What’s your take on coincidence? Sometimes it’s hard not to ask yourself how themes and ideas come to share the same moment in the ether… so when I read Courtney Collins’ The Burial this month, a remarkable début novel based on the true story of a female bushranger, swiftly followed by Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist, another very polished first novel from the US, the parallels were striking: female characters who were loners, with strong relationships to horses, living outside the conventions of the times. What would they say to each other if they could leap off the page and into each other’s worlds?
There are many differences between these two powerful novels but what links them and all the others I’ve chosen this month is a shared connection to place, anchored in specific locations captured so evocatively that I can almost smell or see them.
In The Burial, the almost medicinal scent of eucalyptus hovers around the defiant figure of Jessie, as she rides across a rugged landscape and into a hidden valleys searching for freedom.
In The Orchardist I can almost hear the bees buzzing around the apple blossom before the trees begin to bear fruit. Such a lovely place for so much tragedy to unfold.
In Debra Dean’s The Mirrored World, it’s St Petersburg’s court under the reign of the Empress Catherine that sparkles on the page, both glamorous and ruthless.
In Zadie Smith’s eagerly anticipated NW , London comes to life through the local lingo, almost a patois, of four people from a council estate confronting what it means to be an urban citizen in the 21st century
Naughty Howard Jacobson: Zoo Time shifts from literary London to Monkey Mia via a detour to the Adelaide Writer’s Festival with savage mischief, satirising the increasingly desperate landscape for a white male writer lusting after his mother in law.
Tara’s Moss’s Assassin starts in Barcelona before taking us on the run; Stella Rimington uses Switzerland as her starting point for an espionage plot that disregards borders in The Geneva Trap; Mark Tedeschi’s Eugenia redraws the industrial city of Sydney, its factories, bars and boarding houses in the nineteenth century to investigate a real life story of identity and crime. And in The Engagement, Chloe Hooper shifts the erotic tension from Melbourne real estate to a country house in Victoria’s wealthy western districts.
You don’t need a visa or luggage to embark on these journeys into worlds both familiar and imagined: with these writers as your guides, you are in the safest of hands.
Book of the Month:
by Courtney Collins
It’s such a thrill when you can plunge headlong into a book that you love unequivocally from the first paragraph and that holds you in its spell for its entirety, never faltering, never releasing you from its exquisite reality. That’s how I feel about The Burial, a debut that takes the somewhat dusty genre of bushranger stories and gives it an invigorating shake.
True, the material Collins has to work with is a gift, based on the true story of Jessie Hickman a former circus rider turned bushranger who roamed the Widden Ranges of NSW in the early part of the twentieth century. In her version of events, Jessie is on a freedom quest, fleeing an abusive marriage, resorting to murder, but finding tenderness and redemption in a valley of fellow horse rustlers, who accept her into their company providing her with a brief respite and sanctuary. But there’s an aboriginal tracker on her trail, a man with whom she has an emotional connection, a man with whom she could perhaps have shared a different destiny.
Gritty, but romantic, gothic and yet realistic, Collins deploys an impressively assured arsenal of tools, roping the reader in as smoothly as Jessie rustles horses, branding our consciousness with her narrator’s disquieting voice from the underworld with prose that is visceral yet poetic, compelling and unsentimental.
Comparisons will be made with other works of contemporary fiction about Ned Kelly and Captain Starlight. For me, this is up there with the very best.
SISTERS IN CRIME
A feast for crime readers this month with new books from some of the most popular names in the biz, women at the top of their game in the genre.
You can’t get past the fact that with Rimington, the Dame knows of what she speaks. There is always, for me at least, the frisson of knowing that she has been part of this world of British Intelligence. But while things may have moved on since the end of the Cold War (and this plot references those times) , the motives of the bad guys don’t change: it’s merely the weapons and threats at their disposal which are different.
Rimington’s plots have got tighter with experience. Now she moves her pawns across the board with greater confidence, criss-crossing the globe, embracing the complexities of technology and satellite systems as part of the world of global terrorism and counter espionage.
The Geneva Trap is the sixth in the Liz Carlyle series and again confirms her cynically cool-headed approach to the often byzantine internal MI5 dynamics while a more personal sub-plot gives us the chance to see Liz’s softer side.
Blurb: Geneva, 2012. When a Russian intelligence officer approaches MI5 with vital information about the imminent cyber-sabotage of an Anglo-American Defence programme, he refuses to talk to anyone but Liz Carlyle. But who is he, and what is his connection to the British agent?
At a tracking station in Nevada, US Navy officers watch in horror as one of their unmanned drones plummets out of the sky, and panic spreads through the British and American Intelligence services. Is this a Russian plot to disable the West’s defences? Or is the threat coming from elsewhere?
As Liz and her team hunt for a mole inside the MOD, the trail leads them from Geneva, to Marseilles and into a labyrinth of international intrigue, in a race against time to stop the Cold War heating up once again…
Death By Beauty Gabrielle Lord’s latest, demonstrates her acute sense of topicality: ageing, genetics and even the current craze for vampires all get a work-out. The big news is that Gemma is now a mother, and finding that the demands of parenting and private investigation are hardly compatible.
Perhaps too eager to prove she’s still got what it takes professionally, she breezily takes risks that no sane mother should contemplate, luring a suspect through an internet dating site. Meanwhile her own heart is divided between Mike, the sincere and caring man she lives with and Steve, the father of her child and a hopeless old flame cop who is under suspicion for corruption.
Lord is clever at giving Gemma access to information through her close personal friendship with police detective Angie. Their jaunty camaraderie also offsets the gruesome aspects of a particularly grizzly series of murders involving beautiful young women. She’s also up to date on the latest in forensics: bet you don’t know what a palynologist is.
‘It’s illuminating to know what you’re worth dead’ – is the great opening line to Assassin, Tara Moss’s latest sleek, international thriller, in which her ex model turned PI Mak Vanderwall has to disguise her striking beauty to evade assassination at the hands of a powerful Sydney family with blood on their hands.
Moss loves the contrast between society power and glamour and the grubby world of contract killers, enhanced here by a series of picturesque locations, beginning with the seductive streets of Barcelona. And she loves mixing it with the forensic experts who provide her with background information and detail to help thicken her plot.
The high adrenaline pace suits her athletic Glock-accessorised super-heroine. But she’s about to discover that she and Gemma Lincoln have something more than their shared profession in common…..
Novels don’t come much more eagerly awaited than this in the world of literary fiction. Smith has outgrown the prodigy status that began with White Teeth, demonstrating her mature poise with On Beauty . Here she’s mashing up class, race and geography with her incredible talent for believable street dialogue, creating a layering patchwork of patois from a north west London council estate. Her quartet of characters navigate their daily urban social lives negotiating complex webs of identity, love and friendship, absorbing a constant barrage of pop culture, advertising, social media and white noise that thrums around them with its Afro-Caribbean beat, hairweaves, addictions, desires, deals and petty crimes.
Its a heady, dazzling, potent mix and Smith pulls it off with her usual cool panache, contrasting the brutality and beauty of London as it is lived in by foreigners and locals, expressing an ambivalence about the city she knows so well, colliding public and private worlds, pulsating to a score of clashing rhythms and cultures.
There are two sides to Chloe Hooper. The brilliant, courageous, methodical, even-handed, unflinching journalist who documented the death of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island turning it into a work of enduring importance in The Tall Man, one of the most compelling, unsettling and significant reads of recent years.
Then there’s Hooper the novelist, whose previous, much-heralded fictional debut, A Child’s History of True Crime flummoxed me and many others. Now she’s written a much less artificial but still enigmatic contemporary gothic erotic thriller that will intrigue some readers and irritate others.
Just what is Liese Campbell, her unreliable narrator, playing at when she entices awkward bachelor Alexander Colquhoun into a sexual game to pay off her debts? Redefining the term open for inspection, Liese uses her job as a real estate agent to arrange encounters with Colquhoun before accepting an invitation to stay at his pastoral property in Victoria’s Western Districts.
Some may think she’s got what’s coming to her. But then, what does Colquhoun really want and what is the secret in his shadowy past? Just who is setting a trap for whom here, who is the stalker and who is the prey?
The Engagement raises tantalising questions. Hooper knows how to create tension and build a mood of atmospheric uncertainty with dark material. Her prose is elegant, cool and poised. And Hooper’s sense of timing in delivering this classy slice of sexual and romantic intrigue is uncannily impeccable given the appetite created by Fifty Shades of Grey and its many imitations. Talk about having your finger on the pulse.
‘Cheeky Monkey’ is how novelist Guy Ableman’s mother-in-law, Poppy, also his object of desire, describes him. She’s not wrong. Ableman, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jacobson in many of his opinions and his garulous, ribald, caustic satire, is a piece of work: insecure, horny, competitive, incensed and frustrated by the implosion of the literary world. His publisher has committed suicide, his agent is in hiding and the audience for his work is getting older and smaller by the day. To make matter worse his gorgeous wife Vanessa has decided, after years of empty threats, to write her own novel.
This hilarious, farcical completely un PC romp takes a scattergun approach to literary and social pieties. What it lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in comedy. Playful, mischievous, provocative, irreverent, Jacobson is at his best – and worst – here. It’s as if winning the Booker has freed him from any vestige of inhibition; he’s luxuriating in being offensive, mocking and self-indulgent, playing to the gallery, relishing the role of joker/jester.
Literary fiction rarely mocks itself, especially in times when it is something of an endangered species, but this is about as entertaining as it gets.
How does a first novel appear that is so assured? Where is the beginner’s stumble or novice’s wobble? Not here, in this beautiful, lyrical, story set in a remote part of the American northwest at the turn of the twentieth century.
Talmadge is a solitary orchardist growing apples and apricots. One day two teenage girls steal his fruit at the market. Both are pregnant and seeking sanctuary. He asks no questions, but leaves food out for them, as he might for an animal. When armed men arrive in the orchard, things take a tragic turn. Talmadge finds himself foster father to an orphaned baby girl, Angelene, with the wise counsel of his spinster friend, Caroline Middey.
But while Angelene blossoms in to a sober young woman, tending to the orchard with the skill she has learned from Talmadge, their life is not destined to be peaceful for long.
Fans of Annie Proulx will welcome Coplin’s quiet unshowy style and slow unfurling of a story that takes its own time, following a rhythm set by nature. Fans of Richard Ford will appreciate the spare prose, finely drawn evocation of country and understated compassion that characterise this sombre gem. As satisfying as a draught of unsweetened cider.
I am something of a Russophile. Can’t resist a troika, sable hat, the stirring soulfulness of Russian church music, the sight of birch trees in the snow…. I’m a sucker for all that.
But I’m also something of a factoid pedant, always on the prowl for a jarring note, or an inaccuracy, but I could not fault this. Probably because the author is clearly a Russophile herself, having previously written The Madonnas of Leningrad.
There are three sisters at the heart of this story- this is Chekhov country, after all – but the book focusses on Xenia, who has the gift of prophecy from childhood. When tragedy strikes, she retreats into grief and becomes a soothsayer, living on the streets of St Petersburg despite the rescue attempts of her younger sister Dasha, who narrates the story of her family with innocence and charm.
Dean contrasts the extravagant glamour of the Imperial court played out at opulent balls and other grand social occasions with its petty ruthlessness, as the Tsarina exercises her power in demonstrations of capricious cruelty.
This is the classiest kind of historical fiction, authentic and atmospheric, capturing both the sweep of history on the big canvas with the domestic intimacy of a typically privileged family anxious to maintain its position.
Mark Tedeschi is adept at cross examination. As chief prosecutor for the DPDD in NSW, he has overseen some of its most high profile convictions. Now he applies his forensic legal mind to a historical case that has fascinated him for decades: that of Eugenia Falleni, a nineteenth century Italian migrant woman who, having been raped on the journey to Australia, assumed male identity, becoming Harry Crawford and marrying not once, but twice. Accused of the murder of her first wife, Eugenia’s true identity was revealed and became a public scandal, as details of her bedroom manoeuvres became sensational fodder for the press.
Tedeschi applies a cool rational mind to this overheated material, and makes it clear how poorly served Falleni was by her defence who missed several opportunities to demonstrate her innocence in a trial full of twists and turns that involved testimony from the daughter she had abandoned and the stepson who failed to suspect her erratic behaviour.
Methodical in its attention to detail, this is a riveting reconstruction of legal and social history.