By Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll
Books to read this week include new titles from Sally Piper, Minnie Driver and Polly Phillips.
Book critics Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll cast their eyes over recent fiction and non-fiction titles. Here are their reviews.
Fiction pick of the week
Sally Piper, UQP, $32.99
Sixteen years after Jess was murdered in front of her son, Daniel, then a toddler, Sally Piper’s Bone Memories charts the personal aftermath of a crime that shocked the nation.
It draws a detailed interior landscape of those most affected. Jess’ mother, Billie, holds fast to the memory of her daughter and the place she was killed, and clings even more tightly to her grandson. For his part, Daniel is haunted and shaped by an event he can’t recall. He is untrusting, prone to rage, trauma ripples through his life like a subterranean stream. His stepmother, Carla, struggles against the legacy of the crime – Jess is idealised in the memories of those left behind, while she lives and breathes, her imperfections magnified – and moves her family towards a tentative resolution.
Bone Memories is one of those rare books that highlights murder without being genre fiction, that navigates traumatic experience without steering too close to the Scylla of false uplift or the Charybdis of misery porn. It’s a poised, perceptive and exquisitely written meditation on grief and the emotional legacy of violence.
An A-List For Death
Pamela Hart, HQ Fiction, $29.99
Adding detective fiction to a long list of historical and fantasy novels, Pamela Hart introduced readers to amateur sleuth Poppy McGowan in Digging Up Dirt.
Poppy stumbles onto another mystery in An A-List For Death, in which the camera-shy TV researcher has drawn an unwelcome spotlight after discovering her aunt’s best friend, the elderly Daisy, bleeding and unconscious in her bathroom. Daisy, it transpires, is mother to rock god Nathan Castle, and when Poppy is snapped with him celebrity and social media go haywire. Convinced Daisy is in danger, Poppy must resort to donning disguises and evading paps as she investigates who would benefit from her death.
Personal stakes in the case are raised when there’s a murder outside the old lady’s home and her archaeologist boyfriend, Tol, becomes the prime suspect. It’s a media-savvy Australian crime novel with a dash of black comedy and enough red herrings and revelations to keep the reader guessing.
Polly Phillips, Simon & Schuster, $29.99
The Reunion dials up the suspense by opening with an act of violence on the night of a 15-year reunion at a Cambridge University college. Emily Toller has long since settled into a comfortable family life – she has a successful husband and twins – but her own career was curtailed by events that led to her leaving Cambridge humiliated and traumatised before her final exam.
She has never forgotten what her then boyfriend Henry (along with some other friends in their close-knit circle) did to her, and she decides what cannot be forgotten must be avenged. Emily hatches a plan to get back at her tormentors at the reunion, and as that dramatic evening unfolds, we flash back to her university days, revealing hazy memories of what sparked her desire for revenge.
Polly Phillips has written a well-turned psychological thriller that toys with unreliable narration and dives sharply into the cruelty and cliquiness that can fester at elite universities.
The Silence of Water
Sharron Booth, Fremantle Press, $29.99
This layered historical fiction took root from a real murder in Victorian England, for which the perpetrator was transported to Australia after fevered press coverage and a public outcry rather than facing the noose.
It’s 1906 and Fan’s mother, Agnes, announces suddenly that her family is moving to Western Australia from Adelaide to take care of Fan’s grandfather, Edwin, who it is said doesn’t have long to live. Fan is none too pleased at being uprooted, and as her relationship with her mother frays, she is drawn in by what her grandfather reveals of his own story, little knowing that he has carefully curated it. Her curiosity leads to a blighted and long-buried family secret being brought to light.
Sharron Booth exposes a dark corner of convict history, and the effects of silencing it, through a smartly written narrative spanning generations.
Non-fiction pick of the week
Minnie Driver, Manilla Press, $32.99
When actor/musician Minnie Driver was 11 years old and staying with her father and his girlfriend in Barbados, he packed her off alone back to England (via the hotel where they filmed Goldfinger) for bad-mouthing his girlfriend. Amazingly, she takes from it what she calls an “existential corridor”, where she discovers she loves being in transit and freed from expectations.
Her collection of non-fiction stories reads like an episodic memoir, much of it revolving around the key childhood event of her parents separating, being sent to a private school in Hampshire as a boarder for bad-mouthing her step-father.
Among this, there’s dealing with success, Hollywood, questionable boyfriends, the death of her mother, the joys of surfing and motherhood. She tells all this with an adroitly confident light touch that is sure-footed, by turns comic and poignant.
Louisa Lim, Text, $34.99
When the first Opium War ended in 1842 and China ceded Hong Kong to the British, foreign minister Lord Palmerston wrote of Hong Kong, “A barren rock with nary a house on it … it will never be a mart for trade”. Missed by that much!
Louisa Lim’s combination of investigative journalism and history of the island (she’s Hong Kong raised) takes as its central motif the story of a former rubbish collector known as the King of Kowloon whose belief that his family’s property had been stolen from him mirrors Hong Kong’s dispossession.
Be it descriptions of the Lennon Walls of protest against the Chinese or deeply disturbing images of protestors being bashed and imprisoned, this is the best of boots-on-the ground journalism that has a real sense of immediacy.
Anna Kent, Bloomsbury, $29.99
This could also have been titled Dispatches from the Front – the front, in this case, being wherever Medecins Sans Frontieres took English midwife Anna Kent. It’s a really absorbing, naturally written combination of personal history and graphic accounts of her work in a number of countries.
Always feeling that there was something lacking in her life, she leaves comfortable Nottingham and her boyfriend one day and winds up in South Sudan the next, treating women with appalling birthing complications. Be it in Bangladesh or Haiti, the work is seriously confronting, disturbing and deeply rewarding, Kent making life-long friends along the way, suffering the tragedy of losing a baby at birth then becoming a mother to her own baby girl after delivering so many herself. A deft mix of the dark and light.
James Patterson, Century, $35
When Patterson asks the reader how did a shy, introspective kid from struggling, up-state New York … become the best-selling writer in the world, it’s emblematic of the self-congratulatory thread that runs through his memoir. But it’s an interesting tale all the same.
Told in pithy, conversational chapters, he begins with his time as a carer at a New England psychiatric hospital in 1965 that boasted James Taylor among its inmates. From there, he goes back to his family, not that interested in books at first, then becomes hooked on literature, studies at Vanderbilt University, works in advertising, decides to write popular fiction and becomes a best-selling phenomenon. Then there was collaborating with Bill Clinton. As is his wont, a pacy, straight-talking read.
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