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: Privacy (Genna De Bont, Fourth Estate)

PrivacyWarren ‘Wren’ Fox is a 35-year-old who lives with his mother in a one-bedroom house in semi-rural Victoria. He works for his neighbour Richard in his musical instrument repair business, breeds rats in a shed, and does odd jobs for people in the nearby town—simple, repetitive tasks with clear guidelines. Wren has led a sheltered life, and while he’s capable of taking care of himself, he’s not what most people consider ‘normal’. So when he comes across an explicit online journal written by Richard’s sister, we start to realise the gaps between his perspective and others’. Wren has always been devoted to Madeline, but he’s not the only one interested in her, and she’s not the only one being watched. The author of The Pepper Gate (UQP) explores obsession, communication and impairment in a second novel that burns slowly but eventually rewards. Its cover art and subtitle—‘A story of obsession and spying’—suggest more titillation than it delivers, but Privacy is a quiet story, as befits its narrator, and Genna de Bont takes her time to lay out all the pieces. When the picture eventually becomes clear, it’s worth the wait. This midlist literary novel should appeal to readers who favour nuance over action.

Lachlan Jobbins is a reviewer, editor and ex-bookseller. He is one of the presenters of For the Love of Books on STUDIO (Foxtel). This review first appeared in the Issue 1 2013 of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Oldest Song in the World (Sue Woolfe, Fourth Estate)

The Oldest Song in the World is quite an incredible book. The story, with its mix of themes, is full of tension and interest. Kate is sent to a town outside Alice Springs to record an Aboriginal song that may be the oldest song in the world. She wants to go because she suspects the long-lost man in her life might be there. This sets up an interesting situation as Kate stumbles into a changed environment. She doesn’t understand local customs and makes blunders in communicating with Aboriginal people. She has dyed her hair and done much to change her appearance. And as she can’t find the woman who owns the song, Kate is forced to spend time settling in. Adrian, who may or may not be ‘her’ man, is her host, bossing her about and controlling her movements but also helping her stay out of trouble. A lot happens to Kate: she wants to help in the local school, she learns to cope with intermittent electrical supply, she is allowed to be on the edge of a night of local dancing, and so on. She also meets some very odd white people who display astounding attitudes to Aboriginal people in their fields of medicine, education and town duties. It all works though, and is totally engaging. I could tell you what happens but then you would miss the fun of this great story.

Clive Tilsley is the owner and director of Fullers Bookshop with almost 40 years in the trade. This review first appeared in the June/July issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Cartographer (Peter Twohig, Fourth Estate)

I never judge a book by the publicity spin that accompanies it. This one came with the line: ‘for readers of Jonathan Safran Foer and Craig Silvey’. Given the story concerns an 11-year-old boy, I rolled my eyes at the lazy marketing hook. Set in 1959 and narrated by an unnamed boy, the story opens on the day of his twin brother’s funeral. A year later we find him exploring the streets and lanes near his Richmond home. Inspired by his heroes from comic books, radio and TV serials, he fancies himself a brave explorer, which leads him to witness a brutal murder. He decides to map his travels in order to avoid the murder house, but as his travels widen, his adventures grow more dangerous. To combat his rising fear he creates an unflappable alter-ego: The Cartographer. Our hero is an amusing and likeable character, his speech littered with racetrack phrasing and noir references. He is supported by an eclectic and intriguing cast of characters, no more so than his wheeling, dealing grandfather. So I was wrong about the marketing hook. If, like me, you enjoyed Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, you are going to want to read this book, as I suspect a lot of people will.

Paul Landymore is a former bookseller based in Brisbane. This review first appeared in the Summer issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: Flight (Rosie Dub, Fourth Estate)

What I like best about this novel is that it is an adventure story that encapsulates both a physical and spiritual journey. In the beginning we meet a confused and depressed young woman, Fern, who seems to have an extreme case of the ‘teenage blues’. She has withdrawn from the world and refuses to leave her attic for months on end. Eventually she tries to run away, but she can’t outrun the frightening dreams and disturbing visions that haunt her. With the help of friends from both the physical and metaphysical world, Fern embarks on a journey that takes her from the streets of Sydney to the Tasmanian wilderness, where she will confront her past and lay her demons to rest. This is Rosie Dub’s second novel (Gathering Storm was published in 2008), and while it’s not the most suspenseful thriller I’ve read this year, it does get rather spooky in parts. Dub’s approach to the genre is interesting and original. Her writing is detailed and descriptive, with some startling contrasts between the ordinary and extraordinary. While this book is pitched at an adult readership, it will also appeal to mature YA readers.

Shannon Wood is an editing student and administration assistant for Bookseller+Publisher’s Weekly Book Newsletter.  This review first appeared in the Summer issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: A Common Loss (Kirsten Tranter, Fourth Estate)

Kirsten Tranter’s second novel—following The Legacy—is the story of a group of college friends who travel together each year to Las Vegas. Dylan, the charismatic confidante of the group, the keeper of secrets and solver of problems, has died in an accident, so the remaining four friends plan the annual trip. Elliot, an erudite yet awkward English lecturer, narrates the novel. He is the most naïve of the group, so his perspective makes it easy for the reader to slip into the group and share disgust at Cameron and Brian’s hypocrisy, concern over Tallis’ drinking, and to wonder: what holds these friendships together? There are similarities in this story to The Legacy: both share a naïve, lovelorn and lost character driven by the absence of a friend who still seems all too present. A Common Loss is a potent story of secrets, love, friendship and the bonds that keep people close; in the case of these friends it is a shared history that also threatens to destroy them. Brimming with blackmail and deception and laced with grief, poetry, simmering emotional tension and relationships both budding and exhausted, Tranter’s second novel does not disappoint.

Portia Lindsay works at UNSW Bookshop. This review first appeared in the Summer issue of  Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: Forecast: Turbulence (Janette Turner Hospital, Fourth Estate)

Janette Turner Hospital’s anthology of stories gathers together a striking array of disturbed and disturbing characters—the forthright daughter of a cult leader, a young woman facing her father for the first time in years, the devastated parents of an abducted youth, and two young girls who bond though self-harm. Each story deftly depicts personal struggle in an often indifferent world; the empathy, sadness, shock and occasional horror that I felt while reading this collection is a testament to Turner Hospital’s skill. The theme of family turmoil— particularly in the relationships between parents and children—flows through the collection and is reflected in the central motif of stormy weather. Turner Hospital’s writing is both sharp and intimate. She doesn’t shy away from brutality, and in this—and the theme of individuals struggling among forces much larger than themselves—it contains similarities to Due Preparations for the Plague. The collection concludes with a short memoir piece that considers the idea of individuals caught in the current through Turner Hospital’s own family history.

Portia Lindsay works at UNSW Bookshop. This review first appeared in the October issue of  Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: Empire Day (Diane Armstrong, Fourth Estate)

Those who read Diane Armstrong’s memoir Mosaic and her follow-up story of migration, The Voyage of their Life, will recognise a part of the author in each of her subsequent novels dealing with the Holocaust, displacement, survival and new beginnings. Her history is also evident in Empire Day, the engrossing story of the residents of Wattle Street, Bondi Junction, in 1948 Sydney. Half of the street is made up of ‘reffos’ who have escaped post-War Europe—Jewish survivors of the unimaginable camps and Eastern Europeans who have fled communist rule. The others are ‘regular Aussies’ struggling to understand their neighbourhood newcomers and to make ends meet in an era of rationing, before the days of social services and government assistance. Like Maeve Binchy, but with tremendous gravitas, Armstrong demonstrates a talent in making each member of this disparate suburban community a friend as we learn of their differing life challenges. Whether facing social acceptance, polio, poverty or crises of personal identity, love or ambition, their relationships represent a microcosm of a new Australia emerging from the war—a community of migrants that resonates in 2011. Though not literary in style, Armstrong’s book explores her many themes with a roundness and aplomb, while simultaneously providing a thoroughly entertaining multi-strand novel.

Scott Whitmont is the owner of Lindfield Bookshop & Children’s Bookshop in Sydney. This review first appeared in the August issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

The October issue!: Reviewers’ top picks

Did we mention the October issue of the magazine hit our desks a couple of weeks ago? Here are the reviewers’ top picks from the reviews this time around:

Foal’s Bread (Gillian Mears, A&U, November)

‘ Mears is up there with Tim Winton and Kate Grenville,’ writes Fairfield Book’s Heather Dyer in her review of Foal’s Bread, Mear’s first novel in 16 years. The novel tells the story of two generations of the Nancarrow family, set in the horse-jumping circuit in rural NSW prior to WWII. ‘The relationships between the characters in Foal’s Bread are rich and varied, and Mears rarely takes the obvious route as she explores emotions of love, jealousy, frustration and disappointment … Foal’s Bread is a book to be read slowly and savoured.’

Forecast: Turbulence (Janette Turner Hospital, Fourth Estate, November)

‘Janette Turner Hospital’s anthology of stories gathers together a striking array of disturbed and disturbing characters—the forthright daughter of a cult leader, a young woman facing her father for the first time in years, the devastated parents of an abducted youth, and two young girls who bond though self-harm,’ writers reviewer Portia Lindsay. ‘Turner Hospital’s writing is both sharp and intimate. She doesn’t shy away from brutality, and in this—and the theme of individuals struggling among forces much larger than themselves—it contains similarities to Due Preparations for the Plague.’

Silence (Rodney Hall, Pier 9, November)

Silence should be approached with senses attuned to the sounds, images and emotions that are evoked so vividly by this master storyteller,’ writes reviewer Toni Whitmont of Rodney Hall’s short story collection. ‘The stories cover several continents and ages. They are told from the points of view of rulers and minions, victors and vanquished, and even, occasionally, animals (well, a dreaming bird) … I came to this book unprepared, and I was completely overwhelmed by the tapestry of its imagery and the echoes of its stillness.’

HipsterMattic: One Man’s Quest to become the Ultimate Hipster (Matt Granfield, A&U, November)

Dumped by his hipster girlfriend, Matt Granfield ‘decided to turn himself into The Ultimate Hipster … embarking on a series of sure-fire markers of Ultimate Hipness: getting a tattoo, starting a band, acquiring a fixed-gear bicycle, learning how to knit, selling organic cupcakes and scrabble jewellery at a market in a laneway, and so on,’ writes reviewer Hannah Francis. ‘While this sounds like a potentially annoying premise, Granfield writes with a light-hearted humour that is refreshing and at times laugh-out-loud funny.’

Tony Robinson’s History of Australia (Tony Robinson, Viking, November)

This book ‘is a companion book to the TV series Tony Robertson Explores Australia, which aired on the History Channel earlier this year,’ writes reviewer Jessica Broadbent. ‘As always, Robinson pokes just the right amount of fun. He unearths some interesting events from the history books, including some that may come as a surprise to many locals. For example, who knew there was a Founding Orgy? … He also covers more recent events such as the apology to the Stolen Generations, and takes a stroll with the award-winning author Anh Do.’

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BOOK REVIEW: Spirit of Progress (Steven Carroll, Fourth Estate)

Reading Spirit of Progress was one of the most enjoyable things I have done for a long time. I picked it up immediately after finishing Graham Swift’s new novel Wish You Were Here and it felt good to move from a grey, foot-and-mouth-diseased Britain to a bright, openedspaced Australia. It took me back to my primary-school days when we would watch films about the construction of a new and exciting Australia. The films were black and white and may have been made around the time that this book is set.

Spirit of Progress is a ‘prequel’ to Steven Carroll’s The Art of the Engine Driver, the first of his ‘Glenroy’ trilogy. While it begins and ends in 1977, most of the story is set in the immediate post-war years in Melbourne as the country starts life afresh. (At one stage, one of the characters even wonders when the expression ‘post war’ began being used.)

The main characters are George, who works for a newspaper, Tess, who runs an art gallery, and Sam, who is an artist. George, Tess and Sam are in contact with characters from previous ‘Glenroy’ novels: Vic, Rita, Michael—who is about to be born—and the property developer Webster. In Carroll’s richly layered world, Sam paints a portrait of Vic’s aunt Katherine, who lives in a tent on the outskirts of suburbia where Webster is about to put big plans into action. You’ll have to read it to find out more.

While much of the action takes place in Australia, there is also a post-war attraction for Australians to go ‘elsewhere’. War brides go elsewhere, Sam goes elsewhere, and the book begins and ends in France. (There is also a vineyard in Tasmania called ‘Elsewhere’, which is named after the weatherman’s comments that it will rain here, shower there but be fine elsewhere.) This book is worth reading for its marvelous construction, from the story down to the beautifully phrased sentences which ring full of music. It is a joy to read such richly crafted phrases, in particular, Carroll’s repeated juxtaposition of opposites—this is this and it’s not this at all.

I am sure everyone who has read the ‘Glenroy’ series will welcome this addition. If Graham Greene can have the phrase ‘Greene-land’ used to celebrate his fictional world, I hope Steven Carroll gets recognition for the Australia he records. Perhaps it should be called ‘Carroll-land’.

Clive Tilsley is a bookseller at Fullers Bookshop. This review first appeared in the July issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.