BOOK REVIEW: Eyrie (Tim Winton, Hamish Hamilton)

EyrieTim Winton is an outstanding writer, whose distinctive originality has never been more evident than in his newest novel, Eyrie. He has always been interested in characters whose lives are being lived on the edge. In Breath, his most recent, and shortest, novel, we saw a distilled and concentrated exploration of physical courage, foolhardiness and danger of surfers’ lives lived on the edge, where the contrast between the ordinary and extraordinary in life couldn’t be sharper. Eyrie is a much longer, yet sharply focused new work, as finely calibrated and nuanced as anything Winton has done, yet more confronting and unrelenting than any of his previous work. Tom Keely’s life is being lived very much on the edge, indeed the brink, of oblivion. A disastrous miscalculation in his professional life has left him without a job, reputation, wife, money and, seemingly, hope. Holed up in a public housing high-rise in Fremantle, he’s nevertheless drawn into the lives of his neighbours, a woman from his childhood and her sad, almost other-worldly grandson. What follows is a rich and engrossing story, as intense and exciting as anything Winton has yet written. It’s rich in black humour while at the same time has elements of a crime thriller. This is a book that will challenge, and possibly divide, readers, with its uncomfortably tough-minded questions about coping and engaging in a flawed world, but in the end this is Winton at his most intense and haunting best. Unmissable.

David Gaunt is the co-owner of Gleebooks. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in September 2013. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Night Guest (Fiona McFarlane, Hamish Hamilton)

Night GuestThis impressive debut from Fiona McFarlane tells the story of elderly widow Ruth, who lives by the sea with a fabulous view of the ocean and the passing whales. Ruth is dealing in her own way with the vagaries of growing older when a government carer named Frida arrives on her doorstep. Despite her outward appearance of orderliness, the larger-than-life Frida accompanies an escalation of turmoil in Ruth’s world. Yet Ruth seems to find a sense of security, or perhaps companionship, she was missing. Ruth’s memory flits back and forth in time, from the steamy heat of her missionary childhood in 1950s Fiji, to suburban life with her husband and sons, and to the exhilaration of encounters with her first love, with whom she reconnects. As the novel progresses, Ruth descends into a mental fog, dragging the reader along with her, as the past collides with the present and she questions her perceptions and the nature of reality. Meanwhile, she remains haunted by the mysterious tiger who stalks her hallway at night. The character of Ruth in particular (and to a lesser extent, Frida) is superbly drawn and this book brims with fine detail. It also encourages reflection on ageing, a topic commonly overlooked, and should have broad appeal to literary readers and bookclubs.

Joanne Shiells is an editor and former retail book buyer. This review first appeared in Issue 3 of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Lola Bensky (Lily Brett, Hamish Hamilton)

Lola Bensky, a character often referred to as Lily Brett’s alter ego, has appeared in Brett’s short fiction, as well her 1990 novel Things Could Be Worse. In Brett’s new novel we get the complete world of Lola. The book opens in London in the swinging 60s, with 19-year-old Lola interviewing soon-to-be famous musicians. Drawing on aspects of Brett’s own life, as much of the author’s writing does, the novel follows Lola through the contemporary culture of the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st. When we first meet Lola she is absorbed by her parent’s survival of the Nazi death camp, Auschwitz. She also has a genuine fascination with other people’s lives, and musicians such as Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Janis Joplin and Mama Cass feature in her early life. But then Lola ages, and one of Brett’s remarkable skills is to make the changes in Lola’s attitudes convincing. At 63 years old, Lola is still Lola and could be no-one else. Through seamless switches in time and place, Brett delivers an entertaining story that is also full of heart. Lola Bensky should appeal to a wide readership, not just female readers.

Pip Newling is a writer and bookseller at Shearer’s Bookshop in Leichhardt, Sydney. This review first appeared in the August/September 2012 issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

On tour: Meet the author Alain De Botton

Alain de Botton is touring Sydney and Brisbane during February. His most recent book, Religion for Atheists, is published by Hamish Hamilton.

What would you put on a shelf-talker for your book?

The perfect book for those who are bored both by militant atheists and the fundamentalist religious—but who are still really curious about religion and want to find ways that it might help them in their own lives.

What is the silliest question you’ve ever been asked on a book tour?

Anyone who shows up to listen to me discuss my work is immediately a friend: so I tend never to mind the ‘odd question’ bit of the evening.

And the most profound?

‘Isn’t all your work basically trying to help people to live and to die?’ I had to agree.

What are you reading right now?

My friend Geoff Dyer’s new book, Zona (Text).

What was the last book you read and loved?

John Armstrong’s The Secret Power of Beauty (Allen Lane), a lovely book about our relationship to art.

What was the defining book of your childhood?

I loved the adventures of Babar when I was five.

Which is your favourite bookstore?

A beautiful independent chain in London called Daunt Books.

Daunt Books Marylebone

Facebook or Twitter?

Twitter, where I have 160,000 followers. At Facebook, just 18,000.

If I were a literary character I’d be …

The narrator of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (various imprints).

In 50 years’ time books will be …

Much as they are today, though the hardbacks will be yet more beautiful and a bit more expensive. Ebooks won’t ruin everything.

 

BOOK REVIEW: The Chemistry of Tears (Peter Carey, Hamish Hamilton)

The Chemistry of Tears is the 12th novel by two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey, and it’s a welcome addition to the substantial oeuvre of one of Australia’s finest prose stylists. After returning to the 19th century in his previous novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, he half stays there in this work, telling parallel stories that switch back and forth between the 19th and 21st centuries.

The first narrator we meet is Catherine Gehrig, a grieving conservator at the fictional Swinburne Museum in modern-day London, who is given the task of restoring a clockwork automaton that is apparently a replica of the mechanical duck designed by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739. Included with the parts are the notebooks of the man who commissioned the replica, Henry Brandling, a wealthy member of a railroad dynasty who conceives of the automaton as a gift to cheer his beloved but ailing son. Catherine reads the notebooks and the chapters alternate between her story and Henry’s, as he travels to Germany to find a clockmaker who can reproduce the remarkable feat of Vaucanson. Once there he finds the mysterious Herr Sumper, a brute of a man who speaks in riddles and may be a genius or a charlatan and who agrees to make the automaton, but produces something that is not entirely expected.

The dual narrative is something that Carey has employed in several of his most recent novels, including Parrot and Olivier in America, His Illegal Self and Theft: A Love Story. In this case, with the present-day character researching a somewhat mysterious 19th-century past, it also has overtones of A S Byatt’s Possession. There is nothing quite so neat as the resolution of Byatt’s novel here though, as the narrative proceeds through confusions and misunderstandings and hints at things that are simply beyond our comprehension. There’s something off-kilter about both of the narrators that Carey captures in a jumpy prose style, and there are hints of madness in several of the characters. Catherine reads Henry’s narrative and realises that ‘what was initially confusing would never be clarified no matter how hard you stared and swore at it’ and the experience is not dissimilar for the reader of this novel, but Carey has long traded in ambiguities and like his previous novels, this is a gripping read.

Fans of Carey (and they are legion) will snap this one up and it should attract widespread attention in the literary world. Look for it to feature on prize shortlists next year.

Blair Mahoney teaches English, Literature and Philosophy at Melbourne High School and is the author of Poetry Reloaded, a textbook for secondary students. This review first appeared in the Summer issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: All That I Am (Anna Funder, Hamish Hamilton)

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 August issue is here!

Did we forget to mention that the August issue of Bookseller+Publisher is in our hot little hands?

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.

BOOK REVIEW: How to Make Gravy (Paul Kelly, Hamish Hamilton)

Paul Kelly’s story begins with the Spiegeltent in Melbourne in 2004 when he was offered an exclusive show: four nights of never-to-be repeated performances. Around that was born the idea of singing 100 of his songs in alphabetical order, each night consisting of a completely different set-list. Around the songs, storytelling was added for theatrical effect, and as the shows hit the road they were recorded with a view to a CD release and then a book. How to Make Gravy is the ‘mongrel beast’ that emerged, and what a beast it is. Part memoir, part tour diary, part song-writing manual, this sprawling book is filled with all manner of letters, lists, confessions, hymns and yarns. Kelly’s 100-plus songs begin each chapter (alphabetically) followed by a story that loosely or closely relates to the song. That Kelly is a consummate storyteller is evident in his song-writing. Here he has space to explore his storytelling skills further, which he does admirably, weaving in and out of the past and present easily and with an intimacy that invites the reader into his world. This book is full of tales that will delight Paul Kelly fans, and will appeal to anyone with an interest in popular music. How to Make Gravy is also available with an exclusive 8-CD box set entitled The A-Z Recordings and a 64-page booklet of photos for $125.

Deborah Crabtree is a Melbourne-based writer and bookseller. This review first appeared in the October 2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

Top picks from the current issue

Which books got good reviews in the October issue of Bookseller+Publisher you ask?

Well…

The proof copy of Caroline Overington’s novel I Came to Say Goodbye came covered in glowing quotes from Random House staff who’ve read the book and our reviewer Scott Whitmont has joined the chorus. He calls the novel ‘a gripping blockbuster that booksellers can recommend unreservedly’ and predicts Overington’s following ‘is destined to grow in leaps and bounds’.

Toni Whitmont was impressed with That Deadman Dance by Miles Franklin winner Kim Scott (Picador, October), suggesting it will ‘surely attract consideration for a raft of major prizes’. ‘While the story is compelling,’ writes Whitmont, ‘what makes this an extraordinary book is the writing. Scott’s prose shimmers.’

Andrew Wilkins was equally taken with a collection of work by the late Dorothy Porter. Love Poems (Black Inc., October) ‘brings together poems and song lyrics from across Porter’s career, gathered into sections that suggest love in its various phases’ and is ‘simply an essential collection of Australian poetry,’ says Wilkins.

Other eagerly awaited books being reviewed in this issue include Tim Flannery’s Here On Earth (Text, October), which Eliza Metcalf says is ‘an important read’. ‘Flannery traces our species’ evolution and expansion out of Africa and across the globe, noting the trail of destruction we left in our wake,’ she writes. ’The picture he paints is a fairly devastating one, but also quite awe-inspiring.’

Paul Landymore assures readers that When Colts Ran, the new novel by Roger McDonald (Vintage, November), lives up to expectations raised by the author’s Miles Franklin win in 2006. ‘If you’re a fan of Australian literature then I’m sure you will find this book, as I did, a deeply satisfying read,’ writes Landymore.

Deborah Crabtree, our regular music book columnist, was taken with Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy (Hamish Hamilton, October), a book that grew out of series of performances Kelly put on in 2004. ‘Part memoir, part tour diary, part song-writing manual, this sprawling book is filled with all manner of letters, lists, confessions, hymns and yarns,’ writes Crabtree, adding that the book gives Kelly ‘space to explore his storytelling skills further, which he does admirably, weaving in and out of the past and present easily and with an intimacy that invites the reader into his world’.

And that’s not to mention Lloyd Jones’ Hand Me Down World (Text, October), Kate Holden’s The Romantic (Text, October), Things Bogans Like (E C McSween et al, Hachette, November), Toni Jordan’s Fall Girl (Text, October), and many, many more…

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