A LONG WAY FROM HOME
by Peter Carey
(Hamish Hamilton, $37)
Reviewed by David Hill

Melbourne's State Library of Victoria holds the clunky, old laptop on which Peter Carey wrote his Booker-winning

True History of the Kelly Gang

. Will the keyboard that shaped this roadie parable end up a similar icon? It deserves to.

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Every Carey novel seems to take a new decade and direction. This time, he's back in the 1950s Bacchus Marsh of his childhood, as an unlikely and unholy trinity prepare to circumnavigate Australia in a driving marathon.

Tiny and imperfect Irene and Titch Bobs, lovers of kids and cars, find their neighbour, Willie, is not only a suspended teacher but also a (bogus) quiz champ and expert on maps. With Willie's navigation, Titch's organisational wiles and Irene's ... well, Irene's perfect bottom — the book will explain — how can they lose? And, after all, the three of them combined weigh less than most two-person teams.

Off they speed, around a land of littered front yards, blowflies, dead kangaroos, roads and ruts buried in 60cm of dust, "broken towns of weary, unpainted houses on stilts". Willie has his grandma's atlas and a drip-dry shirt; Titch has his arrogant father to contend with and Irene has her two kids back home.

Sydney, Townsville, The Top End, Darwin, Broome and the Nullarbor: the further they drive into remote, aboriginal land, the more they learn about their country and themselves. What a cliche that sounds but, of course, Carey ensures it never is.

He's always been a visionary chronicler of Australia and Australians. A Long Way From Home has people who irritate, deceive, neglect one another and who also love one another; there's devotion, compassion, abandonment and death. It's a novel of immense, unassuming emotional breadth.

A child is saved, an outrage checked, a penance undergone. Characters seek for meanings against a background of alienation: "Our mother country is always a foreign tongue." Yet it's also a hugely vital and subversively funny story, where truth may almost die of thirst but where the defiantly downtrodden can come through.

You read Peter Carey with absolute trust: in his narrative vigour, the generosity of his characterisation and his fusion of social anarchy and moral probity. His writing manages to be homely and heraldic: who else can blend Jungian dream therapy with adjusting a shackle bolt on a leaf spring? This is a story in which the journey and the arrivals reward.

ARTEMIS
by Andy Weir
(Penguin Random House, $37)
Reviewed by Ethan Sills

After enduring nearly 300 pages of rapidly resolved cliffhangers and offensive characters, I didn't think the experience of reading

Artemis

could get any worse. But when narrator Jazz Bashara describes the burns on her hands as making her look like "a hooker who gives handjobs exclusively to lepers", I found a new low in storytelling.

That single sentence highlights many of the flaws of Artemis, the second novel from The Martian author Andy Weir. The book has an interesting concept, revolving around a planned heist and political dealings on the moon's first manmade city, but it is destroyed, in my opinion, by atrocious prose and appalling characters.

The main flaw lies with Jazz. She is an omnishambles of a character, with a personality that fluctuates wildly from chapter to chapter. Weir tries to paint her as strong, smart and sassy but fills her with innumerable conflicting traits. These see her change from intelligent and rational to rash and moronic — sometimes within the space of a few paragraphs.

The science is the one redeeming quality. There are lengthy descriptions around the realities of making a city work on a moon, passages that Weir clearly put the most thought into and which show he's a better scientist than writer. But these passages are lobbed randomly into chapters with little concept of flow, sapping all tension and excitement from the story.

The concept of a heist on a moon city is an inventive one and in the hands of a better writer, the somewhat tightly woven plot may have worked. Yet there is no better description for the story's quality than when Jazz, after describing the city's domes as "metallic boobs", states: "I'm not a poet!" — which is, sadly, the most factual thing Weir wrote.

SODDEN DOWNSTREAM
by Brannavan Gnanalingam
(Lawrence and Gibson, $23)
Reviewed by David Hill

The kindness of strangers, especially struggling strangers, shines out in this short novel.

Sita is a Tamil refugee from Sri Lanka, still afflicted by the traumas she's survived. In their Hutt Valley flat, she, her withdrawn husband and precocious son work to establish a life and to handle the often bewildering requirements of Work and Income, Housing New Zealand, refugee advisers and oblivious employer.

Working as a night cleaner in central Wellington's glossy office blocks, Sita is summoned unexpectedly to work, just as a storm starts in the capital. So begins a journey of obstacles, ordeals and chance, but also significant meetings.

Public transport is cancelled as the weather collapses. After Sita has listened to a history of a fellow-traveller's bladder, a lift from crumpled, indomitable people leads her to an encounter with a newly-released prisoner, an art exhibition, street sleepers, a puncture and a long march that becomes a feat of endurance. Flashbacks to the monstrous cruelties of civil war are shocking and powerful.

It's a narrative with an emphatic social agenda — in this case, the troubles of immigrant families and all the other "struggling people who (aren't) allowed to make mistakes".

That's a sincere, totally admirable message; you can't fault the author's intentions but this is a novel and you can question his execution. The narrative keeps halting while mini lectures are delivered. There's little subtlety of characterisation; those who battle just to eat another day are uniformly good-hearted and generous; bosses, bankers and politicians are all caricatures of greed and/or insensitivity.

Gnanalingam's publishing co-op obviously worked hard at this book but punctuation and syntax need a more thorough combing while the story would benefit from some judicious selection. Details are individually interesting but cumulatively clogging.

The Kiwi patois and cadences are also a problem. They're careful, painstaking, but too often they read like foreign language exercises. That's utterly understandable but it does mean a lot of stylistic stumbles.

I hope the author gets extensive editorial support with his next work. He deserves to. His previous novel was long-listed for the Ockham Awards. This one shows his focus, commitment and narrative awareness. He's a distinctive, urgently relevant voice in New Zealand fiction.

HEATHER, THE TOTALITY
by Matthew Weiner
(Canongate, $28)
Reviewed by James Robins

Heather, the Totality is a sordid and vile little book. Not much longer than a short story and crammed to the hilt with cruel caprices and repugnant insinuations.
Its author is Matthew Weiner, best known as the creator of the TV show Mad Men, who has recently been accused of being repugnant by a female co-writer. On the evidence of this, his first novel, I'm not surprised in the slightest.

The tale follows two lives which inevitably intersect: The Breakstones are comprised of Mark, a vacuous man working at the empty pinnacle of New York's financial industry, his wife, Karen, who has dumped all aspiration and is revered by Mark for her breasts and not much more, and their daughter, Heather, who grows from a disarmingly loveable toddler into a precocious and rebellious teenager.

Taken together, they are the simulacrum of petty social-climbers, "poisoned with some disease of wealth that had turned them into half-people with coffee machines and cash registers where their hearts should be".

In nearby New Jersey, Bobby grows up the son of a heroin-addled unloving mother subjected to the whims of her in-and-out boyfriends. He goes to prison early on after attempting to rape a neighbour. Here, his traumas and perversions are empowered until he's convinced that he "was so damn smart that people bored him and he was a bright light among them with all the power in heaven, and he could rape them and kill them anytime he wanted because that's why they were on earth".

On his release, he takes a job in construction, which places him on a trajectory towards the Breakstones' renovated apartment building, and more particularly, Heather, who becomes the centre of every other character's obsession, each of them desiring her for their own ends.

These lives are squeezed into a compacted span, only given the most cursory markers, all of it offloaded in that tedious faux-Hemingway style which abhors commas. I'd hate to come off prudish but given the brevity and sparseness of the book, it's surprising, not to say perverse, that Weiner manages to get down so many mock-erotic sex scenes and innuendos about bodies. This descends into the outright objectionable when he starts to describe Heather's pubescent "C-cup breasts" and her "skirt bouncing high against her ass".

There's not even a hint of Nabokovian genius to navigate the moral maze. Heather, it seems, is just as much a sleazy fantasy of Weiner's mind as she is his character.