THE IN-TRAY

Bri Lee’s 5 great new Australian books to get you through lockdown

This is a list of Australian authors who have made excellent new work that I’m desperate to get in front of as many eyeballs as possible. The COVID-19 crisis is wreaking havoc in the arts and entertainment scenes, and literature is no exception. I was supposed to do events with some of these authors and have been gutted to watch in the past few weeks as launches, book clubs, and major writers festivals have all been cancelled. Books take years to write, and so much time (and blood and sweat and tears) goes into the plan for a book’s release into the world. From fantastical fiction to gritty memoir, let this list of sparkling new releases guide you to your nearest bookseller! Our bodies may be trapped in our apartments, but our minds and imaginations can still reach out and make contact with new people and new ideas.

Come: A memoir by Rita Therese

In terms of ‘hot new releases’, it doesn’t get much hotter than this. Therese’s sex worker persona is named Gia, and the tension at the heart of this memoir is where that line is, or isn’t, and when it blurs, and when it completely breaks down. If you like the truly dark humour in something like Fleabag, then you’ll love this book. Somehow the people who’ve touched the darkest parts of themselves often are able to fling you so fast and high up into laughter. Therese has that thing. She started out at 18 when she answered an advertisement calling for nude models, and we meet her in 2015 when she’s working in Port Headland, Western Australia, and gets a life-changing phone call. It would be easy to minimise the literary merit of this memoir by focusing on the salacious and taboo content, but I want to say firmly and clearly: Therese’s assured voice is what makes this book really explode in your brain. I challenge anyone to read the first chapter and be able to stop.

The Octopus and I by Erin Hortle

Holy smokes I adored this book; loved it, inhaled it, hated myself for not savouring it. On the surface this book is about a woman, Lucy, on the Tasman Peninsula who is recovering from a double mastectomy and hysterectomy post-cancer. What is a woman without these things? At first, for example, she gets large fake breast implants, but they just make her feel even more alienated from herself. That’s also when issues with her partner, Jem, start emerging. He and her have always been this one thing that he “gets”, but now he feels she is changing. On the surface an argument is about the boobs, but of course we know an argument about boobs is never just about boobs. I relish books that explore power dynamics of any kind, and this novel asks tricky questions about the line between humans and nature, and about hierarchies in both the human and animal kingdoms. It’s difficult to explain the octopus content but I know this for sure: Hortle manages to make sentences themselves seem like tentacles sometimes, and I’ll never eat calamari again.

She I Dare Not Name by Donna Ward

Brutal memoirs often get described as “unflinching” (I would know) and this one absolutely deserves the word. Ward lives her life, now at “spinster” age, completely without a partner or children. If social distancing is making you think about relationships and how we manage our lives with and without people, this book will be confronting and enriching reading for you. I love writing that interrogates how so many facets of coupledom are not only “normal” but rewarded; even tax and economic systems for households in Australia are built with couples in mind! Ward has to live her life aware of school year terms and holidays even though she doesn’t have children. Even as someone currently happily-coupled, I believe this spectacularly honest writing about solitude taught me about myself. Are you in a couple because you want to be, or because you need to be, or because things just eventuated that way? How terrified are you of “ending up alone”? Why? Buckle up to take a long hard look in the mirror—at Ward and at yourself.

The Coconut Children by Vivian Phan

This is a love story between two teenagers set at the end of the 90s in Cabramatta, Western Sydney, that is all the more engrossing for the fact that Phan started writing it at 16, finished the first draft at 17, and is now 19. Writing this good and fresh from someone so young is enough of a reason to buy and read The Coconut Children. It’s so easy for older writers to get teenage life so very, very wrong. The community and characters here are imbued with detail and energy drawn from real life. Phan told The Guardian Australia that she worked closely with her father, a refugee, on the Vietnamese phrases in the book. We meet our lovebirds when Vince has just returned to the suburb after two years in juvenile detention, resuming his former position as Sonny’s neighbour. There’s a special rhythm to this book. Bunched-up family, potentially dangerous interactions, and the energy of the schoolyard combine with a creative approach to sentences that will have you re-reading whole sections. What a debut!

The Animals in That Country by Laura Jean McKay

Content warning: this premise of this book is that a pandemic is sweeping the country. If you’re willing to dive into something that might feel close-to-home at the moment, you will be rewarded. The result of McKay’s imagined pandemic is that we start hearing the voices of animals. The obvious ones come first (mammals and then birds) but when insects start talking too, the cacophony becomes unbearable and people start losing their minds. What does this mean for our protagonist, Jean, who doesn’t really like humans anyway? She’s been living remote, drinking, working at an outback wildlife park, but has to set off on a recovery mission when her very-much-infected son, Lee, takes her granddaughter, Kimberley. A young dingo named Sue rides shotgun for the chase.

Bri Lee is the author of Eggshell Skull and On Beauty.

Australian classics for new Aussie classics; here are three Australian products that are excellent accompaniments to your new book:

Frank Body In Your Dreams Sleep Scrub and Soak is perfect if you’re a fan of a bathtime book, with chamomile, lavender and Epsom salts to keep you in that perfect Zen space for reading.

Go-To Lips! is a necessity for those lip-bitingly tense chapters, packed with natural oils like jojoba, avocado, apricot kernel and almond to keep your lips from getting chapped.

Mecca Cosmetica Fresh Faced Sheet Mask will keep your skin plump and hydrated in the coming weeks of air conditioning and works its magic while you read.

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