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.


It’s 1984 in a small silo town in Queensland, and 19-year-old Neil Gentle is part of a mismatched group of dreamers and cultural outcasts: JD the DJ; Stephen the Modernist; Phil the Hipster; Peaches who hates machines and Kennychan who lives for them; Meg, Neil’s friend from childhood; and Charley, the first girl he could talk to about the Beatles, along with others. Neil’s been drifting since high school ended, rock’n’roll dreams fraying at the edges, but 1984 is the year of change. What connects the characters is their shared obsession with music, and the same thing holds the book together. The musical references are eclectic and wide-ranging, dipping in and out of eras, genres and movements, and the serious enthusiasm for all is joyously infectious. This is a book with heart, delicate characterisation and a striking sense of place: the small-town world with its wide open spaces and narrow minds, and the vibrant music aficionados scene that springs up around the record store RPM come together in a way that is both idealised and deeply honest. It will appeal particularly to anybody who has been part of a music scene or wished they could have been.

Jarrah Moore is an editorial assistant at Cengage Learning. This review originally appeared in the July issue of Bookseller+Publisher. Sign up for the free fortnightly Bookseller+Publisher Newsletter here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Hard Light of Day (Rod Moss, UQP)

Shortly after Rod Moss moved to Alice Springs, he met a black couple living in the gully behind his flat. Giving them access to water for their billy widened into a friendship that took in a clan. Over the next 25 years, Moss lived, taught and painted on the lands of the Eastern Arrernte. Sadly, he also attended 60 funerals. This memoir’s title is drawn from a gloss accompanying the author’s painting, Raft. Patterned after Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa, here it depicts five Arrernte men and women and decries the vicissitudes of grog in ‘the Alice’. Without an agenda, this book is Moss’ own beautifully written story, and while he barely conceals his exasperation at so many premature deaths, it’s also a positive recollection of his deep and personal friendship with the elder Arranye (‘Ah-run-yah’), who lived to something resembling old age, 71. This book’s careful design––with its jacket of a black snake (Moss is associated with this animal) on red ochre sand––is further enhanced by the reproduction of 40 of Moss’ startling artworks and their accompanying gloss. Mention should also be made of Raft, the memoir by Moss’ good friend Howard Goldenberg (Hybrid), published last year.

Michael Kitson is a bookseller at the Sun Bookshop Yarraville. This review first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

The Hard Light of Day is the winner of the nonfiction award in the 2011 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.

BOOK REVIEW: Clara in Washington (Penny Tangey, UQP)

It’s the end of high school, the end of an era, and Clara decides to break with tradition and go to Washington with her mother for the holidays rather than spend time with her father at their beach house. But Washington isn’t quite the adventure Clara expected, and she feels alone with her thoughts in a strange city and detached from her friends and family. Clara is on the verge of adulthood, and as her own life and the world around her changes, she struggles to connect with people and maintain her sense of identity. Clara is a wonderfully textured character whose fears and insecurities will ring true to all readers on the verge of leaving high school and entering the next stage of their lives. Her fears and insecurities almost cripple her when she arrives in Washington, but as she pushes her own boundaries, she discovers her own limits. It is impossible not to empathise with Clara’s journey. Clara in Washington is based on the author’s own time in the city, and her experiences are evident in the level of detail in this book. The surroundings come to life as Clara strives to find an experience that is more real than a postcard. Wrapped in a very entertaining coming-of-age story, this is a fun read, but also quite a thoughtful one.

Bec Kavanagh is a Melbourne-based writer and reviewer and ex-bookseller. This interview first appeared in the the Junior Term 2 supplement of the June issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine. Read Junior Term 2 online here and sign-up to The Junior Newsletter.

Bookseller+Publisher magazine: July issue top picks

The July issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine has landed! Here are some of the forthcoming releases that impressed our reviewers this issue:

Spirit of Progress (Steven Carroll, Fourth Estate, August)
Clive Tilsley of Fullers Bookshop in Tasmania reviewed Steven Carroll’s Spirit of  Progress, a ‘prequel’ to The Art of the Engine Driver, the first of Carroll’s ‘Glenroy’ trilogy. ‘Reading Spirit of Progress was one of the most enjoyable things I have done for a long time,’ writes Tilsley. ‘While it begins and ends in 1977, most of the story is set in the immediate post-war years in Melbourne as the country starts life afresh… I am sure everyone who has read the ‘Glenroy’ series will welcome this addition.’

Babylon (Stephen Sewell, Victory, August)
Rachel Edwards, events manager at Fullers Bookshop in Hobart, declares Babylon ‘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. ‘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,’ writes Edwards. ‘This is a tightly written literary crime novel.’

Cargo (Jessica Au, Picador, August)
journalist Eloise Keating says former Meanjin deputy editor Jessica Au’s debut novel Cargo is ‘a stunning and compelling read’. The novel weaves together the stories of three teenagers finding their way in the early 1990s in Currawong, a small Australian coastal town in which the lives of residents are invariably influenced by the water that surrounds them,’ writes Keating. ‘Au captures the rawness of her protagonists’ emotions with compassion and skill, as well as refreshing honesty… the complexity and uncertainty of growing up is celebrated in this unique snapshot of adolescence which will be appreciated by readers of all ages.’

The Courier’s New Bicycle (Kim Westwood, HarperVoyager, August)
Perth-based bookseller Stefen Brazulaitis said that while Westwood’s novel ‘will definitely appeal to science-fiction readers’, he’d recommend it to adventurous literary fiction fans too. ‘Salisbury “Sal” Forth is a bicycle courier in a future Melbourne, running contraband through the back streets of a society in turmoil. Mass vaccinations against the latest super flu have tipped the body chemistry of most of the population into endocrine crisis and infertility. With the government dominated by anti-technology Christian fundamentalists, the illegal hormone packages that Sal delivers are the only hope some have…’

RPM (Noel Mengel, UQP, August)
Reviewer Jarrah Moore was impressed by Noel Mengel’s novel, set in 1984 in a small silo town in Queensland, about ‘a mismatched group of dreamers and cultural outcasts’. ‘What connects the characters is their shared obsession with music, and the same thing holds the book together,’ she writes. ‘This is a book with heart, delicate characterisation and a striking sense of place: the small-town world with its wide open spaces and narrow minds, and the vibrant music aficionados scene that springs up around the record store RPM come together in a way that is both idealised and deeply honest.’

Melbourne (Sophie Cunningham, NewSouth Books, August)
In nonfiction, bookseller Veronica Sullivan enjoyed the fourth in NewSouth Books’ series of popular histories of Australian capital cities: Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. ‘As a former editor of Melbourne-based literary journal Meanjin, Cunningham is uniquely qualified to dissect the city. She offers an intimate, nuanced perspective of Melbourne past, present and future. This is the Melbourne of Graham Kennedy, Helen Garner and Mick Gatto, but also of generations of artists, cyclists, Collingwood fans and the covert urban explorers known as the Cave Clan,’ writes Sullivan. ‘This book is lively and accessible, with a voice that is informative but not didactic, making it ideal both as an insiders’ guide for locals and an introduction for curious outsiders.’

A Small Book about Drugs (Lisa Pryor, A&U, August)
Portia Lindsay says A Small Book About Drugs by former Sydney Morning Herald columnist Lisa Pryor is ‘a persuasively written and thought-provoking essay that warrants serious consideration by young people, parents, politicians, law enforcement and the media’. It ‘offers a controversial perspective on recreational drug use, as discusses many aspects of the practice that are often taboo in mainstream debate,’ writes Lindsay.

Violin Lessons (Arnold Zable, Text, August)
Lindsay also reviews Arnold Zable’s Violin Lessons in which ‘music in its many forms provides comfort, escape or nostalgia for a variety of trapped or displaced individuals—the Iraqi refugee reunited with his band, the Polish labourer enchanted by his music box, the Cambodian fisherman who serenades the river’. ‘This book is a wonderfully complex, sad and beautiful read,’ writes Lindsay.

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INTERVIEW: Elizabeth Stead on ‘The Sparrows of Edward Street’ (UQP)

Bookseller+Publisher reviewer Chris Harrington speaks to Elizabeth Stead about her new novel The Sparrows of Edward Street (UQP).

Many Australian families were adversely affected by the economic disruption after the WWII. What brought the plight of camp residents to your attention?

Being there! Though not in the year written in the novel. The Sparrows of Edward Street is a work of fiction because I had trouble remembering all of it. Some memories have been erased so I hope former inmates will forgive omissions—and additions—about camp life!

Your book details life in one particular camp in Sydney. Were there many similar camps in other states? ow long were housing campsWhen were these camps finally closed?

Sparrows is based on the NSW Housing Commission camp at Bradfield Park, Lindfield, NSW.  There were similar camps I believe in other states but they were mainly for migrants.   

Where did you do your research? Are there many documents still available on life in the housing camps?

Research was difficult. The NSW government was no help! The camp has remained an embarrassment to the state government. The local council historian, Joan Rowland, and my cousin Dorothy Basili were a great help. Documents were practically non-existent. I have a few photos and one or two letters written by former camp-dwellers that inspired certain characters and passages. 

Aria is a very special character, both as the voice of the Sparrow family and as the ‘protector’ of Hanora and Margaret Rose. How did you develop her character?

Aria Sparrow and I are joined at the hip…  We have both survived. I had no trouble developing her character and she would have had less trouble developing mine! And may I say, we are still as feisty as ever.

Both Hanora and Margaret Rose are rather overwhelmed by the events that overtake the Sparrow family, yet Aria is able to retain her sense of humour throughout. Did the use of humour in the book make it easier to tell the story of such difficult times?

Aria usually found humour in even the darkest days, and still does. To find humour in a long and arduous life has fortunately not been difficult for me. And yes, it did make the novel easier to write although I confess to a few ‘old tears’ during some passages. Age! Old people cry if you look at them sideways!

What was the last book you read and loved?

American writer John Cheever’s Collected Stories and Other Writings. After reading The Journals of John Cheever many years ago, I learned the importance of the courage to write the truth.

The Sparrows of Edward Street is published this month by UQP. Chris Harrington reviewed the novel in the March issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine, now available online here.