Recently in Weekend Round-Up Category

Weekend Round-Up 2008 #9

The Age

Rachel Buchanan looks at The Spare Room, the new novel by Helen Garner: "It is boring to try to hunt out parallels between fiction and fact but there do appear to be quite a few in The Spare Room and that was distracting. A further layer of distraction is provided by the fact that this is Garner's first novel in 15 years and my expectations were perhaps unnecessarily high...My response to the book swung from cringing to crying to pleasurable stabs of shock at the narrator's honesty. My favourite: 'I wanted to smash the car into a post, but for only her to die -- I would leave the keys in the ignition, grab my backpack and run for my life.' Aaah friendship. Isn't it great?"

Rebecca Starford is impressed with The Comfort of Figs by Simon Cleary: "Here is a novel from a consummate stylist. Simon Cleary, originally shortlisted for the Queensland Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript, has subjugated the well-trodden thematic ground explored by more recent winners of such manuscript awards. Consciously bypassing empty references and nebulous social critique, he has instead crafted a poignant tale of secret histories and the mechanics of foregiveness."

Jeff Gorfeld thinks Peter Corris is back to his old form in his review of two new books. "The Big Score is another collection of short stories, many of which contain the kernel of what could have become novel-length works but read as if Corris had been interrupted in full creative flight by Jehovah's Witnesses ringing the doorbell. Some are the kind of beautifully polished, self-contained gems that routinely find their way into crime-fiction anthologies...Open File is vintage work: the writing is economical, the observations sharper than they have been in recent times."

The Australian

Geoffrey Lehmann also reviews Garner's novel, and finds that "Unlike Garner's two big nonfiction works, the tension at the centre of The Spare Room is resolved...[The novel] is a story of tough love and friendship and amazement at the bravado and resourcefulness of human beings in the face of death, written in a prose that has surgical precision. This reviewer knows at least one old man who does read novels: himself. Read this novel. It is truer than nonfiction."

Rosemary Sorenson finds that The Comfort of Figs by Simon Cleary is a "commendable first novel": "Cleary employs a fine and empathetic gentleness as he invites us to get to know his characters, and we become swept up in the drama that leads to the tragedy that will reverberate through the years...Maybe the complex of botanical metaphors is overdone in this novel, and there's sometimes a briskness to the prose that seems to stifle Cleary's narrative voice a little."

Weekend Round-Up 2008 #8

The Age

Katherine Ellinghaus looks at Spinning the Dream: Assimilation in Australia 1950-1970 by Anna Haebich, and Drawing the Gobal Colour Line: White Men's Countries and the Question of Racial Equality by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds: "The arrival of [these two books] could not be more timely. As Australia moves into a 'post-apology' era of race relations, there is new impetus for Australians to understand our past and our national myths. By examining our history of immigration and assimilation policies, these two books uncover the pervasiveness of those myths - the imaginary idea of 'white Australia' - throughout the 20th century and to the present day."

Emily Maguire suggests reading A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Tolz twice to get the full effect: "Packed with plots, sub-plots, sub-sub-plots, tangents, flashbacks, diversions, philosophical wanderings and pectacular set pieces, this enormous debut novel from Australian Steve Toltz is in many ways a perfect example of what British critic James Wood calls 'hysterical realism'. Wood's term is supposed to be a criticism, but I use it here descriptively. A Fraction of the Whole is, as Wood would say, a 'perpetual motion machine', but it's one fuelled by brilliant ideas and driven by an original, bracing and very funny voice."

Births, Deaths, Marriages: True Tales by Georgia Blain refuses to simply her life in this memoir says Brenda Niall: "Blain's other is Anne Deveson, writer, broadcaster, commentator on public affairs. Deveson's marriage to ABC radio presenter and interviewer Ellis Blain made their household unusual in the 1960s. Two careers under one roof, with three children, were not easily balanced...As an evocation of Australian society from the 1960s and '70s to the present, Blain's memoir is acute and finely detailed. Part of its interest comes from its being slightly off-centre, as the perspective of a daughter who could not easily accept or enjoy the freedom her feminist mother exemplified."

The Hunnas (the Hunters and Collectors to non-believers) were one of the great Australian rock bands in the 80s and 90s, and now frontman Mark Seymour has written Thirteen Tonne Theory a memoir of his life on the road. Chris Johnston finds it pretty well balanced: "This is an unusual and compelling rock book and I'm sitting here thinking about how the author -- a ousehold name yet still barely acknowledged -- came to write it and what he hoped to achieve. And also how it captures his band in an unexpected but vivid way; how it's not biographical, autobiographical or necessarily chronological or even factual. It's more a series of insider's impressions adding up to not just the story of this band but an insight into all bands, their struggles and dreams...The book is also very funny. Seymour's gift is to select and then skilfully write of certain situations the band found itself in so there can be no mistaking the absurdity of rock'n'roll."

The Australian

According to Stephen Mills, Journeys by Don Watson "...makes a compelling case that in the US religion -- specifically, evangelical Christianity -- is 'in the front lines of just about everything': football teams, judicial appointments, rodeos, elections, combat forces in Iraq, radio talkback, and the White House."

The Sydney Morning Herald

Nicola Walker is seduced by The Dressmaker's Daughter by Kate Llewellyn: "In a former autobiographical work -- there are at least six -- Kate Llewellyn noted that 'my life is simply the paddock I plough when I write. I do it, because it is held in common with the lives of other women in this place and this time.' Read the results of all that ploughing, as I did, rapidly, one after the other, and it's hard not to feel squeamish at being privy to these banal, often painfully frank details of a life. And yet, like a quality television soap (think The Sullivans), Llewellyn's poised series of memoirs are addictive."

Sarah Holland-Batt revels in David Malouf's new poetry collection, Revolving Days.

David Malouf, in common with Montale, is a poet who draws vital energy from his totemic places. In prose, he has written frequently and eloquently of his childhood home; and if you have ever spent time in a weatherboard Queenslander, where the house and garden exchange air like breath through lattice, windows and stilts, the resonance in Malouf's poetry is unmistakeable.

Even in his earliest work, his characteristic stance is one where mind and landscape merge with a sublime lightness of touch. From the strict indoor tableaux of his debut Interiors to the roving coastlines and suburban sprawl of Bicycle And Other Poems, there is a sense that Malouf is awake not only to the minutiae of his surroundings but also to the way they always colour and transform the imagination."

Weekend Round-Up 2008 #7

The Age

No Australian books that I noticed.

The Australian

Nigel Krauth is a bit ambivalent about A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz: "There is much to love in this book and much to hate, as its author intended. I love the wonderfully wacky philosophising and the amazing way this giant novel fits together. I hate its bloated massiveness." He didn't finish, finding the book just too long. "Yes, size does matter, balanced against effect. At 711 pages, Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole is longer than each of these classics [Tristram Shandy, Robinson Crusoe and Moby-Dick] and should be shorter. It's not as good as them in what it does."

Cath Keneally reckons that The Landscape of Desire by Kevin Rabelais almost makes it. The novel is loosely based on the tale of Burke and Wills. "You need to know the basics of that myth-engendering journey quite well not to get lost reading this fragmented, time-hopping, voice-swapping account. Younger readers, products of an Australian educational system that didn't push the early white explorers of this land so hard, may be at sea...[David] Malouf calls the book 'lyrical, precise, mysterious'. A wise mentor would have urged a first-time novelist to stay with 'precise' rather than strive after the other two epithets."

Nicolas Rothwell on Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men's Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds: "Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds bring to their collaboration different gifts: Reynolds has a lifetime of bold writing on Australia's frontier history behind him; Lake, well-known as a historian of feminism, likes to write on a broad, transnational scale. What, together, have they wrought? ... Drawing the Global Colour Line is nothing less than an alternative presentation of the early 20th century, with race and racial thinking cast at its core. Often dizzying in its sweep and subtle in its interweaving of linked national narratives, it traces the thought-worlds of the politicians and theorists who shaped the diplomacy and power relations of the age."

The Sydney Morning Herald

Ed Wright doesn't think Landscape of Desire by Kevin Rabelais quite reaches the heights it aims for: "I was quite excited by the prospect of Landscape of Desire, which is based on the famous fatal mission of Burke and Wills into the interior that started from Melbourne in 1860. The beginning of the novel, with its atmospheric evocations of the lives of the protagonists, seemed to confirm this promise. I was thinking that perhaps it takes a replanted American (Rabalais is originally from Louisiana but now lives in Melbourne) to revivify the inner states of these men who went in search of the Australian frontier. By the end of it, however, I was disappointed because I wanted this book's ambition to have paid off."

According to Tony Horwitz, Don Watson may have taken the wrong approach with his new book of essays, American Journeys which "is an unusually sensitive and thoughtful tour of the US continent. Watson, however, has embarked on an impossible mission. To understand America, he travels about 13,000 kilometres, while weaving in current events. But his approach and subject conspire to make his portrait feel sketchy and almost instantly out-of-date."

Weekend Round-Up 2008 #6

The Age

Morag Fraser is impressed with American Journeys by Don Watson. It's not all she wanted, but it will do until Watson's next book comes along. "Flags, kettle corn, cola, Memorial Day in Kansas City and a tenor singing America the Beautiful: satire you think? No. Nothing so easy in Don Watson's introduction to his marvel-filled, 39,000-kilometre American journey. This wry, magpie-sharp observer is almost too alive, too romantic-vulnerable before America's bewildering contradictions, its grandeur, its paradoxes and grotesque inequities. He is also honest and engaging about his own sympathies, about the susceptibilities of a sceptical Australian Presbyterian agnostic abroad in the greatest democracy on earth."

The Australian

Justin Clemens reviews Revolving Days: Selected Poems by David Malouf, and appears to ..., well, you figure it out: "Teetering forever on the verge of disabused revelation, the often surprising readability of many of these lyrics derives from their predominantly iambic rhythms, which are then unpredictably derailed by inversions of beat, by sudden enjambments or changes in pace...Knowingly split between experience, the memory of the experience, the writing and reordering of the memory of the experience, time, place and person are to be reconstructed in all their density and their dislocation. Malouf celebrates the sober carnival of shattered time, with its giddily revolving days, its ever-gathering and dispersing swarms."

Graeme Blundell gets more directly to the point in his consideration of the latest Cliff Hardy novel, Open File by Peter Corris: "These days a weary wisdom travels with hero and author. Hardy's old Falcon has seen many kilometres in the long haul to disprove the one-time assumption of Australian publishers, writers and readers that the hard-boiled mystery field was credible only in American settings. Like his hero Cliff Hardy, Corris just keeps going, , as unimpressed and charmingly nonchalant as his hero. Corris has seen off the new wave and the postmodern, the grant-taking dilettantes, the serial killer story and left the lesbian separatist detectives behind, exasperated by his laconic style."

Sophie Masson realises the pitfalls that await any autobiographical writer, and also realises that for some, such as Georgia Blain with Births, Deaths, Marriages, the time is just right: "...there may well arise a moment in any writer's life when one feels one must set things down, to try and understand one's life, to achieve a kind of reckoning with the past. Georgia Blain's memoir, made up of interlinked autobiographical pieces, has that feeling about it, a sense of a time come. The author of four successful novels, she is acutely aware of those risks, but has attempted in this book to capture the essence of her own lived truth, and that of her family." Does Blain succeed? "Most of the pieces in the book have an honesty and attention to detail which is engaging and disarming, and the best pieces are very powerful indeed".

Weekend Round-Up 2008 #5

The Age

The paper has not been very good at putting its book reviews on its website. If they do appear they do so very late in the week. Which partly explains the lateness of this week's entry. Sue Turnbull on Fan Mail by P.D. Martin, which is "... the third and best book in this series so far, picking up where The Murderer's Club left off. This is an interesting gambit, suggesting that Martin conceives her books less as a set of stand-alone investigations, and more as an episodic serial. The experience of reading Fan Mail will therefore be comletely different for those who have read The Murderer's Club compared with those who haven't, since a piece of vital information will be available to the former that is withheld from the latter." And on "The Tattooed Man, Alex Palmer's second novel to feature Sydney-based senior policeman Paul Harrigan and his now lover, Grace Riordan, is a worthy successor to the multi-award winning Blood Redempton."

Michael McGirr on Addition by Toni Jordan and Vinyl Inside by Rachel Matthews: "Both these first novels charm their way past readers' defences. They have such honest affection for their characters that it becomes hard to resist two writers with sufficient wit and imagination to put a smle on some tangled situations."

Peter Craven on The Formalesque by Bernard Smith: "Bernard Smith is one of the titans of the academic world and he has done much to establish the systematic study of art history in this country...He is also, in a complex way, rather more than an art critic and this is some testament to the grandeur of his achievement. He is an academic of the academics, a great scholar as well as a great critic and a historian in anyone's book - and by the most exacting scholarly standards."

Weekend Round-Up 2008 #4

A day late - put it down to real-life intruding, work and family.

The Age

Henry Reynolds, Chair of History and aboriginal Studies at the University of Tasmania reviews Van Dieman's Land by James Boyce which "... is a fresh and sparkling account of the first generation of British settlement in Tasmania that also makes an important contribution to Australian colonial historiography. The product of seven years' research and writing, and a longer time talking about and walking across the island, it focuses attention and admiration on the convicts and their children -- Tasmania's founding mothers and fathers...[Boyce] argues cogently that there needs to be two quite different narratives about the original colonisation of Eastern Australia, explaining that 'how the early British settlers of Van Diemen's Land experienced the Australian continent is thus greatly at variance with the standard opening of the national story'. The Van Diemonian convict settlers were, indeed, Australia's first successful hunters, pastoralists and colonisers of the bush, which, with its abundant wildlife and fresh water, provided the convicts with a vast common there they could escape the constraints of life under the surveillance of police and soldiers a generation before Russel Ward's nomad tribe traversed the outback of New South Wales...Boyce is unashamedly an island patriot who celebrates those aspects of the past that were long shunned as being part of the hated stain of convictism."

The Australian

Christopher Bantick on Gathering Storm by Rosie Dub: "In recent years, female writers have increasingly ventured into the outback in their fiction. Where once the red dust and diesel fumes may have been the province of men in blue singlets discovering their manhood -- if not representing hackneyed and stereotypical images of the dinkum Aussie bloke -- recent novels by women have shown the outback to be subtle as well as terrifying...Dub's longish novel is a bit of a Heart of Darkness-Apocalypse Now tale. It is part thriller, part hippie road story and part rite-of-passage trip in search of identity. Above all it is a compelling, stylish and well-paced read."

Graeme Blundell on Murder on the Apricot Coast by Marion Halligan: "There's an Alexander McCall kind of literary campiness here, a self-conscious sense of simplicity, euphony and precision, and a grave humorous directness in Halligan's sparkling prose. This can be refreshing and charming, but sometimes makes Cassandra irritating...It's the kind of writing that can have you quickly disliking the sheer confronting smugness of some people. But it is good writing."

Susan Kurosawa on The Dressmaker's Daughter by Kate Llewellyn: "Without recourse to a rich and wordy assembly of the past, Kate Llewellyn could hardly have recorded such a vibrant memoir of her girlhood, early married life and tentative first steps as a published poet...It is the illumination of place and era that makes for such an absorbing read. I will long retain an image of Llewellyn and her fellow trainee nurses at Royal Adelaide Hospital shedding their white starched ice-cream cone hats and stiff uniforms for ball gowns, laid out on their beds, ironed and ready, 'purple, green, pink, gold and white, like dead parrots'."

Weekend Round-Up 2008 #3

Couldn't find anything to write about. Let's hope it picks up next week.

Weekend Round-Up 2008 #2

The Age

Thuy On seems to have had his review of A History of the Great War: A Novel by Peter McConnell, rather heavily cut for size: "Despite its subject matter, this is a gentle love story. McConnell forgoes all the grisly details of wholesale massacre, concentrating instead on the small happenings of a small country town." You get the impression there's a lot more to be said here. I have the book at home waiting for review, so I'll make sure more is actually said.

The Australian

If the reviews are there I can't find them.

The Sydney Morning Herald

Andrew Reimer wonders, before starting Peter Carey's latest novel, if the author has finally abandoned Australia for an American setting. It certainly starts that way: "The opening chapters are a tour de force, a virtuoso performance by a writer fully confident of his powers and, in a way, of his ability to get away with anything. Everything is seen through the eyes of a child -- as Henry James made us see everything through the eyes of a young girl in What Maisie Knew. Here are vivid though almost always perplexing images of American life: the ceremonies of upper east side WASPs, the teeming chaos of subway stations and Greyhound terminals, seedy hotels and pizza parlours, and, almost subliminally, the political and ideological ferment of the student protests of the 1960s." But as we have probably all figured out by now the novel's characters end up in Australia after all. But is it any good: "The blurb promised that I would cry more than once and that my spirits would then lift. Neither of that happened. Fortunately, I think, His Illegal Self doesn't try hard to tug at the heartstrings. Instead, it relies on Carey's narrative wizardry, his penchant for grotesquery and on his considerable skills as a puppet-master." I'll take that as a yes.

Clare Scobie is very impressed with Toni Jordan's debut novel: "The publishers were right in their glowing accolades for Addition. Toni Jordan has created such a real character in Grace that you are cheering her on, willing her to get to the top of the staircase, intact and unharmed. Jordan's voice is distinctive, refreshing and very Australian."

Weekend Round-Up 2008 #1

The Age

James Ley hedges his bets somewhat in his review of Peter Carey's His Illegal Self: "Carey is not particularly interested (a la Philip Roth) in the destructive passions that politics can unleash but the novel does set out a pointed contrast between the countercultures of Australia and the US...His Illegal Self is concerned with loss of innocence but also with the painstaking creation of personal trust...[the novel] is a sad story but it has a warmth and directness, an earthy poignancy, that one does not immediately associate with Carey's boisterously inventive fiction...[it] might be a relatively straightforward and understated tale by Carey's usual standards but it is a fine novel."

The Australian

Liam Davison differs from Ley in that he sees echoes of Carey's past work in the current novel: "The premise of His Illegal Self (that the privileged son of a radical American student revolutionary should wash up in Australia, effectively kidnapped by the woman who loves him) and the narrative choices Carey makes deliberately position the viewpoint to present Australia as it is seen from elsewhere. Carey has lived in New York for 17 years. His novels to date, though, have been unashamedly Australian. If the US presence has surfaced more noticeably in his later works, it has always been filtered through an endearingly irreverent, larrikin Australian perspective. Now, it's as though Carey has reversed the viewfinder, and what we see is not entirely flattering...Carey is not returning to his past with this novel. He has never left it. Despite his trademark ventriloquism, there is a remarkable consistency about Carey's work: lies, deception, fakery; the moral consequences of ambiguous truths. All the hallmarks are here." This work is a "natural development" according to Davison.

Barry Hill on The Best Australian Poetry 2007 edited by John Tranter, and The Best Australian Poems 2007 edited by Peter Rose: "These two books are the annual evidence of the health of Australian poetry. Mainstream publishers have dropped the ball but a lot of poetry is put out by smaller presses, the literary journals and a few newspapers. Since the anthologies crop from the journals and newspapers, they can't help but bag good writing and it is not surprising that a handful of our best poets shine in both: the familiar names, for instance, of Robert Adamson, Pam Brown, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, Clive James, John Kinsella and Les Murray, plus newer poets building strong reputations, such as Brendan Ryan, Michael Farrell, David McCooey and Jennifer Harrison."

Michael Wilding finds that Vinyl Inside by Rachel Matthews, has something missing at its heart: "To leave out the world of ideas and belief is to present an impoverished account of reality. For all its merits, Vinyl Inside is somewhat two-dimensional. It is like the scenario for a film yet to be realised."

The Sydney Morning Herald

Robert Dessaix reviews The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and finds that "there is something peculiarly American about this novel, for all the colourful Australian expressions squeezed into it. It comes not just from the religion and violence but from the sense of people constantly acting out redemption rituals for the approval of God or, if He's not looking, a mass of spectators whose job is to sit, be moved and applaud. Towards the end the pace becomes frenetic, as if the saga had mistaken itself for a crime thriller."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #43

The Age

Gideon Haigh is one of the great cricket writers going round, so any new collection is very welcome. Chris Wallace-Crabb finds his latest, The Green and Gold: Writings on Australian Cricket Today "is in its timing, a triumphalist book. Its wandering islands are all to be found within an Aussie period of triumph, ending just before our failure to win the Twenty 20 Championship, taken out by India who fare poorly in the book." But Haigh is constrained by the requirements of the original publications - writing for the dailies doesn't allow enough room for contemplation. "The reader keeps starting and stopping, even if he or she picks up a fair bit about the politics of the modern game."

I found a lot to like about Venero Armanno's previous novel Candle Life, only to feel a bit let down by the ending. Peter Pierce considers Armanno to now be "near the forefront of contemporary Australian novelists" which is a big call. The author's new work "The Dirty Beat is a bold, original and moving reckoning of a life in those final post-mortem moments."

The Australian

Graeme Blundell is pretty taken with Skin and Bone by Kathryn Fox, saying she writes better than Kathy Reichs and less baroque than Patricia Cornwell. "Sydney-based Fox has parlayed her interest in forensic medicine into a full-time career as a thriller writer after three best-selling novels in a highly competitive field. She is the author of the internationally successful and critically acclaimed Malicious Intent and Without Consent published in more than 20 countries."

The Orphan Gunner is another fine publication from Giramondo, and is reviewed by Kathy Hunt. "Inspired by love letters found accidentally behind a family photo frame, Knox had in mind 'an alternative, yet historically accurate, image of war' in which same-sex relationships take their rightful place as 'realities of the period'...Sensitively written and intelligently crafted, The Orphan Gunner reminds us of the manifold possibilities of love and, even now, the fraught cultural pluralities of that many splendoured thing."

Richard King finds that Glyn Parry's first novel for adults, Ocean Road, doesn't quite make it. "The problem with the book is the lack of an interesting voice at its core. In the absence of any extraordinary incident (marital breakdown is a tragic phenomenon but not, alas, an unusual one), the narrator assumes responsibility for bringing the reader into the story. Unfortunately, the narrator's internal life seems to be almost nonexistent."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #42

The Age

Thuy On looks at the annual offering from Black Inc., The Best Australian Stories 2007: "Now in its ninth year, the latest in the series contains 47 stories within its Kermit-green exterior and Robert Drewe is once again at the helm. In his introduction Drewe opines that in order to seek diversity of form and content he's 'cast the widest possible net'...Hence there are stories from well-established authors (David Malouf, Frank Moorhouse, Roger McDonald, Carmel Bird and other usual suspects) as well as from a younger and aspiring generation of writers. The crisp, virgin voices are placed democratically alongside more mature, reputable ones, with about half of Drewe's total selection coming from household literary names." He concludes it's a worthy addition to the series.

Given the size of the country in which they live, and the lack of humanity within it, Australians have a peculiar relationship to wide open spaces. One aspect of that relationship is explored in The Ways of the Bushwalker: On Foot in Australia by Melissa Harper, which is reviewed by Amanda Lohrey. "Almost any ill can be assuaged by a period of going bush. This might mean packing the dog and the gun into the back of the ute, but more likely it will involve the virtuous exertions of the foot-slogger, bent on a return to Eden that can offer some respite, however brief, from the rat-traps of the social...This is a marvellous book -- the chapter on the four-wheel drive phenomenon alone is worth the price -- and beautifully produced by the University of New South Wales Press with a number of illustrations...With clarity and wit [Harper] takes us on an armchair trek, showing how, with each decade, the debates have intensified until, with global warming, the arguments of the bushwalking priesthood have taken on a new dimension."

The Australian

Marele Day finds that Captain Cook: Voyager Between Worlds by John Gascoigne " not so much a biography as a scholarly examination of British and Pacific cultures during the latter part of the 18th century, the one poised on the brink of the industrial Revoluton, which would also affect the other." And, in probably a miscalculation on Cook's behalf: "This voyager between worlds understood how the unexpected arrival of a ship full of men may be interpreted: 'In what light can they ar first look upon us but as invaders of their coutry; time and some acquaintance with us can only convince them of their mistake.'" Just because it was inevitable doesn't make it easier to swallow.

Kevin Rabalais has some early problems with The Fern Tattoo by David Brooks: "The novel proceeds slowly, with meandering sentences -- at times needlessly long, for Brooks tends to reiterate -- and minimal dialogue. His prose demands patience and aspires to a lyrical quality that it often fails to achieve. While rhythmic, his sentences are laden with the kinds of inessentials, most notably a plethora of adverbs, that weaken the narrative's authority." Which all seems alittle harsh. However, the reviewer does conclude that "Brooks has give us an ambitious novel about how stories outlive and form us."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #41

The Age

Alan Stephens on Vietnam: The Australian War by Paul Ham, and The Vietnam Years: From the Jungle to Australian Suburbs by Michael Caulfield: "A case can be made that of the many conflicts in which Australians have fought, only World War II was a war of necessity. In other words, it was our free choice to participate in World War I, Malaya, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq...Two first-rate books by journalist and author Paul Ham and television and film director Michael Caulfield are the latest contributions to the history of the West's war in Indochina. Different in purpose and style, they are complementary in effect...Ham's is the more wide-ranging, resembling in its ambition David Halberstam's masterful The Best and the Brightest. Based on voluminous archival research and scores of interviews, it provides an absorbing political context...Caulfield's book is narrower in scope than Ham's but is no less effective. Part autobiographical -- Caulfield was an anti-Vietnam protester - and part social history, it is drawn largely from the hundreds of interviews he directed for the Australians at War Film Archive."

James Ley is intrigued with The Lost Dog by Michelle de Kretser: "With considerable aplomb her previous novel, The Hamilton Case, appropriated the literary conventions of both an English murder mystery and magic realism, seeing in the collision of incongruous styles -- one very proper and rational, the other fanciful and lushly descriptive -- a reflection of the cultural tensions in 1930s Ceylon...De Kretser's sharp-witted new novel, The Lost Dog, retains an interest in the cross-cultural identities of its characters, but casts its thematic net far wider. It is a book about the hydra of modernity itself, although its narrative is simple and, in some respects, earthy...The Lost Dog is possessed of considerable though understated depth of feeling...It is a wonderfully written novel that is often funny, but, despite its sharp critical intelligence, it is not at all cynical."

The Australian

"The Australian" has been posting its book reviews to its website quite often over the past few months. The problem has always been that they are hard to find: not linked to via the main books page and only found via their search facility. But this week...well, if they're there I can't find them.

Mary Rose Liverani on Burning In by Mireille Juchau: "This novel is Juchau's second. With her first, Machines for Feeling, it suggests she has an ongoing interest in alienation and disconnection...The photographic mindset and methodology incorporated into her novel is bound to make Burning In a talking point at writers festivals, especially since her prose is charged with an effortless flow of powerful, poetic imagery and her crafting of complex shifts in time, place and consciousness meticulous."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #40

The Age

It's poetry time of year in "The Age" this week with Lyn McCredden, associate professor of literary studies at Deakin University, reviewing the two major annual Australian poetry collections: The Best Australian Poetry 2007 edited by John Tranter (University of Queensland Press) and The Best Australian Poems 2007 edited by Peter Rose (Black Inc): "The editors of these two valuable anthologies are unapologetic cultural champions of poetry and Australian literary culture generally. John Tranter and Peter Rose, both fine poets and critics, are more than qualified to present their personal choices from the best poetry published in journals and newspapers this year, and their anthologies are extremely interesting and quite different from each other...Only one poem (S.K. Kelen's entrancing 'Dance') appears in both, though there are 17 poets who overlap. Tranter's is the briefer, pithier collection, with 40 poems; Rose's contains 66...Poetry is the great cultural form -- language at its most inquisitorial, self-questioning and sensuous -- but it is also poetry that points to the limits of poetry...Poets may claim to be little gods, their vigour in their heads, but in a multitude of ways their art brings them to acknowledge the littleness of their divinity, the bounds of their art. This dance of limits is what poetry pre-eminently achieves."

Any novel by Christopher Koch is a major literary event in this country, though Michael Williams doesn't think his latest, The Memory Room, quite hits the heights that it might have: "Few Australian novelists have been so attuned to the nuances of Australians abroad in Asia, or would be so well placed to chronicle the shortcomings of public service and the limits of those twin concerns of the spy novel: idealism and compromise...Fans of Koch's earlier work won't be disappointed, but somehow The Memory Room never quite amounts to anything much. It just doesn't find the author hitting the high notes that he's previously shown himself capable of, contenting itself with a mediation on a group of characters who never fully come alive...The Memory Room glitters in the sun, even if the junction at which these characters meet, the depiction of the local wrongs that drive them together and apart, feels largely empty."

The Australian

Jack Hibberd looks at the other major Australian fiction release in recent times, Landscape of Farewell by Alex Miller: "On the evidence of Landscape of Farewell, Alex Miller is a sombre and sober author whose prose interlocks adroitly with his lugubrious thematic concerns. Not for him the sceptical fabrications and comic diversities of modernism or the antic relativities of postmodernism. Alex is no smart alec...Landscape of Farewell is laced and interlarded with flashbacks, dreams, prescient Jungian premonitions and binary selves, some of which knit past with present, place with place."

Last year Will Elliott won the ABC Fiction Award for The Pilo Family Circus. This year it was Luck in the Greater West by Damian McDonald which is reviewed by Justine Ettler: "Set in Sydney's western suburbs, this is realist entertainment at its most gritty, featuring characters who range from the vaguely unappealing (drug dealers and pregnant teens) to the outright detestable: hate-filled, Lebanese Muslim gang rapists...Curiously, Andrew Hutchinson's debut novel Rohypnol, which depicts young male perpetrators of date rape, won last year's Victorian Premier's Literary Awards prize for an unpublished manuscript by an emerging Victorian writer. It's quite a coincidence that two young male Australian authors are making their names by writing contentious novels depicting the rape of women by men...In McDonald's case, there is a moral to the story that suggests artistic integrity: when it comes to immigration, assimilation is the best policy." Which implies that Hutchinson's doesn't.

The Sydney Morning Herald

I've said in the past that the annual "Best Australian Essays" from Black Inc is the best type of summer reading: short pieces by a number of different authors on a number of different topics; if you don't like one piece, chances are you'll like the next, and you may just discover a new, fresh voice. This year's edition, 2007, is edited for the second time by Drusilla Modjeska, and Andrew Reimer seems to feel the same way about it as I do: "For her second go at editing this annual anthology, Drusilla Modjeska has assembled 27 essays that make for varied and absorbing reading. As one would expect, many of the familiar names are here...One of the most attractive features of this collection is Modjeska's careful, one might say cunning, arrangement of these contributions. Reading anthologies from cover to cover can be a disconcerting experience -- changing gears, so to speak, every 10 pages or so. By contrast, many of the essays in this volume are grouped in ways that establish telling connections and echoes and also provide illuminating disjunctions at times."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #39

The Age

Rachel Hills, who is a regular contributor to an Australian teen magazine, is impressed with Girl Stuff: Your Full-on Guide to the Teen Years by Kaz Cooke: "Born from a survey of more than 4000 girls around Australia (whose remarks are scattered throughout the book), Girl Stuff is a kind of teen magazine omnibus that even the most progressive parents would feel happy to hand to their daughter (socially conservative parents are another matter -- Cooke covers sex and drugs more candidly than most health classes)...As with any coming-of-age guide, don't expect Australia's teens to rush out en masse to buy Girl Stuff, but it is the kind of book most girls will enjoy, read voraciously, and refer to over and over again if given as a gift."

Most of us watching the current Australian Federal election might think that the nation's Christians are attempting to influence some or all of the major parties. But in his review of Margaret Simons's Faith, Money and Power, Barney Zwartz doesn't think so: "The religious influence on Australian politics is nothing like America, where evangelicals have had a powerful, often malign, effect on policy...Meticulously fair and characteristically insightful, her great achievement is to put the Pentecostals in a political and social context. She also gives them a human face, with long narratives and conversations...But even if secularists have little to fear, faith is destined to be part of politics for the foreseeable future. Faith, she writes, is part of the mood of the times in Australia."

Jeff Glorfeld looks at two new Australian crime novels, Eden by Dorothy Johnston and Trick or Treat by Kerry Greenwood. "Johnston writes beautifully, crafting passages of prose that make the reader stop, go back and re-read. But despite these strengths, the story is constricted and oddly lifeless...Unlike Maloney [Johnston's protagonist], Chapman [Greenwood's PI] lives large, with a lusty appetite for good food and good sex. Every meal is a feast and every character is exceptional. Even her three cats are remarkable...Where Johnston's palette is the muted greys of realism, Greenwood splashes hers with bold, melodramatic colours. Chapman is strong-willed and decisive, traits she shares with that other marvellous Greenwood creation, Phryne Fisher."

The Australian

One of the big Australian books of this year will be The Complete Short Stories by David Malouf, and I don't mean just page-count. Geoffrey Lehmann struggles to come to terms with it: "It is not easy reviewing the work of someone whom you have known well, which is my position with David Malouf. You perceive their work through the prism of your personal knowledge." He then recounts a few personal anecdotes before getting down to the business of reviewing the stories in the volume. "Although labelled complete, this book does not have all of Malouf's published stories. This was a good decision. Every story in this book earns its place, in that it has some details that make it worth preserving." And he concludes that "what is remarkable about this epic collection (to quote the jacket) is Malouf's affection for his characters, his openness to different lives and his ability to sustain a lyrical intensity throughout a story."

In his review of Michelle de Kretser's third novel, The Lost Dog, Richard King is worried the author is losing her way. "Clearly, here is an important novel, written by an important novelist. However, it is also a disappointing novel written by an important novelist, and not to say so would not only be dishonest but ultimately unfair to de Kretser." But there are things to savour: "On the whole, the book is exceptionally well written. De Kretser is an excellent narrator and her almost obsessive attention to detail -- the mighty effort of imagination expended on the incidental -- is revealing of a dedication that should serve as a model to younger writers." All in all, though, "De Kretser's fiction would be better served if she could just put textual studies aside and trust her inner storyteller."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #38

The Age

It's just my luck that the weekend I'm away from home, "The Age" decides to run reviews of more Australian books that it has for about six months. Mumble, mumble. So, rather than just skip last week's reviews, I've decided to combine two weeks' worth into one. Probably explains why it's so late in the week.

Carmel Bird looks at The Trout Opera by Matthew Condon: "This is a grand novel with the scope of opera. The structure is seductive, shifting confidently from character to character, from one age to another, back and forth as the stories reveal themselves, as the lives move in tandem, cross, head for focal points, rise and fall. The geographical location is the Snowy River town of Dalgety...The "Trout Opera" itself, as performed in 1906, is also a glowing set-piece of very moving prose that sets in motion this vast and magnificently Australian saga of one man's life on the Snowy in the now receding 20th century."

Juliette Hughes finds that Peter Doherty is a great story-teller in A Light History of Hot Air: "Doherty is a vivid raconteur who can tell a story with an amusing twist, as well as ones that are more in the style of a campfire ghost tale. Scary stories abound, yet we are in the safest of hands here, with a Nobel prize-winning scientist guiding us like Virgil through mythical hells ino the light of reason...Peter Doherty has the kind of mind that travels along many different pathways, taking each distraction and diversion as an opportunity to explore."

Peter Pierce is not overly impressed with Blood Kin by Geridwen Dovey: "...the novel seems to be a political commentary, deft and dead-pan, if hardly given to deep insights, no more than the revelation of ruthlessness, expediency, desperation, hunger for power."

Katharine England examines Steven Carroll's The Lovers' Room, which is a revision of his 1994 novel Momoko, and wonders if the whole exercise is just a little too neat: "While non-fiction writers may regularly update and republish their work, it is rare for a novelist to do likewise, so it was intriguing to read that Steven Carroll intended to revise his 1994 novel Momoko...There is always more, however, to Carroll than first meets the eye - as is clear from the fine, reflective, suburban trilogy beginning with The Art of the Engine Driver produced between his two versions of Momoko's story - and the new title, The Lovers' Room, draws attention to a philosophical underpinning that was formerly less clearly articulated."

Any novel release by Alex Miller is going to be a major literary event in Australia as he is a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin Award. His latest, Landscape of Farewell, is reviewed by Lisa Gorton: "Alex Miller's novels combine to an unusual degree realism and inwardness. In fact, you could argue that his novels extend the tradition of English ghost stories: The Woman in White and Wuthering Heights; even The Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. The past haunts Miller's characters and his stories puzzle out the mystery of that haunting. They are strange, extreme novels. Yet, in the ghost story tradition, Miller creates narrators whose detached intelligence holds these fantastical elements in a close and precisely imagined world...Landscape of Farewell gathers up some of the interests that have shaped some of Miller's novels: The Ancestor Game, Journey to the Stone Country and Prochownik's Dream. It teases out how the past makes itself present in the relationship between fathers and sons; it works to define what art takes from people's lives, and what it gives. In some ways, Landscape of Farewell seems to test how these questions might look to an old man."

The Australian

Ex-NSW Premier Bob Carr enjoys Colleen McCullough's Antony and Cleopatra: "McCullough's details of feasts, journeys and battles convince the reader they are walking the quaysides and the forums of Rome's Mediterranean world, crossing
mountains with armies and making deals with client-kings. The sieges are not the trial they became in Fortunes Favourites (1993); the narrative runs strong and the subject remains power throughout. Who will rule? It is the basic question of politics and these works, and the reason McCullough is listed for reading by US Foreign Service officers in training and admired by Henry Kissinger. Much contemporary fiction is rendered trivial by comparison."

Kerryn Goldsworthy is quite taken by Australian Classics: 50 Great Books by Jane Gleeson-White: "Australian Classics is quite an unusual book: it's not an anthology but a thorough readers' guide, a kind of photographic negative of an anthology. In this follow-up to her 2005 Classics: Books for Life, Gleeson-White has chosen an Australian list of 50 great books (although this subheading is immediately problematic, as some of her chosen books are single poems and others are individual short stories) that she thinks will provide this overview...On each of the 50 works chosen, she writes a short, lucid, informative essay, plus 10 extra such essays on various background topics and issues, such as the Ern Malley affair, the Sydney Push and the glory days of The Bulletin in the late 19th century. She provides simple, clearly put plot summaries, biographical information about the authors and interesting scraps of anecdote and information...This kind of thing is surprisingly difficult to write and make interesting -- or, sometimes, even to make coherent -- and it's to her great credit that she has made this book so easy and engaging to read." Looks like the Christmas present for me then.

Liam Davison is very impressed with Matthew Condon's The Trout Opera: "As spectacle it's hard to beat the opening ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. If anyone thought nationalism was spent, the whole singing, dancing, horse-riding performance proved it was alive and kicking...Now the Olympic ceremony has spawned its own novel; not a horse opera, but Matthew Condon's bold and impressive The Trout Opera. Ten years in the making, it is a big ambitious work, equally ardent in its celebration of nationhood but willing also to switch the focus forward to reveal the seamier underbelly of the myth...Condon's spectacle is a marvellous achievement. Epic in scope, it is written out of a deeply felt love for Australia and genuine anxiety for its future. His writing is strong and assured."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #37

The Age

"The Age" has got its weekend book reviews up on its website earlier than most previous weeks - last week's didn't seem to appear till very late, hence the absence of this column - and most of the book reviews are represented except for, you guessed it, the one and only Australian book under review. Ah, well.

Delia Falconer looks at the last memoir of Donald Horne, Dying: A Memoir, who was "a public intellectual long before the term was invented. Horne was an intellectual thinker in whose writing a generosity of intellect shone brightly." Falconer is quite taken by the book, comparing it to one of best of recent years. "Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking was impressive in navigating and articulating a widow's grief. But, for my money, the Hornes' less mannered account is the more moving, especially in its portrait of both sides of a marriage; unlike Didion's, it made me cry."

The Australian

Simon Leys reviews Christopher Koch's new novel, The Memory Room, and praises it no end: "Those who have read The Year of Living Dangerously and Highways to a War won't need to be told that Christopher Koch is a master of storytelling. This talent is displayed, more convincingly than ever, in The Memory Room. The characters are alive and interesting: we care for them and wonder what will be their fate. The plot develops seamlessly, tensions build without any self-indulgent intrusions of literary effects (it is a characteristic feature of good novels that they do not allow themselves to be anthologised, they do not lend themselves to quotations: you absorb them whole, you cannot select passages or detach beautiful pages here and there; it all hangs together in organic unity). The diverse locations of the action, in turns familiar and exotic, are suggested with sparse and effective atmospheric touches. Dialogues ring true: they convey the characters of the respective speakers and propel the action. Should the book ever be adapted to the big screen (and I can anticipate the superb film that might be made from it), the scriptwriters will find the most delicate part of their work has already been completed for them."

Tim Fischer, ex deputy Prime Minister and second lieutenant, has a long look at Vietnam: The Australian War by Paul Ham, and finds that avoiding American humiliation was the prime objective: "It is a reminder that Australia did issue warnings to the US that it was all going wrong, and that bad tactics and poor strategies were being used. It also offers a benchmark for the performance of the Pentagon and American political leadership in relation to the Iraq War."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #36

The Age

Stephanie Trigg reviews Germaine Greer's latest, Shakespeare's Wife, along with Bill Bryson's Shakespeare: "Shakespeare's Wife takes its point of departure from the standard accounts of Shakespeare's marriage to Anne Hathaway...[It] is best read, perhaps, as a brilliant anthology of 16th-century life: it teems with detail about births, marriages, and deaths, demographics, household management, religious controversy, and relations between family and neighbours."

And then it's all Australian fiction, which is a pleasant surprise.

Of Ron McCoy's Sea of Diamonds by Gregory Day, Michael Willams says: "If Louis de Bernieres had been asked to write an episode of the ABC's SeaChange, it might have wound up looking something like Gregory Day's second novel, Ron McCoy's Sea of Diamonds...Day demonstrates many of the talents that were on display in his first, the crisp and startling vignette The Patron Saint of Eels: a lively sense of humour, and a prepossessing sense of place."

Louise Swinn is very impressed with The Low Road by Chris Womersley: "It is difficult to believe that The Low Road is a first novel. It has the controlled pacing of an experienced hand. With echoes of Peter Goldsworthy's Three Dog Night, Kenneth Cook's Wake in Fright and Cormac McCarthy's The Road, this is both modern tragedy and crime thriller...Rife with images, it unfolds like a film."

Lorien Kaye on The River Baptists by Belinda Castles: "It is impossible to resist river-related metaphors to dscribe this novel, filled as it is with undertows and undercurrents; ultimately the reader is swept away." This novel won the 2006 Australian/Vogel award.

And Carmel Bird is captivated by David Malouf's The Complete Stories: "The stories of David Malouf are not easy to put into a category; they lift the reader across a line from memory and reality into another dimension without the reader's being aware that there ever was a line."

The Australian

Barry Oakley on Searching for Schindler by Tom Keneally: "Tom Keneally, irrepressible generator of fictons, is in a relaxed mood in Searching for Schindler. This is a memoir, so the stories and characters are already there: raconteur Tom rather than Tom the novelist."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #35

The Age

"The Age" continues to mess about with its book reviews on its website. I have no idea when they will turn up these days.

The major Australian fiction review is by Kerryn Goldsworthy of Charlotte Wood's novel The Children: "Charlotte Wood's first novel, Pieces of a Girl (1999), was widely read and warmly reviewed and her second, The Submerged Cathedral (2004), was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Literary Award. The Children, her third, is written with skill and confidence of someone who knows that if she has already done it twice then she can most certainly do it a third time...Wood appears to be responding to calls in recent years for Australian fiction writers to turn their attention
away from historical subjects and towards the way the country is here and now, and to examine in their writing the lives of contemporary Australians and the way they have been affected by government policies, philosophies and decisions."

Actually, it's the only fiction review. Harpoon: Into the Heart of Whaling by Andrew Darby is reviewed by Christopher Bantick, who finds it "an impressive and exhaustive appraisal of current whaling practices and historical antecedents. Darby's non-fiction description is exceptionally good -- his prologue, in which he discusses what happens to a harpooned finback, is a powerful piece of detached observance that intentionaly leaves the reader restive."

Jeff Sparrow is intrigued by Maria Tumarkin's Courage: "Structuring a meditation on ourage as a memoir, so that your university life, motherhood and marriage nestle alongside stories from Nazi death camps might seem in and of itself a brave decision, in the Humphrey Appleby sense of the phrase." She seems to bring it off.

The Australian

Anne Susskind is impressed by Malcolm Knox's latest novel, Jamaica: "...there are not many men who can write like this, so poetically and with such immense complexity, about friendship, jealousy, insecurity, middle age and death wishes."

The Sydney Morning Herald

Desmond O'Grady finds much to like in Richard Woolcott's tales of diplomacy in high places, Undiplomatic Activities. "He must have kept a record of the quirkiest episodes he witnessed from the time when, according to his account, he was a cheeky diplomatic cadet but his account is not restricted to Australian diplomats nor to contemporaries...Diplomacy is not all beer and skittles or major policy decisions but this enjoyable book can give that impression."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #34

The Age

John Button, who, as a long-time Geelong fan must be in seventh heaven this week, reviews two books on the Australian media: The Content Makers: Understanding the Media in Australia by Margaret Simons, and The Media We Deserve: Underachievement in the Fourth Estate by David Salter. Simons's book is a sort of "conducted tour" of the Australia media and "Although [it] is full of information and serious insights, there is nothing dull or stodgy about it. She is a very good descriptive writer, and some of that writing, like her descriptions of a Walkley Award ceremony or her interview with advertising magnate Harold Mitchell, is very funny." Salter's "book is a collection of informative and readable essays about journalism and the environment in which journalists operate." Even though Button is an ex-Labor minister he doesn't seem to approve of the present Communications minister (in the government) or Labor's Opposition spokesman. Maybe the whole Australia media scene is just a giant mess. Button thinks we "could do with more transparency and better public information." I agree. I just don't see it happening any time soon.

Pamela Bone, ex-journalist, is suffering from terminal cancer and has written a memoir in which she examines her own life, Bad Hair Days. Morag Fraser finds "This is a profoundly honest book. No exhortations, no heroics, no depth-diving in her own psychology - although the character revealed, almost inadvertently, is a fascinating and complex exponent of
20th-century feminism, bemused by her own daring, and by her own luck, good and bad."

Continuing the memoir trail, Richard Woolcott, ambassador to Indonesia and the United Nations, career diplomat, has written his in Undiplomatic Activities, which Michelle Grattan reviews. "Dick Woolcott is a very funny raconteur and his varied and distinguished diplomatic career has given him an endless supply of anecdotes. His slim volume is a laugh-out-loud book, enhanced by illustrations from cartoonist David Rowe, and makes a relaxing companion for an evening, especially if accompanied by a glass of good red."

The Australian

Pamela Bone's memoir is also reviewed in this paper this week, which Christopher Bantick considers "a rewarding and uplifting book".

The Sydney Morning Herald

I think most readers in Australia will be familiar with Tom Keneally's Booker Prize winning novel, Schindler's Ark. If not the book then Spielberg's film of the book, Schindler's List. (I would still like to have been in the meeting that changed the title just to hear the silly arguments.) Now Keneally has published Searching for Schindler, his account of how he came by the original story. Andrew Riemer reviews the new book and opines that "I am sure that Tom Keneally is incapable of writing a dull book. This memoir, listed as his 38th publication, is no exception." Though he does find that "He tells his story very well, even though this enjoyable book tends to hop from topic to topic in a
disconcerting way."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #33

The Age

According to Peter Craven, Craig Sherborne is creating a modern Australian classic with his memoirs. He reviews the second volume, Muck, this week. "A couple of years ago, Craig Sherborne's Hoi Polloi established itself overnight as a classic Australian memoir. Now we have the second volume of his all but catastrophic comic nightmare of an upbringing and its originality, its candour and its power of representation put it on par with its startling predecessor...this is an extraordinary book, full of savagery and pathos and the screed and cackle as well as the sadness of any young life in the midst of mad-seeming adults who constitute the world."

The Australian

Peter Stanley is a bit wary of Monash: The Outsider Who Won a War by Roland Perry. Writing a review of the book while walking around the cemetries and on the Somme, he's not in the mood to pull any punches: "Let's get two things straight: Monash was no outsider and he didn't win a war...The Monash legend began with Monash's own books. Perry uncritically fails to show he was a ruthless and ambitious micro-manager who gained results but not affection...Perry's book is far, far too long [596pp], and it's unbalanced and unconvincing."

Peter Corris is better pleased with The Vietnam Years: From the Jungle to the Australian Suburbs by Michael Caulfield: "Caulfield has produced a strong, tough-minded book, well constructed and compellingly written."

The Sydney Morning Herald

Hugh Mackay is one of Australia's most influential social commentators. You may not always agree with what he says, but you have to admit he's at least done his research. His latest book, Advance Australia...Where?, is reviewed by Roy Williams: "The subject of this fascinating book is the radical change that Australia has undergone in the last
quarter-century...The picture he paints is troubling. There has been an ugly skewing of our political, communal and personal priorities." Yes, Hugh, got that. Any hope on the horizon? Williams's view "is that Australia's one great national achievement of the late 20th century has been the creation of a multicultural society. Yet, as Mackay shows, it has been steadily undermined since the mid-1990s by manifestations of bigotry. Mackay points to an emerging tendency to scapegoat the marginalised and demand the quick fix." Giving with one hand, and taking away with the other. "There are, Mackay suggests, some grounds for hope. Australians are showing increased interest in religion and
spirituality." How you can those two sentences together beats me. It's not a direction I'd like to see any country take.

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #32

The Age

Mandy Sayer's latest novel, The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, is short, only some 159 pages, but according to Fiona Gruber packs in a lot of themes: "The elements at play - domestic violence, incest, promiscuity, larceny and substance abuse - are the tropes of our times, and their perpetrators the 21st- century equivalent of club-wielding ogres, predatory goblins and lying witches. It's just tough when they're all kin." Yes, we're in dysfunctional family territory here: absent mother, strange violent father and weird kids. "Sayer has written a thrilling and sure-footed tale. As a storyteller, she is a safe pair of hands juggling very sharp knives."

The Australian

Frank Campbell is mightily impressed with Graeme Kinross-Smith's debut novel: "Long Afternoon of the World is a novel written by a poet, which explains its rare power and intensity, sustained to the end. There's nothing prosaic about this book. Everything is chosen, weighed and measured with a steely concentration. Its triumph is to conjure poetry's brief unique fire into prolonged incandescanece. There are no tepid, careless passages such as pockmark the work of even great novelists; no padding, no frivolous diversions. This novel should be banned from airports because once you enter its labyrinth of rooms you'll miss the boarding call." This is Kinross-Smith's first novel, and he's 70. There's hope for us yet.

Dead Birds by Trevor Shearston is a "strangely compelling novel" according to Debra Adelaide. But, she says, "It's likely to divide readers, who will understand and embrace it entirely or simply resist. Just like the fiction of Gerald Murnane: readers love or hate his work but are never ambivalent about it."

There seems to be little consistency, week to week, about which reviews are uploaded to any paper's website. Gives you the impression they are not really interested.

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #31

The Age

For the first five or six years of this decade, Melbourne underworld gangs took part in a series of assassinations, murders, and retributions that, frankly, boggled the mind. Hardly a week seemed to go by without some new body turning up. A total of about 28 gang members were killed all up. Now, with Carl Williams convicted of three of the murders - he pleaded guilty - a number of accounts of the gangland wars have hit the books stands. Andrew Rule reviews two of them: Gangland Australia: Colonial Criminals to the Carlton crew by James Morton and Susanna Lobez, and Big Shots: The Chilling Inside Story of Carl Williams & the Gangland Wars by Adam Shand. Unfortuately, the reviews aren't on the newspaper website.

Malcom Knox's previous novel, A Private Man, was shortlisted for a number of state awards and won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Novel. His latest, Jamaica, is reviewed by Kerryn Goldsworthy, who finds it awash with bone-dry Australian humour while, at the same time, taking a long hard look at Australian masculinity: "Knox's subject matter is familiar from his two earlier novels - well-to-do Sydney, men in groups, family dynamics, old secrets - but more than either Summerland or A Private Man, his third novel directly addresses some of the widening gaps between what Australians think of themselves and what we, or some of us, have become. The myth of an egalitarian ideal, for example, is shown to be nonsense, with the nuances and signifiers of class difference calibrated as finely here as anything in the fiction of George Eliot." She also tags a couple of other writers to give you a pointer: "like Temple and Maloney, Knox can be very funny while writing of profoundly serious things."

Ian Syson is beguiled by a couple of first novels in Long Afternoon of the World by Graeme Kinross-Smith, and Other Country by Stephen Scourfield. "I'm glad I read both books because Kinross-Smith is a brilliant writer from whom I am itching to read more; and Scourfield's story is a cracker that reveals an imagination that surely has more stories to tell. Despite my reservations, these two first novels are well worth the read if only for the promise they hold."

The Australian

Graeme Blundell is quite taken with Chris Womersley's first novel: "Chris Womersley begins The Low Road in a classic crime-thriller, almost film-noir style, its shadowy setting in what may be a dystopian Melbourne. It could also be Boston, Brisbane or Birmingham. Or what W.H. Auden called 'the Great Wrong Place'...Womersley writes with quirky sparkling detail. Fringe suburbs are places of failure, suspicion and negect. Car parks hum in their particular fluorescent silences, all angles and dark solids. Ribbons of highway unrave through wet suburbs. And bus shelters, with a scuffle of soft-drink-cans beneath wire seats, stink of domestic misfortune."

It must be first novel week out there in the publishing world with Anne Susskind reviewing The River Baptists, winner of the 2006 The Australian/Vogel award for unpublished manuscript. She has some quibbles - it's a first novel after all - but "then again, there's the freshness of a (relative) newcomer's curiosity and an admirable determination to penetrate beyond big impersonal Sydney and immerse herself in the flavour of a country in which she did not grow up."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #30

The Australian

Gregory Day had a bit of a hit on his hands with his first novel, The Patron Saint of Eels, a year or so back, and now his second novel, set in the same part of the southwest coast of Victoria looks like picking up where that first novel left off. Christopher Bantick finds that "His fiction is a creel of ideas about how the sea influences perceptions. A common denominator is the way the sea affects the lives of those who live along the coast."

Craig Sherborne's first volume of his memoirs, Hoi Polloi, was published to critical acclaim a few years back, so his next instalment will be of interest to a great number of readers. Kathy Hunt thinks so in her review which she calls two acts of the one play, which "beg for the stage".

The Sydney Morning Herald

Malcolm Knox returns with his new novel, Jamaica, which Andrew Reimer attempts to come to grips with. While Reimer finds some faults, "My reservations are not much more than quibbles. The pace, verve and stylishness of Jamaica outweigh any such shortcomings. Some sections are brilliantly done."

There's not a lot this week, as you can see.

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #29

The Age

Peter Craven tackles the new J.M. Coetzee novel, Diary of a Bad Year, and finds the author is continuing his recent novelistic interests.

Whatever you make of it Coetzee's recent "Australian" work has been minimalist, self-reflexive and concerned with the micro-dramas of a novelistic sensibility with an intimate resemblance to his own. They are books about the kind of people who write books and they tend to integrate as found objects the workaday writing, if not the experience, of J. M. Coetzee, eminent writer and man of sensibility, now resident in Australia.

And so it is with his new book, Diary of a Bad Year...[the novel] is a remarkable book full of passion and wisdom and constantly illuminated by the author's adherence to the truth that shines from the smallest situation or the touch of sensuality that trails from the margin of the most momentous thought.

Needless to say, Craven is pretty impressed with the work: "In his smallest jotting on the page Coetzee is a master we scarcely deserve."

Simon Clews found much to enjoy in Patriot Act by James Phelan, which is the author's second novel featuring ex-navy, investigative journalist Lachlan Fox...Written at breakneck pace using techniques such as filmic intercutting between alternating scenes that build towards a climax, Patriot Act almost owes more to the modern blockbuster action film, than to any literary heritage."

The Zookeeper's War is Stephen Conte's debut novel, and John Bailey finds that the author's unforced style works in the book's favour: "Conte's prose style is unhurried and unforced, rarely indulging in acrobatic feats and only occasionally hinting at the journeyman status sometimes evident in first novels."

The Australian

If the past few weeks is anything to go by, Gerald Stone's latest book, Who Killed Channel 9? is certainly topical. With the departure of the Chief Executive, and the head of the News Department, the tv network is really on the nose. As Allan Hogan puts it: "Gerald Stone is in no doubt about the answer to the question he poses as the title of his latest book. It wasn't Colonel Mustard in the ballroom with the candlestick, it was John Alexander in the boardroom with the bludgeon...The way Stone sees it, Alexander wanted to fix Channel 9 when it wasn't broken. As the head of Kerry Packer's PBL Media, Alexander's bungling interference led to the departure of Nine's most talented executives. And they didn't leave for quiet retirement; they walked into the welcoming arms of Nine's bitter rival, Channel 7. It wasn't long before Nine's long supremacy in the ratings wars was over." He'll either get a cushy retirement package or get picked up by another network where he can weave his magic all over again.

Sidney Nolan produced some of the iconic Australian images in his art, especially his series on the bushranger Ned Kelly. So the new book, Nolan on Nolan: Sidney Nolan in His Own Words edited by Nancy Underhill, will be of interest to a lot of people. Giles Auty came to the book with some expectation, but left rather disappointed: "Most commentators agree that by nature Nolan was original, sensitive and lyrical. Indeed, based on such attributes, Nolan was apt to claim that he would have been equally at home channelling his creative impulses into written rather than visual art forms. Yet on the evidence of the present book this last idea seems something of a vain wish...Nolan's command of language, meaning and linguistic construction was insecure at best and certainly did not suggest successful alternative careers for him in the fields of prose or poetry."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #28

The Age

There haven't been many crime novels set in the corporate world in this country so Leon Gettier is pleased to see The Butcherbird by Geoffrey Cousins: "Cousins can spin a good yarn, and manages to create a great sense of Sydney, although there are passages where his prose goes over the top...A bit more of the Raymond Chandler ethos -- tight economical sentences where lessi smore -- would not have gone astray. Still, it is an entertaining read and the end seems to leave tings hanging nicely unresolved. Much like the dark side of corporate life."

Frances Atkinson finds that Joel and Cat Set the Story Straight, by Nick Earls and Rebecca Sparrow, "works for several reasons; we get to know Joel and Cat individually (both of them are a lot more vulnerable than they let on) and we get to see them interact together via the writing assignment, which provides the laughs...Humour is a big part of the book, but there's drama, too, and both Cat and Joel experience the aftershock of domestic unhappiness. There are more than a few surprises but it would be a shame to reveal them here - particularly one that you can't see coming. The romantic tension between Joel and Cat is finely balanced and the gentle revelation that each quite fancies the other, is sweet but not sickly."

The Australian

Daniel Stacey agrees with recent reviews of Rohypnol by Andrew Hutchinson and seems to get mired in the language without getting to grips with the aim of the book. "When a novel begins with the line 'Troy f---ed up', you can probably guess its ambition will be to shock and that this is unlikely to be carried out successfully. A ready use of expletives, like shape poems and the liberal application of exclamation marks, are devices that quickly lose their effect and purpose." What I can't figure out is why it's considered a sin to shock. Stacey should try reading middle-period Ballard, say Crash. He does hand out some praise: "There are some good, restrained descriptions of dysfunctional Australian teens pointlessly torturing their parents, whose disciplinary alternatives narrow down to jaded expressions of unequivocal love...Generally, though, the grisly elements dominate and are rendered boring by repetition or comical in the manner of Titus Andronicus, neither of which are the author's intentions."

There have been few film memoirs from Australia so it is interesting to see the release of Josh Hartnett Definitely Wants to Do This: True Stories From a Life in Screen Trade by Bruce Beresford. Phillip Adams raises the main point about film directors right up front: "are directors born mad and attracted to a profession where madness is de rigueur? Or are they driven mad by the process and the insanity of others? I don't think Bruce Beresford is insane. Not quite, not yet. When working with him decades ago, however, I realised he was eccentric. But amusingly so." If you weren't mad when you entered the industry you might well be after about 30 years.

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #27

The Age

Andrew Hutchinson's confronting debut novel is reviewed by Thuy On who isn't overly impressed with it: "Notwithstanding its range of influences and literary predecessors, there's a facile and posturing tough-guy quality to this novel. Offering shock value is easy but Hutchinson isn't interested in providing any reasons behind the transgressions of these teenage marauders." Not that I thought that was the point of the book. He concludes that the author "tries too hard". Again, not a sentiment that I agree with.

Delinquent Angel by Diana Georgeff tells the life-story of poet Shelton Lea, who died at the age of 58 in 2005. Gig Ryan, the newspaper's poetry editor, finds the biography to be a bit patchy, as she tells us that "This book is obviously written by one outside the poetry scene", and "It is remiss that there is no bibliography". She concludes that "Georgeff's emphasis is on the life, not on literary analysis and criticism, of Lea. She is most thorough on Lea's early life and quotes his memories of those times verbatim, but rushes over his later, slightly less rabble-rousing life, when he was happiest."

Michael Gawenda left the editorship of "The Age" to become the paper's US correspondent a few years back. His reports back from that country have now been collected into American Notebook: A Personal and Political Journey and Dennis Altman encounters a number of problems in his reading of it. "Gawenda is a superb journalist and a good writer. As a political analyst his own romance with the US denies him the distance he claims is a requirement for first-class journalism."

The Australian

Peter Corris is mightily impressed with Jacob G. Rosenberg's second volume of autobiography, Sunrise West: "As a reader, I have a strong dislike of the appearance of ghosts, imaginary beings and disembodied spirits in books. But Rosenberg's evocation of his mother, gassed at Auschwitz, and his sister, who threw herself on the electric fence, as if they were real and present, touched me deeply. It takes unusually powerful writing to overcome a deep-seated prejudice...East of Time, published last year, won two literary awards. It would not surprise me if Sunrise West, published this month, did the same."

Stephen Matchett applauds the new biography of Australia's Prime Minister, John Winston Howard: The Biography by Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen, which received so much attention in the papers a few weeks back. "The routine round of political conflict makes it impossible to assess which issues will define the subject's achievements and failures. The mass of material can overwhelm authors struggling to write for the record through the prism of the issues of the hour. Given these challenges, Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen deserve a medal for biographical bravery. This is not, cannot be, the definitive biography of John Howard. But it joins Tony Parkinson's (2000) study of Jeff Kennett as one of the best contemporary studies of an Australian conservative politician. In the way they paint the private man and the politician, the authors add a dimension to our understanding of a prime minister whose obvious and endless obsession with winning and holding office is all we have known of him. Their description of his private life presents Howard, at least in part, as the ordinary bloke he has worked so hard to appear to be." They call it a "solid study of a public life in progress".

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #26

The Age

Only a couple of short Australian reviews in "The Age" this week. Lorien Kaye reviews The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction: "Compiled by Melbourne University academics Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver, the anthology works well on several levels: as a solid collection of historical artefacts; as testimony to the way the Australian landscape was narrated in a particular period; and as good entertainment."

As Alan Stephens puts it, "At a time when Australia is entangled in yet another uncertain war of invasion, The Minefield provides a deeply disturbing reflection on our capacity to understand such events, let alone manage them." The book he is talking about is The Minefield: An Australian Tragedy in Vietnam by Greg Lockhart. And he concludes: "The contextual breadth of Lockhart's scholarship makes many of the official histories produced by the Australian War Memorial at great expense to taxpayers seem one-dimensional. Fluent in Vietnamese and French, Lockhart brings a depth of understanding to his work we can only wish other authors, not to mention Menzies, Wilton and Graham, had shared...If you read only one military history this year, make it The Minefield; if you don't read military history, make an exception. This is a story Australians need to know."

The Australian

Richard King looks at The Anthology of Colonial Australian Gothic Fiction edited by Ken Gelder and Rachael Weaver, but finds it hard to think of a Gothic literature being possible in Australia: "Hence the question raised by this anthology. Can we talk of Australian gothic? Was the gothic Australianised in the way it was clearly Americanised by great writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne?..According to the editors of this volume it certainly was, but such evidence as they've marshalled is of uneven value." I think "Gothic" is more a state of mind and can exist anywhere.

Nigel Krauth is impressed with By the Book: A Literary History of Queensland edited by Patrick Buckridge and Belinda McKay, finding that "it shows there is indeed a Queensland literature, recognisable from its themes (and not just its geography) for more than 150 years...Reading this book from cover to cover is like being a tourist on a comprehensive tour of Queensland. There is the torture of the coach trip taking in nearly every bump in the road over which Queensland literature has passed, and also the frustration of not being able to get out and look closely at certain wonderful prospects, glimpsed fleetingly."

ABC reporters have released a batch of books lately, and Sian Powell attempts to come to grips with them: Gogo Mama by Sally Sara, Once Upon a Time in Beirut by Catherine Taylor and The View from the Valley of Hell by Mark Willacy: "An American newspaper editor once said journalism provided the first rough draft of history. These three journalists were there on the blood-soaked ground, providing Australians with a view into history unfolding and, all too often, repeating itself."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #25

In case you were wondering what happened last week, I skipped this category: couldn't find anything of interest to write about.

The Age

A couple of weeks back the newspapers in Australia were all agog about excerpts from a new biography of our current Prime Minister. It was mostly stuff that, if you sat back and thought about it, you wouldn't have been all that surprised to come across. The interesting thing was that it had all come together in one volume only a few months before a rather important Federal election. Now that book, John Winston Howard by Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen, has hit the bookshelevs and has been reviewed by Michelle Grattan, "The Age" political editor. This is an odd occurrence: "The book is overdue. Former Labor leader Mark Latham attracted several biographers (one wonders if they now lament the effort). Two books have recently appeared on Kevin Rudd [current Leader of the Opposition]. Yet Howard, already the second-longest-serving Australian PM, has only the rather turgid account produced by David Barnett, with Pru Goward, about a decade ago." Maybe it might have been best for Howard if the biographies had waited till he had left the political stage, but we can't manage everyting in our lives. "This early cut of history has damaged him, to an extent yet to become clear. While the inter-newspaper rivalry over the book prompted claims it just tells us what was already known, the biography does bring new information and extra insights into the Howard years, especially through the frank first-person accounts. [Treasurer, Peter] Costello might have given Howard character references before, but the directness and the timing of publication make his latest salvo especially pertinent."

It used to be said that Adelaide was the centre of churches and strange murders. Now that later epithet might well be overtaken by events in the Northern Territory. Maybe not so much "strange" as just plain "weird". The death of Peter Falconio in 2001, and the attempted abduction of Joanne Lees by Bradley John Murdoch transfixed a large number of newspaper and book readers with some five books now written about the case. The latest, The Killer Within: Inside the World of Bradley John Murdoch by Paul Toohey, which Chris Johnston comes to grips with. Be aware though, the title outlines the book's direction: the murder is there but it's just a part of the whole: "Interestingly, Toohey focuses only fleetingly on the crimes against Falconio and Lees, although the lesser-known revelations of the long series of court trials get a fair run. Lees' story -- as the naive, pretty tourist subjected to unimaginable torment in one of the world's most inhospitable landscapes -- is pure Australian gothic, like the slasher film Wolf Creek or the grimmest of Albert Tucker's desert paintings come cruelly to life. But it is also well-worn."

The Australian

It would appear that, depending on which side of the History Wars you place yourself, you're either going to enjoy or hate Australian Pastoral: The Making of a White Landscape by Jeanette Horn. Frank Campbell does a pretty good job of looking at the book dispassionately and finds both good and bad in the work. "Hoorn's central thesis is that Australian landscape painting served the dominant pastoral industry. There was a lucrative British market for wool, given economies of scale through huge land acquisitions. From the 1820s to the 1950s, wool was the flagship of the Australian economy...Pastoralism was a wonderful invention, but the road to hell is paved with good inventions. As vast areas of land were taken up, the Aborigines were wiped off or wiped out." Both the white settlers and the Aboriginals changed the environment in differing ways and yet here "Pastoralists as well as Aborigines get off scot-free...This is a book whose intellectual means do not match its ambitions. Still, it's an intriguing account of the coded messages lurking in art."

Alice Spigelman is quite impressed with Paprika Paradise by James Jeffrey, which "explores what it is like growing up with two cultures: the real one in Australia and the romanticised one in Hungary." She calls the book "poignant and often very funny."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #24

The Age

In his review of Sonya Hartnett's new novel, The Ghost's Child, Christopher Bantick seems at great pains to get the point across that the author, and her books, should not be solely labeled with the Young Adult tag. This is a view with which I can completely concur. Yes, Hartnett writes novels with teenagers as the major protagonists; and yes, she deals with some issues that are normally the domain of YA novels. But the general view of YA novels is that they are, and should remain, the reading matter of teenagers only. If you hold that view then I'm very sorry for you. You're missing more than you can imagine.

"Sonya Hartnett is arguably one of Australia's most evocatively descriptive writers. Less contentious is her narrative diversity and breadth of thematic concerns. Defying categorisation or permitting readers to assume they know what to expect with each new book, Hartnett's wellspring rises from somewhere secret and solitary.

"She can move with seamless ease from exploring a child's crushing guilt derived from a single past mistake in Surrender to the graphic eroticism of Landscape with Animals, published under the pseudonym of Cameron S. Redfern. While Hartnett is often defined as a young adult author, such a description is limiting, perhaps unfair and inaccurate. Her interests span the ages."

Her new novel seems to exemplify exactly what Bantick is trying to get at: "In her new novel, The Ghost's Child, Hartnett slips easily into the role of fabulist. At least, it is a temptation to see her so. The novel is a fable-like tale but without a moral resonance. This is part of its beguiling, hybrid charm. On one, albeit palpably superficial level, The Ghost's Child is a lilting fairy tale." And who said you had to be young to appreciate fairy tales. Especially the lilting ones.

Since the death of Kerry Packer a few years back the decline and fall of his beloved Channel 9 television network has been a wonder to behold. I doubt they could have wrecked it any quicker, or deeper, if they tried. Gerald Stone probably thinks so as well, if his new book Who Killed Channel 9? is anything to go by. As to whether or not he answers the question of his title perplexes Matthew Ricketson in his review: "There is no doubt the book peels back the covers of what is a publicly uncommunicative company, and for this we should be grateful, but Stone has never met an issue he could not simplify to white hats and black hats, and his analysis of what plagues Nine is less convincing than his vivid narrative."

[Update: "The Age" has its reviews up on its website now.]

The Australian

"The Australian" appears to have overhauled its Books page on its website, making all its reviews very difficult to find in the process. Seems like a mistake to me.

Liam Davison follows the view that Sonya Hartnett is a writer, first and foremost, and a writer of some talent in his review of The Ghost's Child: "In my eyes, Hartnett established herself as a major writer with the chilling novel Of a Boy and confirmed that standing with the savagely beautiful Surrender. Others were singing her praises earlier, but I still harboured unease about where her work sat with its intended audience and the apparent bleakness of her vision. Of a Boy and Surrender were clearly not so much books for children as books about childhood, and they forced something of a reassessment of where she stood...The Ghost's Child is a fable about ageing mediated by a child and imbued with a magical, childlike sensibility that softens the full weight of its purpose and the event that drives it...There is a fragile and ethereal beauty about this book, as though Hartnett has turned a mirror to the light. It is a magically cerebral fable that seems in constant danger of dissolving before our eyes."

Not on the website but worth mentioning is Graeme Blundell's "Crime File" column which, this week, looks at four Australian crime novels. Appeal Denied by Peter Corris "is, as usual, familiar, assured and highly entertaining, written with Corris's unique sense of rational containment and his understated mastery of setting and social context"; Vodka Doesn't Freeze by Leah Giarrantano is "thinly written"; Cherry Pie by Leigh Redhead is "well-paced, ribald and laugh-out-loud funny"; and Sensitive New Age Spy by Geoff McGeachin "while slick and clever, raises few laughs."

The Courier-Mail

Lucy Clark finds that a new crime novel by Leah Giarrantano is very disturbing: "There's no doubt Vodka Doesn't Freeze makes for extremely confronting reading -- the sexual abuse of children is at the extreme end of the worst of human behaviour, and what is catalogued here by Giarrantano is more than enough to make you want to bury your head in the sand. But there's a case to be made for being aware, and Vodka Doesn't Freeze doesn't flinch. Her knowledge of the reverberating effects of abuse on children is well explored, too, and she writes with great empathy."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #23

The Age

I'm not sure what's happening with "The Age" website these days. Over the past couple of weeks book reviews have taken most of the next week to appear and this week we seem to be back to normal. Maybe it's the weather..

Thuy On comes to similar conclusions as other reviewers of Matt Rubinstein's A Little Rain on Thursday, namely that it promises a lot but gets a bit lost along the way. "There's no doubting Rubinstein's love of and facility for the written word and the book's convincing plea for all the languages of the world to be kept alive for posterity's sake. Often the metaphors and similes are beautifully evocative: Jack [the main character] pores over the 'peaks and troughs of ink', the letters on the brittle vellum are like 'tiny sculptures'.

"However, there are also dense passages full of arcane crypto-religious references and earnest semantic dissections that wouldn't seem out of place in a linguistics textbook. The novel becomes bogged down in its own erudition and becomes an unwieldy and heavy-going read, with the narrative becoming as vague and tangential as Jack's wandering mind."

Judith Armstrong also seems to have trouble with Antoni Jach's novel Napoleon's Double. It's an historical novel, of a type that seems to be causing critics and commentators, essayists and some novelists lots of concern of late. The question appears to be: is it history or is it fiction? I tend to answer this by asking if it's a novel or not. That seems to settle things for me, though not necessarily for Armstrong. "On whichever side of the debate readers align themselves, they may fairly correctly interpret the argument to be about the murky borderland between two clearly defined territories. But those who read this new book by Antoni Jach - and one hopes they are many - will encounter a slightly different generic puzzle. Although categorised as a novel, it doesn't feel like one." Neither did Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes, but if the author thinks it's a novel then I take it to be one. Surely novels can be anything these days, even poems if they want to be. Still, Armstrong does end on a higher note: "Readers who relish a discursive, original, faux-naif ramble through the undersides of history should enjoy it greatly."

The Australian

Up the snow, I think.

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #22

The Age

I'm starting to think I may have to shift the round-up of reviews from "The Age" to later in the week: the paper doesn't seem to be loading its book reviews onto its website as early as it used to. There isn't much Australian in the paper this week though.

Anyway, Louise Swinn's review of Aphelion by Emily Ballou is the major fiction review of the week. "The question of memory is at the heart of this book -- how we mould and reshape it, how we forget and what we remember, and what we choose to emphasise as we tell our story...Aphelion is funny without being smug, intelligent but not superior, emotionally involving but, with the exception of the end, not sentimental, and the atmosphere is cinematic." I'll take that as meaning she liked it.

Two biographies of current Federal Opposition leader Kevin Rudd on the market at the same time might seem a bit of overkill, but it says something about the man if he can command two, when the Prime Minister, after 11 years in the job, can only rate one. Well, okay there's another one on the way, but it is election year.

Shaun Carey looks at Kevin Rudd: The Biography by Robert Macklin, and Kevin Rudd: An Unauthorised Political Biography by Nicholas Stuart. "Does either of the manage to shed a great deal of extra light on the Labor leader beyond what's already been turned up in the newspaper and television profiles that have appeared in the past few months? I hope it is not unfair to either writer to say: a little bit, but not much. That's not to say that these are not worthwhile books. Both are honest, fair and, in their way, thorough."

The Australian

Debra Adelaide reviews Matt Rubinstein's first novel, A Little Rain on Thursday, recalling that she read an earlier version of the work when it was submitted for an Australian/Vogel award a few years back. "Then, it held dazzling promise, but was not fully realised as a narrative...As A Little Rain on Thursday, it is undeniably still full of dazzling promise. The idea of the power of language and also its weaknesses generates a story that is refreshingly ambitious, richly imagined and, in Australia at least, highly original. In writing what amounts to a literary thriller, Rubinstein has produced something enormously clever. He has almost pulled it off." Which almost qualifies as another review cliche (it's a line I've used, which must move it to the over-sused end of the scale), except Adelaide explains what she's talking about. "There is a fine but necessary line between the representation of a character's chaotic state of mind and a muddled story. Reading A Little Rain on Thursday is an apocalyptic sort of experience, as the story is crowded with mythical and meaningful figures: the Knights Templar, monks, St John's Hospitallers, forgers, hangmen and convicts. Then there are far too many symbolic places: libraries, deserts, book deposits, graveyards, churches, laboratories and lighthouses...There is so much in this narrative that it loses the focus crucial to sustain the mystery and bring it to a satisfying conclusion."

David Hill, ex-managing director of the ABC, has produced his first book, The Forgotten Children: Fairbridge Farm School and Its Betrayal of Australia's Child Migrants, and Alan Gill, who also researched the subject himself, finds much to admire in the work. "It is beautifully written in clear, non-academic prose, and is tightly edited. Hill's own story takes a back seat."

[Update: one review from last week's "Age" has now made it to the website.]

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #21

The Age

It's a slow old time down at the paper this week. No updates on the website and only one review of two Australian books. I checked last year's entries on Matilda from about this time of year and there definitely seems to be a pattern emerging, and not a good one.

Sean Gorman reviews two books about the dark side of Australian history, and finds one in touch with its subject and one rather confusing. "[Bruce] Pascoe's boldly titled Convincing Ground: Learning to Fall in Love with your Country is, to say the least, a sprawling, roller-coaster account of Victorian colonial and contemporary Australian society. It is about the people whose actions or inaction have created that society as he sees it." On the other hand, Sven Lindquist seems like an uninformed Swedish blow-in with his book Terra Nullius: A Journey though No One's Land: "Perhaps the key to the book, which is quite readable, comes at the very beginning and shows the map of Europe superimposed onto a map of Australia. It is quite intriguing to contrast the spatial and semiotic constructions of two very different land masses. But after the initial novelty one is simply left a tad confused as to what it was meant to achieve."

The Australian

Kathy Hunt reviews Sorry by Gail Jones, and, for once, a reviewer is unimpressed with the work: "Technically, the main problem with Jones's writing is that there is just too much of it. She leaves no phrase unturned in her attempt to gild what is an ordinary tale...Title or apology, Sorry is a failure. Its form has been corrupted with skill and probably the best of intentions. Unfortunately, the result is what too many people think of as good writing: the book you buy but never read, the novel you can't see for the words."

I know of Queensland University Press, Melbourne University Press, and the University of Western Australia Press, but National Treasure by Michael Wilding is the first novel I've seen from Central Queensland University Press. Maybe I just haven't been paying attention. Not to be confused with the Nicholas Cage film of a few years back, this novel is more David Lodge than Dan Brown, as Christopher Bantick discovers. "Michael Wilding has form. Even a cursory glance at his prodigious backlist suggests here is a writer who is well experienced in the changes and chances of the Australian literary community. It is the posturing of writers, fleeting fame and their savage turning on one another that Wilding explores in this black comedy. But while the novel is witty and genuinely funny, there is an acerbic subtext."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #20

Delayed a little this week by the quaintly named "Queen's Birthday Weekend".

The Age

The book reviews from the weekend paper have finally been uploaded to the website and, wouldn't you know it, none of the Australian books reviewed get a mention. Mutter, bloody mutter!

Peter Pierce reviews two new collections of short stories, Loyalties by Laurie Clancy, and The End of the World by Paddy O'Reilly. "Clancy's stories are unflashy, well crafted (and only occasionally self-conscious, as in 'change to the present in the interests of narrative urgency'), centred in the analysis and unsentimental reckoning of middle-class life in Australia.

"Some stories seem to end a sentence short of where they might have been, but we are given throughout an intelligent account of how men earnestly and blindly justify those actions that have likely damned them and that, as an ignored consequence, have harrowed their wives and lovers.

"In an altogether different key, Paddy O'Reilly's 18 stories in The End of the World (a title apt for several of her charcaters) are often more bleak than clancy's. Their domestic discord is not -- as it usually is for him -- between husbands and wives, but within families where the father is faithless, dead, a deserter."

The Australian

The Crimes of Billy Fish by Sarah Hopkins was a runner-up in the 2006 ABC Fiction Award and was considered so good that the publisher, ABC Books, decided to release it anyway. Rosemary Sorensen certainly found it rewarding, though, for a while, it was a close run thing. "A fair way into this intelligent and compelling novel, first-time writer Sarah Hopkins makes a huge decision. It's in the nature of reviews not to reveal what that decision entails, but suffice it to say it threatens to alienate the reader irrevocably...I thought it was the wrong decision and I was deeply disappointed, because until then Hopkins had impressively maintained her nerve and continued her difficult course...But then, even more impressively, she steers her way through the dangers she has created and her novel comes out the other side sounding sure, real and important."

Geoffrey Lehmann has a high opinion of Dorothy Porter's latest verse-novel: "Dorothy Porter's El Dorado is her fifth published verse novel, a form she has made her own. It is every bit the equal of The Monkey's Mask, her best-known verse novel, which has won awards and been adapted for stage, radio and film...Like The Monkey's Mask, El Dorado is a page-turner, a crime thriller counterpointed by a turbulent, yet compassionate, love relationship between two women." But it's not just the plot that drags Lehmann along, "If only more prose novelists could achieve the narrative enchantment that Porter is able to infuse into her verse novels."

Liam Davison reviews Rose Michael's debut novel, The Asking Game, which is also the first novel from the publisher Transit Lounge. "Rose Michael's debut novel, launched at the 2007 Sydney Writers Festival, is no tentative beginner's piece. I first read an earlier draft when it was commended in The Australian-Vogel Literary Award in 2002 and was impressed then by its sophisticated take on big issues and the narrative drive that came from its melding of the psychological thriller with speculative fiction...While not short on literary allusion, it had a less studied literary sensibility than many first novels by young writers. The Asking Game is a bold, ambitious work that takes risks and, for the most part, pulls them off."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #19

The Age

["The Age" book review webpages are now available.]

It's been close to twenty-five years between publications of David Malouf's poetry, so any new collection is going to be of more than usual interest. Luke Davies certainly thinks so as he reviews Typewriter Music from UQP: "A certain ease and grace infuse and define Typewriter Music. It is not a poetry of urgency or angst. That seems entirely appropriate, for I suppose what I really mean by that is that ity is not a young man's poetry. Instead, there is the sense of a master craftsman making simple objects...Malouf swings easefully between the eternal and the immediate, between the divine and the painfully human, but the thread that carries through is an embracing acceptance of the world as it is, of the passage of time, and even, at times of the passing of love...Typewriter Music sees a poet at the height of his powers paying attention -- to the world outside, the world within, and to his craft. It is a long time between drinks, yes. But the harvest is a good one, and the wine, though delicate, lingers on the palate." Which is probably about as good a review of Australian poetry, in an Australian mainstream newspaper, that you're ever likely to see. I don't remember Les Murray's last collection receiving that much praise.

Thuy On looks at two new Australian novels by first-time novelists, Nights in the Asylum by Carol Lefevre, and The Asking Game by Rose Michael. Both novels involve an "flight" from Sydney into a small town out west, though Lefevre's concerns asylum seekers and women fleeing circumstances, while Michael's novel is set in the year 2024 and involves a shadowy cult. Of Nights: "The lives of these asylum-seekers intertwine in this unlikely oasis, their relationships becoming increasingly tangled and knotty as the outside world threatens to intrude. An omnipresent third-person narrator flits back and forth in time and reveals each character's background, happily informed by Lefevre's crisp, clear prose." And "The Asking Game is a teaser of a novel: it does ask a lot of questions but answers them only ever so slowly, though Michael provides plenty of clues along the way."

The Australian

Aphelion by Emily Ballou is a big, Australian novel by a writer who moved to this country from the US in the early 1990s. It's a touch over 500 pages and Geordie Williamson invokes Flaubert and Madame Bovary in her review of the book. To be fair it's mainly about the birds that fly over Flaubert's heroine as she heads towards her end. "There are also birds in Emily Ballou's second novel: flocks of galahs and cockatoos, rafts of ducks, flights of swallows. But they serve a different purpose from those in Bovary. Instead of letting them fly, the author captures and holds them in a narrative net. There, they are set to work as plot devices, omens, symbols and psychopomps, mediators between the characters' interior states and the external world through which they move. The fancy name for this sort of thing is the anthropomorphic fallacy, and its presence here is part of a larger problem with what is an often beautiful novel, large in scope and ambition, and written in a heightened poetic style that, at its best, ennobles the mundane heartbreaks of its cast."

Kerryn Goldsworthy is back with us this week, after being cruelly truncated a few weeks back, this time with a review of Feather Man by Rhyll McMaster. "This novel is essentially a Bildungsroman, in which a young person grows up and learns about the ways of the world, but here it's enlivened by a genuine mystery, a slender but powerful narrative thread working away deep in the background of the story...That thread is pulled tight at the end, where the hero-turned-villain gets his comeuppance and all the story's chickens come home to roost. It's a masterstroke reminiscent of Jacobean revenge tragedy at its nastiest and most relentless...Feather Man is not a pleasant or reassuring book, but it's written with great confidence and lyrical intensity, and most Australian readers will recognise in its pages something of their own time and place."

Bernard Lane also attempts to tackle Malouf's new poetry collection Typewriter Music, quoting much more heavily from the book than the review in "The Age". "Angels, an attic room in a northern winter, subtropical salt on the flesh and breath that's poured, across continents and time, into a lover's mouth; these are signatures of David Malouf's poetry, instantly recognisable proofs of him at work although it has been 26 years since he last published a slim volume." Unfortunately the review only skirts around the edges of the volume, not coming to grips with it completely. Maybe the pre-defined length is this review's shortcoming.

The Sydney Morning Herald

Andrew Reimer on Typewriter Music by David Malouf: "Malouf's diction rarely departs from the cadences of ordinary speech - civilised and urbane speech, it is true, but speech nevertheless. The tone is by turns gently ironic and melancholy. Once or twice darker notes are sounded, yet even the intimations of mortality that cast their shadows over several of these poems are restrained, generally understated."

Sue Turnbull on The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham: "The Night Ferry is a big and complex crime novel. It is certainly an entertainment though it is hardly just that. It takes us deep into a set of humanitarian concerns by making us care about the characters involved. It is also deeply moving."

Kate Holden on The Scandal of the Season by Sophie Gee: "Gee's novel is an artful depiction of a high moment in British aristocratic artificiality, when not only corruption and heavy costumes were the order of the day but also high-stakes financial speculation, religious subterfuge and a degree of bitchiness that would turn hair as white as a powdered wig; when everyone in society had something to show and something to hide."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #18

The Age

Over the past week or so I've seen Scorcher: The Dirty Politics of Climate Change by Clive Hamilton shelved, in various bookshops, in amongst the non-fiction bestselling lists. So, the review this week by Tim Flannery, is of special interest, with climate change or glabal warming looming as a major issue in this Australian Federal election year. Flannery finds this an odd book, laying into all and sundry with some rather dubious arguments. "As Hamilton develops his argument, it becomes clear that he sees Australia rather than the US as the major stumbling block to a more effective Kyoto Protocol. Indeed, he quotes sources alleging that our country is 'encouraging the US to stay out of the protocol'. This turns current perception on its head: most people that I know in the environment movement believe that the reverse is true." And then criticising Al Gore's visit to Australia last year as unproductive and even adminishing Flannery himself who, in his book The Weather Makers emphasised the importance of individuals in abating their own greenhouse emissions. Hamilton's argument there is that it lets governments off the hook; which strikes me as the same argument put forward by governments who want other peope to do the work first. In the end, though, Flannery is a bit confused by the book: "There are also problems with the internal consistency of Hamilton's argument. At the beginning of the book, for example, he sees the problem as being a cluster of industries that have something to lose from Australia tackling climate change. By its end, however, he is trenchantly arguing that it is Australia's coal-export industry that is the real culprit. This may represent the evolution of the author's thinking, but not to go back through the work to make it internally consistent is sloppy."

Jeff Glorfeld looks at two new crime novels, Shattered by Gabrielle Lord and The Night Ferry by Michael Robotham, and finds both of them worth hunting up. [No review on the webpage, so far as I can find.]

The Australian

David Pearce also tackles Hamilton's book, along with The 3rd Degree: Frontline in Australia's Climate War by Murray Hogarth. "Scorcher is not a dispassionate academic history; it's written to make a point about what Hamilton considers to be a policy failure the likes of which we have not seen since Federation. This makes Scorcher challenging: the reader is constantly forced to think about the workings of government and about what constitutes good policy on climate change...While Hamilton tells a tale of villains, Murray Hogarth tells the story of his heroes, fighters on the front line of a long war for survival in a climate change world. Hogarth sets out his strategies for a climate war, a set of actions to win the big battle of our times. While war analogies have been devalued in recent times (war on drugs, war on terror, war on poverty, war on corruption, war on obesity), Hogarth's usage is well-intentioned; he wants to inspire us to do remarkable things."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #17

The Age

Shane Maloney's return, with his novel Sucked In, has been widely applauded and Ian Syson is another spreading the love. "Shane Maloney is the master of a genre of his own making -- apparatchik lit. Stories from the murky, lurky world of Australian politics (especially inside the Labor Party and union movement) have no better teller in contemporary Australian fiction...His soft-boiled (some might go so far as to suggest eggs benedict) protagonist, Murray Whelan, is already established as a major character in Melbourne's fictional world. Maloney's five previous novels have created a biography and storyscape by which many readers are by now totally (ahem) sucked in." After the "death and destruction and genre-stretching excesses of the previous work, Something Fishy", Syson finds Maloney is back to his best with this one.

The heading atop Lisa Gorton's review of Dorothy Porter's new work, El Dorado, is a strange one: "Dorothy Porter forces a murder mystery into a verse novel, with compelling results." What's with the use of the word "force"? The implication here is that "verse" and "crime" don't mix. If this novel is anything like The Monkey's Mask there is really no forcing evident. The fact that the writer has decided to use a particular form should only be cause for concern if it fails, and that's certainly not what Gorton thinks. "A murder mystery is perhaps the most plot-driven of literary forms. Porter shows its plot can exist for the most part in the gaps between what characters, one after another, say. In this way, the whole work of finding the murderer comes to equal the work of putting different perspectives together, adding up the various things these characters know."

One thing though: don't use Agatha Christie as a comparison point any more. Christie and Porter have nothing in common except they both write in English. It's time for reviewers to acquaint themselves with the genre they are writing about and find newer, more relevant, analogies.

The Australian

Jannete Hospital Turner's latest novel, Orpheus Lost, fits squarely in the new literature of terror according to Stella Clarke. It's a genre that has been gathering exponents over the past few years: Amis, McEwan, Flanagan, Rushdie and Updike among them. "With every urban atrocity and suicide bombing, every extremist travesty of the Islamic faith made public, this literature is reinforced as the magnetic north of alarmed readers." And on this novel specifically she says that it "speaks to us about how, these days, we are engulfed in paranoia. Nobody feels safe. We are precariously perched on the lip of the abyss. This is possibly the richest, most haunting read you will encounter this year."

Evan Whitton's review of Kickback: Inside the Australian Wheat Board Scandal by Caroline Overington is titled "Fools, lies and a flawed investigation", and nary a better title was ever applied to a Royal Commission. The book, on the other hand, delivers the goods: a "compelling narrative" Whitton calls it.

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #16

The Age

There are a number of Australian authors who have been producing consistently high levels of fiction over the past few years, and you would be greatly amiss if you were to leave Gail Jones out of that company. Kerry (?) Goldsworthy agrees: "The great beauty and depth of Jones' writing, in this novel as elsewhere, has simultaneous appeal for lovers of intricate, elegant thought, and lovers of verbal style. There's also a great deal of her signature literary 'sampling', with quotations, allusions and echoes from fiction and poetry vying for space inside her own sentences: Emerson, Dickinson, George Eliot and of course Shakespeare, who haunts these pages like a colossal, chanting ghost." But there is more to Jones's work than just fine writing, "it's also hard not to read this book as Jones' own personal, formal and explicit statement of apology: to see it as a kind of enactment in fiction of her ideas about Australian race relations and reconciliation, and as a suggestion that if the country's government cannot bring itself to offer an apology then perhaps its artists, at least, might step up to fill the gap."

The case of David Hicks will haunt the Australian justice system for years to come. On the eve of his return to Australia to serve the remainder of his sentence, Gerry Simpson reviews Detainee 002: The Case of David Hicks by Leigh Sales. "There are many remarkable features of the strange case of David Hicks but perhaps the most remarkable is that, in the face of public indifference from the two major political parties in Australia, his detention without trial by Australia's main ally has become a cause celebre. Make no mistake, there is now a widespread sense among those electorally all-important 'ordinary Australians' that something is rotten in the camps of Guantanamo Bay." Just remember, nothing political is a coincidence in an electoral year. Nothing.

Leigh Redhead's novels about her stripper PI, Simone Kirsch, have been receiving some good notices over the past few years so it's good to see "The Age" reviewing her latest, Cherry Pie. As Debi Eker finds "Redhead's world is not a place to linger long in order to ponder the mysteries of the universe or the dark complexities of the human soul. Her books are fast and dryly funny. The plots zoom along at a zesty clip, populated by colourful characters." Can't ask for more than that.

The Australian

Geoffrey Lehmann comes to grips with Cultural Amnesia by Clive James, and likes what he finds: "Able to read a bit in Spanish, German, French, Italian and Russian, James is an ideal guide to his cast of cultural heroes and villains, who are as diverse as Coco Chanel, Adolf Hitler, Tacitus and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Despite his remarkable erudition, he is never snooty or obscure and is easy on the reader, getting quickly to the point. Once there, he may sometimes linger too long. That may be inevitable with a book of this size from an author who is so prolific. But almost invariably he retrieves the objects he is juggling, with a telling anecdote or brilliant quote."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #15

The Age

James Bradley looks at Paul Morgan's second novel, Turner's Paintbox, and, while he's impressed by the striking conceit of the work he doesn't think it's up to the level of the author's first, The Pelagius Book. On the other hand he admires "the ambition that underpins Morgan's fiction, his preparedness to take risks. For while Turner's Paintbox may lack the gem-like precision and hidden depths of its predecessor, it goes a long way towards meeting the challenges it sets for itself."

Sophie Lee comes across as an actress of the blonde variety, one who has appeared in such films as Muriel's Wedding and The Castle, but she's also someone who has put pen to paper and come up with a first novel that seems to show a lot of promise, according to Frances Atkinson. There are problems of course: "Alice In La La Land has heart; parts of it are genuinely funny, not in a thigh-slapping, snorting way, but it has charm. There are plenty of moments when Lee's writing is fresh and snappy but too many scenes and jokes (urinating cats, the stalled release of a movie Alice was in) are recycled and by the end of the book, they get old." But, in the end, "Carroll's Alice jumped down the rabbit hole because she was fearless, because she had a compulsion to discover what would happen next. If nothing else, Lee's first book has made me curious, too." And, for a first novel, that is not at all bad.

The Australian

The big review this week is of Shane Maloney's new Murray Whelan novel, Sucked In, which Graeme Blundell enthuses over. And while the review is more an overview of the Whelan series, it does offer some gems: "Maloney sees Whelan as a kind of mechanic or driver on some minor bus route in the great journey of life: his job is to keep the rattletrap working and to ensure the safety and eventual arrival of the passengers at the accepted destination." There is no-one writing like Maloney.

The Sydney Morning Herald

Sue Turnbull is impressed with Shane Maloney's novel: "Over the years, Murray Whelan has come to occupy a particular niche in the Melbourne imagination. It is well nigh impossible to walk past the National Gallery of Victoria on St Kilda Road without gesturing towards the tram ticket-strewn moat and announcing to an unsuspecting tourist, 'Somebody once drowned in there, you know, according to Shane Maloney.'...Maloney's Melbourne is a mix of truth and fiction, of what-is-no-longer (Labor is still in opposition in Victoria) and what-might-have-been (the mythical yet entirely credible Maribyrnong University specialising in tourism, food technology and hospitality studies)." Maloney says there is only one more Whelan novel to come, and Turnbull is missing him already.

Gail Jones has been shortlisted for the 2007 Miles Franklin Award at the same time as her new novel, Sorry, is in the bookshops - good timing that - and James Ley thinks her new work is better that Dreams of Speaking, even if it does have its flaws: "Her tendency to talk over her characters is less evident than in some of her earlier novels but is still there. Her frequent use of dreams, though conceptually important, can come across as a creaky fictional device. And her prose, though beautifully wrought, operates at such a consistently high pitch that it strays occasionally into pretentiousness, perhaps due to a mild contamination from the clotted theoretical prose that Jones doubtless encounters on a regular basis in her day job as lecturer in cultural studies at the University of Western Australia." If the author's two previous novels are anything to go by you should be reading this one.

Janette Turner Hospital's latest work, Orpheus Lost, is "ambitious and intricate" according to Andrew Riemer. However, it seems to be aiming higher than it can reach: "There is no denying the high level of competence that went into this novel. For all that, I cannot put aside the sense of superficiality clinging to much of this attempt to explore the connections between music and mathematics on the one hand and on the other the corrosive influences of ideology and bigotry...Perhaps the feat is impossible to accomplish: even the great Thomas Mann almost came to grief when he tried to bring it off in Doctor Faustus."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #14

The Age

Janette Turner Hospital's new novel, Orpheus Lost, is the subject of the major fiction review by Peter Craven in the paper this week. And impressed he is with it: "It should not be an impossible dream that a contemporary literary novel can exhibit pace, a strong plot and a high degree of narrative excitement...Well, Janette Turner Hospital is writing fiction that is literary in quality and formal design and in the ambition it displays but will also keep you on the edge of your chair or reading past your bedtime." Which basically leads you to believe we're dealing with a literary thriller here, not a genre that is exactly deserted, but one that can always do with another decent entry. "Turner Hospital has a beautiful lightness of touch through the nightmare contortions of the plot she spins and twists like a rope of destiny...If the story is not quite as sure-footed as Grahame Greene in comparable territory, if it swerves farther from the articulation of thriller-like enthralments, it is nonetheless almost as satisfying as it is involving." The "almost" is a bit of a giveaway there I think: saying as much about Craven's literary tastes as it does about this novel. Still, he does find enough here to be going on with: "it should enthral every kind of reader; a book full of intelligence and drama and compassion that is also a captivating
page-turner - effortlessly sophisticated and proudly parochial at the same time."

Lorien Kaye considers that Rose Moxham might be putting a lot of trust in the readers of her new YA novel Teeth Marks, but comes to the conclusion that it is worth it. The novel's "greatest strength is its well-judged resolution,
floating the possibility of a new start, but in an unexpected direction."

The Australian

Nicholas Drayson's novel Love and the Platypus is racking up some good reviews lately but Jem Poster is not so sure. The reviewer is of the view that Drayson is very good at the certain parts and not so good at others: "This is Drayson's favoured territory; again and again we find him gravitating towards the natural world, captivating us with his finely delineated vignettes of animal life. The details are presented with clarity and precision...As a writer of fiction, Drayson seems considerably less assured. Often contrived and unconvincing, the novel's plot and dialogue function far too obviously as a frame on which to hang the impressive weight of zoological knowledge he has amassed through his reading and fieldwork."

Salley Vickers is worried that Paul Morgan's novel Turner's Paintbox is less a novel and more an emotional release. "I wondered if Morgan was writing it as an attempt at a redemptive confessional, if not of himself then of the corporate sins of modern manhood. If so, in the view of a fellow novelist, and a woman to boot, his talent deserves a better subject."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #13

The Age

The big fiction review this week concerns Love and the Platypus by Nicholas Drayson. Peter Pierce who normally writes interesting, accessible reviews seems oddly uninformative this time round. Beyond a plot summary and a few points of discussion along the way, Pierce doesn't seem to get to grips with what the novel was attempting to say. Is the book worth your time? From this review I couldn't really determine.

Donald Friend was a major Australian painter of the middle to latter part of the 20th century. He seems to have maintained a journal habit thoughout his working life and the National Library of Australia has been publishing a set of his diaries with the 4th and final volume in the series having just hit the shelves.

Ian Britain attempts to come to grips with it: "In the bookshops you'll find it has a sticky label fixed to the jacket: 'The Bali Diaries'. As it turns out, there's a lot more to this final volume of the National Library's monumental edition of Donald Friend's personal journals. It spans some 22 years in the life of one of our most illustrious artists (visual and literary artists, as the journals themselves amply attest), taking us up to within a few months of his death in 1989. For only about half of this time -- the first half -- was he in Bali."

Sheridan Hay's novel, The Secret of Lost Things, is one of those books which occasionally gets me accused of claiming a level of "Australianness" that doesn't actually exist. But a check on the good old web leads me to the view that the author was born here, and the review by Christopher Bantick does state that the book's action starts in Tasmania. It may end up elsewhere, but that's good enough for me. Unfortunately, the review is a bit like Pierce's earlier, descriptive but inconclusive.

The Australian

Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, wife of Keith and mother of Rupert, is one of Melbourne's grand old ladies. She is admired across all spectra of society for her generosity and charity work. She has always struck me as someone whose feet are firmly planted in the ground. And the reason for this might be due to the connection she has had with her family home and the garden that surrounds it. How this garden came into existence is the subject of Anne Latreille's work Garden of a Lifetime: Dame Elisabeth Murdoch at Cruden Farm which is reviewed by Mark McGinness. "In Garden of a Lifetime, Anne Latreille, an established garden writer and former gardening editor of 'The Age', has presented Cruden Farm not only in profile -- as it is today -- but as a biography, through the remarkable stewardship of its owner, Elisabeth

Mary Rose Liverani has a look at Portrait of a Friendship: The Letters of Barbara Blackman and Judith Wright 1950-2000 : "The two friends' letters offer a unique portrait of a period, and of two outstanding women who, despite a fierce
attachment to domestic life, became significant public figures. Australia owes Blackman and Wright a debt of gratitude for having maintained their correspondence so assiduously and for their farsighted exertions to recover their letters for posterity."

William McInnis did it recently and now actor Sophie Lee has written her first novel, Alice in La La Land, which is reviewed by Patricia Anderson. "In a postmodern world of indecipherable conclusions, a fast-paced romp with a clear moral and a happy ending is a delight. Actor Sophie Lee's first novel, Alice in La La Land, introduces a natural storyteller with a firm grasp of the essential differences between Australian and American culture, or at least that deformed pocket of it called Hollywood...Woven through this high-spirited narrative are snatches of dialogue Alice has to memorise and deliver from scripts, and they are uniformly laughable: offered by formless, one-dimensional characters with the usual Hollywood tics and obsessions. Suffice to say, the story races to an entirely satisfying denouement, the kind that made the movie The Castle, in which Lee appeared, such a memorable tale."

The Sydney Morning Herald

You may recall that Will Elliot won the 2006 ABC Fiction Award for his novel The Pilo Family Circus. One of the novels that was highly commended in that competition, The Crimes of Billy Fish by Sarah Hopkins, has now also been published by ABC Books and is reviewed by author Emily Maguire. "On one level this book can be read as a damning indictment of the social welfare and criminal justice systems...There is more to this novel than social critique, however. It is also an examination of grief as something not to be overcome but something one must learn to integrate into everyday life. The comfort and support damaged people sometimes offer each other is a thread of hope running through this necessarily grim book."

Political curiosity Pauline Hanson has published her autobiography Untamed and Unashamed and Norman Abjorensen gives it the once over. I feel a complete and utter lack of interest in either the book or its subject. Listed for some stupid reason that I'll probably regret later.

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #12

The Age

Fiona Gruber reviews two new Australian novels, and, while you get the impression she thinks they are both relatively successful, you have to read between the lines to decipher that. "Running away, both literally and figuratively, features in Provenance by Jane Messer, and The Pepper Gate by Genna de Bont. The novels have other themes in common -- both protagonists are artists and journeys between Queensland and Victoria assume metaphysical significance. And at the heart of both is the compulsion of flight, and the necessity of facing up to its consequence." You get a reasonable plot summary but not much of a statement of worth.

Two memoirs of Holocaust survivors are contrasted in author profiles by Angela Bennie: East of Time by Jacob Rosenberg and Parallel Lines by Peter Lantos. "Although their subject matter is at a fundamental level the same, in formal terms the two books couldn't be more different. "Rosenberg's East of Time is structured like a mosaic that works on the reader as a poem does: its clusters of events and characters, its emotional tones and rhythms, all seem to be linked together as if by an invisible thread...Lantos' Parallel Lines, on the other hand, is written in a much more direct, descriptive prose. It presents the world as it is, rather than one filtered through a lyrical, fanciful imagination."

The Sydney Morning-Herald

Thomas Shapcott is quite taken by Portrait of a Friendship: the letters of Barbara Blackman and Judith Wright (1950-2000) which was edited by Bryony Cosgrove. "This huge volume is a portrait of two people. Letters are intimate things but they also record, at their best, the fine nuances of feeling, of interrelationships, and are (seen over a long period, as here) flagposts of a journey. In this case, of two journeys. "Coming hot on the heels of the National Library of Australia's massive collection of Judith Wright's letters, With Love and Fury, the present volume gives us a portrayal of Wright not only as a poet but as an increasingly dedicated activist for environmental and Aboriginal matters." At 638 pages it's quite a hefty volume.

The Courier-Mail

Adair Jones finds that Tom Keneally's novel, The Widow and Her Hero "gives us a glimpse into the cold shadow of a war that has never quite disappeared."

Shane Strange comes to the realisation that some "the most interesting writing happening in Australia is at the level of Young Adult fiction" in his review of After January by Nick Earls.

And Sue Jones enjoyed Helen Garner and the Meaning of Everything by Alex Jones. "If you enjoy a cornucopia of ideas and digressions, then you will enjoy this novel. Those with more knowledge of literary theory and semiotics will probably have a greater appreciation of the author's satirical reach. "For me, an author who has his protagonist follow the trail of rabbits, cooked and uncooked, through Helen Garner's books is an author with his tongue firmly in his cheek."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #11

The Age

Clive James's book, Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time, is the book of the moment with a major profile of the author last week, and the book being reviewed this week by Richard King, which he says "is not only huge (it would be unputdownable if, at 900 pages, it weren't unpickupable), it is also a remarkable intellectual achievement. It's the book James will be remembered for, if you can be remembered for a book about amnesia." Rather Jamesian in tone. He concludes: "The tears of a clown are a poignant sight and there are more tears than laughs in Cultural Amnesia, haunted as it is by a powerful sense of the depths to which humans can sink. And yet it is also a demonstration of the heights to which the mind can rise when the best that has been thought and said has taken root and begun to flower."

Barry Jones is back reviewing Colonial Ambition: Foundations of Australian Democracy by Peter Cochrane. The book has some limitations: "Colonial Ambition is a dramatic, and largely successful, attempt to tell the story of how democracy developed in NSW, and introduce us to the major players involved - John Dunmore Lang, Charles Cowper, Robert Lowe, Henry Parkes as the proponents, William Charles Wentworth on the other side, and colonial governors George Gipps, Charles Fitzroy and William Denison stuck in the middle. Publication was supported by the Sesquicentenary of Responsible Government in New South Wales Committee. The other colonies receive sparse cover." But generally, "The book is hugely enjoyable, with excellent illustrations, impressive documentation and a near perfect index."

Love Like Water, by Meme McDonald, has been getting some good notices of late so it is a pity that such a small review has been included of what appears to be a very important book.

Just as a last thought on "The Age" this week, consider the extract from Ian McEwan's latest novel On Chesil Beach. I don't have a problem with such extracts, especially if it accompanies a review of the book. But why does the paper only seem to print extracts from non-Australian authors who, basically, don't need the publicity? I would have liked to have seen an extract from Keneally's novel a few weeks back, or Steven Carroll's, or Alexis Wright's late last year. I guess I'll keep waiting.

The Australian

Graeme Blundell, the paper's resident crime reviewer, has a look at Shattered, the new novel by Gabrielle Lord, the latest in her Gemma Lincoln series. "Like Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, Lord attempts to integrate gender awareness into the resistant form of the hard-boiled novel, exploring feminine consciousness inside a policing system that exists to support male hegemony. And, like Paretsky, she operates at a nice level of rage." Blundell then goes on to conclude that Ross Macdonald "would have loved Lord's work." High praise indeed.

The Sydney Morning Herald

David Messer reviews Wayne McLennan's Tent Boxing, and is pretty impressed by the whole thing: "Wayne McLennan is that rare thing, a person who has lived life to the full and can write. One of the great contradictions about writers is that they must devote so much time to the creation of their works that they inevitably live an existence alienated from the vast majority of humanity." The book was a "New York Times" notable book of 2005 and "Apart from describing a boxing sub-culture, Tent Boxing provides a glimpse into another hidden part of Australia - the lives of Aboriginal people. McLennan doesn't pretend to represent more than brief moments in the lives of certain individuals but even in doing only that, by having lived with them, he gives the reader information seldom found elsewhere. Once again, McLennan gets the balance just right, revealing the sense of community, the humour and the spirituality of his Aboriginal companions, but not shying away from the sadness, depression and violence, nor the alcohol and the drugs...Tent Boxing is subtitled An Australian Story, hinting at another subtext. McLennan is writing about the very recent past but the nomadic boxers and showmen come across as remnants of Australia half a century ago. Having returned to discover if there is still such a thing as an Australian identity, he finds one, but only at the point where it is almost gone."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #10

The Age

It never seems to take long for major cricket books to be published these days. Two months after the end of the 2006-07 Ashes series, Gideon Haigh's All Out: The Ashes 2006-2007 has been released and is reviewed this week by Warwick Hadfield. Even he says: "It is appropriate to wonder if this publication is out too soon, or that given the comprehensive media coverage of the tour, if anybody would ever need to read a book about it at any time." But this is a book by Gideon Haigh, and that should
be enough, "Quite simply, you need to read this one - not just because of a result, but because of the unique view on proceedings presented by the perceptive author." There will be others based on this series, but it seems you won't need to go past this one.

The Argus Building at the corner of Elizabeth and La Trobe Streets in Melbourne, sits forlornly abandoned, reminder of the lost metropolitan newspaper that gave the building its name. It is now over 50 years since the paper issued its last edition, so it is appropriate that a history of the publication has finally been published: The Argus: Life and Death of a Newspaper by Jim Usher. Peter Cole-Adams, in his review, finds that "By conventional standards, the book is a mess - less a coherent history than a grab-bag of reminiscences by people who worked for the paper during its last rumbustious years. But this is also its strength. These personal anecdotes, character sketches and ruminations recall the excitement, smell and din of the hot-metal days when copy was bashed out on ancient typewriters by reporters who wore hats and collars and ties, smoked like chimneys, drank like fish and did extraordinary things to get a story."

"Sober" and "scrupulous" is the way the Owen Richardson describes J.M. Coetzee's new collection of essays, Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2006: "As with the novels, the voice, the authorial persona is distinctive but muted: grave, sober, scrupulous (this latter being one of Coetzee's favourite terms of approval). If you're looking for the showmanship by which some literary journalists seek to distinguish
themselves from academics and from each other, you'll be disappointed."

The Weekend Australian

Barry Oakley, former literary editor of "The Australian", is pretty impressed with Keneally's body of work, comparing him, favorably, with Joyce Carol Oates and Peter Ackroyd. Unfortunately he doesn't find the author at the top of his form in The Widow and Her Hero, which "is a patchwork of a novel, often penetrating, sometimes powerful but never gaining the momentum to carry the story along. Keneally, however, is such a cunning artificer that he's very readable even when not firing on all cylinders."

Nicholson Baker once wrote a very interesting book about his relationship with John Updike - in brief, he didn't have one - and has also been known to write long expositions on the minutiae of modern life, such as Room Temperature. Alex Jones, in his latest novel, Helen Garner and the Meaning of Everything, appears to be attempting to combine the two. Geordie Williamson notes that the book is "Part novel, part fantasy autobiography,
part metaphysical fugue (in the spirit of Lewis Carroll or, perhaps, Douglas Hofstadter riffing on Carroll in his Godel, Escher, Bach), Helen Garner can be read as a cock and bull story in the spirit of Tristram Shandy, a Proustian meditation on domestic contentment (who else would celebrate the texture of ugg boot lining against toes) and as a deeply recondite essay on the meaning of meaning."

"Why would a white male playwright in late middle age buy into the vexed issue of indigenous domestic violence and child abuse? Louis Nowra decided to speak out after he spent several days in hospital in Alice Springs in 2005 with an undiagnosed case of pancreatitis." The result is Bad Dreaming: Aboriginal Men's Violence Against Women and Children, which is reviewed by Rosemary Neill. "Human rights before cultural rights
is Nowra's mantra. It has been said before, but given the scale and ugliness of the problem, it's imperative that we keep listening."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #9

The Age

Three Australian novels are covered in the paper this week: The Widow and Her Hero by Tom Keneally, Chain of Evidence by Garry Disher, and Company by Max Barry. And a good spread it is too.

The Keneally is loosely based on a military action undertaken by Australian special forces against the Japanese in World War II. It deals with those who took part and those who were left behind. James Ley finds that "Keneally's freely fictionalised version is an attempt to marry this dramatic tale of military adventure to sober reflections on the meaning of honour and heroism. In particular, he is interested in exploring the hold these concepts have on the male psyche...The reflective side of the novel emerges from the fact that Keneally has chosen to tell the story primarily from a female perspective." Ley, however, comes to the conclusion that the book is rather too "middle-brow" for him to "muster any great enthusiasm for it". Me, I've never been too fussed about the middle-brow.

Jeff Glorfeld is very impressed with Disher's latest Challis and Destry novel, Chain of Evidence, stating that "this instalment puts Disher up on the world stage among the best in the business at this style of crime fiction." And by style he means police procedural. No more, I have a review of this book to write.

A week or so back, I linked to a profile of Max Barry in "The Age", that indicated he was far better known in the US than in his native country Australia. Maybe that will change now that he's had his latest novel published here by Scribe. Marieke Hardy discovers that "Yes, it's one naive and ethical man's struggle against the bigwigs pushing pens in the exec suites. But even with earnest speeches about workers being more than just machines and so on, Barry manages to keep the tone generally light and humorous."

The Australian

Michael Williams takes a look at Max Barry's novel Company and is also genuinely impressed. "His first two novels, Syrup and Jennifer Government, were tour-de-force corporate satires that found him a cult following (read small but rabid) here and a legion of fans in the US. Why he's not held up as one of Australia's pre-eminent comic novelists is a mystery. He was published overseas first. His novels are resolutely contemporary and international in setting, razor sharp, laugh-out-loud funny and true originals. With Company, he confirms his status as Australia's poet laureate of corporate nonsense and nastiness...This is a romp, a funny, well-written, astute romp. Barry is one of the most talented young Australian novelists you've never heard of. Read him."

The Sydney Morning Herald

Tom Keneally's novel is also reviewed in the SMH this week by Andrew Reimer, who considers it his "best in many years", and "accomplished and highly readable". He concludes that "The Widow and Her Hero reveals a writer who has lost none of the skill and talent he has been demonstrating for decades in a seemingly unending stream of books. In some of his more recent novels, however, Keneally has shown a tendency to rely on mechanical plots and stock characters -- An Angel in Australia is a case in point, I think. In this book he has avoided most of those pitfalls. Even the conceit of a group of prisoners, Leo and his friends, who are facing the prospect of execution, rehearsing a play -- a throwback to Bring Larks and Heroes -- proves to be apt and successfully integrated into the novel's structure."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #8

The Age

Peter Pierce, former professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University reviews two Australian novels by writers at opposite ends of their careers. [The review isn't on the website.] Both books deal with "the master theme of realist fiction: adultery and its consequnces."

Jon Cleary published his first novel, You Can't See Round Corners in 1947, and his latest Four-Cornered Circle has appeared in his 90th year. Pierce believes the author "belongs, after all, in a distinguished tradition of Catholic-Australian novelists, to speak especially of their cultural and social backgrounds and of their recurrent moral concerns. To this tradition belong two other prolific and internationally renowned authors - Morris West and Thomas Keneally...Matters of individual conscience are crucial in the work of all three. Cleary's novel focuses on a conflict between professional and personal responsibilities, which is pragmatically resolved."

Andrea Mayes published her first novel in her 50th year, and has just released her second, Shearwater. Unfortunately, Pierce doesn't feel the plot engages us, "despite the neatness and confidence of her organisation of the story."

The Australian

"Evolution of a Fiery Soul" is the title given to Karen Lamb's review of With Love and Fury: Selected letters of Judith Wright edited by Patricia Clarke and Meredith McKinney. "Literary biographers often wonder whether the letters of their subjects offer a unique biographical truth, in the belief that most of us are more ourselves in the company of others. This tends to ignore an altogether different truth that biographers know only too well: letters can be a cesspit of misplaced personal motive, unglamorous attitudes and just plain vitriol..." The hidden gems in the book consist of "fragments or full letters that make sense of the preoccupations, the love and the fury. Much of the background material is rendered sympathetically perhaps (Wright's daughter is one of the editors) and no doubt there are certain letters we would like to see but never will. At least the range is over Wright's lifetime and allows us to reflect on the nature of such a complex personality and a highly individual life."

Jon Cleary's novel, Four-Cornered Circle is also reviewed by Christopher Bantick who finds that there "is great tenderness in this memorable novel...At its core, Cleary focuses on how prepared people are to sacrifice much to retain love; the problem lies in identifying love within oneself and not allowing transient distractions to get in its way."

A genre is not often reviewed in the mainstream papers is manga. Given there aren't many practitioners of the art in Australia, this is hardly surprising. But Queenie Chan is one such, and she has recently published The Dreaming, which is reviewed this week by Cefn Ridout. "Manga is on the move. Even casual observers of popular culture could hardly fail to notice the influence of Japanese comics, alongside their animated sibling anime, on film, computer games, fashion and even cosmetics. Coupled with a resurgent interest in graphic novels in the West, the once exclusively Japanese publishing phenomenon has ventured well beyond its borders."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #7

The Age

In his review of Steven Carroll's latest novel, The Time We Have Taken, Michael McGirr compares this third book in the author's trilogy with Elizabeth Jolley's work, favourably. "Carroll's trilogy is the equal of Jolley's. It has the emotional stamina needed to draw life from the same characters over three independent novels...Carroll writes the kind of still prose that invites the reader into a contemplative space. The irony is that his subject matter is restless." It's a major triumph of Carroll's that he has been able to produce novels whose surfaces reflect the period of the books, and yet have a lot of depth. "Carroll takes time to tell an untidy story with a gentle sense of wonder. His prose whispers loud."

Meme McDonald has a new young adult book out, Love Like Water, and Martin Flangan profiles the author, and, in the process, reviews the novel as well. "A lot of silly things are said about novels and art, but I do think this book goes somewhere new. To begin with, as a male reader, I find it an unusually compelling portrait of a man. Then there is the fact that the man happens to be Aboriginal. How many other white novelists are able to present Aboriginal Australia in the sort of depth and complexity this book does? This, truly, is a book about the meeting of two worlds."

The Australian

The paper must be saving itself for its March edition of "The Australian Literary Review", which is out tomorrow.

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #6

The Age

Just about every new government, either Federal or State, promises more open government, more access to information, and greater respect for the separation of powers. The fact that few of them achieve this should amaze none of us. But it is always worth keeping an eye on what governments are up to, which is what Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison have done in editing the collection of essays about the current Howard government, titled Silencing Dissent. Michelle Grattan, long-time political reporter for "The Age" reviews the book this week, and finds that "The Howard years have seen an unrelenting attempt to control information, curb irritant views, reward and advance political friends, and hobble those considered not one of 'us'. Silencing Dissent documents the process, inside and outside government - in public service and statutory authorities, media, universities and the research community, non-government organisations, the intelligence community, and, since the Government won a majority there, the Senate...This is a book with attitude - lots. Clive Hamilton heads the left-leaning Australia Institute. It makes its argument robustly, giving little quarter to any other side. But even if there is some exaggeration, the case its contributors build is scary."

Regardless of the fact that atheists such as Richard Dawkins are getting a lot of air-time, religion and spirituality seem to be flourishing in Australia. Gary Bouma has written a book about this upswell of interest in Australian Soul: Religion and Spirituality in the 21st Century, which Barney Zwartz finds "is an important contribution: insightful, authoritative, accessible and extremely wide-ranging. Indeed, Bouma covers so much ground in 212 pages that inevitably he sometimes seems glib. Occasionally I'd like to pause and see more closely how he justifies a generalisation (I am sure he will expand on this material in the future)."

The Australian

After last week's banquet of Australian fiction, this week we're down to one non-fiction collection. J.M. Coetzee's Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 is reviewed by Geordie Williamson, and a detailed critique it is, too. The best line comes after Williamson has outlined Coetzee's interest in a number of European novelists whose lives seem to mirror the "crisis of European humanity" experienced during the twentieth-century: "This is not nearly as dense as it sounds: Coetzee shuttles effortlessly between critical registers. His prose is all starch and hospital corners, exhibiting the rare skill of translating difficult concepts into ordinary language."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #5

The Age

James Bradley has some reservations about Rodney Hall's novel Love Without Hope, even as he is able to see what the author is trying to achieve; "...Love without Hope -- and indeed much of Hall's writing -- resembles no one so much as Patrick White. More than any other Australian writer working today he shares White's sense of brooding mysticism and interest in the grotesqueries and folly of everyday life...Yet while the intensity of White's vision can be overwhelming, there is an essential delicacy and humanity to it that Hall's novels often lack, for all the filigree of their imagining. In Love without Hope this is particularly true -- Hall drives the proceedings so hard, so maniacally, that there is little space for the reader to take their breath, or indeed for the language to unfold itself."

The Australian

The fact that Garry Disher has a new novel out is certainly a cause for celebration in my house, as he writes police procedurals as good as any to be found. Graeme Blundell, the paper's resident crime fiction reviewer, takes a look at Chain of Evidence, the fourth Challis and Destry novel. (Take note of the changing nature of this series: the previous three were referred to only as Inspector Challis novels.) Blundell certainly thinks that Disher has served up a beauty this time: "In his best novel yet in what has been a distinguished career, he propels us methodically yet elegiacally, the past impending on the present and setting the future into sometimes quite astonishing motion. The self-interest of his supporting characters dangerously interferes with decency and truth, against a backdrop of an overstretched police force frequently corrupt, rife with division and sexual and racial prejudices." In other words, why aren't you reading this already? "Now on the same procedural shelf as international greats such as John Harvey, Tony Hillerman and Ian Rankin, Disher brings crime fiction back to simple facts, the painful themes that churn beneath banal surfaces. No one works the flat, elided planes of realism better."

Steven Carroll's previous two novels were shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, and, from what Debra Adelaide has to say about his latest, The Time We Have Taken, he may well be in line for another shot at the prize. "In The Time We Have Taken, there are few dramatic events and almost no plot. Instead there is meticulous interrogation of the small moments that shape life...This slow, contemplative novel suggests several other great writers: Carol Shields with her ability to turn inside out the everyday in domestic life and reveal its unexpected glories. It also reminds me of Gerald Murnane's genius for mapping the endless detours of the creative mind...His sentences are impeccable. The small faults are not worth mentioning. The author of six novels and twice short-listed for the Miles Franklin award, Carroll is on some kind of journey, and he deserves to reach his destination." I can state that the two previous novels in this sequence (hard to call it a trilogy as there may be a fourth) were excellent. So I'm not surprised this one is up to the standard described.

Liam Davison appears to have enjoyed Rodney Hall's Love Without Hope more than James Bradley (above). "A new Hall novel always brings mixed degrees of anticipation and trepidation, not least because he is capable of writing across such a broad range of modes that we never know quite what to expect...If the narrative is surprisingly conventional, it's what Hall does with it to explore the emotional and spiritual anxieties of his characters -- and to a degree, of a nation -- that sets this exquisitely written novel apart...He's never one for straight social realism, though, and the real strength of his achievement here is the ease with which such a seemingly ordinary world opens to reveal the spiritual and metaphysical anxieties behind it."

Three Australian novels in the one week. Something to be celebrated there I think.

Christopher Bantick finds that Pip Newling's memoir, Knockabout Girl, "has much to offer readers in its spare, unsentimental writing, with Newling avoiding the potentially maudlin pitfalls of introspection, although she does make occasional reference to herself, such as noting in remote places 'how infectious bitterness could be'. The result is a cache of sharply defined summations of experiences, her own and those of the people she encounters."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #4

The Age

I'm glad that "The Age" asked Barry Jones to review B.A. Santamaria: Your Most Obedient Servant - Selected Letters 1938-1996 edited by Patrick Morgan. There are probably only two or three reviewers with the political history and knowledge, and the ability to write which could do this important work justice: Jones is one of them.

Take his introduction to the man himself: "A brilliant debater and Melbourne University graduate he worked for the venerable Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Daniel Mannix (1864-1963), was a founder of 'The Movement' (also known as 'The Show') in 1941 and The National Civic Council in 1957, campaigned passionately against communist influence in trade unions and the Australian Labor Party and was a major factor in a great split in the ALP (1954-55), which helped to keep the party out of power nationally for 23 years (until 1972) and in Victoria for 27 years (until 1984)." Short, sharp and to the point. You have all you need to know about the subject, other than the fact that Jones knew him quite well even though they were on opposite sides of the "Split".

You can tell that Jones believes the book under review is a worthy project ("Your Most Obedient Servant, which runs to 576 pages, includes a short biography, an extensive commentary, bibliography and a useful collection of photographs. It is a very handsome production.") so it's a pity that he finds fault in it: "Regrettably, many of the letters chosen do not show Santamaria at his fascinating best...I hoped for some insights into Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, but they are not to be found...Santamaria was always interesting, far more than this small selection of letters suggests."

I get a sense that Martin Flanagan was as disappointed with his book under review as Barry Jones was above. Flanagan looks at Another Country by Nicholas Rothwell, a commentary on Aboriginal culture and puts his interest right up front: "Historically, in this country, the ignorance, bias and self-deception have never been more pronounced than when whitefellas write about blackfellas. As a result, the first question I ask in reading a book such as this is whether I can see the whitefella doing the talking. Who are they? Where do they come from? What conditions them?" A set of questions he proceeds to answer. He explains that Rothwell is well-suited to write this book but has a major difficulty with the whole exercise. Namely, "This book represents a substantial journalistic inquiry. It deserves to be read because it goes so far beyond the average Australian's comprehension of their own country. But I do have a major reservation about Rothwell's work: put simply, how can someone who claims high affinity with Aboriginal culture be broadly accepting of a federal government whose policies are seen by Aboriginal leaders such as Patrick Dodson as assimilationist?" How indeed.

Jeff Glorfeld is disappointed with two new crime novels, And Hope to Die by J.M. Calder (a pseudonym for John Clanchy and Mark Henshaw), and The Undertow, the latest Cliff Hardy novel from Peter Corris. The first is a "page-turner that keeps you right on the edge of your seat right up to the disappointing ending," and the Corris "feels like Cliff Hardy by the numbers."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #3

The Age

Reading someone's letters always seems like a distinctive invasion of privacy to me. But I do it all the same, seeking out extra insights into people I'm interested in and generally eavesdropping on gossip. Peter Hill has gone one better with a review this week of Bert and Ned: The Correspondence of Albert Tucker and Sydney Nolan, edited and introduced by Patrick McCaughey. Hill finds it "a gorgoeus book, both for its content and its design and layout...This volume has been compiled with great care and scholarship for us to enjoy at our leisure and I recommend it highly."

The Australian

Australian books still on holidays, it seems.

The Sydney Morning Herald

Bronwyn Rivers has a look at a debut novel by Jessica White, titled A Curious Intimacy, and comes away thinking that it doesn't quite hit the mark: "...too many characters feel like missed opportunities, their interest not fully exploited. This sweet romantic story has the pace and atmosphere of a literary novel, but lacks the impact of a more profound emotional drama."

Literary allusions and in-jokes seem to be the order of the day in Helen Garner and the Meaning of Everything, a new novel by Alex Jones. Kerryn Goldsworthy finds that "It is, in short, a brilliant and near-absurdist rave, a sort of 21st-century Such is Life (a book the narrator swears he will never read), with a surprisingly warm and solid foundation in everyday suburban family life."

A little known story from the early days of Sydney forms the basis of Carol Baxter's book An Irresistible Temptation: The True Story of Jane New and a Colonial Scandal. "Jane New's story is one of theft, seduction, incarceration, escape, corruption and political intrigue. For all the differences between New's world and our own, readers will find much to recognise in the persuasive powers of sexual attraction, the importance of getting the right lawyers and the media's role in bringing down politicians." Kirsten McKenzie is impressed with the work, while being very disappointed in the cover.

The Courier-Mail

Jason Nahrung discovers the explosion in vampire-related novels: covering the romance, horror and fantasy genres.

Howard Arkley's work is examined in Carnival in Suburbia: The Art of Howard Arkley by John Gregory and the book is reviewed by Christopher Bantick. "It is a book which attempts to contextualise Arkley's work and also offer a perspective on his contribution to our understanding of suburban life. It achieves this moderately well."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #2


The Age

Not a lot of reviews are being added to "The Age" website lately - only one from this past weekend, so far. There is no way of telling if this is a just a hangover from the New Year slowdown or a new policy from the paper. Only time will tell.

It's strange that a travel book by Mark Twain should be published by Melbourne University Press, but such is the case with The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain's Adventures in Australia which has appeared with an introduction by Don Watson. Twain passed through australia as part of his world-wide lecture tour, put together to get him out of debts arising from some bad investments. Jeff Sparrow reviews the book and comments on the similarities between Twain's work and recent efforts from Bill Bryson, even down to Twain's declaration of his approval of "the finest breeds of man-eating shark in the world". But the best piece comes at the conclusion, quoting Twain: "Australia is fertile in writers whose books are faithful mirrors of the country and of it shistory. It has a brilliant and vigorous literature, and one which must endure." As Sparrow spins it: "The Wayward Tourist accordingly allows readers a certain patriotic pride. Not ever nation can boast that a literary giant such as Mark Twain regards its writers with nearly the affection he bestows on its man-eating sharks."

The Melbourne-based community radio station 3RRR is celebrating 30 years on air, and Michael Williams is fastinated by the stations "biography", Radio City: The First 30 Years of RRR by Mark Phillips: "...the best local histories are faithful to the passionate residents who own the stories while simultaneously demonstrating a broader relevance and truth. [This book] is one such history...The loyal 3RRR listener will find much to illuminate and delight in this exploration of one of Melbourne's great institutions; more importantly, the general reader will find it a fascinating cross-section of the shifting culture of a city."

Steven Carroll is impressed with Gideon Haigh's latest collection, Silent Revolutions: Writings on Cricket History: "Haigh's style is as classical and crisp as a perfectly timed cover drive...Another fine innings, from a class act."

The Australian

Two collections of stories get an ambivalent review from Heidi Maier: Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy, and Diamonds in the Mud and Other Stories by Joy Dettman. "At her best, Kennedy writes with almost surgical precision, distilling the essence of her characters and situations to a minimum of words...Dark Roots boasts fine stories but as a cohesive collection it is less successful...Like Kennedy, Dettman grounds her fiction in everyday situations, although her stories are more bush fare than explications of contemporary suburban existence. What further distinguishes her, unfortunately, is a gift for the simplistic and unoriginal."

Christine Cremen finds that Kerry Greenwood's latest Phryne Fisher novel, Murder in the Dark "is a return to form. A diverting Australian reinterpretation of that golden age classic, the country-house mystery, it's set in rural Victoria at the height of summer, instead of somewhere snowbound in England."

Weekend Round-Up 2007 #1

The Age

Christopher Bantick looks at two books on Australians in wartime: The Strength of a Nation by Michael McKernan, and Defying the Odds: Surviving Sandakan and Kuching by Michele Cunningham. (The review is not on the website.)

McKernan's book "serves two purposes. First, it offers an impressively compressed history of Australia's participation in World War II. Second, it distils the impact of war on individuals from personal stories. These cover both military participation abroad and those at home supprting the war effort...It is McKernan's ability to meld factual information with the personal experience of war that makes this book a readily appreciated and at times moving read...Although McKernan's book has some informative photographs, Cunningham is heavily, and necessarily, reliant on materials retained by prisoners after the end of the war. There are many photographs, copies of letters and reproductions of artwork created in the camps...This augments what is a story highlighting men of peerless resilience and endeavour who daily faced starvation and the threat of physical punishment."

Gig Ryan is impressed with two new collections of poetry (and again the review is not on the website): the flower, the thing by M.T.C. Cronin, and latecomers by Jaya Savige. "In Cronin's poetry the meaning is efflorescence, the surge of observations and musings that bustle forth...latecomers is a poised debut ranging from half-rhymed lyrics to some clever pantoums, but -- like many recent poetry collections -- elegies for parents and the Iraq invasion prevail...[It] is one of the most vibrantly intelligent first books of the past few years."

In other sections: Ursula Dubosarsky remembers the first adult novel she read as a child; Marieke Hardy searches for Mr Write at one of the State Library's "literary speed dating" nights; literary editor, Jason Steger, delves into what 2005's book sales figures tell us about our lives; Cate Kennedy examines the role of the short story; and Marion Halligan revels in the art of a good gossip.

The Australian

Nothing Australian that I noticed.

The Sydney Morning Herald

Shane Brady considers the Australian sense of humour during a review of A Serious Frolic: Essays on Australian Humour by Dr Jessica Milner Davis, of the University of NSW. According to this Sydney academic, "the roots of our sense of humour may run far deeper than the Anzacs' - and even the convicts' - gallows humour and deep disdain for authority." Charles Darwin, and early white settlers, commented on the sense of humour exhibited by Australia's indigenous inhabitants, and "it would seem Aboriginal humour has been sharpened by adversity".

The Courier-Mail

"For some readers, a new Bryce Courtenay novel is the one book they buy each year." So says Christopher Bantick in his pre-Christmas profile of the author, and review of his new novel, Sylvia. Though, with the novel being "placed at No. 6 in an anticipated Christmas book-buying spree...Sylvia is perhaps not being regarded with the same enthusiasm of earlier Courtenay novels...Part of this may be due to the subject matter. Bloodletting and menstruation in medieval history may alienate some of Courtenay's core female audience." I haven't seen any returns from Christmas sales as yet.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #47

Last week it was Christmas functions and this week it was a disk overflow at the ISP. Stay tuned for more unusual excuses next week. Tired and emotional seems a pretty good bet at this time.

The Age

Lorien Kaye finds a number of gems in the latest annual collection from Black Inc, The Best Australian Stories 2006, which is edited this year by Robert Drewe. "There is a balance between stories set in the city, the bush and overseas; between realist and more speculative approaches; between flights of imagination and what seem to be barely disguised fragments of memoir."

In reviewing Robert Admanson's new poetry collection, The Goldfinches of Baghdad, David McCooey finds that the poet has made use of some major universal themes in his work: "At least since Rainer Maria Rilke, Orpheus has been a source of fascination for modern poets, and Robert Adamson is one of a number of Australian poets (such as A. D. Hope, Kevin Hart, and Michael Brennan) who have found the myth attractive...The powerful merging of the mythic and the contemporary illustrates the book's larger project of merging apparently disjunct categories. In particular, Adamson has a genius for showing the deep interconnections between the real and the imaginary." These blokes even review poetry in a different way.

Short notices are given to: Tomorrow is Today: Australia in the Psychedelic Era, 1966-70 edited by Iain McIntyre: "It looks at the times from a political and sociological perspective (from Sharpies to the House of Merivale) but it's mostly a musical study written somewhat in the spirit of Go Set but recollected in tranquility"; Rose By Any Other Name by Maureen McCarthy: "The best young adult authors - and Maureen McCarthy is one of them - get into their teenage characters' heads. It's not about merely regurgitating the current teenage idiom but rather capturing the complexity of this time of life and the intensity of feeling that accompanies it."

The Australian

Margo Lanagan has Red Spikes, a new collection of stories out and about, and the paper's resident sf and fantasy reviewer Terry Dowling is pretty impressed with the final result: "Almost without exception, these 10 new stories are marked by an engaging, idiosyncratic, often earthy blend of the mundane and the bizarre, full of the consequences of being in the world...the reader comes away from Red Spikes knowing that Lanagan, like every really good writer, is set on shaking the storytelling tree." If this one gets even close to her two previous collections, White Time and Black Juice, it will be very good indeed.

Luca Antara by Martin Edmond sounds like a rather strange and intriguing book. Jennifer Moran certainly thinks so: "Martin Edmond quotes Mark Twain's well-worn 'beautiful lies' remark about Australian history to suggest the way we should read his book, a long conversation about quests and origins, about the intersections of personal and social history, about literature and the nature of truth...Edmond's book evolves as an entertaining, erudite tale, with snippets of history and literary discussion as well as Edmond's somewhat salacious youthful affairs woven into the narrative of his developing love for the history of seafarers in the Pacific and the south."

The Sydney Morning Herald

The general view that Bryce Courtenay's new novel Sylvia isn't up to scratch is continued with Sophie Masson's review of the novel: "The story is told in the first person, yet Sylvia, as a living, breathing person, does not inhabit the novel's plodding, wordy pages. She is just a ventriloquist's doll for a well-meaning, earnest 21st-century author with a message...There's no sense of a real person in the devout, pragmatic, gifted girl, seen as a saint by some and a witch by others. Not only does the way she (and other characters) speak and think seem stilted and unlikely, there is no sense of that religious centre."

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #46

A tad later than normal due to a surfeit of Christmas functions.

The Age

The paper is running a bit behind in linking to its reviews on the website.

Juliette Hughes looks at two recent novels by two of Australia's best-selling writers: Sylvia by Bryce Courtenay, and The Valley by Di Morrissey. Both feature historical settings, but about there the comparisons end. "Morrissey's novel is a warm, well-rounded story about searching for one's forebears...The Valley is a long, juicy page-turner, a generational saga that flows resistlessly - Morrissey's fluency makes reading easy - and she links sound historical reseach with a compassionate, timeless view of people.

"Sylvia is a different matter altogether, and presents problems...Courtenay can write well and has deserved his popularity: he has given the world one excellent novel, some very good potboilers and some reasonable reads...But now Courtenay has produced Sylvia, a book that is so mystifying bad that the main thought you come away with after struggling through it is 'Why'?"

Delia Falconer "approached this year's Best Australian Essays with a heavy heart." But the 2006 edition, edited by Drusilla Modjeska, wins her over in the end. The collection "begins slowly; its mix of serious and light is choppy - but it creeps up on you. The best pieces make this one of the better collectons in the series." I said it last year, as I recall: this is the best type of summer reading, a number of different authors writing at different lengths on different topics. Hard to see how anybody can get bored with it.

Short notices are given to: Crocodile: Evolution's Greatest Survivor by Lynne Kelly, who is "never short of dramatic material in this lively account of the crocodile's evolution and natural history"; Ghosts in the Helmet Trees by Rory Steele, "Steele is an energetic and sensuous writer and he weaves the two strands of his narrative together with considerable skill"; Paper Nautilus by Nicholas Jose: "There are occasional missed notes...but Jose's thoughtfulness and economy of language provide significant compensation for these shortcomings"; Not Quite Ripe by Debra Byrne: "the simplicuity and sincerity with which Byrne writes takes you beyond prurience, so you find yourself desperately barracking for her"; Pleasure: An Almanac for the Heart by Nikki Gemmell, shose "mundane advice on everyday matters in a chatty tone sits awkwardly with her unfulfilled aspiration, expressed through more lyrical notes, to existential, romantic and sexual transcendence"; The Secret Familiar by Catherine Jinks who shows a "mastery of research" and a "mastery of characterisation"; Continent of Curiosities by Danielle Clode, who "structures her book around 11 specimens - from kangaroos to crustaceans - and links them to a variety of issues such as European discovery of Australia, evolution, creationism, climate change, exploration and discovery."

The Australian

My paper copy of "The Australian's" book pages was chucked out to the recycling before I had much of a chance to get to it this week. Put it down to over-zealous house-cleaning in the silly season.

The major Australian review is of two collections of Australian poetry: The Best Australian Poetry 2006 edited by Judith Beveridge from the University of Queensland Press, and The Best Australian Poems edited by Dorthy Porter, from Black Inc. The reviewer makes some broad statements earlier on in the piece about these two books: "To my mind [the poems here] measure up in about the same proportion of the poems that come in this newspaper's mailbag: about one in five is worth publishing (space permitting), about one in 20 is really good. It's all a complex matter of judgment, taste and contingency." As you might expect there is quite a bit of duplication of contents in the two volumes though the UQP has 99 pages of peoms and the Black Inc 202 pages. Hill is impressed by both volumes and recommends that you "Get both. Give them away and buy two more as a thankyou to these publishers, now in their fourth year of honouring the wealth of Australian poetry."

The Sydney-Morning Herald

I would suggest that if you were underwhelmed by Australia's progression in the 2006 Football World Cup, then you're not going to find Australia United by Tony Wilson of much interest. As Michael Vistonay puts it "what made Germany 2006 so memorable was the fact, not just the feeling, that the whole world was there. The vast numbers of travelling fans generated a sense of universal kinship, aided by fabulous organisation, boosted by the success of the host country and annointed by perfect weather."

Margaret Simmons thinks that The War on Democracy: Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press edited by Niall Lucy and Steve Mickler is marred by "self-conscious prose".

Matthew Lamb is intrigued by Luca Anata by Martin Edmond wondering what kind of book it actually is. "It is being promoted as part memoir, history and travel book but not as fiction. A remarkable omission, as the spectre of fiction pervades these pages."

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #45

The Age

Ian Britain, the editor of Meanjin, reviews the latest Clive James memoir, a book that has received a lot of attention overseas recently. Britain was bemused to see James on TV for the first time in the early 1980s, finding him to be "gauche-looking, sartorially challenged, moonfaced spectre, with his flat, unmodulated vocal tones; especially when compared with the tweedy lustre of Kenneth Clark on Civilisation or the dash and dazzle of Robert Hughes on The Shock of the New...It was hard not to conclude, and this latest volume of memoirs, recounting the very years of his evolution from TV critic to TV performer, bears out the conclusion, that there was something as studiously cultivated about his resistance to conventional glamour, his posture of ordinariness, as about his far-from-ordinary verbal facility. The counterpoint has made for a distinctive style in itself, as useful to his career as it is arresting." It's the "distinctive style" that made James such interesting viewing. If James was a colour he'd be brown.

As we enter the driest lead-up to a summer on record here in Victoria, Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia by Paul Collins, is a timely reminder of what we might be in for. Christopher Bantick finds the books has some important points to make, not least: "The hard fact he presents is that fires have increased because of the expansion of people into the bush either through settlement or recreational interests. Where people are, fires occur."

The death of David Hookes a few years back raised some interesting questions in the country about the role of sport, alcohol and the media in the guiding of popular opinion. It was a strange time, and Michelle Schwarz has attempted to come to grips with it in One Split Second: The Death of David Hookes and the Trial of Zdravko Micevic. Ian Munro is impressed, but finds that "the results of this research are often out of context and there is no attempt to draw these disparate threads into a coherent whole."

Short notices are given to: The Victorian Premiers edited by Paul Strangio and Brian Costar: "This valuable reference is for anybody interested in political history posits the thesis that there are three basic phases in Victoria's political history: from foundation to the 1890s, federation to the 1950s and then the postwar years"; Emissary by Fiona McIntosh, who "writes competent, fast-paced genre fiction"; Bloodbath by Patricia Edgar who was a "lone woman in the nascent Australian television industry" and who "forged a career, with few precedents, in the areas of policy, regulation and children's production"; Heat 12: Ten Years edited by Ivor Indyk: the magazine's "high sense of purpose has been precious to a lot of us over the past 10 years".

The Australian

The only Australian book reviewed in this week's paper is one, I'm sorry to say, I don't have a lot of enthusiasm for: The Voice of the Thunderer: Journalism of H.G. Kippax selected and introduced by Harry Heseltine. Kippax was an editorial writer for "The Sydney Morning Herald" between 1938 and 1983. Peter Ryan thinks it is pretty good, however.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #44

The Age

John Marsden's latest novel, Circle of Flight is the third and last in his series, "The Ellie Chronicles", which started in 2003. Frances Atkinson thinks "it's been a hell of a ride", and is rather sorry to see the series end: "Closing the door on Ellie must have been hard for Marsden, but even his most ardent fans will agree that bowing out on a high note is the way to go. Before you reach the final page, you'll discover that Marsden has included a few startling revelations about the kinds of things that have been the mainstay of every book in the series: friendship, love, loyalty and honour.

"Goodbye Ellie, it was a pleasure knowing you."

Rachel Hills reviews Adult Themes: Rewriting the Rules of Adulthood by Kate Crawford, which "looks beyond young and old to investigate what defines adulthood, how it's changing and what it means to be one in the 21st century." Overwork, underpaid and unloved probably. No, sorry, that's just me. "Adult Themes provides a refreshingly informed and nuanced alternative, going beyond X and Y to cut to the core of the ubiquitous generation wars and offer some hopeful alternatives for us all."

Short notices are given to: The Labor Market Ate My Babies: Work, Children and a Sustainable Future by Barbara Pocock who "argues that if children are not to suffer, child care must be more regulated, the government must invest in support for parents and amend labour laws to increase job flexibility and autonomy for workers"; The War on Democracy: Conservative Opinion in the Australian Press by Nially Lucy & Steve Mickler: "This latest salvo in the culture wars is a gloves-off riposte from the academy in defence of progressive and liberal thought"; The Patrician and the Bloke: Geoffrey Serle and the Making of Australian History by John Thompson whose "biography takes a cue from Serle's own biographical practice, never straying far from the public and intellectual life".

The Australian

Poetry gets a look-in this week as Tom Shapcott reviews Wren Lives by Billy Jones, Universal Andalusia by B.R. Dionysius and Lemon Shark by Luke Beesley, all published by Papertiger Media Inc. He is impressed, first by the printings and then by the contents: "this is no semi-amateur effort; as a statement of ambition, these titles command attention." Of Jones he says: "In all his books, Jones has accompanied his poems (often more invocations than what is traditionally accepted as poetry) with detailed, often exquisite drawings; the two complement each other resonantly." In Dionysius's volume he finds that this "This is a meaty, robust meal of a book and if the conclusion is the obvious one ('glad to be home'), the trip along the way has been rocky but full of enough insights to make you snort and splutter." And of Beesley: "More than a poet to watch: this is a poet already out there and revelling in it."

Peter Ryan reviews The Patrician and the Bloke: Geoffrey Serle and the Making of Australian History but writes a profile of the subject rather than a true review. "An interest should be declared: I was Serle's friend for more than 50 years, his publisher for 26."

Short notices are given to: The Tesla Legacy by Robert G. Barrett: "The cleverly written comedy of street-wise manners will still appeal to the constituency that Barrett, that self-styled conduit to the average punter"; The Murderer's Club by P.D. Martin who "manages the rhythm and pace well but there's too little telling journalistic detail, artful writing and plain old-fashioned gravitas"; The Perfect Suspect by Vincent Varjavandi: "his plotting is more lateral than Martin's, even if the writing is far bumpier"; Written on the Skin: An Australian Forensic Casebook by Liz Porter who shows how evidence simply doesn't lie and how technology can offer order, retributive justice and compensatory values in a world where these are repeatedly found lacking"; Dovetail Road by Graham Kenshaw who "is a passable writer but he hasn't learned to take risks with his material and this fabricated friction is rather anodyne"; Dark Roots by Cate Kennedy: "is a revelation. Here's a writer who can be dark, moody, funny and provocative, often in the same story"; The Secret Familiar by Catherine Jinks, readers of which should be "possessed of a strong stomach."

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #43

The Age

The Best of... Australian books are starting to hit the bookshelves in time for Christmas, and "The Age" this week looks at the two major poetry collections we get at this time of year: The Best Australian Poetry 2006 edited by Judith Beveridge (from UQP) and The Best Australian Poems 2006 edited by Dorothy Porter (from Black Inc). Lyn McCredden examines both books in a review that doesn't appear to be on the website.

"The two editors are themselves accomplished poets who, in very different ways, have contributed abundantly to the ways language and the world are felt and seen and understood in Australia, and beyond. While Beveridge keeps it tight, with only 40 poems carefully culled from this year's literary journals, Porter has room to move -- to sashay, slither and deliciously meander indeed -- with more than 100 poems from books, journals and individual submissions. Both methods reveal a lot, unashamedly, about the editors as constructors of the poetic in Australia...

"If you want to take the plunge and read some of the fine work being written by contemporary Australian poets, UQP and Black Inc's anthologies offer the opportunity to be 'transported, delighted, changed' (Porter). Each voice is so distinct. You will, possibly, be humbled by these poets' words as they take you well beyond your self."

Short notices are given to: In the Name of Decent Citizens: The Trials of Frank de Groot by Brian Wright: "On one level Frank de Groot's cutting of the ceremonial ribbon at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932 is one of the ore Keystone Cops episodes in Australian history. Not so comic, however, was the New Guard, the paramilitary, far-right-cum-fascist organisation he did it for"; The Murderers' Club by P.D. Martin which "is a real page-turner, with a dastardly mix of villians. Although its climax is a bit predictable, it's still great fun"; Diamonds in the Mud and Other Stories by Joy Dettman who "writes about the bush with an unromantic eye, and her novels are peopled with richly drawn characters who talk in the kind of bush lingo Henry Lawson would have been proud to have captured"; Margaret Whitlam by Susan Mitchell whose "biography makes one relieved to find out that the suggestions of conviviality, cleverness and strength that we see in Margaret Whitlam's public persona are actually matched by her private performance"; Meanjin 65.3 edited by Ian Britain & Mark Mordue: "It's as much about rock 'n' roll culture as rock 'n roll music. As Mark Mordue, guest co-editor of this special issue, suggests, music is about place and experience and emotion, about who we are and where we've been. It's not just about notes and rhythms", The Imaginary Gentleman by Helen Halstead: "In this her second novel, Halstead has made clear her intention to pursue the Regency genre and set herself up as an antipodean Georgette Heyer."

The Australian

"The Australian" is a bit odd this week, with lots of Australian books under review but none of them covered at any depth. For example, Peter Lalor comes to grip with the recent avalanche of cricket books. There are eleven of them in the review, too many to list individually, and as Lalor puts it: "In most cases, the name on the cover is more important than the content." You get everyone from Ricky Ponting, to Shane Warne, to Jack Egan and David Boon. Even for a cricket nut like me it's a bit much. Might just have to stick with Gideon Haigh's couple: Cricket History and The Summer Game.

Struggling with the problem of reviewing a collection of essays, Barry Hill doesn't attempt to dip into every entry, just gives an overview and the highlights of Chris Wallace-Crabb's Read It Again. "His essays are richly erudite and under very interesting pressure, for the good old days when poetry seemed to have a clear place in the culture have long gone...As if this were not bad enough, poetry's enemies seem manifold, and include the postmodern academy, as well as all those language users who would ride roughshod over the poet's careful love for each living, singing, meaning syllable." Which is probbly a good a method as you can get. In the end, "poets, critics and the literary general reader will glean good things from the collection."

I've got a couple of Miriam Estensen's books on the shelves waiting to be read and her latest, Terra Australia Incognita: The Spanish Quest for the Mysterious Great South Land, also looks interesting. Jennifer Moran finds that she is "quietly filling a bookshelf with her dissertations on maritime exploration and explorers (her previous books include Discovery: The Quest for the Great South Land, The Life of Matthew Flinders and The Life of George Bass: Surgeon and Sailor of the Enlightenment) has here focused on the Spanish explorers who sailed in search of the landmass Ptolemy had proposed would balance the world in the south. She is especially interested in the three notable voyages of discovery that took place in the second half of the 16th and first decade of the 17th centuries." The Spanish, however, feel victim to their own ambitions: ill-planned, ill-manned and with religious aims that belied the pursuit of riches.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #42

The Age

Gabrielle Carey is best known as the other half of the writing duo responsible for Puberty Blues, the 1979 coming-of-age novel she wrote with Kathy Lette. Now Carey has written a memoir, So Many Selves which is reviewed by Marieke Hardy. Needless to say there is a fair bit about her erstwhile writing partner in the first of three essays in the collection: "Certainly Carey accepts she was ill-prepared for the infamy that followed Puberty Blues's publication and withdrew into a world of intellectual snobbery and ponderous overthinking. But Lette was a dirty loudmouthed slagbag whose hunger for celebrity inevitably drove them apart. Or something like that, anyway; it's hard to read between the lines of the rather vitriolic and one-sided recollections." The other two essays deal "with Carey's somewhat mystifying foray into spirituality and her years immersed in a Third-World love story with the father of her child." In the end, Hardy is not overly impressed: "Possibly a phone call inviting Lette out for a beer and a hug might've served her better in the long term - at the very least it may have balanced Carey's memoirs into something a little more real."

I read Emily Maguire's first novel, Taming the Beast, last year and found it over-the-top, probably in need of a good editing. Others didn't agree and she was nominated for several awards and praised by one American litblogger. Now her second novel, The Gospel According to Luke, has been published and Marian McCarthy finds it more competent than compelling: "It is an interesting novel, with compelling ideas, and Maguire is without question a talented writer. It is therefore frustrating that the book's execution is more competent than thrilling, and one can't help but wish she had spent longer distilling her thoughts." The book has a lot going for it as it "has many intriguing themes: the struggle of love versus organised belief; faith versus science; and body versus mind. It examines the gulf between practical and religious morality and asks whether it is possible to forge a relationship if you have to sacrifice your essence to do so. And if one does make this choice, then what kind of relationship will it be? Who do you become? And what gives your life meaning?" All interesting concepts, it's the execution that's the thing. "Maguire is an exciting writer with a wonderful, confrontational style, and is clearly someone to watch. I shall look forward to her next novel immensely. I do hope she takes her time."

Matthew Ricketson reviews the book of the moment, Jonestown: The Power and the Myth of Alan Jones by Chris Masters. He makes a good point in comparing with the recent biography of Shane Warne by Paul Barry, "where, in the end, Barry tells us little new about Warne, Masters unveils a richly detailed and surprisingly rounded portrait of Jones. Jonestown is Sydney, and Alan Jones' broadcasting success and much-feared power appear to be a peculiarly Sydney phenomenon." And he also considers Masters's initial motives to be sound: "Masters may want to understand Jones but that does not mean he agrees with what he does. Far from it. The aim of Jonestown is to take Jones seriously as a person and as a broadcaster, so as to begin a serious debate about the nexus between politics and the media in Australia."

Short notices are given to: Quarterly Essay 23. The History Question: Who Owns the Past? by Inga Clendinnen: "The past is a magic pudding that belongs to everyone, from politicians in search of icons to novelists looking for ready-made plots, says Inga Clendinnen"; Any Guru Will Do: A Modern Man's Search for Meaning by Phil Brown who "is a natural at mining his neuroses and bodily afflictions for rueful humour that reflects the obsessions of his time"; The Little History of Australian Unionism by Sean Scalmer: "Compact and accessible, this is a lively and informative tribute to collective power"; The Fight by Martin Flanagan and Tom Uren, which is built like a mosaic from memories, reflections, discussions and fragments that show, as very few biographies ever do, how individuals are the sum of their relationships with other people"; The Curer of Souls by Lindsay Simpson is "meticulously researched historical fiction, based on extensive readings of colonial diaries and other sources"; Making Noises by Euan Mitchell, who "knows his rock 'n' roll - he played in a pub band himself - and this laid-back ironic take on the Australian music industry in the '90s captures the spirit of the time. It's fast-paced and grungy, full of backroom intrigue and colorful characters"; Acting on Conscience by Frank Brennan: "In these toughtful essays, Jesuit priest, human rights lawyer and academic Frank Brennan considers religion's place in public affairs in a country where church and state are separate"; Imprints of Generations by Robert Ingpen: "This handsome hardback is a plea not only 'to maintain a constant watch over what we know we have' but also to preserve it for future generations"; San Sombrero by Santo Gilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch: "The Jetlag Travel Guides work on multiple levels: parodying the genre, satirising various species of ttaveller and indulging in general jokiness and wordplay", Murder in the Dark by Kerry Greenwood is "the 16th book in the Kerry Greenwood Phyrne Fisher mystery series and the world's a better place for it."

The Australian

Ross Fitzgerald's review of Jonestown by Chris Masters leads off reviews here, and Fitzgerald considers the book a massacre: "Chris Masters has a fine CV, especially in the field of television documentaries. What a shame, then, that he has written such a mean-spirited and quite unbalanced biographical expose of Sydney-based broadcaster Alan Jones." It goes on, laying into Masters on all sides calling him "intemperate in his analysis", and some of his comments "mischievous and quite absurd". If you are looking for the other side of the review fence, then this is it.

Gabrielle Carey's memoir So Many Selves is reviewed in somewhat different light (to Marieke Hardy's above) by Jean Bedford. "Placed together as they are in So Many Selves, these essays describe the arc of a life begun in precocious confusion and fame, and continued in a serious search for enlightenment and purpose. But it's the exuberance of the first essay, both in subject and writing, that dominates."

Short notices are given to: Running Amok: When News Deadlines, Family and Foreign Affairs Collide by Mark Bowling, who spent 4 years in Indonesia from 1998 as ABC correspondent, and who is "brutally honest"; The Great Mistakes of Australian History edited by Martin Crotty and David Andrew Roberts: "The denial of Aboriginal rights, the misuse of rural land, wartime internment of enemy aliens: many issues of the past still resonate"; Between the Flags: One Hundred Summers of Australian Surf Lifesaving edited by Ed Jaggard: "The lively critical text is supported by 150 archival images and paintings."

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #41

The Age

A week short of Remembrance Day and Michael McKernan reviews the new book by Les Carlyon, The Great War. A lot of people have been waiting for this after the author got a great reception for his previous work, Gallipoli. "It still clutches at us, the Great War; it can still summon powerful emotions. Why, travellers ask with increasing insistence as the tour progresses, did those in charge keep doing this to decent young Australians. Five thousand five hundred lost at Fromelles; 27,000 seven weeks later by the end of Pozieres and Mouquet Farm. Too much death, too much terrible injury and suffering. Why? ... Les Carlyon takes nearly 800 pages in search of an answer and while there are sharp and provoking insights on many pages, at the end, he too is still scratching his head." It bothers us still, yet we celebrate it. We're funny like that.

James Ley looks at Richard Flanagan's latest novel, The Unknown Terrorist, and sees similarities to Andrew McGahan's latest. "The promotional material accompanying the advance copy of The Unknown Terrorist likens the book to a Trojan horse, smuggling in a political message under the guise of a popular thriller. This would be an accurate analogy only if the Greeks had ridden atop their horse as if it were a Mardi Gras float, announcing their intentions to the citizens of Troy with the aid of megaphones." It's not subtle, he says, it "declares its position from the outset and hammers it home for 300 pages." However, it "is a novel that does have some shortcomings, but irrelevance is not one of them."

Short notices are given to: The Pilo Family Circus by Will Elliott: "The cover promises laughs and violence. There's plenty of the latter but not everyone will find the former and overall the novel will most definitely not be to everyone's taste"; Simmo: Cricket Then and Now by Bob Simpson: "He's not one of the high-flying personalities of Australian cricket, but he is one of the more uniquely placed players in the history of the game, having played through the '50s and '60s, then come out of the retirement in the '70s as Test captain and later Test coach"; Socialist Champion: Portrait of the Gentleman as a Crusader by John Barnes: "Henry Hyde Champion (1859-1929), as John Barnes' absorbing and meticulously researched study shows, was not a man who lent himself to easy categorisation"; The Travel Writer by Simone Lazaroo who "has written an eloquent third novel that follows the fortunes of three generations of the de Sequeira family"; The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers and Selected Stories by Delia Falconer: "She's capable of etching sentences into the reader's mind and this anthology is a showcase of Falconer's brilliant linguistic economy, her beautifully controlled lyricism and her uncanny ability to find the right word for the right occasion."

The Australian

Justine Ettler looks at two second novels in The Gospel According to Luke by Emily Maguire and Rosie Little's Cautionary Tales for Girls by Danielle Wood. Of Gospel: "Maguire's work aspires to the televisual, to the TV soap, when it could aspire to the cinematic, to the epic." And of Rosie: "Distracting, elegant, clever, there's something a bit Edwardian gift-shop about Wood's story collection. More of a pretty diversion than an entertainment, Rosie Little's Cautionary Tales for Girls is something to place on the bedside table next to the bottles of designer essential oils, for dipping into occasionally. I enjoyed these odd stories, or stories of oddness, up to a point but ultimately had no idea why she was telling them or why I was reading them." Which doesn't bode all that well.

Short notices are given to: The 7.56 Report by John Clarke: "Closest thing we've produced to Pete and Dud: bloody brilliant"; Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia by Paul Collins, who asks "How are we to live in a way that fits in with the most fire-prone place on earth?".

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #40

The Age

The first two paragraphs of Morag Fraser's review of Barry Jones's autobiography, A Thinking Reed, just about say it all: "Late in this monumental essay on his life and times, Barry Jones relates a story about Primo Levi. Once, while in Auschwitz, the sage chronicler of human survival broke off an icicle to relieve his thirst. A guard knocked it out of his hand. 'Why?' asked Levi. 'Here is no why,' the guard replied...The story is an image of hell for Jones. This is the arbitrary, unaccountable world, indifferent to human suffering, dismissive of the human yen to understand." I've said before how much I admire Jones, both as a man in the world and as a politician. He always struck me as someone who entered parliament with only the best intentions in mind. The trouble is, parliament is definitely an arena in which good guys finish last. They shine for a while, but the nay-sayers pull them down. Fraser sees this as well, and enjoys all parts of this memoir. "I don't often hanker for multi-volumed works, but I wished for more all the while I was reading this." Jones couldn't ask for more I suspect.

Gregory Day is very approving of Andrew McGahan's new novel, Underground. "Since his foray into crime fiction with the Ned Kelly-winning Last Drinks in 2000, McGahan has been regarded as something of a genre-buster, a label reinforced by his highly literary Miles Franklin-winning follow-up, The White Earth. The publication of Underground, however, makes McGahan's oeuvre up to now look as predictable as our Prime Minister." It is certainly a change from his previous works and Day is not sure how it will be accepted: "No doubt his new genre-buster will offend the Oz-Lit police but it's how many other readers it might reach that is the real issue. Keep a close eye out on aeroplanes, trains, buses, even bicycles, for people reading this important book." I'm not sure who the "Oz-lit police" are but I'm pretty certain they'll read this novel with a lot of interest.

Peter Pierce is no someone I have seen review fantasy novels before so his look at Lian Hearn's The Harsh Cry of the Heron is certainly of interest. And he is very impressed: "Hearn is intent on creating a fictional world that is not spun from the whole cloth of an author's indulgent fancy (compare Tolkien) but from an awareness of politics and compromise, high and often treacherous policy, the reckoning of losses that all these collisions entail.

"The novel's commitment to its imaginative enterprise is intensely serious, but also playful; never is it ponderous or solemn.

"Here is another intelligent, accomplished, audacious and finely written novel by an Australian that has nothing to do with its own country; that seeks and should command a transnational audience for popular entertainment of a superior order."

Short notices are given to: Building a Masterpiece: The Sydney Opera House edited by Anne Watson which "confirms that the Sydney Opera House is a marvel of design, engineering and technology"; Ned Kelly and the Old Rellie: 50 Micro Lives of Great Australians by Gerard Windsor who "has taken salient details or events from famous Australians' lives and fashioned nifty four-line rhymes or 'micro verses'"; Mr Stuart's Track by John Bailey: "John McDouall Stuart, according to this biographer, is not only Australia's greatest explorer but the least appreciated"; School Days edited by John Kinsella who "has collated snippets of nostalgia from various Australian notables including Carmen lawrence, Veronica Brady, Marion Halligan and Frank Moorhouse. A variety of locations and educational institutions are mulled over through wise eyes."

The Australian

The major item this week is Peter Wilson interview with Clive James, on the occasion of the publication of his latest volume of memoirs, North Face of Soho. James is 67 now and believes he needs about another 40 years to complete all he has planned. He doesn't give himself much more than about 10.

Peter Rose, editor of "Australian Book Review" considers David Malouf's new collection of short stories, Every Move You Make. "As in most of Malouf's writings, the characters' stories are personal, yearning, metaphysical, without any overt philosophising. Little happens in these stories, as in life, as Virginia Woolf once reminded us. Malouf is wary of plot. The stories unfold like moods, like sweetly orchestrated sonatas." Still no mention of The Police.

Short notices are given to: Amy & Louis by Libby Gleeson, illustrated by Freya Blackwood: "Read this heart-warming book aloud: it won't leave readers breathless, character voices add fun and the rhyming refrain 'Coo-ee Louis", allows for a bit of vocal gymnastics"; Carpet of Dreams by Tessa Duder, illustrated by Mark Wilson: "It's a long story for a picture book but, by weaving countries' histories with personal ones, it is captivating and leaves readers wanting to learn more about carpets and [the main character's grandmother]"; Rose By Any Other Name by Maureen McCarthy, whose "books are engrossing because the protagonists' lives ring true and she articulates the feelings that most people leave unsaid"; Destroying Avalon by Kate McCaffrey: "Nothing here in the way of deep characterisation and plot but McCaffrey's novel is an eye-opener to a sinister contemporary world in which digital space is way out of control"; The Concerto Inn by Jo Gardiner whose "writing is nervy and over-polished, a recipe that showcases her poetic gifts but may leave readers fidgeting for action"; The Dark Part of Me by Belinda Burns in which "The emptiness of human existence gets a solid workout".

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #39

The Age

I can't find a single Australian book reviewed in the pages of this weekend's "Age", other than the short notices listed below. A sorry state of affairs.

The main literary piece in the paper is Jane Sullivan's essay on the differences between history and fiction. It raises a number of questions that I will try to address later in the week.

Short notices are given to: The Heart of James McAuley by Peter Coleman: "...much of the time, it's a mechanical mix of potted biography and bland lit crit"; and The Dodger by Duncan McNab: " powerful testament to how far the sticky tentacles of corruption extended into [NSW's] police force, judiciary and government".

The Australian

Andrew McGahan won the 2005 Miles Franklin Award for his most recent novel The White Earth. Now he has published his follow-up, Underground, which is reviewed this week by Cath Keneally. Set in Australia in 2010, it appears as much a political novel as his last effort: "The blurb calls Underground 'the book that at least half the country has been waiting for', but there should be a laugh here for anyone. Though it wears its heart pinned proudly to its sleeve, Underground is that rare animal, a good comic novel, whose targets are all the loonies, not just the ones in the wrong party. Or rather, sympathisers with the cause of reason include defectors from the wrong party, and certainly from the present wrong religion."

Heritage, either cultural or environmental, is the subject of new books reviewed by Bob Birrell: Patriots: Defending Australia's Natural Heritage by William J. Lines, and Imprints of Generations by Robert Ingpen. "William Lines's book Patriots is a riveting account of the struggle to preserve Australia's natural heritage. The work's title encapsulates his view that the main defenders have been patriots, in the sense that they see Australia's fauna, flora and landforms as intertwined with their identity as Australians. They feel any loss personally, which explains their willingness to put their bodies on the line to prevent further damage...He will almost surely be condemned as an eco-nut, intent on dragging us back to the stone age. Mainstream politicians will never support his stance on conservation as long as most of their constituents put materialism first. Yet, as the book reminds us, eco-nuts can be heroes...Robert Ingpen's Imprints of Generations traverses some of the same ground, if with an emphasis on Australia's cultural heritage. It is attractively presented with numerous drawings, many by the author. Ingpen, too, is a patriot; he wants Australia to have the richness and depth of culture of Europe and his book is intended to help Australians understand and preserve their cultural inheritance."

Short notices are given to: Terry Dowling looks at two new Australian sf novels. Godplayers by Damien Broderick: "This savvy and sophisticated quantum view of the multiverse may well prove too demanding for its own good, chaming some readers, alienating others. You get the sense Broderick wouldn't have it any other way"; Prismatic by Edwina Grey: "Subtle and intriguing more than compelling, Grey's novel blends engaing period milieus and sound charcaterisation with visionary touches reminiscent with J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World". Graeme Blundell reviews two new Australian crime novels. Spider Trap by Barry Maitland (a DCI Brock and DS Kolla novel): "In his best tale yet, Maitland elegantly weaves race, violence, alienation and the insidiousness of family connections into multiple story-lines. His strength is never to allow the narrative to occlude the archeological dig into what lies behind the murderous event"; Hit by Tara Moss (a Makedde Vanderwall novel): "..she writes a kind of overblown Days of Our Lives romantic suspense, campy repetitive and glossy". The Cobbler's Apprentice by Sandy McCutcheon: "Although some of the characters are one-dimensional and elements of the plot difficult to follow, the novel's central conceit -- terrorism and counter-terrorism via bacteriological warfare -- works extremely well".

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #38

The Age

If you do nothing else have a look at John Spooner's portrait of Robert Hughes illustrating Peter Craven's review of his memoir Things I Didn't Know: it's a classic. Actually, so is the review: "Of the quartet of Australian expatriates who preoccupy the nation, Robert Hughes has come last to autobiography even though he is a starrier figure than Clive James or Barry Humphries and in terms of presence and panache can certainly give Germaine Greer a run for her money. But the paradox with Hughes is that he has never been much interested in celebrity. He is, of course, an art critic." Which puts Hughes in proper context at the start, and the book in context at the end: "In this first volume of his memoirs Hughes has written one of the most impassioned and vivid of all Australian self-portraits and if there is a fierceness and magnificence in the execution he also exhibits plenty of modesty and human grace."

Melina Marchetta is famous for her first novel, Looking for Alibrandi, which was filmed, and which was included in school reading lists for years. Frances Atkinson finds her third novel, On the Jellicoe Road, a step up. "The convoluted plot may not hold every reader's attention and some might be frustrated by the measured pace of the book, but it's deliberate and those who stick with it won't be disappointed. Marchetta wants us to take our time and enjoy the satisfaction as every penny drops."

Short notices are given to: A Conga Line of Suckholes: Mark Latham's Book of Quotations by Mark Latham: "If Latham's Lathamisms rarely measure up to the company they keep, at least one can admire his assiduousness and taste as a collector"; Rescuing Afghanistan by William Maley: "In this measured account of efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, Maley never loses sight of the role played by ordinary Afghans and warns that the international 'rescue mission' neglects local participants at their peril"; Soul by Tobsha Learner: "...if it's racy, low-impact trash with lashings of sex and death you're after, look no further"; The Cobbler's Apprentice by Sandy McCutcheon: " contains vivid evocations of place, and avoids American triumphalism"; and Weatherwitch by Cecilia Dart-Thornton (the third volume in her Crowthistle Chronicles series): she "writes lavishly descriptive fiction you can immerse yourself in".

The Australian

One of the major issues on the political agenda of late is the Australia-US alliance. So it is timely that Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of "The Australian", has released The Partnership: The Inside Story of the US-Australian Alliance under Bush and Howard, which is reviewed by Max Suich. "This is an important book because it outlines, with far greater detail and coherence than the Australian Government has publicly provided, the new nature of the US-Australia military alliance that has evolved under the impetus of the personal and political affinity between John Howard and George W. Bush and the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington." It's important but it isn't a rosy outlook, if, like me, you feel that military force is the last option, not the first. "Precisely because this book projects such an authentic sense of the Australian Government's self-deception about the peril the US and its friends face in the Middle East, and its wishful denial of White House incompetence, it suggests another uncomfortable conclusion: that we will probably be swept up again should there be momentum in Washington for another war, and accept further military commitments in the Middle East, if Iran is attacked by the US or Israel."

The Sydney Morning Herald

Peter Galvin tries to nail down David Thomson's book, Nicole Kidman, and does a pretty good job: "This is not a book about Nicole Kidman. It is a book about the idea of her. The distinction is crucial to understanding this odd, and oddly beguiling, piece of film criticism. David Thomson's take on the career and life of Nicole Kidman is in fact one long essay - part film history, part cultural commentary, part fiction. It reads as a compelling form of mutant 'biography' but hardly justifies that stern and earnest moniker." I've thought for a long time that "celebrities" are just an idea anyway, so maybe Thomson is onto something after all.

As you've probably noticed, Robert Hughes and his book are everywhere. So it is no surprise to come across Andrew Reimer's review of Things I Didn't Know. What is interesting is his statement: "On almost every page, Hughes reveals a cosmopolitan sophistication, the fruit of intimate familiarity with European and American art, he could not have achieved had he stayed in Australia. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in the guise of a somewhat haphazard account of the first 30-or-so years of his life, Things I Didn't Know is, at heart, an apologia for expatriation." And that's something I hadn't heard before.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #37

The Age

Martin Flanagan looks at a new book about "Waltzing Matilda", possibly Australia's best-known and best-loved song, titled Once a Jolly Swagman by Matthew Richardson. Publication of this book is timely, says Flanagan: "Richardson's book is ultimately the voice of someone who sees globalisation as masking the onset of a second cultural cringe, one which, like its predecessor, creates disdain for local - Australian - culture." But, as Flanagan points out, the creation of the song didn't happen all at one time, the words and even the tune were changed over time by Banjo Paterson, who was credited with the original, amongst others, and Richardson's book is as much as the fluid creative process as about the song's origins. "At one level, the story shows how creation is a messy business with more than the odd element of luck or chance about it."

Brian McFarlane seems to think more of Nicole Kidman by David Thomson than most other reviewers so far, though I wonder if he hasnt fallen prey to the actor's charms as well: "Thomson clearly adores her as a creature of great sexual attractiveness and also knows how to value her for what, in the right circumstances, she can do as an actress. His shrewd assessment of her career choices and the patient, wide-ranging analyses of her acting highlights substantiate his claim for her as the 'most adventurous and the most varied (actress) of her time'...He gathers together the 'facts' of her life to help explain the public face we all feel we know. In the process, he offers a finely drawn portrait of a star, a woman, and maybe, to raise his own question, a lady?" The whole thing strikes me as tacky tabloid journalism.

Peter Craven is impressed with David Malouf's latest short story collection, Every Move You Make, especially as it represents the authors best form: "Everything he writes is 'quality'. That said, he has always seemed at his best in lyrical mode, writing short works of fiction, novellas and stories, than he does when he is pursuing grand themes in somewhat longer books - the POW experience in The Great World or the legend of bushranging in The Conversations at Curlew Creek." Craven finished his review with a flourish, "A better book of fiction has not come out of this country this year."

On the longer fiction front, Suzanne Leal's debut novel, Border Street, is reviewed by Kirsty de Garis, who finds that the novel "tells a story of one man's survival against enormous odds, and of its lasting effects. Leal has recounted this tale and woven a warm account of the unlikely friendship between people with 40 years and continetns between them." I wonder how many copies the publishers will sell of this debut at $32.95. I've a feeling that it's just too expensive for the current market.

Short notices are given to: In It To Win It: The Australian Cricket Supremacy by Peter Roebuck: "You either go with Peter Roebuck's epic, often Churchillian turn of phrase, or you don't. Most of the time I do, although he can lay it on a bit thick sometimes...his detailed knowledge of the game, make him a cricket writer with scope and flair and of substance too"; The Concerto Inn by Jo Gardiner: "The novel moves at a langurous, almost somnolent pace, with Gardiner guiding her characters through their 'slow pulse of memory'"; and Hit by Tara Moss, the fourth PI Makedde Vanderwall novel: "There's violence, titillation, conspiracy, romance and comedy".

The Australian

Robert Hughes's memoir, Things I Didn't Know, gets the once-over by Andrea Stretton, who opines that "There are very few writers whose words you would recognise from 20 paces: Hughes is one of them. Although usually writing about art and culture, he instinctively knows all there is to know about the fictional devices of characterisation, dialogue, the bittersweet nature of drama and comedy, and the great, deep sweep of narrative structure." High praise indeed. Not sure I agree completely but there we are. Hughes has had a bit of a problem with Australia of late, mainly over his treatment by the press following his near-fatal car crash in Western Australia in 1999.

Autobiography is also the subject matter of Bary Jones's new book, A Thinking Reed. Mike Steketee has waited a while for this book, and is generally pretty pleased with the final result. "Unusually for a book by a politician, Jones admits to failure and frustration leavened by some successes. Not that he is just a politician, let alone an ordinary one. He was a misfit in politics: a long-range thinker in a short-term environment, more inclined to bury into further research to add to his vast store of knowledge than to put together the numbers for a caucus ballot." But, as he puts it, "If the book suffers, it is from the Jones obsession with lists and organising information. Sometimes there is too much detail."

With her novel, The Secret River, on the 2006 Man Booker shortlist, Kate Grenville has now published Searching for the Secret River, the story of how she came to write the subject book. Stella Clarke finds that: "Searching for the Secret River records Grenville's five-year journey to the finished novel, which started out as nonfiction, moved from first to third person, through exhaustive dissections and revolutions, before completion. It is education in the art, and craft, of fiction, a lesson in the arduous devotion it can command...This book gives an account not just of the birth of a novel but also of the birth of conscience, which is what the history debates are basically about." An unusual glimpse into the novelist's art.

Short notices are given to: Agamemnon's Kiss: Selected Essays by Inga Clendinnen: "With incisive wit, Clendinnen brillinatly mixes a sense of liberation and vulnerability, not only within her body but also in society':

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #36

The Age

The major piece this weekend is a long profile of David Malouf, by Angela Bennie, on the eve of the publication (today!) of his new collection of short stories, Every Move You Make. Malouf makes a rather interesting statement early on in the piece: "Once or twice I have begun what I have thought was going to be a book," he is now saying. His voice is gentle, mild, courteous..."Then what I see happening before me is it begins to develop a plot. And I know then it is not one of my books. I don't like things that are driven by plot. So at that point I abandon it." Which might explain a lot about Malouf's work, but which probably also sends a lot of other writers crying over their keyboards. No news on whether there's another novel in the works, though.

Peter Hill looks at three art books, Albert Tucker by Gavin Fry, Juan Davila by Guy Brett & Roger Benjamin, and Imants Tillers: One World Many Visions edited by Deborah Hart. The review doesn't appear to be on the website.

Hilary Bonney is in two minds about Paul Sheahan's latest non-fiction book, Girls Like You. On the one hand she praises him: "In the first three parts of this seven-part work, Sheehan writes in a strong, sharp, journalistic style about the gang rapes committed by four of the brothers in the winter of 2002 and the ensuing legal twists and turns." But later finds the author loses his way and his "good writing skills become lost in the passion of the argument."

Short notices are given to: Waterlemon by Ruth Ritchie which tells the story of the author and her husband as they recover from a severe brain injury he suffered while riding his bike: "this is not about being likeable, it's about the extremes of her experience, and Ritchie does brilliantly in making us understand and empathise"; Patriots: Defending Australia's Natural Heritage by William J. Lines - "In this passionate, provocative account of the conservation movement in postwar Australia, William Lines defiantly appropriates [the] term [patriot] to capture the dedication and commitment of conservation activists as they pit themselves against developers and government"; Botanical Riches: Stories of Botanical Exploration by Richard Aitken - "Sweeping in its scope, it surveys the history of the world from hunter-gather societies to the present from a botanical perspective and is gloriously illustrated with exquisite full-page drawings of plants that have seduced and enchanted mankind since Eve offered Adam a bite of the forbidden fruit"; and Out of Place by Jo Dutton is "a well-paced and elegantly written family saga that spans decades and moves from the windswept beaches of WA to the arid beauty of the Red Centre".

The Australian

David Malouf is also the subject of the main piece in "The Australian" this week. Rosemary Neill calls him the "elder statesman of Australian literature", which might be a tad harsh, even though Malouf is now 72. Anyway, Malouf, as you might expect, appears very interested in the writing process, explaining that "The power of attention that I can sustain through a long novel, I find that may be waning." Which gives some explanation of my earlier query. His best line comes almost immediately after that: "Books ought to demand to be written, rather than be a by-product of your idea that you are a writer."

The release of The Dodger by Duncan McNab which tells the story of Australia's most notorious cop, Roger Rogerson, is rather apt at this time of investigations into parts of the Victoria Police. Though, I suppose, there isn't much of a co-incidence given the number of these inquiries that seem to have been held over the past few years. John Dale reviews the book this week and finds that it "provides the reader with a personal insight into the 'us versus them' mentality that pervaded NSW police during the Rogerson era, a force aptly described as the best money could buy."

Short notices are given to: The Arrival by Shaun Tan, which is "a masterpiece for all ages and is Shaun Tan's finest and most ambitious work to date"; Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah: "Hopefully this book will find its way into every classroom, because by using concise, thoughful and highly cominc prose, Abdel-Fattah contemplates the loss of identity and how fear and deception can only lead to greater worries"; The Penguin Book: Birds in Suits by Mark Norman: "Useful for school projects, entertainment or interest, this well-designed book may even attract the curiosity of readers who are ambivalent to other animals"; The Curer of Souls by Lindsay Simpson: "one fascinating aspect of [which] is its ability to play with the subtlety of historical phases rather than lumping all past events under the heading of history"; and Inventing Beatrice by Jill Golden "is less successful, although welcome for its creative courage in a writing scene that's rarely adventurous".

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #35

The Age

The 2006 winner of "The Australian"/Vogel Award has just been announced, and we are greeted with Peter Pierce's review of last year's winner, Tuvalu by Andrew O'Connor. Pierce seems quite impressed by the work: "Tuvalu relishes the risks that it takes: a main character whose passivity would be irksome if his moral dimensions were not intimated, his acquaintances who withhold so much of themselves, sometimes until they are beyond help...These are not aimless, but recklessly directed lives. In probing them, O'Connor has begun a career that may yet take him as far as several of his predecessors have gone."

Peter Craven has lots of good things to say about Inga Clendinnen's new collection of essays, Agamemnon's Kiss. He thinks she is "essayist from one of the high orders of the heavenly hosts. It's that ability to swoop and woo that is written all over this rich and deeply satisfying collection of essays that will beguile and arrest the mind in the manner of the great essayists, from Montaigne to Chesterton"; and even "This is a beautiful book and it will nourish almost every kind of reader like manna from heaven."

The poet John Kinsella got into a spot of bother a month or so back with a couple of fellow Australian poets, Anthony Lawrence and Bob Adamson, over some statements in this book, Fast, Loose Beginnings: A Memoir of Intoxications. Thankfully, that all seems to have died now and we can get down to the nitty-gritty of seeing if it's any good or not. Lisa Gorton finds that the author is hard to pin down: "the narrator often treats the main character, himself, as a puzzling person whose behaviour he finds hard to remember, much less explain." Which doesn't sound all that promising. It doesn't get any better at the end: "True or not, Kinsella's account of his intense, antagonistic friendship with Lawrence shows the true argument of this memoir, which you might also call its defining myth - the tangled nature of a poet's relationships." So, does that mean the poet's life and relationships are a mess and so is this memoir? Or what? I think I missed something.

Short notices are given to: Ghost Railways of Australia by Robin Bromby: "It's not so much about the days when railways were an important factor in shaping settlement in Australia (and a massive source of long-time, loyal employment), it's a study of the fast-fading remnants of that world"; Radio with Pictures: 50 Years of Australian Television by Brendan Horgan: "We've had 50 years of the flat-faced monster now, and this survey of TV in Australia is a history of the medium as well as something of a cultural history"; and The Shifting Fog by Kate Morton, who "is a young Queensland writer who has pulled off a marvellous pastiche that effectively amounts to a combination of du Maurier in style and Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) in content."

The Australian

The big fiction review this week is by Liam Davidson of The Memory of Tides by Angelo Loukakis. "As far as war stories go, this one has it all: exotic location; mythic potential; a battle of epic proportions; secrecy and subterfuge; unspeakable acts of atrocity; and the unquestioning kindness of strangers that forges bonds that will outlast the war. Introduce a lone Australian soldier and a beautiful Cretan girl and we should all know the rest." Luckily Loukakis doesn't let the novel flounder, he moves it beyond the expected, back to Australia and across the generations. "Loukakis offers the novel as a tribute to those who suffered through the war and took risks to protect Australian soldiers from the Germans. It's also an examination of the bonds formed in war between two seemingly different people and how they can resonate through a lifetime." Something out of the ordinary then.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #34

The Age

I always liked John Button as a politician; he seemed capable of seeing the bigger picture, of cutting through the crap to get to the gold beneath the dross, and as someone who genuinely believed he could make a difference for others, rather than just himself, just by being there. So it's always a pleasure when he writes an opinion piece for "The Age" op-ed pages, or, as in this case, a review for the book pages. This weekend he looks at 51st State? by Dennis Altman which examines Australia's relationship with the US. "According to opinion polls, a clear majority of Australians now think Australia is too much influenced by the United States. No doubt there is a variety of reasons for this, with ill-conceived participation in military adventures probably the most compelling. Les Murray, poet and quintessential Australian, sums up the concerns about our current relationship succinctly: 'We kiss arse more than we need to.'...Most Australians have much that they like about Americans and would like to admire them. But there is something demeaning about the way the Australian Government has signed up to all the aspects of the Bush Administration's war on terror and almost alone in the world to the obscenity of Guantanamo Bay. Les Murray is right." Exactly.

Of rather more localised interest is Ian W. Shaw's The Bloodbath: The 1945 VFL Grand Final which is reviewed by Martin Flanagan. The Australian Rules football match between South Melbourne (now the Sydney Swans) and Carlton, was played only six weeks after VJ Day and is one of the most controversial played in the game's history. Flanagan has written about this match himself and has come to the conclusion that the events on the field were influenced as much by the times as by the state of the game.

On the fiction front we have Silent Parts by John Charalambous, reviewed by Peter Pierce, who finds "This book is one of the most poignant and unusual of reflections on war and remembrance. It bypasses so many well-trodden Australian fictional paths in making its own muted, moving way...Charalambous has triumphantly cleared the hurdle of the second novel in this, one of the books of the year."

Short notices are given to: Maroon & Blue: Recollections and Tales of the Fitzroy Football Club by Adam Muyt: "It's a sentimental scrapbook based mostly on interviews with players, officials and fans, which includes an eclectic collection of songs, ditties and peoms. Passion abounds. No room here for impartiality"; Darby. One Hundred Years of Life in a Changing Culture by Liam Campbell: "In this beautifully produced book, Campbell tells of his friendship with Darby, relates his stories and provides a historical context for Danby's life"; and Days Like These by Michael Gurr: "The key to the success of this account of two decades of play-writing and political involvement is its disjointed diary narrative that skips back and forth in time, making connections between salient, disparate moments".

The Australian

Three books on the Vietnam war are reviewed by Francesca Beddie: Rolling Thunder in a Gentle Land edited by Andrew Wiest, Vietnam: Australia's Ten Year War 1962-1972 by Richard Pelvin, and Asian Alternatives by Garry Woodard. In the first of these, "..Jeffrey Grey, professor of history at the Australian Defence Force Academy...explains that Australia's decision to enter the war was an insurance payment for American protection in the event of an attack on Australia; the ANZUS treaty seemingly no guarantee of US assistance...Wiest's book is more successful in its use of pictures to reveal the complexity of the emotions that war provokes." And "Garry Woodard, a former career diplomat and Australian ambassador in Asia and now a senior fellow in political science at the University of Melbourne, is one who argues that the lessons of the Vietnam War have not been learned. Indeed, while undertaking a forensic analysis of Australian foreign policy-making between 1959 and '65, he was struck by the common features between Australia's flawed involvement in Vietnam and its entering the war in Iraq." Which helps put all these books into a modern context. The comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq seem too obvious to ignore.

The history of Jews in Australia is examined in New Under the Sun: Jewish Australians in Religion, Politics and Culture, edited by Michael Fagenblat, Melanie Landau and Nathan Wolski, and reviewed here by Sol Encel. "Most of the writers are concerned with internal Jewish matters. Particularly striking, however, is the attention given by several to the plight of other groups whose place under the sun is less than favourable: refugees, asylum-seekers and Aborigines."

Short notices are given to: Simple Gifts: A Life in the Theatre by George Ogilvie: "Engagingly direct".

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #33

The Age

You'd have to think that a book with a title like Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 1946-2005 would be a rather dry old affair. But this volume, edited by Craig Munro and Robyn Sheahan-Bright, appears to have captivated Margaret Harris - described as professor in English literature at the University of Sydney, and a book tragic. "Yet the book is more than a treasure house of detail. Paper Empires is a gripping read. There are three sections - The Rise of Publishing, Book Business, and Reaching Readers - each with several chapters, and each chapter constituted by brief segments. Within this capacious overview many themes recur in different contexts and a set of narrative strands emerges."

William McInnes is best known as an actor who published a memoir of his father, A Man's Got to Have a Hobby, last year. Now he's published his first novel, and, according to Juliette Hughes, it's quite an amusing read. The trouble with books like this is the supposed content: it tends to put readers off who are just not interested in cricket - though I really can't see how that could possibly be the case. "There is a lot more than cricket going on in Cricket Kings. For one thing, McInnes, previously known for his acting, has that rare and precious talent of making the reader laugh out-loud. He reminds me a little of that old Aussie John O'Grady, but has a lighter, more ironic touch...It's a warm story of a man that most will recognise. For one thing, McInnes places his hero (Chris Andersen, the quiet, kind sort of hero), in a real place and time: Yarraville and now, on any one Saturday. He is a solicitor, a nice one who works for the unions. For Chris, getting a law degree hasn't meant moving across the Yarra and becoming a neocon. Cricket for him is about more than winning, sweet as that may be."

Short notices are given to: Somme Mud: The War Experiences of an Australian Infantryman in France 1916-1919 by E.P.F. Lynch: "Quaint Edwardian phrases aside, Lynch shows remarkable maturity in his ability to capture the banality of terror"; Overland: The New Australian Ugliness edited by Nathan Hollier, which deals with architecture in Australian suburbs, Ian Syson laments the loss of "confidence and bravado" in Australian literature and Lucy Sussex writes about Mary Fortune; Metro by Alasdair Duncan which "is the sort of young-adult fiction that teens and tweens will find instantly familiar because it speaks to them in their own voice, rather than a try-hard imitation of it"; The Messenger by Markus Zusak whihc has been republished for an adult fiction market: "Zusak writes with an unpretentious charm, and this funny and moving book -- with its black humour, narrative assurance and philosophical twist -- is one of those rare novels that will appeal equally to adults and teens"; Surfing Goliath by Michael Hyde whose "inclination to write for children about gangs and their big adventure is on the money"; and Filthy Rat by Simon Illingworth: the story of a whistleblower in the Victorian Police Force.

The Australian

As his new poetry collection, Urban Myths, is published, Rosemary Neill profiles John Trantor. The poet has a sly dig at Les Murray, reveals his battles with depression, laments the curent state of poetry publishing in this country, but also seems pleased at the response that Jacket, an online poetry publishing venture he helps edit, is getting around the world.

And continuing their look at book-people not usually covered by major newspapers, Jodie Minus interviews Robert Ingpen, who is currently providing illustrations for a new set of children's classics: The Jungle Book, Peter Pan and Treasure Island. "To illustrate stories that are familiar to generations and are designed to appeal to new readers, Ingpen employs cinematographic techniques, which are familiar to today's children, while also taking into account the period in which the story was written. His illustrations for Peter Pan and Treasure Island have a 'sort of furry woolliness and a feyness, which gives you a dating without making it look too old-fashioned'."

First novels abound with Kathy Hunt looking at Diamond Dove by Adrian Hyland ["His whodunit is a perfectly paced story"], and The Dark Part of Me by Belinda Burns, which the reviewer doesn't seem keen on at all.

Also on the debut side, Natasha Civa reviews The Unexpected Elements of Love by Kate Legge, and The Island of Four Rivers by Christopher Morgan: "Legge is an award-winning political journalist and senior writer for The Australian, so it is no surprise that her prose tends to be straighter, more literal. Her background also breaks through in some timely and spiky narrative references to questions of contemporary conscience, including global warming, reconciliation and the decline of family, social and environmental cohesion...The Island of Four Rivers is an out-of-the-box, lyrical fantasy that beautifully suspends adult disbelief...Despite symmetries of subject matter and a common underlying optimism, these novels (like families) really shouldn't be compared. They're distinctive beasts and promise to attract different camps of followers."

Short notices are given to: The History of Australian Corrections by Sean O'Toole who writes that "Much of the machinery of Australian society and government today has been profoundly shaped by its convict origins"; and More Mere Mortals: Further Historical Maladies and Medical Mysteries of the Rich and Famous by Jim Leavesley: "Moses stuttered...Michelangelo may have suffered Asperger's syndrome", you get the picture.

The Sydney Morning Herald

Gideon Haigh casts his critical eye over the new Shane Warne biography, Spun Out, by Paul Barry, and he doesn't seem too impressed: "It was [regarding the subject's number of sexual conquests] in Spun Out that I felt my scepticism hardening. Not about Warne, incorrigible and foolish as he is, but Barry, a journalist held in high professional esteem. Because in two paragraphs he had perpetrated two of the giveaways of lazy reporting: giving credence to a wild, unsourced innuendo on no evidence other than guesswork, then alleging a conspiracy of silence that he, righteous man, nobly scorned...Spun Out proves a rare hatchet job where the biographer comes off worse than his subject. At least Warne hasn't squandered his talent so utterly as Barry has here." Showing that Gideon Haigh has a talent for producing the unplayable delivery as well.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #32

The Age

Although not listed as a book review, Peter Craven leads off this week with his thoughts on what it means to be a critic, and his opinions on "good" and "bad" reviews. In the middle of all this he gives his view of a new collection of notorious reviews, Creme de la Phelgm, edited by Angela Bennie who, in her introduction, "suggests that criticism is only the arbitrary and subjective assertion of some pompous individual". Remove the word "pompous" and I'd tend to agree. Craven, on the other hand, tends to have a bit each way: "In fact, in order to review something accurately, with an appropriate registration of your own response, you probably need not to exercise too much control or you will queer your own pitch by dampening your own hyperbole...In other words, to be properly accurate you often need to abandon yourself to your own response because, however much criticism is a discipline (which depends on a knowledge of the form you are evaluating as well as a capacity for discrimination) it is also one kind of writing and, for heaven's sake, you have to go with the flow and not watch yourself too closely."

Following on from this piece by Craven on "negative" reviews we get Aviva Tuffield's review of Tiare by Celestine Hitiura Vaite, which outlines her opinion of the book right up front: "Hold on tight because this reviewer is about to buck a publishing trend. Celestine Hitiura Vaite's Tahitian trilogy -- of which Tiare is the final instalment -- has been picked up by publishers around the globe, selling in the US for a six-figure sum. Clearly there are many people, especially in the publishing world, who appreciate these tales of Polynesian daily life for Materena Mahi, professional cleaner and matriach, and her much-extended family. But I'm not one of them." An opinion that she is rightly entitled to. The question this raises is: does she justify her standpoint? "Many celebrated novels have been written about non-Western societies and in particular about their poorest segments - think, Chinua Achebe or Rohinton Mistry. But Hitiura Vaite's fixation on sexual politics -- 'sexy loving', keeping your man happy and the like -- results in her writing descending into the banal and the vapid." I think she makes her point well enough.

I'm not keen on "negative" reviews, written for the sake of just being derogatory. A reader should tackle a book with the view that the writer set out to achieve something -- determining whether or not they succeeded is the true test. After that, personal preferences come into play.

I'm not a bird-watcher by habit or obsession so I can safely say that spending $625 on a copy of Handbook of Australian, New Zealand & Antarctic Birds. Volume 7: Boatbill to Starlings edited by Peter Higgins, John Peter and Sid Cowling, is not on my horizon. On the other hand, Sean Dooley thinks it's "a fantastic book to dip into". Good enough.

Short notices are given to: Ida Leeson: A Life by Sylvia Martin: "Ida Leeson...was the first woman to be appointed Mitchell librarian...Despite the disjounted chronology, this portrait of a passionate librarian provides an engrossing journey through Leeson's life and times"; One Day in July: Experiencing 7/7 by John Tulloch: "In this book, Tulloch pulls off the tricky feat of combining academic analysis of the media's respnse to the bombings, with a personal account of his frightening experience of the explosion, its aftermath and the media's use of his story"; and Dovetail Road by Graham Kershaw, whose characters are attractively credible, and his plot, with its intimate observations and genial symmetry, always has enough going on to hold your interest".

The Australian

It's non-fiction all the time over at The Oz this week. Debra Adelaide tackles Creme de la Phlegm: Unforgettable Australian Reviews by Angela Bennie. "The suggestion that criticism has degenerated over the decades isn't borne out, given that acrimony prevails right from the start. Nor is it a particularly Australian phenomenon: Bennie cites plenty of evidence from the US, althoug maybe the wider dispersal of criticism in more publishing outlets overseas makes the egotism of the Australian critic appear more prominent." I don't think I'm interested in this book at all.

Shakira Hussein reviews Paul Sheehan's book Girls Like You, which explores "the horrific series of gang rapes committed in Sydney by the Pakistan-born K brothers", and finds it wanting: "Given the total lack of empirical evidence that Muslim men in Australia are any more likely to commit rape than anyone else, Sheehan's willingness to endorse the idea that a Muslim upbringing conditions one to sexual violence is a dangerous and repellent slur. Rapists and their lawyers can be expected to come up with far-fetched explanations for their crimes; the mystery is why Sheehan should choose to join them."

Errol Simper is pleased that Ken Inglis has brought his story about the ABC up-to-date in his new book, Whose ABC?.

Robert Murray is bemused by The Myth of the Great Depression by David Potts: "What will they think of next? Gallipoli, Kokoda, Curtin and Phar Lap are all under attack from revisionists these days. Now here is an old leftie historian saying the 1930s Depression wasn't so bad after all."

Ross Fitzgerald considers John McDouall Stuart much-maligned and an important, but long-forgotten, explorer of this continent in his review of John Bailey's Mr Stuart's Track.

Short notices are given to: Mixed Relations: Asian Aboriginal Contact in Northern Australia by Regina Ganter in whose "widely researched study, the Top End hums with activity"; Mongrel Punts and Hard-Ball Gets: An A-Z of Footy Speak by Paula Hunt and Glenn "the Bolt" Manton: "Footy speak is the closest Australia has to a national lingo, although the more arcane branches remain the reserve of the AFL pundits"; Faith & Duty: The John Anderson Story by Paul Gallagher: "If Paul Gallagher's bio never gets nasty, it's not only because it's authorised: his subject's role as the Nicest Guy in the Room seems genuine."

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #31

The Age

Margaret Simons takes a long look at Whose ABC? The Australian Broadcasting Corporation 1983-2006 by Ken Inglis, and a detailed look it is too. She begins by regretting the fact that Inglis finished his narrative when he did, at the appontment of the new managing director and just before the appointment of Keith Windschuttle to the board. But he had to end it somewhere, and, anyway, as Simons puts it "History repeats itself. In every chapter, Inglis chronicles the strains between Aunty and the governments that fund her. The tensions between chasing ratings and caring for quality are on almost every page. So too the debate over whether the ABC should take advertising or sponsorship. So too the political stacking of the ABC board by both sides of politics. One is tempted to think there is nothing new under the sun...Inglis' digest of the past is indispensable for the perspective it brings and for its underlining of a simple but indisputable fact: the ABC is far and away our most important cultural institution."

A new novel by Nick Earls is always to be savoured, according to Christopher Bantick, and his latest, Monica Bloom is no exception. "Strong narration is often a consistent feature of rites-of-passage fiction. The reason is palpably obvious. An individual on a life-altering journey, reflecting on experience, can be engaging while promoting a certain vicarious quality...Holden Caulfield's troubled ruminations in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Billy Casper's fears in Barry Hines' A Kestrel for a Knave, and, more recently, Blue Black's pithy observations in Anson Cameron's Lies I Told About a Girl, present a first-person account of growing up. So it is with Nick Earls and Monica Bloom." Which puts it into rare company but "his is not a novel preoccupied with blame or hectoring a generation unfamiliar with Countdown or the Clash; Earls is way too subtle for that...The sense of loss that underpins his finely told story is leavened by the astringency of self discovery."

Jeff Sparrow is rather bemused by The Myth of the Great Depression by David Potts, wondering if "it's become something of a patriotic duty for historians to iron out unpleasant creases from Australia's past." Sparrow thinks there's some good stuff here, but there appears to an agenda as well. "David Potts writes well, and his book contains valuable information that will be debated by scholars. It's just a pity that The Myth of the Great Depression emerged in an era that encourages public historians to abandon nuance for polemical fervour."

Short notices are given to: Love Child by Fran Cusworth: "What a turn-up for the books - a first novel that is about something, is plot driven, has appealing characters and is often hysterically funny"; The Ashes: A Celebration by Roland Perry, who "picks the 10 events or matches that he reckons have had the greatest impact on the 100-year rivalry between Australia and England"; and Pilgrimage: A Traveller's Guide to Australia's Battlefields by Garrie Hutchinson: "Hutchinson really knows his subject, and he writes with just the right blend of detached precision and compassion: he is the clinical analyst of specific events and the pilgrim awed and humbled by acts of ordinary people in extraordinary times".

The Australian

Debra Adelaide spent some time as a judge of the AustralianVogel Award so she has some background when it comes to reviewing its winners. She was at first apprehensive about Andrew O'Connor's Tuvalu, but quickly warmed to it: "what a novel it is, full of illusion, teasing us with its inconclusiveness, spinning bleak, intense humour from the straw of failed and doomed relationships."

Christopher Bantick backs up his fiction review from the other paper with a look at Australia's Quarter Acre by Peter Timms in "The Australian", and it would be hard to get two books further apart: "the book is not about the reclamation of space or even apposite planting in accordance with climate change and pressing municipal water restrictions. Australia's Quarter Acre presents a chronology of the development of the Australian garden and what role it has in defining national taste."

Short notices are given to: Vale Byron Bay by Wayne Grogan who "rebuilds that hippie heaven with unerring detail"; Eagle on the Hill by Maggie Shannon: "Of a wider Australia beyond the [Murray] river we learn little, of the chaotic world beyond these shores almost nothing. The bigness here is determinedly local. Call it a big river romance"; Little Wing by Joanne Horniman: "One of Australia's finest writers, Joanne Horniman has an exquisite honesty in her words, which observe the smallest details...Every sentence is beautiful and necessary"; and Queenie, One Elephant's Story by Corrine Fenton, illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe, is "a moving story of an animal whose natural inclinations are tamed by humans. Peter Gouldthorpe's illustrations bring this story to colourful life".

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #30

The Age

As Nick Economou, senior lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry at Monash University, states: "It is possibly the case that a long period in opposition are conducive to reflection, analysis and self-analysis and that this might account for why so much has been written about the Labor party over the years." He then goes on to review two new books on the subject, Coming to the Party: Where to Next for Labor edited by Barry Jones, and Reconnecting Labor by Barry Donovan. Unfortunately he's not all that impressed: "It's hard to know what has motivated the respective publishers to run with these really middling books about a party whose problems have already bene widely canvassed.."

Peter FitzSimons lives two lives, one the author of very readable histories, and the other as a boof-head sports commentator. He actually seems perfectly at home with both roles and his latest book, Tobruk is reviewed this week by Christopher Bantick, who is pretty impressed by the thing. "Tobruk will be a welcome read for those comparative few 'Rats' who were there, and FitzSimons has effectively resurrected a long and largely overlooked battle for a new Australian generation. Gallipoli has reached saturation point in the national consciousness and the Kokoda trek has become a must-do endurance test. But Tobruk?"

Helen Elliott profiles Adrian Hyland on the eve of the publication of his first novel Diamond Dove. What's interesting about Hyland, apart from his novel, is that fact that he's getting such a profile as a 51-year-old. It's good to see.

Short notices are given to: Plastered: The Poster Art of Australian Popular Music by Murray Wilding with Nick Vukovic: "The book is well designed and produced and the accompanying text is entertaining and informative. It deserves an exhibition, preferably not in a gallery - maybe the Prince or the Espy should oblige"; New Under the Sun: Jewish Australians on Religion, Politics & Culture edited by Michael Fagenblat, Melanie Landau and Nathan Wolski: "Divergent voices offer snapshots of Jewish identity in the process of re-invention"; and Allie McGregor's True Colours by Sue Lawson: "Teenagers do self-absorption like no one else. The astonishing level their self-centredness can reach is captured perfectly by Sue Lawson in this readable young adult novel." I can relate to that.

The Australian

It's quiet in "The Australian" this week, with only short notices aa book reviews. Terry Dowling reviews three Australian collections of short sf fiction. Of volume two of the Year's Best Australian Science Fiction & Fantasy edited by Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt, he calls it an "excellent showcase of the scene". He describes Cat Sparks's anthology, Agog! Ripping Reads, as "a rich, varied and worthwhile instalment in an important series", and of Simon Brown's collection: "Powerful, sensitive, often deeply moving, Troy shows what the story story can be in the hands of a truly gifted writer." The future of Australian sf and fantasy looks expecially bright.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #29

The Age

It would appear that the tide has turned at last: Australian fiction and non-fiction, poetry and a young adult novel are reviewed this week in "The Age". A welcome change.

Zelman Cowan - ex governor-general, law professor and public intellectual - has published his autobiography, A Public Life, which is reviewed this week by Michelle Grattan, the paper's political editor. Cowan had a difficult job to do when he took office: "Sir Zelman's reputation as the voice of reason and moderation, the conciliator, had Malcolm Fraser appoint him to succeed John Kerr as the 'healing' governor-general. It was a sound choice and he did much to restore the office. Fraser was disappointed when he did not agree to stay on beyond his initial stint but Sir Zelman was already set to return to academe as provost of Oriel College at Oxford." So his public life covered a period of great change and "Sir Zelman's book is packed with detail and description. He gives, especially, a strong feel of college and university life, and for his many friendships, particularly in the academic world. On the governor-general years, readers do not get a lot of gossip or insights into politicians - a discretion that is perhaps understandable but a touch disappointing." Which is, I guess, just what a political reporter would say.

Two second novels with remarkable similarities are reviewed by Helen Elliott (but which are not on the website) - Vale Byron Bay by Wayne Grogan and Death of a Whaler by Nerida Newton - both are set in Byron Bay during the 1970s. "Newton's Byron is gentler than Grogan's - hers is perhaps more New Testament to his Old - but together, and individually, they add depth and understanding to a time and a place that was crucially important to anyone interested in tracking how we got from 'there' to 'here'. History is always best-learnt from unselfconsciously Australian tales such as these."

Peter Pierce is impressed by the formidable John Tranter as he reviews the poet's latest collection, Urban Myths: 210 Poems. "The volume contains 210 poems that range from Parallax (1970) to the present, across a dashing range of forms - haiku and leisurely verse narratives, works that modulate from poetry to prose, poems that are guardedly autobiographical and others that overtly imitate and vary the verse of many writers whom he admires, and has attentively absorbed."

Garth Nix has released the fourth book in his Keys to the Kingdom series for young adults, Sir Thursday, which is given a short review by Diane Dempsey. She finds that "Nix maintains the series' momentum as well as his hold on the complex world he has assembled, including the kingdom of the House, where strange armies meet even stranger foe...Author of the Old Kingdom series, Nix has gained his popularity with children by writing in a bold way. His universe in The Keys to the Kingdom is demandingly complicated but he rewards his readers with chilling moments and the occasional hysterical laugh." Sounds good enough for me.

Short notices are given to: Cricket: Back in Time by Ian Collis, "In many ways it's as much social history as cricket history, taking us, decade by decade (each with written introductions), from the game as a gentleman's leisure to the professionals of the Packer revolution"; Prisoners of the Japanese by Roger Bourke, whose "study may have started as a PhD thesis, but it now an absorbing analysis of how we write and read the prisoner-of-war experience in the Pacific, and, more generally, the often troubled alliance of fiction and history"; and The Shadow Thief by Marion May Campbell which "is a difficult but rewarding book. It's full of verbal epiphanies and occasionally its literary qualities serve to obscure rather than embellish the intricate movements of its plot".

The Australian

Peter Ryan favourably reviews Ida Leeson: A Life - Not a Bluestocking Lady which tells the story of the woman who was the head of Sydney's famous Mitchell Library from 1932 to 1946. This review is as much a memoir, as Ryan first met Leeson in 1944 and their paths crossed over the next twenty years until her death.

"Leeson knew everyone, from Henry Lawson to Miles Franklin, from Walter Burley Griffin to James McAuley, from Bert Evatt and Thomas Blamey to Manning Clark. And with the possible exception of Evatt, whom she loathed, she helped every one of them."

She comes across as a formidable woman.

Two maritime histories are reviewed by Jennifer Moran: Where Fate Beckons: The Life of Jean-Francois de la Perouse by John Dunmore and An Imperial Disaster: The Wreck of George the Third by Michael Roe.

"La Perouse's story has all the elements of dramatic tale: derring-do, thwarted love that triumphs only to be cruelly cut short, tragedy, mystery and the sweep of history. John Dunmore, professor emeritus of French at Massey University in New Zealand, has written more than 20 books on French navigation in the Pacific. He writes intelligently with a light touch so that the more convoluted machinations of French colonial ambition are readable and interesting, and the life of la Perouse, with its ambitions and frustrations, emerges with fascinating detail."

On the other hand, An Imperial Disaster is a book "for those fascinated by the minutiae of Tasmanian history and prepared to steep themselves in the grinding politics of the colonialists, the petty arguments of those who lived on the fringes of the channel, and the machinations of committees and inquiries charged with improving safety at sea."

And to round off the pretty full menu in "The Australian" this week, Kerryn Goldsworthy looks at two books of poems by John Kinsella: The New Arcadia and America (A Poem). In both books "Kinsella has used the literary heritage of poetry as the cornerstone of what he's doing. It's impossible to miss the density, sometimes to saturation, of American writer presence in America or the complex, elaborate use of traditional poetic forms and conventions in The New Arcadia...the former is haunted by American poets: their beliefs, rhythms, tone...The New Arcadia is an excellent example, close to home, of how a poet may say what he needs to say not just in words but also in the use of formal conventions that go back through the centuries."

Short notices are given to: Hooked: A True Story of Pirates, Poaching and the Perfect Fish by G. Bruce Knecht: "Piracy on the high seas is never dull but Bruce Knecht's wonderfully styled account of Australian patrol boat Southern Supporter's chase in 2003 of the Uruguayan long-liner Viasra, spotted in the Australian Fishing Zone, delivers edge-of-the-seat reading"; Reconnecting Labor by Barry Donovan who says that "Labor needs to 'reconnect with a vengeance' is it hopes to beat John Winston Howard"; Slow Living by Wendy Parkins and Geoffrey Craig, which tells "an alternative story about what makes a life good"; and A Man of All Tribes: The Life of Alick Jackomos by Richard Broome and Corinne Manning: "Jackomos the AIF soldier, the sideshow wrestler and his fairytale courtship and marriage to Aboriginal beauty Merle Morgan are richly detailed in this biography of a 'man of all tribes'".

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #28

The Age

Maybe, as Kerryn Goldsworthy said in a comment here last week, Australian publishers of fiction are in rest mode, waiting for the Miles Franklin hoopla to die down before they place their new wares before us. Or maybe they're waiting for the winter blues to pass, or spring to appear. Or something. Anyway we are short on the fiction front again. And if you get sick of hearing it, then rest assured that I get sick of writing about it.

In reviewing Florence Broadhurst: Her Secret and Extraordinary Lives by Helen O'Neill, Janine Burke finds a character who "is the sort of grand fibber who belongs in a Peter Carey novel." Unfortunately she comes away a little disappointed: "Perhaps if O'Neill had assessed her rigorously within the context of Australian modernist design, instead of choosing to emphasise her life's sensational aspects, a more accurate picture might have emerged of this curious character."

Short notices are given to: Keywords in Australian Politics by Rodney Smith, Ariadne Vromen and Ian Cook: "This is an excellent reference for clarifying that are often used but whose definition remains hazy"; Quarterly Essay - Voting For Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia by Amanda Lohrey: "The great pleasure of this essay is watching Lohrey's fine mind at work as she separates rhetoric from reality, the polemic of patriarchs and preachers from the lived experiences of ordinary people"; Teachers Who Change Lives by Andrew Metcalfe and Ann Game: "This thoughtful book side-steps the polemic by taking us into the classroom and bringing alive the learning experience from both the teachers' and the students' perspectives"; Grassdogs by Mark O'Flynn: "What this feral portrait of a stunted life lacks in measured plot development, it makes up for with it imaginative use of language"; and The Waddi Tree by Kerry McGinnis who "has an ear for colloquialisms of the bush and keen eyes when it comes to realising the landscape."

The Australian

Peter Ryan puts Paper Empires: A History of the Book in Australia 1946-2005 edited by Craig Munro and Robyn Sheahan Bright, in context straight off: "This is the third and final volume of a noble enterprise begun years ago: to recount the story of books in Australia from the First Fleet to the present day. Volume one told the then slender but fascinating tale up to 1890; volume two carried it forward to 1946 and the end of World War II; now volume three takes us inside the infinitely more complex book world of the day before yesterday." Which is a worthy ambition. The pity is the "book's general authority is weakened by a long list of inexplicable omissions."

The Sydney Morning Herald

And we get some Australian fiction at last with Michelle Griffin's review of Death of a Whaler by Nerida Newton. "You do not need to read too deeply between the lines to connect the most famous book about whales and Newton's portrait of a dispossessed Byron Bay whaler and his friendship with a troubled hippie called Karma." Which doesn't augur well. And Griffin ends up a tad disappointed: "Newton writes in thoughtful prose. But she is so bald in spelling out her themes of fate and redemption that her slight story sinks beneath the weight of her motifs." This is Newton's second novel. Maybe that explains it.

Also on the menu in the SMH is Amanda Hooten's review of Kate Morton's The Shifting Fog. You might remember this book getting a bit of press coverage a few weeks back. Hooten raises the point that this book reads like something you've read many times before: "Of course, the reality is that many people - me included - absolutely love this stuff, which is why The Shifting Fog will no doubt do very well. Give me a story containing doomed love, a large staff and a wide selection of flapper dresses, and I'm happy. The problem here, however, is that on ground so well covered by such gleamingly gifted writers as Mitford and Waugh, Fitzgerald and Coward, you must be brilliant to be anything at all - and The Shifting Fog is some distance from brilliance...One thing for which Morton is to be commended, however, is her follow-through. She winds up her characters' fates with skill and thoughtfulness; not only her primary characters, but all their descendants. And she gets something else right, too. She recognises that, with novels like this, sometimes what matters is not literary genius."

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #27

The Age

The lack of Australian books under review continues this week with only one getting a very minor mention. On a Wing and a Prayer by Peter Bensley is a debut novel which is reviewed by Dianne Dempsey, who seems pretty impressed by the book: "Peter Bensley is to be congratulated on writing a novel that is actually about something: the ongoing impact of the war on its survivors. Bensley is also capable of arriving at some lovely imagery in a natural and unpretentious manner. On a Wing and a Prayer has such an uplifting denouement, I'm sure Bensley thought of it first and then moved his narration towards it. An actor by trade, on the strength of this, his first novel, he could definitely swap one precarious career for another."

Short notices are given to: Saving Australia: Curtin's Secret peace with Japan by Bob Wurth: "This is a study of a country at war and its one-time pacifist prime minister who 'recognised (that) appeasement of Japan was misguided' and who, after having exhausted all reasonable paths to peace, became the wartime leader his country needed"; Chatroom by Barbara Biggs: "Worthy message ... plus clunky writing equals indigestible novel"; and A Fox Called Sorrow: A Legend of Little Fur by Isobelle Carmody, second book of the Little Fur series: "The world Carmody has created is filled with the smell of the earth and the sound of animals who talk...This entrancing world is illustrated by Carmody's delicate pencil drawings."

Coverage over at "The Australian" isn't any better. In fact it's non-existent.

The thinnest weekend for Australian books for the past 18 months.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #26

Is it winter? Is that the reason for the lack of new Australian books around at present? Do we only read on the beach? Well, not this little black duck. I don't go to the beach. Give me a warm fire, a good light and a full glass of muscat and I'm in heaven. No flies, no sand, no sunburn. In any event the literary activity in Australia is about as cold as the weather. Though there are a few gems here and there.

The Age

The new biography of Kylie Tennant (author of such novels as The Battlers and Ride on Stranger) by Jane Grant is reviewed by Peter Pierce. The book is the second in a series, being produced by the National Library of Australia, titled An Australian Life.

"The literary history of the inter-war period in Australia was in significant part the work of such female authors as Tennant, Eleanor Dark, Jean Devanny, Katharine Prichard (with the latter two, Tennant bitterly fell out over politics). Their novels depicted working and underprivileged Australia to the reading public, many of whom knew little of it."

Short notices are given to: Time for Change: Australia in the 21st Century edited by Tim Wright: "In this spirited collection of essays from a diverse range of public figures, Michael Kirby argues for dissent if democracy is to flourish, Pat O'Shane proposes a separate portfolio of Aboriginal Affairs to address problems in the indigenous community, and Julia Gillard advocates the rebuilding of the public realm in health care"; and Eddie's Country: Why Did Eddie Murray Die? by Simon Luckhurst: "Both stirring and bleak, Eddie's Country is about an epic struggle for justice and the depths of denial that allow such miscarriages of justice to prevail".

The Australian

Marion Halligan kicks of this week's literary offerings with a piece titled "Sex and the Singular Woman". Taking Sonya Hartnett's latest offering, Landscape with Animals (published under the name Cameron S. Redfern), she looks at the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, Peter Craven's reaction to Hartnett's novel (which I covered here), reviewer's reactions to her own books, and in the middle of all that, produces a review of the Hartnett novel. She gets the jokes, the melodrama and deliberate exaggerations:

"This is such good writing. It is the work of someone who loves words, who loves writing and reading, who understands how language works and how words can be put together to touch the heart and the mind and make the reader glad that there are still people in the world who can do this.

"And yes, it is about sex; why not? Why should that challenge people, even threaten them? Especially men reading about women doing it. How useful it would be if they could admit this feeling, and examine it. What about a good sex in fiction award? For good writing about good sex. Wouldn't that be fun?"

So, that's three reviews so far, one male against and two females for.

The novelist Alan Gold takes a big swipe at John Pilger's Freedom Next Time, concluding that it "can best be defined as a gigantic kvetch by a man who rails against a world that isn't run the way he wants. Only a blind neo-con would argue that all's well with the world; only a fool would argue that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have brought universal benefits; but only a rabid Savonarola such as Pilger would argue that the world's ills are the responsibility of the US and its allies."

Short notices are given to: Monica Bloom by Nick Earls, in whose main character the author "convincingly creates a reflective teenage narrator to show how even the worthwhile pursuit of love is often beyond our means"; Monkey Undercover by Garielle Lord, who "is a favourite with adult readers and her fast dialogue, taut narrative and charismatic charcaters - without the violence - have fashioned an exciting, suburban adventure story bound to be a success with younger readers"; Allie McGregor's True Colours by Sue Lawson "who shows that [a miserable teenage life] can only get better and that, despite sometimes being a nuisance, familial love is all we have in the end"; The Nightfish by Helen McCosker: "Using beautifully toned paintings that sweep across the page, Helen McCosker's first picture book is an environmental fable with only the occasional tangled sentence that doesn't stand up to being read aloud"; Weeping Waters by Anne Marie Nicholson whose "fiction debut augurs well; importantly, she's taking on big subjects and big themes"; and The Stone Angel by Katherine Scholes: "What she has written, with precision, is a novella stretched across a very large frame and wrapped in good writing".

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #25

The Age

Shaun Carey has a look at The Weapons Detective: The Inside Story of Australia's Top Weapons Inspector by Rod Barton, and finds it "open-minded, apolitical and free of anger". Yet "does manage to fire some bullets. He concludes that the US, Britain and Australia did go to war on a lie. And like the trained scientist he is, he poses questions about the health of our democracy, not with some fulmination about John Howard but with a raised eyebrow about the pressures that are placed on public servants and military officers who know something about such things as prisoner abuse but are 'discouraged' from coming forward."

The Betrayal of Bindy Mackenzie is Jaclyn Moriarty's third YA novel and it is reviewed this week by Frances Atkinson: "Moriarty's book is satisfying and engaging. Some young-adult authors merely engage in a clever act of ventriloquism, but Moriarty's prose has a recognisable air of authenticity. It reads like a teen soap opera but with feeling."

Jeff Sparrow reviews Cassandra Pybus's history, Black Founders: The Unknown Story of Australia's First Black Settlers and concludes that "white Australia has a black history - and it's more complicated and fascinating than most of us ever knew."

Short notices are given to: Where Fate Beckons: The Life of Jean-Francois de la Perouse by John Dunmore: "You don't have to be especially interested in the 18th-century French explorer to get into ths academic, very readable biography, but it would help."

The Australian

Not a lot here this week with only Kylie Tennant: A Life by Jane Grant getting a review of any sort. This is part of a new series of short biographies commissioned by the National Library of Australia. "Grant focuses admirably on the most interesting feature of Tennant's career, however, which is the unresolved tension between the professional and artistic aspects of her writing life. Tennant was invariably defensive or flippant about her writing, insisting she wrote only to please her father or husband, or to make money (though at times this was significant, given the mental illnesses of her husband and her son). But Grant suggests fear about the limitations of her creative imagination held her back...Tennant clearly was a frustrating novelist, hugely talented but unwilling to allow her work time to evolve."

The Sydney Morning Herald

Bob Wurth's book, Saving Australia: Curtin's Secret peace with Japan is reviewed this week by Tony Stephens. You'll recall that Bob commented on this weblog, a week or so back, correcting some factual errors in Ross Fitzgerald's review of the book in "The Australian". So it will be interesting to see if Stephens has fallen into the same trap or has actually read the whole work. It certainly starts with praise: "Bob Wurth has written an extraordinary book about a remarkable period of history, focusing on the relations between Kawai and John Curtin, the then prime minister, and other prominent Australians, such as High Court judge Owen Dixon." And continues later: "His research and writing is that of a good reporter: the account of Curtin's train trip from Canberra to Melbourne a few days before Pearl Harbour is gripping; the love story involving Kawai and his American secretary sensitively told." But as a review it merely skims the surface of the book without delving into the whys and wherefores. This book is starting to look really interesting.

James Bradley reviews Black Founders: The Unknown Story of Australia's First Black Settlers by Cassandra Pybus, and finds that the author's story of the first dozen black slaves sentenced to transportation is "surprisingly fresh, perhaps not least because its emphasis on the rum-soaked brutality of colonial life is so at odds with the tendency by recent historians to portray the settlement (for all its faults) as something rather more utopian."

Ex-senator John Button reviews Fear and Politics by current parliamentarian Carmen Lawrence. Button always writes well and this review, with a touch of anecdote, a pinch of history and great dollops of insight, is a joy. If Australia ever had a publication like The New York Review of Books, you'd have to ask Button to be one of the resident reviewers of political works. He calls this "a gutsy and thoughtful book".

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #24

The Age

John Pilger is one of those writer/journalists that you either love or hate - there just doesn't seem to be much room for any other reaction. His latest collection, Freedom Next Time is reviewed by Jeff Sparrow: "...[his] kind of unabashed identification with the poor and dispossesed enrages Pilger's critics but, for my money, it's a welcome change from the instinctive empathy most political reporters offer to the powerful." I must say that I find Pilger's reporting style to be rather refreshing. Even if he appears to be wrong, he's wrong in a manner that gets you thinking. And I'd rather read him that a bunch of other journalists who only seem to re-arrange press releases. As Sparrow puts it: "Yes, the continuing misery in countries that have suffered so much can be depressing, and the campaigning style of Freedom Next Time will not appeal to everyone. Still, if you're dissatisfied with media-lite and its take on the world, Pilger's full-cream, un-homogenised reporting might be just a taste worth acquiring."

Marshall Browne, author of Rendezvous at Kamakura Inn, looks back on the writing of his first published book, City of Masks in 1977. "My strongest memory is of the sense of excitement during the writing, when it seemed the story was coming straight off the Hong Kong streets via the clacking keys of the Olivetti. Those were the days!"

Short notices are given to: On Looking at Looking: The Art and Politics of Ian Burn by Ann Stephen: "This rigorous yet intimate study of one of Australia's early conceptual artists is a refrsshing reminder that there is much more to the history of Australian art than the familiar big names"; Drawing the Crow by Adrian Mitchell: "it is in his re-creations of the moments of his early life where his writing is strongest"; Each Way Bet by Ilsa Evans who "again plays with the notion of opposites, this time using the device of role swapping to tease out the flaws and glories in the respective lives of two sisters."

The Australian

Australian books are thin on the ground in "The Age", as they are in "The Australian" this week. Phil Brown reviews Billy's Tree by Nicholas Kyriacos, a debut novel which revolves around the expulsion of the South Sydney Rabbitohs from the National Rugby League competition in 1999. But he doesn't think it comes together: "As good as it was to see the greatest game of all in a novel, despite being a league tragic I couldn't sustain my interest; everything went on far too long. Perhaps the author might be encouraged to discover his inner novella the next time around."

Jill Rowbotham looks at Noel Preston's Beyond the Boundary examines his own life during the 19 years of Joh Bjelke-Petersen's premiership of Queensland from 1968. "Woven throughout his memories of these and later episodes that occurred as his career as an ethicist took off is a personal story that includes bouts of depression, divorce and battles with cancer. Preston has put great effort into understanding and explaining his life, and in doing so has provided insight into the values and compulsions of his generation."

[Update: the review of John Pilger's book in "The Age" has found its way onto their website.]

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #23

The Age
The big review this week is of two first novels, a rare event indeed: Juliette Hughes looks at Swallow the Air by Tara June Winch and at Careless by Deborah Robertson. Pity the review isn't on the website, though, knowing how eratic these things are I suspect it might be worthwhile checking back in a day or so.

As has been noted before on this weblog, Winch's manuscript for this book won the David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writers in 2004. Hughes believes that she has a "voice that will be heard more and more as she grows into the extraordinary talent that has produced Swallow the Air".

"Careless, by Deborah Robertson, is, paradoxically enough written with great care. Each plot part is assiduously interwoven with another: themes of grief, loss, responsibility and betrayal recur as characters do the work that she has set them in slow-moving, hyper-observant present tense."

Both novels would appear to be worth checking out.

Given the amount of interest being generated by Peter Carey's latest novel another view of Australina art might be just the ticket. Which brings us to Voyage and Landfall: The Art of Jan Senbergs by Patrick McCaughey. John Mateer reviews it and finds that: "While having the inevitable limits of the artist's monograph, a literary form that occupies an awkward middle-ground between biography and critical study, McCaughey's correlation of [the associations between style and location] in Senbergs' work is perceptive and useful."

Short notices are given to: His Name in Fire by Catherine Bateson: "In this engaging verse novel, Catherine Bateson takes the emotional life of the young people in her story serious...Bateson's touch is deft"; Pagan's Daughter by Catherine Jinks who "had commercial and critical success with her series of books for older children about Pagan, a medieval Templar squire. Ten years after the publication of the fourth and last book in that series, Pagan's daughter Babylonne makes her first appearance in a book that can stand independently and seems to signal the birth of a new series."

The Australian

Australian books are a bit thin on the ground in "The Australian" this week. We have The Wran Era edited by Troy Bramston, and Saving Australia by Bob Wurth, both explorations of Australian political history and diplomacy.

Neville Wran was an important figure in Australina Labor politics, not least because he was elected to government in NSW in 1976, only five months after Gough Whitlam's Federal government had been sacked by the Governor-General. Mike Steketee finds that "Discounted for the Labor boosterism and a degree of dross, this book provides insights into an absorbing period in politics."

Bob Wurth's book, which is reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald, seems to wander into the realms of fantasy and "goes so far as to suggest that eight days before it happened, Kawai [Japan's first minister to Australia] warned [John] Curtin about the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. He also argues that, between them, Kawai and Curtin, as Opposition leader and then as PM, worked towards a secret agreement between Japan and Australia to keep both countries neutral." Fitzgerald doesn't think he makes his case.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #22

The Age:

Peter Singer's latest book, The Ethics of What We Eat, which he wrote with Jim Mason, is reviewed by Katerine Wilson. If you know anything about Singer you're probably aware of the stance he takes, though it does seem as though he has mellowed a bit over the years. In this book the authors's "solutions are market-driven: buy in-season, sustainable and humane products from trustworthy retailers. This can be supported from almost any ideological position. As they point out, the slow food, fair trade, and conscious consumer movements, along with the rise in farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture, are as much about preserving local cultures and environments as they are about addressing health, gourmet sensibilities and global inequality. All have grown from grassroots movements into confident industries." Change is slow, but it is happening.

The major fiction review is by James Ley of Venero Armanno's Candle Life, a book I'm currently reading. Ley finds that "Structurally it is untidy, and at times it teeters on the brink of incoherence, but it is nevertheless a complex work whose untidiness is, to some extent, deliberate." he expands on this point during his review and concludes that the "novel is a rough beast in some respects, but it is also a good example of the way an interestingly flawed novel is often more compelling and more illuminating than a work that is polished and tidy but takes no risks." Which I'll take to be positive.

Short notices are given to: The Corner of Your Eye by Kate Lyons who is "a talented writer who exhibits a controlled recklessness well suited to the disturbing internal contradictions of her protagonist"; Joan of Arc by Lili Wilkinson who "never condescends to her young readers but her history is accessible and interesting"; and Specky Magee and a Legend in the Making by Felice Arena and Garry Lyon, the fifth in the Specky Magee series of books for youger readers.

The Australian:

George Megalogenis is disappointed with Australian Heartlands by Brendan Gleeson, finding that there "is a common failing in nonfiction, here and in the US. Too many authors from the Left and Right are united by an excess of passion and an absence of humour...In this book, Gleeson's prose veers between valuable information and analysis about Australia's cities, sneering caricatures of his pet hates and the occasional attempt at poetry. Reality and lifestyle television is renamed 'free-to-airhead' TV." The book appears to be a discussion of current political issues in Australia, and "Australian Heartlands makes a serious contribution to the debate we have to have about the role of government. There is a good book crying to get out here; it's a pity Gleeson was caught in the polemicist's trap of playing the straw man, not the issue."

After Peter Craven's review of the novel last week - he was very disappointed - Helen Elliott tackles Landscape with Animals by "Cameron S. Redfern", and she has a very different view of the book. Where Craven seemed to concentrate on the bedroom movements, Elliott looks at the mechanics of the plot and the interaction of the characters; of the predatory nature of the chase, the pursuit and the capitulation. "At some level this reads like one long howl of retrospective pain. Nothing much happens except a forensic description of their mutual addiction to sex with one another. Scenes unfold like a static series of Georgia O'Keefe paintings. Their doom is in the imbalance from the start. She sees in him everything opposite to her, a man who will complement and complete her. He perhaps doesn't even like her." And she finds that "Despite the instinctive sensuousness of Redfern's writing, there is nothing erotic or pornographic here; the only stiffening will be in the resolve not to become like this couple. Redfern is inventive and the sex changes, but oh, how it bores! (A short story would have been brilliant.) But, then, that's obsession. Obsession grinds down to dreariness in the end. Perhaps this should be required reading for those contemplating an affair. Or even a technical manual for the sexually timid." Which sort of comes to the same conclusion as Craven, but from a different direction.

Kate Lyons's first novel, The Water Underneath, was shortlisted for the 1999 Australian/Vogel Award, so it seems like a bit of a wait for her second novel, The Corner of Your Eye. Still, Patricia Anderson thinks that readers "will be delighted with this second offering." And "Lyons delineates [her] characters, whose lives are so abbreviated and pointless, with great skill. Her terse, unsentimental style is perfectly pitched to her subject matter."

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #21

The Age:
The big publishing news around Melbourne during the week was the "unmasking" of the author of a new "exquisite erotic novel" to be published by Penguin. The word is that Sonya Hartnett, talented young adult and children's author, was the true writer of the book. Neither Hartnett nor Penguin will confirm the matter, but Jane Sullivan seems reasonably convinced in her article about pen-names, and Peter Craven takes it as fact in his review of the novel in question. Before I go on to Craven's view of this novel, I should point out that he has been a very vocal advocate for Hartnett's work in the past, believing that "she belongs to the handful of Australian writers who should command world attention". In fact, in this review he refers to her as "the finest Australian writer of her generation", which isn't too shabby. So it comes as a bit of a shock when he hates this book, which he refers to as "Mills & Boon for lubricious lay-abouts". You have to wonder what what brought this book into the world.

The paper's political editor, Michelle Grattan, has a look at The Longest Decade by George Megalogenis: "Megalogenis' account does not pretend to be a behind-the-scenes story of how decisions were made within the Keating and Howard governments. We already have much of that on record for Keating's days; the Howard historians are yet to get into swing...This is the view from the helicopter, with the pilot carrying binoculars, allowing him to share with his passengers an enormous range of detail. While occasionally this overwhelms, the book is a good read for those wanting to understand two politicians who have made a real difference to modern Australia."

Short notices are given to: The Wran Era edited by Troy Bramston: "As other commentators point out, including editor Troy Bramston, Wran was also the one who kept the flag of Labor flying in the darkest days after the Whitlam sacking when even some insiders thought the party might not survive"; In Off the Red by Ken Marks: "reads like a legal judgement handed down by the author on his own life and times"; Number 8 by Anna Fienberg: "her strengths are evident in the gentle evocations of nascent teenage love and genuine affection between children and parents."

The Australian:
Graeme Blundell, regular crime reviewer for "The Australian", profiles Kathryn Fox, whose first novel, Malicious Intent, is gathering some favorable notices around the traps, and whose second novel, Without Consent, has just been published. Blundell quotes her at the start of the piece: "The greatest mystery is why people buy 'unsolved mystery' books...I so don't understand that. We read crime for redemption, of course, for resolution for all the good things you count on in life." Which sounds about right. Blundell considers that she writes better than Canadian Kathy Reichs "(too stilted and without style)" and is far less baroque than Patricia Cornwell. The piece isn't on the website so far as I can find.

After that opening it seems to be all non-fiction in "The Australian". People are generally split on their attitudes to Peter Singer - leading intellectal on the one hand, and leading looney on the other. His latest book, The Ethics of What We Eat (which he co-wrote with Jim Mason), is reviewed by Stephen Romei. "Irrespective of where you stand on ethical eating - and, as Singer and Mason point out, most people don't stand anywhere because they have not thought about it - this book will provide, yes, here it comes, serious food for thought." Thank you, Stephen. That'll do.

Peter Carey is gettng a lot of attention for his latest novel and he has a presence in Leaving Paradise: My Expat Adventure and Other Stories by Sonia Harford, reviewed by Sue Green: "The book's title is drawn from a comment by Australian poet Fay Zwicky, who said Australians were the most homesick of travellers because they believed they came from paradise and nowhere else could compare. For many of those whom Harford interviewed, however, that is simply not so. With them in mind, the title carries a certain irony."

I like it when reviewers get to the point straight away, and John Carmody does that with his review of The Australian Miracle: An Innovative Nation Revisited by Thomas Barlow: "Is this title - like The Lucky Country - intended to be ironic (but misunderstood)? If I am undecided, so is the author. Thomas Barlow has some important matters to argue but, as with ores in a marginal mine, it takes determination to extract them. The subtitle seems to dispel the notion of irony, although the book reads as if the author really believes that when there have been scientific or technological miracles in Australia, they have occurred despite our way of thinking." I'd stick with irony again.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #20

The big piece in "The Age" this weekend is a profile of the Melbourne writer Jacob Rosenberg, by Juliette Hughes. This comes on the heels of the announcement last week that his memoir, East of Time, has been shortlisted for the Australian Society of Literature Gold Medal. The story of his time spent in the German concentration camp Mauthausen during World War II is best described in the quote: "There was no time: no past, no future, only the present instant. Your life existed between a yes and a no."

The major review of the week is of Killing for Pleasure: The Definitive Story of the Snowtown Serial Murders by Debi Marshall. It tells the story of the discovery of eight butchered bodies in barrels in an empty bank vault in Snowtown, a small village some 150 kilometres north of Adelaide. I used to drive through that town 25 years ago and it was a non-descript, blink-and-you-miss-it, little place. Probably perfect for this type of crime.

Short notices are given to: The Spirit of Gallipoli: The Birth of the Anzac Legend by Patrick Lindsay: "The value of this compact, straight forward account is that you get the full, bloody catastrophe in one sitting"; Waves: Great Stories from the Australian Surf edited by Tim Baker: "However, allergic to hippy-shit you may be, surf mysticism has its own appeal; the quest for the perfect wave, those visions of the physical sublime. But its not all marmalade skies"; Pictures of Us by Todd Alexander: "First time novellist Todd Alexander has woven together a miserable, modern family that he slowly and inexorably teases apart."

In a continuing feature in the paper, Tom Keneally this week looks back at the writing of his first novel: "It was a very Gothic tale. When in doubt, I've always had a weakness for melodramatic bells and whistles. Stylistically, I was all over the place -- there were fairly passable pastishes of the last person I'd read. Here was Patrick White, over there Graham Greene; here Wallace Stevens, over there an inadvisably lush reworking of Dylan Thomas. I wanted some publisher to say, 'This tale might be a bit creaky plot-wise, but gee he can write!'"

In "The Australian" Victoria Laurie reviews Rob Riley: An Aboriginal Leader's Search for Justice by Quentin Beresford. This biography was produced at the request of Riley's family ten years after his death by suicide. "This is a fine book, an illuminating account by a fluent writer who has written solidly researched books on Aboriginal crime and justice (Rites of Passage), the stolen generations (Our State of Mind) and reforming Aboriginal education."

Kathy Hunt is cautious about Tara June Winch's novel, Swallow the Air, which won the David Unaipon Award for indigenous writers. She finds the work a little heavy-handed at times: "A virgin novelist, Winch has yet to learn that, unlike art, language will disintegrate under the weight of the abstract", but is also aware that the fiction here was heavily workshopped by the team at UQP. "Winch has things to say, and beneath the collaborative prose there is a writer trying to say them." Maybe a case of too many cooks.

The book and author are also profiled in "The Sydney Morning Herald" by Sunanda Creagh. "Winch's book could be digested as a novel or a collection of interlocking short stories. It could also be read as extended prose; her style is poetic, even rhyming in some parts. Tragic events are made more poignant by delicate descriptions that manage to avoid being flowery. Most delicious is Winch's ability to unpatronisingly capture accents: 'Bloody millennium come and gone and they still can't treat our people right,' she writes in the voice of an elder, Uncle Graham. 'We seen 40 bloody millenniums, our people, and they government give us credit for that? Only when it suits them, when they gotta show all them tourists.'" It's interesting that one reviewer will find the prose over-blown while the next sees it as almost poetic.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #19

After a very quiet week last time round, "The Age" looks at a lot more Australian books in it's latest Review.

They start with The Felton Illuminated Manuscripts in the National Gallery of Victoria by Margaret M. Manion, reviewed by Stephanie Trigg, Professor of English Literature at the University of Melbourne. This is not a book for everyone: the focus appears very limted, and the price of $99 a tad prohibitive. Still it looks and sounds lavish, and seems to cover quite a range of illuminated books from around the 1500s. "Manion's book is not a comprehensive facsimile, rather it is a scholarly study of these works, marked on every page by her knowledge and experience of medieval manuscripts and their production, a testament to the enduring popularity of the Melbourne collection."

"Linda Jaivin has many strings to her bow - she's an eminent Sinologist, an author of comic erotica, a prolific essayist, and a passionate advocate for refugees. It is the latter that motivates her latest novel." Which seems as good an introduction as any to the review by Cameron Woodhead of Jaivin's, The Infernal Optimist. "Refreshingly, Jaivin tackles the treatment of asylum seekers through comedy...And, while Jaivin does not skimp on the psychological horrors of life in detention, she doesn't wallow in them either. Mostly, they come straight from the headlines: hunger strikes, sewn-up lips, depression, madness, suicide." I wonder if the humour makes the subject easier to cope with. Certainly can't make it any worse.

The most interesting of the books considered, to me at least, is Angela Pippos's The Goddess Advantage: One Year in the Life of a Football Worshipper. Those of us in Melbourne will know who Pippos is - the sports reporter for ABC TV news - and some will also be aware that she is a mad Adelaide Crows supporter. She wins on all counts in my book. Ian Syson reviews her memoir/diary and seems rather perplexed by what he finds: "It's hard to tell in the end just who The Goddess Advantage is aimed at." How about me Ian? I can understand it, and fully sympathise.

Short notices are given to: Unravelling Identity: Immigrants, Identity and Citizenship in Australia by Trevor Batrouney and John Goldlust: "This may be a specialist text but the subject is one that has both general appeal and topical significance"; City of Animals by Alan Mills "Is a thoroughly researched thriller that realistically portrays the operations of a large zoo. It can get a little graniloquent for the genre but it's still a well-plotted spine-tingler"; Bye, Beautiful by Julia Lawrinson who "is a marvellous writer. Her novel is evocative but economical, capturing the sense of being in a backwater in a time of great social change"; Love Cuts by Ian Bone: "Set in a nameless Australian city, Ian Bone's novel is aimed at young adults and is a healthy antidote to the buckets of drivel that have been written about romantic love"; Doctors at Sea: Emigrant Voyages to Colonial Australia by Robin Haines, whose work "is a microcosm of Victorian hierarchy; class, racial and sectarian feeling (towards the Irish, for instance) on the one hand, and on the other the intregrity and generosity displayed by paternalism at its most high-minded"; and Will Buster and the Carrier's Flash by Odo Hirsch: "While Odo Hirsch's magic is derived from future science rather than ancient spells, there are aspects of the Will Buster series that are not dissimilar to Harry Potter."

The only major work of interest in "The Australian" is The Longest Decade by George Megalogenis, reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald. The book covers the period of the Keating and Howard Prime Minsterships, and has bene a very long decade as far as this voter is concerned. "Megalogenis's primary aim is to tell two intertwined stories, the political and the cultural, about the economy and society produced by Keating and Howard as two of the nation's most influential treasurers and prime ministers. He does this superbly well." Although coming from similar backgrounds it would be hard to pick two such different men: Howard is a big "C" Conservative in political terms and yet very basic in his cultural and sporting tastes, Keating was a progressive small "l" liberal politically, almost "elitist" culturally and had no interest in sport at all. Sounds like one of the best Australian political books around.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #18

If I thought last week was quiet then I have no idea of how to describe the Australian offerings in "The Age" this week. As far as I can tell the only work on display is Diane Cilento's autobiography, My Nine Lives, reviewed by Brian McFarlane. So we have to thank our lucky stars that it has a fair bit more to say than most others of its ilk: "At about 500 pages, the book is a serious investment of the reader's time, but it is worth it in the end. Cilento writes far more eloquently - and has a more interesting story to tell - than most showbiz autobiographers. One could quibble over errors...and she is meagre with dates and indexing. But she emerges as an impressive woman who wanted some unusual things and went adventurously after them."

Short notices are given to: The Crow by Alison Croggon who is "the kind of fantasy writer who wants you to see every blade of grass, and she has a highly immersive imagination"; Walking Ella: Ruminations of a Reluctant Dog-Walker by Robert Drewe, an "updated re-issue of Drewe's 'dog dossier'".

It's quiet, too quiet.

"The Australian" redeems the weekend with some decent-sized reviews. For which we should be grateful.

Cath Keneally reviews Candle Life, the new novel by Venero Armanno. The author is one of those working in the literary fiction area who receive little attention in the mainstream press: Kerryn Goldsworthy was particularly praising of his previous novel the Volcano. Keneally, though, seems noticeably ambivalent about this one in the body of the review, praising on the one hand: "Armanno is a gifted scene-setter who instinctively shies away from privileging his own cultural viewpoint"; and finding fault on the other: "The problem, with Gail Jones's book also, is that it's difficult to claim a sufficient stake in a city such as Paris, even after a few extended stays, to be able to write a story convincingly rooted there...Armanno tries too hard to find that link, reaching finally for a mystical, drug-induced identification with his low-life acquaintances and the city itself. He strains to incorporate some of Paris's intriguing past into his narrative, but the chosen data proves intractable." By the end, however, she's come around: "Armanno is a writer full of ease and confidence, carried along on a full tide of story that lets him play and sing as well as effortlessly spin a yarn."

Lindsay Foyle is happy to see Ross McMullin's new biography, Will Dyson: Australia's Radical Genius: "Dyson was a radical genius, social gadfly, committed war artist, great cartoonist and one of the best-known Australians in the world. There's all of that and more in this book."

David Kennedy looks at A Man of Intelligence by Ian Pfennigwerth: "Not many people have heard of Eric Nave, who was at the cutting edge of cracking the Japanese codes that foretold the start of the Pacific war, hobnobbed with British royalty and was involved in ASIO and the Petrov Russian spy defections."

Jennifer Moran and generally appreciates 1606: An Epic Adventure by Evan McHugh: "the 1606 sightings are documented and McHugh uses a variety of primary and secondary sources to buttress his tale of the navigators, traders, scientists, empire builders and sailors who would look on the new world from that year until the publication of Matthew Flinders's map of Australia in 1814...McHugh makes the point that adventure, rather than simply the idea of empire or the satisfaction of the trader's purse, motivated many of those who set out from Europe. It was dangerous and sometimes foolhardy, but dramatic and enthralling."

Short notices are given to: The Summons by David Whish-Wilson in which "the sickly, cloying atmosphere of Nazi Germany in the lead-up to World War II is captured brilliantly"; In Search of Africa by Frank Coates which "spans a turbulant half-century and has more characters than a Brazilian soap opera"; Pictures of Us by Todd Alexander: "While there's not much action around the abundant dialogue, the unravelling of apparently ordered lives that drives this more than competent first novel is enough to retain interest."

Jodie Minus on the children's literature front, Shadows in the Mirror by Cameron Nunn: the "school playground acts as a metaphor for the greater world, in which authority should be questioned and individuals must trust their moral instinct"; Don't Call Me Ishmael by Michael Gerard Bauer whose second novel (after last year's award-winning The Running Man) "is wildly different: comic and colourful, with characterisations bordering on caricatures"; His Name in Fire by Catherine Bateson who "uses letters, vignettes and song lyrics to bring to life Abbatoir Town, a small rural enclave battling the odds and struggling to prosper"; The Dreamkeeper by Robert Ingpen, the "evocation of the world the Dreamkeeper inhabits - of dragons, goblins, imps and gnomes - is so convincing that readers will want to replicate the reducing potion made from the juice of houseflies." Not this little black duck I think.

Every now and again you come across a review which, at first blush, looks more than a little over the top. And then, on a second reading, you start to get what it is all about. One such is Rebecca Sparrow's review of Tara June Winch's Swallow the Air in "The Courier-Mail": "Sometimes in life you are lucky enough to stumble upon a book that irrevocably changes you and profoundly changes how you experience the world... loved this book. It moved me to tears. It inspired me. It was a reminder of the power of great writing. I feel richer for having stepped inside May's world and it opened my eyes in a way television news bulletins and newspaper headlines never could. If this is what Tara June Winch is capable of writing at just 20 years old, I wait in admiration and anticipation at what she produces next. Swallow the Air is nothing short of extraordinary."

So what started out rather thin ended up quite satisfactory after all.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #17

I had this theory last week that we'd be swamped in the book review pages over the weekend with non-fiction titles on the ANZAC tradition and war in general. Nope. Didn't happen. Bit different last year when we had four or five in "The Age" alone. Maybe last year being the 90th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli had something to do with it.

There aren't a lot of major reviews in "The Age" this weekend. Mark Rubbo looks at 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die by Peter Boxall et al. It's a monster of a book and follows on from the previous 1001 Movies and 1001 Songs. Rubbo thinks that if you were to read 2 of the titles each week you'd get through the lot in 10 years and three-and-a-half days. "One could do much worse than to use Boxall's list as a basis for reading. It's hard to give a great book much justice in a 300-word blurb - they occasionally read like restaurant descriptions in glossy magazines - but often they are clever and illuminating. For what it is, it's a marvellous achievement and I'll certainly use it to fill my bookseller's shelves and my bookseller's brain."

Will Dyson: Australia's Radical Genius, (which I also have for review), is examined by Neill Jillett - he doesn't seem impressed: "Its muddled sentences often mix verbosity with primness".

The only fiction given a review of any length is Shadowboxing by Tony Birch, and this isn't on the website. "The writing is flat, diffident even in its grace notes, and ploddingly explanatory....But in spite of the numbing quality fo the prose, something carries across." Sounds like it needed another draft or two.

Short notices are given to: When the River Runs Dry: What Happens When Our Water Runs Out? - "This effective, bluntly written study, covers all the trouble spots one earth - including a pessimistic prognosis on the future of the Murray/Darling basin.."; The Park Bench by Henry Von Doussa which "charts the contours of the gay underworld...consistently edgy and evocative, and surprising poignant"; One Man's Journey by Guy Sigley, "an earnest attempt to animate and lionise John McDouall Stuart...a solid fictionalisation of the explorer's life, and, most particularly his desperate desire to cross the Australian continent"; The Single Gentleman's Dating Club by Tony McMahon - "this debit novel is as disorderly as its characters and as rough as the booze they drink"; My Grandad Marches on Anzac day by Catriona Hoy and illustrated by Benjamin Johnson: "the book's overriding message is theneed to remember and respect the men and women of those wars; the ones who we lost and the ones who came home."

"The Australian" doesn't let us down by reviewing Voices of War: Stories from Australians at War Film Archive edited by Michael Caulfield. "The book is likely to have wide appeal because it is aimed at the general reader. There is no need to know in detail the theatres of conflict participants found themselves in to understand their reflections on war...What is immediately apparent is the unadorned honesty and directness of the contributors."

In "The Courier-Mail", Terry Oberg talks to Venero Armanno about his new novel, Candle Life.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #16

We're a day late this week due to the Easter weekend holiday. I didn't have internet access at any time over the past few days. Actually, can't say that I missed it much. Now, if it had been a week I might well have been crawling up the walls.

"The Age" deals pretty much exclusively with non-fiction this week, at least in the big reviews. Glenn D'Cruz gets to grip with Australian theatre in his review of The Dolls' Revolution: Australian Theare and Cultural Imagination by Rachel Fensham & Denise Varney, with Maryrose Casey and Laura Ginters: "Put simply, Fensham and Varney argue that women entered mainstream theatre in the '90s and radically changed the theatre and how we think about our national culture and identity." However, "I can't help wondering whether the differences between the old boys club and the dolls' revolution are all that great in the end. For the most part, the dolls' revolution, like the revolution ushered in by the masculinist 'new wave', is a white middle-class revolution. I'm waiting for the one that really shakes up our sense of national identity."

Maria Tumarkin has a look at After Port Arthur by Carol Altmann, published on the 10th anniversary of the massacre that affected all of us in Australia. And, while she "had every intention of writing a respectful, hands-off review " of the book she isn't that impressed by the final result: "I don't believe that journalists can be morally or emotionally absent from their chronicles of human agony. They do not need to become the main characters, but it gets ugly and heartless if they appear to have nothing on the line."

In June last year I linked to an article by Helen Garner about Elizabeth Jolley. Jolley was not well then and it would appear that we aren't going to see any more new works from her in the future. In the meantime, however, we have Learning to Dance: Elizabeth Jolley - Her Life and Work selected and introduced by Caroline Lurie and now reviewed by Peter Pierce. "Learning to Dance is a mellow, enriching traverse of a career that began at an age when many have ended but was pursued with the vigour of an apparently youthful and certainly independent and unobliged spirit. For what Jolley achieved, and for Lurie's selection from it, we can give thanks."

In the print edition, but not on the website, is a small piece by Kerry Greenwood recalling her first book. Best line: "My first editor, Sophie Cunningham, sent me a sheet of dots that, when interpreted, turned out to be an emergency shipment of full stops, some of which she begged me to spread through my page-long sentences."

Short notices are given to: Heirloom edited by Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper, Helen Gershoni and Floris Kalman, the second anthology of writing and art by members of the Melbourne Child Survivors of the Holocaust group, which "does indeed constitute an 'heirloom'"; Born of the Sun: Seven Young Australian Lives by Gerald Walsh: "The myth that dying young is one way to achieve fame is again exploded in this series of portraits of once-famous Australians who died in their early 20s and are now forgotten"; The Australian Miracle: An Innovative Nation Revisited by Thomas Barlow: "Central to Thomas Barlow's thesis is the concern we have become too pessimistic and that the situation is much better than we think it is", [I wonder where he actually lives - not in my world I think]; Overland 182: Culture Contested edited by Nathan Hollier: "At a time when the novel has been seriously side-lined by non-fiction, it's good to read cogent, forceful cases being made for the importance of literary fiction." This last statement was made by Fiona Capp and I wonder if she's reading the same books I am.

In "The Australian" Barry Hill has a look at Les Murray's new collection of poetry, The Biplane Houses: "Overall, The Biplane Houses indulges the senses. Not every poem is memorable, but there are enough very good ones to put the book in with the camping gear, or have it in the glove box, so that it can be consulted when an image that fits a Murray phrase comes over the horizon. As it will."

"The Courier-Mail" commemorates the 50th anniversary of the publication of No Moon Tonight, Don Charlwood's memoir of his time as a navigator in Bomber Command in World War II. "No Moon Tonight was one of the first war books after World War II to break away from the jingoistic view of war and describe it in a more personal and analytical manner."

While it's not written by an Australian, Stephen Leather's latest thriller, Cold Kill, will be of interest as it deals with a terrorist attack on Sydney - and, no, I won't rise to the bait even though I am from Melbourne. Steve Dow interviews the author on the eve of the book's publication for "The Sydney Morning Herald".

Also in the SMH, Catherine Keenan writes of writers' block in "When an author's muse packs up and leaves". As the cricketers say, you're only as good as your last innings.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #15

The reviews of Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey are starting to roll in with James Bradley - taking time off from promoting his own new novel - having an appreciative look at the novel in "The Age".

'Am I to be a king, or just a pig?' demands the epigraph to Peter Carey's new novel. The question is Flaubert's, but the raging, almost scatological grandiloquence of its egotism, misanthropy and self-doubt are all Carey's, and cut to the core of Theft, fuelling the fury, verbal energy and coruscating humour of a book that is at once cruelly levelling, darkly witty and unsettlingly personal.
You might recall that last week, when the Carey interviews were being published, I mentioned that this new novel continues Carey's interest, some might say obsession, with fakery. Bradley takes up the idea, which would be hard to avoid, but provides some critical reasons for considering it:
In its focus on questions of authenticity, and the uncanny and unsettling nature of the forgery, it is difficult not to read Theft as a companion piece of sorts to Carey's last novel, My Life as a Fake, which took his longstanding interest in the idea of fakery and gave it human form in Bob McCorkle, the Ern Malley-esque monster poet...But despite the obvious correlations, Theft's roots run deeper than Fake. Its verbal energy owes more to the liberating voice of Carey's Ned Kelly, its breakneck alliteration and zigs and zags lending the novel a sense of play that was missing from its surprisingly claustrophobic predecessor; while the world of the novel's foreground, the Australia of the early '80s, seems somehow closer to Carey's heart than the milieu of Fake's unlikeable McAuley surrogate, Christopher Chubb.

There seems to be something innate in the human psyche that basically states: "If you ignore something nasty for long enough, it'll just go away." Be nice if it were true. But it isn't; not for individuals and certainly not for large companies. In Asbestos House, Gideon Haigh has chronicled the way James Hardie Industries attempted to ignore the dire warnings about the long-term effects of asbestos, and failed miserably. The unfortunate aspect is that a large number of people had to die before they got the hint, and started to get their act together. As Leon Gettler puts it in his review: "In the end, Hardie's errors had real and human outcomes. Haigh's achievement is letting us see the human side on both sides of the equation. In this age of rigorous compliance and corporate governance rules, it is a lesson for all companies: not breaking the law is not the same as morally acceptable behaviour."

Other reviews are given to: How to Kill Your Husband (and other household hints) by Kathy Lette: "Sometimes I think Lette only writes her books as vehicles for her wordplay - she will divert from any key plot point or watershed moment to write another one-liner"; 1606: An Epic Adventure by Evan McHugh: "...a useful and lively copendium for general readers interested in the first European sightings of Australia and its navigation"; The Champions: Conversations with Great Players & Coaches of Australian Football by Ben Collins: "A great half-time read"; Geodesica: Descent by Sean Williams and Shane Dix: "a racy, well-written and ornately imagined genre epic"; The Wings of Kitty St Clair by James Aldridge: an "idiosyncratic young adult novel"; The Murrumbidgee Kid by Peter Yeldham: "a strong and entertaining story".

In "The Australian" Rosemary Neill interviews Les Murray about poetry, childhood, depression ("the black dog"), race, republicanism, and the Nobel: "not a thing you really think about. It would make you so damn famous if you did [win a Nobel prize] your life wouldn't be your own any more." Murray thinks he's writing better and better.

Peter Craven looks at Carey's Theft in this paper, and while he's full of praise you get the feeling he doesn't think Carey's quite made his masterpiece yet: "Carey has never been afraid of writing out of the darkest kinds of materials and he could never be accused of being afraid of ugliness. Indeed his novels play on grotesquerie as a kind of passion and part of their unmistakable vaunted Australianness comes from the author's willingness to rub the reader's nose in the drek and muck and madness of a very localised apprehension of what the world is...For all its instability and disconcerting shifts of register, it is the work of a novelist willing his way into greatness minute by gritty minute."

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #14

Peter Carey's new novel, Theft: A Love Story, gets the treatment all over the place this weekend. In "The Age", literary editor Jason Steger runs a profile of the author - which doesn't seem to be on the website - ahead of his whirlwind Australian tour. Instead we are left with a cut-down phone interview with the author which appears on the website, but not in the printed version of the paper, so far as I can ascertain. Looks like "The Age" has got its wires a little crossed here.

Carey, of course, has to answer the inevitable question in all his interviews now: "What's with the theme of deception running through your books?" He knew he'd get it, and he handles it well.

Best line from Steger's interview: "I suddenly realised there is a thing that is not uncommon among Australian intellectuals or artists to speak in this really - what is looking at a distance from this country - a really interesting and weird mix of the profane, the vulgar, the intellectual, the high minded, all of these things. What it produces if you want to inhabit it is a really rich sort of language. And it's lovely."

The big man is back - and I don't mean Clarence Clemens. Les Murray has a new collection of poems out, The Biplane Houses, which is reviewed by David McCooey. "As is common for a book of poems by Murray, The Biplane Houses contains essayistic poems, narrative poems, poems about things, elegies, and even shows again that Murray is one of our most important poets because of his ineluctably strange way of saying. His interest (indeed obsession) with the past, with family and with ancestors could be a way of making a home in the world, however strange that world may be."

John Mateer looks at Eye Contact: Photographing Indigenous Australians by Jane Lydon and finds that: "Although the book isn't exactly what its title suggests, being not a broad study of the photographing of indigenous Australians but a focused historical consideration of the use of photography at Coranderrk, the Aboriginal settlement at Healesville that was in operation until 1924, it takes the documenting of the settlement and its people as an example of how photography was used in the colonial project that is Australia. This is insightful. The range of photographs considered is itself wide enough to carry Lydon's argument far beyond a simple historical study of one place."

Short notices are given to: The Lab by Jack Heath, "It might be derivative and lack a certain amount of complexity and sophistication but this book will appeal to its target audience...Is Heath the next Matthew Reilly? Only time will tell."; Animal Nation, "This is a landmark work that forces the reader to radically rethink the political implications of our attitudes to animals."; INXS Story to Story by INXS and Anthony Bozza, which is billed as an "official autobiography."

Did I mention that Peter Carey has a new book out? Probably. In "The Australian" Stephen Romei interviews the author in a wide-ranging gallop through such topics as his latest book, the Booker (which he has won twice and for which he may well be in contention again), the Nobel prize (he thinks Les Murray), J.M. Coetzee, acts of deception, living in New York, his divorce, the Bush administration and his relationship with Australia. "I think I'm writing better now than I've ever written."

This interview is followed by an extract from Chapter 1 of the novel, which is not on the website.

Michael Sharkey reviews Wild Amazement by Michael Wilding, but, for the life of me, I can't work out what the book is about. It's probably all in there somewhere.

Over at "The Sydney Morning Herald" it's Carey interview time again: Susan Wyndham does the business. Wyndham raises the divorce issue and says: "Over the next few days executives from Random House, Carey's publisher, will make urgent warning calls to me and my editor against exposing his personal life. But how can we ignore it?" By not asking about it might be a start. If we know too much about a writer's personal life then we read too much into the text. Maybe an arm's length realtionship is much better for all of us.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #13

Marshall Browne continues to get exposure for his new novel, Rendezvous at Kamakura Inn, which is reviewed in "The Age" by Jeff Glorfeld. This is Browne's first novel in a new series featuring Inspector Hideo Aoki, of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department's Criminal Investigation Bureau. I'm not sure that Glorfeld is overly convinced by the end result: "As with kabuki, Browne writes in a strangely stilted style, as if he has been translated awkwardly from another language. As if in a ritualistic theatre performance, Aoki's inner narration continually loops back over his thoughts, his moral turmoil. It isn't a big book, in this sealed-off stage Browne has set, but by moving slowly, examining every action and reaction over and over again, it takes on the feel of an epic. In a Japanese way, it becomes an article of duty to see the story through to its conclusion." Though he does then go on to conclude: "Readers might throw it down in frustration, but they will probably pick it up again. It can get to you like that, and rewards those who do their duty and see it through to the end." So, it's rewarding but hard work? Can't see a problem with that.

I'd prefer it if reviewers didn't equivocate: don't extrapolate on what some readers might do, state clearly what you thought of it and let readers make up their own minds. I take statements such as "Readers might throw it down in frustration" as a direct challenge, but I'm contrary like that.

The Australian continent and fire have had an intimate relationship ever since the land was first visited however many thousands of years ago. It's a strange mixture of love and hate. Stephen Pyne's new book, The Still-Burning Bush, examines the role that fire has played in the life of this country, which, as Simon Caterson notes, resonates beyond these shores. "The scientific and political importance of fire in Australia is matched by its cultural significance...Australians also have a habit of naming and commemorating fires - Ash Wednesday is an obvious example - which is not replicated elsewhere. For all the death and destruction caused by fire every year, the intense interest in these events is a sign that, like war and sport, fire defines us as a nation." This is a sequel to Pyne's early book, Burning Bush, his history of Australian fire up to the 1980s.

Shotr notices are given to: Aristotle's Nostril by Morris Gleitzman: "Parents and librarians around the nation worship Gleitzman for seducing their children to the world of words and books. And they trust him, for alongside the humour he is consistently compassionate and persistently optimistic"; The Mermaid Tree by Robert Tiley, an "accessible, entertaining study" of the exploration of Australia after the battle of Waterloo; and Venom by Dorothy Horsfield, who "has an acute eye for the way people misunderstand one another. But, just as her characters invent each other, they can equally have moments of insight."

Over in "The Australian", Ross Fitzgerald looks at autobiographies by two former judges who were also both ex-communists: In Off the Red by Ken Marks, and Comrade Roberts: Recollections of a Trotskyite by Kenneth Gee. And a mixed bag he finds them as well.

In addition, Debra Adelaide reviews Drink Me by Skye Rogers, which falls directly into the "Harrowing Memoir" genre, and Christopher Bantick is impressed with Patrice Newell's memoir of life on the land, Ten Thousand Acres: A Love Story.

Jason Nahrung considers Scott Westerfeld's new young adult novel, Peeps, in "The Courier-Mail", and finds that "the ride is fun and at times spooky and beautifully sketched". On the other hand, Leisa Scott did not like Carry Me Down by M.J. Hyland at all, throwing the book down in disgust, before picking it up again to get stuck into it. An uncommon review in Australian newspapers.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #12

Sandy McCutcheon, radio broadcaster for the ABC's "Australia Talks Back" and "Australia Talks Books" programs, is also well-known as both a playwright and author. It is his latest novel, Black Widow, which is reviewed in this weekend's "The Age" by Sue Turnbull. The novel tracks a survivor of the Beslan school siege in 2004 who joins up with five other female survivors to kidnap the four adult children of the Chechyan terrorists who were involved in the original siege. The reviewer finds some interest in the book: "In Black Widow, McCutcheon takes political events of the recent past and gives them an immediate human dimension. The fact that his focus is primarily on the women and children caught up in a war about power is understandable and worthy. The book evokes a strong sense of moral outrage and compassion." But finds that the novel may, in the end, not qute live up to its promise: "... could not help but wonder if in opting for the cliche-ridden and at times downright mawkish voice of [the protagonist], McCutcheon, the playwright and master of many potential voices, might have sold himself a tad short."

Other than this novel, short notices are given to The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer: "This beautiful little novel is a shimmering prism. Simply but elegantly formed, it throws out complex patterns of emotion and thought, dark and light"; and Devotion by Ffion Murphy: "First-time novelist Ffion Murphy has chosen an unusual topic - severe postnatal depression - to explore more familiar themes of contemporary fiction. Devotion engages intelligently with such issues as hysteria, psychoanalysis, women's relationships, and the unreliability of memory and writing."

In non-fiction in "The Age", Barney Zwartz (religious editor) looks at The New Puritans: The Rise of Fundamentalism in the Anglican Church by Muriel Porter, which "Puts the heat on rich and powerful Sydney for the woes of Australian Anglicanism." Also reviewed is Memory, Moments and Museums: The Past in the Present edited by Marilyn Lake: "The concept of a 'national identity' is a spin-off of nationalism and has had a deadening effect on our historical commemorations."

It's a non-fiction weekend over at "The Australian" as well. Gideon Haigh's Asbestos House, about the James Hardie company, is reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald, who calls it "meticulously researched and powerfully written". The World According to Y by Rebecca Huntley "provides a breezy snapshot of a neglected generation"; and The New Puritans, see above.

John Wright profiles David Mitchell on the eve of the 170th anniversary of his birth. Mitchell was a renown collector of Australiana and his legacy was left to the State Library of NSW which created the Mitchell library in his honour. There would be a lot of us around who would envy Mitchell's financial freedom, which enabled him to buy whatever he liked, wherever he liked: 61,000 volumes in the end.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #11

James Bradley's The Resurrectionist is reviewed by Peter Pierce in "The Age" this week. Pierce is professor of Australian literature at James Cook University and generally I find his reviews perceptive and informative. In this case I'm more than a bit bemused. Bradley's novel is set among the anatomists of 1820s London and the men who supply them with corpses, the resurrectionists. Pierce states early: "Begun with such confidence in the command of its prose, Bradley's novel becomes more commonplace, gloomy and ghoulish as it details the robbing of graves or the purchase of cadavers, matter-of-fact about a business that can depend on murder...Curiously, this is a novel with its own ringing descriptive voice but only an uneasy authority over its subject." I have no idea what he means by this. The "descriptive voice" I understand, but why the next phrase? Pierce then seems to imply in the same paragraph that Bradley uses stock-standard gothic stereotypes, which doesn't doesn't really fit with subject authority. It's something else entirely, and, I might say, not one that I agree with.

I think also that Pierce is not sure how to approach this work. After Swift's fall into "despair and destitution" Pierce feels that "Bradley narrative pace slackens". As he says, "one act of treachery follows another" as Swift's sense of self-worth is slowly and inevitably destroyed. Pace isn't important here surely. What we are after is a description of a human personality slowly coming apart at the seams, and the pace of the book needs to reflect that.

In the end Pierce concludes: "This is still the work of a strong talent, a writer whose ambition magnifies the structural problems of his work, who sought here rather to struggle with the challenge of previous historical fictions, than more comfortably to seek space for his own." I don't know what "previous historical fictions" he's talking about here. Pierce doesn't mention them.

In her review of Safety by Tegan Bennett Daylight, Michelle Griffin finds the author has taken a big literary risk: "this novel reads like it was written according to some puritan artistic code; all natural lighting, unresolved tensions and characters who can't escape the basic parameters of their personalities. Although Safety is difficult to warm to, it has plenty of integrity, refusing all temptations to pander to the usual resolutions of love stories." And she concludes that "Although this is a novel about people who love each other, it is not, in any sense, a romantic novel."

Geoffrey Blainey describes Hirst as "one of the nation's most independent and original historians" so a collection of his essays is of some importance. Actually, any collection of essays by any Australian historian is of importance in this era of "the history wars". Morag Fraser reviews his latest collection, Sense & Nonsense in Australian History, in "The Age" and finds that there "is vigour in Hirst's essays, a plain man's passion, you could call it. He will say what he means. To what end? Sometimes he reads like a reflex contrarian, but, more often, like a deft scholar whose researches leave him uneasy with orthodoxies, out of kilter with the historical fashion of the moment, but leave us informed."

John Hirst's essay collection is also reviewed in "The Weekend Australian" by Robert Murray, who concludes "The book should be essential reading for those who want to ponder, let alone write and teach about, Australian history but fear choosing between the Paul Keating/Phillip Adams view on the one hand and Pauline Hanson or David Flint on the other."

Phil Brown considers Shadowboxing, a first novel by Tony Birch: "Birch's descriptions of the lower socio-economic world of inner Melbourne in the '60s are brilliant and he evokes, with a curious nostalgia, a claustrophobic world that anyone would be lucky to escape from unscathed. He has a great ability to pare down his prose, laying bare the raw flesh of the matter in the process. Despite their rigours, the stories are engaging, with flashes of larrikin humour. The book is even something of a page-turner at times, although the calamity of one page often leads only to heartbreak on the next."

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #10

Adelaide Writers' Week kicked off over the weekend, and, to celebrate, "The Age" has published Kate Llewellyn's love letter to the event. Held every two years since its inception in 1962, Writers' Week has grown from a lecture at the University of Adelaide to 4 marquees on the banks of the River Torrens, and Llewellyn has been to all of them. There's a lot of name-dropping in the piece but this is only to be expected at an author-driven event, and anyway Llewellyn carries it off with such charm you just go with the flow.

A feeling of complete joy comes over me as I walk down North Terrace on the way to the tents. The day stretches ahead and there is nothing but pleasure to look forward to.

Wherever I am I make sure that I am back in Adelaide in time for Writers' Week. Year after year, weaving through the growing crowds in the hot autumn air, choosing seats under trees or umbrellas, meeting friends, long lunches in a bistro by the Torrens; it has gone on for 44 years.

Young hirsute men have grown into gentlemen with comb-overs who still attend. (Why won't they cut their hair?) We pregnant girls are grandmothers. I am one of the diminishing number who have never missed a Writers Week. Nor will I, I hope, until I fade like a dust mote floating from a tent into the autumn air.

DBC Pierre's second novel Ludmilla's Broken English is reviewed in "The Age", but the piece isn't on the website. I suspect you'll be seeing a lot of this book over the next week or so. Australian novels normally get about 3 weeks in the spotlight here, then it's "back to the garret for you boyo". James Ley finished his review with: "Can't wait for the third novel and a Triumphant Return to Form." Yeah, righto James. Just keep taking the tablets, all right?

M.J. Hyland had a bit of a hit with her first novel, and now presents the difficult follow-up. Gregory Day is impressed: "Carry Me Down is a heartrendingly domestic work full of compassion for the most ordinary of our human frailties, as parents, as children, as precocious solo flyers in the defiantly gravitational airs of life and as mediocre family groups stuck within our own blood dialects."

In "The Weekend Australian", Graeme Blundell profiles Australian crime writer Marshall Browne, best known for his Inspector Anders novels. The author has recently delivered the third in this series to his publisher as well as Rendezvous at Kamakura Inn, described as "a violent locked-door mystery set in a frozen Japanese retreat haunted by yakuza assassins." This looks like turning into a new series, as does his character Franz Schmidt in The Iron Heart, who previously appeared in The Eye of the Abyss in 2002. Keeping three series on the go will be a bit of a struggle but it will certainly keep the author busy.

Cath Kenneally reviews M.J. Hyland's Carry Me Down and tends to get a bit carried away I feel, invoking Salinger for Hyland's first novel, and Faulkner and James Joyce for this one. The kiss of death perhaps?

Pandanus Books is best known as a publisher of non-fiction titles dealing with the Pacific Rim and South-East Asia. Lately it has been branching out into fiction and its latest offering is Venom by Dorothy Horsefield. Lon Bram is quite taken with the book referring to it as a "gem".

There's also a review of the new DBC Pierre, and two collections of poetry given the once over by Barry Hill.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #8

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #7

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

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

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

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

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #5

The major piece in "The Age" this weekend is a profile, by Frances Atkinson, of Marion Halligan as she awaits the publication of her new book, The Apricot Colonel, in February. Her best line: "I don't think that getting published at a young age is necessarily a good thing. Authors have probably been thinking about their first book since they were teenagers, then suddenly they have to write a second book but they've haven't lived enough." With which I'd agree. Then again, I'm just a grumpy old bastard, so what do I know?

"The Age" leads off its Australian reviews this week with coverage of two collections of poetry: Friendly Fire by Jennifer Maiden, and Rattus Rattus: New and Selected Poems by Peter Rose. This is not a common occurrence and it makes a pleasant change, not that the review appears on the website. The reviewer, David McCooey, stakes his reviewing territory right up front: "Although marginal to our public culture, poets are routinely presented as shamans, bards and prophets. But such nostalgia merely confirms the poet's marginal status. In the light (or dark) or John Howard's sedition laws, we need poets attuned to the contemporary, to the urgency of our times." And other writers as well.

But he's talking about poetry collections here so we should let him get on with it. "Maiden is not afraid to theorise and in essay mode she is often epigrammatic...Her originality is partly in the deft way she combines the lyric mode with satire, verse essay, diary, and occasional verse. Her 'parallel' poems are tours de force that illustrate hidden connections between apparently divergent topics." He is also impressed with Rose: "In contrast, Peter Rose is a master of obliquity...[he] is also a brilliant stylist, and like the American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, he knows how to use adjectives. But his glittering surfaces aren't merely 'stylistic'." Which leads me to believe that I'd have to read the collections to figure out what he's on about; and his review does pique my interest, as he concludes: "Rose and Maiden are both acute observers of what it is like to navigate one's private life through the murky currents of the public world." 'Murky' is one way of putting it. I'd tend to be a little more scathing.

Stephanie Dowrick has written a self-help book titled Choosing Happiness: Life & Soul Essentials which is reviewed by Claire Scobie: "Ultimately it is Dowrick's honesty, that she is a 'patchy optimist still subject to self-doubts', combined with her huge heart, that lifts Choosing Happiness above others. This modern bible for the soul, teaching how to live an ordinary life with 'a more-than-ordinary awareness', should sit alongside our dictionaries and encyclopedias." But not for me I fear.

And in "The Sunday Age", Mike Shuttleworth of the Centre for Youth Literature (based at the State Library of Victoria), profiles Scott Westerfield. Scott is a semi-transplanted Texan living in Sydney. He and his partner, Justine Larbalestier, divide their time between Australia and New York, which seems a pretty reasonable way to spend a life.

In "The Australian", J.M. Coetzee discusses the trials and tribulations of literary translation. He seems generally pleased with the results so far, though a few amusing anecdotes are thrown in to lighten the tone. The essay is reprinted from the latest issue of Meanjin. I know I'm being churlish, but it would be nice if the paper could commission such articles on its own.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #4

Melbourne in the 1960s, a cultural desert, a culinary wasteland, or the beginnings of a quite liveable city? These questions are addressed in a new book, Go! Melbourne edited by Seamus O'Hanlon and Tanja Luckins, which is reviewed in this week's Saturday "Age". All the major cultural events of the 1960s appear to be covered: the six o'clock swill, Jean Shrimpton's mini-skirt at the Melbourne Cup, and the Beatles' visit in 1964. A high time would appear to have been had by all - and thank god we never have to go back there again.

Simon Casterton considers Kerry Greenwood's lastest Corinna Chapman mystery, Devil's Food, the third in the continuing series. "Readers who like their crime fiction chatty and relatively free of suspense may well warm to Corinna and we can all enjoy her recipes, an appetising selection of which is included at the back of the novel."

"The Australian" concludes its publication of Stephen King's story "Sword in the Darkness", but appears to have dropped last week's instalment and not included this week's on their website.

Francis De Groot achieved infamy in Australian history by "trumping of NSW premier Jack Lang by slashing the ceremonial ribbon with his sword to 'open' the Sydney Harbour Bridge on March 19, 1932". Now, the first biography of the man Francis De Groot: Irish Fascist, Australian Legend, has been produced by Andrew Moore, and reviewed by Baron Adler.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #3

"The Age" and "The Australian" both score exclusive coups this weekend, with Kate Grenville publishing "Between Two Men", an extract from her most recent novel, The Secret River, that she had reluctantly edited out, and Stephen King appearing in "The Australian" with a previously unpublished short story "Sword in the Darkness"- more on that later.

Grenville explains that she had to cut the piece here because "As a stand-alone scene, this fictional re-working of the historical moment seemed to work. But as part of a novel, it had two big problems. First it was too quick. What happened on the frontier was a process, not a moment...The other problem was that it was confusing in view of later events." She goes on to say that though cutting this scene hurt it gave her "an understanding of the shifts of feeling that would be the basis for the novel."

A good idea this. I expect The Secret River to feature pretty strongly in various awards during 2006. Seeing how the novel came into being, even if only in this small context, is very interesting. Normally, we have to wait years for this material to see the light of day.

There appears to be a movement at "The Age" website to reduce the number of book reviews reproduced from the print edition. Why this is so I have no idea. I know it's a quiet time in Australian publishing, after the big rush to get everything out for the Christmas and summer reading binge, but surely they could put the reviews of Australian books up on their website. It's not as if they are going to lose readers this way. The only reviews added this weekend are those of a biography of photographer-model Lee Miller (not interested) and of Capote's forgotten novel Summer Crossing, again not interested. So my views on what should be available is moving well away from what the editors produce. I can't see us getting closer any time soon.

In the print edition, we have Jim Davidson's review of Australian Dictionary of Biography: Supplement 1580-1980 edited by Christopher Cunneen, from Melbourne University press, which at $74.95 is aimed more at the researcher than the general reader I suspect.

"The Australian"'s coup of the week is to run the world's first publication of Stephen King's story "Sword in the Darkness" - well, the first part of it anyway. The conclusion will be published next week. The story is from a new collection of King's work, Stephen King: Unpublished, Uncollected, from Kanrock Publishing, a new press out of Mulgrave here in Melbourne.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #2

The "essay", that bastard of a thing we used to call "composition" back when I was in primary school, is having a big revival in Australia. I am in no position to make a definitive case as to when this happened, but Peter Craven's annual series of "Best Australian Essays" (dating from 1998) and the "Quarterly Essay" also edited by him, and both from Black Inc Publishing, must have had something to do with it. Yes, essays have been all around us since the year dot and I used to read the ones which caught my eye in the papers, but having them collected into one volume and having new and interesting essays presented as if they had a life-span of longer than two days, certainly galvanised readers' interest; this reader anyway.

This increasing interest has paved the way for single-author essay collections to be published in this country. Previously you'd have to be Clive James, Helen Garner, Tim Flannery or Peter Singer to get a gig like that. Now Giramondo Press has released The Bone House by Beverly Farmer, and Chihuahuas, Women and Me by Louis Nowra into the field. The two books are reviewed by Peter Pierce, professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University, in this weekend's "The Age". Nowra described his collection as "a parade of my obsessions and enthusiams and, as such, could be read as a memoir", which Pierce seems pretty impressed with: "This is a book of intelligence, wit, good sense as well as ample evidence of folly. There are few Australian writers of Nowra's scope and challenge to us." On the other hand, or maybe the same one, depending on how you look at it, he finds Farmer's collection "is organised digressively; proceeds by association. It is a commonplace book, a mosaic of thoughts, an assembly of quotations and scraps of knowledge that review and reveal the writer's mind and perceptions." Which strikes me as being what we're after: "This ambitious hybrid of a book is striking, rewarding, always skirting pretentiousness, gloomy, yet written in the hope of renewal."

[Comment: no posting of this review on the website. C'mon guys, it's Australian, get your acts together.]

Myth Maker. Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett: The Englishman Who Sparked Australia's Gallipoli Legend by Fred and Elizabeth Brenchley is reviewed by Christpher Bantick. I've previously expressed my amusement at books with long titles like this so I'll resist the urge to get stuck in on that score this time, other than to say that half this title could have been left out and it wouldn't have affected the final product. The view that Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett was responsible for initiating the Australian public's interest in Gallipoli was started by the late Lloyd Robson, a Melbourne University historian. "This book develops Robson's thesis that it was Ashmead-Bartlett's reports from the front that largely shaped Australia's sense of the Gallipoli legend. The longevity of Ashmead-Bartlett's opinions and observations are measured out in how Australians still regard their Gallipoli heroes." Odd timing for this book. You'd think that nearer to Anzac day in April might have been a better publication date.

"The Australian" appears to be still on an extended Australian literature summer holiday.

Weekend Round-Up 2006 #1

I skipped last week's instalment as it was the Christmas/New Year period, the heat was roaring, the barbecue was grilling and sitting in front of a computer terminal did not appeal in the slightest. As I recall you didn't miss much.

Jeffrey Smart is one of Australia's great modern artists, and I'm astounded by the people who never seem to have heard of him but who indicate instant recognition when they see his work (see here for some examples). I wonder if this means that the art is more famous than the artist, or something else. Anyway in "The Age" this week Ian Britain (editor of Meanjin) reviews Margaret Olley: Far From a Still Life by Meg Stewart and Jeffrey Smart by Barry Pearce, but there doesn't appear to be an entry for it on the website.

Nothing much is shared by Olley and Smart except their medium and their creative resilience. Yet that is sufficient perhaps to prompt some reflection on whether the very exercise of painting, the amount of physical stamina it involves, the demands of a direct and constant visual engagement with an external world, the tactility and ooze of paint itself, are greater regenerative forces than the disciplines, tools and sensory focus of the average writer or composer.

Neither book reviewed here explicitly addresses such questions, yet each provides recurrent testimony to the therapeutic or recuperative qualities of the act of painting: its power to dissipate more than abet any self-destructive, over-introspective moods occasioned by emotional setbacks or physical afflictions in the painter's life.

We do, however, have access to Michael Gordon's review of Graham Freudenberg's autobiography A Figure of Speech: A Political Memoir. Speechwriter for any number of Labor leaders from Arthur Caldwell to Bob Carr over a 43-year career, Freudenberg's insights into the political left in Australia provide very interesting reading: "What comes through is history's capacity to repeat itself in different guises, with the challenges Labor faces today - addressing its own failings, preparing a platform and resonating with the people - bearing more than a faint resemblance to those met by Whitlam in the wilderness years."

In "The Australian" I couldn't find anything Australian being reviewed. It's that time of year. Everyone's at the beach.

Weekend Round-Up #50

The big entry in "The Age" on the weekend was the listing of best books of the year - this time chosen by writers. The books that kept on appearing include: The Secret River by Kate Grenville, The Broken Shore by Peter Temple, and The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer.

Clive James has a new collection of essays out titled The Meaning of Recognition: New Essays 2001-2005. And as Peter Craven says: "Clive James is one of the most accomplished essayists alive and on a good day the boy from Kogarah, who went on to shine at the highbrow and popular ends of television, will make you think that reading an essay (or even that near relation, a sustained intellectual article) can still be the kind of joy it was when Cleopatra held the pen or Hazlitt." James appears to have given up fiction, which is probably a good thing as his best work is done in the fields of personal memoir and essays. This looks like a pretty good collection.

Bryce Courtenay is one of Australia's best-selling authors and with his 12th book, Whitethorn, he returns to his native South Africa which he hasn't revisited since his first novel, The Power of One. It's good to see this book being reviewed in "The Age", not because Courtenay needs the publicity, but because there is always too much speculation that review editors don't like his work and omit any mention of it. On the plus, and minus, sides:

The Power of One and Whitethorn illustrate Courtenay's abiding love for the country of his birth. Indeed, reference is made in Whitethorn to Alan Paton's classic novel of heart-sore Africa, Cry, the Beloved Country. Courtenay, however, is no Paton. His writing swells with melodrama and there is little here that is aphoristic or restrained. Instead there are many stories, and stories within stories within stories. This crowded canvas creates a sense of the writer wanting to cover every angle; an anxiety that people may know the shame and the pain of what has been hidden; an anxiety also that people know the richness and beauty and generosity of his country.

Sounds like it will sell in bucket loads.

James Bradley looks at the annual offerings from Blank Inc of The Best Australian Essays 2005 edited by Robert Dessaix, and The Best Australian Stories 2005 edited by Frank Moorhouse. This is a big review of two impoertant collections so I'm at a loss as to why the piece isn't on the website. Of the Essays: "it's also possible that Dessaix's selections are a little too polite for some tastes. There's little anger...but these quibbles aside, much of the material in Dessaix's Essays is at least very good and often better." Perfect summer reading in my view: short and sharp, quaffable or sippable, and allowing for further follow-ups. In the Stories, Moorhouse has followed his 2004 approach of making a public call for submissions. So what we have is a combination of "New Writing" and "Best Of". Maybe Black Inc could opt for two collections, each following their titles rather than attempting to combine the two: "...there seems something deliberately perverse in publishng a collection of this sort and not using it to draw together material that speaks to the depth as well as the breadth of Australian writing, particularly in a year as bountiful as 2005."

I've always been impressed with Martin Flanagan's work as a journalist and now he has co-written a book with his father Arch, titled: The Line: A Man's Experience of the Burma Railway; A Son's Quest to Understand. The war and Arch's life might well be the main topic of this book, but, as Tony Thompson points out, the younger Flanagan may be aiming at something else: "This meditation on his relationship with his father is raw and, at times, painful. There is a deep love and respect that shines from this book and he captures something fundamental about what it is to be a son. This may be the real subject of the book."

Also reviewed: The Wreck of the Batavia & Prosper by Simon Leys.

It's a busy time of year so everything is cut short. The major Australian fiction review in "The Australian" is Liam Davison's look at Summer at Mount Hope by Rosalie Ham: "While it's the social and romantic intrigue that carries the story, it's Ham's wickedly black humour and finely researched social observation that deliver the real joy of the book."

Weekend Round-Up #49

Hazel Rowley's big new biography Tête-à-Tête: The Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre is reviewed by Judith Armstrong in Saturday's "The Age". The more I read about Sartre the more I'm convinced he was a total shit. Maybe if de Beauvoir had just lined him up and decked him, she, him, and all the rest of us might have been better off. Somehow or other "Rowley is scrupulous in with-holding judgement, but the story she tells points to conclusions she doesn't want to make. There are lies, damn lies and existential lies -- but these last don't count."

Arabella Edge's first book was The Company which told the story of the wreck of the Batavia on the West Australian coast in 1682. Now she returns with The God of Spring which concerns another shipwreck, this time the Medusa in 1816; famously depicted by Theodore Gericault's enormous painting. Juliette Hughes is intrigued by the book: "There is a curious formulaic flatness to the prose here, with nothing at all new in it. Yet as one plunges further into the book, the writing takes on a compelling vividness that keeps the pages turning...You come away from it thinking of art, politics and the sheer strangeness of things."

Thuy On has a look at Rosalie Ham's second novel Summer at Mount Hope and finds that the novel is "more unabashed romance set against a backdrop of grapes, dust and drought than a historical document. This is light summer reading; a period-drama with the requisite sunny, fluffy-cloud ending." Probably a good time to publish it then.

In his short notes on fiction, Cameron Woodhead says: "Until you've read the Cliff Hardy series, you can't call yourself an aficiando of Aussie detective fiction." I read the first three or four back in the 1980s but haven't revisted the series since then. Might be time to catch up.

The Barry McKenzie films, those cringe-making comedies of the 1970s, have been re-evaluated by Tony Moore in his new book The Barry McKenzie Movies - what, no subtitle? In "The Weekend Australian" Peter Coleman puts his view of it right up front: "The riddle that Tony Moore sets out to crack in his new tribute to Barry Humphries is how Humphries can be at once aesthetic and vulgar, mad and cool, abstemious and reckless, conservative and destructive, among other inconsistencies. The usual answer is that Humphries is a comic genius. Consistency has nothing to do with it." And neither it should.

Terry Dowling gives a good notice to Lucy Sussex's new collection A Tour Guide in Utopia which "brings together 12 stories by one of our leading fantasists. Alongside unsettling tales of urban disquiet such as La Sentinelle and The Ghost of Mrs Rochester we have stylish takes on some of SF's best-loved themes with The Lottery and the title story. Erudite and classy, this collection shows again that Sussex is a master of the short form."

Weekend Round-Up #48

Gerald Murnane is one of those Australian authors who work on the margins of the literary world; popping up occasionally with a new work and then completely disappearing again. His first work was Tamarisk Row back in 1974 which was followed by his best-known work, The Plains, published by Norstrilia Press in 1982. Now he's published a collection of essays titled Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, which is reviewed in "The Age" this week by Michael Epis. And Epis is quite impressed with the works presented here: "Gerald Murnane writes fiction like no one else. His essays read much like his fiction - which means he writes essays like no one else...He's funny - and the most serious of writers. These essays reveal the unique cast of mind that produced Murnane's seven works of fiction, which, he makes clear here, are unlikely to be added to. Although never a player of postmodern games, the fictionality of fiction is always present to him."

Chrissy Amphlett, as lead singer of the 1980s Australian rock band The Divinyls, had a stage presence like no other: combine equal parts Tina Turner and Deborah Harry, up the raunch and the volume and you might be getting somewhere near the mark. She has now retired from the music scene and has written an autobiography, Pleasure and Pain: My Life by Chrissy Amphlett & Larry Writer, which appears to reflect her performance on stage: "Driven by a furious ambition that seems to draw strength from frank distrust and a brutal disregard of others, the self-portrait that emerges from these dark and often bitter pages is close to psychopathic. What it says more generally, about rock'n'roll and what people will do to sell it, is no less horrifying...This is true grit and grime with a middle finger raised in perpetuity, albeit in a splint. Wannabe rock monsters, consider your research done."

If Wilfred Burchett was alive today he'd probably be languishing in some god-forsaken prison facing unspecified charges in our "war against terror". A new work on Burchett, Memoirs of a Rebel Journalist: The Autobiography of Wilfred Burchett edited by George Burchett and Nick Shimmin, is reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald in "The Weekend Australian".

Ii is hard to think of anyone in the world other than that lone-wolf Aussie journalist Wilfred Burchett who was on intimate terms with Ho Chi Minh, Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger. And it is difficult to think of any 20th-century writer and reporter other than John Pilger who has so polarised critical opinion about himself.

There are those such as Bertrand Russell who heaped praise on him for single-handedly alerting Western public opinion to the struggle of the Vietnamese people against the American aggressors. And there are commentators, including Robert Manne, who see Burchett as an unreconstructed Stalinist and a traitor to the country of his birth.

Bit of an interesting bloke then.

Weekend Round-Up #47

I've been reading Garry Disher's Wyatt novels lately and have been greatly impressed by the rapid-fire action and relentless sense of menace. His new novel Snapshot has been published and reviewed in "The Weekend Age" by Jeff Glorfeld. This is Disher's third Inspector Challis mystery and, as usual, "starts with sleaze and swiftly moves to murder." You feel you're on safe ground already.

Disher lays it all out with his usual masterful feel for pacing, which is deceptive to say the least; the story develops slowly and is never rushed. There isn't much inspired sleuthing. Yet, as the case unfolds and the characters move deeper into their personal dramas, the feeling of expectation and suspense builds almost imperceptibly to a heightened pitch and to a satisfying payoff. As with all good crime series, Disher leaves us ready for the next story.

It appears, though, that all the big Australian Christmas books are now out on the shelves beyond reviews and waiting to be snapped up and placed under the tree. It's a wonder, then, why anyone would want to publish first novels in such a climate. But that is what a short story writer, Paddy O'Reilly, and a poet, Alex Skovron, have just done. The books are reviewed by Lisa Gorton:

O'Reilly's "The Factory is a beautifully crafted and intriguing novel; so closely worked and self-consistent each part carries its full effect. The intricate plotting -- the way it pieces each part of the story together -- equals the way individuals find themselves bound to a group. And the writing, with its watchfulness -- its close observation of people and places -- creates a world at once lonely and claustrophobic."

Skovron's "The Poet has the still quality of a fable...Skovron is a precise and lucid poet with a rich understanding of music...He truns to prose, then, not for the force of time a story brings into play -- its involvement of cause and effects -- but for the extension of space it allows his images; as a way of finding poetry's place in the world."

On the other hand, Owen Richardson is not very impressed with Elizabeth Stead's The Book of Tides, the main area of interest being that the author is Christina Stead's niece and that the novel is based on Christina's father who also inspired her masterpiece The Man Who Loved Children -- which languishes on the to-be-read pile still, mumble.

Given we are moving rapidly towards summer I guess it's only logical that "The Australian" should look at three books related to Antarctic and Arctic exploration.

Peter Corris deals with two of them; he seems somewhat disappointed with The Last Explorer by Simon Nasht. He starts off being interested by the subject: "All accounts agree that [George Hubert] Wilkins was tall, although they do not say how tall, and athletic, although there is no record of him hitting, throwing or kicking a ball. His premature baldness, attested to by photographs, was not a plus but he sported a handsome beard by way of compensation. Wilkins was something like Flight Lieutenant Bigglesworth, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, Ludwig Leichhardt and Captain Nemo all rolled into one." But realises that, despite the war heroics and feats of exploration "Nasht provides very little of the inner man...Those concerned with conflicts within the human character and the interplay between personalities would be advised to look elsewhere."

Corris thinks more of David Crane's book Scott of the Antarctic: "In Crane's view, Scott was a far more interesting character than merely a pawn in a game of changing values over time. He deems him the most interesting of the explorers of the heroic age and suggests that had he not become famous, his life story, with its twists and turns, was the stuff of novelists such as George Eliot." And yet, Corris, hard task-master that he is, comes away with a felling of something lacking: "In the end, I don't think Crane has made his case for the legendary status of Scott and his endeavours. It is partly the fault of the enterprise. Before the era of ice-breaker ships, aeroplanes, motorised snow vehicles and sound nutritional knowledge, Antarctic exploration was foolhardy. It resembled the American exploration of space: motivated by hubris, apt to go wrong, wasteful of resources and of little benefit to anyone." Forget how he got there and what he did, I reckon it's to do with how he died.

Milton Osborne looks at T.W. Edgeworth David: A Life by David Branagan, and wonders why David is forgotten when his junior colleague Douglas Mawson is revered. There is a bit of a connection here between reviewer and biography subject (reviewer's father was a student of David, and reviewer carries "Edgeworth" as a second given name) so we need to read between the lines a little. Stll the question needs to eb asked: "why, with so many achievements, did this man slip from common memory? Unlike Mawson, he was self-effacing, although that is not meant as a criticism of Mawson. But David's descriptive powers, so apparent in his private letters, did not become the basis of a bestseller in its time as with Mawson's The Home of the Blizzard. Outstanding an individual as he was, David was perhaps too much a man of his time to be much remembered after World War II, too much the 'perfect gentle knight' as a contemporary dubbed him. Whatever the explanation, Branagan has done a sterling job in recovering his importance, not least in terms of his clear account of David's significance to Australian geology."

Weekend Round-Up #46

The late Frank Hardy is the focus of some attention in "The Age" this weekend, with an excerpt on Saturday from Frank Hardy: Politics, Literature, Life by Jenny Hocking and a review of the book on Sunday. This follows on from Jason Steger's profile of Hocking the previous week. As you can tell, Hardy still packs a punch nearly 12 years after his death.

Commemorating the 30th anniversary of what many considered a political coup d'etat (the 11th November 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Federal Labor Government by the then Governor-General John Kerr) are three books that are reviewed in the paper but which are not on the website: The Truth of the Matter by Gough Whitlam, The Dismissal edited by Sybil Nolan, and The Great Crash. It was interesting in the week leading up to the anniversary to hear ex-Prime Minister Paul Keating say that he had suggested that Whitlam should just have placed Kerr under house-arrest, and then just carried on. I'm actually not sure that would have helped in the slightest.

Alex Miller's new novel Prochownik's Dream is reviewed in the Saturday "Age" by James Ley. If you're quick you can get to listen to a podcast of Miller being interviewed by Ramona Kaval on the ABC's Books and Writing program. This is from the 13th November program and I notice there is a transcript of the interview also available. While Ley can see the qualities in the book he is ultimately unmoved by the characters and the drama:

Prochownik's Dream makes a concerted effort to shed some light on the complicated psychological processes that are at work in the artist as he attempts to transform the raw materials of life into art. It is, nevertheless, rather disappointing.

Artists ask to be indulged in order to create; in a sense, they are also asking to be indulged when they make their work public and invite us to consider their creation. This attention is willingly granted, but in return we might reasonably hope for something a little more compelling than Prochownik's Dream.

Christopher Bantick is impressed with John Marsden's latest young adult novel, Incurable: The Ellie Chronicles. This continues the story of Ellie from Marsden's big-selling "Tomorrow When the War Began" series.

Marsden is a master storyteller. He is capable of writing with both versatility and considerable emotional range. Ellie Linton is feisty, fair and honest....

Above all, Marsden respects his young audience. In Tomorrow When the War Began Ellie writes: "Recording what we've done, in words, on paper, it's got to be our way of telling ourselves that we mean something, that we matter."

Agnes Nieuwenhuizen is profiled in "The Age" this week as she approaches retirement from her position as manager of the Melbourne-based Australian Centre for Youth Literature in Melbourne. A formidable presence she has done great work setting up the Centre and ensuring its continuity after her departure.

Not much else floating around this weekend, so that'll have to do.

Weekend Round-Up #45

It's obviously the gift-buying season as more and more "big" books come onto the market in Australia each week. The big one this week in "The Age" is Steve Waugh's autobiography, Out of my Comfort Zone. For those not in the know, Waugh is the most successful cricket captain in Australian test history, the second-highest run-scorer ever (until Brian Lara overtakes him in the next few weeks), and appeared in more Test matches than anyone else, from any country. He played the game hard, but fair; relentless but sometimes went too far, or allowed his team-mates to overstep the bounds. In other words, a fully rounded individual who grew up on the world stage. So his autobiography is of more than usual interest - well, okay I'm a bit of a cricket nut and I always liked Waugh's style of play, so I'm a bit biased. Steven Carroll probably fits into that mold as well - his most recent novel, The Gift of Speed is set against the background of a West Indies cricket tour of the early 1960s - and his review is fairly even handed:

In most cases you don't read the autobiography of distinguished sporting figures on the chance that they may be an Anton Chekhov as well. We generally read their tales because of what the teller knows.

Many are written in conjunction with a journalist - the "as told to ..." variety of memoir. There are three noteworthy things to say about Steve Waugh's autobiography. First, he wrote it himself. Second, he can write (it's a cut above the usual sporting memoir). Third, he wrote too much.

More is never enough for a Test batsman. Often enough for a writer, though, less is more. You don't have to cover everything. In most cases, the fewer the words, the fewer the events and moving parts in the story you have to tell, the stronger the impact.

From some of his published statements I suspect that even Waugh thinks it might be too long. In any event, I think this one might just well end up in my Christmas stocking.

Simon Caterson catches up with the latest Tom Keneally, The Commonwealth of Thieves, and the delay here is not such a bad thing: it gives the reviewer time to ponder the issues properly. His main point being the comparison between this book of Keneally's and Robert Hughes's earlier The Fatal Shore:

Keneally's new account of the First Fleet has already been discussed in the media as rivalling Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore and indeed there is a crucial difference in outlook between the two.

Biographically, Hughes and Keneally have much in common in terms of age and background but the attitude each has to the founding of Australia diverges markedly. As the titles of the two books suggest, Keneally's vision is basically positive, whereas Hughes is inclined to the negative.

Hughes characterises the convict settlement as a gulag but Keneally tends to view the new colony as a kind of demi-Eden, an opportunity in practical terms to build a new and more humane society out of the brutal excesses of its imperial progenitor.

Continuing the interesting run of Australian novels that have been published this year is Roger McDonald's The Ballad of Desmond Kale. This novel also continues a general theme and subject-matter that has been used a bit this year: the early European settlement of Australia and the relationship between the new settlers and the indigenous population, see also Keneally and Grenville. Peter Pierce, professor of Australian literature at James Cook University, looks at the novel: "McDonald's is a big, ambitious book, a winding tale that takes its due time. There are detours for intriguing subplots - a pregnancy, a feud between half-brothers, a shipwreck, the attempted theft of a map to the fabled inland of the colony, political intrigue over the governing of NSW. There is much detail about the breeding of sheep - the quality of their wool in consequence, the character of the men who are expert in this."

Stella Clarke also considers at the McDonald novel in "The Weekend Australian" and is pretty impressed: "ROGER McDonald is a riot. This story is balladry of distinction, laid out in prose. He combines a love of intrigue and high adventure with a defiant, lyrical, vigorous way of telling...Here are art and excitement, mixed to magnificent strength. Here are pain and passion, eased through the circumspect medium of a charismatic, old-fashioned style, then springing at you in a gutsy twist of phrase."

I don't get the "Sydney Morning Herald" delivered and had been hoping that their new, improved book review website might offer something of interest, as it did last week. But it hasn't been updated yet. Time to get a schedule in place methinks.

[Update: It's the Wednesday after the weekened and the SMH have now updated their book review website. No new Australian books reviewed however.]

Weekend Round-Up #44

There's a big Australian range of books in this weekend's "Weekend Australian", especially Australian history. Robert Murray reviews and compares The Commonwealth of Thieves by Tom Keneally and Australia Our Heritage: A History of a Nation by John Molony. As he says, the early European settlement history of Australia "was not the stuff of conspicuous glamour, of adventure novels, operas, musicals, epic poems or colourful heroes; everybody was just too damned sensible." And this "overpowering presence of common sense pervades Keneally's story, so that it is not often a ripping yarn, but it is nevertheless probably the best book yet of many written on the foundations of Sydney, and also the beneficiary of much work by others during the past 40 years.

"The obvious comparison is with Robert Hughes's showier The Fatal Shore. Hughes squeezed out more drama, more blood, intestines and artistic heightening to produce an international bestseller. The Commonwealth of Thieves is more detailed, richer in context, more serious in purpose and careful with the truth. It requires concentrated reading but lingers in the memory."

And: "Sensible, methodical, competent and workmanlike are also good descriptions for John Molony's general history of Australia, up to the minute about prehistory, environment and Aborigines. Both writers strive for the difficult balance between Aborigines and whites, between convicts and others down the pile with authority. Molony is a notch left of centre but otherwise history warriors will find few easy targets. He packs the information in concisely, from the Dreamtime through James Cook to Philip Ruddock and the asylum-seekers, though sometimes it has the bumpy feel of a peak-hour bus. Much is familiar, of course, but it seems well suited to students and other newcomers to Australian history."

Continuing the theme are reviews of The Life of George Bass: Surgeon and Sailor of the Enlightenment by Miriam Estensen: "Miriam Estensen's biography of Bass is a careful, detailed account of the surgeon and explorer and makes a companion volume of sorts to her book The Life of Matthew Flinders, Bass having been both friend and inspiration to that young man"; The Ship Thieves by Sian Rees: "Rees writes a coherent story, steering through the gaps in documented knowledge with a light hand"; and The Fatal Voyage: Captain Cook's Last Great Journey by Peter Aughton: "It is a good summary if you want to know what happened on that dramatic, tragic voyage but have no deeper interest or patience for complexity".

Frank Moorhouse has written Martini: A memoir that Michael Sharkey finds is "at once a memoir and a celebration of the good life and the martini considered as fine art. Sober reflections, drolleries, causeries and mock Platonic dialogues on transient pleasures are interwoven in an elegant series of interlinked narratives and proses to be taken in sips, rather as Montaigne's essays and the maxims of La Rochefoucauld are to be savoured, not swilled."

Reprinted from "The New York Times" is William Grimes's review of Tête-à-Tête: The Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre by Hazel Rowley. The main news: they had feet of clay, and Sartre was a right bastard. Quelle surprise!

Liam Davidson is intrigued by Heather Rose's The Butterfly Man, which continues the story of Lord Lucan after he fled London 31 years ago after the death of his children's nanny. He finished up at the ends of the world, ie Tasmania.

Nicholas Jose's new novel Original Face is described as ethnic noir with a twist. "Jose's deeper themes comes into focus and, perhaps subsconsciously, readers realise they have been hoping for something such as this almost from the first pages: the chance for Original Face to transcend its genre foundations and become much greater than the sum of its parts. It does."

The Saturday "Age" has changed the layout of its book review pages, now incorporating them into a "Culture and Life" lift-out which is in a saddle-stapled tabloid format - similar that used by "The Weekend Ausralian". I think this style works particularly well for these contents as it differentiates them from the rest of the paper and makes it easier to read aroundthe house, and during the week on the train.

The major piece in the "Age" this weekend is a large profile of Alex Miller timed to coincide with the release of his latest novel Prochownik's Dream. Jane Sullivan does a good job with this giving a good outline of Miller's life and work and how it has come together in his new novel.

Crime novelist and ex-journalist Peter Temple considers two new Australian dictionaries in The Macquarie Dictonary and The Collins Australian Dictionary. He's not overly impressed with either of them.

Morag Fraser, Miles Franklin award judge etc etc, is impressed with Geoffrey Blainey's A Short History of the Twentieth Century. "He understands technology, indeed he has spent much of his work as a historian detailing its sources and development. He understands democracy and its inherent tensions. He has lived through wars and seen their fruits - invention as well destruction. His history of the 20th century holds good and evil in balance."

Short notices are given to: Dance of the Nomad: A Study of the Selected Notebooks of A.D. Hope by Ann McCulloch: "Consider the notebooks, she suggests, to be pathways in a maze - separate but connected".

Australian fiction also looms large in the "Sydney Morning Herald" with Susan Wyndham's review of The Ballad of Desmond Kale by Roger McDonald. It's turning out to be a big year in Australian literary fiction.

Short notices are given to: My Spin on Cricket by Richie Benaud: "This is a strange book that is more like a written cricket commentary than a piece of organised prose writing. Richie Benaud simply chats away about anything that takes his fancy"; Designated Targets: World War 2.2 by John Birmingham: "John Birmingham is a skilful and engaging writer in a broad range of contexts".

Weekend Round-Up #43

In the "Weekend Age" this week Jeff Sparrow looks at Freeing Ali: The Human Face Of The Pacific Solution by Michael Gordon, whose "slim book traces his attempts to visit the offshore detention centre at Nauru, a surreal place rendered so poor by the collapse of the phosphate industry that its Government worries about repo-men seizing the one aeroplane in its fleet." I find it impossible to write about this despicable episode with getting incandescently angry. How our current Prime Minister can think this "Pacific solution" to the "refugee crisis" was a success is beyond me. The important point, as Sparrow puts it is that "when politicians portray people as objects, it's all too likely something inhuman is happening."

As a reader I have a long-term interest in the human race's myths and legends so Dating Aphrodite: Modern Adventures in the Ancient World by Luke Slattery might be the book for me. John Armstrong finds that "Is is hard to imagine a more companionable guide to the myths and heroes, ideas and attitudes of the ancient Greeks and Romans than Luke Slattery. He weaves his elegant discussions of the stories and personalities of the ancient world into the narrative of his own wanderings on classic soil." Which sounds like a good way to introduce the stories - a mixture of "the genres of travel writing and ancient history". And it's good to see that the author doesn't trivialise his subject-matter: "Slattery's work is representative of a movement in modern thought - one that, as yet, has no special name. He is unafraid of being serious. He wants to understand and discuss the great topics of life; but he is generous and easy with his knowledge; he focuses on why ideas matter, how they connect with experience."

Short notices are given to : The Life of George Bass by Miriam Estensen: "In this fine portrait of Bass, Miriam Estensen reveals a man whose great intellect, curiosity and hunger for adventure typified the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment"; By the Seat of My Pants edited by Don George: "Most of the stories have the quality of an extended, fleshed-out and well-told anecdote -- nothing profound but consistently entertaining"; Bumageddon: The Final Pongflict by Andy Griffiths: "...the final book in Andy Griffith's cheeky best-selling trilogy, set in a world where the buttocks are revolting, in more ways than one"; Remarkable Maps edited by John O. E. Clarke: "Considering the breadth and complexity of the subject, John Clarke has chosen a dazzling selection of maps both beautiful and important"; Banana Heart Summer by Merlinda Bobis: "Bobis has done a great service to her sisters in Australia - the perjoratively termed Filipino brides. I now have and understanding of what they left behind - their poor homes, their hearts and their fragrant food."

In "The Australian" the big new work of Australian fiction is Prochownik's Dream by Alex Miller. "Underneath the surface story is a thesis: although art and life don't fit together well, it's the attempts to solve that problem, emotional disasters and all, that give rise to art in the first place...The main story-line isn't really the point of the novel. It's what is just out of eyeshot, just out of focus, that is most important."

Matthew Reilly might not be everyone's cup of tea, but we have to admit he's found a literary genre that brings him remarkable success" some two million sales worldwide isn't to be scoffed at. His latest book, Seven Ancient Wonders is reviewed in this weekend's "Sydney Morning Herald". "Popular fiction may not provide the aesthetic pleasure or ambiguous meanings of literary fiction, but the likes of Reilly's Seven Ancient Wonders dispense instant therapy: escapist solutions to our anxieties. Reilly's ironic celebration of Australia at the end of Seven Ancient Wonders will make you laugh out loud. And laughing, Reilly implies, is one way to resist fear."

The "SMH" also reviews: Original Face by Nicholas Jose, "a rich portrayal of Chinese expatriate culture in a fast-paced thriller", and Secrets of the Jury Room by Malcolm Knox, that I commented on last week.

Weekend Round-Up #42

"The Age" this weekend doesn't cover much in the way of Australian literature - either fiction or non-fiction: the only book I can find in the Review pages is Ariel Levy's Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of the Raunch Culture, which is reviewed by Sophie Cunningham.

"Levy sets out to describe and analyse what happens when you combine feminist notions of empowerment, consumer culture and the old-fashioned objectification of women. The result is raunch culture: the mainstreaming of an aesthetic based on strippers and porn, and a sexuality based on performance."

Those aspects of male behaviour which were despised by women of my generation now seem to have been taken up by a younger set. Still: "The book is an important and engagingly written beginning to what will be a noisy, but necessary argument. "'It can be fun to feel exceptional - to be the loophole woman . . . but if you are the exception that proves the rule, and the rule is that women are inferior, you haven't made any progress.'"

Short notices are given to: Rubdown by Leigh Redhead: "The recent onslaught of banal chick-lit has driven me into the arms of crime and I must say I'm much happier there. Particularly with Leigh Redhead's protagonist, private investigator Simone Kirsch. No coyness here, no drivelling about marrying Mr Right and getting into size eight Lisa Ho jeans"; Shadows of War by Ryoko Adachi and Andrew McKay: "Together they interviewed 40-odd people and sent questionnaires to 180 more about their experiences of the Japanese in World War II and their current attitude to their former enemy"; Overland: The Years of Unleavened Bread, Again edited by Nathan Hollier; Phallic Panic by Barbara Creed: "Creed's readings of these outrageous texts [horror novels and movies] are lucid and well-written but beneath her orderly theoretical procedures you can feel the intoxication with the terrible beauty of horror cinema: putting down this book I could feel a Freddy Krueger marathon coming on".

"The Weekend Australian" does somewhat better on the Australian front but, as usual, keeps the bulk of the book reviews to its printed version.

Arabella Edge, whose previous book was The Company about the wreck of the Batavia off the west coast of Australia in 1629, returns with The God of Spring, about the shipwreck of the Medusa off the west coast of Africa in 1816. This was the wreck that inspired Theodore Gericault to paint his masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa. "What really seems to be going on in The God of Spring is the problem of retelling...The author is retelling Gericault's story, and he is retelling in paint the story of the poor souls who survived. The survivors are retelling their own story, each with different motivations. Not everyone wants the story to equal the truth." Which probably gives some hint as to the problems the reviewer finds with the book: "This is a ripping yarn but, although the prose never lets up the predominant colour is purple and the characterisation is flat. It is a historical novel that leaves you craving a history book."

Gerald Murnane's new book Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs is reviewed by Christpher Bantick: "This is a book of quiet wisdom and generous heart, although many will still identify with Murnane when he says that 'writing never explains anything for me - it only shows me how stupendously complicated everything is.'"

In "The Sydney Morning Herald", Peter Christoff is wildly enthusiatic about Tim Flannery's latest The Weather Changers:

"His skills as a writer and ability to stir up public debate are widely recognised and, here, keenly deployed. Like Jared Diamond and Stephen Jay Gould, he has the ability, rare in Australia, to take complex ideas and - seemingly effortlessly - make them accessible. This is his most powerfully engaged book and contains some of his finest prose. Employing a broad vision of geological time, Flannery explains the mechanisms that have driven the planet's climate. He brings to life the world that laid down our store of fossil fuels just as effectively as he popularises the theories of Milankovitch, a relatively obscure but brilliant theorist of the Earth's ice ages.

"This book captures your imagination through its extraordinary range of argument, its vivid imagery, its wealth of research, quick wit and richness of detail. It succeeds where equally worthy but more prosaic recent books have failed. Given the span of issues - the origins of fossil fuels and the composition of our atmosphere; theories of ice ages past, the possibilities of a new ice age and the potential sources of climate catastrophe; the extinction of mammals in the New Guinea highlands; the future of the Great Barrier Reef; geosequestration and emissions trading; the future of hydrogen power, geothermal power, wind power and much more - you need to read it carefully, twice."

Weekend Round-Up #41

Tim Flannery is a biologist, the director of the South Australian Museum and and resident reviewer of Natural History books for "The New York Review of Books". He's also the author of a number of works himself and his latest book, The Weather Makers, is reviewed in "The Weekend Age" by Ian Lowe. Flannery looks at the effects of the changing climate on bio-diversity and ecological systems. This is becoming a very "political" debate of late; and I mean that in the worst possible sense. Small disagreements are blown up out of all proportion and minor errors or omissions are used to debase arguments while ignoring the main points being made. In other words we're fiddling at the edges. The trouble is book reviews have to do this to some extent, and while Lowe has some disgreements and quibbles with parts of Flannery's arguments, he does state: "If you are not yet convinced of the gravity of the problem, or our capacity to solve it, you should buy and read this compelling book."

Given I'm married to a solicitor and just got myself out of jury duty (I'm self-employed and thirty bucks a day doesn't quite cover the mortgage), I was interested to read the review of Malcolm Knox's book Secrets of the Jury Room. "Knox interlaces his own experience of the trial in which he served as juror with a great deal of research into the history of trial by jury as well as a survey of the various studies conducted into the functioning of the system...He has interviewed prosecutors, defence counsel, judges and others with an interest in the system and paints a picture in which their varied observations help set a rich context...His book is a paean to the institution of trial by jury, warts and all, at a time when some unpopular and misunderstood acquittals sometimes produce populist calls to abolish juries."

I have no basic problem with juries and the jury system, and if I'd been a full-time employee in my present company I would have been more than happy to have taken part. I'd better read this book as it might well be the closest I get to the real thing.

Short notices are given to: Tasmanian Devil by David Owen & David Pemberton: "In this engaging biography of the beast, the authors examine the evolution of the devil, its behaviour and ecology, its relationship with Europeans, the many myths surrounding it and the disease that threatens its existence"; Covet by Tara Moss: "...model Tara Moss has clearly read more books than she's written, and she writes a mean brand of pulp thriller to boot"; The Journal of Fletcher Christian by Peter Corris: "Corris furnishes what is known from the historical record with the fruits of his full-blooded imagination. The result is a riveting, and for the most part realistic, retelling of one of the most enigmatic episodes of European seafaring in the Pacific".

Gerald Murnane come to notice, to me, with his 1982 novel The Plains from Norstrilia Press, a small publishing house run by three science fiction fans in Melbourne. He has now published a collection of his essays from the past twenty years, titled Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs. The author is given a major profile in this weekend's "Sydney Morning Herald", in which he reveals: "There will be one more book of stories gathered from the past, with a new title story, Barley Patch, which he is writing now. 'It will be my last book. I don't say that with any sadness or solemnity. I've used up everything off the workshop floor.'"

In his review of Tom Keneally's latest book, The Commonwealth of Thieves, Andrew Reimer is well aware that some historians are going to be a bit miffed by the author's foray into their territory. But, as he puts it, "Above all, as he has demonstrated in book after book, Keneally is a most accomplished storyteller. The Commonwealth of Thieves is filled with vividly evoked personalities and their histories: the austere Phillip; Watkin Tench, that most thoughtful observer of the hell around him; the well-meaning Reverend Richard Johnson; the entrepreneurial Macarthurs; the raffish D'Arcy Wentworth; the Kables and the Ruses, convict families who prospered. And there is, most notably of all perhaps, Bennelong, with his pride, his quick temper, his fondness for women and his curious esteem for Phillip, the leader of the pale ghosts who had appeared so disastrously from nowhere."

Jane Sullivan has a good piece in "The Sunday Age" on editing and the second National Editors Conference that was held in Melbourne over the weekend. The start is a classic:

"Comic writer Kerry Cue once worked with an editor who had a thing about 'at'. You don't walk in the door, she insisted. You walk in at the door. She wanted to add about 500 'ats' to the manuscript. Cue suggested a page of 'ats' at the end would do nicely."

I wonder what you'd do with someone like that. Can you ask for a substitute or do you have to put up with it?

Weekend Round-Up #40

The Age

The first two paragraphs of Morag Fraser's review of Barry Jones's autobiography, A Thinking Reed, just about say it all: "Late in this monumental essay on his life and times, Barry Jones relates a story about Primo Levi. Once, while in Auschwitz, the sage chronicler of human survival broke off an icicle to relieve his thirst. A guard knocked it out of his hand. 'Why?' asked Levi. 'Here is no why,' the guard replied...The story is an image of hell for Jones. This is the arbitrary, unaccountable world, indifferent to human suffering, dismissive of the human yen to understand." I've said before how much I admire Jones, both as a man in the world and as a politician. He always struck me as someone who entered parliament with only the best intentions in mind. The trouble is, parliament is definitely an arena in which good guys finish last. They shine for a while, but the nay-sayers pull them down. Fraser sees this as well, and enjoys all parts of this memoir. "I don't often hanker for multi-volumed works, but I wished for more all the while I was reading this." Jones couldn't ask for more I suspect.

Gregory Day is very approving of Andrew McGahan's new novel, Underground. "Since his foray into crime fiction with the Ned Kelly-winning Last Drinks in 2000, McGahan has been regarded as something of a genre-buster, a label reinforced by his highly literary Miles Franklin-winning follow-up, The White Earth. The publication of Underground, however, makes McGahan's oeuvre up to now look as predictable as our Prime Minister." It is certainly a change from his previous works and Day is not sure how it will be accepted: "No doubt his new genre-buster will offend the Oz-Lit police but it's how many other readers it might reach that is the real issue. Keep a close eye out on aeroplanes, trains, buses, even bicycles, for people reading this important book." I'm not sure who the "Oz-lit police" are but I'm pretty certain they'll read this novel with a lot of interest.

Peter Pierce is no someone I have seen review fantasy novels before so his look at Lian Hearn's The Harsh Cry of the Heron is certainly of interest. And he is very impressed: "Hearn is intent on creating a fictional world that is not spun from the whole cloth of an author's indulgent fancy (compare Tolkien) but from an awareness of politics and compromise, high and often treacherous policy, the reckoning of losses that all these collisions entail.

"The novel's commitment to its imaginative enterprise is intensely serious, but also playful; never is it ponderous or solemn.

"Here is another intelligent, accomplished, audacious and finely written novel by an Australian that has nothing to do with its own country; that seeks and should command a transnational audience for popular entertainment of a superior order."

Short notices are given to: Building a Masterpiece: The Sydney Opera House edited by Anne Watson which "confirms that the Sydney Opera House is a marvel of design, engineering and technology"; Ned Kelly and the Old Rellie: 50 Micro Lives of Great Australians by Gerard Windsor who "has taken salient details or events from famous Australians' lives and fashioned nifty four-line rhymes or 'micro verses'"; Mr Stuart's Track by John Bailey: "John McDouall Stuart, according to this biographer, is not only Australia's greatest explorer but the least appreciated"; School Days edited by John Kinsella who "has collated snippets of nostalgia from various Australian notables including Carmen lawrence, Veronica Brady, Marion Halligan and Frank Moorhouse. A variety of locations and educational institutions are mulled over through wise eyes."

The Australian

The major item this week is Peter Wilson interview with Clive James, on the occasion of the publication of his latest volume of memoirs, North Face of Soho. James is 67 now and believes he needs about another 40 years to complete all he has planned. He doesn't give himself much more than about 10.

Peter Rose, editor of "Australian Book Review" considers David Malouf's new collection of short stories, Every Move You Make. "As in most of Malouf's writings, the characters' stories are personal, yearning, metaphysical, without any overt philosophising. Little happens in these stories, as in life, as Virginia Woolf once reminded us. Malouf is wary of plot. The stories unfold like moods, like sweetly orchestrated sonatas." Still no mention of The Police.

Short notices are given to: Amy & Louis by Libby Gleeson, illustrated by Freya Blackwood: "Read this heart-warming book aloud: it won't leave readers breathless, character voices add fun and the rhyming refrain 'Coo-ee Louis", allows for a bit of vocal gymnastics"; Carpet of Dreams by Tessa Duder, illustrated by Mark Wilson: "It's a long story for a picture book but, by weaving countries' histories with personal ones, it is captivating and leaves readers wanting to learn more about carpets and [the main character's grandmother]"; Rose By Any Other Name by Maureen McCarthy, whose "books are engrossing because the protagonists' lives ring true and she articulates the feelings that most people leave unsaid"; Destroying Avalon by Kate McCaffrey: "Nothing here in the way of deep characterisation and plot but McCaffrey's novel is an eye-opener to a sinister contemporary world in which digital space is way out of control"; The Concerto Inn by Jo Gardiner whose "writing is nervy and over-polished, a recipe that showcases her poetic gifts but may leave readers fidgeting for action"; The Dark Part of Me by Belinda Burns in which "The emptiness of human existence gets a solid workout".

Weekend Round-Up #39

The Age

I can't find a single Australian book reviewed in the pages of this weekend's "Age", other than the short notices listed below. A sorry state of affairs.

The main literary piece in the paper is Jane Sullivan's essay on the differences between history and fiction. It raises a number of questions that I will try to address later in the week.

Short notices are given to: The Heart of James McAuley by Peter Coleman: "...much of the time, it's a mechanical mix of potted biography and bland lit crit"; and The Dodger by Duncan McNab: " powerful testament to how far the sticky tentacles of corruption extended into [NSW's] police force, judiciary and government".

The Australian

Andrew McGahan won the 2005 Miles Franklin Award for his most recent novel The White Earth. Now he has published his follow-up, Underground, which is reviewed this week by Cath Keneally. Set in Australia in 2010, it appears as much a political novel as his last effort: "The blurb calls Underground 'the book that at least half the country has been waiting for', but there should be a laugh here for anyone. Though it wears its heart pinned proudly to its sleeve, Underground is that rare animal, a good comic novel, whose targets are all the loonies, not just the ones in the wrong party. Or rather, sympathisers with the cause of reason include defectors from the wrong party, and certainly from the present wrong religion."

Heritage, either cultural or environmental, is the subject of new books reviewed by Bob Birrell: Patriots: Defending Australia's Natural Heritage by William J. Lines, and Imprints of Generations by Robert Ingpen. "William Lines's book Patriots is a riveting account of the struggle to preserve Australia's natural heritage. The work's title encapsulates his view that the main defenders have been patriots, in the sense that they see Australia's fauna, flora and landforms as intertwined with their identity as Australians. They feel any loss personally, which explains their willingness to put their bodies on the line to prevent further damage...He will almost surely be condemned as an eco-nut, intent on dragging us back to the stone age. Mainstream politicians will never support his stance on conservation as long as most of their constituents put materialism first. Yet, as the book reminds us, eco-nuts can be heroes...Robert Ingpen's Imprints of Generations traverses some of the same ground, if with an emphasis on Australia's cultural heritage. It is attractively presented with numerous drawings, many by the author. Ingpen, too, is a patriot; he wants Australia to have the richness and depth of culture of Europe and his book is intended to help Australians understand and preserve their cultural inheritance."

Short notices are given to: Terry Dowling looks at two new Australian sf novels. Godplayers by Damien Broderick: "This savvy and sophisticated quantum view of the multiverse may well prove too demanding for its own good, chaming some readers, alienating others. You get the sense Broderick wouldn't have it any other way"; Prismatic by Edwina Grey: "Subtle and intriguing more than compelling, Grey's novel blends engaing period milieus and sound charcaterisation with visionary touches reminiscent with J.G. Ballard's The Crystal World". Graeme Blundell reviews two new Australian crime novels. Spider Trap by Barry Maitland (a DCI Brock and DS Kolla novel): "In his best tale yet, Maitland elegantly weaves race, violence, alienation and the insidiousness of family connections into multiple story-lines. His strength is never to allow the narrative to occlude the archeological dig into what lies behind the murderous event"; Hit by Tara Moss (a Makedde Vanderwall novel): "..she writes a kind of overblown Days of Our Lives romantic suspense, campy repetitive and glossy". The Cobbler's Apprentice by Sandy McCutcheon: "Although some of the characters are one-dimensional and elements of the plot difficult to follow, the novel's central conceit -- terrorism and counter-terrorism via bacteriological warfare -- works extremely well".

Weekend Round-Up #38

The Age

If you do nothing else have a look at John Spooner's portrait of Robert Hughes illustrating Peter Craven's review of his memoir Things I Didn't Know: it's a classic. Actually, so is the review: "Of the quartet of Australian expatriates who preoccupy the nation, Robert Hughes has come last to autobiography even though he is a starrier figure than Clive James or Barry Humphries and in terms of presence and panache can certainly give Germaine Greer a run for her money. But the paradox with Hughes is that he has never been much interested in celebrity. He is, of course, an art critic." Which puts Hughes in proper context at the start, and the book in context at the end: "In this first volume of his memoirs Hughes has written one of the most impassioned and vivid of all Australian self-portraits and if there is a fierceness and magnificence in the execution he also exhibits plenty of modesty and human grace."

Melina Marchetta is famous for her first novel, Looking for Alibrandi, which was filmed, and which was included in school reading lists for years. Frances Atkinson finds her third novel, On the Jellicoe Road, a step up. "The convoluted plot may not hold every reader's attention and some might be frustrated by the measured pace of the book, but it's deliberate and those who stick with it won't be disappointed. Marchetta wants us to take our time and enjoy the satisfaction as every penny drops."

Short notices are given to: A Conga Line of Suckholes: Mark Latham's Book of Quotations by Mark Latham: "If Latham's Lathamisms rarely measure up to the company they keep, at least one can admire his assiduousness and taste as a collector"; Rescuing Afghanistan by William Maley: "In this measured account of efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, Maley never loses sight of the role played by ordinary Afghans and warns that the international 'rescue mission' neglects local participants at their peril"; Soul by Tobsha Learner: "...if it's racy, low-impact trash with lashings of sex and death you're after, look no further"; The Cobbler's Apprentice by Sandy McCutcheon: " contains vivid evocations of place, and avoids American triumphalism"; and Weatherwitch by Cecilia Dart-Thornton (the third volume in her Crowthistle Chronicles series): she "writes lavishly descriptive fiction you can immerse yourself in".

The Australian

One of the major issues on the political agenda of late is the Australia-US alliance. So it is timely that Greg Sheridan, foreign editor of "The Australian", has released The Partnership: The Inside Story of the US-Australian Alliance under Bush and Howard, which is reviewed by Max Suich. "This is an important book because it outlines, with far greater detail and coherence than the Australian Government has publicly provided, the new nature of the US-Australia military alliance that has evolved under the impetus of the personal and political affinity between John Howard and George W. Bush and the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington." It's important but it isn't a rosy outlook, if, like me, you feel that military force is the last option, not the first. "Precisely because this book projects such an authentic sense of the Australian Government's self-deception about the peril the US and its friends face in the Middle East, and its wishful denial of White House incompetence, it suggests another uncomfortable conclusion: that we will probably be swept up again should there be momentum in Washington for another war, and accept further military commitments in the Middle East, if Iran is attacked by the US or Israel."

The Sydney Morning Herald

Peter Galvin tries to nail down David Thomson's book, Nicole Kidman, and does a pretty good job: "This is not a book about Nicole Kidman. It is a book about the idea of her. The distinction is crucial to understanding this odd, and oddly beguiling, piece of film criticism. David Thomson's take on the career and life of Nicole Kidman is in fact one long essay - part film history, part cultural commentary, part fiction. It reads as a compelling form of mutant 'biography' but hardly justifies that stern and earnest moniker." I've thought for a long time that "celebrities" are just an idea anyway, so maybe Thomson is onto something after all.

As you've probably noticed, Robert Hughes and his book are everywhere. So it is no surprise to come across Andrew Reimer's review of Things I Didn't Know. What is interesting is his statement: "On almost every page, Hughes reveals a cosmopolitan sophistication, the fruit of intimate familiarity with European and American art, he could not have achieved had he stayed in Australia. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that in the guise of a somewhat haphazard account of the first 30-or-so years of his life, Things I Didn't Know is, at heart, an apologia for expatriation." And that's something I hadn't heard before.

Weekend Round-Up #37

The Age

Martin Flanagan looks at a new book about "Waltzing Matilda", possibly Australia's best-known and best-loved song, titled Once a Jolly Swagman by Matthew Richardson. Publication of this book is timely, says Flanagan: "Richardson's book is ultimately the voice of someone who sees globalisation as masking the onset of a second cultural cringe, one which, like its predecessor, creates disdain for local - Australian - culture." But, as Flanagan points out, the creation of the song didn't happen all at one time, the words and even the tune were changed over time by Banjo Paterson, who was credited with the original, amongst others, and Richardson's book is as much as the fluid creative process as about the song's origins. "At one level, the story shows how creation is a messy business with more than the odd element of luck or chance about it."

Brian McFarlane seems to think more of Nicole Kidman by David Thomson than most other reviewers so far, though I wonder if he hasnt fallen prey to the actor's charms as well: "Thomson clearly adores her as a creature of great sexual attractiveness and also knows how to value her for what, in the right circumstances, she can do as an actress. His shrewd assessment of her career choices and the patient, wide-ranging analyses of her acting highlights substantiate his claim for her as the 'most adventurous and the most varied (actress) of her time'...He gathers together the 'facts' of her life to help explain the public face we all feel we know. In the process, he offers a finely drawn portrait of a star, a woman, and maybe, to raise his own question, a lady?" The whole thing strikes me as tacky tabloid journalism.

Peter Craven is impressed with David Malouf's latest short story collection, Every Move You Make, especially as it represents the authors best form: "Everything he writes is 'quality'. That said, he has always seemed at his best in lyrical mode, writing short works of fiction, novellas and stories, than he does when he is pursuing grand themes in somewhat longer books - the POW experience in The Great World or the legend of bushranging in The Conversations at Curlew Creek." Craven finished his review with a flourish, "A better book of fiction has not come out of this country this year."

On the longer fiction front, Suzanne Leal's debut novel, Border Street, is reviewed by Kirsty de Garis, who finds that the novel "tells a story of one man's survival against enormous odds, and of its lasting effects. Leal has recounted this tale and woven a warm account of the unlikely friendship between people with 40 years and continetns between them." I wonder how many copies the publishers will sell of this debut at $32.95. I've a feeling that it's just too expensive for the current market.

Short notices are given to: In It To Win It: The Australian Cricket Supremacy by Peter Roebuck: "You either go with Peter Roebuck's epic, often Churchillian turn of phrase, or you don't. Most of the time I do, although he can lay it on a bit thick sometimes...his detailed knowledge of the game, make him a cricket writer with scope and flair and of substance too"; The Concerto Inn by Jo Gardiner: "The novel moves at a langurous, almost somnolent pace, with Gardiner guiding her characters through their 'slow pulse of memory'"; and Hit by Tara Moss, the fourth PI Makedde Vanderwall novel: "There's violence, titillation, conspiracy, romance and comedy".

The Australian

Robert Hughes's memoir, Things I Didn't Know, gets the once-over by Andrea Stretton, who opines that "There are very few writers whose words you would recognise from 20 paces: Hughes is one of them. Although usually writing about art and culture, he instinctively knows all there is to know about the fictional devices of characterisation, dialogue, the bittersweet nature of drama and comedy, and the great, deep sweep of narrative structure." High praise indeed. Not sure I agree completely but there we are. Hughes has had a bit of a problem with Australia of late, mainly over his treatment by the press following his near-fatal car crash in Western Australia in 1999.

Autobiography is also the subject matter of Bary Jones's new book, A Thinking Reed. Mike Steketee has waited a while for this book, and is generally pretty pleased with the final result. "Unusually for a book by a politician, Jones admits to failure and frustration leavened by some successes. Not that he is just a politician, let alone an ordinary one. He was a misfit in politics: a long-range thinker in a short-term environment, more inclined to bury into further research to add to his vast store of knowledge than to put together the numbers for a caucus ballot." But, as he puts it, "If the book suffers, it is from the Jones obsession with lists and organising information. Sometimes there is too much detail."

With her novel, The Secret River, on the 2006 Man Booker shortlist, Kate Grenville has now published Searching for the Secret River, the story of how she came to write the subject book. Stella Clarke finds that: "Searching for the Secret River records Grenville's five-year journey to the finished novel, which started out as nonfiction, moved from first to third person, through exhaustive dissections and revolutions, before completion. It is education in the art, and craft, of fiction, a lesson in the arduous devotion it can command...This book gives an account not just of the birth of a novel but also of the birth of conscience, which is what the history debates are basically about." An unusual glimpse into the novelist's art.

Short notices are given to: Agamemnon's Kiss: Selected Essays by Inga Clendinnen: "With incisive wit, Clendinnen brillinatly mixes a sense of liberation and vulnerability, not only within her body but also in society'.

Weekend Round-Up #36

The Age

The major piece this weekend is a long profile of David Malouf, by Angela Bennie, on the eve of the publication (today!) of his new collection of short stories, Every Move You Make. Malouf makes a rather interesting statement early on in the piece: "Once or twice I have begun what I have thought was going to be a book," he is now saying. His voice is gentle, mild, courteous..."Then what I see happening before me is it begins to develop a plot. And I know then it is not one of my books. I don't like things that are driven by plot. So at that point I abandon it." Which might explain a lot about Malouf's work, but which probably also sends a lot of other writers crying over their keyboards. No news on whether there's another novel in the works, though.

Peter Hill looks at three art books, Albert Tucker by Gavin Fry, Juan Davila by Guy Brett & Roger Benjamin, and Imants Tillers: One World Many Visions edited by Deborah Hart. The review doesn't appear to be on the website.

Hilary Bonney is in two minds about Paul Sheahan's latest non-fiction book, Girls Like You. On the one hand she praises him: "In the first three parts of this seven-part work, Sheehan writes in a strong, sharp, journalistic style about the gang rapes committed by four of the brothers in the winter of 2002 and the ensuing legal twists and turns." But later finds the author loses his way and his "good writing skills become lost in the passion of the argument."

Short notices are given to: Waterlemon by Ruth Ritchie which tells the story of the author and her husband as they recover from a severe brain injury he suffered while riding his bike: "this is not about being likeable, it's about the extremes of her experience, and Ritchie does brilliantly in making us understand and empathise"; Patriots: Defending Australia's Natural Heritage by William J. Lines - "In this passionate, provocative account of the conservation movement in postwar Australia, William Lines defiantly appropriates [the] term [patriot] to capture the dedication and commitment of conservation activists as they pit themselves against developers and government"; Botanical Riches: Stories of Botanical Exploration by Richard Aitken - "Sweeping in its scope, it surveys the history of the world from hunter-gather societies to the present from a botanical perspective and is gloriously illustrated with exquisite full-page drawings of plants that have seduced and enchanted mankind since Eve offered Adam a bite of the forbidden fruit"; and Out of Place by Jo Dutton is "a well-paced and elegantly written family saga that spans decades and moves from the windswept beaches of WA to the arid beauty of the Red Centre".

The Australian

David Malouf is also the subject of the main piece in "The Australian" this week. Rosemary Neill calls him the "elder statesman of Australian literature", which might be a tad harsh, even though Malouf is now 72. Anyway, Malouf, as you might expect, appears very interested in the writing process, explaining that "The power of attention that I can sustain through a long novel, I find that may be waning." Which gives some explanation of my earlier query. His best line comes almost immediately after that: "Books ought to demand to be written, rather than be a by-product of your idea that you are a writer."

The release of The Dodger by Duncan McNab which tells the story of Australia's most notorious cop, Roger Rogerson, is rather apt at this time of investigations into parts of the Victoria Police. Though, I suppose, there isn't much of a co-incidence given the number of these inquiries that seem to have been held over the past few years. John Dale reviews the book this week and finds that it "provides the reader with a personal insight into the 'us versus them' mentality that pervaded NSW police during the Rogerson era, a force aptly described as the best money could buy."

Short notices are given to: The Arrival by Shaun Tan, which is "a masterpiece for all ages and is Shaun Tan's finest and most ambitious work to date"; Ten Things I Hate About Me by Randa Abdel-Fattah: "Hopefully this book will find its way into every classroom, because by using concise, thoughful and highly cominc prose, Abdel-Fattah contemplates the loss of identity and how fear and deception can only lead to greater worries"; The Penguin Book: Birds in Suits by Mark Norman: "Useful for school projects, entertainment or interest, this well-designed book may even attract the curiosity of readers who are ambivalent to other animals"; The Curer of Souls by Lindsay Simpson: "one fascinating aspect of [which] is its ability to play with the subtlety of historical phases rather than lumping all past events under the heading of history"; and Inventing Beatrice by Jill Golden "is less successful, although welcome for its creative courage in a writing scene that's rarely adventurous".

Weekend Round-Up #35

In "The Age" the major piece is a profile of Western Australian novelist Brenda Walker and her fourth novel The Wing of Night. Although this is a novel set in and after World War I it deals more with the relationships of the people at the time, "full of intense, though not always passionate, love: love between men and women, and the friendship between the women the men left behind. It's also about restoring what is lost: but the restitution may be something quite unexpected." The men-at-war theme is given an airing, but "Walker's men are not the square-jawed Chesty Bond heroes of legend, the women are not what you might expect either, and they leave a legacy that she describes as 'the bright emptiness that lasts for a long, long time after a war'. She says there is something desolate about the well-lit spaces of the countryside, inhabited by women who have lost what they most cherished: 'Women with empty arms forever, except for one another.'"

Peter Pierce reviews Brian Castro's ninth novel, The Garden Book, and finds it a "triumph of intelligence and imagination by one of the most exacting, yet rewarding of Australian novelists, and when the mood is on him, one of the most amusing as well."

Also reviewed are The Magician's Son by Sandy McCutcheon, and Fivestar by Mardi McConnochie: "At times this is not so much a novel as a fictionalised social history of recent pop music trends. That said, it's well informed, knowledgeable and very competently written. Taking us back where we've been recently, at its best it gives the kind of small Prousty twinges of nostalgia that you get when looking at five-year-old photos."

Short notices are given to: Melbourne International Arts Festival, 1986-2005: The First Twenty Years by Paul Clarkson; Beyond the Call by Don Hyde with Jim Main, a collection of interviews with AFL commentators; A Long Way Home: The Life and Adventures of Convict Mary Bryant by Mike Walker: "Eighteenth-century England, her powerful navy and the colonisation of Australia are brilliantly realised by Mike Walker, a British dramatist and documentary maker"; Fat, Forty and Fired by Nigel Marsh, who: "...has a chatty, confiding voice, self-absorbed and self-deprecating"; 1932: A Hell of a Year by Gerald Stone: 1932 "was a year of big events but most of all it was the worst year of the Great Depression, and the year that marked the beginning of Australia's recovery"; Don't Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs - She Thinks I'm a Piano Player in a Whorehouse by Paul Carter: "What you have here, then, is that rare situation of somebody who not only has a story to tell but the ability to tell it. Carter's anecdotes are told with great good humour and perfect timing."

The Weekend Australian" features an excerpt from J.M. Coetzee's latest novel Slow Man. The book who is also reviewed by Karen Lamb: "...Slow Man balances its sympathies on a knife-edge and it is not easy to dispense with [the main] character. Perhaps he is complicated, lost, unloved or just unlucky. It is clear that he is slow - yes - but we also see him disappearing not so much from the world, but from within. Was he ever there, we ask? Sadly, Coetzee does not invite us to condemn him utterly for not finding the answers."

Bill Leak, cartoonist for "The Australian" and noted portraitist, has released his first novel, Heart Cancer, and it is reviewed by Ross Fitzgerald.

Short notices are given to: Sandstone by Stephen Lacey who "uses brand names too often as proof of his research: the real period register in this fine novel resides in the emotional encasement of its characters"; Lethal Metal by Harry Ledowsky which "coalesces into a yarn with Clancy-like pace. In his fiction debut, Sydney advertising guru Ledowsky presses the formula buttons, but that's no sin. Sometimes it's all we want"; Noble Sindhu Horse by Lynette Chataway whose "risky venture, informed by volunteer work in Asia, is a tableau of subtle observation - of dislocation, impermanence and loss - but we're left grasping for a bigger story."

Kathleen Noonan profiles Kate Holden in this weekend's "Courier-Mail", on the eve of the publication of her memoir, In My Skin. Although Holden worked for some time as a prostitute to finance her heroin habit, this is not the usual "trick-lit" writing. For a start Holden has a university honours degree in classics and literature. "Her motivation to write was that she felt there were few accurate representations of what she was experiencing. 'This is a huge industry, thousands of women are involved in it. Books and films portray the Pretty Woman thing, the whore with a heart of gold. I wanted to give a realistic depiction.'"

Mardi McConnochie is interviewed by Sandra Mclean about her new novel Fivestar in the "Courier-Mail": "...considering the glut of reality television shows and the commerciality of pop music. It was only a matter of time before someone turned the Spice Girls' story into a novel...But the fact that McConnochie was the one to do it in Australia is quite a surprise. Her first book was a highbrow work called Coldwater that put the Bronte sisters in colonial Australia and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. Her second book, Snow Queen, which was set in the world of classical dance, resulted in the Adelaide-raised writer being named as one of The Sydney Morning Herald's Best Young Novelists in 2004."

Weekend Round-Up #34

The major item in the latest "Saturday Age" is a profile by Penelope Debelle of Gay Bilson, who won this year's "Age" Book of the Year Award for her book Plenty. The most interesting part of the piece - well it's all interesting but... - comes at the very end: "Bilson is still amazed to realise the book contained as much of her as it does. 'I thought it was simply essays about reading, convergences and cooking," she says. "Now I realise it is so intensely personal.'" Sounds like a writer whose writing is infused with her personality, as well as the other way round.

Geoffrey Robertson is one of thse people I could easily take to with an axe: they just seem so bloody good at everything they do. Or maybe the skill lies in choosing the right topics. He's obviously found his life's niche in the law and occasionally produces a book to prove it. His latest, The Tyrannicide Brief is reviewed by Michael Kirby, no less. The book tells the story of the trial and execution of the English King Charles I, in 1649. While Charles looms large, as one might expect, the book mainly concerns his prosecutor, John Cooke, Cromwell's solicitor-general. "If Cooke is not entitled to all of the praise that is heaped upon him, his role in history is worth remembering. And it is told in this book with Geoffrey Robertson's flair and advocate's passion."

Better known for her plays, Sunnyside is only Joanna Murray-Smith's third novel in 13 years. It is reviewed this week by Juliette Hughes, who states that the novel "does revisit the theme of now-quaint excursions such as Peyton Place: white middle-class infidelity. But times change - Peyton Place's publishers described it as scorching; it treated inconvenient sexual attachments in far less detail and with incalculably less assurance than does Joanna Murray-Smith."

Literati: Australian Comtemporary Literary Figures Discuss Fear, Frustrations and Fame by James Phelan is compared to a recent book of Ramona Kaval's, Tasting Life Twice, which has been mentioned on this weblog a few times over the past month. The Kaval takes a deeper look into small number of writers, while Phelan attempts to cover the full range of the writing experience from blank page to post-publication review. Both appear to have their place.

Short notices are given to: Babies in the Bush: The Making of an Australian Image by Kim Torney, who : "...deftly traces the obsessive telling of stories in which lost children become embelmatic heroes and nation-builders like the early pioneers and explorers"; Crackpots, Ratbags & Rebels: A Swag of Aussie Eccentrics by Robert Holden: "Sydney, in particular, seemed to specialise in witches, bag ladies, and exhibitionists. Holden's entertaining book provides something for everybody - from men with whips to women who did the splits"; and Seven Deadly Colours by Andrew Parker, who "...argues that the eye is evidence for, not against evolution".

Weekend Round-Up #33

Robert Drewe leads off "The Age Review" this weekend with a piece describing his experiences over 20 years at the Melbourne Writers' Festival. His story of the Margaret Atwood panel is a classic.

The big Australian review is of Peter Temple's latest crime novel The Broken Shore. Any review that starts as this one does leaves you in no doubt as to the feelings of the reviewer: "If you only read one crime novel this year, read The Broken Shore. It's not just a good yarn - there are plenty of those - what Peter Temple achieves here is much, much more, capturing a specifically Australian perspective in prose as spare as it is precise. This book is the best yet from a writer who has already won a well-deserved reputation as one of our finest crime writers." Which gives me the impression that Temple is moving away from the "standard" crime novel template into an area occupied by few and the best of the current crime-writing crop anywhere in the world. I'm thinking Mankell, Rankin, Connelly and their ilk. These writers transcend genre. "In then end, it's all about family: the one you're born with and the one you make. But most of all it's about the writing, and in that regard The Broken Shore might just be a great Australian novel, irrespective of genre. Read it for what Temple does with words."

Carrie Tiffany, for that is her name, is getting an amazing amount of coverage lately for a first-time novellist. Her novel, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living, is reviewed by Judith Armstrong.

Short notices are given to: Gallipoli: The Fatal Shore by Harvey Broadbent which "is a book that puts the Anzac contribution in context, seeing it as part of a multinational battle...This is a balanced, highly informed, simply but very well written account of what has gone down in history as a heroic stuff-up"; Ten Pound Poms by A. James Hammerton and Alistair Thomson: "The significance of post-war immigration cannot be exaggerated too much...The English contribution is rarely examined, and this very readable, well overdue and often quite moving account redresses the imbalance"; Every Eighteen Minutes by Ellen Flint: "...if people gone missing is common, Ellen Flint's account of her brother's disappearance is anything but. What would be an interesting enough book because of the subject matter becomes a compelling narrative in the hands of a skilful writer"; and 100 Years Old: 24 Australian Centenarians Tell Their Story by Tina Koch, Charmaine Power & Debbie Kralik: "One of the characteristics of the 24 centenarians who were interviewed for this book is their willingness to find the joke, both in the present and the past."

"The Weekend Australian's" major item this week concerns those Australian writers who, while not so well-known at home, sell extremely well overseas. Juliet Mariller's Celtic-infused historic fantasies are getting six-figure sales in the US, and she has also been published in Britain, Germany, Spain, The Netherlands, China, Poland and Portugal. Gold Coast writer Patricia Shaw is published in 12 languages and enjoys foreign sales that run into the millions. The article covers such writers as Winton, Perlman and Grenville, but it is the lesser known ones that I'll have to keep an eye on. I am aware of such writers as Emily Rodda, Garth Nix, John Marsden and James Valentine, but who are Deb Abela, Celstine Hitiura Vaite and Kate Constable? Time to find out I think.

Christopher Bantick reviews Road Story by Julienne van Loon, winner of last year's "Australian"/Vogel Award. This award continually throws up writers of promise and van Loon seems to be no exception. "As much as Road Story shows a skilled writer at ease with plot and charcaterisation, it also has awkward moments of contrived incident...Apart from these minor flaws, this is a toughly written, insistent novel that leaves us tasting red dust and the bitterness of unfulfilled, damaged lives."

Weekend Round-Up #32

I was gently chided last week by one reader of this litblog who firstly corrected my use of the work "fulsome", I was thinking it had completely the opposite meaning, and who then thought I was being cheeky in its use. No, not cheeky on that point, just plain wrong. I was, however, being more than a little cheeky in suggesting that the reviewer allocated by "The Age" to cover Robert Drewe's new novel, Grace, was a slower reader than Debra Adelaide in "The Australian". But it was only tongue-in-cheek, and it's good to see James Bradley reviewing the novel in this week's "Weekend Age". Bradley is one of the better reviewers doing the rounds at present and reading his work you can tell that writing a good review is an art form in itself. Although he isn't given a lot of room to expand on any themes he might wish to run with, he does put the novel into the context of Drewe's past work, drawing some interesting conclusions:

   "...this sense of restless unease is central to Drewe's work. Written
   through all his writing from The Savage Crows onwards is a
   sense of the ambiguous and unsettled nature of belonging, not just
   in the deep sense in which the notion is usually understood in
   Australia, but in a personal sense...In this respect it's difficult
   not to conflate the work with the writer: wound deep into The
   Shark Net
is the sense that Drewe - the West Australian, the
   writer - has never shaken his sense of himself as a perpetual
   outsider, all appearances to the contrary...In Grace, Drewe's
   first novel in close to a decade, this unease takes on a new form,
   one that pushes Drewe's vision of Australia as a country founded on
   the air in new directions, forging imaginative connections between
   the experiences of the newest - and most controversial - arrivals
   and the many waves of migration that preceded them, while
   simultaneously exploring the effects of this unease."

Michelle Grattan reviews Tom Frame's book The Life and Death of Harold Holt and finds that: "The book's limitation is that it does not manage to get the reader sufficiently into the skins of Holt and his colleagues, or to convey dramatically enough the feel of Australian society in these years when the baby boomers were becoming adults."

In the annals of this country's black humour, the death of Prime Minister Harold Holt must rank as one of the high points (or should that be low?). How is it possible to actually "lose" a Prime Minister? But we did it. Holt was lost at sea in December 1967 after going for a swim off Cheviot Beach south of Melbourne. Given the number of people that accompany current PM John Howard on his morning "power walks" I suspect he wouldn't be allowed to undertake a Holt-like swim without a shark cage.

Short notices are given to: Falling Forward by David Metzenthen which is found to be "...a likeable and affecting story"; Hackers by Bill Apro & Graeme Hammond tells the story of Apro's pursuit of a Melbourne hacker known as 'Phoenix': "Apro, who is now a director of a computer-security company, paints himself as a hard-done-by lone crusader. Even today, he argues, the authorities still don't take computer crime as seriously as it deserves to be taken"; Dragonsight by Paul Collins who is: "a prolific writer, publisher and editor. His strength is a keen grasp of the particular genre his is writing for, whether it be SF, fantasy or non-fiction. In this case Collins' voice is nicely pitched to the young adult fantasy market; it is rich, lively and at times funny"; The Accidental Developer by Henry Pollack: "You may have misgivings about his life's work, and the dismissive remarks he makes about green bans and environmental activism of the early '70s make uncomfortable reading. But he has a sympathetic voice and the obvious combination of sensitivity and strength is an attractive one."

Weekend Round-Up #31

Morag Fraser, adjunct professor in the School of Humanities and Social Science at La Trobe University and Miles Franklin award judge, takes a look at Conquest: A New History of the Modern World by David Day, and finds some things to admire and some to criticise. The thrust of the book is summarised fairly succinctly: "Day tackles war from the outset. He takes dispossession, mostly violent dispossession, as his central theme and looks at the history of the modern world as a history of peoples 'supplanted' by others more powerful, more ambitious, more ruthless or, simply, more gifted by fortune or the gods of war at any particular time." Which seems to follow on from a number of Jared Diamond's theories. Fraser's quibbles appear to lie with the broad-sweep of the book rather than the basic conception. With a theme as wide of this sometimes broad sweeps are what is required.

Farah Farouque is not exactly exuberant in her praise of either of Postcode: The Spintering of a Nation by Wayne Swan or Affluenza by Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss. Swan, current Federal Labor front-bencher is criticised early on for being a political insider - and therefore on a mission to further his politcal ends - and for starting his work with some biographical material. On the other hand (or is it the same one?) "Affluenza is a lively read with a punishingly compelling tone - sometimes it feels like indulging in a bout of self-flagellation as it outlines society's excesses; our oversized houses, our ridiculously expensive designer sunglasses and our pets who, in this vision, are inevitably over-indulged." which sounds all right until she concludes that: "It's an idea, however, that's unlikely to overly engage our political literati any time soon." So I came away from this review with no real idea of what she thought of either book.

Short notices are given to: The Somme by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson who "...have put together a painstakingly detailed account of one of the great stuff-ups of modern war...Morbidly compelling"; Noble Sindhu Horses by Lynette Chataway: "This is a novel that sparkles with life and is enriched by an empathic vision that underpins the different cultures it explores"; Leaning Towards Pisa: An Italian Love Story by Sue Howard whose "...sea change is ... organic, something that grew from fertile soil and flowered into a happiness that did not necessarily come at the expense of loved ones"; Death of a Doctor by Sue Williams: the "representation of [Dr John] Harrison, his accusers and his enemies may well be accurate - but the biography would have been stronger, and perhaps even more persuasive, if she had allowed readers to judge for themselves"; Mythform: The Making of Nearamnew at Federation Square by Paul Carter, Nearamnew is "the beautiful artwork consisting of engraved texts set in the paving stones of the Federation Square plaza"; In Your Face by Rochelle Jackson who is "less biographer and more ghost writer, not just quoting long passages of [Billy 'The Texan'] Longley's own words but also frequently adopting his perspective as her own".

The big Australian novel of the moment is Grace by Robert Drewe, and it's interesting that "The Weekend Australian" should review it this week while "The Age" didn't. Maybe Debra Adelaide reads faster than whoever is reviewing the book elsewhere. And you can tell it is an important book because "The Australian" has included the review on its website. Doubly odd. And Adelaide is pretty impressed overall: "Intense in scope and often sensuously detailed, Grace is also grand and sweeping in a way that will seem, to fans of Drewe, inevitably cinematic, with individual films providing compass points for Grace's emotional journey throughout the novel. Scene, incident and mood are all portrayed with fluid economy. At the same time, themes are richly layered, events are altogether intriguing and complex, characters are surprising to the end...Grace is proof that reports of the death of the novel are greatly exaggerated. Indeed, it indicates that there is definitely a future for the novel in this country, a more gracile one." Lavish indeed.

Weekend Round-Up #30

Lucy Sussex leads off this week's "Saturday Age" with a profile of Karen Joy Fowler, author of the very successful The Jane Austen Book Club and guest of the upcoming Melbourne Writers' Festival. A writer who doesn't appear to be bound by the strictures of genre.

Les Murray was celebrated at the recent Mildura Festival, although the poet was unable to attend due to a bout of ill-health.

Charlotte Wood, whose novel The Submerged Cathedral was shortlisted for this year's Miles Franklin Award, reviews Traumascapes by Maria Tumarkin. The book revisits locations of great suffering such as Bali, Berlin, Manhattan, Moscow, Port Arthur, and Sarajevo, and looks at the way these sites draw us back. It sounds hard enough to read, it must have been very traumatic to write.

Short notices are given to: Child's Play edited by Kate Darina-Smith & June Factor, published to mark the 50th anniversary of American folklorist Dorothy Howard's visit to Australia to study children's games; Lisa Roet: Uncommon Observations by Alexie Glass: "This third book of a series on innovative young Australian artists is distinguished, like its predecessors, by its clarity and jargon-free exploration of the evolution of the artist's ideas and practice"; A Doctor's War by Rowley Richards: "This important book, based on Richard's diaries, recognises the men who did 'nothing', [during WWII] nothing that is, except maintain their integrity and preserve our freedom"; Tread Lightly: A Guide to Travelling Green in Australia by Robin Stewart: "Stewart's ecological concerns extend to means of transport, waste disposal, energy sources, where to stay and the bugbear of any trip, what to pack."

Frances Atkinson's profile of Neil Gaiman in "The Sunday Age" is a pretty good one. This must be something of a record with two such profiles of sf writers over the one weekend.

Jane Sullivan extols the virtues of Andrew McGahan's novel The White Earth, with which I can only concur. I find myself bringing it up quite regularly in book conversations of late. Reports are that it is selling pretty well - Sullivan had to hunt around several city bookshops till she found a copy - but, of course, it could always do better.

I must admit to being a bit blown away still by Sonya Hartnett's Surrender, and the early word on Kate Grenville's latest is pretty good, so some people might find it hard to fit McGahan's novel into their reading schedule. But I would strongly suggest you do so. And why are you only reading one or two Australian novels a year anyway? You are missing out on some damn good stuff.

Weekend Round-Up #29

Peter Rose is the current editor of "Australian Book Review" and whose previous book was a memoir of his family, titled Rose Boys. Now he has released a novel, A Case of Knives, which Michele Griffin, in her review in this week's "Saturday Age", describes thusly: "His racy debut novel A Case of Knives has little in common with the wholehearted testimony of the previous book. Instead, he has written what even one of his characters calls 'a superior soap', a thriller about the bad, the beautiful and the damaged...It is so completely different from his previous book that it could have been written by his evil twin. It must have been fun to write - it was fun to read." Which raises the question of whether such a change of tack is going to find an audience.

Vistors to Australia generally have some difficulty coming to grips with the hold Ned Kelly has on the Australian popular imagination. Explaining him away as our "version" of Jesse James is probably the best we can do, but there are hints that Kelly was partially politically motivated, rather than just being a bushranger and a killer of police men. His final shoot-out with police at Glenrowan has been well-covered in both book and film formats yet little has been written about the circumstances of his trial and the legal machinations that surrounded it. The late Alex C. Castles completed Ned Kelly's Last Days: Setting the Record Straight on the Death of an Outlaw before his death in December 2003 and it is good to see it published at last. As Christopher Bantick puts it: "The enduring worth of this absorbing book for Kellyphiles and readers who have an interest in the law, is that the legal processes of the Kelly trial have, until now, not received the same level of detailed inquiry as the Kellys' mythical bushranging reputation."

Short notices are given to: Making a Difference: Reflections on Life, Leadership and Politics by Peter Beattie, with Angelo Loukakis: "It's the story of a hand-me-down kid who went to university, experienced Joh Bjelke Petersen's totalitarianism as a student and went on to take the top job in his state (and some are suggesting he might go one further)"; Faces in the Crowd: An Argument for Optimism by Martin Flanagan: "...25 pieces originally published in this newspaper that display all of Flanagan's qualities as a writer: his interest in the struggles and achievements of ordinary people - his humanism - and his economy of means"; A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson and the Convicts of the Princess Royal by Babette Smith: "Babette Smith has done a fine job in pulling apart many of the misconceptions that still persist about convict women. In this compassionate history, based on Susannah's letters and historical records, she reveals that the women were not whores and drunks - most of then were survivors, courageous survivors at that"; The Eccentric Mr Wienholt by Rosamond Siemon: Wienholt fought in the First and Second World Wars, was member of both Queensland State and Federal Parliaments and certainly an "...eccentric and remote character...Siemon makes the most of the abundant adventures of Wienholt but it was with morbid fascination rather than keen interest that I read his story".

Four reviews of Australian non-fiction dominate this week's "Weekend Australian". Red Harrison looks at A Doctor's War by Rowley Richards, and finds that "some readers might feel the subject - especially of his years on the Thai-Burma Railway - has been exhausted by dozens of PoW memoirs published in recent years. Not at all. Using his diaries as the core of what he calls a story of survival through senseless suffering, Richards delivers a book that is not just another history of life as a PoW, but also an original, impressive, compelling and compassionate work."

On the other hand, Ross Fitzgerald is not too impressed with Loner: Inside a Labor Tragedy by Bernard Lagan, calling it "uneven and one-dimensional" and "much of the text is repetitous and the book poorly proofed and edited."

"An absorbing tale of adventure and discovery" is how Evan Williams finds The Magician's Son by Sandy McCutcheon. "I have not read a more deeply felt account of the peculiar emotional void that can afflict the adopted child: the sense of disconnectedness and alienation, the underlying psychic loneliness, the yearning for love, for belonging."

Similarly, Rosemary Neill is moved by Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land by Mary Ellen Jordan, which "is an impressive book that humanises the most pressing moral dilemma confronting Australia: how to achieve social justice for the country's first - and most disadvantaged - inhabitants. It deserves a wide readership.".

Over the past couple of weeks "The Sunday Age" has beefed up its book coverage and it's past time I had a look.

The major piece this week is a profile of Sandy McCutcheon to coincide with the release of his new memoir. The author will be a guest at next month's "Age" Melbourne Writer's Festival so this might well be a good introduction.

Peter Craven has a second look at I Have Kissed Your Lips by Gerard Windsor, and he's still pretty well convinced of the novel's worth: "Gerard Windsor is a real writer in a country that will often be conned by fool's gold. There is absolutely nothing fashionable about the ironclad prose in which he pursues his sometimes disconsolate themes, often in writing that is relegated to the minor shelf for no better reason than the fact that it is, technically, non-fiction. And yet Gerard Windsor is always an imaginative writer - even, as often, when he is brooding around the contours of the real."

And Jane Sullivan considers the public profile of authors, our "intense curiosity" about them and their work, and how Romana Koval deals with it in her new book Tasting Life Twice.

This revamp of "The Sunday Age" books pages seems to have worked pretty well. It's been shifted from the tabloid format of the colour supplement back into the main body of the broadsheet paper, just after the op-ed pages. A good move.

Weekend Round-Up #28

"The Age" has let Peter Craven loose to review Kate Grenville's new novel, The Secret River, and, as you might expect he delivers a pretty good review. He covers Grenville's literary history, delivers an appraisal of her standing in the Australian literary pantheon, and then gets into the book.

He places her pretty much as one might expect: "Grenville is one of the very best of our mid-career novelists though her output suggests occasional zigzags and moments of uncertainty. She is a writer with a rich palette and with a natural affinity for the sensuous and the sensual and for highly coloured drama." And the book: "Kate Grenville has written a fine novel of colonial life and of the tragedy of the confrontation between Aborigine and white settler. The book traces a familiar curve but its characters have real faces and voices."

Craven doesn't go deeply into the possible historical interpretations that Jane Sullivan covered last week but concludes that "It is to Kate Grenville's credit that she never surrenders her sense of the individual faces she captures as she tells this story. I suspect a lot of readers are going to find this book both subtle and satisfying." A major Australian publishing event for 2005 it seems.

The story of Mark Latham is something of a modern tragedy: taking the Federal Labor leadership after Crean saw the writing on the wall and quit, he changed his electioneering style to tone it down to his and his party's detriment, then lost the 2004 Federal Election after attempting to run it on his own, after which he was struck down with a crippling medical complaint. His subsequent resignation from parliament and vitriolic blame shifting have sullied his image in many voters' minds - this one included. Now comes Loner: Inside a Labor Tragedy by Bernard Lagan, reviewed by Michelle Grattan, political editor of "The Age". "Whitlam had much influence over a successor who'd been his staffer. The man who had campaigned on the theme of the needs of the suburbs and led Labor out of the wilderness in 1972 was an inspiration and father figure to Latham. But Whitlam could not pass on his quality for success, nor his grace in defeat." Exactly.

A new history of Australia? Do we really need one? John Molony has produced Australia: Our Heritage which is reviewed by Stuart McIntyre. "His story is one of tribulation and courage, conflict and healing, a striving for improvement and wisdom that falters only as we approach the present."

Short notices are given to: Trade Secrets: Australian Actors & Their Craft by Terence Crawford: "Crawford homes in on the practicalities of acting - the processes or methods that work best for each actor"; The armchair Footy Record: For Planes, Trains & Favourite Rooms edited by Jim Main: "There's a laugh on just about every page in what amounts to a kind of potted history of the game"; Being There: Nursing at the Melbourne, Victoria's First Hospital by Susan Sherson: "...a valuable book that preserves the ethos of nursing at the Melbourne in a comprehensive and moving manner."

Weekend Round-Up #27

Jane Sullivan leads off the Review pages of Saturday's "Age" with a long article that suggests that the "history wars" might flare up again with the publication of Kate Grenville's new novel, The Secret River.

"Since the 'history wars' of two years ago, frontier violence in the early days of European settlement has become one of the most contentious aspects of the Australian story. Passions flared when Keith Windschuttle launched his challenge to the prevailing view in his book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. He went back to the original sources for recent histories of first encounters with Aborigines in Tasmania, and found errors. Then he used these to attack Henry Reynolds and other historians, whom he accused of distorting the facts to favour their 'black armband' view of the past.

"Debates between Windschuttle and his opponents drew the kind of audiences and media coverage you might expect for a sporting clash. Whole books were written and essays were collected to refute his claims. In the tabloid press, historians who rallied against Windschuttle were called a moral mafia and white maggots."

Andrew McGahan's recent novel, The White Earth, explores some of this territory in current times (well, the 1990s anyway) and "This month sees the release of a book where, for the first time, an award-winning novelist has taken for her subject what happens when the settlers and the local Aboriginal people both want the same bit of extremely valuable land." Grenville is steeling herself for a backlash to the book. You can guarantee that the negative reviews of the novel wil reveal more about the reviewer than the novel itself.

Sullivan has had a busy week as she follows her opener with an interview with Shirley Hazzard. A good piece but whoever titled it "Duchess of Hazzard" should be taken out the back and shot.

Fans of Delia Falconer have been waiting since 1997 for her follow-up to The Service of Clouds. Now she is back with The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers. The book "pieces together the memories of Frederick Benteen, a captain in the US Army who fought with General Custer at the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn." Aviva Tuffield is impressed with the novel and hopes that " the fans of Falconer's first novel will follow her into this new terrain and that this book finds the audience it deserves."

Academic theses tend to the dry end of the scale, so it was with some degree of dread that I started reading the review of Cassi Plate's Restless Spirit. Plate submitted the core material of this book for her doctoral thesis at the University of Sydney. Now, that university, in association with Pan Macmillan and the Australian Research Council have started the "Thesis to Book" project, of which this is a part. Based on this review the book certainly sounds interesting. It deals with Plate grandfather but the "writer is very much present in the work, candid in her role as conduit for the events of the life, and their assembly."

Jill Singer, current newspaper columnist and former television current affairs host, has written a book which traces her own reproductive journey as a means of examining the current thinking about conception and fertility generally.

Short notices are given to: The Rattlesnake by Jordon Goodman: "We know it as a place for holiday and recreation, but in the 1840s the Great Barrier Reef was as uncharted as the so-called North-West Passage. Jordon Goodman has produced a thoroughly researched, measured, yet rattling yarn set in the halcyon days of British sea power"; Banned by James Cockington: "this survey of Ausralian wowserism (especially Melbourne) takes in such figures as Lola Montez, Norman Lindsay, Max Harris"; Sandstone by Stephen Lacey: "...a well-researched historical drama that evokes an Australia that has long since passed away"; Troubled Waters by Ruth Balint: "What Balint does so well in Troubled Waters, the first non-fiction manuscript to win the Vogel Literary award, is draw various threads of recent political forces into a coherent and compelling whole"; The World of Thea Proctor by Barry Humphries, Andrew Sayers & Sarah Engledow: "a catalogue for the Thea Proctor exhibition that has just closed at Canberra's National Portrait Gallery and features Barry Humphries providing a brief memoir of meeting and making friends with Proctor in the '50s"; What Women Want next by Susan Maushart: "Maushart makes her findings and arguments accessible through humour, but her relentless wit can grate. This is, nevertheless, a more sophisticated book than most others of its ilk."

Weekend Round-Up #26

Everyone says that short stories don't sell, that no-one wants them, yet thousands are written in Australia each year, and lots of collections are published, viz Black Juice by Margo Lanagan that I've just started. So, this week, "The Age" kicks off with a review of two collections: The Essential Bird by Carmel Bird, and Vincenzo's Garden by John Clanchy.

Sara Douglass has been writing those big fantasy series for a number of years now and is in the midst of a major four-book sequence of which Darkwitch Rising: The Tory Game, Book III is the third, naturally enough. Jeff Glorfeld reviews the book this week and concludes: "The second book struggled to engage, but this one has no such problem, moving smartly out of the starting blocks. Newcomers to the series are in an enviable position: by the time they finish book three, the final volume shouldn't be far away."

Short notices are given to: Australian Literary Studies Vol. 22 No.1 edited by Leigh Dale: German-Australian literary themes are examined, including the German reception of Les Murray's Fredy Neptune and "Michael Ackland's account of Henry Handel Richardson's final year at Leipzig Conservatorium"; Still Waving by Laurene Kelly: whose "commendable aim here is to portray an abused young teenager who is nonetheless able to derive pleasure from life, particularly positive relationships with friends and family"; Shirtfront: A Short and Amazing History of Aussie Rules by Paula Hunt: "this breezy history is a cert for tough nuts who thnk that reading is for sissies...just about right, I would say, for the upper primary/junior secondary market"; The Literary Larrikin: A Critical Biography of T.A.G. Hungerford by Michael Crouch: "...this biography is better at portraying the life and times of an often contradictory man, tolerant and intolerant, stubborn and generous, than in inspiring the reader to seek out Hungerford's work"; and Walk On by Brenda Hodge: who "has clearly written her story in a bid to help other peole who have come from shattered families; to tell them not to feel shame but to seek help and support and the prospect of healing".

Kate Grenville is best known for her Orange Prize winning novel The Idea of Perfection, which was published in 1999, so any new novel of hers is worthy of special attention. Her latest, The Secret River, is reviewed in "The Weekend Australian" this week by Stella Clarke, who describes the book as "a fabulous historical fiction, a rich and challenging re-imagining of familiar territory in the mould of Carey's Jack Maggs, his True History of the Kelly Gang, or Rose Tremain's The Colour".

Peter Beattie has been Premier of Queensland since 1998, and yet, at 52, considers himself too old to join Federal politics as he feels the lead time for Federal Labor may be just too long - which is politician speak for "I don't want to say anything definitive". Political commentator Ross Fitzgerald looks at Beattie's latest book, Peter Beattie: Making a Difference, which the politician has written in conjunction with Angelo Loukakis, and he generally likes what he reads.

Detective novelist Peter Corris looks at The Eccentric Mr Wienholt by Rosamond Siemon, and while he finds the writing "evocative" he didn't like the racist subject that much.

Robert Hughes is back in Barcelona with his new memoir Barcelona the Great Enchantress which is reviewed by Patrica Anderson, who finds that Hughes "inserts himself into the narrative like a sixpence in a Christmas pudding."

Short notices are given to: Deep Waters by Andiee Paviour who has "an uncanny eye for human excess and frailty"; What Happened to Joseph? by T.A.G. Hungerford, which "celebrates the West Australian author's 60 years at the keyboard, working at novels, plays, stories, poems and articles"; and How Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare... by Paul Jennings: "a personal and atmospheric book".

Weekend Round-Up #25

"The Age" comes back strongly this week, at least on the non-fiction front, with four major reviews of Australian books, which is a nice return to form. For a sport that pretty much dominates southern Australia during the winter months, Australian Rules Football has not produced a great number of books on the subject. Although indigenous players had been around at the highest level for most of the game's history, they had not been a dominant force until the 1970s and the arrival of the Krakouer brothers at North Melbourne. Now Sean Gorman tells the story of the two players in Brotherboys: The Story of Jim and Phil Krakouer, which is reviewed by Michael Gordon. The review is a strange mixture of anecdote and history. I would have liked more about whether the book succeeded or not. Still we are left with the statement that "Gorman is well placed to write the Krakouer story because he has an understanding of what it is like for indigenous Australians in country towns and he loves the rhythms of the 'language, moments and myths' of football. He writes about subjects with empathy and insight." Which might be enough.

Romana Koval, presenter of the "Books and Writing" radio program on the ABC, has compiled Tasting Life Twice: Conversations with Remarkable Writers which contains interviews chiefly made during the Edinburgh International Book Festival between 1999 and 2004. Christopher Bantick's asks all the relevant questions in his review of the book, and finds a way into the review via his own interview with one of Koval's subjects, Malcolm Bradbury.

If the interview/profile piece is your bag then you can continue on with Close Up: 28 Lives of Extraordinary Australians by Peter Wilmoth. I will admit to reading these pieces from time to time in newspapers and magazines, usually if their subject has an affect on my life (eg politicians) or if they work in an area of special interest (eg writers). But I'm not big on puff-pieces or blatant publicity stunts. Matthew Ricketson is impressed with Wilmoth's collection which dates back to 1993, not only because of his attention to detail but also because he "has an ability, underestimated by those outside the media, to persuade people to talk. He is an attentive, sympathetic listener, and not afraid to ask hard questions."

So far we've had the biography, the interviews, and the profiles, and to continue the biographical/confessional nature of the books under review here we have Velocity by Mandy Sayer. This is Sayer's second memoir, following Dreamtime Alice, and Michelle Griffin, the reviewer, appears to have enjoyed it with some caveats: "The new memoir is written in the past tense but without any reflection, as if Sayer were afraid to name the empty spaces between the stories...I'm convinced of the gist, if not the details. You're always aware of the writer sifting through her memory stash, selecting and arranging the details for effect."

Short notices are also given to: Lessons I have Learned: Inspirations and Insights from Australia's Greatest Golfer by Peter Thompson, with Steve Perkin - Greg Norman had the name but Thompson had the results, and "what shines through is a generosity of spirit that, sadly these days, one does not associate with elite levels of competitive sport"; Noeline Long-Term Memoir by Noeline Brown: "Certainly there is great gossip and the usual collection of amusing anecdotes in this memoir but for a woman who has made her living making people laugh, there is a sadness in the subtext that is never fully realised nor explained"; Treaty by Sean Brennan, Larissa
Behrendt, Lisa Strelein, and George Williams: the treaty of the title refers to "the much-debated idea of a treaty between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians...[which] can serve the dual purpose of being a meaningful gesture and have a material effect"; and Nine Tenths Below: UTS Writers Anthology: "it's good to see the spirit of experiementation so strong here: there's not much traditional realism nor the kind of thing that has half an eye cocked on prospective commercial publishing."

"The Weekend Australian" reviews Troubled Waters by Ruth Balint, the co-winner, with Nicholas Angel's Drown Them in the Sea, of the 2003 Australian/Vogel award. To the best of my knowledge this is the first non-fiction book to share in the prize and shows that the judges are looking outside the usual boundaries. This work is an "eloquent account of the clash between traditional fishing in the Timor Sea and Australian determination to enforce its claims to maritime sovereignty".

The Long, Slow Death of White Australia by Gwenda Tavan is reviewed by Stephen Matchett who appears to find good and bad in the book, and who gives the impression that his political views don't gell with the author's: "Tavan is a fine historian who marshals her material to present a complex and convincing argument. But her comments on the supposed role of race in the politics of her own age are just another partisan polemic." And what's wrong with that, I ask?

Weekend Round-Up #24

It's a slow week in "The Age": Peter Craven outlines a way of getting into Ulysses which I must follow some time. I've read Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and an Irish mate of mine always gives me heaps over not having read The Big One. I keep thinking a long train journey would be the place for it. Must make one some day.

For the first time this year I haven't been able to identify a single Australian book under review in the weekend "Age". A sorry state of affairs. I would have thought there was something out there.

Short notices are given to: How Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare... by Paul Jennings, "It takes a while to get going, but Hedley Hopkins ends up being a fun and instructive adventure story"; The Long Hot Summer by Mary Moody: "Many people question Moody's motivation for writing about her personal life...[but] Moody, a former journalist, writes fluidly and with much passion"; Island 100 edited by
David Owen "a hefty double issue to which past editors and others with a close association with the magazine have been invited to contribute"; The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel by Rachel Antony and Joel Henry: "there are a lot of ideas for livening up your weekend or making new friends"; Oscar's Half Birthday by Bob Graham: "Graham's book is a gentle, detailed and affectionate portrait of the way many people live their lives and how they take great pleasure in simle events, despite the lack of a ski-lift pass or an SUV"; Federation Square by Andrew Brown-May and Norman Day: "This well-conceived and well-written book about the long history and eventual realisation of the Square taps into the complex emotions behind this public space, making it an unexpectedly moving document". Fiona Capp, the reviewer also states that the square is "something wondrous and strange, a place of warmth, light and colour that we have been able to embrace whole heartedly." Well, not
this little black duck. It looks like a Christmas present left out in the rain to me; a European edifice that looks totally out of place in an Australian environment. Where's the shade? And where's the sense of community that doesn't require a trendy wine bar? Don't get me started.

On the eve of her arrival in Australia to accept last year's Miles Franklin Award for The Great Fire, "The Weekend Australian" carries a profile of Shirley Hazzard. The book also won the US National Book Award and has been shortlisted for the Impac Prize, the winner of which will be announced during the week. After that, forget it. No Australian stuff anywhere.

Weekend Round-Up #23

The major Australian fiction review in "The Age" this weekend is of Eva Sallis's The March Birds by Lisa Gorton. The novel concerns the story of a young Iraqi refugee living in an Australian migration detention centre. John Marsden recently called on novelists to write more challenging works, to grab people by the shoulders and shake them into some sense of recognition. Sallis follows Keneally's The Tyrant's Novel in dealing with the problematic treatment of refugees in this country and can be said to be following Marsden's advice. But there are problems: "All the qualities that make The Marsh Birds particularly compelling as a work of testimony limit its range as a work of fiction." Gorton then goes on to conclude that the overwhelming machinery of the immigration system in this country acts as a lead weight on the novel's plot, dragging it under, throwing it down paths it might not normally have taken. But is this such a bad thing? I don't think so. The plot is the young protagonist's life-story: if that is chaotic and fragmented then so follows the novel. Sallis has a record of writing confronting novels (her first, Hiam, won the 1998 Vogel award) so I believe she is worthy of being allowed to lead the book where it needs to go. As Gorton puts it: "...[the novel] is insistently and convincingly topical; committed to setting out how politics affects individual lives in inescapable ways. And surely, if it can help to dismantle Australia's practices of detention, it will have value."

Bronislaw Malinowski was "a founder of modern anthropology based on intensive fieldwork and the revolutionary paradigm of structural functionalist theory." The first volume of his biography, Malinowski: Odyssey of an Anthropologist 1884-1920 by Michael Young, is reviewed by Michael Young. Malinowski was an aristocratic, well-educated young Pole who travelled to Australia before commencing his field work in the Trobriand Islands in 1910.

Short notices are given to: Mad Arm of the Y by David McRobbie: " addictive melodrama that will make a fine movie or miniseries"; Runner by Robert Newton: the "evocation of Richmond slums and his mastery of the colloquial language are done extremely well"; Decolonising the Mind by Ulli Beier: "Beier writes with an appealing voice, and this plain and straightforward account of his time in PNG is a very likeable book.."; Great Pioneer Women of the Outback by Susanna de Vries: [she] "controls her material beautifully: her narrative never stalls but thrives on the research. She also gives the reader fresh insights into the importance as well as the drama of these women's lives."

Graeme Blundell is very impressed with Mandy Sayer's new memoir, Velocity, in "The Weekend Australian". He is very aware of the problems associated with writing a good memoir and sets them out in order to see whether Sayer's work measures up. "Anyone who has tried to write personal testimony knows that consciousness is sprawling, fragmented and contradictory. And simply telling what happened rarely makes for compelling narrative...The writer's job is to find the shape in unruly life and serve their story; not their family or even the truth, but only their story...Argentinian
writer Jorge Luis Borges called writing 'a guided dream,' a phrase that echoes my experience of reading this glorious piece of narrative nonfiction. No reader's imagination can fail to be touched by some part of it."

Weekend Round-Up #22

Jane Sullivan kicks off "The Age" weekend book reviews with a profile of Paul Jennings, one of Australia's best-selling authors of young adult and childrens' books. This coincides with the release of Jennings's latest book, his most autobiographical to date: How Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare..., or, to give it its full title, How Hedley Hopkins Did a Dare, robbed a grave, made a new friend who might not have really been there at all, and while he was at it committed a terrible sin which everyone was doing even though he didn't know it. Even though Jennings could have a quite confortable living (for Australia anyway) writing the same types of books he has produced so far, he senses the need to write a novel for adults: "I guess I'm doing it for me really. There's always been an element with the children's books, I'm doing it for you...Maybe I've finally grown up. It's quite a scary thing. I can fail...But at this stage of my life, I won't write anything unless it really terrifies me." I look forward to it.

Christos Tsiolkas's third novel, and first since The Jesus Man in 1999, is reviewed by Ian Syson, who wonders if he is "destined to become the happy-clappy publicist for new Australian writing? While all around me the grim literary coteries are despairing of what is to become of Australian literature, I am enjoying most of the Australian fiction I read. Maybe I just get to read the good stuff, such as Christos Tsiolkas' Dead Europe." Syson is impressed with Tsiolkas's [yes, I know I add the extra "s" after the apostrophe, and believe I'm right in this regard] "prose is sometimes so achingly tender and beautiful that it gives us pause to reflect on the tragedies that force a writer capable of communicating such joy and delight to stare down the many spectres haunting Dead Europe".

Short notices are given to: The Companion to Tasmanian History edited by Alison Alexander, "as is inevitable in state-based references of this kink, [this book] is both history and celebration"; Yesterday's Tomorrows edited by Graeme Davison and Kimberley Webber: "A book about a museum is a strange beast...this museum of science, technology, design and social trends is implicitly dedicated to notions of progress"; Surviving Amber by Charlotte Calder, who "...approaches [the] familiar storyline (including a romantic sub-plot) with originality and a lightness of touch..".

"The Weekend Australian" also reviews Dead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas this week finding that the writer "delivers on his youthful promise". The novel challenges the New/Old World divide in that the main character "acts out contemporary Australia's search for a grown-up identity, our struggles to break free of European fantasies and demons."

Sarah Blackwell's book The English Dane: A Story of Empire and Adventure from Iceland to Tasmania has taken a while to be reviewed in "The Australian" and I wonder if this has done her no harm whatsoever. Having the reviews appearing over an extended period may have helped the book find a wider audience. Having a reviewer conclude that "this is an extraordinary story, told brilliantly" can't do anything but help either.

Short notices are given to: Mary Cunningham: An Australian Life by Jennifer Horsfield: the story of a pioneer in the Australian wool industry at the time of the rise of Australian nationhood; Sandman in Siberia by Steve Abbott: Steve "Sandman" Abbott - dead-pan comic extraordinaire - traces his family roots in Siberia.

Weekend Round-Up #21

In this weekend's "Age", Leslie Cannold, author of What, No Baby?, is a bit ambivalent about Wonder Woman by Virginia Haussegger. Cannold starts off with praise enough: "It's hard to read Virginia Haussegger, or to listen to her on radio, and not find yourself liking her. In particular, I admire her honesty. Since 2002, when she threw open the doors on her reproductive journey and its unwanted destination, Haussegger has never been anything less than forthright about the pain she feels over finding herself unintentionally childless." But by the end of the review she is rather more critical about the book: " we are left with the bizarre hypothesis that the real problem facing contemporary women is that feminists didn't tell them they couldn't have it all, rather than the fact that even in post-feminist times, they still can't." In fact, none of us can. Once you get to that realisation life becomes a bit less hectic. The trick is working out which bits matter and which bits you are going to regret later.

Over the past few weeks there have been reviews doing the rounds of a new book by Catherine Rey, titled The Spruiker's Tale. The author is a Frenchwoman who lives in Western Australia, and I've been tossing up whether or not it fits the aims of this weblog. In the end I've decided to just include it and be damned if I'm wrong. So James Ley reviews the book in the "Age" and finds it "...a wild fantasy spiked with a pitch-black sense of humour. Outrageous, hysterical and brutal, it manages to be hilarious and appalling all at once." The interesting thing is it is actually a novel in translation. Not the usual thing for an Australian novel.

Marilyn Lake ponders "When did the White Australia policy end?" in her look at The Long Slow Death of White Australia by Gwenda Tavan. I don't reckon the White Australia Policy ever really died. It was just put on a back shelf waiting for a certain Prime Minister take it down, dust it off and present it anew under the "terrorism" banner. I'm actually holding out for the Cabinet papers of the late 1970s to be released after their 30 year embargo. Should make wonderful reading as we finally get to see what Little Johnny was really up to in Fraser's government.

Short notices are given to : Jack Lang and the Great Depression by Frank Cain, a "well-researched, solid scholarly work"; and Well Done, Those Men by Barry Heard, which has been mentioned in these pages before. A light week indeed.

"The Weekend Australian" doesn't help out much with only two Australian books featured. Christopher Bantick finds Human Remains: Episodes in Dissection by Helen MacDonald to be "chillingly gothic", but "also compellingly readable as it exposes how the medical profession in Tasmania obtained corpses and what they did with them before anatomy was regulated in a series of parliamentary acts in Britain and Australia." Not exactly my idea of bedtime reading.

Mark Whittaker takes a look at Crook as Rookwood by Chris Nyst and concludes that Nyst "knows how to construct a drama in a courtroom and the book is worth reading for its insights into the vanities of lawyers and the nuances of their theatrics."

Weekend Round-Up #20

In this week's Saturday "Age" Lisa Gorton looks at two first novels by Australian women writers: The Singing by Stephanie Bishop, and The Rose Notes by Andrea Mayes. (Is it just me or are there a lot of these about these days?) "The Singing is precise in its narrow range. It is composed of memories and observations and everywhere the narrator looks she sees her own obsessions, haunting her world like the reflection of a face in glass. The Rose Notes, on the other hand, is like those cattle tracks that Pearl follows: gently involving, rambling and broad-ranging."

Robert Manne, scourge of the right, and a leading intellectual voice in Ausralia has released Left Right Left: Political Essays 1977-2005, which traces the evolution of his politics over the period. Jeff Sparrow is enjoys the result.

Short notices are given to: Samurai in the Surf: The Arrival of the Japanese on the Gold Coast in the 1980s by Joe Hajdu, "The Gold Coast experience provides a revealing case study that raises wider questions about Australia's role in Asia, the impact of globalisation, and perceptions of national identity"; The Child Is Wise: Stories of Childhood edited by Janet Blagg, "Evocative without being nostalgic, these are memorable journeys into the 'hollow of the heart'"; Adagio for a Simple Clarinet by Stephen Downes, the story of a restaurant critics attenpts to learn to play a simple clarinet previosuly belonging to his father; The Smallest Giant: An Actor's Life by Michael Craig, "At the conclusion of this book Craig says he may have been happier as a cabinet-maker. That's the only statement that doesn't ring true in this gossip-drenched, thoroughly entertaining book."

In "The Weekend Australian" Ross Fitzgerald is very definitely impressed with Affection by Ian Townsend, which he feels "is a must-read book for 2005. As a powerful mix of truth and invention, it is a literary tour de force." Which doesn't beat about the bush. In the novel "Ian Townsend has done something quite remarkable in his first novel: drawing on government reports, newspaper and magazine articles, photographs, telegrams, personal papers and oral and written histories, he has fleshed out into fiction a hitherto unknown and fascinating story of colonial Queensland on the cusp of a new century and of Australian nationhood." The story details the arrival of the plague in Townsville in December 1899. I knew it had been in Sydney about that time but not that it had progressed so far north. Okay, Ross, I'll get to it. I just have these Miles Franklin books to start and finish yet.

John Misto, television script-writer (The Day of the Roses about the Granville train disaster) has turned his hand to a gothic police procedural with The Devil's Companions. Graeme Blundell, "The Australian"'s resident crime reviewer thinks it move towards Harlan Corben territory with lashings of "alienation, despair and dissolution." It's good to see some good local crime fiction out there. The ranks are pretty thin.

Weekend Round-Up #19

"The Age" comes across as practically free of Australian books this weekend, with only one sizeable book review and just a few mentions in the short notices. The major non-review piece is Michelle Griffin's "A Question of Character" which discusses the appropriation of one writer's characters for use in another author's novel. Particular attention is given to March by Geraldine Brooks and Jack Maggs by Peter Carey. Of interest to me is the statement:

"According to Australian Copyright Council legal officer Shehana Wijesena, characters and plot lines in Australian novels aren't protected by copyright. As long as the next author doesn't copy passages from the source word-for-word, they can feel free to retell other writer's yarns. But if a writer wanted to make free with his or her own sequel to a well-known work still in copyright - say, The Thorn Birds - they may be challenged by publishers for trying to pass off their work as something in association with a better-known brand. As yet nobody has tested this in Australian courts."
This would seem to have relevance to the discussion on "fan fiction" that screenwriter Lee Goldberg undertakes from time to time on his weblog. Now, I do not mean to imply that what Carey and Brooks have created here is "fanfic", just that the quoted statement is relevant. I mentioned a month or so back that the new Brooks novel had all the hallmarks of being a major event in Australian publishing this year. The fact that it keeps on being important probably says as much about the lack of other important Australian literary events as it does about March itself.

Janice Breen Burns, "The Age" fashion editor, reviews The Fashion Pack by Marion Hume. The "plot swings through the fantastic upper branches of fashion in Paris, Milan and New York where moguls, super models, movie stars and sycophants converge twice a year to schmooze, shop and pose at the shows and where fashion writers and editors not only lap it up and write it down but are an integral part and propellant of the whole amazing business." Hume is a 20-year industry veteran who arrived in Sydney from Britain in 1997 to revive magazine Vogue. It is reported that local rag-traders are scouring the book "in search of names, darling, names, or at least the odd recognisable pseudonym. It's not a fruitless task by any means."

Short notices are given to: The Never Boys by Scott Monk, which "doesn't oversentimentalise, nor does it try too hard to be cool" and that makes this "novel a winner." The Truth About Love by Stephanie Laurens, a regency romance/mystery about the Cynster family ("cyn-s-ter", groan), "in this family the men are double alphas with cherries on top and damn well get what they want and that's usually women." Voiceworks 60 edited by Tom Doig, "is a space for flegling writers under 25 to be published...exploring the reaches of their abilities, experimenting with subject and form." And Deep Waters by Andlee Paviour, "is hell's bells melodramatic but Paviour's voice is sharp, savvy and fresh."

Not the best of weekends for Australian fiction, then?

At least we get something better in "The Weekend Australian" with a review by Elizabeth Meryment of The Marsh Birds by Eva Sallis. The novel "does exactly what good art should do: it questions, probes, illuminates and humanises a topical moral and social issue. This book is an important contribution to the national debate about our Government's treatment of asylum-seekers." Which is pretty much a ringing endorsement: "this is a tightly woven tale, beautifully narrated, genuine and believable."

The other three books covered by the "Australian" are non-fiction: Bamahuta: Leaving Papua by Philip Fitzpatrick, Freud in the Antipodes: A Cultural History of Psychoanalysis in Australasia by Joy Damousi, and Storms and Dreams by John Dunmore. The Papua book is a memoir that "will engage those familiar with the country", and the Freud book appears to more of a reference source than a work for the general reader. Storms and Dreams, on the other hand, tells the story of Louis-Antoine Comte de Bougainville, and "is an expert and elegantly written account of the making of modern history and a highly engaging story of the life and times of one of the most extraordinary men to grace the planet."

Weekend Round-Up #18

Jane Sullivan begins proceedings this week in "The Age" with her profile and interview of Geraldine Brooks. I guess you'd have to have been a hermit in Australia over the past month or so not to know that Brooks recently released her second novel March. And there appears to be more connections between her first and second novels than just having the same author: "People have been saying my two novels are so different, but to me they are linked in obvious ways," Brooks says. "Both are the story of a year; both are about what happens to love in a time of crisis; both are about different kinds of faith and strong ideas, and the blessing and the curse of the strong idea." But Sullivan uses the opportunity to explore Brooks's working life as a reporter in Kurdistan during a Kurdish uprising against the Iraqi government, through her first book, Nine Parts of Desire ("a look at the complex world of Islamic women through their own thoughts and experiences"), to being thrown into jail in Nigeria, to her bout with breast cancer and her recent successful foray into the world of novel-writing. A pretty good profile overall by Sullivan, letting Brooks do the bulk of the talking and imposing little of herself into the piece.

Brenda Niall, biographer of the artistic and literary Boyd family, reviews a biography in The Unusual Life of Enid Walling by Sara Hardy. Walling was an eccentric garden designer in Melbourne from the 1930s but this "new biography of this remarkable woman makes it clear that we will never know how many supposed Walling gardens are the real thing." Niall finds that Hardy has done a good job of the biography of a woman who was ahead of her time. "Hardy's biography is at its best in showing in a day-by-day narrative how a seemingly unplanned professional life grew in scope and importance."

James Wolfensohn was, until recently, president of the World Bank. Not bad for a boy from Sydney who was the son of Jewish emigres. Leon Gettler gets to grips with Wolfensohn's biography in The World's Banker by "Washington Post" columnist Sebastian Mallaby. As is usual with these blokes that get to the top, there is more to the man than meets the eye: "Wolfensohn approached development with the same passion that made him a successful Wall Street merchant banker, a member of Australia's fencing team in the 1956 Olympics and a successful cellist. He was a skilled relationship banker who could give his clients the impression that his mind was heading in exactly the same direction as theirs and who was bristling with ideas to help them."

Short notices are given to: Picturesque Pursuits: Colonial Woman Artists & the Amateur Tradition by Caroline Jordan, "Jordan's mission is to ensure that the paintings and letters of the colonial women artists are not forgotten. Her scholarly and highly readable book, teeming with colour plates and prints, reveals a rich seam in our history"; Dancing with the Devil by Amy Norman, a memoir of life with an abusive husband, "Norman's writing is serviceable rather than skillful, but this is an honest account"; Remnants by Nigel Featherstone, "more a noble failure than a failure full stop"; All Fall Down by Susan Geason, "comes close to creating an independent, memorable book"; A Merciful Journey: Recollections of a World War II Patrol Boat Man by Marsden Hordern, "no matter how well written...will appeal most to those who have an existing interest in maritime and/or military history"; and Black and White Together by Sue Taffe, this "excellent book has the immediacy that comes from personal contact with many of the people involved...and is well written to

Robyn Davidson, best known as the author of Tracks, returns home after spending 25 years living an international nomadic existence, and is interviewed by Rosemary Neill in "The Weekend Australian". So why has she come home: "I found it just too demanding to be trying to balance three countries and pretend that each home had equal rights to my time. In the end, it just gets very difficult to live that way." In addition to finding a place to actually call home, Davidson has a new project underway on the concept of nomadism which she is developing under an H.C. Coombs Creative Writing Fellowship at the Australian National University.

Kilroy Was Here by Kris Olsson is the major Australian work reviewed by "The Weekend Australian". It is the biography of "a 44-year-old Brisbane ex-prisoner with tatts and a torn-off wedding finger: Debbie Kilroy, nee Harding, that rare and blessed creature among women, born with a phenomenal will to power, an impressively violent temperament, a craving for excitement and energy enough to sustain a regiment in full battle gear."

Also reviewed in "The Weekend Australian": Damien Marrett, ex-undercover policeman, tells his story in Undercover: "It is tighter and better written than many such offerings"; Absurdistan by Eric Campbell, the ABC reporter whose colleague, Australian cameraman Paul Moran, was killed in the first few days of the Iraq War; The Essential Carmel Bird by Carmel Bird which was covered here in more detail a few weeks back; and Vincenzo's Garden by John Clanchy, whose "stories are taut, almost transparent on the surface, with description taking second place to action".

ABC radio journalist, Ian Townsend, has written his first novel Affection about a plague in northern Queensland at the start of the 20th century. He is interviewed by Guy Mosel in this weekend's "Courier-Mail". Townsend gets to the heart of the difficulties involved in a first novel: "It's very hard to write a book...I had to give up fishing and drinking . . . a huge sacrifice."

There is something about the soil, water, gardens and greenery that strikes a chord in a lot of us, so it is hardly surprising that Kate Llewellyn's new book Watering the Garden has already gone for a reprint. The book, and its author, are profiled this week by Caroline Baum in "The Sydney Morning Herald". "She knows that the secret lies in the pruning." Exactly. I just wish more writers were aware of it.

Weekend Round-Up #17

With the ANZAC weekend upon us it is not surprising that the book review pages of the papers start off with books released specifically for the event.

"The Age" features three in its main review: World War I Scarecrow Army: The Anzacs at Gallipoli by Leon Davidson, Quinn's Post: Anzac, Gallipoli by Peter Stanley, and Hell Hope and Heroes: Life in the Field Ambulance in World War I. The Memoirs of Private Roy Ramsay AIF edited by Ron J. Ramsay. It's actually rather astounding that there still stories to be told of the Gallipoli campaign 90 years after the fact. But new diaries, letters and memoirs come to life as the original soldier's immediate families die and their possesions are examined by the remaining relatives. "With this year marking the 90th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, books have now taken on the primary roll of the way we remember the first Anzacs...Australia has reinvented Gallipoli as a rite of passage into nationhood for a new generation. Ninety years on, it is not kitted-out soldiers but pilgrims who gather at Anzac Cove. In this there is a risk. The true meaning of Anzac could be lost beneath waves of patriotic fervour." Well, given that remembering war appeals specifically to that exact emotion, I'm not sure that this can be construed as a criticism.

For the first time in some while two Australian crime novels are reviewed: A Hand in the Bush by Jane Clifton, and Crook as a Rookwood by Chris Nyst. This is Clifton's second novel after her earlier Half Past Dead and the reviewer, Sue Turnbull, finds that: "Jane Clifton also has a good ear for dialogue, and an equally observant eye...[with] the kind of detail that makes Clifton worth reading, even when the plot is a tad overwrought and unconvincing." On the other hand "A Hand in the Bush has a laboured beginning but picks up speed." Which seems to imply that Clifton is getting there but needs a bit more work on her plotting.

Chris Nyst is best known for his screenplay Gettin' Square which was filmed with David Wenham in the lead role. Turnbull is impresed with this novel: "Nyst knits a convoluted plot in which every stitch counts and the pay-off is guaranteed. However, his real triumph is the nice observation of people and places, from Marrickville to the Gold Coast, the seductions of Sydney Harbour to the brutalities of prison. Nyst's ear for the vernacular is acute, locating the grim poetry in the Australian patois."

Short notices are given to: Australian Football Quarterly, Issue 3 edited by Geoffrey Slattery "...just the season's ticket for a football mad country"; Overland: The Spirit in Australia edited by Nathan Hollier "...a focused (the spirit of Patrick White being its reference point), timely and quite brave attempt to check the spiritual pulse of Howard's Australia"; The Original Million Dollar Mermaid by Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth, which tells the life story of Annette Kellerman whose life "not only inspired this effective biography that draws on her own unpublished memoirs, but was also portrayed by Esther Williams in the 1952 Technicolor extravaganza Million Dollar Mermaid"; Killing Me Softly: Voluntary Euthenasia and the Road to the Peaceful Pill by Philip Nitschke and Fiona Stewart, which is "part memoir and part polemic"; Kilroy was Here by Kris Olsson, a biography of Debbie Kilroy; and Another by Joel Deane, a novel in which "the darkness of the material seems sometimes to have a willed air to it: the kind of social realism that flattens out its emotional register in the attempt to make points about what society is doing to its most vulnerable members."

"The Weekend Australian" follows the ANZAC line with a large piece on Western Australian author, Tom Hungerford, as he approaches 90, on the release of his biography The Literary Larrikin by Michael Crouch, and his upcoming collection of short stories and poems What Happened to Joseph. "Every adventure has been grist to his literary mill, from years spent writing for the Australian War Memorial to being a roving reporter for the Australian news and information bureau. He has visited almost every continent, including Antarctica, and worked as a press secretary for two WA premiers, John Tonkin and Charles Court."

Specifically on the ANZAC line we have Echoes of ANZAC: The Voices of Australians at War edited by Graham Seal, A Merciful Journey: Recollections of a World War II Patrol Boat Man by Marsden Hordern, Boy Soldiers of the Great War by Richard Van Emden, and Russian Anzacs in Australian History by Elena Govor.

The major, non-ANZAC, Australian review is of The Original Million Dollar Mermaid by Emily Gibson with Barbara Firth (also mentioned in "The Age" short-notices above). It tells the story of a famous forgotten Australian: "A good case can be made that Annette Kellerman was not only the best known Australian woman celebrity of her day, and famous as a swimmer, but also the most remarkable Australian who lived. Yet who remembers her now?"

Also reviewed is The Sleepers Almanac 2005: The Deathbed Challenge: "Supposedly no one buys short story collections, but as the Almanac proves, young writers and writing are still healthy. And they look good, too."

Weekend Round-Up #16

The major Australian review in this weekend's "Weekend Age" is written by Patrick McCaughey, a former director of the National Gallery of Victoria, of Degenerates and Perverts: The 1939 Herland Exhibition of French and British Contemporary Art by Eileen Chanin and Steven Miller. And I reckon you'd struggle to find a more obscure topic, but McCaughey puts it into perspective: "The Herald Exhibition of 1939 was the most important exhibition ever to come to Australia. Despite obvious lacks and omissions - no German Expressionists, no Russian Constructivists, no Italian Futurists and few Surrealists - it brought the modern movement with a bang to the doorstep of Australia as nothing else had." The authors tell the story of the exhibition and the machinations behind the scenes and "like all good stories, it has its villians and heroes." The exhibition was huge, some 217 works, and it drew massive crowds, 45,000 in 11 days in Melbourne alone. A seminal event in Australian art, indeed.

Given the amount of Australian first novels I keep on coming across, all of a medium to high standard, I believe we are in the middle of a major resurgence in Oz fiction. And a good thing too. Lisa Gorton is impressed with The Patron Saint of Eels by Gregory Day, his first novel. "This is an unlikely and oddly endearing story of a small Victorian town, an Italian saint and some eels." Though she does temper her feelings a little: "At times, it is true, The Patron Saint of Eels seems a little fey; perhaps the made-up miracle makes its moral point a little too easily." A little lee-way is allowable with first novels I'd say.

Juliette Hughes is "swept up into an earthy, comic and dangerous universe" as she reads Five Oranges by Graham Reilly, and Frances Atkinson finds Kate Llewellyn's memoir Playing with Water: A Story of a Garden rather "contagious".

Short notices are given to: Waking Up with Strangers by Daniel Gloag: "The first 50 pages of Gloag's fiction is brilliant - the writing sparkles, his characters charm, and he creates a wonderful sense of the restlessness of youth. The brilliance is not sustained, alas. But even Blind Freddie can see that the author has a huge gift." Slaughterboy by Odo Hirsch, " a dark and at times gruesome novel that depicts with visceral acuity the hardship of one boy's life in early 16th-century Europe." Specky Magee and the Boots of Glory by Felice Arena & Gary Lyon: "this is an easy reading, easy thinking book for boys". Desperate Hearts by Katherine Summers, a memoir that is a testament "to the resilience of children who given a modicum of love and an opportunity or two, fight through", and Diggerspeak: The Language of Australians at War by Amanda Laugesen.

In the "Weekend Australian", Maryanne Confoy's biography Morris West: A Literary Maverick is given a major going-over by Barry Oakley. West "was a craftsman who wanted to be seen as an artist. [This book] is intelligent and perceptive, but it takes us closer to the books than to the man."

Colin Falconer's novel "My Beautiful Spy is an airport novel par excellence. By this I don't mean that it's lightweight or inadequately researched but that its page-turning, high-paced action is at the expense of subtle character development and considered, meticulous prose." And Edwina Preston, in her review, concludes: "Falconer's novels sell like hotcakes across the world but the recipe is bland and workaday, with no surprise ingredients. Easily digestible but offering little in the way of long-term nourishment."

John Baxter's new book We'll Always Have Paris: Sex and Love in the City of Light is reviewed in this weekend's "Sydney Morning Herald" by Sacha Molitorisz, described as "a Herald writer recently returned from Paris". Anyone who read Baxter's previous book, A Pound of Paper, wil know that he has a very readable style, often given to looking beneath the surface of his subject: "Throughout, Baxter has an ear for the prurient, the offbeat and the absurd. That - combined with his efficient, elegant prose - makes the book a pacy, page-turning read."

The Essential Bird by Carmel Bird is reviewed, and author interviewed, by Matt Condon in "The Courier-Mail". "The title started out as a bit of a joke," [Bird] says. "My editor said it was time to collect some of the stories together and we'd always called it 'the essential Bird'. When it got closer to publication my editor asked what we should call it. But that was the title. It plays on words. It's about getting to the essence of things." As Condon puts it: "These works mull over Bird's lifelong interest in psychiatry, madness, murder, charisma, and cults and how these elements sit in contemporary society. Her ability to enter the psychology of her characters is one of the outstanding characteristics of her work."

Weekend Round-Up Notes

The weekend round-up will be a bit delayed this week. I was unwell yesterday and couldn't get to it. Hopefully it will be available later today or tomorrow.

Weekend Round-Up #15 Part 2

At the height of his corporate career, Robert Holmes a Court was one of Australia's richest men, hobnobbing with politicians of all persuasions and living the high life during the heady days of the 1980s. His brother, Simon Holmes a Court, on the other hand lived a lonely and rather tragic life as a game warden in Botswana. The journalist Geoff Elliott has now written Simon's story in The Other brother which is reviewed in this weekend's "Australian" by Mark McGinness. The reviewer is generally impressed by the book, though not by the author's introduction of himself into the account in the last third. If it's handled well I don't see the problem with this - Simon died on the edge of the Tsitsikamma forest in southern Africa at the age of 37, which doesn't leave a lot of material to work with. Still McGinness does conclude that: "Elliott has brought a relaxed and rather blokey style to The Other Brother, but he has also confirmed his perserverance and an admirable quest for accuracy. This is an intriguing story of an extraordinary, enigmatic man."

Given the volume of new novels coming onto the bookshelves each week it is no surprise when authors choose rather peculiar titles for their works, if only to make them stand out from the ruck. Gregory Day's new novel The Patron Saint of Eels is given the once-over by Liam Davison who is quite impressed with the work: "In [this] wonderful first novel, the enigma of the eel becomes the central metaphor for the charming contemporary fable about migration and belonging, and mortality and belief." Which, on the face of it, seems to stretch the bonds of credibility somewhat. But Davison is a major novelist himself so he knows where a reader might be a little dubious: "In another writer's hands, this quasi-religious fable with its veiled social and environmental agenda might have tested the credulity and goodwill of its readers. Day, though, understands the power of the story and the way local mythology and folklore invests a place with its own magic."

Kerryn Goldsworthy reviews the new novel The Raft by Alan Mills, and is impressed with the action and execution, if not the literary worth: "High art The Raft ain't. But it would make a great movie". She also book as "a kind of Tobsha Learner for blokes." I had to look her up as well.

In this weekend's "Sydney Morning Herald", Michelle Griffin meets Geraldine Brooks, as the author is about to start an Australian book tour in support of her new novel March. And Harriet Veitch reviews Farewell my Ovaries by Wendy Harmer.

In "The Courier-Mail" from Queensland, Jane Fynes-Clinton is impressed with two Australian novels for younger readers: The Lace Maker's daughter by Gary Crew, and Witchsong by Kim Wilkins.

Dan Hart of Brisbane has self-published the story of his life culled from over 70 years of diary entries. If nothing else it shows a degree of dedication most of us would envy.

Weekend Round-Up #15 Part 1

Carmel Bird leads off the Book review section of "The Age" this weekend. Jane Sullivan provides a detailed profile of the writer to coincide with the release of her latest collection of short stories, The Essential Bird.

After Wendy Harmer's first novel was reviewed extensively last week, we now have The Catch by Marg Vendeleur, continuing what apepars to be the start of a publishing trend - that is, if 2 novels can be considered a "trend", or even the start of one. To be fair though, this novel was published a month or so back and briefly mentioned in this weblog. For a first novel this book gets a reasonably sized review by Leslie Cannold, herself the author of What No Baby? recently. All in all, Cannold is impressed with the work: "Spritely, sure-footed, rich with colour and authentic understanding of place, The Catch, by first-time author Marg Vandeleur, maintains its innocence and light-heartedness on a potentially chin-dragging topic: the shortage of suitable men for desperately ticking women."

John Baxter has been living in Paris for over ten years now, writing biographies of film directors and his recent memoir of book collecting, A Pound of Paper. He now turns his attention to the city in which he lives and has produced We'll Always Have Paris: Sex and Love in the City of Light which is reviewed this week by Dmetri Kakmi, who puts the essential question about the city early on in his review:

   "Why is Paris a beacon, and what makes it one of the great cities? Biographer
   and film writer John Baxter tries to provide an answer by immersing himself in
   the French capital's sensual delights. We are only too happy to follow because his
   writing exudes the confidence of one who knows where he's going."

The rest of the review progresses pretty well but he loses it a little with his summing up:

   "Finally, the question of whether John Baxter is propounding cliches for the sake
   of randy foreign tourists seems almost superfluous. Still, it would be interesting
   to know what the French think of how the world perceives them. Most likely,
   they don't give a profiterole."

Yes, it might be interesting to know how the French see Paris, but Baxter has written this book explaining how he sees the city. To imply a criticism of the work for not approaching a topic that the reviewer wants to see seems a little off the mark. By the way, Baxter is now working on a biography of the painter and writer Norman Lindsay.

Cathy Cole has written an examination of crime fiction in Private Dicks and Feisty Chicks, which is given the once-over by Sue Turnbull. Noting that the book "bears the inherited traits of its academic origins as a PhD thesis", Turnbull goes on the state that "Cole is at her best when describing her experience as a writer or discussing specific authors, but at her weakest when she feels compelled to generalise about crime fiction and its readers." Which seems to happen to a lot of genre fiction.

By the time I got to this point in "The Age" Book review secton I started to think it must be Australia week. The bulk of the reviews deal with Australian books, and two first novels get decent attention. The second of these novels is Player by Tony Wilson, published by Text Publishing, which is building up quite a reputation for interesting fiction. The reviewer, Ian Syson, is the publisher at Vulgar Press, and he puts his review in context right from the off: "As a publisher, I've been waiting in vain for a manuscript such as this for a long time: an intricately crafted, hilarious, ultra-contemporary political parody/tragedy set in a context giving it the potential to be immediately compelling to tens of thousands of Australians." And there's not much more to add to that really.

A couple of non-fiction works finish off the major reviews in "The Age": Freud in the Antipodes: A Cultural History of Psychoanalysis in Australia by Joy Damousi: "Psychoanalysis, like Plato, suggests the soul's health lies in its curiosity. This book will open the door to more questions"; and Hellfire: The Story of Australia, Japan and the Prisoners of War by Cameron Forbes: "We need to be reminded of these things over and over again. Lest we forget the lesson... It is our story and we need to know it."

In addition to this multitude of long reviews, short notices are given to: Jane Austen & Crime by Susannah Fullerton: "This study, by the Australian president of the Austen society, is not so much an attempt to present the 'seamy' side of Jane, but to show how the seamy, dark and dangerous side of the society she lived in is manifest in her works"; The English Dane: A Story of Empire and Adventure from Iceland to Tasmania: "Jorgen Jorgenson was one of those 'colourful' characters of history who generally recede into footnote obscurity"; Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks: the book inverts the usual quest narrative as Cadal "must discover the ordinary within him - the need for friendship, the need not to be betrayed, the need to be respected"; and Arthur Boyd and Saint Francis of Assisi: Pastel, Lithographs & Tapestries 1964-74 by Margaret Pont.

After which I think I need a good lie down. I'll continue this weekend's round-up tomorrow.

Weekend Round-Up #14

Those of you who have been reading these weekend round-ups for a while will have noticed that I tend to stick to a couple of Australian newspapers only. Generally I list material from "The Age", my local Melbourne newspaper, and "The Weekend Australian", the Saturday edition of Rupert Murdoch's Australian national daily. And there is a very good reason for this: they are basically the only ones I get delivered on a Saturday, and "The Age" (along with its sister "The Sydney Morning Herald") seems to be one of the few Australian newspapers that display any of its book reviews on its website. I have no idea of why this is so. Most foreign newspapers seem to print the bulk of their reviews on their websites, yet for some reason their Australian counterparts have chosen a different path. I don't envisage this changing any time soon. In the meantime I'll keep on listing what I can, hoping that it is of some interest.

The first Australian review in "The Age" this weekend is of Wendy Harmer's novel Farewell My Ovaries. Harmer is a stand-up comedian, radio host and now new novelist. I'm not a fan of her comedy, not that I hate it, just that I don't find it all that funny. And being the crap reviewer I am I doubt I could even hazard a guess as to why that is. Juliette Hughes, on the other hand, seems rather taken with the book: "This novel has the kind of cover that you see on chicklit, but it is quite a lot better than that...The plot is cleverly crafted, but the really nice surprise is the fluency and verve of Harmer's prose."

Peter Pierce, professor of Australian literature at James Cook University, delves into the big book of the moment, Geraldine Brooks's March, and finds that: "This is a distinguished book, a masterly reworking of what fiction and history have afforded Brooks' vibrant and questing imagination." The American Civil War seems to hold an attraction across the years, and continents, that is hard to understand from the outside. Ken Burns's masterful television mini-series "The Civil War" took six years to produce, two full years longer than the war it set out to depict, so something is certainly going on here. I haven't seen a derogatory review of this book yet though I would like to see someone try to discuss how an Australian author might be looking at the conflict through slightly different eyes.

Short notices are given to: Human Remains: Episodes in Human Dissection by Helen MacDonald, "[a] nuanced and subtle inquiry into the politics and morality of the dissecting room"; Yosl Bergner: Art as a Meeting of Cultures by Frank Klepner, "[who] explores Bergner's distinctive European Jewsish sensibility and how it was ignited by the moody atmosphere of Melbourne's back lanes, street life and the community of Jewish immigrants in Carlton"; Snowy River Story by Claire Miller, "Cleanly written thorughout, [it] is very good at keeping the personal side to the story and the political machinations in focus"; and Marcel Caux: A Life Unravelled by Lynette Ramsay Silver, the story of how World War I so deeply affected one man that he changed his whole life to rid himself of it.

"The Weekend Australian" kicks off its book pages this week with a report on Elliot Perlman and his latest book, Seven Types of Ambiguity which has been covered here previously. It appears that Perlman is big in France, where his novel "was among the top 10 French bestsellers 10 days after its January release", and where "Le Figaro" called it "an important work of great substance". This comes on top of the mixed reviews it has been received in the Australian, British and US press. And then comes the news (also mentioned in "The Age" on the weekend by Jason Steger) that US critic Harold Bloom was quite impressed with the book. Impressed enough, it seems, to track down the author and to offer not only his congratulations but also a blurb for the forthcoming US paperback release. There has to be something about this book that evinces such a disparate set of views. as you wil recall, Peter Craven slammed the book in the pages of "Australian Book Review", yet here we have Bloom, generally considered one of the foremost literary critics in the English-speaking world, praising the book in very glowing terms. The "To-Be-Read" pile in the bedroom is already out of control. Oh well. Can't be helped I suppose.

"The Weekend Australian" also reviews Playing with Water: A Story of a Garden by Kate Llewellyn which "will not be understood by those whose hearts have not been cleft or riven by loss." And the big Australian review is again of March. "Given Brooks's passionate opinion regarding the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction (advanced in a speech at the NSW Premier's Awards last year), it's interesting how much of March relies on genre-blurring...We can be grateful, given the success of March, that she is either contrary or has been willing to break her own rules for the sake of the narrative."

In "The Sydney Morning Herald", Bernard Zuel reviews Players, a first novel by Tony Wilson, "Television, football and our obsessions with them make for overripe material, and when Wilson lines up the obvious objects of satire, he doesn't miss. Of course, that's not too hard. When stupidity is not just rewarded on the field but celebrated off it - as it is in Australia and to a staggering extreme in Melbourne, where Players is set - any half-talented writer could merely repeat some of the best-known tales and get a laugh." Ah, yes, we like our sportsmen stupid down here in Melbourne. And Michelle Griffin thinks that Geraldine Brooks's novel March will draw readers back to Alcott's Little Women: "by filling in the details of the darkness that surrounds all that sweetness and light, Brooks has restored its power."

Weekend Round-Up #13

We're running a day late on this week's installment. Put it down to the Easter break: I was out of contact with the internet for a couple of days and couldn't make any postings. Standard sort of stuff.

I take it as pure co-incidence that I started reading a novel of Morris West's on the same weekend as Michael McGirr reviews the new West biography, Morris West: Literary Maverick by Maryanne Confoy, in the "Weekend Age". I thought of reading West's The Shoes of the Fisherman so I could get some inkling of what is in store when the current Pope shuffles off the world stage. And this review reveals that this novel of West's was published in 1963 on the day that Pope John XIII died. Lucky breaks are useful in the novellist's trade, and then to have the novel seemingly predict the election of John Paul II some 25 years later raised West's profile no end. But West was at his best in the 60s and 70s and he had lost his audience by the time of his death in 1999. All in all though, he ranks up there with John Cleary and Tom Keneally as an Australian novellist known round the world, and with Leon Uris and John Michener as a purveyor of "vast global narratives for a new breed of global travellers spawned by the '60s and the rise of the airport bookstore". So West is important in a modern world literature sense, as well as from an Australian context.

McGirr, though, starts his review with one of the strangest openings I've seen for a while: "It's a long time since I saw anybody reading a novel by Morris West on the bus. To be honest, as traffic gets worse and drivers grow more impatient, it's a long time since I saw anybody reading anything on the bus." I'd agree with the first sentence, but the second? Does he walk around blindfolded? I see people on the train reading all the time: everything from that book by Dan Brown to Kafka. I'll admit the reading fare on offer is more towards the left hand end of that scale, but people are actually reading. Maybe he needs to get out more.

The Long Game and Other Poems by Bruce Beaver was the poet's last collection, submitted to his publisher just before his death in February 2004. I've stated before that I'm not that up with modern poetry. Beaver's name is familiar to me though I doubt I could name a single poem or collection of his. Gig Ryan's review of this collection gives a short overview of the poet's work and praises him to the extent that it convinces me I really need to start educating myself in neglected literary areas. "Unlike most posthumous collections, The Long Game and Other Poems reads like an intentionally last book, piled with reflections on the poet's life and oeuvre. The title poem can be read as a paean to his marriage, with love for Beaver being the truth of life - 'The long ecstatic dance, the circling marathon'." Very fine indeed. And that's it for sizeable reviews of Australian books in "The Age" this weekend.

Others featured: the latest and last W.G. Sebald work Campo Santo, Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem, and Faithful by Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King about the 2004 season of the Boston Red Sox. Short notices are given to The Little Green Handbook by Ron Nielsen, The Cruel Legacy: The HMAS Voyager Tragedy by Tom Frame, and Odd Socks by Lisa Evans.

In "The Sunday Age" this week Jane Sullivan profiles Kris Hemensley who has recently been awarded the Christopher Brennan award by the Fellowship of Australian Writers. The annual award is made to an Australian poet who has displayed a body of work of "sustained quality and distinction". Hemensley is also the proprietor of the Collected Works bookstore in Swanston Street in the city of Melbourne.

In "The Courier-Mail" Matt Condon interviews Chris Nyst on the eve of the publication of his latest novel, Crook as Rookwood. Nyst is best known at this time as the scriptwriter for the David Wenham film, Gettin' Square, though he has also published two other legal thrillers: Cop This!, and Gone.

Weekend Round-Up #12

Not a lot of Australian books are covered in this week's "AgeReview" and none of the reviews, it appears, are available on the website. The Persuaders: Inside the Hidden Machine of Political Persuasion by Sally Young, takes, as a major premise, that before the most recent Federal election, the Liberal party believed that the result would be decided by fewer than 4000 voters in marginal seats across the country - shades of Florida in 2000, and Ohio in 2004. As a consequence, Federal politicians believe it is easier to change the perception of reality, than to change reality itself. And both sides of the political equation are equally to blame for this. A sorry state of affairs, indeed.

Deborah Forster reviews Butterfly Song by Terri Janke, which has been mentioned on this weblog a few times previously. The general consensus seems to be that the book has good intentions, it tries hard but needed some more work on the characters and the reader's involvement with them. This is certainly Forster's view, though she does temper the criticism by concluding: "At its best, though, Butterfly Song has a simplicity and does feel a bit like a fable, about Mabo, about the strength of indigenous people, and the ability of people to love each other and to survive with dignity and prosperity. Something we would all fervently wish for."

Short notices are given to: The Lace Maker's Daughter by Gary Crew, "...the book drove me to distraction"; Digging Up Deep Time by Paul Willis & Abbie Thomas, "The ABC...should turn it into an Australian version of Walking with Dinosaurs"; The Wish List by Melanie La'Brooy, " entertaining and certainly harmless read"; Unbroken Blue by Jan Borrie, "...better at evoking emotion and place than narrating story, this slim novel has niche rather than mass appeal"; No Worries by Bill Condon, "...affecting and involving: a kind of David and Goliath story, with more than one Goliath"; and Oh No, We Forgot to Have Children by Deidre Macken, "...there is a rash of books on women's fertility and attitides to motherhood...this one makes a worthwhile contribution."

With Geraldine Brooks's latest novel March being reviewed in the US earlier in the week, Murray Waldren from "The Australian" caught up with her in Sydney before she returned to Virginia. The best quote of the interview relates to Brooks's interest in "bodily distress" in history, to which she replied:"...there's some emphasis on battle wounds and their treatment in March - my father-in-law is a medical historian with a special interest in Civil War medicine, so he was able to fill me in, in hideous detail, about the techniques and practices of the time." Not a topic for dinner-time conversation one suspects.

"The Australian"/Vogel Award has hit 25 years in existence, and Rosemary Neill interviews a few of the protagonists from the period. The award, for an unpublished manuscript by an Australian writer under 35, has had its fair share of controversy over the years: the first winner, Paul Radley, later confessed that his uncle, the middle-aged writer Jack Radley, had actually written the book; and then there was the Helen Demidenko affair, which started after she won the 1993 prize. Articles of this sort just prod me along to get my award web page fixed up some time soon.

Other Australian books published in this "Weekend Australian": The Catch by Marg Vandeleur: "'s an entertaining, easy read, there is character development at the right points: it is a very stitched-together first novel"; and The Goddamn Bus of Happiness by Stefan Laszczuk: "Laszczuk, between the beers, has something to say about cheating that death worse than fate lurking in the wings of even the most blessed life. You probably don't want to go to all the places he takes us but at least he shows us a way out again."

Frances Atkinson profiles Marg Vandeleur, and her novel The Catch, in "The Sunday Age" this week. The book was born out of a number of experiences in her life, not least her recent battle with a rare form of cancer, which confirmed her desire to write, and her regret at not having had children, which inspired the subject matter. Atkinson finds that "The Catch is part comedy of errors, part tender yearning; a literary pinata packed with vibrant characters, complicated friendships, sexual diversity, fishermen and piscatorial analogies." And it is this fishing analogy which led Vandeleur to the 1960 edition of The Encyclopedia of Fishing in Australia edited by Roger Hungerford. She finally contacted Hungerford and was able to get permission to utilise his chapter headings for her book. "He was thrilled. He said he hoped that my book put him on the map."

Weekend Round-Up #11

"The Age" this weekend concentrates its major reviews on the new Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go) and the new Murakami (Kafka on the Shore), both of which are certainly worthy. You would have to think that the Ishiguro, along with Saturday by McEwen, will be a highly favoured contender for this year's Booker Prize. In addition, there is the new collection of essays by Simon Schama ("informative and enjoyable"), and a biography of Machiavelli ("adds nothing new") by Michael White coupled with a new translation of The Prince ("it retains its lucidity and power to excite admiration, despite its unsettling message"). I used to have a copy of The Prince above my desk at work. Given the current corporate structure of the company in which I work I think I should put it back. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes.

On the Australian book front, "The Age" reviews Dirt Cheap: Life at the Wrong End of the Job Market by Elizabeth Wynhausen, and two children's picture books: Hooray for Horrible Harriet by Leigh Hobbs, and Hunwick's Egg by Mem Fox. Dirt Cheap is Wynhausen's account of a year working at the fag-end of labour queue. The writer spent a year away from working as a journalist for "The Australian" to work in the type of jobs most of us run from. The reviewer, Jeff Sparrow, approached the book with a large degree of scepticism as he saw the book merely as an Australian rip-off of Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed. But he was finally won over by the writing's "powerful, impassioned prose", and concludes "it provides a badly needed window on to the aching and forgotten lives upon which our society rests".

Frances Atkinson is won over by both picture books but I have to wonder how many copies of these are going to be sold at $24.95 each. The price just seems rather high. I might buy them as presents though not as a standard reading book for my children. My son always wants something new to read. Trying to palm him off with something we read only a week or so before just isn't going to work. In the smaller notices, Cameron Woodhead finds The Mermaid Cafe by Andy Maconachie - a first novel - "a talented but immature debut". Eric Campbell's Absurdistan is described as "the most absorbing travel memoir" the reviewer had read in years. Campbell was a reporter for the ABC (the Australian version) when his cameraman, Paul Moran, was killed in Kurdistan in March 2003 on the third day of the war, and Campbell himself was badly injured. I've always liked Campbell as a reporter; he's incisive and is interested in the small picture as much as the larger one.

Others: Strange2Shapes: New Melbourne Writers which contains some writers of talent at the start of their careers, and Kijana by Jesse Martin, whose previous book chronciled his trip to be become the youngest person to sail solo, non-stop and unassisted around the world. This one concerns his attempts to manage a young, inexperienced crew in a trip of two years around the world. It didn't work out, and this book is the result. I can't say that I will seek it out.

In "The Weekend Australian", Stephen Matchett reviews Working with Monsters: How to Identify and Protect Yourself from the Workplace Psychopath by John Clarke. Now there's a book I could go for. I could display it prominantly next to my copy of The Prince: that might keep the bastards off my back.

Weekend Round-Up #10

Contents of "The Age" Book Review pages for Saturday March 5:

Major review: one, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Medium review, fiction: three, Villages by John Updike, The Year is '42 by Nella Bielski, and Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum.
Medium review, non-fiction: four, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World by Pankaj Mishra, Curtin's Gift: Reinterpreting Australia's Greatest Prime Minister by John Edwards, The King and I by Herbert Breslin and Anne Midgette, and The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature by Peter Singer and Renata Singer.
Short notices, fiction: five, Ghost Tide by Yo Yo, Alone by Lisa Gardner, The Truth About Magic by Dave Luckett, Tyrant by Valerio Massimo Manfredi, and Eleven Days by Mchael Manuell.
Short notices, non-fiction: nine, Alexander: Selected Texts from Arrian, Curtius and Plutarch edited by Tania Gergel, The Ideas Book introduced by Phillip Adams and Dale Spender, The Pagan Christ: Is Blind Faith Killing Christianity? by Tom Harpur, Sharon and My Mother-In-Law by Suad Amiry, Frontier Justice by Tony Roberts, A Portrait of the Artist as an Australian by Paul Matthew St Pierre,
Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman by Frances Stonor Saunders, Revelations by Various, and A Shifting Shore by Alice Garner.

I hadn't actually realised just how many books are covered each week in the review pages of "The Age" until I listed them out like that. You can understand the reasoning of giving the major review to the Ishiguro: he's a major novelist and is probably high up in the running for this year's Booker, if this review, and similiar recent ones, are anything to go by. The first Australian book we come to is Curtin's Gift, reviewed by Michelle Grattan, "The Age"'s political editor. She describes the book as "both a mini-biography and maxi essay" and a "good introduction for people unfamiliar with the story of an Australian icon." You sort of get the feeling that Grattan considers this book to be rather slight, especially as it follows the recent (a few years back anyway) full biography by David Day. The philosopher Peter Singer and the novellist Renata Singer have produced The Moral of the Story: An Anthology of Ethics Through Literature, which has been published by Blackwells at arather expensive $69.95. For libraries only I fear. James Ley does a good job of reviewing the book: praising and ticking off in equal measure, giving a good overview of the book and its aims in the process. There's not much more you can ask of a review than that. There are several Australian books covered in the short notices but none stands out for me other than The Truth about Magic by Dave Luckett. This is described as the first in a lively fantasy series for children. Perth-based Luckett has been writing for a while now and I wish him well with this one, which shouldn't be too hard, given that it has been published by Scholastic; the publishing house of a well known young magician if I recall correctly. Oh, okay, I know Dave, and have done for quite some years. Not extremely well, but enough to hope this series kicks off for him.

The Curtin biography is also given good coverage over at "The Australian" by Stephen Marchett, along with the almost-obligatory photo of ex-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The other major piece this weekend is the piece by Maryanne Confoy titled Morris the Maverick being an edited extract from her recent book Morris West: Literary Maverick. And given the recent goings on in the Vatican it might well be time to drag old Morris down off the shelf and check him out once more.

Weekend Round-Up #9

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

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

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

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

Weekend Round-Up #8

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend Round-Up #7

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend Round-Up #6

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weekend Round-Up #5

Other than a review of Michael Crichton's State of Fear it's non-fiction weekend at "The Age". The major review is by Roger Benjamin of Papunya - A Place Made After the Story: The Beginnings of the Western Desert Painting Movement by Geoffrey Bardon and James Bardon. Covering some 490 paintings in the volume Geoffrey Bardon has compiled what must be the definitive work on Western Desert painting - one of the greatest gifts to the world of art, from Australia, since white settlement. At $120 this is a book for serious collectors only but is probably the cheapest way you'd ever get to see a lot of these works.

Tom Ryan, film reviewer for "The Sunday Age" reviews Australian Cinema After Mabo by Felicity Collins and Therese Davis. This examines Australian film since 1992 and Ryan concludes by stating:

The best test of what they've done here is that they make you want to revisit the films in the light of what they've said about them. And what they offer on the topic of the so-called "history wars" currently raging about the kinds of stories that should be told about Australia's past is insightful and timely.
Of somewhat limited interest, geographically speaking, is The Enduring Rip: A History of Queenscliffe by Barry Hill, reviewed by Morag Fraser. Not included on the website is Michelle Grattan's review of Don Chipp's memoir Keep the Bastards Honest. Chipp self-published the book but no reason is given, in the review, as to why. I would have thought that this book would have found a worthy place at a reputable Australian publisher. Grattan considers that the "book is a bit all over the place, rather like 'Chippy' himself, his mates would say - a mixture of emotionalism and enthusiasm." So it seems like it needed a bit of work. I wonder if that is what turned off any prospective publishers.

There is also an interview with Ian McEwan regarding the release of his new novel Saturday. I wouldn't normally mention this as it is a review of a non-Australian book (not that I'm prejudiced or anything, but this weblog aims to be Australian-centric), so the point of interest here is the price - $49.95. Just a touch under the magical $50 barrier. The UK list price is 17.99UKP, reduced to 10.79UKP at, and the US list price is $26.00. Somewhat of a discrepancy I fear.

And it's non-fiction again over at "The Weekend Australian", with the lead review being of God Under Howard: How the Religious Right has Hijacked Australian Politics by Marion Maddox. And the review is actually on the web this week. Barry Hill (see the Queenscliffe book above) is "The Australian's" poetry editor and he reviews Martin Harrison's Who Wants to Create Australia? - a book of essays about Australian poetry. According to Hill: "The result is a brilliant and possibly seminal little book to which poets will defer, and which - for the general reader - might also serve as a marker in these times of precarious national identity." Which sounds pretty good, though I think his statement that "this is poetry criticism as pertinent to our daily lives as the price of oil" might be taking things a bit far.

Weekend Round-Up #4

"The Age" prints the third prize winner in its annual short story competition with "Hotel Sheesh Mahal" by Liz Gallois. I have a feeling that might probably be it for this series of short stories.

In its review section, James Ley finds that Thomas Shapcott's novel Spirit Wrestlers "is interested in the conflict between inscrutable demands for spiritual purity and the imperfections of the flesh." Ley combines the Shapcott novel with another from the same publisher, Wakefield Press, in Hill of Grace by Stephen Orr. Here, Ley says, "it is encouraging to see a writer vary his style in an attempt to find a third way between the two poles of standard no-frills prose and the florid, overheated variety that tends to dominate contemporary 'literary' fiction." But why has it taken so long for these books to be reviewed? The publisher's website states that Shapcott's novel was published in July 2004, and the Orr in November 2004. July? What's the point in reviewing it now? Surely Shapcott has enough of a reputation as an Australian novelist to warrant a review with a little more currency.

On the non-fiction front, Andrew Singleton reviews Fractured Families: The Story of a Melbourne Cult, religious that is. Brief mentions are given to the latest issue "Overland", House on the Hill by Estelle Pinney; Drowned Wednesday: The Keys to the Kingdom by Garth Nix; and Stirring Australian Speeches edited by Michael Cathcart and Kate Darlan-Smith.

"The Weekend Australian" starts off its Review section with an interview with young adult/fantasy novelist Garth Nix. Pretty standard fare for interviews of this sort with the best line from Nix being: "You should never judge any genre by the worst example of it and I think it is quite narrow minded to think that a particular form will mean it is not worth reading." Exactly.

In the Books section, Andrew McCann rejects the recent panic-mongering over the "decline" in quality of Australian literature and explains why quality fiction is rarely discussed in mainstream media. (This article is reprinted from the latest issue of "Overland" - but it is not included on that website either.)

Books reviewed: The Remarkable Resurrection of Lazaros X by Les Terry, and The Secret Annexe: An Anthology of War Diarists by Irene and Alan Taylor, which includes some of Weary Dunlop's work from a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in WWII.

Short reviews are given to Safari: I Won't Cry, Mumma by Janet Seath and Frank Scaysbrook, and Imagining Australia: Literature and Culture in the New World edited by Judith Ryan and Chris Wallace-Crabbe, which sounds interesting.

Weekend Round-Up #3

"The Age" on Saturday continues its series on the winners of its short-story competition by printing the second prize winner "Just a Line" by Ross Gray. Nick Economou reviews a couple of books about the recent Australian Federal election: Run, Johnny, Run: The Story of the 2004 Election by Mungo MacCallum (described in the review as "Australia's closest approximation to Hunter S. Thompson's gonzo journalist type (but without the self-indulgence)"), and A Win and a Prayer: Scenes from the 2004 Election edited by Peter Browne and Julian Thomas. I think the MacCallum book will be closer to my political leanings. There are not a lot of other major reviews in "The Age" this week.

The "Age Review" section, which contains the book reviews, starts off with an article about the way the internet is changing the face of politics, and finishes with an article titled "Disastrous Times" which reads more like a catalog than anything else. It gives a nod to this section by listing 6 books which deal with the same topic. Both of these articles appear to me to be in the wrong section. They are more current affairs articles than "reviews" of anything. There is also the piece on the Miles Franklin Award that I wrote about yesterday. The other Australian books mentioned briefly: Sunset: Penguin Australian Summer Stories and The Riddle by Alison Croggon. Neither of these are on the website. I don't have a problem with these short mentions given the limitations of the book review section, my concerns lie with the articles included that should be elsewhere and the lack of larger reviews. One major review of two Australian non-fiction books just isn't enough.

Andrea Stretton leads off "The Weekend Australian's" Review section with an article on children's art books. This is an edited version of an essay previously published in "Art & Australia" magazine, which isn't available on either website. Further books reviewed: Keep the Bastards Honest by Don Chipp; and small mentions of Blood, Sweat and Tears: Australia's World War II Remembered by the Men and Women Who Lived it by Margaret Geddes; A State of Injustice by Robert N. Moles; and Peter Brock: Living with a Legend by Bev Brock. Not what I would call a terribly inspiring bunch.

Weekend Round-Up #2

"The Saturday Age" appears to have its book review pages pretty much back in shape after the holidays, although not all of "The AgeReview" section is included on the newspaper website. The major piece is the first prize winner in "The Age" short-story competition, "All Fathers the Father" by Emmett Stinson. The Best Australian Poetry 2004, edited by Anthony Lawrence from the University of Queensland Press, and The Best Australian Poems 2004 edited by Les Murray from Black Inc, are reviewed by David McCooey. He finds the state of Australian poetry to be rather healthy at present. He doesn't list the cross-overs between the two volumes but does state that they have been compiled from two very different premises. He concludes the review by stating:

Things can never be said completely, as these poems so bountifully show. This is our gain, as these poems also show, and there is enough excellent work within these volumes to fill many hours of weird unemployment.
Christopher Bantick reviews Fossicking for Old Books by Anthony Marshall from Bread Street Press. Marshall runs Alice's bookshop in Rathdowne Street, North Carlton, which is not a bookshop I'm familiar with, given that I live in the inner Eastern suburbs of Melbourne rather than the inner North. But it looks like I will have to pay a visit in the not too distant future. I happened to be in Jack Bradstreet's bookshop in Hawthorn yesterday and this review was mentioned along with the fact that Marshall used to work closely with Bradstreet for a number of years. It's obvious, then, that Marshall has the pedigree and temperament required to make a good book-seller, as Bantick points out:
North Carlton's demographic has changed since the early Italian migrants but Marshall notes, with delight, that now his customers come from Turkey, Cambodia, Somalia and elsewhere. He finds joy in their names and meeting their requests. Maybe this says something about Marshall apart from the books.
Gideon Haigh is one of the best cricket writers anywhere and his latest collection of works, Game for Anything: Writings on Cricket is reviewed by Nathan Hollier:
Haigh is determined that cricket should be understood as an important part of people's lives and culture, not simply as a product to be consumed. This helps to explain his insistence that cricket writing should be as serious and cerebral, as entertaining and well crafted as the best writing of the arts and sciences: "For the most part, cricket writing remains firmly in the cliche factory, a wholly owned subsidiary of the sporting-industrial complex."
Other Australian books reviewed or mentioned but not included on the website: The Literary Lunch by Geoffrey Dean from Roaring 40s press; Wild Figments by Michael Leunig from Penguin; Beds are Burning by Mark Dodshon from Viking, the history of Midnight Oil, one of the world's greatest rock'n'roll bands IMNSHO; Heat 8 edited by Ivor Indyk from Giramondo Publishing; and Quarterly Essay 16: Breach of Trust by Raimond Gaita, which I reviewed here on January 3 - scroll down to see the entry.

"The Australian"'s website doesn't appear to have a specific Book section, nor a Search facility, so finding any literary references is pretty difficult, if not impossible. In any event, Peter Coleman reviews Steadfast Knight: A Life of Sir Hal Colebatch by Hal Colebatch (the son) from Fremantle Arts Centre. "Colebatch's father...lived through two world wars. He also became one of the great West Australians (premier, senator, agent-general) - to be mentioned in the same breath as, say, John Curtin or Paul Hasluck." Exalted company indeed. It's a pity that the Fremantle Arts Centre Press doesn't have its website up-to-date. Given the small publicity budgets involved with publishers such as this, I'd have thought having details of current books in print would be the first order of business. Luckily enough they seem to publish first-class books (but just give me something to link to):

Colebatch was in his late 70s when his son Hal was born. It was his ambition to live long enough for the boy to be able to remember him. This moving biography shows how well he succeeded.

Weekend Round-Up #1

Both The Age and The Australian lead off their book review sections this week with a guide to the upcoming books for 2005. On the Australian Fiction front we have: March by Geraldine Brooks, due in April (missed opportunity there methinks), which is a US Civil War romance inspired by Little Women; Robert Drewe's novel Grace, (August) which continues Drewe's definition of the fictional landscape of Western Australia with a tale of an escapee from a desert detention centre, set in the Kimberleys; The Secret River by Kate Grenville (August), described as a "rural gothic"; Alex Miller's Prochownik's Art, scheduled for October, which looks at violence and erotica from an artist's perspective; The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers from Delia Falconer in July, she is best remembered for The Service of Clouds from 1997; Brian Castro produces You Can Find Me in the Garden in June; Sonya Hartnett follows up her Miles Franklin Award shortlisted novel (from 2003) Of a Boy with a mystery and suspense novel titled Surrender; and Lily Brett and Roger McDonald release as-yet untitled novels later in the year. In crime we have new novels from Kerry Greenwood (with her 15th Phryne Fisher ystery), Jane Clifton, Garry Disher, Peter Temple, and Colleen McCullough with her crime novel debut On, Off in November. Thomas Keneally will have a history of Sydney's first settlement out in late 2005; Gallipoli is re-visited by Harvey Broadbent; and Cameron Forbes looks at prison camps of World War II, which promises to be a cheery subject. Australian Biography is big again, with works on the Krakouer brothers (silky-skilled AFL footballers from the 70s and 80s, the eldest of whom fell on hard times in the 90s); Sir Edward Woodward (the ASIO chief rather than the British actor); Renee Rivkin (high flying, high crashing stockbroker); and Delta Goodrem, at only 19 years of age this promises to be slimmer than she is. Memoirs are scheduled from singer Helen Reddy; commdian Noeline Brown; sports broadcaster Debbie Spillane; politician Barry Jones; ex-cricketer Steve Waugh; rock singer Chrissie Amphlett; and writer Frank Moorhouse.

The Australian starts off its general book coverage with a piece about that book by Dan Brown. It's a re-print from The Sunday Times, with inserts to give it a sort of Australian flavour (such as the fact that the book has sold 953,000 copies, in three formats, since it was published here in April 2003). If it's that big I might have expected a specific Australian written article, but it is the silly season so we'll let them pass this time. The rest of the book reviews are constrained to non-Australian publications with the exception of Going Native by Michael Archer and Bob Beale - which I can't find reprinted on the website anywhere. They redeem themselves a little later in the Review section by giving a favourable review to "Enjoy Every Sandwich - The Songs of Warren Zevon" by Various Artists - one of my all-time favourites.

The Age still isn't back to its usual Saturday format so book coverage is a little low at this time of year. Peter Pierce, professor of Australian Literature at James Cook University, reviews the annual collections from publisher Black Inc: The Best Australian Essays 2004, and The Best Australian Stories 2004. There has been a change with both collections this year. Peter Craven, who edited all of Black Inc's collections in previous years (with the possible exception of the sports writing collection), had a falling out with Black Inc publisher Morry Schwartz during the year and has been replaced by individual editors; Robert Dessaix edits the essays and Frank Moorhouse the stories. You sort of get the impression that Pierce thinks both editors did a good job but it is hard to be sure. The final sentence of the review reads: "Signalled, perhaps is withdrawal from the exigent present into the delusory hopes of art." Whatever that is meant to convey. Also in The Age two books on Literary Hoaxes (Daylight Corroboree: A First-Hand Account of the Wanda Koolmatrie Hoax by John Bayley, and Who's Who: Hoaxes, Imposture and Identity Crises in Australian Literature edited by Maggie Nolan and Carrie Dawson) are reviewed by Simon Casterton. Australia has a great tradition of literary hoaxes. Probably the best-known of which is the Ern Malley affair, recently fictionalised by Peter Carey in My Life as a Fake. But added to that are the recent Norma Khouri hoax and the Helen Demidenko fracas in the mid-1990s; positively fertile ground. Mark Twain was probably right in that Australia is a land of lies. In The Sydney Morning Herald "The Spin-Off Doctors" roposes: "Novels based on a popular TV series or movie have a built-in audience, but are they literature, wonders Mark Juddery." Well, actually, I reckon it's the sub-editor who does the wondering, Juddery just reports on the phenomenon, giving special attention to those Australian writers who have written spin-offs from such as Doctor Who, Star Wars, X-Files and the Terminator movies. I think the question is a ridiculous one. Genre fiction, of whatever type, is still literature. It's a big church, I don't see it having any trouble accommodating anything that can get in the front door. Another thing: Juddery doesn't use the despised term "sci-fi", which lifts this piece up a notch or two.

Science fiction also gets a look-in at The Courier-Mail with Jason Nahrung's piece titled "Horror Champion". The champion of the title is Ellen Datlow, editor of OMNI for 17 years and recently better known for her annual World's Best Fantasy and Horror anthologies. In particular, her work with Australian authors is mentioned along with her guest appearance at this year's Clarion South as one of the international tutors. Abbreviation check: one good ("SF"), one not so good ("sci-fiction"). Not sure where this last one came from. Sounds like an acknowledgment that "sci-fi" is on the nose but that "science fiction", or even "sf", is not derogatory enough. Either way, consistency would be nice.

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