country of Publication: New Zealand