Book review: Unforgiven by Sarah Barrie

Going dark this week. Unforgiven is about a child victim turned vigilante and is not for the faint hearted, but if you enjoy gritty thrillers, this could be for you.

Lexi works part time as an escort, and part time as a hacker pursuing and trapping paedophiles she finds on the dark web to help her sister Bailee who works in child protection. Lexi is tough, street wise and drinks a lot of whiskey.

Things take an unexpected turn when Lexi, after breaking into his house, witnesses the murder of a man she has been tracking. She then agrees to help the guys wife (neither of them did it) dispose of his body, so they don’t get blamed.

On the edge of oblivion, images drift through the fog of my mind and hold, refusing to let go. Last night. The very dreamy Jonathan Davies of the chiselled features, stunning baby blues and long, dark lashes. A tall, muscular powerhouse, precision toned and sculpted to be appreciated. So commanding, so sure of himself. The images form into a memory and I groan in resignation.

‘Shit’. I have to get up. His body is still in the boot.

Detective Rachael Langley knew Lexi from her childhood. Langley was responsible for putting Lexis abuser, the Spider, behind bars. The two women cross paths again when someone claiming to be the real Spider emerges, and the pressure is on to catch him.

There are some great characters in this novel, I particularly liked Dawny, Lexis older neighbour who has a shady past, but a good heart. The two become firm friends over a deep freezer.

Unforgiven is a tightly plotted, fast paced, thriller set on the NSW Central Coast. The narrative alternates between Lexi and Rachael’s points of view, and whilst it isn’t an easy read due to the content matter – Barrie covers some confronting topics – there is not gratuitous violence or gory detail.

Book review: The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller

One day unfolds at the same time as Elle Bishop’s life unfolds in the dual narrative novel The Paper Palace. Elle is at the family cabin at Cape Cod where she has spent every summer of her 50 odd years.

I wonder if he would love me if he could see inside my head, the pettiness, the dirty linen of my thoughts, the terrible things that I have done.

I was quite blown away and discomforted by this story. In the first chapter, I thought…saucy…when the main character recalled her secret sex in the dark against the wall of the cabin with her friend from childhood, Jonas, whilst their respective partners were inside talking and Elle’s mother washed the dinner dishes.

There are some swims you do regret, Eleanor. The problem is, you never know until you take them.

But as the story unfolds, interweaving a series of past and present decisive moments in Elle’s life, her frailty is exposed and it becomes apparent that many of her decisions have been driven by tragic events buried in denial, secrets and lies.

But it’s what we do, what we’ve done for years now. We drag our past behind us like a weight, still shackled, but far enough back that we never have to see, never have to openly acknowledge who we once were.

I found The Paper Palace to be a beautifully written, emotionally demanding read. From the beginning Elle’s life is a series of trials that explore themes including failing marriages, blended families, abuse, trauma, lost opportunities, infidelity, and the complexity of intimacy and betrayal. It is dark, heart wrenching and wistful.

Does letting go mean losing everything you have, or does it mean gaining everything you never had?

Book review: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo

I was so taken by Elizabeth Acevedo’s lyrical Clap When You Land that I sought out her debut verse novel, The Poet X.

I only know that learning to believe in the power of my own words has been the most freeing experience of my life. It has brought me the most light. And isn’t that what a poem is? A lantern glowing in the dark.

The Poet X is fifteen year old Dominican girl Xiomara’s diary. The story documents her experiences growing up in Harlem with conservative, religious parents, her transition into puberty, her rage, and her discovery of a love of poetry.

My parents probably wanted a girl who would sit in the pews wearing pretty florals and a soft smile. They got combat boots and a mouth silent until it’s sharp as an island machete.

Xiomara is a loud, large, ferocious, opinionated young woman who fights with her fists and struggles with her body, her religious upbringing and her relationship with the world. She exists in stark contrast to her gentle brother, Twin who is coming to terms with being gay. Her fiercely religious Mami presents challenges to both her children who don’t fit her mould.

My brother was born a soft whistle: quiet, barely stirring the air, a gentle sound. But I was born all the hurricane he needed to lift – and drop- those that hurt him to the ground.

Poet X is a story about ordinary life written in an extraordinary way – a bold, poetic, humorous, sensory delight.

Book review: Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

In Red, White and Royal Blue you will find out what happens when America’s first son falls in love with the Prince of Wales – it’s funny, romantic and sexy, with a good dose of awkwardness.

Straight people, he thinks, probably don’t spend this much time convincing themselves that they’re straight.

Charismatic Alex Claremont-Diaz is the son of the first female President of the US. He has a beef with his nemesis, Prince Henry and it’s proving to be a risk to US/British diplomacy. The young men’s parents and handlers hatch a plan to make them play nicely together.

‘You are’, he says, ‘the absolute worst idea I’ve ever had.’

At first they are all frenemies, but their attraction to one another soon becomes apparent when they find themselves locked in a broom cupboard together. Of course the world power’s leading men being gay presents a whole lot of other issues.

Love is like a fairy tale, it would come sweeping into your life on the back of a dragon one day.

Red, White and Royal Blue is a delightful, feel good, empowering love story with an imaginative premise. Highly recommend it.

Book review: None Shall Sleep by Ellie Marney

Australian author Ellie Marney’s YA thriller, None Shall Sleep, set in the US in the 80s is about serial killers and will keep you uncomfortably riveted to the end.

There are no monsters. Only people.

Teenagers Emma and Travis are engaged by the FBI Behavioural Science section to help them get a better understanding of what makes a young serial killer. They have been chosen because the young serial killers refuse to speak to adults and because they each have their own unique experiences with serial killers.

Emma was the sole survivor who escaped one serial killer and Travis’s father was murdered by another in the line of duty. Their job is to interview convicted juvenile killers, but when they are drawn into an active case targeting teenagers, everything starts to unravel.

Emma feels the fear in her chest like a raven tapping at a window. It’s too late for misgivings, though. The door is open. A large male orderly stands sentry, securing her passage to the place beyond sanity, and Emma steps inside…

The writing style in None Shall Sleep has a police procedural feel to it which makes the story easy to follow and particularly appealing if you’re a true crime buff.Marney’s writing gives the reader just enough information to set your imagination going and send a shiver up your spine, then leaves you to fill out the worst of the gory details using your vivid imagination. Emma and Travis grab the readers sympathies from the get go which adds to the tension as you worry they will fall foul of the mind games and manipulations of the serial killers and something terrible will happen to one of them. But you will have to read it to find out.

Book review: Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo

Clap When You Land is a stunning verse novel about two sisters. One lives in the Dominican Republic, the other in New York. Neither is aware of the others existence.

Camino and Yahaira have the same father. He has compartmentalised his two lives and two families, keeping the sisters existence a secret He spends his summers in the the Dominican Republic and the rest of the year in New York.

Fight until you can’t breathe, and if you have to forfeit, you forfeit smiling, make them think you let them win.

Camino goes to the airport to meet her Papi and finds a crowd of crying people rather than his plane. Yahaira is called to the principles office to be told her father has died in a plane crash. Papi’s secret begins to unravel, and as the plane sinks to the floor of the ocean the girls lives are irrevocably altered. Then they find out about one another’s existence.

How can you lose an entire person, only to gain a part of them back in someone entirely new?

Clap When You Land is told with a dual narrative drawing out the grief of the two sisters and the impact of their father’s death as their lives are drawn closer together. The prose is exquisite – especially to listen to as an audio book read by the author and Melania-Luisa Marte. Clap When You Land is a beautiful and compassionate exploration of family secrets, the effects of socio-economic differences and toxic masculinity.

Maybe anger is like a river. Maybe it crumbles everything around it. Maybe it hides so many skeletons beneath the rolling surface.

Highly recommended, I will definitely be seeking out more from this author.

Comedy review: Ned Kelly: the Big Gay Musical

There’s always been rumours about queer bushrangers. They say Captain Moonlite’s dying wish was to be buried beside fellow gang member, his beloved James Nesbitt. So despite the sensibilities of those who would deny it, queer has always been here, and Ned Kelly: the Big Gay Musical is testament to that view.

Written by Kaine, Ned Kelly: the Big Gay Musical is a drag king extravaganza about Australia’s most loved bushrangers. With an original score, live band The Glen Rowans (aka Apex Bloom – comprising Griffin McGookin, BJ Humphrey, Timothy O’Keefe) will get you jumping in your seats with its rocky tunes that start before you’ve even entered the theatre. This show is a fast paced, action packed, all singing, all dancing, gender bending re-imagining of the story of the Kelly gang, and it’s a hoot.

Part of Melbourne’s International Comedy Festival, this original show is written by Kaine, a music comedian from Ballarat. The venue is small, and the set simple, but the cast set the stage on fire. Monique Kerr (Dan), Sunny Youngsmith (Steve), Erin McIntosh (Joe) and Ellen Morning (Ned) deliver flawless performances as the Kelly gang with great energy and synergy. The fifth actor, Sian Dowler was a stand out, switching between multiple roles (the diary, bank teller, leprechaun, police officers and Queen Victoria).

I saw Ned Kelly: the Big Gay Musical last night and it was sold out, but I believe there are still tickets available for the final performances tonight and Sunday 23rd April. So, dust off your favourite sequinned boots or bushranger hat and get along to the Motley Bauhaus in Carlton for some unbridled fun. Find tickets here.

I can also recommend the Green Man’s Arms for dinner before the show.

Book Review: Lenny Marks Gets Away with Murder by Kerryn Mayne

Kerryn Mayne’s debut novel Lenny Marks Gets Away with Murder is a rollicking good read.

Thirty-seven year old Lenny Marks spends her days teaching at the local primary school and her evenings playing Scrabble with her imaginary housemate, watching reruns of Friends, or organising her thirty-six copies of The Hobbit.

Lenny tries not to think about the day her mum left. She likes order, routine, certainty and predictability, and uses anagrams to calm her anxieties and shut down uncomfortable thoughts. Her beloved foster-mum thinks she needs to expand and ‘get a life’.

She found tremendous peace in this level of organisation, which was as close to happiness as Lenny Marks ever planned to be. Happiness, she knew, was unstable and quite unreliable. And Lenny was neither of those things. Instead she lived for the contentment of a routine, which had served her quite well up to and into her thirty-seventh year.

A mysterious envelope addressed to Lenny from the Adult Parole Board is delivered to the school and despite her best efforts to ignore the problem, it won’t go away. Soon her world begins to unravel as Lenny starts to remember the long buried truth about her childhood.

It all revolves around her stepfather’s parting words, ‘You did this.’

No one would notice Lenny Mark’s absence in their life. She likened herself to the word on the tip of your tongue that you can’t quite recall. It’s there, only it won’t come to mind and it is of no consequence if it doesn’t. She was the reason you walked back into a room, thinking you’d forgotten something, only you didn’t remember what it was because it had never been that important. Lenny was a shadow.

The character of Lenny reminded me of Eleanor Oliphant or a young female more reticent Don Tillman (The Rosie Project) – forthright, earnest, intelligent but extremely awkward when it comes to personal relationships. Her story is one of darkness and light told with humour, suspense, and a few great twists.

Lenny Marks Gets Away with Murder is heartwarming and heartbreaking, a page-turning story about loss, grief, abandonment, coming to terms with our past, learning to trust and finding the friendships and life we deserve.

Book Review: A Case of Madness by Yvonne Knop

The thing that struck me first about A Case of Madness, debut novel by Yvonne Knop, was the voice of the protagonist and how it so perfectly reflected his personality, bringing the awkward, nerdy Andrew Thomas to life on the page.

For most of my teenage years, I questioned why I was so different from the others. Everyone else was colourful fruit salad, and I was the oatmeal.

Andrew Thomas, a Sherlock Holmes obsessed academic has just been fired. He is also going to die – whether from illness or his own hand is to be determined. Thomas is an old school conservative nerd by nature, but harbours a deep secret about his sexuality that he can’t even admit to his best friend Mina.

When asked to describe herself, she’s always quick to reply that she’s just like her favourite coffee: dark, bitter and too hot.

Free spirited, Pakistani Mina, whom Thomas describes as a ‘stray cat’ compared to himself as ‘a scared house cat,’ is the only person who can bring him out of his shell. Mina is his complimentary opposite, his personal Watson, his only real friend, with whom he shared a flat for a period following his divorce.

Thomas is a man so deep in the closet that he ‘turns into a plank’ when anyone touches him, drinks away his personal angst and can only admit his attractions to his imaginary friend, Sherlock Holmes – and even then it’s a struggle. That is until he meets the theatrical Matt after rescuing him from a homophobic attack in the street.

I had always run away from feelings, and the urge to just jump right out the bathroom window was overwhelming.

Sherlock, Thomas’s obsession comes to life via random appearances in which he cajoles Thomas, offering him unsolicited advice or insults in an attempt to help him ‘solve his case’.

I leaned back and looked at the ceiling. I was up against Sherlock Holmes cool intellect. I wish I’d made another fictional character my psychiatrist.

A Case of Madness is a story about coming out, coming into yourself, and the transformative power of love. There is some lovely magical realism scattered throughout this novel in the form of Thomas’s hallucinations, which are essentially his subconscious speaking to him to try and save him from himself. There are plenty of Sherlock references throughout, but you don’t have to be a Holmes fan to enjoy this sweet queer romcom.

Thanks to Yvonne for the ARC!

Theatre review: Pear-Shaped

Pear-shaped is a whimsical, funny and at times surreal show that explores the very serious issue of anorexia (trigger warning) and how it impacts families.

Culture, family tradition and sibling relationships take a front seat in this original work by playwrights Miranda Middleton and Ziggy Resnick. The script also draws on the story of Alice in Wonderland as metaphor.

Two sisters of Jewish heritage, played by Ziggy Resnick (Frankie) and Louisa Scrofani (Kayla), grow up in a close knit family with a mother who works relentlessly to support them and a grandmother who survived concentration camps and likes to feed people. When one of the sisters develops a psychological illness their relationship falters.

As Kayla struggles with anorexia, the family watch with horror. The mother works harder to try to hold the family together and pay medical bills whilst Ziggy who is trying to work on a show that is an interpretation of Alice in Wonderland becomes resentful at what she perceives as her Kayla’s deliberate insistence on losing weight because she believes she is fat. Her pleading and angry outbursts fall on deaf ears as Kayla remains trapped in her personal torment.

The performance slides between the past and present and slips into Alice in Wonderland with some fabulous moments of playful magical realism that provide both light relief from the sombre subject matter and help communicate it. Humorous puppetry and hand cameos are provided by Cameron Steen.

The young cast handles the difficult content and multiple characters well with fast paced direction to keep the narrative moving at pace. The show has great set design by Grace Deacon that adapts well to enable the beautiful moments of magical realism using the Alice tropes and Aaron Murray’s lighting effects.

Pear -Shaped is on at Theatreworks until 15th April. Find tickets here.

The Butterfly Foundation provides support for eating disorders and body image issues.