BOOK REVIEW: Surviving Peace: A Political Memoir (Olivera Simić, Spinifex)

Surviving PeaceLaw academic Olivera Simić has penned this absorbing yet troubling account of the effects of the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. She writes of the life journey that has taken her from Bosnia to exile in Serbia, to the US, Costa Rica and Brisbane, in a narrative voice that is likeable and reasoned. Do not expect a retelling of war experiences; instead Simić gives an intellectual consideration to issues surrounding war, its atrocities, and more specifically, the hardships encountered in living after the war. What happens after the violence has ended and economies are broken, when people have been removed from their homelands, when there are no jobs? What happens when your cultural identity comes from a nation that no longer exists? Are you entitled to talk on the war if you have not suffered as much as others? These are just some of the issues covered. Peppered with quotes from diverse sources, this volume unusually combines academic-type discussion with personal reflections. It also gives a first-hand account of post-traumatic stress. Surviving Peace provides greater understanding of the Balkan Wars to those who don’t know much about the Bosniak, Serb and Croatian ethnicities, and some possible new perspectives to those who do. It makes a valuable contribution to ensuring we don’t forget the horrors and enduring impact of war.

Joanne Shiells is a former editor of Books+Publishing. This review first appeared in Books+Publishing magazine Issue 2, 2014. 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: Things I Didn’t Expect (When I Was Expecting) (Monica Dux, MUP)

Things I didn t expectThings I Didn’t Expect combines Monica Dux’s own bravely honest, warts-and-all pregnancy and birth stories with anecdotes, statistics and expert opinion on issues surrounding childbearing. It is sometimes very funny in a snort-out-loud kind of way. Mixing these styles of writing can’t have been easy to pull off, but it flows well. Dux deals with mostly modern maternal neuroses, the obsessions and anxieties that overwhelm us in our information-laden, hi-tech, perfection-striving worlds, and shines a light on the realities behind the labour ward curtain. The target market for this book is a bit unclear. The book’s frankness may have a somewhat terrifying effect on the yet-to-be pregnant. The been-there-done-that crowd may be losing interest in the topic (as Dux discusses, the strong emotion about pregnancy fades over time). That leaves the in-the-thick-of-it group, who could be the most engaged, but may be hard to target, and possibly too sleep-deprived to take much in. Some of the chapters are stronger than others; the one on miscarriage was particularly moving. The book is passionate, broadly researched and gets bonus points for references and a rare bibliography. Importantly, it contributes to much-needed open discussion of pregnancy and birth, plus humour is a great way to deal with the emotional and physical upheaval that comes with creating humans. Dux’s strong opinions may cause controversy. I didn’t always agree with it, but I definitely enjoyed reading it.

Joanne Shiells is a former bookseller, editor and parent of two. This review first appeared in the Summer 2012/13 issue of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Cat & Fiddle (Lesley Jørgensen, Scribe)

Cat_FiddleCat and Fiddle, winner of the 2011 CAL Scribe Fiction Prize for an unpublished manuscript, follows the scandals and fortunes of two connected families in rural Wiltshire. The Anglo-Bangladeshi Choudhurys provide colour and warmth as the mother tries to marry off her brood of three: Tariq, a former jihadist art curator grappling with his sexuality; shunned artist Rohimun with her ruined reputation; and baby Shunduri, the ‘princess’. The establishment Bourne family, together with wealthy Greek wife Thea, are renovating the ancient family estate, and also have their share of hidden skeletons. The characters in Lesley Jørgensen’s debut novel are vivid, albeit slightly caricatured, the dialogue is engaging and the vernacular convincing. This is a big, fat satisfying read, which will appeal to fans of books featuring intricate plots, family webs, rollicking love stories, multiculturalism (particularly with a sub-continental theme) and clashes between tradition and modernity, religion and culture. The depictions of Mrs Begum’s Bengali cooking are tantalising, as are the details of artist Rohimun at work with her oil paints, and the sumptuous descriptions of the Bangladeshi saris. I adored this sprawling, funny novel. This is highly recommended late-summer reading.

Joanne Shiells is a former retail book buyer and editor. This review first appeared in the Summer 2012/13 issue of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Crying in the Car: Reflections on Life and Motherhood (Karen Andrews, Miscellaneous Press)

Karen Andrews blogs at and previously edited and published a collection of writing from blogs, Miscellaneous Voices. Crying in the Car is a collection of short stories, essays and poems, based around the themes of ‘motherhood’, ‘desire and loss’, and ‘escape from urbanity’. Andrews’ passion for her craft is evident, as is her intuition as a writer and observation of sentiment and detail. The ‘Crying in the Car’ of the title, alas, is not the sound of toddlers wailing in the backseat, but that of a parent sobbing in her broken-down car outside her daughter’s school. Motherhood is not a huge presence in the collection, but one of the strongest stories for me was ‘An absent mother apologises on her son’s fifth birthday’, which encapsulated the raw emotion of early parenthood. Other topics under reflection include: IVF treatment, abortion, love, marriage, film, technology, parenting, religion and crowd behaviour. Enjoyable and at times thought-provoking, Crying in the Car will suit short-story or small-press sections, and should appeal to short-story fans and followers of contemporary or local writing.

Joanne Shiells is a former retail book buyer and editor. This review first appeared in the October/November issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life (Ramona Koval, Text)

Imagine you are sitting in a cosy lounge room somewhere, chatting with literary journalist Ramona Koval about her life and reading interests. There are casual recollections of her past, and an impassioned discussion of books she has read and themes and topics she was into at the time. This is how By the Book reads. In it, Koval discusses her childhood and the infancy of her relationship with reading, and gives glimpses of her extraordinary mother and tragic family history. Essentially though, it is a journey through Koval’s diverse reading habits over time—from politics to science, feminism, travel, polar explorers, anthropology, classics, and even the Kama Sutra—interspersed with citations and a few personal anecdotes about the authors she has befriended. She writes: ‘the books we read introduce us to other books, as if we are at a magnificent party of the mind’. This book is just that, and one to read with a pen nearby to jot down titles. It may be hard to categorise: it fits easily on a ‘books and writing’ shelf, but would also be at home with the memoirs. Its obvious readership will be book lovers and Radio National listeners. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Koval’s enthusiasm bubbles from the page. It confirms the erudite and talented Koval is a treasure, whose voice is sorely missed on our airwaves.

Joanne Shiells is a former retail book buyer and former editor of Bookseller+Publisher. This review first appeared in the August/September issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The House of Memories (Monica McInerney, Michael Joseph)

Popular fiction author Monica McInerney needs no introduction to the Australian book trade. In her new novel, Ella, an editor, is in her mid-30s and settled in domestic bliss in Canberra. A horrible tragedy explodes her seemingly perfect world and sends her to the other side of the world. This instantly feels like a Monica McInerney novel: a web of characters, a confused protagonist, a strong family connection and an Irish link. Then the plot turns: tragedy, grief, heartbreak and jealousy, with any strands of romance playing second fiddle to Ella’s battle with her overwhelming grief. The tragic scenes are very moving and the fog and pain of Ella’s anguish seems realistic. There is an endearing warmth to the narrative and characters, and the underlying themes of family and forgiveness are uplifting and hopeful. There’s an emphasis on place, and the romance of central London is vividly depicted, with the story centred around a rundown Paddington terrace inhabited by untidy academics. The desire to untangle the web surrounding Ella and see some kind of peace amid the turmoil kept me engrossed: an important element of this genre. This is a quality example of its type and booksellers can be confident recommending it to customers seeking a heartening and entertaining read.

Joanne Shiells is a former retail book buyer and former editor of Bookseller+Publisher. This review first appeared in the August/September issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: My Hundred Lovers (Susan Johnson, A&U)

You may know of Susan Johnson for her brave memoir of motherhood, A Better Woman, or her novel about writer Charmian Clift, The Broken Book, among other titles. Her seventh novel, My Hundred Lovers, opens with a woman in middle age who is feeling overpowered by memories. Passages about her relationships and human connections are interspersed with vignettes recalling the joy of different sensory experiences. Amid passion, despair and humour, the fallible-yet-likeable Deborah provokes sympathy as she realises the untruth of romantic love. Johnson reminds us of the inherent sensuality of all kinds of experiences, from patting a dog to wearing a dress, taking a bath and eating gelati. Deborah’s erotic encounters do not dominate the plot, demonstrating there is much more to a sensual existence than sex, and much romance to be found in life. Expected to attract a mostly female audience, this rich and meaningful novel deserves a broad readership. It is easily readable and poetic; Johnson’s gift for language delights and some of her descriptions are to be savoured. With much of the novel set in France, it may also appeal to those with a penchant for the Gallic. I found My Hundred Lovers uplifting, due to its sumptuous language, and the mirror it shines on the beauty and intrinsic preciousness of life.

Joanne Shiells is a former retail book buyer and editor of Bookseller+Publisher. Read the interview with Susan Johnson here. This review first appeared in the April/May issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine.