February 2006 Archives

2006 Ditmar Awards

The voting form for the 2006 Ditmar Awards has now been released [PDF file].

These awards honour Australian works in the fields of science fiction, fantasy and horror. To be eligible to vote you must be a supporting or attending member of Conjure, the 2006 National Science Fiction Convention being held this year in Brisbane over 14-17 April.

So these are reader awards - the Australian version of the Hugos. To put it mildly, there
are some strange things about this ballot. I make no comment on the worth of the nominees: I take it as given that they are all worthy of being on this final list. I just think things could have been handled differently. As a member of the Natcon committee advising on these matters I made my views plain yesterday to the rest of the committee. To no avail it seems.

Second Auction of Australiana Collection

Last year, about this time, I reported on the first sale of items from the Rodney Davidson Collection of Australiana. Now the second auction is about to take place and Jane Sullivan, of "The Age", has been a long to have a look.

The first sale returned $A5.7million, and while that figure may not be reached this time, the "second Melbourne sale, featuring 200 books, maps and documents from the period 1810 to 1850, also promises to attract huge interest. Jonathan Wantrup, executive director of Australian Book Auctions, which is handling the sale, says the Davidson collection is the world's finest and most comprehensive private collection of Australiana."

The piece also includes some nice stories about the book collecting trade. Some publisher should get Davidson to write his memoirs. It would make interesting, and amusing, reading.

Australian Bookcovers #1 - Capricornia by Xavier Herbert

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Capricornia by Xavier Herbert, 1938
(Angus & Robertson 1987 edition)
The cover shows a detail from The Out-Station by Russell Drysdale, 1965

2005 Nebula Awards

Margo Lanagan's story, "Singing My Sister Down", has made the final ballot for the Short Story Category of the 2005 Nebula Awards. These are presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and are generally quite good indicators of the works that will come under consideration for the Hugo Awards later in the year.

[Link via Margo's blog Among Amid Awhile.]

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #9

"The Weekend Australian" appears to be playing fast and loose with its book reviews again, dropping (or not including) a couple of interesting reviews of Australian novels from their website. But we won't let that deter us.

Ingrid Wassenaar reviews James Bradley's The Resurrectionist which she describes as a "gothic thriller". The first part of the novel is set in 1826, in London, and tells the story of Gabriel Swift, apprentice to a leading anatomist. The second part, which functions as a coda, is set in NSW some ten years later. "Bradley has constructed a very plausible, decadent novel with all the ingredients we might expect, and brings a special postmodern twist to it in the telling. Gabriel shifts in our perception from reliable to disturbing because of how he narrates his story...The Resurrectionist wears its research lightly, but its themes - good versus evil, the links between sex and death, the possibility of resurrection, the corporeal versus the spiritual - can poke through too sharply. It is a compelling read, but not a comfortable ride." I take this last point as being mildly critical. I don't have a problem with novels being uncomfortable, in fact I thought the better ones always were.

Kerryn Goldsworthy looks at Beyond the Break by Sandra Hall and finds that it doesn't quite reach the heights that were within its grasp:

"Hall is a highly experienced journalist and author and her skills as a professional writer stand her in very good stead: the narrative voice is confident and consistent, and the management of the chronology is clever. Yet as is more than likely in a novel about childhood friendships that survive through adolescence and beyond, there's a certain amount - perhaps a bit too much - of Musical Blokes happening in this novel's plot, as the two girls move in on each other's exes and create further complications for their friendship as well as for the plot.

"While the book's narrative backbone is formed by these relationships and their complex dynamics, what's really memorable about it remains the vision of Sydney and the intriguing, infuriating and still mysterious character of Irene. It almost feels as though there is a second and quite different book in there trying to break through the surface of this one."

Azhar Abidi's Passorala Rising is reviewed by Isabel McIntosh who finds it flawed, though most of these seem like first novel flaws rather than anything fatal in the long-term. "Abidi's writing is best when the action is on the ground, yet for most of the novel the reader is high above the earth and tremined too many times by the narrators that 'for someone who has ever sailed on a long voyage, the hours aboard a ship would see long and tedious.' He pops the balloon of intrigue by opening chapters with lines such as 'the flight to Danzig was without incident' or 'the remainder of Spartiate's journey was safe and uneventful.'" Doesn't matter, I'm going to read it anyway.

In other reviews, Emma Tom is impressed with Salvation Creek by Susan Duncan, a memoir by a "former Australian media mover and shaker" whose life falls apart with the death of her husband and brother within three days of each other; and Cath Keneally finds that Safety by Tegan Bennett Daylight is an "admirable excursion from a gifted writer".

"The Age" has Peter Temple reviewing The History of the Times: The Murdoch Years by Graham Stewart, which he calls "an entertaining but obese history".

Glyn Davis comes to the conclusion that Anson Cameron didn't meet his own ambitions in the writing of Lies I Told About a Girl. Though the book certainly seems to be aiming for a lot. And that can't be a bad thing, surely.

2005 Aurealis Awards Winners

The winners of the 2005 Aurealis Awards have been announced.The awards ceremony was held in Brisbane on Saturady February 25th. The awards are presented for best long and short Australian fiction in the fields of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Young Adult and Children's literature.

Peter McNamara Convenors Award
Grant Stone

Science Fiction Novel
Eclipse, KA Bedford

Science Fiction Short Story
"Slow and Ache", Trent Jamieson

Fantasy Novel
Blade of Fortriu: Book 2 The Bridei Chronicles, Juliet Marillier

Fantasy Short Story
"Once Giants Roamed the Earth", Rosaleen Love and "The Greater Death of Saito Saku", Richard Harland

Horror Novel
No award

Horror Short Story
"Pater Familias", Lee Battersby

Young Adult Novel
Alyzon Whitestarr, Isobelle Carmody

Young Adult Short Story
"Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case", Garth Nix

Children Long Fiction
Drowned Wednesday, Garth Nix

Children Short Story
"Piccolo & Annabel 2: The Disastrous Party", Stephen Axelson

Golden Aurealis Novel
Alyzon Whitestarr, Isobelle Carmody

Golden Aurealis Short Story
"Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case", Garth Nix

Reviews of Books by Australians

Tim Martin, in "The Independent", thinks DBC Pierre's Ludmilla's Broken English is a transitional work. He's hoping Pierre's next will live up to the high promise of parts of this one.

John Sutherland thinks the allegory in the novel is laid on a bit too thick, in "The Times".

Also in "The Times", Morris Gleitzman's Once is praised by Nicolette Jones.

Sean O'Brien finds a lot to like about The Secret River by Kate Grenville, but also thinks that she "doesn't trust her art, or the reader's wits, enough to let the writing do its work without some moral nudging."

DBC Pierre Profile

DBC Pierre is profiled by Emma-Kate Symons in "The Weekend Australian". His new book, Ludmilla's Broken English will be published in the UK next week. "I can't imagine [the critical reaction]," Pierre says of his second stab at artistic glory. "I don't know anyone personally who would like the new book. And Vernon was exactly the same. I didn't know anybody who would like it. But you have to write for yourself and just respect the nominal reader. "The novel has to be a vehicle and carry you somewhere and not be too indulgent. "But f--- knows what they'll say about it. And it doesn't really matter because the work is done. It was an exercise."

Poem: Borderland by Henry Lawson

I am back from up the country -- very sorry that I went --
Seeking for the Southern poets' land whereon to pitch my tent;
I have lost a lot of idols, which were broken on the track --
Burnt a lot of fancy verses, and I'm glad that I am back.
Further out may be the pleasant scenes of which our poets boast,
But I think the country's rather more inviting round the coast --
Anyway, I'll stay at present at a boarding-house in town
Drinking beer and lemon squashes, taking baths and cooling down.

Sunny plains! Great Scot! -- those burning wastes of barren soil and sand
With their everlasting fences strecthing out across the land!
Desolation where the crow is! Desert! where the eagle flies,
Paddocks where the luny bullock starts and stares with redden'd eyes;
Where, in clouds of dust enveloped, roasted bullock-drivers creep
Slowly past the sun-dried shepherd dragged behind his crawling sheep.
Stunted "peak" of granite gleaming, glaring! like a molten mass
Turned, from some infernal furnace, on a plain devoid of grass.

Miles and miles of thirsty gutters -- strings of muddy waterholes
In the place of "shining rivers" (walled by cliffs and forest boles).
"Range!" of ridges, gullies, ridges, barren! where the madden'ed flies --
Fiercer than the plagues of Egypt -- swarm about your blighted eyes!
Bush! where there is no horizon! where the buried bushman sees
Nothing. Nothing! but the madding sameness of the stunted trees!
Lonely hut where drought's eternal -- suffocating atmosphere --
Where the God forgotten hatter dreams of citylife and beer.

Treacherous tracks that trap the stranger, endless roads that gleam and glare,
Dark and evil-looking gullies -- hiding secrets here and there!
Dull, dumb flats and stony "rises," where the bullocks sweat and bake,
And the sinister "gohanna," and the lizard, and the snake.
Land of day and night -- no morning freshness, and no afternoon,
For the great, white sun in rising brings with him the heat of noon.
Dismal country for the exile, when the shades begin to fall
From the sad, heart-breaking sunset, to the new-chum, worst of all.

Dreary land in rainy weather, with the endless clouds that drift
O'er the busman like a blanket that the Lord will never lift --
Dismal land when it is raining -- growl of floods and oh! the "woosh"
Of the rain and wind together on the dark bed of the bush --
Ghastly fires in lonely humpies where the granite rocks are pil'd
In the rain-swept windernesses that are wildest of the wild.

Land where gaunt and haggard women live alone and work like men,
Till their husbands, gone a-droving, will return to them again --
Homes of men! if homes had ever such a God-forgotten place,
Where the wild selector's children fly before a stranger's face.
Home of tragedy applauded by the dingoes' dismal yell,
Heaven of the shanty-keeper -- fitting fiend for such a hell --
And the wallaroos and wombats, and, of course, the "curlew's call" --
And the lone sundowner tramping ever onward thro' it all!

I am back from up the country -- up the country where I went
Seeking for the Southern poets' land whereon to pitch my tent;
I have left a lot of broken idols out along the track,
Burnt a lot of fancy verses -- and I'm glad that I am back --
I believe the Southern poet's dream will not be realised
Till the plains are irrigated and the land is humanised.
I intend to stay at present -- as I said before -- in town
Drinking beer and lemon-squashes -- taking baths and cooling down.

First published in The Bulletin, 8 July 1892

Bulletin debate poem #1.
This poem was later re-titled Up the Country.

The Maze that is Science Fiction Fandom

If you're confused by SF/Fantasy fandom, don't know your furries from your trekkies, your fanfic from your slash, then check out The Geek Hierarchy. It's a strange world out there.

[Link from Gary Gibson's blog, White Screen of Despair.]

Australian Libraries

Australian libraries nationwide have combined to enable access to their catalogs via the new Libraries Australia web portal.

Details were announced in "The Australian" yesterday along with the note that the portal would go live next Monday, February 27th. Oddly enough I seem to be able to access it today, so maybe it's just up in beta mode before the full-blown release next week.

This looks like being an excellent resource.

Combined Reviews: The Book Thief by Markus Zusack


book_thief.jpg Reviews of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

This novel was shortlisted for the Best Book of the South East Asia and South Pacific Region award in the 2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Description: "It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

"Liesel Meminger and her younger brother are being taken by their mother to live with a foster family outside Munich. Liesel's father was taken away on the breath of a single, unfamiliar word - Kommunist - and Liesel sees the fear of a similar fate in her mother's eyes. On the journey, Death visits the young boy, and notices Liesel. It will be the first of many near encounters. By her brother's graveside, Liesel's life is changed when she
picks up a single object, partially hidden in the snow. It is The Gravedigger's Handbook, left there by accident, and it is her first act of book thievery.

"So begins a love affair with books and words, as Liesel, with the help of her accordion-playing foster father, learns to read. Soon she is stealing books from Nazi book-burnings, the mayor's wife's library, wherever there are books to be found.

"But these are dangerous times. When Liesel's foster family hides a Jewish fist-fighter in their basement, Liesel's world is both opened up, and closed down."

One thing this description doesn't tell you is that the book is narrated by Death himself. Death has rescued Liesel's autobiographical journal which allows Zusak to explore, according to Lorien Kaye in Australian Book Review, "the other theme of the book, the nature and importance of books, words reading and writing."

As Kaye goes on to say: "His first four books were more literary than much writing for young adults, and the essence of Zusak's prose style has remained the same: at once muscular and poetic. Sentences are often short but are structurally plain or complex. Zusak enjoys inventive language use and delights in describing the world on a slightly
skewed angle.

"It is easy to wring emotion and narrative drive from this grander scope, the raw suffering of World War II and the Holocaust. It is harder to create something more substantial. Markus Zusak goes well beyond the superficial, at least partly due to his prose style, but there are depths that remain just beyond his reach."

Which I read as saying that Zusak has reached for the heights and just failed to reach them. Peter Pierce in "The Age", on the other hand, considers that "The Book Thief is a triumph of control, and for the most part of tact, although Death is at liberty to breach any decorum. Its oblique angle on the German homefront never exalts the courage of the young, but quietly tells of how days and months are managed.

"Zusak has written, in his 30th year, one of the most unusual and compelling of recent Australian novels. He gives its last words to Death, who confesses 'I am haunted by humans'. Those whom we encounter in The Book Thief have that power over the reader, too."

You can read an interview with Markus Zusak in "Publishers Weekly", conducted by Judith Ridge. The novel is due to be published in the USA in March 2006. Ridge, a Sydney based writer, also publishes a weblog and she has posted about the meeting she had with Zusak.

Great Australian Authors #18 - John O'Brien

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John O'Brien (1878 - 1952)

"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
In accents most forlorn,
Outside the church, ere Mass began,
One frosty Sunday morn.

The congregation stood about,
Coat-collars to the ears,
And talked of stock, and crops, and drought,
As it had done for years.

"It's looking crook," said Daniel Croke;
"Bedad, it's cruke, me lad,
For never since the banks went broke
Has seasons been so bad."

"It's dry, all right," said young O'Neil,
With which astute remark
He squatted down upon his heel
And chewed a piece of bark.

And so around the chorus ran
"It's keepin' dry, no doubt."
"We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan,
"Before the year is out."

From Said Hanrahan by John O'Brien

2006 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature Shortlists

The shortlists for the 2006 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature have been announced. The winners will be announced on March 5th. The shortlists are:

$15,000 Award for children's literature (143 entries)
The Running Man by Michael Bauer (Omnibus Books)
Fireshadow by Anthony Eaton (University of Queensland Press)
Jetty Rats by Phillip Gwynne (Penguin)
Soraya the Storyteller by Rosanne Hawke (Lothian Books)
It's Not All About You, Calma! by Barry Jonsberg (Allen & Unwin)
The Spare Room by Kathryn Lomer (University of Queensland Press)

$15,000 Award for fiction (114 entries)
The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer (Picador)
The Ghost Writer by John Harwood (Vintage)
Sixty Lights by Gail Jones (Random House Australia)
The White Earth by Andrew McGahan (Allen & Unwin)
The Marsh Birds by Eva Sallis (Allen & Unwin)
The Last Ride by Denise Young (HarperCollins Publishers Australia)

$10,000 Award for innovation (22 entries)
<More or Less Than> 1-100 by MTC Cronin (Shearsman Books)
The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer (Picador)
The Bone House by Beverley Farmer (Giramondo)
East of Time by Jacob G. Rosenberg (Brandl & Schlesinger)

$15,000 Award for non-fiction (154 entries)
Papunya: A Place Made After the Story by Geoffrey Bardon (deceased) and James Bardon (Melbourne University Press)
Twilight of Love by Robert Dessaix (Picador)
Joe Cinque's Consolation by Helen Garner (Picador)
Professional Savages by Roslyn Poignant (UNSW Press)
Velocity by Mandy Sayer (Vintage)

$15,000 John Bray poetry award (90 entries)
Wolf Notes by Judith Beveridge (Giramondo)
Walking to Point Clear by David Brooks (Brandl and Schlesinger)
Totem by Luke Davies (Allen & Unwin)
Friendly Fire by Jennifer Maiden (Giramondo)
Freehold by Geoff Page (Brandl and Schlesinger)
The Well Mouth by Phillip Salom (Freemantle Arts Centre Press)

$10,000 Jill Blewett Playwright's award for the creative development of a playscript by a South Australian writer (8 entries)
Black Crow Lullabies by Duncan Graham
The Uncharted Hour by Finegan Kruckemeyer
The Sea Bride by Caleb Lewis

$10,000 Award for an unpublished manuscript by a SA emerging writer to be published by Wakefield Press (32 entries)
Life Before Plastic by Libby Angel
Black Dust Dancing by Tracy Crisp
Anthems for Before by Sonja Dechian
The Quakers by Rachel Hennessy
Play the Devil by Henry Sheppard

Australian Literary Monuments #6 - C.J. Dennis

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First day cover for release of Australian stamps commemorating C.J. Dennis's "Sentimental Bloke". The verse on the envelope is taken from "The Intro".

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #8

Azhar Abidi's Passarola Rising is getting some good coverage of late for a first novel. In the "Age" James Ley is pretty impressed in his review of the book: "...it is as pure entertainment that the novel recommends itself. Passarola Rising's narrative is short and punchy and immensely likeable. Abidi writes extremely well, in a clear and direct style that is capable of conveying a beautifully understated sense of lyricism, but that comes alive in the novel's numerous action sequences. Passarola Rising is a strong debut that reveals Abidi to be a novelist of great intelligence and inventiveness." You don't want to talk about formula here but Abidi seems to have struck a chord amongst reviewers, who are looking for the literary novel that is by turns fantastical, adventuresome, thoughtful, and entertaining. Come to think of it, aren't we all?

I remember the disappearance of the Beaumont children well. Forty years ago in Adelaide three young children from the same family went missing from Glenelg Beach and were never heard of again. For many of us it was the end of innocence, the end of a time when parents thought it safe to let their kids walk down the street to the local shop, and the start of a feeling that there was something very dark in the heart of Adelaide. Alan J. Whiticker has now written Searching for the Beaumont Children: Australia's Most Famous Unsolved Mystery which is reviewed by Andrew Rule, who finds it a thrown-together affair: "The book's main virtue is that it doesn't pretend to be something it is not. It is not literature. It's not inspiring journalism. It is to writing what a prefab shed is to architecture - fast and functional, thrown together by busy tradesmen and semi-skilled labourers who leave a few rough edges. It does the job - and the job was to knock up something to catch the anniversary, its only publicity 'hook' given the absence of any new material, insight or literary merit." It doesn't provide us with anything new, it just allows us to "least ignore the false trails".

I can see I'll have to track the reviews of Gail Jones's novel Dreams of Speaking to get a gauge of the shelf-life of a major Australian literary novel. How much notice will it get, and how long will that notice be sustained? I also have to figure out whether the strength and length of the attention is based on publication date as well. I suspect it is to a large extent. This week's entries are Cath Kenneally's review of the novel in "The Weekend Australian" and Aviva Tuffield's profile of the author in "The Sunday Age".

Kenneally doesn't appear as convinced about the novel as all other reviews I've read: "While the family saga is engrossing and beautifully told, the attempted hybridisation of registers is not entirely successful. One feels they would make two good books, but can't quite be forced into one", and "Jones writes with lyrical ease and at the same time strives for academic precision. Now and then, in this novel of exquisite record, the reader feels the need for respite. Choosing the word closer to hand would have also avoided the occasional gaffe (as in 'she too was enjoined in this magic circle'), where the enticement of mellifluous flow leads her astray." That aside, "...Dreams of Speaking is rather a thing of rags and patches, but they're dazzling, sequined ones."

Elsewhere in "The Weekend Australian", Justine Ettler welcomes the publication of two first novels by the University of Western Australia Press: Cusp by Josephine Wilson and A New Map of the Universe by Annabel Smith. "First-novel teething problems aside, what more can you ask of quality fiction? With mainstream publishers so driven by international and economic factors, Australia has never needed small fiction presses more than now. This is because university and other small presses seem to be assuming the role previously played by mainstream publishers. It's not always profitable, admittedly, but someone has to take the risks to nurture the next generation of novelists. Can we have more of this, please?" Too right.

Poem: A Bad Influence by T. the R. (Charles Hayward)

"The Commonwealth Government has decided to ban the importation of sensational crime literature from the U.S." [Note: this poem is from 1934.]

These tales of Yankee crime and grim duellos
   'Twixt crooks and cops corrupt the growing kid.
Duval and Turpin, one suspects, were fellows
   Of whom the world was mercifully rid,
But time obliterates and legend mellows
   The more objectionable things they did.
De mortuis, you know, speak nothing wrong;
And they've been dead so long, so very long!

To dip into a Deadwood Dick or thriller
   Is something boyhood naturally likes;
But they who limn (say) the Chicago spiller
   Of blood ignore the note that Dickens strikes.
It's rarely you will find them make a killer
   End up as Fagin did, or hunted Sikes,
Or that arch-villian Jonas Chuzzlewit;
They'd sooner let him "get away with it."

When we were lads what glamor and what glory
   On R.L.S.'s "Treasure Island" shone!
But you'll recall in that enthralling story
   The highly proper end was dies non
For all the buccaneers whose hands were gory
   With slaughter, barring elongated John
Silver -- and a hereafter dark and grim,
'Twas prophesied, awaited even him.

Bandits we, too, have known whom local Shallows
   Have sought with hero touches to invest,
Whose squalid crimes perverse tradition hallows
   Gilbert and Dunn, the Kellys and the rest;
But, since they mostly finished on the gallows
   Unless a trooper's bullet sent them west,
It can't be said that their example sways
Impressionable youth to evil ways.

But these Big Shots we read about, whose function
   Is bidding bullets o'er the sidewalks spray.
Who break God's laws and men's with equal unction,
   Bribe, blackmail, periodically slay
Each other with no atom of compunction,
   Kidnap and rob and loot -- and make it pay
We must preserve our children from the touch
If only in the printed word, of such.

First published in The Bulletin, 25 July 1934

Penguin Australia's Backlist

Penguin Australia is obviously having trouble with its backlist, as it announces a plan to cut royalty rates for backlist authors from 10% down to between 6 and 8. The reasons given are that this will allow some titles to be reprinted which, at the higher royalty rate, would not be viable, and that this is current business practice in New York or London.

[Thanks to the mediabistro: GalleyCat for the link.]

Garth Nix and Sir Thursday

Sir Thursday, the next volume in Garth Nix's "The Keys to the Kingdom" series, will be published worldwide in early March 2006. On Amazon, the paperback has a current sales ranking of 137 in the UK, and the hardback a ranking of 437 in the US. Very respectable numbers indeed.

In the lead-up to publication, you can play an online game based on the series at the Scholastic website. You can also read the prologue to the novel on Garth's website.

[Thanks to Liz at A Chair, a Fireplace and a Tea Cozy for the game link.]

Review: Grace by Robert Drewe

Back in the late 1980s, Tom Wolfe, the author of Bonfire of the Vanities, wrote an essay titled "Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast" in which he called for, amongst other things, a return to the big social novel that explored the realities of American life. He wanted American novelists to relate to what was happening in their country, to document and comment on the "big stuff" rather than the small introverted domestic events. It seemed like a reasonable call to arms at the time.

I don't remember there being anything similar here in Australia. Then again I may well have missed it. In any event, recent "commentaries" - essays and reviews - have shown a similar call coming from various voices in the country. On the one hand we have reviewers lamenting the number of literary novels dealing with issues from Australia's history: "get more up to date" they seem to be saying. And on the other hand, we have reviewers such as Melinda Harvey in her review of The Garden Book by Brian Castro (see here), praising the book for being able to look "our nation directly in the face without a single reference to the three 'Rs' - reconciliation, republicanism and refugees." She wants gutsy storytelling that tackles current issues but which doesn't deal with subjects she's sick of - the three Rs. She's not going to be too happy with Grace by Robert Drewe then.

In this novel, Drewe does look the current state of the Australian nation directly in the face, telling a compelling story, and dealing with such diverse subjects as: reconciliation, inner-city versus country divides, eco-tourism, refugees and government immigration policies, the history of human settlement of the Australian continent, soft crime versus hard crime, and commercialization versus conservation. It's a big list.

In her recent review of the novel in "Overland", Lucy Sussex thinks it's too big, that each of the subjects warranted detailed individual treatment. I agree with the second part of that, and, in the hands of a lesser novelist than Drewe, I'd probably agree with the first part as well.

The novel follows Grace Molloy as she flees her job as a film reviewer after becoming the victim of a rather creepy stalker. She ends up in the Kimberley region of Western Australia working as a tour guide in the area and as an attendant at a local wildlife park. During her stay there is a mass break-out from the local immigration detention centre, and one of the escapees comes across Grace out in the bush. She takes him in and helps him escape with the help of a local nunnery. Her father, John Molloy, is a world famous anthropologist who discovered, many years earlier also in the Kimberley, the skeleton of a small girl which he dates as being between 30 and 60 thousand years old. He named the skeleton Grace, the name he was subsequently to give his daughter. At the time of the novel he is still fighting to legitimise his dating of the skeleton and working on the repatriation of the remains to the local indigneous community for re-burial.

Taken blandly like that, the plot of the novel reads like a hodge-podge of current Australian political, scientific and societal issues thrown together haphazardly. Luckily for us the final result is like a fine-tuned recipe, with all the ingredients fitting together seamlessly to form a whole that is satisfying and elegant.

This is an excellent novel. Long, but not too long at 415 pages. The only quibble I might have with it concerns the knot-tieing of the stalker thread, the initial crime that sets the novel's flow in motion and which hangs behind the action with continual menace. Don't get me wrong, the final knot is tied, and tied firmly. But it takes the emotional rather than the action-driven option at the end. If a film is ever made of this novel, I suspect a rather different, more bloody ending will make it on screen. Somewhere in between might be the better path.

Victorian Premier's Reading Challenge

The Victorian Premier's Reading Challenge is on again this year after a successful debut in 2005. In that year some 60,000 students from 1300 schools met the challenge.

The aim of the challenge is to promote the art and enjoyment of reading amongst Victorian school students, aged 4 to 15. Certificates are provided to students in years 3 - 9 (ages 8 to 15) who read 15 books (10 or more from the specified list), and to students in prep - 2 (ages 4 to 7) who read or experience 30 books (20 or more from the list) between the start of the school year and the end of August.

The full booklists are
pretty comprehensive.

Great Australian Authors #17 - Barcroft Boake

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Barcroft Boake (1866 - 1892)

That's where the dead men lie!
There where the heat-waves dance forever -
That's where the dead men lie!
That's where the Earth's loved sons are keeping
Endless tryst: not the west wind sweeping
Feverish pinions can wake their sleeping -
Out where the dead men lie!

Where brown Summer and Death have mated -
That's where the dead men lie!
Loving with fiery lust unsated -
That's where the dead men lie!
Out where the grinning skulls bleach whitely
Under the saltbush sparkling brightly;
Out where the wild dogs chorus nightly -
That's where the dead men lie!

From Where the Dead Men Lie by Barcroft Boake

Combined Reviews: The Garden Book by Brian Castro


garden_book.jpg Reviews of The Garden Book by Brian Castro.

Brian Castro started his literary career with his first novel, Birds of Passage, winning the 1982 Australian/Vogel Award. The Garden Book is his eighth novel.

Description: "Brian Castro's new novel is set in the Dandenong Ranges in the years between the Depression and the Second World War. The story revolves around Swan Hay, born Shuang He, daughter of a country schoolteacher, her marriage to the passionate and brutal Darcy Damon, and her love affair with the aviator and architect Jasper Zenlin. Fifty years after her disappearance, Norman Shih, a rare book librarian, pieces together Swan's chaotic life from clues found in guest house libraries, antiquarian bookshops and her own elusive writings. But what exactly is his relationship to her?

"The Garden Book is about loneliness, addiction, exploitation; it is about the precarious nature of Australian lives, when gripped by fear and racial prejudice. Yet underlying the story, and commanding it, there is the assured beat of Castro's prose, evoking an ideal world beyond these fears, full of richness and power."

Peter Pierce, in "The Age", found that, even though the subject matter of the novel has been mined many times in the past, "as always in Castro's hands, a rich and strange narrative emerges". And "The Garden Book is another triumph of intelligence and imagination by one of the most exacting, yet rewarding of Australian novelists, and when the mood is on him, one of the most amusing as well."

Pierce backs up his previous review with another in "The Bulletin", in which he concludes: "For all its aesthetic preoccupations, The Garden Book is political, and underneath the aphorisms and martini-dry puns is a despair at a country that, in moments of crisis, becomes nationalistic to the point of provincialism, ungenerous to the point of cruelty, pragmatic to the point of philistinism. To defer to Norman Shih, the collector of fragments in The Garden Book itself, 'remarks are made that turn me away from any humanistic ideology, towards the margins of subversion. I smile back, I write, and I move on.' In that, a script for being."

In "Australian Book Review", Melinda Harvey uses her review of the novel to sink the slipper into current Australian literary works as a lead-in: "Novel-writing, in a word (and it's one that has been flung around with a degree of passion recently), has become 'gutless' storytelling." But she seems to be of the opinion that this novel is not so gastrically challenged: "Brian Castro's The Garden Book is that rare species: a new Australian novel with moxie...[It] is also bold because it manages to look our nation directly in the face without a single reference to the three 'Rs' - reconciliation, republicanism and refugees. As a consequence, the book is cool-eyed rather than nostalgic, even when the prose turns purple."

Brian Castro was profiled by Susan Wyndham in "The Sydney Morning Herald".

Australian Literary Monuments #5 - Mary Gilmore

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Mary Gilmore on the Australian $10 note.

The verse running vertically on the left-hand side of the note is from Gilmore's poem "No Foe Shall Gather Our Harvest". The first two verses of which are:

Sons of the mountains of Scotland,
Welshmen of coomb and defile,
Breed of the moors of England,
Children of Erin's green isle,
We stand four square to the tempest,
Whatever the battering hail-
No foe shall gather our harvest,
Or sit on our stockyard rail.

Our women shall walk in honour,
Our children shall know no chain,
This land, that is ours forever,
The invader shall strike at in vain.
Anzac!...Tobruk!...and Kokoda!...
Could ever the old blood fail?
No foe shall gather our harvest,
Or sit on our stockyard rail.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #7

After his profile last week in "The Sydney Morning Herald", Azhar Abidi continues to surf the wave of publicity in "The Age" this weekend: Jane Sullivan provides the interview. It's all to do with his new novel, Passarola Rising which has just been published, and which is described as "Part historical drama, part Boys' Own Adventure, part moral and philosophical tale, it's being pitched to fans of such books as Yann Martel's Booker Prize-winning The Life of Pi." It also continues Abidi's interest in flight, following his famous mock-history essay of a few years back, The Secret History of the Flying Carpet.

Apart from that it's a slow week in "The Age" with the only other Australian reviews being of two poetry collections, Fragmenta Nova by Alan Loney and Broken/Open by Jill Jones; neither of which are on the website.

In "The Weekend Australian" Graeme Blundell reviews four Australian crime novels: Saving Billie by Peter Corris, a Cliff Hardy novel: "Since 1980, Corris has woven his serial narratives in and out of the politics of their day, seldom shouting, never polemical, just sad at the way things are"; Dead Set by Kel Robertson, featuring Bradman Chen, Chinese Australian Federal Policeman investigating the murder of the Minister of Immigration; The Apricot Colonel by Marion Halligan, "think Agatha Christie with more cats, more cooking and more chardonnay"; and The Berlin Cross by Greg Flynn, which is "good at the furtive, frantic atmosphere of this genre, which blends historical espionage fiction with elements of the PI tale." Something there for everyone I suspect.

In "The Sydney Morning Herald" Aviva Tuffield reviews Dreams of Speaking, the new novel by Gail Jones: "This is Jones's third novel in four years and, like all of her fiction, is teeming with ideas: about the aesthetics of technology, the definition of family, the presumptuousness of human relationships and - her eternal preoccupation - the nature of grief."

By and About Australians

Germaine Greer writes about the late Betty Friedan in "The Betty I Knew" in "The Guardian".

Also in "the Guardian", DBC Pierre is profiled on the eve of the publication of his new novel Ludmila's Broken English.

Helen Brown in "The Telegraph" reviews Kate Grenville's The Secret River.

Poem: The Two Poets by Henry Lawson

Two poets were born where the skies were fair,
   To live in the land hereafter;
And one was a singer of sorrow and care,
   And one was a bard of laughter.

With simple measure and simple word,
   The feelings of mankind voicing --
And light hearts listened and sad hearts heard,
   And they went on their way rejoicing.

The glad rejoiced that the world was gay --
   Who took no thought of the morrow --
And it ever has lightened the sad hearts' way
   To hear of another's sorrow.

The poets died while none were aware,
   (For no one could see the token),
That light of heart was the bard of care,
   But the heart of the other was broken.

First published in Lone Hand, 1 September 1913

Review: Soundings by Liam Davison

Liam Davison is not a prolific author. Born in 1957, he published his first short story in 1981, and his first novel, Velodrome, in 1988. He has now published a total of four novels and some 25 short stories. Now he regularly reviews Australian fiction for the "Weekend Australian" and was a judge for the 2005 Australian/Vogel award. So his output has been limited. On the basis of his first two novels this is a pity. He produces interesting work and I, for one, would like to see more of it.

Soundings is set in Westernport Bay in Victoria, a swampy area prone to fierce downpours and flooding. The novels looks at the way the land and water has been treated by man since white settlement, examining the force exerted by the elements on the poeple who live there.

We first encounter Kerrison, a sealer in 1826 who is exploiting a local Aboriginal woman to survive. He encounters, in turn, a French exploratory force, and then William Hovell, a major English explorer of the period. Kerrison is a strange, violent man who is the first to feel the force of the environment in which he lives.

We then cut to the main story of the novel, that of Jack Cameron in the present-day. Cameron is a landscape photographer who has taken leave of his job from the Ministry of Lands, and who rents a house on the bay from Alton Kleist, an antiquarian book-dealer who is spending an extended period overseas. Added to the mixture of characters are the original owners of the house, the Droste family, and in particular their daughter Anna. The forward pace of the novel jumps between each of these characters, interweaving their narratives and slowly building up layers of understanding in the reader.

Cameron is attempting to take a rest from the landscape photography that he has been at for too long. "For himself, there was only the land, always seen through the eye of the lens, always with the aperture set at infinity. Even when there were features to be seen - a hill or lake or group of trees falling inside the co-ordinates of his map - they were pushed to one side, often only half in the picture, always reduced to a drab flatness by the requirements of his work." He longs to take photographs of people, portraits, even pornography, but he keeps being drawn back to the swamp, the mud and the water. In Kleist's house he finds photographs of the bay and portraits of Anna from the 1890s, and he starts to take his own photographs using, of all things, the finishing line camera from a disused greyhound racing track. His fixation on taking these photographs becomes almost an obsession as he drives all over the bay finding the best combinations of light and shade, sometimes returning day after day to the one spot to record the gradual passage of time. And slowly he starts to see things in his photographs that he is certain are not visible to the naked eye. The land is replaying its own history to him. Even as the mud and sandbanks shift and change with the tide and rain, they seem to retain a record of the passage of man. Each character experiences this is their own way, and none of them are able to understand the full nature of the forces surrounding them.

It's hard not to see Davison making some telling comments here regarding the contrast between the Europeans' relationship to this landscape, and that of the indigenous inhabitants. They, at least, did not attempt to tame the place. And neither where they swallowed up by it.

This is an impressive novel, short, and beautifully paced. Its concept of landscape lingers long in the mind, clinging on like the mud of the bay.

Fetishism

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In the November 2005 issue of "Australian Book Review" (ABR), Jack Bradstreet, gentleman bookseller of this parish, wrote to the editors with a complaint. His complaint related to the new novel, The Secret River by Kate Grenville, and specifically to the lack of any identifying text on the cloth case. If you look at the photo above you will see what he is talking about: there is no text on the spine and none on the front cover. Jack, if I may call him that, had no problem with the dust-jacket, his difficulty was with the cloth cover of the book itself.

When I first read this letter I was dismissive - surely the publisher wouldn't do that I thought. What happens if the dust-jacket is ruined or lost? There is nothing to identify the book at all. Surely they wouldn't. But they did.

In the following issue of ABR (Dec 2005/Jan 2006), Michael Williams for Text Publishing (the publisher), wrote in to reply to Jack's complaint. "The absence of embossing on the spine was not a production decision, rather a design one," he wrote. "We're very proud of this book and of Chong Wengho's magnificent design; the remarkable photo of the river bank on the jacket; the spine framed by the Sydney Gazette; the austere confidence of the unmarked cover boards beneath; the beautiful endpapers of the 1819 Hawkesbury map within. We felt that this was a book of such distinction that we would break with convention."

I agree with most of what Mr Williams says here. The design of the jacket and endpapers is wonderful, but referring to the blank cover as having an "austere confidence" strikes me as artistic mumbo-jumbo. Why not refer to the tabula rasa of the cover upon which the reader may imprint their own pattern, or to the cover's nihilistic simplicity? It's referred to as a design decision, but, as we're all aware, design decisions of this sort are always about marketing or money. Generally both. Mr Williams then went on to say that he hoped Jack Bradstreet would hold on to his copy of this first edition. He thought it might be worth something one day.

Jack wasn't convinced. He's a life-long book collector and book-seller. He knows the value of an item when he sees it. "Bold and unconventional this design may be, but it is at the expense of the author and the buyer." With which I can only agree.

And as to the monetary aspect, Jack went on to say: "I shall keep the volume and attempt to maintain its condition, not as monetary investment but as a novel I certainly intend to revisit. It is also an artefact of distinctive oddity."

It will be interesting to see if the UK edition follows this design decision. I suspect not. I also suspect the second edition will fill in the blank spaces on the cloth covers. If it doesn't, it should.

[Note: the title of this posting really isn't mine. It was the title placed by the editors of ABR on Jack Bradstreet's original letter. It seems to fit.]

For Want of a Genre

In the latest edition of "The Telegraph", Susanna Yager reviews new crime fiction, as she does on a regular basis. It's a section of "The Telegraph's" book review pages that I check pretty regularly - whatever is published in the UK will generally see the light of day in Australia before too long.

So this week I was interested, and confused, to see a review of the new Arturo Pérez-Reverte novel, Purity of Blood. It's the second in the continuing adventures of the author's Captain Alatriste series set in 17th-century Spain. The first of these, taking the main character's name as its title, was published here last year, and I read and enjoyed it. It wasn't anything spectacular but it was certainly pleasant enough and I was looking forward to the others in the series. My problem lies not with the publication of the book but how it could, in any estimation, be considered as "crime fiction".

In an earlier life I had a number of conversations, written and verbal, with many people about a definition of the term "science fiction", so I'm aware of the problems associated with being proscriptive about these sort of things. Whenever you think you've finally nailed it, along comes someone with a work that blurs the boundaries of your definition and you have to start again. Better not to start at all. And yet I confess to liking labelling and categorization. I like the ability to be able to say, "yes, that's a crime novel," and "no, that's fantasy, not sf". It makes it easier for me to recommend a book or dissuade someone from reading it. It's a shorthand, if you like. A shorthand with all the accompanying problems.

Now, I have no problem with genre novels. I lived in the sf "gutter" for long enough that I don't talk to people who dismiss genre novels as lesser quality purely because of how they're labelled. That's their problem not mine. I'll try to convince them of my point-of-view, but not for long. So, a definition which seems to be fairly reasonable: "Crime fiction is the genre of fiction that deals with crimes, their detection, criminals, and their motives." This is an extract from the Wikipedia entry. There's more, though that is mainly interested in sub-genres like "detective", "hard-boiled", "courtroom dramas" etc.

Of the novels I've read this year, I can safely say that the Bruen and the Disher novels are definitely crime novels: it's what they live and die on. Yet Grace, by Robert Drewe, has, at its heart, a crime - the crime of stalking - and if you were to put to Drewe that his work was a crime novel he'd probably have apoplexy. So I think we need to add a word into our definition and amend it to read "...the genre of fiction that primarily deals with crimes..." etc. And then I get a bit happier. Bruen and Disher stay in, and Drewe is excluded.

I have no doubt that somewhere in its pages there is a crime committed in Purity of Blood. It's the 17th century, and the period was given to a certain lawlessness, not least on the part of Captain Alatriste. But it still doesn't make it a crime novel. The book is not primarly concerned with Alatriste's crimes, it deals more with his personal manoeuvring on the political, sexual and societal stages. It fits somewhere else. The question is, where? The books seem, to me, to fit into the Hornblower, Indiana Jones, Patrick O'Brien and Rafael Sabitini moulds: historical action adventures. It's got a ring to it, but it's a bit of a mouthful and I can't see the bookshops taking it up.

Purity of Blood as crime fiction? No, I just doesn't jell for me.

Combined Reviews: Sandstone by Stephen Lacey


sandstone.jpg Reviews of Sandstone by Stephen Lacey.

This book was shortlisted for the Best Book award in the South East Asia South Pacific region of the 2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

Description: "Sandstone is set in postwar Australia -- a time when people held hopes for the future, based largely around the dream of home ownership.

"Jack, Ruth and their family imagine that their lives will change the day they move into the new home they are building in the small coastal village of Point Henry. They hope the fibro cottage and shiny laminex will bring them happiness and a new start for their family. But as Jack and his sons labour over the foundations for their new life it becomes harder and harder to block out the dark events in their past.

"With a fine eye for detail and a terrific cast of Australian characters, Stephen Lacey reminds us that while we all dream for greater things, sometimes true contentment can be found at home."

At Boomerang Books, Annelise Balsamo is intrigued by the novel but finds that some readers may not be: "Sandstone reads as a family saga that begs for resolution. There is so much mystery, so many bad eggs, so much injustice that you continue to turn the pages in a kind of fever to learn the 'truth', to see 'justice' meted out. Ruth and Jack (and their many children) are haunted by a past, particularly by an event that the novel, in the first twist from the path of resolution, never quite explicates. They decide that they will begin again by building a new house, where no-one has ever died, where no-one will ever fight. This house is a long-running metaphor, we learn about the foundations of sandstone, the joists of warped timber, the walls of fibro-cement and so on. Life, however, is not quite so neatly layered, and the novel is much more interested in this ambiguity than an easy resolution. Indeed, the novel offers a counter position to the structure of the house and the temptations of resolution through Ruth's disaffection with God, and her belief that there is no plan, no central design. The reader is stranded between the impulse of 'what happened and who pays' and deeper possibilities on offer in nuance and intimation. I think this conflict makes the novel, but it may alienate readers who feel that the saga elements are never properly fulfilled."

If it's handled properly I don't have a major problem with that approach, so long as the author doesn't give the impression that he doesn't know how to finish. That's the "kiss of death" in my view.

In the September 2005 edition of "Australian Book Review", Allan Gardiner puts the novel into literary context: "Lacey...[makes] some effort to present [his] particular chunk of the past as a prelude to contemporary situations, and [to] try to present a vision of a community that does not build its solidarity on the scapegoating of outsiders." But he has some reservations about the success of this: "The bush legend still haunts [this novel], modified to include praise for those bush workers with a 'spiritual' feeling for nature. This reads like an attempt to sidestep rather than confront the role played by early settlers in displacing the Aborigines, who had a real claim to such feelings for the land."

Which reads like a criticism of what the book is not, rather than what it is. We have a novel here that is set during the time of the Second World War, rather than the 19th century.

"The Weekend Australian" considered that Lacey "uses brand names too often as proof of his research: the real period register in this fine novel resides in the emotional encasement of its characters". And "The Age" called it "...a well-researched historical drama that evokes an Australia that has long since passed away".

2006 Sydney Writers' Festival

Time to start planning your stay in Sydney for the 2006 Writers' Festival, which will be held from May 22-28. No program is available just yet so you'd best keep an eye on the festival website. I'll try to keep checking on things and post updates when they become available.

There are two pieces of news worth noting, however. Firstly, the Festival director, Caro Llewellyn, will be stading down after the 2006 event, her fourth in charge. And secondly, the major guest announced so far is John Banville, who won last year's Man Booker prize with his novel The Sea. This is the third year in a row that Sydney has scored the Booker winner. To get you in the mood, and to get you over the James Frey fuss, have a look at Kenneth J. Harvey's take on the novel. Tends to put thngs into perspective somewhat.

Great Australian Authors #16 - Gwen Harwood

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Gwen Harwood (1920 - 1995)

Show me the order of the world,
the hard-edge light of this-is-so
prior to all experience and common
to both world and thought, no model,
but the truth itself.
   Language is not a perfect game,
   and if it were, how could we play?
   The world's more than the sum of things
   like moon, sky, centre, body, bed,
   as all the singing masters know.
   Picture two lovers side by side
   who sleep and dream and wake to hold
   the real and imagined world
   body by body, word by word
   in the wild halo of their thought.

"Thought is Surrounded by a Halo" [Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 97] by Gwen Harwood

Darkness on the Edge of Town

I know I've often been referred to as an ageing hippy, but really...

perry middlemiss --
[noun]:

A person who is constantly high

'How will you be defined in the dictionary?' at QuizGalaxy.com

Coetzee on Márquez

The Commonwealth Foundation may consider him African, but we here at Matilda have taken him in and are now willing to look on him as Australian, at least for the purposes of having something to post about. J.M. Coetzee reviews Memories of my Melancholy Whores by Gabriel García Márquez in the latest "New York Review of Books".

Australian Literary Monuments #4 - Banjo Paterson

paterson_note.jpg

Banjo Paterson on the Australian $10 note.

The Australian $10 note has a history of commemorating literary figures. The obverse of this current note features Mary Gilmore (I'll have a posting on her next week) and the previous version, dating from 1972, showed Henry Lawson. If you look very closely you can see some verse running across the bottom of the note. This is the first two lines from Paterson's poem "The Man from Snowy River", which starts:

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses - he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.
All the tried and noted riders from the stations near and far
Had mustered at the homestead overnight,
For the bushmen love hard riding where the wild bush horses are,
And the stockhorse snuffs the battle with delight.

Kate Grenville Interview

This week Kate Grenville is interviewed by "The Scotsman". She seems remarkably fixated on trousers. More to follow.

[Thanks to Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind for the link.]

2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize - Regional Winners

The regional winners of the 2006 Commonwealth Writers' Prize have now been announced.

In the South East Asia and South Pacific region the winners are: Kate Grenville with The Secret River as Best Book, and Tash Aw with The Harmony Silk Factory as Best First Book.

The overall winners will be announced on 14th March 2006, here in Melbourne.

2006 Crawford Award

The shortlist for the 22nd annual William L. Crawford Award, presented by the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, has been released, and Australian writer Anna Tambour has been included for her novel, Spotted Lily. The award is presented to a new fantasy writer.

[Thanks to Jonathan Strahan's blog Notes from Coode Street for the item.]

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #6

James Bradley reviews the new novel from Gail Jones, Dreams of Speaking, in Saturday's "Weekend Age". The author's previous work Sixty Lights, was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize, narrowly missed the 2005 Miles Franklin Award, won the 2005 Age Fiction Book of the Year, and has recently been longlisted for the 2006 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, so there's a fair pedigree there. And a lot to live up to. As Bradley puts it:

In more than one respect Dreams of Speaking, Jones' third novel, reiterates many of the concerns of its predecessor. Again the focus is on the inner dimensions of modernity and their implications for our understanding of our selves.

Again the novel moves restlessly through time and space, layering the images out of which it is woven over each other so the ways they catch each other shift and change, altering their meanings and our understanding of them as they do. And, again, at the novel's centre is an unconventional friendship between an older man and a younger woman.


Bradley is very enthusiastic about the book, though he does criticise Jones's "tendency to over-egg the writing". But this is a minor quibble as he concludes: "Closer in many respects to poetry than prose, her writing seeks to articulate meanings that run deeper than language, while marrying that quest to the emotional rewards more commonly associated with the novel. And, in this, Dreams of Speaking is quite startlingly effective." Keep an eye out for this novel come award time, both in Australia and elsewhere.

True crime gets a major outing this week with a combined review, by Sue Turnbull, of four, yes four, books on the Peter Falconio trial. I must say it has all the hallmarks of a classic case: missing British tourist presumed murdered, a girlfriend who appears on the surface to have something to hide, dodgy DNA evidence, a crime committed in the middle of nowhere, and a career criminal convicted of the murder four and a half years after the event. A friend told me on the weekend that she had read two of these books and was surprised, given the evidence and the way it was presented, that Murdoch was convicted at all. I think the media-frenzy and the race to produce so many books on the one criminal trial, is unprecendented in this country. Look on it as the sign of things to come.

In "The Australian", Justine Ettler reviews the new novel by Anson Cameron, Lies I Told About a Girl. This novel includes a ficitonalised account of the year that Prince Charles spent at Timbertop, part of Geelong Grammar. It was a time before princesses and media intrusion and it "tackles some pretty hefty themes: class, power and, in particular, the way a privileged background can make a person more vulnerable to death-by-media than the average citizen." Ettler concludes: "In a similar vein to Kate Shortland's powerful film Somersault, which dramatises class divide through the depiction of an impossible relationship between a teenage runaway and a grazier's son, all is not fair in love and war. Well structured, thoughtful, its pleasures bittersweet, Cameron's is a memorable novel worth getting your teeth into."

Cameron is profiled in "The Sunday Age", with a full-page piece from Michelle Griffin. Authors must pray for this sort of coverage. Probably helps if you have a profile like an axe.

On the eve of the publication of his first novel, Passarola Rising, Azhar Abidi is profiled by Angela Bennie in "The Sydney Morning Herald". Abidi is the author of the highly regarded essay, "The Secret History of the Flying Carpet", which was published in Meanjin in 2004. Interesting story about how his novel came to be published.

An Author Responds

In "The Australian" last week, Nicolas Rothwell, reviewed Lost World of the Kimberley: Extraordinary Glimpses of Australia's Ice Age Ancestors by Ian Wilson. So what?, you might think. Well, Wilson has responded to that review, and his response is printed in this weekend's edition of the paper.

To be blunt, the original review gets really stuck into the book on pretty much all levels: research, coverage, theory, you name it.

One hardly knows whether to laugh or weep on being confronted with such a bizarrely multiplicit book: at once a layman's overview of recent steps in Australian archeology and rock art research, an account of one man's brief Kimberley trip and an exploration of certain unverifiable personal enthusiasms that even the author, in his wiser moments, half-ascribes to his "overactive imagination."
And:
The problems with Wilson's project lie as much in the manner of its undertaking as in the specifics of his critique and his claims of discovery. The north Kimberley is a subtle, recalcitrant place that discloses its tone and the relation of its parts only over the slow passage of years. There are many serious writers and historians who have spent half a lifetime travelling its remote quarters, yet would not dare to boast that they have come close to its core.

Wilson, by contrast, presents a 300-page book of grand interpretation on the basis of a few shepherded days.


Which leaves little room for mis-interpretation. And the reviewer doesn't restrict his criticism to the author alone: "If a leading Australian publisher [Allen & Unwin] feels licensed to put out such material in the quest for profit, then we have reached a sad moment in the degeneration of the nation's writing culture."

This a classic "bad review", but a review of the work alone. The only criticisms of the author relate to the book, the research that went into it, and the conclusions that were drawn and which are printed.

I went back though the original review looking for personal attacks, snide remarks, anything that might invalidate Rothwell's conclusions. There are a couple that might fit the bill. He talks of Wilson's "prevailing system of hobbyhorses and beliefs about the prehistoric past" - which is fair enough given Wilson has written some 20 or so books with titles such as Jesus: The Evidence and The Turin Shroud: Unshrouding the Mystery. You wouldn't read either of those without having an inkling that the author had some theory or other he wanted to present. Referring to such theories as "hobbyhorses" might be seen as being a tad provocative, but it's hardly libellous. Slightly later in the review Rothwell notes that when Wilson travelled to the Kimberley he "passed through Kununurra, noting the presence of 'very black-skinned' Aboriginal people (the shock! The surprise!), and spent a few days travelling the bush with a tour guide." It's a cheap shot and really should have been excised by the sub-editor. Maybe it can be excused on the basis that he might have written a lot worse. But it's pretty juvenile stuff all the same.

And that's all there is. Overall, Rothwell thinks Ian Wilson did not do a good job in writing his book. And he says so.

Normally, that would be the end of it. "The Australian", however, has seen fit to print the author's response.

This is never a good idea, other than to correct factual errors. Even praise for the review isn't good, as it only tends to put the author in a bad light. Anyway, the response is here. I don't think it improves Wilson's position one jot.

Poem: The Literary Hero by Ironbark (G. Herbert Gibson) - Part 2

He never drinks, but often "quaffs" ambrosial kinds of brews,
Which stimulate his mighty brain and brace his "giant thews";
He "sinks upon" an Eastern lounge, and elevates his shoes,
And "dashes off" a leader for the lcoal EVEN NOOSE.
He has some giddy orgies, but he never knocks about
With ordinary journalists who swallow pints of stout;
You always find him moving in the very highest sets,
The joyous, jim-jam journalist of lying novelettes.
The misleading novelette! Its perusal doth beget
In my bosom grave suspicions of the specious novelette.

He's got a "marble brow", of course, upon a life-long lease;
He's mostly half a London dude and half a god of Greece --
To read about his "thews of steel," all gathered in a lump,
It gives an unsuccessful scribe the biggest kind of hump.
He always grabs the girl that's got most beauty, brains and "rocks";
He takes her to the theatres in very low-cut frocks;
He has a truly gaudy time among the girls, you bet,
The petted, pampered pressman of the giddy novelette.
Oh! the giddy novelette with our virtue doth coquette --
It's really hardly proper to peruse the novelette.

He's always got a wondrous work -- a book! -- upon the stocks;
He reads each thrilling passage to the girl that's got the "rocks".
She prophesies his deathless fame and flops upon his heart --
Though brainy, she's quite usually a giddy kind of "tart".
And when his "book" at last comes out -- oh, then -- well, I should smile! --
The way they advertise his stuff it makes me green with bile.
They drag it from the linotype and sell it dripping wet --
A million copies! Rights reserved! -- Oh, d__n the novelette!
Oh, the ghastly novelette! Jumping wild, I own, I get
With the weird, abnormal genius of the awful novelette.

First published in The Bulletin, 12 July, 1906.

Note: The first part of this poem was published last week.

Reviews of Aurealis Award Nominees

A month or so ago, I posted about the Aurealis Awards, honouring the best in long and short Australian fiction in the fields of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Young Adult and Children's.

Ben Peek, of The Urban Sprawl weblog, has now written reviews of all the nominated short fiction on the Strange Horizons website. Along the way he has a number of very interesting things to say about the new nominating process which have elicited some interesting comments and discussion from such writers as Lucy Sussex, Justine Larbalestier and Leanne Frahm. It appears some tweaking of the process is in order. The aim should be to open up the nominations as widely as possible. That hasn't happened this year.

Combined Reviews: Snowleg by Nicholas Shakespeare


snowleg.jpg Reviews of Snowleg by Nicholas Shakespeare.

This book has been nominated for the 2006 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was longlisted for the 2004 Man Booker Prize.

Description: "A young Englishman visits Cold War Leipzig with a group of students and, during his brief excursion behind the Iron Curtain, falls for an East German girl who is only just beginning to wake up to the way her society is governed. Her situation touches him, but he is too frightened to help. He spends decades convincing himself that he is not in love until one day, with Germany now reunited, he decides to go back and look for her. But who was she, how will his actions have affected her, and how will her find her? All he knows of her identity is the nickname he gave her - Snowleg."

David Robson's review in "The Telegraph": "Hard-bitten readers will probably find the novel impossibly schmaltzy and get exasperated by the love-sick hero. But Snowleg offers more than high romance: it is a portrait, and a good one, of the East Germany of the Stasi, with its bleakly beautiful landscapes, its casual betrayals, and its subtle capacity to dehumanise. In such a cold political climate, who can blame lovers for going slightly mad?"

Colin Greenland's review in "The Guardian": "Manic plot devices, literary tics and grammatical sprains not-withstanding, Snowleg is a considerable achievement: a dark, dense account of arrested development and mid-life crisis; a shrewd study of institutionalised paralysis and political psychosis; a humane perspective on the rusting away of the iron curtain. What's curious is that it's also a thoroughly conventional romance novel: a heart-warming tale of rich, enabling coincidence and conquering love; love without frontiers."

James Bradley's review in "The Age": "Shakespeare is a writer who is deeply concerned with the inner dimensions of our lives, of the moral choices that we make and the weight of those choices. For all the complexity of the book's plotting and its slightly dissociated prose, the questions Shakespeare wants to ask are profound ones about the precise ways in which repression deforms the spirit and about the extension of compassion to those so affected...Shakespeare has taken on a series of questions that resist easy or glib responses, questions that should make all of us uneasy, not just about the ease with which we condemn the actions of those who suffer under totalitarian regimes but about whether we ourselves might behave any better."

Wingate Packard's review in "The Seattle Times": "Snowleg is an admirably organic novel, well-seeded with richly idiosyncratic characterizations and finely evoked places (the dreary East German exteriors and interiors are wrenchingly pathetic). Snowleg is a delicious mystery, not only in genre but also in the ways that people separated by personal or public barriers carry on after life-altering schisms."

The Book Show

Until the end of last year, ABC Radio National's flagship literature program, "Books and Writing", was a once-a-week affair presented by Ramona Kaval. With the start of the new 2006 programming schedule this has now changed to a daily literature program, "The Book Show", again presented by Kaval.

The program has been running for a couple of weeks now and I must say I'm pretty impressed with the work being undertaken. The programs aren't stored for podcast download - which is a bit restricting - but they are available for audio streaming so you can listen to them whenever you like, so long as you're near a web browser.

Today's program (which airs at 10:00am, a time when I don't have access to a radio at work) is a replay of the Malcolm Knox Overland lecture, titled "The Fate of Publishing". An excerpt of this lecture was published in "The Sydney Morning Herald" a few weeks back.

Recent programs have included an interview with Norman Lindsay from the archives, a talk by Shane Carmody about the new age of libraries, and an interview with Rosemary Cameron, the incoming director of the Melbourne Writers' Festival. It's a good line-up. Kaval is an experienced, relaxed and informed presenter. If you're at all interested in literature in Australia you should check it out. Long may it run.

Review: Shards of Space by Robert Sheckley

Born in the USA in 1928, Robert Sheckley began writing short stories for the sf magazines in 1951 producing several hundred over the years. He might well have floundered, undistinguished, as one of the many sf writers of the period if it wasn't for the sense of humour he injected into his stories along with the standard sense of wonder. He continued writing throughout the second half of the twentieth century and, for a time, was fiction editor of Omni magazine. He was named Guest of Honor at the 2005 World Science Fiction Convention but was too ill to attend. He died in December 2005.

Sheckley was one of those science fiction writers of the 1950s and 1960s beloved by fans of the genre but little known outside it. He had several of his stories made into films (notably "Seventh Victim" which appeared as The 10th Victim with Ursula Andress and Marcello Mastroianni, and his novel Immortality Inc which was filmed as Freejack with Mick Jagger and Anthony Hopkins) but he never had the big breakout like Phil Dick with Bladerunner.

Shards of Space was his sixth collection of short stories in seven years. Originally published in 1962 it contains a set of 11 stories published in magazines such as "Astounding Science Fiction Magazine", "Galaxy" and "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction" between February 1953 and March 1960. The stories here now read as somewhat dated - a prospector on Venus runs out of water, a small scorpion-like creature from Mars invades earth, there is no long nuclear winter after a planet-wide nuclear war - though they give a good sense of the stories that were prevalent in the genre in the 1950s. Basically, man (human, white and male) is the supreme species, all human females and all other life-forms are subservient or defeated by his guile and cunning. There are no classics of the genre included here; Sheckley was more known for his body of work rather than for individual brilliance in any one piece. Yet, for all that, the works are witty and engaging, and told from a viewpoint of exploring the humour in a situation rather than the exploitation of it.

Locus Recommended Reading List

Locus, the news magazine of the sf and fantasy genres, has released its annual recommended reading lists for works published in 2005.

Australian works on the list include:

Novel
Godplayers, Damien Broderick

First Novel
Magic or Madness, Justine Larbalestier
Spotted Lily, Anna Tambour

Young Adult
Midnighters Vol 2: Touching Darkness, Scott Westerfeld
Peeps, Scott Westerfeld

Collection
Across the Wall, Garth Nix

Anthology
Nebula Awards Showcase 2005, Jack Dann
Fantasy: The Best of 2004, Karen Haber & Jonathan Strahan
Science Fiction: The Best of 2004, Karen Haber & Jonathan Strahan
Best Short Novels 2005, Jonathan Strahan

Short Stories
"Matricide", Lucy Sussex

If I've missed anyone off the list, my apologies, write and let me know and I'll update this entry.

[Update: just fixing Scott Westerfeld's name, and adding Anna Tambour to the First Novel list.]

Review: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

Autobiographies are strange beasts: not entirely to be trusted, yet enticing in a weird car-crash sort of way. What are we looking for in reading them? Reinforcement of our current notions of the author, a deep look into another side of their persona, or sex, scandal and rumour? Probably all of the above, and more besides. And that is just what you get with Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain: sex, drugs, food, rock-'n'-roll, the mafia, the whole shooting match; from his start eating oysters on a French holiday when he was about eight, through low-life dives, to head chef in a New York restaurant.

I'd had this book hanging around the house for a couple of years, after a few people recommended it, but just hadn't gotten down to reading it. Then Bourdain's television documentary series, "A Cook's Tour", started playing here, my wife got hooked, read the book and pushed it in my direction. Still I resisted. I've recommended heaps of books to her which she tends to ignore in the main, so maybe I was just attempting to get my own back. Anyway, I started watching the cooking program as well and was impressed with his no-holds-barred approach to food: try anything and everything. (Who can forget his encounter with the dish of Pulsating Cobra Heart: "Hmm, you can still feel it beating as it goes down.") So reading this was an inevitability.

The first thing that comes across with Bourdain is the voice: he writes like he speaks. He's loud, brash and blunt. He says what he thinks and doesn't pull any punches. And the person he's most critical of, throughout the book, is himself. When he talks of his heroin addiction, his "wilderness years" when he wasted his life and his talent, you feel you are getting a level of honesty which carries you through; you trust the writer. Now, I'm aware that this level of openness has it problems, especially in the light of recent revelations such as James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, and there may well be a level of embellishment going on here, however small. And I don't have a lot of trouble with that.

Bourdain isn't out to sell you a self-help remedy, a course on getting your life back on its tracks. He's there to tell you his story. And you can take it or leave it. I took it, and I'm glad I did.

Great Australian Authors #15 - Dal Stivens

stivensd.jpg

Dal Stivens (1911 - 1997)

I am the author and amateur naturalist mentioned in the first chapter of this rather unorthodox autobiography by Harold Craddock. I had known and respected Harold Craddock for some years - his contributions to Australian ornithology have been outstanding - but I was never a close friend. Accordingly, I was a little surprised when he asked me to act as his literary godfather, as it were, and handed me the manuscript which with only slight editing appears on the pages that follow. His original idea was that I should use his autobiography as part of the source material for an account of the expedition he led to central Australia in 1967. His manuscript, as he was at pains to point out, was a subjective account and was deficient in many details. "Moreover, it's a bit wild in places - you'll need to get people to corroborate some of the things I've written," he said. This was my own first reaction, and I, accordingly, spent several months interviewing other people who had accompanied Harold Craddock and gathering the mass of material necessary for a straightforward account of the Craddock and Drake Expedition to find the rare night parrot. It was only when I had accumulated a mass of material that I realized that the finest memorial to my friend was to publish his autobiography much as he had written it, with only minor interpolations by others where accounts differed. Who was I, for instance, to judge whether Harold Craddock, or someone else, was being truthful? The truth about anything must be disputable. As he asks in the autobiography, which is the reality and which is the dream? Most of the people mentioned have consented to the references made to them even though they did not always agree that they acted as Harold Craddock said they did or from the motives he imputed to them. They have, in fact, behaved with extraordinary magnanimity. In a few places only they have interpolated mild demurrers. Occasionally it has been necessary to use invented names and alter details.

From A Horse of Air by Dal Stivens.

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This page is an archive of entries from February 2006 listed from newest to oldest.

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