BOOK REVIEW: Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law (Michaela McGuire, MUP)

last betsMichaela McGuire was an uninspired writer spending time overseas when she came across the death of Crown Casino patron Anthony Dunning in the news. Fascinated by the alleged role of the casino’s bouncers and the responsibility of the casino, she began to follow the court case and think about gambling more generally. The result is Last Bets, a thoroughly researched but quite intimate account of a complicated social issue. McGuire writes in a personal way; she lays bare her process in a method reminiscent of Jeff Sparrow’s excellent study of the porn industry Money Shot. Last Bets is about gambling but it is also a compelling study of an entire court case. McGuire follows the trial of the Crown Casino bouncers, describing intricately the atmosphere of the courtroom: the procedures, the witness testimonies, the lawyers’ squabbles, her own doubts and responses—even the gossip of the work experience kids—as the trial unfolds. Interspersed with the trial are McGuire’s interviews with others involved with gambling, from an addicted family member to the Crown Casino chaplain. Most interesting is gambling syndicate member and MONA founder David Walsh. McGuire provides insight into issues surrounding gambling, the law, and her own experiences in casinos. Last Bets is a thoughtful and enjoyable book.

Portia Lindsay is a former bookseller who now works at the NSW Writers’ Centre

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: The Genome Generation (Elizabeth Finkel, MUP)

Within the first few pages of The Genome Generation I realised how ignorant I was about the world of scientific research. It didn’t matter, as Elizabeth Finkel offers an excellent explanation of the science of genomes through clever metaphor, which goes beyond the clichéd notion of genomes representing the complexity of a computer. This is not to say that The Genome Generation is pitched at a basic level. Finkel spends a lot of time looking to the future to consider the likely progression of genome research. She examines current debates regarding the potential of genome research, particularly in the field of developing a vaccine for HIV/AIDS, and the ancestral genetic makeup that may be of crucial importance. Finkel also offers readers advice on how to apply the science of genomes to their everyday lives, for example, through the effects of environment on offspring, and warns of the dangers of ‘dabbling where you don’t understand the controls of the system’. Finkel writes that her aim is to ‘empower the reader to know what to ask’ of genomes and in this task she has certainly succeeded. Her wit, knowledge and fascination with the intricacies of genomes is evident, and quite frankly, contagious.

Megan Hancock is a bookseller at Ellison Hawker Bookshop in Tasmania. This review first appeared in the Summer issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: Babylon (Stephen Sewell, Victory)

Babylon is a taut and unpredictable crime novel from Stephen Sewell, who is best known as a playwright and scriptwriter and who recently adapted the film Animal Kingdom into book form. Charismatic psychopath Dan is driving a stolen black Chevrolet when he picks up Mick, a young English backpacker, seemingly by chance. Dan’s flair and immediate power over the vulnerable Mick are slowly teased out in an extended cop-chase/road-trip through a dark and mythic east-coast Australia. While Dan remains an enigma (his violent murders are revealed ‘off-camera’), Mick is exposed as a vulnerable, fatherless young man who grew up in a no-hoper housing commission in Northern England. This is a detective story turned on its head: the cops’ appearances are limited, almost klutzy cameos that allow the reader a break from the remorseless evil of Dan and the delusions of Mick, as he begins to see things he’s never seen before. The filmic nature of the book is boosted by sharp descriptions of the landscape and the unrelenting evil of Dan, which work together to build this story towards a surprising ending. This is a tightly written literary crime novel.

Rachel Edwards is the events manager at Fullers Bookshop in Hobart. This review first appeared in the July issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: Lost in Transit: The Strange Story of the Philip K Dick Android (David F Dufty, Victory)

Imagine talking to a life-size robot version of your favourite dead author. Crafted by a skilled sculptor and controlled by artificial intelligence, the android could—in the author’s voice and with human gestures and facial movements—answer questions about his life, his books and any topic you asked him. Now imagine the author was Philip K Dick, the paranoid sci-fi visionary whose most famous work, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, featured conscious androids almost indistinguishable from their human makers. The stranger-than-fiction Philip K Dick android was built by a team of young scientists at Memphis University’s Institute of Intelligent Systems, led by roboticist David Hanson and programmer Andrew Olney. In 2005 it briefly captured the world’s attention, appearing at technology conventions around the US, before going missing on a flight between Dallas and Las Vegas, never to be seen again. Dufty’s insider’s account blends the android’s story with that of artificial intelligence, robotics and Dick himself in a combination that will be fascinating to sci-fi buffs, popular science readers and nerds of all stripes (like me). It’s the best kind of popular science—a book that doesn’t require any previous knowledge, but leaves you hungry to know more, and wondering at the possibilities that may lie ahead.

Lachlan Jobbins is an editor, reviewer and ex-bookseller. This review first appeared in the June issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

Bookseller+Publisher magazine June issue: top picks

The June issue has landed! This time around several titles impressed our reviewers. Here are just a few:

Berlin Syndrome (Melanie Joosten, Scribe, July)

Reviewer Eloise Keating describes Melanie Joosten’s Berlin Syndrome as a ‘courageous and exciting debut’ from ‘an extremely talented new writer’. She recommends the Melbourne writer’s novel to readers of literary fiction, who will appreciate the story of the ‘complex and dangerous relationship’ between a backpacking Australian photographer Clare and Berlin school teacher Andi. ‘Joosten is masterful in her descriptions of the loneliness that can be found both in a foreign city full of strangers and in an apartment shared by two people,’ she writes.

There Should Be More Dancing (Rosalie Ham, Vintage, July)

Fans of Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker ‘won’t be disappointed’ by her new novel, says reviewer Heather Dyer.  The story unfolds at Margery’s 80th birthday party, where she is ‘planning to fling herself from a balcony’. However, ‘there are a lot of people in the atrium below and she doesn’t want to spoil their day’ so she bides her time in her hotel room and ‘looks back on her life, convinced of conspiracies that have kept her in the dark for years, and full of grievances’. ‘A cast of memorable characters and Ham’s sly humour make this an entertaining read,’ says Dyer.

Lost in Transit: The Strange Story of the Philip K Dick Android (David F Duffy, MUP, July)

In Lost in Transit, author David F Duffy blends the story of a ‘stranger-than-fiction Philip K Dick android’ that was ‘built by a team of young scientists at Memphis University’s Institute of Intelligent Systems’ with a discussion of ‘artificial intelligence, robotics and Dick himself’, writes reviewer Lachlan Jobbins. The android, based on the famous sci-fi author, ‘briefly captured the world’s attention … before going missing on a flight between Dallas and Las Vegas, never to be seen again.’ Jobbins concludes: ‘It’s the best kind of popular science—a book that doesn’t require any previous knowledge, but leaves you hungry to know more, and wondering at the possibilities that may lie ahead.’

Infernal Triangle (Paul McGeough, A&U, July)

Foreign correspondent Paul McGeough’s Infernal Triangle is ‘essential reading’ according to reviewer Paula Grunseit. ‘It covers his observations of significant events in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Levant over a decade’, she writes, and despite his ‘access to numerous key figures, from political leaders to dissidents and Islamic Jihad fighters … the “ordinary” person is not forgotten either’. McGeough’s collection of reports ‘should be of interest to anyone who follows international news and current affairs’, says Grunseit.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Short Goodbye: A Skewed History of the Last Boom and the Next Bust’ (Elisabeth Wynhausen, MUP)

It is difficult to feel much sympathy for the ridiculously overpaid futures traders and investment bankers who caused the Global Financial Crisis and then became its first casualties. The banking meltdown affected far more people than just the super-rich, of course, and Elisabeth Wynhausen tells some of their stories in The Short Goodbye. She also sets out to reveal the lie in the notion that the Australian government somehow averted the crisis and that we sailed through unharmed while the rest of the world foundered. She achieves this by relating personal accounts of ordinary Australians whose livelihoods and businesses were wrecked by the unrestrained greed of the era, and how the banks and the government have consigned the GFC to history already, without addressing its structural causes or its social cost. This book is the sort of social criticism that will appeal to readers of Will Hutton or Barbara Ehrenreich, but with a specifically Australian focus. The economic analysis is a little thin, but this is not a book about economics so much as about people and the failure of governments to protect their own from the rampant greed and rapacity inherent in the global financial system.

Dave Martus of Paperchain Bookstore in Canberra has 15 years’ experience as a bookshop manager and buyer in London and Sydney. This review first appeared in the Summer 2010/11 issue of Bookseller+Publisher.

Most mentioned books this week

Blanche d’Alpuget’s Hawke: The Prime Minister (MUP) sits at number one on the most mentioned chart this week. The release of this book coincides with the announcement of the federal election and the screening of the Hawke miniseries, all of which shouldn’t hurt sales. Other local titles in the chart included Roddy Parr (Peter Rose, Fourth Estate) and Gunshot Road (Adrian Hyland, Text). My Friend the Mercenary (James Brabazon, Text) and Inheritance (Nicholas Shakespeare, Harvill Secker) also received a number of mentions this week—Media Extra.

Forthcoming titles: Our reviewers’ top picks

Among our reviewers’ top picks of forthcoming Australian books in the upcoming combined May/June issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine are The Book of Human Skin (Michelle Lovic, Bloomsbury, May); Breaking News: The Golden Age of Graham Perkin (Ben Hills, Scribe, May); The Finger: A Handbook (Angus Trumble, MUP, May); When Hungry, Eat (Joanne Fedler, Allen & Unwin) and With Stendhal (Simon Leys—AKA Pierre Ryckmans, Black Inc., June).

We’ve also heard advance reading copies of Indelible Ink by Fiona McGregor (Scribe, June) are going down well with the staff of a certain Melbourne-based independent bookselling chain, drawing comparisons to Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. It’s reviewed in the May/June issue too: ‘McGregor presents a refreshing view of life in Australia—specifically Sydney—that celebrates the doubts, challenges and ordinary activities and emotions of everyday life … you don’t want to put the book down,’ writes our reviewer, bookseller Carly Been.

There are more than 70 reviews of forthcoming Australian and New Zealand books in the May/June issue of the mag. Here’s how you get your hands on a copy.