Affirm Press

The first thing readers will notice about Son of Sin is the snake coiled across the front cover, its inky scales contrasting with the hot pink background, at once disquieting and strangely beautiful. This striking image sets the tone for the rest of the novel, which is the prose début for Sydney poet and social commentator Omar Sakr. The text provides a disarmingly frank perspective on sexuality, race, and shame in contemporary Australia.

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Other Houses by Paddy O'Reilly

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April 2022, no. 441

Other Houses opens with its central character, Lily, cruising a drug-riddled suburb in search of her missing partner, Janks, who has disappeared, leaving her and their daughter, Jewelee, to fend for themselves. From the outset, Other Houses is grounded in Melbourne: from the suburban streets that Lily traverses late at night to escape her trauma to the highways that Janks drives along on a doomed mission as a ‘courier of misery’. Suburbs with names reminiscent of big American cities like Dallas have none of the glitz and glamour of their famous namesakes; they are steeped in substance abuse, poverty, and hopelessness.

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Seasoned ABC journalist and presenter Paul Kennedy, also known as ‘PK’, has over the years cultivated an affable, equable public persona. For regular viewers of the ABC’s News Breakfast program, Kennedy is the kind of person with whom one would like to have a drink; to pore over sporting results or the tumult of living through a pandemic. It is a shock, then, to discover that Kennedy was not always this picture of fatherly composure but once an insecure, frustrated, and troubled seventeen-year-old, trapped within the confusing void between boyhood and manhood.

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The Tribute begins with a corpse. And not just any corpse. This body is discovered in a Sydney terrace house with its organs removed. One detective describes the crime as ‘butchery’, and that’s an understatement. This murder is the work of Stephen Porter, a deceptively bland chap who uses his bank job to secure the schedules and addresses of victims. These victims are then dissected as ‘tributes’ to the Fabrica, a collection of sixteenth-century anatomy books.

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For this reviewer, the sign of a healthy crime-fiction ecosystem isn’t merely the success of the ‘big names’ but also the emergence of writers whose voices are so distinctive as to be singular. Sometimes these writers become commercially successful in their own right, and sometimes they remain literary outliers, drawing their readership from a smaller but avid following. When I think of the health of American crime fiction in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I recall not only the success of Mario Puzo, but also the kind of writing culture that sustained the dark vision of an author such as George V. Higgins. The same goes for Britain in the 1980s, where Dick Francis was still publishing prolifically when Derek Raymond emerged. Turning to twenty-first-century America and the success of writers like Michael Connelly and Karin Slaughter, it’s the rise of Megan Abbott and Richard Price that illustrates the full potential of that culture’s capacity for crime storytelling.

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To survey concurrent works of art is to take the temperature of a particular time, in a particular place. And the temperature of the time and place in these four début Australian novels? It is searching for a sense of belonging, and, at least in part, it’s coming out of western Sydney in the wake of the 2005 Cronulla riots. All four novels are set in New South Wales, three of them in suburban Sydney. Each is concerned with who is entitled to land and the stories we tell while making ourselves at home in the world, sometimes at the expense of others.

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After Australia edited by Michael Mohammed Ahmad

by
September 2020, no. 424

Acknowledging the limits of Acknowledgments of Country, the Wiradjuri artist Jazz Money once wrote:

whitefellas try to acknowledge things
but they do it wrong
they say
           before we begin I’d like to pay my respects
not understanding
that there isn’t a time before it begins
it has all already begun

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The American writer Jack Matthews had no time for what he called ‘a discontent’ with the brevity of the short story. ‘Ask a coral snake,’ he declared, ‘which is as deadly as it is small.’ The claim for ‘deadliness’ certainly applies to four recent début collections; in the tight spaces of the short story, each one presents confronting ideas about contemporary Australia.

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These are exciting times when the new normal for Australian crime fiction is strong domestic interest and sales, but also international attention in the form of Australian-only panels at overseas writers’ festivals, plus regular nominations and awards in Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom. Whether this is a literary fad or sustainable in the long term – with Australian crime fiction becoming a recognisable ‘brand’ in the manner of Scandi-noir or Tartan-noir – will depend largely upon the sustained quality of the novels produced here.

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In their earliest incarnations, fairy tales are gruesome stories riddled with murder, cannibalism, and mutilation. Written in early seventeenth-century Italy, Giambattista Basile’s Cinderella snaps her stepmother’s neck with the lid of a trunk. This motif reappears in the nineteenth-century German ‘The Juniper Tree’, but this time the stepmother wields the trunk lid, decapitating her husband’s young son. In seventeenth-century France, Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard kills his many wives because of their curiosity, while in his adaptation of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, the Queen’s appetite for eating children drives her to commit suicide out of shame. Jealous, Snow White’s stepmother (and in some versions her biological mother) wants to kill the girl and eat her innards, but is ultimately thwarted; her punishment is to dance herself to death wearing red-hot iron shoes.

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