Peter Rose is the current editor of "Australian Book Review" and whose previous book was a memoir of his family, titled Rose Boys. Now he has released a novel, A Case of Knives, which Michele Griffin, in her review in this week's "Saturday Age", describes thusly: "His racy debut novel A Case of Knives has little in common with the wholehearted testimony of the previous book. Instead, he has written what even one of his characters calls 'a superior soap', a thriller about the bad, the beautiful and the damaged...It is so completely different from his previous book that it could have been written by his evil twin. It must have been fun to write - it was fun to read." Which raises the question of whether such a change of tack is going to find an audience.
Vistors to Australia generally have some difficulty coming to grips with the hold Ned Kelly has on the Australian popular imagination. Explaining him away as our "version" of Jesse James is probably the best we can do, but there are hints that Kelly was partially politically motivated, rather than just being a bushranger and a killer of police men. His final shoot-out with police at Glenrowan has been well-covered in both book and film formats yet little has been written about the circumstances of his trial and the legal machinations that surrounded it. The late Alex C. Castles completed Ned Kelly's Last Days: Setting the Record Straight on the Death of an Outlaw before his death in December 2003 and it is good to see it published at last. As Christopher Bantick puts it: "The enduring worth of this absorbing book for Kellyphiles and readers who have an interest in the law, is that the legal processes of the Kelly trial have, until now, not received the same level of detailed inquiry as the Kellys' mythical bushranging reputation."
Short notices are given to: Making a Difference: Reflections on Life, Leadership and Politics by Peter Beattie, with Angelo Loukakis: "It's the story of a hand-me-down kid who went to university, experienced Joh Bjelke Petersen's totalitarianism as a student and went on to take the top job in his state (and some are suggesting he might go one further)"; Faces in the Crowd: An Argument for Optimism by Martin Flanagan: "...25 pieces originally published in this newspaper that display all of Flanagan's qualities as a writer: his interest in the struggles and achievements of ordinary people - his humanism - and his economy of means"; A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson and the Convicts of the Princess Royal by Babette Smith: "Babette Smith has done a fine job in pulling apart many of the misconceptions that still persist about convict women. In this compassionate history, based on Susannah's letters and historical records, she reveals that the women were not whores and drunks - most of then were survivors, courageous survivors at that"; The Eccentric Mr Wienholt by Rosamond Siemon: Wienholt fought in the First and Second World Wars, was member of both Queensland State and Federal Parliaments and certainly an "...eccentric and remote character...Siemon makes the most of the abundant adventures of Wienholt but it was with morbid fascination rather than keen interest that I read his story".
Four reviews of Australian non-fiction dominate this week's "Weekend Australian". Red Harrison looks at A Doctor's War by Rowley Richards, and finds that "some readers might feel the subject - especially of his years on the Thai-Burma Railway - has been exhausted by dozens of PoW memoirs published in recent years. Not at all. Using his diaries as the core of what he calls a story of survival through senseless suffering, Richards delivers a book that is not just another history of life as a PoW, but also an original, impressive, compelling and compassionate work."
On the other hand, Ross Fitzgerald is not too impressed with Loner: Inside a Labor Tragedy by Bernard Lagan, calling it "uneven and one-dimensional" and "much of the text is repetitous and the book poorly proofed and edited."
"An absorbing tale of adventure and discovery" is how Evan Williams finds The Magician's Son by Sandy McCutcheon. "I have not read a more deeply felt account of the peculiar emotional void that can afflict the adopted child: the sense of disconnectedness and alienation, the underlying psychic loneliness, the yearning for love, for belonging."
Similarly, Rosemary Neill is moved by Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land by Mary Ellen Jordan, which "is an impressive book that humanises the most pressing moral dilemma confronting Australia: how to achieve social justice for the country's first - and most disadvantaged - inhabitants. It deserves a wide readership.".
Over the past couple of weeks "The Sunday Age" has beefed up its book coverage and it's past time I had a look.
The major piece this week is a profile of Sandy McCutcheon to coincide with the release of his new memoir. The author will be a guest at next month's "Age" Melbourne Writer's Festival so this might well be a good introduction.
Peter Craven has a second look at I Have Kissed Your Lips by Gerard Windsor, and he's still pretty well convinced of the novel's worth: "Gerard Windsor is a real writer in a country that will often be conned by fool's gold. There is absolutely nothing fashionable about the ironclad prose in which he pursues his sometimes disconsolate themes, often in writing that is relegated to the minor shelf for no better reason than the fact that it is, technically, non-fiction. And yet Gerard Windsor is always an imaginative writer - even, as often, when he is brooding around the contours of the real."
And Jane Sullivan considers the public profile of authors, our "intense curiosity" about them and their work, and how Romana Koval deals with it in her new book Tasting Life Twice.
This revamp of "The Sunday Age" books pages seems to have worked pretty well. It's been shifted from the tabloid format of the colour supplement back into the main body of the broadsheet paper, just after the op-ed pages. A good move.