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Found 72 results

  1. Scrublands is first rate crime fiction set out in the scrublands north of the Murray river on the NSW/Victoria border. Martin Scarsden is a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, sent out to Riversend to cover the first anniversary of a mass shooting (pun intended) where the priest had shot five parishioners on a Sunday before being shot himself by the local policeman. Scarsden finds a town with a dwindling population, the pub/hotel shut six months ago, the motel barely surviving and the only coffee in town is served at the second hand book shop. Dust and tumbleweed blow through the town. And as Scarsden picks at the scabs left by the shooting, he uncovers a plot of intrigue and lies. Nobody is quite who or what they seem. The ripples spread far and wide - down to the Murray, to Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Cambodia and Vietnam. As the stories start to emerge, and as they start to contradict one another, the stakes get higher. The plotting is tight and relatively easy to follow for a twisty thriller. The characters feel real even if they do labour under Dickensian names (the femme fatale is Mandalay Blonde; the villain is Harley Snoutch; the bombastic TV journalist is Doug Thunkleton. The police investigation is credible; as the body count rises so too does the national attention from both journalists and senior law enforcement. The actions even in this abnormal situation seem rational and proportionate. The sense of place works well too. Riversend feels real - and reminds me quite a lot of Karakarook in Kate Grenville's The Idea of Perfection. The searing heat and desiccation, the vast wilderness, the distance. The only shortcoming was a sense that, just occasionally, the novel was too long and slightly repetitive. But in answer of the criticism, the repetition did a good job of helping the reader keep the many moving parts neatly arranged. This is an accomplished work and it will be fun to see whether Martin Scarsdale returns. *****
  2. The Shepherd's Hut

    I've never read Tim Winton before and didn't quite know what to expect. I'd heard he was a literary surfer (yes, literally, a surfer), and did great description, but also that his material was not particularly plot driven. Perhaps a Western Australian John Banville. And The Shepherd's Hut was a pretty astonishing surprise. Yes, there's plenty of description, but no surf. Jaxie Clackton is a teenage boy on the run from the authorities, somewhere in mid WA. His brutal father is dead and Jaxie is worried that he'll cop the blame, so he heads out into the bush with a vague plan of meeting up with his girlfriend Lee somewhere up north. So, yes, we get really evocative images of desert, woods, salt lakes, ridges and dirt. Very little water, which becomes a bit of a theme. There are roos and emus and euros. Ants and flies. Sheoaks and jam trees and spinifex. This barrenness never once got boring thanks to Jaxie's engaging voice. Jaxie is headstrong, has bushcraft and trusts nobody. He has been brought up in a world with no love, and he expects violence and treachery wherever he goes. But lost in the desert, he has to follow the dusty trails of vehicles from which he is hiding. This dilemma, this calculating how far he can trust civilisation is at the heart of the story. Plus, Jaxie's determination to survive. When Jaxie's tracking leads to the shepherd's hut - and the man who lives there - he has to decide how far he is willing to trust a stranger. The novel is tightly plotted right up to the last paragraph. There is resolution. But there is also so much ambiguity. There are hints about Jaxie's past that suggest it might not be as straightforward as he tells it. There are hints about the shepherd's background that are never really resolved. There are remnants in the desert of previous settlement that are also never resolved. It is done in a way that is haunting rather than frustrating. The Shepherd's Hut is a short, gripping, taut work that is at least the equal of anything else I have read this year. *****
  3. Some Tests

    Some Tests is a pretty weird book that defies definition. Beth Own is a 37 year old mother, wife and aged-care worker who feels a little under the weather. So her husband persuades her to see the doctor. Beth’s regular doctor is not there, and the locum doctor decides to send Beth off for some tests just to conform that there’s nothing wrong. But Dr Yi decides to refer Beth off for more tests, which in turn lead to more tests. Initially this is a fairly conventional journey around Melbourne’s northern suburbs. Box Hill, to Heidelberg, via Greensborough to Epping… The medical mystery tour comes with high and unpredictable price tags, small portions of which may be reclaimed under Medicare. The doctors presume Beth has health insurance (she doesn’t) which would cover the fees (which it wouldn’t, even if Beth had it). Anyone who has set foot in an Australian health care setting will identify with the almost incidental meeting with the doctor, bookended by form-filling and card swiping. But when Beth pleads poverty after being referred for yet more tests, things get surreal. We go via Meadow Heights out into Regional Victoria, visiting ever more improbable healthcare settings that seem to operate under the radar of the official system. Staffed by volunteers, they aim to subvert the venality of the major health insurers and big pharma. There are similarities to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. And throughout the journey, nobody bothers to tell Beth what might be wrong with her. The specialists specialties are unknown; the nature of the tests is never disclosed. By the end of the journey, the actual nature of any disorder – if there is even a disorder at all – has become irrelevant. It is the journey that matters, not the original reason for travel. Always there is the option to go back into the mainstream system, but it’s never an option that could ever be viable. Some Tests is all about the surreal comedy, masking a serious commentary on Australia’s incomprehensible healthcare system and some thought-provoking questions about life itself. Why do we even bother with health when the end will always be death? And there are some wonderful images, especially of a public bus system run for – and exclusively used by – healthcare patients getting from one office or surgery or hospital to another, clutching letters of referral and x-ray scans. The grotty and dingy surgeries are so true to life. The main deficit in this is the lack of characterisation. The reader cannot really care about Beth because there is no depth to her. She is an everyman placeholder, but there’s nothing to bond to. If anything, the doctors are allowed more character in their fleeting appearances than Beth is allowed across the whole novel. Colson Whitehead engaged us in his Underground Railroad – every bit as surreal and stylised as Wayne Macauley’s healthcare system – by making the reader bond with Cora, feeling her peril and celebrating her victories. Some Tests could have done something similar, even at the expense of making this rather short novel a bit longer. Nevertheless, the novel is a good read, does cover new ground and may well leave some lasting imagery. Solid 4 stars, but could have been 5…
  4. No More Boats

    One of the paradoxes in Australia is that this nation of migrants has developed such strong anti-immigration sentiment. This is exploited by politicians - especially, but not exclusively, by those from the far-right Liberal Party - who will simply mention immigration and expect their followers to bay for blood. No More Boats shows us a hard working Italian-Australian, Antonio, who has retired from the building game after an accident claimed his mobility an the life of his Greek friend Nico. Both had come to Australia on boats, part of the post-war wave of migration from southern Europe. Both had been through what was the Villawood Migrant Camp, that has since morphed into a detention centre for asylum seekers. Antonio married an Aussie volunteer at the centre, had children and paid his way. Modern Australia was built by Antonio and his generation. And as Antonio spends more and more time navel-gazing in his enforced retirement, he turns first to family (who are not exactly the industrious, virtuous souls he had imagined) and then to the television where John Howard, the anti-immigration Prime Minister is stirring up race hate towards a boatload of would-be migrants in the sea by which our home is girt. As Antonio makes a stand against the boat people, he divides his community, drawing out a sub-strata of the dispossessed who share the view that we need No More Boats. The novel is told in short chapters with multiple points of view - mostly from Antonio, his wife Rose, and his adult children Francis and Clare. They offer contrasting perspectives and are, for the most part, embarrassed by Antonio. Rose dedicated her life to helping migrants. Francis hangs around with a group of migrant pot-heads and Clare develops a friendship with her Vietnamese co-worker (a boat person who arrived on a plane from Thailand). Even Antonio seems somewhat horrified by the pond-life he starts to attract - violent wasters who are far from the socialist-nationalist hard-working ideal to which Antonio aspires. This is a great little seamy 1990s narrative of the western suburbs of Sydney. If it has a failing, it is that once the positions have been established they just sort of fizzle out. But maybe that's the point. There is not enough logic in the anti-immigration position to sustain itself. In one vignette, a politician points to lines on a graph. The red line keeps increasing, the blue line is flat. In the middle is a green line. The politician stresses the importance of following the green line. And in another one, someone asserts with a straight face that Harold Holt disappeared when swimming in the sea because he relaxed the White Australia policy. So yes, not quite enough logic to swell an uprising, but still it seems to keep a motley collection of fascist losers limping on from dog-whistle to dog-whistle, even twenty years later. ****0
  5. From The Wreck

    From The Wreck is the story of a 19th century shipwreck and a shape-shifting alien. Normally I like 19th century shipwreck books, but I can't recall enjoying terribly many books about shape shifting aliens. I have never come across them in between the same covers and, in truth, I don't think I ever will again. And I have very little idea how to review it. The premise in From The Wreck is that a ship, the Admella, goes down off the coast of South Australia. George Hills and a handful of other survivors cling to the wreckage for days, starved of food and water, waiting for rescue. As, one by one, they die, their hungry fellow travellers give in to temptation... And George forms a special bond in cannibalism with a mysterious woman who is, in fact, the alien. Back on shore, George finds himself tormented by visions and dreams of the ocean and tentacles and human flesh. He imagines that if he can find the woman from the wreck, she may be able to help him. The alien, meanwhile, is lonely and possesses George's son Henry. The story is confusing and feels somewhat arbitrary. The characters feel somewhat underdeveloped and don't always seem to have a clear rationale for the things they do. There are scenes of early life in South Australia, but they don't quite feel three dimensional. Then, at the back of it all, there is this alien which may naturally look like a blue octopus just hanging around for years as a mark on Henry's back. I kept trying to find a metaphor in the alien, but couldn't find one. The first two thirds have some semblance of plot building up - George's quest to find the shipwreck woman; the alien hears that there might be another shape shifting alien in America; an alcoholic woman from Sydney shows up. But then it just dissipates into chaos. Maybe there is some key that I am missing that would unlock whatever this book is about. Maybe if someone could persuade me that it is about dispossession or identity or something. But I'm just not getting it. Clearly others are seeing more in it than me, given its inclusion on the Miles Franklin 2018 longlist. There are some beautiful passages, there are some fizzy ideas. But it just doesn't cohere. **000
  6. What the Light Reveals

    It’s a little known fact that during the Communist era, a small cohort of western migrants lived in the USSR. Not all were former spies; some were trade unionists and socialist activists who believed in the project and felt alienated in their homelands. And, of course, their families… What the Light Reveals tells the story of one such family. It is the 1950s. Conrad Murphy is an Australian socialist whose name features in a Soviet document that was passed to ASIO by a Soviet double agent. He is then summoned to give evidence to the Inquiry into Soviet Espionage, at which point his life in Australia starts to unravel. He becomes practically unemployable and depends on family for handouts. His wife Ruby wants to support the family but with two young children it is not easy. The USSR offers hope for a better future. Then the narrative switches to the early 1970s. Conrad, Ruby and the two boys are living in an apartment in Moscow. It is better than many in Moscow, but it’s not great. Conrad has a car, offered as both a freedom and a means of keeping track of him. Culturally, Conrad and Ruby are misfits – they are not trusted as Russians, and not granted the freedoms of foreigners. They are free to leave whenever they want, indeed they believe that if things go wrong they would be deported rather than prosecuted, but they have become disconnected from any life outside Russia. Conrad puts a brave face on things, but Ruby hankers after Melbourne. The boys, meanwhile, are almost completely Russian in their mannerisms, even if their names and heritage keep them apart from their classmates. This is brought into particular relief when Alex meets Sinead, an Irish student at the State University who is allowed the real freedoms of the foreigner. The story, slowly unfolding, is tragic. The Murphys are caught in a limbo along with a handful of other western ex-pats – unsure whether to live a lie and pretend that everything is for the best, or whether to cut and run. And then family secrets and Conrad’s poor health combine to bring matters to a head. The writing is fantastic. The evocation of the Soviet Union as a place to live, a place where people worked, studied, lived and loved is spot on. This is not a land of snow and spies, it is not a place where people are afraid to grumble. Rather, it is a place of bureaucracies and petty resentments; informants serving more as irritants than sources of terror. Although, when needed, the terror is capable of rising from the mundanity of everyday life. What the Light Reveals is a story of wasted life, trust and mistrust, belonging and not-belonging. There are clever parallels between the Murphys’ relationship with Russia and the relationships within their own family and their tiny circle of friends and comrades. There is the tawdriness of the loyalty to ideals, embodied in a worthless badge presented to Conrad as a hero worker for his services to translating engineering manuals. The Moscow adventure has brought Conrad and Ruby absolutely nothing, and at huge human cost. The ending, the return to Melbourne, brings sunshine and relief – the smell of barbecues and the sound of the waves lapping the bay-beach at St Kilda. The past 15 years represent an aberration, a period of statis where the world developed but the Murphys merely aged. This is a terrific novel; the perfect length and with a perfect pace. The characters are real and flawed; the world is three dimensional; the contrasts are evoked with brilliance. It’s not so much the story – it has only one major shock – it is the way it is told that makes this such an outstanding work of fiction. *****
  7. First Person

    If First Person were a first novel, the rejection letters would say the publishers did not know how to position the text. Because this is part novel, part memoir. Part psychological thriller, part dissection of the writing and publishing industry. For the most part, it is a highly readable and intriguing work. Basically, the story is that in 1992 an aspiring (and unpublished) Tasmanian writer, Kif Kehlmann, is offered a contract to ghost write an autobiography of a fraudster, Ziggy Heidl, who is going to jail in six weeks. The lure is a $10,000 contract – enough to persuade Kif away from his heavily pregnant wife to spend time, holed up in the publisher’s Port Melbourne office, with a taciturn and evasive Ziggy. As time trickles through Kif’s fingers, and as the larger-than-life publisher Gene Paley gets increasingly twitchy, Kif plumbs the depths of despair. Oh, and Kif has been warned not to divulge any personal details by Ziggy’s minder Ray – who not entirely coincidentally turns out to have been Kif’s childhood friend. Much of the novel is spent trying to work out just who Ziggy is. He claims to have been born and raised in Adelaide, yet speaks with a German accent. He was CEO of a large safety-based organisation that secured multi-million dollar loans from banks, but was also rumoured to have been involved in a criminal underworld where his business adversaries met sticky ends. He appears to be desperate for money – his $250,000 fee dwarfs that of his ghost writer – yet he seems to have no major expenses and will not need money in prison. He is simply unknowable. And that is Kif’s problem as he has to create the character at the heart of the autobiography. Apparently much of the novel is, in a sense, autobiographical. As an aspiring writer, Richard Flanagan landed a six week job ghost-writing an autobiography for a German-Australian fraudster who shot himself three weeks into the process. And through the fictionalisation of this story, we learn a great deal about the publishing industry – or at least Richard Flanagan’s perspective on it. This includes air-headed publicists, lazy publishers who sit back while writers do the work for subsistence wages, vainglorious premises, A-list writers with obscene riders for appearances at publicity events, unfair contracts, and a general dis-interest in the truth. At times, it feels a bit like a whinge but Flanagan’s writing is good enough to keep the reader interested. Where the novel doesn’t quite work, at least for me, was the pacing. The first 10% is a slow burn and doesn’t really grab the reader. Then there’s a lot of really compelling stuff; a really satisfying middle. Then, the final 20% - set 20 or more years later when Kif has become famous – feels overly long and a bit tacked on. It does offer a new perspective through which to re-appraise the Ziggy storyline but without being truly persuasive about how Kif could have got from there to here. The magic, for me, was in the relationship between Ziggy and Kif, each needing the other but unwilling to admit as much. And for that to work they both need to be there together. Overall, though, an intriguing and puzzling novel that follows up on the enormous success of The Narrow Road to the Deep North without trying to replicate it. ****0
  8. Stories

    NB: Although this volume was published in 2017, the stories contained in it were first published in the 20th Century in different collections. Hence the categorisation of this topic in BGO. Stories is the short companion volume to the much longer True Stories, the compendium of Helen Garner's short non-fiction work.Unsurprisingly, then, Stories are the short fiction. Except that Helen Garner's work is notoriously hard to categorise. These are not really stories, they are essays written from the point of view of someone who just happens not to exist. The quality is apparent in that you have to keep reminding yourself that it is not memoir or editorial. And it is not the life of Helen Garner portrayed by actors, in that the characters are so completely different: flighty women, abused women, strong women, a gay man, a nationalist drunk, ... Always Australian, though. Mostly the stories don't have what you'd think of as a narrative arc. They start with no preamble and the reader is required to piece together what it is they are reading, And the ends tend to just peter out rather than reaching any real resolution. So this is not an easy read. Nor is it what would traditionally be called entertaining. It's not even that thought provoking. But there is a beauty in it when looked at closely, in just how perfectly some moments and some details are captured. Invariably uncomfortable moments. ****0
  9. The Restorer

    The Restorer is a fantastic story of a family living under psychological terror. Roy and Maryanne have relocated to Newcastle, an unfashionable coastal town in New South Wales, from the bright lights of Sydney. Roy has bought a derelict old cottage near the seafront that was last occupied by druggy squatters who burnt through the floor of the main room into the creepy basement. Their children, Freya - an awkward teenager - and Daniel - still in primary school - are terrified of what might lurk in the dark depths...Although the move was claimed to be for Roy's work, it seems that they are running away from something in Sydney. There is a dark past that drip feeds into the narrative. This is done with perfect pacing, alternating points of view from Freya to Maryanne and back, we see a complex set of relationships unfolding, and Roy sits with brooding menace over everything. Newcastle, a place I don't know, is depicted convincingly as a dead-end town populated by dead-beat dropkicks. Those who show any spark of life seem to be shunned by their peers until they buckle to the pressure to under-achieve. Its not going work wonders for the Novocastrian tourist agency. The novel builds the tension very well until it reaches a heartbreaking denouement that, unusually in a novel, evokes a feeling of strong anger. I look forward to reading more of Michael Sala. ****0
  10. Caspar Gray, secondary school teacher, lives in a bland suburb of Sydney, happily married to Jane but kids haven't happened. Caspar and Jane are approaching their seventh wedding anniversary, about to add the seventh annual photo to mark the occasion.But Caspar knocks Jane's handbag over and a condom falls out. Since Caspar and Jane are trying for a baby, this is a bit of a surprise. So over the period of a week, Caspar goes from denial, to paranoia, to free fall. Watched by his students, his colleagues, his neighbours and his dog Wallace, his life unravels.At first, the writing feels a little clunky. It's a male book: written in a blokey, jokey way. This can come across as a bit crude and slightly immature - in a kinda Beavis and Butthead way. After a while, though, something clicks and the reader starts to empathise with Caspar. He's actually quite a complex character who is a good mate, a loving husband and soppy for his dog. But he is also pig-headed and quite willing to cut off his nose to spite his face. The other characters are less complex and only really seem to exist when Caspar is in the room. Les Zig successfully conjures up the places; the residential areas, the pub with the TAB, the shops with the drug dealer. And he does atmosphere with the tension ratcheting up and up as the novel progresses.This is an interesting and compelling read; I'll be interested to see where Zig goes next. ****0
  11. An Isolated Incident

    Strathdee – a truck stop half way between Sydney and Melbourne – population 3,000. Bella, a young care worker at the local residential care facility, has disappeared and turned up brutally murdered in a nearby field. The police have no leads. Bella’s sister Chris is struggling with her grief. May Norman, a relatively new crime reporter for an online newspaper has been sent to Strathdee to report on events as they unfold. So An Isolated Incident sets out like a thousand other police procedurals: two different POV narratives (Chris and May) plus news clippings of May’s articles. All neatly arranged into day long sections. Who could have done it – any one of a parade of suspects whose lives intersect with Chris and May…But as the novel continues, it starts to depart from the script. The police continue to have no clue; May does not stumble across the vital clue; and Chris does not play the part of the steely, pure victim determined to avenge her sister. Instead we see a portrayal of how a community fragments under close scrutiny. Rivalries and suspicions emerge. We find bad things that have happened in the past and continue to happen. Beneath the veneer of mateship we find defensive people who demand big thanks for small favours but would never dream of actually putting themselves out for anyone. And so people play their roles. The police go through the motions of arranging a pointless press conference at which Chris will be the star. They ask intrusive questions and appear to judge according to their lifestyles. May, the principled journalist, is willing to twist interviews and slant stories to get an angle. Chris and her ex-husband Nate seem to be using the situation to try to use one another. It is not pretty. Ultimately, the sense is of an order having been destroyed. In this small community (where people don’t actually know everyone – but they probably know someone who knows someone who knows someone…) there has been a sense of keeping a lid on things. As bad things have happened in the past – right back to the days of early settlement and mass slaughter, through the graveyard and ghosts, through family violence and animal cruelty, life has only been possible by turning a blind eye. Everyone knows who has done what, but nobody does anything about it.This is a really well told, psychological story. The characters are real, and the location so well drawn that you can almost identify it. The two voices work well, but as we near the end, some of Chris’s first person narrative lacks coherence. Whilst that fits with the context, it does let some of the pressure dissipate. The ending is completely appropriate and very unsatisfying – if that is not a contradiction. Because this is not a typical whodunnit; it is about people, not procedures. ****0
  12. Waiting

    Melbourne’s rooming houses are a step up from homelessness, but sometimes only just. Big and Little have seen the worst of them: violence, drugs, theft, danger. But their current rooming house in North Melbourne has a better vibe; some of the residents are a bit odd; there’s one who sits in silence in the common room; another who has set himself up as the gatekeeper. And there’s Big, a large transvestite on the cusp of reaching senior years; and his companion Little, a small, mousey woman with lupus. Little has been waiting to inherit her mother’s house in Adelaide for a long time and has dreams of a stable home; Big is not so sure. So they spend all day, every day, wandering the streets and discussing the possibilities, quietly observing the colourful characters all around them.Meanwhile, there’s Angus and Jasmin. Jasmin is an academic and Angus is a garden landscaper who designs fireproof houses. Angus is on a mission to make his life intersect with Little.What unfolds is a really engaging story of life on the margins. Big and Little are not sorry for themselves; they are actually pretty happy within their own world. They don’t aspire to work or extravagance. They don’t want fast cars. But they do crave a little bit of security. They are vulnerable and they know it.The story, in the main, follows twin tracks: the destiny of Little’s inheritance and a threat to the composition of the rooming house. Both these lines cause Big and Little to rise up from their torpor and engage with the wider world. The story is well told and genuinely intriguing. But the real beauty is in seeing these rooming house residents as real people; quirky, marginalised (often for good reason), frustrating and occasionally terrifying. But nevertheless as real people with valid aspirations and as much a right to a stake in society as anyone else. The writing is vivid; the voice is comic. The novel employs a narrator whose eccentricity fully equals the subject matter; he is a very present and judgemental narrator who almost defies the reader to disagree with him. He, as much as Big and Little, is the star of the show.If there is a down side, it is Jasmin. She seems to exist only to add depth to Angus and the sections in which she and Angus are together feel like dead weight. Perhaps we would miss her if she were not there, but it doesn’t make her any more interesting when she is. This is a minor quibble, though, in a book that is otherwise fantastic.Waiting comes highly recommended. *****
  13. Where The Trees Were

    Inga Simpson is not an Aboriginal writer, but Where The Trees Went is a novel that engages very much with Aboriginal culture and heritage. This is a risky path to follow; it is easy to draw accusations of cultural appropriation or insensitivity. But it is important that some white Australian writers are willing to take this risk. It is important that white Australian readers be exposed not just to authentic Aboriginal voices telling stories of their own culture, but also get to hear perspectives on how Australians of European or other non-indigenous heritage should relate to the Traditional Owners. Where The Trees Went is a highly readable novel set in two interleaved times and locations. The first narrative features Jay, a tom-boyish girl hanging out with male friends by the river in the Lachlan Valley of small-town New South Wales. Jay’s family live on a huge station and the population is sparse; their part of the river is private property so it is quite conceivable that the collection of carved, dead trees is otherwise unknown. It becomes their personal playground; their gang hut, as it were. But one of the friends, Ian – whose family run the local service station – is Aboriginal and his mother tells them that the trees are a burial memorial and it is no place to be playing. The other narrative has an adult Jayne, an art historian at the national museum in Canberra, plotting to steal an arborglyph – an Aboriginal carved tree. She is horrified at the commodification of Aboriginal culture, the collection of sacred artefacts that simply remain in storage. Jayne is horrified, too, to find herself in a relationship with Sarah, an intelligence officer with (presumably) ASIO, hanging out in trendy cafes and worrying about home furnishings. Perhaps triggered by a bushfire that ravaged the trees around Canberra, Jayne feels the stirring of old memories and the need to make a difference. Both narratives are beautiful. The childhood, told in first person, is immediate and arresting. It is personal and bursting with emotions. It is a story of love and friendship; of childhood innocence in a harsh world where adults can crush dreams. The adult narrative reads at times like a psychological thriller: tense and terse. The third person narration creates a distance between Jayne and the reader. But like the best of the twin-track narratives, the reader is frustrated to move away from a compelling story every time it switches, only to become immediately engrossed in the story that had been on hold. Overall, this is a story of love and friendship, tragedy and loss. There are themes of honour, personal debt and reparation. The novel sets Aboriginal culture firmly in the 20th and 21st Century – not some ancient thing but part of the world we all inhabit and which is relevant to all of us, regardless of our own heritage. It presents questions about how we can share a space; how migrants and their descendants can live with an appreciation of the awesome culture around us, and how we can try to live with the atrocities committed by our (not very distant) ancestors. The answers are very tentative, leaving the reader plenty of space to fill in their own answers. Where The Trees Were is a really superb, measured piece of writing that will leave an impression. *****
  14. Their Brilliant Careers

    Their Brilliant Careers is a work of absolute genius. Right from the author’s previous publications, through the dedication, contents age, text, acknowledgements and index it never lets up. This is a pastiche of a serious study of influential Australian writers. Ryan O’Neill has creates a seamless world where these fictional writers rub shoulders with one another and with real writers and historical figures. They interact across biographies; some characters are ever-present: the luckless Sydney Steele is a constant fixture; Vivian Darkbloom’s parties are attended by the great and the good; all the writers grew up on a diet of Addison Tiller’s bucolic short stories. Now, I am no expert in Australian literature but I understand that some (all?) of the fictional writers are drawn from real life Australian writers. This may well explain how such a complex world has been able to hang together. But it also makes this a very sharp analysis of a pitifully poor literary tradition. Of the sixteen writers, there is at least one plagiarist, two frauds, two whose works have disappeared, and one who never existed. These top writers include one editor and one biographer; and at least a couple whose output seems to have been minimal in the extreme. Their works are unoriginal and derivative, titles punning on more illustrious works by European writers. At the same time as we are given this bleak analysis of Australian literature, so too we find a bleak analysis of Australian social history. All the writers are very Anglo – one especially so – and women are mostly decorative. There are some fascists and a communist (who embraced fascism when Stalin signed a non-aggression treaty with Hitler). It paints a picture of an unimaginative, safe and isolated society – one in which books were banned and genuine innovation spurned. It is a society with a few mediocre people running things for themselves, setting up petty little battles for territory, trying to win a larger share of the minuscule sales of literary magazines and journals, oblivious to a bigger, wider and more successful world beyond. There are Easter Eggs aplenty, whether in the form of titles, anagrams, acrostics or homophones (Donkey Hotel anyone?). Genuinely funny, laugh out loud moments in the middle of a deadpan journalese narrative. I had worried that Their Brilliant Careers might be a one-trick pony. That it might run out of steam quite quickly and be repetitive padding to fill out a novel length book (a feeling I got with Roberto Bolaño’s conceptually similar Nazi Literature in the Americas). I needn’t have worried; the concept got stronger, not weaker, for each additional biography. The characters became fuller and more three dimensional; details in earlier biographies only became truly meaningful when seen through the lens of a later biography. There is a story of sorts that emerges, and it is a pretty captivating one. And given the title and subject matter, it seems appropriate that Their Brilliant Careers has been longlisted for the 2017 Miles Franklin Prize. *****
  15. Ava Langdon is a writer, elderly, living in a hut in the forests outside Katoomba in the NSW Blue Mountains. We spend a day in Ava’s company – through morning, elevenses, afternoon, evening and night. We meet her in her hut, living an existence that is not much above camping. Her provisions are low; she has makeshift furniture and makeshift cooking equipment. Is this some kind of post-apocalyptic world? Has Ava, alone, managed to carry on the torch of humanity? The answer is no. It is 1974 and Ava seems merely to be eccentric. She is the weird old lady our parents used to warn us about. Today, though, we are going to see the world through Ava’s eyes, watching the small children being safely shepherded away. We are going to delight in her choice of pith helmet and golden cravat; we are going to admire her wit in putting waitresses and policemen in their correct places; we are going to marvel at her dexterity in deadheading agapanthus in the grounds of the Hydro Majestic at Medlow Bath. I know the places well, and I remember the 1970s – although I have never seen them combined I can imagine it well. This was a time of greater innocence but, ironically, also greater violence. The health and safety laws had not yet sterilised our world and neutralised the threats. This was an age where people could be assaulted for liking the wrong music, so if you were strange in any way you were not going to meet with tolerance, let alone acceptance. Thus, Ava’s world view showed all the more defiance in the face of strong societal expectations. It would be a shame to spoil the reader’s fun by detailing the many examples of eccentricity and the inappropriateness of her various exchanges and dialogues. Just accept that they are hilarious – and that you’ll be laughing with Ava as much as at her. You will see Ava’s perspective completely, be privy to her inner thoughts, but unlike a classic unreliable narrator you will also fully understand how other people react to her. There is no delusion, no trying to hoodwink the reader. The title tells us that these are the last days of Ava Langdon. We are sad that the world is about to be robbed of one of its more colourful inhabitants; we understand also that for all the nonsense – for all the overblown experts of unpublished novels and doggerel rhyme – that Ava had a story to tell. Every chance encounter was a potential novel, destined to be typed onto pink paper and sent off to an unreceptive publisher. Ava’s life reaches back into a bygone age; it is over; and apart from ten copies of both of her published novels, Ava has precious little to show for it. Her tragi-comic life has not been a success. Ava Langdon is fictionalisation of Eve Langley, a long forgotten writer. I have her magnum opus, The Pea-Pickers, on my shelf unread. This novel will definitely inspire me to read it. *****
  16. Hold

    Hold is a spooky little book. Shelley Muir is putting her life back together after the tragic drowning of her partner Conrad. Shelley has moved away from the coast and is now living with David, an older academic, and his 15 year old daughter. Shelley has a contract to write textbooks, giving her freedom to work from home, popping out to cafes and antique shops as she pleases.But despite appearances, Shelley is not happy. David’s minimalist furnishing has obliterated Shelley completely, she is never going to feel maternal towards Julia and her only friend Tess is a restaurant reviewer providing Shelley with access to free food and dull company.So when Shelley discovers a secret room through a door in the back of her bedroom closet, she is able to create her own personal space, her own refuge from David and his minimalism. But the room is not on the plans, and the space it occupies seems to encroach on the house next door… The more time Shelley spends in the room, the more often she visits it, the stranger her life gets. Hold is essentially a study of grief and not letting things go. It is about the dilemma of being loyal to what you have loved, and being hopeful enough to reach out for new things. It is about the pain when the new things are not that great and you know the ending might not be happy. This is a difficult read, despite its brevity. This is a novel heavy in metaphor, but it remains lucid. One or two of the ideas possibly don't bear very close scrutiny, and one or two bear more than a passing resemblance to Michelle de Kretser’s Springtime, but taken together they create an eerie atmosphere that becomes more and more disturbing as the book progresses. The writing, in fact, is beautiful and creates a tiny, claustrophobic world very well. There are repeated images that build in intensity with each telling; each time the images becomes sharper, more detailed. The biggest puzzle, though, is the chicklit cover. This is very much not chicklit and anyone expecting a romcom or sensual steaminess is going to feel mightily short-changed. Hold is about the hold of the past on Shelley. I think too that some of the spookiness may have quite a hold on the reader. ****0
  17. Barking Dogs

    Barking Dogs is a rather superior collection of short stories set in what I had thought to be a remote (fictional) town of Mt Barker, South Australia - but it turns out to be a real and growing town only 30 or so kilometres from Adelaide. For those who don't know, South Australia is age serial killer capital of Australia and Mt Barker has its own chapter in this canon with the disappearance and presumed murder of a schoolgirl. These stories intersect. Characters from one story will star in another; incidents central to one story will be referred to in another. It's about small town life where people live in each other's pockets and keep glimpsing one another even though they barely know each other. And the people of Mt Barker are tragic-comic. The Summit Club - a group of unemployed and semi-employed men who do good deeds regardless of whether they are wanted; the man who buys trophies from internet retail sites to sell at his bricks and mortar shop; the people driven to a frenzy by barking dogs. The reader laughs at the trivial things that matter to them but at the same time, acknowledges that if you are stuck in some Godawful small town in remote SA, there's not much more than trivia to bother with. My only criticism is that the timeline, as measured by proximity to the disappeared girl, seems to jump around a bit. That, ultimately, is what makes this stories rather than a novel. ****0
  18. Between a Wolf and a Dog is getting many plaudits and prizes. I can see that it is a good quality example of a family drama, but basically I struggle to find family dramas interesting. In this Sydney-based novel, we have Hilary, a matriarch, terminally ill with a brain tumour. Her two daughters April and Ester have a feud dating back three years, and Lawrence, Ester's ex, is having some work related problems. We explore how the characters got there, and over the course of a day, get some thoughts about how they might move forward if they can only find the courage. Of the various characters, I engaged most with Lawrence. A disillusioned journalist who specialises in opinion polls, he has a self destructive streak that seems to press into action ever few years. He is thoughtful and tends to avoid self pity, but is certainly aware that he has stuffed up his life. I didn't really engage with the female characters - arty, flighty, spoilt - which probably did limit my enjoyment of the novel as a whole. Nevertheless, whilst I didn't engage with Ester I was amused by the counselling sessions she ran for a living and pitied the poor people who turned to her for advice when her own life was so thin. There is some drama near the end, but it takes a while to get there, and particularly the events of three years ago feel over long and written in a frustratingly obscure way. So it's not a bad book - just not one I found special. The main talking point seems to be that the author Georgia Blain, was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2015 and died in December 2016. Thus, there are obvious parallels between her lead character and her own destiny. I am not sure whether she would have known of her own diagnosis whilst writing Between a Wolf and a Dog; I feel she must have done but others have said it was purely coincidental. But if I think of other novels written shortly before the writer died (e.g. This Thing of Darkness or 2666) the talking point is the novel, not the writer... ***00
  19. The Bunting Quest is a poor man's Dan Brown. This is not my type of book at all. I had expected a rollicking tale of historical drama on the high seas, with a touch of mapping and pre-European Australia. What I got was some conspiracy theory that never convinced me, cardboard characters and expository dialogue. And it jumps around. There are multiple plot strands and point of view chops about all over the place. Locations in the novel include - and I doubt I have remembered them all - Northern Ireland, the Vatican, Germany, England, Belgium, East Africa, Java, Western Australia. The time settings switch between the present day and the 1600s - with various reminiscences about other times too. I am sure it is supposed to feel pacy, but it ends up feeling undercooked. The characters are simply not credible. You've got the Pope calling in on a heretic German Lutheran Priest. Hello, I'm the Pope. Yes you are, how can I help you? Perhaps you can help me with this letter written by Jesus - in Aramaic which, serendipitously, we both speak. As did all my predecessor Popes. Why yes, although I don't respect you or your church, I will give up my current life to go on this quest for you...And in the present day, we meet a young woman - probably in her mid 20s - who is the Oxford Professor of Ancient Maps. Yeah right. And she is willing to give up her life to go traipsing round the world dodging murderous art thieves with a man her father slightly knows. The story is full of holes and non-sequiturs, despite so many stilted expository conversations where people state the obvious and tell each other things they already know with all the conversational skills of Wikipedia. As for the central conspiracy, it is weak. Too weak to have driven the inexplicable actions of our Lutheran Priest Bunting and way too weak to have driven more recent actions. I had wanted and expected to enjoy this novel. Mea culpa for mistaking a genre novel for something more interesting. But even that cannot defend this being such poor quality. Even genre readers should have standards. ​**000 (being generous)
  20. The Easy Way Out

    Steven Amsterdam likes to write fiction that reflects our own opinions on ourself and gives us pause for thought. Right now, assisted suicide is being talked about in all the coffee shops at the Paris end of Collins Street (Melbourne) and the chattering classes tend to be in favour. So, in The Easy Way Out, we meet Evan, a nurse in an assisted dying unit in an unspecified hospital. Assisted suicide has been permitted on a trial basis provided various legal safeguards are in place and the process follows a closely worded script. There are protocols and reports, any breach is a serious matter that will come under external scrutiny. And this is a pretty dismal process for those choosing to end their lives and their families. Any warmth and love has been sucked out of the process by bureaucrats. Unsurprisingly, some people still turn to their families and underground "helpers" for those final stages. We watch Evan struggle with the ethics of the process, with each subsequent case being slightly harder for Evan to justify in his own mind. Every time Evan thinks he knows his own limits, a new case comes along to test that boundary. The hospital is anonymous and but for a single reference to an oval, it need not even be in Australia. Evan is gay and involved in a threesome relationship - presumably so the reader engages with the issues rather than identifying with Evan or the location (although maybe Steven Amsterdam is specifically pitching his novel at the hitherto untapped gay threesome market). This works well in short novels. But The Easy Way Out is not that short and too much engagement with moral dilemmas can feel a bit like being beaten over the head with an ethics textbook. The writing is clear and concise, but it leans more towards logic than emotion, and as noted, the characterisation is (probably intentionally) distancing. I can see how some people may read this and revise their opinions. In my case, however, it simply reaffirmed them. ***00
  21. The cover should have warned me what lay ahead, but the premise of a Northern Ireland Troubles thriller with links to current day Byron Bay sounded intriguing. Halley meets Aidan, who is on a mission for his brother Liam. Halley, it seems, has not always been Halley the Mullumbimby cafe owner and had some involvement with Liam on a paramilitary mission in London some years back... The novel starts out like a pretty standard romance - Kimberley Brown's Trusting a Stranger comes to mind - as Halley is persuaded by Aidan to turn her life upside down. The back story seems incomplete - why would Aidan want to meet Halley? How did he find Halley? Why is Halley in hiding anyway? As the details start to fill in, they don't seem quite right. Anyone with half an idea of Northern Irish politics will spot that the wrong people seem to be doing the wrong things at the wrong time. The timelines seem to be impossible to follow, with Liam and Aidan and Halley/Megan moving backwards and forwards from Australia to Europe and back again, lack of clarity of motivation at any given point, Liam being in prison and out of prison and in prison again seemingly at will, lack of clarity about the mission, when it was supposed to take place, who was involved and what their roles were. And as explanations are offered for why some of the details seem off, other details unravel behind them. This is not written like a thriller - way too much focus on Aidan's sinewy body and hot breath - and seems a bit plotty for a romance. It tries to do both but succeeds at neither. Sorry Laura Bloom, this really wasn't my cup of Nambarrie. **000
  22. Vixen

    Our narrator - the Vixen of the title - is a fox-fairy. She can transform from woman to fox and back again. But she is not quite one or the other; she is a spirit with the power to bestow good luck, wealth and immortality on the humans she meets. But to avoid ruining the world, these powers must be used sparingly, and to avoid capture she must keep her spirit nature secret. As a young fox-fairy, Vixen has only ever known the Inner Court of Hue's Citadel - the seat of the Nguyen dynasty, the emperors of Viet Nam. From this vantage point, the Vixen sees emperor Bao Dai selling his kingdom's soul to the French in a desperate attempt to ward off the Communists. The Vixen flees to Australia where so many Chinese and Vietnamese migrants had worked the goldfields in the 19th century. The novel takes the spirit world as a given, but few other than priests ever recognise the spirits who walk among us. And whilst we do meet some humans along the way, this is very much a novel about being a spiritual being in a secular world. It is a lonely existence, saddened by the ageing and decay of both people and places. The Vixen sees the old world order destroyed by politics and war, then decades later on a visit back to Hue, she finds the Citadel in ruins. Even worse, she finds the incursion of tourists seeing the relics of the old order only as decorations, not understanding their purpose or their recency. It must be said, the Vixen is scathing of tourists and not terribly kind about Western civilisation. There is a sense that if people stay put and don't change anything, then it would be for the better. Barbs are aimed at the new buildings in Vietnamese cities - particularly Saigon - that aim to replicate the West but fail. Australian cities - notably Melbourne and Ballarat - are beyond redemption, populated by ignorant migrants who have no interest in learning about the culture of the traditional owners whose lands have been possessed. But the Vixen also reserves some criticism for the Aboriginal people (referred to as Australians) for not fighting to retain their lands. The novel is an intriguing blend of politics and mythology and gives a real sense of enlightenment about other cultures. The sense of place is done well; I know Hue and felt myself transported back to the Citadel, both before and after its ruination. But the stellar quality of the novel is the language. Vert short, fragmentary paragraphs feel ethereal. There is a dreamy feel with some repetition and stepping in and out of the spiritual world. There is a real sense of the overlap between the fox and the woman, the transformations are not always signposted but are clear from the context. There is a sense of Buddhism and serenity without any feel of preachiness. It is so well balanced. This is the fourth work I have read by Hoa Pham. She is a fantastic writer who deserves to be much better known. I thoroughly recommend this novel. *****
  23. The Dry is set somewhere in South East Australia during a long, hot summer. The exact location is never specified, but I took it to be somewhere in the South Australia/Victoria borderlands. The basic plot is that Aaron Falk, a detective with the Australian Federal Police, has shown up in his home town of Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his childhood friend Luke Hadler. Luke, it seems shot his wife and son before fleeing the scene and turning the gun on himself. Aaron had expected to go back home to Melbourne the next day but he receives a note from Luke’s father that holds his attention. Then when Sergeant Raco, the local policeman, shares his concerns about the murder suicide theory it looks as though Aaron is not going to be leaving any time soon. Over subsequent pages, we gradually discover more about Luke and Aaron’s past; about the circumstances surrounding Aaron’s departure for the big smoke, and the open secrets that fuel grudges and mistrust in an isolated farming community. There is much to like. The plotting is careful and the way Jane Harper drip-feeds information is well done. The use of flashbacks takes some getting used to, but is put to good effect. The setting felt real; the hostility and introversion of remote Australia. But on the debit side, the pace is slow and the characters never fully come to life. Perhaps it doesn’t help that so many key characters in the backstory are now dead; it is impossible to invest in their fates and those who are left are not always easily distinguishable. This being a bit of a whodunit, there is obviously a need for padding characters to absorb some of the suspicion, but it doesn’t feel as though we know enough about them to ever suspect them of very much. Overall, the novel felt too long. There was a fair amount of flab between about half way and the reveal – and the reveal seemed very sudden and a little premature, leaving more flab afterwards. The reader never really got a sense of ideas building in Aaron’s mind; pennies just dropped; aided by chance discoveries and convenient comments in conversations. With time and experience, I hope Jane Harper will get the pacing right and build more hooks to get the reader interested in the characters – because there is plenty here in the ideas and writing department to build upon. ***00
  24. Quicksand

    Quicksand is the story of Aldo Benjamin, paraplegic and failed businessman, told by his friend Liam Wilder, policeman and failed writer. The real author (Steve Toltz, not Liam Wilder) was Booker shortlisted for his debut novel: A Fraction of the Whole. This book was quirky; full of humour and non sequiturs; surreal; and very unyooshual. It was also way too long, lacked a plot, featured cardboard characters, felt American despite its Australian setting. Whilst it was mostly enjoyable to read, it left no lasting impression. So too with Quicksand. It meanders terribly and even half way through, it’s not quite clear what the book is actually about. In the first part of the book, the chapters shift backwards and forwards with no real signposting; characters come and go and come back again; and being honest, it’s quite confusing. Liam is a longwinded and repetitive narrator and whilst he can turn a good phrase, it doesn’t make for a satisfying whole. The second section picks up the pace – ostensibly Aldo’s court testimony – and is mostly lucid and absurd. It’s basically a story of what happens if you mix wild optimism, terminal depression and indecent amounts of bad luck. Then, for a final and relatively short section, we rejoin Liam. This apparently squares a circle that the reader probably didn’t realise needed squaring. The overall feel is reminiscent of Nicola Barker, but without some of the small town eccentricity that lifts Barker’s novels from being humdrum. And whereas Barker’s surrealism is pretty tight and controlled, with Steve Toltz it feels loose and fairly wittering. And where Barker’s characters are delightfully individual, Toltz’s cast all seem to blur into one. There is a generic female character – Leila, Saffron, Stella and Mimi all seem to pass the narrative baton on to each other. Liam, just blends into the wallpaper. Only Aldo is allowed any form of identity but as the novel progresses, he becomes increasingly defined by his disability rather than his character. Quicksand is not actually a bad book, it just doesn’t quite measure up to being a good one. It doesn’t add anything new that a reader of A Fraction of the Whole hasn’t already encountered; and probably doesn’t have the spontaneity or originality to bring in new readers. ***00
  25. Salt Creek

    Salt Creek is an interesting addition to the canon of early Australian settlers failing to co-exist. Set in the Coorong, South Australia, it is essentially a novel of failure. The Coorong did not go on to become prosperous farmland. The Finch family, who migrate to the area, are not skilful business people or green-thumb farmers. They are, essentially, running away from debts in Adelaide and their arrival at Salt Creek station is a move borne of desperation, not hope. The novel is narrated by Hester Finch, a young woman on the verge of adulthood. She feels the privations of the exile, but she and her sister Addie are willing to make the best of life on the station. In particular, they befriend a young Aboriginal man, Tully, and bring him into the family home. Tully is a bridge between the European “civilization” and the traditional owners of the land. He learns English and reads Darwin; he knows how to use a knife and fork. But he also knows how to trap fish, how to hunt, how to live off the land. He is taught Christianity but remains loyal to his own folklore. Much of Salt Creek feels like a Victorian manners novel. Hester’s father professes ideals of civilising the Aboriginal people and makes great display of his generosity in allowing them to live on his land. Yet he is oblivious to the damage done to the delicate eco-structure by his settlement; and sees nothing wrong in claiming ownership of the water supply. He never treats the Aboriginals as true equals – not even Tull – and seems to regard them as some kind of circus ponies who could be coached to perform tricks. When pressed, his veneer of respectability comes away and we see full blown notions of racial superiority shine through. Papa has similarly Victorian attitudes towards family. The family are all expected to stick around and make cheese, but when push comes to shove, the boys are allowed to leave and seek their fortunes in the goldfields whilst the girls are treated like property. Whilst most of the novel is set in The Coorong in the 1860s, there are occasional sections narrated from Chichester in the 1870s, making it clear that Hester, at least, is not destined to remain on Salt Creek Station for long. The reader therefore had a pretty good idea of where it will all end up; the novel is just a slow reveal of how she gets there. And this is the problem. The novel is too slow and too long. After a while, the reader had got a pretty clear idea about life on the Creek and the injustices that are piling on top of previous injustices. We feel the salt tang of the dust that blights the grass and dirties the clothes. We get that Tull has become trapped in limbo, disowned by his own family and never accepted by the Finches. We get the venality of the few visitors and their willingness to view the daughters as commodities, to be married off to the highest bidder. But still the novel ploughs on relentlessly. And for a novel set in such bleak isolation, there seem to be many characters – perhaps too many to sit comfortably in the reader’s memory. The ending, when it comes, feels a bit tacked on; a bit incongruous. In broad terms, we learn something about one of the minor characters in what one presumes to be a big reveal, but doesn’t actually change the reader’s understanding of the story. A bit of a damp squib that takes the focus off the real story – the relationship between Papa, the girls and Tully. This is a debut novel that is quite good, but with a stronger editor it might have achieved its true potential. ***00
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