Staff Picks – August 2018


Scrublands by Chris Hammer – ALLEN & UNWIN, Aussie adult fiction $32.99

The debut novel Scrublands by Aussie journalist Chris Hammer is a totally absorbing, multi-faceted crime mystery that gripped me from the dramatic prologue right through to the very end. Hammer strongly evokes a sense of the drought stricken inland Aussie town of Riversend. The heat, the declining population, the desolation. Even the local pub has been abandoned by the owner publican! This is a town battling not only the elements, but also living in the aftermath of a shocking multiple murder crime committed by the local Reverend Byron Swift no less. The whole environs is all there mapped out and explored authentically with Hammer’s beautiful rendered prose making the place a character of and in itself.  The vivid description of the bushfire that threatens homes and people in the first half really had me on the edge of my seat – I felt right there. The general store, local motel and RSL all added to this conjuring of regional life perfectly.
But don’t be fooled, there is a well developed story here – and enhanced with a good cast of well rounded and curious characters. Our protagonist guide is  journalist Martin Scarsden, recovering from a recent trip to the Middle East and trying to get back into a routine. He is sent on assignment to Riversend to do a one year anniversary piece about the murders. Assisted by local policemen and attractive, single mum and bookstore/cafe owner Mandy, Martin believes it will be a straight forward report – but of course that is never going to happen.
I was totally engrossed in the unfolding of Scarsden’s findings – and its link to various other secrets and crimes outside the original murder focus; drug running, domestic abuse, fraud, rape, and the newly discovered murder of two missing backpackers. Well fleshed out peripheral characters such as the cops and journos are accompanied by other intrigues like creepy drunk Snouch, nude enthusiast loner Codger Harris, ASIO agent Goffing, or indeed the recently deceased murderer and holder of many international secrets, Byron Swift.
Whilst, one or two of the recap moments were a little redundant perhaps, they could logically be explained by the journalistic premise and focus of Scarsden. Indeed, Hammer is well versed to create a sense of journalistic tension as Scarsden strains under pressure to meet story deadlines, battle the media scrum that hungrily descends on the sleepy but grieving town, and unwittingly finds himself at the centre of the media accounts himself. He tries to precariously navigate the line of neutral, dispassionate reporting alongside his growing personal attachments, with it all becoming quite a quandry. Yes Scarsden makes some ill considered choices at times, but that kind of flawed status makes him all the more likable and adds to the richness of the story. The twists are naturally revealed as the investigation unfurls, and the consequences that result when discovered equally enticing and believable. The lives affected here are real and full of pain, and it is not until the full truth comes to light that the healing can begin. Comparisons to Jane Harper’s “The Dry” will surely abound and they are not unfounded for this is another fantastic Aussie small town crime novel for those who like complex mysteries, suspenseful twists and excellent writing.


After the lights go out by Lili Wilkinson, Allen & Unwin, Young Adult $19.99

Lili Wilkinson is a prominent star of contemporary Australian young adult literature and her latest novel, After the Lights Go Out, clearly shows why.
You won’t find a man as prepared for the end-of-the-world as seventeen-year-old Pru Palmer’s father, who has taught her and sisters Grace and Blythe how to survive… emergency drills, a thoroughly stocked hidden underground bunker, the importance of family and selfishness when it comes to supplies. So when a solar flare triggers an electromagnetic pulse, causing an entire blackout in the remote Kimberley mining town Jubilee (cars included), Pru and her sisters must decide to follow everything their father has taught them to a T and head to the bunker, thinking only of themselves and their survival, or go into town and get through this event as a community. When it comes down to it, what matters most to Pru? Family or community? Life or death?
This is a compulsive and suspenseful thriller for older teen readers heightened by psychological tension. Wilkinson has captured the catastrophe-induced panic and reactions of young and old, good and bad, across a diverse and inclusive community, presenting the desperation of some individuals and the bleakness of the situation with skill. After the Lights Go Out is thoroughly deserving of its comparisons to John Marsden’s Tomorrow When the War Began — and shh!, I may have liked it a little more.


The Distance Between Me and The Cherry Tree by Paola Peretti (translated by Denise Muir) – Hot Key, Kids fiction, $16.99

Inspired by the life of the author Paola Peretti, this novel is a book for everyone of all ages. Sometime in the next 6 months, Nine-year-old Mafalda will completely lose her sight. Affected by Stargadt Disease, the distance Mafalda can record between her and the Cherry tree is getting smaller and smaller. From 70 metres, all the way down to 30, we follow Mafalda’s journey as she tries to find out what is really important to her.
To begin with Mafalda compiles a list three pages long titled – Things I care about a lot (that I won’t be able to do anymore). The list exemplifies the experience of Mafalda for much of the book; she cannot ski on the snow trip, she has trouble making friends and soon she will not be able to look at the vibrant colours on the blanket her grandmother knitted for her before she died.
Mafalda’s realisation of her own fate leaves her feeling very isolated and stuck in a state of despair for much of the novel. So much so, that she decides she will run away and live in the Cherry tree at her school, with her much beloved cat Ottimo Turcaret. Similar to Cosimo in her father’s favourite book The Baron in the Trees, Mafalda is certain that she will spend the rest of her life in that tree. However, with the help of characters like Filippo, Estella and her loving parents, we find out that this might not be the case.
For fans of Wonder, The Little Prince and The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly. This book, although quite small will leave you feeling inspired and grateful for the opportunities we have every day, for the things we can see and we can do.


Superior Spectre by Angela Meyer – Vulture Press, Adult fiction, $29.99RRP

This book is like nothing I have read before with its unusual narration and controversial main protagonist; this book is definitely something to pick up if you want something different and captivating.
Jeff has decided to remove himself from the society he knows (Melbourne) and move to rural Highland Scotland to spend the last of his dying days. Unable to bear with true isolation, Jeff purchases a robot companion and a device that allows his mind to time travel into another’s body. Jeff is not able to control young Scottish girl, Leonora’s, life or actions but he witnesses her life as she lives them. As this new technology is overworked and overused we begin to see the effects such technology can have, with the blurring of Jeff and Leonora; it becomes difficult to differentiate who is who and both characters are caught in this entanglement.
I loved the premise of this book, the thought of being able to psychologically transfer yourself into the body of a past society is incredible to think about and definitely interestingly explored within this novel. I also really enjoyed the Scottish setting of Edinburgh and the revolution of mental health institutions and explanations; also to witness a variety of woman classes: those that wish to study but are prevented versus those that wish to marry well and maintain the household.
The two main characters of Jeff and Leonora are vastly different and it is interesting to see them blend together and almost merge into a hybrid character. I am unsure as to whether protagonist is the way to describe Jeff; with him being both his and Leonora’s accidental antagonist.
An interesting read that explores right from wrong; mental illness and the possibility of human desires being unnatural and immoral.
Trigger content warning: While all sex scenes are with of-age characters, main character Jeff expresses interest sexually in young adolescent boy at one stage.

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