BOOK REVIEW: Lovesong (Alex Miller, Allen & Unwin)

Former acting editor Angela Meyer reviewed Alex Miller’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted novel Lovesong back in the November issue if Bookseller+Publisher magazine. Here’s what she had to say:

Alex Miller returns to the realms of romance and desire, longing and solitariness, transience and creativity in his new deep, yet playful novel Lovesong; sure to appeal widely through its astute charm and emotional essence. The bulk of the story features John and Sabiha, an Australian man and Tunisian woman who meet in Paris where Sabiha helps run a restaurant with her widowed aunt, Houria. The imbalances of even the most loving relationships are explored through John and Sabiha—longing for distant homelands, compromise, and difficulty conceiving. Miller’s soft, unhindered prose really comes alive when the complications of secret desires and longing are introduced. The secret inner life is a common theme in Miller’s work, which always holds fascination. The other parts where descriptions are apt, are expressions of solitariness—both loneliness and an aloneness that is by selection. What’s different about this novel is that the main story is told through another character, Ken, an ageing writer in Melbourne, who meets the couple later in life and is drawn to their story due to the ‘sadness in the depths of [Sabiha’s] dark brown eyes’. The author, Ken, is as such admitting that he seeks the story behind the story, the secrets behind the façade of everyday life. This structure is also cheeky in a way, as Ken quotes Lucien Freud: ‘Everything is autobiographical, and everything is a portrait’. Ken’s last book was called The Farewell and he wondered why critics never equated it with his retirement (Miller’s own last book was The Landscape of Farewell), but he does find that he can’t ‘not write’, and thus seeks (and constructs) the story of John and Sabiha. Ken, and also the reader, then get to live out someone else’s life and history, desires, and indiscretions. You could read it as a statement about fiction itself—derived from truths of the self, of people known and met, your own and others’ lives; but also from burning curiosity (the spark for the story being the sadness in Sabiha’s eyes). ‘My life is in my books’ notes Ken towards the end, an admission that the reader is free to interpret the work of the writer as coming from their own secret inner life. The intertwining stories are told with gentleness, some humour, some tragedy and much sweetness. Miller is that rare writer who engages the intellect and the emotions simultaneously, with a creeping effect.

Angela Meyer is a writer, blogger and former acting editor of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. This review first appeared in the November 2009 issue. You can read the April 2010 issue online here.

BOOK REVIEW: Jasper Jones (Allen & Unwin)

Interestingly, Craig Silvey’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted novel Jasper Jones was included in the Young Adult section of our reviews pages when the following piece by Robin Morrow appeared in the combined May/June 2009 issue of Bookseller+Publisher. Here’s what Robin had to say about the book:

The book opens dramatically when Charlie, the narrator, is taken by Jasper Jones to a macabre scene at the old jarrah tree by the river. Charlie’s peaceful—if nerdish—life is overturned ‘like a snowdome paperweight that’s been shaken’. Throughout a summer of cricket matches, the Vietnam War and shy courtship of the beautiful Eliza, some disturbing facts are revealed while others remain suppressed. Present tense and short sentences are often employed, enticing the reader along at a lively pace. The feel and smell of small-town Australia are evoked skillfully, and yet (many) literary references are to US classics, Mark Twain and especially To Kill a Mockingbird Elements of the coming-of-age story are mixed with those of the detective novel, livened with scenes of laugh-aloud humour. The sparring dialogue between Charlie and his friend Jeffrey, and the references to aspiring novelists will seem—to some readers—true to character, to others, tiresome. Jasper Jones, the Aboriginal scapegoat for the town’s misadventures, is elusive and independent to the end. Themes of courage and cowardice, and the vitality of the ever-observant Charlie, will ensure this book’s appeal especially to readers who are young and/or male.

Robin Morrow, a former bookseller, now teaches literature at university. This review first appeared in the May/June 2009 issue. You can read the April 2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher online here.

BOOK REVIEW: Truth (Peter Temple, Text Publishing)

Peter Temple’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted novel Truth was reviewed back in the September 2009 issue of the Bookseller+Publisher by editor-in-chief Matthia Dempsey. Here’s what she had to say:

It’s fair to say this is a highly anticipated book but probably a little misleading to call it a highly anticipated sequel. In his follow-up to the Dagger-winning The Broken Shore, Temple has taken Stephen Villani, the detective friend of that book’s hero Joe Cashin, for his central character. Cashin is referred to in passing but this is very much a stand-alone story. The good news is that it can therefore be recommended to those who haven’t yet read Temple’s previous book, as well as those who enjoyed it. Truth presents the same winning combination of riveting crime plot, flawed-yet-sympathetic lead character, pared-back but effective language and complex themes. Villani is investigating the murder of an unidentified woman found dead in a new luxury high-rise city apartment, as well as the torture and murder of three men in an Oakleigh shed; at the same time his family is fraying, his father is refusing to budge from a country property at risk of bushfire and he is grappling with the messy politics of a successful career in the force. Running through this are memories of the childhood that made Villani what he is and a case from the past that he’d rather forget. I could barely put this book down. Temple fans won’t be disappointed and, like The Broken Shore, this will have broad appeal—even among those who who don’t usually go for crime.

Matthia Dempsey is a writer, reviewer and editor-in-chief of Bookseller+Publisher. This review first appeared in the September 2009 issue. You can read the April 2010 issue online here.

Fancy Goods questionnaire: new Bookseller+Publisher editor Andrea Hanke

Andrea Hanke first worked at Bookseller+Publisher as a very over-qualified editorial assistant back in 2006. After a couple of years in London she has returned to the fold as editor of the magazine. What better way to introduce her, we thought, than to have her answer our Fancy Goods questionnaire? Read her answers and judge her for yourselves…

What are you reading right now?

The Master (Colm Tóibín, Picador)—it moved to the top of my bedside reading pile when I found out Tóibín was coming to the Sydney Writers Festival. It toppled Vertigo—a tough break for W G Sebald.

What book do you always recommend?

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin (Little, Brown) and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (HarperCollins).

What book are you most looking forward to?

It’s already out, but Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man (Penguin)—because everyone keeps telling me how fantastic it is.

What book made you wonder what all the fuss was about?

Wuthering Heights.

What’s the best book you’ve read that no-one’s ever heard of?

My top picks share a Booker and a Pulitzer between them so I’m not sure I’m the best person to answer this question.

Obligatory desert island question—which book would you want with you?

The other Brontë —Jane Eyre.

Is there a book you’ve bought for the cover?

I have a weakness for highly detailed, whimsical covers. I also like it when publishers make an effort with their endpapers.

Hardback, paperback or digital?

Paperbacks, for their affordability and portability.

If I were a literary character I’d be…

Edith Campbell Berry from Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days (Vintage)—I’d like to say for her (not quite effortless) sophistication but really it’s for her obsessive attention to detail.

The best thing about books is…

They create imaginative, curious people.

You can find previous Fancy Goods questionnaires under ‘Interviews’ in our categories menu.

Books, history, dress-ups: dare we say the Clunes ‘Back to Booktown’ fair has it all?

To quote our Weekly Book Newsletter (circa May 2009) at last year’s annual Clunes ‘Back to Booktown’ fair:

Rose Michael and her Arcade Publications colleague Dale Campisi (pictured) garnered local press attention by dressing up to promote the Arcade Publications title Madame Brussels: This Moral Pandemonium (L M Robinson).

‘From established antiquarian dealers like John Sainsbury to the woman in the bluestone church on the hill who didn’t even have a shop but was a passionate buyer and traipsed her collection to markets, the town was overrun with secondhand books,’ said Michael. ‘One bookseller [was] even selling by the pound!’

The annual Clunes fair is designed to attract visitors to the historic Victorian goldmining town and is celebrating its fourth year this weekend, 1 to 2 May. The 2010 event features writers Sonya Hartnett, Stefan Laszcsuk, Margaret Simons, Arnold Zable, Nigel Krauth, Malcolm Fraser, Toni Jordan and Commonwealth Prize Best First Book winner Glenda Guest.

Arcade Publishing’s Dale Campisi has promised Fancy Goods he will be donning a fake moustache when he attends again this year and encourages others to break out their most dashing gold rush attire and come along too. ‘Bustles, bonnets, crinolines, leg o’ mutton sleeves, top hats, tails, cross-bow ties, mutton chops, sovereign purses and penny farthings encouraged,’ he says.

You can find out more about the event here: http://www.booktown.clunes.org/.

Most mentioned books this week

As the nation stopped to honour our Anzac soldiers this weekend, the book world was abuzz with new Anzac titles. The most mentioned chart usually features a few war-related titles every year on the Anzac Day weekend, but there’s never been a time when every book in the top five was Anzac-related (including three from UNSW Press). The most mentioned title was Michael Challinger’s Anzacs in Arkhangel: The Untold Story of Australia and the Invasion of Russia 1918-1919 (Hardie Grant). It goes to show that Australian readers continue to be enchanted by the image of the Anzac–Media Extra.

BOOK REVIEW: The Bath Fugues (Brian Castro, Giramondo)

Brian Castro’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted novel The Bath Fugues (Giramondo) was reviewed back in the May/June 2009 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine by Max Oliver, a veteran Australian bookseller. Here’s what he had to say:

An extraordinary work, The Bath Fugues consists of three interwoven novellas, of which the third masterfully pulls together all the strands and themes of the preceding two. Each story centres on one person, with a large cast of real and imagined secondary characters. In the first, Jason Redvers, a one-time artist and counterfeiter, is dying, convinced that his wealthy Sydney patron, Walter Gottlieb, has appropriated his past. Redvers’ revenge, his ploy to set the record straight, involves writing an expose of the secret lives and proclivities of his friends and colleagues. The second novella focusses on the Portuguese judge and poet Camilo ConcieÇão, self-exiled to Macau in the 1920s—revelling in his mistresses, his bargain-hunting for Chinese art, his exotic persona and his opium pipes. The final tale is that of Dr Judith Sarraute, a well-connected Australian doctor, privy to the most private thoughts and passions of her patients, custodian of a cabinet of exotic venoms, and eventual owner of an art gallery into which she is persuaded by a well-connected acquaintance. Within the three tales many other characters emerge, reappearing from story to story in the fugal structure that Brian Castro has chosen to give form to his substance. And substance there certainly is. This novel requires intense concentration and I confess to letting some of the many references slide by in order to let the story flow. Continue reading

BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Emmett (Deborah Forster, Vintage)

Deborah Forster’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted novel The Book of Emmett (Vintage) was reviewed back in the March 2009 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine by Melanie Barton, then a fiction category manager at the bookselling chain Angus & Robertson. Here’s what she had to say:

Forster’s debut novel is a powerful and emotional work that begins with the funeral of Emmett, the main protagonist. A devoted alcoholic and abusive father and husband, Emmett loves words and more than anything wants his children to be successful and well educated. A moody man who erupts at the slightest annoyance to his routine life—the five children tiptoe around him so as not to set him off and soon learn the meaning of the word ‘hedge’, as they hide in these at the end of the street when their dad is raving. While not an original premise for a novel, Foster has written an emotional tale of domestic violence with simple yet engaging language. Set in the western suburbs of Melbourne, where Forster grew up, the novel traces the complex relationships between brothers and sisters and the love and pain that evolves between them in this house of violence. The novel follows the progression of Emmett’s life through to dementia and the calming emotion this brings to the family. It follows the effects that living in an abusive household has on the children as they leave the home and begin to start families and relationships of their own. The effects this man has on each of their lives are massive in scale and dynamic. A tragic book in so many ways, this is a great debut novel with haunting characters and an intensity that will move readers.

This review first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. You can read the March 2010 issue online here.

Miller and the Miles Franklin: Do we have too many awards?

From today’s Crikey newsletter, former Bookseller+Publisher editor and literary blogger Angela Meyer writes:

Are there too many literary awards in Australia, and is our oldest one “slipping away”? If an Australian literary award was provided increased funding and focus, would the Miles Franklin be the most relevant?

Every year the Miles Franklin Literary Award attracts some debate and controversy, but the award’s prestige is waning, noted Alex Miller — a two-time winner and shortlisted author in this year’s awards — at the shortlisting ceremony yesterday. Miller, as reported in The Australian, said Prime Minister “Rudd the Dud” and arts minister Peter Garrett should have invested in the nation’s oldest literary award, instead of creating the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2008 (worth $100,000, to the MF’s $42,000), which he said “gets no publicity and will probably disappear when someone else becomes prime minister”.

Miller’s main point is that there are too many literary awards, and so it’s inevitable that there will be less focus on each. Besides the Prime Minister’s awards, there are various state Premier’s awards, and many other trust, media, festival, company and privately funded awards. Many are relevant for their individual fields and genres (such as the CBCA awards for children’s and young adult literature) but dispersing funding around for fiction awards when one solid, prestigious and attention-focused literary award could be developed, is a good point. Would the public pay more attention?

If this was put into effect, though, is the Miles Franklin really the award for the job? Sure, it was established in 1957, and has been won by culturally important, and stimulating, authors and books. Patrick White’s Voss was the recipient of the first award, as Miller noted. But the Miles Franklin’s criteria is stricter than awards established since: “It is awarded for the novel of the year which is of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases”. This is what Miles Franklin included with her bequest. What “Australian life in any of its phases” means, exactly, is something that comes up often in discussion of the shortlisted books. Continue reading

Emerging Writers Festival: program launched

The program for the 7th Emerging Writers Festival (21 to 30 May, 2010) was launched at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne last night. New director Lisa Dempster said it would be a ‘bold, innovative and exciting’ festival, and the program, available to guests in compact little booklets (you could choose the colour scheme you liked best, nice touch), looks promising.

As a festival unashamedly for writers, the EWF centres around a lot of the vocational and workshop events that are only really offered on the fringes of the bigger writers’ festivals. From the Express Media Skills Share ‘how to write’ workshops (‘…reviews’ with The Big Issue’s Jo Case, ‘…television’ with Paul Kooperman, ‘…computer games’ with Paul Callaghan and ‘how to edit your work for publication’ with Davina Bell and Julia Carlomagno), to the great Living Library concept in which you can ‘borrow’ industry people for a brain-pick (getting fifteen minutes with, for example, Arcade’s Dale Campisi or literary agent Donica Bettanin of Jenny Darling & Associates), the events on offer are aimed squarely at those looking to be published—or published more often.

Prices for sessions are pretty reasonable—the Express Media workshops are $10, you can borrow Mr Campisi et al for a bargain $5, and even a full weekend pass will set you back only $45 ($30 concession). Of course some events are free too, including the great-sounding ‘Stuck in a Lift With …’, in which an emerging writer gets to quiz a literary hero on writing and the books they love.

Scattered through the festival booklet are various Twitter addresses for authors, and tweeters can join the EWF’s TwitterFEST at #ewfchat; Twitter addresses and hashtags aren’t something you see a lot of at the big festivals either (though of course, one of the best things about any festival is the chance to be there in the flesh with a lot of other excited and inspiring people, and the EWF has made a name for itself providing just that).

The festival booklet is worth tracking down, not just for the program itself, but for its participant bios: this year panellists were asked to describe how they write and the result is a whole lot of bite-sized writing advice to get attendees thinking.

Check out the EWF program at http://www.emergingwritersfestival.org.au/program/.