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Tag: TBR list

Burnt Out by Victoria Brookman

Burnt Out, by Victoria Brookman, book cover

Writing that difficult second novel, it might be what many authors consider to be a good problem. Their debut novel has been published, an epic achievement, and now they have the opportunity to write another book. What aspiring novelist wouldn’t want to be in such a situation?

Cali, an author residing in the NSW Blue Mountains may be such a person, in Burnt Out (published by HarperCollins Publishers, January 2022) the debut novel of Australian author Victoria Brookman. Cali’s struggling to write her second novel, in fact she was meant to have turned in the manuscript long ago. In reality she hasn’t even started work on it. But for the moment that’s the least of her worries.

Her home has been destroyed by a bush fire, likewise her possessions, and to top it off her husband has left her. But Cali sees an opportunity amid the turmoil. Speaking to a television news crew, she tells them her manuscript was also incinerated, and goes onto chide politicians and well-off Australians for their inaction in response to the devastating bush fires. Her words immediately strike a chord nationwide.

After seeing her on-air rant, a billionaire offers her a place to stay in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, so she can “re-write” the novel. But will Cali overcome her second book syndrome, or will she find herself overwhelmed by the lies she keep telling everyone, including herself?

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Case Study, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Case Study, by Graeme Macrae Burnet, book cover

If Case Study (published by Text Publishing, 19 October 2021), the fourth novel of Glasgow based Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet, were a movie — and who knows, it might yet be — based upon video or film clips, it would be called a found footage story. The found footage technique is commonly seen in horror films, but it be could argued there’s elements of horror in Burnet’s latest work.

The literary equivalent of found footage is epistolary, where a story is told through a series of letters, or other written works, of which Case Study is an example. Martin Grey, who lives in present day Clacton-on-Sea, contacts the author after finding five diaries written by his cousin some fifty years earlier, under the pen name Rebecca Smyth. The journals detail her dealings with Collins Braithwaite, a therapist, who is remembered for his unconventional practise methods.

Rebecca’s sister Veronica, who had been a patient of Braithwaite’s for two years, killed herself, and Rebecca has no doubt the therapist was responsible. After creating a fictitious identity, and new persona for herself, Rebecca likewise becomes a patient of Braithwaite, in order to find out more about him. As the author reads the journals though, he comes to realise the intrinsically straight-laced journal writer was becoming ever more delusional, as she increasingly wrapped herself up in her free-spirited alter-ego.

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Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel, book cover

Where are we in time? Where is the motion of the cosmos taking us? Forwards or backwards? Possibly though, you feel you’re stuck in neutral, moving nowhere, yet keenly aware of each passing minute. The strange times we live in have left many of us displaced and confused.

Sea of Tranquility (published by Pan Macmillan Australia, May 2022), the sixth novel of Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel, may well be a microcosm of our pandemic dominated epoch. Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, a detective living in the twenty-fifth century, is asked to investigate a suspected anomaly in time.

But his search for answers is far from straightforward. The detective finds a young man, Edwin St. Andrew, who claims to be the son of a noble British family, who lived in the early twentieth century. And then there is Olive Llewelyn, an author unable to travel home because of a pandemic, who apparently lives in the twenty-third century.

What brings Edwin and Olive to the present day, and how? But is everything as it really seems to be in this usual world? Are Edwin and Olive who they claim to be, or is something else at play? Might the detective have stumbled upon some sort of switch junction in time, explaining the presence of Edwin and Olive?

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The Good Child, by S.C. Karakaltsas

The Good Child, by S.C. Karakaltsas, book cover

Tom’s a con artist. He might have been the big-wig at a major Australian financial institution, but he’s still a shyster. He’s fleeced thousands of people of their life savings and other assets. But he’s been found out, caught, and is due to have his day in court. Although not directly victim, two other women are caught up in Tom’s web of deception. His seventy-two year old mother, Lucille, and Quin, a former colleague who played a part in enabling Tom.

Lucille and Quin meet on a train bound for Melbourne. Both are en route to Tom’s trial, but at first neither realises who the other is. Lucille is devastated by Tom’s illicit activities. But that’s not all. She’s lost everything. She has no savings, no home, and on top of that, she feels responsible for everything that has happened. Perhaps if she had been less lenient on her son, not so overprotective, things might have turned out differently?

The Good Child (published by Karadie Publishing, 15 November 2021) is the fourth book from Melbourne based Australian author S.C. Karakaltsas. Told from the perspectives of Lucille and Quin, The Good Child poses the oft asked question, if you could say something to your younger self, warn them, tell them to turn left instead of right, would you try? But fanciful thinking is of little help. Both women need to find a way through this quagmire in the here and now.

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Open Water, by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open Water, by Caleb Azumah Nelson, book cover

Two people meet in a bar in London. Both are young, both are Black British, and both are artists. She is a dancer, he a photographer. The attraction is instant, and as the two spend ever more time together, their bond only grows. They also connect through shared experiences as people of colour in a place where they are in a minority. Although both were awarded scholarships to private British schools, both felt excluded, and unable to completely fit in.

Despite the passionate love they discover in each other, he hides a trauma, one he struggles to resolve. Partly, perhaps, because he still encounters the violence and fear he previously endured. Every day the two come face to face with racism and vilification on the streets of London. But his struggle, one he cannot articulate even to her, causes him to withdraw, to hide behind silence. She is devastated by the apparent rejection, left reeling and confused.

Open Water (published by Penguin Books Australia, February 2021) is the debut novel of London based British-Ghanaian author and photographer Caleb Azumah Nelson. Written in the second person, with prose that is sometimes described as poetic, Open Water is perhaps more of novella, weighing in at about one-hundred and sixty pages. But don’t make the mistake of thinking the word count detracts from the story’s impact.

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Beautiful Country, by Qian Julie Wang

Beautiful Country, by Qian Julie Wang, book cover

Mei Guo is what Qian Julie Wang’s parents called America, before the family left their native China to start new lives in what they believed to be the beautiful country. Once on the ground though, what they saw and experienced was anything but beautiful. Wang’s parents, who in China held down academic careers, found themselves working in below minimum wage jobs, earning barely enough money to keep a roof over their heads.

Beautiful Country (published by Penguin Books Australia, September 2021) is a no holds barred account of the childhood of New York litigator Qian Julie Wang, as an undocumented immigrant. Here Wang recounts contending with racism, poverty, and loneliness, among other things, while maintaining the façade the family’s papers were in order, she was of American birth, and they were residing legally in the beautiful country.

It may be a cliché to go and say the grass is not greener on the other side, at least not at first, but from this life on the run, Wang rose above every obstacle before her. She studied law while working four part time jobs, and now manages an organisation that advocates for education and civil rights. As a footnote, Wang composed her memoir on a smartphone during her commute to and from work, a detail the time-poor authors among us will find notable.

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Wild Abandon, by Emily Bitto

Wild Abandon, by Emily Bitto, book cover

The year is 2011, and Will, a young Australian, heart-broken after his girlfriend Laura left him, buys a cheap flight to America. His plan is to spend a few months in New York City, partying and meeting people, hoping he can put the break-up behind him. But not long after arriving in the city that never sleeps, an unsettling incident sees Will pack his bags and travel to a small town in Ohio. Here an old school friend introduces him to Wayne, a former soldier, and Vietnam veteran.

Wild Abandon (published by Allen & Unwin, September 2021), the second novel of Melbourne based Australian author Emily Bitto, tells a familiar story. A displaced person, struggling to find direction at home, sets off into the wide blue yonder, on the belief travel to places new and exciting will be a panacea for their ills.

Once he reaches Ohio, Will begins working for Wayne, who owns a private zoo where he keeps exotic animals. What better way to heal, you might ask, than caring for the beasts inhabiting a menagerie. Better, surely, that the drug infused parties of the big city. But Wayne is man with deep problems, and before long Will is lurching towards another calamity.

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The Beautiful Words, by Vanessa McCausland

The Beautiful Words, by Vanessa McCausland, book cover

Once inseparable, childhood friends Sylvie and Kase haven’t spoken to each other in decades, following a tragedy at the lighthouse one night when they were teenagers. But when out of the blue, Sylvie is invited to Kase’s fortieth birthday party, she begins to yearn for her lost friendship with Kase, and a life she perhaps may have lived differently.

Set between Sydney’s Palm Beach, and an island near Bruny Island, off the coast of Tasmania, The Beautiful Words (published by HarperCollins Publishers, December 2021), is the third novel by Sydney based Australian author Vanessa McCausland. Sylvie learns Kase has enjoyed success as an author in the intervening years, as have the people she surrounds herself with. But despite Kase’s aura of happiness, the now solitary Sylvie, who feels ill at ease among Kase’s ambitious friends, is certain she can detect a discontent simmering below the surface.

But the reunion does more than disturb the slumbering ghosts of their own pasts, and Sylvie and Kase soon discover their mothers, Franny and Eve, had secrets of their own. But in trying to understand happenings that took place before they were born, Sylvie and Kase must confront events that lead to the disintegration of their once close friendship.

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Oh William!, by Elizabeth Strout

Oh William!, by Elizabeth Strout, book cover

Even though their marriage ended many years ago, Lucy and William have largely remained close. Both remarried, although Lucy’s second husband died, while William, together with two children by Lucy, became father to another daughter, with his third wife. But after learning something he didn’t previously know about his mother, a disturbed William asks for Lucy’s help in finding out more about his mother’s past.

But as they travel away together, it seems it is Lucy who is on the journey of discovery. She finds herself pondering her marriage to William, and what drew them together in the first place, from their time at university. But far from simply being a story about family secrets, Oh William! is a meditation on life, the relationships that come and go, and the connections with the people around us.

Perhaps though it is life that is the mystery, rather than the sometimes unfathomable actions of loved ones. We’re left wondering how well we know those we think we’re close to, when perhaps the more pertinent question is how well we know ourselves. Oh William! (published by Viking/Penguin Books Australia, October 2021), is the ninth book by American author Elizabeth Strout, and the third in a series of novels that centres on Lucy.

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Wish You Were Here, by Jodi Picoult

Wish you were here, by Jodi Picoult, book cover

Thirty-year-old New Yorker Diana is a woman with a plan. The rising star associate in the art world is on the verge of closing a big deal that could see her win the promotion she’s long dreamed of. Marriage, followed by children by the time she’s thirty-five, are also part of the arrangement. Diana is certain Finn, her long-time boyfriend, a hospital doctor, is on the verge of proposing.

They are about to leave for a holiday on the Galapagos Islands, and Diana is sure she’ll come home an engaged woman. But then the COVID pandemic breaks out. Finn tells Diana he cannot leave the hospital. Instead of postponing the getaway though, he suggests Diana go to Galapagos by herself, an idea she unwittingly agrees to. At that stage though, no one has any idea of what is about to come. Upon reaching the Islands, Diana discovers she is stranded there indefinitely.

With her luggage lost, the hotel closed, little knowledge of the local language, and patchy wi-fi, Diana finds herself outside her comfort zone for the first time in her life. Wish You Were Here (published by Penguin Random House, November 2021), by American author Jodi Picoult, sees someone’s well laid plans fall to pieces due to unforeseen circumstances, coupled though with an opportunity to reassess their life. Something that may be familiar to many of us, perhaps?

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The Black Dress, by Deborah Moggach

The Black Dress, by Deborah Moggach, book cover

In American film director David Dobkin’s 2005 movie Wedding Crashers, we see Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, known as John and Jeremy respectively, getting a kick out of showing up at strangers’ weddings. They’re both outgoing and personable, and quickly ingratiate themselves with the bridal party and their guests. Their charade is so convincing, everyone believes John and Jeremy are somehow part of the family.

It could be Prudence, the protagonist in The Black Dress (published by Hachette Australia, July 2021), the sixteenth novel of British author Deborah Moggach saw John and Jeremy in action, and decided to take a leaf out of their book. Instead of weddings though, seventy-something Pru, having purchased a black dress from a charity shop, goes to funerals. It’s not so much that she enjoys funerals, but you know, there’s bound to be a well-off widower or two in attendance.

Right about now you might be wondering what Pru is thinking. But consider: her husband recently left her, her adult children are busy with their own lives, and her friends are also otherwise occupied. What then is wrong with going to a funeral here and there? While Pru’s plan to hook-up with eligible widowers seems like a good idea, she soon discovers, to borrow the words of William Shakespeare, the course of true love never did run smooth…

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Seven and a Half, by Christos Tsiolkas

Seven and a Half, Christos Tsiolkas, book cover

The premise of Seven and a Half (published by Allen & Unwin, November 2021) by Melbourne based Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, reminds me a little of the concept of the Metaverse. In short, an array of technologies, many that are currently still in some form of development, will allow us to live in one world while we inhabit another, or maybe even several, as the case may be.

You could be in Sydney, but sitting in on a meeting of colleagues in London, and feel like you were in the same room. Later you could be “present” at a concert in Los Angeles, again feeling as if you were really there. But back to Seven and a Half. An author has travelled to a small coastal Australian town. Free of the distractions of city life, he begins to write. His novel is about an author trying to write a novel. Here we have meta-fiction, rather than Metaverse though.

The protagonist of Tsiolkas’ “written-author” story is a retired porn star named Paul, who has been offered a chance to make a comeback. The “written-author” seeks to write sensual prose, drawing on the author’s present proximity to nature and the ocean, without becoming sordid. A challenge perhaps, as Paul becomes immersed in the dubious merits of the world he is returning to.

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Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, book cover

Not that it’s my intention to traumatise you with the workings of my subconscious, but the premise to Piranesi (published by Bloomsbury Publishing, August 2021), by British author Susanna Clarke sounds like the sort of dream I might have. The setting is an old, dilapidated multi-level building, and is home to the titular protagonist known as Piranesi, who refers to the enigmatic structure as the “House.”

And dream-like is the best way to describe the dwelling. An ocean floods the lower levels of this labyrinth, providing food and fuel – in the form of seaweed – for Piranesi. The sprawling hallways of the house’s mid-section stories are lined with statues, while the upper floors are shrouded in clouds. Save for an old scholar, whom Piranesi calls the “Other”, who makes brief appearances a few times a week, the building is otherwise deserted.

But one day Piranesi begins to notice messages chalked onto walkways around the House. Do they point to the presence of a third person within the building? The Other sees them a portent of bad things to come. In order to discover the identity of this mysterious third person, and what they want, Piranesi will need to learn more about the House and its history.

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The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich

The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich, book cover

The Sentence (published by Hachette Australia, November 2021), written by Minnesota based American author Louise Erdrich, is a book set in a bookshop. A bookshop with a difference though. The independent bookshop, also located in Minnesota, is haunted by a ghost. And not any old ghost either. No, the shop has become the afterlife abode of Flora, who happened to be the store’s most irritating customer during her (regular) lifetime.

Now she’s back, and back to stay, unless a way can be found to get rid of her. To this shop comes Tookie, a new employee, who’s recently been released from prison after serving a ten year sentence. She’s looking for stability and normality in her life, and has even gone so far as to marry, Pollux, the now former police officer who originally arrested her many years earlier.

Set during a turbulent chapter in the city’s recent history, with Black Lives Matter protests, and the Covid pandemic, Tookie learns she has one year to somehow extricate Flora from the shop. But Tookie has her work cut out for her. The intentions of Flora, who must have a few scores she wants to settle, soon move from the annoying to the sinister…

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The Deep, by Kyle Perry

The Deep, by Kyle Perry, book cover

A rugged coastline. A treacherous, turbulent, ocean. An air current so deadly locals call it the black wind. A remote village, home to the Dempsey family for generations. A family who has a made a name and livelihood for themselves as fishers and drug dealers. And then there are the names. Mackerel. Ahab. Blackbeard. It’s a nautical blend of ingredients indeed.

Such is the setting for The Deep (published by Penguin Books Australia, July 2021) the second novel of Burnie, Tasmania, based Australian writer Kyle Perry. But the inhabitants of Shacktown, on the Tasman Peninsula, wake to a troubling mystery one day. A young relative of the Dempsey’s, Forest, who disappeared seven years earlier, aged six, and long assumed to be dead, along with his parents, Jesse and Alexandra, has inexplicably appeared on a nearby beach.

A cross tattooed onto Forest’s back suggests he has been in the captive custody of Blackbeard, a rival drug lord who is intent on muscling into the illicit Dempsey family operation. But Mackerel and Ahab are reluctant to help the family deal with Blackbeard. Mackerel is on prison release, and any misstep will see him incarcerated again, while Ahab wants to turn his back on the family’s shady business ventures…

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Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr, book cover

Sometimes I find the synopsis of a book so intriguing I feel compelled to write about it for that reason alone. Cloud Cuckoo Land (published by Simon & Schuster, 2021), written by American author Anthony Doerr, is such a novel. The first point of interest are the settings. Constantinople, now Istanbul, in past times the capital of several large empires, is one.

Here a teenage girl called Anna lives, in the lead up to the fateful 1453 siege of the city, and final remnant of the Byzantine Empire. In her spare time, she reads a book, the story of Aethon, a man who yearned to become a bird, so he could fly to a better place. The next setting is five hundred years later, in Idaho, where Zona, a woman in her eighties, is preparing a group of children to take part in a play based on Aethon’s story. The final setting is somewhere in interstellar space, where Konstance, a resident born on a generational colony ship, is transcribing the story of Aethon, after he father recited it to her.

And here we come to the second point of interest, an ancient story that links people living centuries apart, people keeping – in their own way – Aethon and his story alive, many centuries after its original telling. While the nature of the story appeals to me, like any book, it’s not for everyone, if the comments of some GoodReads members are anything to go by.

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Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu

Interior Chinatown, by Charles Yu, book cover

Willis Wu imagines he is an extra in a TV crime show. But he aspires to be more than an insignificant figure lurking in the background, he has his eye on a lead role. Kung Fu Guy would be ideal, but he can’t seem to break out of the part he has become typecast in, that of Generic Asian Man. Is it possible his Taiwanese Chinese ancestry is working against him?

The TV show, named Black and White – the lead characters are police officers, one is black, the other white – plays out in a restaurant called Golden Palace, located in the Chinatown of an American city. It might be though Willis is actually a restaurant worker who imagines he is part of a TV show. But in Interior Chinatown (published by Allen & Unwin, January 2021), the fourth novel by American author Charles Yu, the distinction isn’t really relevant.

Behind the screenplay, or the would-be cop-show, is a story of immigration and assimilation. Of people who leave their homeland and relocate to a new country. A place where their appearance, and the language they speak, may set them apart. See them sometimes relegated to the fringes of society. This may not be a TV show many of us want to be cast in…

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The Quiet at the End of the World, by Lauren James

The Quiet at the End of the World, by Lauren James, book cover

The title of The Quiet at the End of the World brings to mind the line here at the quiet limit of the world, from a poem called Tithonus, written by Alfred Tennyson in the nineteenth century. In my mind the words take me to any deserted stretch of coast bordering the Mediterranean, and carefree summers spent ambling around Europe.

Tennyson’s verse, on the other hand, is about an immortal man yearning for death. Go figure. Needless to say, I decided to learn more about The Quiet at the End of the World (published by Walker Books, March 2019), by British author Lauren James, before choosing an inclination inspired by the book’s poetic title. That turned out to be a good idea. A devastating virus has rendered the population of the planet infertile, and Lowrie and Shen are the last remaining teenagers in the world. They live with a small group of elderly survivors from across the globe congregating in London.

Aside from the fact humanity faces an inevitable extinction, Lowrie and Shen lead exceedingly comfortable lives. But that all changes one day, when a new mystery disease begins striking down the older people around them. The teenagers need to figure out what is happening, and find a way to save the remaining residents of their community, before there they are the only humans left on Earth.

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Deep Wheel Orcadia, by Harry Josephine Giles

Deep Wheel Orcadia, by Harry Josephine Giles, book cover

Deep Wheel Orcadia (published by Pan Macmillan, October 2021), written by Leith based Scottish writer and performer Harry Josephine Giles, is a science fiction story with a difference. For one, it is written in the Orkney language, and is said to be the first full-length book published in the dialect in fifty years. And then there’s the poetic verse with which the story is told.

The setting is a space station called Deep Wheel Orcadia. The station has seen better days, but it continues to function, as it trundles its way through space. To Deep Wheel comes Astrid. She’s an art student on her way home, having recently finished schooling on Mars. She’s also searching for inspiration, but is a space station, somewhere in the interstellar voids, the place to be looking?

But it is here Astrid meets Darling. Darling cannot find acceptance, and is looking for somewhere to hide. Perhaps Deep Wheel is the perfect place for her to be? Deep Wheel Orcadia, with its poems written in Orkney, and translated into English lower down the page, has the makings of an incredible story. I’m also intrigued by the enigmatic space station. I’d like to visit. Anyone know how I might get there?

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Love Stories, by Trent Dalton

Love Stories, by Trent Dalton, book cover

Don’t we all love a great love story? Especially when it’s ours? (I walked into a bar one night. That was lucky because I hardly ever walk into bars…) But walking is what Brisbane based Australian journalist and novelist Trent Dalton did as well. He walked the streets of Adelaide and Brisbane, looking for stories: stories of love.

He’d set up a portable table somewhere, place an old typewriter – left to him by the late mother of a friend – on it, and then stop passers-by to ask them to tell him a story. Maybe you saw him. Did he ask you to tell your story? Would you, if he’d asked? Of all the things you could ask a total stranger at random, I get the feeling it’s a question a lot of people would be happy to answer. Because who doesn’t like telling a story of love? The fruits of this labour, which sometimes saw Dalton at his mobile workstation for eight hours a day, is Love Stories (published by HarperCollins, 27 October 2021).

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I could only imagine how wondrous, raw, inspiring, and even heartbreaking this collection of stories is. Dalton was recently a guest on Words and Nerds, a podcast show hosted by Dani Vee, where he talked about Love Stories, and what prompted him to write the book. It’s a heart-warming discussion well worth listening to.

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