BOOK REVIEW: The Sweet Spot (Peter Hartcher, Black Inc.)

Peter Hartcher’s new book is a 21st-century reply to Donald Horne’s classic The Lucky Country. Hartcher argues that while Australia enjoys unprecedented prosperity, security and freedom, this has very little to do with luck. Rather, what transformed Australia from the world’s biggest prison into one of the most desirable countries in which to live was courageous and prudent governance. Hartcher cites the economic reforms started by Hawke and Keating and continued by Howard and Costello, which set up Australia as a social and economic model for the rest of the world, and helped the Rudd government to steer Australia through the financial crisis. Yet despite their success, Howard and Rudd lost their jobs with little thought given to their sound economic management, and Gillard and Abbot’s embrace of populism could bring this ‘Australian Model’ undone, suggests Hartcher. This is another cracking book from publisher Black Inc., which will appeal to readers of Hugh McKay and Bob Ellis. Hartcher, a well-known journalist and political and international editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, should attract plenty of reviews and media coverage. This should be a big seller in nonfiction this Christmas.

Dave Martus is the manager of Dymocks Neutral Bay in Sydney. He has many years’ experience as a bookseller and buyer in Australia and the UK. This review first appeared in the November 2011 issue of Bookseller+Publisher, available online here. 

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: Midnight in Peking (Paul French, Viking)

Peking was the name of the city of Beijing, before Mao Zedong and the Communist Party introduced the modern standard of writing to China. The name conjures up the nostalgia of old China prior to the Cultural Revolution, a puzzle of controlled chaos and a place of superstition, fraught with danger, where Westerners could seek out adventure and gain riches from spice trade. In 1937, this was a city abandoned by Chiang Kai-shek, controlled by warlords, and on the brink of invasion by Japan.

Midnight in Peking is a nonfiction mystery on the brutal death of Pamela Werner, an English girl in Peking, which shocked the city as well as the world. She was the daughter of the eccentric Edward Werner, a former British consul to China and respected academic. The story follows the investigation into her death, following Detective Chief Inspector Richard Dennis as he unravelled the truth and was stopped on each new path by troubling dead ends. Edward Werner later made it his personal mission to find the killer after Dennis was taken off the case. The media interest in the death fuelled the rumour mill, thwarting the investigation. The gossip and fears of the people combined with anxieties about the impending war.

International diplomats and businessmen lived in the Legation Quarter, a section of the city carved out by the colonialists. Alongside the quarter in the Badlands lived prostitutes, drug addicts and gamblers. In French’s account, everyone here had something to hide and corruption lurked below the surface.

Pamela Werner’s body was found dumped below the Fox Tower, part of the city wall. At night the tower was filled with bats, visited by nasty dogs and according to the Chinese was inhabited by mischievous and deadly fox spirits. The superstition further fuelled anxieties.

Paul French has masterfully recreated the murder investigation from mountains of research of a 74-year-old crime, taking it on as a ‘cold case’ to be solved. French has also painted a beautifully intriguing picture of the city. The story lacks dialogue because of its nonfiction style, but this doesn’t detract from the narrative, as the reader is kept absorbed by the curious tale. Against the backdrop of the Japanese invasion of China, the story shares the same historical period as Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard (HarperPerennial) and both tell the story of the Westerner in China. I recommend this book to anyone who would like to glimpse old Peking and particularly those who enjoy a good murder-mystery.

Ben Ball presented the book at the Book Buzz session at the Australian Booksellers Association conference in July as one of the top three Penguin books to be released this year. The book was also presented at Books at MIFF as a novel that has potential for screen adaptation and pitched as, ‘An opportunity to make a Chinese-Australian coproduction with real international appeal.’

Paul French is touring Australia in September and appearing at the Melbourne Writers Festival and Brisbane Writers Festival. The book has its own website here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Sound of Pictures: Listening to the Movies, from Hitchcock to High Fidelity (Andrew Ford, Black Inc.)

Andrew Ford—writer, composer and ABC radio broadcaster—spent five years scrutinising 400 films, as well as interviewing film directors and composers, in the creation of this book. The undertaking has proved worthwhile. Ford vows upfront to avoid obfuscating academic jargon, along with the peddling of any grand theoretical paradigms. He opts instead for an accessible, erudite narration in what is a considered exploration of the multifarious uses of music and sound editing throughout the history of cinema. Wisely, Ford acknowledges that even lousy films can generate interesting discussion, and so The Scent of Green Papaya is devoted no more exegesis than, say, Sliding Doors. Indeed, Ford is refreshingly egalitarian, surveying not only the classy (Les Enfants Du Paradis, Fanny and Alexander) and classic (Citizen Kane, Psycho), but also the popular (The Bodyguard, Die Hard), the recent (In Bruges, Samson & Delilah), the lurid (Suspiria) and the downright dire (Mamma Mia!). Of his interview subjects, of which there are 10, Ennio Morricone, Sally Potter and Peter Greenaway offer most food for thought. While there might inevitably be blind spots, Ford’s roving curiosity and inclusive prose ensure The Sound of Pictures holds premium interest for all movie enthusiasts, casual and committed.

Gerard Elson is a writer, film blogger and DVD buyer for Readings St Kilda. This review first appeared in the Summer 2010/11 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

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: Things Bogans Like (E C McSween et al, Hachette)

The authors of the blog Things Bogans Like (see also Things White People Like) have collected their entertaining and hilariously spot-on observations about that sociological mainstay, the bogan, in a book of the same name. According to the authors, the bogan has been too narrowly defined, and to ‘deny the bogan based on its North Shore home, stockbroking career or massive trust fund’ is to choose not to see the bogan. This is an inspired piece of sociological satire, entertaining to the core. It involves both the pleasure of labelling people and behaviors for which we did not previously have satisfying labels, and the pain of recognising some of our own traits reflected in these new boganic parameters. I enjoyed both. One possible barrier to potential sales, especially to those unfamiliar with the bogans blog, may be the garish cover art, which underrepresents the quality of the content. Standout things bogans like include: McMansions; misspelling their kids’ names; the Melbourne Cup; ‘no deposit, no interest, no repayments for 18 months!’; Bunnings; Andre Rieu; and Tiffany & Co. The authors retain pseudonyms, but anyone who enjoys, say, Tony Martin’s style of complex, wordy, observational toilet humour will love this book.

Rebecca Butterworth is a freelance writer and ex-bookseller living in Melbourne. This review first appeared in the October 2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

The most mentioned books this week

The wait for the release of ex-Prime Minister John Howard’s memoir is over. Lazarus Rising (HaperCollins) has hit the shelves and the controversy has hit the fan. Newpaper stories are already documenting ex-Treasuer Peter Costello’s reaction to Howard’s take on his time in government, which is probably to be expected given the light shone on the pair at the time of Howard’s 2007 defeat. In the book, Howard traces his personal and political journey, from childhood in the post-World War II era through to the present day. Tim Flannery’s new book Here on Earth: An Argument for Hope (Text) appeared again in the most mentioned chart this week. Stephen Fry’s The Fry Chronicles (Michael Joseph) and Simon Rich’s Elliot Allagash (Serpent’s Tail) also gained a number of mentions, as did Australian author Toni Jordan for her novel Fall Girl (Text)—Media Extra.

BOOK REVIEW: MacRobertsonland (Jill Robertson, Arcade Publications)

MacRobertsonland is a fascinating portrait of an entrepreneur and philanthropist, the man behind Australian confectionary favourites Cherry Ripe and Freddo Frog. Author Jill Robertson (no relation to her subject) tells the story of Macpherson Robertson’s life and the development of his confectionary business. From a childhood of poverty, Robertson used hard work, innovation and some very imaginative marketing to establish his business empire, MacRobertsons. A high-profile figure in Melbourne society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his story is told against the backdrop of Melbourne’s growth as a city during that time. This is a remarkable story of a savvy businessman, generous and charitable, but also proud and egotistical, a slightly eccentric man with a scandalous personal life, at least for the times. Alongside his chocolate factory, Robertson ventured into many areas of business and involved himself in numerous enterprises during his life. He used any opportunity for publicity and the author provides some interesting insights into the origins of some of Melbourne’s icons and landmarks, such as MacRobertson’s Girls’ School. This is a book with wide appeal; full of local history, an account of building a business empire, and a well-researched biography of an eventful and interesting life.

Lyndal More is a bookseller and publishing student. This review first appeared in the October 2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

BOOK REVIEW: Rock and Hard Places (Andrew Mueller, Affirm Press)

London-based rock journalist, travel writer and foreign correspondent Andrew Mueller wears all three of his hats in this collection of pieces, spanning the past 20 years, lifted from such publications as Melody Maker and Uncut. Most of the selections focus on bands—Mueller goes on tour with Radiohead, U2 and The Cure; visits the Elvis Presley Festival in Tupelo; suffers through Woodstock II; etc—while other selections are gonzo-style excursions into trouble spots like Afghanistan and Tehran. The most memorable pieces, such as Mueller’s investigation of the music scene in Sarajevo in 1996, and his coverage of The Prodigy’s tour of Beirut, frequently combine the rock and hard places of the title. Mueller is a talented, unapologetically opinionated, and often very funny writer, whose obsession with music calls to mind The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, the recent book by that other Australian rock aficionado Robert Forster. Occasionally Mueller gets carried away with his own cleverness, and did he really need to include a piece about his (albeit disappointing) promotional tour of England for his first book I Wouldn’t Start From Here? That said, Rock and Hard Places is an addictive collection, guaranteed to delight all true rock’n’roll fans.

David Cohen is a writer, reviewer, ex-bookseller and former ISBN Agency employee. He currently lives in Brisbane. This review first appeared in the October 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.