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This is a harrowing tale. Every parent’s nightmare. We know the image, the missing three-year-old in a Spider-Man outfit, but Caroline Overington takes us deep into the mystery of William Tyrrell’s disappearance in admirably controlled, scrupulously researched writing. Underlying the restraint is a passionate desire to tell the story in the hope that one day the truth will emerge. Tyrrell disappeared one morning in 2014 from the Kendall home owned by the mother of his foster parents. There one minute, gone the next. Not lost, abducted. Despite intense – and sometimes botched – police investigation (and a million dollar reward), he has never been found. Detailing the key events and figures, Overington builds a compelling, complex picture of a tragic puzzle.

PICK OF THE WEEK
The Fall of the House of Byron
Emily Brand
John Murray, $32.99

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The title alludes to the story by Edgar Allen Poe and this tale of three generations of the Byron family has a similarly doomed, gothic air. How could it not with figures such as William ‘‘Wicked Lord Byron’’, who not only blew his wife’s considerable dowry renovating Newstead Abbey, the family home in Nottinghamshire that George Byron (the poet) inherited aged 10, but created the template of dissolute living (with the occasional murder) that his grandson took up. Emily Brand, who has thoroughly researched the tale, creates a haunting portrait of family members that, at one turn, attempt to cover the excesses of others, and at another are either just this side of barking mad or crossed over into barking mad. Woven into this is Byron’s poetry, the inspiration his colourful family gave him and the importance of the ancestral house itself.

Fifty Years Sober
Ross Fitzgerald
Hybrid, $27.50

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When he was 20 and studying at Monash University, Ross Fitzgerald and a bloke he met at a pub stole a car and drove it off a bridge. It was one of many incidents, including attempted suicides, that led him to AA. This updated version of his 2010 memoir, My Name is Ross, charts in plain-speaking, detached writing, which accentuates the gravity of the tale, the path to alcoholism.

There was the difficult childhood, troubled relationship with his mother, first drinks in school uniform at 15, a Fulbright scholarship to Cleveland that endedin electric shock treatment and the realisation at 25 that if he didn’t stop he wouldn’t see 26. Fifty years after giving up he still attends AA meetings: once an alcoholic, always one. By turns sad, ironic, disturbing and sometimes amusing, this is the ultimate sobering read.

Every Conceivable Way
Despina Meris
Hardie Grant, $34.99

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The conceivable in the title is not just a clever pun, it’s also an indication of how far this couple were prepared to go to have a child. In a nutshell, a long, long way. The twists and turns, the set-backs, the pain and despair are too numerous to go into in the kind of detail that Despina Meris does. Synoptically, Meris and her husband first tried to conceive the usual way, then came IVF and five miscarriages, a surrogate clinic in India, then the possibility of an egg donor and a surrogate. Amongt all this Meris was diagnosed with cancer and after two years recovered. It’s a tale of tremendous determination, faith and, ultimately, triumph in the birth, via a surrogate, of their baby. A happy ending, yes, and Meris’ memoir takes you inside the day-to-day, year-to-year struggle it took to get there.

Fiction

PICK OF THE WEEK
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982
Cho Nam-Joo; trans., Jamie Chang
Scribner, $27.99

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As the title suggests, this novel is written rather like a case history, in plain prose that follows the life of a young Korean woman through the turn of the century. What looks like a straightforward biographical narrative, although it is technically fiction, develops as a catalogue of gender inequalities. It begins with a dramatic scene in which the adult Jiyoung is having some sort of psychotic break, and then backtracks to her childhood. In her adult life she is repeatedly thwarted as she tries to establish a career. When she marries and has a baby, things get worse again. The effects of deeply entrenched sexism in Korean (and not only Korean) society eventually drive her to a breakdown. And the brilliant conclusion, as told by her male psychiatrist, is even more dismaying than anything that has gone before.

Tender is the Flesh
Agustina Bazterrica; trans., Sarah Moses
Pushkin Press, $27.99

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This is a powerful novel but also one of the most horrifying books I have ever read. It is prescient in its basic premise, for, here in the not very distant future, a deadly virus has swept the world. This virus affects animals, which can no longer be eaten because the virus is fatal to humans, so animals have been eliminated. But the human craving for meat-eating remains, and the inevitable result is that human beings are now farmed and bred for meat, referred to as ‘‘special meat’’ and marketed as a luxury. The protagonist Marcos has adapted to the new world, but he remembers the old world and he understands what has been lost, a form of doublethink that leads him into a situation punishable by death. This prize-winning novel is pure dystopian fable with no polemic and no preaching, just a stark ‘‘what if’’ narrative with a clear meaning, leading to a nightmare end.

Small Mercies
Richard Anderson
Scribe, $29.99

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Dimple, real name Dillon but gentle and easy-going enough for such a nickname to suit him, is a third-generation farmer and has been married to Ruthie for more than 20 years. Their sons Finnie and J are grown and gone, but there’s agreement that Finnie is a natural born farmer and will eventually take over the farm. But the drought has persisted, though this is a well-run farm and the cattle are still well cared for, with or without rain. Then Ruthie gets some bad news and it precipitates a crisis in the marriage, which leads to a situation that nobody really wants.

This novel is a perceptive study of marriage, of family farming, and of women’s lives, as well as a sombre look at the people in Australian society who have money and power, and at the way they wield those things to their own ends.

A New Name for the Colour Blue
Annette Marner
Wakefield Press, $24.95

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Cassandra Noble, like her namesake in mythology, is serially unlucky with the men in her life. Her father is awful, her brothers are awful, and the boyfriend who seemed so charismatic and desirable turns out to be worse than awful, gradually revealing himself as controlling and violent. But when Cassandra is told that her father is dying and wants to die at home on the family farm in the southern Flinders Ranges, she is pressured into leaving Adelaide and going back to look after him. The return to the scene of her traumatic childhood brings back long-suppressed memories and the book turns into a crime novel of sorts, with an old mystery finally solved as memories return. Annette Marner is a visual artist and her love and knowledge of the landscape, as well as of its traditional owners, is expressed in subtle, lyrical language.

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