The Dry by Jane Harper

I have taken a lover. I have never met anyone like him. He is a breath of fresh air.

His name is Dyson. I think I’m in love.

I don’t know what specifically or technically defines a heat wave. If it is the suffocating and choking heat that has gripped Sydney for the last two months to the point of asphyxiation, then that’s sound enough a definition for me. There is nothing like the unrelenting pain of unstoppable heat; the type of excessive warmth that makes you sweat lying down and you never feel clean. It’s weary. It’s depressive. It ain’t for me. #teamAutumn

In this novel, heat and temperature are more than just backdrop. The very plot and narrative of The Dry could not exist without such an impenetrable protagonist. Set in rural Australia, the rising mercury coincides with rising madness to the point of folly and psychosis. The heat is brutal and unrelenting to the point, as reader, I never felt truly comfortable.

I am not generally a fan of crime fiction as can be evidenced here (pun intended). But The Dry is good. It’s very good.

But if, like me, a novel can completely overpower you, I suggest you wait until the temperature drops and the leaves begin to fall lest you are overpowered by its roasting gaze.

If you cannot wait, get a lover. Get a lover like Dyson.

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Having recently signed myself up to another 4.5 years of study (why, why?), I am finding it increasingly difficult to muster the time or energy for leisurely fiction. Between reading text books, case judgments and journal articles, there ain’t a whole lotta time for reading for pleasure. I need to redress the balance because the restorative powers of a great piece of lit cannot be overstated. A lack of time and energy heightens impatience and irritation with the coveted tome. I no longer have the tolerance for a slow and tedious entree. If the author cannot beguile me in the first chapter, I’m out.

Thank you Noah Hawley for answering my demands. Hawley is an American film and television writer and producer (think the TV adaptation of Fargo) and his writing is blissfully sharp and engaging. Every sentence has purpose. Every. Single. Sentence. There are no unnecessary segues or red herrings: it’s all about the plot. And while the prose is uncomplicated, it is not guileless or meek. Hawley’s seemingly effortless text masks a sophisticated structure.

Not-so spoiler alert: the light plane crashes into the ocean and passengers and crew do not survive. What it terrorism? Pilot error? The weather? Such is Hawley’s manipulation, there are several times I was led to believe that perhaps the fated plane would indeed continue to its set destination and passengers and crew would return to their complicated lives unscathed. What Hawley brilliantly creates is a superb character study that is a little bit voyeur with a big serving of entertainment.

My one regret is that I read this tale perhaps a little too quickly and it was over, well, as fast a plane falling from the sky.

The Bricks That Built The Houses by Kate Tempest

When I was about 7 or 8, I was given an audio book (ON CASSETTE!) to listen to as I drifted into my blissful slumber. It was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and a rather glorious introduction to his social commentary on the Victorian era. The tape was specifically targeted at children so the narrator’s accents were richly exaggerated and bewitching. I played this tape too many times to count; a couple of years later it became irreparably damaged from over-love.

I don’t really listen to audio books now as I think that I am not really ‘reading’. It feels like I’m cheating my own intellect. But given my partiality to the modern podcast, I feel any moment now there is a book waiting to be listened to.

The Bricks That Built The Houses. I have no idea if an audio book exists of this tale but if there does, run don’t walk. The South London accent floods every pore of this book and it is the richer for it. There is no other way to read it than with the thick working class acoustic of Blighty. It’s glorious.

Protagonist Becky Darke is an aimless millennial. The child of a convicted former politician father and an overwhelmed and manic mother, a life less ordinary was preordained. However, it is through her fumbled meanderings that the aimless and ineffectual become extraordinary and compelling.

Read it with an accent out loud and proud. You won’t regret it.

 

The Girls by Emma Cline

My friend T once dated a guy who was a Program Manager at the History Channel. I mean, come ooon. Super cool job and super cool guy. There was no end to the supply of rare and fascinating docos and films that would circulate our cohort at any given time. I think I mourned their break-up more than they did. One particular flick that Mr H Channel introduced me to was “Valley of the Dolls” and with that unforgettable introduction came the irrepressible Sharon Tate. In an era pre Botox, fillers and microdermabrasion, this woman was stunning. STUNNING. And natural (I think). But more intriguing than her superficial beauty is the story of her murder and her connection to Charles Manson. My knowledge of Manson and his cult is limited to the education received on a couple of E True Hollywood Stories and the occasional article in WHO magazine. But nonetheless the murder of a very pregnant Mrs Polanski (I know – married to that director too!), has been an endless source of fascination and intrigue over the years.

Which brings me to The Girls. Set in the Summer of 1967, The Girls is brimming with the free love and experimental ethos of the era. Narrated by (a now adult) Evie, the novel is as much a coming of age exploration and the decline of the nuclear family as it is an homage to the trappings of the cult of Manson. The writing is good. Very good. The tale is engaging. Incredibly so. But, as the title suggests, the focus of this piece of historical fiction was not on Mason himself but the girls and women around him. That’s fine, even refreshing. But I would have loved a little more exploration as to why this figure was so seductive and beguiling. Or perhaps that’s the crux of Emma Cline’s point. To follow blindly with no rhyme or reason is the cult leader’s true power of enchantment.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

There cannot be a more complicated relationship than that between mother and daughter. Not even the most unconventional and peculiar of marriages can surpass the volatility and vitality of a woman and her filial offspring. From time immemorial the stories of this relationship have been captured in order to provide certainty and understanding in the most complex of associations. I know my relationship with my own mother has not escaped the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. At times my mother has been my best friend, my confidante. At other times…not so much! And let’s be honest, teenage girls, my former self included, can be somewhat challenging…

The mother-daughter nexus has been explored in fiction in many shapes and forms. From Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to more modern tales such as White Oleander and The Joy Luck Club, this binary pairing fill authors’ pages with a plethora of complicated twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies. Elizabeth Strout’s offering explores a very personal fictional history in this vain.

The relationship between Lucy Barton and her mother is incredibly strained and hauntingly unsatisfying. The majority of the novel is the retelling of Lucy’s convalescence in hospital for the duration of a long illness. Her mother visits of for a matter of days and it is in the retelling of this visit, secrets of the past are unveiled and recounted. Lucy’s mother, from Lucy’s perspective, makes no attempt to bridge the gap in their translation. There’s was, and remained, a relationship that was resistant to even the most adept translator. Despondent and confused, Lucy endeavours to understand her plain-speaking and emotionally-dearth mother and in doing son learns to understand her own life a little better.

This tale is short and sharp but I felt a little like Lucy towards it’s end: a little unfulfilled and in need of more.

Shtum by Jem Lester

shtum

ʃtʊm/

informal

adjective

silent; non-communicative.

“he kept shtum about the fact that he was sent down for fraud”

verb

be or become quiet and non-communicative.

“you start to say something and then just when it’s getting interesting you shtum up

This week I travelled interstate for work. It was a 6:00am domestic flight bereft of the trimmings of my usual personal travel. For me an airport usually signifies the anticipation of new lands far and wide… with a teensy bit of shopping on the side. Not so my most recent voyage. But there is one ritual I managed to maintain, and that is my habitual visit to the airport bookshop. I love a bookshop at the best of times; the boundless titles, the endless possibility. An airport bookstore in particular provides a special nuance due to the audience – the transient in search of a tale to while away long plane rides and extended beach stays. The airport bookstore must cater to a selective and yet broad clientele.

On this particular journey, I happened upon Shtum, a title I had not seen in any other store to date nor read about in any review. It stayed in the back of my mind and when I saw the cover again on my return journey home, I knew it couldn’t go unread. THANK YOU airport bookshop. Shtum is exquisite Read in one sitting on a rainy (torrential) winter’s day, Shtum pulled at my heart in all the right places. Ostensibly the story of three generations of men living under the one roof, the circumstances that brought them together at a particular moment in time is truly heart-wrenching. Shtum’s success is the marriage of the feckless, the futile and the forthright in a combination that is incredibly powerful.

I cannot keep shtum about it. Do yourself a favour. Rainy day optional.

 

The Lady in the Van by Alan Bennett

I am often drawn to the eccentric and interesting. Nothing gives me more pleasure than people-watching: I imagine the lives and loves of those in front of me with the barest of clues. There is a local woman who has given me years of fascination and I’ve often thought about her story. Who is she? What is the story of her life? She travails the streets of my neighbourhood encumbered by no less than 10 suitcases at any given moment in time. The suitcases are always carefully housed in supermarket trolleys and she protectively guards them, her most treasured possessions, as she toils through the hours and days that make up her daily life. Always well-groomed with neatly combed hair and perfectly polished shoes, I often wonder where she goes at night. Does she have a home? Is she loved? Is she happy?

WHAT’S IN THE BLOODY SUITCASES?

One day she sat at the bus stop surrounded by her life’s luggage, devouring an innocuous piece of snow-white bread with butter the colour of sunflowers. Her utensil: a fork. It was glorious, resplendent with the most George Costanza and that Snickers Bar overtones. Chuckling away to herself with not a care in the world, she consumed her meal with great gusto. Other days I have seen her wildly irrational, shouting incomprehensibly. She is particularly protective of her suitcases and on those days I smile and nod, but carry on so as not to be hit by her random verbal spray. Bless you, Lady of Luggage, whoever you are.

It seems that the eccentric and interesting are not confined by nationality, generations… or suitcases! The Lady in the Van is the exquisite true story of the feisty Miss Shepherd who for 15 years housed herself and her van on the front yard of author Alan Bennett’s home. She is every bit as deliciously interesting as my Lady of Luggage and Bennett writes with great fondness (if at times exasperation) of his unintended tenant.

This book has been recently turned into a film with Maggie Smith, who I think would do the irreverent Miss Shepard much justice. But do yourself a favour and pick up this little yarn. Its brevity conceals a magnificent charm that is a reader’s absolute delight.