BOOK REVIEW: The Rattler and Other Stories (AS Patrić, Spineless Wonders)

Spineless Wonders is a new, Northern Territory-based small publisher, specialising in short fiction. It is heartening to see a publisher championing shortstory collections, especially quality ones such as The Rattler, the debut collection by Melbourne writer (and bookseller) A S Patrić. These stories range from narrative experiments such as the chilling ‘B O M B S’, an oblique look at terrorism, to more playful pieces such as ‘Ducks’, which imagines Anais Nin and June Miller living out their autumn years in Elwood. Regardless of mood or technique, the stories are highly poetic, both in terms of their rhythmic use of language and the way in which they show quotidian objects and landscapes—Melbourne suburbia in particular—in a strange, often unsettling, new light. The only real exception is the title story, which lacks the assurance and edginess of the shorter pieces. Its central character Atticus quits his job as a tram driver in order to devote himself to writing about his tram-driving experiences. The experiences themselves, rather than Atticus’ struggles to document them, might have been more interesting to read about. But there are enough gems among the other 17 stories to impress any short-fiction enthusiast seeking a fresh and vibrant new voice.

David Cohen is a Brisbane-based writer and former bookseller. This review first appeared in the November 2011 issue of Bookseller+Publisher, which is available online here. (Spineless Wonders is now based in Sydney.)

BOOK REVIEW: Cold Light (Frank Moorhouse, Vintage)

In the final volume of Frank Moorhouse’s ‘Edith Trilogy’, former League of Nations officer Edith Campbell Berry has fallen on hard times: Canberra in the 1950s. As a married woman—albeit an unconventional marriage to her longtime companion, British diplomat and ‘nancy boy’ Ambrose Westwood—she finds it difficult to break into conservative Australian politics. While life in postwar Canberra may lack the glamour of Geneva in the interwar years (the setting of the first two books Grand Days and Dark Palace), beneath the surface it is far from dull: communism, nuclear weapons proliferation and a town-planning conference are just some of the issues demanding Edith’s attention. In Cold Light, Moorhouse adds further layers to his complex character. Edith is older, she has suffered disappointment and is searching for direction. Happily, however, she still knows how to have fun, and it was wonderful to spend time with the ‘old Edith’ in this book: the witty Edith, who excels in verbal sparring, sometimes in Latin; the sexy Edith, who enjoys under-the-table hanky-panky at a dinner party at the Lodge; and the slightly eccentric Edith, whose first task in landing a public service position is to redecorate her office. This is an intelligent, insightful, funny, sexy and sometimes sad conclusion to a wonderful trilogy.

Andrea Hanke is editor of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. This review first appeared in the November 2011 issue of the magazine, available online here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Sweet Spot (Peter Hartcher, Black Inc.)

Peter Hartcher’s new book is a 21st-century reply to Donald Horne’s classic The Lucky Country. Hartcher argues that while Australia enjoys unprecedented prosperity, security and freedom, this has very little to do with luck. Rather, what transformed Australia from the world’s biggest prison into one of the most desirable countries in which to live was courageous and prudent governance. Hartcher cites the economic reforms started by Hawke and Keating and continued by Howard and Costello, which set up Australia as a social and economic model for the rest of the world, and helped the Rudd government to steer Australia through the financial crisis. Yet despite their success, Howard and Rudd lost their jobs with little thought given to their sound economic management, and Gillard and Abbot’s embrace of populism could bring this ‘Australian Model’ undone, suggests Hartcher. This is another cracking book from publisher Black Inc., which will appeal to readers of Hugh McKay and Bob Ellis. Hartcher, a well-known journalist and political and international editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, should attract plenty of reviews and media coverage. This should be a big seller in nonfiction this Christmas.

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 November 2011 issue of Bookseller+Publisher, available online here. 

BOOK REVIEW: Griffith Review 34: Third Annual Fiction Edition (ed by Julianne Schultz, Text)

With this third annual edition of short fiction and memoir, The Griffith Review shows why it is has become one of the leading literary journals in Australia. Not only is the collection of work displayed here diverse and entertaining, showing as it does the work of emerging and established writers, but its commitment to the printed short story is laudable at a time when literary journals are feeling the lure of the online world as a way of reducing costs and reviving shrinking readership bases.

Of course, for readers, any collection of this sort will be a little uneven, but there are certainly enough strong stories here to engage readers fully and in often complex ways. After reading them all, what lingers is a sense of courage. These stories aren’t afraid to be both personal (sometimes revealingly so) and political in the sense that they often have connections with current events: the things that concern us now.

Overall, the stories manage to weave things like the expatriate experience, the environment, fears of terrorism, drugs, crime, age, gender and Indigeneity into often subtle and entertaining stories that don’t suppress the needs of good narrative storytelling to their central concerns.

Of note is Jane Williams haunting ‘A Matter of Instinct’, in which a woman who has separated from her family occupies an old house on a remote island to try to ‘live alone’. Soon she finds herself the subject of torment from a recently divorced but well-meaning neighbour. The tension of this woman alone being harassed becomes quite chilling as we realise that new beginnings bring with them both terror and grief.

Cory Taylor’s ‘Continental Drift’ is also a fine piece of work, dealing with that typically Australian feeling that ‘life is elsewhere’ . Here the young girl at the heart of the story finds herself constantly drawn overseas in search of ’being someone’. It is a story told with a deft touch and leaves one with a deep sense of sadness.

There are stories that don’t deal with Australia. Probably my favourite of the whole collection, Nicolas Low’s ‘Octopus’ , is set in New Zealand and cleverly combines Maori culture with fears of terrorism, fears of the outsider, and fears of an ancient, apocalyptic understanding. The collection also includes a handful of compelling memoirs, but it is the stories at once comfortable and thought-provoking, edgy and familiar, that will draw the reader through its pages.

Shane Strange is an ex-bookseller and writer who teaches writing at the University of Canberra. This review first appeared in the November 2011 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine, available online here

The November issue!

Well, the stylish November issue is in the house. As well as the usual reviews and news, it’s got interviews with author and bookseller A S Patric, whose short story collection The Rattler is published by Spineless Wonders in November, Brian Falkner who has a new YA series kicking off in November with Recon Team Angel: Assault (Walker Books), Frank Moorhouse, whose ‘Edith Trilogy’ wraps up with Cold Light (Random House, November) and, of course, Ray Martin, whose new book Ray Martin’s Favourites (Victory, November) contains the stories behind some of his favourite interviews.

In the same issue, Eloise Keating looks at changes to sales repping and Andrea Hanke investigates the finer details of digital rights. We report on the Melbourne and Brisbane writers’ festivals, Reuben Crossman reflects on the international book design awards and Kate Cuthbert interviews two digital advocates working in romance publishing.

The October issue!: Reviewers’ top picks

Did we mention the October issue of the magazine hit our desks a couple of weeks ago? Here are the reviewers’ top picks from the reviews this time around:

Foal’s Bread (Gillian Mears, A&U, November)

‘ Mears is up there with Tim Winton and Kate Grenville,’ writes Fairfield Book’s Heather Dyer in her review of Foal’s Bread, Mear’s first novel in 16 years. The novel tells the story of two generations of the Nancarrow family, set in the horse-jumping circuit in rural NSW prior to WWII. ‘The relationships between the characters in Foal’s Bread are rich and varied, and Mears rarely takes the obvious route as she explores emotions of love, jealousy, frustration and disappointment … Foal’s Bread is a book to be read slowly and savoured.’

Forecast: Turbulence (Janette Turner Hospital, Fourth Estate, November)

‘Janette Turner Hospital’s anthology of stories gathers together a striking array of disturbed and disturbing characters—the forthright daughter of a cult leader, a young woman facing her father for the first time in years, the devastated parents of an abducted youth, and two young girls who bond though self-harm,’ writers reviewer Portia Lindsay. ‘Turner Hospital’s writing is both sharp and intimate. She doesn’t shy away from brutality, and in this—and the theme of individuals struggling among forces much larger than themselves—it contains similarities to Due Preparations for the Plague.’

Silence (Rodney Hall, Pier 9, November)

Silence should be approached with senses attuned to the sounds, images and emotions that are evoked so vividly by this master storyteller,’ writes reviewer Toni Whitmont of Rodney Hall’s short story collection. ‘The stories cover several continents and ages. They are told from the points of view of rulers and minions, victors and vanquished, and even, occasionally, animals (well, a dreaming bird) … I came to this book unprepared, and I was completely overwhelmed by the tapestry of its imagery and the echoes of its stillness.’

HipsterMattic: One Man’s Quest to become the Ultimate Hipster (Matt Granfield, A&U, November)

Dumped by his hipster girlfriend, Matt Granfield ‘decided to turn himself into The Ultimate Hipster … embarking on a series of sure-fire markers of Ultimate Hipness: getting a tattoo, starting a band, acquiring a fixed-gear bicycle, learning how to knit, selling organic cupcakes and scrabble jewellery at a market in a laneway, and so on,’ writes reviewer Hannah Francis. ‘While this sounds like a potentially annoying premise, Granfield writes with a light-hearted humour that is refreshing and at times laugh-out-loud funny.’

Tony Robinson’s History of Australia (Tony Robinson, Viking, November)

This book ‘is a companion book to the TV series Tony Robertson Explores Australia, which aired on the History Channel earlier this year,’ writes reviewer Jessica Broadbent. ‘As always, Robinson pokes just the right amount of fun. He unearths some interesting events from the history books, including some that may come as a surprise to many locals. For example, who knew there was a Founding Orgy? … He also covers more recent events such as the apology to the Stolen Generations, and takes a stroll with the award-winning author Anh Do.’

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BOOK REVIEW: Interferon Psalms (Luke Davies, A&U)

Taking its inspiration from the Book of Psalms, which arguably (with Song of Songs) is the part of the Old Testament that comes closest to pure poetry, Interferon Psalms is a striking mix of ancient and modern, as indeed the title itself suggests (interferon is a protein used to treat cancer). In a feat of no mean technical achievement, Luke Davies co-opts the heightened, declamatory language of the psalms (‘O I came upon such emptiness/& it never stopped’) to deliver a sustained and dramatic modern monologue about love lost and experience gained. In 33 poems of varied length and intensity, Davies has his narrator relate both a physical and spiritual journey of recovery and discovery that is triggered by the end of a relationship. Despite the occasional use of bathos, the overall effect is deliberately epic. This is a book of big themes, encompassing musings on God, life, the universe and everything, if you will. Given this, the choice of an archaic language and form is entirely appropriate and at times quite moving. In keeping with its epic scale too is the energy of the language, which sometimes overwhelms with its noise, sudden changes of direction and mixed metaphors. It is as if Davies’ narrator is literally struggling to find the language capable of conveying the depth of his experiences. This is a maelstrom of a work.

Andrew Wilkins is director of independent press Wilkins Farago and a former publisher of Bookseller+Publisher. This review first appeared in the August issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow Girl (John Larkin, Woolshed Press)

This young-adult novel really packs an emotional punch. The Shadow Girl is the dramatic story of a girl trying to escape her horrendous family situation: she lives through years of homelessness, trying to keep herself safe and find schools to attend, all the while outrunning an uncle who wants to kill her. But despite the drama, this is both a realistic and insightful book, and the lessons she learns and the people who help her along the way really make the reader think. The structure is also compelling: the story is told through the eyes of the protagonist, but is also revealed in her meetings with an author who is taking down her story for publication. John Larkin is a talented writer who knows exactly how to manipulate his audience and leave them on the edge of their seat. This young adult novel draws on elements of thrillers and mysteries, but in essence, it is something more: an evocation of life lived at rock bottom and the resilience it takes to clamber back into the light. It can be quite violent and graphic at times, so I would recommend this book to mature readers aged 15 and up.

Kate Sunners is a bookseller at Riverbend Books. This review first appeared in the July issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. Sign up for the free fortnightly Bookseller+Publisher Newsletter here.

BOOK REVIEW: For All Creatures (Glenda Millard, illus by Rebecca Cool, Walker Books)

This second collaboration from the creators of the award-winning picture book Isabella’s Garden is a winner in my book. It reads like a prayer of thankfulness, straight from the pages of Glenda Millard’s award-winning ‘Kingdom of Silk’ books, with her trademark lyrical language drawing the reader in with its rhythm and alliteration. The book pays homage to all creatures great and small, to love and life, to kindness and gentleness and to the marvel of being alive. The language is imbued with tenderness and warmth. It is varied, evocative and thought-provoking, yet playful and imaginative. It doesn’t shy away from complex words like metamorphosis or new phrases like ‘haughtiness and humpiness’ and ‘scribbled silver secrets’. Rebecca Cool’s mixed-media illustrations are superb: dramatic and varied. The rich colours leap from the page as a procession of animals stride through the book. Every double-page spread is a surprise and a wonder that will enthrall young readers, whether they are reading independently or listening and sharing with an adult. In this fast-paced world it is the kind of book that will slow us down in order to savour the language and enjoy the illustrations again and again.

Margaret Hamilton is a former children’s book publisher and now runs Pinerolo, the Children’s Book Cottage in Blackheath. This review first appeared in the July issue of Bookseller+Publisher. Sign up for the free monthly Junior Bookseller+Publisher Newsletter here, for news about Australian and New Zealand children’s books.

BOOK REVIEW: RPM (Noel Mengel, UQP)

It’s 1984 in a small silo town in Queensland, and 19-year-old Neil Gentle is part of a mismatched group of dreamers and cultural outcasts: JD the DJ; Stephen the Modernist; Phil the Hipster; Peaches who hates machines and Kennychan who lives for them; Meg, Neil’s friend from childhood; and Charley, the first girl he could talk to about the Beatles, along with others. Neil’s been drifting since high school ended, rock’n’roll dreams fraying at the edges, but 1984 is the year of change. What connects the characters is their shared obsession with music, and the same thing holds the book together. The musical references are eclectic and wide-ranging, dipping in and out of eras, genres and movements, and the serious enthusiasm for all is joyously infectious. This is a book with heart, delicate characterisation and a striking sense of place: the small-town world with its wide open spaces and narrow minds, and the vibrant music aficionados scene that springs up around the record store RPM come together in a way that is both idealised and deeply honest. It will appeal particularly to anybody who has been part of a music scene or wished they could have been.

Jarrah Moore is an editorial assistant at Cengage Learning. This review originally appeared in the July issue of Bookseller+Publisher. Sign up for the free fortnightly Bookseller+Publisher Newsletter here.