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.

BOOK REVIEW: Something Quite Peculiar (Steve Kilbey, Hardie Grant)

something quite peculiarThis memoir from one of Australia’s most gifted songwriters is a lively, anecdotal account of 40-plus years of musicianship. As the frontman of The Church—one of this country’s great rock ‘n’ roll acts—Steve Kilbey gained notoriety for being outspoken, even arrogant: he once declared himself Australia’s best songwriter—to the aggravation of ‘all of Australia’s other best songwriters’, he quips here. All that youthful hubris has mellowed into a narrative voice that’s lightly reflective yet still entertainingly candid. Kilbey recounts (in varying degrees of detail) his teenage beginnings in bands, The Church’s formation and chequered rise to prominence, the obligatory internal conflicts and frustrations with record-label executives, his romances, impressions of contemporaries, and the effects—both salutary and ruinous—of illicit substances on his life, culminating in a heroin habit that would take 11 years to shake. His place assured in the rock firmament, Kilbey is gratifyingly self-deprecating and open about past indiscretions; there’s no self-aggrandising, just plain-speaking, all delivered with Kilbey’s garrulous ‘ol’ cockney geezer’-style charm. Fans of Kilbey’s collaborations with Martin Kennedy may be disappointed to find this partnership is absent from the text.

Gerard Elson is a writer and bookseller who works at Readings St Kilda. This review first appeared in theBooks+Publishing website in August 2013. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Clariel (Garth Nix, A&U)

clarielThe long-awaited prequel to Garth Nix’s ‘Old Kingdom’ series (Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen) is going to make a lot of readers very, very happy. After her mother is promoted to the prestigious position of High Goldsmith, Clariel is forced to move from her forest home to the bustling capital Belisaere. Her mother’s new status means that Clariel is expected to behave herself, but she has no plans to marry well and live quietly—more than anything, she wants to join the Forest Borderers. But politics are treacherous in Belisaere, and when Clariel finds herself in the middle of a plot that brings her world crashing down, she must put her plans aside and draw on her own inner strength to survive. With the rich world Nix created in Sabriel, it’s hardly a surprise that he has returned to the Old Kingdom in Clariel. This is a gripping read that is perfect for lovers of dark fantasy aged 12 and up. It can also be read as a stand-alone novel, so if you need proof of why Nix is one of Australia’s most beloved fantasy authors, Clariel is a good place to start.

Holly Harper is an author and children’s bookseller at Readings Carlton. This review first appeared in the Junior Term 3 supplement of Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Killing Adonis (J M Donellan, Pantera Press)

killingadonisfront-coverFreya’s lifelong dream of working in a Timorese hospital is put on hold when she is shaken by personal tragedy. Instead, she opts for life experience and adventure, and takes a job with the excessively cashed-up Vincetti family, who would give the Sopranos a run for their (substantial) money. Freya is given the task of caring for the favoured Vincetti son, who lies in a coma in the family’s labyrinthine mansion, and soon finds herself embroiled in a weird, chaotic and mysterious family saga. Farcical plotlines, secrets, surreal moments and eccentric characters populate the pages of this satirical black comedy, but as with most good satire explorations run far deeper than the words on the page. J M Donellan (A Beginner’s Guide to Dying in India, Interactive Publications) beautifully illustrates the oft-obscene power of corporations and the excesses and perversions of the very wealthy. His characters, while often outlandish, are believable despite the novel’s sometimes-absurd storylines, and the dialogue is excellent. This is a writer with a deft handle on his craft. Killing Adonis is an immensely pleasurable read and will have some appeal to fans of Wes Anderson’s films and readers looking to be entertained by something a little off-the-wall.

Deborah Crabtree is a Melbourne-based writer and bookseller. This review first appeared in Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: A Bone of Fact (David Walsh, Pan Macmillan)

a bone a factDavid Walsh is founder, owner and patron of Hobart’s MONA (Museum of Old and New Art). He is also a gambler, hedonist and self-described autodidact. A Bone of Fact is lavishly illustrated with images from Walsh’s life, with photographs and reproductions of his favourite artworks, many drawn from the collection at MONA. Like the man himself, Walsh’s memoir is bombastic and scurrilous. In short (three or four page) sections, Walsh tells of a life of obscene wealth, borderline legality and a deep and abiding love of art. The pages are peppered with allusions to art, literature and classical culture, along with prevaricating annotations, which alternately support and discredit the veracity of his musings. It reads like a deeply ironic Richard Branson memoir of success with David Foster Wallace-esque discursions. There is something of the Machiavellian trickster in Walsh’s surrender to pure pleasure and contentment to be ruled by physical and metaphysical desires, rather than legal or logical strictures. Thanks to its author’s pre-existing notoriety, A Bone of Fact will be of interest to both lovers and casual observers of the art world. Pre-existing opinions of Walsh as a reckless, eccentric genius are likely to be confirmed.

Veronica Sullivan is a bookseller and deputy online editor of Kill Your Darling. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Rosie Effect (Graeme Simsion, Text)

Rosie EffectThe Rosie Project’s Don Tillman is back—and so is his odd behaviour. Married for nearly 12 months, Don and Rosie have relocated to New York, where, as you would expect, nothing is going smoothly. An unplanned pregnancy, a divorce, an unexpected house guest and a potentially criminal incident in a playground send Don into a panic. And while Don’s unconventional coping mechanisms seem completely logical to him, they will have the reader yelling: ‘No Don, that’s not the way to do things!’ Though Rosie is accustomed to Don’s behaviour, his impending fatherhood finds her questioning her past and future. There are some heart-wrenching moments in this book when you truly wonder whether Don’s world is about to come tumbling down around him. Graeme Simsion has perfected the art of making the reader feel viscerally uncomfortable with some of Don’s antics, and yet you can’t help but love Don despite them all. Poignant and charming, The Rosie Effect will be just as popular as the Project.

Louise Fay is the special orders manager at Dymocks Adelaide. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.