Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Rumer Godden’s classic autobiographical novel brilliantly captures a heady, transformative childhood summer. 

Five English children – Joss, the eldest, then Cecil (who narrates the story), Hester, Willmouse and Vicky – are taken to France by their mother, in the hope that they will learn something about the sacrifices made on the battlefield of war. En route, the mother is bitten by a horse-fly, and by the time they reach the hotel Les Oeillets, where they are to stay, she is seriously ill. Mother soon falls into the background and the children must learn to get on by themselves.

The five children soon make acquaintance with some of the curious and mysterious people of the hotel, most notably the hotel’s owner, Madame Zizi, and her English lover, Elliot. It somehow transpires that Elliot is given charge of the children and they become fascinated with him, often trying to make sense of his mercurial personality. Things become emotionally charged when it appears that Elliot is becoming enamoured of Joss, who at sixteen is blooming into womanhood. Just as the pieces of the story finally seem to be coming together, it’s discovered that Elliot is not all what he seems and is wanted by the police.

First published in 1958, The Greengage Summer is based on real events from Rumer Godden’s life. It’s primarily a coming-of-age story and has a somewhat similar tone to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Godden infuses her story with a dreamy, hazy, nostalgic feel, describing a group of young to adolescent children in a sumptuous, exotic no man’s land. Authority has been suspended, a cast of unreliable hotel characters have filled the gap, and the children must try to figure out what rules should apply.

A slow, dreamy read that authentically captures a children’s lost summer.

The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden. Published by Pan. ISBN: 9781447211013 RRP:$19.99

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Friday, May 18, 2018

Fame is the Spur, by Howard Spring

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Howard Spring's 1940 novel Fame is the Spur paints an unforgettable picture of an era now gone.

Young John Hamer Shawcross is raised by his working class mother, Ellen, and his step father, the preacher Gordon Stansfield. It's the late 19th century, a time when the nascent labour movement is gathering pace. John Hamer Shawcross shares a room with his grandfather (in fact his stepfather's mother's brother), an old man affectionately known as the Old Warrior. He tells the boy stories of what it was like growing up in the early part of the century, especially his tragic experiences at Peterloo, where a peaceful workers' protest was violently put down. His girlfriend at the time was murdered in the melee that broke out.

These stories are absorbed by Shawcross, as well as the kindly instruction of his stepfather Gordon, leading to him first take up a career as a preacher, then a Labour politican. These early years are full of despair and struggle, yet as the decades roll on, Labour makes inroads until it starts gaining seats in parliament. Politics, however, doesn't enoble Shawcross. He comes to practice realpolitik, seeing compromise as necessary. Many believe he sells out his Labour values in pursuit of power and an eventual peerage.

Fame is the Spur (1940), a novel chronicling three generations, gives a comprehensive picture of the political struggles of the Labour movement, moving through such stages as the Suffragette and Communist movements. Howard Spring, a journalist before turning to full time novel writing, covered the Suffragettes in some detail. The sections of the novel dealing with the force feeding of women protestors  in prison and the general violence and opprobrium they attracted are extraordinary for their realism and detail. It makes for sobering reading to understand the sufferings these women underwent to gain the vote for women.

Howard Spring's bestselling novel is a huge, sprawling cultural history, suffused with  a deep melancholy. It's characters suffer much – the injustices of poverty, war, political struggle – and gain little individually for themselves. Shawcross, looking back on his life, has an attitude that is caught somewhere between a vain hope that things will improve and a cynicism fostered by much harsh experience.

For readers who want to understand the birth and early struggles of the Labour movement, the politics and social movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, and the inevitable failures of politics, Fame is the Spur provides an invaluable document.

Fame is the Spur, by Howard Spring. Published by Head of Zeus. ISBN: 9781784976347 RRP: $22.99

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Marriage, by Susan Ferrier

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Sharp, witty and brilliantly observed, Susan Ferrier’s Marriage may be 200 years old, but it reads as surprisingly modern. 

Susan Ferrier's 1818 novel, Marriage, jumps right into the action. The Earl of Courland calls in his daughter, Lady Juliana, for a serious talk. He has organised a marriage for the girl, to a rich old duke. Lady Juliana bristles at this and declares she will marry not for money, but only for love and romance. She soon elopes with Henry Douglas, a poor soldier. The couple flee to his native Scotland and are suddenly hit with a hard dose of reality. Lady Juliana's flighty and fanciful dreams of living in a kind of elegant poverty are dashed. When Henry inherits a run down farm, it seems the only life available is a hard one working the land.

In the meantime Lady Juliana has given birth to twins, Mary and Adelaide. Rather than work on the farm (a fate worse than death), Lady Juliana palms off one of her daughters, Mary, to her sister-in-law and then flees to London, taking Adelaide with her. Mary is brought up by the sensible Mrs Douglas and a band of mad, garrulous aunts: Miss Grizzy, Miss Jacky and Miss Nicky. The aunts are often crude and silly, but they are warmhearted and genuine. Mrs Douglas has a common sense approach to life, but is still influenced by rural Scottish ways. In London, Lady Juliana finds refuge living with her brother, who has now inherited his father's estate.

Sixteen years elapse and the sisters, Mary and Adelaide, find themselves in the marriage market. Mary moves to London to live with her English relatives, reuniting with her mother and sister. Despite being twins, the two sisters couldn't be further apart in temperament. Both contract very different marriages.

Comparisons with Jane Austen come naturally to mind when reading Susan Ferrier's Marriage. There are hints of Mansfield Park in orphan-like Mary's entrance into an unfamiliar London household and Pride and Prejudice in Mary's overhearing of some unfavourable words about herself by Colonel Lennox. While Marriage is not as tightly plotted, nor are the characters as expertly integrated into the story as in the novels of Jane Austen, Susan Ferrier has a genius for social observation and deft comedy. Some of the funniest characters, such as the formidable Lady Maclaughlan (a kind of kooky Lady Bracknell, if that's possible) and the scattershot Miss Grizzy, are works of genius. Another great aspect of the novel is how it vividly evokes the many levels – from the aristocratic to the working class – of London and Scottish society. We learn in a casual manner of 19th century British morals, tastes and fashions. Ferrier's minute descriptions of houses and their furnishings provide a living picture of domestic life.

Two hundred years on, Marriage reads as surprisingly modern in its familiar concerns about making the right choices when it comes to love. It's also very, very funny.

Marriage, by Susan Ferrier. Published by Virago Classics. ISBN: 9780349011219  RRP: $19.99

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Friday, May 11, 2018

Dog Man and Cat Kid, by Dav Pilkey

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The brilliant, funny, quirky fourth book in the Dog Man series.

Once upon a time, when a police man and his dog were caught in an explosion, it looked like it was curtains for both. But then a nurse had a great idea. Why not attach the man’s body to the dog’s head? And so was born Dog Man, crime fighting super hero. Dog Man has made some great friends, such as Zuzu, the world’s greatest poodle, but unfortunately he has one terrible enemy: Petey, the world’s evilest cat. Petey has tried to clone himself, to double his evil powers, but botched the job and produced a super cute little kitten called Li’L Petey.

Can Petey turn sweet Li’L Petey to a life of crime, or will his cute little clone find that he can be good and not evil? In this latest book in the hugely successful Dog Man series, there are huge robots, adventures galore and a laugh on every page. The delightful Li’L Petey mesmerises with his adorable innocence, made all the funnier when contrasted against his evil “Papa”. Parents will find much to appreciate in this novel length cartoon story, with its clever mix of advanced vocabulary and kid’s speech, sure to stretch reading skills.

7 + years old

Dog Man and Cat Kid, by Dav Pilkey. Published by Scholastic. ISBN: 9780545935180  RRP: $15.99

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works - A True Story, by Dan Harris

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A witty and entertaining journey from anxiety to mindfulness. 

Dan Harris is a journalist and TV anchor. In 2004, while presenting a news break on a chat show, he suffered an on-air panic attack. (You can see it on YouTube: Dan gasps for breath, fumbles his words and prematurely throws back to the presenters.) As an ambitious journalist, keen on furthering his career, this was seriously disconcerting on many levels. He sought the help of a psychiatrist and confessed to being a recreational drug user, mostly cocaine.

The sessions with the psychiatrist helped, but Dan wanted further help to deal with his ongoing anxiety problems, a lot of which centred around his ambitious nature. A friend suggested he read Eckhart Tolle, the German self-help author, famous for writing The Power of Now and A New Earth. He gave it a go. While Tolle's books had many insights, it was all mixed in with a lot of gobbledygook. Next Dan went onto Deepak Chopra (whom he found to be a bit of a fraud) and before he knew it, he was on a 10 day retreat, on the way to becoming a Buddhist, at least in practice.

10% Happier manages to do two things. It’s both enormously entertaining (Dan Harris is whip-smart and witty, with plenty of good lines) and instructive, explaining concepts like mindfulness in a practical way that resonates and makes sense. His simple message is that meditation might not solve all your problems, but with continual practice, it will make you at least 10% happier. And who doesn’t want to be 10% happier?

Another great advantage of the book is it's easy for modern day urbanites to identify with the author. He’s your typical young professional: energetic, smart and successful. Like most of us working in a cut-throat commercial society, we’re brutally sceptical and only see value in the holy dollar. The book’s narrative allows us to comfortably walk this sceptical path, rolling our eyes at the shenanigans of gurus and yogis and the spiritually eccentric, but as the author reluctantly discovers the insights of meditation, we too must allow a change of mind.

Heartily recommended. Dan Harris is a fun, likable guide on an often awkward and difficult journey.

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works - A True Story, by Dan Harris. Published by Yellow Kite. ISBN: 9781444799057  RRP: $19.99

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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

North Melbourne Books May Newsletter - featuring Anne Aly

In the May edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to counter-terrorism expert and Labor MP, Anne Aly.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Anne Aly

North Melbourne Books: Finding My Place tells an amazing story. From Cairo to the suburbs of Australia, then back to Egypt, the hard years as a single mother raising two children, a successful life in academia and finally politics.

What made you want to write a book about your life?

Anne Aly: It wasn’t entirely my idea. I was approached to write a book and responded to the request with “sure. I’ll write a book about terrorism. I’ve got some new research I can give you 100 000 words in a couple of weeks.” Well, they responded with “No. We’d like you to write a book about yourself.”

I don’t consider myself a great story teller and it certainly wasn’t on my radar to write a memoir but I considered it and my husband convinced me that I do have a story to tell.

NMB: Although the book has wide appeal, strong themes emerge about how women - especially Muslim women - are defined. Do you hope these aspects of the book may inspire younger women who are entering work and university?

AA: Absolutely. I couldn’t write a book about my journey without exploring themes around my cultural and religious heritage and the impact on the person I am today. I wanted the book to speak to younger women who, like my younger self, may be struggling to find their place and their voice- not just Muslim women but all women. It’s also about looking at how we are defined by those around us and how we navigate the inevitable expectations that come with being defined in ways which may not always align with how we see ourselves or what we want for ourselves. I think that’s a theme that can also appeal to men as well as women.

NMB: Some of the writing is very personal. Did you find you find the writing process difficult at times?

AA: Yes. It was hard. And very confronting. I haven’t really ever looked back at my  life and where I’ve come from or how I got to where I am. I’ve kind of always had my eye on the road ahead as opposed to the road I’ve travelled. So that was confronting. It is a very personal story. And I probably could have curbed some of it but I decided that if I was going to write this then I was going to lay it all out- warts and all. That’s scary because we get judged on so many levels as public figures- on how we look, what we say, what we wear etc. And this book is like saying “well here I am. This is me. Judge me.”

There are moments when I wish I had chosen a quieter life. But then I think about all those years I stayed silent about the physical violence in my first marriage and I realise that nothing ever changes if you stay silent. I’m incredibly privileged to have a platform and a voice and I don’t want to waste that by being silent or having reservations.

NMB: You write that you have always liked literature and the arts. Do you have any favourite writers or books that particularly inspired you?

AA: I have an embarrassing obsession with true crime books that I tend to purchase at airport book shops!

But I also love Camus, Kafka and Satre.

My favourite book of all time is Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. In my book I also talk about how Kafka’s Metamorphosis really spoke to me. It’s about a man who wakes up one day and finds he has turned into a giant insect. He spends the rest of his days locked in his bedroom because his family are so ashamed of him.

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

I don’t get a lot of time to read but right now I’m about ¾ of the way through The Dry by Jane Harper. It’s a crime thriller (of course. What else!) set in outback Australia and it’s Harper’s first book. I love Aussie novels and we have some fantastic literary talent.

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

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Making of Martin Sparrow, by Peter Cochrane

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Historian Peter Cochrane's first full length novel makes for an impressive debut.

Ex-convict Martin Sparrow has had the good fortune to be granted a plot of land. It's a first rung on the ladder to self improvement. But when the terrible flood of 1806 strikes, it destroys his crops. This can only mean more backbreaking work and debt. He already owes Alister Mackie, the chief constable of the Hawkesberry river, a considerable sum. The idea of years of more hard work and debt is unbearable.

Is there a way out? Martin could join the many before him who have “bolted”, tried to make it to the other side of the mountains where myth has it that a lush, Eden like place exists, populated with sympathetic fellows and beautiful, available women. The punishment for bolting is often death by hanging, but Martin is too morally weak to stay on the farm and put in the hard work. He lies to himself, believing such a place exists and that it is possible to reach. When he does bolt, he unwittingly leaves behind a trail of destruction.

This is historian Peter Cochrane’s first major work of fiction, following his 2013 novella, Governor Bligh and the Short Man). It depicts an early Australia that is a dry, unforgiving hell on earth, a Hobbesian nightmare world. With its cast of disturbing characters, most notably the chillingly evil Griffin Pinney, Cochrane creates a story that is sometimes darkly comic, but often frightening, violent and mad.

Written in an elegant, muscular prose, Martin Sparrow describes an Australia we've never seen before. An impressive debut and sure to garner a lot of attention.

The Making of Martin Sparrow, by Peter Cochrane. Published by Viking. ISBN: 9780670074068  RRP: $32.99

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression - and the Unexpected Solutions, by Johann Hari

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Swiss-British journalist Johann Hari goes on a remarkable journey to discover the causes for his long term depression. 

At the age of eighteen Johann Hari was prescribed antidepressants and spent the next thirteen years on them. As a teenager he often found himself breaking down and crying for no good reason. Life was miserable. Then he had an epiphany of sorts: the problem simply must be an imbalance with the  chemicals in his brain. All he needed to do was correct the imbalance with drugs. Simple. At first the drugs worked, then after a time their effectiveness would wane. No problem. Simply get higher doses. There were side effects, however. Hari put on a lot of weight, but he figured to be depression free was worth it. Or was it?

Lost Connections is Hari’s attempt to look for the reasons why there is such an epidemic of depression and anxiety in Western societies. The early chapters of the book look at the science behind the effectiveness of antidepressants and finds, amazingly, that their efficacy is actually marginal. They act more as a placebo. Yet doctors unthinkingly keep prescribing them.

The book then outlines in individual chapters seven reasons why people develop depression and anxiety, such as a lack of meaningful work, disconnection from nature, lack of community etc. There is another chapter after these seven which addresses how our genes and changes in the brain can cause depression and anxiety as well, but Hari finds that even if you have a disposition towards depression, the seven factors outlined will greatly exacerbate it.

The rest of the book looks at ways of gaining re-connection to meaningful work, values, nature and other people. The most compelling passages describe Hari working with a protest group in a dingy housing project in Kotti, Berlin. Rents were going through the roof and so the residents, a disparate group of people, came together and found strength to help each other and make positive change. Hari found that concentrating on helping others, and belonging to a group, greatly helped as an effective antidepressant. Meditation is another tool which is investigated as a way of combating depression and is found to be a powerful way to build empathy with others, and hence reconnection to the world.

Lost Connections mixes a personal narrative of suffering and trauma with journalistic research and investigation. If you are depressed or anxious, this book perhaps won’t address all your problems or offer an instant cure, but it will give hope that there is a way out. The basic take-away it that our society is making us very sick, focusing too much on status, money and individual achievement, leaving us disconnected from each other and ourselves.

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression - and the Unexpected Solutions, by Johann Hari. Published by Bloomsbury. ISBN: 9781408878699  RRP: $27.99

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson

Staff review by Chris Saliba

There is both much to agree with and much to be challenged by in Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life.

It’s always interesting to read a book around which there is so much hype or controversy. Jordon B. Peterson is the current bete noire of feminists and leftists. His book, 12 Rules for Life, grew out of some writing he had been doing for the Quora website, where anyone can ask a question and anyone can answer it. His other book, Maps of Meaning, by his own admission is a rather dense, academic work. 12 Rules is for the general reader.

Despite all the controvery swirling around Peterson, there’s not much you could object to in his 12 rules for living a good life. Most of it is fairly basic stuff: don’t be resentful, maintain your dignity, learn what you can from others, don’t let your ego get out of control, don’t tell lies and above all, don’t lie to yourself. Some of it is quite humane and forgiving of the human condition. Each rule is backed up with interesting (sometimes debateable) analysis of some of the world’s best literature: the Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dostoyevksy, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Orwell etc. There is also quite a bit of pop culture analysis, from Disney films to the Simpsons.

Where some readers may take umbrage is the second last chapter, which discusses gender roles and what the author sees as the dangers of forcing men to be too feminine. Peterson has some good points to make about innate male and female characteristics, and how ridiculous it is to try and homogenise the genders and pretend there are no real differences. The book very much argues we can’t escape our evolutionary heritage: violence and aggression is how we got here. But some of his arguments are a bit hair raising. In one part of the book he pretty much condones male workplace bullying; in another he blames the rise of  fascist ideology on men being pushed too hard to feminise. The rise of Trump can also be blamed on this process of feminisation.

The grim, hard tone of the book, with its leaden prose, gives 12 Rules for Life a feel of ominous dread. It’s like conversing with a person who likes to stand too much in your personal space. Peterson perhaps put it best in the acknowledgements to the book, where he thanked the illustrator who provides a drawing that starts every chapter. Without these illustrations, Peterson muses, his book “might otherwise have been a too-dark and dramatic tome”. Dark and dramatic sums the text up pretty well.

A book sure to challenge and test your pre-conceived ideas about the world.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson. Published by Allen Lane. ISBN: 9780241351642  RRP: $35

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Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Future Won't Be Long, by Jarett Kobek

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A dizzying trip through New York's underground scene of the 1980s and 90s.

It's 1986. A gay eighteen-year-old farmboy leaves his Wisconsin home after his parents die in strange circumstances. He renames himself Baby, moves to New York and on his first night meets the flamboyant Adeline. She is only slightly older than him and talks like a campy Hollywood actress of the silver screen era. Soon the two are inseparable and will take their friendship on a rollercoaster ride through the following decade.

Jarett Kobek's The Future Won't Be Long works almost as a prequel to his previous novel, I Hate the Internet. The story is alternatively narrated by Baby, who will eventually become a science fiction writer (among other things) and Adeline, who makes a name for herself as a comic book artist. A dizzying glitterball of a book, one that seems to spin faster and faster, Kobek brings to life the drugs, sex, nightclubs, artists, writers, drag queens and oddballs that made up New York's underground scene of the 1980s and 90s. In between the parties and name dropping (with appearances from Quentin Crisp, Norman Mailer, David Wojnarowicz, Brett Easton Ellis etc.) there is plenty of biting commentary on the many ills of American society.

Brilliant and genre-busting, The Future Won't Be Long is like nothing you've read before.

The Future Won't Be Long, by Jarett Kobek. Published by Serpent's Tail. ISBN: 9781781258552  RRP: $32.99

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Saturday, March 31, 2018

North Melbourne Books April Newsletter - featuring Elizabeth Crook

In the April edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to American writer Elizabeth Crook about new novel, The Which Way Tree.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Elizabeth Crook

North Melbourne Books: Set in 19th century Texas, The Which Way Tree tells the story of a young girl, Samantha and her half –brother Benjamin who set off in pursuit of a panther that has viciously killed Samantha’s mother and left the girl badly scarred.  In order to avenge her mother’s death the children are joined by a Mexican outlaw and a preacher with a bullheaded aging tracking dog. Their journey is made even more dangerous with the realisation that they themselves are being pursued by a Confederate soldier with a score to settle. 

The Which Way Tree is wonderfully narrated by Benjamin in a plain speaking voice that brings to life the story’s many thrilling, humorous and frightening moments  At no stage do we sense a contemporary author at work.  How hard a task was that to achieve?

Elizabeth Crook: Benjamin’s voice came to me from reading so many letters and journals written in that time. And once I had the voice in my head, telling the story was surprisingly easy-- almost like listening instead of writing. Benjamin is an earnest character, and although he relates events that are often violent, and traumatic, his straightforward narration and total lack of self pity or self absorption and his kind, steady nature gave me the sense I could pretty much turn the story over to him and just let him tell it. From chapter to chapter, I had only a vague idea of what would be happening next, and was often, I think, as surprised as readers will be. In other words, I had a lot of fun writing this book.

NMB: The  American West has always been a popular setting for characters in pursuit of something be it treasure, justice or revenge.  What do you think it is about this aspect of American history that continues to fascinate?

EC: I think it’s the allure of the unknown at the edge of what’s familiar. In the old American West survival was more determined by the laws of mother nature and raw human nature than by laws mandated on paper. Life was harder and yet simpler, in that it was more basic and centered on the greatest challenge of all—that of survival. There was always the heart-pumping question of what, exactly, one would encounter around the curve in the trail or over the slope of the hill—would it be a life-saving source of water, or, instead, a violent surprise attack? The extremes posed by weather and violence and by the the vast, endless nature of the landscape tested people in harsh ways, and I think many of us, as readers today, like to watch our characters manoeuvre through these extremes and wonder how we would hold up if we were in their situations.

NMB: In your novel it is the search for the elusive killer panther that helps propel the narrative. At what stage did you decide to have an animal play such an integral part?

EC: It wasn’t as if I had a sense of the story and decided that the mountain lion—or panther, as these cats were then called—would play a pivotal role. It was the other way around. I simply had the cat in my head first. The characters and the story were built around that central image of the cat. It happened this way because of an event in my own life: many years ago my son, at the age of fourteen, became lost with a friend while camping in the rough hill country of Texas. We searched for the boys all night, and during the search the deputy sheriff spotted an enormous mountain lion trailing alongside him in the canyon where the boys had disappeared. Near daylight, the boys were located by helicopter and the deputy sheriff hiked down into a narrow ravine to retrieve them. He told me afterwards that when he reached their little campsite, where they had built a small campfire, the cat was there watching them. They had no idea of its presence. Almost certainly, it was only curious and the boys weren’t in danger. But the idea of those eyes on my son stayed with me and became the spark for The Which Way Tree.

NMB: Benjamin and Samantha are two children placed in extremely dangerous situations. Your depiction of  Samantha, still nursing the physical and emotional scars of a violent attack, is one of a child trying to sort out a mixture of grief, anger and insecurity. How important was it to create young characters who retain realistic childhood traits despite immersing them in such dramatic adult

EC: It’s important to me that characters act like real people rooted in their own time, not ours, and think and behave in accordance with their background and ages. If they don’t then I can’t believe in them. And of course, if an author doesn’t believe in his or her characters, then readers won’t either, and won’t care about them or care what happens to them—and this would render the plot, as well as the characters, irrelevant. Readers would simply put they book down. So it’s essential to keep the characters authentic and their actions plausible. A writer has to think at every turn: Is this what these characters would do if they were real people? Is this how they would feel and how they would behave in the situation I’ve put them in? If, as the author, I’m not getting that right, I have to re-think the characters or back up and approach the scene again.

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

EC: I’m a slow, slow reader, and therefore I have to spend most of my time reading research material rather than fiction. I just don’t have enough time to read both. So on the top of my reading stack there’s a journal of a trip across the southwest in 1858 and a history of a Texas town called Indianola that was an important coastal port before it was wiped out by a hurricane. I’m not sure what I’m going to write next, so I’m casting about, reading these histories and plucking out interesting facts and events that might help to make a good story.

The Which Way Tree, by Elizabeth Crook. Published by Scribe. RRP: $29.99

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Money, by Emile Zola

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Emile Zola's passionate and consummately researched denunciation of the excesses of financial speculation.

Aristide Saccard is a bankrupt financier looking to deal himself back into the finance game. He dreams big, of conquering the world. When he discovers that his upstairs neighbour, Georges Hamelin, a devout Christian, has plans to run development projects in the Middle East - rail lines, ports and roads, infrastructure to move commercial goods - it sparks an idea. Why not set up a bank to fund these plans? Saccard calls his bank the World Bank and starts issuing shares. From day one, however, Saccard is intent on manipulating share prices by all sorts of back door chicanery. Principally, the bank buys its own stock and hides the proceeds in dummy accounts.

The stock goes from strength to strength, if it could be called that, realising ridiculously high values. It's all unsustainable, of course. The demise of the bank is also helped along by the seasoned Jewish financier Gundermann, who is also a major focus of Saccard's rampant anti-semitism. As the bank crashes, many "mum and dad" investors get ruined along the way, as do the greedy and the naive. Chief among these victims is Caroline Hamelin, brother of Georges. She invests in the bank and also becomes Saccard's mistress. Intelligent and principled, she nonetheless sleepwalks into the looming disaster, lulled by the promise of easy money.

Money (L'argent in French) is the 18th novel in Zola's twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle. It's a story that he drives at full speed, with a dizzying array of characters. Zola uses his journalistic skills (he researched the finance industry intensively) and acute intelligence to produce a passionate denunciation of the evils of speculation, with special attention paid to the psychological effects money has on people. In short, money is like a dangerous drug, causing life threatening addiction. Money also seriously warps judgement, causing its victims to make irrational choices.

If there's a criticism that can be leveled at Money, it's that it feels like it was written quickly and with a lot of zeal. Some of the writing can seem a little repetitive and hastily thrown together. On the positive side, Money is amazingly modern in the problems it diagnoses and its core concerns (the finance industry; the psychology of the greedy and the gullible) make it almost a mirror on today's problems. Nothing much has changed in the 120 years since it was written.

Money, by Emile Zola. Published by Alma Classics. ISBN: 9781847495792 RRP: $19.99

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Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Real Thief, by William Steig

Staff review by Chris Saliba

When twenty-nine rubies go missing from the Royal Treasury, the chief guard is accused. But did he do it?

Gawain the goose is the chief guard of the Royal Treasury. Wearing his red and gold uniform and carrying a dangerous halberd, he paces back and forth in front of the treasury's door, occasionaly stopping to be photographed by tourists. Once a day Gawain has to enter the treasury and check that all is in order. Imagine his shock when he discovers that twenty-nine rubies, amongst other royal treasures, have gone missing. He immediately reports this finding to King Basil the bear. The king tries to calm the frantic Gawain down, but soon becomes suspicious. When the Prime Minister, Adrian the cat, is asked for advice on the matter, he all but accuses Gawain of the crime. The poor goose in swiftly thrown into the tower and then brought to trial, at which he escapes, flying away, refusing to be found guilty for the crime. He never stops claiming his innocence.

Who could be the real thief? It's soon revealed to be Derek the mouse. He found a chink in the treasury door and was mesmerised by the treasures held within. At first he took only a few rubies, but quickly became addicted, decorating his humble home and making it look like a royal palace. Having these jewels made the mouse feel important. He walked the town's streets with a proud gait. But when he finds out that his best friend Gawain has been accused and found guilty of the theft, he doesn't know what to do. Misery and suffering set in until all is resolved by a humble confession.

The Real Thief (1973) by American illustrator and writer William Steig is a perfect gem of a story that deals with themes of guilt, redemption, the importance of honesty and how lies can destroy whole communities. The novel has a wonderful psychological truth as we learn of Derek's subtle weaknesses – his need to make himself feel important through the acquisition of the jewels – and how such treasures come close to ruining his life. Derek must be one of the few criminals in literature that evokes a real fondness in the reader. It's impossible not to feel pity for the mouse as someone who is not bad at heart, but has lost their way.

A story that teaches valuable lessons about the importance of finding self worth not through riches but by maintaining personal integrity and how lies can destroy the soul.

The Real Thief, by William Steig. Published by Pushkin Children's. ISBN: 9781782691457 RRP $19.99

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Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Finding My Place: From Cairo to Canberra – The Irresistible 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!

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

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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

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