Reviews on the biggest books coming your way.

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Can it really be May already? Where is the year going? This month's selection helps you to slam on the brakes from the rising panic that the year is accelerating out of your control.

Lose yourself in the world of an enigmatic painting in the book EVERYONE will be talking about, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. Treat yourself to the acerbic forecasting of Lionel Shriver's The Mandibles for a cautionary tale about financial collapse. Take Nick Earls' Gotham with you on the train or bus and turn the pain of commuting into the private pleasure of escape.

Immerse yourself in other people's stories and watch your own life expand. Slow down with a book, breathe with a book. There, that's better.

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Caroline Baum
Editorial Director
Booktopia Buzz


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The Last Painting of Sara De Vos
by Dominic Smith
Review by Caroline Baum

Any buzz you may have heard about this book is entirely justified. It is, hands down the most polished, intelligent, utterly satisfying literary fiction of the year. It has everything: a compelling plot full of twists and turns, characters who remain intriguing to the very end, multiple locations and a narrative split between different periods, each richly observed in the minutest telling detail.

The themes, scope and ambition of this novel are big: this is a book about art that examines authenticity from many different perspectives and angles. Both on the canvas and in human nature. But while the topic is serious, the tone is often playful and there is much mischief and fun to be had. In the world of seventeenth century Holland painter Sarah de Vos has lost a daughter and embeds her sorrow in her landscapes. In modern day New York and Sydney, collectors, curators and scholars stake their reputations on works that may or may not be any more genuine than they are themselves.

Intelligent and elegantly choreographed, this is one of those novels that makes you feel smarter for reading it and manages to be both entertaining and informative. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


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The Memory Artist
by Katherine Brabon
The Memory Artist  : Winner of the 2016 Vogel Literary Award -  Vogel Winner How can hope exist when the past is so easily forgotten?

Pasha Ivanov is a child of the Freeze, born in Moscow during Brezhnev's repressive rule over the Soviet Union. As a small child, Pasha sat at the kitchen table night after night as his parents and their friends gathered to preserve the memory of terrifying Stalinist violence, and to expose the continued harassment of dissidents ...
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The Natural Way of Things
by Charlotte Wood
Review by Caroline Baum

This unsettling novel stopped me in my tracks, forcing me to ask myself uncomfortable questions about Australian attitudes to women. No book has haunted me like this one, its grim premise provoking urgent, important, all-too-topical questions. And while that is uncomfortable, it also makes for a bracing, invigorating, read: here is a book that throws down the gauntlet and asks: so, is this who we really are? And if it is, then what are we going to do about it?

Wood's setting is a not-too-far-in-the-future rural dystopia where ten young women find themselves captive, chained together, heads shaved, dressed in restrictive, awkward clothes that itch and bonnets that blinker them. They are the slaves of two lumpen men (one of whom mercifully provides welcome moments of comic relief thanks to his gormless concerns with his own wellbeing), building a road while being served revolting rations. All they have in common is that each one of them has been involved in a sex scandal.

This stark and bleak premise is fertile ground for an exploration of female resilience and male oppression. It's full of threat and menace, and it makes for hard reading at times, except that Wood's prose is armed with the eloquent weaponry of resonant rhythms and beautiful words, no matter how ugly the action gets. Having dropped the realism of her earlier novels like The Children and Animal People, she deploys heightened, often poetic, imagery connected to nature to offer fleeting moments of respite.

This book punches Wood straight to the very top of the list of our boldest, most imaginative writers. I am going to stake my reputation on this one, predicting that it is destined to win one or more of our major literary prizes in a very strong field. If it doesn't, well, dish me up some mushrooms (you'll understand when you've read it).


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Gotham
Wisdom Tree: Novella 1

by Nick Earls
Review by Caroline Baum

The first in a series of five novellas, this is a wafer slim but utterly satisfying delight: an entrée that feels like the main course. Way more filing than it looks, this is a marvellously observed, tautly contained vignette of the encounter between music journo Jeff Foster and his nineteen year old pop star subject Na$ti Boi. They meet in a specially closed department store so that Na$ti can do some luxe brand shopping in private. Awkward and uneasy, the two dance around each other, with minder Smokey, security personnel and shop assistants in attendance. There is an embarrassing moment involving a credit card.

Earls knows pitches this sharply contemporary piece perfectly. He captures the zeitgeist, understands the facades of fame and what they hide, the insecurities of celebrity, and the dynamics that make connection so fragile and fleeting between people who are meeting for purely professional reasons. But there is tenderness and pathos here too, revealed gradually as the story builds from something seemingly slight - a celebrity encounter - to become something deeper: Smokey's wife is in labour, but he's not by her side, he's following progress on the phone. Jeff is a father too and time with his daughter is more than normally precious, so the long drawn out exchange with Na$ti costs him dearly. The tug between his work life and his life as a dad adds poignancy to this pocket sized pleaser. More please. 


RRP: $19.99 $15.95 Save 20%
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Our Tiny, Useless Hearts
by Toni Jordan
Review by Caroline Baum

Kicking off with a great opening line that sets the tone for high energy fun, this is a jaunty, tightly choreographed suburban rom-com with plenty of classic farcical scenes (men with cushions over their genitals, shimmying up balconies and hiding in bathrooms,) partners both present and former turning up at the most inappropriate moment, and crisply comic dialogue.

Jordan harnesses her emotional intelligence to all the comic moves, to create an immensely likeable jolly romp.


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The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047
by Lionel Shriver
Review by Caroline Baum

Oh boy, oh boy, Lionel Shriver is on top form with her savage, fierce take on the American financial crisis. Pitched forward into a not too distant future (2029) and complete with a vocabulary of new words, this is Shriver's razor sharp cautionary tale on the financial mess an American white middle class family, the Mandibles, gets itself into when its investments go down the toilet, the dollar collapses and the money markets implode. 

As resources become scarce, the consequences for the Mandibles become more acute, putting new pressures on parents and children - although one member of the family, the precociously smart Willing - has seen it all coming. An apocalyptic romp that skewers capitalism and fiscal policy, loaded with warnings, mocking predictions and satirical scenarios that are alarmingly plausible, this is contemporary fiction with relevance, immediacy and urgency. Ignore it at your peril.


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The Nest
by Cynthia D'Apriz Sweeney
Review by Caroline Baum

The perfect pairing with The Mandibles, this is a darkly comic portrait of another dysfunctional American family coming to terms with notions of disappearing savings and expectations of an inheritance knowns as The Nest.

At the centre of this social comedy is Leo Plumb, the charismatic older brother fresh out of rehab after a car crash involving a nineteen year old waitress. Yep, he's having a mid-life crisis alright. Leo's accident threatens the Nest, a joint trust fund that his siblings are counting on to rescue them from their own self-inflicted mistakes, from too large mortgages to writer's block. The crisis forces them to come together and take stock of their shortcomings.

It's familiar terrain, but no less juicy for that. The big themes here are family, responsibility, ambition, personal failings and entitlement - more specifically, the paralysis induced by knowing there is a pile of money that you can fall back on if all else fails.

Sweeney, who started writing in her mid-forties and got a million dollar advance for this, her debut novel, juggles her wide cast of flawed characters with a very light deft touch. She has sympathy for them but is also more than willing to make fun of their expectations and foolish choices too, which makes this a very enjoyable ride. It's a very upscale New York (Brooklyn, to be precise, now yuppie central) Baby Boomer tale of privilege squandered, but way more entertaining than worthy. Sort of like The Royal Tenenbaums meets Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children.


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The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer
by Kate Summerscale
Review by Caroline Baum

I'm a great fan of Summerscale's meticulous British biographies- she has such a fastidious and beady eye for detail it's as if she is looking at all the evidence through an extra sharp microscope. She combines her methodical analysis with real writerly flair when it comes to archival material, making it come alive in technicolour. The Queen of Whale Cay is a hoot and would make a marvellous film; The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a fascinating true crime take on the classic murder mystery.

Now Summerscale tackles the case of a teenage boy, Robert Coombes, and his younger brother accused of the stabbing murder of their mother in 1895. The boys' actions are not really the focus of Summerscale's attention; they are not in dispute. Instead she gives us the social canvas in which the crime is committed and more importantly, how Robert's circumstances contributed to his mental regression but also, more fascinatingly, following his sentencing, Summerscale takes us inside one of Britain's most famous prison asylums, Broadmoor. Robert Coombes was the youngest inmate of this famous place by several years. Strangely enough, against all the odds, it was the making of him.

I won't tell you what happens next as I don't want to spoil the suspense of the story. Suffice to say it leads in a very unexpected direction and tells a powerful story of redemption that is moving and enlightening.


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Farewell to the Father
by Timothy Elliott
Review by Caroline Baum

Following from a memorable piece he wrote about his father's depression for the Good Weekend magazine, Elliott has now written a bravely honest memoir that fleshes out the family story and amplifies his father's history of mental illness. It begins with a disturbingly arresting scene in which the whole family is party to Tim's father's first suicide attempt, a moment of ghastly drama for seven year old Tim. What follows is an account written with great love and understanding and that provides tremendous insight for anyone caught up in the vortex of bipolar disorder.


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A Life Discarded:  148 Diaries Found in a Skip
by Alexander Masters
Review by Caroline Baum

It's rare these days to come upon a book that is so genuinely eccentric that it defies categorisation. Yes, this is a biography but it is so much more than that. It is also a mystery, a puzzle to be solved, and a memoir.

One day a friend of the author finds one hundred and forty eight diaries in a skip and gives them to him. The diaries, written in books that vary in size, bear no name, and are illustrated with funny sketches. At first, he thinks the author must be a man. But who? Going to enormous trouble to find answers, the author, becomes a journal sleuth, using all the skills he has acquired as an experienced biographer. But a biographer knows the identity of his subject, whereas here, Masters is truly fumbling in the dark.

This is a fascinating and genuinely intriguing piece of detective work, undertaken with a mixture of scholarship and fun and written with great verve and momentum. It is without a doubt the quirkiest literary adventure of the year.


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All Things Cease to Appear
by Elizabeth Brundage
Review by Caroline Baum

This is a fine, classy piece of writing that I hope finds the audience it deserves. It's many things at once: a literary thriller, a portrait of an American rural town that has gone through collapse and come through with gentrification; a beautifully calibrated story of a family that has suffered tragedy and is struggling to live with dignity; and the story of a marriage that unravels in a house that may or may not be haunted.

Interweaving several narratives and characters who are never less than compelling, this story has it all: a plot with a level of page-turning whodunnit intrigue but also plenty of psychological complexity, prose that shifts seamlessly between the worlds of the living and the dead, with sharply satirical sketches punctuating more lyrical writing creating a rich tapestry of human motives. The result is truly haunting as well as haunted.


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