Ask Agatha: how to read Peter Carey and great female villains

The latest installment of our book advice column where you can ask our wise bookseller Agatha all your tricky (book-related) questions.


Ever since I read all of Gillian Flynn’s books, I’ve been in the mood for reading about dark, complicated female characters. Can you recommend a book with a great female villain?

If you are looking for a dark female lead, look no further than Alissa Nutting’s Tampa. A lot of people really hated this book (about a psychopathic twenty-something teacher who has an affair with a fourteen year old boy) but I enjoyed it, mostly because I think Celeste was a terrific villain. Our reviewer said ‘For some readers, being inside Celeste’s head will feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable. But it’s also what makes the book so compelling – like Hannibal Lecter, Dexter Morgan or Patrick Bateman, Celeste is a fascinating monster to spend time with. She’s unapologetic in her desires. She doesn’t hold back a single thought, no matter how dark or repellent. Her detachment from everyone around her allows her to be breathtakingly cruel and surprisingly funny.’ Tampa was actually banned from some Australian bookstores at the time of release, which is, quite frankly, a rather embarrassing overreaction to an unlikable female character.

Now is an extra perfect time to read Tampa because the author just so happens to be coming to Australia to attend the Melbourne Writers Festival!

A few other good novels with dark, complicated female characters include: Dare Me or The Fever by Megan Abbott, The Women Upstairs by Claire Messud, Liar by Justine Larbalestier, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh and We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.

I have a colleague who uses strange words in the place of curse words. I would dearly love them just to say ‘f**k!’ like everyone else. Is there a book you can recommend to release their cursing inhibitions? Or maybe a good vulgar dictionary to widen their range of expletives?

To help your colleague better acquaint themselves with the how and why of cursing there’s Melissa Mohr’s serious exploration of obscenity, Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, which even includes some swears from Ancient Rome for him or her to cut their teeth on. However, if your colleague is truly unwilling to engage in curse words at all, a better title is The Book of Paul: The Wit and Wisdom of Paul Keating. This title really does have some fabulously imaginative insults, many of which avoid flat-out swearing. You may even feel inspired yourself.

If neither of those options appeal, try casually mentioning how damning you find Putin’s ban on swearing in plays, films and books. Then, casually pass on, maybe even leave lying around, a novel that use swear words to great effect in creating their fictional worlds. I’ve heard very good things about Omar Musa’s upcoming Here Come the Dogs and a work colleague of mine promises it’s full to the brim with swears.

Peter Carey’s novel is out later this year. I’ve never read him. Where do I start?

Peter Carey’s body of work is wide-ranging, which means there are many potential starting points – from historical fiction to contemporary. Bliss, Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda are all good choices with the funny, sprawling Illywhacker shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Oscar and Lucinda winning it. Carey’s second Booker win came with True History of the Kelly Gang – an inventive, poetic account of our most notorious outlaw, told through the voice of Ned Kelly himself. Certainly, Carey writes his own brand of historical fiction, and if you enjoy this genre, more can be found in the more recently published Parrot and Olivier in America, and The Chemistry of Tears.

But my favourite Carey titles were published later. My Life as a Fake explores the uneasy relationship between literature and lying. The book centres around Christopher Chubb, a literary hoaxer, who now claims to have a work of real genius – the novel is brisk, clever and wholly enthralling.

Theft: A Love Story again sees Carey delight in questions of authenticity and ownership, and delivers another intricately plotted work. Theft, published in 2007, comes with two irresistible, belligerent narrators – Butcher Boone, a now-unfashionable artist, and his overweight brother, Hugh, whose way of speaking – poetic, sublime, absurd – is pure Carey. The novel begins: ‘I don’t know if my story is grand enough to be a tragedy, although a lot of shitty stuff did happen. It is certainly a love story but that did not begin until midway through the shitty stuff, by which time I had not only lost my 8-year-old son, but also my house and studio in Sydney where I had once been as famous as a painter could expect in his own backyard…’ Theft is rudely comical, and an original portrayal of the Australian contemporary art landscape, and our distinct brand of cultural cringe.

My sister’s just had a baby and because she’s a real book lover, I want to buy her a great picture book. The only problem is – because she loves books so much, she already owns a lot of them. What is a good book for a gift she’s unlikely to have?

Here are three recently published picture books for the discerning collector.

Your sister will no doubt know of Margaret Wise Brown’s classic, Goodnight Moon, first published in 1947. But she may not have the new collection of previously unpublished lullabies by the same author with illustrations by twelve different artists – Goodnight Songs. The book also comes with a CD which she can add to her armoury of soothing-to-sleep methods.

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While she’s unwrapping it, you could throw in some fascinating facts like: ‘Hey sis, the material in this book was discovered in an attic twenty years ago. And while we’re talking Margaret Wise Brown trivia, in 2005 Harper Collins digitally altered a photo on the back of Goodnight Moon to remove the cigarette held by illustrator Clement Hurd.’

Your sister will be impressed. Trust me.

For something homegrown I recommend Imagine a City by Elise Hurst. This is such a beautiful production, with a striking red cover and very detailed pen-and-ink illustrations to accompany a perfectly simple rhyme. What’s special about this book is that it’s a lovely present for a baby but also something that older children will enjoy exploring, because there is so much to notice in the drawings. My final suggestion is May The Stars Drip Down by Jeremy Chatelain, illustrated by cut-paper artist Nikki McClure.

If your sister already has all three of these, I throw my hands up in despair. Try booties.


If you have a question for Agatha please email askagatha@readings.com.au. We’ll be publishing her next column on Monday 21 July. All questions answered on our blog will be kept anonymous and questions will be chosen at Agatha’s discretion.