Please Don’t Hug Me
Kay Kerr (Text Publishing, available now)
Erin is in her final year of school, navigating formals, final exams and driving lessons. She is autistic, so as well as living the teen experiences her peers are going through, she is dealing with deciphering social cues, avoiding outbursts, and keeping her ‘cringe list’—where she keeps track of social mistakes and misunderstandings—to a minimum. And she wants to keep all of this to herself—people at school finding out she is autistic would be a huge item for the cringe list. Erin is a planner; she has strong ideas about how things should play out, and feels most comfortable in a routine. As the book opens, she has one main focus—going to Schoolies with her best friend Dee. But despite her meticulous planning, things start to head in quite a different direction.
Please Don’t Hug Me is written as a series of letters to Rudy, Erin’s older brother, who is not around anymore for reasons that soon become clear. Erin writes these letters as a cathartic exercise, and by choosing this model for her narrative, Kerr is able to give her readers an imperfectly introspective view into Erin’s life; the letter writing format effectively represents how a young person might ‘edit’ their lives for the people around them, and even for themselves. Erin tends to omit her terrible boyfriend Mitch from the letters, prefacing any mentions with acknowledgement that Rudy always said Mitch was bad news, or that her own feelings for Mitch are very lukewarm. It’s quietly heartbreaking to see a protagonist as lovable as Erin subject herself to a relationship with zero respect and care, but as with the other trials of Please Don’t Hug Me, it’s a part of a greater journey.
This enjoyable, emotionally complex novel marks an important step towards more representation of autistic girls in Australian YA.
It will be easy for both neurotypical and neurodiverse readers to connect with Erin. She is such a well fleshed out protagonist, clearly written with lots of affection. A major theme of this book is the expectations and preconceptions around how autistic people live their lives, and I loved that Erin moved beyond these expectations. Over the course of the book, she abruptly leaves her part-time job, her best friend hints at changing a shared plan to live together after high school, and a difficult anniversary related to her brother approaches. But when Erin’s routine and plans are disrupted, and her future becomes a little less certain, she actually begins to find her groove. By the end of her year, she is even comfortable enough with her identity that she starts to blog about her life as an autistic person. This enjoyable, emotionally complex novel marks an important step towards more representation of autistic girls in Australian YA.
A Treacherous Country
KM Kruimink (Allen & Unwin, available now)
Gabriel Fox arrives in 1840s Van Diemen’s Land on a mission: find a woman who was transported there 30 years earlier from England, and bring her home. Tasked to do this by the elderly guardian of the young woman he wishes to marry, Fox think this will prove his mettle, and sets out into Hobart Town with a lofty purpose. More Don Quixote than dashing rescuer, however, our gullible and genteel hero is quickly swindled and led astray by card sharks, shrewd-eyed publicans, highway bandits and street-smart urchins.
Fox is a comical creation at the outset—and author KM Kruimink has fun at his expense, winking with sly knowingness to the reader. You can practically see his wide-eyed, misplaced belief in social niceties catching the eye of every wily opportunist along his path: ‘Oh, just give me the fucking thing,’ one of them snaps when poor Fox, still vomiting up polite conversation, just can’t quite seem to get his head around the fact that he’s being robbed.
But in its second half, the novel, which won the 2020 Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award, slowly turns from its comical beginnings as Fox starts to form more meaningful relationships with the people around him, chief among them a resourceful Irishman whom Fox blithely keeps referring to as ‘the cannibal’. Stripped of his possessions and surrounded by a rag-tag group of outcasts in a languishing whaling station, Fox is forced to give up his pretensions and look deeper into his own past for the mistakes that have led him there. It is gratifying to feel the soul of the character fill and expand in these sections, and to feel Kruimink breathe life into his psychology and family history with gentle compassion.
A satisfying exploration of family, compassion and the brief but significant experiences that can alter the course of a young person’s life.
Kruimink is a sharp observer of fine details, arch dialogue and particularly of the natural environment. Her invocation of the Tasmanian landscape coats your brain, sticking with an oily viscosity: mists that ‘coil’ and hills that ‘shrug’ into the night against ‘slow waves of darkness’. However, as a modern reader it is discordant to imagine such visceral descriptions of this landscape while knowing the violent wars waged against Tasmania’s First Nations people only a decade prior the events of the novel. Though there is a cursory nod to this with the presence of a young Aboriginal boy named Tam who lives at the whaling station, it’s an otherwise glaring absence which haunts the book throughout.
The Vogel is often touted for discovering the likes of Tim Winton and Kate Grenville. It feels unfair, however, to shoulder a single debut novel with the weight of these established authors’ full careers, and A Treacherous Country is a much leaner, character-focused story than its peripatetic setup might suggest. Though at times it feels like a smaller part of a larger story, it is a satisfying exploration of family, compassion and the brief but significant experiences that can alter the course of a young person’s life.
Chris Flynn (UQP, available now)
Cramped in a Manhattan storage room waiting to be sold at auction, a 13,000 year old mammoth (we call him Mammut) recounts the long story of his movements: his life on the Steppe, his migration as his herd attempt to escape being hunted to extinction by early humans, his death, and, crucially, the discovery and trade of his fossilised bones. His audience is a mummified hand, as well as the fossilised remains of a Penguin, a Pterodactyl, and a Tyrannosaurus bataar (related but distinct from a T-Rex, though still victim to jokes about tiny hands).
Mammut’s bones are a hot commodity when they are discovered in the early 1800s, sought after as evidence for the virility of the new American Democracy, and as an asset that could fund the Irish uprising. As Mammut travels across America, France, and Ireland, his bones are displayed in Natural History museums, cruise ship dining halls, and distillery tasting rooms where he has little to occupy his time besides listening in on the conversations of humans.
Mammoth is a silly book filled with genuinely moving observations. Flynn manages to make lines like ‘ownership is a strange, uniquely human notion,’ sit comfortably next to others, like ‘Egyptians have a jizz god. Oh lordy.’ There are moments, like when Mammut describes taking a lot of pleasure in dismembering our feeble human bodies, where it’s clear that all creatures have a capacity for cruelty. Yet, it is only ever humans who demonstrate the insatiable desire to own. We not only wish to possess power ourselves but also to take it from others. The animals cooped up in the warehouse bicker, they make fun of each other’s physicality and evolution, but in lauding their own power they never seek to deny each other’s.
Mammoth is a silly book filled with genuinely moving observations on the fundamental nature of living, and what it means to be sentient.
By narrating this story from the point of view of a mammoth, Flynn goes beyond gimmick and introduces the philosophical dimension of time. Told from the perspective of something long extinct, our guilt as a species becomes more obvious. Not only is it undeniable that we are greedy little things, but Flynn shows how we get away with it: by forgetting, by looking forward instead of backward. A Natural History museum is revealed to be not a place of reflection, but another way we can convince ourselves we still have access to everything.
Mammoth considers the fundamental nature of living, what it means to be sentient, and the surprisingly hopeful idea that that it is not enough to simply move on from our mistakes—we still have a responsibility to fix our past.
The Year the Maps Changed
Danielle Binks (Lothian, available now)
It’s hard to find a bigger advocate for Australian YA than Danielle Binks; a longtime reviewer, blogger, editor, literary agent and writer, Binks’ debut The Year the Maps Changed is a middle grade coming-of-age story that is undeniably Australian, and whose ‘Australianness’ is impossible to deny. Set in the Mornington Peninsula in the late 1990s, this story is full of heart strung neatly together in small moments both devastating and hopeful.
As the story begins, there’s a shifting of the ground beneath eleven-year-old geography enthusiast Fred’s feet: She is still recovering from the loss of her mother, her beloved grandfather is in hospital, and her father’s new partner Anika and her son Sam cause Fred to feel displaced within her own home. Then the Kosovo refugees start arriving, seeking sanctuary from war and changing the long held geography of Fred’s town. As her father begins volunteering in the safe haven at Point Nepean, Fred befriends Merjeme, a young refugee girl with a penchant for packaged sugar, and Nora, a refugee patient at the local hospital keen on keeping to herself. The friction Fred feels for her changing family, and her growing anxiety about the fate of the Kosovo-Albanian people, is paralleled by the issue of the ‘boundless plains’ Australia seems reluctant to share. The Year the Maps Changed shows Fred trying to navigate a year in which the lives of all those she knows and has come to know have changed irrevocably.
While Binks’ debut is set in the past, it’s no stretch to relate the plight of the Kosovo-Albanian refugees to the refugees of today. There’s a relevancy to what Binks writes which clearly articulates for young readers—and even for readers like me in their early twenties—both how much and how little we have progressed as a nation in relation to refugees and those seeking asylum.
Binks clearly articulates for young readers both how much and how little we have progressed as a nation in relation to refugees and those seeking asylum.
While the novel deals with a plethora of complex family issues in maps, at the forefront of the narrative is Fred, and Binks’ awareness of her young audience. Binks doesn’t talk down to her readers; much like the character of Mr Khouri, she approaches these large issues with gentleness, patience and the right amount of sensitivity, asking readers to consider the perspectives of others, particularly those closest to them, and how many stories like Nora and Merjeme are being lived right now in our country.
Tension is tight in the first half of the book, while after a climactic midpoint, the emotionality and introspection of our growing protagonist dominates the second half. There’s power and meaning in the little moments for Binks, the novel seeking strength in the minutiae of the everyday rather than overplaying the more dramatic moments. Threaded together with small acts of human kindness, The Year the Maps Changed is not only an enjoyable but important story that will resonate with Australians young and old.
Kimberley Starr (Pantera Press, available now)
It feels strange to think back to January and write about one deadly disaster, while the world is caught firmly in the teeth of another, even if the ashes of the former still smoke in the hills. The effects of the catastrophic bushfires of the summer will be felt for years to come, even as global attention moves on, even as the inevitable fresh fires that will come later in the year loom. Communities have been devastated, in more ways than one.
In Torched, a small Yarra Valley town has been burnt to the ground by an arsonist, and many lives have been lost. Phoebe’s son Caleb has been accused. As the witch hunt gathers speed and begins demanding Caleb’s arrest and conviction, Phoebe grows more and more desperate to prove his innocence. But Caleb, changed by his involvement in a catastrophic car accident the year before, won’t say a word, not even to his mother.
Can we ever know our children? Are they ours to know, to understand? Torched grapples with these questions.
Can we ever know our children? Are they ours to know, to understand? Torched grapples with these questions. But Phoebe tries, albeit with the best of intentions, to control her 18-year-old son, not to understand him. She would like to preserve him as the child he was, not the man he has become, and seeks to know his every thought, admitting to using Twitter to check up on him, and reading his online conversations. This kind of paranoia happens within relationships—we’ve all lurked or obsessed in grief over a former friend or lover, after all—but it’s Phoebe’s cool lack of self-awareness that rankles. But she doesn’t have to be likeable; in fact, hallelujah—women are as nuanced, complicated and yes, as dark as men. Her desperate race to prove her son is innocent, as much to herself as to the ravenous public, is complex—we don’t have to like the way she goes about it.
But for a thriller, Torched has a slow pace, with only a shadow of the emotional heft of comparison novel Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. And with an uncompelling protagonist and clunky dialogue, Torched suffers. Instead, where Starr deserves praise is for her skill in articulating the shared experience of all Australians. We lived through these fires mere weeks ago, and their significance is as urgent now as it was then. Torched reminds us not to forget that while the virus has captured our attention, the embers still smoulder.
Come: A Memoir
Rita Therese (Allen & Unwin, available now)
Sex work, as depicted in popular culture and literature, is often sensationalised: either a world of sparkly, glamorous excess (usually with the promise of a redeeming romance), or a vision of violent abuse, exploitation and misery. In her memoir Come, Rita Therese records her career in the sex industry as alter ego Gia James, while also delving into her family life, experiences of abuse and sexual trauma, and her intense, almost obsessive, relationships with women and men. Therese captures the work of sex work—a job that, like others, requires you to sell something of yourself, where there are good and bad days. She finds satisfaction in her success with a client; at times, she experiences her own pleasure from the work; and she shares intimacy, solidarity and friendship with colleagues—all things many would consider markers of job satisfaction, regardless of industry. Yet her portrayal of sex work is far from sanitised. Some descriptions are visceral and confronting, and Therese doesn’t gloss over the dangers of her profession, both physical and psychological.
Come delivers on the promise of its title, truly inviting the reader along into Therese’s world. She slips into the second person, letting us get ready with her, apply false lashes, slide on ‘stripper heels’ and remove all body hair, among other routines. The writing isn’t lyrical (and thank goodness! Lyrical writing about sex so rarely gets it right, hence the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award), it’s direct, matter of fact, at times jokey—the way you might talk to a trusted friend.
Come truly invites the reader along into Therese’s world…it’s direct, matter of fact, at times jokey—the way you might talk to a trusted friend.
Beyond the title’s double entendre are dualities throughout: glamour and grime, pain and pleasure, and the two selves that Rita/Gia tries to reconcile or keep apart. The intimate nature of sex work entangles the professional and the personal. Sometimes, Rita struggles to be Gia, she ‘can’t become her right now’. At other times, she feels as though she’s ‘climbed inside the skin of this person called Rita,’ and is ‘living her life’. She alludes to Sartre’s waiter who, in ‘bad faith’, knowingly acts his part, denying his freedom to choose his life and self. How free are we from our past, our trauma, from patterns that repeat, social forces, and our beliefs and self-delusions? The book doesn’t offer neat answers, but its very existence feels like a radical declaration of freedom: ‘In order to survive, sometimes we have to write our own stories.’