Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh

Sight

A lizard keeps following me around the house.

I tell the Tattoo Man about it when we’re sitting on his verandah one afternoon. The Tattoo Man has puffy eyelids and a black beard that he strokes when in deep thought. He’s in his rocking chair with a stray orange cat sitting at his feet, swishing its tail.

Sight

A lizard keeps following me around the house.

I tell the Tattoo Man about it when we’re sitting on his verandah one afternoon. The Tattoo Man has puffy eyelids and a black beard that he strokes when in deep thought. He’s in his rocking chair with a stray orange cat sitting at his feet, swishing its tail.

‘Portable Curiosities’ is a collection of twelve surreal and satiric short stories. In ‘Cream Reaper’, the story reflected in the cover art, the search for the ultimate ice cream flavour becomes deadly serious. ‘Sight’ offers the opportunity to see what others miss. Stories are told in first, second and third person, and explore myriad ‘landscapes’.  ‘The Fat Girl in History’ is story within story, twisting and turning, keeping its truths shifting.

‘Portable Curiosities’ is funny, sad, disturbing, pointed, merciless and merciful. Each story in this collection engages the reader then makes them squirm. A wonderfully black-humoured, multi-flavoured assortment which uses fiction to illuminate truths about the world we live in and how we live in it. Much to think about, great fun.

Portable Curiosities, Julie Koh
University of Queensland Press 2016 ISBN: 9780702254048

review by Claire Saxby, Children’s author and bookseller

www.clairesaxby.com

Blame, by Nicole Trope

She really would like to know if there is any point in her continuing to exist, continuing to feed and dress herself, or even get out of bed in the mornings. She doesn’t think she has ever looked this thin and this old. At a certain point, she seems to have crossed a boundary between waif-like and haggard. ‘So what,’ she thinks, staring at the reflection of her collarbones in the police station mirror. ‘So what.’

Anna and Caro have been best friends since they met a child health clinic when their daughters were babies. Now, though, something terrible has happened. Anne’s daughter is dead, as the result of a terrible accident. And Caro was driving the car that claimed her life.Both women – and their families – are devastated, but now each must make sense of her own version of events.

Blame is a gripping tale of two women and their unraveling of the events which lead to a terrible tragedy. Set over the two days that each is interviewed by police investigating the accident, as well as through each woman’s memories of their friendship and of the complicated, challenging events they have helped each other through over the past ten years.

The issues explored – of loss, betrayal, drink-driving and the complexities of parenthood – are emotionally challenging, but the story is compelling, with the immediacy of the two-day time frame keeping pages turning.

Unforgettable.

Blame, by Nicole Trope
Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN 9781760293154

Young Digger, by Anthony Hill

‘How does a German boy like you speak the King’s English so well?’
The child’s manner changed. Outraged, he drew himself to his full height, though he didn’t reach much above Tovell’s wasit, As the band wheezed to a halt, men nearest the door heard the boy exclaim, full of scorn:
‘I am not a German!…I am a Frenchman, monsieur. One of the glorious Allies. I’m one of you!’

As Australian airmen enjoy a sumptuous Christmas lunch in post war Germany in 1918, they are interrupted by the arrival of a small boy. Presuming he is one of the local children, they attempt to shoo him away, but are amazed to realise he is not German, but French. Henri, or ‘Young Digger’ as he comes to be called, has been living on his own or with various British squadrons since he was orphaned in France in 1915 and has somehow made his way to Germany. He is attracted to the Australian airmen by the smell of their food, and soon decides he will be happiest with them.

Whilst his story is sketchy, even his real name unclear, Young Digger is soon a much loved member of the Number 4 Squadron and, when they return to Australia he is determiend to go with them. The story of how he came to be adopted by air mechanic Tom Tovell and smuggled out of Germany, France and England before being welcomed into Australia is extraordinary.

Soldier Boy is a fictionalised account of Digger’s life and extraordinary journey. Previously published as a novel for children, this updated version is aimed at an adult audience. It will appeal to anyone with an interest in ar history, but also to those who like a heartwarming tale of love.

Soldier Boy, by Anthony Hill
Penguin Books, 2016
ISBN 9780670079292

The Toy Maker, by Liam Pieper

‘Let me tell you a story about my grandfather…My grandfather came to this country with nothing, but now, because of his hard work and sacrifice, I have everything. Grandpa was proud of his work, of every little toy that he made. That’s why he was so successful. There’s nothing more important than hard work and sacrifice…’

Adam Kulakov loves his life. He has plenty of money, thanks to inheriting his grandfather’s toy company, a beautiful wife and a son he adores. He has no shortage of mistresses, either. No matter that some of his ideas don’t turn out so well, or that he has trouble finding good staff who will stick around. His grandfather, Arkady, is also happy. After escaping Auschwitz at the end of World War Two, he was able to build a new, successful life for himself in Australia. Now he is retired, but Adam’s wife, Tess, on whom more and more responsibility for running the company falls, includes him in decision making. They have a close relationship.

But when Adam makes one mistake too many, the future of the toy company and of his marriage becomes increasingly rocky. And for Arkady, the horrors of the past are coming back to haunt him, too.

The Toymaker combines twin narratives of 1944 Poland and contemporary Australia so that the reader not only sees Arkady’s story unfold alongside the modern narrative, but also becomes aware of the contracts and similarities between the experiences and personalities of grandfather and grandson. It is a story of privilege, corruption and survival which is both absorbing and uncomfortable.

Compelling reading.

The Toymaker, by Liam Pieper
Penguin Books, 2016
ISBN 9780670079384

The Woman Next Door, by Liz Byrski


She attempts to get a grip on her voice. ‘It just seems such a big change, such a big thing to do.’
‘It is a big thing to do, but it isn’t something that’s undoable,’ he says. ‘A year, remember, that’s what we said. See how it goes for a year. It was your idea. You said it was what you wanted.’
‘But you…you do want it too…don’t you?’
‘I do – I wouldn’t have agreed otherwise.’

For years he women of Emerald Street have lived alongside each other. Much more than simply neighbours, they have seen children grow, careers flourish and relationships change. Now, though, things are changing. Helen and her husband Dennis have moved to a modern apartment near the river, seeking something. Polly has met a man who lives overseas, and is starting a long-distance relationship. Joyce and her husband Mac, still in love, want different things – in different places. And Stella, always flamnoyant, is becoming increasingly erratic in her behaviour.

The Woman Next Door is women’s fiction at its finest. The four friends each face a variety of challenges and changes, and their friendships, too, are at times challenged. Readers journey with each woman, with shifts in perspective allowing an intimate view of the highs and lows of a year which is filled with so many life changing moments.

Byrski has a knack for creating rich female characters and for making readers not only care about them but also feel that these are very real women.

The Woman Next Door, by Liz Byrski
Macmillan, 2016
ISBN 9781743534939

Where the Light Falls, by Gretchen Shirm

Andrew read the message through twice. His eyes skipped over the words as if by reading them quickly he could reduce their impact. But it was too late. Missing, he thought. Perhaps that meant she simply didn’t want to be found. With Kirsten, something like that seemed possible. Maybe she had decided she needed some time away from the world. And yet there was a finality to Stewart’s tone; was he hinting at something more definite?

Three years ago, Andrew left Australia for a new life in Berlin – to reinvigorate his artistic photography career, but also to finally put an end to his relationship with Kirsten, his troubled ex-girlfriend. Now he has a wonderful new relationship and a big exhibition to prepare for. But an email from a friend telling him of Kirsten’s disappearance impels him to return to Australia, seeking some answers to where she has gone. As he tries to investigate he also confronts issues in his own past.

In Melbourne he meets a damaged girl who is a perfect subject for his photography, which focuses on broken things. Working with the girl as he also works through his experiences with Kirsten and his relationship with his mother, leads him to question his motivation and his career.

Where the Light Falls is an artful novel of self-discovery and of confronting the past. Andrew has been damaged by the childhood loss of his father and its impact on his mother, and must confront these in order to move forward – with his new relationship, which his trip to Australia puts at risk, and with his career. Readers will come to care for Andrew, even as they will be frustrated at times by his actions.

A moving read.

Where the Light Falls , by Gretchen Shirm
Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN 9781760113650

Seeing the Elephant, by Portland Jones

In the end it was the cancer that brought the memories. Chemotherapy sleep, cold like reptile skin. The smell of bile, the bone-deep ache and – for the first time in decades – dreams.

Years after the Vietnam War tore up his homeland and killed most of his family, Minh lives with his wife in Perth, Western Australia. he thinks he has left behind the past, with memories too painful to be faced or spoken of. But as he battles cancer, he finds the memories coming back, first in dreams and then in his waking hours.

In 1962 Australian soldier Frank Stevens is sent to the Vietnamese Highlands to recruit and train local tribesmen. As the situation becomes increasingly volatile both for the country and for Frank himself, his friendship with Minh, his translator, grows. The two seem inseparable.

Seeing the Elephant: A Novel is a heartwrenching novel of war, friendship and love, told from the first person point of view of the elderly Minh, looking back on his life, as well as through the letters Frank writes to his much loved grandfather back in Australia.

Historically the novel covers events leading up to the official involvement of Australia in the Vietnam conflict, but emotionally it covers even more – the effects of imperialist intervention on local people, loss, survival and the depths of love, in a finely crafted moving whole.

Shortlisted for the T.A.G. Hungerford Award in 2014, Seeing the Elephant: A Novel is a stunning debut novel.

Seeing the Elephant: A Novel, by Portland Jones
Margaret River Press, 2016
ISBN 9780994316745

The Dry, by Jane Harper

The Dry - Jane HarperEven those who didn’t darken the door of the church from one Christmas to the next could tell there would be more mourners than seats. A bottleneck of black and grey was already forming at the entrance as Aaron Falk drove up, trailing a cloud of dust and cracked leaves.
Neighbours, determined but trying not to appear so, jostled each other for the advantage as the scrum trickled through the doors. Across the road the media circled.

Aaron Falk is reluctant to head to Kiewarra, the town of his childhood. but his childhood friend, Luke Hadler, is dead, and he appears to have killed his wife and son, too, in a horrible murder suicide. Luke’s father has asked Aaron to come, and he feels it’s the least he can do. Aaron is a policeman, but murder isn’t his field – he’s a Federal Police investigator, specializing in corporate crime. Sso when he’s asked to help look into Luke’s death, he’s reluctant.

Aaron’s own past in the town is murky. As a teenager he was implicated in the death of a girl and, although he knows he was innocent, it seems the townspeople are less prepared to let the matter rest. His presence in the town and determination to get to the bottom of Luke’s death puts his own safety at risk.

The Dry is an absorbing crime novel, with the dual mysteries – the apparent murder-suicide now, and the older death of a teenage girl – providing plenty for both the reader and the characters to work through. the character of Luke is well-drawn, with his past and present selves pleasingly developed. The town, too, is populated with an interesting cast, and the mysteries it hosts will keep readers guessing.

The Dry, by Jane Harper
Pan Macmillan, 2016
ISBN 9781743548059

Castle of Dreams, by Elise McCune

‘Robert. His name was Captain Robert Shine.’
She handed me the photograph. I noticed the sharpenss of the soldier’s dark eyes, the strong jawline and the firm tilt of his head, and most of all the startling intimacy between subject and photographer.
‘Oh, Nan…he;s a handsome guy. Who took the photo?’I saw a wary reaction flare in Nan’s watery eyes.
‘A girl I once knew. She liked to take photos.’ Nan closed her lips firmly.

When Stella returns home to spend Christmas with her parents and her much loved grandmother, she senses that the tension between her mother, Linda and her grandmother, Rose, hasn’t lessened since last time she was here. She has never understood how her Nan, so loving to her, is so harsh towards her own daughter. When she accidentally finds an old photograph in her Nan’s bedroom, she starts to investigate.

Over sixty years earlier, Rose and her sister Vivienne share an idyllic childhood living in a Spanish-style castle in northern Queensland. Nothing, it seems, can come between them. But when Rose leaves home and meets a handsome American soldier, this relationship will test the bond between sisters.

Castle of Dreams is an engaging story of three generations, and the secrets that can shape family relationships long after they are kept. As Stella unravels her Nan’s past, she also learns more about her mother and a mysterious aunt she never knew she had.

Set in World War 2 and in contemporary times, this is an absorbing story of love and betrayal.

Castle of Dreams, by Elise McCune
Allen & Unwin, 2016
ISBN 9781760291846

Precious Things, by Kelly Doust

Thumb and forefinger feeling towards tiny dimpled edges, she grasped another shining glass bead, a glittering silvery grey button of mercury. Separating it from the hundreds of others nestled inside the small wooden work tray, Aimee withdrew the bead, brought it close to her face and peered at the pinprick of light.

In Normandy, in 1891, Aimee sews beads to make a collar for her wedding, a wedding arranged by her father in the hope of saving his estate from ruin. In London in 2015, auctioneer and lover of beautiful things, Maggie, finds the aged collar at the bottom of a box of pieces of lace and fabric she has won cheaply at auction. Wondering at its past, Maggie cleans it, and shows it off during a television appearance, and is soon contacted by a stranger sure that she has a connection to the piece. As Maggie tries to trace the history of the collar and its previous owners, she also struggles with her own past and the way it impacts her present. Is the collar leading her towards making the biggest mistake of her life – or is something more simple at play?

Precious Things is a novel about family and about love, spanning three centuries and touching on multiple owners of the mysterious collar. Maggie’s’ contemporary tale is interspersed with glimpses of the collar’s past, and the lives of the women who have worn it, though it is chiefly Maggie’s’ story. Maggie is trying to balance a demanding job in an auction house with a marriage which has always been steady, but is now under pressure as her husband Tim copes with an equally stressful job. The couple’s young daughter Pearl and Tim’s troubled teen daughter Stella add to the mix, as do Maggie’s difficult mother and her old friend Kate.

The collar’s past is gradually unravelled, but it seems that Kate’s marriage is in danger of going the same way.

Precious Things, by Kelly Doust
Harper Collins, 2016
ISBN 9781460750971