Diane Armstrong’s Empire Day (Fourth Estate) is set in Sydney’s Bondi Junction in the late 1940s. It is a microcosm of changing Australia, and life is changing too fast for locals like Pop Wilson, who resents the European ‘reffos’ who have moved in. Stephen Sewell’s Babylon (Victory) is about Mick, an English backpacker, who is heading to the north of Australia for the chance of making his fortune on the prawn trawlers plying the gulf. Anna Funder’s debut novel All That I Am (Hamish Hamilton) continues to generate interest from reviewers and readers. Also on the most mentioned chart is Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite Your Tongue (Spinifex), the story of a teenage girl growing up in Queensland in the 1970s, and Andrew Robb’s Black Dog Daze (MUP) on the challenges of managing depression. Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Biography (Text) was also a notable entry this week, gaining publicity from its release without Assange’s permission–Media Extra.
Anna Funder’s Stasiland was a massive hit when it was released several years ago, so it’s no surprise that her debut novel All That I Am (Hamish Hamilton) is generating huge interest. Two years after Hitler came to power in Germany, the bodies of Dora and her friend Mathilde, prominent anti-Hitler activists in exile, lie poisoned in a flat in Bloomsbury. In Lynda La Plante’s Blood Line (S&S), Anna is given her first case and she has to figure out if it is a full-blown murder investigation or purely a missing person’s case. Arguably (A&U) is Christopher Hitchens’ collection of essays looking at Afghanistan, Iran and totalitarianism, and back to the American Revolution and Founding Fathers. Paul French’s Midnight in Peking (Viking) is set in January 1937. The city is a mix of privilege and scandal, lavish cocktail bars and opium debs, warlords and corruption, rumours and superstition–and the clock is ticking down to find a killer. Marieke Hardy’s You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead (A&U) was also featured on the most mentioned chart–Media Extra.
Given the striking intelligence and originality that Anna Funder brought to the subject of the East German Secret Police in her award-winning Stasiland, it comes as no surprise to find her first novel All that I Am so assured and poised. The two books share more than their German political and historical focus, and that’s Funder’s capacity to delve into the moral complexities of lives trapped in very difficult circumstances.
Part one of All That I Am opens in a Sydney hospital with a beautifully understated sentence: ‘I’m afraid, Mrs. Becker, the news is not altogether comforting.’ Ruth Becker (Wesserman) is at the end of a long life, lived, we soon realise, in the most discomforting circumstances imaginable. Born in Germany in the first decade of the 20th century, Ruth has lived a remarkable life, at the centre of the small but passionate group of engaged activists who saw early on the repugnant brutality of Nazism, and who resisted. It’s an old cliché about the personal being political, and every act being a political act, but it holds true in this book, as the relationships between Ruth, her charismatic cousin Dora and the dramatist Ernst Toller (who was, in fact, president of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic in 1919) unfold in the Weimar and early Nazi years.
This is a story based on real people, and the powerful subject matter is brilliantly organised through a dual narrative, told by Ruth and Toller, rendered more complex by being told across time shifts of 80 years. Interwar Germany, London and New York, as well as contemporary Sydney, are vividly present, all the while contextualised by the dramas of heroism and betrayal played out before us. This is a genuinely moving novel, which challenges the reader’s perception and judgement, at the same time as it works as a political, and historical, thriller. And the moral dilemmas present for all the historical characters, real and imagined, are at the absolute centre of the novel. It’s not just the potential of the consequences of anybody’s actions that is so riveting; it’s the contest between courage and cowardice, risk and safety, loyalty and betrayal, in a world of increasing terror, where the stakes are, as we know from history, so high.
David Gaunt is co-owner of Gleebooks in Sydney. This review first appeared in the August issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. Anna Funder is as a guest of the Melbourne Writers Festival and Brisbane Writers Festival.
The Australian Booksellers Association held its annual conference in Melbourne during the weekend. The regular Book Buzz session was one of the highlights, showcasing the favourite books by booksellers and publishers coming out in the following months.
Aviva Tuffield from Scribe recommends:
- Machine Man by Max Barry (Scribe, August) is a techno thriller where a scientist loses a leg in an industrial accident, but it’s not a tragedy, it’s an opportunity to build a better body.
- House of Sticks by Peggy Frew (Scribe, September) is humane and compassionate book, a portrait of contemporary family life that is great for book clubs.
- The Third Wave by Alison Thompson (Scribe, September), an inspiring account of an Australian volunteering in Sri Lanka.
Amanda Macky from Dymocks Adelaide recommends:
- Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung (Black Inc., September). Macky says, ‘if you want to know why people want to be refugees in Australia, to come here where it’s safe and peaceful read this book and you’ll understand’.
- Smut by Alan Bennett (Profile Books), a little demi-hardback featuring two stories. Macky says this book ‘will have appeal to anybody who likes English humour, anybody who’s enjoyed Alan Bennett in the past and anybody who is into vicarious sex and a little surprise’.
- The Deadly Touch of the Tigress by Ian Hamilton (Sphere, October). Originally sold in Canada as The Water Rat of Wanchai, Macky believes ‘neither title does this book justice’.
Heather Dyer from Fairfield Books recommends:
- The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (Picador, September) is about a woman who communicates with people through the language of flowers and after leaving state care she meets a man.
- EJ12 Girl Hero series by Susannah McFarlane at LemonFizz Media, who created the Go Girl and Zac Power series at Hardie Grant. McFarlane developed EJ12 because she felt there were no other series around the suited her eight-year-old daughter.
- Kinglake-350 by Adrian Hyland (Text, August) is a ‘gripping’ true story of Black Saturday.
Ben Ball from Penguin recommends:
- All That I Am by Anna Funder (Hamish Hamilton, September) is about three people who were involved in the resistance against the rise of Hilter prior to World War II. Ball says ‘you have a treat in store’. Funder will be a the Brisbane Writers Festival.
- Midnight in Peking by Paul French (Viking, September) is a true crime book set during the last days of old Peking on the eve of World War II, in the seedy underbelly of the city. The body of the daughter of an ex-British Consul found with innards removed.
- Tony Robinson’s History of Australia (Viking, November) by Tony Robinson who did a program about Australia on the History Channel.
Much goodness in this issue (starting with the macaron delights on the cover, courtesy of Adriano Zumbo’s forthcoming cookbook, which is due from Murdoch Books in October). We’ve got: 25 reviews, including Gleebooks co-owner David Gaunt on Anna Funder’s debut novel All That I Am (Hamish Hamilton, September), Readings Books owner Mark Rubbo reporting from Book Expo America, Pip Newling taking a look at how local booksellers are selling online, Andrew Wrathall rounding up this year’s Father’s Day titles, Max Barry in praise of ebooks, plus we celebrate 90 years of Bookseller+Publisher.
That’s not to mention the usual news, profiles and author interviews with Funder, Diane Armstrong and Margaret Wild.
You can also check out the July issue of the magazine online here.