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Trace: Who Killed Maria James?
Rachael Brown 
(Scribe, available now)

Trace is our First Book Club pick for November – read an extract from the book here.

What is it about true crime that fascinates us? Is it the allure of a real-life, unsolved mystery? Or perhaps hearing stories of other people’s terrors makes us feel like we’re learning the best ways to avoid or escape bad situations? Whatever it is, true crime stories are captivating, especially those in which the mystery unfolds in real time.

Maria James, a single mother from Thornbury, Melbourne, was murdered in her bookshop in 1980. The police had their theories and suspects, but ultimately her killer was never found. Several decades later, ABC journalist Rachael Brown decided to pick up the threads of Maria’s case and try to solve it. The result of this was a five-part podcast called Trace, which has now been followed by a book of the same name. In the book, Brown delves more deeply into the details of the case and the ripples it has caused through the lives of Maria’s surviving family members. Brown also goes behind the scenes of the podcast the interviews she set up, the leads she hounded down and the emotional toll Maria’s story took on her and her team. What this story unearths is a shady history of violence and cover-ups in the Catholic Church and Victoria Police at the time of the murder.

Trace is written in bits and pieces – text messages, interview transcripts and Brown’s first person account of creating the podcast. This narrative style mimics the podcast form itself – it allows Brown to tell Maria’s story (as well as her own) in multiple voices and from multiple perspectives. At times, I found it hard to keep track of one singular narrative through the book due to this format, but I don’t think that’s the point – a major crime investigation, especially one for a case that has been cold for several decades, is never going to be straightforward or narratively complete.

Trace‘s narrative style mimics the podcast form itself – it allows Brown to tell Maria’s story (as well as her own) in multiple voices and from multiple perspectives.

In both its podcast and book form, Trace leaves its readers and listeners with a cliffhanger. The murder of Maria James is still unsolved, but it has been reopened by Victoria Police’s cold case unit thanks in part to the efforts of the team behind Trace. (When the podcast aired, dozens of people contacted Brown with memories and information relating to the murder.) There is something slightly unsatisfying about finishing a book that has no neat resolution. But the fact that Brown’s podcast and book have potentially started unravelling the mystery that’s weighed on Maria’s family for nearly forty years is a comforting note to end on.

– Ellen Cregan

Going Postal: More Than ‘Yes’ or ‘No’
ed. Quinn Eades & Son Vivienne 
(Brow Books, available now)

Pulling in queer voices from the margins, Going Postal: More than ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ maps the experience of queer life during Australia’s 2017 voluntary marriage survey, and in the year since.

The collection’s many moving personal stories and complex intersectional essays (spread alongside poems, cartoons and even tweets) help highlight both the unwelcome spotlight the postal survey brought, as well unpack some of the exclusion felt by parts of the queer community amid the more public and visible marriage equality campaigns. As Simon Hunt (best known as ‘Pauline Pantsdown’) writes in the introduction, the book ‘navigates [this] dark landscape of public scrutiny and judgment’.

Editors Quinn Eades and Son Vivienne attempt to augment the sometimes narrow focus of the Yes campaign, whose most visible representatives were overwhelmingly cisgender and white gay and lesbian Australians. In the collection we hear diverse voices otherwise not seen or heard in 2017, but undoubtedly and powerfully impacted by the campaign and its outcome.

Indeed early on, Nayuka Gorrie reminds readers that as much as the postal survey seemed like the last, final hurdle for many queer Australians, this fails to recognise the many prohibitive barriers that many queer Indigenous Australians continue to face.

Elsewhere, Eades’ writing proves particularly potent, with one piece taking an impressionistic eye during this time to expose the intense sense of precariousness in daily life: whether it be Yes posters ripped down at work or seeing unexpected, almost banal, homophobia in public spaces, it serves to point out our own vulnerability and public exposure during this time.

Importantly, trans voices get space to breathe and reflect here. Joni Nelson underscores the ongoing challenges trans and gender non-conforming people experience even accessing marriage, in spite of achieving so-called ‘marriage equality’. ‘Don’t erase us,’ Nelson writes, ‘from an issue that affects us too’.

Going Postal is at its most passionate when advocating for the voices that were not as audible during the marriage equality survey. It proves a restorative read in recognising the many diverse but human lives affected as much by the campaign as by the result.

Going Postal proves a restorative read in recognising the many diverse but human lives affected as much by the campaign as by the result.

But it’s also a sobering reminder of the many other Australian queers sitting at the margins – Indigenous Australians, refugees, trans and gender non-conforming folk – who battle for larger social acceptance and face daily discrimination. Until their rights can be collectively rallied for and ratified in Australia, true LGBTQI+ equality is still a long way off.

– Nathan Smith

A Girl’s Guide to Personal Hygiene
Tallulah Pomeroy 
(Scribe, available now)

What’s the grossest thing you do in private? Your most hideous habit that you would never admit to someone else? Tallulah Pomeroy’s A Girl’s Guide To Personal Hygiene is a collection of true (yet unruly) stories of what women do with their bodies, submitted anonymously and illustrated by Pomeroy. On one hand it is humbling to know you are not the most foul thing to walk the earth; on another, it’s stomach churning, encouraging your more judgemental side to proclaim ‘Oh, at least I’m not that gross!’

The book is divided into seven categories: ‘Hair’, ‘Picking & Squeezing’, ‘Periods’, ‘Nooks & Crannies’, ‘Toilet Training’, ‘Tasty Snacks’, and ‘Love’. (Make of those chapter titles what you will.) The most enlightening of these are definitely ‘Nooks & Crannies’ and ‘Toilet Training’, with some pretty intense confessions about what people do when no one else is around. Overall, though, the confessions vary from the very tame (‘I only shave my ankles so it looks like I’m wearing fluffy trousers’) to the things someone couldn’t pay you to repeat (‘When I was camping I emptied my Mooncup into…a river… and watched little fish nibble on bits of my womb).

On one hand it is humbling to know you are not the most foul thing to walk the earth; on another, A Girl’s Guide To Personal Hygiene is stomach churning.

The interesting thing about the book, though, is that for any one of these stories there is definitely someone out there acting as a moral authority on why it’s wrong. To me, the ‘only shaving ankles’ story is harmless because it’s just hair. But I can guarantee there would be someone else (most likely a man) who would probably have something to say about a woman choosing not to shave her legs. Likewise, with the more confronting confessions I could see where the person was coming from, while my boyfriend begged me to stop reading it out loud. And that’s probably what makes the book equal parts controversial and hilarious – it’s all relative.

More than anything though, the book allows us to entertain the idea of being less shameless about what we do with our bodies. It’s also a book that invites a shared reading; sitting on my bed with my sister-in-law, we gawked at some of the stories we read, then turned to each other and said ‘I’ve done that!’ before bursting into laughter. It’s uncomfortably comforting to know that you are definitely disgusting – but at least you’re not the only one.

– Vanessa Giron