Book review: The Final Confessions of Mabel Stark by Robert Hough

I’ve always held a fascination for the circus. I wanted to run away to one when I was a kid – it was a toss up between becoming a trick rider or a lion tamer. When I joined a circus as a young adult I became an acrobat for a time and it was a lot of fun. Needless to say when I saw The Final Confessions of Mabel Stark by journalist Robert Hough, I HAD to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed.

If I stop to describe exactly how scared I was every time something scary happens, we’ll be here for the next ten years. So do me a favour. At parts like this imagine how you’d’ve felt, and we’ll both do fine.

Hough scoured the archives for information about Stark and built a fictional story around the facts he discovered, draughting a novel that serves as a fictional suicide note.

There ain’t a problem on this great green earth helped by feeling sorry for yourself.

Born Mary Haynie, we meet Stark when she was a nurse in Louisville. She soon found herself on the other side of the ward after being institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital for rebelling against her husband (as was common in the day). After a psychiatrist got a crush on her and and helped her escape, she fled to Tennessee and became Little Egypt, a belly dancer with the Great Parker Carnival. She was rescued from dancing by circus owner AL G. Barnes at 23 and learnt to work with tigers from the shows animal trainer who fell for her. The story follows Mabel’s rise to fame with her Bengal tiger Rajah who she raises from a cub.

We all have our battle scars, Kentucky. The ones who wear them on the outside are just a little more honest about it, that’s all.

Mabel was one of the most famous tiger trainers in history, doing manoeuvres that no one thought possible. She was the finale act during the heyday of the Ringling brothers circus in the 1920s and 30s, then committed suicide after being forcibly retired as she was turning 80 in 1968.

The character of Mabel is straight talking, sassy and opinionated about life, tigers and her many husbands. Her brutally honest confessions told with a wry sense of humour are compelling, as is her determination and survival instinct. It’s a rip roaring tale and I’m sure you’ll enjoy the ride if you get on board.

Book Review: The Truth About Her by Jacqueline Maley

The Truth About Her written by journalist Jacqueline Maley is a story about a key moral dilemma for journalists – who owns the truth and who gets to tell a person’s story. The novel brings to life every journalists worst nightmare – when then penning and publishing of a story has the worst possible of consequences.

Wellness blogger and influencer Tracey Doran takes her own life after being exposed as a fraud. Journalist and single mother Suzy Hamilton finds out about Doran on her way to work, it was her investigative expose that exposed the influencer. Doran is horrified by the news and tries to bury herself in work, looking after her daughter, and having affairs as a distraction. The last distraction results in her losing her job, and her lovers.

The summer after I wrote the story that killed Tracey Doran, I had just stopped sleeping with two very different men, following involvement in what some people on the internet called a ‘sex scandal’, although when it was described that way it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that happened to me.

Suzy starts to receive anonymous letters and is pursued by Doran’s mother who wants her to write a feel good biography about her daughter as a kind of retribution. The two women start to meet regularly so the journalist can write a different story about Tracey. Like the slow peeling of an onion, the exercise gradually reveals the real truth about how the lives of the three women became entwined and what really happened to Tracey.

The Truth About Her is a contemporary novel with a well-drawn flawed protagonist who deftly explores themes about shame, guilt, female anger, and mothering.

Book review: Em and Me by Beth Morrey

Em and Me by Beth Morrey is a story about poverty, hope, second chances, and learning to back yourself.

Delphine Jones and her daughter Emily share a bedroom in the cramped basement flat where they live with Delphine’s father. He has been depressed since Delphine’s mother died in a tragic accident and now just sits in front of the TV all day.

That’s what life turns on, isn’t it? The choices and moments that change everything

A promising student with a love of literature and destined for an Oxford University as a teenager, Delphine’s life changed after her mother died and then she fell pregnant at seventeen before finishing high school. Her university ambitions had to be abandoned to care for her baby and her father. Now she lives hand to mouth working part time cleaning and waitressing.

We meet mother and daughter when Emily is on the cusp of her teenage years. Emily is smart as a whip and Delphine wants her to have a better life. One day Delphine takes a stand for herself and we follow her on a journey to taking her place in the world and realising her own ambitions through a series of opportunities, setbacks, and second chances.

At some point, while I had been trying to turn my life around, often making a mess of it, my dad had been enjoying his own quiet renaissance – a gentle progression towards the light, nudging his strings, semitone by semitone, along with me. I felt tears rise up, threatening to overcome me as I looked at him, standing there so proudly. Forgetting Adam, and Dylan, Letty, and my own guilt about Em, I sat down at the piano, and began to pick out a tune, softly, Dad humming along, his hand on my shoulder.

A light fun read with characters that are well-drawn and interesting. Em and Me is a heartwarming, optimistic feel-good domestic fiction tale about triumph over adversity.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.

Iceland’s last public execution took place in 1829 when a man and a woman were beheaded for a murder that took place on a remote farm. The woman was detained on a farm over winter whilst she awaited her execution as there were no jails. Hannah Kent’s meticulously researched award winning novel, Burial Rites, imagines that woman story.

She made mistakes and others made up their minds about her. People around here don’t let you forget your misdeeds. They think them the only things worth writing down.

The harsh Icelandic setting of the novel amplifies the brutal reality of class and peasant life of the time. Whilst interned on the farm of Margret, Jon and their two daughters, with a year to live, Agnes reflects on her life leading up to the murder. Her presence creates tensions in the family obliged to keep her, and suspicion in the local rural community. Priest in training, Reverend Tóti, there to help Agnes come to terms with her fate is the device that helps unravel Agnes’s story, maintain peace in the family and develop their relationship with the condemned woman.

Up in the highlands blizzards howl like the widows of fishermen and the wind blisters the skin off your face. Winter comes like a punch in the dark. The uninhabited places are as cruel as any executioner.

Kent has conjured up a voice from the margins in Agnes, a whip smart, dirt poor peasant girl – a combination that set her up for trouble in the times when intelligent outspoken women were cause for grave concern. It was these qualities that drew the attention of freethinker Naan Ketilsson whom she was subsequently accused of murdering. She is only a whisper away from being called a witch.

They see I’ve got a head on my shoulders, and believe a thinking woman cannot be trusted.

The language and voice in the book are striking and amplify the gothic feel of the story through its analogies and painterly descriptors. Burial rites is gothic romance with the feel of an Icelandic saga that deals with ordinary people living in extreme conditions. A remarkable, dark debut novel by Hannah Kent who went on to write The Good People and Devotion.

“He lay back down on the snow. “What’s the name for the space between stars?” “No such name.” “Make one up.” I thought about it. “The soul asylum.”

Book review: Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi

Peaces is a novel worthy of more than one visit. The story is set on a train, a character itself, intense spaces and fleeting glances – carriages in which the laws of physics have been suspended – a portrait gallery, a postal sorting office, a sauna and holding cell, a library with a brocade fainting couch, a glass panelled greenhouse car. The train is called Lucky Day and used to be a tea smuggling train, with dodgy connections to the East India company.

Even though, as I told you, it was an empty room, some of the compositions I played got a better reception than others.

Otto and Xavier Shin are lovers – a mesmerist and a ghostwriter. Otto has a jewel-hoarding mongoose called Arpad the 30th that has, along with some of his predecessors, been Otto’s companion since being acquired to protect him from venomous snakes as a child. Arpad accompanies them on the Lucky Day because mongooses should travel before they hit middle age, otherwise they get narrow-minded.

Xavier’s aunt gifts them a journey on the Lucky Day as a ‘non-honeymoon, honeymoon’ trip. There are only three other passengers on the train. A composer-train driver, a debt control officer, and the trains mysterious owner virtuosos Ava Kapoor. Or are there?

I’m sure almost no one deludes themselves that all their ancestors were decent. Pick a vein, any vein: mud mixed with lightning flows through, an unruly fusion of bad blood and good

In my first turn through this shapeshifting tale, I surrendered to it’s exuberance, revelled in its creative joy and shapeshifting whimsy. If literature were a magic mushroom trip – this would be it.

I was so taken by it, I took a second turn to try and piece together its mysterious puzzle, to orient myself in its pages, draw together the disparate times and memories, backstories and symbolism to find the common thread.

You run the romantic gauntlet for decades without knowing who exactly it is you’re giving and taking such a battering in order to reach. You run the gauntlet without knowing whether the person whose favour you seek will even be there once you somehow put that path strewn with sensory confetti and emotional gore behind you. And then, by some stroke of fortune, the gauntlet concludes, the person does exist after all, and you become that perpetually astonished lover from so many of the songs you used to find endlessly disingenuous.

Hidden in the quirk are whispers of the the effects of the legacy of the British Empire, old money and old cruelties, themes of connection, of desire and wanting, of feeling unseen and wanting to be seen. But the shunt and sway of the carriages and fleeting glimpses soon threw me off again so I was never quite sure what I saw – like the paintings by the artist on shapeshifting canvases and the man who may, or may not have leapt off the moving train.

Perhaps I will need to take the trip a third time…

Book review: The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison by Meredith Jaffe

The Backtackers gather daily for a sewing circle with Jane who teaches them to embroider. But the Backtackers are no ordinary group, they are a motley crew of criminals at Yarrandarrah prison.

Derek, who is in for embezzlement, and estranged from his wife and daughter wants to show his daughter how much he loves her and decides he will make her wedding dress. His fellow inmates agree to help him with the job – they want to create something spectacular, but don’t always agree on what that means.

There’s a hierarchy among the long-term residents in this joint, determined by the blend of time and crime. Men like Jack and the Doc are kingpins. Even Parker earns more respect because he put a hole in another man’s chest. If the new kids knew that, they would be so quick to call him names. But Derek? Stealing money to chuck down a poker machine’s gullet isn’t a crime, it’s pathetic.

Inspired by the real story of Fine Cell Work, The Dressmakers of Yarrandarrah Prison is a funny, dark and moving story about friendship and redemption. It is both a heartbreaking and heart-warming reflection on life on the inside and the lives of the prisoners loved ones on the outside.

I found the image of big burly criminals sewing delicate items very original. It created a great juxtaposition to the outbursts of violence that erupted during the novel.

Interestingly the story is written in present tense omniscient narration, which you don’t see very often these days. It made me feel like a constant fly on the wall (or all the walls) and provided a good perspective for dramatic irony.

Book review: Terms of Restitution by Denzil Meyrick

Ferocious gang wars in Paisley and Glasgow are the subject of Denzil Metrick’s Terms of Restitution.

Sometimes it’s better to go, to leave things behind. Often that is the only way to find yourself, to find salvation.

Gangland boss Zander Finn has been laying low in London on the advice of his priest after his son I brutally murdered. When his friend asks him to return to help deal with the threat of Albanian mobsters trying to take over the Scottish underworld, he returns.

It was a warm, gin-clear July day.

What unfolds is a fast paced, brutal tale of survival and misplaced loyalties. Despite the body count and violence, Metrick threads a human story about relationships and friendship with fully formed characters and humour through the novel. From Father Giordano, Zanders lifetime friend and confidant, to Zander’s mother Maggie, the family matriarch who likes to offer the family comfort food of egg, chips and beans – and now she uses vegetable oil, not lard.

Well, its a bastard when you get old. They lifts stink of piss, and there’s all sorts cloaking about. Some shite tried to steal your Auntie Gwen’s purse the last time she came to visit me.

Book review: Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta

I listened to Indigenous author and academic Tyson Yunkaporta’s non-fiction book Sand Talk whilst pottering around the garden and was blown away by its beauty. If you decide to investigate it, I recommend getting hold of the audio book read by the author as I felt the oral history of Aboriginal people, made listening to his yarn more powerful.

We don’t have a word for non-linear in our languages because nobody would consider travelling, thinking or talking in a straight path in the first place. The winding path is just how a path is, and therefore it needs no name.

In Sand Talk, Yunkaporta reflects on global systems from an Indigenous Knowledge perspective. He shares an outlook on natural systems that is complex and non-linear. It rejects the western notion of reducing Indigenous Knowledge down to a series of symbols and codes, and asserts that the complexity of Indigenous Knowledge makes it fit for the challenge of wicked problems like sustainability and climate change.

An Indigenous person is a member of a community retaining memories of life lived sustainably on a land base, as part of that land base.

The title of the work is a reference to the way that Aboriginal cultures transmit knowledge – by drawing on the ground – which enables communication of more meaning than simple words. Yunkaporta talks about relations between individuals and groups of individuals using two terms. He refers to himself and the reader as ‘us-two’, like a kinship pair and encourages the reader to form ‘us-two’ pairings throughout our lives in order to work together successfully. ‘Us-exclusive’ refers to just us, not them, in the context of exclusive groups, but they also need to work together in ‘us-all’ pairings.

If people are laughing, they are learning. True learning is a joy because it is an act of creation.

Each chapter of Sand Talk is a series of thought experiments represented by the carving of a traditional object captured pictorially. In other words he carves everything he writes to preserve the oral cultural orientation of this thoughts. He calls this method of adapting oral culture processes into the written word ‘umpan’. The entire book is represented by a large boomerang which features on the cover. Each carved object is memory inspired and contains within it a wealth of meaning and story.

Our knowledge endures because everybody carries a part of it, no matter how fragmentary. If you want to see the pattern of creation, you talk to everybody and listen carefully.

Sand Talk is a melding of Yunkaporta’s professional, academic, personal and community influences, which itself is representative of on of the works central premises – that knowledge is co-created.

Guilt is like any other energy: you can’t accumulate it or keep it because it makes you sick and disrupts the system you live in – you have to let it go. Face the truth, make amends and let it go.

Aside for an opportunity to hear one Aboriginal man’s story and learn about his attempt to document aboriginal ways of thinking and how this can be applied to our most complex challenge of global warming. Sand Talk is also a beautiful work of literature to listen to that encourages the reader/listener to see the world differently.

Book review: Room by Emma Donoghue

The thing that struck me most about Room was Emma Donoghue’s exceptional ability to maintain the voice of a five year old for an entire novel. Jack has spent his five years in the 12 foot square room he was born in. His Ma has been in the room for two years more after being abducted at nineteen. Ma has spent Jack’s life keeping him entertained and protecting him from their captor. Jack brings their tiny world to life. Each element – Rug, Spoon, Wardrobe, Bed and TV are characters. Room is real, TV world is outside – a place they cannot go. They exercise, tell stories, sing, eat and make up games and poems in the confines of Room.

Outside has everything. Whenever I think of a thing now like skis or fireworks or islands or elevators or yo-yos, I have to remember they’re real, they’re actually happening in Outside all together. It makes my head tired. And people too, firefighters teachers burglars babies saints soccer players and all sorts, they’re all really in Outside. I’m not there, though, me and Ma, we’re the only ones not there. Are we still real?

When their captor comes to Room, Jack has to go in Wardrobe as his Ma doesn’t want the man to see him. Ma has days when she does not get out of bed, it ‘gone’ with a blank stare and Jack just sits or watches TV.

Jack. He’d never give us a phone, or a window. “Ma takes my thumbs and squeezes them. “We are people in a book, and he wont let anybody else read it.

The time comes, half way through the novel, when Ma senses imminent danger and decides they need to escape. She hatches an elaborate plan to get Jack out. He succeeds. Both characters are heroic. Their captor is caught and Ma is freed. The story then moves to ‘Outside’, to explore Jacks confusion by the wider world and their adjustment to it.

Scared is what you’re feeling. Brave is what you’re doing

The point of view limited by the narrators maturity and the constraints of Room contain the story in a way that keeps the reader in a state of unease. Room is a gripping, disturbing, claustrophobic, yet hopeful read. The story a delivers an unique perspective – on love, psychology, politics, sociology, and how we life our lives.

I’ve seen the world and I’m tired now.

Book Review: The Hideout by Camilla Grebe

The Hideout by Swedish noir and crime fiction writer Camilla Grebe is an intense, twisted and gripping story about crime, religion, parenting and death.

Manfred Olson young daughter is in a coma after a fall. When he is called in to investigate the death of a young man whose body washes up on a beach, his attention is divided between his job and wanting to be at his daughters bedside. When a second body is found wrapped in sheets and chains, his search intensifies.

It’s only afterwards that all the trivialities of a life grow, develop teeth and chase you through the night.

Eighteen year old Samual has to leave town in a hurry after getting caught up with a brutal drug ring when a deal goes wrong. He runs to a sleepy coastal town and finds a job working for Rachel as a live in care assistant to her disabled son Jonas. As Samual’s attraction for Rachel grows, his safety becomes more precarious.

It took me exactly ten days to fuck up my life.

This Scandanavian thriller is slow moving and atmospheric. The two separate plot lines of Manfred and Samual gradually converge with lots of red herrings to keep the reader on their toes and make you squirm.