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Books: Urban fantasies, crazy families and a vegan nightmare

Aviva Lowy
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Published: 1 April 2024

Last updated: 2 April 2024

The Jewish Independent

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow - Gabrielle Zevin (Chatto & Windus)

When asked to give a synopsis of her New York Times bestseller (and soon to be a movie), Gabrielle Zevin says it’s about “two kids who meet as children and they spend the next 30 years playing [video] games and making games.”

Of course, it’s much more complicated than that. The kids are Sadie Green and Sam Masur, who meet in hospital. Sadie is there visiting her older sister, who is being treated for leukaemia, and Sam is receiving surgery for a badly crushed foot, the result of the car accident which killed his mother. They bond over playing Nintendo and Sadie becomes Sam’s regular and frequent visitor.

While there are hiccups over the course of their friendship, with many years spent apart, the two meet up as adults and start to develop their own games, eventually setting up a company called Unfair Games (“The ‘unfair game’ was life itself”).

Zevin says the book reflects her belief that a “great love story can also be a great friendship story”.

There are many literary allusions in the novel, not least of which is the title itself, coming from a bleak passage in Macbeth. Zevin claims that her use of the quote is a hopeful one, that every day we are alive is a chance to start again. She says it’s also a metaphor for video games with infinite lives and infinite chances for redemption.

Zevin was born in New York to a Korean mother and Jewish-American father (just like her character Sam) and both her parents worked in computers. She has also created real-life video games, and the story feels authentic. This is a beautiful and intelligent novel that will suck you right in - even if you’ve never played a video game.          

The Jewish Independent

Book of Life - Deborah Conway (Allen & Unwin)

Australian musician Deborah Conway, who rose to prominence as lead singer with the 1980s rock band Do-Re-Mi, has come up with the perfect title for an autobiography: Book of Life. It’s a clever reference to the Rosh Hashanah service where we pray to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the year ahead, and a nod to her Jewish identity.

The title is also a bald literal indication of what you’re going to get, and that’s a candid account of Conway’s life. As you might expect, there’s sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll . . . and Judaism.

“By the time I met [husband] Willy, I had acknowledged that my Jewishness was an inherent part of me, not fashionable, and not even based in a fundamental belief in God, but bound up in an ancient and compelling story”, writes Conway. She goes on to say, “being explicit about my Judaism was a kind of coming out, publicly piecing together my two halves, musician and Jew.”  

She could hardly have known when she published those words that she would soon be one of the Jewish creatives caught in the antisemitic doxxing scandal earlier this year.

In her book you’ll learn about Conway the model, cult movie star, songwriter, performer, music festival organiser, producer of her own records, and businesswoman. More than this, she writes frankly about love, about parenting her three daughters, and about the hard slog of making a long-term career and living in the music industry. 

The Jewish Independent

Terrace Story - Hilary Leichter (HarperCollins)

“Always make room for yourself,” Annie was advised at her baby shower, at the start of this novel. But “room” is something Annie has precious little of - in the literal sense, anyway. She and partner Edward and their new baby Rose can only afford a shoebox of an apartment. Imagine her delight when they are visited by a colleague, Stephanie, who opens a closet door (usually filled with nappies) to reveal a large furnished terrace with an impossibly beautiful sunset.

Hilary Leichter’s magical realist novel, which plays with space, time and the multiverse, is an outgrowth of her short story published by Harper’s magazine. Structurally, this completed book is four short self-contained stories with overlapping characters who reappear out of time and place.

In the first story, the couple discover that, unfortunately, the terrace only exists in Stephanie’s company, and they invite her over frequently so they can linger in the luxurious dimensions of their expanded home. They don’t let their guest in on the secret of the terrace. But then, as we discover two stories on, Stephanie already knows she’s the cause. She’s been expanding space - a little here, more there - since she was a child.

The New Yorker called the book a modern fable and there’s definitely a moral to be mined in these pages. Perhaps it’s that when you try to do something good, you also cause harm. As a physics student tells Stephanie, “you can’t make something bigger without taking away from something else”.  

The last story, set in a suburb of outer space, has one of the characters musing on the nature of time. In Leichter’s eloquent words, “she could not believe how close it felt, the past, when really it was all impossibly far. Perhaps the opposite was also true. One could locate things long gone, in the vast and willing scenery of the mind.”

The Jewish Independent

Death Valley - Melissa Broder (Bloomsbury Circus)

A Los Angeles novelist parks herself in a Best Western motel on the edge of the desert, ostensibly to work on her new book, but also to call “time out” on her life; her father is in hospital, possibly close to death, and her husband suffers from a debilitating chronic illness which leaves him virtually bedridden.

It doesn’t sound like the stuff of comedy, but Melissa Broder’s Death Valley is full of black humour. Written in the first person, our wisecracking protagonist is constantly making flippant comments about herself and her situation. From the very start, she fears that her attempt to escape is “going poorly, because unfortunately I’ve brought myself with me”.

On the day she arrives, she receives a text from her mother that her father has awoken from his coma. Should she drive back to LA? Her mother thinks it might be bad luck to do so. “She’s descended from a long line of Jewish superstitionists; bad omen experts. If you carry an umbrella: drought. If you don’t: monsoon.”

Having been given a hiking trail map by the hotel receptionist, the woman takes a walk in the desert where she encounters a giant cactus - the sort that shouldn’t exist in California - and finding a slit in its side, she enters the plant. It’s a strange sort of Alice-in-Wonderland experience.

When she attempts to retrace her steps and visit the mystical cactus a day later, with nothing but her Grab N’ Go breakfast bag for sustenance, things go awry. Will she survive the desert? In a little taste of dramatic irony, she thinks (Broder writes): “The scary part is I cannot say. I don’t know my character’s arc. I don’t control this narrative.” Ah, but you do!

The Jewish Independent

Fervour - Toby Lloyd (Hachette)     

The Rosenthal family live in affluent North London, far from the indignities of shtetl life and the ostracism faced by their forebears. The parents, Hannah and Eric, are devout Jews. Along with their prodigiously bright children, Gideon, Elsie and Tovyah, they share their home with Eric’s father, Yousef, a Holocaust survivor.

When Hannah decides she will write a book about Yousef’s time in the camps, her family are not pleased about her exposing his story. Better to let sleeping dogs lie. When Yousef dies, Elsie goes missing for five days, only to be returned home somehow damaged, possibly possessed.

Toby Lloyd’s debut novel Fervour charts the implosion of a close-knit, outwardly successful family.

Hannah believes that all of her children’s problems - Elsie’s disappearance, Gideon’s identity issues, Tovyah’s misery - all stem from the death of her father-in-law. Even worse, she thinks her daughter who has been delving into the forbidden books of the Kabbalah, is “a witch, a girl waylaid by demonic influences. A summoner of the dead”.

According to Tovyah, the blame for their dysfunctional family can be slated back to his parents, principally his mother. As an atheist, he resents their religiosity, the fact that “groundless belief could trump rational thought”. He also detests his mother’s parading of the family’s private life for her own personal ambition.  

Much of the book centres around Tovyah's student life at Oxford. Here, demonstrations against Israel and debates about the nexus between anti-Zionism and antisemitism make this book feel very relevant for the reader. The New York Times review says: "Lloyd has crafted a lasting allegory of our dark historical time."

The Jewish Independent

The Vegan - Andrew Lipstein (Orion)

Herschel Caine, the protagonist of Andrew Lipstein’s The Vegan, is on the verge of achieving the dream. With his fashionable wife Franny, a furniture designer, he lives in a stylish townhouse in Brooklyn, and the couple are planning to start a family. Herschel’s hedge fund partner, Milosz, has developed an algorithm that could break the market and deliver big time. He’ll be very, very rich.

As part of his plans to move up in the world, Herschel wants to impress his tasteful neighbours, Philip and Clara, whom he invites over for a dinner party, along with Franny’s friend Birdie, a British playwright. Rather than proving an asset for his cause, Birdie becomes a little too loud and troublesome, threatening to derail the evening. Herschel’s attempt to quieten her down by doping her drink ends disastrously for Birdie.

It doesn’t end well for Herschel either. His guilty conscience triggers a panicked confusion and his world starts falling apart. The most striking result is that Herschel can no longer stomach meat or even animal products. He retches when his wife makes him a milk coffee.

One way he seeks to find absolution is through connection with animals; first with his neighbour’s dog and then with a red panda in the city zoo. (He breaks into the enclosure of the latter and takes his clothes off, the better to commune. The panda is nonplussed.)

Against this backdrop, Herschel is desperately trying to sign up big investors to the hedge fund so it will have some purchasing firepower, while at the same time protecting the secrecy of the winning algorithm. Talk about stress.

Lipstein's satire-cum-morality tale is messier than his debut novel, Last Resort (reviewed here), but nevertheless, engaging.

About the author

Aviva Lowy

Aviva Lowy started her career as a radio journalist with 2JJJ and the ABC. She has written on a broad range of subjects, from food and travel to science and health.


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The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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