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Vodka & Apple Juice
Jay Martin 
(Fremantle Press, available now)

Vodka & Apple Juice is our First Book Club pick for September – read an extract, read Jay Martin on her experience of writing the book, and hear an interview with the author on the latest KYD Podcast.

Expat life in Poland is not a topic I ever thought I’d know much about. But after reading Jay Martin’s memoir of three years spent alongside her diplomat husband living in Poland, I now feel quite well-versed on the subject.

While her husband works demanding hours, Martin spends her days trying to find the right places to purchase carrots, washing powder and coriander. But the transition from full time worker to stay-at-home wife is not one that Martin slips into easily. Saddled with most of the home duties, Martin uses her time to become proficient in the language. As a result, she experiences much more of Poland and Polish culture than her husband. He might be bringing in all the income, but only she has full access to the world they now live in. This imbalance in her and her husband’s daily lives is the source of a lot of frustration for both of them, and starts to weigh heavily on their marriage.

Many of the women Martin meets in her time in Poland are in a similar situation to her – following their husband’s work to foreign country after foreign country, endlessly living the expat lifestyle. At one point in the book, Martin comments that there aren’t a lot of expat husbands around; those she has heard of have eventually returned home after a relationship breakdown. This is a very interesting observation – the women of Martin’s world may be doing ‘nothing’, but for a man, contending with the isolation that comes with a new place, a new language, and a new culture, is too much.

Some of the best moments of this book occur when Martin is able to connect with people in Polish, and both parties see each other in a totally new way.

While she values her new, comparatively carefree lifestyle and acknowledges the privileges that allow her to travel freely and easily around Europe, there is a sense that it can be a struggle to find mentally stimulating and meaningful ways to spend her time. Still, Martin’s travels around Poland take her to places and events that are fabulously unexpected: a wet grass scything tournament, supermarkets where no one seems to queue, a Russian seaside village that reminds her of childhood summers back in Australia. She meets people who have survived both the devastation of World War II and the brutality of communism under the USSR. Polish people seem shocked that a foreigner would bother to learn their language at all, and as such, Martin often passes for Polish, meaning locals let their guard down around her. Some of the best moments of this book occur when Martin is able to connect with people in Polish, and both parties see each other in a totally new way.

Travel memoirs from this part of the world are few and far between. After reading this book, it’s hard to comprehend why that is – Poland is country with an exceptionally rich culture and history, and Vodka & Apple Juice captures Polish life with a lot of tenderness and humour.  

– Ellen Cregan

Normal People
Sally Rooney 
(Allen & Unwin, available now)

Sally Rooney is a master at leaving the reader wanting more – not with cliffhangers or in a teasing way, just in a way that makes everything feel indefinite.

Normal People follows Connell and Marianne, two people who have shared their lives in close quarters, but understand the world through polarities. Connell comes from a family with an unsavoury reputation, yet a loving household; Marianne’s family is wealthy but abusive. Their upbringings understandably define who they become; Connell believes he’s a good person who can always be better, and Marianne believes that she isn’t and that she never will be. Connell is also a well liked student with a group of friends, while Marianne is the opposite. The relationship that begins as teenagers starts off as something unspoken outside of their bedrooms, and develops into a secret obsession. They leave each other with a kind of hangover that’s impossible to shake.

The chapters alternate between each character’s perspective, offering sweet morsels of humour and charming irony – in one chapter Marianne is asked if she thinks she’s special and replies with, ‘No, I don’t,’ and in the next we see Connell making an assumption that Marianne ‘has always believed about herself…that she was special.’

These insights satisfy an urge most of us have, desperate to know what our crush is thinking – but they also conjure feelings of frustration, an urge to yell at them the way you yell at someone in a horror movie who goes towards the sound coming from inside their empty house. You witness the Sliding Doors moments, knowing how differently the story could’ve played out had one just told the other how they really feel.

Rooney’s novel deals quite heavily with mental health, weaving in contemplations on gender politics, depicting Connell dealing with the suicide of his childhood friend and the depression that ensues, or witnessing Marianne being manipulated into sexual relationships with men. While impressive in dealing with important issues, these ultimately aren’t the main concern of the novel – rather it’s the observations on love, particularly for ourselves. It is not enough to be a good or bad person, ultimately we are both. Perhaps this is what makes Rooney’s world and its inhabitants so likeable; they reflect the ugly parts of ourselves and show us how loveable we still are. 

Perhaps this is what makes Rooney’s world and its inhabitants so likeable; they reflect the ugly parts of ourselves and show us how loveable we still are.

Chuck Klosterman said that ‘the worst part of being in love with anyone…is that people in love can’t be reasoned with.’ Marianne and Connell’s relationship perfectly exemplifies these sentiments. It feels like Rooney’s been hogging this amazing sense of perception from the rest of us. It’s just doubtful anyone would be able to draw from their impression of the world what Rooney has drawn from hers. She perfectly captures the irrationality of the human condition, and makes space for Normal People to embody the uncertainty that comes with surrendering yourself to love from other people, and even yourself. 

 – Vanessa Giron

Avi Duckor-Jones 
(Seizure, available now)

The Bed-Making Competition
Anna Jackson (Seizure, available now)

For the first time since its inception in 2012, Seizure’s Viva La Novella Prize has been won by two New Zealand authors. This year’s winners, Avi Duckor-Jones and Anna Jackson, have produced deeply compelling works that each meditate on the complexities of families and growing up.

Avi Duckor-Jones’ Swim is a lush and evocative tale of life after trauma. When nomadic open-water distance swimmer Jacob receives a letter from his sick and estranged mother, he reluctantly returns to his childhood home in New Zealand. Becoming unmoored by memories of his father, who committed suicide when Jacob was just a boy, he returns to the abandoned beach shack his father built and sets about renovating it beyond recognition. But Jacob is unable to stay on land for long – the sea calls to him constantly and he finds himself swept up in the wild currents of the ocean, trying to supress his dark memories through physical exertion. He becomes obsessed with the idea of swimming to a distant island, certain that if he can make this one last swim his life will be better and his past forgotten. But, in his fixation on the island, he starts to lose his grip on the land and all those who dwell there—the people who have tried, repeatedly, to help and support him. Through expansive and visceral prose, Duckor-Jones has crafted a novella that starkly explores the depths of tragedy and shows how the past can have a crippling effect on the future.

Avi Duckor-Jones and Anna Jackson have produced deeply compelling works that each meditate on the complexities of families and growing up.

While Duckor-Jones’ storytelling is infused with melancholy, Anna Jackson’s The Bed-Making Competition takes a more quirky and intimate approach in exploring what might happen when you feel the need to escape from a life that hasn’t turned out the way you thought it would. Through sparse and witty prose, Jackson tells the story of sisters Hillary and Bridgid over two decades. As teenagers, the sisters are first abandoned by their mother and then by their father, who takes off in a desperate effort to bring his wife home. Left with an empty house, no supervision, and a seemingly bottomless credit card, the girls buy clothes, get their eyebrows waxed, drink white Russians, and crash parties. Over the next twenty years, the sisters grow together and apart repeatedly. They navigate addiction, motherhood, and illness but always return to each other in the end. Jackson expertly juxtaposes childhood innocence, rebelliousness, and the pressures of adulthood to paint a striking portrait of filial love. Peppered with black humour, Jackson’s story has a beautiful sense of symmetry and seems to mimic the cyclical nature of life. Familiar scenes of everyday family life infuse the piece with warmth and bring to light the confusion of parenthood and the burdens of past choices.

These two novellas, each unique in content and form, crackle with energy – whether read separately or as a pair, their stories are generous and deeply moving in contrasting and illuminating ways.

– Chloë Cooper