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.

Book review: The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

I listened to the audiobook of The Discomfort of Evening on my drive back to Melbourne from the Blue Mountains in NSW. The first thing that struck me was the amazing imagery Marieke Lucas Rijneveld uses in her debut novel. The second was that the word ‘discomfort’ in the title is understated. I was equally enthralled and disturbed by the novel.

It’s confusing, but grown-ups are often confusing because their heads work like a Tetris game and they have to arrange all their worries in the right place

Ten year old Jas wishes her brother Matthies would die instead of her rabbit. There are two reasons for this – she is not allowed to go ice-skating with him and thinks her dairy farming father has his eye on her pet rabbit for dinner. When her brother falls through the ice and dies, it sets up a massive internal conflict for Jas in an environment where the family is falling apart in the darkness of grief through a lens of devout faith. The unfolding drama is narrated by Jas and reported in an undramatic way, as if what is happening is ok, because she doesn’t know any better. This childlike interpretation adds to the unease for the reader/listener because it is so far from ok.

I don’t want to feel any sadness, I want action; something to pierce my days, like bursting a blister with a pin so that the pressure is eased

Each member of the remaining five in the family develop their own unique dysfunctional responses to the death of Matthies, the oldest son. Talking about his head is forbidden, having feelings is discouraged and everything is contextualised in oblique biblical interpretation.

I’m beginning to have more and more doubts about whether I find God nice enough to want to go and talk to Him. I’ve discovered that there are two ways of losing your belief: some people lose God when they find themselves; some people lose God when they lose themselves. I think I’ll belong to that second group.

The novel is told from the point of view of young Jas who is bewildered by the adult world and has developed distorted views due to the constraints of the families extreme religious beliefs. It is a book about grief, family disfunction, religion, and boundaries (or lack thereof) described in brutally vivid detail. Rijneveld’s writing is beautifully discomforting.

Book Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

Aleppo in Syria is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It is where this story begins. Nuri is a beekeeper who lived a peaceful life in Aleppo with his artist wife Afra and their son Sami until their lives were shattered by war. Sami is killed in a bomb blast whilst playing in the garden. The same blast renders Afra blind after seeing Sami die. Afra and Nuri remain in Aleppo longer than they should, not wanting to leave the memory of their young son. Eventually they are forced to go when it becomes apparent that Nuri’s life is at risk. The Beekeeper of Aleppo is the story of their journey fleeing through Turkey and Greece as they try to reach England where Nuri’s cousin who taught him about bees lives.

But in Syria there is a saying: inside the person you know, there is a person you do not know.

Christy Lefteri, herself the daughter of refugees, wrote the novel after spending a couple of years volunteering in a refugee centre in Athens. It is a story about the refugee journey and the experiences they endure in a state of high vulnerability. It touches on the effects of severe trauma, grief, child trafficking, ethnic cleansing, flight, asylum processes, seeking a new home when your own becomes uninhabitable – it is also a love story.

I wanted to set forth the idea that among profound, unspeakable loss, humans can still find love and light—and see one another.

As Nuri and Afra escape Syria, each are haunted in different ways by what they have seen and experienced. They become known to the reader as the people they were before the troubles, as well was who they have become as a result of flight from a war torn country. We witness their struggle to stay connected with one another and their dead son whilst they navigate their way to safety.

People are not like bees. We do not work together, we have no real sense of a greater good

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is written with compassion and hope. Whilst the characters experience great brutality, the story is also beautiful and a moving plea for greater humanity in our treatment of displaced people.

Where there are bees there are flowers, and wherever there are flowers there is new life and hope

Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

If you are looking for a dark, discomforting psychological thriller to be disturbed by during this long cold winter, Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn could be for you.

Everyone has a moment where life goes off the rails.

Camille Preaker escaped Wind Gap, a small town in Missouri, for a career as a journalist in Chicago. Her boss sends her back to Wind Gap, best known for its pig abattoir, to investigate the murder of a young girl. After Camille arrives in town the bodies start piling up.

A town so suffocating and small, you tripped over people you hated every day. People who knew things about you. It’s the kind of place that leaves a mark

Camille left Wind Gap for a reason – her family. Camille’s troubled mother comes from old money – she owns the hog farm, the towns primary source of revenue. Of her two sisters, one is dead and she can’t stand her precocious younger stepsister. Camille is a little complicated herself – she’s an addict (sex and alcohol) and she self-harms. She keeps her body covered to hide the words she has carved onto it over the years.

I always feel sad for the girl that I was, because it never occurred to me that my mother might comfort me. She has never told me she loved me, and I never assumed she did. She tended to me. She administrated me.

Suspense, plot twists, gore, dysfunction and the dark side of the female psyche…read it if you dare.

Book review: All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton

It’s 1942 and Darwin is under siege from the Japanese. The mother of twelve year old gravedigger girl Molly Hook died as a result of a curse placed on her family by Longboat Bob whose gold was stolen by her grandfather. Molly lives with her hopeless alcoholic father and abusive uncle and digs graves in Hollow Wood Cemetery, and she believes her heart is turning to stone.

In all these years, he said, he was yet to come across a single gold nugget that brought any real happiness to the person who held it. Longcoat Bob said his family had found one large nugget long ago, centuries back, that resembled a human hand. And it became so coveted by members of his family that it caused fights between brother and sister, sister and mother, father and son. During one dispute an old woman struck her nephew with the gold hand. The nephew was struck dumb and his mental capacity was like a water hole that could never be more than half full after that. And the old woman was so ashamed by her actions that she begged Longcoat Bob’s grandfather, the oldest living member of the family, to hide the gold away in a place where no one else could find it. And any other gold nuggets that were found from that moment on Longcoat Bob’s grandfather reasoned, were best hidden away with it too.

Molly is best friends with a shovel and she speaks to the sky. The sky talks back and offers gifts to help her. While Darwin is being bombed she escapes on a quest to find Longcoat Bob and ask him to lift the curse on her family. She picks up travelling companions on her way – her wicked uncles beautiful actress girlfriend Greta, fleeing his clutches, and Yukio, a Japanese fighter pilot who falls from the sky.

The travellers dodge danger and the pursuit of a greedy, angry Uncle Aubrey as they follow a poetic map etched on a gold-panning dish left to Molly by her mother. Molly believes the map will lead her to Longcoat Bob.

Molly knows the secret to a long walk. Never think about the destination. Just think about the air in your lungs, the motion of your arms and legs. There is a rhythm to it, and once you have found it that rhythm can tick-tock through time forever.

All Our Shimmering Skies is Trent Dalton’s second novel. I reviewed his first, Boy Swallows Universe, in a previous blog. The two novels have a lot of parallels – the exploration of good and evil and Dalton’s fabulous sprinkle of magical realism. The protagonists of both stories are children living in the depths of intergenerational trauma amongst abusive and complicated adults but still manage to travel through life with a sense of hope and optimism despite their difficulties. All Our Shimmering Skies is part fable, part fairytale, a hero’s journey wildly imagined in the remote top end. Dalton’s writing is sublime and lyrical, and if you give yourself over to it, he will take you on a heartfelt magical journey.

Book review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Joint winner (alongside Margaret Atwood for The Testaments) of the 2019 Booker Prize, this densely populated novel tells the story of twelve characters across twelve chapters and different decades. The characters are black British woman of varying ages, sexualities, ethnic origins, faiths, classes and experiences, and choices whose lives overlap.

We should celebrate that many more women are reconfiguring feminism and that grassroots activism is spreading like wildfire and millions of women are waking up to the possibility of taking ownership of our world as fully-entitled human beings.

The collage of stories include theatre director Amma, her daughter Yazz and former partner Dominique. Mathematical whizz, Carole who’s intellect drew her from her poor upbringing to a lucrative banking job, Bummi her mother and La Tisha an old school friend and single parent of three who works in a supermarket. Shirley, veteran school teacher, her mother Winsome retired to Barbados, and Penelope a retired colleague of Shirley’s. Non-binary Megan/Morgan a social media influencer, Hattie their great grandmother, an elderly Northumberland farmer, and Grace, Hattie’s mother. The characters are complex and flawed.

why should he carry the burden of representation when it will only hold him back?
white people are only required to represent themselves, not an entire race

Girl, Woman, Other is a novel about the lived experience of black women, identity, friendship, feminism, struggle, longing, love, loss, joy, hope, bitterness and imagination. Evaristo’s prose-poetry writing style carries the reader with a delightful rhythm through the polyphonic choir of woman characters and delivers an emotionally engaging read.

we don’t exist in a vacuum… we are all part of a continuum, repeat after me, the future is in the past and the past is in the present