Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips, Penguin/Random House
Joan is playing with son Lincoln in the Dinosaur Discovery Pit when she realises closing time at their local zoo is just five minutes away and they need to be heading home. It’s a regular haunt for the inseparable mother and son, a place where Joan loses herself in thought, pondering the whats and ifs about her four-year-old’s future as his curls flop over his forehead and he obsesses over the plastic action heroes he holds so dear.
If this scene were to open a movie you’d know something sinister was about to unfold, and so it is in Gin Phillips’ harrowing, exhilarating Fierce Kingdom, a novel so filmic you can almost hear the musical crescendo.
As Joan and Lincoln gather themselves and head towards the exit they hear pops, small explosions and then, more clearly, gunshots.
“I’ve spent plenty of time in our local zoo with my five-year-old. All that wandering from merry-go-round to flamingos to reptile house gives you plenty of time to daydream about potential novel ideas,” Gin tells The Australian Women’s Weekly.
“I knew I wanted to write a story about motherhood, but I couldn’t settle on a particular shape for the story. Likely because of events in the news, one day I found myself wondering what I might do if a shooter burst into the zoo – where would I go?”
It’s a terrifying thought but one many parents and schoolchildren have seriously considered – especially in the US. “Our children now go through ‘intruder drills’ in school – what to do if ‘a bad person’ comes into the building. Lock the doors, find a place to hide, be very quiet – this is something my kindergartener comes home explaining to me very matter-of-factly. Public shootings have become all too common,” says Gin.
As Joan heads for the gate, she sees bodies on the ground and an armed man walking into the female toilets. Petrified, she clasps Lincoln and heads back into the zoo in search of a place to hide. Between the shooters and the animals there is a double whammy of danger and primal instinct mixed with a fierce maternal protection that fires Joan as they’re hunted like prey through the zoo.
At the gentle centre of this chilling roller-coaster is a study of motherhood, the emotion which Gin describes as “the love and pleasure and sacrifice and animal pull of it” that pushes this mother to fight against the odds.
Some of the most powerful descriptions are of earlier moments between Lincoln and Joan, while one of the most gruelling is when Joan finds a baby hidden in a rubbish bin, presumably by a traumatised mother.
What strikes deepest, though, is the utter plausibility of this horrific tale, which haunts you long after the final page.
Goodbye, vitamin by Rachel Khong, Simon & Schuster
Ruth, 30, newly-single and heartbroken, heads home for the holidays. There her mother asks her to move in and help care for her father, who’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
It’s a bleak premise but at the hands of this debut novelist it’s anything but, her wry humour permeating the novel with poignant observations. To keep boredom at bay Ruth searches for remedies (dried jellyfish anyone?) and conspires to create fake classes for her dad, a professor, to “teach”.
The class is made up of adoring students – one more so than the rest – which sends Ruth on a search for evidence of his past indiscretions. As his condition worsens, Ruth is forced to confront why she stayed away from the family she loves so long. A beautifully observed story about family, relationships and memories.
Jean Harley was Here by Heather Taylor Johnson, UQP
Jean Harley, wife, mother, colleague, best friend and, for her dog, owner. When she is knocked off her bicycle and run over by a van, everyone who loved her is given a voice to mourn. Including the dog.
It could be twee but Australian poet Heather Taylor Johnson makes sure it isn’t, bringing a poet’s eye to this story of what happens when a beloved dies suddenly. Friendships fracture; a husband falls into hopeless grief; an accidental killer, the no-hoper driving the van, reshapes his life.
The voices focus first on the fallout, then the post-shock settling, as the grieving adapt to life without Jean. Her life was no more extraordinary than anyone else’s, but it’s a pleasure to read about the life of someone special to those who loved her.
Young & Damned & Fair by Gareth Russell, HarperCollins.
On the eve of her execution, King Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard, made a “curious request”. She asked to see the block on which she would die, and practised laying her “slender neck into the wooden curvature”.
Gareth Russell’s biography gives this queen a depth rarely seen. Portrayed as giddy and foolish, Catherine could be determined. Until the scandal over her virginity, she had hardly put a foot wrong.
Her marriage to an ageing megalomaniac who “never pushed forward any legislation which could improve his subjects’ lot” mustn’t have been easy. On the day of her death she nuzzled her neck into the embrace of the block, for “she had made it familiar. She would leave with dignity.”
- Leila McKinnon
The Lost Pages by Marija Peričić, Allen & Unwin
This debut novel from Marija Peričić is also this year’s winner of The Australian/Vogel’s prestigious Literary Award. Set in Prague in the early 1900s, The Lost Pages purports to be a newly discovered memoir of Franz Kafka’s friend, fellow writer and literary executor Max Brod.
But this is no dry exploration of the facts; it soars into an imaginative and Kafkaesque story of envy, madness, and identity. Unlike Kafka, Max Brod is not handsome, charming or talented, and when he reads his rival’s exceptional stories he feels “a slow horror”, and a “terrifying abyss” opens in front of him.
The tension that pervades the relationship between the two literary men becomes intense and radiates doom. This interpretation of events is so original it’s gratifyingly impossible to predict its satisfying conclusion.
- Leila McKinnon
Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello, Hachette.
Ponte, Northern Italy – a small, rundown town has its unremarkable environment interrupted during the stifling hot summer of 2016, when a little boy is murdered.
In the remote home of 16-year-old Elia Furenti, lives are also unravelling and secrets are threatening to rise to the surface. As Elia’s father descends into the abyss of mental illness, his decline is shielded by the unwavering love of his wife.
In the introduction to this stunning novel about mental illness, family secrets and the way unconditional love can blind us from the truth, Italian author Elena Varvello reveals that writing the story was a way to deal with her relationship with her own bipolar father. Interestingly though, we discover the book’s protagonist is a 16-year-old boy.
The result is a sparse, but poignant exploration into the depth of emotion and confusion experienced by adolescent boys, expressed, as they do, with the least words possible. As the suspense unfolds, it is not anxiety I felt as a reader but stillness. Pain is treated here, not as an emotion to fear, but to be observed under the stunning microscope of Elena’s prose.
The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce, Penguin/Random House
If you fell for Harold Fry and Miss Queenie Hennessey, there’s now a new Rachel Joyce character set to steal your heart. Well, several actually, in this engaging narrative symphony.
Frank is a music shop owner – not your average music store, but one that sells only vinyl records, none of those new CDs. Frank’s gift is that he can match music to his customers’ needs, healing their troubles. The one person he can’t heal, though, is himself.
The store is in a rundown little cul-de-sac, but Frank, his young assistant Kit and the neighbouring business owners – including a former priest, a feisty tattoo artist and funeral director brothers – are united in their determination to fend off the developers trying to buy them out.
Then into their lives falls the mysterious Ilse Brauchmann, setting in motion a story of love, loss, missed opportunities and redemption, against a soundtrack of Frank’s tuneful cures (keep a device handy to hear the tracks on YouTube!). Funny, sad, uplifting and absorbing, the end of Frank’s story may just have you leaping to your feet in song.
Moonglow by Michael Chabon, HarperCollins
A vivid story, spanning key events of the 20th century, as told by a dying old man to his grandson. He was a roisterer, a charmer and a felon, obsessed with rockets and the moon.
The grandson in this book is a writer called Mike Chabon, and the old man’s life is very similar to the real author’s grandfather – but whether this is a fictional memoir or an autobiographical novel matters less than that it’s a wonderful read. We travel many paths, including that of the grandmother, still carrying the numbers from the camps, haunted by an image of “the skinless horse”, where madness lies.
Her daughter – Chabon’s mother – left with relatives when her parents’ marriage collapsed. Full of intimacies and secrets, this burrowing into family is told in high Chabon style, yet held me gripped until the very end.
- Jennifer Byrne
Nevertheless by Alec Baldwin, HarperCollins
Actor Alec Baldwin is a man of famous misbehaviours. From overdoses to his messy divorce from Kim Basinger and affrays with the paparazzi – all are included in this memoir, and put down as learning experiences. Although that’s not why he wrote the book. “I’m writing it because I was paid to write it,” he says with endearing honesty in the preface.
He makes a good fist of it, especially his early years growing up in South Shore, Long Island, the child of an exhausted mother (six kids and no help, her mantra) and distant father. His career is similarly chequered, from struggling soapie actor to leading man – although many rate him highest for his later comedy roles on 30 Rock and Donald Trump impersonations.
An honest tale of a complicated man – with tasty servings of inside gossip along the way.
The Accusation by Bandi, Allen & Unwin
In the “fathomless darkness” of North Korea is a courageous writer, a man who calls himself Bandi, meaning “firefly”. He secretly wrote these stories in the final six years of the rule of Kim Il-sung, and smuggled them out to expose the corruption, cruelty and absurdity of life under the dictatorship.
His prose is fearless and vivid. When a cuckoo crows, it cries out “as if choking on a clot of blood”. One story examines the farcical mourning of the death of Kim Il-sung. Agents monitor visits and grief levels at hundreds of altars commemorating the Dear Leader.
Even three months on when “every flower bed in the city has been stripped bare” and people are starving for lack of rations, they’re so scared they venture far afield during the monsoon to hunt for offerings. It’s a poignant peek into the tyranny of totalitarianism.
Dying for Beginners by Charlie Courtauld, Amazon
Charlie Courtauld makes it clear he doesn’t “do misery memoirs”, he’s not brave and not wise.
He doesn’t deny being brilliant and funny, which is just as well, because even in the midst of suffering from multiple sclerosis he is dazzlingly witty. Courtauld was an eccentric contrarian who became a TV producer and journalist. Even near the end he was curious about his illness.
He complains only that his head nods as if he enthusiastically agrees “with whatever baloney has just been said – even though it’s probably drivel. I never agree with anyone, so it’s torture to give that impression.”
This collection is playful and uplifting. Someday, says Charlie, someone will find a cure but “I’ll be long gone by then – and not in much pain”.