BOOK REVIEW: This House of Grief (Helen Garner, Text)

house of griefOn the evening of Father’s Day 2005, Robert Farquharson was driving his three children home to their mother—from whom he was separated—when his car left the road, travelled through a fence and paddock and into an unusually deep dam. Farquarson escaped the car but the three boys, Jai, Tyler and Bailey, drowned.

Helen Garner saw the search and recovery operation on the television news and This House of Grief documents the court cases that followed, in which Farquharson was tried for his sons’ deaths.

Garner has followed a murder trial before. Joe Cinque’s Consolation (Picador) followed the trial of a Canberra woman charged with killing her boyfriend Joe Cinque. As in the former book, Garner’s portraits of the witnesses, lawyers and judges in This House of Grief evidence her skills of observation and communication. Garner does not miss telling details, and she has quiet, always original ways of relaying them. These abilities, combined with her trademark honesty, make any of her works a must-read. Like Joe Cinque’s Consolation and the award-winning novel The Spare Room, This House of Grief is a book that could only have been written by someone who has dedicated their life to human observation.

But there are problems here, too. In writing Joe Cinque’s Consolation Garner developed a close relationship with Cinque’s mother. It meant that beside the descriptions of the courtroom and the way its protocols misshape human emotion and narrative, she could document the Cinques’ heartbreak as it played out at their kitchen table. More importantly, it enabled her to resurrect Cinque for her readers. He was present in a way victims rarely are.

In This House of Grief, despite Garner’s efforts, there is no counterpart to Maria Cinque. She meets Jai, Tyler and Bailey’s maternal grandparents several times outside the courthouse, but their discussion is polite and public. No-one in the family wants to talk to her in depth. So we are left with Garner’s observation of the trial, retrial and appeal: her bewilderment at the barrage of dry facts, devastation at the raw grief of the boys’ mother Cindy Gambino, and her documentation of the awkward tug-of-war between instinct and intellect that all jury trials involve.

Strangely, despite Garner’s obvious skills in rendering her subjects for the reader, I also found I could not quite grasp Farquharson himself. Garner builds her own narrative for Farquharson’s actions—one that is backed by evidence discussed in court but ruled inadmissible. It is plausible, but sometimes descriptions of Farquharson’s words or behaviour would be followed by a reaction from Garner that she somehow failed to also provoke in me. I found myself inferring his impression on the courtroom and jury from these reactions, rather than the descriptions of him that preceded them.

These are minor criticisms, however, and stem perhaps from my unease at reading about such tragedy without the moral cover that participation from the victims’ family might provide. Maybe Garner had to reason with the same unease. It is both fitting and telling that she ends the book with a moving defence of her own grief at the boys’ deaths. Her grief is also the reader’s.

Matthia Dempsey is news editor of Books+Publishing. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Break (Deb Fitzpatrick, Fremantle Press)

TheBreakThe Break is the first adult novel from West Australian author Deb Fitzpatrick, whose young-adult titles include 90 Packets of Instant Noodles and Have you Seen Ally Queen? It centres around two families—Rosie and Cray, the young sea-change couple from Fremantle, and Liza and Ferg, the Blue Gum farmers. The families’ lives intermingle in the picturesque setting of Margaret River: first, through their opposition to an encroaching development, and then due to another, more tragic circumstance, based on a real-life event. The story is set in the 1990s, a refreshing touch as technology does not take a front seat, and Fitzpatrick’s love and knowledge of her home state is evident. Her prose is fluid and evocative and the use of excerpts from Robert Drewe’s The Drowner works well. The chapters are short and their choppiness is much like the sea, which is almost another character in the novel. The Break will resonate with fans of Tim Winton, as Fitzpatrick writes about the natural environment with similar texture and intensity. 

Katie Haydon is a former assistant editor of Books+Publishing and a freelance reviewer. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: How to Save the Universe in Ten Easy Steps (Allison Rushby, A&U)

how to save the universeIf Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a 10-year-old boy with an annoying twin sister, then this might be his story. Connor discovers his grouchy twin sister is actually an alien the day before his 10th birthday party. She has been protecting him for the past 10 years because it’s his role to save the universe. But now, intergalactic bounty hunters have discovered his location and are coming to kill him. Naturally, Connor thinks this is all a big joke and he’s being filmed for reality TV, but when events start getting extremely weird, the alien truth becomes hard to ignore. Despite having no discernible talents, apart from knowing the exact time down to the millisecond, Connor must somehow save the world even though he has absolutely no idea how. Throw in a talking dog, some giant slugs and numerous other aliens, and you’ve got a somewhat complicated but quite hilarious intergalactic adventure. Boys and girls aged eight to 10 who like a bit of fantasy with their humour will enjoy this fun romp through space. Despite much strangeness and absurdity, it has a sweet and satisfying charm that will appeal to young fans of Neil Gaiman and Eoin Colfer.

Angela Crocombe is a children’s book specialist at Readings St Kilda. This review first appeared in the Junior Term 3, 2014 supplement of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: One Minute’s Silence (David Metzenthen, illus by Michael Camilleri, A&U)

one minute s silenceThis year marks the centenary of World War I, so we can expect to see a number of new titles commemorating this event from different perspectives. One Minute’s Silence concerns Remembrance Day as it relates to the Anzac soldiers who fought at Gallipoli, but it also asks readers to consider the young Turkish soldiers who fought bravely to defend their land. The title page shows a teacher in front of a blackboard looking up at a clock as the hands reach 11am, and the opening double-page spread shows a class of high school students looking bored. Thereafter, the narrator asks readers to imagine what it was like for the ‘twelve-thousand wild colonial’ boys as they landed on the shores of this strange, hostile land, and then to imagine the Turkish soldiers ‘from distant villages, hearts hammering’ as they stood in trenches ready to fire. Were they so different after all? The text in this book is minimal but searching, and the illustrations are outstanding. This is an ideal book for upper-primary to secondary school students, to discuss a time when people much like themselves faced terrible dilemmas.

Hilary Adams works in a specialist children’s bookshop in Sydney. This review first appeared in the Junior Term 2, 2014 supplement of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Deeper Water (Jessie Cole, Fourth Estate)

Deeper WaterThe premise of Jessie Cole’s second novel is reminiscent of her acclaimed debut novel Darkness on the Edge of Town: a car accident brings a stranger into the lives of a family living on the outskirts of a small rural community. This is no bad thing, as Cole’s first novel was brilliant, absorbing and haunting. Deeper Water is told entirely through the eyes of Mema, a sheltered young woman who comes across the slightly older and intriguing Hamish during a storm. His intrusion into her world—which includes a bereaved sister, fierce mother and disturbed best friend—propels Mema towards an awakening that forces her to consider her place in the world beyond the security of the farm. Cole creates vivid scenes of lush farmland and teases out interesting and rich characters with an impressive economy of language. Mema manages to be somewhat naïve and a social outsider but also observant and engaging. Glimpses of black humour and social commentary—a conversation about the value of email, for instance—are cleverly injected into the narrative. There is a sense of foreboding around Mema’s unpredictable best friend Anja, a slow burn towards catastrophe, which also echoes the mounting tension of Darkness on the Edge of Town. Jessie Cole is an impressive writer and Deeper Water is another fine and elegantly written novel.

Portia Lindsay is a former bookseller who now works at the NSW Writers’ Centre. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in May 2014.View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Warning: The Story of Cyclone Tracy (Sophie Cunningham, Text)

Warning The Story of Cyclone TracySophie Cunningham has a novelist’s eye for action and ear for dialogue, and she brings both to the story of Darwin’s devastation by Cyclone Tracy. Cunningham draws on a range of intimate sources, including oral testimonies, interviews, diaries, family histories and newspapers, seeking out Darwinians’ first-hand experiences of the 1974 cyclone and using these individual stories to frame the large-scale destruction. She speaks to scientists and authorities, but the most compelling testimonies come from locals who found themselves in the cyclone’s path. These people share the awe and terror the storm’s apocalyptic force provoked. Warning is accessible reading, its compelling narrative informed by scientific fact but not overly bogged down by complex detail. Cunningham views the interaction of humans and natural disasters through the lens of climate change, showing that we are only now beginning to comprehend the damage humans have wrought on the planet. A work of contemporary historical analysis, Warning sits alongside evocative narrative nonfiction such as Anna Krien’s Into the Woods, though Cunningham’s presence in the story is less pronounced. As in her previous nonfiction book, Melbourne, the telling of significant historical events is deeply grounded in human experience, and small details convey the story of Cyclone Tracy with visceral power.

Veronica Sullivan is a bookseller and deputy online editor of Kill Your Darlings. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in June 2014.

BOOK REVIEW: Lucas and Jack (Ellie Royce & Andrew McLean, Working Title Press)

Lucas and JackEvery week Lucas and his mum visit Great Grandpop in the nursing home, and every week Lucas waits outside getting grumpy and bored. One week, while he is waiting, Lucas meets another occupant called Jack, and with Jack’s encouragement he comes to see the exciting, vibrant people that the nursing home residents used to be. And still are! Jack’s ‘tricks’ help Lucas to understand his great-grandfather and appreciate him for the person he is. Lucas and Jack is a tale of discovery and love, gently told and beautifully illustrated. Its colourful, evocative illustrations and thoughtful narration make the story accessible to a wide range of readers aged from four years. Lucas and Jack is the kind of book that should be on all family bookshelves, with its message that we should remember our elders for who they are, what they have achieved and the amazing lives they have led, rather than seeing only their frailty.

Natalie Crawford is a children’s book specialist at Dymocks Claremont.This review first appeared in the Junior Term 2, 2014 supplement of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir (Olivera Simić, Spinifex)

Surviving PeaceLaw academic Olivera Simić has penned this absorbing yet troubling account of the effects of the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. She writes of the life journey that has taken her from Bosnia to exile in Serbia, to the US, Costa Rica and Brisbane, in a narrative voice that is likeable and reasoned. Do not expect a retelling of war experiences; instead Simić gives an intellectual consideration to issues surrounding war, its atrocities, and more specifically, the hardships encountered in living after the war. What happens after the violence has ended and economies are broken, when people have been removed from their homelands, when there are no jobs? What happens when your cultural identity comes from a nation that no longer exists? Are you entitled to talk on the war if you have not suffered as much as others? These are just some of the issues covered. Peppered with quotes from diverse sources, this volume unusually combines academic-type discussion with personal reflections. It also gives a first-hand account of post-traumatic stress. Surviving Peace provides greater understanding of the Balkan Wars to those who don’t know much about the Bosniak, Serb and Croatian ethnicities, and some possible new perspectives to those who do. It makes a valuable contribution to ensuring we don’t forget the horrors and enduring impact of war.

Joanne Shiells is a former editor of Books+Publishing. This review first appeared in Books+Publishing magazine Issue 2, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: My Dog Doesn’t Like Me (Elizabeth Fensham, UQP)

My Dog Doesn't Like MeMy Dog Doesn’t Like Me is an endearing tale of a young boy named Eric and his new puppy Ugly. Since coming into Eric’s home, Ugly has caused no end of trouble and, in spite of his efforts, he is showing no signs of improvement. Finally, Mum and Dad issue an ultimatum: Eric must train Ugly properly or he’ll be re-homed. With the help of his school friends and Grandpa’s friend Maggie, Eric embarks on a plan to make sure Ugly is allowed to stay for good. Elizabeth Fensham has written this story from Eric’s perspective, offering an intimate view of everyday family life. With its gentleness and humour, My Dog Doesn’t Like Me will appeal to children aged seven years and above who have felt overwhelmed or burdened by the task of caring for their pet. It’s refreshing to read a book that shows the pressure children can feel to be grown up, as well as the great sense of achievement they can gain from taking on responsibilities.

Natalie Crawford is a children’s book specialist at Dymocks Claremont. This review first appeared in the Junior Term 2, 2014 supplement of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

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.