Crime, vampires, coming-of-age: The best new books to read in September
Welcome to ABC Arts’ monthly book column. Each month, we’ll present a shortlist of new releases read and recommended by The Bookshelf’s Kate Evans and The Book Show’s Claire Nichols and Sarah L’Estrange — alongside freelance writers and book reviewers. This month, we’re thrilled to present recommendations from Declan Fry and Khalid Warsame.
All five read voraciously and widely, and the only guidelines we gave them were: make it a new release; make it something you think is great.
The result includes a Pulitzer Prize winner’s rollicking Harlem crime saga, a fun take on the vampire chronicle, more-than-meets-the-eye young adult fiction, a daring homage to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and a playful and incisive (and definitely NSFW) celebration of writer and “all-round badass” Kathy Acker.
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead is having a moment – he’s won a Pulitzer Prize apiece for his last two books (The Underground Railroad, The Nickel Boys) and the TV adaptation of The Underground Railroad, sumptuously directed by Oscar winner Barry Jenkins, is winning critical acclaim.
Now, Whitehead adds a new novel to the mix. Harlem Shuffle is a rollicking crime caper, set in 60s Harlem, New York. The book introduces us to Ray, a furniture salesman who is “only slightly bent when it comes to being crooked”.
Ray’s dad was a criminal, but Ray likes to think he’s risen above that, running a reputable business in Harlem, and raising a young family. But he’s not all that clean. He turns a blind eye when his cousin Freddie shows up at the shop with stolen rings and necklaces, and it’s not long before Freddie ropes Ray in to plans for a heist at the Hotel Theresa, a real-life hotel known as the “Waldorf of Harlem”.
The fallout of the heist lands Ray deeper in the criminal world. In a series of three “novellas”, we follow him as that slide continues and he embraces his darker side. Along the way we meet a host of memorable characters – petty criminals, killers-for-hire, a vengeful sex worker, and a self-serving banker whose duplicity sends Ray on a crusade for revenge.
If you’re expecting the heart-rending power of The Nickel Boys or The Underground Railroad, prepare for disappointment. Whitehead has always been a genre-switcher, and in this book he seems determined to have a good time. Whitehead’s Harlem is a place where every door hides a secret — mobsters do deals in the back of laundromats, and cops collect envelopes full of cash from dusty cake shops. It’s a vivid depiction of a hidden world, and I loved the ride. CN
Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff
Harper Voyager (HarperCollins)
This review comes with a language warning. And a violence warning. Maybe an impiety warning, I guess. And a this-whole-thing-does-not-take-anything-too-seriously warning.
The first line of the book, after all, is: “Ask me not if God exists, but why he’s such a prick.”
What follows is 700 pages of riotous, convoluted, playful, violent, sweary, clever fantasy.
Jay Kristoff knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s one of Australia’s most successful fantasy writers, with an international following and a knowing wink that he directs at both his readers and the genre itself. He writes young adult novels (many with Amie Kaufman) as well as adult fantasy and sci-fi. This one: adult. Definitely.
He’s the sort of writer who inspires cosplayers, and fan art and tattoos. He loves creating vivid characters adored by readers, then shocking everyone by killing them off.
It’s difficult to kill a silversaint, however. And Gabriel de León is the “last of the Silversaints”, a collective of highly trained warrior priests who aren’t entirely human. Their mission is to fight the coldbloods, the traditional vampires – with whom they share certain characteristics. They’re both attracted to blood, for one thing, although the vampires are lured by the old warm-beating-heart version, and the high-minded silversaints prefer to smoke the specially prepared dried blood of their foes. Junkie priests on a mission, then: got that?
The novel is structured as a prison confession. This heroic, beautiful, long-haired, tattooed warrior has been captured, and interrogated by a vampire chronicler. A hilariously unconventional oral history interview.
There’s a childhood, then exile, training in the silversaint ways, monsters and battles, heroic women warrior nuns, secret libraries, friendships and betrayals, surprising twists, a great and tragic love story, more surprising twists, backstories and histories, even more twists, and a sense that this prisoner is scanning his cell, working out how to escape. After all, this is the first in a new series.
I read this 700-page ripsnorter in a weekend. KE
Philosophy for Spiders: On the Low Theory of Kathy Acker by McKenzie Wark
Duke University Press
“Once that cock had been in my ass,” writes McKenzie Wark, “I felt like I knew who I could be around Kathy. I was her girl.” Philosophy for Spiders, Wark’s bold study of novelist, playwright, essayist, and all-round badass Kathy Acker, paints a portrait of the writer and her work that’s part memoir, part encyclopedia, and part reflection on writing.
Over the course of her almost 30-year career, Acker was known for experimental and subversive work like Blood and Guts in High School; her writing has been variously called “transgressive, postmodern, cyberpunk, feminist, conceptual, revolutionary, new narrative, queer”, as Wark puts it.
Wark, an Australian author who has lived in New York since 2000, is an amusing historian and commentator. There are reflections here on tabs of acid nearly being included in Acker’s archives, along with countless wry observations (of Acker’s collection of strap-ons, Wark notes that the array would “be one of the harder endowments for her literary executor to grant onward”).
Reflecting on the writer as body, the body as writer, and the bodies of work we compose as artists, Wark offers a kind of encyclopedia of concepts central to Acker’s work, under chapter headings including “Imagination”, “Capitalism”, “Hand-jobbing”, “Masochism”, “Revolution”, “Art-work”, “Fame-work”, and “Sex-work”.
This is a formally generous book that avoids classificatory boundaries, happily reflecting many of Acker’s iterations – including the author who interviewed the Spice Girls in May 1997, just months before she died, aged only 50, in Tijuana.
A thought-provoking afterword considers trans writing; like the rest of the book, it is both playful and incisive about gender.
Part of what drives Wark is the urge to remember; as she writes toward the end, quoting British writer Roz Kaveney: “I dreamed I was at a party and Kathy was there […] ‘Kathy, you’re dead,’ I said. ‘Sure,’ she said, ‘but you didn’t think that was going to stop me, did you?'” DF
Tenderness by Alison MacLeod
Tenderness was the alternative title D.H. Lawrence wanted for his 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the story of the married upper-class Constance, who discovers the pleasures of sex with her gamekeeper, Mellors. As Lawrence writes in the novel (per Mellors): “I stand for the touch of bodily awareness between human beings, and the touch of tenderness.”
Today, Lawrence’s writing appears dated in some ways (Connie and Mellors refer to their genitals as John Thomas and Lady Jane), but in other ways it feels ahead of its time; it’s still rare to read literary fiction that exults in the pleasures of the body and emotional connection.
At the time, the novel’s treatment of sex and adultery proved incendiary, and it was swiftly banned in England and the US. Until the obscenity trials in those countries (in 1960 and 1959 respectively) only heavily expurgated versions were available in English.
This legacy of censorship is animated in Alison MacLeod’s fiction homage to Lawrence’s novel, which captures the romanticism of the author and his heroine.
But it also does something else: Tenderness is daring and innovative. For instance, MacLeod places a lonely Jacqueline Kennedy at the US obscenity trial (even though she was not present). A photograph taken of her there without her knowledge makes its way to the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. For Hoover, this print becomes a possible bargaining chip to bring down John F. Kennedy, whom Hoover despises.
The story then skips across the Atlantic to follow the obscenity trial against Penguin Books in England, in response to co-founder Allen Lane’s plans to publish an uncensored and unexpurgated version of Lady Chatterley. MacLeod presents a blow by blow account of that trial and you witness the hubris of the prosecution, who couldn’t find a single writer to speak against Lawrence’s novel.
MacLeod’s Tenderness has many tendrils, but throughout is a constant incantation about the power of fiction. The structure is unexpected and the story is epic and bold, and to quote from the book, it is also big-spirited and alive. SL
Things We See in the Light by Amal Awad
In her latest novel, journalist, author and screenwriter Amal Awad returns with a tender, nuanced story of heartbreak and rebuilding set in Sydney’s inner west. The novel is the third and most accomplished in a loosely connected series which follows the lives of a group of three childhood friends. This Is How You Get Better and Courting Samira focused on the lives of her best friends Lara and Samira; in The Things We See in the Light, we spend time with the deeply reflective and thoughtful Sahar.
After eight years in a loveless marriage in Jordan, Sahar returns to Sydney at the precipice of a period of remarkable change. She arrives at the doorstep of her childhood friend Lara, holding her story close to her chest, telling her friend only the barest details of what happened. But inside she is aching.
Her estranged husband, Khaled, is a man as different from her as it’s possible to be. His frequent refrain during their marriage was to shrug and say, “you’re free”, which is the worst thing possible to say to Sahar, who wonders if anything could ever possibly free her from herself. Sahar is, at times, devastatingly self-perceptive, describing herself as feeling like she’s “trying to inflate a balloon with holes in it”. As she slowly rebuilds her life in Sydney, she rediscovers the possibilities of who she could be. She takes a job at a small cake shop, where the bulk of the novel is set, and falls in with its tight-knit crew, who take it upon themselves to facilitate her journey.
Awad’s characters are warm and lived-in, and their kindness is the balm Sahar needs; we learn just as much about Sahar from what Kat, Inez, Samira, and Lara notice about her, as we do from Sahar, who is still learning how to be kind to herself.
The Things We See in the Light is presented as a coming-of-age novel, and Awad leverages the familiar beats of the genre into a generous and compelling story that rewards close reading and plays subtly with reader expectations. It’s a novel that gets a lot of small details right, most of all in its narrator Sahar, a rare character with a finely observed voice made to be underlined on the page. KW