Friday, August 18, 2017

The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A cricket catches a train to Times Square station and makes some friends.

Chester the cricket has accidently found himself transported from his lush, countryside home in Connecticut to the busy metropolis of New York. Trapped in a family’s picnic lunch, he has taken a train ride into Times Square station. After managing to get off the train, he finds his way to a newsstand run by the Bellini family. There he meets Mario , Mama and Papa Bellini's young son. Mario begs his parents to allow him to keep Chester as a pet.

Chester’s adventures begin when he meets Tucker, a mouse that lives in a drain pipe and Harry, his friend the cat. The trio soon become good friends, but get themselves into a few scrapes, especially when they accidently set fire to the Bellinis' financially struggling newsstand, ruining some of the stock. It seems like Chester’s time could be up, as Mama Bellini accuses Chester of starting the fire, insisting Mario has to let him go. But then something wonderful happens. Chester, who has a talent for chirping songs, chirps one of Mama Bellini’s favourites. Suddenly the fortunes of the newsstand are turned around as people come far and wide to hear the musical cricket. Chester gives two performances everyday, one at 8am and one at 4.30pm. Everything seems to be going swimmingly. The group of three – Chester, Tucker and Harry - enjoy a wonderful friendship and business is booming for the Bellinis.  But then Chester starts to get homesick for Connecticut and grows weary of his demanding musical concerts. What will he do?

George Seldon’s 1960 children’s novel The Cricket in Times Square is a well deserved American Classic. The story has a wonderful warmth and kindness, somewhat reminiscent of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Chester, Tucker and Harry are all nicely drawn, with their own distinct personalities. The human characters are also varied and interesting, all helping to create a vibrant picture of multicultural New York. The book has some lovely scenes where Mario takes Chester to Chinatown to buy an ornate cricket’s cage from shop owner Sai Fong.

By the end of The Cricket in Times Square, you may feel sad to say goodbye to Chester, Tucker and Harry. Such sorrow is short lived by the fact that the trio’s adventures continue for another six books.

Suitable for 6 year olds and up

The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden. Published by Square Fish. $16.95

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Adventures of Pelle No-Tail, Gosta Knutsson

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Pelle is a little different to all the other cats: he has no tail.

Gösta Knutsson (1908 – 1973) was a Swedish writer of children’s books, best known for the series Pelle Svanslös (Peter No-Tail). Knutsson wrote 12 books in the series and the first three have now been translated into English by Stephanie Smee and Ann-Margrete Smee.

In the first book, The Adventures of Pelle No-Tail, we meet little Pelle, a kitten born on a country farm. His life has started out rather unfortunately: a large rat has bitten off his tail. It makes his feel a little vulnerable, being so different to other cats. One day the spirit of adventure takes him and he hides away in a car. Soon he finds himself in the city and living with a family. More adventures ensue when Pelle goes on a train ride with his new family and manages to get lost. But all is soon enough resolved when the family put an advertisement in the paper asking if anyone has seen a cat with no tail.

While life in the city offers plenty of fun adventures, there are also troubles to contend with. A local cat, Måns, is quite a bully. He thinks Pelle is a bit of a goody two-shoes and is determined to teach him a lesson. With the help of his flunkies, Bill and Bull, he tries to humiliate Pelle, but luckily his attempts always backfire.

Pelle is a delightfully sweet and good-natured character. His innocence and naïvety will make you care about what happens to him. Knutsson writes in a clear and simple style, evoking the pleasures of Swedish life in the 1930s. Interestingly, the series was begun as a protest against growing sympathy for the Nazis within Sweden. Mans, the bullying cat, is based loosely on Hitler and Mussolini.

Classic storytelling that leave you cheerful. Pelle No-Tail is a winner.

The Adventures of Pelle No-Tail, by Gosta Knutsson. Published by Piccolo Nero. ISBN: 9781863959247  RRP: $14.99

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Science and Islam, by Ehsan Masood

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Ehsan Masood opens our eyes to the history of scientific achievement in the Islamic world.

A scientific tradition is not something we equate with Islam. London based science writer Ehsan Masood tries to rectify this error in his appealing history, Science and Islam. Covering roughly the period between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, Masood concentrates on what is considered an Islamic Golden Age. Islam produced a wealth of great thinkers in the sciences during this era: geographers, astronomers, physicians, engineers, pharmacologists, inventors, surgeons, mathematicians etc. The list is almost endless.

This Golden Age started under the Abbasid caliphate, when Islamic scholars energetically took to translating the great works of Greek and Roman thinkers. Coupled with this enthusiasm for translation was the mastering of paper production, learnt from the Chinese. This would have a huge impact on the spread of learning, as paper was so versatile.

One discipline where Islam truly excelled was medicine. Hospitals during the Golden Age employed physicians, surgeons and opthalmologists, as well as nurses, administrators and orderlies. Another area in which Islam excelled was astrology. The need to pray five times a day meant that there was always a strong interest in studying the slant of the sun and the position of the stars, so as to ascertain correct prayer times. Historians agree that eminent Islamic astrologers influenced Copernicus.

The most obvious influence of Islamic science on the world today is in the use of Arabic numerals. While what we call Arabic numerals were actually derived from India, it was the mathematician al-Khwarizmi who perfected the system we use for modern science and commerce. Key scientific words such as algebra, algorithm and alchemy are also Islamic in their provenance.

Science and Islam offers an accesible overview of some 500 years of Islamic thought and scientific endeavour. Ehsan Masoon writes in a beautiful lapidary prose, making his book a joy to read. The sections on great Islamic cities in their hey day, like Bagdad and Cairo, are a special treat for the reader who likes to time travel to exotic times and places. How magical Baghdad must have been in the ninth century, when it was the fabled city of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

A book that helpfully explains the rise of Islamic science, it unfortunate fall, and what needs to be done now to encourage scientific learning in the modern Islamic world.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

North Melbourne Books August Newsletter - featuring Toby Walsh

In the August edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to Toby Walsh, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales, about his fascinating (and sometimes scary) new book It's Alive!: Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots.

The book looks at the history of AI and what its possible future might be, while also discussing the many disruptions and ethical questions that automation will bring to society.

Brilliantly researched and timely, It's Alive! is essential reading for anyone who wants to get up to speed on this subject.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Toby Walsh

NMB: Your book looks at the past, present and future of artificial intelligence. It describes how we got here, how AI (often unconsciously) affects our lives today and what a future dominated by AI might look like. Why did you want to write this book?

Toby Walsh: There's a real appetite to understand Artificial Intelligence (AI) and where it is taking us. We're making remarkable progress. I get calls from journalists almost every day. And as a scientist, funded by public money, I feel a real responsibility to help inform this debate. Especially so, when many people me included expect society to be in for a period of very rapid and dramatic change. However, talking to journalists is never entirely satisfactory. So I wanted to have a longer conversation, where I could go into more depth and explain the different sides to the issues. And in writing the book, I came to understand even more how critical it is that we have this debate now.

NMB: There are a lot of ethical questions that It's Alive! addresses. For example, how will driverless cars make life-and-death decisions and the dangers posed by the automation of war. Have you long had an interest in the ethics of AI?

TW: I've always been interested in big questions. This is what got me into AI in the first place.
There are a number of deep, fundamental questions that science asks. How did the universe
come into existence? Can we unify the laws that govern the very small like quantum mechanics
and those that govern the very large like gravitation? Are we alone in this universe? What is 
the nature of intelligence? Is it something we can simply create in silicon? 

I expect in time we will build machines that are more intelligent than us. You'll have to read the 
book to see how long this might take. This will hopefully be a humbling and important moment for the human race. But we can already see that it will have immense impacts on many aspects of our lives:  where we get our news, who we elect, how we educate our young, and how we look after our elderly.

The invention of machines that are more intelligent than humans will be one of the most far reaching inventions we ever make. Indeed, it could even be the last one that we make. 

NMB: While your book concentrates a lot on the advances that AI has made and how it has improved our lives, you devote a bit of time to discussing the negative aspects of new technologies. As technology transforms society there will be winners and losers, a further concentration of wealth, unemployment and general disruption. Are you optimistic about the future?

TW: I am mostly optimistic. As with any technology, there will be winners and losers so we need to make sure that we look after the losers. We will need to worry about issues like increasing inequality, technological unemployment, and the impact of autonomous weapons on warfare. Equally, technology is likely a big part of a successful future. The world faces some unprecedented challenges, in areas like climate change, and the ongoing and likely never-ending global financial crisis. Our only hope to defeat these problems is to embrace technology, especially technologies like Artificial Intelligence. We live better lives than our grandparents in large part due to the benefits of computing. If our grandchildren are going to live as good if not better lives than us, we need to take advantage AI whilst avoiding the pitfalls. The ultimate message of my book is that Artificial Intelligence can lead us down many different paths, some good and some bad, but society must choose which path to take, and act on that choice. There are many decisions we can hand over to the machines. But I argue that only some decisions should be – even when the machines can make them better than we can. As a society, we need to start making some choices now as to what we entrust to the machines. 

NMB: Do you think politicians are up to speed about how AI will truly transform society and are you confident they will be able to develop the right policy responses?

TW: No. Our politicians are neither up to speed, nor is our political system well suited to deal with such large scale disruption. There is one obvious precedent here, the industrial revolution. We made some major changes to the way that we ran society to deal with the changes brought about by the industrial revolution, as jobs on the farm were destroyed and new jobs created in factories and offices. We introduced universal education so the population had the skills necessary for these new jobs, the welfare state so those made unemployed didn't end up in the workhouse, unions to protect workers rights and help them share the benefits of industrialization, even bank holidays are on of the beneficial changes that came out of the industrial revolution. All of these changes made sure that Karl Marx's predictions were wrong and most of us shared the increasing prosperity that the machines brought. Society may need to go through equally profound changes this time. There is, however, one important and worrying difference. Last time, we still had a big edge over the machines. They replaced much of our manual labour. But we still had an edge in cognitive tasks. It is less clear that we'll have any such edge after the AI revolution. My book spends a lot of time considering what other edges we might have over the machines. and how we might deal with these changes so that the machines can take the sweat, both physical and intellectual, and all of us can enjoy the benefits.

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

​TW: I'm enjoying Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, even if I didn't 100% agree with some of his ideas. In my view, he over-estimates the increasing importance we will all place on social contact, and how our markets will adjust to appreciate more the products of the human hand. What machines make will simply be valued less than what we make. We will appreciate everything more that speaks to the human condition.

It's Alive!: Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots, by Toby Walsh. Published by La Trobe University Press. ISBN: 9781863959438  RRP: $34.99

Saturday, July 29, 2017

It's Alive!: Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots, by Toby Walsh

Staff review by Chris Saliba

In this wonderfully accessible book academic Toby Walsh examines the past, present and future of artificial intelligence.

To get an idea of how powerful the human brain is, here's an interesting fact: the brain uses a mere 20 watts of power, compared to the world's most powerful computer, IBM's Watson, which uses 80,000 watts. Computing power has been growing at great speed over past decades, but will it ever match what humans can do?

Toby Walsh is Professor of Artificial Intelligence at UNSW and an expert in the field. In It's Alive!: Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots, he gives an overview of artificial intelligence, its past, present and future. The journey starts with Aristotle, the first thinker to be concerned with systems of logic, then moves through figures like Babbage, Boole, Turing and finally onto Facebook and Google.

The middle section of the book examines how AI is being used today and how it affects our daily lives. We've become so accustomed to AI that often we are engaging with systems that use it without even knowing. Tools such as voice recognition and Google translate are examples of where artificial intelligence is being used.

As you might expect, the most fascinating parts of It's Alive! examine what the future might look like. Walsh thinks it's a certainty that we will have driverless cars. In a nuanced exploration of the subject, he looks at the ethical issues that we will have to confront, such as how can computers be programmed to make ethical decisions on the road. 

Currently there is a lot of talk about what will happen to work in the future. Large unemployment numbers have been bandied about by futurists and technologists. Walsh thinks it highly likely that a lot of jobs will be automated. Interestingly, he gives an a-z of particular jobs and how they will be changed by automation. The analysis of what AI will be able (and not able) to do throws up quite a few surprises.

The biggest ethical issue the book confronts is the automation of warfare. It's genuinely scary how easy it may be for dictators and terrorists to get their hands on drones and killer robots. The technology is cheap and closer than we might think. Walsh has spearheaded a petition calling for the banning of automated weaponry. He sees it as the biggest threat AI poses to society.

There is much to recommend in this highly accessible and thoughtful book on artificial intelligence and how it will affect society and future generations.

It's Alive!: Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots, by Toby Walsh. Published by La Trobe University Press. ISBN: 9781863959438  RRP: $34.99

Release date 31st July.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Blue Cat, by Ursula Dubosarsky

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Ursula Dubosarsky writes about Sydney during the Second World War, from a child's perspective. 

Columba is a young girl trying to come to grips with a world that is strangely changing, and perhaps not for the better. The year is 1942, the place Sydney, Australia. She hears stories around her, especially from her brassy friend Hilda, that a frightening war is happening overseas. Then the war comes one step closer in the person of Ellery, a mysterious young boy from Europe. Ellery is German-Jewish, doesn’t speak English and is a refugee. The book ends on a hazy, dreamy note, with Columba, Ellery and Hilda running through Luna Park in pursuit of a missing cat, the blue cat of the title.

The Blue Cat is an impressionistic story, told gently in a patchwork fashion. (The text is accompanied by photographs from the era.) Told from a child’s perspective, the reader gets glimpses of the adult world during the upheaval of wartime - news stories of the Nazis occupying Paris and the bombing of Darwin, neighbourhood gossip, the gruff comments of Columba’s father. For young readers (10-14)  interested in trying to imagine what it might have been like living in Australia during the Second World War, then The Blue Cat provides a moving story to contemplate.

The Blue Cat, by Ursula Dubosarsky. Published by Allen and Unwin. ISBN: 9781760292294  RRP: $19.99

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Good Daughter, by Karin Slaughter

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Two crimes, twenty-eight years apart, need to solved. Two sisters, their lives ruined by murder, haven't spoken to each other in two decades. Karin Slaughter's new thriller will have you in its thrall.

1989, North Georgia, the small town of Pikeville. The Quinn family have lost a considerable amount of money. Rusty, a lawyer and father of the family, can't help but take on legal cases that no one else will touch: rapists, brutal murderers and other low lifes. His legal bills are never getting paid and so the family has moved into an old farmhouse. One night, while Rusty is out, two men let themselves into the house. One of the men, Zachariah Culpepper, is known to Rusty. His intention is to murder Rusty, but confused and angry he kills Rusty's wife, Gamma. The two sisters, 13-year-old Charlotte (“Charlie”) and 16-year-old Samantha (“Sam”) witness the murder. They are dragged out into the woods by Zachariah, where some truly horrific things happen to them.

Twenty-eight years later. Both sisters are now practicing lawyers. Sam works in New York, while Charlie has remained in Pikeville. The relationship between the two sisters is deeply fractured. They have barely spoken to each other in two decades. A major drama changes that. Charlie manages to get caught up in a school shooting. Kelly Wilson, a baby-faced 17-year-old student who is lacking in intellectual development, has shot two people dead at the Pikeville middle school. Why did this apparently simple natured girl commit such a crime? As Rusty cannot take on the case due to a stint in hospital, both sisters must work together to find out what really happened. Many skeletons come out of the closet and grievances are aired until the sisters find healing and forgiveness.

I must confess to not reading any contemporary crime novels, but Karin Slaughter's muscular prose and expert sense of pacing and suspense grabbed me from the first page. I knew I didn't have a hope of resisting and would have to finish the book's 500 pages. While The Good Daughter is ostensibly a thriller, with two crimes at its heart that need solving, much of the story concentrates on the difficult relationship of the two sisters. You presume that the sisters would be close because of their shared trauma, but the opposite is the case. It takes the novel's considerable length to tease out all the difficulties of their relationship and finally achieve a reconciliation. At the heart of the Quinn sister's problems is a family secret one of the sisters, Charlie, has been forced to carry for most of her life. Hence the ironic title: Charlie is the good daughter, holding onto a secret for the good of the family, but destructive to herself.

The Good Daughter is quite an achievement. It's a complicated, multifaceted story that is brilliantly organised. There is a lot here for the reader to sink their teeth into. It's crime plot is rivetting, while the human drama of the two sisters is absorbing and emotionally satisfying. A thoroughly enjoyable read, but one that will also haunt you for days after you've finished it.

The Good Daughter, by Karin Slaughter. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9781460751732 RRP: $32.99

Release date: 1st August 2017

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Friday, July 21, 2017

This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, by Jerry Brotton

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The story of how a politically shrewd Queen Elizabeth tried to build military and trade alliances with the Islamic world. 

Elizabeth I reigned from 1558 until her death in 1603, an amazing forty-five year stretch of power. She is a figure central to English history, a political maverick who saw off Spanish attempts at invasion. What is perhaps less known is her wheelings and dealings with the Islamic world, most notably the Ottomans and Moroccans.

Religion at this time was just as much about politics as it was about faith. England was grappling with the devastating divisions between Catholics and Protestants. Elizabeth was Protestant, but a majority of the country remained Catholic. Sectarian violence often led to massacres and hideous executions. To be suspected of the wrong religious allegiance could mean your life was at risk. The major international conflict for Protestant England was with Catholic Spain. All energies were marshalled to see off the Catholic menace.

Just like in our own time, political allegiances and enmities wove a complex web. Religion made things even more beguiling. Elizabeth tried to establish a power bloc against the Spanish by cultivating diplomatic ties with the Islamic Ottomans and Moroccans, sending out trade missions and  bribing rulers with all sorts of lavish gifts. English officials, diplomats and royal advisers would reason that Protestant Christians had more in common with Muslims than the hated Catholics. For example, Islam shared the Protestant ban on material representations of god and the prophets. The English made all sorts of convoluted arguments, full of hypocrisy and delusion, in order to try and get Islamic military assistance to fight Catholics. Indeed, Elizabeth would help arm Muslims:

With the queen's sanction, Protestant English merchants were removing metal from ecclesiastical buildings - including lead roofing and bell metal - and shipping it to Constantinople to arm Muslims fighting against Catholics.

Elizabeth also formed a military alliance with Morocco to defeat Spain with a pre-emptive strike on Cadiz in 1596.

The English public knew a fair degree about these political shennanigans. Figures like Muhammad al-Annuri, the Moroccan ambassador who arrived in London in 1600, made many public appearances. His swarthy good looks, seen in an official portrait, make him look like a model for Othello. As Jerry Brotton writes, Shakespeare probably started to write Othello six months after al-Annuri's arrival.

  Muhammad al-Annuri (1600; Unknown artist)

Public attitudes to Muslims came through in the theatre, most notably in the plays of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe (and in lesser figures such as Thomas Kyd and Thomas Dekker). A substantial chunk of This Orient Isle is devoted to a fascinating interpretation of these plays, culminating in Shakespeare's Othello. What Brotton finds is that the theatre reflected the deeply ambivalent views the public held towards the Muslim world, often willfully misinterpreting Islam and its scriptural beliefs. Othello himself, while nominally Christian, is an unsettlingly mysterious character: did he start life as a Muslim, or a pagan, then convert? We're not sure. Brotton writes that Othello is a "profoundly ambivalent figure who embodies so much of Elizabethan England's contradictory relations to the Islamic World."

Indeed, while Elizabeth was sending out proclamations expelling "blackamoors and negroes" from the realm, she was secretly negotiating alliances with the Moroccans. As happens today, when one's political fortunes are sliding (as were hers at the time), spreading xenophobia is a useful trick.

This Orient Isle is full of rigorous scholarship, fascinating critical interpretation and enlightening  history. Jerry Brotton shows how, while much has changed in 400 years, a lot has also remained the same. 

This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, by Jerry Brotton. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141978673 RRP: $24.99

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Four family members are killed when arsenic is placed in the sugar bowl. Eldest daughter Constance is blamed, but did she do it?

Two sisters live in a large family house on the outskirts of a small town. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, who narrates the story, is the younger sister and Constance the older. They live alone on the isolated family estate with their Uncle Julian. Six years previously, a shocking crime happened in the house. The Blackwood parents, a younger brother and Uncle Julian's wife, Dorothy, were murdered. They were all poisoned with arsenic that had been put in the family's sugar bowl, meant to be sprinkled on their evening treat of fresh garden berries. Uncle Julian had tried a little of the sugar, but managed to survive. Constance never took sugar on her berries while Merricat had been sent to bed early as punishment.

Constance was accused of the multiple murder. She stood trial, but was acquitted. Despite this, the sisters have been despised and loathed by the people of the town. Children taunt Merricat, who is the only one to leave the house and enter town to do the shopping, with the cruel rhyme Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea / Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me. The sisters live almost as scapegoats, the townsfolk gleefully pinning every fear and prejudice onto them.

Despite the hostility of the outside world, the sisters, along with Uncle Julian, live with a degree of harmony among themselves. Constance tends her garden, with its wild plants and herbs, Merricat performs her own little rituals, nailing family heirlooms to trees, while Uncle Julian writes his memoirs. Into this safe little group enters cousin Charles. He is determined to get his hands on the family safe that he knows contains a fortune. During a fight with Charles, Merricat accidently starts a fire. The townsfolk then rush the house, throwing whatever they can at it. In the aftermath of the fire, a confession is made and we learn who committed the murder. Yet even this disclosure of the murderer leaves much moral ambiguity: the motivation for the strange events at Blackwood house are never really revealed.

Shirley Jackson's last novel, published in 1962, is a relentlessly strange tale of Gothic suspense. It's reminiscent of schoolyard stories of witches' houses on the edge of town, boarded up old properties that invite perverse childhood speculation. The story brilliantly evokes the prejudices that communities can use to torment outsiders. Jackson relishes depicting parochial, petty, small-minded thinking, exhibiting a delicious misanthropy that almost equals that of her contemporary and fellow American, Patricia Highsmith. This is a novel that in a subtle way celebrates outsiders and rebels who don't fit in.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a true original, its cast of oddball characters truly believable and  with an uncanny plot that is genuinely scary. Its rising sense of foreboding is almost unbearable, but as Oscar Wilde once wrote, "The suspense is terrible. I do hope it will last."

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141191454 RRP: $19.99

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Golden Basket, by Ludwig Bemelmans

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Before writing the classic picture book Madeleine, Ludwig Bemelmans wrote and illustrated a charming short novel for children called The Golden Basket (1936). 

Two young sisters, Melisande and Celeste, travel with their father Horatio Coggeshall from London to Bruges, the main city of Belgium, and stay at a hotel called The Golden Basket. It's called this because a golden basket sits on its roof. Their first night in a foreign city is full of wonder and excitement. They get out of their warm bed and sit at the window to peer out into the Medieval city at night and marvel at its beauty. 

Soon enough the sisters meet Jan, the son of the hotel keeper, Monsieur Ter Meulen. Jan is a boy who's not averse to adventure (he has a pet a frog that can predict the weather) and he takes the girls to visit many of the city's wonderful places. In one scene the sisters visit a cathedral with their father, Horatio, and meet a group of school girls, one of which is Madeleine.

There is much to delight in this magical novel. Bemelmans describes the day-to-day working of the hotel and its characters with considerable charm. There is also much humour which is mingled with the novel's subtly surreal flavour. A favourite scene shows Jan carrying the moveable garden from inside the hotel to outside so it can be watered. So much of hotel and city life seems unconventional, yet liberating for that very reason.

The Dover edition of The Golden Basket is a special treat, printed as it is in a large format with gorgeous colour illustrations. Don't miss this delightful classic!

The Golden Basket, by Ludwig Bemelmans. Published by Dover. $22.95

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

No is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Naomi Klein persuasively argues that the election of Donald Trump is not an aberration. It is the culmination of years of neo-liberal influence on policy, politics and society. 

No is Not Enough was written in record time, unlike Naomi Klein's other books, which have taken years to research. Ostensibly this is an anti-Trump treatise. Klein shows how much the Trump administration is really just a kleptocracy. The collected wealth of Trump's key officials is in the billions of dollars. Their record on labor rights and the environment is appalling.

The main thesis of No is Not Enough is that the election of Donald Trump should not really surprise at all. It is something we have been slowly and blindly walking into. The neo-liberal philosophy that has been pushed for the last thirty years or so has strongly argued for smaller government, less regulation and ultimate faith in markets. The election of Donald Trump is the natural end game of neo-liberalism. The market has replaced government.

While many readers may groan at the thought of a book on Trump - afterall, don't we see and hear too much of him everyday? - there is plenty of smart analysis here. Klein does an excellent job following the money of everyone in the Trump camp,  right down to Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. The sections that deal with Trump as a brand name provide a good reminder that Trump is not a creator of value, but a brilliant self-promoter. He rose from the ashes of financial ruin by becoming a reality television star and leasing out the Trump name for dodgy developer projects.

No is Not Enough ends on a positive note. Klein documents groundswell movements that are rising up and having some wins. Canada's Leap Manifesto, a political manifesto created by writers, artists, leaders and activists, and with which Klein was involved, garnered a lot of support and influenced Canadian election results. It called for a restructuring of the Canadian economy and an end to the use of fossil fuels.

This is a bracing, urgently argued call for change. 

No is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein. Published by Allen Lane. ISBN: 9780241320884 RRP: $29.99

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Friday, June 30, 2017

North Melbourne Books July Newsletter - featuring Jarvis

In the July edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to writer and illustrator Jarvis about his hilarious and utterly brilliant new picture book for children, Mrs Mole, I'm Home!.

It's the story of Morris Mole. He is tired from waiting tables at Gordon Ratzy's nightclub and so goes home. The only problem is he can't find his glasses. Never mind, Morris Mole thinks, he should know the way by now. And so off he burrows. "Mrs Mole, I'm home!" he cheerfully exclaims, but every time he always finds himself in the wrong home - with a family of rabbits, then owls, then penguins and finally crocodiles.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Jarvis 

North Melbourne Books:  Morris Mole is tired from working all day serving tables at Gordon Ratzy's nightclub. He now has to get home but can't find his glasses. Never mind, Morris Mole thinks, he should know the way by now. And so off he burrows. "Mrs Mole, I'm home!" he cheerfully exclaims, but every time he always finds himself in the wrong home - with a family of rabbits, then owls, then penguins and finally crocodiles. Will he ever get home and enjoy some worm soup? Where did you get the idea for the story?

Jarvis: As with most of my ideas I think of an image first. The image that popped in my head was a little mole popping out of the ground somewhere he shouldn’t be shouting ‘I’m home!’. It’s a very simple idea, but there was lots of room for humour!

NMB: Morris Mole is wonderfully cheerful and optimistic that he'll get home eventually. Is he based on anyone you know?

J: He is a trier! I hadn’t really based him on someone but my wife, Jenna, is always optimistic and cheerful ….and without her glasses is completely lost…hmm you’ve got me thinking now...

NMB: There's always so much humour in your picture books. There's some terrific gags in Mrs Mole, I'm Home! Are you the sort of person that likes to make jokes and have a laugh?

J: Unfortunately yes I’m one of those annoying people who tries to make jokes….ALL the time, but fortunately that helps when I do kids events and school visits!

NMB: Your illustrations are always wonderfully vibrant, colourful and happy. Who are the artists you draw inspiration from?

J: I love Miroslav Sasek, Quentin Blake, Ralph Steadman, Peter Blake, and lots of newer artists too….Marta Altes, Yasmeen Ismail and Keith Negley. All these people have colourful work that jumps out at you, and they all feel honest and handmade. Im just more comfortable with bright colours!

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

J: Recent reads: John le Carre – The Spy Who Came in From the Cold; Ali Smith – There but for the; and I’m looking forward to starting Limmy – That’s Your Lot.

I’m always nosey when it comes to picture books, and although I don’t have kids I do buy a picture book now and again…NO! by Marta Altes is one I pick up again and again.

Mrs Mole, I'm Home!
by Jarvis. Published by Walker Books. RRP: $16.99

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Last Man in Europe, by Dennis Glover

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Dennis Glover's debut novel, The Last Man in Europe, tackles the last fifteen years of George Orwell's life, culminating in the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It's hard to believe that George Orwell felt his great novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, not up to scratch. He hoped it would sell a mere 10,000 copies. Writing the novel had pretty much killed him. Orwell grievously neglected his health, allowing his tuberculosis to fester by exposing his lungs to the inhospitable and chilly winds of Jura, an island off Scotland. His doctor warned Orwell not to return to Jura, after having undergone a most arduous treatment. But Orwell ignored his doctor. The novel was the thing, and Jura the perfect place to write it.

Dennis Glover's The Last Man in Europe covers Orwell's life from 1935 until his death in 1950. The story opens with Orwell working in a bookshop and meeting his wife, Eileen. He is in the midst of writing Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a light comedy about an aspiring writer. The novel then progresses through other key periods in Orwell's life: the Spanish Civil War, his relationship with  H.G. Wells, the research he did for The Road to Wigan Pier and so on. One amusing section describes Orwell anonymously entering a bookshop to see how they'd displayed Animal Farm. After being told it was in the children's section, he surreptitiously picked up all the store's copies and placed them with the adult books.

All of this is a build up to the creation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It's a great tragedy for literature that by the time Orwell had figured a way to truly express himself, his health was in terminal decline. Nineteen Eighty-Four was written in a great race against death. Glover does a brilliant job of describing Orwell undergoing extremely painful treatment for his tuberculosis, also showing how these experiences directly influenced his work. His own downtrodden and weakened body, ravaged by disease, was a model for Winston Smith's undergoing torture in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The Last Man in Europe perfectly captures Orwell's simple, no-nonsense writing style, his speech and the language of the times. Glover has skillfully pieced together Orwell's story from a careful reading of his books, essays, journalism, letters and diaries, creating a seamless whole.

Fans of Orwell will find much to enjoy in The Last Man in Europe, while those intrigued by Nineteen Eighty-Four and the man who created it will be rewarded with a novel that is a pleasure to read but also instructive about the personalities and politics of Britain in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Last Man in Europe, by Dennis Glover. Published by Black Inc. ISBN: 9781863959377 RRP: $29.99

Release date: 3rd July, 2017

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Mighty Franks, by Michael Frank

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Meet Aunt Hankie, a mix of Auntie Mame and Diana Vreeland, but on steroids.

Literature is littered with mad, eccentric aunties. Think Graham Greene's Travels with my Aunt, Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame or more recently, David Walliams' Awful Auntie. Short story and travel writer Michael Frank takes this theme into new territory with his memoir, The Mighty Franks. Part fabulous bon viveur and part monster, Michael Frank's Aunt "Hankie" Harriet is the type of character you love to read about, but would be terrified to meet.

The story starts with Michael Frank's family, living in Los Angeles in the Sixties. The family's mix was a bit unusual to begin with. Two sets of siblings married each other. Admittedly, this does get confusing. Sister and brother Harriet and Marty married brother and sister Irving and Merona. Merona and Marty are the author's parents.

From a very early age, Aunt Hankie lavished special attention on her young nephew, Michael. She felt they were simpatico, cut from the same cloth, lovers of art, literature and beauty. She was effusive in her praise of him and generous. Often she would claim she wished that Michael was her son (she never had children of her own.) Money was no problem for Hankie. She and her husband Irving were successful Hollywood screen writers. One of Hankie's passions was for "antiquing", going on jaunts to the antique shops and coming back with more and more sculptures, furniture and various objets d'art, stuffing her "maison" full to the brim. For these trips she always enlisted her beloved Michael, a co-conspirator. Wildly generous, she always bought Michael exotic presents during these trips antiquing.

Michael Frank describes himself as being almost addicted to Hankie's glamour, artistic flair and erudition. He soaked it up like a drug. But there was also a downside to Hankie's generosity and fast-track company. She was possessive, dictatorial and often totally unreasonable. Her steely willpower was absolutely frightening. When Michael developed into an adult, pursuing his own interests, and therefore needing some distance from Aunt Hankie, there were all sorts of dramatic conflicts. She accused him of betraying her and being ungrateful. Her tyrannical behaviour only got worse as the years progressed, turning her into an impossible, Norma Desmond-like caricature.

Hankie herself is undoubtedly a brilliant and bracing character. She really is a mix of Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame (one of Mame's catchphrases, Live! live! live! perfectly mirrors Hankie's philosophy of More! more!) and legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who claimed to fire staff if she didn't like their shoes.

Written in a beautiful lapidary prose, Michael Frank's detailed anatomy of his relationship with his aunt is a compelling meditation on the mystery of personality. Why are we so relentlessly the way we are?

The Mighty Franks: A Memoir, by Michael Frank. Published by 4th Estate. ISBN: 9780008215200  RRP: $27.99

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention, edited by Michael Green, Andre Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope

Harrowing personal stories from those who have experienced Australia's detention centres.

Staff review by Chris Saliba

They Cannot Take the Sky is part of an oral history project that captures the stories of asylum seekers who have experienced Australia's harsh detention centre regime. Thirty-five current and former detainees, from nine different countries, tell their stories in a series of interviews. Some stories were pulled at the last minute for fear of retaliation.

There are common themes and experiences that appear in the detainees' stories. Detention centre staff are often cruel and harsh, repeatedly telling asylum seekers that they will never be admitted to Australia; serious complaints are never responded to; day-to-day living is made as humiliating as possible (people are not called by names, but rather immigration identity numbers); and generally people detained feel they are being tortured psychologically.

Most people seeking asylum who have experienced detention are depressed, fearful and often losing their minds. They are bewildered that they have fled danger in their own county, coming to what they thought was a country that defended human rights, only to end up in a Kafkaesque nightmare.

These stories are harrowing for their hopelessness and extreme distress, yet they also contain great dignity. They Cannot Take the Sky is a vital document of Australia's mandatory detention policy.

They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention, edited by Michael Green, Andre Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope. Published by Allen & Unwin. ISBN: 9781760292805 RRP: $29.99

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