Stephen King goes full noir, Lisa Wells offers a shot of hope: books to read this week

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Fatal Contact, Peter Dowling, Monash University Publishing, $34.95

When the First Fleet arrived in 1788 it brought much more than convicts – it also brought smallpox, TB, flu, measles and syphilis. All of which, as Peter Dowling extensively documents in this study of the carnage that followed, Indigenous Australians had no defence against.

The existence of permanent Aboriginal village settlements and large population centres – he draws on official documents, newspapers and explorers’ diaries, as well as referring to Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu – unfortunately facilitated the spread of the deadly diseases.

Incorporated into the text is the medical case study of Truganini who was abducted by Europeans, repeatedly raped, and, more than likely, acquired syphilis. A confronting analysis of the price Aboriginal Australians paid for the occupation of their land.

Our Exceptional Friend, Emma Shortis, Hardie Grant, $32.99

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The US alliance, forged in the dark days of the Second World War and sealed in the ANZUS Treaty, has long been viewed by many observers as one-sided. Historian Emma Shortis forcefully argues that the alliance, which, among other things, reinforces American exceptionalism and its excesses, needs radical re-thinking.

She emphasises that her book is not an anti-American text, but stresses there are options. History “can’t offer us a guidebook for the future”, but past events, such as Australia’s defiance of the US on mining in Antarctica in the late 1980s and opposing Apartheid (supported by Bush and Thatcher), provide examples of independent policy other than frequent subservience.

She says we must also address the foreign policy and defence implications of the alliance. A forthright commentator addressing a pivotal concern.

FICTION PICK OF THE WEEK
Billy Summers, Stephen King, Hodder & Stoughton, $32.99

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In Stephen King’s latest, the biggest name in horror goes for total noir. Billy Summers introduces an army veteran turned assassin for hire with a traumatic past. Billy has a strict moral code: he only kills bad guys and has decided to take on one last hit before he’s out of the game.

The hit involves assuming a fake identity and relocating to a provincial city somewhere in the American South, where Billy chillingly infiltrates a suburban neighbourhood and waits for his chance.

His foreboding about the job appears justified, and the novel shifts gears halfway through, with the sudden arrival of a character, and a twist, that changes the pace and moves the book into an almost epical mode. King’s gift for storytelling doesn’t falter for a moment.

This One Sky Day, Leone Ross, Faber & Faber, $29.99

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Magical realism is a difficult recipe to perfect; it often arrives underdone or overcooked. Leone Ross’ third novel – set in the fictional archipelago of Popisho – gets the proportions just right. This is fiction possessed of a generosity of imagination, brimming with wildness and whimsy without losing the plot altogether.

Popisho is a world all its own. The inhabitants have special powers that might allow them to talk to cats, say, or walk on water, and the islands themselves warp and change according to their desires. Readers follow a range of characters – a recovering addict, a queer character, a woman burdened by a history of miscarriages – and a bizarre supporting cast as the customs and curiosities of the islands are laid bare.

Dappled with poignancy and humour, this book launches into the unexpected, using a full reserve of emotional intelligence to ground more elaborate flights of fancy.

The Tribute, John Byron, Affirm, $32.99

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John Byron makes his debut with a dark crime thriller that does more than what it says on the box. The Tribute has a suitably gruesome set-up: a serial killer is on the loose in Sydney. The first victim has had organs removed and it’s soon clear the perp is emulating illustrations from Vesalius’ Fabrica – a seminal collection of books on 16th-century anatomy.

Charged with investigating is haunted homicide detective David Murphy, and when he turns to the expertise of two women close to him – his art historian sister, Joanna, and wife Sylvia – to help solve the crimes, lives are suddenly in danger from unexpected quarters.

Byron utilises the architecture of a thriller to serve up a grim dissection of modern masculinity and misogyny, and never skimps on construction: an unnerving and suspenseful novel that draws you in with all the qualities of superior genre fiction.

Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead, Emily Austin, Atlantic, $27.99

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The title won’t hold immediate allure for those in lockdown, and it does take a bath in the mental illness of its protagonist, but Everyone In This Room Will Someday Be Dead has black comic elements and ends up somewhere different from where you might expect.

Gilda is a lesbian atheist with a severe anxiety disorder who stumbles into a job as a receptionist at a Catholic church while seeking help for her distress. She begins to lead a double life – hiding her true feelings from the church community – and becomes embroiled in intrigue when it turns out her predecessor may have been murdered.

Emily Austin has mastered deadpan humour and delves with absorbing morbidity into the narrative voice she creates, though outside the narrator, characters are telegraphed rather than fully portrayed.

Steven Carroll, Abbas Nazari and Emma Shortis are guests at Melbourne Writers Festival (mwf.com.au).

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