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: Don’t Cry for Me by Daniel Black

At once beautiful, poetic, hopeful and sad, Don’t Cry for Me is a the story of Jacob, a dying black man trying to make amends with his gay son Isaac, whom he has not spoken to for years. The novel is written through a series of letters from father to son.

You must learn to uproot unwanted seeds without destroying the entire harvest. This is the son’s lesson. Nurture good sprouts, Isaac. Toss weeds aside and never think of them again. Just remember that sprouts and weeds are planted together, and weeds have a valuable function. They teach you what to avoid, what not to embrace. There is no good planting without them.

In Don’t Cry for Me, author Daniel Black provides insight into African American history and the accomplishments and legacies of growing up black in the American South. The story brings to the surface the effects of intergenerational trauma with its roots in slavery, the treatment of black American’s as second class citizens, the ingrained need for obedience and conformity as a means of survival and the effects of limited access to education.

Everything we did, whether we were aware or not, we did with white people in mind. Our life’s aim was to make them believe we had value and worth, so we spent our nights trying to figure out what they liked, then spent our days trying to do it. We still haven’t pleased them, and truth is, we never will.

This history shaped gender roles and what it meant to be a man. In knowledge is power and when Jacob starts to read, he is changed. His rigid views about who he is and who his son and wife should be change and soften. He becomes a man who exchanges judgement and self righteousness for understanding and tolerance.

Reading taught me that a man’s life is his own responsibility, his own creation. Blaming others is a waste of time. No one can make you happy if you’re determined to be miserable.

Despite Don’t Cry for Me being about relationships between men, I found it to be an illuminating and powerful read about black history, systemic racism, prejudice, ways of thinking, forgiveness and healing. It made me think and feel deeply, a sign of a good novel.

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.

Book review: The Other Side of Beautiful by Kim Lock

The Other Side of Beautiful by Kim Lock is an escapist novel reminiscent of the Rosie Project and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.

Mercy Blain has not left her house for two years. Mercy Blain’s house just burnt down and she would have been in it but for a neighbour rescuing her. Her ex husband (and his boyfriend) take her in, but she feels she can’t stay there.

She braves the world and goes out in it with her sausage dog, Wasabi, and spontaneously buys a cult classic camper van off an old man. She and Wasabi, and a box of cremated remains, start driving, and a wrong turn finds them on their way from Adelaide to Darwin.

She’d bought him just before she started her internship, naïvely thinking that the end of med school signalled the beginning of control over her own life.  Maybe a cat would have been a better choice, Mercy thought to herself in the early days, coming home in the bleary dawn after night shift to an avalanche of exploded paper up and down the hallway.  Or even a goldfish, she had thought, walking an excitable, yapping, twisting Dachshund in the dark streets at two am before work.

But Mercy had gotten Wasabi for the same reason anyone gets a puppy: because they embody happiness.  Their fuzzy little faces are gorgeous and irresistible. Their love is unconditional. And no matter how long Mercy was gone, no matter how wrecked she was when she came home, no matter how she had snapped at him or even ignored him, Wasabi was always there.  He never blamed her, never criticised her, never expected her to actualise him.  Always wagging his tail.  Always happy to curl up on her lap and be petted for as long as Mercy needed.

Mercy’s adventures become a healing journey for her anxiety and a lesson on embracing life. The Other Side of Beautiful is a heartwarming story about self-discovery, the kindness of strangers, and climbing out from your darkest place to find insight and sunlight in the great Australian tradition of an outback road trip in a clapped out campervan.

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: 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 Boy from the Mish by Gary Lonesborough

The Boy from the Mish is a queer First Nations bildungsroman fiction novel. This book is an important work as it represents diverse identities – both Aboriginal and queer. Young people who do not ‘fit’ the mainstream ideal need to see themselves in fiction as it helps to validate their lived experience. A lack of diverse representation not only influences how people see themselves but how they are seen (or not seen) by mainstream dominant cultures.

Go to your elders. You should ask them about your country and your totem. Because that is your identity. A blackfella with no identity is a lost blackfella. He don’t know where he belongs.

Individual and institutionalised racism, over-policing of Aboriginal youth, prejudice and lateral violence are confronted throughout this story told from the perspective of seventeen year old Aboriginal Jackson on a journey of self-discovery about who he is emotionally and sexually. On the cusp of adulthood and in his final year of high school, Jackson juggles a social life with his mates and his girlfriend with whom he has not had sex, but doing so hovers as an ever present expectation that he cannot meet.

I’m not too fucking drunk. I’m tipsy at best. And she isn’t ugly, I think she’s beautiful. Maybe my body is just broken, or maybe I’m destined to be an abstinent priest or something.

When he encounters fresh out of juvie Tomas, Jackson is unsettled by his attraction to the other young man and it triggers a change in how Jackson sees himself. The Boy from the Mish is a beautiful and heartwarming story that paints colourful insights into life in Aboriginal family homes, familial relationships and struggles, the emotionality of youth and the fears that make coming out difficult. It is also written in a way that shows white people as ‘the other’, which is refreshing.

If we don’t let ourselves be who we are, love who we are, where we come from, it’ll strangle ya until you can’t fight it no longer.

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.