BOOK REVIEW: The Circle of Silence (Shirley Shackleton, Pier 9)

Last year’s film Balibo re-ignited public awareness of the six Australian journalists murdered in East Timor in 1975. Shirley Shackleton, widow of journalist Greg Shackleton, has now told her side of the story in an engaging, funny, gutsy and often heart-rending memoir. Hers is an extraordinary life: from public relations careerwoman to motherhood, and then, following the loss of her husband, nearly 35 years of activism. While The Circle of Silence is a personal memoir, it tells little of Shirley Shackleton’s private life after the first 80 pages. On page 81, Greg Shackleton dies. Or maybe that’s the point: after her husband’s death, her fight for justice was her life. It’s a moving tale of grief, anger, determination and courage, as Shackleton uses her PR nous to campaign internationally, which included some hair-raising visits to East Timor. As time passed, Shackleton’s activism extended beyond the journalists’ fate to protesting against Indonesia’s treatment of the East Timorese (the book includes grisly details of torture and rape), and trying to stir successive Australian governments to action. The Circle of Silence is a book for general readers. It should also have a long life on media, history and politics shelves.

Nicola Robinson has worked as an editor and bookseller. This review first appeared in the May/June 2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: Inside Story (Peter Lloyd, A&U)

Peter Lloyd was a foreign correspondent for ABC TV when in 2008 he was charged and jailed in Singapore for drug use and possession. This book is the story of that arrest and his six months in jail. It is also the account of his battle with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Lloyd brings a journalist’s confidence with words to his own story, which makes this a very easy book to read. He also writers with a candour, which makes this a very compelling book. Lloyd never shies away from the fact that he was guilty of drug use and that Singapore was a stupid place to get caught. In the first part of this book he cleverly weaves the events of his arrest and trial with the events that he covered as a reporter—events that ultimately led to his PTSD. The second half of the book deals with his jail time and determined recovery from PSTD. While this book is about drugs and jail, it does not belong in the true-crime section. Its readers will be those interested in journalism or stories of survival and recovery.

Ian Hallett is a bookseller at Pages and Pages Booksellers in Mosman. This review first appeared in the October 2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

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.

INTERVIEW: Kate Holden on ‘The Romantic’ (Text)

Andrea Hanke talks to Kate Holden about her new memoir The Romantic, a follow-up to In My Skin.

I read that The Romantic originally started out as a novel. How did it evolve and how do you think this has influenced the style of the book—for example, the decision to write it in the third person?

The memoir was originally going to be the last third of a tripartite novella work, but soon took on the dimensions of a full-length book which put paid to that idea. Even after the first full draft I was considering how to fictionalise the protagonist, give ‘her’ a different character and borrow the real-life events for a narrative contrived on the themes of my real experience. But it wouldn’t work: skewing even one element threw the whole thing out of balance, particularly the emotional truth. However the third-person perspective remains and presents a critical distancing which is, I’m told, unusual in a memoir.

In The Romantic you travel to Europe to discover yourself—a rite of passage for many Australians. Do you think this experience—which can often be a lonely one, so far away from family and friends—is an effective way for people to gain a better understanding of themselves? Do you think you could have made the same discoveries about yourself living in Melbourne?

In In My Skin I was alone in Melbourne, and often fugitive—in Italy I was alone too, still looking for a safe place. I needed freedom from the humiliation I’d felt as an addict, and a chance to re-make myself. The amnesiac anonymity of overseas is attractive to many travelers.But it is frightening also. I do think solitude is clarifying, though it reminds us all the time of how much we need other people. Travel is a test as well as a solace, but one well worth taking.

Most of the sexual encounters you describe in In My Skin were in the context of your profession as a sex worker. Was it harder to write about personal encounters and relationships in The Romantic?

I was terribly, terribly conflicted about portraying my personal relationships, not for my own sake but for that of the privacy of my ex-partners. Fortunately they gave me permission—or at least forgiveness. I am a compulsive over-sharer and already used to having exposed my sexuality in writing but there were moments when I wondered if I should just skip over something truly intimate—and then realised that that instinct meant I should probably share it, because that’s where the good—and empathetic—material is. Everyone’s had relationships so I try to present mine as candidly as possible in the hope that others can relate.

Through your Age column and various public speaking events, you’ve developed a public profile—particularly in Melbourne. How does it feel to encounter strangers who know such intimate details about your life?

Just today I was recognised by my postman! I never know what to say when strangers say they’ve read my work, but I suspect I am more disconcerted than they are, and I try to remember why I chose to be revealing in the first place. Readers seem to be able to separate my writing persona from my real one. And I am always amazed how warmly people respond to my written character. Those who don’t like me don’t bother to say hello. But I am humbled by the sweetness of readers, and how my candour seems to invite their own.

What are you working on now?

I’ve got my Age column to write, and I’m prodding away at a draft of a novel, and making notes on a possible non-fiction book. I’d also like to do more short stories. But right now I’m preparing to do promotion for The Romantic, and I know I’ll have little concentration for writing while that’s on. I feel lucky, excited, and anxious all at the same time!

Andrea Hanke’s review of The Romantic appears in the current issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: The Happiest Refugee (Anh Do, A&U)

The Happiest Refugee is Anh Do’s debut in the book world and a bruisingly honest depiction of his life to date. The story starts with Do’s parents meeting and falling in love in war-torn Vietnam, and tracks a young Anh as he and his family journey from their homeland to a refugee camp in Malaysia and finally Australia. Do takes us through the pleasures and pitfalls of growing up in Australia as an outsider. One of the things that particularly stands out about his attitude to life is just how unconditionally grateful he is to have experienced everything—even the bad. This book is about war, escape, pirates, love, courage, racism, alcoholism, comedy, tragedy, and, above all, hope. The way Do approaches his story is witty, charming and heart-warming, and just when you think you’re about to die from laughter, he wrenches your heartstrings so hard that within an instant you’re on the brink of crying. This book will appeal to readers young and old, and should be mandatory reading in Australian schools, with its themes of outsiders and acceptance.

B Owen Baxter is a writer, musician and bookseller. He is currently studying Writing and Philosophy at the University of Newcastle. This review first appeared in the September issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

BOOK REVIEW: Popeye Never Told You: Childhood Memoires of the War (Rodney Hall, Pier 9)

The narrative opens with little Rod Hall, squashed behind the piano with his siblings and widowed mother, scared out of his wits while bombs fall on his home town in England. While the family is terrified, his stoical, though headache-prone, mother manages to distract them from the raids by sharing photographs and golden reminiscences of Kangaroo Valley in far-off Australia. Rodney Hall’s evocative and moving book Popeye Never Told You: Childhood Memories of the War won me over with its disarming yet simple prose. The hardship and frugality of the period is conveyed through a series of tender vignettes, recounted from the perspective of the inquisitive youngest member of the family. Everything, from the small flat where the Halls live (above the landlord’s garage and workshop) to the backyard where they play (the garage roof ), is recounted from the eye level of a six-year-old, albeit with the fleeting attention span of a six-year-old. Several of the accounts are merely impressions or feelings that surface in little Rod’s mind. They are as often perceptive observations as they are the clumsy bumbling of a lonely little boy.

As the breadwinner, Rod’s mother is absent during the day, leaving the children free to roam the neighbourhood, especially during the stretches of school holidays. Led by his whip-sharp older brother Mike, who can outwit local tough boys with clever ‘inventions’ and sheer courage, little Rod and the slightly older Di explore the countryside, the abandoned flour mill and even scrape together enough money to buy train tickets to the next town (although, amusingly, they have insufficient funds for the return trip). Throughout, the narrative resonates with the heartbreak of a little boy who knows his father only through other peoples’ memories and a solitary photograph. Rod searches his reflection for a sign of his father’s existence, but finds only tears. Reading Popeye made me return to some of Rodney Hall’s earlier books; Just Relations won the Miles Franklin in 1982 and Captivity Captive the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 1988. I have recollections of frightening landscapes, murder and monstrous women, all described in lustrous prose. Lustrous, there’s a word the young Rod would have noted in his autograph book; to roll around in his mouth and imagine; to use later. We are the grateful beneficiaries of that autograph book; that early formed love of language.

Barbara Cullen is a former CEO of the Australian Booksellers Association. This review first appeared in the May/June issue of Bookseller+Publisher, now online here.

BOOK REVIEW: Love and Other U-Turns (Louisa Deasey, Arena)

Towards the end of her engaging travel memoir cum self-help book, Louisa Deasey refers to her year-long road trip with Jim as ‘Survivor—Romance Style’. For me it conjured up Eat Pray Love meets Tim Winton and Martin Mischkulnig’s Smalltown. Almost on a whim, freelance journalist Deasey throws in her lot with the peripatetic Jim, leaving the comforts of her lattes, her daily newspaper and her city girlfriends to wander seemingly aimlessly the length and breadth of Australia, chasing the ultimate pub gig that is bread, butter and soul food for her new man. Louisa and Jim are road warriors, sleeping in swags, eschewing showers and just about every other comfort for the experience of living truly in the moment. But while she is able to divest herself of almost all her possessions, she finds freedom elusive and love confounding. Love & Other U-turns is a road movie in a book and Deasey is able to evoke the greasy bain-marie at the truck stop as evocatively as the chance sighting of whales in the Great Australian Bight. She also does a great line in claustrophobia and paranoia that can accrue from hours spent in a car on an empty outback road. This book will be enjoyed by anyone who has ever run away only to discover that the one person you can’t escape from is yourself.

Toni Whitmont is the blogger and newsletter writer for Booktopia.com.au. This review first appeared in the May/June 2010  issue of Bookseller+Publisher. You can read the April 2010 issue online here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Family Law (Benjamin Law, Black Inc.)

Within the first two pages of The Family Law I was laughing out loud and reading passages out to explain my non-standard reading behaviour. This was repeated many, many times over the course of Ben Law’s debut as I made my way through his series of vignettes of life as one of the Laws. For those not familiar with Law’s work, he’s a freelance writer for many magazines—possibly best known for his work in Frankie. He grew up as one of five children raised on the Sunshine Coast where his parents settled after emigrating from Hong Kong. He’s also gay. These three factors—big family, immigrant background, homosexuality—are the common threads that run through his stories. They could make for a po-faced book, but this title is anything but. It’s a rollicking series of insights into the life of a pretty awesome family. The Family Law is unflinchingly graphic and Law’s language runs pretty blue at times, so this won’t be for your more easily offended reader. However, for those who love their writing fresh, fun and packed with laughs, it’s perfect.

Eliza Metcalfe is a freelance writer and editor and former assistant editor of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. This review first appeared in the May/June 2010  issue of Bookseller+Publisher. You can read the April 2010 issue online here.

BOOK REVIEW: 5 Ways to Carry a Goat: A Blogger’s World Tour (Ben Groundwater, UQP)

One day Ben Groundwater sends a call to Aussie expats on his Fairfax travel blog, asking if he can stay the night on their couch. The result is a hilarious memoir of three-and-a-half months of couch-to-couch travel and the random people he meets along the way. Groundwater says ‘bring on the nutters’ and plots his journey from the most compelling emails. He travels through China, Thailand, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Europe, Brazil and America, with some of the more exotic locations providing more interesting reading—including some dangerous places and some places where he is able to do things illegal back home. Groundwater’s goal is a uniquely local travel experience, but he is often thwarted when handed guidebooks and dragged to yet another temple. This story is about meeting interesting people, some slightly insane, others just trying to make a living far away from home. By the end of the book the travel has certainly taken its toll. Brian Thacker has taken a similar ‘couch surfing’ journey with Sleeping Around (A&U), but he doesn’t have the support of the blogging community that Groundwater does. 5 Ways to Carry a Goat is an incredibly funny book about an average guy’s journey into the unknown, recommended for gen-y readers who need a laugh.

Andrew Wrathall is publishing assistant at Bookseller+Publisher magazine. This review first appeared in the May/June 2010 issue. You can view the April 2010 issue online here.

BOOK REVIEW: Ten Hail Marys (Kate Howarth, UQP)

Kate Howarth was only a baby when her mother abandoned her after she was caught trying to throw her off a balcony. Her grandmother grudgingly looked after her, shunting her back and forth between relatives, before making her a ward of the state. Ten Hail Marys traces Howarth’s early childhood into adolescence and gives the reader a unique insight into the lives of Indigenous people in inner Sydney and rural New South Wales in the 1950s and 1960s. Howarth is a natural storyteller, combining powerfully wrought portraits of her extended family with deft imagery of landscape and place. She was a victim of childhood abuse and poverty, but her remarkable strength enabled her to survive. At 15 years of age she became pregnant, and was sent off to St Margaret’s Home for unwed mothers in Sydney. This achingly poignant memoir is shocking in its revelation of the Catholic Church’s treatment of unwed mothers—abuse and intimidation tactics failed to convince Howarth to give her baby up for adoption. Her ability to withstand such cruelty is testament to her indomitable spirit. This compelling story is an important part of Australia’s social history. Filled with pathos, energy and insight, it will appeal to a broad readership.

Julia Stirling is an ex-bookseller and freelance reviewer. This review first appeared in the April issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.