BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Wilful Eye: Tales from the Tower Volume One’ (ed by Isobelle Carmody & Nan McNab, A&U)

Fairytales never die, they just get facelifts. Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab’s collection of revamped traditional tales is the first in a two-part project exploring the genre’s deep, rich underbelly through novella form. Here, six Australian fantasy writers each choose a particularly needling tale, teasing out the universal truths and nightmares along with some more personal ones. The result is sublime, with each tale landing a punch squarely between the old and the new, bewitching and terrifying, topped off with an individual twist. Dishing up gritty modern nightmares are Rosie Borella’s ‘The Snow Queen’—now a tale of drug addiction—and Margo Lanagan’s examination of class warfare in ‘The Tinderbox’. In Martine Murray’s hands, ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’ becomes a haunting existential treatise, while Margaret Mahy recasts ‘Babes in the Woods’ as a triumphant coming-of-age tale. My favourites, though, were Richard Harland’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and Carmody’s ‘Rumplestiltskin’, which bring out the savagery of the originals to highlight the resourcefulness of their heroines, each beating the odds in a battle of male wagers versus female wits. Though aimed at teens, this gothic treasure trove’s reach will extend to anyone seeking to rediscover the lost fantasies of
their childhood.

Meredith Tate is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer who has worked for a children’s publisher. This review first appeared in the Junior supplement of the March issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

Most mentioned this week

Tristan and Grace are staring at death while trapped in a car wreck in Bernard Beckett’s August (Text), and with little hope of rescue the stories of their lives are told, revealing how they met and the truth behind the cause of their crash. In Jane Sullivan’s Little People (Scribe), impoverished governess Mary Ann rescues what she thinks is a child from the Yarra River. However, it isn’t a child at all, but a member from the troupe of midgets on their 1870 tour of Australia. In the book When Horse Became Saw (Penguin), Anthony Macris describes his family’s journey as their son is diagnosed with autism and the difficult decisions they had to make. Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home (A&U) is a story of contemporary relationships and the consequences when love and desire collide with science and the law. Finally, Yellowcake (A&U) is Margo Lanagan’s collection of 10 short stories for young adults. All five books received equal mentions this week–Media Extra.

BOOK REVIEW: Little People (Jane Sullivan, Scribe)

Inspired by the real-life tour of a troupe of ‘little people’ to Australia in 1870, this quirky novel is the second from literary journalist Jane Sullivan. It is ostensibly the story of Mary Ann, recently released from employment by the amorous father of her ward and bearing his child. Standing on the banks of the Yarra contemplating suicide, she sees a child fall from a bridge and rushes to its rescue. The child is in fact Charles Stratton, know as General Tom Thumb, the charismatic entertainer who, along with his wife, the beautiful and perfectly formed Lavinia; her restless and willful sister Minnie; and rival for lead Commodore George Washington Nutt, inhabit a world of barely restrained, savage curiosity in the employ of P T Barnum. Taken in as dresser to the two diminutive ladies, Mary Ann is exposed to the strange and transient life they lead. As time passes she becomes aware that her position there may have more to do with the child she carries than her act of heroism. Mary Ann is not the only character to narrate the story as others take turns in various ‘sideshows’ to relate their own tales; this shift in narrative works well and these sideshows provide great amusement and colour. The language and voices of the characters do a fine job of placing the story in its historical context, and the story itself is interestingly textured and set in a fascinating milieu. This is a most enjoyable read.

Paul Landymore is business and development manager at Queensland Writers’ Centre and a former bookseller. This review first appeared in the March issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

INTERVIEW: Leslie Cannold on ‘The Book of Rachael’ (Text)

Eloise Keating interviews Leslie Cannold on her novel that imagines the life of Jesus’ youngest sister Rachael.

Why did you decide to approach this topic as a work of fiction?

I decided because I had no choice! My first impulse was to make use of my skills and experience as an academic researcher and nonfiction author to write a non-fictional account. But it turns out there are few historical facts to be had about the people and events described in the holy books. Those that exist are not necessarily what we would call history, including the bible, which is a religious—not a historical—text. Despite this, the dearth of factual, historical information about the man called Joshua of Nazareth and other figures named in the gospels means it can’t be entirely rejected as a source. There was also very little about what daily life was like for a Jewish peasant woman and virtually nothing by women (most of whom would have been illiterate) about their own lives. Nothing is known about Jesus’ sisters, including whether he even had any, and their names. If I wanted to tell the story of Joshua’s sisters, the medium of fiction was the only real option.

How did you reconcile publicly accepted ideas about Jesus and his family on one hand with your desire to imagine the story of Rachael on the other?

I may be the most perfect person in the world to have written this story because I knew next to nothing about Jesus the religious figure when I started. I was raised in a culturally Jewish, Areligious family. While being encouraged to be curious about most things, any questions I posed about the blue-robed guy hanging on a cross, or Christianity in general, were met with a shrug and ‘I don’t know’, and the implicit question, why would you care?’ So when I came to read the gospels, I read them straight, just the way you’d read any story. I had no preconceived ideas about what would be there, and no blocks about what conclusions I could or couldn’t draw from the stories told. It was only later, when I began describing the plot of my book, or the motives of characters, I would see the eyes of those who did know something about Christianity widen. ‘You can’t say that!’ one woman said. ‘Why not?’ I remember feeling perplexed. ‘It’s pretty clear that was what happened. It actually says it.’ ‘Maybe. I … don’t know,’ she shook her head as if this was
irrelevant. ‘But you can’t say it.’ Eventually, I just accepted that The Book of Rachael was likely to surprise and perhaps offend some folk. Readers will just have to judge for themselves if the reinterpretation of familiar characters and stories will be too much for them and—if the answer is yes—buy something else.

Not much is known about women’s lives during the time when the novel is set. What kind of research was involved in writing this book?

I relied on a few texts, none of which even came close to fulfilling my every need to know what foods women prepared and how, what they slept on and under, what they wore and how these things altered with age, seasons and social status. Where I couldn’t fill the gaps, I referred to other historical novels or made things up! The bible is not a historical document. There is considerable debate about which, if any, of the events described in it actually happened and if so, when and in what order. At every point at which there was a conflict between my best surmise as to what actually happened and the storytelling imperatives of the novel, the novel won.

Were you influenced by contemporary feminism in developing the character of Rachael?

Only insofar as contemporary (and historical) feminism embodies women’s desires to be treated as fully human. Ultimately, to write a novel that would speak to modern readers I had to assume that the things that motivate contemporary human beings are not all that different to what motivated the ancients. Once our essential requirements for food, shelter and security have been met, I see men and women as seekers of a sense of belonging, recognition, affirmation, intimacy and the opportunity to contribute to something larger than themselves. Rachael is a very full-blooded character. Grounded, as most women are, in the day-to-day work of feeding bodies and cleaning up mess, but yearning to satisfy the higher order thirsts that may be peculiar to homo sapiens.

As your first foray into fiction, how did you find the process of writing a novel? Can we expect to see more fiction from you in the future?

I found it very, very challenging. Very challenging. Did I mention I found it challenging? But, hey, I’m always one for a challenge so yes, there are plans for another fictional work. I’m sorta hoping that I’ve learned something so the next one won’t be so … challenging but my editor’s response to this aspiration was, essentially, ‘good luck with that’.

The Book of Rachael is published this month by Text. Eloise Keating reviewed the novel in the March issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine, now available online here.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Black Glass’ (Meg Mundell, Scribe)

Black Glass presents a dark urban dystopian future of mass surveillance and government control, filled with corruption and morality gone wrong. It is the story of two sisters, Tally and Grace, who are separated at the start of the book. Grace doesn’t know if Tally is even alive, but Tally is always looking for Grace. They have no ID, so to stay out of jail they must hide in the shadows among derelict buildings, away from the working class, scrounging for whatever food they can and taking whatever jobs come their way. There’s also Damon, a journalist for a current affairs television show, who looks for the juiciest stories while maintaining the government’s status quo. Another character is Milk, who has the ability to control the emotions of a crowd with engineered scents and special lighting. Black Glass contains a mix of writing styles, adding to the big brother style of the book, which flow nicely and are easy to pick up because of the headings. The book is based in a specific city that becomes obvious when reading, and this localisation makes the situation more believable, illustrating that we may onto be a few steps away from a similar world in a decade or two. The tension builds right until the end. This is recommended for Gen-Y readers who like a bit of spec-fiction now and then.

Andrew Wrathall is publishing assistant at Bookseller+Publisher. This review first appeared in the March issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

Most mentioned this week

Anna Lanyon’s Fire and Song (A&U) is the story of a Sephardic Jewish family, Luis de Carvajal, his mother and his sisters, who were caught up in the Mexican inquisition in 1596. In Lyn Hughes’ Flock (Fourth Estate) Francis and Lilian meet at Central Station, Sydney in 1950. They fall in love and move to the Blue Mountains to follow their dream of a creative life. Historian David Walker’s Not Dark Yet: A Personal History (Giramondo) is a memoir that connects the small events of daily life to larger historical themes of family, war, racial identity and religion–Media Extra

Reviewers’ top picks

The April issue of Bookseller+Publisher is in the house, with a cover that just makes you want to curl up in bed with a good book.

This issue features reviews of books publishing in May and June. Here are some of the titles that caught our reviewers’ fancies.

The Amateur Science of Love (Craig Sherborne, Text, June)
The first novel from Craig Sherborne, ‘poet and author of memoirs Hoi Polloi and its sequel, Muck’, has won high praise from reviewer Katie Horner. ‘I can’t fault this book,’ she writes. The story follows ‘the see-saw relationship of naive but cocksure Colin and eccentric artist, Tilda’ as they ‘deal with isolation, illness, infidelity and their everchanging feelings’. Horner writes: ‘In my opinion, books with ‘love’ in the title don’t tend to reflect real relationships, or none I’ve had knowledge of, but this one does.’

Past the Shallows (Favel Parrett, Hachette, May)
‘The wild coast of Tasmania provides a moody backdrop’ for Favel Parrett’s debut novel about ‘two young boys [who] live in a tumbledown shack with their worn-down and bitter father’, writers reviewer Heather Dyer. ‘One day when their father insists both boys go out on the boat in rough weather, a tragedy seems inevitable’. Dyer is impressed by Parrett’s restrained prose. ‘This debut novel doesn’t have a single excess word and the characters are thoroughly believable,’ she writes.

Watercolours (Adrienne Ferreira, Fourth Estate, May)
Another debut novel has impressed our reviewer, Rebecca Butterworth. Watercolours begins with the arrival of a new primary school teacher Dom in ‘the rural backwater of Morus’. When Dom ‘notices that one of his pupils, Novi Lepido, is a talented artist’, his ‘efforts to foster the boy’s talent uncover the Lepido family’s links to the local history and the landscape, stirring up hidden wells of grief and ancient history’. This is ‘an excitingly good book,’ writes Butterworth. ‘It is a refreshingly good Australian story that will appeal to readers who enjoy reading about love and the triumph of good intentions.’

The Taste of River Water (Cate Kennedy, Scribe, May)
‘[Cate] Kennedy’s career as a poet has evolved in parallel with her success as a short-story writer and novelist and her accessible poems display the hallmarks of a poet increasingly well-practised in her craft,’ writes reviewer Andrew Wilkins of Kennedy’s latest collection. ‘Kennedy seems adept an extracting striking conclusions from the least epic of events—a joyflight experienced by long-dead family members, for instance, or a couple laying a new floor in their house … There is much to admire here.’

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Mirror’ (Jeannie Baker, Walker Books)

In a time when the portrayal of Muslim people by Western media often provokes fear, this book attempts to break the xenophobia by showing children that they don’t need to be afraid of people who are different to them, and that, actually, we are all very much the same. Mirror is a picture book about two boys from different families on different sides of the world—one in Australia and one in Morocco. The design of the book is unique, with two storylines that open from the inside out, the pages bound to the edges of the front and back covers rather than the spine. Both stories depict a loving, caring family, set within a wider community that is both globally distant and culturally different. But even across this vast distance there are connections between the two families and it may take several readings for the little ones to spot them all. A striking feature of this book is Baker’s beautiful illustrations—they are amazing works of art. Her finely crafted collages use real textures to create each scene, adding an extra dimension to the book. Anyone who has ever been to Sydney will instantly recognise the cityscape of Baker’s creation. Once this book is on the shelves, I’m sure booksellers will notice little readers silently mesmerised by the stunning images within. Mirror is a must-have picture book for younger readers.

Andrew Wrathall is publishing assistant at Bookseller+Publisher. This review first appeared in the July 2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

Mirror is the winner of the Best Children’s Book in the 2011 Indie Awards. Jeannie Baker’s artwork used in the book Mirror is currently being exhibited at the Botanic Gardens of Adelaide until 13 May.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Prime Cut’ (Alan Carter, Fremantle Press)

Hopetoun WA: idyllic seaside location, mining boomtown, itinerant workers and a headless torso on the beach. Senior Constable Philip ‘Cato’ Kwong, former golden boy, has been banished to the Stock Squad in disgrace. With resources low, Cato is reluctantly sent to Hopetoun to make preliminary enquiries until someone who is more in favour can be sent. But with Cato desperate to earn back his reputation he pushes further than his brief and when his partner is murdered, a police and media circus descends on the town. What follows is a very strong and enjoyable read. As with all good crime fiction there are many layers to this story, genuine ‘aha’ moments and a very strong cast of main and supporting characters. There are also some nice depictions of locale that place this debut firmly in the category of Australian crime. This book was shortlisted for the 2010 Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award. It was also a runner-up in a Penguin crime competition a couple of years back for which I was judge. It didn’t win but it was my second choice and now that I’ve had a chance to read it in full, I’m very pleased to see it finally published.

Paul Landymore is a bookseller at Brisbane’s Avid Reader. This review first appeared in the Summer 2010/11 issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

Most mentioned this week

Batavia cover

Peter FitzSimons’ Batavia (William Heinemann), the true story of mutiny aboard the Dutch East India Company ship which struck a reef 80 kilometres off the coast of Western Australia in 1629, received five media mentions this week, leading the most mentioned chart. FitzSimons has described this rather gruesome tale as ‘a true Adults Only version of Lord of the Flies, meeting Nightmare on Elm Street‘. Also in the most mentioned chart this week, with three mentions each, are Allegra Goodman’s latest novel The Cookbook Collector (A&U); Cherise Saywell’s Desert Fish (Random House), about a teenage girl living in a drought-ridden small town in 1970s Australia; Digging up a Past (UNSW Press), the memoir of Australian archeologist John Mulvaney; and Spencer Quinn’s To Fetch a Thief (Arena), the third book in his ‘Dog on It’ series–Media Extra.