My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent  

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This debut novel is like a kick in the groin but also like a hand to hold. An unlikely combination but it's true. Turtle is a 14-year-old girl living on the fringes of Mendocino with her survivalist/philosopher father, who sexually and pschologically abuses her. Turtle has internalised and adopted her father's misoginy so deeply that her narrative is drenched in a confronting self-hatred. But when she grabs a glimpse of what a normal adolescence is like, she begins to realise that she cannot continue to be possessed by her father. 
 
The simmering tension throughout this novel is incredibly arresting - I read this within 24 hours. Comparisons have been drawn to A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara as this novel also requires a trigger warning for sexual abuse and childhood trauma. The author has said, "I wanted to write her so that the damage we do to women would appear to you, as it appears to me, real and urgent and intolerable." I believe he has achieved this. So if you're comfortable with psychologically preparing yourself for some harrowing scenes then I urge you to give this one a go. One of my favourite fiction reads of 2017.
 
Kate
 

The Passage of Time by Alex Miller

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A brilliant book, this is a fictional autobiography by multi-award winning novelist, Alex Miller. 

Commencing with Robert Crofts as an old man pondering whether he will write again, he thinks about his youth and the memories flood back…Originally from London, Robert arrives in Melbourne as a penniless stockman from the Queensland outback looking to find his real purpose in life, which is to be a writer. He meets Lena Soren, beautiful, educated and wealthy. Complex and passionate, she recognises in him a freedom, which she desires and immediately falls in love with. 
The story chronicles their challenging relationship over the years as he struggles to establish himself as a writer and she struggles to break free from her restrictive middle-class upbringing and to find her own creative identity.

Written with deep insight and intelligence this is a wonderful novel exploring the complexity of relationships, love and the need to find individual creativity and identity with in that. 

A truly great and fulfilling read.

- Sue
 

A New England Affair by Steven Carroll

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A beautifully written novel by multi-award winning author Steven Carroll about love, life and what might have been. It tells the story of Emily Hale - muse, confident and friend but never wife of TS Eliot. The story takes place one day as Hale, in her old age, remembers and reflects on key events in her life with TS Eliot.  How they fell in love in their twenty’s when he was just ‘Tom Eliot’, and were meant for each other but time, place and social history kept them apart.  
This is the third novel in Carroll’s ‘Eliot Quartet’, each evolving around one of the Four Quartets by TS Eliot, it follows The Lost Life and the award-winning A World of Other People.  Perfectly capturing an earlier period in time when emotions were repressed and things left unsaid, this is a poignant and moving novel about love and memories of how different things might have been. 

- Sue
 

Book Review: Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

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When I look up the oxford dictionary definition of flaneur it reads “A man who saunters around observing society”, but, when I search for the feminine flaneuse I’m left with “no exact matches.” Elkin, a self-identifying ‘flaneuse’, takes up issue with the lack of recognition for the female-flaneuse, who has seemingly been written out of the history books, and looks to the difficulties and questions of visibility that obstruct the freedom of women desiring simply to ‘saunter’ the streets as their male counterparts are allowed to do. Looking to Virginia Woolf, George Sand, Agnes Varda and Sophie Calle amongst others, Elkin endeavours to carve out a space for the modern-day flaneuse by recognising those that came before her. There are easy parallels to be made between Elkin and Rebecca Solnit as Flaneuse carefully weaves together topics of feminism, art and culture, historical events, and personal anecdotes, with travel writing in an ode to city-dwelling and city-strolling. “Space is not neutral. Space is a feminist issue.” 

- Alex

Half Wild by Pip Smith

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If your recent reading has been mediocre then here is a cracking story to restore your faith in books.Half Wild is an utterly absorbing fictionalisation of the fascinating 'lives' of convicted murderer Eugenia Falleni.  

Pip Smith's lyrical, hypnotic, rousing writing is the perfect match for such a piquant personality, so at no point can you look away! Yet this is a story of great pathos and poignancy, devastating at times, told with delicacy and rare perception. It is an unforgettable meditation on the nature of identity. A remarkably beautiful novel
from  an award-winning author.

- Chad

Book Review: His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman 

In the lead-up to Philip Pullman’s highly anticipated prequel trilogy to His Dark Materials, The Book of Dust (book one, La Belle Sauvage hits shelves in October) let’s take a moment to appreciate the glory of the originals, Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

A contemporary classic in every sense, Pullman shocked and delighted readers young and old with the adventures of Lyra Belacqua and her shape-shifting daemon, Pan, in their quest to rescue their missing friends and take down the almighty Magisterium. With his spellbinding prose, rich worlds, and incredible cast of characters (including the ruthless Mrs Coulter, the powerful Lord Asriel, and -– of course -– Iorek Byrnison, the talking armoured polar bear), Pullman blends religion, science, philosophy and hefty dose of good old-fashioned adventure to create one helluva stunning read.

My personal favourite: book two, The Subtle Knife. Read them all ASAP.

- Jeremy
 

Book Review: A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

Dovaleh Greenstein, a stand up comedian, invites a childhood friend to his final performance at a comedy club. His humour is quick and abrasive, and the reaction of his audience and his friend who almost unwillingly sit through the performance is palpable. But then Dovaleh senses the mood and lifts it with his quick wit.

Grossman is so talented with his wordmanship that the reader is readily swept along with this story of the effects of grief. Certainly worthy of the Man Booker International Prize.

- Barb

Book Review: Tin Man by Sarah Winman

in Man is a story of close emotions, of heartache, pain, love and friendships. It is a lifelong friendship of two young boys who discover and explore their young
lives as they grow and life engages and changes. They have a deep understanding of each other which promises a long friendship.

It is presented as a narrative moving in time slots slowly unfolding to reveal the painfulness and the joy of family lives and the real issues that have led Ellis to
his current situation.

The story flows smoothly with skilfull simplicity crafting a memorable read.

Five stars.

- Barb

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

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Ghachar Ghochar is the best novella you'll read this year. 
Small but perfectly formed.
Vivek Shanbhag writes about the way in which a Bangalorean family falls apart when new-found wealth alters the dynamics.
It feels real, and is therefore very moving. It isn't cool to say this about anything today... but this is a warm and wise book. Classy, understated, and perceptive.
It has exquisite structure, masterful pacing and a knockout ending. What a writer! There's no greater pleasure for a reader than discovering such a generous, intelligent, subtle craftsman. Full of dry humour and colourful characters, this is a rich and rewarding joy of a novel!

- Chad Mandermann

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

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It would be fair to say that melancholy ruminations upon first love and sexual awakening are not exactly an under-represented genre in literary fiction. That said, what makes the unnamed narrator of James Salter's early masterpiece, A Sport and a Pastime, a rather more intriguing prospect is the fact that the most significant love affair of his life happened to someone else. Through the recollections of its aforementioned narrator, Salter's novel tells the story of a torrid affair between Anne-Marie, a poor young French woman, and Phillip Dean, a charming but arrogant young American, amidst the backdrop of early 60s Paris. In a voice tinged with loss and frustrated desire, Salter's narrator viscerally recalls each detail of the affair... including those he could never have been present for. This blend of forensic recollection laced self-consciously fictional elements makes the book more than a simple tale of doomed love; indeed, at its best this brilliant novel offers an insightful examination into the way memory falls prey to the inevitable distortions of a certain kind of romantic fiction.

Salter is often described as a 'writer's writer', but don't let that put you off. There is nothing precious about these glorious sentences, at once so effortlessly beguiling, and so deeply resonant. Read this book and you will immediately want to search out and savour every one of Salter's novels. This is as good a place as any to start.

 - Dan   

Book Review: The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Readers familiar with the author's bestselling literary memoir "The Possessed" (as well as her frequent contributions to the New Yorker) will already be aware that Elif Batuman is one of the purest comic talents going around. The good news is that the transition to fiction has done nothing to diminish her characteristic mix of dry observation and bemused self-deprecation. Beginning as a fairly straightforward take on the 'campus novel', "The Idiot" tells the story of Selin, a bright but somewhat naive Harvard undergraduate, and her developing relationship with Ivan, a moody and often inscrutable young mathematician. In cataloging the missed connections and nagging self-doubt of their initial furtive encounters, Batuman mines these familiar situations for every ounce of their comedic potential. As the relationship between Selin and Ivan develops, however, Batuman's book becomes something more: a deeply insightful - and often touching - rumination on idealisation and the limits of language. In the character of Selin, Batuman has created one of the more genuine and memorable literary protagonists in recent memory; mingling a taste for flights of abstract reasoning, with clear-eyed and minutely detailed attention to the matters of the heart, Selin will quietly occupy a corner of your mind and will remain there long after the final page has been turned. 

Verdict: "The Idiot" is far more enjoyable than a novel about linguistic philosophy, Russian literature, and Hungarian public transport has any right to be.

- Dan
 

Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

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This is an unusual novel of romantic slippages and the sort of halting, awkward connections that pass for many familial relationships in the twenty-first century. The characters orbit around the peculiar event that was Marina Abramovic's 2010 endurance performance, The Artist is Present. Abramovic's daily practice of doggedly gazing into her audience's eyes becomes a fascination for an art-obsessed widow, procrastinating composer, art students and even a ghost. Heather Rose's unique novel not only imortalises the srange effect Abramovic had on the mood of New York during her performance, but interrogates what art should, can and does do for the lost and lonely.
 
- Pip

Book Review: Thirty Days: A Journey to the End of Love by Mark Rafael Baker

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Mark Baker is well known for his bestselling memoir The Fiftieth Gate, a book in which he chronicles the journey he made with his Holocaust survivor parents back to Poland. But this book is a chronicle of a different kind. His beloved wife of 33 years, Kerryn, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of stomach cancer. She died ten months later. The thirty days of the title refers to the sloshim, a Jewish rite of mourning after burial. During that time, Baker goes to ground scouring his memories and his home trying to recapture the essence of a deep and loving marriage. His grief knows no bounds and the reader is inexorably drawn into that house of mourning.

Thirty Days is hard going because the pain is so palpable and seemingly neverending. And yet, at the same time, it uplifts because of the love it bears.

- Rita
 

Book Review: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah is a deeply moving love story that addresses race relations within America, the UK and Nigeria. Chimamanda Ngochi Adichie’s effortless writing-style tells the story of two childhood sweethearts, Ifemelu and Obinze, as they grow up in Nigeria together, and then as circumstance separates them and leads them on two very different paths through America and England, and finally back to Nigeria again. This is a compelling story that addresses the struggles of being an immigrant, what it is to be black in America, and how circumstance can shape lives in unexpected ways. More specifically Americanah is a story that examines what it is to be African-American versus being African in America and what is it to know real love.

- Alex

Remind Me How This Ends by Gabrielle Tozer

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Aussie author Gabrielle Tozer’s latest YA novel is a fantastic read for teens and adults alike.

Layla hasn’t set foot in the country town of Durnan since her mum died in a tragic accident and her father packed their bags. That was five years ago. Now she has returned.

Milo’s the kid who never left. He’s treading water, working at his dad’s bookshop and pining for his long-term girlfriend, missing his friends, who have all left Durnan for bigger and better things.

Layla and Milo used to be neighbours, best buddies, but time has changed them both. Will they rekindle their friendship? Will it lead to something more? Or are there just too many reasons to turn away?

I loved this “boy-meets-girl-again story.” The rural setting, the laughs, the sucker-punches to the heart. I was rooting for Milo and Layla every step of the way, and yeah, I nearly cried (but I held those tears back because I am tough and manly, dammit). For me, it’s Tozer’s portrayal and exploration of grief that’s the real standout here. An entertaining, heartfelt read you’ll chew through it in no time.


- Jeremy

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Francoise Frenkel

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This remarkable memoir was first published in Geneva in 1945 and quickly fell into obscurity until a copy was found in a second-hand bookshop. Major French publishing house, Gallimard, republished it in 2015 to much acclaim and this edition has been sensitively translated by Australian Stephanie Smee with a moving preface by Nobel Prize Winner Patrick Modiano.

In 1921 Frenkel, a Polish born Jewish Francophile, opened a French Language bookshop in Berlin, an enterprise that was very successful until the onset of the Nazi regime. She was required to close the shop and flee to France where she roamed from town to town seeking refuge. In a gentle but firm tone, Frenkel describes the people who helped her, her disdain for the collaborators and the desperation which surrounded her and many others in the same plight. Her husband was deported to Auschwitz but Frenkel eventually managed to make it to the Swiss border and safety. There is little documentation available about what happened to her afterwards but this memoir firmly places Frenkel in the upper echelons of autobiographers.

- Rita

Sweet Caress by William Boyd

William Boyd has done it again – written a captivating novel about a fascinating female photographer whose work covers some of the major events of 20th century history. Amory Clay photographs the sex clubs of Berlin in the 1920s, the Blackshirt riots in London in the 1930s and becomes one of the first women war photographers during World War 2 and later the Vietnam War. At the same time Amory establishes a passionate life for herself and her work unencumbered by social mores and testing out some deep relationships with men. Boyd has an uncanny ability to express the female voice. The book is peppered with examples of “her” work leaving the reader convinced of their authenticity. Boyd doesn’t enlighten us about their provenance but sadly we have to accept that Amory is a pastiche of the great female journalists and photographers of the 20th century such as Lee Miller, Martha Gellhorn, Gerda Taro, Diane Arbus, Margaret Michaelis ‘and all the others’.

Barbarian Days : A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

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 Before reading "Barbarian Days" (William Finnegan's Pulitzer prize-winning surfing memoir), I thought surfers were a bit of a strange bunch. It didn't help that many of the depictions of surfers that have permeated pop culture over the years (whether in films, on television or in fiction) have tended to portray surfers as lovable clowns -  as either harmless stoners or long-haired zen monks. This is what makes Finnegan's book such a welcome arrival. Simply put, "Barbarian Days" is the best written portrayal of the sport of surfing and its practitioners since Tim Winton's "Breath". Combining an anthropologist's eye for detail, a novelist's insight into human psychology and plenty of exotic locations, all within a thrilling narrative, Finnegan's memoir is more than simply a celebration of its subject. It is a refreshingly clear-eyed, and yet deeply nuanced account of what seems from a distance like such a simple activity. It turns out surfers are a bit of a strange bunch. Reading this book might just leave you wanting a little more strangeness in your life.

- Dan

​Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh

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Eileen is the year's surprise hit; outsider fiction that won the PEN/Hemingway Award then went on to be Booker Prize shortlisted. 

It is a dark novel which has been compared to Plath's 'Bell Jar' but is more like the short novels of Shirley Jackson and Jean Rhys. It is easy to see why it divides opinions, it is unsettling and the titular Eileen Dunlop is unlovable. That's the point; I think her extreme self-loathing isn't meant to evoke sympathy, merely curiosity. She herself likes books “about awful things - murder, illness, death” and if you don't then perhaps this one isn't for you.

Inevitably, then, her recollection of the horrible events that forced her to run from an American small town in the 60's makes for a tense and troubling narrative. It isn't a thriller, as such, but builds a sinister precariousness. Thank goodness Moshfegh has a wry, off-kilter tone - Eileen's home life (with her alcoholic, abusive father) and work life (at a boy's prison) would be oppressive reading otherwise. 

This unforgettable malcontent is a courageously rendered character and figure of extreme loneliness, but still gave me a laugh.

The Sellout  by Paul Beatty

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The Sellout is a brilliant black comedy.

About the least funny thing in the US at present is the state of race relations. And this is what Beatty chooses to write a comic novel about, with astounding success. Twisted genius! His black narrator takes a black slave, for starters, and sets about re-segregating his beloved "agrarian ghetto". In modern LA! There's method in his madness, though. He may end up in the Supreme Court, but he is an unstoppable, unforgettable character in the same company as Ignatius T Reilly, Oscar Wao, or Holden Caulfield. Lovably subversive. Should I be laughing at this? You will ask yourself that less often as you read on, because that question becomes secondary to the many others provoked by this feisty shakedown of cultural assumptions. An equally valid reflection on this wonderfully absurd journey may be - what would you do for hand-reared watermelon and weed?

The angry humour itself is unremitting and non-discriminatory. Beatty spares no segment of modern America in this caustic, electric satire.

- Paul