Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Secret Life of Cows, by Rosamund Young

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Organic farmer Rosamund Young has been communicating with and observing her cows for decades. She reveals their secrets. 

Cows are integral to our food system. The dairy industry in Australia is worth some four billion dollars a year. Through science and other measures, cows have doubled their milk production over the last thirty years. Despite cows being so important, we remain ignorant about their intelligence and personalities. Popularly, cows are considered more as dumb and docile beasts.

Shining a light on these matters is farmer Rosamund Young, who runs Kite’s Nest Farm with her brother and partner. Kite’s Nest Farm produces beef and lamb from grass fed animals that are butchered and sold in the farm shop. Their philosophy is to let the animals run free, choose what plants and grasses they prefer to eat and socialise how they like. When the animals are allowed to live as they see best, their health is improved and they lead more contented lives. This regime has allowed Rosamund Young to observe cows (and other farm animals, including hens, pigs and lambs, of which she also writes) up close.

What she finds, essentially, is that cows behave pretty much like your much doted on household pet. They communicate by “mooing” and with their eyes, staring at you until they get what they want. Failing that they can simply refuse to move when requested. We learn that cows can recognise individual humans by their voices, love eating apples, like to be groomed, enjoy music and can make friends. In one touching description Young describes two young calves born at the same time that became instant friends, and friends for life. They constantly doted and looked after each other. Cows are even clever enough to ask for help if they have mastitis (a disease that affects their udders).

One of most fascinating claims of the book is that cows self-medicate by choosing particular plants to eat. Perhaps one day we shall consult cows when we have a medical problem.

Rosamund Young writes in lively, almost eccentric manner, referring to the way she “talks” to the cows and how they can understand her. The style veers almost towards P.G. Wodehouse (think of Empress the pig of the Blandings Castle novels). But I think there is a method in Young’s anthropomorphism: she really wants us to think of cows not as dumb units of economic production, but as inspired creatures with endlessly fascinating lives of their own. In this she achieves her brief.

The Secret Life of Cows, by Rosamund Young. Published by Faber. ISBN: 9780571336777  RRP:$19.99

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Hours Before Dawn, by Celia Fremlin

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Celia Fremlin's The Hours Before Dawn is a witty and sharply observed portrait of motherhood in 1950s Britain. 

Louise Henderson would do anything for a good night’s sleep. With three young children – Margery, Harriet and baby Michael – she is constantly juggling the demands of motherhood. It’s a thankless task, trying to keep a chaotic house in order. Mark, Louise’s husband, is not much help. When things get too much – the children are too loud or busy body neighbours drop in – he simply walks off. So harried and sleep deprived is Louise she seems constantly one step away from a nervous breakdown.

Into this domestic blizzard walks Vera Brandon. She has answered an advertisement that the Hendersons placed for a boarder. Miss Brandon is a classics teacher. Her cool and composed manner unnerves Louise. Odd things start to happen around the house and Louise’s suspicions about the lodger grow. When her baby Michael twice disappears, only to mysteriously reappear tucked up in bed at home, Louise wonders if she’s losing her mind. Or could it be part of Vera Brandon’s mysterious influence.

Published in 1958, The Hours Before Dawn was Celia Fremlin’s first novel. It’s written as a page-turning mystery, with its clever juxtoposition of a self-assured professional woman against an overworked suburban mum who’s brains are near scrambled. The real meat and potatoes of the story, however, is the unvarnished portrait of motherhood. Fremlin really takes the gloves off when it comes to describing every aspect of looking after a husband and three children in fifties Britain. She writes like she has a lot of get off her chest. That’s not to say that this is an angry book, but it is sharply observed, intelligently written and often very witty. It’s unique as a frank and fearless description of unappreciated motherhood. The only book like it is perhaps Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children, but a more accessible version, without the operatics.

 A minor literary gem, to be relished for its intelligence and honesty.

The Hours Before Dawn, by Celia Fremlin. Published by Faber. ISBN: 9780571338122 RRP: $19.99

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Friday, November 10, 2017

The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A cast of wise cracking robots, electronic bards and storytelling machines discuss philosophy, physics, notions of free will, existence and cyber ethics. Endlessly brilliant, funny and innovative.

Stanislaw Lem’s 1965 book, The Cyberiad, is a work of fiction, but what type is hard to classify. For the most part it is the adventures – both physical and philosophical – of two ‘constructors’, Trurl and Klapaucius. They are builders of robots, smart machines and other electronic devices. The book starts with three stories featuring Trurl and Klapaucius, the middle section is called “The Seven Sallies of Trul and Klapaucius” and a last section of three stories brings The Cyberiad to an end.

The stories all consist of mad plots involving wise cracking robots, electronic bards, storytelling machines, lovesick princes, fussy bureaucrats and tyrant kings (one is named King Kroul, also known as “His Boundless Kroulty”.)  What elevates Lem’s fiction above all the rest is its sheer unbounded and uninhibited inventiveness. His prose, with its endless references to scientific phenomena, dances on the pin of a needle. It doesn’t matter that you don’t know the technical details of the language. In fact, perhaps Lem doesn't know either. He’s inordinately fond of creating so many nonsense words and expressions, his own buoyant vocabulary. Reading Lem you are taken for an exuberant intellectual, speculative and imaginative ride. For example, a computer tries to explain his history:

“A trillion years ago we were a civilization like any other. We believed in the transmittance of souls, the Virgin Matrix, the infallibility of Pi squared, looked upon prayer as regenerative feedback to the Great Programmer, and so on and so forth.”

Or try this wise cracking robot:

“Matrix-schmatrix. Look pal, I’m not just any beast. I’m algorithmic, heuristic and sadistic, fully automatic and autocratic, that means undemocratic, and I’ve got loads of loops and plenty of feedback so none of that back talk or I’ll clap you in irons, that means in the clink with the king, in the brig with the green gig, get me?”

This kind of talk goes on for 300 pages. Lem has his robots and humans constantly bounce ideas off each other, discussing philosophy, physics, notions of free will, existence and cyber ethics. Some of the longer passages read like a sci-fi Socratic dialogue. The Cyberiad is perhaps closest to Gulliver’s Travels in the often perilous journeys Trurl and Klapaucius take to other planets, where they are forced to evade the bad tempers of tyrants and must suffer the endless dead-ends of state bureaucracy. The stories all add up to a kind of existential comedy, an absurdist literature, an intergalactic theatre of ideas by a genuine genius.

Utterly brilliant!

The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141394596 RRP: $24.99

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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western, by Richard Brautifan


Staff review by Chris Saliba

Strange, brilliant, funny, original – The Hawkline Monster is a trippy classic from a great American writer.

Richard Brautigan is best known for this novels Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar. Born in Tacoma, Washington in 1935, he eventually moved to San Francisco and became a part of the counter culture scene. Afflicted with alcoholism and mental health issues, he took his life at the age of forty-nine. During his short life he published many volumes of poetry and ten novels.

The year is 1902. Two killers for hire, Cameron and Greer, are procured by Magic Child, a fifteen year old Indian girl. She takes them to Oregon, to the house of Miss Hawkline. Upon meeting Miss Hawkline – a strangely tall, slender woman with long black hair – both men start to realise that Magic Child looks remarkably like Miss Hawkline. In fact, it turns out both women are twins. The young woman they knew as Magic Child, and who they thought was Indian, quickly becomes indistinguishable from her twin. The gunmen can no longer figure out who is Magic Child, or even if exists anymore.

The reason the men have been brought to this house, they learn, is to kill a dreaded monster living in the “ice caves” below the house. The monster has been accidently created by “the Chemicals”, a science experiment that the Hawkline sisters' father had been working on. They believe the monster has killed their father.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the monster, a mischievous and often comic character in his own right, has been messing with everyone's minds and creating havoc. The only answer is to kill the monster and then perhaps some sanity can be restored. But how to kill a monster created by a jar of unusual chemicals?

The plot sounds mad, ridiculous and completely unfathomable. Yes, it's all that. So many surreal and bizarre things happen, with the tone changing from the eerily mysterious to the outright comic, that the reader doesn't know what to think. And yet for all that the story holds its own internal logic and when the end comes, it all feels like an exhilarating if totally weird ride. It's hard to figure out what The Hawkline Monster is really about and perhaps it's best not to try! One thing can't be doubted: it's the work of a consummate original and is unforgettable.

The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western, by Richard Brautigan. Published by Canongate. ISBN: 9781786890429  RRP: $19.99

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Saturday, November 4, 2017

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor


Staff review by Chris Saliba

Shashi Tharoor’s 250 year political, economic and moral history of the British in India.

In May 2015 Indian author and politician Shashi Tharoor gave a speech at the Oxford Union on the proposed topic, “Britain Owes Reparations to Her Former Colonies.” When he tweeted the speech it went viral. Amazed by the response, he decided to write a full length book addressing this very subject. Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India is the result.

The British presence in India covers a period of some 250 years, from 1600 when the East India Company was first formed, to the achievement of independence in 1947. The 25 centuries in between is a dishonourable tale of looting, racism, political chicanery (including fomenting murderous hatreds between Muslims and Hindus), impoverishment and brutality. The British used India as a bank on which they could call for endless withdrawals, shipping enormous wealth back to the mother country. The British did this with an almost blithe spirit, fully confident in their racial superiority. Writes Tharoor, “The British ruled nineteenth-century India with unshakeable self-confidence, buttressed by protocol, alcohol and a lot of gall.”

Winston Churchill, lauded as a wartime leader, was overtly racist toward the Indians. He diverted grains from starving Indians to already well fed soldiers. Churchill felt Indian famines were the people’s own fault for “breeding like rabbits”, and when one of his officers tried to prod his conscience on the matter the glib response was, “why hasn’t Ghandi died yet?”.

Perhaps the most devastating indictment of the British in India was the Jalliawala Bagh massacre that killed 379 innocent people (that's the official estimate, the numbers could be higher). The man responsible, military sadist Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, got off with a censure by the House of Commons. Rudyard Kipling hailed him as “The Man Who Saved India” and a public campaign raised almost a quarter of a million pounds in today’s money for him.

You would think such a legacy would be cause for shame, but high numbers of the British feel Empire as something to be proud of.

It’s common to think of India as a poor country, and that it has always been that way. Tharoor goes through the statistics to show that before the arrival of the British in 1600, India was generating 23 percent of world GDP, while Britain’s share of global GDP was 1.8 percent. By 1940, India was considered a third world country.

In many ways, Inglorious Empire is a riposte to Niall Ferguson’s 2003 book, Empire, which lauded the achievements of the British. Tharoor provides an energetic critique of Ferguson’s views on the supposed benefits provided by the British Empire.

Inglorious Empire is an eye opener of a book, on a subject that doesn’t get much ventilation today. It is sure to educate, shock and stimulate deep reflection on our collective history under the British Empire.

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781925322576 RRP: $32.99

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

North Melbourne Books November Newsletter - featuring Claire G. Coleman

In the November edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to novelist Claire G. Coleman. Claire if from Western Australia and identifies with the South Coast Noongar people.

Terra Nullius is a powerful re-imagining of Australia's violent and oppressive past.

Jacky, a male youth, is on the run. He’s on the run from the Troopers, part of the colonial police force, well known for their human rights abuses.

This is a familiar Australian colonial narrative – invasion, brutality, dominance. Or so you would think. Half way through the novel, however, the reader learns that we are not reading about events that have happened in the past. The year is actually 2041 and something quite unthinkable has happened to Australia.

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 Claire G. Coleman


North Melbourne Books: Jacky, a male youth, is on the run from the colonial Troopers. He’s escaped Sister Bagra’s mission, where he’s been working essentially as a slave. He is pursued by Sergeant Rohan, well known for his cruelty and hatred of the Natives. This is a familiar Australian colonial narrative – invasion, brutality, dominance. Or so you would think, but half way through the novel it becomes clear we are not in colonial Australia. This is Australia in the near future.

Terra Nullius is both familiar and discombobulating, holding up a mirror to Australia’s
violent history. How did you get the idea for the plot?

Claire G. Coleman: In 2015 I was travelling through my Grandfather’s Country, to discover more about my past, to the town where he was born, Ravensthorpe Western Australia. When I was there I was invited, by the local historical society, to the opening for a memorial park, to memorialise the massacre that happened not far from the town. My ancestors’ extended family were swept up in that massacre, there were few survivors.

After that event I was left in a confused and unsettled state, I understood the brutality of
the invasion of Australia in a way I hadn’t before. I wanted everybody to be as unsettled
as me, as discombobulated (I love that word) as me, I wrote Terra Nullius in an attempt to
achieve that. The story and device I used to achieve that came to me in a rush, along with
the title. I can’t remember the moment it came to me, once it happened it was like it had
been there, in my head, forever.

NMB: Your novel really elicits the reader’s empathy. Every page makes you think and feel
deeply about what it must have been like for Indigenous people suffering colonisation.
What do you hope the reader will take away from the story?

CC: Empathy was all it was about. What I was thinking every moment I wrote, for every word I
placed in the story, “how do I provoke empathy”. I am glad my novel has elicited empathy,
for that was my intent and it is gratifying I if I have achieved any of that at all. I want
people to know how it felt to be colonised, or invaded. Maybe if people can understand
some of what it felt like to be invaded, dispossessed and oppressed they can help us all
bring an end to the colonisation that continues even today. I would love it if everyone who
reads Terra Nullius reacted by fighting with us to end racism, to stop Indigenous
disadvantage and maybe even bring about a treaty.

NMB: In the author’s notes for the novel you list some of your influences for Terra Nullius. The novel has a strong science fiction component. Do you have any favourite science fiction authors?

CC: I mostly love books, rather than authors. Frankenstein is one of the greatest books ever
written. It comes from a time when there was no such thing as the genres we speak of. It
was not horror, even though it had horrific elements, it was not sci-fi, although it had a
strong sci-fi bent – I believe it is more sci-fi than horror. It was literature, because all
books were.

The same can be said of War of the Worlds and 1984, by existing before the existence of
the genres as we know them they could use speculative elements without being shoe-
horned into “science fiction” or relegated to the “genre fiction” shelves. Sometimes the
genres and categories that are used for marketing seem somewhat arbitrary.

The authors I do love are those who blur the lines between science fiction and literature.
J. G. Ballard wrote in both Speculative Fiction and Literary Fiction and it seems to me that
he had no respect for the line between them. Sheri S. Tepper was shelved with Sci-fi early
in her career and got stuck there even though her works skirted close to and often crossed
the line between sci-fi and literature. Sometimes I have a hard time understanding why
Margaret Atwood, who I respect greatly, is in Literary Fiction and Sherri S. Tepper, who I
respect just as strongly, was always shelved in “genre fiction”

NMB: You wrote your novel while travelling around Australia in a caravan. What was that
experience like (it sounds like a whole other book!) and did it influence the writing
process?

CC: Writing while travelling in a caravan is both easier and harder than most people would
imagine. It’s harder because there are things that eat your time and leave less time for the
actual writing. Every daily task takes longer than it does when not travelling and there are
the constant minor repairs to the car and caravan. Most of the time I travelled every day
which ate a big chunk of time just in itself. It’s easier because I didn’t have to look far for
inspiration, it was outside the windscreen all day, it was in the places I stopped and slept, it
was in the information plaques at historical sites, in the people I met. It was in the land
itself.

It was a massive and constant influence on the writing process and on the book. Most of
the characters are travelling for big chunks of the story, I didn’t even notice that when I
wrote it because travelling was my default state, it was completely normal. The
landscapes I travelled in were characters in the work as well as being analogous for the
emotional state of the story’s characters.

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

CC: I am a bit of a book monogamist, I don’t like trying to read more than one book at a time.
At the moment I am really enjoying Why I’m No Longer Speaking to White People About
Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge if “enjoying” is the right word with that book. It is not a
pleasant book, it is about an unpleasant topic, racism, but it is a very important book.
I have also started Common People by Tony Birch, being a collection of short stories I can
consume the book in smaller bites. The stories Tony revealed in that book illuminate the lives of people you might not normally speak to, the people whose stories are normally
lost.

Terra Nullius, by Claire G. Coleman. Published by Hachette. RRP: $29.99

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Deadly Kerfuffle, by Tony Martin

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Tony Martin's debut novel proves to be the perfect tonic for our anxious times.

All hell has broken loose in unassuming, suburban Dunlop Crescent. A family of radical Muslims have moved in. God knows what they're up to. Rumour has it that the Tamaki family are planning on turning their house on its axis so it faces Mecca. Local gossip Coral Stooles is spreading rumours and misinformation through the suburban streets as fast as her legs will carry her. Suspicions are being further stoked by the campy shock-jock Julian Spence. His inflammatory talk-back show continually refers to Dunlop Crescent as Terror Street.

But there is a problem. A big one. The Tamakis are not Muslims at all. They're rather quiet and unassuming Maoris. No one bothers to find out the facts of the matter and before long hysteria has taken over. The Tamakis' house is burnt to the ground. But who did it? Local resident and grumpy old man Gordon Berenger tries to find out. In the process he finds himself at the centre of a bomb plot involving some completely bonkers neo-Nazis.

Tony Martin's debut novel is a hair raising and hilarious ride through humdrum suburban Australia. It's an Australia that will be familiar to all, reflecting the nation's often misplaced anxieties and obsessions.

One of the great joys of the novel is its broad cast of characters, with all the usual suspects: nut jobs, curtain twitchers, rat bags, serial letter writers and opportunistic shock-jocks. And the occasional normal person.

Deadly Kerfuffle has a laugh on every page, it pokes fun at our weaknesses and vulnerabilities, while also being a celebration of Australian life.

Deadly Kerfuffle, by Tony Martin. Published by Affirm Press. ISBN: 9781925584448 RRP: $29.99

Release date 31st October

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Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Mrs M, by Luke Slattery

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Journalist and academic Luke Slattery has richly imagined the life of Elizabeth Macquarie, wife of early Australian governor Lachlan Macquarie.

1807. At the age of twenty-six Elizabeth Campbell marries Colonel Lachlan Maquarie, a man some twenty years her senior (and also a distant cousin). A mere two years later, in 1809, Maquarie is appointed governor of New South Wales. Elizabeth takes the perilous journey with her new husband to the other side of the world, leaving her native Scotland. What will she find? How will she cope?

Mrs M, by journalist and academic Luke Slattery, covers the period of Macquarie's governorship, from late 1809 to 1821. The novel opens with Elizabeth on the Scottish isle of Mull after she has buried Macquarie, spending a moody night of reverie recalling the major events of her life. There is the tumultuous journey, with its miserable cargo of convicts; the natural wonders of the new world, its flora and fauna; the indigenous people, notably the Aboriginal leader Bungaree and his wife, Gooseberry; and the politics of New South Wales, especially the rivalry and contempt between the convicts and free settlers.

Slattery's story has two main dramatic focuses. Firstly, the intense friendship between Elizabeth and the convict-architect Francis Greenway (his work is widely known and admired in Sydney today). Greenway was found guilty of fraud, narrowly escaped hanging and was sentenced to Botany Bay. In line with Macquarie's progressive policies, Greenway was given opportunities to pursue his talents and thus improve his lot. He started work as an architect for the colony, bringing him into close contact with Elizabeth and Macquarie. When Elizabeth and Francis learn of each other's joint passion for art and beauty, they develop an intense relationship that could almost be described as romantic.

The second subject the book deals with is the shabby treatment of Macquarie himself. The English Tory government of the time loathed Macquarie's progressive policies and determined to remove him. To that end Commissioner John Thomas Bigge was sent to write a report on Macquarie's running of the colony. It was a hatchet job right from the start. Aware of what was afoot, Macquarie quit. The three volume report that Bigge submitted and later published ruined Macquarie's reputation and his health. He died soon after.

Luke Slattery first tackled this subject matter in his short history, The First Dismissal (Penguin Special, 2015). In the author's note for Mrs M he writes that Elizabeth's voice came to him in a dream. Indeed, this is a wonderfully dreamy and elegantly written portrait of Elizabeth and her time in New South Wales. It has an aesthetic style, with its sensuous rhythms, reminiscent of the great 19th century literary stylist Walter Pater. Elizabeth's acute observations and sharp eye also recall Jane Austen (Austen's major works were written during the period the novel covers). Some historical novels can fail by sticking too close to the facts and not concentrating enough on character and psychology. Mrs M doesn't fall into this trap; Elizabeth has a richly imagined inner life. As Slattery explains in his author's note, he has mixed some of his own story with that of Elizabeth's, but in the hope of telling a larger truth about some aspects of Australia's history. Fact and fiction deliciously intertwine.

Mrs M is an immersive experience that you won't be able to put down, mixing Australian history with a forbidden love story, creating a literary journey to savour.

Mrs M, by Luke Slattery. Published by 4th Estate. ISBN: 9780732271817  RRP: $29.99

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Friday, October 20, 2017

So the Wind Won't Blow It All Away, by Richard Brautigan


Staff review by Chris Saliba

Richard Brautigan's last novel - a dreamy, hazy work of autobiographical fiction. 

Richard Brautigan is best known for this novels Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar. Born in Tacoma, Washington in 1935, he eventually moved to San Francisco and became a part of the counter culture scene. Afflicted with alcoholism and mental health issues, he took his life at the age of forty-nine. During his short life he published many volumes of poetry and ten novels.

So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away was Brautigan’s last published novel. A dreamy, hazy work of autobiographical fiction, it’s set in 1979. The narrator (who is never named) reminsces about several major personal events that happened in 1947, when he was twelve-years-old. The narrator’s troubles can all be traced to a single decision he made. Weighing up whether to spend his money on buying a burger from a local diner or on a box of bullets from a gun shop opposite, he settles on the latter. The narrator then invites his secret friend, named David, to an apple orchard where they can shoot at the apples. The secret friend is enormously popular at school and has a beautiful girlfriend. It’s almost tempting to think that he may be a figment of the narrator’s imagination, seeing no one knows about the friendship. While out shooting in the orchard, a terrible accident occurs, leaving the narrator to curse the day he decided not to buy a burger.

Having set up the plot’s teaser, the novel takes a while to get to the denouement, and inbetween we learn of various odd happenings in the narrator’s young life. Indeed, he several times admits that he is quite odd himself. Brautigan builds a nostalgic and idiosyncratic patchwork of his youth: a war veteran with only one lung who lives by a pond, the irrational fears of his mother, who continually fears seeping gas in their apartment, the eerie funeral parlour he lived next to as a child. The novel ends with a truly magic description of an unusual couple who bring their loungeroom furniture on a truck and set it up beside a pond. It’s all wonderfully surreal and hallucinatary. Brautigan is a master at evoking that time in our childhood when we are uncritical and imaginatively free, when the world around us imprints its every fleeting image onto us.

Witty, poetic, simply told and vividly imagined, So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away is a deeply affecting original.

So the Wind Won’t Blow It All Away, by Richard Brautigan. Published by Canongate. ISBN: 9781786890467  RRP: $19.99

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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Terra Nullius, by Claire G. Coleman

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Claire G. Coleman's debut novel is a powerful re-imagining of Australia's violent and oppressive past.

Jacky, a male youth, is on the run. He’s on the run from the Troopers, part of the colonial police force, well known for their human rights abuses. Jacky has been working as a virtual slave at Sister Bagra’s religious mission. A mean woman who despises the Natives – she thinks them vile savages – Jacky has run away and is now trying to find his true home. Sergeant Rohan, a violent  and amoral man, is leading the chase.

Not all of the colonial masters, invaders, despise the Natives as lesser beings. A Trooper, Johnny Star, has absconded after being made to participate in a vile massacre. He is on the run from the colonial authorities.

A young woman, Esperance, is leading a group of Natives out into the desert. Their hope is to create a new beginning for themselves, out of the reach of the invaders. The invaders hate dry places, indeed can’t survive there, and so dry, remote places are their best chance.

This is a familiar Australian colonial narrative – invasion, brutality, dominance. Or so you would think. Half way through the novel, however, the reader learns that we are not reading about events that have happened in the past. The colonisers of the story are not the British. The year is actually 2041 and something quite unthinkable has happened to Australia.

By any measure, Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius is mind blowing. By projecting Australia past into a speculative future narrative, Coleman holds an inescapable mirror up to the nation. She makes us confront the horrors of dispossession and genocide. The great achievement of the book is its empathetic power. The reader really feels the terror and desperation of being an occupied people, considered sub human. Setting the story in the future, with Australian society turned upside down,  explodes preconceived ideas about how to approach our colonial past and highlights that for many, the past is nowhere near over.

Terra Nullius, by Claire G. Coleman. Published by Hachette. ISBN: 9780733638312 RRP: $29.99

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Friday, October 13, 2017

Piglettes, by Clementine Beauvais


Staff review by Chris Saliba

The victims of online bullying take to the road, pedal to Paris and meet the president.

Three teenage girls – Mareille, Astrid and Hakima – have been voted their school’s ugliest in a Facebook poll. Parents and teachers have tried to intervene, but Malo, the wicked boy who set up the annual poll, won’t be pulled into line. The girls have two options, either fall in a heap, or keep their heads high and show that they are better than this. Mareille – who narrates their story – takes the lead and has an ingenious idea. The girls will ride their bikes to Paris to gatecrash a garden party the president is having. Not only that, they’ll attach a trailer to their bikes and sell sausages (vegetarian ones included) along the way. Soon enough the media is breathlessly following their road adventure and complete strangers are praising them. The girls, exhausted after a week of pedalling, enter Paris victorious.

What a joy this book is! Marielle’s voice throughout is perky, witty and super smart. She keeps the story zooming along at a cracking pace. The reader experiences the girl’s elation as they go from triumph to triumph (with admittedly some hurdles to be cleared along the way.) Original, inventive and wonderfully human, Piglettes will make you feel like anything is possible.

12 +

Piglettes, by Clementine Beauvais. Published by Pushkin Children's. ISBN: 9781782691204 RRP: $16.99

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Keeping Henry, by Nina Bawden

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A quirky young squirrel named Henry is adopted by a family evacuated from London during the war.

Charlie, James and their older sister (we presume a young Nina Bawden, although as narrator she never gives her name), have been evacuated to the countryside during the Second Wolrd War. They are living with their mother on a Welsh farm while their father is part of the war effort overseas. Seven-year-old Charlie has discovered a nest in a tree by a brook. Using his brother’s catapault, he disrupts the nest and knocks a young squirrel out of it. Happy with his prize, he bring the squirred home and he is soon named Henry.

The children’s mother, a teacher, is immediately enchanted with the little creature and so he is adopted as a family pet. Henry’s interactions with the humans, his funny laguage, his misadventuers (falling into a pail of milk), the way he attempts to eat an apple and most amusing of all, Henry’s industrious and rather innovative building of a nest within the family home (he collects knickers and bras to make a cozy home), are all detailed in Nina Bawden’s beautifully simple yet evocative prose.

Life on the farm, however, is not all fun and games. There are many tough life lessons to be learnt, such as the cruelties of nature and the tough life and death decisions that need to be made on the farm. When the children discover the local farmer’s wife Mrs Jones is very ill, they must confront questions of mortality too.

Nina Bawden’s wartime children’s novel, published in 1988, is based on a seemingly meagre conceit, a childhood memory of a pet squirrel that stayed for a season. Yet around this simple childhood memory, Bawden builds a rich and rewarding story of war, the pains of growing up and the fragility of life. In large part it reads like a mix of memoir and natural history. What elevates it to the status of classic fiction is its concentration on the inner lives of its young main characters. They all experience such a wide range of complicated emotions – from shame and embarrassment to joy and wonder. Nina Bawden revives all the splendour and heartache of youth in a mere slip of a story.

A prize example of how a master storyteller can spin straw into gold.

Keeping Henry, by Nina Bawden. Published by Virago. ISBN: 9780349009193  RRP: $16.99

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Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Lone Child, by Anna George

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Anna George's compelling novel about motherhood and the isolation it can bring.

Neve Ayres is thirty-eight, suddenly single after her partner Kris has left her, and to top it all off, she’s just had a baby. Alone, she lives in an imposing seaside house in the coastal town of Flinders. One day she comes into contact with a lone child on the beach. The child appears neglected, although she is with her mother. Neve is quick to judge the woman, but as the story develops, it becomes clear that the harried mother on the beach has serious struggles of her own. Neve becomes obsessed with the child. The action takes place over an Easter long weekend. As Neve’s days spent alone with her baby spread out, the isolation makes her start to question her own sanity.

Anna George’s second novel is a spellbinding page-turner, a mystery where all the threads of the plot finally resolve on the final page. The story is suffused with a wonderfully moody atmosphere and the sea, windy nights, cracking storms – almost like a Bergman film. Anna George has created a compelling novel about motherhood and the isolation and loneliness it can bring. While The Lone Child is written like a thriller, its grounding in personal experience gives it a great immediacy and authenticity.

The Lone Child, by Anna George. Published by Viking. ISBN: 9780670077748  RRP: $29.99

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the Machine Age, by Jim Chalmers and Mike Quigley

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A politician and a professor examine what the future of work in the machine age might look like. Tempered and sensible analysis.

How much will technology transform the way we work in Australia and how should we respond to the challenge? What jobs will remain, what new jobs will be created and which jobs will cease to exist? Who will be the winners and losers? These are some of the questions that Jim Chalmers (Labor MP and Shadow Minister for Finance) and Mike Quigley (former telecommunications industry leader and now professor in the School of Computing and Communications at UTS) attempt to answer in Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the Machine Age.

Predictions for the future of work in the machine age generally look pretty dire. Even optimistic predictions have a depressing effect, as there are always losers in any technological transformation. Best case scenarios could include large pockets of unemployment. Chalmers and Quigley sift through the various studies on employment trends, from the most pessimistic (up to 50 percent unemployment) to the fairly optimistic (no real change at all), and come out somewhere in the middle. They argue that, unemployment predictions aside, technology will definitely change the way we work. This will mean we will all need to concentrate on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Especially mathematics.

Education will play a big part in this technological revolution. Chalmers and Quigley offer many policy recommendations for improving our mathematical skills, but essentially, they argue we will all have to take a greater interest in our education. We will all need to become ‘computational thinkers’, roughly meaning we will have to think more like algorithms.

Government will also need to provide policy responses that help us train for work and provide a safety net where needed. Changing Jobs provides some 33 policy recommendations, all of which seem pretty sensible and none too radical. (The authors outright reject introducing a universal basic wage, an idea that is gaining interest in some quarters.)

Technology has improved everyone’s lives, but ironically the future as painted in these books on the future of work is often quite depressing. It makes for anxious reading. It makes you wonder if your job is safe. Should I be retraining now? What if I do and my training is suddenly rendered obsolete? Should I even be worried about the predictions of economists and technologists?

Changing Jobs offers much food for thought, with analysis that is tempered and sensible. It recommends that we at least start to seriously think about these issues and prepare for an uncertain future.

Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the Machine Age, by Jim Chalmers and Mike Quigley. Published by Black Inc. ISBN: 9781863959445 RRP: $22.99

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Saturday, September 30, 2017

North Melbourne Books October Newsletter - featuring Charles Massy

In the October edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to farmer, environmentalist and writer Charles Massy about his new book, The Call of the Reed Warbler. In this remarkable book, Massy argues for five regenerative landscape functions to restore life and health to the soil: solar, water, soil, dynamic eco-systems and the human-social.

It's hard not to think that Call of the Reed Warbler is destined to become a classic of its kind. Massy has clearly spent years thinking and talking about the land and our relationship to it. His book has echoes of Thoreau's Walden, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Jared Diamond's Collapse.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Charles Massy


North Melbourne Books: In Call of the Reed Warbler, you argue that industrial farming methods have seriously degraded our soils. To revive the land we need to embrace five regenerative landscape functions: solar, water, soil, dynamic eco-sytems and the human-social. The book feels like a passionate labour of love, with its impressively rich mixture of research , farmer interviews, personal stories and an appreciation of the natural history literature. What was the writing process like?

Charles Massy: The writing process – aside from the usual blood, sweat and tears etc. – was more enjoyable than the other books I have done, which were a bigger slog. This is because – and as you allude to – it was a passionate labour of love, and I was able to write creatively about landscape, imagery, feelings etc. in those aspects of my book that were more personal, and also about the Australian landscape. The passion also came through because of the urgent issues facing our planet’s systems and humanity.

NMB: There's a wonderful story in your book about a mysterious kurrajong tree on your property and how it got there. It took Aboriginal Ngarigo elder, Rod Mason, to properly "read" the tree and tell you it's long history. How much has Aboriginal knowledge influenced your thinking?

CM: Aboriginal thinking has been very significant. Through having Rod Mason and others teach me their ancient view of our landscape and its stories, the scales have come off my eyes as to its deeper, cultural and more ancient nature and stories. Combined with other writers like Bill Gammage, Bruce Pascoe, and friends like Prof. Kerry Arabena (Prof. Indigenous Health at Melbourne Uni), knowledge about 60 millennia or more of indigenous management and caring/interacting/surviving in Country completely changed my understanding of this land, how it functions, and how we current land managers are inheritors of a great and long tradition that sought to maintain and regenerate ‘Country’.

NMB: You make a compelling argument that our thoughtless modern economy has created an "Industrial Mind". We think it quite normal to intensively spray the land with herbicides and pesticides. Instead we need to cultivate an "Emergent Mind", one that uses technology and science, but also allows nature space to find its own self-expression. How do you we start to take those first steps?

CM: Taking those first steps begins with re-engaging with nature; getting our hands in the soil; growing our own vegies; getting involved with the new food movements and healthy food; allowing children to get outdoors, climb rocks and trees again and discover the wonder of the outdoors and beautiful birds and so on. It has to be a tactile, sensory engagement before the heart can respond. Other first steps involve becoming better informed about the Anthropocene issues, and coming to understand how self-organizing systems work – and their amazing and wonderful attributes.

NMB: Call of the Reed Warbler has echoes of Rachel Carson, Thoreau and Jared Diamond. Which writers inspire you?

CM: Those writers you mentioned; plus people Aldo Leopold; Annie Dillard, Nicholas Rothwell; Bill Gammage & Bruce Pascoe; poets like the Tang Chinese poets, Basho and other Haiku poets; Les Murray of course, and many others.

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

CM: Don Watson’s The Bush; Clive Hamilton’s Defiant Earth; Ian Argus’ Facing the Anthropocene; Charles Montgomery’s Happy City; and Nicholas Rothwell’s Wings of the Kite-Hawk.

Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture, A New Earth, by Charles Massy. Published by UQP. $39.95