The Last Free Man and Other Stories

The Last Free Man and Other Stories

Lewis Woolston

Truth Serum Press 2019


The Last Free Man and Other Stories is the debut story collection from Alice Springs writer Lewis Woolston.

I was captivated by Woolston’s writing, a mixture of honesty and true-blue Australian-ism we don’t often see, these stories teleport the reader into the Australian outback. The outback is a place of drifters, stories, and backpackers. It’s a place you don’t stay unless you’re running from something.

Filled with stories from multiple perspectives and set roadhouses and other remote work around Alice Springs, the Nullarbor, and many other areas, Woolston has creates a picture of a quiet, nomadic life-style with the potential to make money and leave or, alternatively, live a quiet life away from the big smoke.

One of my favourite stories in this collection was ‘Driftwood’. Set across Brisbane, Perth, Mundrabilla, and Adelaide this story follows the main character and his relationship with Helen from their first meeting in Brisbane to their working and intimate lives. What I like most about this story is that is seems to give a wider picture of the characters’ lives, including Justin and Helen’s friend Louise, who are more than just supporting characters in the main characters’ easy-going love story.

Certainly, this isn’t a short story collection everyone will enjoy, like many Australian stories these might seem quite strange to some. Features such as curse words, outback slang, and drug use might be off-putting to some audiences; however, the no-fuss inclusion of these things is something I personally found comforting. Not often do you come across coarse language in a book that feels like it ought to be there. In Tim Winton’s work, certainly. But many writers do not do it well. Woolston’s inclusion of swear words throughout his stories spoke more about a cultural approach to these words and to the people; the drifters of the outback roadhouses, recovering addicts, and those who wanted to escape something.

I would recommend Woolston’s work to other readers of Australian fiction, particularly those who, like me, have not had the experience of being out there meeting eccentric personalities and learning how to maintain an awareness of what’s around you in face of Australia’s diverse and threatening wildlife.

To purchase a copy of Woolston’s book visit: https://truthserumpress.net/catalogue/fiction/the-last-free-man-and-other-stories/.

Words by Kayla Gaskell

Down and Out in Paradise

Down and Out in Paradise

Luke Williams

Echo Publishing 2019

ISBN:978-1-76068-584-3


Luke Williams’ Down and Out in Paradise is an intriguing memoir exploring the years he spent in Southeast Asia as a recovering and relapsing drug addict and an alternately employed and unemployed journalist. Living cheap, and sometimes even on nothing, Luke explores some of the debatably unsavoury hang-outs in Southeast Asia.

The idea of dropping everything and getting on a flight somewhere else is something that many people find incredibly attractive, more so when life isn’t quite going your way. When Luke Williams hopped on the plane to Kuala Lumpur, he was coming down off crystal meth. It was the cheapest flight he could book. He made his way to Thailand, the land of the free, where he chased drugs, stories, and sex. In Bangkok he became a thief, in Pattaya he became a prostitute, and somewhere along the way he discovered Buddhism. The memoir covers Williams’s travels throughout Southeast Asia and his penchant for fully embracing his journey.

Williams is very open about his sexuality and his time in Pattaya spent frequenting Boyztown and its bars and clubs. He met a number of Westerners there and for a short time, William’s worked as a prostitute himself. Much of the book fluctuates between him being broke in Southeast Asia and the occasional splendour of an expensive hotel and a bender.

During his time in Indonesia, Williams develops a fascination with his grandfather’s suicide.  Williams spent a lot of time considering the prevalence of mental illness in his family. His father’s late onset schizophrenia, his uncle’s comatose state, and his cousin’s suicide. Concerned that this could be the reason for his various issues, Williams is determined to use his skills as a journalist to uncover the truth.

At times within the memoir, Williams is critical of the influence of Westerner tourism throughout Southeast Asia, even as he contemplates that many the local people rely on tourism just to get by. Williams writes about the variety of people on his travels who coloured his world-view; reaffirming his privilege as a white Australian male and putting his problems in perspective compared to people working on the street for twelve or more hours a day just to afford food for their families. Together with perspective, Williams found spirituality as he explored various religions by trying them on for size.

There are sections of the memoir where it is clear that Williams was relieved to be clean and other sections where he embraced the highs of his addiction. Having struggled with addiction his whole life, Williams knew he needed help but had issues admitting it.  While Williams had a number of boyfriends and sexual partners throughout his travels, few of them appeared to help Luke with his recovery from addiction or his trouble with jealousy. However, there is one man who inspired Luke to do better, to keep living, and to eventually return to Australia to get help.

There is so much to unpack in this book and Luke Williams, as the author, presents himself as a highly complex character who might not be mistaken for a good person but also shouldn’t be dismissed for a bad one. He is complicated and real, struggling and adapting to his situation as he goes; sometimes driven by his addiction, his mental health, or by altruistic desire. I would highly recommend this book as it is downright fascinating to read as Williams details the highs and lows of his time in Southeast Asia as a journalist, an addict, and a human being.

4/5 stars


Words and photography by Kayla Gaskell

 

Shadowalker

Shadowalker

Catch Tilly

Stone Table Books 2017


Shadowalker is an engrossing fantasy you’ll want to read in a single sitting—I know I did.

After waking in Meldin with only a hazy memory and in world-altering pain, Uriel, daughter of the Death Lord, is in one of the most dangerous situations of her life. With her previous life lost, she is a victim to heraldic knowledge she can hardly handle. Abandoned on her uncle’s doorstep, she discovers half her family and most of Meldin want her father dead. It is imperative her identity is hidden from the Lord of the World – but how will that play out when the only one who can heal her is the Lord of the World’s son, Zanar? With Zanar’s help, Uriel escapes to Quislayn, one of the independent houses where she is a fosterling with her cousin Caraid.

In the process of healing Uriel, Zanar and Uriel’s closeness becomes a point of contention among the fosterlings. Caraid’s jealousy grows as she is forced to share her boyfriend with a cousin she doesn’t know or like.

Throughout the novel Uriel’s ignorance is the reader’s ignorance, together we discover this new world and how to navigate it. Meldin society often seems similar to being at court in medieval times, in particular among the fosterlings who squabble over social standing. Taking from Caraid’s lead, the fosterlings are suspicious of Uriel, not least because of her strange fits.

Shadowalker follows Uriel’s character as she uncovers more about her past, her father, and Meldin’s bloody history through the trauma of her peers. We see her grow up, taking the world of Meldin in her stride while forming bonds with her fellow fosterlings – bonds which may keep her safe.

Tilly has crafted the novel well, anticipating and the reader’s questions and allowing Uriel to find the answers. The book is well written and complimented by dragons, shape-shifters and death-magic – everything my younger self would have cherished. This book is perfect for fantasy lovers aged twelve and up.

 

3.5/5 stars


Words by Kayla Gaskell

A Novel Idea

A Novel Idea
Fiona McGregor

Giramondo Publishing 2019


Fiona McGregor’s photo-essay ‘A Novel Idea’ is a witty and honest examination of the often thankless and tedious work of writing a novel. From 2007 to 2010, McGregor documented herself and her workspace through photographs.

The reader follows her from her small home office to Estonia and Germany, from a desk in a secluded hut in the wilderness to sneaky photos taken in a library in Berlin. Alongside images of her workspace, and her old hand-me-down computer, McGregor ruminates on her life. Her relationship with her girlfriend, its breakdown, and her struggle to write when builders are working outside her apartment – made all the worse when they accidentally smash a hole through her wall.

She writes about the ways that her novel and life begin to intertwine, through violent dreams and the grief of loss in her life that mirrors a slow and painful death in her novel.

At times the text is raw, exposing the reader to the intimate details of McGregor’s mind and personal life. Other times her reflections are witty, tongue-in-cheek and relatable to anyone who has ever wrestled with a creative project. We see her seek out new places to work, and watch as the same struggle continues no matter where in the world she sets up her computer. Her narration gives the reader insight into the ways in which writing becomes an act of isolation, yet is still affected by the happenings of the outside world.

‘A Novel Idea’ is an interesting look into the writing process as well as a superb piece of life writing. Perhaps a little unusual, but definitely worth a read if you enjoy life writing with an experimental twist.

 

4 stars


Words by Lisandra Linde

The Truants

The Truants

Kate Weinberg

Bloomsbury 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5266-0012-7


 

Whether it’s as basic as skipping school or smoking a bit of pot in the toilets to theft or worse; doing the wrong thing can be alluring. One of the questions Kate Weinberg asks in her novel The Truants is, “could you be driven to kill someone?”

Following the move to University in Norfolk, Jess discovers a sense of freedom for the first time. Being the middle of five children, she’s always felt as if she were invisible, and has mastered the art of being unseen. Bookish and overshadowed by her siblings, university is Jess’s chance to shine. However, after being booted from Lorna’s class “The Devil has the Best Lines” during fresher’s week, Jess feels her world tumbling around her. After a rather intense enquiry to tutor herself, Jess finds herself enrolled in Lorna’s Agatha Christie course instead and is faced with her first challenge: securing the reading-list without blowing her meagre budget. And is it really theft if you plan on returning it? Drawn in by Lorna’s larger-than-life presence and quickly becoming a favourite, it’s almost as if Jess is being seen for the first time.

Having befriended Georgie, Jess finds a social life-line at uni, someone to force her towards the fun things living on campus has to offer. Georgie is wild-willed and Jess revels in her company, forming close bonds with not only Georgie but her mysterious South African boyfriend Alec, who drives a hearse and always thinks up the greatest schemes. Joined by second year geology student Nick, the group are almost inseparable. That is, until it all goes terribly wrong.

With Georgie’s growing drug problem and the rising tensions in South Africa, it seems the fun is over. Jess’s world is about to come crashing down and with no-one else to turn to but Lorna, will it all have been worth it? And who is Lorna, really? Why did she leave her esteemed position at Cambridge to work at Norfolk?

The thrill of doing wrong – and getting away with it – is ultimately captured in Weinberg’s novel as the reader delves into the increasingly complicated lives of Lorna, Alec, and Jess. With authentic, complex characters guaranteed to draw you in and extraordinary wit Weinberg’s writing is a refreshing look at the Christie mystery and the power a charismatic speaker has to influence the lives of those around them. Filled with secrets and mysteries to be solved, The Truants is enthralling. Dealing with a range of issues facing young people including drug abuse, mental and sexual health, and relationships, The Truants is perfect for anyone fifteen and up.

 


Words by Kayla Gaskell

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World

C.A. Fletcher

Hachette 2019


 

Dogs were with us from the very beginning. And of all the animals that walked the long centuries beside us, they always walked the closest.”

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World follows Griz, a dreamer who lives with his family and dogs, Jess and Jip, on an island off the Scottish coast, decades after the apocalypse has happened.

The story begins when an outsider comes to the island, apparently eager to trade, but instead makes off with Jess. After setting off in pursuit of the thief, Griz is confronted by the realities of his world and finds himself in unfamiliar territory for the first time. Griz begins his quest with an idea of what he will find, only to discover the world is not quite as he imagined. In fact, it is turned on its head.

What sets Fletcher’s tale apart from other dystopia is the strong perspective of Griz’s character voice. The book is crafted in the style of a reflective journal from Griz’s perspective, dedicated to a photograph that he finds of a boy and his dog from the ‘Before’. This creates a nice duality between past and present.

Fletcher also avoids the well-worn trope of crafting a world destroyed by nuclear warfare. Instead, he creates a refreshingly haunting setting with a world whose population has dropped suddenly and drastically with ‘the Gelding’ (similar to the reproductive dystopia of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). This leaves behind vast, haunting landscapes and empty cities, as well as gaps in the historical narrative that are explored during Griz’s quest.

The languid pace of the story, reinforced by long stretches of writing that describe Griz at sea with only his dog Jip for company, does cause the plot to drag at times; however, this is somewhat offset by an undercurrent of tension created by Griz’s reflective narration. The reader is aware that something bad is coming, but it’s going to take its time getting there.

If you’re looking for a slower, more reflective dystopian tale, or are really fond of dogs, then this is the book for you.

3.5/5 stars


Words by Rachael Stapleton

Playing God

Playing God
Morton Benning
Stone Table Books, 2017


With a wry humour reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, Morton Benning treats the reader to a quest fit for any lover of role-playing fantasy games. Playing God explores the fallacy of making yourself a god – something ‘God Avatar’ Jeff created the entire digital world of Utopia to do. When the A.I. of Jeff’s game world malfunctions and turns on him, he finds himself trapped in Utopia. His quest to get back to the real world forces him into a party of rag-tag travellers including a cleric-in-training, an elf, a loveable little cat-creature, fairies of an aquatic variety and a surly goblin. Through a series of misadventures, Jeff is forced to unlearn his selfish ways and see the importance of helping others and working as part of a team.

This is a book that will certainly appeal to a teenage audience. It is easy to read and the story feels a lot like a madcap Dungeons & Dragons campaign. That being said, while the plot is plentiful in encounters with monsters and the odd flesh-eating tree, it doesn’t delve much into character. Jeff is easily the most developed character, but at times when he isn’t present the story feels a little more stagnant with other key characters such as Keenley, Turnshoe, and Miyako coming off as a touch shallow. This is a little disappointing given that Keenley is, arguably, the main character – not Jeff.

There is also a bit of ensemble-cast-syndrome going on as sometimes it feels a little like there are too many people in the party, to the point where none of them truly get to shine – something not uncommon in D&D style fantasies in which a big party is common.. The pacing can also be slow in parts, particularly when the characters are travelling, but this is made up for by the action-packed sequences peppered in-between.

The concept behind Playing God is a compelling one. What is it like to be one of the NPCs inhabiting a game world? It’s the kind of angle rarely examined – the exceptions being the likes of Viva La Dirt League’s Epic NPC Man series on YouTube. With a similar turn towards humour, Benning takes the NPC experience a step forward by looking at how the characters in Utopia react to their creator, Jeff, whose decidedly 21st century quips and analogies leave Keenley and co baffled.

Overall, this is a playful and enjoyable debut.

Playing God is available to purchase through Stone Table Books.

3/5 stars


Words by Lisandra Linde

Racing the Sun

44330028Reading Racing the Sun by J.R. Koop was like taking a deep breath of fresh air. Set in a Southern Asian inspired fantasy kingdom and with a queer love story at the centre, this Young Adult work is bright against its heavily heteronormative, and predominately Western-based peers. After the soul is stolen out of her secret lover’s chest by a sorceress bent on resurrecting the Ashen God, Rahat must race through the dangerous jungle to save both her lover and her kingdom.

Koop’s writing flows easily and is very fun to read. Her characters and their relationships, especially between family members, are engaging and well-formed. The passages with the faerie, Qaidra, were some of the book’s best they provided much of the lore and world-building background for the work. Qaidra is a being that has suffered and the glimpses into her past were sharply drawn and helped flesh out the faerie into a strikingly memorable figure. That said, I do think the world of Abrecan  could have done with a little more world-building in terms of the lore of the Gods and the significance of the faerie Rapture; at times it felt as though the author expected you to be privy to the inner workings of the world without the full breadth of that insider knowledge quite making it to the page. However, the world-building that was present was rich and interesting – Koop clearly has a vivid, active imagination and lots of love for the things she creates.

The politics of this novel – Rahat and Iliyah, her lover, are both of the ruling class but cannot be together: instead Rahat is promised to Iliyah’s brother to unite their kingdom – add tension to the plot and a desperation to Rahat that endears her to her readers. Although, again, I would have benefitted from a tiny bit more of an explanation about the things that prevent Rahat and the girl she loves from being together, especially given the reason for their separation – Iliyah’s service to a God as a dream weaver – proves to be easily dismissed at the end by the powers that be.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which felt like a good mix of Neil Gaimen, Garth Nix, and Audrey Coulthurst. There’s lots to love in Racing the Sun: the rich world of Abrecan; the sweet love story; the love and encouragement between family members; the unusual range of creatures and beasts (I loved the mechanical horses, they were my absolute favourites); the adventure. This novel is a refreshing addition to the YA genre, and I am excited to see what Koop produces next.

Four Stars.


 

Words by Riana Kinlough

The World Was Whole

The World Was Whole
Fiona Wright

I found out about this book during the hazy final days of editing my thesis, a body of work all about Fiona Wright’s first essay collection Small Acts of Disappearance (2015). My first thought was, ‘Oh no, now I have to go back and mention a book I haven’t read so my research is up to date’. It wasn’t until this year that I felt ready to tackle another essay collection, especially one by an author I’d studied so intensively for a year. Boy am I glad I did. Nonfiction lovers: this is a must-read.

In many ways The World Was Whole acts as a sort of sequel to Small Acts, though the two can still be enjoyed on their own.  At the centre of both books is Wright’s personal experiences living with anorexia nervosa and anxiety. In The World Was Whole, Wright uses her personal experiences to explore the modern world’s relationship with the home. She doesn’t look at the home as just the physical buildings we live in, or the spaces we interact with, but also the bodies we inhabit and how they can represent both sanctuary and uncertainty.

Throughout the essays in The World Was Whole, Wright examines her own life, which is built heavily upon repetition and routine, both of which are upset constantly by the circumstances of her health and finances. Like many millennials, particularly those with unstable financial situations, Wright rents. This means she is almost always on the move from house to house, from space to space. Forever trying to settle in and make these spaces her own, only to be flung elsewhere by circumstances beyond her control. She gets to the heart of the constant anxiety and uncertainty of renting when she writes: ‘I want to be able to get attached to a place, without knowing that my presence there is always subject to someone else’s needs or whims’.

Another strong aspect of Wright’s writing is her exploration of her own experiences of chronic illness. Within literature there is a tendency towards stereotyping the sick, particularly the mentally ill and female, as helpless victims or self-obsessed attention-seekers. Wright brings a strong current of humanity to her writing, showing what her lived experience of anorexia nervosa is like. She isn’t afraid to critique the limitations of Australia’s healthcare system, which often causes a great deal of grief and frustration for people struggling with chronic conditions. Importantly, Wright describes her illness in terms of the constant shift back and forth between getting better and getting worse, and the anxiety and fear that comes with this flux. ‘On the first day in the hospital,’ Wright writes, ‘I curl on my bed and cry for a full hour after every meal, and I keep thinking, I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I don’t think I can do this. I panic at the piece of meat that’s on my plate for dinner, I gulp for breath, great ragged gasps that hurt my sternum and then I sob outside the dining room because I hadn’t realised, somehow, that I’d gotten quite this sick. I’m so afraid of what I’ve done and of who I have become.’

There is a rawness, a brutal honesty, to how Wright writes about her illness that is so important. It’s the kind of writing that gets under your skin, touches something familiar within you and forces you to experience, even for just a moment, what it is like to live with such an illness. The rawness isn’t always shown through pain. There’s also joy. Wright shows the complexity of her life in all its facets, both difficult and special.

Wright’s essays are a delight to read. Often painful, always beautiful, they represent the growing skill and relevance of Australian essayists today. Personal essays like these allow for engaging discussions of issues that affect contemporary society: from poverty to racism and the need for change on a government level. Wright is only one of many Australian essayists using the essay to spark conversation and give readers a new way of looking at these issues by engaging them through the personal, as well as the purely factual. To avid essay readers and newcomers alike, this is a book worth putting on your list this year.


Words and photography by Lisandra Linde

Bound for Sin

Bound for Sin is the second of Tess LeSue’s Frontier of the Heart series. Set in the same dusty ye-olde West as its older sibling, Bound for Eden, Sin is a fun, smart, historical romance. Widowed, broke, and desperate Georgiana Bee Blunt advertises for a capable frontiersman for the purposes of matrimony. Her late husband has left her with a gold claim that is attracting all kinds of unwanted attention from all kinds of men. As a result, the eldest of her five children has been ransomed, which leaves Georgiana under the thumb of some extremely unsavoury characters. Matt Slater, the younger brother of Bound for Eden’s enigmatic love-interest Luke, finds himself saddled (no pun intended) with the task of transporting her and her rambunctious brood across the desert.

LeSue has a talent for characterisation: the laconic and grouchy Matt is a perfect foil for the prim and proper, Georgiana. Georgiana’s many children are also rich and delightful little people. The henchmen of the sinister Hec Boehm provide at times comic relief and tension. A particular delight was the return of Deathrider, a Native American from the first novel. His sharp wit makes him an extremely good verbal sparring partner for Matt. This novel is heftier than most romances but its characters are home to much more interior life than your standard Mills and Boons Western, which makes the trade-off much easier.

Plot is another of LeSue’s skills: she has crafted a Shakespearian-like series of charades and miscommunications that is both funny and clever. The reluctant deal struck between one of the henchmen and Matt, wherein Matt would pretend to be engaged to the leading lady and then break it off with her once they reached California, making room for the henchman as the obvious next choice as her new spouse had me laughing out loud. It’s also obvious LeSue did her due diligence with research – the characters spend almost too long arranging supplies and wagons for their long sojourn to California, particularly if you, like me, have already read Bound for Eden, which has a similar plot structure. I also found that the delicate slow-burn romance between Georgiana and her new frontiersman fiancé got a little bit lost in the novel’s high stakes drama and funny antics. Although, that said, LeSue definitely makes you root for the two to have a proper happily-ever-after.

3.5/5 stars


Words by Riana Kinlough