February 2005 Archives

Reviews of Australian Books #6

The two books by Australian writers that have been getting a lot of review time around the world so far this year have been: Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey, and Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman. You can understand Carey receiving this attention, he's a world-class writer who's won the Booker prize twice. Perlman, on the other hand, is just starting out, and this is only his third book, and second novel. I've covered the Carey here from time to time, though if you want a good smattering of the reviews all in one spot then I'd suggest checking out The Complete Review - they rated it a B, which seems about right to me.

Given that Seven Types of Ambiguity is an Australian novel it seems only fair that it should have been published here first, though it might come as a bit of shock to some people to consider how long ago it first appeared. Peter Craven led off the review rounds of the novel with a major piece published in the "Australian Book Review" (scroll down a fair way) of November 2003. Craven is not one to beat about the bush hinting at his opinions - he tends to come straight out and state what he thinks. And, on this occasion, he leaves you in no doubt right from the off by titling his review "A Blander Shade of Grey".

It was a bit ridiculous that a book of fiction [Perlman's previous novel Three Dollars] of rather manifestly modest literary ambitions should be published as the crême de la crême of literary fiction and then pretty much accepted as such. Perlman's new book confounds the pretension and makes it well and truly the author's own by purloining the title of one of the twentieth century's greatest works of literary criticism and adding insult to injury by calling the protagonist's dog Empson.
And after that Craven really lets rip, referring to the "monstrously bombastic writing" and calling it "an overblown example of popular writing." He's not a happy reviewer and leaves you in no doubt of where he stands.

"The New York Metro" considered that "Elliot Perlman's Seven Types of Ambiguity, which comes to us hailed as 'Australia's equivalent of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, is so bad, so incompetent, and so long, there must be broad historical currents involved." Hailed by the publishers methinks. Are reviewers believing publishers' blurbs now?

And continuing the negative reviews, "The Seattle Times" came to the conclusion that "Perlman's people are so damn miserable: self-involved, repressed, eady to blame anyone but themselves - or, the flip side, damaged saints in modern clothes." "The Washington Post" tends to be a little more balanced: "By its final chapter, Seven Types of Ambiguity seems to realize that it has indulged its metafictional fetish at the expense of its obligation to tie up loose ends. Resolution comes hurriedly -- perhaps a shade too hurriedly given our 600-page investment. At the same time, the reader can't help but be impressed. Elliot Perlman has many things working in his favor as a novelist: curiosity, erudition, daring and a gift for seducing readers into going along with him for the ride. He'll get you where you want to go, eventually, but you'll have to forgive him his scenic detours."

"The International Herald-Tribune" finds that "...the reader plunges into Seven Types of Ambiguity braced for cleverness, acuity and innovation. And Perlman fulfills some of these expectations. He also circles endlessly around the same ideas, events and characters until the repetition becomes more exhausting than illuminating."

To finish off on a higher note, "The Guardian" enthuses that "Perlman's novel is a colossal achievement, a complicated, driven, marathon of a book." And Kirkus Reviews sees "Constant love in the face of terrible odds - such is the old-fashioned but deeply satisfying theme in a thoroughly modern Australian import...Long enough to tell everything that needs to be told, but never ponderous and never overdone. George Eliot down under."

Weekend Round-Up #9

"The World Language", another article on the rise and rise of the English language, is the lead in this weekend's "Age Review". I'm not sure why this piece by Jim Davidson - professor of history at Victoria University, Melbourne - was published at all. It doesn't seem to add a lot to the general discusson of the modern state of the English language other than to act as a listing of all the recent publications in the field. At times the article tries to make a point about the funny way English is fragmenting and loses its way entirely: "The computer revolution also brings its challenges. For one thing, it has tended to privilege numbers over words, even content. We can all think of humorous results when a lengthy name is truncated, as if the additonal letters were so many decimal points surplus to requirements. The oxymoron 'numeric password' says it all." Well, I'm sorry to say, it doesn't say anything to me. I have no idea what point he is trying to make here. Davidson does attempt to discuss where English is heading from here, at the start of the 21st century, but doesn't get anywhere beyond is final paragraph: "More likely written English will become like the Latin of the Middle Ages, shared internationally by the computing classes as the global language of the net." Sorry to surprise you mate, but it's there already.

Muriel Porter reviews God Under Howard: The Rise of the Religious Right in Australian Politics by Marion Maddox, and finds it gives a pretty good overview of where religion resides in the current conservative Federal government: right at the centre. I would have thought that just mentioning the name of Tony Abbot would have been enough. Two books dealing with an earlier, I hestitate to say more innocent, time are reviewed by Simon Caterson: Pulp: A Collector's Book of Australian Pulp Fiction Covers and The Wide World: True Adventures for Men. Caterson is quite taken with Pulp saying that it "recalls the hey-day of Australian popular fiction in [this] ground-breaking, informative and lavishly illustrated guide to this neglected part of our literary history." It is interesting to note that this book is published by the National Library of Australia. No page count is given, but a list price of $24.95 makes it quite attractive.

"The Age Review" covers books in reviews of various lengths: the major reviews, shorter pieces of some 300 words or so, and shorter pieces - see below - of about 150. A fair range given the 3 or 4 broadsheet pages that are allocated each week to books. The shorter pieces this weeks are dominated by Australian publications with: Word Map by Kel Richards and the Macquarie Dictionary - strange authors and considered a work in progress; Griffith Review: The Lure of Fundamentalism - the publication's seventh issue which is "making a big name for itself with its big-picture theme issues and the quality of the writing"; Where's God by Victor Kelleher and Elise Hurst - a book for children which explores a six-year-old's attempt to figure out where God actually is; andIsland 99 edited by David Owen - the Tasmanian publication that might be marking time as it heads for its 100th issue. Short notices are given by Fiona Capp to Sir William Stawell, Second Chief Justice of Victoria, 1857-1886 (Stawell stupidly charged the Eureka Stockade diggers with high treason), and This Everlasting Silence: The Love Letters of Paquita Delprat and Douglas Mawson 1911-'14. Capp covers four or five non-fiction books a week for the "Age Review" which helps round out the overall book coverage. Cameron Woodhead does a similar service for fiction each week, and this week mentions The Black Crusade by Richard Harland which recently won the Best Horror Novel award in the Aurealis Awards.

Added to the items above is a profile of Hunter S. Thompson reprinted from "The Guardian"; a major piece by Jane Sullivan about David Mitchell, interviewed as he passed through Melbourne recently on his way to the Perth Writers' Festival; and Tim Flannery's review of Collapse by Jared Diamond, which has moved very far up on my "buy or else" list, and which Flannery believes "is probably the most important book you'll ever read." Coming from anyone else, this would be very off-putting. Coming from Flannery it's a badge of high merit. So it's a good, varied selection this week.

Poem: Copy Paper by Edward Dyson

It stands upon my table now,
   A big, square block of copy paper;
O'er this for many months, I vow,
   I needs must burn the midnight taper.
It's ready for me, waiting but
   And inspiration straight from Heaven -
Two thousand slips, all trimly cut,
   Just as I like them, ten by seven.

And ere a bigger theme I seize
   I sit a little while, and ponder
The wondrous possibilities
   Of that white, virgin paper yonder.
It is the fallow ground my pen
   Will plough in rows half-inch asunder,
And sow with myriad seeds. And then
   What will the harvest be, I wonder?

Perchance it's lurking in the pile,
   As in the stone once hid a Milo,
My novel, fine in theme and style,
   Or only tracts on maize and silo,
And vagrant pars and tinkling rhymes
   The better readers will make nought of;
Perchance the play which many times,
   With great invention, I have thought of.

Maybe those pages will be seamed
   With lines to make me really famous,
Or stained with japes that might be dreamed
   By any scribbling ignoramus.
Already visions seem to stir.
   I fear me, though, that Fate's black malice
Will make a whited sepulchre
   Where I would have a fairy palace.

First published in The Bulletin, 19 October 1916

The 2005 National Biography Award Shortlist

The shortlisted works for the 2005 National Biography Award have been announced.

Those works are:
Inside Out by Robert Adamson
Mao's Last Dancer by Li Cunxin
The Boy in the Green Suit by Robert Hillman
Midnight Water by Gaylene Perry
Sparrow Garden by Peter Skrzynecki

This award was established in 1996 and run under the auspices of the State Library of New South Wales. Prize money was increased last year to $A15,000. The winner will be announced on Wednesday, March 2, 2005.

Man Booker International Prize

I've put off posting about this award but now everyone's talking about it.

Major difficulty: no Australian authors

Major surprise: Stanislaw Lem (an sf writer no less)

Major misunderstanding: what is this prize about? I reckon it arose from the fracas that ensued a few years back after it was announced that the country-based eligibility clause might be changed for the annual Booker Prize. So why did they come up with a bi-annual form of the Nobel? I have no idea.

Victorian Premier's Reading Challenge

I put it down to the fact that I was working at my paid job of IT dogs-body on Sunday as the reason for not listing the next instalment in the Victorian Premier's Reading Challenge. Why? Cos the list came out on Sunday and by the time I got home I was knackered and I hadn't read the paper properly and...

Anyway, the full list of books involved in the challenge has now been released. I thought of ego-scanning the list (fan-speak for checking to see if your name is listed) but as I haven't written any kids books it'd be a waste of time - I haven't written any either books either so I'm just kidding myself really.

I haven't been through it all but it looks like a pretty impressive list, with quite a smattering of Australian authors such as Wrightson, Marsden, French, Tan, Thiele and Rubinstein. Lucy Sussex gets included with The Penguin Friend for years 3 and 4 (ages 8 and 9); and this note will make sense in the next few weeks.

[My thanks to Michael Schaub of Blog of a Bookslut for pointing out the error of my ways. And thanks for the kind words mate.]

Patrick White's House

20 Martin Road, Centennial Park, Sydney, was Patrick White's home for the last 26 years of his life, until his death in 1990. It is now in private hands and is coming up for sale in the near future. Now a number of prominent Sydney-siders (including author Tom Keneally, actor Kate Fitzpatrick, activist Jack Mundey, and National Trust president Barry O'Keefe) have started a campaign to raise money to purchase the property in order to preserve it as a centre for Australian literary studies. The group has been canvassing both the NSW State Labor government and Federal conservative coalition to pitch in to help raise the $A4million asking price. The group intends also starting a fund to accept monies from the public to reaching the target. Patrick White is Australia's only Nobel Laureate, receiving the award in 1973, and, given the paucity of preserved literature-related sites in this country, I believe this is an excellent opportunity to utilise something of significance before it's turned into a high-rise apartment block. The difficulty would appear to be, according to Tom Keneally, that White was a grumpy old bugger who did not endear himself to politicians or "barbarians" of any persuasion. But the world needs more grumpy old buggers and I hope this campaign succeeds.

Important Australian Author Birthdays

On this day both John Shaw Neilson and Norman Lindsay were born. (However, if you check around the Web enough some sites list Lindsay's birthday as the 23rd. I'm taking my cue from AustLit.)

Lindsay, the better known of the two, was born in Creswick, Victoria (near Ballarat) in 1879. At the age of sixteen he left Creswick for Melbourne where he joined his brother Lionel working as a journalist and artist. He soon became known for his "sexually explicit" (ie nude female) drawings and paintings. You can get an idea of his style by visiting Art Galleries Schubert website. In 1911 Lindsay moved to the Blue Mountains outside Sydney with his second wife Rose. He remained there until his death in 1969. Amongst his writings he is best known for the eternal children's classic The Magic Pudding - which Philip Pullman considers his favourite children's book. In other news, John Baxter (whose latest book was reviewed in "The Daily Telegraph" on the weekend and listed here yesterday, is working on a biography of Lindsay. No known publication date at this time.

John Shaw Neilson was born in Penola, in South Australia's south-east, in the middle of what is now the Coonawarra wine district, in 1872. The son of John Neilson, a bush poet of some note in the 1880s, Neilson published his first poetry in The Bulletin in 1896, and continued to work until his death in 1942. You can read some of his poetry here.

Reviews of Australian Books #5

Aileen Reid reviews John Baxter's latest We'll Always Have Paris: Sex and Love in the City of Light for "The Daily Telegraph". Baxter moved to Paris in 1989 to be with the woman who was later to become the mother of his child and his wife. The book details his first few years in the city as he tries to come to terms with Paris and Parisians.

Threaded through all this are entertaining insights into the perils of being an expat in Paris: the ton of turds deposited on the streets every day by disgusting little rat-dogs which are allowed to roam anywhere they want - restaurants, delicatessens, you name it; or the stream of visitors from down under. Baxter gets a desperate phone call from one couple: "There's a big church... Two towers?... Yair... That's Notre Dame... Oh. Marlene wants to know if there's a dunny in there. She's busting."
Her final evaluation: "All in all, We'll Always Have Paris is dirty, untidy, romantic and in equal parts charming and irritating...So, en effet, it is much like Paris itself."

Tom Payne achieves something quite strange with his piece on Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev by Robert Dessaix, also in "The Daily Telegraph": a review which offers no opinions whatsoever. Oh, okay, maybe just the one: "There are times when he writes of love and is cooking with gas. He suggests that Turgenev wanted a love that transcends time, that comes like a ray of light through a wall." I've read the review twice now and still don't know if, as a casual reader, I would want to read the book or not. Is this what reviews are coming to? I sure hope not.

Weekend Round-Up #8

"The Age" this week kicks off with reviews of two Australian books: one fiction and one non-fiction. Mary Bryant:Her Life and Escape from Botany Bay, by Jonathan King, is reviewed by Neil Hanson who is rather disappointed in the volume: "The story of Bryant's escape, re-imprisonment and eventual pardon in the shadow of the gallows is sufficiently dramatic not to need embellishment. King's reinvention of her is inaccurate as history and inadequate as fiction and after all that she went through, Mary Bryant surely deserved better." Mary Bryant was sentenced to seven years' penal servitude, and arrived in Australia with the First Fleet. She and her husband, two children and seven other convicts stole Governor Phillip's 30-foot cutter and sailed it to Timor, some 5200 kilometres in 10 weeks: one of the world's great sea voyages. It's a remarkable story, and, if Hanson is correct and King's book doesn't cut the mustard, then it is very disappointing.

Following Peter Craven's rave review of Surrender by Sonya Hartnett last week, Dianne Dempsey finds herself in agreement, though at much shorter length. I was a bit annoyed with this review. It starts off by examining themes Surrender has in common with the author's earlier work but doesn't delve into those themes in enough depth. I get the feeling a sub-editor hacked this review down to size. Craven's piece last week flagged this novel as a major Australian fiction event for 2005, and I reckon it needed more space to do it justice.

The only other Australian books mentioned are short notices given to Pathway to Reason by Ken Harris, a novel set in an Australian Republic in the year 2020; and Habourlights by Gavin Wilson, an examination of the artist Peter Kingston. Other reviews in "The Age" this week: Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt; Who the Hell's in It? Portraits and Conversations by Peter Bogdanovitch; and The Pope in Winter: The Dark Side of John Paul II's Papacy by John Cornwell. The major article deals with Hans Christian Andersen, and is reprinted from the "Telegraph" in the UK.

It's Saturday day this weekend over at "The Weekend Australian" (sorry couldn't resist). There's a profile of McEwan, a review and an extract - but did we really need three pages? We all know that the book is going to be a big event so I doubt it needs the push along from "The Weekend Australian". The space might have been better used for something else. By the way, if you're sick of wall-to-wall praise for Saturday check out this post. A thoughful, incisive review if ever I read one. (Thanks to Conversational Reading for the link.)

The only Australian novel to be reviewed in "The Weekend Australian" is Terri Janke's Butterfly Song.

Poem: Poets by C.J. Dennis

Each poet that I know (he said)
Has something funny in his head,
Some wandering growth or queer disease
That gives to him strange unease.
If such a thing he hasn't got,
What makes him write his silly rot?
All poets' brains, so I have found,
Go, like the music, round and round.

Why they are suffered e'er to tread
This sane man's earth seems strange (he said).
I've never met a poet yet,
A rhymster I have never met
Who could talk sense like any man -
Like I, or even you, say, can.
They make me sick! The time seems ripe
To clean them up and all their tripe.

And yet (he stopped and felt his head)
I met a poet once (he said)
Who, when I said he made me sick
Hit me a punch like a mule's kick.
That only goes to prove again
The theory that I maintain:
A man who can't gauge that crazy bunch;
No poet ought to pack a punch.

Of all the poetry I've read
I've never yet seen one (he said)
That couldn't be, far as it goes,
Much better written out in prose.
It's what we eat, I often think;
Or, yet more likely, what they drink.
Aw, poets! All the tribe, by heck,
Give me a swift pain in the neck.

First published in The Herald, 22 December 1936

Film Adaptation: Eucalyptus by Murray Bail Part 2

"The Australian" today reports further on the suspension of production on the film adaptation of the Murray Bail novel Eucalyptus. Obviously matters have progressed somewhat since my previous note regarding the fracas. Now we find that writer-director Moorhouse has left the project, and that Nicole Kidman's schedule will not permit her to be involved in the film later in the year. So she's out as well. Crowe is now reported to be attempting to contact either Bruce Beresford or Fred Schepisi. Though neither has been approached so far according to their agents.

To bring this back to the script side of things: it appears that the disagreement between Moorhouse and Crowe concerned the dialogue. Crowe wanted changes, Moorhouse did not. And we thought this only happened in Hollywood. No, hang on. This is a Hollywood film. It's just being filmed here.

Letters from a Detention Centre

Celebrated Perth-based science fiction writer, Greg Egan, writes of his communications, first by letter and then face-to-face, with Peter Qasim who is currently being held in the Baxter detention centre in South Australia. Qasim was born in Indian Kashmir and fled the country in 1997 as he feared persecution due to his association with separatist politics. He landed in Australia, was arrested as an illegal immigrant and has been detained ever since. He has now spent over six and a half years in custody, with no end in sight. By any stretch of the imagination this is patently ridiculous.

It beggars belief that the Australian Government can't work out what to do with this man after this amount of time. No, actually, they probably have detemined his fate. They want him out. But the Indian Government won't take him back as he has no identity papers and they refuse to acknowledge him. So Qasim has become a man without a country and by any set of morality the Australian Government has the obligation to care for him. And their response is to put him in prison.

Egan's piece is very elegant. He must be seething at the way his new friend has been treated, yet he writes in a compassionate yet unemotional manner about his relationship with Qasim. There is no way I would have been able to maintain my temper if I was to write something like this. I'm glad this piece has received publication in a national daily newspaper. I hope it might make a difference, but I fear it may just be in vain.

And it's a Happy Birthday to Banjo and Louisa

Louisa Lawson was born on this day in 1848. She is probably best known as the mother of Henry, but is a major Australian author in her own right. Austlit lists 1 novel, 178 poems, and 59 separate pieces of prose. In 1888 she founded the periodical Dawn, Australia's first magazine specifically for women. She is considered to be one of the major early figures in the history of Australian feminism. In 1988 Brian Matthews wrote Louisa, probably the best known of her biographies. She died in 1920.

A.B. 'Banjo' Paterson was born on this day in 1864. In the top rank of Australian writers he appears on the Australian ten dollar note (of which more will be written at a later time) and is probably best known for such works as "Waltzing Matilda" (which some idiot has purloined for one of these web thingamajigs), "The Man From Snowy River", "Clancy of the Overflow" and many, many others. You can read more about Banjo, along with some of this famous poems, on the website that I have developed - yes, it needs work, but I've been busy, all right? In 1983, Lansdowne Press released a massive two volume set (Singer of the Bush and Song of the Pen) containing his complete works which I still see listed on the Australian Ebay fairly regularly. This, and the similar Henry Lawson collection, are essential items for any Australian literature library. Paterson died in 1941.

Reading Patterns

My wife and I read in completely different ways. I like to take my time with a new author and gradually work my way through their backlist rather than rushing headlong through the lot. My wife, as you might have guessed, does the exact opposite. I think it took me over a year to catch up with Ian Rankin when we came across him in 2000, my wife finished him off in just over a month. How many McCall Smith's are there? Five or six? She started at the front and read the lot, one straight after the other. I must admit this allows her to catch up, so she gets first shot at a new book we both want to read, as I've still got two or three in the to-be-read pile. And there's something about the way she gets a level of sly enjoyment out of knowing this... I reckon two or, at the outside, three in a row by any one author and I'm about done. Little things start to grate: characters' names being too similar; a turn of phrase re-used too often; and, hang on, didn't that other character say that two books back? No, a bit at a time is all right. Too much of a good thing all at once and I may not come back.

Two years or so ago I decided to re-read Ursula Le Guin's back catalog. I'm not sure how many there are, maybe twenty. I don't think I'm halfway through yet. And I'm loving it. Just taking it slow and steady, and savouring the experience.

Perth International Arts Festival: Writers' Week

The 2005 Perth International Arts Festival: Writers' Week starts today (February 17th) and runs though till February 23rd. Full details of the program are available on the web.

Featured writers: "Liz Jensen's The Ninth Life of Louis Drax has taken the UK by storm and she is joined by everyone's favourite traveller Bill Bryson, 2004 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist Marianne Wiggins, two-time Booker favourite David Mitchell, hot new Indian sensation Siddharth Dhanvant Shangvhi, transcendental travel writer Pico Iyer, San Franciscan poet August Kleinzahler, acclaimed Indian playwright and novelist Kiran Nigarkar and Nigerian wunderkind Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in addition to a breathtaking Australian line up including Gregory David Roberts, Don Watson, Helen Garner, and far too many to mention here."

Of special interest (to me at least) is a showing of the newly restored 1919 silent version of "The Sentimental Bloke" directed by Raymond Longford. Jen Anderson and The Larrikins will be providing the background music to the screening. I hope they're using a Mighty Wurlitzer. Wouldn't seem the same without it.

Film Adaptation: Eucalyptus by Murray Bail

Just a few days before shooting was due to start on the film adaptation of Murray Bail's Eucalyptus, production was halted. Exact reasons are sketchy at this time, but the general consensus is that problems with the script are the base cause.

"The Australian" reports that there have been "creative differences" between Russell Crowe, the executive producer, and Jocelyn Moorhouse, the writer-director. Added to that, Murray Bail has been a little bemused by the casting of Nicole Kidman in the lead female role: Kidman is 37 and the novel's character Ellen is 19.

I really don't have a big problem with Kidman in the lead: good make-up, judicious lighting and she could look like she was in her early twenties - no nose required. Anyway it might be said (but not by me, of course) that Kidman has had some "image enhancements" over the years which have helped her look younger. The problem I find is with the roles of Crowe and Moorhouse. I've always thought the executive producer was the person who either put up the money or got the package together to bankroll the production. Having that person in one of the main roles in the film strikes me as a possible conflict of interest: the executive producer wants the best for the film as that will help ensure they get their money back, and the actor wants their role to be bigger, always bigger, even if it hurts the balance of the script in the process. If those two roles work well together, or if one player plays against their role, then things might work out. I'd say that most times they won't.

Writer-directors either work very well or fall in a heap. Woody Allen is able to undertake both roles because he gets the script done first, and then employs an ensemble cast for his films, working to his own timetable. And for a long time he worked outside the studio system, or at least arranged standard funding. M. Night Shyamalan also works as a writer-director and is a perfect example of why this doesn't always work. His first film, "Sixth Sense" was a huge hit because he had time to get the script right before moving into director-mode. Each subsequent film shows a dilution of quality which I would put down to script problems, caused by Shyamalan having too much to do in too little time, and consequently falling short. We really won't know what his true abilities are until he writes a script for someone else, or directs a film without writing it.

In the case of Eucalyptus, the film is being financed by Fox Searchlight Pictures, and features two Oscar-winning actors, and it might have been three if Geoffrey Rush hadn't pulled out due to scheduling problems.

[Just as an aside: what was the last film with three Oscar-winners in the lead roles? I can't think of any.]

So the pressure was on. Crowe hasn't been making more than one film a year lately which seems a good schedule, but Kidman seems to be the female equivalent of Jude Law at present - she's everywhere. Her schedule must be a nightmare to organise. So more time pressure was applied to fit the film production into her calendar. And then the studio wants it finished and in the theatres by the end of the year to make it eligible for the 2006 Oscars, and the house of cards starts to get very shakey. If it all slots into place, well and good. But you wouldn't want to bet the bank on it.

I have no idea which of these possible problems caused the final collapse. The script seems the easiest to blame, ego- and creative-wise. At this time the main players intend the production to go ahead later in the year, with a November date being mentioned. I sincerely hope it does. Eucalytus was, in my opinion, one of the best Australian books of the 1990s. If the film does nothing other than bring people back to the original source novel, then it will have served its purpose. And as a last thought: I wonder if Geoffrey Rush will be free then?

Combined Reviews: The White Earth by Andrew McGahan


Reviews of The White Earth by Andrew McGahan

This book recently won the regional Commonwealth Writers' Prize for SE Asian and South Pacific. As good a reason as any to feature it. The novel is set in 1992, at the time of the Mabo decision: the result of a High Court of Australia case brought by Eddie Mabo refuting the concept that Australia was terra nullius (ie unoccupied) when the British First Fleet landed in 1788. It tells the story of William and his Uncle John, a member of White Australia, who William goes to live with after his father dies.

Sally Murphy, at the Aussiereviews.com website, finds that this is a novel "with many shocks, gripping the reader with its sheer awfulness. Those who have read Dickens will draw parallels between Uncle John and Miss Havisham and be aware of the Dickensian feel to both the progression of the tale and the overall tone...That said, this is a very Australian novel, with a very Australian setting and cast...Shattering." I think she is using "awfulness" here in the sense of "disturbing" rather than "bad". At least I hope so.

"The Age" review by Aviva Tuffield calls for McGahan's inclusion on the Miles Franklin Award shortlist for 2005. She is impressed with the book:

The White Earth is an ambitious and multilayered novel that ranges across the 150-year history of white settlement on the Darling Downs. It touches on such recent political issues as the passage of native title legislation, the "history wars" and the growing alienation and resentment of rural white Australia - sentiments that, as we now know, provided a natural constituency for One Nation. But The White Earth also has all the trappings of a classic supernatural tale, and McGahan seamlessly blends the factual elements with the preternatural dimensions - the ghosts of black and white that haunt the landscape.
Lindy, of Abbey Books, is even more explicit: "Having read about 250 books this year, I'd have to say The White Earth is my absolute pick of them all. A gripping storyline, believable characters, skillful narrative and brilliant style - and every single person I've given this to read has been reluctant to put it down once they've started!"

As well as the Commonwealth Writers' Prize already mentioned, The White Earth won the 2004 "Courier-Mail" Book of the Year award, and the 2004 "Age" Book of the Year Fiction award. Maybe the last word can be given to a posting on the "Books I Have Read Lately" notice-board on the www.ezboard.com website: "I can recommend The White Earth by Andrew McGahan, author of Praise, 1988 and Last Drinks. Actually I would read this guy's shopping lists."

Premier's Reading Challenge

Paul Jennings, award-winning children's author and ambassador for the Victorian Premier's Reading Challenge, gives his formula for helping children to get involved in reading. "Keep everything fun - fun, fun, fun - don't do anything that's a struggle, that's horrible, that's unpleasant," he said. Which is a good basic start, and to which can be added: get to know your local library, read books yourself - and let your children see you doing it - and read to your children as often as you can. Both my children have been read to every night and both consider books to be as much a part of their lifestyle as film and video games. I suppose it helps that both my wife and I read a lot, have lots of books around the house (probably too many if that is possible), and visit the local libraries once a week. We're lucky in that we live in a society that allows for all this, that gives us the disposable income to buy the books we want, and to have a number of good local libraries nearby. The trick is to take advantage of it. Get involved in your kids' reading and, as Jennings says, make it fun. It'll work itself out.

Ian Irvine: "The Truth About Publishing"

Australian sf/fantasy writer Ian Irvine has been getting a few mentions over the past week or so due to the article titled "The Truth About Publishing: Second Edition" which he has posted to his website. I first became aware of it via Sarah Weinman, who in turn says she found out about it from Justine Larbalestier, who was told about it by Kim Wilkins. Just another example of the many connections that the literary side of the web has to offer.

Irvine's article is aimed at the first-time or beginning novellist and sets out to explode a number of myths about the publishing industry. The interesting thing about this piece is that it has been written with Australian novellists particularly in mind. It is an excellent piece of work. Not too long, chatty but informative, and convinces you that if you can't put up with all the crap he lists then you really aren't cut out for the writing business. The world doesn't need more writers, just more good ones.

Weekend Round-Up #7

In "The Age" on Saturday, Ken Gelder reviews The Best Australian Science Fiction Writing: A Fifty Year Collection edited by Rob Gerrand, which was released at the end of last year. Gelder does a pretty good job of the review even though he's a bit hamstrung by not having the extensive background of Bruce Gillespie, who reviewed the same collection in his fanzine Steam Engine Time 4 (PDF file!). I take a fair degree of issue with Gelder's statement that "Australia's best-known modern SF writer, A. Bertram Chandler, [had] an established international reputation by the 1970s." I don't quibble on the extent of Chandler's reputation but "best-known"? I'd suggest that might have held true in the 80s and not at any time since then. In fact, Chandler would hardly be known at all by the bulk of today's younger sf fans - more likely Greg Egan, Sean Williams or Sara Douglass. On the plus side, Gelder covers the anthology pretty well, emphasising the high points and using the abbreviation "SF", as opposed to the generally abusive "sciifi".

The novellist Joanna Murray-Smith takes some issue with Leslie Cannold's book What, No Baby? Why Women are Losing the Freedom to Mother, and How They Can Get It Back when she states that Cannold "never quite convinces me that the whole gamut f rational reasons why child-having is hard are to blame for women's reluctance 'commit' to their desires." I thought it was the blokes who weren't committing.

Short notices are lso given to Motherguilt by Ita Buttrose and Penny Adams ("...infuriating are the generalisations...and the unspoken assumptions..."), and The Plague of Quentaris by Gary Crew, ("a great publishing idea, well-executed").

Translators, that group of writers who only get noticed when they stuff things up, are profiled in a major piece in "The Age". I, for one, have noticed myself reading more books in translation over the past few years, with crime novels in particular, (from Sweden, Spain, France and Italy) becoming available for the first time. All in all, a good thing. Maybe it's just because I'm looking at "The Age's" Review section a little more closely that I'm starting to think it does a pretty good job. In addition to the above there are reviews of McEwan's Saturday, Sherry's The Life of Graham Greene Volume Three, and Belle de Jour's The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, and short notices of a number of other "foreign" works.

"The Weekend Australian" leads off its book review section with a major piece by Peter Craven concerning Sonya Hartnett's new novel Surrender. (The book is featured on the Penguin website front page at present but you may well have to dig down to find it later.) Craven was impressed with her previous novel Of a Boy and now feels that "she belongs to the handful of Australian writers who should command world attention." Getting that attention will be the trick of course. Craven ends his piece on a note that pretty much says it all:

If you read nothing else by an Australian this year, read Surrender - it is full of beauty and terror and unearthly poetry and it traces with something like love the beauty of youthful faces that must fade and die.
Butterfly Song by Terri Janke is reviewed by Brigid Delaney in "The Sydney Morning Herald". Well, it's more of a profile of the author - a first-time novelist - than a full review of the book. But enough is revealed to make the book one to look out for.

2005 Commonwealth Writers' Prize Regional Winners

Details of the regional winners for the 2005 Commonwealth Writers' Prize have been released. The Prize provides for winners in the two categories of Best Book and Best First Book, and regional winners are chosen from Africa, Caribbean & Canada, Eurasia, and SE Asia & South Pacific. Australian novels have done quite well with this prize in the past, with Best Book winners in 1991 David Malouf The Great World, 1993 Alex Miller The Ancestor Game, 1998 Peter Carey Jack Maggs, 1999 Murray Bail Eucalyptus, 2001 Peter Carey True History of the Kelly Gang, and 2002 Richard Flanagan Gould's Book of Fish.

This year Australian books have won the regional categories for Best Book for The White Earth by Andrew McGahan, and Best First Book for Home by Larissa Behrendt. Home was featured on this weblog recently as a "worthy book unnoticed". No longer unnoticed it would seem.

Winners will be announced on Wednesday 30th March.

Poem: 'The Bulletin' Stairs by E.J. Brady

The Mecca of Bohemian men
Was Archibald's untidy den.
Firm-footed near the portals there
Uprose, as now, a spacious stair
That carried nearer to the sky
Their inky hopes in days forebye.

This ladder to Parnassus, they
Expectant climbed - as still one may.
Oft-times upon its steps appeared
The wiry brush of Daley's beard,
Of Henry Lawson's drooped moustache
Would upward glide and downward dash.

Betimes - a gem his pocket in -
Meandered upward Ronald Quinn,
Or Bayldon bore a sonnet new,
Or Broomfield occupied the view
Insistent, in a manner vain,
On making passes with his cane.

These might encounter on the way
The "Banjo" glum, or Hugh McCrae
Or Souter with a leering cat
Or Bedford in a Queensland hat;
And other penmen debonair
Familiar with that famous stair.

The Red Tressed Maiden, all aglow,
And Clancy of the Overflow
And Dad and Dave, in company
With Ginger Mick and Jock MacFee,
From time to time, in singles, pairs,
By hand or post went up those stairs!

Awaiting by McMahon's door
For silver, little, less, or more,
Met jesting genius to abuse
The landlords and the lending Jews.
Anon with cash in hand such drear
Considerations - drowned in beer -

Would pass as pass the clouds of morn;
And from their ready wits, reborn
As from a fount in Arcady,
Would flow fair dreams of Days-to-Be,
When, in this Southland, shore to shore,
Art was enthroned for evermore.

That noble vision yet I hold
More precious is than all the gold
That men have dug from southern earth.
In loyal hearts it had its birth;
In loyal minds it will become
A trumpet-note, a calling drum

To lead this nation onward, and
To glorify and grace the land.
And through that fellowship may ne'er,
As then it was, re-climb the Stair
Its voices echo down the years -
The voices of the pioneers!

First published in The Bulletin, 1 February 1950

Assistance for Australian Writers

In the February 2005 issue of the National Library of Australia News periodical, Ann-Mari Jordens looks at the continuing story of the Public Lending Right and Educational Lending Right schemes. In essense, these schemes are administered by the Federal Government to assist writers, compliers, translators, illustrators and publishers: the Public Lending Right Scheme aims to compensate recipients for lost royalties due to their books being available in public libraries around the country; the Education Lending Right scheme extended this compensation to books held in educational institutions. The NLA has undertaken a reseach project into the history of these schemes and Jordens's article outlines the people they have interviewed and the documents they have collected.

Australian Plays and Film Scripts Not Up to Standard

Two different versions of a similar theme appear in "The Age" and "The Australian" this morning. John Polson, director of the Siam Sunset and Swimfan is back in town to promote his latest film, Hide and Seek. Jim Schembri, from "The Age" hears that he would love to make his next film back in Australia, but the major problem lies with "the script...We have a writer problem in this country....Whenever I get scripts from Australia they're not good enough. Our scripts have got to get better, our development has got to get better, not just with more money but smarter. Maybe we need smarter people actually giving the notes to filmmakers, maybe we need better film schools."

In a similar vein, "The Australian" reports on "Writing Courses in Crisis", referring to undergraduate course for playwrights in Australia. In a nutshell, there aren't any. Actors are doing well on the international stage and screen (think of Mel Gibson, Cate Blanchett and Judy Davis who came though the National Institute of Dramatic Art), but writers are not anywhere near as visible. The few programs that are starting up, such as the Premier's Drama Award in Queensland and Blueprints in Sydney, have to exist in a world where TV and film dominate and live theatre venues are closing around the country.

University of Queensland Press in Trouble

The Brisbane Courier-Mail reports today that the University of Queensland press is in a spot of trouble, with a large finiancial debt leading to a wide-ranging staffing restructure, and publishing down-grade. UQP have published such authors as Peter Carey and David Malouf, but with Carey moving on to follow his favourite editor and Malouf in "semi-retirement" the press has found it tough of late. Now a number of organisations, such as the Literature Board and the Australian Society of Authors along with individual authors of the standing of Malouf, Tom Keneally and Kate Grenville have demanded an explanation and a re-evaluation.

Channelling Agatha 4

Lawyers have been approached by the owners of the Agatha Christie copyright to determine if Jessica Adams's story, "The Circle", has plagiarised Christie's story "The Idol House of Astarte". If Adams has not contracted lawyers of her own then I strongly suggest she does so. The best course of action, as I see it, is for her to acknowledge the similarities in the stories and to apologise for any inadvertent copying. No-one in their right mind will think worse of her for it. But the longer she denies any wrong-doIng, deliberate or otherwise, the harder it will be to come back.

Website review: Ozlit

A quick check of the OzLit website main page will show you that something over 1.5 million visitors have viewed it. By anyone's estimates that's a pretty good number for an Australian literary site. Which is why it's sad that the site seems have to gone into a period of long-term silence, if not permanent ceasation. The best I can work out is that updates ceased in early 2000. That said, the amount of work that went into this site is simply staggering, and, so long as you keep the cut-off date of 2000 in mind, still very relevant and useful.

Peter and Mareya set out in August 1995 to make OzLit the definitive Australian literary website - listings of writers and their works; links to all literary references in the printed media; and a place where both readers and writers of Australian literature would feel welcome. A huge undertaking. And one that may have spelt the end of the project. As a labour of love it was just too big for two people to handle - ambition overwhelmed capacity. Sometime late in the 1990s Peter emailed me pointing out that we seemed to be covering similar ground: him with OzLit and me with my Literature pages. I replied that while that might be the case superficially, my aim was to delve deeper into fewer areas, while he was trying to cover everything. I thought the two sites complemented each other, rather than competed. I'm sorry that this website isn't being maintained, and over the past year or so I've started to find that some links don't work - so it's starting to fray around the edges. It doesn't matter. I still use it as one of my major Australian literature resources.

Lucy Sussex Story on the Web

Melbourne author Lucy Sussex has a story, "Matricide", featured this week on the scifi.com website. This follows A. Bertram Chandler's story, "Familiar Pattern", of last week.

Channelling Agatha 3

Two separate approaches to accusations of "literary plagiarism" were on display over the weekend in Australia. The "Sydney Morning Herald" reports that Murray Bail has been accused of lifting some passages from a textbook about eucalypts for his Miles Franklin and Commmonwealth Writers' award-winning novel Eucalyptus. Bail has stated that he is aware of the problem now that it has been pointed out and that he intends talking to his publisher about including an acknowledgement in future editions of the book.

The novel is currently being filmed in New South Wales with Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman in two of the three lead roles (Geoffrey Rush had to pull out due to filming clashes) so future editions will be pretty much assured. Bail has taken the direct approach of admitting the obvious copying (which amounts to about 180 words out of a 90,000 word novel) and has offered an explanation for how it came about. This is a pretty sensible attitude and will probably mean that the "controversy" will be dead within a week.

On the other hand, the question of how much an author has read, has remembered or has just invented afresh is at the heart of the Jessica Adams issue that I have detailed wice previously in the past week. Literary journalist Murray Waldren leads off a discussion in the "Weekend Australian" by outlining the cases for and against Adams, but not coming to any conclusions. Adams then follows this with her account of what has happened, basically stating that there are vast difference between the two stories, and that she had never read the original Christie story in the first place. Which is fair enough, though I think her tone in the early part of her piece does nothing to endear her to Christie fans. And appearances are important here.

Bail has been conciliatory and acknowledged that there is a problem. Adams says there isn't a problem and she isn't to blame anyway. I have read neither story and I don't have an opinion at this point. So I decided to do a Google search for Christie's story "The Idol House of Astarte". The first thing I came to was the realisation that this is a "Miss Marple" story. Even I, who is definitely not a reader of Christie's works, am aware of Miss Marple and of the author. I don't really see how you can be English literate and not be. And even if you haven't read the stories themselves there have been countless film and television adaptations of the works swimming around in the cultural aether for the past 60 years or so. Some of that will inveigle its way into a writer's sub-conscious, only to re-surface some time later in seemingly different guise. Is that what has happened here? I have no idea. I doubt if Jessica Adams knows either. But some form of acknowledgement that such a thing is possible might well have helped her cause.

"The Australian" newspaper has also decided to make available the two stories in question (in PDF form) so readers can decide for themselves. And now having read the two stories, in order of publication, I can make a few points:
1) I don't think I'll read anything by either author again - neither story was particularly good.
2) I am willing to believe Adams when she says she didn't plagiarise the Christie story
but, in all major aspects, they are the same: the set-up, the plot, how the murder is committed, how it is explained, how it is solved and the final outcome. It is hard to see how anyone could stick to an argument that they are totally different. I just don't believe that Adams would be so stupid as to deliberately plagiarise a story by someone as well known as Agatha Christie. It beggars belief that she could have thought that she could have gotten away with it. Her best course of action from here is to follow Murray Bail's lead and just apologise. It would appear that her whole reputation is at stake, and in the Australian literary world that is somethng you don't want to lose. If in doubt, just ask Helen Darville.

Victorian Premier's Reading Challenge

Yesterday, the Premier of Victoria, Steve Bracks, launched his Reading Challenge at the State Library. The aim of the challenge is to get the 458,000 children in all Victorian schools (both government and non-government) between years 3 and nine (ages of say 8 and 14) reading again. The goal is to choose 12 books and read them over the next six months. The main aim is not to teach, but to reintroduce reading as a pleasurable experience.

The Challenge is being run in conjunction with the "Sunday Age" which led off the event with its main editorial yesterday. Registration for the challenge starts this Friday, 6th February, and in order to help people along the organisers have provided booklists split into age groups: years 3 and 4; 5 and 6; and 7, 8 and 9.

About a year ago, the then Federal Opposition Leader, Mark Latham, started a campaign to get parents to read to their children every night. Needless to say, the Federal Government took the piss out of this suggestion at every opportunity, thereby attempting to gain cheap political advantage at the expense of a decent and worthwhile initiative. Hopefully the State Opposition will back this campaign for all its worth.

There should be further announcements about this challenge over the weeks ahead. I would enter my 12-year-old daughter into the challenge, but she'd get through the 12 books in about a fortnight. I'll get her to look through the list for her age-group though. There might be one or two there she hasn't read.


It's certainly looking like Writers' Festival time around the country with news of the Two Fires Festival of Arts and Activism to be held in Braidwood (just outside Canberra) in New South Wales, from 18th-21st March 2005. Featured writers include Arnold Zable, Leah Purcell, Rodney Hall, Jackie French and Kate Grenville.

Weekend Round-Up #6

It's a foreign menu over at "The Age" on Saturday with all major reviews dealing with non-Australian books. On the Australian front a short review is given to The Goddamn Bus of Happiness by Stefan Laszczuk in the Fiction column by Cameron Whitehead: "Laszczuk's potent realism and strong charcaterisation, together with his dramatic acumen, make this an impressive debut...". This book won the 2004 Adelaide Festival Award for Best Unpublished Manuscript.

In Fiona Capp's Non-Fiction column, brief notes are contributed on Discoveries: The Voyages of Captain Cook by Nicholas Thomas - "combines the intimate appeal of a biography with the broader issues of anthropology and post-colonial theory"; and the periodical "Meanjin: Shrinks" - "it is impossible to do justice to the outstanding variety and substance of this issue in a short review". In the History section Lorien Kaye discusses Welcome & Farewell: The Story of Station Pier by Jill Barnard, a coffee-table history book commissioned by the Victorian State overnment. And in the Satire section Dianne Dempsey gives a short review to 1788 Words or Less: A Short History of Australia by Malcolm Knox, finding it a bit of a lame attempt at humour that falls well short.

I'm not sure if the lineup in this week's "Age" reflects current publishing schedules in Australia or not, but the lack of Australian titles under review is starting to look like a attern. To be fair, the review pages cover a fair cross-section of world literature: a profile of Haruki Murakami; reviews of 2 non-fiction titles about the war and the nation-building in Iraq, The Naked Woman by Desmond Morris, The Falls by Joyce Carol Oates, The News from Paraguay by Lily Tuck, The Darling by Russell Banks, and Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta. All quite worthy titles. So I'm probably just asking for too much.

On the other hand, "The Weekend Australian" features a two-page review/profile of No Trace by Barry Maitland, which is very welcome, and on their webpage as well which is a bonus. This is the eighth of Maitland's Brock and Kolla novels - hard-boiled London police procedurals. The review is by actor and "Australian" crime-fiction reviewer Graeme Blundell and he has a nice turn of phrase:

Murderers fascinate us and a murder mystery plays on our desire for a story that takes us out of ourselves, offering sometimes-scray realisations about the link between pleasure and horror. The crime novelist takes horrors and converts them into something pleasing to him and meaningful to others.
Blundell is very impressed with the work, finding that Maitland is writing as well as anyone else in the genre. And Maitland? He likes "the idea of the crime story as a sort of quest for the truth which gets revealed gradually in layers, and never completely until the very end." On the basis of this review alone he looks like someone I'm going to have to check out.

Last week I mentioned the self-published memoirs of Don Chipp, wondering at why no Australian publisher had decided to pick up the book. This week in "The Weekend Australian" Helen Elliott profiles Don Jordon (known internationally for inventing the Jordon Lifting Frame) who has decided to self-publish his second novel: the first was written when he was 16 (unpublished) and this second at the age of 92. We are probably never going to know but I wonder if Jordon submitted Brown Snake River to any local publishers. No, what am I thinking? He's 92 with white hair. He wouldn't stand a chance.

Combined Reviews: Taking Care of Business by Peter Corris


Reviews of Taking Care of Business by Peter Corris

This is a collection of short stories featuring Corris's Sydney-based PI Cliff Hardy. "The Age" included this book in its Summer Reading excerpt series but didn't, unfortunately, include this excerpt on its website. However they do state that "It's arguable that Peter Corris was responsible for the renaissance of Australian crime writing. After all, who was there to walk down the mean streets of Melbourne and Sydney before he introduced us to Cliff Hardy all those years ago?" More than arguable, in my opinion.

Robin Wallace-Crabbe finds (you'll need to scroll down a bit) that "With these Cliff Hardy pieces, produced over the past five years or so, the problem of confronting competing atmospheres and settings is overcome by the feel of what Frank Moorhouse alled 'discontinuous narrative' (or something)." Which is more than a little vague. But he reedeems himself (read: 'makes himself a bit more understandable') at the end: "Relish these over breakfast or while saving charred meat from summer flies." Which should not be read as a recipe merely an indication that short stories fit the disjointed Australian summer lifestyle. I think.

Mary Martin Books notes (and you have to scroll nearly to the bottom of this long document) that: "The collection is business-centred (two of the pieces appeared in THE AUSTRALIAN FINANCIAL REVIEW) but all are packed with thrills and intrigue, as befits any work involving that intrepid PI, Cliff Hardy." And they decide that: "Each of the stories is a little gem."

Channelling Agatha 2

Queensland writers Nick Earls and Rebecca Sparrow have joined the "alleged plagiarism" argument, as reported yesterday, by jumping in on the side of Jessica Adams. A report in today's "Courier-Mail" has Earls "outing" himself as a plagiarist of his own work, and stating that "In a world of millions of stories, it's inevitable that stories will have similarities." The holders of the Agatha Christie British copyright have been notified. The matter is in the hands of their lawyers. Jessica Adams has her say in the "Sydney Morning Herald". I mentioned yesterday that this looked like turning into a Fairfax vs. Murdoch tiff. It ain't over

Poem: Those Standard Authors by Edward Dyson

We writer folk who're busy still,
   Contriving books for men to read,
With certain literary skill
   Are all misfortunate indeed
In that our task must ever be
Made difficult to a degree
By many dead men's rivalry.

The doctor scores a meed of gain
   When dies a big competitor;
The lawyer sees his rival slain,
   And has a dozen clients more;
The architect, and actor too,
Are helped by Death to chances new,
And see great benefits accrue.

Dead men our keenest rivals are;
   Their books repeated without sense
Fill all suburban shelves, and bar
   Our dusty way to affluence.
As 'tis we never may secure
The splendid sales that would be sure
If our books sold as furniture.

First published in The Bulletin, 21 November 1918

Channelling Agatha

"The Australian" today carries two reports of a possible case of plagiarism involving "Best-selling Australian author and Fairfax newspapers astrologer Jessica Adams". Take note of the "Fairfax" reference; "The Australian" is a Murdoch paper as you will recall. Adams has a story titled "The Circle" published in a New Year edition of The Big Issue, a newspaper which helps homeless people. It seems that this Adams story closely resembles one written in the 1920s by some long-forgotten writer named Agatha Christie. Expect the merde to fly over this one.

Author Profile: Cassandra Austin

Seeing George by Cassandra Austin

Michael Winkler profiles Cassandra Austin as she ponders the publication of her debut novel Seeing George two months ago(!!). [Some currency with these profiles would be nice.]

The novel details a love triangle between a married couple and a dragon, and as soon as I read that description I started looking for the old "magic realism" label. To Winkler's credit he doesn't use the term but the novel is bound to be tagged that way somewhere or other. Austin seems have led a rather varied life after growing up in country Victoria and then taking a masters degree in criminology. So the book promises something a bit out of the ordinary. Parts of it reminded me a little of Tea with the Black Dragon by R.A. MacAvoy, which was a wonderful little book from the early 1980s. That book was considered an out and out fantasy. And didn't suffer a jot.

Writers' Festivals

Current Matilda favourite Dorthy Porter will join Les Murray on Norfolk Island for "Poetry in the Park" - a weeklong festival which runs from February 20th, 2005.

The fifth annual Norman Lindsay Festival of Children's Literature is scheduled for 19-20 March 2005, in Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney.

The Norfolk Island Writers' and Readers' Festival will be held on the island from July 17 to 24, 2005. The guest list includes: Melbourne crime novellist Shane Maloney; NZ novellist, playwright, poet and scriptwriter Stephanie Johnson (whose publicity photo looks like she's just punched herself under the chin - what is it with these portraits that demand that the chin is supported on a hand? Face-down in a bucket of beer I can understand.); Margaret Gee, Australian author and agent; and Owen Marshall, NZ short story writer, and non face-puncher.

Miles Franklin Award Judge Announcement

Morag Fraser has been appointed to the judging panel for this year's Miles Franklin Award. Fraser is a former editor of "Eureka Street" and is an adjunct professor at La Trobe University. She joins the existing panel of Dagmar Schmidmaier, Eve Abbey, Robert Dixon, and Ian Hicks.

This follows on from the resignation at the end of last year of three judges on the previous panel, and a number of interesting discussions about the awards over the past few months. I think Fraser is an excellent choice and will help to restore the Award's reputation.

2004 Discover Great New Writers Awards

Two Australian novelists have been shortlisted for the 2004 Barnes & Noble Discover Greater New Writers Awards: The Hamilton Case by Michelle de Krester, and How the Light Gets In by M.J. Hyland.

The winners will be announced on March 2, 2005. First prize is $10,000, second $2,500 and third $1,000. US dollars of course. Good luck to them both.

Reviews of Australian Books #4

In "Philosophy Now", Scott O'Reilly reviews Peter Singer's review of George W. Bush's statements on ethics. He finds that in The President of Good and Evil "Singer is very much performing the role of a modern day Socrates, asking common sense questions, applying clear reasoning, and using his interlocutor's own words as the standard by which they are judged. And like Socrates, Singer makes for a rather formidable gadfly." As you might expect, if you've been following any of Singer's statements over the years, that he is not a bit fan of George W., going "so far as to to speculate that Bush was intoxicated, on drugs, or perhaps out of his mind." Regardless of whether or not Singer makes a cogent argument against Bush, and I believe that he does, you'll like this book if you hate Bush, and vice versa.

Robert Dessaix's latest, Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev is reviewed by Stephanie Merritt in the "Guardian". She finds that "His knowledge of Turgenev's work is encyclopedic and enthusiastic and his central investigation - what love could have meant to his idol - is thoughtfully treated." But she feels that Dessaix imposes himself on the narrative too much. Maybe it's just a matter of determining what the book is about: if its aim is to deal with Dessaix's journey to discover Turgenev then this seems quite reasonable; if it's to introduce Turgenev to the reader then it probably isn't. Julian Barnes got over this problem 20 years ago in Flaubert's Parrot by turning the quest for the French author into a novel: fiction allows for more literary options. Barnes gets a mention in Merritt's review as well in that a recent short story of his tackles similar ground to Dessaix's. Merritt is of the opinion that Barnes did it better.

Marcel Theroux reviews Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey in the "New York Times". (This review is accompanied by a photo of Carey and his son - neither of whom look like they're having a good time.) Theroux comes to the conclusion that, as a writer of non-fiction, Carey makes a good novelist. Which is certainly the impression I got from Carey's earlier book 30 Days in Sydney.

Michael Robotham is mistaken for a Brit in Patrick Anderson's review of his book Suspect, in "The Washington Post". Robotham lived in London for a number of years making his living as a "ghost writer" for celebrities but has recently returned to live in Sydney, so Anderson can be forgiven this assumption. A little bit anyway. He finds the book to be "gripping", "taut and fast-moving" which is decent praise for a thriller.

[My thanks to Sarah Weinman's weblog for the link.]

Australian Cook Books

Occasionally "The Age's" Epicure section contains some reviews of cooking and food books along with its recipes, restaurant, wine and beer reviews.

Liz Cinotta applauds Moroccan Modern by Hassan M'Souli with: "It was refreshing to find a cookbook that included a mix of the author's original creations as well as the traditional ones with which we might be more familiar." As to the details there's "an impressive chapter on vegetables and salads...Tagine recipes include Moroccan meatballs, sweet lamb, fish and the ubiquitous chicken with preserved lemon and olives." My wife and I are big fans of the Moroccan cooking style as we find it gives us a lot more variations on the standard lamb fare we are used to - and the kids will eat it as well. So this might just be the book for us.

Richard Cornish has some reservations about Spice: The History of a Temptation by Jack Turner. While providing a lot of historical and technical detail Cornish finds it lacks a focused narrative. Given its wide subject area (both in terms of geography and carpology) this is hardly surprising. This appears to be a good companion volume to Ian Hemphill's Spice
from 2000.

2005 Writers at Como

The Melbourne Writers' Festival and Readers' Feast Bookshop are presenting their second Writers at Como this year, over the weekend of 25th, 26th and 27th February. Featured writers include Louise Adler (publisher of Melbourne University Publishing), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (author of Purple Hibiscus), Stephanie Alexander (author of The Cook's Companion), Peter Craven (literary critic), Rick Gekoski (bookseller and member of this year's Booker jury), Gideon Haigh (sports writer), Sonya Hartnett (author of Stiff).

A fairly diverse line-up that should cater for most tastes. Como House is a National Trust listed property built in South Yarra in 1847. It is surrounded by copious grounds with many large leafy trees so even if it is hot that weekend, which is a fair chance given that it is February in Melbourne, there should be enough shade. Program items will be run as two streams in one of two tents. Day tickets are $45 full price, with an $80 weekend rate, and it is possible to buy food hampers on site.

Currently Reading


 Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie
The second book in the "First Law" series. Epic fantasy written to honour the honour and explore the standard fantasy tropes, as well as to poke ore than a little fun at them at the same time. A big book, but still a page-turner.



 How it Feels by Brendan Cowell
A debut novel from a multi-talented author/actor/director. A coming-of-age novel which might well be semi-autobiographical.


Recently Read


 Monster Blood Tattoo: Factotum by D. M. Cornish
The third book in the MBT series. Will we finally find out who Rossamund really is? And will we be sad to leave this fully-realised fantasy world? I suspect the answer will be "yes" to both.



 Rendezvous at Kamakura Inn by Marshall Browne
Browne's first novel in a new series, this time featuring a Japanese detective, Inspector Aoki. This novel finds the inspector investigating an old murder in a snowed-in remote Japanese retreat.



 The City & The City by China Miéville
Miéville's Hugo Award winning novel of two cities inhabiting the same physical location. A murder mystery with hints of classic sf/fantasy memes, from Dick to Borges, but in a European setting.

 Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child
The 13th Jack Reacher novel. Suicide bombers on the New York subway and international terrorism mixed with hard-boiled action makes for an interesting brew.



 The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
Heroic fantasy in the modern style. A fantasy that is laced through with noirish elements, and excellent characterisations. First book of The First Law trilogy.

 Where Have You Been? by Wendy James
What happens when a sister returns after being missing, presumed dead, for twenty years? James enhances her reputation as one of Australia's rising literary novelists.

 Wyatt by Garry Disher
Disher's anti-hero is back after an absence of ten years with a gritty, fast, noirish struggle for survival. All the best aspects of Disher's work are on display here.



 Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld
A Young Adult steampunk novel set at the start of an alternate history First World War. Fast-paced, intriguing and totally captivating.



 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Dick's novel of the near future when the difference between human and android is barely discernible. One of the great all-time sf titles.



 American Journeys by Don Watson
Watson journeys into the heart of America, by train and car. There he discovers the best, and the worst, of humanity and society.



 Ghostlines by Nick Gadd
2009 Best First Novel at the Ned Kelly Awards. Murder in the art world involving political intrigue and business corruption in Melbourne.


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