Vacuum in the Dark by Jen Beagin

Is there such thing as a literary poo joke…?

Jen Beagin’s Vacuum in the Dark opens with Mona, a twenty-six-year-old house cleaner, accidentally washing her hands with a poo, mistaking it for a ‘fancy hippie soap.’ She immediately refers to her imaginary friend, Terry Gross, for advice. Terry suggests breathing through her mouth and repeat rinsing.

“The shits are real, Terry,” Mona said. “They have heft. They engage all the senses.”
“Start keeping a record of some kind,” Terry suggested, as Mona finished vacuuming. “Indicate the time of day, the location, plus a brief description, and maybe include a drawing.” Continue reading

Little Gods by Jenny Ackland

Five truly wonderful elements of Little Gods by Jenny Ackland (a book about a girl called Olive; her complex family; dams, a country town and silos; and a bird called Grace).

01. The character of Olive is superb. She’s gutsy, clever, impulsive, bossy, curious, and cares about some things but definitely not others. In terms of child narrators, she’s made my top five.

Olive went through her wishes: to get a pony two hands taller than Snooky’s friend Megan’s, to find a baby owl and to be magic.

She, Olive Lovelock, child sleuth, smart kid, adventuress, reader. Imaginer, cryptologist and conqueror of high places. Keeper of bones, rocks and feathers. She would show everybody how clever she was and they’d say to each other: ‘Here comes Olive Lovelock. Did you know she solved the case of her sister who drowned? She’s going to meet the Queen.’ Continue reading

Almost Love by Louise O’Neill

Almost Love, the latest from Louise O’Neill, examines an all-too-familiar trope – the attraction of the ‘bad boy’.

Twenty-four-year-old Sarah falls for Matthew, a successful property developer in his forties. Matthew has an ex-wife and a teenage son. His ‘relationship’ with Sarah is limited to hurried meetings in a nondescript Dublin hotel room. Despite their sexual relationship, there is no intimacy. Matthew insists on keeping their meetings a secret; responds sporadically to Sarah’s text messages; and shuts down Sarah’s attempts to make plans.

And Sarah does what most women have either done or witnessed in a female friend – she waits by the phone. She goes as soon as she is beckoned. She accepts being treated like trash. She begs and then apologises… It’s the familiarity of this destructive behaviour that makes Almost Love compelling reading.

Did all women take half-truths and implied promises and side glances and smiles and weave them together to create a narrative, the way she had done? Continue reading

Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau

In the nineties, I had a flat mate who worked for an arts festival. She was an excellent flat mate to have because we were both on tight just-moved-out-of-home budgets and one of the perks of her job was tickets to all kinds of concerts and performances – and I was often her ‘plus one’. However, I soon realised that she was wasting a ticket by taking me to any kind of interpretive dance. I appreciated the skill and athleticism of these performances but I simply didn’t enjoy it.

I’m afraid Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau was the reading equivalent of interpretative dance for me. Continue reading

The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo

There would be few Melbournians who cross the West Gate Bridge without a slightly heavy heart – the 1970 bridge collapse and the horrific tragedy of Darcey Freeman in 2009 weighs on us collectively. It is perhaps why Enza Gandolfo’s novel, The Bridge, resonates so deeply.

There are two stories in this book, linked by the Bridge. The first tells of 22-year-old Italian migrant Antonello, newly married and working as a rigger on the West Gate Bridge in 1970. When the Bridge collapses one October morning, killing 35 of his workmates, Antonello’s world crashes down on him.

Another jolt; the span was almost vertical now. A stiff-legged derrick loosed from its mooring catapulted toward the river, its long metal arms flaying violently, a giant possessed. And now the men: the men were falling, falling off, falling through the air and into the river below. They were screaming, but their cries were muffled by the bridge’s own deathly groans. Continue reading

Bluebottle by Belinda Castles

At a glance, Bluebottle by Belinda Castles seems straightforward – a novel about family relationships – and yet Castles has layered every element of this story with vivid detail. The result is a mesmerizing and immersive read and one that, like the title suggests, looks pretty but has a sting.

The story follows the Bright family – charismatic and temperamental Charlie; his wife, Tricia, the nervy peacemaker; and their three children, Lou, Jack and Phoebe.

There were eruptions, sometimes squalls, Charlie’s mood building and breaking and building again over several days like summer weather. Continue reading

Man Out of Time by Stephanie Bishop

Stephanie Bishop’s third novel, Man Out of Time, tells the story of a family – parents Leon and Frances, and their daughter, Stella – and the impact of Leon’s chronic mental illness.

The story spans decades, beginning with Stella’s ninth birthday when her father’s failure to buy the doll she coveted resulted in his unravelling.

The argument that followed was inevitable. It was not about the gift, but that was the only thing they could bring themselves to talk about, a cause to latch onto in order to expel something else.

Hospital stays and unexplained absences follow and as Stella becomes a rebellious teen, she wonders if, like her father, she will also struggle to exist. Continue reading

The Girls at 17 Swann Street by Yara Zgheib

Perhaps it’s just me but naming the main character ‘Anna’ in a story about an anorexic seems tone-deaf…

Yara Zgheib’s novel, The Girls at 17 Swann Street, focuses on a small treatment facility for women with eating disorders and in particular, Anna, an ex-ballerina.

Anorexia is the same story told every time by a different girl. Continue reading

In the Garden of the Fugitives by Ceridwen Dovey

I’m not usually one for the forced tone and repetitive structure of epistolary novels, however, I was hooked on Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives from the very beginning.

Almost twenty years after forbidding contact, Vita receives a letter from Royce, who was once her benefactor. Vita, a film and ethnography student in her youth, was one of his brightest protégées. Continue reading