BOOK REVIEW: The Promise (Tony Birch, UQP)

the promiseThis impressive new collection from the author of Blood (2011) introduces a host of peculiarly Australian outsiders: émigrés, kids, ex-cons and other lost souls, from vagabond ‘blackfellas’ to cuckolded husbands. Relayed in laconic vernacular prose, these are stories about people for whom actions speak louder than words. In ‘Snare’, a stammering youth thwarts a ‘pedo’s’ assault of an Islander girl, earning as a result the esteem of his bullies. ‘The Lovers’ sees a Carlton waiter admire a delicate beauty from afar, while ‘The Money Shot’ finds a trio of amateur crims saddled with an infant en route to a job. Elsewhere, a gang of boys meet their match in a high-pressure marbles tournament, while a jilted carpark attendant finds salvation in olives. Other stories detail the nuances of Indigenous experience: a young man makes a pilgrimage to the site of his birth, and the titular tale of a problem drinker of miscegenous parentage reads like an antipodean descendant of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. The latter is the standout, along with ‘The Ghost of Hank Williams’, which mingles a liquor-induced fugue with unearthly visitations from the country and western legend to offer a glimpse into the lives of a reforming drunk and his eccentric busker buddy.

Gerard Elson is a writer and bookseller who works at Readings St Kilda. This review first appeared in Issue 1, 2014 of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: A War of Words: The Man Who Talked 4000 Japanese into Surrender (Hamish McDonald, UQP)

war of wordsA War of Words delves into the military history of Asia in the early 20th century through the life story of Charles Bavier. A man of astonishing military and diplomatic feats, Bavier was born to a Swiss merchant father and raised in Japan by his father’s mistress. Bavier’s exploits included assisting the revolutionaries in the Wuchang Uprising in China, which led to the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. He translated Japanese documents for army intelligence in Melbourne, then left to fight alongside the Anzacs in Gallipoli. During the interwar period he became an agent for MI5 in Singapore and carried out a successful spy mission to discover Japan’s plans for World War II, which British politicians refused to believe. The only drawback in this story is that we don’t really know what happened, as the mission was classified. Bavier also worked in Australia during World War II on a propaganda campaign to convince Japanese soldiers to surrender—no easy feat given that Samurai beliefs about shame would lead many to commit ritual suicide known as seppuku. Hamish McDonald was given Bavier’s manuscript of anecdotes in 1983 when he was working as a foreign journalist in Tokyo. He has created a fascinating biography, which will appeal to those interested in the spy world and Australia’s connections to Asia during World War II.

Andrew Wrathall is the publishing and digital media coordinator at Books+Publishing. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in February 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Grace’s Table (Sally Piper, UQP)

grace s tableThis beguiling novel is set at a pivotal moment in the life of Grace, an Australian woman about to turn 70. She is determined to mark this moment with an old-fashioned family dinner and we meet her as she is preparing the food, assisted by her spiky daughter Susan. As a 70-year-old man, I doubted my ability to become involved in this tale. I could not have been more wrong. The author uses the meal—preparation, serving, eating and aftermath—as a device within which to tell Grace’s story. From her rebellious childhood, then a marriage that turns depressingly sour, through family tensions and a huge, unspoken tragedy, through friendships and enmities, we are given a portrait of a family that slowly fractures yet will still come together for occasions like Grace’s 70th. The last pages of the book, in which the old tragedy is revealed to the reader and the family finally faces it and starts to deal with it as adults, are confronting yet uplifting. Grace’s Table is involving, moving, amusing and genuinely entertaining. I kept wanting to introduce Grace to Mr Wigg (Inga Simpson’s stubborn farmer from her recent eponymous novel). They have much in common and would make a feisty, formidable team.

Max Oliver has just retired after 55 years in the book trade. This review first appeared in Issue 1, 2014 of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Find Your Feet (The 8 Things I Wish I’d Known before I Left High School) (Rebecca Sparrow, UQP)

find your feetFind Your Feet is the second nonfiction book that Rebecca Sparrow has written for young women, following Find Your Tribe (And 9 Other Things I Wish I’d Known in High School). While the first book dealt with high school, the second deals with life immediately afterwards. As with the first book, it is empowering, funny and realistic. Sparrow has a fantastic conversational style, and reveals enough of her own mistakes to create a real bond with the reader. I particularly liked chapter two, ‘Real life has real consequences’, and chapter six, ‘You teach people how to treat you’. Reminding young people that the worst thing that can happen isn’t a detention is important, as is encouraging young women to work out their relationship deal-breakers. The quotes from well-known women, and extracts from the comments section on mamamia.com.au, will help readers find someone they can relate to. Obviously, this would be a perfect book to give to a young woman in Year 12, but there is some scope here for women both older and younger—perhaps those in Year 11, or even those who have finished school and are struggling to find their place in the world.

Jessica Broadbent is a former bookseller and a qualified librarian, who is still trying to find her own feet. This review first appeared in the Junior Term 3 supplement of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Transactions (Ali Alizadeh, UQP)

TransactionsAli Alizadeh’s critically acclaimed book of poetry Ashes in the Air was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards last year and I would be surprised if Transactions doesn’t receive similar attention, as it is a powerful work of prose fiction. Through a series of interconnected stories, Alizadeh has created a truly global and uncompromisingly frank narrative, spanning the Red Light District in Amsterdam; various war-torn countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan; an Iranian prison; and a British literary festival. His characters are often caught between East and West and dwell in the harsh fringes of a cultural collision. A Ukrainian sex worker, a spoilt Emirati teenager, an Iranian asylum seeker and a young woman seeking bloody retribution for her mother’s death—among others— are characters glimpsed and yet fully realised through Alizadeh’s poetic yet direct storytelling. Cruelty is spliced with humour, such as the story set in a Melbourne theatre company, in which hilariously terrible dialogue captures the power dynamics being played out to much greater effect elsewhere. The stories intersect in surprising ways: a character reads a book of poetry, later we meet the poet, and even later we find her new book shortlisted for a farcically judged literary prize. This is a challenging and surprising collection from a talented writer.

Portia Lindsay is a former bookseller who now works at the NSW Writers’ Centre. This review first appeared in the Issue 2 2013 of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir (Kristina Olsson, UQP)

boy lostIn 1950 in far north Queensland, a pregnant 19-year-old boards a train with her baby boy, only to have her child wrenched away by her violent husband. Years later, the loss of Peter still haunts Yvonne, even as she tentatively begins to create a life with a new partner. Kristina Olsson, the eldest child of Yvonne’s subsequent marriage, was never told the details of her half-brother’s abduction. She writes: ‘the story had its own force-field … our mother’s sadness as effective as any electric fence’. Growing up, Olsson and her siblings were aware of their mother’s subterranean grief but it was only much later that Olsson gathered enough of the missing pieces to be able to re-imagine her mother’s early life, as well as to track the grim trajectory of Peter’s: motherless, afflicted by polio and in and out of state care. What makes Boy, Lost such a powerful memoir is its echoes of bigger national stories of lost children, whether it’s the stolen generation or unwed teenagers forced to relinquish their newborns or poor British children separated from their parents and sent to remote institutions in Australia. Olsson’s prose is lyrical and heartfelt as she sensitively explores her family’s history.

Thuy On is the books editor of the Big Issue and a Melbourne-based reviewer and manuscript assessor. This review first appeared in the Issue 1 2013 of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Mullumbimby (Melissa Lucashenko, UQP)

mullumbimbyWhen Jo Breen buys a property in the Byron Bay hinterland her motives are clear—to be closer to her ancestral land and to distance herself from city life. She has her longed-for property and horse, but Ellen, her teenage daughter, does not share her vision, nor do some of her neighbours, to say the least. Enter Twoboy, a charismatic young Aboriginal man intent on pursuing a Native Title case over the entire valley, despite competing claims. Jo and Twoboy become an item and the stage is set for a moving, contemporary rollercoaster of a tale set in an ancient land. The author moves the story along at a fast clip, except for occasional sermonising from Twoboy. She describes the land and its moods with affection and skill and persuades the reader to warm to most of the characters, including the infuriating Uncle Humbug and indomitable Granny Nurrung. Incidents abound, some very amusing and some chokingly poignant—I defy anyone to read the account of the death of Jo’s beautiful young colt, Comet, with dry eyes. Mullumbimby is a modern tale of the clash between cultures, of the importance of belonging, and, surprisingly, of the pitfalls of making assumptions about other people and their background. It deserves the widest readership.

Max Oliver is a veteran Sydney bookseller. This review first appeared in the Summer 2012/13 issue of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: City (James Roy, UQP)

In any move to a new city, familiarity takes time. The links between people and places aren’t always immediately apparent, and although one day you might find yourself strolling the streets with supreme confidence, those first few steps are often unfamiliar and strange. This is the case with Town, and more recently with its companion book City. In these two collections James Roy has chronicled the lives of young people who are linked by their geography and sometimes by their association. At a point in each book, names become familiar, places become landmarks and the story comes alive. From Town to City there is a sense of growing up, an expanding of families and social circles, and a changing of locations and situations. The characters in City are faced with an older set of problems and realities than their counterparts in Town. Roy’s imagination is on display in his range of characters, each with their own unique perspective, told in perfectly authentic voices. To call these two collections ‘short stories’ falls short. Although each chapter is separate and whole, the pieces really do come together as part of a larger novel. The primary character is the city, and it is impossible not to be immersed in every part of it. City will appeal to readers who like their fiction gritty and urban, and can be recommended to fans of Cath Crowley’s Graffiti Moon.

Bec Kavanagh is a Melbourne-based writer and reviewer. This review first appeared in the June/July issue of
Bookseller+Publisher Magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

 

BOOK REVIEWS: The Rest is Weight (Jennifer Mills, UQP)

Australian novelist and poet Jennifer Mills’ first collection of short stories offers an evocative and thought-provoking exploration of the human condition in its rich emotional complexity. Although The Rest is Weight spans seven years of Mills’ short fiction, it has a graceful coherence of style and theme. With crisp, vivid prose, Mills inhabits the inner lives of individuals confronting their thoughts and desires in diverse circumstances: an expat in China barely tolerates a visit from his well-meaning parents; a girl in Quintana Roo, Mexico, wonders what her mother does with the mysterious tall man who visits at night; a woman drives to Adelaide to visit the sister she hasn’t spoken to for 15 years. Mills has a knack for capturing moments that define what it is to be human. At the heart of these tales is our universal search for meaning, love and belonging, and Mills illuminates these powerful themes with dry wit and lyrical expression. Mills has compared assembling these stories to crafting the perfect mix tape. It’s an apt analogy for this intriguing and elegantly crafted collection, which cements Mills’ reputation as one of Australia’s most versatile young writers.

Carody Culver is a bookseller at Black Cat Books in Brisbane, a PhD student and a freelance reviewer. This review first appeared in the April/May issue of Bookseller+Publisher Magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Censor’s Library (Nicole Moore, UQP)

Australia had one of the worst records of so-called civilised countries for the banning of books. Sir Robert Garran, chairman of the Australian Commonwealth Book Censorship Board, dismissed George Orwell’s socially critical novel of 1930s London, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, with one line: ‘No literary merit, and I consider it indecent.’ Any frank discussion about sex or its free expression would see a book banned, often when it was freely available elsewhere. Citizens’ freedom to read what they liked was pitted against the notion of ‘community standards’ and the supposed tendency of ‘obscene’ material ‘to deprave and corrupt’. Literary academic Nicole Moore’s new and comprehensive study of book censorship is based on her remarkable discovery of Australia’s ‘censor’s library’ in the National Archives—793 boxes of banned books prohibited from the 1920s to the 1980s. Many are first editions and taken as a whole they constitute a rare historical and literary resource. The field of concern may have shifted to film, the internet and electronic media generally, but Australian book censorship is part of our trade, cultural and political history and is well analysed in this comprehensive, illuminating and highly readable study. This is a book for students of Australian cultural history and people interested in the history of civil liberties, and is a valuable contribution to the history of the book in Australia.

Dr David Dunstan teaches in the Graduate Publishing and Editing program at Monash University. This review first appeared in the Summer issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.