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".
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'".