BOOK REVIEW: ‘Five Bells’ (Gail Jones, Vintage)

This is, quite simply, a beautiful book. To capture, in 200 pages, the lives of four disparate characters, across a single summer’s day, at Sydney’s iconic Circular Quay, and offer as rich and affecting a story of humanity as this is some achievement. Like the author, all the characters are new to Sydney: one from China, one from Ireland, and two from Jones’ own Western Australia. Theirs are separate backgrounds, but the day’s circumstances draw their narrated experiences together, and the secrets, haunting experiences and travails of their earlier lives are revealed.

As a Sydney-born reader, I am captive to the power of reference in the chosen title. If ever was an iconic Sydney ‘moment’ in literature, it’s always seemed to me that Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’ is it. And the author’s quotation in the frontispiece leaves you in no doubt as to its symbolic importance:

Where have you gone? The tide is over you,
The turn of midnight’s water’s over you,
As time is over you, and mystery,
And memory, the flood that does not flow.

This is a novel full of iconic symbolism, not just the Sydney Opera House, Harbour Bridge, the harbour itself, and the famous Quay where white people first colonised Australia. The interrelatedness of separate lives and the ways in which the four stories of past and present are woven in the day’s events as a kind of psychohistory and psychogeography (think of Joyce’s Stephen Hero, or Woolf ’s Mrs Dalloway) form a satisfying, compelling narrative.

Themes of memory (and forgetting) reverberate through Jones’ work. As she did in Sorry and Dreams of Speaking, small, intimate, private lives are connected in Five Bells to a larger, universal narrative. The tiny world of Pei Xing, living out her life quietly in suburban Bankstown, is connected, through her tragic family past as a victim of China’s Cultural Revolution, to the great movements in world history. Similarly, echoes of the Irish diaspora are there in the story of Catherine, living in solitary hope, a world away from the Dublin where she lost a beloved brother. Ellie and James, childhood lovers on the other side of the continent, reconnect on this fateful Saturday, but their connection is now as irrevocably fractured as it was cemented then.

Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’ is justly acclaimed as an elegy of enormous power, about place and its spirit (John Olsen’s enormous mural in the northern foyer of the Opera House is called ‘Salute to Five Bells’). Memory, the sense of loss, and the painful connection between past and present are so brilliantly and immediately brought to life in Gail Jones’ Five Bells that it deserves to share the illustrious title.

David Gaunt is the co-owner of Gleebooks and recipient of the Member (AM) in the General Division of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day Honours 2011. This review first appeared in the Summer 2010/11 issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

Most mentioned this week

Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, has turned to literary nonfiction to write the memoir Bird Cloud (Fourth Estate) about her experience of building a house in the Wyoming outback. Bird Cloud tops this week’s most mentioned chart with the same number of mentions as Gail Jones’ Five Bells (Vintage), the story of four people whose lives intertwine against the backdrop of Circular Quay in Sydney. Also on the most mentioned chart, Amy Chua describes her strict parenting in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Bloomsbury); British writer Geoff Dyer has drawn from 10 years’ worth of essays to complete his book Working the Room: Essays and 1999-2010 (Geoff Dyer, Canongate); and finally translated from French is Yannick Haenel’s novel The Messenger (Text)–Media Extra.

Bestsellers this week

Secrets to the Grave (Tami Hoag, Hachette), the second book in the ‘Deeper than the Dead’ crime fiction series, tops the highest new entries chart followed by forensic thriller You Belong to Me (Karen Rose, Hachette). Still on the bestsellers chart this week is James Patterson’s novel, Tick, Tock (Century), now in first place overtaking recent chart topper, Awakened (P C Cast & Kristin Cast, Hachette), the eighth book in the ‘House of Night’ series, now in second place. The Lake of Dreams (Kim Edwards, Viking) is at the top of the fastest movers chart followed by Entice (Bloomsbury), Carrie Jones’ latest novel in the YA ‘Need Pixies’ series, in second place–Weekly Book Newsletter.

Indie Book Award shortlist announced

The shortlist for this year’s Indie Book Award, for independent booksellers’ favourite books of the previous year, has been announced. In the running are:

Fiction

Non-fiction

Debut Fiction

Children’s shortlist

  • Museum of Thieves (Lian Tanner, A&U)
  • Mirror (Jeannie Baker, Walker Books)
  • The Very Bad Book (Andy Griffiths & Terry Denton, Pan Macmillan)
  • The Legend of the Golden Snail (Graeme Base, Viking).

The winning title in each category and the overall Indie Book of the Year will be announced in March. Category winners and the overall Indie Book of the Year will be selected by independent booksellers across the country.

The last Indie Awards were presented in September 2009 for books published between July 2008 and June 2009. The 2009 Indie Book of the Year was awarded to Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Street Fight in Naples’ (Peter Robb, A&U)

Peter Robb’s new book reminds me of a kaleidoscope. Turn the barrel, or page, and a new, mesmerising image, fact, opinion or event reveals itself, leading the reader to re-think the intricacies, contradictions, beauty and barbarity of the history of the challenging city of Naples. The book’s subtitle is ‘A book of Art and Insurrection’ but that does not do justice to the breadth and depth of Robb’s command of his subject.

 Commencing with references to Bronze Age trading and ending with a contemporary beach vignette, the book gives the reader a remarkable overview of the history of this ‘great and terrible’ city, with particular focus on the 16th and 17th centuries. This was the period when Naples became the European capital of Spain’s world empire and the base for the bloody Christian struggle with Islam. Robb certainly does not skimp on the political, religious, mercantile and domestic realities of this period, culminating in a vivid, even exciting, account of the citywide Food Tax revolt of 1647 and its aftermath. However, his passions are the Neapolitan artists and writers who flourished in what was arguably one of the most important cities of the time.

The reader needs to remain focussed as names, commissions, friendships, rivalries and vendettas spill from the page, not always chronologically. Caravaggio (whom Robb usually refers to by his given name, Michelangelo Merisi), Gargiulo, Ribera, Bartolomeo Passante (a painter of genius who died too young), the ‘elusive’ Caracciolo, to name just a few, live again due to the vitality of the writing, and we are directed more than once to Naples’ Museo di Capodimonte and various churches to rediscover for ourselves a multitude of glorious painted treasures.

Writers, too, throng the pages in a sometimes quirky way. Latin poet Virgil is linked with Robb’s Neapolitan barber Virgilio, solely due to his name. Boccaccio and the Decameron make an appearance. The original Cinderella and her unique slipper are explained. Writers of political and religious tracts are discussed both for their influence and for their sometimes grisly fate. Brief musical references appear, not least a casual mention of San Pietro a Majella, ‘Europe’s first music school’. If one of the functions of a serious factual book is to stimulate the reader to explore further, this one certainly fulfils the brief. The author simply does not have the space to flesh out all his allusions.

Peter Robb has crafted a turbulent book about turbulent times. It will amply repay any serious reader whose interests include Neapolitan artists and interlopers, their passions, rivalries and vendettas; the Spanish Inquisition; political and artistic patronage; the survival skills of the Neapolitan working classes; the rise and decline of empires; and much more. Don’t expect an easy read: do expect to be informed, entertained and transported to a particularly resilient people and place.

Max Oliver is a Sydney bookseller with a particular interest in Italy. This review first appeared in the November 2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Rocks in the Belly’ (Jon Bauer, Scribe)

Anybody who reads this book and isn’t instantly a fan probably wasn’t paying close enough attention. Rocks in the Belly is both a masterpiece and a very challenging piece of writing—both to read and to do justice to in a review. The reader is introduced to a nameless young man—the neglected only child of a serial foster mother. Haunted by a terrible secret in his past, he returns home to confront the dying mother he feels never loved and understood him. The story is written from two perspectives: from the eight-year-old boy who felt pushed aside and who acted up in order to gain his mother’s attention; and the 28-year-old man who is caring for his terminally ill mother. Not only is it interesting the way Bauer chooses to flout the traditional stereotype of the spoilt only child, also intriguing is the way he takes the most basic character relationship, that of the mother and son, and turns it on its head. By reversing their roles, the protagonist is given the chance to reciprocate his mother’s treatment of him in his childhood. With this beautiful novel, Bauer teaches us the meaning of ‘too little too late’, with an ending that is sure to bring a tear to even the most stoic reader’s eye.

B Owen Baxter is a bookseller and aspiring young writer from the Central Coast of New South Wales. This review first appeared in the July 2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher. Also see Baxter’s interview with Jon Bauer here.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Legend of the Golden Snail’ (Graeme Base, Viking)

Fans of Graeme Base’s intricate picture books will be pleased to know that his latest is just as gorgeously detailed as Animalia and The Eleventh Hour. The Legend of The Golden Snail follows the intrepid Wilbur (and his trusty cat) as they set off on the trail of a mollusc that has been transformed into an enormous galleon, ‘a snailing ship’, and banished to the Ends of the Earth by a Grand Enchanter. Bases’ illustrations are as big, bright and beautiful as ever, and young readers (ages four to eight) will be enchanted to see the weird and wonderful creatures that Wilbur encounters on his trip, including a crab the size of an island and earwig pirates aboard a ‘bulbous bottle boat’ trying to harness the lighbulbs of the unfortunate lantern fish. Adults too will enjoy reading out loud the alliterative prose, the ‘maze of madness’, ‘slithering sea’ and ‘dreadful doldrums’. There is a simple moral in the narrative: all the animals that Wilbur helps out along the way end up repaying his kindness when he runs into strife. As for the fate of the Golden Snail, well there is a twist there as well.

Thuy On is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and reviewer. This review first appeared in the 2010 Term 3 issue of Junior Bookseller+Publisher.

Most mentioned this week

Lucy Jarrett returns home to upstate New York from Japan, only to find herself haunted by her father’s unresolved death a decade ago in Kim Edwards’ novel The Lake of Dreams (Viking), which is at the top of the most mentioned chart. On the subject of hauntings, Peter Ackroyd reveals that the English see more ghosts than any other nation in his spooky collection of ghost-sightings, The English Ghost (Chatto & Windus). Alison Booth’s The Indigo Sky (Bantam) is the sequel to Stillwater Creek and centers around a refugee and her daughter in a New South Wales town during the 1960s. Also on the most mentioned chart is Julian Barnes’ third collection of short stories called Pulse (Jonathan Cape)–Media Extra.

BOOK REVIEW: Mr Tripp Smells a Rat (Sandy McKay, illus by Ruth Paul, Walker Books)

Mr Tripp—go to the top of the class! Mr Tripp Smells a Rat is the first in a new series of stories from author Sandy McKay. Part of the ‘Walker Stories’ series (the New Zealand equivalent to ‘Aussie Nibbles’), it makes a fantastic first reader—great for beginner readers to read aloud. The book comprises three short, inter-connected stories. Lily is the spokesperson for Room Five and narrates the action in a friendly and casual way. There is a repetitive structure to each story and each one contains a little moral lesson (it’s okay to be scared, the benefits of healthy eating, having nits isn’t something to be embarrassed about), which is dealt with in such a comic way that it’s never heavy-handed or didactic. Mr Tripp, who believes that everybody is good at something (even Lily, who can hold her breath for ages), has a great sense of fun and learning, with a love of puns and jokes. Young readers will definitely develop their interest in wordplay thanks to Mr Tripp: ‘What has hands but can’t clap? A clock.’ A second Mr Tripp volume is due later in 2011.

Kate O’Donnell is a bookseller at the Younger Sun bookshop in Yarraville. This review first appeared in the Summer 2010/11 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

Bestsellers this week

Awakened (P C Cast & Kristin Cast, Hachette) tops both the bestsellers chart and highest new entries chart this week, with the eighth book in the ‘House of Night’ series about ‘marked’ teen Zoey Redbird. At the House of Night boarding school, Redbird is to undergo the ‘change’ into an actual vampyre. Second on the bestsellers chart is James Patterson’s latest detective novel Tick, Tock (Century) followed by The Ugly Truth: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney, Puffin) in third place. Tick, Tock (Century) also makes an appearance in first place on the fastest movers chart this week, followed by Lauren Oliver’s YA novel Before I Fall (Hachette)–Weekly Book Newsletter.