Non-fiction reviewer Steven Carroll and fiction reviewer Cameron Woodhead each have four new titles for you to explore, including their picks of the week.
Bessie O’Connor, 16-year-old swimming champion, who was murdered while on an evening joy-ride in Eric Craig’s stolen car on December 14, 1932.Credit:Archives
The Killing Streets
In 1932 two young women were found in inner-city Sydney parks: both naked and brutally bashed to death. Police noted the similarities, but as they were prostitutes investigations were far from thorough. It wasn’t until a third murder that became front page news – Bessie O’Connor, an aspiring Olympic swimmer also working in escort services – that police pulled out all stops. Tanya Bretherton, who specialises in recreating true crime, takes the reader into Sydney’s mean streets, profiling the victims, the suspects and the investigating police (as well as the role of the motor car in facilitating sex murders), and the result might be called procedural non-fiction. A man confessed to one murder and was jailed for 25 years, but many more eerily similar murders that looked like serial killings followed. Forensic, vivid and atmospheric.
PICK OF THE WEEK
To the Lake
The eponymous lake is Lake Ohrid in what is now the Republic of North Macedonia. For poet and novelist Kapka Kassabova – who grew up in Sofia and now lives in the Scottish highlands – the lake and the region have always haunted her because her grandmother lived there as did generations of her family. In crisp, poetic language she describes her pilgrimage back, charting her journey, the people she meets while also creating a resonant sense of place. In one small town she meets a mother and son, caretakers of a Dervish monastery who converted to Sufism. In another she speaks with the keeper of the Black Madonna – a renaissance icon that heals illness and infertility – who believes in miracles. The result is a kaleidoscopic mirroring of the area through time past and present, with tales of war and peace woven in.
Australian Code Breakers
Code-breaking is usually associated with Bletchley Park, Alan Turing and ‘‘thinking machines’’, but in 1914 a Geelong mathematician and German speaker, Frederick Wheatley, cracked a sophisticated German naval code with a pencil, paper and lateral thinking using a captured German naval codebook. Having the book was one thing, finding the solution was another, especially when the Germans shifted the code. Based in Melbourne, with a staff of eight German-speaking women, Wheatley eventually came up with deciphered German naval messages that led to a decisive British victory off the Falklands.
James Phelps dramatises events, the dialogue and descriptions having a contemporary ring and while this gives things immediacy it can sometimes jar. But the story, alternating between action at sea and code-breaking on land, rocks along.
How to Argue With a Racist
Weidenfeld & Nicolson. $29.99
When Boris Johnson referred to Africans using terms such ‘‘piccaninnies’’ and ‘‘watermelon smiles’’ he was voicing the kind of colonial racism that has never really gone away. But, as genetics expert and broadcaster Adam Rutherford points out, there are also multiple examples of ‘‘well-intentioned’’ racism prevalent today: the Chinese are good at maths, blacks are born athletes, etc. People with these views often invoke science to support them, but Rutherford argues the science of genetics says no such thing. He emphasises the complexity of the issue – an argument underpinned by personal experience of racism due to his Indian ancestry – and his rejection of racial myths and stereotypes proves to be something of a handbook to assist us to combat ‘‘pseudo-science’’ used to justify prejudice and racism.
PICK OF THE WEEK
Despite its title, Amina Cain’s Indelicacy is a slender and subtle fiction, though it suggests that, as a woman, pursuing a literary life is no delicate matter. The novel proceeds in brief chapters, unveiling an unfinished portrait of Vitoria – a cleaning lady at an art museum who unexpectedly marries into wealth. Vitoria is bright and harbours literary ambitions, but her new world comes with limits, and distractions, of its own. In a subversion of rags-to-riches romantic comedy, she finds she must orchestrate a divorce in order to achieve the conditions necessary for her to write. Cain’s jewel-like book catches the light from many angles: Indelicacy is at once a playful and enigmatic meditation on art, a fable about gender and class and how they influence the way we read the pursuit of power, as well as a glittering engagement with writers from Jean Rhys to Jean Genet.
Jose Luis de Juan; trans., Elizabeth Bryer
Early in Napoleon’s Beekeeper, there’s a letter written in a ‘‘characteristically precise and sometimes florid style’’, which serves as a fair description of the virtues of the author’s own prose. Spanish novelist and poet Jose Luis de Juan hovers evocatively over Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile to Elba, in a book that lingers on an unlikely friendship that flowers from mutual obsession. Andrea Pasolini is an unlettered farmer with a passion for keeping bees; Napoleon once ruled most of Europe and nurses plans to reconquer an empire still greater in extent. Keeping himself busy on Elba, the former emperor arranges to inspect Andrea’s hives, and as political tides turn on and off the island, Napoleon becomes convinced that the amateur apiarist, and the bees he is devoted to, hold one key to his destiny. It’s a stylish historical novel, translated with flawless rhythm and lucidity into English by Elizabeth Bryer.
Universal Love reveals a writer of empathic imagination and dauntless inventiveness, with a knack for probing unexplored horizons in the co-evolution of humanity and technology.
The stories have the broadest possible tonal range. There’s the poignant comedy of The Year of Nostalgia, in which a grieving family resurrects a loved one using a hologram whose personality has been programmed from the dead woman’s social media accounts, while the apocalyptic cli-fi of Beijing portrays a city with pollution so severe travellers must stop at “breathing stations”, and may avail themselves of a procedure that allows traumatic memories to be erased. Questions of identity, addiction, artificial intelligence, parenting, and the future of love all vie for your attention in this stimulating series of tales.
The Last Smile in Sunder City
It’s fortunate Luke Arnold is a successful actor – he played Long John Silver in Black Sails, and Michael Hutchence in INXS: Never Tear Us Apart – because his moonlighting as a novelist is … well, let’s just say he should stick to his day job. True, The Last Smile in Sunder City seems like a bankable original idea. The mash-up of hard-boiled noir and comic fantasy follows Fetch Phillips, a mercenary responsible for a catastrophe known as the Coda, which obliterated all trace of magic from the land of Sunderia and left its magical creatures disabled and dying. Here, our antihero, wracked with guilt, delves into a corrupt underworld as he investigates the disappearance of an ancient vampire. Unfortunately, Arnold has little command of novelistic craft – with great clumps of pedestrian dialogue, obsessive over-description, and so on – compromising the ability to realise his vision.
Source: Read Full Article