The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner     Recommended by Anne    


A novel where the setting is like one of the characters, from San Francisco’s seedier districts to the bleak hinterlands where the prison towns are. We first meet Romy Hall on a prisoner transport bus, handcuffed to a manic babykiller who won’t stop talking, as they hurtle through the night to life in a women’s maximum security facility. Romy is a small cog among others in a big and unsympathetic machine, desperate for news of her son. The narrative is told in a series of flashbacks intersecting with the daily tedium and casual violence of prison routine. Romy’s time as a stripper in club giving the book its title, The Mars Room, is where she meets her stalker, and how she earns her life sentence in Stanville Correctional Facility for his murder. Other characters are elements in the story, like the embittered English literature teacher Gordon Hauser, or her trans cellmate Conan.  Its a vivid, immersive world, shocking for its realness, a faithful transcription of life as an impoverished woman in contemporary America. Its one of my favourites for 2018, and exactly what good fiction should be.



Maria Tumarkin     Recommended by Anne    

memoir / essay 

Axiomatic, meaning self-evident or unquestionably true, derives from the Greek word axios (worthy).

Tumarkin’s book of essays delves into how the past affects the present and whether we can accommodate sometimes horrific trauma. Her writing gets right under the skin, straight to the heart of a question, and I find myself thinking of the people in her book a long time after I’ve put it down. In five sections or axioms the theme of histories is explored through the people the author meets, is compelled by. It was hard to find my footing at first; was I reading true crime reportage, a series of biographies, a philosophical meditation? All of them flow together and onward, with fragments of painful clarity that pinpoint wobbly ethics, inequality or psychological damage with an empathy that made me wince. its unlike anything I’ve read before. As the publisher, Brow Books, suggests, it seeks to reset the non-fiction form in Australia. Profoundly moving, oddly-shaped and freshly-sharpened writing.



Record of a Spaceborn Few

Becky Chambers     Recommended by Anne    

science fiction

The third installment in the Wayfarers series, Chamber’s new book is a treat. Establishing her popularity with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and the following A Closed and Common Orbit, the books were initially crowdfunded and self-published before being picked up by publishers soon after release. They have been nominated and shortlisted for a number of prizes and awarded the Prix Julia Verlanger twice. They’re also a crowd-pleasing combo of speculative fiction with a heavy helping of optimistic diversity, where human beings have left earth far behind and interact with a bewildering host of other sapient cultures far more advanced than they.

Record of a Spaceborn Few is set on one of the so-called Homesteader ships, vast machine cities which long ago ferried humanity to new solar systems and now orbit foreign suns while they slowly fall apart. What does it mean to have a cultural identity without a home planet? In the Wayfarers universe, the archivist’s role is essential, and everyone cooperates so their make-do-and-mend environment continues to support life and nourish souls.  Some characters are related to ones you’ll recognize from previous books, but the books can be read alone. You’ll wish each character you meet the best. Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is still my favourite of the series, but Record of a Spaceborn Few is more of the enjoyable, personality driven fiction I’ve come to expect of Becky Chambers.




Carys Davies     Recommended by Anne    


When this slender little novel came in my colleagues all raised an eyebrow, knowing i’m partial to a Western. And Western this is, with all the bits I like best about the genre. Breathless, sometimes self-destructive pursuit of ideas, maps with blank spots, romantic landscapes and lives in peril.When he hears reports of enormous bones unearthed in Kentucky, Cyrus Bellman leaves his Pennsylvanian smallholding with a wave from his daughter and derision from his sister, and a brand-new stovepipe hat to cut a more imposing figure among the unknown Indian tribes of the interior. Without really knowing why, he wants to see if the giant creatures still roam the uncharted frontier. His daughter, Bess, waits with her short-tempered Aunt for news and tries to negotiate the unwelcome attentions of predatory men who can sense her unprotected adolescence.

Its a short book, being only 148 pages, and the pacing had me reading the whole thing in about 2 sittings  – breathlessly, toward the end, when the action ramps up and Bess finally discovers how her father’s journey played out. Carys Davies’ previous book is a collection called The Travellers and Other Stories, and she is very good at constructing a narrative with brevity and precision. It is sensitive, clean writing with a desolate Gothic tint, reminding me of Annie Proulx’s Barkskins and The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage.


The Death of Noah Glass

Gail Jones     Recommended by Anne    


Gail Jones’ latest novel deals with the themes of art, family and identity in a way which will be familiar to readers who have enjoyed her previous books like Five Bells and Sorry. Found floating in his swimming pool shortly after returning from Italy, art historian Noah Glass is implicated in the theft of a sculpture from Palermo. His adult children, Martin and Evie, try to make sense of who their father was and how he could be involved, while each grieving in their particular ways. Martin searches in Sicily, compiling material for a series of artworks, while Evie moves into her father’s apartment and re-establishes her ties to Sydney. The settings of the story are vivid, moving in sliding planes from the high noon of Sydney’s sparkle to Palermo’s shadowy melancholy, past and present. The three characters of Noah and his children are each alive and distinct, and one of my favourite aspects of this book is the tender relationship between brother and sister, and how Noah’s research into Piero della Francesca meant that art history fragments were sprinkled throughout. A good book for those who enjoyed The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith, or The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Romantic, unsettling, and hopeful.

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