BOOK REVIEW: The Forrests (Emily Perkins, Bloomsbury)

Dorothy Forrest is seven years old when the Forrests move from New York, with dwindling money, to New Zealand. At the opening of the novel, Frank, the father, is capturing his children on a movie camera, trying to make them participate in a special effect. The children run off in different directions, bored of their father’s instructions. But a fragment, a celluloid memory, is captured, and as the novel skips forward in time with each chapter, the past—and the figures in it—hover at the edges of Dorothy’s life.

Emily Perkins, acclaimed author of Novel about My Wife, chronicles a person’s life with depth, poignancy and passion. She manages to find the right, often surprising, words to describe the sensation of being in the world, both in the moment and over time. She never resorts to cliché. Often Dorothy exists both in the past—with her first love and family friend, Daniel, or with her beloved sister Eve—and in the present. She is bemused at how quickly time passes; in later chapters she fails to recognise her own reflection. The novel is, overall, a metaphor for this, with an entire life nestled between the front and back cover. It reflects the deep sadness of time passing, but also the potent joy of ‘the little things’—sensations—of which Dorothy reminds herself and is grateful. Dorothy is perpetually surprised by who she seems to be, and where she has ended up, through choice and life’s inevitable turns.

The Forrests is partly about survival, not just how we survive the often difficult and tragic events in our lives, but how we survive each other: our parents, our lovers, our children. It’s also about how we survive ourselves; how we deal with remnants of the past that remain with us, and how we deal with new fears that crop up and change us. How, too, do we deal with getting older? At one point Dorothy’s brother mentions their family friend and her first love: ‘Flickered with adrenaline, caught out as always at the mention of his name, [Dorothy] told Mike that last she heard he’d gotten married. Adulthood was like this—your voice calm, your face normal, while inside white turmoil squirted, your heart still seven, or twelve, or fifteen.’

The Forrests is a work of art as well as a successful narrative. It is nuanced, compelling and a treat for the mind, senses and emotions. Comparisons to Virginia Woolf, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith and Ali Smith are all valid in the way they deal, in some of their works, with members of a family over time.

Angela Meyer is a writer, literary blogger and former acting editor of Bookseller+Publisher. This review first appeared in the April/May issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

PM’s Literary Awards 2012 shortlists announced

The shortlists for this year’s Prime Minister’s Literary Awards have been announced.

The shortlisted titles in each of the categories are:

Fiction

Poetry

  • Ashes in the Air (Ali Alizadeh, UQP)
  • Interferon Psalms (Luke Davies, A&U)
  • Armour (John Kinsella, Picador)
  • Southern Barbarians (John Mateer, Giramondo)
  • New and Selected Poems (Gig Ryan, Giramondo)

Nonfiction

  • A Short History of Christianity (Geoffrey Blainey, Viking)
  • Michael Kirby Paradoxes and Principles (A J Brown, Federation Press
  • When Horse Became Saw: A Family’s Journey Through Autism (Anthony Macris, Penguin)
  • Kinglake-350 (Adrian Hyland, Text)
  • An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark (Mark McKenna, MUP)

Prize for Australian History

  • 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia (James Boyce, Black Inc.)
  • The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia (Bill Gammage, A&U)
  • Breaking the Sheep’s Back (Charles Massy, UQP)
  • Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal people and the Australian Nation (Russell McGregor, Aboriginal Studies Press)
  • Immigration Nation: The Secret History of Us (Renegade Films Australia)

Young adult fiction

  • A Straight Line to My Heart (Bill Condon, A&U)
  • Being Here (Barry Jonsberg, A&U)
  • Pan’s Whisper (Sue Lawson, Black Dog Books)
  • When We Were Two (Robert Newton, Penguin)
  • Alaska (Sue Saliba, Penguin)

Children’s fiction

  • Evangeline, the Wish Keeper’s Helper (Maggie Alderson, illus by Claire Fletcher, Viking)
  • The Jewel Fish of Karnak (Graeme Base, Viking)
  • Father’s Day (Anne Brooksbank, Puffin)
  • Come Down, Cat! (Sonya Hartnett, illus by Lucia Masciullo,Viking)
  • Goodnight, Mice! (Frances Watts, illus by Judy Watson, ABC Books).

The winners of each of the categories will receive a tax-free cash prize $80,000, with each shortlistee receiving $5000 tax-free.

As previously reported by Bookseller+Publisher, this is the first year that a poetry award has been offered as part of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. The Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History has also been incorporated into the awards this year.

For more information about the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, click here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Mountain (Drusilla Modjeska, Vintage)

The mountain, the dominant image of Drusilla Modjeska’s ambitious new novel, is an imaginary peak in Australia’s nearest neighbour, Papua New Guinea. A young, recently wed Dutch photographer, Rika, and her English ethnologist husband Leonard arrive in PNG at the end of the 1960s, when the Melanesian country is still under Australian colonial rule. He is to study the remote tribal community of the mountain, and she is along for the ride. Finding herself quickly abandoned, however, Rika is drawn to an educated young Papua New Guinean, Aaron, and a lifelong love affair with him and his country begins. With elements of a family saga (the story ends in recent times), The Mountain is book about the enduring relationship between European and Melanesian in all its complexity: the ties that can bring people together and the mysteries that can confound them on both sides. Informed by the author’s many visits to PNG and by much historical research, the book’s strength is its lovingly detailed depictions of Papuan New Guinean life, culture and society. While PNG’s gaining of independence in 1975 is major event in the book, Modjeska’s focus is largely on the personal and emotional lives of her characters, rather than on the political (it is a novel, after all). As a conduit into a fascinating yet frequently misunderstood country on Australia’s doorstep, The Mountain has much to recommend it.

Andrew Wilkins is director of Wilkins Farago. He wrote this review in the Port Moresby hotel featured in this bookThis review first appeared in the Feb/March 2012 issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: Alien Shores (ed by Sharon Rundle & Meenakshi Bharat, Brass Monkey Books)

Alien Shores is a heartbreaking glimpse into the lives of displaced people who have fled their homes, lost family and friends, and struggled to survive. Long after their ordeal, the scars remain. This collection of literary short stories explores the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers within Australia and the Indian subcontinent. The collection begins with some shocking tales and ends on a heartwarming note. Indian author Amitav Ghosh writes about the 1979 massacre of refugees in Morichjhapi in his short story on the discovery of a late husband’s journal, which expands on the narrative of his powerful 2005 novel The Hungry Tide (HarperPerennial). Arnold Zable writes about the people displaced by burning villages during the Vietnam War and the disturbed US soldiers contemplating desertion. Jamil Ahmad tells of a woman seeking refuge in a military watchtower near a border crossing after she loses her tribe. Abdul Karim Hekut illustrates the cruelty of the bureaucrat. Sharon Rundle turns Australians into refugees in her speculative fiction tale. And Ali Alizadeh turns the Australian refugee activist story on its head. This book reminds us that we are all members of the human family and those who are born elsewhere or with different ideas on life should be treated with as much respect as any of our closer neighbours.

Andrew Wrathall is publishing assistant at Bookseller+Publisher. Alien Shores will be launched by Julian Burnside at Readings Carlton at 6:30pm, 21 May.

BOOK REVIEW: A History of Books (Gerald Murnane, Giramondo)

A History of Books is in many ways a continuation of the musings of Gerald Murnane’s 2009 book Barley Patch. It’s a safe prediction that A History of Books will be unlike any other book published in Australia this year. It consists of a long series of anecdotes about a man and the books he has read and how they relate to his life and his memories. The work ranges back and forward in time and plays with subtle repetitions that might seem tedious to the casual reader but build to a very satisfying conclusion. It embodies the literary life, describing a man who ‘preferred to the visible world a space enclosed by words denoting a world more real by far’. The book also includes three shorter works of fiction that develop further the depiction of someone who ‘would seek in books what most others sought among living persons’. Murnane has an utterly unique vision and approach to writing fiction, but it’s not a vision that everyone will appreciate with its absence of plot and character development. To my mind there is no greater living Australian writer, however, it’s likely that his audience will remain a small one.

Blair Mahoney teaches English, Literature and Philosophy at Melbourne High School. This review first appeared in the Feb/March issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine. Read all of Bookseller+Publisher’s pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Red (Libby Gleeson, A&U)

Libby Gleeson’s latest book for junior readers is a sophisticated and atmospheric amnesiac mystery revolving around the question: if one day you lost everything, how far would you go to get it all back? When a cyclone tears through Sydney’s eastern suburbs, a girl wakes, alone and covered in mud, with no idea of who she is or what has happened. Amid the chaos, she falls in with Peri, a resourceful boy who takes her in and names her Red. Together they set about finding her real identity and, hopefully, her family. But their search soon draws them into a bigger mystery when they discover Red’s life may have been shattered long before the cyclone hit. Springboarding off the recent wave of global natural disasters (particularly Queensland), Gleeson does a chillingly effective job of destroying all that is familiar and safe. Like Red, the reader is displaced, allowing a space in which to explore these difficult issues of loss, impermanence and homelessness while creating empathy for the other. Beautifully written and conveyed with complex characterisation, Red’s story of resilience, belonging and hope is also a commercial one, driven by the right blend of suspense and intrigue for the 10-plus age group.

Meredith Tate is a freelance proofreader and book reviewer who has worked for a children’s publisher. This review first appeared in the Feb/March issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: Running Dogs (Ruby Murray, Scribe)

Diana is an Australian aid worker, writing reports for a disaster relief organisation bereft of the kind of disaster that grabs attention. She reconnects with her illusive friend Petra in Jakarta and a story of power, corruption and loss unfolds, as Diana becomes embroiled in the lives of siblings Petra, Paul and Isaak. The siblings are haunted by the past, as the narrative weaves the sad circumstances of their childhood in with present day revelations. In a city where they are chauffeured to school through streets teeming with protestors and then home to an austere marble mansion, where they clearly connect more with their nanny—who secretly schools them in mythology and mysticism—than with either of their distant parents, the children lead a life of both privilege and pain. The merciless bullying of Petra by the cruel young Bill Desta foreshadows a greater threat that has both personal and global ramifications, as the running dogs of the title run wild. Lyrical descriptions clash with harsh imagery to evoke a world of extreme privilege set among that of poverty, fear and political upheaval, where privilege and wealth are not enough protection from familial secrets and shame. Running Dogs is a powerful and nuanced debut novel.

Portia Lindsay is a former bookseller who now works at the NSW Writers’ Centre. This review first appeared in the Feb/March issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: Love Notes from Vinegar House (Karen Tayleur, Walker Books)

Family secrets. A cursed house. Things that go bump in the night … Freya Kramer doesn’t believe in ghosts. Not really. But spending her holidays at Vinegar House might just change her mind. The last thing Freya wants to do is stay at her grandmother’s creepy old house with a cousin she detests. However, it doesn’t take long for her to learn that things aren’t always as they seem, and she discovers that there might be more to the house, to her cousin, and to herself than she ever thought. Funny, sweet and at times downright scary, Love Notes from Vinegar House shows that family secrets never really vanish—they are just waiting for the right time to return to the surface. This is a book about self-discovery, first love and the endlessly complicated ties of family. Between the gothic mansion and the spectacularly isolated setting, Karen Tayleur has created a thriller that will cause more than a few moments of suspense. A little slow to start and quick to end, this is an otherwise delightful YA novel that will entrance readers and forge a strong connection with an early teenage audience.

Meg Whelan works at Hill of Content bookshop in Melbourne. This review first appeared in the Feb/March issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: The Weight of a Human Heart (Ryan O’Neill, Black Inc.)

Despite the present-day profusion of literary magazines and outstanding short-story collections, the 21st century does not seem to be as hospitable to short-story writers as the 19th and 20th centuries were. It has often been said that few writers make a living from writing short stories today, or that the form only thrives in the independent sector, or in academia, or online. In this radically diminished landscape, Ryan O’Neill’s intriguing debut short-story collection is invaluable. In a style reminiscent of Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, The Weight of a Human Heart slides across characters, generations, decades, styles (we’re not talking first person vs third—this is venn diagrams, filled-in exam papers and page-long footnotes) and tones (from heartfelt to the black humour of a headmaster/bishop, scissors in hand, pursuing long-haired schoolgirls in ‘The Saved’) in a mosaic of styles and voices. O’Neill’s well-crafted stories are vital in their dramatic situations and as subtle studies of the human character—everyday triumphs and tragedies are briefly illuminated, the secret places of relationships laid bare. In the hands of this able practitioner, the minor art form of the short story becomes major art.

Jennifer Peterson-Ward is an editorial assistant, reviewer and former bookseller who divides her time between Melbourne and Perth. This review first appeared in the Feb/March issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.