Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Finding My Place: From Cairo to Canberra – The Story of an Irrepressible Woman, by Anne Aly

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Academic and now Labor politician Dr Anne Aly tells her story. Warm, engaging and often quite funny.

Anne Aly first came to national attention several years ago as an academic and researcher on issues concerning counter-terrorism and extremism. More recently she entered politics as the Labor candidate for the federal seat of Cowan in Western Australia. She won the seat and became the first Muslim woman to enter parliament. In Finding My Place: From Cairo to Canberra – The Story of an Irrepressible Woman, Dr Aly tells of her personal journey.

Born in Egypt in 1967, and migrating to Australia at the age of two, Anne grew up in suburban Australia like any other kid. The only difference was her darker skin and Egyptian heritage. She made friends, endured teasing (often called “blackie” and once spat on in the face by a fellow school kid) and generally concentrated on all the positives of her Australian upbringing.

When Anne turned seventeen, her parents became concerned about her marriageability, and so the family pulled up stumps and moved back to Egypt, ostensibly in the hope of finding Anne a husband. Horrified at the prospect, but yet succumbing to parental authority, Anne continued her studies in Cairo, graduating in 1990 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. She did marry in Egypt, finding a husband of her own choice. The marriage produced two sons, was abusive, and soon ended.  Left on her own to raise two boys, Anne spent years of struggle – emotional and financial. Some of these passages in Finding My Place are deeply sad and heartbreaking.

A hard worker, Anne maintained her studies through a second none-too-happy marriage and forged herself a considerable career as an academic, appointed Associate Professor at Curtin University in 2014 and Professor at Edith Cowan University in 2015. A wonderful achievement, made all the sweeter by the fact that many had sniggered at her academic ambitions.

Finding My Place is a splendid book: inspiring, funny and genuine. It’s the story of personal hardships and challenges, of feeling yourself to be an outsider and and wondering where on earth you fit in life’s bewildering scheme of things. Anne Aly writes in a refreshingly breezy manner, peppering her story with entertaining incidents and smart observations (the descriptions of getting a license in Egypt are hilarious). Despite being the victim of racial abuse and domestic violence, Aly’s voice is always chipper, looking to find that glass half full. In these pages she certainly makes good company.

It’s not often that a parliamentarian writes a memoir like this. They’re usually self-serving, the story of a vocation that was practically commissioned in heaven. Anne Aly’s story is one of hits and misses, hard work and grasping at opportunities, of someone who doesn’t claim to have any answers, but is searching nonetheless.

A thoroughly enjoyable read. Don't miss it!

Release date: 19th March

Finding My Place: From Cairo to Canberra – The Story of an Irrepressible Woman, by Anne Aly. Published by ABC books. ISBN: 9780733338489  RRP: $32.99

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here

Friday, March 9, 2018

Black Moses, by Alain Mabanckou

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Alain Mabanckou's latest novel is a biting satire on political corruption and ideology.

Thirteen-year-old Moses has lived in an orphanage since he was a baby. He never knew his parents. At the orphanage he hangs out with his friend Bonaventure and tries to avoid the bullies. Moses finds parental figures in the kindly Papa Moupelo, the orphanage’s priest and Sabine, a worker who supplies him with books. But both these surrogates are shipped out of the orphanage by the corrupt orphanage director, Dieudonné, who replaces them with his cronies.

Sick of the moral cesspool that is the orphanage’s administration, with its mindless veneration of the Congo’s Marxist government, Moses runs away to the city of Pointe-Noire and lives by his wits. He descends into petty crime, lives with a plucky brothel Madam and sinks to eating cat and dog meat to get by. Things don’t improve. Moses finds himself continually mired in poverty and the novel ends with him reaching the age of forty, nursing a serious mental illness.

It’s hard to categorise Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses. Its relentlessly bleak but also full of savage humour. The plot, such as it is, runs almost like a dark Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Moses narrates his own story and his voice is chipper and excitable. He describes so much corruption, violence and degrading poverty in a vivid and mercurial manner, skipping cheerfully over the abyss.

A biting satire that makes you recoil in horror at the truth it must be based on.

Black Moses, by Alain Mabanckou. Published by Serpent's Tail. ISBN: 9781781256749 RRP: $19.99

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Spring Garden, by Tomoka Shibasaki

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A mysterious sky-blue house brings together two strangers in a nearby apartment block.

Divorced three years ago, Taro lives alone in a block of eight flats. The flats have a slightly eerie, desolate feel as they are slated to be torn down and replaced with new ones. Taro is an introverted young man, still in his early thirties, and he spends much time thinking about his father who recently died. Next to the block of flats there are several other interesting buildings, most notably a sky-blue house, an architectural curio from the 1960s.

When Taro strikes up a friendship with the unconventional Nishi, a woman who lives in the flat above him, he learns that she has an obsession with the sky-blue house. In her youth, when she was at school, she remembered a picture book that was especially devoted to this blue house and was called Spring Garden. The book was put together by the original occupants, an outré, arty type of couple. The curious book featured pictures of the couple lounging around the various rooms of the house looking enigmatic. Nishi by chance came across the blue-sky house again when searching for a new place to live and so she moved into Taro's block of flats, with its direct view of the house.

The friendship between Taro and Nishi is cemented as they become intrigued by the curious book, Spring Garden, and speculate about what the house must be like inside. When a new family takes up residence in the sky-blue house, they get their chance.

Tomoka Shibasaki's 2014 novel, beautifully translated by Polly Barton, is a sensitive and intimate account of a spontaneous friendship between strangers, set against a delicately drawn backdrop of a transitory and ethereal urban environment. The descriptions of the mysterious sky-blue house, the other odd buildings, the lane ways, streets and idiosyncratic gardens, with their trees and wildly growing vines, will appeal to anyone who has been intrigued by the cultural and emotional significance of houses.

Spring Garden evokes feelings of isolation, introspection, and fleeting human connection in the midst of a densely populated city. A gorgeously delicate and intimate read. 

Spring Garden, by Tomoka Shibasaki. Published by Pushkin. ISBN: 9781782272700 RRP: $19.99

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

North Melbourne Books March Newsletter - featuring Dervla McTiernan

In the March edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we have a terrific scoop! We talk to debut crime novelist Dervla McTiernan. Dervla was born in Ireland, but has called Australia home for the last decade. She lives with her family in Perth.

The Rúin is a page-turning crime thriller that tackles dark aspects of Ireland's recent history. It has an authentic sense of place and people, coupled with a wonderfully gloomy, moody atmosphere of moral decay. This is a noir thriller sure to please crime aficionados, and even those who aren’t.

To view the latest edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter, click here. To sign up for our monthly newsletter, click here.

North Melbourne Books talks to Dervla McTiernan

North Melbourne Books: When investigator Cormac Reilly is stationed at a new police station, he is thrown back into an old case from twenty years ago involving two children whose mother died of an overdose. Now the children, grown adults, are possibly the victims of another crime. As Reilly re-opens an investigation into their mother’s death, he is plunged back into some of the uglier aspects of Ireland’s past – drugs, poverty and the abuses of the church. The Rúin has a soul searching tone, as it tries to fathom black spots in Ireland’s recent history. 

What does the novel mean to you?

Dervla McTiernan: I heard Don Winslow being interviewed by Kate Evans recently. He was talking about his novel The Force, and he said that in writing The Force he didn’t set out to write a cop novel, he set out to write a New York cop book. I suppose that stuck with me. When I set out to write The Rúin it wasn’t in my mind to examine any particular social issue. I just wanted to write a great story. But the decision to set it in Ireland inevitably brought with it a whole context. You used the term soul-searching and that is what I found myself doing as I wrote the book. 

I grew up with a great love of my country, and great pride in my  nationality, but the reality is that the same country that gave me a happy, stable childhood allowed for institutionalised neglect and abuse of thousands of children over many decades. I’ve struggled to get my head around that, struggled to understand why good people allow terrible things to be done in their name. I think in a way that is a universal question, not just an Irish one. And in the novel I found myself coming back to that question, trying to find an answer to it. I think I understand it now, or at least I have my own theory about it, though I certainly didn’t find a solution.

NMB: Your characters are very believable and psychologically complex. How did you get such an authentic tone for your characters?

DM: Thank you! For me a book starts with the characters. I usually have a very strong feeling about at least one character in a possible story before I know that I have something that has the potential to become a novel. If I have one character I feel strongly about, then I will sit down and start working on the other characters before I do begin to outline or even begin to start writing scenes. I really need to understand who the characters are before I start working on the book. A really well-developed character feels like a real person to me when I’m writing, and they’ll almost write the book for me. Whereas, if I haven’t done enough work the character feels wooden, and will stop the story in its tracks.

NMB: You’ve said the story started as a single image: a brother and sister sitting together, holding hands, on the stairs of a crumbling Georgian house. It’s such a simple idea, yet the novel is so layered and multi-faceted, with a wide cast of complex characters. What was the writing process like? 

DM: The Rúin is my first novel, so the process of writing it was a little all over the place! I think I took that old maxim about terrible first drafts a little too seriously. My first draft really was awful. I had no process, and just started with a blank page and an idea, and kept going until I got to the end. I could tell in reading it that it wasn’t very good, but I struggled to pinpoint exactly what was wrong. I had so much to learn! I went to writing workshops here in Perth, which helped, but I also learned so much from reading books on the craft of writing, and then re-reading my favourite authors and trying to understand how they do what they do. For the second draft I scrapped 90% of my draft and started again. For the third draft I think I only scrapped about 40%, so that was progress! I kept going like that, scrapping and rewriting until it started to feel a little bit more like something worth submitting.

NMB: The Rúin is a very accomplished and technically assured first novel. Are there any writers who you count as influences?

DM: Thank you, that’s very kind of you. I think every writer I’ve ever read has influenced me to some degree. It’s quite difficult to think of writers that have directly influenced my writing, possibly because the writers that first come to mind are all quite different. I am a big Tana French fan – she commits so completely to her characterisation so that every book has a very distinct voice, and each voice is so utterly convincing. She also knows how to tell a great story! And then there’s Michael Connelly. I think it’s the clarity of his writing that makes it special, something I didn’t fully appreciate until I started writing myself. There are times as a writer when you think you know what you want to say, but you haven’t fully and completely examined the thought or the idea, so the writing is muddy. It takes work and revision to fully understand what it is you are trying to say and get that idea firmly on the page, and Michael Connelly makes that seem effortless. Those are just two of the many writers I admire and whose work I think about a lot. In terms of technical approach, the writer who has influenced me most is Elizabeth George. I read her book Write Away (her book on craft) for the first time a couple of years ago, and was a bit intimidated by it. Her writing process is so complete, and she does so much up-front work before she ever puts her fingers to the keyboard to write a scene, that I thought initially that I wouldn’t have time for it. But I found myself coming back to Write Away again and again, and by the time I was writing my second book, this time on a deadline, I found that I really didn’t have the time not to do that work. I would say I’ve adopted at least 70% or more of her process and most of it is so embedded into the way I work that I don’t even think about it anymore.

NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?

DM: As usual, I have a few on the go! I’m reading Alex Gray’s Still Dark, which is dark and atmospheric and brilliant. For research I’m reading Forensics – The Anatomy of a Crime, by Val McDermid, an absolute must read for any writer of crime fiction. On audio I just finished Force of Nature, which was brilliant, and I’ve just started Jane Casey’s The Last Girl. I very belatedly discovered Jane Casey last year, so I’ve been catching up on her Maeve Kerrigan series, and loving it. The Book of Dust (Philip Pullman) and Sleeping Beauties (Stephen and Owen King) are top of my to be read pile after that.

The Rúin, by Dervla McTiernan. Published by HarperCollins. RRP: $32.99

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Randomistas: How Radical Researchers Changed Our World by Andrew Leigh

Staff review by Chris Saliba

In this engaging and wonderfully accessible book, former economics professor Andrew Leigh explains the world of random trials. 

In 1747 a ship's surgeon named James Lind ran an early version of a randomised test. Scurvy had long been the scourge of sea travel; huge numbers of men died of it at sea. In order to try and discover the cause of the disease, Lind tested six different treatments on six pairs of sailors. One of the trialed medicines was oranges and lemons. The results soon showed what worked: the sailors taking citrus fruit showed remarkable improvements.

In this informative and entertaining look at the world of random trials, Labor MP and former economics professor Andrew Leigh takes the reader through many fascinating examples, from crime and politics to technology and business. A recurring theme of Randomistas is how often the assumptions of experts and top officials are wrong. When it comes to making important decisions, Leigh urges we should be sticking to the science. Our own instincts aren't particularly reliable.

Full of weird and wonderful stories of random trials that threw out unexpected results (we even learn that Sesame Street uses randomised trials to more effectively tailor its programming), Andrew Leigh's book will reset the way you think and make you look at the world in new ways.

Randomistas: How Radical Researchers Changed Our World, by Andrew Leigh. Published by La Trobe University Press. ISBN: 9781863959711 RRP $29.99

Release date 1st March, 2018

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Rúin, by Dervla McTiernan

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Dervla McTiernan's debut tackles dark aspects of Ireland's recent history in a page-turning crime thriller.

Ireland, 1993. Young cop Cormac Reilly has been called out to a house in Kilmore, a “blink-and-you-miss it kind of village”. A young mother has died of a heroin overdose and her two children, Maude, a fifteen-year-old and Jack, a five-year-old, are waiting. The older sister, Maude, is quite self-assured considering all that has happened. Her younger brother, Jack, has been hurt and requires medical attention. She directs Reilly to take them to the hospital. That night, as Jack is being attended to, Maude disappears. She is labelled and runaway and Reilly soon forgets about this sad but not unusual case.

Twenty years later Jack is living with his girlfriend, Aisling, a professional woman who is training to be a surgeon. After the couple have a heated discussion Jack goes for a walk, but doesn't return. The police are soon involved, but Jack's sister, Maude, think they aren't doing a proper job. She has suddenly reappeared in Ireland after spending the best part of twenty years living in Australia. Confident and forthright, she practically takes over the investigation herself.

Into this drama enters Cormac Reilly. He have given up his high profile detective job in Dublin for personal reasons and has returned to a lesser role in Galway. At the Mill Street Garda Station where Reilly has been assigned (garda is Irish for police, or guard) there is a thicket of workplace politics. Reilly's new colleagues seem to be pushing their own agendas and not everyone can be trusted. As incompetent and corrupt officers deal with the disappearance of Jack Blake, Reilly hovers on the periphery of the investigation, slowly being drawn further and further in, until he finds himself at the centre of an explosive murder plot.

It's hard to believe that this is Dervla McTiernan's first novel, it's so accomplished (McTiernan moved from Ireland to Western Australia after the global financial crisis.) The characters, dialogue and settings are all compellingly believable. The plot has a wonderful richness and complexity that is backed up by nuanced psychological portraits of its key characters. This is a gripping page-turner that is greatly enchanced by its authentic sense of place and people. McTiernan creates a gloomy, moody atmosphere of moral decay as she tackles dark aspects of Ireland's recent history, most notably the consequences of its dire poverty and the sins of the church. This heady mixture of Irish social history and noir thriller makes The Rúin a winner in every sense. Sure to please crime afficionados, and even those (like this reader) who aren't.

The Rúin, by Dervla McTiernan. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9781460754214 RRP: $32.99

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Mona Lisa Mystery, by Pat Hutchins

Staff review by Chris Saliba

When Class 3 of Hamstead Primary head to Paris, they get caught up in a plot to steal the Mona Lisa.

There is excitement all round. Class 3 of Hamstead Primary School are off on an excursion to Paris. Mr Coatsworth, the bus driver, has fixed a sign to the school bus that reads, “Paris, Here We Come!”. The children – Morgan, Avril, Sacha, Matthew, Jessica and Akbar – can’t wait for their trip to begin. There’s only one slightly sour note: the school principal, Miss Barker, who was supposed to be going on the trip, has been replaced by Miss Parker. The children are not keen on Miss Parker, with her dyed hair and funny hat.

Soon after the bus sets off, Morgan notices they are being followed by a bearded man in a black Citroen car.  When the class gets onto the ferry that takes them to Paris, they notice a second bearded man. Things get stranger and stranger when Class 3 get to the hotel and before they know it, the children are caught up in a plot to steal the Mona Lisa.

Fans of David Walliams are sure to enjoy this hilarious holiday adventure. Pat Hutchins fills her mystery with plenty of fun characters, all with their individual tics and peculiarities. There is Avril, the plucky cockney girl who always carries around with her a bottle of her favourite condiment, tomato sauce; Mr Coatsworth, with his dreadful fear of heights (the dizzying scenes at the Eiffel Tower are brilliantly done); the madcap hotel manager; the seemingly eccentric yet quite wicked Miss Parker; and lastly, the wonderfully nutty Miss Barker, school principal.

Pat Hutchins excells at setting up a joke and paying if off with a good delivery. The scenes where Jessica thinks she’s been poisoned, only to realise she’s misread the menu (poisson is French for fish) are especially funny. The book also has the feelgood quality of a bustling school trip, full of naive enthusiasm with the children whooping with cheerfulness at every opportunity.

Fun holiday reading for adults and children alike.

The Mona Lisa Mystery, by Pat Hutchins. Published by Puffin. ISBN: 9780141386218  RRP: $16.99

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A former Google data scientist analyses what we search for in the privacy of our our bedrooms.

The title of this book is a bit of a misnomer, a hook to get the prospective book buyer in. Everybody Lies purports to be about what our internet searches reveal about us. Indeed, there’s a middle section which goes through some of the author’s unlikely findings, mostly about sex and racism, but on the whole Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s book is more about the science of big data.

Stephens-Davidowitz is a former Google data scientist. His interesting idea is to analyse google searches to find out the truth about who we really are. As it turns out, we perform virtuous roles in public, but when manically searching for advice, answers or simple solace on the internet, we become darker, frailer and more insecure beings. Sexually we’re not very satisfied with our partners, a large amount of gay men are still in the closet and most disturbingly, there is a high volume of racist searches, especially targeting African-Americans.

Analysing racist searches and matching them up state by state with high voter turnout for Donald Trump at the 2016 election, the author declares it was an anti African-American sentiment that swept the President to power.

The rest of the book examines the science of big data, how it is analysed, its powers of prediction (big data knows more about us than we know about ourselves) and its possible future applications. Stephens-Davidowitz has a nerdy obsession for numbers and internet clicks, and uses sporting and gaming examples galore (much like Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise). He also addresses ethical questions. Is it okay for companies like Facebook to employ psychologists and online testing to get users to stay longer on their sites?

For readers interested in big data – how it works and where it may be going – Everybody Lies provides a friendly and accessible primer.

Everybody Lies: What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. Published by Bloomsbury. ISBN: 9781408894705  RRP: $24.99

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The hype around Michael Wolff’s shock expose of the Trump White House is well deserved. Fire and Fury is a wild, wild ride. 

The key drama at the centre of Fire and Fury is the struggle for influence in the White House. Trump is the central figure around which so many orbit, yet he has no political or philosophical centre. He simply bobs and spins around impulsively. Trump is bored by serious meetings, lacks concentration, won’t read important documents, acts without consultation, is child-like and basically uninterested in government. The quandary for senior staffers is to find some kind of narrative and direction despite the President's policy vacuum. Many staffers desperately tell themselves there must be some hidden master plan, somewhere. Yet none can be found.

Michael Wolff describes three main factions fighting for control of the Trump White House. Firstly there are the Bannonites, headed by Steve Bannon. He is someone who’s studied history and believes he’s created a radical new movement. Then there is Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner (Bannon variously describes them as "Jarvanka", the "kids" or the "geniuses"). They run with a group of Goldman Sachs types, more left leaning in their politics. This group hope they can pull Trump towards a middle course. Lastly there is the establishment Republicans, led by Reince Priebus, now former White House Chief of Staff. His faction believes they can guide Trump to take a traditionally conservative course. These three factions are constantly trying to corral the President, but he doesn’t sit still long enough.

The access that Michael Wolff was granted to the White House is in itself highly symbolic of how incompetent and ridiculous the Trump administration is. Why let someone like Wolff in to roam around and sit in on meetings? The biggest mystery is why Bannon spent so much time speaking so candidly to Wolff. You can only surmise that Bannon is ultimately a nihilistic figure, only happy with failure and self-destruction. Fire and Fury is Bannon’s long suicide note.

Political junkies will eat this book up. It's dizzying, chaotic events and rogue gallery of careerists, buffoons and adventurers make it read like the mad, circuitous fiction of Dostoyevsky. Its pages describe so much bustle and jostling and movement, yet strangely, so much inertia. This is an administration that doesn't know where it's going or if it even wants to go anywhere. Wolff draws together his knowledge of politics, media and business to make a riveting narrative of power without sense or purpose.

Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff. Published by Little, Brown Company. ISBN: 9781408711392  RRP: $32.99

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

North Melbourne Books February Newsletter - featuring Clare Atkins

In the February edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we speak to award winning YA author, Clare Atkins, about her new novel Between Us.

It's a teenage love story and also a disturbing portrait of life inside an Australian detention centre. When Ana, an Iranian asylum seeker meets Australian-Vietnamese Jono, a relationship develops between the two. But there are enormous complications, as Ana, ashamed of her status as detainee, must live almost as a prisoner.

Clare Atkins's new novel is topical, heartfelt and an important contribution to Australia's asylum seeker literature. (Read our staff review of Between Us here.)

To view the latest edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter, click here. To sign up for our monthly newsletter, click here.

North Melbourne Books talks to Clare Atkins

North Melbourne Books: Between Us tells the story of Iranian asylum seeker Ana. She is kept at Wickham Point Detention Centre with her mother and younger brother. During the day Ana is allowed to attend the local high school. There she meets Jono, an Australian-Vietnamese boy whose parents have split up. As the relationship between Ana and Jono deepens, a riot at the detention centre breaks out. Its repercussions will be far reaching for Ana and Jono.

What made you want to write a teenage love story centred around the plight of asylum seekers in detention?

Clare Atkins: Well, firstly, who doesn’t love a love story? But, more seriously, my main desire was to use a personal, character driven story to explore Australia’s changing attitudes to immigration, asylum seekers and multiculturalism. My father is Vietnamese and my mother is Australian. I’ve always felt like I’ve grown up in between cultures, and it’s these in-between areas that I was eager to explore. Jono and Ana both inhabit that space. Jono is the son of a Vietnamese migrant,
but sees himself as completely Australian. Ana’s life is in limbo; she is neither really living in Australia nor free from her memories of Iran. My interest in asylum seekers comes from volunteering to coordinate children’s activities at Villawood Detention Centre in my early twenties, and more recently visiting people at Wickham Point. Some of my extended Vietnamese family also arrived at Australia by boat. I was interested to research the very different reception those first boat arrivals received compared to today, and tried to weave that sense of history into the novel. Jono and Ana, and Jono’s father Kenny, who works in the detention centre, felt like the perfect characters to bring the story to life.

NMB: The novel presents a very realistic picture of life in detention, especially all the small rules and regulations, many which seem over the top. How did you do the research for the story?

CA: I did extensive research over several years, talking to asylum seekers, settlement workers, government employees, security guards, teachers, settled refugees and many more. This was challenging at times because of the Border Force Act, which prevents people working with asylum seekers from speaking out about the conditions they witness in detention centres. There were multiple meetings in cafes in which interviewees said: ‘I’m happy to talk but I don’t want my name anywhere near this.’ Local organisations such as the Darwin Asylum Seeker Support and Advocacy Network (DASSAN) and the Melaleuca Refugee Centre were a huge help in making sure I got the details right. I was also very lucky to work with two key consultants – Natasha Blucher, a refugee advocate who has worked closely with asylum seekers for many years, and Shokufeh Kavani, an Iranian writer and artist.

NMB: Australia’s detention regime remains a very controversial issue. Your book discusses the personal struggles that people go through. Did writing on such a sensitive issue, where real lives are at stake, make the process difficult? Did you feel a bit of a weight on your shoulders?

CA: At times it did feel like a huge weight. There was the temptation to try to make the story lighter. I adore Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell and initially thought Between Us might have that kind of playful tone. But the more research I did the more that approach felt dishonest for Jono and Ana’s story. Of course, there is still joy and connection and fun, and the characters are trying to live normal teenage lives, but it became clear I needed to be honest about the other side of things too. Reading A Little Life and hearing Hanya Yanigihara’s closing speech to the 2016 Sydney Writers’ Festival was a real turning point for me. She talked about the responsibility of authors to show the dark as well as the light. And once I fully committed to that the story came together and felt real and honest, and the process became a little easier.

NMB: Between Us is a novel that tries to change hearts and minds on a fraught issue. Are you hopeful that the situation will improve for people in detention in the future, despite all the current difficulties?

CA: I wish I could say I’m hopeful but unfortunately I’m not. Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers often feels like one step forwards, two steps back. The political ground and rules are constantly shifting, and it’s all too easy to forget that the laws governing asylum seekers are not just words on paper, they are decisions that affect real people’s lives. I hope Between Us will allow readers to experience life behind the barbed wire fences - to have an intimate, if vicarious, experience of what as asylum seeker’s life may be like. The novel is fiction - it isn’t didactic and I don’t have any answers or solutions. But the one thing that was evident to me in Ana’s story, and the true stories of the many people still in detention today, is that our current approach is inhumane. There must be a better way forward.

NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?

CA: I’ve been enjoying Australian young adult fiction like Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, and reading cli-fi, including James Bradley’s Clade. I also love my daily dose of Nayyirah Waheed’s poetry on Instagram – I need to get a hold of her books.

Between Us, by Clare Atkins. Published by Black Inc. $19.99

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Between Us, by Clare Atkins

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A teenage love story and a faithful depiction of life in an Australian detention centre.

Ana is an Iranian asylum seeker, kept in detention at Wickham Point Detention Centre with her mother, Maman, and younger brother, Arash. They have been transferred from Nauru, but Maman’s partner, Abdul, has had to stay behind due to a criminal charge. He punched a wall. Ana is living two lives, because during the day she is let out of detention to attend high school. Her life behind the razor wire she tries not to discuss.

Early on at school she meets Jono. She feels embarrassed, almost ashamed, to admit to him that she lives in detention. Jono has a complicated story of his own. His parents have recently split up and he’s not talking to his Australian born mother (his father is Vietnamese). Jono is moody, frustrated and often acting out. A final twist in his story is the occupation of his father, Kenny. Kenny is a guard at Wickham Point Detention Centre. He’s been told not to trust the asylum seekers – they’re always trying to get something out of you.

Kenny has suspicions that Jono has started a relationship with Ana and is determined to stop it. When a riot breaks out at the detention centre, tragedy and heartbreak ensue for Ana and Jono.

Between Us follows Clare Atkins’ award winning debut novel, Nona and Me. The story is told in the voices of the three main characters, Ana, Jono and Kenny. The plot and events are quite straight forward: troubled yet sensitive bad boy meets beautiful, intelligent Iranian girl with complex background. Atkins moves skilfully through the troubled world of teenage love, capturing the language, pop culture references and general angst of being young. Over this she delicately weaves a nuanced drama of asylum seeker life in Australia – the brutality and toughness.

The great achievement of Between Us is in how it marries teenage fiction to a well researched  depiction of Australia’s detention centres. We witness all the small rules and regulations that asylum seekers have to comply with. For example, in one scene when Ana agrees to meet Jono at the pictures, she doesn’t inform the officer who must accompany her on excursions outside the detention centre. Once the officer finds out, Ana is threatened with the incident being reported. In another scene, when Jono tries to present Ana with some watermelon cut into wedges and placed in a plastic container, the attending officer says that this isn’t permitted. Throughout the book we are reminded that asylum seekers are referred to by a number, another way to humiliate and dehumanise.

A delicate teenage love story and a truthful presentation of life in an Australian detention centre.

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.

Between Us, by Clare Atkins. Published by Black Inc. ISBN  9781760640217  RRP: $19.99

Friday, January 19, 2018

Indian Captive, by Lois Lenski

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Lois Lenski's fictionalised account of the life of Mary Jemison. 

Mary Jemison was captured by Indians as a young girl in 1758 and raised by the Seneca Nation. She lived to the age of 90 and never returned to her people, preferring to identify with the Seneca. American children’s author and illustrator, Lois Lenski, researched Mary’s story and wrote it up as the children’s novel, Indian Captive.

The story starts with Mary being captured from her farm by a band of Indians and French soldiers. Her mother tells her that most likely she will never see her again. Her parting words reinforce the importance of saying her prayers and remembering who she is. Mary is handed over to two Indian women who initiate her into tribal ways. She learns about Indian food gathering, cooking, craft and religious beliefs. The whole time Mary is terribly torn. She wants to run away and live with white people, but day by day she slowly comes to accept living with the Seneca Indians. After several attempts to run away, she is finally given official permission to leave if she wants to. It’s an agonsing decision to make, but Mary  finally chooses to stay with the Seneca, realising she wouldn’t be truly happy if she returned to living with the “pale faces”.

Indian Captive does in many ways read like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series. It’s a story of American frontier life, but flipped over and told from a much darker perspective. Mary is an innocent victim of white frontier expansion, collateral damage if you will. Once she is captured, she learns the harsh reality of war, and why the Indians retaliate the way they do.

Mary’s story is necessarily a melancholic one. Ripped from her family, she must learn to live in a totally foreign culture. For most of the book she resists her fate, until near the end, she finally accepts that she is now an Indian. Lois Lenski’s biographical novel of Mary Jemison is no Disneyfied version of American history. There are harsh truths to lean along the way – most notably that Mary’s family has been killed – making Indian Captive a story that is full of sadness and stoicism.

Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9780064461627  RRP: $11.95

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Fraulein Else, by Arthur Schnitzler

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Arthur Schnitzler's page turning drama of a young woman asked to compromise herself to save her family from debt. 

Fraulein Else is a nineteen-year-old woman holidaying at a luxury Italian spa with her Aunt. She is quite bored with her friends and upper middle-class life in general, with the vanity and chatter, even though she often describes the atmosphere as being like “champagne”.  She exists in a gilded cage.

Into this world of ennui and privilege comes an urgent letter from her mother. A crisis is looming. Her father, always in some trouble or other, is in serious debt. Thirty thousand gulden must be raised within a matter of days, otherwise her father will be dragged to court and then prison. Can Else approach the art dealer Herr von Dorsday, who is also at the spa, and ask for a loan? Surely he won't mind, as he's extended credit to the family before. This is a difficult request for Else as she doesn’t at all like Dorsday. In fact, she finds him a bit of a creep. No matter, the unpleasant business must be done. The family needs money.

Else approaches Dorsday, but almost immediately regrets doing so. He really does make her skin crawl. She explains matters to the art dealer, who gently listens. The flighty and highly strung Else almost walks off without an answer, even though Dorsday has agreed. There is one condition Dorsday puts on the loan, a very compromising condition. Else becomes torn over what to do, pushing her to the psychological extremes.

Arthur Schnitzler’s 1924 novella, Fraulein Else, is all written from Else’s feverish perspective. Reality here and there breaks through her mad stream-of-conscious monologue in the form of fragments of talk from friends, resort staff, her aunt Emma and Dorsday himself. These fragments, which are set in italics, act like documentary footage within the story. We see how Else’s immature and panicked mind hopelessly fails to interpret and deal with real events. The reader has some sympathy for Else: she’s been put in an impossible situation by her parents. At the same time, Schnitzler is offering a sharp critique of her milieu. Else is the product of a culture that lives foolishly beyond its means, bored even with the luxuries that money can buy. No wonder they all end up in such ridiculous and tragic circumstances.

Fraulein Else is a gripping psychological drama, one that perfectly captures panicked and irrational states of mind, that feeling of being the deer caught in the headlights. It's a story of all the unhappiness that money can buy, of misery in the midst of plenty.

Fraulein Else, by Arthur Schnitzler. Published by Pushkin Press. ISBN: 9781782273714  RRP: $19.99

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Swallowing Mercury, Wioletta Greg

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Polish poet Wioletta Greg's debut novel is a rich and strange reminiscence of growing up in soviet Poland.

Wiola is a young teenage girl living in the Jurassic Uplands of southern Poland. She lives in the small village of Hektary, a close knit community reliant mostly on farming. It's the 1980s, the time just before the fall of the Polish People's Republic, a communist run state.

In a series of vignettes, Wiola describes her life in rural Poland, a life that is lived on the land among farm animals and idiosyncratic locals, but also with the detritus of a failing economy filling out the background (old tyres and scrap metal litter the landscape). There's a procession led by a picture of the Holy Virgin; a bungled visit by the Pope; visits to the local dressmaker, who doubles as a fortune teller; an odd train trip with an obsessive talker; and even glue sniffing with young boys followed by juvenile sexual experiments.

While Swallowing Mercury is set in the fairly recent past, and is held in time and place by its references to key Soviet era events, the novel feels atemporal. Wiola's descriptions are so organic and uncanny – concentrating on smell and texture – that the reader feels plunged into some kind of mythic past. One of the key achievements of the book is how Wioletta Greg seamlessly mixes personal memoir, the decay of the communist Polish state and the country's deep rooted Catholic and pagan traditions.

Written in plain, direct language, but with a poet's eye for detail, Swallowing Mercury inexorably draws you into a world that is rich and strange. It's a pity that the novel seemed to end so soon.

Swallowing Mercury, by Wioletta Greg. Published by Portobello. ISBN: 9781846276095 RRP: $19.99

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Passage of Love, by Alex Miller

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Alex Miller's new novel is a work of autobiographical fiction that concentrates on Australian life in the 1950s and 60s.

Robert Crofts, who left his homeland in England at the age of sixteen, has been working as a stockman in Queensland. One day he decides to travel south to Melbourne and try his luck there. On his first night he sleeps rough on Caulfield's train platform. The station master tells him of a sympathetic nearby boarding house he should try and so he presents himself, with no job and no money. The landlady, a no-nonsense type of woman, takes him on nonetheless. Robert finds work, starts to make some friends and has an affair with the elusive Wendy, a writer for a socialist newspaper. He falls in love with her (more likely lust), but she is a free spirit and can't be pinned down.

The relationship with Wendy ends in frustration and disappointment, but then someone at the boarding house introduces Robert to Lena, a middle-class girl. The two fall into a problematic relationship and eventual marriage. Lena has unresolved psychological problems and is probably anorexic (her stark thinness and refusal to eat much is often noted). When her mother suddenly dies of a stroke she actually jumps for joy, declaring she's free at last.

A large part of The Passage of Love (it runs to 580 pages) covers Robert and Lena's troubled, almost loveless marriage. Once they're married, Lena runs off to Italy, against Robert's will. When he eventually finds her, she's a mess. From there on the marriage is almost sexless. What keeps them together is a shared pain: in a strange way they're both broken people. Their sufferings are only alleviated once they both find fulfillment in art, Robert through his writing and Lena through her drawing.

The first half of The Passage of Love is riveting. Miller does a terrific job of evoking the uncertainties of youth and the loneliness of being alone in a new place. He breathes life into Melbourne in the late 1950s and early 1960s with his descriptions of its streets, stores and various characters. His confrontation with a fellow boarder and university teacher is gut wrenching in its stark rendering of class differences. Miller even includes an Indigenous voice in Robert's friend and fellow stockman from Queensland, Frankie. We learn of the humliations Aboriginal people had to put up with in 50s Australia.

The third act of the novel tapers off a bit as it concentrates on the troubled relationship between Robert and Lena. Sometimes it feels like the story is meandering. Theirs is not an inspiring love affair and the reader is tossed back and forth as Robert and Lena try to figure out where they stand with each other. There's no strong commitment, just a lot of uncertainty and pain. It's also hard to decipher exactly what has made the middle-class Lena so emotionally and psychologically closed in.

Despite these caveats The Passage of Love is a very enjoyable read, with a lot of astute observations and well developed characters with complex inner lives. Alex Miller writes with the simplicity and directness of a Tolstoy.

The Passage of Love, by Alex Miller. Published by Allen & Unwin. ISBN: 9781760297343 RRP: $32.99

To sign up for our monthly newsletter, featuring new releases, book reviews and favourite articles from around the web, click here.