BOOK REVIEW: Spurt: A Balls and All Story (Christopher Miles, Hardie Grant Egmont)

spurtAs Year Eight draws to an end, Jack Sprigley is feeling left behind in the physical development department by his classmates, and just plain left behind by his friends. The street cred he gained from starring in a reality TV show two years earlier has run thin, almost entirely forgotten except by three Year Seven students who, like Macbeth’s witches, seem to predict and influence Jack’s destiny. When the chance to star in a where-are-they-now TV special presents itself, Jack sees an opportunity to ‘fake it till he makes it’, but with one false step his lack of development could be broadcast to a national audience. An over-achieving TV producer encourages Jack in his lies and deceptions, but it soon becomes apparent to his friends and family that Jack is changing in all the wrong ways. Spurt is a refreshing take on body image, acceptance and the need to fit in. The novel’s moments of profundity are subtle yet powerful, and masterfully balanced with humour. This book would sit nicely on the shelves of readers aged 12 to 15 who have outgrown Andy Griffiths, perhaps alongside Morris Gleitzman’s novels—although Spurt is appealingly naughtier.

James Paull is a bookseller for Gleebooks in Blackheath. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in April 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Claustrophobia (Tracy Ryan, Transit Lounge)

ClaustrophobiaPen Barber has an unremarkable life in the Western Australian suburbs. Her relationship with her husband Derek is not bad, but it has become bland and formulaic. The familiar routine of her life is disturbed when she finds an old letter from Derek’s university days. What she reads in it casts doubt on everything she believed to be true about her husband and her marriage, and so she sets out to unravel what she believes to be the untold truth of his past. Convinced that the answer lies with one of Derek’s ex-lovers, Pen decides to stalk her. In the process she finds out things about herself that she could not have imagined, and becomes trapped in a web of her own lies and deception. This is a short, tightly written book and an intense exploration of obsession and introspection. Pen’s internal monologue is compelling and intimate. The story also has a stunning finale that readers will be turning over in their heads hours after they have finished it. I would recommend Claustrophobia to readers of Jodi Picoult, Patricia Highsmith and Gillian Flynn, though it is more subtle than Gone Girl. If you have book club customers, you should tell them about this one too. It is a little book that will start big conversations.

Stefen Brazulaitis is the owner of Stefen’s Books in Perth. This review first appeared in Issue 2, 2014 of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Poppy Cat (Sara Acton, Scholastic)

PCBCA Award-winning author and illustrator Sara Acton’s work is recognisable for its elegant watercolour palette and loose lines. In her latest book Poppy Cat, Acton creates a warm atmosphere in her tale of the relationship between a girl and her cat. Simply and engagingly, Acton shows some of the girl’s daily difficulties, which are common to most children who are becoming independent, such as getting dressed, tying shoelaces and pouring milk. The major accomplishment of the story is its parallel between the girl and the cat—while they spend much of their time together, they both need time apart. The book’s plentiful white space echoes this theme. The story culminates in a satisfying cuddle on the sofa. Traces of humour make Poppy Cat a book that children aged three to five years will appreciate even more with multiple readings.

Joy Lawn is a freelance reviewer who has worked for independent bookshops in NSW and QLD. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in April 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Funemployed (Justin Heazlewood, Affirm Press)

FunemployedSinger-songwriter, comedian and writer Justin Heazlewood—AKA The Bedroom Philosopher—has written a hybrid memoir-guidebook for anyone interested in working in the creative arts in Australia. Funemployed recounts Heazlewood’s career of highlights and missteps, backed up with extensive interviews with local artists. It doesn’t encourage artists not to have a go, it just reminds them to temper their expectations. Heazlewood writes openly about the mistakes he’s made and his crippling fears and doubts. He tenderly recounts his childhood and the stages of his music career, his early success on Triple J radio, the mounting debts, and a peaceful equilibrium he could only find after a lot of painful lessons. Interspersed with Heazlewood’s own story are the voices of more than 100 local artists. The average annual creative income for an artist is $7000—how do they survive? They discuss which jobs support a creative life, give tips for applying for funding grants and warn about the occupational hazards. Funemployed is a great gift for someone graduating, just beginning, or considering a university arts degree. While they might have heard the same message before from their parents, career counsellors and teachers, a fledgling artist is much more likely listen to someone like Heazlewood, who can speak without pretension about the lessons he learnt scraping his way through the Australian arts scene.

Brad Jefferies is the publishing assistant for Books+Publishing. This review first appeared in Issue 2, 2014 of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Shy: A Memoir (Sian Prior, Text)

shyJournalist and former ABC broadcaster Sian Prior has been writing opinion pieces on the topic of shyness for many years. Her memoir Shy crystallises her years of analysis into a fascinating meditation on how temperament can shape a person’s life. Expanded from her 2009 Meanjin essay on the same topic, Prior’s memoir delves deeper into the psychology behind timidness. Combining interviews with experts in the field and reflections on Prior’s own fluctuating battles with shyness in her childhood and adult life, Shy functions as both great memoir and self-help. It’s inevitable that one of the most-talked-about elements of Shy will be Sian’s brief excursions into the breakdown of her long-term relationship with popular musician Paul Kelly (Kelly is never explicitly named, but enough clues are given). Ultimately, the book isn’t about him, it’s about her, and every other person to have ever felt crippled by social anxiety. Shy could be viewed as a more intimate companion piece to US author Susan Cain’s 2012 international bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Won’t Stop Talking. Shy is further proof there’s quite a lot to say about being quiet.

Emily Laidlaw is the online editor at Kill Your Darlings. This review first appeared in Issue 2, 2014 of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: One Sunday (Pamela Allen, Viking)

9780670077656Such is the enduring quality of Pamela Allen’s work that, to this day, whenever my bathtub overspills, I picture Mr Archimedes jumping in and out of his animal-filled tub—like many others who have grown up with Allen’s books over the past thirty-odd years, I suspect. Her latest offering, about an elderly couple and their Sunday roast ritual, follows the gentler, more contemplative tone of recent worksThe Little Old Man Who Looked Up at the Moon and The Toymaker and the Bird. One Sunday, amid a raging storm, an old man calms his fretting wife: it’s Sunday and, no matter what, they will have roast lunch and visitors. And so they set about cooking their meal, until a surprise guest arrives. Very young readers might not grasp this book’s underlying sense of nostalgic longing and loss, but this tale of generosity, hospitality and hope—and the importance of keeping traditions alive—is accessible for readers aged from three years. Allen’s simple yet effective text builds tension, and conveys expectation and surprise in a way that’s ideal for reading out loud. It’s the illustrations, however, that truly captivate here. Surely some of Allen’s best, they capture her characters with empathy, intimacy and warmth.

Meredith Lewin is a Sydney-based freelance reviewer, editor and proofreader. This review first appeared in the Junior Term 2, 2014 supplement of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Arthur Phillip: Sailor, Mercenary, Governor, Spy (Michael Pembroke, Hardie Grant)

arthur phillipArthur Phillip is best known to Australians as the first governor of New South Wales, a post he held for five years. History records him as progressive, inspired by Enlightenment thinking and holding a liberal attitude towards the Indigenous people he first encountered, the Eora people. In this elegant and finely written biography, judge and naturalist Michael Pembroke explores this central figure of Australian history in a much wider context. Arthur Phillip is both a portrait of the man and the times in which he was a key player. The second half of the 18th century, when Phillip’s naval career was in the ascendency, was a time of British economic expansion and good times, facilitated by imperial conquest and war. As a loyal British subject, Phillip engaged in and supported the many European wars fought by England. He also worked as a government spy, surveilling French activities. The final picture that emerges of Phillip is of a patriotic, brave soldier, but also a sensitive, thoughtful, even philosophic 18th-century man. Pembroke has written a superb biography and a carefully reconstructed life and times.

Chris Saliba is co-owner of North Melbourne Books. This review first appeared in Issue 2, 2014 of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEWS: St Kilda Blues (Geoffrey McGeachin, Viking)

st kilda bluesFrom the winner of the Ned Kelly Awards in 2011 and 2013 for best crime fiction comes the third Charlie Berlin novel by Geoffrey McGeachin. Set in Melbourne against a backdrop of the swinging 60s resplendent with patchouli oil, peasant blouses and suede boots, detective Sergeant Charlie Berlin has been brought back out of exile after the disappearance of a teenage girl, the daughter of an influential and politically linked property developer. As Berlin digs deeper, more missing girls are uncovered. Berlin and his colleague Roberts are soon led into the underbelly of Melbourne: through the coffee houses, discotheques and photography studios all rife with drugs and nefarious characters with something to hide. As the investigation continues, Berlin is haunted by his own painful memories of being a POW in Europe during World War II and the murder of a young woman in Poland. As his past and present collide, Berlin faces some of the toughest questions of his career. From Kodak film rolls to foil-capped milk bottles, McGeachin has created a pitch-perfect sense of Melbourne in the 1960s. This is a terrific read with great plot twists, complex characters and a menacing atmosphere.

Sarina Gale is a freelance writer and bookseller at the Sun Bookshop in Yarraville. This review first appeared in Issue 2, 2014 of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law (Michaela McGuire, MUP)

last betsMichaela McGuire was an uninspired writer spending time overseas when she came across the death of Crown Casino patron Anthony Dunning in the news. Fascinated by the alleged role of the casino’s bouncers and the responsibility of the casino, she began to follow the court case and think about gambling more generally. The result is Last Bets, a thoroughly researched but quite intimate account of a complicated social issue. McGuire writes in a personal way; she lays bare her process in a method reminiscent of Jeff Sparrow’s excellent study of the porn industry Money Shot. Last Bets is about gambling but it is also a compelling study of an entire court case. McGuire follows the trial of the Crown Casino bouncers, describing intricately the atmosphere of the courtroom: the procedures, the witness testimonies, the lawyers’ squabbles, her own doubts and responses—even the gossip of the work experience kids—as the trial unfolds. Interspersed with the trial are McGuire’s interviews with others involved with gambling, from an addicted family member to the Crown Casino chaplain. Most interesting is gambling syndicate member and MONA founder David Walsh. McGuire provides insight into issues surrounding gambling, the law, and her own experiences in casinos. Last Bets is a thoughtful and enjoyable book.

Portia Lindsay is a former bookseller who now works at the NSW Writers’ Centre

BOOK REVIEW: Gazing at the Stars: Memories of a Child Survivor (Eva Slonim, Black Inc.)

Gazing-at-the-Stars-(print)Eva Slonim was a 13-year-old girl when Nazis invaded her home in Bratislava in 1939 and tore apart her happy family and her life. Now, at the age of 83, Slonim looks back at her time in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp with unadorned and startling honesty. While at Auschwitz, Eva and her younger sister Marta were part of Dr Josef Mengele’s brutal medical experiments and survived on little more than weak coffee and scraps of bread. Once liberated from the camp, they walked alone and hungry in search of their much-loved parents. While Slonim’s matter-of-fact voice makes Gazing at the Stars a brutal and difficult read, it is her determination to survive, to tell her story and to be reunited with her family—even while subject to torture, loneliness and starvation—that shines through in this book. This is an extraordinary memoir that is brimming with courage, hope and love in the face of evil. Slonim’s story stayed with me for days and is a must read for everyone.

Esther van Doornum is a freelance writer. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in February 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.