BOOK REVIEW: Dingo: The Dog Who Conquered a Continent (Jackie French, HarperCollins)

When Loa’s childhood friend marries a stranger from another tribe, he is frustrated and angry at being stuck between childhood and manhood. Determined to find a wife—and a life—of his own, Loa casts off in his canoe with only with a knife, some water and a ‘rubbish dog’ to offer to hungry sharks—or eat if he runs out of food. At first Loa is filled only with disdain for the dog. However, when trouble hits, and Loa and the dog are carried to the shores of a great southern land, they grow to need each other. Dingo: The Dog Who Conquered a Continent is told, in modern language, from the alternating viewpoints of the boy and dog. It is beautifully and simply written by Jackie French (Macbeth and Son, Hitler’s Daughter), whose prose is always masterful. French has brought the history of early Australian culture to life—but the story itself is compelling. It is the kind of tale that will stay with younger readers, and is bound to encourage further study. Part of the ‘Animal Stars’ series, Dingo is well suited to readers aged nine to 13.

Rebecca Butterworth is a freelance writer and book reviewer living in Melbourne. This review first appeared in the Junior Term 1 supplement of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Pennies for Hitler (Jackie French, HarperCollins)

It’s Germany, 1939, six months after the Kristallnacht attacks on the Jews, but life for 11-year old Georg is full of promise under the Führer—until his father, an English university professor, is killed by a group of pro- Nazi students on suspicion of being Jewish. Fearing for her son’s safety, Georg’s German mother arranges for him to be smuggled into England to stay with his father’s unmarried sister, his Aunt Miriam, whose work at the war office means Georg spends long hours on his own, listening to the radio, reading newspapers and learning to perfect his English accent. London, however, is being heavily bombed, and when Aunt Miriam’s office is transferred to the country, she decides to send Georg to Australia to be placed in foster care. For Georg, now known as George, life could not be more different as he is taken in by a kindly elderly couple living in country NSW. But tragedy strikes again, and this time Georg feels he can no longer keep silent about his true identity. Jackie French’s research and subsequent feeling for the era is superb (the descriptions of wartime Australia alone are fascinating). This is historical fiction at its best, and thoroughly recommended for upper primary children and beyond.

Hilary Adams is a bookseller and has written about the importance of historical fiction for children. This review first appeared in the Junior Term 1 supplement of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Kingdom and the Quarry: China, Australia, Fear and Greed (David Uren, Black Inc.)

Australia’s relationship with China is at the forefront of public discourse yet it is portrayed in wildly different ways. On the one hand China is the foundation of our prosperity and on the other it is a threat to our very way of life. David Uren shows how the actions and policies of our business and political leaders have swung between these polar opinions. It’s a complex relationship in which economic and strategic imperatives intertwine and often conflict, which is further complicated by our partnership with the US. Uren’s book traces the often rocky path of Sino-Australian relations and is full of insider detail, including what the Chinese really thought of Kevin Rudd’s language skills. The character sketches of Australian and Chinese politicians and business leaders are astute and sharply drawn. Uren shows that the biggest source of friction has been caused by mutual suspicion and distrust, and that this still threatens to derail the relationship. This is a fascinating book that is sure to get a lot of press. It will appeal to a broad audience but especially readers of quality Australian current affairs books, such as Peter Hartcher’s The Sweet Spot and David Marr’s Panic. Uren is a journalist for the Australian and author (with Lenore Taylor) of Shitstorm: Inside Labor’s Darkest Days.

Dave Martus is the manager of Dymocks Neutral Bay in Sydney. He has many years’ experience as a bookseller and buyer in Australia and the UK. This review first appeared in the April/May issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Daughters of Mars (Tom Keneally, Vintage)

A sprawling saga, The Daughters of Mars is based on journals kept by Australian nursing sisters who laboured in claustrophobic hospital ships, casualty clearing stations and hospitals in Europe during the First World War. Sisters Naomi and Sally Durrance have their own reasons for volunteering, as do many of their newfound nursing friends, but they are tested beyond endurance as they try to save lives and ameliorate suffering in challenging, often hopeless conditions. Yet it is in this unlikely setting that several of these courageous, resourceful women meet the remarkable men with whom they wish to spend the rest of their lives. Tom Keneally is at his powerful best when he is writing about the ships, the tent hospitals and the visionary Australian Voluntary Hospital. His descriptions— the arrival and treatment of hundreds of wounded at a time, of life and death decision-making, of medicine practised under impossible conditions, and of the inexhaustible compassion and drive of the doctors, nurses and orderlies—are moving and compelling. The book reaches another level of horror and suffering with the advent of gas warfare and this reader began to rebel against the detailed description of yet more ways to maim and kill young men. The phrase ‘strong editor’ came to mind. However, Keneally is a ‘heart on sleeve’ writer and the reader is carried along by his mix of humdrum rural life in peacetime, and excitement of what was idealistically seen as a short, sharp war in Europe. The sheer courage and tenacity of those caught up in the increasingly protracted struggle, and the friendships, romances, feuds and tragedies of his all-too-human cast, add layers to this complex, factually based novel.

Max Oliver is a veteran Australian bookseller. This review first appeared in the Bookseller+Publisher website in April 2012. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: My Hundred Lovers (Susan Johnson, A&U)

You may know of Susan Johnson for her brave memoir of motherhood, A Better Woman, or her novel about writer Charmian Clift, The Broken Book, among other titles. Her seventh novel, My Hundred Lovers, opens with a woman in middle age who is feeling overpowered by memories. Passages about her relationships and human connections are interspersed with vignettes recalling the joy of different sensory experiences. Amid passion, despair and humour, the fallible-yet-likeable Deborah provokes sympathy as she realises the untruth of romantic love. Johnson reminds us of the inherent sensuality of all kinds of experiences, from patting a dog to wearing a dress, taking a bath and eating gelati. Deborah’s erotic encounters do not dominate the plot, demonstrating there is much more to a sensual existence than sex, and much romance to be found in life. Expected to attract a mostly female audience, this rich and meaningful novel deserves a broad readership. It is easily readable and poetic; Johnson’s gift for language delights and some of her descriptions are to be savoured. With much of the novel set in France, it may also appeal to those with a penchant for the Gallic. I found My Hundred Lovers uplifting, due to its sumptuous language, and the mirror it shines on the beauty and intrinsic preciousness of life.

Joanne Shiells is a former retail book buyer and editor of Bookseller+Publisher. Read the interview with Susan Johnson here. This review first appeared in the April/May issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: The Remnants (John Hughes, UWA Publishing)

What a challenging novel this is. Readers familiar with the author, via his prize-winning collection of autobiographical essays, The Idea of Home (2005), will know that he never chooses the easy option as a writer. The Remnants’ starting point is a manuscript written by an Australian art historian and discovered after his death by his son. The historian claims to have discovered a series of lost paintings by Piero della Francesca in Arezzo—Tuscan Italy. The manuscript involves not only Renaissance Italy but post-Revolutionary Russia, due to the father’s relationship with Anna, an émigré who claims to have nursed the poet Osip Mandelstam in his final days. Other characters are also permitted their own voice, including Anna’s son Kolya, husband Sura and lover Evgeny. Interrupting the story’s flow are frequent commentaries by the art historian’s son as he strives to understand his father and make sense of the increasingly disparate series of events he discovers, and footnotes that, for me at least, were one complication too many in an already intricately constructed and beguiling tale. John Hughes requires his readers to concentrate, to retain several plotlines in their head, to recognise each change of voice, occasionally identified only by an initial and to remain focussed on the book. The rewards are certainly there for those who persevere.

Max Oliver has just completed his 55th year in the book trade. This review first appeared in the April/May issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.