Book review: Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Kerry Salter’s girlfriend is in jail and her pop is dying, so she leaves Brisbane and her arrest warrants behind and heads south on a stolen Harley to her hometown of Durrongo – a place she’s been avoiding.

Thing is, you run now, after last night, and it’ll haunt you forever. You can go as far away as you like, but the past always comes along for the ride.

Too Much Lip is Goorie author Melissa Lucashenko’s seventh novel. Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award and the Stella Prize and winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Award, it is a dark, funny story about family, home, country, intergenerational trauma, evil property developers, talking animals, life and death.

Kerry knew from long experience that there was no winning an argument with her mother. To Pretty Mary she was and always would be the Great Abandoner. Shame enough to turn out a dyke, but her far greater sin was the empty hole she’d left behind her in the family. Even in the terrible dark shadow cast by Donna’s disappearance, Kerry had still up and left to live among whitefellas and city people. Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, blah blah de-fucken-blah.

Bundjalung language words are peppered through a narrative that exposes the impacts of the history of colonisation and dispossession on Australian Aboriginal people. Lucashenko’s voice in the novel is unique and effectively echoes the voices of Australian aboriginal people I have known. I have never read a novel like it – which primarily tells me that there are far too few Indigenous voices in literature.

Kerry looked around the deserted road.

‘Yugam baugal jang! Buiyala galli! Yugam yan moogle Goorie Brisbanyu? You could help instead of sitting up there like a mug liar from the city.

Kerry looked around again. The waark hopped up and down in rage.

Then the second crow chimed in, dripping scorn.

It’s no good to ya, fang face. Can’t talk lingo! Can’t even find its way home! Turned right at the Cal River when it shoulda kept going straight. It’s as moggle as you look.’

On being awarded the Miles Franklin some critics claimed Too Much Lip to be undeserving as Lucashenko’s voice was not ‘literary’. My reading of that criticism is that those critics are pompous, entitled gits – probably in need of empathy training – and most likely educated in posh private schools with little experience of diversity and no understanding or appreciation of its value.

For a moment Kerry thought her mother was talking about killing the old man. Putting him down gently. Her second thought, hard on the heels of the first, was: just as well Ken’s drug of choice isn’t morphine. If the hospital had prescribed malt whisky to ease Pop’s last days they would have been in trouble.

The Salter family are gritty representations of people living in poverty and battling with day-to-day existence in all its joys, sorrows, and frustrations. Their education is primarily in their own culture, and in survival – not academia and privilege. They are flawed, funny survivours who love and hurt the people they care about, and go through life trying to make the best of it.

Into the river that was about to be stolen away again, as it always had been since Captain James Nunne Esq. first rode up with his troopers, one two three, crying I’ll have that, and that, oh, and that too, while I’m at it.

Too Much Lip is a political novel, which perhaps makes it confronting and challenging for some white Australians to read, but we all should read it because within its pages there is opportunity for greater understanding, and that might help lift our humanity above our turned-up wanker noses.

I’ll definitely be adding more of Lucashenko’s work to my reading list.

Candice Fox, The Chase cover image

Book review: The Chase by Candice Fox

Candice Fox, all-around good guy, champion of emerging writers, writer of creepy thrillers. I’ve been a fan of Candice Fox since reading her first novel, Hades. Her crime novels are fast-paced and brimming with big bold characters doing outrageous things. She takes us to the limits of believability and holds us there, peering over the cliff face.

The Chase is set in the USA and I suspect Americans are the primary audience for the novel, though perhaps American culture simply allows Candice to take things a step further.

Every year Proghorn Correctional Facility had a Christmas softball game between the wardens and the inmates.

The warden’s families come on a bus through the Nevada desert to make a day of it. This year they are held hostage under the gaze of a sniper in order to free the entire prison population, some of the most dangerous in the country. The incident prompts the biggest manhunt in history. The novel takes the reader on a journey with some of them.

Celine Osbourne is in charge of the death row prisoners. She takes her job, and the break out very seriously. She’s also obsessed with one prisoner in particular and makes it her mission to track down and capture John Kradle.

She pinched the tobacco between her thumb and forefinger, flicked out the rolling paper with a touch more flair than she probably needed to, and laid the little caterpillar of brown fibres down in its thin, dry bed. Three boys, all cousins of hers, crowded in to watch her lick and roll the cigarette. Celine put the smoke to her lips and lit up. Their eyes were big and wild with excitement. It was a thrilling display on many levels. They were all farm kids, and lighting a match for any reason in a barn full of hay was like flipping the bird to Jesus Christ.

John Kradle had been on death row for five years after being found guilty of murdering his family.

He didn’t believe in all the ghost stuff. But he showed up anyway. He figured that was what you did when you loved someone. You nodded and laughed and chipped in with a ‘She’s right, you know. I’ve seen it!’ occasionally.

The breakout is Kradle’s one chance to set the record straight, prove his innocence. Trouble is, a serial killer and Celine are on his tail.

Kradle put his hands on the table, stared at them, and felt a wave of relief roll over him. A part of him had known, in all the years that Christine had been missing, that she had left simply because she was broken. That even if an explanation ever came, it wouldn’t be rational or healing to him.

I could feel the heat of the desert, the desperation, rage and grief of the characters as the complexity of their inner worlds drove their choices – good and bad. The Chase kept me turning the pages and sneaking moments in my day to keep reading. And how lovely to get to the end of find that Candice has dedicated the book to those of us unpublished writers who keep plugging away, hoping that our work will one day find a home.

I have dedicated this book to all aspiring authors. It’s not an easy road. Waiting. Trying. Daydreaming. Being rejected. Having your hopes destroyed and trying to rebuild them. It’s lonely, frustrating, and tedious. But whatever you do, my advice is never to let it become hopeless. Only you have control over that.

Book review: That Old Country Music by Kevin Barry

Who doesn’t love an Irish accent?

That Old Country Music is a collection of eleven beautifully written short stories by Kevin Barry. The book is his second volume of short stories and he has also written three novels.

The strongest impulse she had was not towards love but towards that old burning loneliness, and she knew by nature the old tune’s circle and turn – it’s the way the wound wants the knife wants the wound wants the knife.

In the first story a lonely man develops a crush on a Polish waitress at his local cafe and is unprepared for its impact; in another a young Roma girl runs away from a tormented life and finds herself in the care of a kindly old hermit; a writer inherits a cottage from an uncle and finds that his new life transforms him into a ladies man; a vagrant crouches by a dog at the edge of a town and observes people around him whilst he talks to the dog.

He had the misfortune in life to be fastidious and to own a delicacy of feeling. He drank wine rather than beer and favored French films. Such an oddity this made him in the district that he might as well have had three heads up on Dromord Hill.

The prose is lyrical and poetic with a wild humour that explores love, lust, loneliness, desire and doom in the wilds of western Ireland. Barry develops the characters quickly, infusing them with yearning and longing, set against a backdrop of rich descriptions of the environment.

The hills displayed with arrogance the richest of autumn and glowed, and I walked in a state of almost blissful sadness.

I listened to That Old Country Music as an audio book narrated in a lilting brogue, sprinkled liberally with the F$@&k word, by Barry himself and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Book review: Traffic by Robin Gregory

Traffic is a contemporary crime fiction story set in Melbourne and is Robin Gregory’s debut novel.

Private Investigator, Sandi Kent’s ex-girlfriend hires her to scout out and plan the rescue of a sex slave from an inner-city brothel. Simultaneously a lawyer friend hires her to seek out angles to defend a Colombian immigrant charged with murdering another sex worker.

Sandi struggles with a sense of loneliness and finds it difficult to resist her manipulative ex-girlfriends advances, making it appear that she is helping Cassy out for all the wrong reasons. Sandi’s desires, and her deep empathy for the vulnerability of others, weaken her professional boundaries and she soon finds herself in much deeper than she ever intended to go.

Gregory explores difficult themes in Traffic but manages to do so with enough humour to make the story an easy read. Issues such as domestic violence, the underbelly of human trafficking, the sex trade, and drug trafficking are traversed against a backdrop of cosmopolitan Melbourne. The story sets a good pace and Gregory’s voice is quintessentially Australian. I found it to be an enjoyable and entertaining read despite the very serious themes embedded in the story.

Book review: Joan Smokes by Angela Meyer

Joan Smokes is a 68 page novella by Australian author Angela Meyer. Winner of the Mslexia Novella Award (2019), this story is a case of good things come in small packages.

She used to be someone else, but decided to become Joan after she arrived in Vegas, to start again, shut her past out. It’s the 60s and she decides Joan has dark hair, red lipstick and wears floral dresses. Joan is also a smoker, so she buys a packet of cigarettes.

Joan moves forward amongst the casinos and flashing neon, finds a job and meets new people.

She’d seen the Las Vegas  strip in a movie. It is just as technicolor in real life. The radio plays ‘Be My Baby’ by the Ronettes and she flicks it off because love songs are ice. The lights make sound in her eyes. On one sign: the soprano crescendo of pink. On another, a swooshing fan of green-blue.

Her mother always said one man is as good as another. She forgets about Jack, tries to let things go.

You will want to know what Joan is running from, why she is on the edge of a breakdown and why she thinks becoming someone else will make her believe it didn’t happen. A sophisticated and emotional read that will make you wish the story was longer.

Book review: You Again by Debra Jo Immergut

You Again is Edgar Award finalist (for The Captives) Debra Jo Immergut’s second novel about a middle aged woman haunted by herself. I don’t know about you, but if I think I saw my younger self I couldn’t resist the temptation to offer myself some frank and fearless advice about a thing or two.

Abigail Willard keeps meeting her younger self in her old haunts around New York. A talented painter who abandoned her art for marriage and parenthood and an ordinary day job, at first she wonders if she’s having a midlife crisis and hallucinating about her lost youth. Then, as it keeps happening, she wonders if she has some neurological or psychiatric condition and goes to see a shrink and to get brain scans.

Meanwhile she is also contending with her rebelious son and questioning her relationship with her husband.

Journal entries form the narrative as Abigail’s life unfolds and she wonders whether she should warn her younger self about what is going to happen. There are echoes of magical realism in the plot as the narrative takes you from inside Abigail’s head to a doctor who is trying to work out why her patient is having these strange experiences.

You Again combines psychological suspense and fantasy in a meditation on time, existence, consciousness, fate, love, ambition and regret.

Book review: The Survivors by Jane Harper

In The Survivors, Jane Harper takes us to an isolated small town on the Tasmanian coast riddled with a labyrinthe of dangerous caves that fill and empty with the tide. Getting trapped in there at high tide means certain death.

Evelyn Bay is a small, struggling, but close knit community, reliant on tourist visiting for whale watching and diving an old ship wreck in the bay. It has a pub and a police station that is about to be closed because not much happens.

Keiran Elliott left Evelyn Bay years ago, after his brother drowned at sea. He believes his was responsible for what happened to his brother and struggles guilt. He has returned with his wife and baby to visit his parents. Keiran’s father is suffering from early onset dementia and needs care so they are about to sell the family home and move because of this.

The Survivors, three statues commissioned in tribute to the 54 passengers and crew who died in a shipwreck a century earlier, stand as a mythic presence in the town. The waves lap at their feet, almost, but never completely consuming them at high tide. They are a constant reminder of the oceans ferocity, and auger when it is and is not safe to be on the beach.

Everyone knows everyone’s business. Towns people still grieve the losses of some of its members in the crashing waves during a terrible storm a decade earlier. When a second tragedy occurs – a young woman visiting during a break from university who is found dead on the beach – long buried secrets and grievances begin to emerge.

The police investigate the girls death while the townsfolk go wild with speculation on social media. Anger at a newcomer author who bought the house of the local landscaper’s grandmother, and ripped up the garden almost comes to blows in the pub. Animosity and guilt about who’s fault it was that three community members died in the storm all those years ago simmers near the surface, straining long held friendships.

The mystery unfolds as the characters grapple with grief, guilt and regrets that make some stronger, whilst others unravel. Another good read from Jane Harper.

Book review: The Mother Fault by Kate Mildenhall

One word to describe this dystopian novel – gripping. My heart was racing within the first few pages. I listened to it as an audiobook read by Claudia Carvan and turned it on compulsively in every spare minute till the end.

Near future climate changed world. People chipped like pets. One government, The Department controls everything. Mim’s husband goes missing. The Department warns her not to tell anyone, not to go anywhere, or risk her children being taken into care. She’s already told a journalist that Ben is missing in Indonesia.

The world shifted slowly, then so fast, while they watched but didn’t see. They weren’t stupid. Or even oppressed at the beginning. Let the record show that. There were no assassinations. No riots. The people invited the new government to take charge at the ballot box. The two parties had consumed themselves. Left the system wide open for a third option. Reasonable, populated by diverse public figures, backed by both big money and bid ideology. On a platform of innovative and economically viable responses to the climate emergency, a rehaul of the health, housing and disability schemes that would see the most vulnerable members of the community cared for, and a foreign policy that miraculously spoke to fear of the other and fluid borders ideal for capital in and capital out, the new party was humbly triumphant on election night. Simple, elegant. No need for finite portfolios and the bullshit of bureaucracy (their words, appealing to the everyday Australian). Centralised power was the answer. On Department for One Nation.

Mim decides to run. She goes to visit her family home in the country on the pretense of chasing work. The Department know where she is. They call and warns her to go home. Her friend removes the chips from her and her children’s palms, inserts them in some rats she releases into the bush, and Mim and the kids drive away. She soon discovers how serious The Department’s controls are when they visit her family and her friend has ‘an accident’. A house fire.

A strong but flawed female protagonist, protective of her children and desperate to find her husband. Somehow the strange COVID world we are living in now, with ever enhanced technology and increased government rules, makes the already plausible Gilead Esque world created by Mildenhall even easier to imagine into existence.

The narrator, Carvan, executes the audiobook with the skill you’d expect from a good actor. A compelling delivery that brings the characters to life by capturing their emotions and builds an exquisite tension throughout the story.

A brilliantly executed speculative fiction thriller.

Book review: Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh

Vesta Gul is an ageing widow who lives in a small cabin on a lake with her dog Charlie. She is a curiosity to the local townsfolk. Out walking in the woods one morning, Vesta finds a note on the ground held down with stones suggesting a woman called Magda has been killed.

Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body. But there was no body. No bloodstain. No tangle of hair caught on the coarse fallen branches, no red wool scarf damp with morning dew festooned across the bushes. There was just the note on the ground, rustling at my feet in the soft May wind. I happened upon it on my dawn walk through the birch woods with my dog, Charlie.

There is no body in sight so Vesta decides to become a sleuth and try to work out what happened to Magda. She begins to concoct Magda’s story by writing it down following instructions on how to write a good mystery. She develops characters with elaborate backstories and conspiracy theories inspired by red herrings. She talks to Charlie and reflects on what her dead husband, Walter might make of her antics.

Reading lots of mysteries is essential. That seemed like ridiculous advice. The last thing anyone should do is stuff her head full of other people’s ways of doing things. That would take all the fun out. Does one study children before copulating to produce one? Does one perform a thorough examination of others’ feces before rushing to the toilet? Does one go around asking people to recount their dreams before going to sleep? No. Composing a mystery was a creative endeavor, not some calculated procedure.

Vesta’s adventure both enthrals and frightens her as she develops a detailed backstories for Magda and all the other characters in her mystery. Walter berates her continually in her head as she goes, as he evidently did in life, and Vesta seems to get some satisfaction out of defying him.

An ax murderer wouldn’t be very quick on his feet, carrying an ax and all. Charlie’s warning would give me time enough to collect my coat and purse, even. I wasn’t worried that I would be hacked to death, fed to the wolves, even if there were wolves out there, which there weren’t. At least none that we’d ever seen. Nor bears. Though there were foxes. But the most they were known to do was break into people’s garbage and make a mess. They were no worse than skunks or raccoons or opossums. Still, I’d taken a butcher knife up to bed with me and had slid it under the mattress. Just in case. Because who knew? Who knew? … And that was what was keeping me awake—not knowing, and wanting to know.

In the absence of human company, Vesta’s imagination recasts her view of the real world. She buys a camouflage onesie online and sets booby traps around her home. The woman becomes more and more unhinged from reality as she attempts to solve the mystery of the note.

Death in Her Hands is the story of an ageing woman facing a life of emptiness who uses her imagination to escape from her solitude.

The book unfolds in long rambling paragraphs across only seven chapters. It is is Ottessa Moshfegh’s third novel (the others being Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation). Death in Her Hands is part mystery, part suspense, and part black comedy.

Book review: The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan

The Ruin is the first book in the Cormac Reilly series by Dervla McTieran. Published in 2018, it is a gritty, atmospheric page turning police procedural.

Rookie copy Cormac Reilly is called out to investigate a domestic in Galway, Ireland in 1993. He is greeted by an under-nourished 15 year old girl at a dilapidated house. Her mother is in bed, dead from an apparent heroin overdose, and she has her much younger brother in her care. Cormac takes the kids to a hospital were the girl disappears and it is revealed the boy has unexplained injuries all over his body.

By 2013, Cormac has risen through the ranks to become a member of an elite anti-terror squad in Dublin. He moves back to Galway to be with his biologist partner, Emma who gets a lucrative research gig there.

Aisling is an ambitious young doctor training to become a surgeon. She lives with her boyfriend Jack. When she discovers she is pregnant, the couple have an intense discussion about whether they should keep the baby. Jack goes out to get some air and clear his head. His body is discovered in the river the next day, and his death declared a suicide.

Jack’s sister Maude, who has been living in Australia for years, arrives back in Ireland and pursues the police to look further into Jack’s death. She does not believe it was suicide. When Aisling meets her she joins Maude in pursuing this line of enquiry. The police view the women as a nuisance.

Cormac finds himself an outsider back in Galway, and is relegated to reviewing cold-case investigations – including the 1993 death he attended as a rookie. It turns our Jack who was found in the river was the little boy Cormac took to the hospital.

Cormac, Aisling and Maude’s trajectories begin to intersect as issues including child abuse, addiction, abortion and corruption are explored.