Book reviewers Cameron Woodhead and Fiona Capp take a look at recent fiction and non-fiction titles. Here are their reviews.
Fiction selection of the week
ceremony of life
Sayaka Murata, Granta, $34.99
A collection of short fiction films by Sayaka Murata, author of the 2016 bestseller Woman convenience storeoffers some variety, but fans of this novel’s icy tone, wild vanities, and melancholy estrangement won’t be disappointed.
The title story follows corporate drudgery Maho as she is invited to a “ceremony of life” involving cannibalistic funeral practices to honor a deceased manager. The strange intimacy of society’s death rituals contrasts with its alienation from procreation: the story ends with sperm in a jar.
Other striking stories include Top notch hardwarewhere the latest Tokyo trends have extended to clothing, accessories and even furniture made from human remains, and body magicwhich gives a lighter and more affectionate touch to two teenage girls discovering sexual desire at different paces.
Time and tide in Sarajevo
Bronwyn Birdsall, Affirm Press, $29.99
The portrait of this novel of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is imagined from experience. Bronwyn Birdsall lived there in the aftermath of the prolonged siege and horrific war crimes committed in the 90s, as did its protagonist Evelyn.
The high school English teacher finds a welcoming but fragile town where traumatic history still simmers in social tension. Ev sets out to prepare her students for a prestigious scholarship, but when the teenage son of a local heroic figure is stabbed to death, she can’t help but get involved.
Fears of a cover-up to protect the attacker led to public protests. A powder keg erupts and Ev finds herself in possession of crucial evidence that could catch the killer at the risk of unleashing violence. Time and tide in Sarajevo is sleek and finely crafted, achieving an intimate sense of place before heightening the suspense.
Frank Chalmers, Allen & Unwin, $32.99
Frank Chalmers takes us to the remote town of Royalton, Queensland in the mid-1970s. Honest cop Ray Windsor was banished there for standing up to abuse in the force. It’s the Queensland of Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen, long before the Fitzgerald Inquiry: corruption is rampant and the new police chief doesn’t seem very interested in solving crimes.
But when two immigrants are raped and murdered, and another goes missing, Ray resists indifference, teaming up with a new partner, Arshag, to catch a killer.
Chalmers has written a captivating mystery novel. A slow burn with elements of police procedurals that bleeds into a brutal strand of black outback, Conviction comes steeped in paranoia and menace from Queensland’s dark days as a police state.
friends like these
Meg Rosoff, Bloomsbury, $16.99
Meg Rosoff, award-winning young adult author (how i live now) wrote a vivid coming-of-age novel set in New York City in 1982. friends like these sees 18-year-old Beth arrive in the Big Apple for a summer journalism internship, where she meets a string of young New Yorkers and falls for the rich, wild, and charismatic Edie.
An all-consuming friendship develops as they navigate the world of journalism, share the elation of a summer of firsts, and miss out on their youth, but their relationship sours as Manhattan’s sweltering summer drags on. .
It’s a novel that a wide range of teenagers should find appealing. With its finely observed characters, its retro atmosphere and its urban decor, friends like these reminded me strongly of the Judy Blume books that flew off the shelves of school libraries when I was young.
Non-fiction pick of the week
The patient doctor
Ben Bravery, Hatchet, $32.99
When Ben Bravery, 28, was receiving treatment for bowel cancer, he felt more like a problem than a patient. His body was well cared for but “at some point in the delivery of health care they forgot I was human”.
This insight inspired him to retrain as a doctor and show his patients the compassion he felt the system lacked. It also allowed him to shine a light on gaps in medical training and the inability to prioritize good communication with patients. Raised by a single mother, Bravery reflects on how the selection process for medical school favors students from privileged backgrounds, entrenching a lack of diversity and life experience in the profession.
In these fiery and often funny memoirs, Bravery proves himself to be the kind of all-around doctor every patient deserves: one who sees the whole person and not just the symptoms.
The man who loved pink dolphins
Anthony Ham, Allen and Unwin, $34.99
Given that pink dolphins hardly feature in this thriller story of one man’s attempt to preserve a magical, untouched Amazon backwater, one can only assume someone in marketing came up with the title. The shame is that it doesn’t do justice to Chris Clark’s decades-long daring battle to protect this Edenic place or the larger, urgent story Anthony Ham tells about the forces of development destroying the Amazon rainforest and its Indigenous Peoples.
Ham’s initial assumption that Clark was a “benevolent modern-day Kurtz with a group of devoted friends and followers” evolves into a more nuanced portrayal of a dedicated and fearless, albeit flawed, environmental activist and social activist. family father. More importantly, his story is a compelling vehicle to draw the world’s attention to the seriousness of the threat facing the Amazon.
Big and beautiful female theory
Eloise Grills, Affirm Press, $35
In these consciously eccentric graphic essays, Eloise Grills confronts us with the depths of our fear of the human body, in particular of the “fatty body” which “lives outside the limits of the discreet body”. She simultaneously celebrates her pleasure, breaks society’s prejudices against bodies perceived as excessive and embodies the contradictory feelings of abjection that these attitudes arouse.
In a sort of parody of confessional mode, she says, “I’ve mined my life for stories, not so much like diamonds as peculiar reams of rocky/flabby narratives without resolution or order, shaped by pantyhose outline”.
One playful minute, the next self-lacerating, Big Beautiful Feminine Theory defies literary and theoretical categorization, parodying excess even as it revels in it.
Eloise Grills is invited to the Melbourne Writers Festival. mwf.com.au
Advancing Human Rights
Michael Mintrom, Monash University Publishing, $19.95
It is easy to assume that human rights abuses occur elsewhere, in less democratic countries where citizens have been deprived of their free will. But as Michael Mintrom shows in this essay, human rights can be violated anywhere, even in countries that consider themselves blameless.
Social inclusion is central to its examination of how public policies can promote human rights, with particular attention to the rights of disadvantaged groups. Mintrom highlights the benefits to society as a whole of addressing the human rights of the most vulnerable, whether they are indigenous children caught in the “school to prison pipeline”, newly released prisoners, people with disabilities in the workplace or LGBTQIA+ children in school. Too often, it’s not a lack of funding but a lack of imagination, he says, that disenfranchises people.
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