BOOK REVIEW: Love with a Chance of Drowning (Torre DeRoche, Viking)

Love with a Chance of DrowningAn urban 20-something Aussie girl gets on the booze in a San Francisco bar, chats up a soulful, handsome stranger, has more drinks and finds herself in his bed next morning. Months pass, they drift into a relationship, then the man (Argentinian Ivan) introduces DeRoche to his other love—a sound but aging ocean yacht named Amazing Grace. His ambition—obsession might be a better word—is to spend years at sea, escaping from the world and coming ashore as rarely as possible. DeRoche could hardly be a worse companion for him, being a sophisticated city girl with a serious water phobia, yet they fall so deeply in love that she resolves to conquer her mountain of fears and accompany him. Her book is the entertainingly told story of the three years the couple spend planning and executing their voyage, despite doom-saying friends and family, DeRoche’s inexperience at sea, storms and setbacks and Ivan’s almost slapstick ability to court accidents. The book is by turns gripping, laugh-out-loud funny, moving and uplifting. It races to its conclusion and gives tantalising glimpses of their life after Amazing Grace. Almost any reader with a sense of adventure or a desire to confront their fears should love it. This book was originally self-published under the title Swept, before being purchased by a major trade publisher.

Max Oliver is a Sydney bookseller and traveller. This review first appeared in the Summer 2012/13 issue of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Mullumbimby (Melissa Lucashenko, UQP)

mullumbimbyWhen Jo Breen buys a property in the Byron Bay hinterland her motives are clear—to be closer to her ancestral land and to distance herself from city life. She has her longed-for property and horse, but Ellen, her teenage daughter, does not share her vision, nor do some of her neighbours, to say the least. Enter Twoboy, a charismatic young Aboriginal man intent on pursuing a Native Title case over the entire valley, despite competing claims. Jo and Twoboy become an item and the stage is set for a moving, contemporary rollercoaster of a tale set in an ancient land. The author moves the story along at a fast clip, except for occasional sermonising from Twoboy. She describes the land and its moods with affection and skill and persuades the reader to warm to most of the characters, including the infuriating Uncle Humbug and indomitable Granny Nurrung. Incidents abound, some very amusing and some chokingly poignant—I defy anyone to read the account of the death of Jo’s beautiful young colt, Comet, with dry eyes. Mullumbimby is a modern tale of the clash between cultures, of the importance of belonging, and, surprisingly, of the pitfalls of making assumptions about other people and their background. It deserves the widest readership.

Max Oliver is a veteran Sydney bookseller. This review first appeared in the Summer 2012/13 issue of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Daughters of Mars (Tom Keneally, Vintage)

A sprawling saga, The Daughters of Mars is based on journals kept by Australian nursing sisters who laboured in claustrophobic hospital ships, casualty clearing stations and hospitals in Europe during the First World War. Sisters Naomi and Sally Durrance have their own reasons for volunteering, as do many of their newfound nursing friends, but they are tested beyond endurance as they try to save lives and ameliorate suffering in challenging, often hopeless conditions. Yet it is in this unlikely setting that several of these courageous, resourceful women meet the remarkable men with whom they wish to spend the rest of their lives. Tom Keneally is at his powerful best when he is writing about the ships, the tent hospitals and the visionary Australian Voluntary Hospital. His descriptions— the arrival and treatment of hundreds of wounded at a time, of life and death decision-making, of medicine practised under impossible conditions, and of the inexhaustible compassion and drive of the doctors, nurses and orderlies—are moving and compelling. The book reaches another level of horror and suffering with the advent of gas warfare and this reader began to rebel against the detailed description of yet more ways to maim and kill young men. The phrase ‘strong editor’ came to mind. However, Keneally is a ‘heart on sleeve’ writer and the reader is carried along by his mix of humdrum rural life in peacetime, and excitement of what was idealistically seen as a short, sharp war in Europe. The sheer courage and tenacity of those caught up in the increasingly protracted struggle, and the friendships, romances, feuds and tragedies of his all-too-human cast, add layers to this complex, factually based novel.

Max Oliver is a veteran Australian bookseller. This review first appeared in the Bookseller+Publisher website in April 2012. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Rome: A Personal, Visual and Cultural History (Robert Hughes, Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

The overarching achievement of this vibrant, opinionated, detailed new look at the Eternal City is that it forces the reader to look at Rome with new eyes. The approach is chronological, the method to take a mass of historical detail and shape it into a cohesive narrative, sweeping from one event, movement, influence or person to another, leaving us with so much information and rekindled curiosity that I suspect many will want to visit, or re-visit, Rome at the first opportunity.

Recreating Rome’s earliest days, Robert Hughes reminds us that much of the story of Romulus and Remus is myth; that the aqueducts, now viewed as archaeological curiosities, were the lifeblood of the growing town; that political and artistic patronage was a reality as far back as Virgil; that the major influence on classical Roman architecture and sculpture was Greek; that for many years various forms of paganism and Christianity battled for control of people’s souls, often with great cruelty and bloodshed; that the town was an ugly, dirty, overcrowded, dangerous place for most of its inhabitants; and that the Roman emperors, with a couple of exceptions, were a vicious, revolting lot.

In the Middle Ages we meet Cola Di Rienzo, a commoner who ruthlessly bettered himself, achieving the status of Tribune; soon after, we rediscover Bruneleschi, ‘the father of Renaissance architecture’ and Julius II, ‘the first pope to lead an army from horseback’. We learn that the building of St Peter’s took 120 years, involving several architects and principal artists including Raphael and Michelangelo. (A digression concerning the controversial cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the 1970s is typical of the author’s encyclopaedic approach.) Completing his breathtaking chapter on the Renaissance, Hughes plunges into the 17th century with the provocative words ‘you cannot imagine modern Rome without the changes that a single pope, Sixtus V, imposed on it’. Writing about more recent history, he labels the gigantic Vittorio Emmanuele monument ‘most stupefyingly pompous’. He spells out the deviousness with which Pope Pious IX imposed the dogma of papal infallibility on a reluctant priesthood and is at pains to stress the overriding influence of the Catholic church on Rome for much of the city’s life. The book charges on through the 18th and 19th centuries, concluding with a concise, lively look at the major arts, political and literary movements of the 20th.

Who should read it? Anyone with any feeling for this magnificent city.

Max Oliver is an Australian bookseller and enthusiastic traveller. This review first appeared in the June issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: The Bath Fugues (Brian Castro, Giramondo)

Brian Castro’s Miles Franklin-shortlisted novel The Bath Fugues (Giramondo) was reviewed back in the May/June 2009 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine by Max Oliver, a veteran Australian bookseller. Here’s what he had to say:

An extraordinary work, The Bath Fugues consists of three interwoven novellas, of which the third masterfully pulls together all the strands and themes of the preceding two. Each story centres on one person, with a large cast of real and imagined secondary characters. In the first, Jason Redvers, a one-time artist and counterfeiter, is dying, convinced that his wealthy Sydney patron, Walter Gottlieb, has appropriated his past. Redvers’ revenge, his ploy to set the record straight, involves writing an expose of the secret lives and proclivities of his friends and colleagues. The second novella focusses on the Portuguese judge and poet Camilo ConcieÇão, self-exiled to Macau in the 1920s—revelling in his mistresses, his bargain-hunting for Chinese art, his exotic persona and his opium pipes. The final tale is that of Dr Judith Sarraute, a well-connected Australian doctor, privy to the most private thoughts and passions of her patients, custodian of a cabinet of exotic venoms, and eventual owner of an art gallery into which she is persuaded by a well-connected acquaintance. Within the three tales many other characters emerge, reappearing from story to story in the fugal structure that Brian Castro has chosen to give form to his substance. And substance there certainly is. This novel requires intense concentration and I confess to letting some of the many references slide by in order to let the story flow. Continue reading