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The F Team
Rawah Arja (Giramondo, available now)

The F Team is our First Book Club pick for September—stay tuned to the KYD website and Podcast for more throughout the month!

Punchbowl Boys is a school with an image problem. They’ve been in the news for all the wrong reasons (violent youth, corrupt principal, supposed links to ISIS radicalisation), and the situation is becoming serious. Tariq, Huss, Ibby and PJ are all year ten students at Punchbowl; they have been best friends for years and call themselves The Wolf Pack. While all four are troublemakers, Tariq is the ringleader with the suspiciously squeaky clean record. As a last-ditch attempt at cleaning the school up, a new principal is sent in: Mr Archie. The Wolf Pack don’t know what to make of this muscular, tattooed, Northern Irish teacher who does not tolerate any bullshit. As part of Mr Archie’s plan to get Punchbowl Boys back on track and out of the nightly news, The Wolf Pack are chosen to take part in a rugby tournament with other boys from troubled schools. They are paired with four boys from Cronulla, and together they become the F Team.

Boys like Tariq and his friends are so often villainised by the Australian media, stereotyped as thugs or homegrown terrorists in-the-making. But with The F Team, Rawah Arja has represented a ‘faceless’ group of young people—‘at risk’ Muslim youth—with love and nuance.

Exactly the kind of book that needs to find its way to young people…an engaging and enjoyable read and a chance for young Arab-Australians to see themselves represented.

Tariq is a cheeky, humourous protagonist who has endless amounts of love for his friends, family and community. The Wolf Pack are a flawed bunch—they give people cruel nicknames (one Indian schoolmate is labelled ‘Uber’ and their fellow F Team member Lee, whis is Vietnamese, gets called ‘Nintendo’ initially), they have some seriously problematic views on women, but Arja uses the many conflicts, rugby-based or otherwise, in the plot to challenge these prejudices. I particularly loved the character of Jamila: the smart, outspoken girl Tariq crushes on, who refuses to tolerate his nonsense. With The F Team, Arja also shows the many reasons why boys like Tariq and his friends may see the world as being against them. They are still years away from adulthood, yet have to deal with parts of the community fearing their culture and religion, family members struggling with addiction and mental illness, and the older brothers and cousins, who should be their role models, doing stints in jail. And while The Wolf Pack are fictional, the racism and bigotry they experience is sadly taken straight from real life.

The F Team is exactly the kind of book that needs to find its way to young people—particularly boys. Of course, it is an engaging and enjoyable read; but just as importantly, it’s a chance for young Arab-Australians to see themselves represented in culturally relevant literature. The value of this representation cannot be overstated. 

—Ellen Cregan

Ordinary Matter
Laura Elvery (UQP, available now)

Inspired by the twenty times that women have won the Nobel Prizes for science, Laura Elvery’s second short story collection, Ordinary Matter, spans a heady century of ambition, sacrifice, risk, doubt, and the constant search for a way forward.

To call this a high-concept collection would betray Elvery’s gift for pointing out that while the world as we know it is changing beyond our control, the small, specific details of being alive are what can keep us grounded: parenting a baby with a secret they might tell you someday; the enormity of a grandparent’s love; receiving a genuine compliment in passing; rationalising forgetting as a form of protection from future sadness.

Still, these stories also focus on how professionalism, elitism, and power dynamics shape a committee’s definition of what makes a ‘winner’. That’s not to say that these women are well-behaved and always play by the rules: instead, they run towards trouble because of their confidence in preventing terrible things from happening; they are purposeful in their caregiving not just because it’s the role they’ve been assigned by society but because they want to outlive those tyrants who cast a shadow over their lives.

Ordinary Matter spans a heady century of ambition, sacrifice, risk, doubt, and the constant search for a way forward.

Delightfully, the most controversial thinkers in the group inspire unexpected comedy—for example, ‘Corn Queen’, based on Barbra McClintock, the first woman to win the prize unshared with another nominee and who produced the first genetic map of corn, explores the loss of pride that comes with the family tradition of serving as a crowning glory in the town’s annual corn parade. ‘A Brief History of Petroleum’ inspired by chemical engineer Frances H. Arnold, untangles how knowing you want to change the world and explaining exactly how you’d make it happen to the child you never expected to have are skills no one trains you for. In ‘Stockholm’, another stand-out story inspired by Rosalyn Yalow, there is a passage that admits how recognition is not the endpoint, but a sign of the work that hasn’t yet been done: ‘Winning does not mean only joy will follow. Winning does not stop sadness. You have to be tougher than all that, and forget the faceless men from your past who failed to have faith in you … To be obsessed with fairness, with what is owed, well, it musn’t enter into it. Focus on all the luck you have received. Polish it like a coin.’

Perhaps one of the few oversights of the collection is also a mirror towards the scarcity mindset that comes with stockpiling cultural capital in Western society: that more Black and Indigenous women, and women of colour were not recognised for their contributions or achievements, or allowed to doubt themselves and still get ahead, in comparison to their male peers over the last century.

For fans of Elvery’s debut collection, A Trick of the Light (UQP), Ceridwen Dovey’s short stories, and anyone seeking literary fiction that challenges what it could mean to have a vision of a better world.

—Nathania Gilson

Paul Dalgarno (Ventura Press, available now)

After years of sexless domestic drudgery and the strain of raising two small children, Chris and Sarah decide to open up their marriage. Their hope is that in rediscovering their sexualities, they will become stronger than ever and bring sex back into their own relationship. Chris, sceptical at first, is surprised to find himself falling in love with a free-spirited, and much younger, woman, while Sarah enjoys multiple flings with a string of conventionally handsome men.

This new setup changes their lives dramatically and they find themselves in a world of late-night parties, drugs, clubbing, and copious amounts of sex. Their children are offloaded to various friends and family members, and Chris and Sarah find themselves increasingly dependent on a Zac, a new friend with a murky past, to help juggle the domestic load. It is not until the strain of this new lifestyle catches up with them that they begin to question the wellbeing of their children and wonder if Zac is really who he claims to be.

For a novel so focused on alternative lifestyle choices, one might expect Poly to be less conventional in its expectations of sexuality. Here, sex is placed wholly at the centre of what is deemed to be a successful, loving relationship and, while two female characters do have sex, it seems tokenistic and falls heavily under the male gaze, performed seemingly purely for Chris’ enjoyment. While Chris occasionally thinks to himself that, yes, he would ‘fuck that guy’, this fleeting impulse is never acted upon—any potential queer exploration here feels more like box-ticking.

While occasionally humorous and clever in its juxtapositions of domesticity and sexual exploration, Poly ​is ultimately somewhat disorienting in its style and ends with more questions than answers.

In the ​vein of Sally Rooney or Ottessa Moshfegh, the characters in Poly are fairly unlikeable and have few redeeming qualities. But unlike the characters in those works, the plot isn’t strong enough to sustain them or make the reader eager to just go along for the ride. Like Chris, who finds himself floundering under the strain of partying, near-constant sex, raising children, keeping friendships afloat, and working a full-time job he dislikes, Poly also suffers from trying to do, and be, too many things at once. Beginning as a quirky ode to the complexities of adult commitments, there are strands of confused themes that are never fully fleshed out, and an odd subplot which strangely becomes the book’s climax.

While occasionally humorous and clever in its juxtapositions of domesticity and sexual exploration, Poly ​is ultimately somewhat disorienting in its style and ends with more questions than answers.

—Chloë Cooper

Revenge: Murder in Three Parts
S.L. Lim (Transit Lounge, available now)

Responsibility weighs on eldest daughters, like a yoke on an overworked farm ba3aara—uncomfortable and unending.

The heaviness of responsibility is a reality that the eldest women of colour in a family, like myself, know and fear—the burden of caring for ageing parents, drawn out across a lifetime.

S.L. Lim’s second novel, Revenge, follows the Huang family, peeling away the minutiae of their life; stocking shelves in the family store, cleaning the two-bedroom apartment, the retelling of an unfunny anecdote to an aunt—the slow, accumulating cuts to the family’s unhappiness that erodes the connections between all four members.

The winding novel begins in the central character Yannie’s youth, at 11 years old and recovering from another fraternal beating. Lim’s short and sharp sentences reflect Yannie’s own quickness; her eagerness to learn, ready to leave their home in Malaysia, even more ready to leave her older brother Shan behind. That earnestness is stunted when Shan, an abusive egoist, is given all the opportunities by their parents—the chance to go to university, international trips, and what little money is made. Yannie is left to care for a store and frail and diminishing parents.

Psychologists would call the treatment of Yannie ‘parentification’, where children are given a guilt-laden role of the caretaker, nursing her enfeebled grandmother, wiping down her father after a delusional episode—for many parentified children it leads to passing the same behaviours on to the next generation; for Yannie it leads to murder.

‘”Before I go into my grave,” she says out loud. “I will kill that man.”‘

Lim is bold in her critique of the suffocating patriarchy, laying bare the inequities by denying Yannie a life that meets her ambition, trapping her instead into the subservient elder daughter.

Lim is bold in her critique of the suffocating patriarchy, laying bare the inequities by denying Yannie a life that meets her ambition, trapping her instead into the subservient elder daughter.

Twisting banality with duty and abandonment with sexuality—Lim asks what more could be done for women imprisoned by circumstance, then lets us watch as the world fails them. It’s an uncommon trope for women of colour, like Yannie or myself, to be shown as resentful caretakers, to be ungracious or self-pitying, after being doled the first-born position.

In Revenge that rage is not only justified it is coupled with a seething patience, waiting for the moment to escape the yoke.

—Mary Anne Taouk

State Highway One
Sam Coley (Hachette NZ, available now)

In Sam Coley’s debut novel, 20-year-old Alex Preston returns home to New Zealand following the tragic and sudden death of his parents—famous filmmakers who were absent for most of his adolescence. Alex moved to Dubai three years prior to the main events of the story, running away from his fractured family and unrequited love Henry. Upon his return to New Zealand, his estranged twin sister Amy convinces him to go on a road trip along the eponymous highway, which stretches all the way down the country.

Reading a novel about a road trip is a strange experience in the time of coronavirus. Coley writes vividly about the landscape and atmosphere, which comes alive through his descriptive prose—you can taste salt and Lucky Strike cigarettes in the air, and see the sky change as the characters drive from day to night. He injects humour and heart through dialogue, but also uses it to build intrigue—the siblings’ funny and relatable bickering is underscored with a tension that keeps the reader guessing. Music also plays a major part in the novel—whether it’s road trip tunes or the throbbing pulse of a house party, the use of music throughout gives a sense of time and place, and Coley has even curated an accompanying Spotify playlist.

Coley is a writer with a strong, unique voice—he adroitly combines forms, with prose often melting into poetry—but State Highway One doesn’t always feel convincing.

The novel struggles, however, with a sense of narrative discombobulation. Chapters are denoted, diary-style, with dates, with some including multiple timeframes spanning from 2008 to the present day of 2015—this can become difficult to follow. Alex’s reality and mind unravel as he grapples with grief, blurring the space between truth and hallucination—‘not mental-mental but definitely a bit clingy,’ as one character describes him. While this technique works to some effect, it also sometimes causes confusion and unevenness that affects the novel’s pacing, especially when combined with the constant time jumps. Crucially, one of the story’s major narrative devices is revealed just a quarter of the way in—while mystery continues to build from here, ultimately it feels like Coley has shown his hand too early.

The threads come together more cohesively towards the novel’s denouement, but by then it’s lost steam. Coley is a writer with a strong, unique voice—he adroitly combines forms, with prose often melting into poetry—but State Highway One doesn’t always feel convincing.

—Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

No Presents Please
Jayant Kaikini, trans. Tejaswini Niranjana (Scribe, available now)

Tenderness and cruelty co-exist in South Indian author Jayant Kaikini’s short story collection No Presents Please. The city of Mumbai is a living element in his collection, a metropolis ruthless in its exacting demands and radiant in all its glorious humanity.

Kaikini is a connoisseur of small, seemingly commonplace experiences. A chance encounter at a cafe, the glow of sunset on the backs of thousands of backed up vehicles, the sight of men erecting a tent—these little moments, under his deft attention, stretch out with a timeless quality.

Originally published incrementally between 1986 and 2006 in the South Indian language of Kannada, Tejaswini Niranjana’s translation preserves a sense of the colloquial and helped secure the author the 2018 South Asian Literature Prize & Events Trust DSC Prize for its ‘quiet voice.’

Marriage is a persistent theme, with the stigma of singleness contrasting the self-righteousness of social convention. In ‘City Without Mirrors’, Satyajit, an aloof man living in a shoebox apartment, has given up on the prospect of a wife. When approached by an elderly father offering his daughter’s hand, he is buoyed by a sudden hopefulness. Though stilted on the day of their scheduled meeting, he is no lesser for it, entranced as he is by the pulsing city. ‘I’m married to this city…where’s the space for another relationship?’

Kaikini is a connoisseur of small, seemingly commonplace experiences—these little moments, under his deft attention, stretch out with a timeless quality.

Matrimony appears again in ‘No Presents Please’, where a poor engaged couple grapple with pressure to change the names on their wedding invitations to conceal their caste status.

‘Popat said, ‘See Asavari, look at the fake good fortune of these bastards. Each one of them knows his caste.’

Kaikini makes great use of this kind of subtle inference, of the space between ideal and reality, lending the collection a certain wry tension.

Poverty appears throughout the stories, but especially in the devastating piece ‘A Truck Full of Chrysanthemums.’ Here, a lower middle-class family let their servant girl, Durgi, die because they choose the cost of their daughter’s dowry over her expensive hospital fees. Kaikini pens the story with restraint and precision. Durgi keeps her strength up throughout her gruelling final hours, as she wrestles with the ‘longest night of the century…holding off tomorrow with all its might.’ ​

This intricate attention to detail, of the inner and external worlds of his characters, makes Kaikini’s work so rich and telling. We are thrust into the complexities of caste and class in Mumbai and shown the magnitude of human perseverance.

—Daniel Nour