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Review: The Wonder of Seldom Seen by J. D. Gregan

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wonder_seldom_seen.jpg    J. D. Gregan
The Wonder of Seldom Seen
University of Western Australia Press, 269 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

It is difficult to write a review of The Wonder of Seldom Seen, because it does not easily fit into an accepted literary genre. It is a crime novel, because it has crime in it - in fact it has a number of murders, most of which occur at the beginning of the novel, often with only vague affinity with the plot. It is a thriller, because elements of the novel do tend to raise the heart rate. It is a quintessentially Australian novel, not just because it is set in this country, but because Australian references are liberally strewn throughout its pages. It is also a novel where the protagonist seeks reinvention of himself, and it is perhaps here where the novel finds its meaning.

Characterisation of secondary characters is rich, which is necessary because for much of the novel the main character is not particularly likable. Miles Jordon is a writer who gives up on his old life, and strikes out into country Victoria in search of a new one. At the beginning he is sympathetic - his marriage has crumbled, he is broke, he suffers from terminal writer's block, and he has not been able to replicate the success of an award-winning novel written years earlier. Additionally, he loves his dog, which, consistent with the author's determination to introduce Australian references at every opportunity, is a Blue Heeler.

But Miles is unlikable largely because of the choices he makes. He indulges in adultery with little regard to the consequences, and then vanishes with no warning. He evades pursuing police officers, inviting further suspicion, and thoughtlessly draws people he encounters who are unfamiliar with his past into his deception. For large portions of the novel he continues his voyage of self-discovery with little regard to those around him, and a key plot point in the novel is Miles' search for redemption.

Parts of the novel are confusing, and it is not clear whether this is intentional. At times key plot changes are improbable, and the relevance of certain characters and plot devices unclear. It is almost as if the author had too many ideas, and tried to fit as many as possible into this novel. This can sometimes work, but only when each idea has a common thread. Perhaps clarity intervenes on subsequent readings, but at first blush there seems to be too much happening at once. Indeed, this must be the first novel I have ever read which included both an Irish hitman and an alien artefact.

There is however a certain charm to The Wonder of Seldom Seen. It would a mistake to miss the significance of the word "wonder" in the title. Perhaps it is unfair, and misses the point, to expect gritty realism in a novel that follows the path of redemption in an otherwise flawed main character. The setting itself encompasses a certain degree of isolation, which is always interesting in a novel. The characters are mostly well-drawn, and the novel moves along at a good pace. The problem is that it is never entirely clear what the author wants his novel to be. Like its protagonist, the novel never really settles down. It is always situated outside the box, but lacks foundation.

Review: Ali Abdul v The King by Hanifa Deen

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   Hanifa Deen
Ali Abdul v The King
University of Western Australia Press, 164 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

It is probably not controversial to suggest that, historically, Australia has not always treated migrants with overwhelming generosity. Indeed, Australia's treatment of its own indigenous population has not always been especially benevolent. A writer who decides to wade through the archives researching Australia's past treatment of those with dark skin, or who pray to a different God, then, is unlikely to find a dearth of material. And should that writer decide to commit his or her findings to paper, any WASP-ish reviewer of such writings is guaranteed an uncomfortable experience. It seems that the level of discomfit for the reviewer is likely to be proportionate to the talent of the writer - unfortunately for this reviewer, Ms Deen is very talented.

Foreshadowing the discomfit early, the cover of Ali Abdul v The King proclaims the book to contain 'Muslim stories from the dark days of White Australia'. What follows are tales of injustice, racism, violence and death. Hanifa Deen follows a theme common to a number of her previous works, that of issues facing Muslims in Australian society, and does so with characteristic clarity. A previous book of Ms Deen's, The Jihad Seminar, was more contemporary and focussed on a complicated and protracted legal dispute between Christian and Muslim groups. Ali Abdul and the King takes a more historical view of relationships between Muslims and everyday Australians.

Unsurprisingly, the book does not reflect well on the Australia of the time - one chapter describes a tragic incident in which an Afghan man was shot and killed by a local. The response from the public and the criminal justice system to the incident, while largely predictable, is worthy of a book in itself. It should be remembered that, as Ms Deen is at pains to point out, attitudes of racism and prejudice were not endemic to all Australians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the period in which this book tells its stories. Some enlightened souls wrote articulately in support of Afghans to the newspapers of the day, but far more critical letters to the editor abounded as well, threatening to drown out the Afghan's proponents. By modern standards, such writings bordered on vilification - and more than occasionally crossed the border.

To be fair, well over a hundred years has passed since then and now. The optimistic side of me thinks that, sure, maybe Australia was not especially enlightened back then, and foreigners were treated quite poorly, but things are different now. The era of 'White Australia' is one that we can all look back on now in dismay, and promise ourselves that this could never happen again. As Ms Deen argues, Australia has a racist past, but is not a racist society today. Although, the more cynical part of me looks at the way in which contemporary Australia treats refugees, and wonders just how much of a change has really occurred.

In a way, Ali Abdul v The King acts as somewhat of a cautionary tale. It examines how resentment and fear of the unknown can manifest itself into prejudice, which itself can give way to inequality, injustice, violence and death. It makes the case that while aesthetic differences can overwhelmingly and negatively govern the way in which people interact with and respond to each other, it is by understanding the past that leads to less hostile and more enlightened attitudes in the future.

Review: Advice to Young People on Leaving Home by Grace Lax

advice_young_people.jpg    Grace Lax
Advice to Young People on Leaving Home
Affirm Press, 177 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

Is it just me? Is it just me who found this a boring, stale, trite, unfunny waste of paper?

This book purports to be a guide to "social, etiquettal, and homing tips" for young people leaving home, written by Mrs. Grace Lax, who appears to be an Edwardian society matron transported into the present day, or vice versa. It is illustrated with Edwardian prints and bound to look like a book from that period. Mrs. Lax takes us through all the topics that need to be covered, including recipes, drug use and sex. This is all presented in what is supposed to be, I'm sure, an amusing and scintillating rant full of double entendre and perverse naughtiness.

Maybe I spent too much time when I was growing up enjoying The Goons, Monty Python, The Goodies, Norman Gunston, Dame Edna, French and Saunders and Hyacinth Bucket. They have all mined similar material over the past 50 years, and they were really funny when they did it for the first time.

When I was a young teenager, my siblings and I spent many a rainy afternoon rejigging Biggles, Enid Blyton and Mum's old Girls Annuals from the 40's into orgies of double entendre, rewriting the captions under old illustrations etc. This sort of thing has been done in every university rag, previous send-ups of self help books, inspired hundreds of ranges of greeting cards and, frankly, this reviewer is over it.

The main sin of this book is that it is not funny. At the end of every page I found myself yawning a gigantic ho hum. I was going to give you a few examples of what I mean, but....hey... we're here for a good time...not a long time. If you want to make a special trip to see if I am a jaded wanker, go to a bookshop, get out the book, open it at any page, and see what you think!

Maybe it is just me.

Review: Inhuman by Anna Dusk

inhuman.jpg    Anna Dusk
Transit Lounge Publishing, 286 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

Sally Hunter is a young teenager growing up in a small country town in Tasmania where everyone knows everyone else's business. She is part of a dysfunctional family that is being raised by a single mother. Her father is dead, and she has 2 brothers. She seems to be at odds with everyone from the start, feeling physically and mentally different from others. This starts to manifest itself in feelings of illness and heightened sensual perception.

This is a rite of passage story with a big difference. Not only is she struggling with teenage angst, but also the growing awareness that she is turning into a werewolf.

The story, told through Sally's eyes, becomes increasingly disturbing as the beast within her emerges and she embraces her true nature. Written in a powerful style that ranges from exhilarating flights of the almost interdimensional joy she feels in her animal body, to confronting descriptions of her compulsion towards killing and eating, to the physical aftermath that has on the human part of her existence.

As people start being murdered in the town, the realistically observed characters that inhabit it collide head on with horror in the way of all good stories of this genre. This is a gore fest, with plenty of hot, teenage, animal sex going on to lure potential victims. Soon other questions are raised. Is Sally the only killer, or are there others like her? What will happen when her family confront what they already suspect?

This is not a story about evil, but about difference, and how we embrace our true nature, our faults and the beast within all of us. Sally and all her friends speak in the spare, expletive-based, Aussie teenage slang we are all familiar with, and it reinforces how savage teenagers can be to those around them, even when they are not turning into werewolves!

This is definitely a book for older teens and adults. There are a lot of sex, violence and drug references. It is, however, well written and very creatively crafted. A cracking good read that builds to an exciting climax, apparently there is a sequel coming up. I'll be looking out for that.

Review: Keeping Faith by Roger Averill

keeping_faith.gif    Roger Averill
Keeping Faith
Transit Lounge Publishing, 231 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

Given its subject matter, Keeping Faith could have been, very easily, a very preachy novel. As it is, it wobbles its way over the increasingly narrow line between piety and nihilism like a drunk motorist attempting to pass a roadside breath test. For the most part, though, the author's efforts not to take sides in the debate make for an entertaining read, although some readers may be frustrated by his clear decision to remain completely objective. This is fiction, after all, not a history textbook.

In this reviewer's opinion, however, Averill has done extremely well with some difficult subject matter, particularly for a debut novel. Author of the acclaimed Boy He Cry: An Island Odyssey, an account of his 12 months on a remote island in Papua New Guinea, Averill brings much of his experience of poverty, religion, racism, and isolation to the character of Gracie, a missionary who battles most of the hardships Averill himself experienced in an attempt to bring religion to the Papuan locals. In doing so, Averill weaves into his story elements of hopelessness and despair, and does not pull punches in establishing the ever-present threat of violence in such a lifestyle.

There are two main characters in Keeping Faith - Gracie's brother Josh, who represents the agnostic aspect of the story, and Gracie herself, who epitomises the devoutly religious perspective. To those two could perhaps be added a third - Josh and Gracie's father, a laypreacher, who shapes the character of the young protagonists, but who by the end of the novel has lost touch with both of them. The novel is constructed around the central question of how they got to that point, and it is this that keeps the reader's interest.

Some interesting themes infuse the novel. Josh, as an adult, works as a nurse on a maternity ward, and was once churchgoing but has since lost his faith. It is not a coincidence that Josh, the skeptic, spends his adult life in a occupation in which the participants trust not to religion but to science, and are assimilated into a often bleak existence of observing both the start of life, and the end of it. But it is Gracie the missionary, who is extremely pious almost to the degree of being one-dimensional, who suffers extreme tragedy and heartbreak at the hands of the very people she has come to "save". And it is the father, the laypreacher, who is unable to directly comfort either of his adult children, who nevertheless provides the substance on which the family depends.

Above all, the novel is about a loss of innocence, of the security of childhood, and of faith. At times it rambles. And because the story is told from three different viewpoints, two of which are from the same character, it can often be a little confusing. But it is not disappointing, because it never shies away from its ultimate goal to tell a story, not to preach, but to show that in life, there are often no right answers. The novel seems to end at an almost random point, but perhaps in the end that actually is the point. Just like there are no right answers, there are often no happy, uplifting endings either. Sounds bleak, but at least it is real.

second_father.jpg    Domenico Cacciola
Second Father: An Insider's Story of Cops, Crime and Corruption
University of Queensland Press, 218 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

Regrettably, for the longest time it seemed that the words "Queensland Police" and "corruption" were synonymous. Seemingly, "racism" is also a word that is indelibly imprinted in the annals of the Queensland police force. This is certainly the impression gained from reading former Queensland cop Domenico Cacciola's memoirs of his time on the force, curiously titled The Second Father. (This has nothing to do with corruption, but simply refers to the fact that Cacciola is the eldest of four boys). It is to be hoped that since Mr Cacciola's experiences, things have changed.

As these are memoirs, the author follows the usual course of devoting the initial chapter to his early life, before writing about his experiences with Queensland police from Chapter 2. From a fresh-faced rookie, Cacciola spent 35 years in the service of Queensland Police until his retirement in July 2001. On his account, the intervening years were excruciating, the narrator seemingly spending more time fighting corruption from within his own Force than fighting crime outside it. Clearly, it is not easy being an honest cop inside a den of thieves.

Perhaps Cacciola's closeness to his family allowed some respite from the horrors he was facing at work, but it is worth reflecting that he was at times working undercover. There was a limit to how much he could confide in his family. The loneliness and isolation must have at times been unbearable. It speaks volumes about Cacciola's character that he was able to make it through the other side without succumbing to bitterness and regret.

In his preface, the author tells us that names and identifying characteristics have been altered for some of the characters in the story. While this is no doubt a necessary evil, if for no other reason than to avoid legal problems, it struck me as ironic that, in a tale about a honest cop adrift in a sea of corruption, certain information was altered or, presumably, withheld altogether from the reader. This aside, however, the author delivers what appears to be a warts and all account of a life spent in a state of mistrust of a number of his colleagues and supervisors. Once it became clear that Cacciola was an honest cop, the mistrust became mutual.

At no stage is the impression given that Cacciola's skills, while no doubt considerable, lie in writing. On the basis of The Second Father, it seems difficult to imagine a gripping novel coming from the author's pen. A gripping autobiography, however, is easier to imagine because that fully describes The Second Father. Partly, this is because of the material, which with the recent Melbourne gangland murders and consequent allegations of gangland corruption, is quite topical. Being in constant physical danger from those in whom Cacciola should be able place significant trust automatically conveys an element of excitement. But I think it is in the author's honest, straightforward, "leave nothing out and let the reader come to his or her own conclusions" approach, that makes The Second Father more than simply memoir. It is a cautionary tale for the naïve, a reminder that power corrupts and the more power a person has the greater the avenue for that corruption. Even for someone who is aware of the extent of the corruption allegations against sitting and retired Queensland police officers (who can forget the Fitzgerald inquiry) Cacciola's words are an eye-opener.

Review: Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell

everything_beautiful.jpg    Simmone Howell
Everything Beautiful
Pan Macmillan, 277 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

This is a delightful story about the gaining of self-worth in adolescence, the time in your teenage years when you begin to see through your confusion and self-consciousness to the beginning of who you really are and what you might be able to achieve.

Sixteen-year-old Riley Rose has been causing trouble at home. She has lost her mother to cancer and has had to adjust to a new school, in a new town and her father's new girlfriend, all in a short space of time. She has been doing poorly at school, drinking and experimenting with drugs and sex, and been arrested. She is an overweight Lolita Goth chic, has a poor self-image and she is also sick of everyone being in her face and telling her what to do and how she feels. In other words, she's at a bit of a crisis crossroad.

Even with all these problems, her intelligence and humour shine through as she tells us her story. She is an instantly likable and sympathetic character, especially to the 99.9% of girls who weren't born prom queens.

Her father and his born-again Christian girlfriend decide to send her to a religious holiday camp, Spirit Ranch, hoping that teambuilding exercises and spiritual counselling will help her to sort out her problems. Unfortunately, she and her best friend Chloe have planned a big night out at Ben Sabatini's party, on at the same time. Ben is the boy that Riley is in love with, and she and Chloe hatch a plan so that Riley can run away from the camp and attend the party.

When Riley gets to the camp, however, she is confronted by a group of kids who, in there own ways, are having just as tough a time sorting themselves out as she is. They are Fleur, the conceited, self-centred beauty, Craig the jock and Sarita, overprotected and stifled. Siblings Bird and Olive have to pay their own way by working at the camp and the other kids are hateful to Riley because she doesn't believe in God. The other main character is the wonderful Dylan, a boy with a mysterious past that has landed him in a wheelchair, bitter and untrusting.

Riley thinks all the adults are hypercritical holy rollers and finds herself intrigued by the rebellious Dylan. As they all get to know each other, they get to know themselves too, and the story is beautifully structured and well written. There is the added mystery of the contents of the abandoned Fraser homestead on the property, which is a magnet for the kid's curiosity.

This is a story about having an open mind and celebrating individual difference. It also deals with the differences between what kids want to do for themselves and what their parents want them to do. When Riley is feeling confused or upset she often takes us back to memories of what her mother said to her when she was alive, trying to get guidance from that and missing her mother's understanding of who she is.

The story builds up to great climax and resolution for the characters that is realistic, emotional and satisfying. Every character grows up quite a lot, even some of the adults!

I loved this book and gave it to my fifteen-year-old daughter to read, which she did without putting it down. She loved it too. There can be no greater praise for teenage fiction than parent-child agreement on its quality and merit. A very good read for teenagers, however there are drug taking, drinking and sex references. I found them totally realistic to the world my teenagers live in, and it is shown in the story that self-destructive behaviour has its consequences. These topics are handled in a very balanced way by the author. If you are a parent thinking of buying this book for a very young teen, you may wish to read it first.

Review: Deception by Michael Meehan

deception.jpg Michael Meehan
Allen & Unwin
284 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

Deception, Michael Meehan's third novel, is an interesting exploration of familial secrecy, and in particular how the curiosity of youth can uncover skeletons long since buried and forgotten, disrupting and perhaps destroying ancestral ties. The title refers to a place name, but an undercurrent of the novel is deception as a simple noun, the state of being deceived. Unfortunately, some readers may consider that the real deception in the novel is that being perpetrated on them.

According to his publisher's website, Michael Meehan's debut novel, The Salt of Broken Tears, won the 2000 Christina Stead Award for Fiction. This is a novel "The Age" apparently considered "a masterwork". It would be interesting to compare that work with this one, because this novel has the potential I believe to frustrate some readers, and delight others.

Meehan's protagonist, Nicholas, is a young law student who finds himself in the unfamiliar streets of Paris in the late 1960s. For those readers who detest John Grisham-like legal thrillers, Nicholas' status as a law student plays little part in the story. Rather, this is a story of a young man trying to uncover the skeletons in his family tree, and learning as much about himself in the process.

The language used in the novel, particularly the dialogue spoken by the protagonist's French relatives, comes across as quite flowery and overdone. This may be because the characters are actually supposed to be speaking French, and the dialogue in the novel may actually be a direct translation, but as a literary device it is peculiar at best, and offputting at worst. Similarly, the author's descriptions and metaphors, at times brilliantly vivid, can also be ostentatious and overly clever. For the most part, Meehan avoids unnecessary effulgence, but this is unfortunately not a trap he stays away from altogether.

Notwithstanding dialogue problems, Meehan's characters are wonderfully written. Julia, Nicholas' partner-in-crime, has a focused determination to uncover the family history to the sacrifice of everything else. Lucien is a former academic Nicholas meets on the streets of Paris, who while extremely knowledgeable on apparently all things has quite a severe personal hygiene problem. As a result of said problem, Lucien has been barred from virtually every library or museum in Paris, quite an achievement. Nevertheless, and somewhat paradoxically, Lucien is probably the most sympathetic character in the novel.

It is Nicholas' aunts that provide the real frustrations, both to Nicholas and the reader. They all speak in the same way, the overly flowery language referred to earlier. There are four of them, and they seem to be peculiar, demented, unwilling to provide any of the information Nicholas' is seeking about his family, or all three. It is not a coincidence that the novel is at its most interesting when Nicholas is conversing with Julia or Lucien, or even Monsieur Jalabert, the family lawyer. Jalabert is a wonderfully vivid character, who at times provides Nicholas with useful information and at other seems completely disinterested in the whole business.

It would be unfair to describe Deception as a bad novel -- Meehan is clearly a very talented writer, and at times the novel demands the reader's attention and threatens to not let go. At other times, however, it does exactly that. Perhaps that is the real deception.

Review: A Decent Ransom by Ivana Hruba

decent_ransom.jpg Ivana Hruba
258 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

A Decent Ransom is a fascinating first adult novel from Ivana Hrubra that takes us deep into the psyches of the main protagonists. It is the story of a simple kidnap plan that goes horribly wrong because our inner lives can be so different to outward appearances and physical realities.

Set in a large country town or the outskirts of a city in Australia it is the story of Phoebus, a 15-year-old boy who lives with his brother Kenny, a young adult, in an isolated farmhouse. They are marginalised kids from a background of abuse and poverty. Abandoned by their parents and abused by an uncle, they fend for themselves working at a truck stop. Phoebus has left school and is basically Kenny's domestic slave, subservient to his needs. Kenny is a borderline psychotic who behaves wildly, egged on by substance abuse. However, there is a lot of love between them. They only have each other.

They have befriended two young Chinese prostitutes, Janelle and Lien. Kenny is in love with Janelle. Wanting to start a better life for them all he comes up with a plan to kidnap a local woman, Kathryn, and extract a ransom from her rich husband, Rupert.

Things start going wrong when Rupert won't pay the ransom.

The story is told through the eyes of Phoebus, Janelle, Kathryn and Rupert. We are taken into their thoughts and the truths about their lives, which are not what they appear to be from the outside. Phoebus and Janelle convey the character of Kenny to the reader. His character, actions and philosophy on life drive the story and affect everyone in it, but he never speaks for himself as the others do.

Finely layered and compelling, this is a well-written thriller about the rich inner landscapes that can exist in bleak surroundings. Hrubra does particularly well developing the relationship between Phoebus and the kidnapped woman. He looks after her and protects her through to the end, even though he is aware that she has an agenda he doesn't agree with to get revenge on her husband.

How often is there an enormous difference between what we think and what we say and do? This is conveyed particularly well in the book by Janelle, whose beautiful expression of her yearnings and inner feelings to her self is contrasted in the story with how she is perceived. She has a poor command of English and a degrading job as a dancer and prostitute in men's club with a mind that resonates with hope and love and poetry.

In A Decent Ransom the fates of all the characters, driven by madness, greed, love, revenge and hope for something better, come together within a clever plot that moves with humour and pathos to a satisfying conclusion in this well crafted and totally absorbing story.

Review: The Diamond Anchor by Jennifer Mills

diamond_anchor.jpg Jennifer Mills
University of Queensland Press, 314 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

Here is a beautifully written novel about storytelling. In The Diamond Anchor the art of story telling is portrayed in all its different forms, from personal history to history of a place and time, family saga and intimate childhood memories. There are tales tall and true, a dramatic love story and the mundane details of a life lived simply in an ordinary way in extraordinary times.

May is getting to the end of her life. She is still working in her old pub, The Diamond Anchor, situated in a small coastal mining community in New South Wales. Her father won the pub in a card game when she was born and she has lived her entire life under its roof. Her children and developers are putting pressure on her to sell up her now valuable bit of coastal real estate. An unexpected letter from her friend Grace, whom she hasn't seen since they were young women, forces her to review her life and examine their friendship and the events that made them take very different paths. The old pub becomes a metaphor for May's memory as she enters closed up rooms and opens drawers, examining long forgotten items and letters, everything falling apart and covered with dust. She starts to write a letter to Grace to try to trace the threads of what happened to them.

May takes us back and tells the wonderful story of seventy years of her family life and the small town she lives in, where everyone knows everyone and they all help each other through good times and bad. As a child she knew every nook and cranny of the natural world around her, the sea and the bush. Grace's family moved to the area when May was a young child and the two girls became close friends. Blessed with a gift for storytelling inherited from her Irish father, May charmed and thrilled Grace. Their friendship grew as they enjoyed a type of childhood that is gone now, where kids spent hours roaming outside, making their own world from make-believe and sometimes harsh reality. Events shrouded in mystery are slowly revealed that explain what tore their friendship apart, May staying to marry and run the pub, Grace leaving to go to university, marry and live an apparently glamorous life travelling the world. Now, many years later Grace is reaching out to May and she must decide whether too much has happened for them to go back to what they had. She has her memories and the beautiful ongoing stories of her beloved community and The Diamond Anchor.

I couldn't put this book down until I had read the whole story, until I got all the answers. The writing is evocative and fresh and the characters well drawn. All the threads of the many levels of storytelling, true or false, travel together at a wonderful pace to a great ending. The theme of examining one's life and facing the truth about the people and events that have shaped us, no matter how painful, rings true for most of us who, with "maturity", have a little perspective on our lives (put your hands up all you baby boomers!). I'm sure we all think about how things would have turned out if we had taken different paths to the ones we chose and what we would do if we had a second chance.

Review: Vote for Me by John Barron

vote_for_me.jpg John Barron
University of NSW Press, 203 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freeman

To the untrained eye, the system used to elect the President of the United States is a little hard to follow. I suspect that even to the trained political observer, US elections can be confusing. The process can be many months old, and the financial cost in the millions of dollars, before the presidential candidates are even nominated. By the time Americans finally elect their commander-in-chief, political careers will have been crushed, the US media will have devoted millions of words to topics as crucial as where Sarah Palin obtained her latest suit, and the USA will loudly be touted by all as the
greatest democracy in the world. And just 3 short years later, they will do it all again.

In Vote For Me, John Barron attempts to reveal the inner workings of the US electoral system, and explain how the most powerful country in the free world elects its leader. He begins in the 40 degree heat of Iowa's cornfields, and ends just nine weeks before history was finally made in November 2008, with the US electing its first black president. Wisely, Barron does not simply focus on the 2008 campaign, but also regales the reader with selected anecdotes from US political history, such as the fascinating rise and fall of Senator George McGovern and President Richard Nixon. One of the book's chapters is called "Follow the Money"; an obvious reference to the mindset of the various 2008 Presidential hopefuls, but it is also the strategy that led the Washington Post to the revelations of the Watergate scandal. The intertwining of past and present is clever and seamless, and Barron has an ironic sense of humour, which is particularly suited to this subject.

Barron writes extremely well, and at times his book reads almost like a political novel than a work of non-fiction. Nevertheless his prose is always witty and engaging. There are occasions, however, such as when he quotes Rudy Giuliani, complete with lisp, where the book veers from political satire to an attempt to garner cheap laughs. Perhaps you can get away with this once, but Mr Giuliani's lisp is quoted at length. It seemed unnecessary.

As an Australian journalist, Barron is, in a sense, removed from the 12-month reality television show that is the US electoral system. This gives him a degree of objectivity American political commentators sometimes lack. On the other hand, such objectivity is hardly necessary to understand a major problem inherent in the American democratic process.

The problem is this. To be President, you need money. Lots of money, and the more you have the better your shot at the Presidency. The more money you have, the more pomp and pizzazz you can introduce to your campaign. This inevitably translates into votes. According to Barron, at one stage during the 2008 campaign for the Republican nomination John McCain was spending two million dollars a month. This is remarkable when you consider that the maximum contribution any individual can make to a Presidential campaign is $2300. The message is clear -- wealth equals good election prospects. More insidiously, it also has the potential to welcome corruption.

A country's electoral process can be characterised as a sprint, in some cases, and a middle distance run in others. Not the US. Their system is more like a marathon. Unfortunately, that fact combined with the obscene amounts of money spent along the way reduces the whole spectacle to, well, a spectacle. Not particularly dignified for the greatest democracy in the world. That, for me, was the chief lesson in Vote For Me.

[Note: since this review copy was received the publisher has printed an updated version of this book, labelling it a "Special Obama Victory Edition". We'll attempt to have a few follow-up notes at the later date to see how the additional text affects the overall work.]

Review: The Sound of Butterflies by Rachael King

sound_butterflies.jpg Rachael King
Picador, 368 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freeman

It seems strange, given this novel's title, but an overwhelming sense of dread pervades The Sound of Butterflies. Although butterflies are probably the least scary thing imaginable, Rachael King's debut novel instils the reader with a sense of unease I have not encountered since I read Dracula as a 12-year-old. Not because The Sound of Butterflies is really about vampires (it isn't), and not because it deals with supernatural encounters (it doesn't). The Sound of Butterflies is unsettling because it explores the territory trodden by Bram Stoker in 1897, and countless others since, turning the routine into the terrifying.

When we first join the story, it is 1904, Victorian England. The novel's protagonist, butterfly collector Thomas Edgar, is returning from Brazil where he was hunting butterflies, something he has done avidly since childhood. Specifically, Thomas was hunting a particular type of butterfly which few had apparently seen and might not even exist. Thomas hoped to find, capture and catalogue the exotic insect, and name it after his loving wife Sophie, who is faithfully awaiting her husband's return at Liverpool station. But when Thomas and Sophie are reunited, all it not as it was -- Thomas has returned afflicted by near-catatonia, and is seemingly unable (or unwilling) to speak.

From this point, the narrative flits back and forth in time from England to Brazil, and we get to meet a Thomas who is not in a fugue-like state. We see Thomas (along with three other robust British naturalists) embark on an expedition to the Amazon that is funded by a mysterious benefactor known as Jose Santos, who apparently made his money from rubber plantations. Little is otherwise known of the mysterious Mr Santos, and it is assumed that he is simply benevolent, In the beginning, few questions are asked of his motives. This may strike the reader as a little naïve, although no doubt Jonathan Harker made the same initial assumption about Dracula.

It is said that in all of literature, there is only one plot -- that of the journey from innocence to experience. While such a suggestion may be a little simplistic, it more than adequately describes the plot of The Sound of Butterflies. Rachael King's descriptions of the lushness and beauty of South America, with its casual dangerousness for the unwary traveller, are rich and compelling. What was initially exciting and thrilling for Thomas and his colleagues soon becomes unnerving and ominous, and finally deadly.

There is an interesting contrast going on here with the prim and proper Victorian England which Sophie inhabits. Sophie's world is mundane, even boring -- although her friend Agatha seems remarkably insouciant for Victorian times. Sophie pines for her husband, even when he is sleeping right next to her, and is always cogniscent of appearances -- well aware of how people will react should Thomas' condition become public, Sophie strives to keep it secret as long as possible. That she should so strive should not surprise, although it seems a little unrealistic that she should succeed for as long as she does.

While the ending might seem a little trite, this tale of brutality in the Amazonian rainforest rarely disappoints. Ms King has clearly inherited the story-telling genes of her father, one of New Zealand's more successful novelists, and applies them with great effect here. Ms King continually and effortlessly manages to shock the reader, and it is to her credit that she manages to do so with a story about butterflies.

Review: The Dark Mountain by Catherine Jinks

dark_mountain.jpg Catherine Jinks
Allen and Unwin, 488 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

Based on historical fact, this is a deeply disturbing story of how the course of a life can be changed tragically forever by the events of a single day; how a family can be torn apart by a terrible secret.

Charlotte Atkinson was the oldest of four siblings who were being raised by their widowed mother in wealthy circumstances on a huge farm called Oldbury in the penal colony of New South Wales in the 1830's. In those days it was an isolated place with a small, tight-knit community. The work was done by convict labour and life was cruel and basic for these people. There was also a very strict class structure to be adhered to, with everybody knowing his or her place.

Catherine Jinks skilfully recreates the daily lives of these people, the harsh conditions and the never-ending work of running a large station. Charlotte's mother is a strong figure, a gentlewoman left alone to run Oldbury, helped only by her overseer, George Barton, a man universally disliked for his cruelty and coarseness.

On the thirtieth of January, 1836, in the Belanglo Forest, an incident involving Mrs. Atkinson, George Barton and a group of men never identified took place. The incident was shrouded in mystery.

For the family it was the beginning of a nightmare of madness and violence that scarred their lives, making them outcasts from the small community of "civilised people" they inhabited. Charlotte, the only child old enough to remember the chain of events from the beginning, spends the rest of her life trying to solve the mystery of what happened that day. The story is told from her point of view, expressed in the language of a well-educated woman from her era.

There are many references to the harsh realities of life for these early settlers and the brooding, inhospitable landscape that oppressed them at Oldbury, made unsafe by gangs of bushrangers. Later, when the story takes the family to Sydney Town, the hustle and bustle of the thriving, growing city is brilliantly evoked, along with a glimpse into the social life of people at that time. Charlotte, who was so deeply traumatised, tries hard to get to the bottom of the source of her misery. Her investigation reveals a connection with Australia's earliest known serial killer, a fascinating side story to the main narrative. She slowly pieces together the story from newspaper articles (hard to come by in the bush) and gossip.

I found this a great read and thoroughly gripping. There are also a lot of well researched historical details, including the fact that Charlotte's sister, Louisa Atkinson Calvert, grew up to be Australia's first female novelist. There are many references to the events set out in The Dark Mountain in her work apparently, so I will look forward to reading some of her novels. For anyone interested in stories about Australia and our history this is a must. Catherine Jinks is a talented writer who certainly takes us on an interesting journey back in to a dark part of our story as a nation.

Review: Lemniscate by Gaynor McGrath

lemniscate.gif Gaynor McGrath
Transit Lounge, 409 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Tineke Hazel

The titles of books are meant to arrest your attention and draw you into wanting to read them. Fortunately the author, Gaynor McGrath, gives a definition of the word Lemniscate, which is both intriguing and off-putting. It makes you need to think -- and who in this age of instant information and milkfed thought, wants to think? Hopefully, those of us grown tired of "instant everything" do want to think. Lemniscate certainly does that.

The story starts with Elsie, an innocent young Australian woman who leaves her loving but strict Catholic family in the 1970s, to travel the world and find out what goes on in other countries. We meet her on the rooftop of a small hotel in Istanbul. We also meet Kiwi a New Zealand young man who is already ensconced on the rooftop. Kiwi will weave his way in and out of Elsie's life for many years to come. Elsie travels with various young companions through the Eastern countries where women are totally disregarded, unless they are not clothed in the all-enveloping burkha, and where Western young women are fair game to the aggressive and macho males.

Elsie, though, seems to escape the nastier side of life and has lots of adventures with the situations she finds herself in. Her gentle innocence combined with common sense and respect for the cultures she experiences somehow seem to protect her from the negative energies which surround her at times. We get to see the various countries and their cultures through her enquiring mind and interested and observing eyes.

At length she arrives back in Australia to her loving but hide-bound Catholic family in Adelaide. She is appalled at her parents' controlling influence over her siblings. When visiting her brother in Sydney, she understands why he will not go back to Adelaide to live with his partner, as their parents would never cope with the fact that their firstborn son is gay.

Elsie becomes engaged to a young Catholic Adelaide doctor who is more interested in what the Pope decrees should happen when engaged couples court, than having a raunchy good time with Elsie who is more than willing. In the end she breaks up with him and travels to Queensland helping to skipper a yacht to Townsville. She has a good time with the skipper but when he is more interested in taking another yacht further round the Australian coast than taking Elsie's desires into consideration, she drops him too and hitch-hikes back along the Queensland coastal towns. In one town she lives on the beach for some months and finds her former friend Kiwi in a group just lately arrived. The attraction this time is mutual. Unfortunately they have to part the next day and Elsie loses Kiwi's address. She finds herself happily pregnant, travels to Sydney to try to find Kiwi but has no luck. The baby arrives in due course and when he is about a year old she decides to go to Greece as she heard from someone that Kiwi was living there now.

She settles on one of the Greek islands and though the life is rough and primitive, it is satisfying to her soul. After a year or more she gets the dreadful news her young brother has been killed and she goes back to Adelaide. Some months later she and the family go to Sydney for a wedding and her life takes yet another twist for a very satisfying ending of the story.

The use of the first person and the present tense, gives this book the feeling of an autobiography. The story deals with racial differences and sensitivity to other cultures, female freedoms and restrictions and the painful growth away from the Catholic doctrines Elsie has been brought up with. It also gives an insight into the sadness produced in families when parents still adhere to outmoded ideals for their children; Elsie does manage to shake her parents loose over one or two entrenched ideas. It is very reminiscent of the late 60s and early 70s era when young Australians started to travel overseas and did more hitch-hiking than their older siblings, who had mainly undertaken the "grand tours" to Britain - still considered the Home country then.

The story is beautifully descriptive and sensitively seductive. A very good read.

Review: Crooked by Camilla Nelson

crooked.jpg Camilla Nelson
Random House, 258 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

Set in the late 60's in Sydney, Crooked tells the story of the criminal underworld at that time, and the network of corrupt police and politicians that supported it and used it to gain power and influence.

Using the election of the Askin Government as a backdrop the era is imaginatively reconstructed by Camilla Nelson, who meshes real historical figures and fictional characters into an ultimately interesting story, although I found it a bit slow going at the beginning. It takes a little time to work out who everybody is, not being familiar with the real criminal characters portrayed.

The seedy back alleys of Kings Cross and Darlinghurst are moodily evoked and peopled with prostitutes, gangsters and bent coppers, the dirtiest copper of them all being Senior Sergeant Reginald Tanner. Tanner recruits a young detective, Gus Finlay, and it is assumed that he will do as he is told and keep his mouth shut. However, as he takes part in investigations into brutal gangland murders, Gus begins to put two and two together, and he must make a choice about what he must do.

Nelson recreates the feeling of the 60's in Australia admirably. The slang, the fashions, the interiors give a racy edge to the narrative. There is a real feeling that you are there. She also describes the murders and violence well, without being gratuitous. The gangsters and their women are particularly well drawn. I was a child at the time, but I can remember the cars and the clothing and many of the cultural references. She really brings this back well with her great descriptive writing.

It's interesting to contrast this story with the recent TV series "Underbelly". The motivation for killing each other is so similar, even though the events are separated by many decades.

I do think that this story has been kept very tight and could have been expanded a little and the characters fleshed out a little more. For example, we are introduced to Agostini, who seems to know what is really going on, but we know nothing about him or why he hasn't been dealt with. I think we could have had a little more back-story on some of the gangsters and their women also. Maybe there could have been a little more insight into the motivation of the corrupt police officers as well.

As Gus pieces together what we already know through hindsight, and a black book is discovered that names names, the story rushes towards its shocking conclusion. Camilla Nelson knows her stuff.

Review: The Jihad Seminar by Hanifa Deen

jihad_seminar.jpg Hanifa Deen
University of Western Australia Press, 271 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

Human nature is a strange thing. Who we are as individuals is partly defined by our differences from each other, but it is those differences that are the biggest cause of conflict in our lives. This is particularly so of racial and religious differences, which have been the catalyst for individual and global conflict since the dawn of time. By attempting to examine these differences within a legal trial framework, The Jihad Seminar is thus an important book, but, by its end, the obvious and depressing conclusion is that after thousands of years of war and death blamed on disparities of ideology and physical appearance, the greatest lesson we are taught is that history is constantly repeated.

The Jihad Seminar chronicles a protracted legal battle fought in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) in 2003, following multiple, unsuccessful attempts at mediation between the parties. The protagonists were the Islamic Council of Victoria (ICV) and Christian organisation Catch the Fire Ministries (CTF), not the first time in history Muslim and Christian groups have been at loggerheads. Yet, while the conflict did not exactly capture the minds of the nation, some pretty important principles were at stake. Ms Deen considers these principles at some length, but this is only part of the story -- this tale is also about a legal system coming dangerously close to spiralling out of control. What was supposed to be a VCAT hearing of only three days, took closer to two years to finally complete. Then came the inevitable appeals, and finally a stalemate in 2007, described euphemistically by Ms Deen as an "out-of-court agreement".

To discover how we got to this sorry state, we have to go back to January 2002, when the Victorian Parliament, amid some controversy, passed into law the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act. The Act, among other things, prohibits "conduct that incites hatred against, serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of" others "on the grounds of religious belief or activity". Fair enough, you might think, but it is these words that became the subject of intense scrutiny just months after they were passed into law. It was on 9 March 2002 that CTF, headed by Pastor Danny Scot, held a seminar entitled "An Insight Into Islam" which was, on any view, somewhat critical of Muslim beliefs. Attending the seminar were three Australian-born Muslims, who reported back to the ICV. In turn, the ICV made a complaint of religious vilification under the Act.

It needs to be stated immediately that Ms Deen is a Muslim, and this meant that she was treated with suspicion by most of the CTF supporters and hangers-on, who refused to speak to her. It is fair to say that the book at times is a little one-sided, but this is more due to the CTF refusal to talk to the author rather than any pre-existing bias on her part. It also probably reflects the intransigent attitudes displayed at times by both sides to this conflict, which no doubt added significantly to both the length and ferocity of the battle. Few ideologies polarise people more readily or more completely than religion.

Overall, Ms Deen does an admirable job of covering a complicated legal hearing from a layman's point of view, and while she does have some fairly caustic things to say about CTF and their organisers, for the most part she stays to the objective side of the line. Issues such as religious freedom, free speech, and right not to be vilified, along with prolonged legal action that is not really fully understood by anyone participating in it, including the lawyers and appellate judges, combined to make Ms Deen's task a less than enviable one. Nonetheless the book remains at all times interesting, and her commentary is never condescending.

Review: One Foot Wrong by Sofie Laguna

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one_foot_wrong.jpg    One Foot Wrong
Sofie Laguna
Allen & Unwin, 256 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Tineke Haze

There is indescribable suffering of a mentally retarded little girl, Hester, in this book. Hester is growing up as an only child, forbidden to go outside and with no one to play with other than her Cat. She has an Abridged Picture Bible she loves to look at, and a spoon, a doorhandle, a broom, and a tree who talk to her. The moment she puts one foot wrong, her angry and deranged mother Sack, takes her down into the cellar and hangs her from the shoulders above the table for punishment, while her weak and ineffectual father Boot protests, without results. Hester sleeps in her parents room at the end of their bed, but, when she is a little older, gets a room of her own. It is then that Boot starts his night visits to Hester, who doesn't understand that this is so out of order, and wouldn't be able to tell her mother anyway. The Welfare Department somehow become involved and after some tests it is decided Hester must attend the local school. Sack is powerless to stop this and Hester is thrown into a situation where everything is strange for her. It proves a disaster in the end when Hester has shown she has violent tendencies when she cannot make anyone understand what she feels or wants. She is sent home again and resumes her domestic life there with the added responsibility of
chopping wood with the axe for the woodstove. This proves a significant skill for her later in her life.

When Hester turns eighteen, Sack finds herself looking at this young woman is who is now so grown up, Sack becomes angry and tells her off and locks her in her room for the night. After attacking her mother over this incident, Hester is sent to an institution where she observes the inmates being drugged into zombies and learns to avoid getting the knockout needle by behaving the way institutions like them to behave, subservient and subdued. Hester's subsequent escape can only lead to one conclusion.

It was very interesting to read Kathy Hunt's article in "The Weekend Australian" some weeks ago, on Criticism. In it she said, "as a reader, I too react emotionally to every book under review, but as a critic I must push through this barrier and find my way to an opinion." To me, as a fledgling critic, those comments were very helpful. To push through the emotions as you read One Foot Wrong, takes some doing. The imagery in it is both beautiful and disturbingly ugly. One feels for little Hester and the terrifying moments thrust upon her, not only by her ignorant parents but also by an institutionalized society. Yet we get to see a child's fresh world and a child's wonder through Hester's young eyes.

The tension in the book builds up, dark and sinister like a gothic novel, yet the climax is curiously ugly and unbelievable. This is the second young female author whose books I have read within a short space of time, both dealing with the shadowy side of humanity. It doesn't make for enjoyable reading, yet they are portraying what present day society needs to be made aware of; whether we like it or not.

Review: The Holy Well by Colin Macpherson

Colin Macpherson
Mopoke Publishing, 400 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

Colin Macpherson has obviously researched The Bronze Age in Scotland very thoroughly. Just as well really, because the historical detail about this fascinating era is the only vaguely interesting theme in this otherwise boring and turgid novel. It's rather like wading through a vat of porridge, or a haggis... or two... or twenty.

Two men, Bren and James, born thousands of years apart, share a strange, mystical destiny connected by a "holy" well with magical healing powers and transdimensional qualities (yawn). Bren, at least, has an exciting life as a Bronze Age leader and warrior. James is just an offensive twerp.

While we do perhaps need to simplify our lives and have a greater regard for our environment in the 21st century, we cannot go back to the more primitive past. In a time when people were lucky to live until 40 it was very important that they reproduced as quickly as possible. In our modern world it is illegal for an adult to have sex with a child and the position of a teacher is a position of trust. In the novel, the justification for a sexual relationship between Diane, a 16-year-old girl, and James, her teacher, is some sort of meant to be, spiritual claptrap. The author's suggestion seems to be that we should dispense with our modern concepts of morality and go back to the way things were before all this new fangled civilisation got in the way.

The characters in this novel are all two-dimensional. I felt nothing for James. Even his sexual exploits are very lacklustre and connect-the-dots.

At least Bren's life is presented in a more interesting and believable way. I felt more connected with the people in his part of the story.

The female characters only come in two stereotypes: juicy, compliant child/ woman under 18, and designing manipulative nympho hag (any female over 18). As a female reader I found this extremely offensive.

The descriptions of the battle scenes are handled well. I do, however, find it very strange that more people didn't know about the well and its healing properties. Every one in Bren's time knew about it, and people in the intervening centuries. Considering what a circus Lourdes is, why weren't thousands of people flocking there by the 1980s?

All things considered I found this book a poor read and in desperate need of more plot and character development.

Review: The Sinkings by Amanda Curtin

sinkings.gif Amanda Curtin
University of Western Australia Press, 375 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

The Sinkings is a novel that pulls the reader in two different directions. Amanda Curtin's debut novel captures the story of Little Jock, a convict shipped from the familiar surroundings of home to a strange land, only to meet a violent end at the hands of a fellow convict in 1882. Little Jock's story is one of confusion, secrecy, betrayal, and violence. His life is never easy, and is characterised by brutality at every turn.

The other protagonist is Willa Sampson, and Willa's story is set in present day Australia. Willa's tale is also a sad one, having tragically lost her daughter Imogen, and been deserted by her husband. Overcome with grief, Willa discovers and gratefully embarks on a new project -- to research and uncover Little Jock's life, and the reasons for his death. This is easier said than done, and the novel moves back and forth through time continually, placing the reader in the shoes of the two main characters. This is done seamlessly, and is never confusing.

Ms Curtin's prose is engaging, and once the reader overcomes the disconcerting feeling of reading a novel that has little dialogue, it is easy to identify and sympathise with the characters and their problems. The Sinkings is, as much as anything else, a story about obsession and Willa's attempts to immerse herself into the life of somebody else, anybody else, to escape the tragic emptiness of her own. Her life and that of Little Jock are entwined in quite a remarkable way -- Willa's daughter and the convict were both born "intersexed", and it is this realisation that gives birth to Willa's overwhelming desire to unravel the complexities of Little Jock's life, and death. Ms Curtin handles the rare condition with sensitivity, even if her characters sometimes don't.

Willa goes to extraordinary lengths (and expense) to uncover Little Jock's secrets, and does so often under the pretence that Little Jock is a family member. There is some irony in this, given her daughter's condition. Secrecy and pretence must play a large, perhaps overwhelming part in the lives of the intersexed, and societal ignorance of the condition is probably not so much different now than it was 125 years ago.

When The Sinkings gets it right, the reader is transported to a time and place where the characters seem real and convincing, facing overwhelming hardships yet always endeavouring with typically human resilience to make it to the other side, painful though the journey might be. The other direction is which the reader may feel themselves being pulled, however, is less positive.

There are times in the novel when it almost feels like piece of non-fiction, and it always treads a very fine line. The Sinkings is quite a long novel, and the impression after having finished reading the story is that it might have benefited from further editing. Research methods employed by Willa, and the drudgery of prison life experienced by Little Jock, are sometimes detailed too extensively, which can detract from the story. In the world of the novel, when there is little doubt where the story is going (and here the murder occurs on the first page), the interest for the reader is all about getting there. Unfortunately, unless the reader has a particular interest in genealogical research or convict life in 19th Century Australia, the lasting impression might be that the author has somewhat belaboured the point. This would be a shame, because behind The Sinkings is fundamentally an interesting story.

Review:The Biographer by Virginia Duigan

biographer.jpg Virginia Duigan
Random House, 321 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss

The biographer's role is a strange and complex one: part detective, part confessor, part social worker, and part schoolyard bully. Is it all worth it? Does the end product justify the journey? Does it help or injure the subject? And what of the people around them - the family and friends? Even if the subject is dead a good juicy biography surely must dig the dirt. And if the subject is still among the living, well then, all the better.

It's a teasing prospect to watch someone rummage through dirty linen, even ironed and well-aired linen. We are all voyeurs of a sort. But normally we only get to see the end product - the biography - divorced from the subject and presented by the biographer with all his or her prejudices to the fore. Virginia Duigan's new novel The Biographer attempts to reverse that process somewhat, giving us a version from the subject's point of view.

Greer Gordon ran away from a new career and a new marriage with Czech-born painter, Mischa Svodoba, in the 1980s, severing all contact with her family and friends in Australia. Twenty-five years later he is a world-renown artist, and the two of them live in a Tuscan commune with Rollo, another artist, and his partner Guy in a hilltop group of houses that they have all gradually renovated over the years. Into this small community comes Tony, a young art critic who is researching a biography of Mischa. We learn very soon that Tony is near the end of his researches and that his time in Tuscany will be used in tying up some loose ends of the knot that is Mischa's life, and, possibly, attempting to extract the last possible drop of blood out of the artist's relationships, though, of course, Tony puts it rather more delicately than that.

But Mischa proves to be rather elusive. Not in a physical sense, as he is always there somewhere, in his studio working, or eating and drinking with the others. His distance comes from his very nature, his drive to succeed at his art. All else is background noise, and he tends to ignore Tony whenever possible, even though it was he who initially invited Tony to Italy. So Tony finds himself getting little out of the artist - his main subject - and he slowly turns his attention to Greer, or Gigi as she is now known.

Is this really the way it has turned out, by chance, or did he come to the commune fully intending to concentrate on Gigi in the first place? And if that's the case then does he have anything up his sleeve or is he of the view that she will prove to be an easier target?

The novel is told mostly from Gigi's point-of-view and, as she questions Tony's every move and motive, she also examines her own life with Mischa, reading back over an old diary that she keeps hidden from everyone, especially the biographer. The forward thrust of the novel is controlled by the flashbacks to her earlier life, instigated by passages in her diary, and the present-day machinations of Tony as he fills in gaps in his understanding of the artist's life. And, slowly, the reader starts to realise there is something else lurking in the background, something unspoken and painful. The touch has to be just right for this to work. Too light and you don't care for the characters nor for whatever happens to them; too heavy and it dives into sentimentality, which is just another route to "not-very-good".

Duigan handles the authorial weight here very well. She steers a delicate path between the traps she sets for herself and arrives at an endpoint that is neither mawkish nor obvious. For just a moment in the last few chapters I thought she was going to succumb to what I keep thinking of as a "soap-opera" ending. A lesser writer would have taken the low road to cliché and ruined all the good work in the rest of the novel. Duigan doesn't, and this reader closed the book with a sense of deep satisfaction.

Review: The New Angel by Ali Alizadeh

new_angel.jpg Ali Alizadeh
Transit Lounge, 254 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

Debut novels are often the most interesting to read, and certainly the most interesting to review. Like debut albums, an artist puts their heart and soul into their first novel, and it is the initial work that is often the most personal. After all, the debut novelist never knows when they will be published again, and if the novel is not well received then Andy Warhol's musings of the length of fame may take on a more literal meaning. It really is a case of get it right first time, because, like everyone else, novelists rarely get a second chance to make a first impression.

I suspect that The New Angel is an intensely personal work for its author, and not just because it is his first novel. While he may be new to the novel game, Ali Alizadeh is an accomplished, published and award winning writer already. He writes, performs and edits poetry, holds a PhD, and has also collaborated on an award-winning film. But I suspect it is the subject matter of The New Angel which would hold special significance for Mr Alizadeh.

The New Angel's protagonists are Bahram and Fereshteh, who, like their literary creator, grow up in Iran, and live much of their childhood in conditions of unbelievable fear and violence. They are also a teenage couple who, despite living lives of unimaginable hardship, somehow find the time to meet to meet and fall in love. Much of the novel is set against the Islamic Revolution of the 1980s, and it is against this backdrop that the characters face their biggest tests.

In some respects this is a love story, and because for much of the novel the young lovers are 13 and 14 years old, and because they must face almost insurmountable external barriers to their relationship, comparisons to Romeo and Juliet are inevitable. But it is more than a love story, and is as much about violence and barbarity, religious intolerance, the innocence of childhood, and the horrors of complete helplessness as it is about love and desire. It is a tragedy - a work of fiction set against the background of the unbelievable atrocities committed during the Iran-Iraq War could scarcely be anything else - but the author engages the reader through Bahram, who narrates most of the novel, and what he finds funny we do as well.

Although The New Angel is set in an intensely religious and conservative Islamic country, it is not difficult to relate to the predicament of the characters. Fascism because of religious zeal is not so different to fascism motivated by racial differences, whether perceived or real. One of the characters, for example, would not be out of place if transplanted in whole cloth to Germany in the 30s and 40s. The mistrust and censorship of art, literature and its creators, indiscriminate death caused by technologically superior firepower, family members taking sides against each other, and the pervading fear and uncertainty of not knowing when the authorities are going to come for you. These are all familiar themes to anyone who has lived through a large scale war.

It is a strange and yet auspicious characteristic of human nature, that in such horrific and uncontrollable circumstances such as those in which the characters of The New Angel find themselves, something as poetic, romantic and all-consuming as young love can not only begin, but flourish. The characters of Bahram and Fereshteh at first captivate, then enthral, and in the end, in different ways, become victims of the time in which they lived. It is to the author's credit that a work that seems so personal, so emotional, and so raw, is able to provide such a powerful lesson about the best and worst of humanity.

Review: The Poet Who Forgot by Catherine Cole

poet_who_forgot.jpg Catherine Cole
University of Western Australia Press, 272 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

The Poet Who Forgot is about a great many things -- although on one level, it is not really about anything in particular. Rather, it is the author's musings about topics as diverse as love and memory, loneliness and travel, Australia and its national identity. More fundamentally, it is about AD Hope, one of Australia's most famous and prolific poets, but it becomes clear from the opening pages that one thing The Poet Who Forgot is not is an biography. It is, I think, more accurately described as a tribute -- a loving tribute by a gifted writer and poet, who clearly had much affection for Mr Hope, and he for her.

AD Hope sadly passed away in 2000 at age 93, after suffering from dementia for many years. As a poet he won many awards, was known for his acerbic and occasionally crushing literary reviews, and in time became one of Australia's best-known poets. His mental decline in his later years was all the more regrettable, not just because a brilliant poet was lost to the literary world, but because, as Ms Cole points out, writers rely on their memory to write. Writing, particularly poetry, is far more rich and vivid and satisfying when behind the written word lurks the author's own experiences. For writers, dementia is especially cruel.

At its core, The Poet Who Forgot is about a relationship, between a mentor and an apprentice, between experience and youth. A relationship which Ms Cole could scarcely have foreseen when, as an undergraduate student, she wrote to AD Hope, expressing her admiration. That letter was a catalyst for a lasting friendship, which the book explores in the form of a series of letters between the two. If the book was only a series of letters, it would surely be of interest only to AD Hope's most diehard of fans. But Ms Cole skilfully guides the reader through an emotional and often funny journey, augmenting the letters with poetry and her thoughts on a range of diverse topics. This is stream of consciousness writing at its best. Even a reader who is not a fan of poetry, and has never heard of AD Hope, can still enjoy The Poet Who Forgot.

That is not to say that the book is not hard going in places -- when Ms Cole and Mr Hope are apologising to each other for tardy replies, when arranging when they will next meet, or during Ms Cole's ongoing treatise about the activities of her cat. If the letters have been edited for publication, it is not evident. Perhaps the author's goal was to show the mundaneness of her relationship with a famous poet. A brush with fame, after all, is not what this book is about. When rereading the letters, Ms Cole says, she was "surprised" by their "ordinariness".

AD Hope's struggle with dementia is not fully explored -- I suspect that Ms Cole intended for the reader to remember AD Hope as he was, rather than what he became -- a wise choice. While The Poet Who Forgot covers a number of themes, it's discussion of memories and the lamentable act of forgetting are the ones that come to mind most readily, and are the most interesting. Ms Cole quotes historian Paula Hamilton as suggesting that the past is continually refashioned through memory. Even if AD Hope was the "poet who forgot", books such as Ms Cole's will ensure he is remembered.

Review: The Seance by John Harwood

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seance.gif    John Harwood
Jonathan Cape, 294 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss

With one foot firmly planted in superstition and folklore, and the other striding out towards science and enlightenment, the Victorian era is the perfect setting for the gothic or horror genres. The 18th and 19th centuries had seen advances in the physical, biological and mathematical sciences but these had scarcely had any impact upon the general public until the invention in the 1870s of the incandescent light bulb, and the development of the long-life version by Thomas Edison in 1880. The use of electricity rapidly expanded over the following decades and it is interesting to contemplate the reactions of people when they first came into contact with it. It must have seemed incomprehensible - a force that can provide heat and light, yet which could also kill and injure in ways that would have appeared almost magical.

Little wonder, then, that people attempting to come to grips with the new "magic" might turn to old "magic" to define or make sense of it. John Harwood's second novel, The Seance, sits directly in this time period - the late 19th century - when science was making inroads into everyday life, and yet superstition and fear still held sway.

The novel deals with mistaken or lost identity, inheritance and sudden death, deserted, crumbling mansions and dark, forbidding woods. All the classic ingredients of a gothic story that leans in the direction of horror.

Constance Langton has spent the past few years of her life attending her widowed mother who has been pining for a younger daughter who died, and who later commits suicide. Constance is troubled by the part she played in her mother's attempts to contact the dead girl via paranormal means, and feels partly responsible for all that has occurred. In 1889 she learns that a distant cousin has left her a crumbling mansion in Suffolk. Her lawyer, John Montague, presents her with a bundle of papers that detail the lead-up to some shocking events that took place in the hall some twenty years previously. The papers are the personal accounts of Montague himself and Eleanor Unwin whose story seems to bear a resemblance to Constance's own.

The story is complicated and requires close attention, but it is just as much the evocative writing as the plot that holds our interest.

Monks Wood came upon us with no warning, looming like a black wave
out of the mist as we passed from grey daylight into near-darkness beneath the
firs. The rushing of the wind ceased, and there was only the muffled rumble of
the wheels, the scrape of branches along the carriage, and the occasional gush
of water from the foliage above. Shadowy outlines of tree trunks slid by, so
close I could have touched them. The knot in my stomach tightened still
further as the minutes dragged by, until the light returned as abruptly as it
had gone.
Emotional and manipulative? Of course. And so it should be. A very distinct part of the gothic tradition lies in the manipulation of the reader's and characters' emotions, leading both along twists and turns, down blind alleys and into scary dark corners. Don't forget that the Victorian era also spawned the classic detective fiction of Doyle and Poe. It was all manipulative, and all the better for it. Harwood knows what he is doing here: he'll spook you a bit, and seem to deceive you with sleight of hand from time to time, but you always have the feeling you are in safe hands and that you won't be left hanging over a pit, suspended only by a slowly fraying rope.

Two years ago we were lucky enough to read another Australian gothic novel, The Resurrectionist by James Bradley. That was a gem, and so is this. John Harwood's previous novel, The Ghost Writer, won the Best First Novel Award at the International Horror Guild Awards. This one should surely be in contention for the main award.

Review: A History of the Great War: A Novel by Peter McConnell

history_of_great_war.gif   Peter McConnell
Transit Lounge, 237 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss

Without the addition of the clause "A Novel" to the title of this book you might be forgiven for thinking you were about to pick up a slim history of the first global conflict of the twentieth century. But it is a novel, and while it's aim is rather more modest than a full-blown history, it does attempt to examine Australia and its involvement in the Great War through the eyes of one woman.

The novel tells the life story of Ida Mitton (nee Hallam), who is born in 1877 and grows up near Bairnsdale in East Gippsland, Victoria. After her early promise as a singer is ruined by a bad throat infection, Ida takes a position in a local haberdashery shop, and it is here that she meets Ralph, considered one of the "catches" of the district. To the amazement of all who know her, Ida and Ralph get engaged to be married, but the outset of war in late 1914 puts their plans on hold. Ralph returns after two years badly damaged, both physically and mentally. The relationship between Ida and Ralph, the birth of their two children, and their struggle to maintain their existence on a small holding forms the basis of this story.

This is ambitious. As readers this is the sort of work we are looking for - something that stretches the author in terms of plot, theme or subject matter. And, for the most part, McConnell succeeds in showing us the life, loves and loses of one woman through the first half of the twentieth-century. Where it fails to reach the heights is in the area of reader involvement. And specifically the pacing. We don't seem to find moments of tension, anxiety, emotion or suspense to any great extent. We're not left on the edge of our seats wondering about the possible fates of the characters. It all seems somehow pre-ordained. Maybe this is partly due to the lack of dialogue in the book. There is no extended conversation anywhere to be seen, merely short sentences or phrases. This tends to keep the reader at a distance from the characters, minimising emotional involvement. It's hard to get to know a character if all you know comes from some omnipotent narrator.

There is a very good novel lurking within these pages, struggling to get out. And if that reads like damning with faint praise, it shouldn't. On the evidence provided by this novel, McConnell has the obvious ability to produce good work; he just needs to restrict his scope a tad and give the reader a sense of attachment.

Review: The City of Words by Alberto Manguel

city_of_words.png Alberto Manguel
University of Queensland Press, 166 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

It is a little difficult to know quite what to make of The City of Words. Based on a series of Massey lectures delivered by Alberto Manguel in 2007, The City of Words is an attempt, to paraphrase the obligatory blurb on the book's outside back cover, to demonstrate how the present world's ills can be solved by examining the visions of the past, visions that have emanated from the minds of the world's entertainers -- the "poets, novelists, essayists and filmmakers". Presumably, by including essayists in this list, Manguel is including himself.

The subject is fascinating, and had the potential to give birth to a work of extreme insight, but my expectations took a hit upon reading the book's introduction. In what is almost an apology to the reader, Manguel describes the thoughts that follow as "[l]ess a question than a series of questions, less an argument than a string of observations" and, even more worrying, a "confession of bewilderment". Bewilderment, unfortunately, will probably be the reader's primary emotion upon finishing Manguel's treatise.

Born in Argentina in 1948, Alberto Manguel is a man of many achievements and talents. He is an author, translator, editor, anthropologist, linguist, bibliophile -- and, above all else, a master storyteller. To embark on a review of a work that is the product of such a brilliant, erudite mind is somewhat daunting. In contributing to the Massey lectures, a week long series of lectures held annually in Canada, Manguel joins such esteemed company as Martin Luther King Jnr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Northrop Frye, and Noam Chomsky. And yet, after reading what is admittedly a superbly crafted series of ideas, the reader is still left in some doubt as to what conclusion Manguel is trying to reach.

The book itself comprises five essays, each of which draw upon famous pieces of literature to illustrate its relevance to contemporary society. Storytelling, as Manguel himself admits, comes very easy to him, and to give the man his due, he is nothing if not extremely well read. His use of metaphors is rich and vivid, and so are his ideas of the eternal nature of language. At one point, he opines that "language ... does not merely name but brings reality into being". And later: "words not only grant us reality, they can also defend it for us". With such a bold claim, Manguel is really on a hiding to nothing -- unless his essays also "bring reality into being", they risk being a disappointment.

Perhaps the main problem with Manguel's work is that while he knows exactly what he is trying to say, he is being too clever in how he goes about saying it. While The City of Words has much to teach us about how fantasy can assist in explaining reality, the underlying fear is that the lesson is not packaged in an accessible way. This is no doubt partly a by-product of the uncertain nature of the subject, but the greater frustration may come from Manguel's sometimes confusing delivery.

When Manguel's ideas do hit their mark, they can be thought-provoking and insightful. In his essay entitled "The Voice of Cassandra" Manguel explores parallels between the life of novelist Alfred Doblin, a Prussian Jew who fled Hitler's Germany in 1933 to escape the Nazi regime, the tragic experiences of Cassandra, the cursed visionary of Greek mythology, and the equally tragic tendency of contemporary leaders to refuse to learn from the past, ignoring the warnings of today's "visionaries". Too often, though, the reader (even after repeated readings) is unable to decipher Manguel's prose to unlock the insight contained within, and is left tired and weak from the effort.

Review: A History of the Beanbag and Other Stories by Susan Midalia

history_beanbag.jpg    Susan Midalia
University of Western Australia Press, 173 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss

Short story collections are a strange concoction for most of us. Science fiction and fantasy readers are well accustomed to the form, with a number of monthly magazines and an array of original and reprint anthologies appearing each year. But readers of literary fiction will not be so familiar, which might well go a long way to explaining the dearth of them.

Maybe readers expect too much of them, maybe they really long for a novel, or maybe they just can't understand what the writer is trying to do. The novel is easy enough(!): it's a literary form that allows a writer to explore their desired story/theme/characterisation for as long as they want or need. They can just keep going until they've reached an end. But short stories don't allow that level of freedom and I wonder if, subconsciously, the reader is aware of that and maybe thinks they are not going to receive full "bang for their buck". If that's the case then I think the reader is approaching
the short story form in the wrong way. Maybe if they read A History of the Beanbag and Other Stories they might just change their minds.

There are three major short story forms in my view: the novel synopsis, the linear tale and the mood piece. The title story, "A History of the Beanbag", falls definitely into the novel synposis category. Some will see it as a straight linear tale, and here we can read it that way, and still look at what the story might have become in another context, rather than merely examining its surface. After a brief introduction to the beanbag and its history, we meet Robyn, a university student living in a sharehouse and looking for some cheap comfortable furniture in the early 1974. Needless to say the beanbag is the obvious choice, as it was for me some 30-odd years ago. There is a brief description of the changing relationships within the sharehouse, mainly involving the new woman Kathy, before we jump to 1983. Now it's Kathy's turn to be out purchasing a beanbag. Three years later and Kathy's marriage to Glen, from the original sharehouse, is falling apart. And 8 years later, in 1994, Robyn and the now-divorced Kathy get reacquainted. Beanbags hover in the background all through this story.

Not much to it is there? At least not at first look. Yet if you look deeper you'll see that there is a full novel lurking beneath the surface of this story. Normally that would ruin it for me. But not with this story. Something lifts it above its superficial level and you get a glimpse of what might have been as well as the enjoyment of the piece at hand. It's quite
remarkable and an excellent choice to lead off this collection. While the rest of the works here don't quite rise to these standards, there is certainly enough to interest any reader. The topics are usually domestic suburbia and they leave you with the feeling that the author has worked and re-worked them for some time, only allowing them out into the world when they are well and truly ready.

Susan Midalia has a lot of writing talent. On the evidence of this collection I'd be interested to see how she handles the novel form. Quite well I suspect.

Review: Aphelion by Emily Ballou

aphelion.jpg    Emily Ballou
Pan Macmillan, 493 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

Phew!! Who knew that so much heaving, seething, emotional turmoil and sexual tension could be boiling away in three old houses next to each other on the shores of peaceful Lake Eucumbene!

Set in the historic town of Adaminaby, a place drowned by The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, the action of this novel takes place against the magnificent backdrop of the High Country. The title, Aphelion, is a term used in astronomy referring to the point in the orbit of a planet when it is the furthest from the sun, the darkest point.

Hazel is an American woman running from a failed relationship. She is coming to the town to curate an exhibition on the history of the area. On the way she picks up a hitchhiker, handsome loner Rhett, who is returning after years abroad to sort out his mother's house after her death. He offers to put her up at his place.

The two of them storm into the lives of the four women who live next door: four generations of the same family, trapped together by the circumstances of their lives. These six people seem held in a dream on the shores of the lake in isolation from the rest of the world, all in a state of aphelion. Rhett and Hazel act as the catalysts to start everyone dealing with their emotional paralysis.

The four women are great-grandmother Hortense, her daughter Esme, granddaughter Byrne and great-granddaughter Lucetta. All have very complex, angst-ridden back-stories.

I have had a very mixed reaction to Emily Ballou's novel. Her descriptive writing, evoking the beauty of the area, the physicality of the characters and the great rendering of the historical detail in the stories of the older women are very fine, and the reason why I read the book to the end. Miss Ballou is a very talented writer capable of transporting the reader to another place and time, whether it be magnificent, rugged scenery or an old farmhouse kitchen.

Her characters are well drawn, however the plot lines and the exchanges between the characters, especially the Windle women, are ultimately irritating and boring. There are too many intense people in the same place, at the same pitch. In fact there are enough for two novels! Everyone is constantly working out his or her deepest, innermost thoughts and problems and every aspect of the mother-child relationship is scrutinised. One minute we are mystical, another suicidal. Then there are the sex scenes. Now, I'm sure if you put six intelligent people of mixed ages and sexes (some from the same family) in a room and you could read their thoughts all at once it would probably be a bit like Aphelion, but would we want to stay in the room with them? There is a feeling of trying too hard. A simpler version of the plot would have gone so much further, allied with Ms. Ballou's undoubted writing talent, to bring the place, the story and the history more alive, to feel genuine emotion for these people instead of a vague feeling of "get on with it".

I did enjoy many aspects of this book. It just needs to be a little more balanced, with a greater perspective on the concept of the story as a whole, a little more ease. With such a gifted writer I'm sure this will come in future work.

Review: Vinyl Inside by Rachel Matthews

vinyl_inside.gif    Rachel Matthews
Transit Lounge, 251 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

This is a well-written, engaging read based around a simple idea. Twenty years before the story unfolds a young girl was forced to give a child up for adoption. Now the child has come to find the mother. The story is about the impact that action has on the mother's life.

Set in a caravan park in 80's Australia, this is a universal story and also a typically Australian story, especially for those who grew up during this era. It's hard to imagine a 15 year old girl being forced to relinquish a child in such an inhuman way now, but back in the 60's that's the way it was done and it was "all for the best".

We are introduced to a couple, Elsie and Sterling, who live in Splashes Caravan Park and who seem to have a settled life. They have a very loving relationship and do good in the community they live in. The author goes into great detail to recreate the Australia of this era in an almost cinematic way.

Herein lie two small criticisms about the book that I found distracted from the writing. Firstly, some books have the whiff of future screenplay about them, as though they have been written with that solely in mind, and I certainly got this feeling as I read this book. I can almost visualise the actors who could play the roles. Most of them are in Kath and Kim!

Secondly, I did feel that I was trapped inside a trivia quiz on the 80's. The pop culture references to the period are completely overwhelming. It distracted from the good storyline and well developed characters. The depiction of the strine accent and liberal peppering of Aussie expressions is a little over the top as well. It is very Bazza McKenzie.

However, the building of the relationship between Elsie and Sterling and their reactions to the arrival of Dania into their close, well-ordered existence is spot on. The fear, shock and feelings of betrayal they must work through to go on together are beautifully portrayed. This story certainly covers all the issues surrounding the adoption process, and how it affects the lives of those involved.

This is a humorous and very moving story, a great debut novel from Rachel Matthews.

Review: Conversations with the Mob by Megan Lewis

conversations_mob.gif Megan Lewis
University of Western Australia Press, 240 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Michael Freedman

Photojournalism is, in essence, the collection of images to tell a story. It is sometimes said that photojournalists capture verbs, while mere photographers capture nouns. What photojournalists actually capture is moments in time, presenting those moments in a way that evokes emotion in the viewer and invokes insight about the subject. In Conversations with the Mob, award-winning photojournalist Megan Lewis documents a five-year mission to tell the story of the Martu, an Aboriginal people of the Western Desert in Western Australia. In doing so, she learns as much about herself as she does about her subjects. I suspect the reverse is also true.

Born and raised in rural New Zealand, Megan Lewis moved to Australia when she was 21. Ten years later, in 2002 (the same year the Federal Court granted the Martu people native title of 136,000 square kilometres of desert land) she decided to quit her job as a photographer for The Australian and live in the desert with the Martu people, affectionately referred to throughout the book, often by the Martu themselves, as "the mob". The goal: to write a book comprising a series of photographs telling the story of an indigenous people in some ways far removed from non-indigenous culture, but in other ways tragically affected by the worst parts of it. In doing so, Ms Lewis hoped to assist understanding of the ways of the Martu. Ms Lewis' book will also hopefully facilitate non-indigenous Australians' understanding of themselves, and the consequences of their actions.

After the first three months of her odyssey, Ms Lewis, in her own words, "hit the wall". The isolation, the heat (50 degree days being the norm) and the insects combined to severely test Ms Lewis' resolve. After some serious soul-searching, Ms Lewis decided to forget her preconceived expectations, and live "completely in the moment". This allowed Ms Lewis to not only accept her situation, but also allowed the Martu to accept her as well.

The book itself canvasses a number of themes -- alienation from and lack of understanding by the white Government, loss of culture stemming from the impact of non-indigenous beliefs, and preventable deaths from European diseases and access to alcohol, cigarettes and an unhealthy diet. But it also delivers (if you'll pardon the pun) a fascinating snapshot into the culture of one of Australia's indigenous peoples. From the Martus' occasional mistrust of the "whitefella" but more usual bemusement at his behaviour, to Martu beliefs in maparn (healing) and jukartani (dreamtime), Conversations with the Mob provides insight into a culture that has as many similarities with non-indigenous culture as there are differences. The Martu devotion to their children, love and significance of sport and pop culture, and the importance of solid inter-personal relationships are pervasive themes. But so is Ms Lewis' integration into a culture that accepted her with little reservation.

The book's colour glossy photos are many and varied, and show the Martu people in all their guises -- male and female, young and old, at work and play, happy and grieving. Ms Lewis has a discerning eye for a photograph, and as a photojournalist maintains a sense of objectivity that must have become increasingly difficult the more she got to know her subjects. Indeed, the closeness of the friendships made by Ms Lewis with the Martu people is made clear in the book, which is lovingly constructed by someone who was obviously deeply affected by the subject matter. In addition to capturing verbs, Ms Lewis has captured the hearts of a people who have every reason to be suspicious of a "whitefella" with a camera.

Review: Fivefold by Nathan Burrage

fivefold.jpg Nathan Burrage
Bantam, 475 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss
Soon after I first started reading this novel I frankly didn't hold out a lot of hope for it. The cover and blurb ("What if we got it wrong? What if the first five chapters of the Bible weren't about good and evil at all? What if they contained a hidden meaning, evidence of a divine grand plan?") led me to think this was going to be some sort of Da Vinci Code rip-off; replete with mystical symbols and the hand of God leaving her fingerprints all over the place. Added to that, after an interesting prologue, the next 50 or so pages jump around all over the place following one character for a few pages before changing to another. Allowing the reader little time to settle in. There seemed little to connect any of it to a single story-line. I found it a bit of a struggle. But I have this 60 page rule whereby every novel should be given an hour to find its feet, to captivate the reader and provide a reason to believe the author knows what he (in this case)
knows what he is doing. I'm glad I did.

The novel starts with a prologue set in Yorkshire in 1308. An isolated monastery is threatened by bandits who are intent on stealing some treasure held there. In order to ensure that the object doesn't fall into enemy hands the abbot poisons the other monks, burns down the church and is executed by "friendly" knights sworn to protect him. This is a good start. Sudden and unexpected death always is. The novel then jumps to the present day as we are gradually introduced to five main characters, mid- to late-twenties, living in London, mainly professonals and all with individual characteristics which will have a major bearing on the plot. Somehow these five are connected in some way, and, equally, something seems to be drawing them towards a certain place in Yorkshire - the same place that was destroyed by fire some seven hundred years previously.

Burrage handles this development of the plot very well, though you have to stick with it. The stands do come together and when the true nature of their calling is revealed, and their struggle for survival begins, the reader finds themselves on a fictional ride that maintains the tension and keeps them guessing to the end. As I read this novel I was reminded of two very different artistic items: the film Raiders of the Lost Ark and the novel Black Easter by James Blish. This novel is something of a cross between the two: mixing some of the adventure of the Spielberg/Lucas film with the arcane demonology of Blish's book.

Does it work? In the main, yes. There are times when the requirement for massive "info dumps" slows the pace of the book. But Burrage doesn't belabour the technique, moving on just as you feel he's stayed too long. There is a lot of talent at work here.

This is the author's first novel, and, on this evidence, he's going to be one to watch.

Review: Skin and Bone by Kathryn Fox

skin_and_bone.jpg    Kathryn Fox
Macmillan, 273 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Bernadette Gooden

Presented with a pristine copy of Kathryn Fox's new crime novel Skin and Bone I stroked the cover and inhaled that new book smell, anticipating the sensual, as well as intellectual, pleasure of reading. The cover promised so much. An intriguing and sinister title and a quote from the Herald-Sun review screamed "Australia's answer to Patricia Cornwell". Big shoes to fill.

I started reading, but instead of the nail-down-blackboard, can't put it down, gruesome chill and thrill of early Ms. Cornwell, I began to think to myself Kathryn, why did you bother? You haven't tried very hard with this one.

As I read I began to see Kathryn sitting in her study, a story board in front of her, with cards representing her characters being ruthlessly pushed around with as many crime fiction clichés attached to them as she could muster. The lacklustre plot was predictable as soon as all the players were introduced. "Australia's answer to Patricia Cornwall" is a pale copy.

Detective Kate Farrer, returning to work after a traumatic abduction, is confronted by two deaths by fire, a missing daughter of influential parents, a lost baby that may or may not exist and a connection to drug rapists. She also has to deal with a new partner who appears to be corrupt, although a sensitive new age family man in his personal life. The chase is on ... and what a boring chase it is!

If I have to read about one more childless career woman who knows nothing about babies (who does until you have one?) and is made to seem unnatural because of it, I will have to scream. This is such an annoying cliché. However, contrasting her with a male detective who has four kids and one on the way and can tell how old a baby is by the amount of holes in it's bottle teat is equally silly. That, and the bit where his wife has given up her legal career to be a stay at home mother to five children and live on a cop's salary ... yeah ... right ... like that's gonna happen.

Every detail is over explained so that it feels slightly like a lecture. In her previous novel, Without Consent, she did a much better job describing the dealings of the sexual assault unit and their work with rape victims. Her characters were well rounded and the story well crafted. I wanted to finish reading it. In Skin and Bone (precious little of either), I just didn't care very much about any of the protagonists. Ms Fox touches on the shady area of resort/cruise drug rape, an interesting topic ripped from the headlines. I know I was appalled last year following the case of a group of men alleged to have done this on a P&O Cruise, resulting in a woman's death. This horrific type of crime was used as a minor plot device and I was disappointed that it wasn't taken further to create a more original and topical story.

What makes a great crime novel is not just a cracking good mystery, interesting setting or fast paced action, but the complex, well-developed and often deeply flawed characters of the detectives and the criminals. Like us, they have to overcome their own shortcomings to achieve their goals. We don't even have to like them, but they must engage us. I especially like it when the criminal is as likable as the detective. Who can forget Hannibal Lector?

*** Spoiler Alert ***

In Skin and Bone the drug rapist Mark Dobbie is thoroughly unsavoury. I kept asking myself why would women even speak to him in the first place? It wasn't really believable that he would have the success he was apparently having. He could have been so much more, more charm, more rat cunning. The real villain of the piece. I wanted to know more about his motivation and background.

There was really no worthy adversary for Kate and Oliver to pit themselves against. Kate's battle with herself to get back on top of her job mentally just didn't come across strongly enough to compel the action. Neither did the anti-corruption subplot that went nowhere. The climax of the novel, where Kate was inevitably going to have to conquer her claustrophobia and get cosy with a baby, was like a flashing beacon from the beginning. And isn't it always the obsessive mother? Aren't all stepfathers like Woody Allen (of course he was bonking the pretty one)?

At least with Patricia Cornwell we get cooking tips, lesbian chic and we can indulge in Lucyrage (like roadrage, but you have an overwhelming desire to slap Lucy very, very hard. I know she's a made up person ... I really, really do!)

I think that Kathryn Fox has a lot of potential but is not ready to take her place amongst the Queens of Crime just yet.

Review: Lilia's Secret by Erina Reddan

lilias_secret.jpg    Erina Reddan
Vintage, 334 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Tineke Hazel

Lilia's Secret is a story about how separation and loss in childhood can affect life later in adulthood.

Maddy, the youngest of seven children, talks about her life on a dairy-farm in a dry sunburnt place somewhere in Australia. Her mother is overwhelmed with work on the farm and looking after seven children. Maddy's father loves her mother dearly and does his best to make life reasonable on this dry and lonely farm, but her mother is so unhappy she leaves the farm and children to go and live with a former boyfriend. Maddy's father is so devastated by his wife leaving him; he can't cope with the unhappiness and hangs himself from a tree in a gully, where he is found by his eldest son. After the funeral Maddy's mother comes back to look after her family. Maddy grows up and marries Andres, a young man from Mexico. She freaks out when he suggests they start a family, as families to her mean total unhappiness. She decides she needs time out to think this over and tells Andres she has to go to Mexico on a business trip, where the major part of the novel takes place.

In the second major strand of the novel, Bill, is a recently retired Boston business tycoon. He was an only child, loved by his parents and appears to be leading a happy family life, until, when he is about ten, his father receives a letter from Lilia, the Mexican widow of his best friend living in Aquasecas. She asks him to come to Mexico to sort out some business matters his late friend left unfinished. He drops everything, including his wife and little son Billy, and goes to Mexico, where he succumbs to the charms of the beautiful and wealthy Lilia de Las Flores. He marries her and a few years later dies under suspicious circumstances. It later emerges that most of Lilias previous five husbands had also died suspiciously.

Bill, now retired and neurotically counting whatever is in sight, finds a letter from his dead father in a box belonging to his dead mother. He decides to go to Aqusecas to see if he can find out what really happened to his father.

Maddy arrives in Mexico and meets Andres's sisters who show her a photo of Lilia de Las Flores who is, she discovers, Andres's great grandmother. She too, goes to Aquasecas to find out if Lilia really did kill her husbands.

Following similar paths, Bill and Maddy get to know each other as each pursue leads to Lilia de Las Flores in their own way.

At this point, the story becomes very involved and convoluted. Keeping the characters apart and meaningful becomes rather difficult. Each new introduced character adds a little more knowledge about Lilia, and slowly the mystery of the deaths of her husbands comes to light.

The use of language gives the characters a gesticulating and restless quality. Maddy's neurotic scratching of her wrist may be a symptom of our modern dysfunctional child but really contributes nothing to the story itself. The same goes for Bill, who counts everything in sight to keep himself grounded, but he never matures despite the fact he gives some of his millions to start a midwifery clinic in Aquasecas.

There is no comfortable rhythm to the story to encourage you on as a reader. There is also no sense of place: there are very few memorable descriptions of Mexico or the countryside they move in.

To sum up, the point of the novel is to tell a story of love and tragedy of a mysterious Mexican woman whose actions influence later generations. The two main characters, Maddie who is a young woman traumatised in her childhood by the mother leaving the family and suicide by hanging of her father, and Bill, the retired business tycoon, traumatised as a boy by his father leaving for Mexico and never coming back, both struggle with the inability to love and be loved. Both learn a little of how to give of themselves but they still have a long way to go.

Review: The Whisper of Leaves by K. S. Nikakis

whisper_of_leaves.jpg K.S. Nikakis
Arena Allen & Unwin, 403 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss

High fantasy is a very popular genre within the speculative fiction world. It can be said to have emerged in its modern form in the writings of J.R.R. Tolkein, and some might even suggest it reached its high-point there. The genre is characterised by its setting - usually a world very similar to our own - its historical time-frame - very definitely a pre-industrial age - and by its serious tone. Often, such novels feature magical or mythical creatures such as wizards, elves, dragons and the like, so this novel's lack of such supernatural or fantastical beings presents as a breath of fresh air.

Many years before the opening of The Whisper of Leaves, twin gold-eyed princes had a falling out and split their kingdom apart. One stayed true to his warrior past, while the other left home to found a community deep within a vast southern forest. In the novel's prologue, a descendant of the warrior prince, the leader of the Shargh tribe, receives a prophecy that seems to foretell the extinction of his people. The prophecy implies that the threat will emerge from amongst the Tremen, the forest people who have turned away from industry and founded a society whose highest achievement is that of Healing. The novel follows the story of Kira, a seventeen-year-old girl with a highly developed Healing ability, who the Shargh believe is the golden-eyed destroyer of their prophecy. Initially sheltered by the forest and the extended community on which she lives, Kira is portrayed as a rebellious spirit who toes the expected line only as a last resort. An incursion into the forest by the Shargh leads to her discovery and a series of armed raids in which a number of Tremen are killed. Kira's response to that armed struggle decides her fate up to the end of this novel, and into subsequent books, though how many that will be is rather uncertain.

A major component of many, if not all, high fantasies is the battle between good and evil, order and chaos. This major dichotomy is generally clearly delineated: there is black and there is white, with little grey muddying the mix. This distinct division between opposing forces allows an author to ratchet up the tension whenever the two forces interact, and to use them as a means of examining the mental and physical fortitude of the hero. Nikakis doesn't shy from this tradition - in fact she embraces it whole-heartedly - but she does shift the usual split from sword/magic to sword/healing, or, if you like, industrial/hunter-gatherer. As is again common in this genre, the good/evil split is usually based on race, culture, country or tribe lines. Here it revolves around both culture and tribe, as the two components are inseparable: all Tremen Healers are hunter-gatherer vegetarians, and all members of the Shargh are hunters or farmers of animals. This is not to say, however, that all members of the Tremen are warm and wonderful, and all Shargh are sword-wielding carnivores; Nikakis is not that simplistic. The major conflicts exist between the two tribes but there are other, more subtle, divisions within each which tend to enrich the tale being told. These internal conflicts aren't fully resolved within this volume. Some are, and some have a direct influence on the story outcomes here, but a number are obviously there for the long haul. You get the distinct feeling that the author has a fair idea of where the story is heading, and why. In a multi-volume series such as this, that understanding gives the reader a certain level of confidence that his or her investment in the extended work won't be time wasted.

There are some problems with the novel, which, depending on your understanding of the genre, will prove easy to handle or become a major obstacle to getting through the first 80 or pages. In order to set the stage for the rest of the novel and, in this case, for the rest of the series, a large amount of information - about the world depicted, its peoples and its history - has to be provided to the reader in rather large chunks. The worst form of this is the boring exposition technique, normally referred to as "telling rather than showing": "Now, John, as you well know, two hundred years ago our ancestors...blah,blah,blah..." and so on and so forth for a couple of pages of dense stupefying prose. Nikakis doesn't fall into this trap but still struggles a little to get the required information to the reader in a lively fashion. Once she gets past this scene-setting the novel shows a better sense of pace and it's possible to settle back and enjoy the ride.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that K.S. Nikakis has made an auspicious debut with this novel - it doesn't "blow you away" and tends to be a bit slow in places - but its world-building, its interesting take on some classic fantasy tropes, and its storylines set up enough hooks to ensure that this reader will be looking for the following volumes in the series.

Review: Paydirt by Kathleen Mary Fallon

paydirt.jpg Kathleen Mary Fallon
University of WA Press, 163 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss

I've never been particularly fond of the prose style known as "stream of consciousness": it has always seemed rather pretentious to me. Loosely defined in Wikipedia as "a literary technique which seeks to portray an individual's point of view by giving the written equivalent of the character's thought processes, either in a loose interior monologue, or in connection to his or her sensory reactions to external occurrences", the literary technique is one that a reader either gets or feels repelled by. I'm usually at the latter end of this scale.

So it was some degree of trepidation that I come to Paydirt by Kathleen Mary Fallon, a new Australian novel comprised of four "stream of consciousness" pieces. Kate is the white foster mother of Warren, a Torres Strait Islander boy, who was taken away from his mother as a young toddler. Kate and Warren are flying to Brisbane to see Flo, Warren's birth mother, as she is dying. These three characters, plus Delkeith, a go-between, tell their stories in turn; jumping backwards and forwards, gradually filling in the small details of their mutual history. The first and main piece of the book concerns Kate. She sits in the plane, drinking whiskeys, dreading the coming meeting, and trying to make sense of her feelings towards Warren and his place in her life.

I hate Warren. I hate him for showing me up to myself. My coy, closet Christianity. Hate him because he's the focus for all the abuse and filth that's been directed at me, because I chose him to hold up against that as proof of some pudding and now he's the conduit for it. Hate him because I saw what that violence has turned him into. The Stolen Generation's just the most recent story in a long epic. Some Christian re-enactment. Save him. Save myself. Hate him because it hasn't worked. I'm lost. I'm part of the Crusade, this maelstrom of involution. Everything is regressing, going back to some equilibrium, some point of origin. Hell spreads.
She's completely conflicted and acts, in this novel, as the Australian white everyman: on the one hand being overwhelmed by a protective instinct that is part maternal and wholly human, and on the other, angry about the role she has had to play and the affect it has had on her. She ends her piece with an apology which runs for two pages, ending with a resolution that, while she is sorry for all that has happened and for all the things she she didn't do, she remains resolute in her desire to do what's best for Warren. How that will turn out, she, and we as readers, have no way of determining.

Paydirt hasn't got much in the way of plot, yet the story in the background is long and deep. The idea of telling a story completely in flashbacks is nothing new, though I suspect very few books have pushed it as far as this one. As I said earlier, whether you think it succeeds or not is a matter of personal taste. There are no easy answers here for any of the characters, just as there are no easy answers for the whole Australian community. But Fallon isn't looking for specific answers in her work. The aim is for the readers to read the thoughts of the main characters and hopefully come to some understanding, however small, of the problems that all parties face. This book doesn't aim to make big changes in our attitudes - I suspect the novel's audience will be largely sympathetic to the subject matter in any case - but even a little extra insight is an improvement.

Review: The Flying Grocer by Rupert Guinness

flying_grocer.jpg Rupert Guinness
Random House, 255 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Tineke Hazel

The Flying Grocer is the story of Keith Bennett, a young Australian pilot who flew 30 bombing missions from England over Germany towards the end of the second World War. One of those missions was part of Operation Manna, a food drop over Western Holland during the last five days of the European war.

Simply said but not simply done.

Rupert Guinness, the author, had wanted his father-in-law, Keith Bennett, to write down this remarkable story. Like most men of that generation who had seen the horrors of war, Bennett refused to even talk about that time of his life. After Bennett died, Guinness decided, with the blessing of Bennett's widow, to relate the story himself.

Guinness had access to war diaries, service records and personal letters. He did a lot of research into the training of Bennett as a pilot in Australia and England, and he goes into great detail about all the aircraft specifications, which annoyingly he quotes in metric instead of Imperial which would have been in use then. He gathers a lot of opinions about Bennett from flying mates and family, but somehow his subject remains a shadowy figure. Amongst the letters is one from Jannie van Splunder, a Dutch girl who thanks Keith and his mate Murray for the carton of cigarettes to which he had attached their addresses in Australia and included it in the food drop near Ridderkerk, where Jannie and her friend picked it up. She expresses her gratitude for her family and all the neighbourhood for the food which saved them from starvation. As a six year old I can remember standing on the corner of the Uddelstraat and Soestdyksekade in Den Haag with a group of silently crying neighbours, watching the Lancaster bombers dropping food parcels on the other side of Zuiderpark. My father was involved in the fair distribution of this life-saving food.

Jannie asks Bennett if she can send him anything as a Thank You, but he replies that her gratitude makes him feel the food drop makes some sort of amends for having been part of the bombing raids that destroyed Dresden. Their correspondence dwindles as both get on with their lives on opposite sides of the world.

In 1983 Bennett and his wife visit Jannie and her husband briefly. After Bennett's death Guinness visits Jannie and she shows him where the cigarette parcel was dropped, now a busy 4-lane highway. He had not been aware that the West of Holland had lost so many people in the Hungerwinter of 1944-45 due to the appalling conditions and lack of food.

Guinness has done a fine job of drawing attention to Operation Manna, so we can all remember these fine young men, who did a job to stop Hitler from totally destroying the world as they knew it.

It is interesting that little known facts about the second World War come to light through memories passed on to later generations. It is not a well-known fact that the 2/11th battalion of WA fought on Mt Thermopylae, and was part of a force that held back the Germans for long enough that their operation, Barbarossa, was a failure and ensured Hitler made the same mistake as Napoleon in finding his army bogged down in a fierce Russian winter. The 2/11th was driven back to Crete where they were made into an ANZAC corp and faced the German paratroopers dropping with swishing sound out of silent gliders. They killed many and would have held Crete if it hadn't been for lack of communications with the English command. The Allied command did not learn from this either, as they later made a disastrous drop on Ahrnem near the end of the war.

Review: Rohypnol by Andrew Hutchinson

rohypnol.jpg Andrew Hutchinson
Vintage, 246 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss

Let me say at the outset that this novel is not a light or easy read: the situations portrayed are unpleasant and unsettling, and the characters that inhabit the book are completely unlikeable. When you get to the end it's hard to say that you've actually enjoyed it. But readers who leave this novel repelled by the material will only have seen the surface layer of what this book has to offer. It would be an common enough response to the work, and it is one that I would have some sympathy with. Yet, in doing so, the reader would be missing an important ingredient of Rohypnol, one that lifts it above the general ruck.

Troy, Uncle, Thorley, and the novel's narrator, are a group of disaffected teenagers who have fallen in together for a variety of reasons, and have formed, for want of a better term, a "date-rape" gang. Their favourite mode of operation is for one of their number to spike the drink of a pre-determined target, in a dark pub or nightclub, with Rohypnol, and then to spirit the victim away from the scene and back to an apartment where the sexual assault takes place. The story of the four is told from the point of view of the unnamed narrator, who starts the novel in therapy, fantasising about the therapist and attempting to forestall any form of analysis by her. We are aware early on that something bad has happened; we're not sure what, though it's not hard to figure out. The point of the book is not so much what took place, but how the protagonists got to the state that it could happen.

What we are shown here is the story of teenagers severely out of touch with the society in which they live, and divorced from their own humanity. They appear like predators, circling their prey and waiting for the right time to pounce. Are they really animals, or just disaffected youth who have taken the wrong path? They certainly display a number of sociopathic tendencies: lack of empathy, and control of their own actions being not the least of them. As I said earlier, the characters in the novel are completely unsympathetic, but Hutchinson has hit on a method of making the reader keep turning the pages; searching, I suppose, for some form of redemption or cathartic outcome. In many ways the novel reads like pulp noir fiction: short simple sentences, clipped dialog, short chapters that jump focus and time. There is little or no reflection on the action of the book by the narrator. The only sense of the narrator's purpose comes from several manifesto-like utterances spread throughout the book:

The New Punk is about intelligence...The New Punk is about raiding the twentieth century to make something new...The New Punk is about taking control. Seeing what you want and taking it, no matter the cost...The New Punk is not about remorse...The New Punk is not about moving towards your future. It is about your life right now, impatiently standing still.
I don't think these work. They add little to the reader's understanding of the novel's philosophy and break the flow of the story. Better is Thorley's explanation of "the rules", the first of which reads: "Never use your real name." Incorporated directly into the story they have more power. It's hard not to be reminded of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, at this point, which also laid down a set of rules for its participants: "The first rule of Fight Club is never talk about Fight Club."

Various commentators on this book have been critical of it for what they see as an attempt to shock, concentrating on the actions of the characters and the author's alleged "overuse" of swearing in the dialog. Yes, there are a lot of obscenities used in the book, but I've heard worse at the football and in the pub, so I didn't find the swearing here to be overdone nor repulsive. A certain sense of authenticity is required in a work of this sort and I'd rather this approach than one that was obviously toned down to little effect, or that attempted to replicate a form of slangy jargon. I do, in fact, feel that Hutchinson showed a degree of restraint at times and might well have shovelled the swearing on even harder. Does that forgive his use of swearing? No, because there is, in my mind, nothing to forgive. It fits the story and that's all that counts. It does, however, show that he was aware of the effect he was attempting to achieve and didn't just allow the thing to run out of control.

The most shocking thing about this book is the fact that people like these actually exist. If the main purpose of any novel is to propel us into a world outside our own experience then this one succeeds. It will certainly not be to everyone's taste, but I suspect you won't forget it in a hurry.

Review: All the Bright Crosses by Ross Duncan

bright_crosses.jpg Ross Duncan
Vintage, 335 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss

The best thrillers take us on a roller-coaster ride, forcing us to keep turning the pages as the frenetic pace doesn't let up. Literary fiction tends towards the other end of the scale: a slow, introspective journey across a sedate landscape, where everything can be weighed and balanced, inspected and examined. To find a novel that seems to neatly fit between the two, to take some of the best from each genre, is a real treat. All Those Bright Crosses is one of those rare beasts.

Martin Flint is in a bad way. He begins the novel sitting in a dingy bar in Fiji, drinking too much and longing for better days. A long-dormant gambling compulsion has reared up and swallowed him after the death of his young daughter in a drowning accident in his backyard swimming pool. His wife has left him, he's in debt up to his eyeballs, and he's lost his job as sub-editor on a major newspaper.

On the day Cali died Angelica had gone to work. I was at home. When I went out into the backyard to check on Cali, she was not there. Not in the yard or the street or at any of neighbours' places.

I thought about this as I stood out on the balcony of the aprtment the night that Angelica left, chainsmoking and watching an argument in the street between a couple of junkies. I told myself then that it wasn't my gambling that had made Angelica pack her bags. In the brutal glare and sudden hush of that moment, when Cali's body was raised from the floor of our swimming pool, something between Angelica and me severed, something we thought we might be able to live without. Because it was impossible to restore.

The only thing that seems to spark any sense of interest in him is a long-forgotten story of lost shipwreck treasure on an island somewhere near Fiji. So he throws in his past life, travels to Fiji on the back of a small inheritance to carry on some extra research into the mystery and finds that the tropical life suits his current mood. Suits it to the extent that he settles into a quiet existence, working part-time for the hotel where he lives and filling in at a local paper. The trouble is he starts to think he might just be trading in a gambling addiction for something else.
There was no breeze now, the sky was cloudless and the sun seared into me. A mix of angst and longing, something like homesickness gripped me, and I had an urge to tell Rusty to turn back. But I resisted. I wondered, as I clambered out of the boat, if I had become like one of those men who never quite finishes restoring the vintage car, who pleads in his defence the need for thoroughness, authenticity, perfection, when the truth is he has no idea what he would do with himself if he ever managed to complete the project. It is really just a way of killing time, filling up the emptiness. Looking for treasure. It was the reason I had come to Fiji but it wasn't the real reason I lingered here. That was something I still barely understood. Or perhaps was simply too painful to acknowledge.
Taken simply like that, the novel sounds about as boring as it could possibly get. And yet Duncan never allows Flint to get too maudlin, or too introspective. He keeps the mystery of the shipwreck ticking along - mainly in the background, but also occasionally right up front - to maintain a sense of mystery that keeps the reader turning the pages. And all the while a steady change comes over Flint: he starts to become less self-obsessed, more interested in the people who cross his path and more able to reconcile himself to the nagging suspicion that it was really him who was responsible for his daughter's death.

For a long while during the reading of this novel I had the suspicion that Duncan was going to morph the plot into a full-blown treasure hunt. There is some of that -- a mystery con-man from the past, stolen research papers and serious threats of violence -- but the main thrust of the book is Flint's journey towards an inner sense of peace as he comes to terms with himself and what has happened in his life.

On the evidence of this debut novel, Ross Duncan could follow either the thriller or literary paths in his fiction. I expect he would succeed with either.

Review: Nights in the Asylum by Carol Lefevre

nights_asylum.jpg Carol Lefevre
Vintage, 319 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss

You could be forgiven for thinking that a new genre is emerging in Australian literary fiction: the genre of "escape" fiction. Not escapist, there is certainly enough of that around, but "escape" - the act of leaving a bad place in the hope of reaching somewhere better, or at least acceptable. Grace by Robert Drewe would fit, with its protagonist fleeing an inner-city stalker for the wilds of north-western Australia; and there are escapes, of sorts, in both Dreams of Speaking by Gail Jones and Candle Life by Venero Armanno.

Escapes, in this context, should not be confused with "journeys"; the two are very different. Epic fantasy utilises the concept of the physical journey as a means of transforming the protagonists from their initial state of innocence to hero status at journey's end. The literary fiction equivalent is the "road" novel, where the end is less important than the act of getting there, and the life changing events that are experienced along the way. This new "escape" genre almost dispenses with the journey, preferring to emphasise the arrival, or post-arrival, aspects of the story.

Such is certainly the case with Nights in the Asylum, a first novel by Australian writer Carol Lefevre. In this book, three very different characters find themselves in an old partly dilapidated mansion in an outback mining town. Each is fleeing a particular form of abuse and, while their respective journeys are described in the novel, "how" they got to the house seems of little importance. Indeed, very much of lesser import than the "why".

Miri, the novel's main character, has left her husband in Sydney after the death of their university-aged daughter, Alice. The triple blow of her daughter's psychiatric illness, followed by Miri's discovery of her husband's infidelities, and then the daughter's death, prove too much for her to cope with and she travels back to the mining town where she was born; back to the house her grandfather built for her Cuban grandmother. Along the way she picks up the hitch-hiking Aziz, a silent man of little English, who, we later find, has somehow escaped from an immigration detention centre and who seems intent on nothing more than never going back. Although the house is supposed to be locked up and empty, Miri finds local townswoman Suzette and her baby daughter hiding from her policeman husband in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

The arrival of the three in this house precipitates another journey in each of them. Aziz is trying to survive in a country he doesn't understand, fleeing the abuse that only a state can inflict on a person, searching for freedom. Suzette is also searching for freedom, but first has to discover the inner courage to escape her physically and mentally abusive husband in order to save her and her daughter's lives.

Miri initially thinks she has reached the end of her journey by returning to where she began. Yet this is just another starting off point for her. She was unable to save her daughter from herself, but discovers that she may just be able to save the others and, in the process, undergo a form of redemption.

It's a pretty good setup, all in all. It allows the author to explore three very different worlds, and three very different lives which just happen to intersect in one old house. Lefevre examines the intersecting story-line strands in chapters told from the different points-of-view of the main and subsidiary characters, in present time and in flashback, building up the layers of novel as she goes. Handled poorly this can be a recipe for disaster as the reader's focus changes too often and with too little delineation between strands. Lefevre doesn't fall into that trap and the overall effect of this technique adds, rather than detracts, from the final result.

The only quibble I have with the book relates to its ending. Suzette's husband comes looking for her and is suspicious of Miri, seemingly all alone in this great house. The presence of Aziz and Suzette becomes known to some sympathetic neighbours, but the more people who know of them only increases the likelihood that the police will be informed. Lefrevre decreases the size of her chapters and sentences, instilling a sense of urgency into the formulation of an escape plan, and ramping up the tension as the police spiral in towards them. And yet, at the end, it finishes in a rather off-hand manner. The reader isn't looking for a final "showdown" or resolution as in a mystery novel, but the final scene, of the main part of the novel, feels rather like a let-down.

The last part of the book consists of nine very short chapters describing a set of "undated photographs". You are led to believe these show the novel's protagonists at some time in the future, after the end of the novel, though I found the effect too obscure to render much enlightenment. Maybe if I'd paid more attention to the description of the characters or their surroundings during the course of the book I might have been better placed to appreciate these appendices. It's asking a lot of a reader to be that attentive.

I should say that I'm talking from my own perspective and failings here. In general, the book shows a talent for character, timing and place that augurs well for the future. My misgivings about various parts of the book can probably be explained by the fact that this is a first novel. If future efforts improve on this then they will be very good indeed.

Review: Love Without Hope by Rodney Hall

love_hope.jpg Rodney Hall
Picador, 269 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss

The best novels work on a variety of levels: plot, character, setting, and subject being just a few of them. Some climb high to the metaphor strata, whether deliberately or not, and thereby become much more than the simple sum of the parts - of the lower layers. Love Without Hope, the 12th and latest novel by Rodney Hall, is very nearly one of those books, one that certainly reaches for the lofty heights and only just fails to attain them.

Mrs Lorna Shoddy lives alone on her farm breeding horses, after her husband walked out some twenty years or so prior to the novel's commencement. Although she has managed to maintain the farm in working order she has been gradually neglecting herself, both physically and mentally, and when a bushfire blasts through her property she becomes depressed and her mental state worsens. Two local women pay her a charitable visit but are chased off the property by an obviously distressed Mrs Shoddy.

This action sets in train the beginning of the novel, with Mrs Shoddy committed to a nearby mental institution run by the gothically named Master in Lunacy, and with her farm being sold out from underneath her by an unscrupulous local businessman for profit, on the pretense of unpaid council rates and taxes. At first Shoddy rails against the treatment she receives, strapped into a straitjacket, unable to move, wallowing in her own filth, and screaming incoherently into the night. Yet even in this state she is aware that she isn't quite right:

She, who was once that hearty little horsewoman, recognises herself as reduced to a tiny stick-person with twig hands and bark for skin, perhaps scarcely even recognisable.
Her struggles against the system that has imprisoned her, the de-humanising treatment she receives, her quest for deliverance and the machinations of the townsfolk who wish her good, and ill, form the basis of the plot.

It is impossible not to be aware, as a reader, of the times in which this book was written. Hall, himself, gives his first clue in his dedication, which simply reads: for Julian Burnside. If you have an interest in human rights in this country you will have heard of the dedicatee, a barrister who is currently President of Liberty Victoria and who has spent a considerable amount of time and effort working against the extended detention of what the present federal government refers to as "illegal immigrants". But even beyond this first clue, it is impossible to ignore the case of David Hicks, Australia's sole remaining prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. I'm generally rather dubious of pushing metaphors in novels too far yet the parallels here seem rather too obvious to be ignored.

Rodney Hall is digging into some visceral human fears in the situation he has developed here. I suspect, deep down, we all fear incarceration without hope of escape and the loss of individualism. And Hall deliberately wants us to have some sense of what this loss of liberty means to the human spirit:

She cannot feel the straps that restrain her. Her little nerveless arms. Her nerveless chest and thighs. It frightens her to think about the pharaohs bound up in swaddling cloth, each one bandaged stiff, suffocating inside a mask, and fitted with a body-moulded coffin. Not for them the comfort of soil, the gentle rotting rupture till the delicate gelatinous fell from their bones -- no -- like her, they were destined for a sterner fate, cured and straightened out, locked down in a prison of a permanent existence among divine beings half-animal, half-human, dog-nosed and vulture-winged and, in each form, enigmatic. She knows it. And how voice, vision, touch and taste must all be surrendered while the core comes to be drawn out as spirit, that irreclaimable spirit, eternally in search of lodgings under the cowl of alien winter darkness.
We most certainly don't want to be there.

Hall is as much poet as novelist, as the previous paragraph indicates, and he is best when exploring the inner workings of the human psyche under duress. His work drops away a little when the novel's focus is diverted onto those outside the immediate environs of the mental institution. The characters are not under as much strain and hence are less well-delineated in the reader's mind; a mind that comes to see them as appendages to the novel's core. In addition, a couple of the story's turns seem a little contrived and the ending cut short a touch. This is not to say that the sections of the novel that do not directly deal with Mrs Shoddy and her incarceration are without interest. On the contrary, Hall is attuned to small town politics, the flickering allegiances and the moral ambiguities. It's just that, in her delirium and distress, Lorna Shoddy presents as the most interesting subject for inspection.

All in all, though, we are looking at an ambitious piece of work. A novel of our times dealing with the relationship between individual and state, the effects of mental illness, and the strengthening power of love.

Review: Inspector Anders and the Blood Vendetta by Marshall Browne

inspanders_blood_vendetta.jpg Marshall Browne
Random House, 341 pp.
Source: review copy
Review by Perry Middlemiss

There is a theory, to which I am becoming more and more attuned, that tension in British and US police procedural crime novels is created in two, very different ways. In the US version, the main protagonist fights the bulk of his battles with other branches of the justice machinery: if he works in homicide, then the FBI tries to interfere, and if he works for the Justice Department then it's likely to be a local detective that gets under his feet and in his way - Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch is an excellent example of this. Ian Rankin's Inspector Rebus, on the British side of the equation, has no such external agencies getting in his way. He has to work against his superiors, acting as an outsider to their bureaucratic inertia. Rebus is considered a maverick by his bosses, while Bosch is looked upon almost as a star by his.

There is, by implication, a third way: a pan-continental approach that uses tensions within and across countries, and between varying political forces, both legal and illegal. I have come across very few of these novels outside the purely "spy thriller" genre, such as Forsyth's Day of the Jackal. Few straight-forward mystery novels attempt to tackle the tensions listed above; whether for wont of material or ambition I'm not sure. So it is with a genuine sense of interest and the prospect of a new direction that we can approach the Inspector Anders novels of Melbourne writer Marshall Browne.

We first met the Italian inspector in The Wooden Leg of Inspector Anders in 1999, which was followed by Inspector Anders and the Ship of Fools in 2001. And we now have the third novel in the series, one to be savoured.

In the first novel one-legged Anders is seconded to southern Italy to examine the murder of an investigating magistrate, a case that the inspector solves in explosive fashion and which only enhances his reputation as a major anti-terrorism expert. Browne won a Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel for this book, and was lauded by such newspapers as the "Los Angeles Times". It was an auspicious debut. The second in the series saw Anders working in the modern Europe, tracking a killer of high-flying businessmen; a killer with a political agenda who doesn't restrict himself to one country or jurisdiction. I don't believe this novel was as successful as the first: the scope was too diverse, it was hard to keep track of the many minor characters flitting across the main stage, and the many changes of locale tended to dilute the tension. Now, however, Anders is back on track, back in Italy and investigating a series of political assassinations which have the authorities convinced the terrorist Red Brigades have re-surfaced.

Summoned back from his position in Europol in France to Milan, Anders rapidly finds himself at odds with his fellow workers (they believe, rightly, that the Mafia is out to get him and don't want to be caught in the cross-fire); his superiors who would prefer to handle the investigation their way; his political masters who want him to finish his work in a hurry but who don't want him to dig too deeply into peripheral matters; and his "southern friends" who desperately want to enact a brutal revenge for his previous bloody encounters with them. Stirred together it makes for a heady mix. The murders continue with few if any clues, and the Left and Right of Italian politics start blaming each other for the mess. Anders digs ever deeper into the case, following his own lines of thought, hunches and conjectures, sometimes sucessfully and sometimes to the exasperation of his colleagues.

If this book only relied on its plot it would be worth your reading. You should be aware, however, that Browne is something more than a simple plot-spinner. The best of the current crop of mystery/crime/detective novels have, at their heart, a character of great interest: a fully-rounded human being with strengths and weaknesses, desires and ambitions. An emotional creation that stands out from the page. Inspector Anders is one such character, one that can rank with the best of them. In his fifties Anders is something of an anachronism within the police services: confident but not arrogant, astute but not political, intelligent and yet prone to mis-judgements and misdirection. An ex-lover tells him : "You're a lonely, damaged man with a mindful of dark corners. And it's not your fault. The darkness isn't self-inflicted. It's been inflicted on you. You're a decent man but a sad case."

One of the few corners of his mind where he sees some form of light concerns his literary interests. Throughout the three books so far, Anders has been working on the biography of a famous ancestor, a poet who died in a duel defending a lady's honor. The work, and the details of his ancestor's life, have provided Anders with an anchor in his own life, something to cling to when his day-time work starts to swamp him. And yet, even here, Browne gives him little peace: new acquaintances reveal new details of the poet's life, some good and some devastating. You really start to feel sorry for the poor bloke.

Throughout the book Browne keeps his tension levels high, the plot moving along at a great clip and provides great interest in the main character's life to keep the reader moving ever forward. At times the cast and plotlines seem to get a touch overwhelming but the author rewards a careful reading, and sometimes a more careful re-reading of sections, to bring all the pieces together in a satisfying final outcome. Marshall Browne has written a novel of which he can be proud.

Review: Candle Life by Venero Armanno

candle_life.jpg Venero Armanno
Vintage, 349 pp.
Review by Perry Middlemiss

An unnamed Australian novelist is living in Paris, mourning the death of his lover, and struggling to recapture the rhythm of writing. He spends his waking hours thinking of her, reliving his life with her, and wandering the streets of the city. It's out on the streets that he comes into contact with a Black Cuban-American beggar named Jackson "Sonny" Lee, who gradually insinuates himself into the writer's life, and who eventually leads him to the catacombs under Paris, where the novel's ending is played out. In the meantime, the novelist has a friend die in his artist commune apartment, takes that friend's niece as a lover, gets involved with a mute Russian prostitute and generally has a hard time getting on with his life.

There seems to be a lot of symbols populating this book, and, as indicated by the novel's title Armanno uses the presence of candles throughout the book as a motif indicating life and stability.

My rugged accumulation of mountainous wax is as tall as a table and as wide as a television. When the power goes out, which it does to the point of clockwork madness, all I have to do is find the black stub of a wick in all that gloop and light it with a match. The thing is made of the remnants of hundreds of candles, and there are black wicks by the score. I can choose to light one or a dozen.
And later, Sonny tells him:
I took note of that giant candle thing in your room at the commune. I guess that was supposed to be the candle of enlighment. One flame lights the next and the next and the next etcetera. But any good guru will tell you that underneath a candle is always the darkest place of all, so how does that sit with whatever that mountain of congealed wax was supposed to mean?
His life's ebbs and flows become defined by his candles and when he is evicted from the commune the giant wax sculpture is destroyed by the cleaners. From that time on his life starts running out of control. He moves in with Lee and oscillates back and forth between his French and Russian lovers, fixated with both in turn, unable to decide where his best options lie.

It is hard not to think that we are being shown a journey here: a journey from the light into the darkness and back out again. Armanno's protagonist follows a path that seems to mirror parts of Joseph Campbell's hero myth-cycle: the journey to Paris as "the call to adventure", the meeting with Sonny as "supernatural aid", his lovers as "the meeting with the goddess" and his journey into Paris's catacombs as the "road of trials" and the trip to the underworld. The narrator has entered a world he does not fully understand and from which he always feels alienated. That, along with the use of symbols and motifs, supports this mythological reading.

The problem is that Campbell's outline is at its dullest when the return from the "otherworld" is denied, when the hero decides to remain behind and not to reveal his new-found knowledge, and it is this path that Armanno appears to have taken with this novel. I say "appears" because the ending of this book is obscure and confused; a drug-enduced blundering though the passageways of the catacombs and the byways of history. I can only assume that the author meant it to be that way. But I've always had trouble with dream and drug sequences - I never think they work effectively.

Armanno has written a complex and, for the most part, compelling novel. There is a lot to admire about his descriptions of the streets of Paris, the interactions between the characters, and the strange and mysterious history of Lee. It's just a pity he couldn't find a satisfactory way to end it.

Review: The Garden Book by Brian Castro

garden_book.jpg Brian Castro
Giramondo, 316 pp.
Review by Perry Middlemiss

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award.]

Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: Brian Castro can write. Unfortunately I have a feeling this is akin to reviewing a play and commenting only on the sets and staging. It amounts to "damning with faint praise", which isn't what I intended, but which does provide some forewarning of my divided opinions of the novel.

The Garden Book tells the story of Swan Hay (born Shuang He), the daughter of a country school-teacher of Chinese ancestry, of her husband Darcy Damon, and of the American aviator-architect Jasper Zenlin, who becomes the love of her life. The main body of the book is set in the Dandenong Ranges outside Melbourne in the period leading up to and during World War II. The novel is framed within the attempts of Norman Shih, a rare-book librarian, to piece together the story of the three from an old diary and a job lot of "Letters, postcards, ledgers, old paperbacks." The story is presented in a series of accounts around each of the characters in turn, in the order in which they enter the plot: Darcy, Swan, Jasper and then Shih to round it out, to tie up the final knots.

That arrangement is reasonable enough. The execution leaves something to be desired, however. Darcy's story is told in the first person as it appears that we are reading from his diary, though this is not made totally clear. He's a strong character, big in body and therefore deemed to be rather slow, though he does actually possess a powerful intellect which slowly manifests itself through the book. Castro is spot-on with his voice and the following quote could have been matched by just about anything from his part of the book.

I only remember my father as a smell. Pipe-bowl shag. His heavy goanna hand reaching round the back of my neck. His boots, ten sizes too big for me, stand empty on the back patio where my pet echidna shuffles back and forth, chiselling at the posts for ants. There's my mother through the kitchen window, boiling up plums for jam. her face is pale; she's sick again. The house is an arsenal of guns and axes. The only family portrait I have. Fleeting happiness tinged with remorse. At least everyone's got clean shirts.
The only difficulty with Darcy's story is that Shih keeps intruding without warning; adding to Darcy's story by filling in the gaps between diary entries. How he is able to write in such an omniscient narrative voice is difficult to determine, and starts to grate after a while. This effect is probably accentuated by the fact that it takes a while to work out that it is Shih speaking. I kept wondering why the point of view kept changing and had to keep checking back in Darcy's section to work out what was going it. I found it quite disconcerting.

By the time I got to Swan's part of the book, I'd started to figure out the technique and wasn't so put off by it. That is, until Castro changes his methodology again and starts to interleave entries by Darcy and Swan, each headed by their name. At least he forewarns us this time:

Outside my office window, a jet creases the sky with condensation trails while Swan's entry for this day fades into bluish patches of ink. In the margin near the spine she's teasingly pressed a small blank leaf. The gaps in these notes invite my participation. What does Darcy say?
At this point in the book I was starting to think that it was going to be an exercise in technique and structure over plot and story, but things start to pick up when Jasper enters the scene. Darcy and Swan are married and Darcy has fortuitously acquired a degree of wealth which enables him to engage Jasper the architect to build a house and a series of outbuildings for them. The arrival of Jasper completes the triangle, Swan is smitten by his other-worldliness, his charisma and the chance he offers for an escape from a country that barely acknowledges her existence. But the outbreak of war scuttles any hopes she might have of utilising her new-found celebrity as a poet and it all ends as we might expect of such an arrangement, at such a time.

Castro himself has acknowledged that a number of large publishers refused to accept this book in its current form, demanding more changes to the structure and content than he was willing to permit. As a consequence he has taken up with the small Sydney publishing house Giramondo. I believe Castro was right in sticking to his guns and I can see why this novel had difficulty in finding a place. The trouble is I think he should also have taken some notice of the original criticisms. It might have made the book more approachable.

In the end I believe the author has produced a magnificent failure. As I said at the start, the man can write. For days after finishing this book I was still thinking about it, trying to work out what he was up to and how he hoped to achieve it. He got there in the end, but the route he took wandered down paths that left this reader feeling more than a little lost a lot of the time.

[Update: I originally identified this book's publisher, Giramondo, as being Melbourne based. It is, in fact, located in Sydney.]

Review: The Wing of Night by Brenda Walker

wing_of_night.jpg Brenda Walker
Viking, 266 pp.
Review by Perry Middlemiss

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2006 Miles Franklin Award.]

Brenda Walker's fifth novel, The Wing of Night, tells the story of two women living south of Perth, Western Australia, between 1915 and 1922. It's a novel of war, not of the act of war, though that does feature, but of the effects war has on the men who fight it and on the women who are left behind, waiting.

This is an area of fiction that you would think had been mined to death by this time. The landing at Gallipoli and the forging of the Anzac legend has been dramatised and novelised more times than most would care to remember. So it takes some level of nerve and some level of skill to approach the subject from a different standpoint and come up with a work of fiction that is both fresh and familiar, skilful and accessible. Brenda Walker has done just that with this novel.

Her major intuitive leap is to tell the story mainly from the point-of-view of the women who have waved their men off on the troopships at Fremantle docks. Elizabeth is a woman of some privilege, being the daughter of a judge and married to Louis, while Bonnie is a country girl who has been with Joe for only a few weeks. The two live in a small community south the Perth and it is through them and their men that Walker tells her story.

The first thing you notice about this novel is the language: it flows in a quiet, languorous fashion, detailing the lives of the women as they learn to live a life without men.

All over the south-west, soldiers' wives were learning to sleep alone. Sleeping themselves back into the nights before their weddings, or waking in hot sheets to the clicking of crickets. They were afraid of wandering swagmen, afraid of rape and robbery. They listened to insects and the sound of hot wind in fencing wire. When they slept they dreamed of quickly forgotten things: urgent words which made no sense and unknown men with very dark or very pale skin. Is it faithlessness, if it happens in a dream? Women lay alone in empty farmhouses and frogs sang in the ferneries under water tanks.
For the women the country life seems to slow as the urgency of farm-life is overtaken by worry about the men overseas. In contrast, the men's lives in trenches on the Turkish coast take on a sense of heightened stress and anxiety as they wait for the upcoming battle, a battle they have little chance of surviving. Walker doesn't dwell on the battle scenes, however, her aim is to show the effect the war has on men not the Sturm und Drang of the action itself. It's the monster in the cupboard approach again: the terror lies in the imagination not in the actual unveiling of the creature.
They filed into the trench after the two lines of Victorians had been killed. The dead up above them were jerking as low bullets caught a shoulder or a hip. The air was dark with lead. Pegs were driven into the earth so that you could climb out when the whistle blew. It was supposed to be like pulling yourself up over the rocks at a waterhole to get into a position to dive. The charge to the opposite trench was supposed to be like a long fall into the prickling sweep of water. A courage dive.
We are left in no doubt about the effect this type of action has on the men who survive, being "nothing but dried flesh stumbling down to the edge of the sea."

Louis is killed at Anzac Cove and while Joe returns he comes home with a secret, one that he struggles to live with. This secret affects the second part of the novel. We are given hints and clues but nothing definite until near the end. The men who have returned are damaged in spirit as well as body.

After the war, the relationships change as Elizabeth's life begins to slowly unravel without the presence of Louis, and Bonnie starts to look after her. Elizabeth's father starts to spend more and more time on his daughter's farm and, in the one discordant note I found in the book, eventually marries Bonnie and takes her away back to Perth. May-and-December weddings were quite common after the First World War as a good part of a generation of young men were destroyed in one way or another, yet this arrangement seems to me to be there mainly to make the way clear for Joe to arrive on the scene and move in with Elizabeth. I should point out that the note doesn't ring very loudly. It's a minor irritant at best and is handled in such a way that it seems like a natural progression of events.

In this novel Walker has aimed to provide us with the best that fiction can provide: the chance to live in a fully-developed world outside our own experience. Her ability to inhabit the characters and bring them fully to life is a talent to be savoured. As well as she handles the women, it is with the men at war that I believe she fully excels, showing their courage and their weaknesses, their dire predicaments and the terrible choices they have to make:

Men who still had the horses they brought with them from Australia were most determined to shoot them. But there was something else, something that Joe recognised apart from the worry about hunger and cruelty and the bewildered hearts of the deserted horses. It was great strain, the ending of the war. You shot your horse and there was an end to all that was bad. Or so you hoped. You could shoot yourself. Or you could shoot your horse. There were fellows who did both, given a little time and the opportunity.
This novel is a superb achievement, beautifully written and affecting. If it wins the Miles Franklin Award, and then goes on to further honours outside this country, I would not be at all surprised.

Review: Will Dyson: Australia's Radical Genius by Ross McMullin

will_dyson.jpg Ross McMullin
Scribe, 414 pp. (+ 34 pp. of notes and index + 8 colour plates)
Review by Perry Middlemiss

Over the past couple of weeks while I have been reading this book, I have been asking my friends and acquaintances if the name of "Will Dyson" rings any bells. Most look blankly, but a few know of him. Not well, just a passing familiarity. Which is a pity really, as the man deserves to be better known.

Will Dyson was born in September 1880 in Alfredton on the outskirts of Ballarat in Victoria. From an unassuming birth he was later to become Australia's first official war artist, poet, orator and a world-renown cartoonist. How he got there is the material for Ross McMullin's new biography, a reworking of his previous version published in 1984.

The early part of Dyson's life was spent in Melbourne and surrounds honing his craft and meeting and marrying Ruby Lindsay, the sister of Norman Lindsay. In fact the Lindsay and Dyson families, who grew up not very far apart near Ballarat, were both to become famous in artistic circles with Norman, Lionel, Percy and Ruby on the Lindsay side, and Edward, Will and Ambrose of the Dysons all achieving a degree of fame through their writing and art. In fact, the two families were later to become even more entwined through the marriage of Lionel to one of Will's sisters, which gives some indication of the closeness of the two groups.

By the time he was 29 Will had decided he needed to move to greener pastures in the form of London's literary life, a situation that he expected would provide him with greater opportunity for his cartooning. He was right. He achieved great fame in London before World War I but it was the Great War and its immediate following years that were the making, and in some ways, the breaking of Will Dyson. He forced himself into the role of official Australian war artist over the obstructions of the Australian military command and went on to produce some of his greatest works as he placed himself at the forefront of the fighting. His aim was simply to show life in war as it actually was, not the sanitised versions being peddled by some of his contemporaries. Needless to say he was something of a trouble-maker, rocking the military boat and producing the work that he saw appropriate rather than apply himself to topics dictated from above. And the Australian war record is the richer for it.

In the post-war years Will set about re-entering London artistic life and was regaining some of the ground lost though his absence at the war when his wife died in the influenza epidemic of 1919. He was devastated, turning to poetry and publishing Poems in Memory of a Wife. From this time on he was never really settled, returning to Australia for a five-year period in 1925-1930, then trying his luck in the USA before finally ending up back in London where he died in 1938.

McMullin has divided Will Dyson's life into 6 distinct periods and spends a chapter of this extensive work looking at each period in depth. There is a lot of material to be dealt with in Will's life and McMullin attempts to cover as much of it as he can. His research is exemplary, indicating investigative journeys through libraries and newspaper repositories in Australia and the UK, consultations with Australian War memorial material and a number of interviews with the subject's friends and relatives. Unfortunately, in the main, the book does not wear the fruits of this research lightly.

There almost appears to be two writers at work on this book: the one who follows the thread of Dyson's life when he, himself, is single-minded, and the other which allows himself to be distracted by surrounding events when Dyson is similarly distracted. The first chapter in the book, which deals with Dyson's early years up to his departure from Australia for London, comes across as very disjointed. The cast of characters introduced, which flit across the stage of Dyson's life, is rather overwhelming and allowing them all to step forward and have their say leaves the reader confused and uncertain as to the direction the book is taking. I have some understanding and knowledge of what was going on in Melbourne at this time, and I was getting continually confused as to what point the author was trying to make. It is almost a relief to find Dyson on the boat to England.

From there on the book picks up. McMullin is very good at incorporating the English politics of the day and the machinations of the military into his story, and he handles Dyson's work at the front-line very well. It is here we start to get an understanding of Dyson the man, rather than Dyson the gadfly we have been introduced to previously. Maybe this is true of most of us, that our true identities only become visible in times of stress and grief. In any event, Dyson's experiences at the war and the death of his wife appear to change McMullin's approach to his subject and change it for the better.

The best and most enduring of Dyson's work was produced during the first World War and McMullin is generous in reproducing a number of these pieces in the book. These, along with 8 pages of colour prints, enhance the look and feel of the book emphasising Dyson's art and giving it its correct status.

In the end I was impressed with this book and glad I read it. There are problems with it to be sure - the first chapter is an unfortunate introduction which I hope won't put too many people off - but overall you come away with a sense of the man, his work and times in which he lived. I'm not sure you can ask much more than that of any biography.

Review: The Resurrectionist by James Bradley

James Bradley
Picador, 333 pp.
Review by Perry Middlemiss

"Don't judge a book by its cover" the old adage runs. Yet we all fall victim to it. We're conditioned to it, and publishers and marketers expect it of us. Mostly this is not such a bad thing, at least as far as books are concerned. The cover art, the blurb on the back, the author photo, the typeface, the paper quality, even the size of the bloody thing, all merge together to produce a first impression in our minds. So it's of special interest when a book leads you one way, and then swerves another. Such a book is The Resurrectionist, the new and third novel by James Bradley.

The cover of the Australian edition is striking, in that it is mostly black. Surely not a great colour to catch the eye, you think. And what's that thing above the author's name and title? It looks rather sinister. Then there are the figures at the bottom, all intently studying something "off-cover". You're being led somewhere, that much at least is obvious. The book has the look and feel, the heft, of a literary novel, and yet, there's this thing about it - a thing that leads you to expect a horror novel. And in some ways, that's what you get. But in many, many other ways you get far more than that. You get a literary novel that uses the techniques and traditions of the gothic genre, and that twists and stretches them into patterns rarely seen.

The novel is told in first-person narration by Gabriel Swift, an orphan in 1820s England, who is sent to London to study with Edwin Poll, one of the great anatomists of the time. Gabriel's role is to help prepare for Poll's lectures - in other words, to wash and clean and lay out the bodies for dissection. At that time only the corpses of the executed could be used in such a way, and, of course, there was a shortage. So Poll's house is drawn into the commerce in human bodies, dealing with the resurrectionists, the grave-robbers of the novel's title. This illegal trade has a corrupting influence on all who partake of it and Gabriel is gradually drawn deeper and deeper into the depravity of the exhumation and theft of the world around him. He falls, both professionally and personally, into a pit of his own making and from which there appears no escape.

Over three-quarters of the way through the novel, the locale changes from London in the 1820s to the colony of New South Wales in 1836: an abrupt shift from the dark and grime of England to the bright light and clear air of the Australian continent. At first this jump is rather unsettling: we have a new location, a new time and, at first, what seems like a new protagonist and narrator. But Bradley has unsettled us for a particular reason. One that at first is not at all obvious.

Bradley's choice of his protagonist's name is an apt and significant one. The angel Gabriel of myth is the Archangel of humanity, resurrection, death and hope. A heavy load if ever there was one. And Bradley uses his narrator to carry the similar weight of his novel. In other words, the book lives or dies on how the reader takes to his narrator. At the beginning of the novel Gabriel has our full sympathy. He is a child without prospects, without hope, who is taken into a world where he might well advance to a position that he might never have dreamed of. He begins as a boy among men, an innocent among the corrupt and as the novel progresses we see him slowly change, losing his boyishness and his sense of innocence. He becomes devious both in his personal and professional habits and his final fall is swift and abrupt. He is expelled from the company of Edwin Poll's household and finds himself without hope and at the mercy of the resurrectionists. He reaches a point where drug addiction and murder are commonplace occurrences, passing almost without regret, and yet he still has further to go. At the last his descent into the depths is complete when he betrays his new companions and he finds himself trapped in a metaphorical Hell.

Throughout the book there is a growing sense of foreboding. The change in Gabriel is subtle and measured and you find as a reader slowly becoming unsure of whether to trust him as a narrator. Is he giving us a true account of his life, or only a disordered narrow view of it? It's this realisation that Gabriel probably knows more than he is telling us, that he knows something awful is about to happen that builds the suspense within the plot. We almost can't bear to look, but, at the same time, can't bear not to. This is a classic horror technique; one that usually ends with the "monster" appearing and blood spurting every which way. But the best horror works don't show us the "monster", we only get glimpses of it out of the corner of our eye, a flash as it crosses a doorway. We know it's there, we just can't get to see it full in the face.

So it is with Gabriel's demons - they sneak up on us, corner us in the graveyard, and, just as we think we understand what is happening we cut to the light. We suddenly find ourselves in a place totally different from the one we just left. Handled well it's a wonderful technique, jarring and disorientating. Without the initial spadework, however, it can be a mess, it doesn't work and we don't believe it. In The Resurrectionist Bradley would have struggled to have achieved a better result. The transition from the dark into the light, from claustrophobic London to "the sunlit plains extended", is complete and totally satisfying. Just like the rest of the novel.

Early on in the book, Edwin Poll, Gabriel's master, addresses a lecture-hall of students, and delivers what might be considered his raison d'etre: 'We are men of science, gentlemen, students of nature. It is our purpose to tear down the veil of superstition, to pierce the very fabric of our living being and elucidate the nature of the force which animates these shells we call our bodies. And we will find it here, in this cold flesh. For these tissues we will divine the shadow of that force which drove the fuse within, which set his heart to flicker and beat. Call it a soul if you wish, yet I promise you it shall prove no more and no less mysterious that this magnet's power to bend these filings to its will.'

In many ways this creed might also apply to Bradley's role as the author of this work. One that he fulfils admirably. Read this book.

Review: Out of the Silence by Wendy James

out_of_silence.jpg    Wendy James
Random House, 351 pp.
Review by Perry Middlemiss

Out of the Silence by Wendy James was released in October 2005 by Random House, and was, reportedly, the only Australian debut novel published by the company that year. As it happens they chose well - it's a good one.

The novel in set in Melbourne and country Victoria during the period of the late 1890s and early 1900s, a time of stifling social and political conservatism, sexual double-standards and rampant hypocrisy. Yet it was also a time when the women's suffrage movement was starting to organise and spread its message, a time when women were pushing back against the barriers imposed by men. It is against this background that the author has pitched the stories of Maggie Heffernan, Elizabeth Hamilton and Vida Goldstein, each of whom with ambitions beyond their perceived social standing.

Maggie Heffernan is a lively country working-class young woman whose life is the main thrust of the book. She becomes engaged to a local rake, but finds herself abandoned after she falls pregnant. The novel follows her grim journey from the country to the city, vainly seeking her ex-fiance, finding herself destitute and finally accused of a dreadful crime. Vida Goldstein is an educated single woman running a local private school, campaigning for votes for women and contemplating running for parliament. Elizabeth Hamilton lives in Vida's aunt's house in suburban Melbourne - an upper middle-class life that provides a sharp contrast with poor Maggie's circumstances. Elizabeth and Vida take up Maggie's cause after her arrest and while their efforts don't meet with total success, all characters are changed by the events within the book.

Elizabeth's story is told in a series of letters to her brother Robert, who lives in America, and in extracts from her journals. These alternate with Maggie's first-person narration of her own account. The easiest approach to this story would be to start at the beginning and to follow tight on Maggie's life-line, extracting every skerrick of pathos and anguish along the way, squeezing it dry of all emotion. But that's too simplistic a method to tell this tale properly and James rightly has taken the harder road and has achieved a better final product as a result.

There is an art to getting this narrative approach just right. Make the sections too short and the narrative loses its forward momentum, make them too long and the reader loses the thread of what is happening in the other plot-line and gets frustrated. This is a delicate balancing act that James maintains with some skill, adding newspaper clippings and even cutting Elizabeth's journal entries; to provide extracts of extracts, if you like. The effect is to increase the amount of white space on the page, reducing the heavy blocks of text so often found in "Victorian" novels, and thereby easing the reading experience in sections where setting and background information is provided. This exhibits a remarkable technique for a debut novel.

Beyond the writing technique we have a writer who is knowledgeable about the era in which the novel is set, yet who presents that research lightly. A lot of care appears to have been taken to present the right amount of background and scene-setting information without swamping the reader with too much detail. And yet a close-reading of the text will inform as well as entertain.

In the Author's Note, it is stated that the characters of Maggie Heffernan and Vida Goldstein are based on historical figures, while Elizabeth Hamilton is purely fictional. To this reader, the introduction of the character of Elizabeth is the component that allows the novel to reach its heights. The slow revealing of her own unfortunate history, including the miscarriage of the child she had conceived with a deceased lover, highlights the social injustices and hypocrisy suffered by Maggie. She also provides the link between Vida and Maggie, bridging the social and intellectual gaps between the characters. Without her the novel would have been a very different book indeed.

This is an accomplished work from a writer with the feel for the flow of a story, the capacity to see how to assemble disparate parts of a novel, and the ability to inhabit her characters fully. I look forward to her next work.

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.

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.

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.

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.

2006 Book #2 - Best Australian Essays 1998 edited by Peter Craven

How do you go about reviewing a collection such as this? If it was a collection of essays on a particular theme you could review each piece on how it relates to the theme in question. If it was a collection of essays written by one person you could follow the thread and chronology of the author's work, tracking their interests and looking for rises and falls in performance. But a wide-ranging collection of works, from disparate sources, on varying themes, of different lengths?

I think the only approach that might possibly work is to review it the way it should be read: not necessarily in sequence and not necessarily all of it. In addition some notes on the overall aim of the collection might be in order.

The editor, Peter Craven, sets out in his introduction to ponder the nature of the essay - what it is, where it's come from and where it is now. We have to remember that this was the first book in this series, and as such, we have to allow for a certain stumbling, and a limited range of vision. Craven has generally accessed the usual suspects - newspapers, Australian literary and current affairs magazines - but he has also looked a bit further afield to New York Review of Books, Art Monthly and even Wisden Cricket Monthly. As he puts it: "Our essayists have insinuated themselves so quietly into the national life that they might almost not have been there." And everywhere is where you have to look.

There aren't many duds in this collection, I suppose I really should say none. For they are all of interest and all well-written. We will all have our favourites of course and I especially liked Helen Garner's voyage to the Antarctic, John Birmingham's road trip to southern Queensland, Delia Falconer's transit of Montana (research for her latest novel perhaps?) and Catherine Ford's voyage round her own backyard. Then we have Robert Manne on the stolen generations, Raimond Gaita on the shame and guilt associated with indigenous affairs, Richard Flanagan on writing and Tim Flannery on tree kangaroos. The subject matter is nothing if not catholic.

The thing I like about these essay collections is that they introduce me to new writers and remind me of the ones I really need to get back to. I doubt Craven could ask for more success than that.

2006 Book #1 - Jack of Shadows by Roger Zelazny

Roger Zelazny (1937-95) is now mostly remembered as the writer of the two Amber series of fantasy novels, a 10-novel sequence of action adventures that he first began in 1970. Yet things started out very differently for the author.

Zelazny published his first sf story in 1962, a year that was subsequently to gain something of a reputation as a watershed in sf publishing history. It was also the year that Samuel R. Delaney, Thomas M. Disch and Ursula K. Le Guin published their first work, and all were to be later credited with leading the US component of the sf new wave of the late sixties.

Zelazny's early work showed huge promise with "A Rose for Eccelsiastes" being nominated for a Hugo Award in 1964, and then "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" and "He Who Shapes" both winning in 1965: the first two of these are now considered classics of the genre. He followed these with Hugo Awards for Best Novel for This Immortal (aka ...And Call Me Conrad) in 1966, and for Lord of Light in 1968.

It is interesting to note that Zelazny only started to write full-time after 1969 at which point his style took on a more commercial aspect. The first of his Amber novels, Nine Princes in Amber, was published in 1970, being followed by the others in the sequence at regular intervals over the next twenty or so years. He was to win further Hugo and Nebula Awards for his shorter fiction in the 1980s and 1990s, but it is considered by most critics that he never again achieved the literary heights of those earlier celebrated works.

Jack of Shadows forms a bridge between the two sections of his career, between the predominantly sf and mainly fantasy portions. It combines aspects of both sub-genres as it tells the story of Jack who lives on a far-future earth; a world that has stopped rotating and on which the light side is ruled by science and the dark side by magic. It differs from his other fantasy work in that the main character is the antithesis of Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero he was to use again and again in the Amber series. Jack is a thief, a liar and a despot who finally succeeds in destroying all he loves and all he desires in his attempts to control the whole earth. There are echoes here of his earlier work in his use of mythological concepts in an sf setting, and previews of his later novels in his use of magic - not least the "Shadows" of the title.

Jack of Shadows is a fine fantasy that, from the distance of 35 years, reads like the last hurrah of a glittering sf career, and the first blast of a commercial fantasy one.

Wasp by Eric Frank Russell

Sarah Weinman, over at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, pointed me to an article in "The Boston Globe" earlier in the week. The piece by James Sallis is titled "Echoes from Sci-Fi's Golden Age", and deals with Eric Frank Russell's short novel Wasp that was first published back in the mid-1950s.

Leaving aside my objections to the use of the term "sci-fi" other than for derogatory means the article reminded me of the joys of reading Russell's work. So I went back to the bookshelves and dragged out my copy. I must have bought it, probably second-hand, in the 1970s and read it then. I might also have read it in its first appearance in "Astounding" from my father's collection of old sf magazines, but I wouldn't want to bet on that. So I hadn't looked at the book for some thirty years and I was a bit worried that my memory of the work might have been tainted by the years in raising it above its natural level. So I approached it with some degree of trepidation - after all, I didn't want to come to the realisation that i) my memory is failing me, and ii) that I used to like total crap.

In his article Sallis acknowledges that a lot of sf written in the so-called "golden age" just doesn't stack up these days: the plots are thin, the characters thinner. But some of it has stayed the distance, and Sallis offers up Russell's Wasp as an example of a novel that deserves to be read, especially in our current times of cultural/religious wars.

In Wasp the Terran Empire is at war with the alien Sirian Empire. The humans are technologically superior, while the Sirians have a larger population and a larger number of planets on which they are based. James Mowry spent the first seventeen years of his life living on a planet in the Sirian sphere and, given his propensity to be a pest to any form of authority, is employed/co-opted into joining the human war effort. His mission involves running a one-man insurgency campaign on a Sirian planet, the aim of which is to divert alien resources from the war against the humans. He is to become the wasp of the book's title. Skin dyed purple and ears pinned back to pass as a native he is dropped onto the target planet, and the fun begins.

Basically the book fits neatly into "Astounding" editor John W. Campbell's view of the superiority of the human species over any other. The fact that we had never encountered another intelligent species didn't seem to ever sway Campbell; it was his opinion and he was sticking to it. And this "species-view" was reflected in a lot of the stories he published. The humans are always smart and resourceful, the aliens always dumb, lumbering and generally burdened by a stifling political system: in this case a bureaucratic police state.

The parallels with today's conflicts are obvious. But above all else the novel is funny. It pokes fun at authority and the propaganda war: "For months we have been making triumphant retreats before a demoralized enemy who is advancing in utter disorder." Read it for a bit of light relief and a ripping yarn in these troubled times.

[The article by Sallis also brought out a confession from Neil Gaiman: it seems that he had the film option on the book, and was writing the screenplay when September 11th 2001 arrived, and then it just "wasn't fiction any longer."]

Review: C.J. Dennis: A Collection of Verse by C.J. Dennis

cjdnla_small.jpg Review of C.J. Dennis: A Collection of Verse by C.J. Dennis.

The National Library of Australia, as part of its publishing programme, has released a new collection of C.J. Dennis's works lavisly illustrated with reproductions of a number of Hal Gye painting and illustrations.

Dennis is best known in this country as the best-selling author of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, which was originally published in 1915, and which has subsequently sold well in excess of 100,000 copies in this country alone. In the mid-1980s, Angus and Robertson publishers re-released all of Dennis's major books and collections, with the exception of The Singing Garden, and yet, in the past twenty years, only The C.J. Dennis Collection edited by Garrie Hutchinson in 1987, More Than Sentimental Bloke compiled by John Derum in 1990, and The Complete Sentimental Bloke edited by Neil James in 2001, have been published. So a new collection of Dennis's works is certainly due.

This current book "samples" Dennis's work, taking a chapter or poem from each of his major works and presenting them in near-chronological order. The collection starts with "The Australaise", Dennis's entry into a national song-writing competition run by The Bulletin in 1908. This is a pretty good lead-off for the rest of the entries, showing Dennis's strong rhyming skills and use of humour to make his point. What follows are excerpts from the Sentimental Bloke sequence, The Glugs of Gosh, and poems from BackBlock Ballads and Other Verses, A Book for Kids and The Singing Garden. The work ranges from war poetry to childrens' ditties to paeans to nature.

All of Dennis's major themes and styles are covered, providing a good representation of his life's work. But the one thing that makes this collection stand out from those that have come before is the use of Hal Gye's artwork. Gye was the artist reponsible for the winged cherubs of the Sentimental Bloke, the tree-climbing Glugs and the contemplative ex-soldiers that illustrated the original Dennis books. I've always been a little ambivalent about the Gye cherubs, but have come to the conclusion over the years that the two are now basically inseparable. There is no point complaining about their use: Dennis approved of them and that's really all we need to know. The illustrations here are from the Harry Chaplin Collection, housed at the National Library, and liberal use has been made of Gye illustrations that have previously gone unpublished, such as the one of "C.J. Glug" that graces the front cover of the book.

This collection is therefore a timely reminder of the genius of Dennis and will introduce all his works to modern readers and, hopefully, bring the works of Hal Gye to a wider audience.

On a personal note I was in the National Library of Australia a couple of years back looking into the Harry Chaplin Collection for Dennis material when I was asked to have a chat with the chief archivist of the library. I was led to believe this was the standard thing for new researchers as the library wanted to make sure that their archived material was being treated with respect. I was asked if I was researching for possible future publication. Not wanting to burn any bridges before I got to them, I did say that publication was a possibility. Of course, I shouldn't assume that this chat wasn't anything more than normal procedure, but it is interesting to see this book come directly out of the material I was studying.

Review: Sixty Lights by Gail Jones

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award.]

Lucy Strange, the protagonist in Gail Jones's novel Sixty Lights, lives a tragic life: born in Australia in the 1860s, along with her brother Thomas she is orphaned at eight when her mother dies in childbirth and her father suicides in grief a fortnight later, transported to England to live with her uncle whom she has never previously met, condemned to a work-house at 14 when her uncle is nearly bankrupted, shipped to India at around 18 to live with a man to whom her uncle owes money, pregnant before she arrives, and back in England a year later severely ill. All in all, not such a good time was had. Yet she is able to see the light in the situation and near the end of the novel she discovers a talent for photography that is a direct result of all she has experienced.

The title of the book gives a clue to the basic symbols utilised: all sixty chapters, in some way or other, refer to light or the way it is used. We have references to photography, glass beads, early slide projection, sunlight - both bright and dull, stars and the night, bioluminescence, and one of the characters is named Isaac Newton, who investigated the way light interacts with glass prisms. For a while I thought the symbols would get in the way but Jones handles them pretty well; they define the edges of Lucy's life without overly impinging on the plot.

Jones handles the changing times and locales with ease and her characters are filled out and real. All in all, this is damn fine novel.

Final Matilda ranking for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award:

1. The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
2. Sixty Lights by Gail Jones
3. The Gift of Speed by Steven Carroll
4. The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood
5. Salt Rain by Sarah Armstrong

Review: The Gift of Speed by Steven Carroll

gift_of_speed.jpg The Gift of Speed
Steven Carroll
Fourth Estate

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award.]

The Gift of Speed is Steven Carroll's sequel to his 2001 novel The Art of the Engine Driver, which was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. The current novel is set against the backdrop of the 1960-61 West Indies cricket tour of Australia, a tour that is forever etched in cricket history in this country: the tour of the Tied test, Frank Worrell and Richie Benaud.

Michael, the twelve-year-old of the first book, is now sixteen and fixated on the concept of speed. In this case the speed of a fast bowler. He practices in his backyard continuously, shattering the side fence, and driving the neighbours and the others in his family to distraction with the thump of leather ball on wooden picket. Everyone in this novel is obsessed with speed, in one form or another: Webster, the local factory owner, hides his secret passion, a sportscar from his wife and drives it through the outer suburbs of Melbourne at night; Vic, the ex-train driver and Michael's father, loves the sound of diesels in the distance and dreams of slowing down and moving to a town on the coast; Rita, Michael's mother, is tired of the slow life but is doomed to live it; and Mary, Michael's grandmother, is old and just slowing down.

Carroll has drawn an image of an Australian suburb that is calm and ordered, slow-paced and friendly, and he infuses it with a texture that is autobiographical in nature. It was a time when it was possible to stop in the street and listen to the cricket coming from windows and shops. Maybe even the last time this was possible. And this is the impression the author gives: by extending the characters' inner worlds out into the wider physical landscape the novel is told in a languid prose that flows with the speed of contemplation.

I suppose it's possible that some readers will be put off by the cricket motif running throughout the book. I hope that isn't the case. You have to read the cricket as a reflection of Michael's life and times. It fits beautifully.

Current Matilda ranking for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award:

1. The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
2. The Gift of Speed by Steven Carroll
3. The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood
4. Salt Rain by Sarah Armstrong

Review: The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood

submerged_cathedral.jpg The Submerged Cathedral
Charlotte Wood

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award.]

Charlotte Wood doesn't hurry the writing of her novels. Her first, Pieces of a Girl, was started in 1994 after the death of her mother and published in 1999; The Submerged Cathedral, her second, has followed five years later. While this production schedule doesn't affect the novel in any way it does give an indication of the pace of the book: slow, languorous and contemplative.

The novel follows the love affair between Jocelyn and Martin from their first meeting in 1963 to the final section of the book in 1984. Familial ties are strengthened and broken, love is made and lost, and characters grow throughout the novel in sometimes strange and unexpected ways. The only discordant note I found in the novel concerns two major turning points in the plot. I found it a bit peculiar that the strong characters involved would stand silently by and allow their circumstances to change so greatly without some response. But the rest of the novel flows beautifully and it may well be that this reader has missed something of importance that would explain it all. For a while, about halfway though the book, I couldn't see where it was all headed. The characters seemed to be walking and talking with little in the way of any forward movement and I was becoming rather impatient. I shouldn't have worried. Wood brings it all together rather well, and the ending is both satisfying and hopeful. I can see that I will be coming back to this book at
some time in the future - probably when Wood's next novel is published.

Can we make that somewhat less than five years distant, please?

Current Matilda ranking for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award:
1. The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
2. The Submerged Cathedral by Charlotte Wood
3. Salt Rain by Sarah Armstrong

Review: Salt Rain by Sarah Armstrong

salt_rain.jpg Salt Rain
Sarah Armstrong
Allen & Unwin

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award.]

Sarah Armstrong's first novel, Salt Rain, has a lot of things going for it: it's short (224 pages), it keeps its roll-call of characters to a minimum, it keeps the story-line moving ever onward, and it keeps the time-frame of the plot to a period of only a month or two.

I don't want to seem patronising when I say that but a lot of first novels feel rather bloated in terms of character numbers, time-frame and page-count, and this one doesn't. And in my view that's a big plus right from the outset.

Salt Rain concerns the story of Allie, a fourteen-year-old girl living with her single mother Mae in Sydney. One night Mae goes missing and her sister Julia arrives to take Allie back to her mother's rain-forest valley home. There she waits for news of her mother, meeting her extended family and attempting to piece together the true story of her mother and of her own birth. Mae has been a story-teller, embellishing and polishing her history for Allie's benefit, which has left Allie with a distorted view of her own beginnings: including the true identity of her father. Was it Saul, the First Love (sic), who still lives next door to Julia, or the balloon man from the fair as Mae always made out?

Allie has to cross a number of boundaries during her journey into the truth about her family, with most of the crossings being painful. The only trouble is, the revelations, as they come to light, are meant to be surprising, yet few of them are unguessable. Younger readers might find the final truth disturbing, older ones - such as the present reviewer - have seen it before. But that is not to say that the journey is unsatisfying. On the contrary, Armstrong has a fine readable style, she sketches interesting characters and landscapes; though having Mae, the most interesting of the bunch, off-stage for the bulk of the book is a bit of a dampener.

There's a lot of promise here and I look forward to her future work.

Current Matilda ranking for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award:

1. The White Earth by Andrew McGahan
2. Salt Rain by Sarah Armstrong

Review: The White Earth by Andrew McGahan

white_earth.jpg The White Earth
Andrew McGahan

[This novel has been shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Franklin Award.]

The relationship between the peoples of Australia and the Australian landscape has been undergoing some profound changes over the past twenty years. Some of that has been environmental and a lot has been political.

The political side of the change came to a head back in the early 1990s when the Supreme Court handed down its Mabo decision: basically dispensing with the concept of terra nullius, the concept that Australia was unoccupied or untended when Europeans arrived in the late 1700s. It also had the effect of allowing Native Title claims on Crown Land where local indigenous people could show a continuing relationship and contact with the land prior to European colonisation. As I recall, the more sane of the Mabo opponents claimed this would result in Native Title claims on suburban backyards, which was, of course, blatantly ridiculous. I won't go into what the others had to say.

It is into this political storm that Andrew McGahan has pitched his fourth novel, The White Earth. The title itself gives a hint of what is in the book but it has deeper meanings. McGahan introduces us to William on the day his father is killed in a farming accident. The mysterious figure of an "uncle", John McIvor, appears and whisks William and his mother off to Kuran Station to live. It is through William's eyes that we are introducted to McIvor and to his long association with the land of the station. He loves the place, respects it and cares for it. And for all of the first third of this book you are led to believe that McIvor is an honourable man, doing the best he can in a harsh and unforgiving land. But he has a secret. His sense of ownership has warped him into being over-protective and into believing that he, and he alone, has the right of land ownership. This has led him into helping to run a secret army of followers who view the federal Native Title Act of 1993 as being deliberately targetted at them, and them alone.

McGahan handles all the conflicting land relationships with care, giving each an airing and not judging the characters or their views. Many times in the novel he could have stumbled badly but he negotiates the hazards with skill. There is a lot to like about this book and only one point at which I would have recommended a change, and then only a small one, to the manifesto of McIvor's followers. Invoking the name of a now-fading Queensland political group left a jarring sensation with this reader. It didn't detract from the overall effect of the work, it just seemed out of place.

This novel is a departure from McGahan's earlier works and moves him into a literary strata sparsely populated by Australian writers. It has been shortlisted for the 2005 Miles Frankin Award, and must at this time be considered one of the favourites.

A Non-Review of Three Dollars by Elliot Perlman

Putting it bluntly, I am not a good book reviewer. I know what I like but have trouble explaining why. If I write at any length I tend to the book report format - brief intro, plot outline, brief conclusion stating whether or not I liked it. The standard boring sort of stuff you see in newspaper reviews all the time. Mind you, I do try to make a point of stating my conclusion about the book. You'll get a bit of an idea of my worth when I finally get round to finishing a double review I've been trying to write for the past month. I have the opening paragraph, and that's about it. I can feel a plot outline coming on even now.

Which brings me to Three Dollars by Elliot Perlman. This novel was published in 1998 so reviewing it now seems a bit of a waste of time. So I won't.

What I will do is give you a few of my thoughts about the book, which you can read as a review if you like.

I bought the novel some years back (about 2000, if the edition information on the copyright page proves anything) and had been meaning to read it for some time. Then Perlman's new book, Seven Types of Ambiguity, came out, and the film version of Three Dollars was announced, filming started, and a release date was announced. I thought I had to get on with it or I'd get caught in the flood.

I finished the book a couple of weeks back and have been thinking about it on and off since. I didn't hate it, and I didn't love it either. But I had been thinking about it so that must have meant it made an impression of some sort.

My first thought on finishing the novel was that it was too long. Actually, this realisation came to me at about page 250 - the novel is some 381 pages long - and made the last section of the book a bit of a chore to get through. I really wish an editor had got to this one a bit more. I would say 60 to 80 pages could have been safely excised and the final result would have been a lot tighter, the rambling would have been done away with and I might have come away from the novel with a better feeling about it. There is a lot of characters sitting round talking about stuff that is, at best, peripheral to the plot. For a while I couldn't work out why the novel's editor didn't cut this stuff. Then it struck that she probably had. Or, at least, had cut a lot of it. In other words, the novel started out way longer than the current version. It reads like it anyway.

Now this is a first novel so you can expect a bit of rambling. I must admit to a preference for first novels that cover only a short time frame, and which have a plot that motors along. Leave the philosophical digressions for subsequent novels when you have the basic tools down pat. Trim, taut and terrific is what we're after. Not bloated excess. Three Dollars doesn't reach those depths, but a bit more off the edges might have fixed it up a bit.

All in all, the book is pretty good. You can tell that Perlman has something to say, some experiences to impart and can outline a good set of characters, though there are times when all you want to do is to give them a good clip under the ear-'ole and tell 'em to get on with it. Hopefully that will come with later works.

I have one major gripe though, and it will require a bit of plot outline, and a bit of a spoiler. Not a big one. This isn't a crime novel after all and, anyway, the outcome of the bit I'm going to write about is featured in the movie trailers doing the rounds.

Eddie, the novel's protagonist, is married to Tanya, they have a two-year-old daughter Abby, and their friend Kate is staying with them. Kate has recently split from her husband and is trying to sort her life out, and has basically settled into the household. On the night in question, Tanya is away - doesn't matter where - Abby is sick with what appears to be the flu, and Eddie and Kate proceed to get mildly drunk. One thing leads to another, clothing is removed, fumbling occurs, but the situation doesn't get totally out of hand before both parties release the error of their ways, back off, apologise, and retire to their separate beds. Sometime during the night, Abby's condition worsens and she has a "fit".

Yeah, so? What's with that? Well, in my view, it's a very poor literary technique when the author decides to punish the main character for straying slightly off the path the author has chosen.

As a reader you have to assume the writer is in control. He puts the words on the pages after all. It's okay for an author to say that a character determines their own behaviour, that they take on a life of their own, but when something happens in the novel that is totally outside the character's control and which affects them profoundly, then we have to assume it's down to the author. The other thing we can assume is that if the same set of characters appear in two consecutive scenes then whatever happens in the second scene is as a direct result of the first. So here we have Eddie almost perform a marital indiscretion in the first scene and then his child almost dies in the second. How can we think anything other than that Eddie is being punished?

I'm willing to put this down as a fault with a first novel and move on. There is enough here for me to be willing to try out his latest work, even given the treatment it received from various critics. I hope he has better faith and trust in his characters, however.

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