Booksellers' Book Club: March

Chloe

Welcome back to The Booksellers' Book Club. Here you will find out what Avid staff members are currently reading, have just read, or plan to read next.

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FIONA - co-owner

Happiness by Aminatta Forna (out in June)

Set in London this is the story of Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, who bumps into Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist. It’s a novel rich in ideas; Forna describes beautifully the complex ecosystem of nature and humanity alive in our cities and the relationships that are woven through randomness, acts of kindness, and connection.

I keep being drawn back and a third of the way through I am still unsure of the meaning of the title. This is a London rarely written about. Loving it!

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SARAH - book buyer, bookseller

Don't Skip Out On Me by Willy Vlautin

I read Willy Vlautin's new novel Don't Skip Out On Me, and as a big fan of his writing, I wasn't disappointed. It follows Horace Hopper, a 21-year-old Irish/Paiute boy-man who, as a young teen, was taken in by an elderly ranching couple, and although he was well suited to the ranching life, he dreamed of becoming a professional boxer and the novel starts with him preparing to leave the ranch for the city. Although it is a boxing novel, and the fights and training are detailed, it's more about loneliness and fights within himself to find his place in the world. Horace is a Native American who from a very young age was abandoned first by his father, then his mother, and was told by his grandmother that Paiute's were worthless drunks. Although he reads self-help books religiously and plans his goals to reach success with admirable dedication, he decides that to make it as a boxer he needs to pretend to be Mexican - because there aren't any Paiute boxing champions, and his skin tone means he can physically pass as one - even though he doesn't like Mexican food, and all attempts at learning even a little bit of the language has failed, and this internal turmoil and shame within Horace is the real fight of the novel. Vlautin's writing style is reserved, seemingly saying as much as possible in as few words as possible, and the attention to the mundane and incidentals of life (he spends almost as much time writing about Horace's morning routine and breakfast preferences as he does the actual fights) reminds me of Murakami's more realistic writings. I would recommend for readers who love character driven novels, as well as anyone who hasn't been able to finish a full novel in a while and is looking for an easy reentry.

Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins

I'm also reading Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins and loving it. After the Willy Vlautin, it's a refreshing change. Set in the UK countryside during the notoriously winter cold snap of 1963 (I looked it up, and parts of the sea really did freeze over!), 19-year-old Radford is sent to the Manor, a school of sorts for problematic boys, where he forms a strong friendship with a group of them, in particular, the charismatic West. There are the odd classes by visiting teachers, but mostly they are left to their own devices and the various projects to keep the manor intact - the eccentric 'headmaster' admits that the manor is simply a brief respite before the boys are thrown into the world, and jokes his main job is just to keep them alive. As West explains, "it takes two things to end up at the Manor: a reason and a final straw". Like Don't Skip Out On Me, Everlasting Sunday is a quiet book that focuses more on the everyday details of the characters, rather that a huge plot. The writing, however, is lush and beautifully cinematic, and he wonderfully captures the boys' friendships with a subtlety and refinement that is at once contemporary and old-fashioned.

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KRISSY - events manager, bookseller

Tracker by Alexis Wright

I have just started this Stella Prize Shortlisted book. The structure alone is worth the read. The story of the charismatic Aboriginal leader, political thinker, and entrepreneur, Tracker Tilmouth who died in 2015, is told through the collective voices of people who knew him. I firmly believe there is no one true history. History is the collective story and can only be understood by listening to a multiplicity of voices. This book told through interviews is the perfect way to come to an understanding of the past and a skilled writer like Alexis Wright is the perfect person to bring this collective telling to our understanding.

This book reminds me of the Novel Prize winning Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich which used a similar structure, growing a picture of a time and place using the collective voices of oral history.

Wright's book is difficult subject matter, explored in the gentlest of ways. I'm hooked.

The Fish Girl by Mirandi Riwoe

Mirandi is the other Brisbane woman shortlisted for the Stella Prize this year and I picked this book up in solidarity, but I ripped through it voraciously because of the elegance of the voice. Winner of the 2017 Seizure prize Viva La Novella, Mirandi's short but punchy book is a retelling of a short story by W. Somerset Maugham "The Four Dutchmen". There is a passing reference in the story to a Malay trollope. Mirandi took a deep dive into the life of this 'trollope', bringing us a finely wrought description of the life of an Indonesian girl who is plucked from the arms of her fishing family and taken to live on the property of a Dutch merchant. It is a small book but packed full of the smells and tastes and sights of Indonesia and the collision of traditional cultures with the colonial invaders. It is not a happy marriage but it is one rich in a mix of foods, rituals and cultural misunderstandings that will haunt you long after you finish the book.

The Secret Life of Your Microbiome by Susan L Prescott and Alan C Logan

Full disclosure, I am writing a book which delves into the body and into the Microbiome and so I have been reading a lot of books in this area so my obsession may just be work-related, but I do see other people becoming increasingly interested in the micro-zoo that lives in our gut and has such a huge influence on our health. If this is your obsession too then here is a new book to add to your micro-biology shelf. Mine is already bulging, and I am still championing I Contain Multitudes by Ed Young and Gut by Guilia Enders as the the best books in this genre but I am adding The Secret Life of Your Microbiome to the bibliography.

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CHLOE - social media manager, web administrator, bookseller

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton (out in June)

Firstly, it's so refreshing to read a novel based in Brisbane! Boy Swallows Universe follows thirteen-year-old Eli who lives a very unusual life - his stepfather is a heroin dealer, his brother refuses to speak, and his babysitter is a notorious escaped criminal. Dalton explores the seedy underbelly of Brisbane, largely drawing on his own incredible childhood, and perfectly captures growing up in Australia in the 80s and 90s. But this isn't your average coming of age story - with wit, danger, and a touch of magic, Dalton pulls you in to the very last page. Local readers will also find themselves picking out locations (a drug lord in Bellbowrie? Hey, I grew up there!) and experiences (ahh Pasito, do they still make that?) that mimic their own lives .

I'm very excited for this book to be released - it's going to be a big hit.

Apple and Knife by Intan Paramaditha

Apple and Knife is a creepy and captivating collection of short stories that mixes traditional Indonesian fairy tales and ghost stories and adds a feminist Gothic twist. In 'The Well', a young woman caring for her ailing father escapes through a secret door in her house to gaze into a mysterious well. In 'A Single Firefly, a Thousand Rats', the town beauty is drawn to the cemetery and spends her evenings with a deformed gravedigger, and in 'The Queen', an adulterous man is lured to destruction through his dream in which a mysterious woman in a diamond-studded crown appears before him.

By combining elements of mythology, fantasy, and witchcraft with the everyday horror of humanity, these stories explore the depths of human prejudice. If you enjoyed Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado, then you will enjoy this book immensely.

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TRENT - book seller

Terra Nullius by Claire Coleman

I’m reading Terra Nullius by Claire Coleman, which has gotten me through some rather nasty dental surgery recovery this week.

It’s wonderful to see such a powerful work of SF by a new Indigenous writer on the Stella Shortlist this year - and it’s not the only important work of SF on the shortlist this year (you all know how much I loved Krissy’s An Uncertain Grace. Terra Nullius does what SF is best at doing, looking at our own world and history through a different lens - and this is a very clever book. I’m really enjoying the current run of Australian SF voices (Claire Coleman, Cat Sparks, Krissy Kneen, Thoraiya Dyer, Kylie Chan) using SF to tell stories in deeply personal and powerful ways, and it gives me great hope for the future of SF writing in Australia. As a reader of SF, I think we’re living in some very exciting times.

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HELEN - special orders, bookseller

The East German Handbook by Justinian Jampol

This encyclopedic Taschen publication features around 2,000 extraordinary every day items from Wende Cold War Museum. (Wende is a German word meaning transformation, a period of transition and change leading up to the toppling of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991).

The 800 page East German Handbook features colour photographs showcasing the collection ranging from consumer products (computers, radios, records, toiletries, foodstuff) to works of art in all media (paintings, drawings, sculptures, graphics, photographs), and iconic political symbols (statuary, medals, flags, uniforms, commemorative gifts).

Perfect timing! I plan on visiting Justinian Jampol's Museum later this year.

Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming by Inara Verzemnieks

Part memoir, part history, Among the Living and the Dead is an immersive narrative of family and nation, loss and memory. Verzemnieks was raised by her grandparents, Latvian refugees of World War II, who had settled in Washington state among fellow expatriates. After the Iron Curtain fell and her grandmother passed away, the author went looking for the family and homeland that war had deprived her.

For me, what makes this book so enjoyable is that Verzemnieks frames her memoir so that she is both in the present while visiting the past, not unlike that of a traditional fiction story line.

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KASIA - Where the Wild Things Are bookseller

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

I have just finished reading the classic gothic mystery novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson for Her Voice bookclub. This short novel starts as a slow burn as we enter the strange and dark world of sisters Mary Katherine aka Merricat and Constance, who together with their elderly Uncle Julien have survived their whole family’s poisoning 6 years earlier after a shared meal. Although the novel creeps along at the beginning it spirals into a tense tragedy that exposes the weird underbelly of the love and devotion between these sisters - I can’t wait for our bookclub discussion. The novel also fetishises food as an expression of the sister’s relationship which at once delights and disgusts the reader! Delve into the work of this iconic and celebrated American author if you haven’t already.

Wild Honey & Rye: Modern Polish Recipes by Ren Behan

Speaking of food, I’ve been researching Polish Easter recipes for the upcoming weekend from the cookbook Krissy gifted me for my birthday, Wild Honey & Rye: Modern Polish Recipes. There’s a range of traditional to contemporary dishes that are beautifully presented, simply explained and accessible for most keen cooks. I’m thinking of making the Buckwheat and Beetroot Salad with Feta, Walnuts & Honey and am trying to persuade my partner to make the Toffee and Cherry Cheesecake - Yum! I recently made chicken soup from scratch using a traditional recipe from the book to restore me during a bought of illness - it was so simple to follow and just as satisfying as my mama’s!

Grandma Z by Daniel Gray-Barnett

Grandma Z by Daniel Gray-Barnett is my 3 year old twins', Archie and Lila, favourite picture book at bedtime lately with its old school style illustrations in bright orange and cobalt blue telling the story of Albert who goes on a wonderfully fanciful birthday adventure with his eccentric grandmother. This gorgeous book has a Mary Poppins feel that celebrates the freedom and joy that one’s imagination can give them, especially if you get to hunt for “Dew of the Sea”, see a “dragon’s tooth horn”, fly with “sandpipers on their way to Siberia” and then have a party with chocolate-cherry-ripple cake.

There's definitely a food theme for me this month!

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BRI - events assistant, bookseller

The Darkest Web by Eileen Ormsby

This book, in my humble opinion, is a triumph of narrative journalism. Ormsby's first book, Silk Road, looked at the marketplaces on the dark web and the people who created and maintained their illegal trading. The Darkest Web goes further. Broken into three parts (Dark, Darker, and Darkest) I was both entertained and educated. The first section is about the legacy of the Silk Road marketplace (most famous for selling any and all drugs) and what marketplaces now look like online. Darker is about hitmen for hire. Darkest is about horrific child pornography on the dark web and the international law enforcement agencies teaming up to fight it. Each section has a gripping narrative arc, and just when you finish one you say, 'Oh my god, it gets even more intense!?' and dive into the next.

The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel

It's a mistake to wait until your life has been effected by an affair to read this book, and to clarify, I picked it up off the shelf simply out of curiosity and then got hooked. Perel's first book is called Mating in Captivity and she draws on a couple of decades of work as a couples psychologist (as well as being highly qualified) to consider what infidelity means, looks like, and how it effects us these days. This book is full of both funny and harrowing anecdotes of (anonymised) couples Perel has helped. It is full of wisdom about our shared insecurities, and about how society at large shapes our relationships and emotional interior. This book taught me a lot about myself as an individual and also as a partner.

Draw Your Weapons by Sarah Sentilles

I'm a little biased here because I got to run the in-conversation with Sentilles when she was in town and was utterly charmed by her. This book is an example of "literary collage" and features chunks of text including memoir, investigative journalism, philosophy, poetry, history, and humour - all asking questions about art and war. What does pacifism mean or achieve? How can we minimise distance between the public and the atrocities our countries commit overseas in wars? Why don't we want to hear or support returned soldiers? Can photography actually connect us to the content or does it allow us to consider it as even more apart from ourselves? Draw Your Weapons does contain a couple of narrative arcs to keep you turning the page, but mostly it is set out in a way that gives you plenty of time to think and consider your own answers to these questions. Excellent book, excellent author.

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KATHLEEN - events assistant, bookseller

A Free Flame by Ann-Marie Priest

A small book that does not in the least feel slight, A Free Flame is a fascinated, indignant, delighted book. Priest examines how four Australian authors (Christina Stead, Gwen Harwood, Dorothy Hewett and Ruth Park) attempted to understand their vocation as writers, and how that fit with what they saw as being successful women. It's about vocation and work, inspiration and morality, scandal and career. It's passionate portrayal of literary lives is a gift to any working writer, student of literature or reader of biographies. It also reminded me of some of my favourite books of literary passion: Dorothy Sayer's Strong Poison and Helene Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road.

The Beast's Heart by Leife Shallcross (out in May)

Not a reinvention but a measured, stately and very traditional retelling of the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast, from the Beast's point of view. Shallcross also brings an affectionate attention to some of the overlooked characters in the story. The Beast's Heart does not model itself on the more outré fairytale reinventions (it is not trying to be another Wicked). Rather, it is written to appeal to fans of Robin McKinley's Rose Daughter and Beauty, or Delia Sherman's The Porcelain Dove. Shallcross has a keen eye for fairytale beauty, and this first novel makes me look forward to seeing more of her writing.

How Pictures Work by Molly Bang

This is a direct and useful primer on how to look at narrative images. It's a good introduction for illustrators, but even more so, it is a very useful education for people who like to look at illustrated books.

The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

A reread, in preparation for a bookclub and a workshop, but not the first time I have re-read this Heyer! The Nonesuch is one of her pleasantest, gentlest Regency novels — not without its share of melodrama, alarums and excursions, but with a central cast of decent adults attempting to negotiate the hysteria of their younger friends and relations with aplomb, good humour and romance.