Skin Deep (Gary Kemble, Echo Publishing)

skin deepHarry Hendrick’s girlfriend has left him and his job as a journalist for the local paper is going nowhere. He awakes with the mother of all hangovers and a tattoo he doesn’t recall getting. He could write it off as a wild night but when the tattoos keep coming, accompanied by nightmares and memories that are not his own, he is compelled to find out what’s going on. In his search for the truth, Harry is thrust into a world of corrupt politicians, boat people, SAS missions in Afghanistan, murder, tattoo parlours, bikies, psychics and a mysterious woman. Set on the ‘mean streets’ of Brisbane, Gary Kemble’s debut novel is an imaginative, fast-paced page-turner that combines crime-writing with a delightful serving of the supernatural. Kemble’s other life as a journalist is evident in his writing and his convincingly realistic characters, while topical issues such as asylum seekers and shady politicians are handled deftly and credibly. Skin Deep is a fine debut for both Kemble and Echo Publishing, which offers more than a passing nod to John Birmingham and Stephen King. This novel will appeal to readers who devour crime, thrillers and speculative fiction.

Deborah Crabtree is a Melbourne-based writer and bookseller. This review first appeared in Books+Publishing magazine Issue 2, 2015. View more pre-publication reviews here.

The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine (Krissy Kneen, Text)

The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex MachineI have long been an admirer of the work of Brisbane writer Krissy Kneen, who I believe is one of Australia’s hidden literary gems. With each new book, I find myself hoping that readers will finally discover her quirky, sexy and incredibly beautiful writing. Her foray into literary fiction, Steeplechase, was sadly overlooked by many readers but remains a favourite of mine. Witty and seductive, sexy and funny, with just a hint of the surreal, The Adventures of Holly White and the Incredible Sex Machine is a book that I can see appealing to many readers new to her work. Holly White is young, beautiful, seductive—and abstinent! Engaged to the supposed ‘love of her life’, and with a promise ring on her finger, Holly spends most of her time hiding from her own burgeoning sexuality. But something is awakening within her, and it is not going to go away. Invited to join a book club with a difference, Holly discovers whole new ways to look at sex as she explores sex literature from the Marquis de Sade through to James Salter with her new friends. Holly White should appeal to those awoken to the possibilities of sex literature by the popularity of books such as Fifty Shades of Grey, but looking for something more sophisticated. Fans of Nicholson Baker and Angela Carter will be in heaven! A riotous romp through the imagination of one of Australia’s most accomplished sex writers.

Angie Andrewes is a bookseller and reviewer. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 1, 2015. View more pre-publication reviews here.

The Strays (Emily Bitto, Affirm Press)

straysFollowing Emily Bitto’s shortlisting for the 2013 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, The Strays became one of the most highly anticipated debuts of 2014—and it certainly lives up to the hype. It tells the story of Lily, a young girl wooed by a progressive group of artists living in 1930s Melbourne, in what was then a very conservative city. Together, their days are spent making and debating art, their nights a blur of parties and dangerous liaisons. It is only when Lily looks back as an adult that she can acknowledge the childish antics that tore apart their idyllic existence, and better understand the complex artists who changed her life irrevocably. You could lift out any sentence in The Strays and admire the sheer artistry of its melody and composition. What’s especially wonderful about Bitto’s literary novel is that the story never feels weighed down by the style. It’s an immensely pleasurable read that covers a wide canvas: art history, modernism, a young girl’s coming of age. It’s clear that Bitto is a hugely talented writer and destined for a promising career.

Emily Laidlaw is the online editor at Kill Your Darlings. The Strays is the winner of the 2015 Stella Prize for women’s writing. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 1, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

Motherhood & Creativity: The Divided Heart (ed by Rachel Power, Affirm Press)

motherhood and creativityIn 2008, Melbourne-based freelance writer and editor Rachel Power released The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood, a collection of interviews with Australian artists, writers and actors juggling the competing demands of raising children and pursuing a career. Despite its impressive list of interviewees, including Rachel Griffiths, Nikki Gemmell and Alice Garner, the book fell out of print. Affirm Press has given Power’s anthology a second life with a new foreword, nine new interviews and a selection of interviews from the first edition. As its new title suggests, the book is heavily slanted towards the arts, and is therefore likely to be appreciated best by mothers who work for, or have a particular interest in, the creative industries. Its format will be a welcome relief for time-poor mothers: Power’s bite-size interviews are easy to dip in and out of, and she captures nicely the intimate, conversational tone of her interlocutors. Those interviewed in the book frequently express their frustration with society’s undervaluation of women’s labour at home and in the studio and offer helpful advice in dealing with this. With Monica Dux’s essay collection on motherhood Mothermorphosis also released in April, Power’s rebooted anthology is another important reminder that women’s work matters.

Emily Laidlaw is a freelance writer and editor. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 1, 2015. View more pre-publication reviews here.

Anchor Point (Alice Robinson, Affirm Press)

AnchorPoint_CoverWhen Laura and Vik are children, their eccentric mother disappears during a flash flood on the family’s struggling property in rural Victorian. Though just a girl herself, Laura is forced to grow up fast and becomes a surrogate mother figure for Vik, compensating for their grief-stricken father’s shortcomings. As she progresses into young womanhood and eventually to middle age, the legacy of this reluctant childhood obligation underpins the choices she makes in adulthood, including her marriage to Luc, a charismatic environmental activist who is the inverse of her inarticulate farmer father. Laura’s is a small but heavy life, defined by a thoughtless act committed in her childhood and a guilty secret kept for decades. Though the narrative pacing is slow, Laura is a compelling character and Alice Robinson’s prose is lyrical and elegiac. The depictions of rural life—the caprices of native Australian wildlife, the grisly but necessary daily tasks of farming, the crucial significance of weather and increasingly dire effects of climate change—are reminiscent of Gillian Mears’ Foal’s Bread and Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship With Birds. Readers who enjoyed these novels will find Anchor Point is likewise an exquisite literary novel, and an accomplished character study. This is Robinson’s first novel.

Veronica Sullivan is online editor of Kill Your Darlings. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 1, 2015. View more pre-publication reviews here.

Useful (Debra Oswald, Viking)

Useful_webAt his nadir, Sullivan Moss stuffs up his own suicide attempt and is forced to reflect on his unreliable, selfish, underachieving ways. He strikes on the idea of doing something of value by donating a kidney. The ensuing story tells of Sullivan’s unintentional self-improvement and subsequent downfall leading up to the surgery. The novel is peppered with a cast of memorable and diverse characters who cross paths with Sullivan. Many of them are also struggling to find meaning and fulfilment, and to understand what it means to be a good person. Most notably, there’s radio producer and single parent Natalie, Colombian asbestos remover Jose Luis, banker with a rocky marriage Tim, Croatian neighbour Gordana and famous actor Rory Wallace. Set in contemporary Sydney, the rollicking plot contains intricate twists, lustful entanglements and emotion-charged drama. This is the first adult novel from Debra Oswald, co-creator of television’s Offspring. It’s humorous but there’s plenty of empathy for her characters, and an exploration of the power of relationships. This is high-quality popular fiction that intelligently examines the age-old quest for a meaningful life. While it has more facets than The Rosie Project, expect a similarly broad audience. It’s recommended for all types of readers seeking entertaining, thoughtful drama.

Joanne Shiells is an editor and former retail book buyer. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in January 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

Clade (James Bradley, Hamish Hamilton)

CladeIn his first novel in 10 years, James Bradley writes about the members of an extended family in a soft-dystopian near-future, where violent climate events have brought rapid changes to the way people live and connect in the world. Clade opens with Adam, a climate scientist, and Ellie, an artist, grappling with the moral and practical suitability of bringing a child into a world they know to be threatened. The structure of the book—broken into chapters that can be read almost as self-contained stories—allows for a vast scope of time, place and characters, yet still the book remains concise and resonant with emotion. Many years can pass between pages, and previously unknown characters can take over the narrative of a new chapter. Bradley’s writing bends to capture the voices of these diverse characters, and imbues the story with a sadness appropriate to the book’s focus on the earth’s changing climate. But despite carrying a political message, this book is not didactic in its tone. Clade is recommended for readers of accomplished contemporary literary fiction, but will also appeal to those interested in the climate science debate.

Brad Jefferies is news editor for Books+Publishing. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in January 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

A World of Other People (Steven Carroll, Fourth Estate)

world of other peopleSteven Carroll is a long-term admirer of T S Eliot and has already won praise for his adaption of Eliot’s poem ‘Burnt Norton’ in an earlier novel, The Lost Life. In his new book, Carroll transforms the essence of Eliot’s poem ‘Little Gidding’ (also from his ‘Four Quartets’) into a novel about World War II and the Blitz. Here Eliot is more of a peripheral character. The major protagonists are Iris, who knows Eliot through her church and wartime fire-watching duties, and Jim, an Australian fighter pilot based in London. Unfortunately Jim and Iris meet after Iris has accepted another’s ring. She is then caught between a wartime romance of passion and one of duty. Eliot impinges on their lives because he writes about a shared, pivotal experience—an event that precipitates creativity, love and death. The writing style doesn’t quite match the elevated poem-to-novel premise. Some transitions between times and scenes could be more skilfully crafted by a writer of Carroll’s calibre. And an abundance of brackets creates an arch tone early in the story. However, when the novel does spring to life, readers will soon become ensnared by the author’s clever scope and vision. This book should appeal to fans of literary fiction and wartime romance.

Joy Lawn is a freelance reviewer who has worked for independent bookshops in NSW and Queensland. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 1, 2013. This title is a joint winner in the fiction category of the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: A Short History of Stupid (Helen Razer & Bernard Keane, A&U)

A Short History of StupidA Short History of Stupid is concerned with the rise of Stupidity in a world ruled by ‘fade-resistant individualism’, extreme paternalism, political condescension, conspicuous compassion and ‘the injurious yoga class of the mind’. Your pilots through the increasing idiocy of public debate are Helen Razer and Bernard Keane, prolific columnists and bloggers who are determined to remedy (or at least rail against) the current ubiquity of Stupid. They begin by examining the different ideas and cultural theories that have founded the Western world as we know it. From Descartes to Burckhardt, Marx to Heather Locklear, they discuss whether it was powerful art or powerful market forces that led to the creation of the ‘self’ and its expensively dressed first cousin, the individual. They spotlight the strong correlation between political conservatism and climate denialism, and sail briskly through the popular obsession with ‘personal stories’, which promotes the idea of a person as a narrative. Some chapters, such as the one about holistic yoga and ‘safe spaces’, are less well-referenced than others, but it’s nearly impossible for Razer or Keane to write badly so the writing maintains a consistently entertaining surface. A Short History of Stupid is an excellent, caustic guide to knowing thy Stupid self and liberating thyself from Stupidity by thinking critically.

Hilary Simmons is the assistant editor at Books+Publishing and a freelance journalist.  This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 4, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishing (Susan Hawthorne, Spinifex Press)

BibliodiversityIn 2002 I attended the launch of Susan Hawthorne’s Wild Politics: Feminism, Globalisation and Bio/diversity and later used it as an economics text. In that book Hawthorne put the case for new ways of thinking and acting to protect and encourage biodiversity in the face of homogenising corporate globalisation.

In her new work, a ‘manifesto’ for independent publishing, Hawthorne considers the publishing industry within its international social context and finds a similar state of affairs and set of requirements for change: the publishing industry is dominated by ‘global megacorp’ publishers who are determined to maximise profit at the expense of small and localised producers, who must fight back by advancing … not biodiversity in this case but bibliodiversity.

Bibliodiversity, an ideal scenario comparable to Habermas’ ‘public sphere’, is ‘a complex self-sustaining system of story-telling, writing, publishing and other kinds of production of orature and literature. The writers and producers are comparable to the inhabitants of an ecosystem. Bibliodiversity contributes to a thriving life of culture and a healthy eco-social system.’

Hawthorne traces the term to a group of Chilean publishers in the 1990s, although this has been disputed by some of their Spanish colleagues. In any case, bibliodiversity has been advocated by the International Alliance of Independent Publishers since the organisation was founded in 2002.

I think Hawthorne is right to suggest that today’s dominant business practices work against genuine diversity in publishing, and that we should aspire to have the makeup of society properly reflected within our industry. That democratic impulse was part of what gave rise to Australia’s Small Press Underground Network (now Small Press Network) when it was founded in 2006.

Unfortunately, Hawthorne does not have a lot to say about how, precisely, the handful of corporations now dominating publishing around the world make survival and growth difficult for small, independent, locally focused publishers, or about the role of other players—notably governments—within the industry. She seems unsure about the place of digital technology within this process (seen both as a threat and as positively reflecting ‘organic patterns and processes’). And we are left to take the assertion of a diversity of voices being swamped by increasingly dominant corporate players—as with many other assertions in the book—on faith.

Bibliodiversity is a valuable call to action, but such action will require further thinking about the world and research into the dynamics of publishing within it. This book will appeal to members or students of the publishing industry who are interested in the global dynamics within it.

Nathan Hollier is director of Monash University Publishing and a past president of the Small Press Network. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in August 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.