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The House of Youssef
Yumna Kassab (Giramondo, available now)

In The House of Youssef, Yumna Kassab weaves a tapestry of stories that tell of migration, family, and belonging. The point of focus here is Western Sydney, and Lebanese migrants (as well as their children); The structure of the book sees a collection of vignettes outlining the downward spiral of one Lebanese–Australian family sandwiched between more fleeting stories of other people in the same community. Many of the short stories that make up this collection are just a few pages long, capturing just a single poignant moment in a character’s life.

One idea that is consistently revisited throughout The House of Youssef is that you might have a life in one place, but that doesn’t necessarily make it your home. Here, home has little to do with geographic location. Instead it’s tied closely to family, community, culture, nostalgia and memory. Kassab depicts first generation migrants in a particularly sympathetic light – their stories are gritty and noble, and while they might look back to a time and place where they were happier, it’s always clear that their intentions were to build better lives. The younger characters in this collection, by contrast, are westernised, wild, more rash, sometimes feel stifled, and sometimes unsure of where it is they belong. Kassab skilfully captures the clashing of generations – the worries they have for one another, the discomfort that comes from the space between old world and new world.

Kassab doesn’t just tell the success story of a life built up from nearly nothing, she also tells of the aches and pains that come with it.

There is a great deal of sadness to some these stories – strife within families, loneliness, feelings of disconnect. Kassab doesn’t just tell the success story of a life built up from nearly nothing, she also tells of the aches and pains that come with it. The subtlety of her prose heightens the realism of these stories – Kassab approaches each story with a pared-back, no-frills style that cuts to the message behind her writing quite directly. Pain is always poignant, memories linger and mistakes hang over the heads of individuals and families.

This is a wide-reaching and quietly ambitious work of short fiction that presents a subtle vision of suburban Lebanese–Australian life.

– Ellen Cregan

Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the bloody war on drugs
Antony Loewenstein (Scribe, available now)

Dramatic news reports constantly warn us about the dangers of drugs, from the ‘ice epidemic’ to suburban drug busts to the increasing use of opioids. In Pills, Powder, and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, Antony Loewenstein travels worldwide, investigating the interconnected chains from production to transport to consumption.

‘The war on drugs is both an overt and covert conflict with visible and largely ignored victims,” Loewenstein writes. His investigation begins in Honduras, moving to Guinea-Bissau and the Philippines: countries ravaged by the effects of Ronald Reagan’s didactic that carries through to Donald Trump’s policies today. Little has changed over that time, Loewenstein reports: ‘The aim of the US drug war isn’t to win it but control it.’

These countries – so-called ‘narco-states’ – are characterised by populations ill-serviced by their governments, leaving their people highly vulnerable to exploitation by international drug traffickers. Many locals with legitimate jobs,  Loewenstein writes, are forced to supplement their income by working for drug traffickers. The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) works on the ground, dictating terms that only benefit their own domestic agenda. As the needs of local citizens continue to be ignored, their despondency and anger grows.

Over the second half of Pills, Powder and Smoke, Loewenstein investigates how the war is playing out in the US, Britain and Australia. In these comparatively wealthy countries, Loewenstein is able to demonstrate how the war is once again fuelled by government inaction – particularly among those most in need. Loewenstein takes us inside a safe-injecting room in Sydney’s Kings Cross, before examining Australia’s role in the dark web. In Newcastle, England, the impact of the austerity period on vital health services (including drug treatment programs) is so severe, there has been a decrease in overall life expectancy, a record use in anti-depressants, and in some areas, more than half the children are growing up in poverty.

Pills, Powder and Smoke provides vital coverage of a war that may never be won, but that desperately demands our attention.

The ingrained impoverishment and government neglect across each country Loewenstein covers in this book is startling. Those dependent on drugs in suburban government housing or rural trailer parks are demonised, whereas wealthy white inner-city professionals are able to lobby (with increasing success) for the legalisation of ‘soft drugs’ such as marijuana. The inconsistencies are contextualised and admirably given respect to those who have suffered the most.

There are times when Loewenstein’s voice jumps out of the page where local experience would have been more worthy, and occasionally the sheer volume of research included in this book weighs the narrative down. However Pills, Powder and Smoke provides vital coverage of a war that may never be won, but that desperately demands our attention.

– Kylie Maslen

Meet Me at Lennon’s
Melanie Myers (UQP, available now)

Olivia Wells feels stuck. She is struggling to finish her thesis on Gloria Graham, an obscure Brisbane playwright from the 1940s, and her relationship with her sort-of boyfriend Sam is more uncertain than ever. After a chance encounter with an actress with ties to Graham, Olivia becomes intrigued with the murder of a young woman found on the banks of the Brisbane River in 1943. Convinced that the ‘River Girl’ murder is somehow the answer to discovering more about Graham and reviving her thesis, Olivia delves deeper into the world of wartime Brisbane.

Melanie Myers’ debut is split into dual timelines that alternate with each chapter. The contemporary timeline follows Olivia and her investigations into Gloria Graham and the ‘River Girl’ murder, while the other timeline follows a cast of women in Brisbane during World War II. The snapshots of these women’s lives are fascinating: Through them, we experience the tension between the American and Australian soldiers stationed in Brisbane, the gender revolution underway thanks to the lack of available workers, the fleeting trysts between the American soldiers and local women, and the hidden meanings behind penny candy, nylon stockings, and fur coats. Many of the characters orbit around their work at Lennon’s, a popular social club at the time, and under the surface is the tension and mystery created by the ‘River Girl’ murder.

Through its diversity in voices and experiences, Myers paints a vivid portrait of the struggles of women in wartime Brisbane, and the lingering effects of violence.

The world of the wartime women is utterly engaging and, in comparison, the present day timeline feels flat; the link between Olivia and the past she investigates is not entirely convincing. Often, the contemporary narrative threatens to become obscure and far-fetched in its attempts to be linked to the past. As a reader, I felt impatient to get back to the world of 1940s Brisbane; had this novel been written as purely historical fiction, it would have been a riveting read.

The most rewarding parts of this book are the links that start to reveal themselves between the different women in the​ World War II timeline. Characters that at first seem superficial come into their own and reveal their importance in later chapters. Slowly, we begin to see that each main character has, in some way, been touched by violence. Through its diversity in voices and experiences, Meet Me at Lennon’s paints a vivid portrait of the struggles of women in wartime Brisbane, and the lingering effects of violence.

– Chloë Cooper