Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Rúin, by Dervla McTiernan

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Mona Lisa Mystery, by Pat Hutchins

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

Fun holiday reading for adults and children alike.

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

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Monday, February 12, 2018

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

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, February 3, 2018

Fire and Fury, by Michael Wolff

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, January 31, 2018

North Melbourne Books February Newsletter - featuring Clare Atkins

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

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

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

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North Melbourne Books talks to Clare Atkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Between Us, by Clare Atkins

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, January 19, 2018

Indian Captive, by Lois Lenski

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Fraulein Else, by Arthur Schnitzler

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Swallowing Mercury, Wioletta Greg

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Passage of Love, by Alex Miller

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Snow Angel, by Lauren St John

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A moving and realistic story about Kenya's most vulnerable children.

Twelve-year-old Makena lives with her mountain guide father and scientist mother in the Kenyan city of Nairobi. She dreams of one day climbing Mount Kenya. Makena's life is a good one, with sensible and loving parents. Then one day her mother is called away to help her sister, Mary, who is an aid worker in Sierra Leone, a country dealing with a nasty breakout of the deadly Ebola virus. Both of Makena's parents make the trip to help Mary, leaving Makena behind with friends of the family.

Whilst in Sierra Leone, tragedy strikes, and Makena is rendered an orphan. Forced to live with a weakling uncle and his domineering wife, Makena flees. She ends up living in the notorious Mathare slums and makes friends with the plucky Snow, an albino girl who is feared and loathed because of her unusual skin colour. Life in the slums is tough: Makena is always hungry, dirty and close to sickness. Snow, the albino girl, teaches her the wonders of a positive attitude, but this can only take you so far.

The Snow Angel has a plausibly happy ending, with the novel eventually shifting its storyline to the highlands of Scotland, but is nonetheless suffused with a gut wrenching sadness and grief. Middle-class African life, the poverty of the slums and Nairobi's bustling population, all trying to survive and get ahead, are memorably evoked with an almost gritty style of realism. Here the streets teem with disease, poverty, child exploitation, malnutrition, crime, political corruption, venality and general hardship. It's a world where few can be trusted and everyone is out for themselves. Yet in this realistically portrayed story St John leaves the reader just the smallest glimmer of hope that things will get better for Makena, and they ultimately do, although the child's grief is something that will never be forgotten.

A gentle and heartfelt window onto the terrible hardships of Kenya's poorest and most vulnerable.

The Snow Angel, by Lauren St John. Published by Head of Zeus. ISBN: 9781786695895. RRP: $19.99 

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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The lives of a disparate group of theatre people are explored in this warm and smart New York comedy.

Mister Monkey is a children's musical based on a popular children's novel of the same name. Written by a Vietnam veteran, the novel was supposed to be for adults, but author Ray Oritz was convinced to write it as a children's book. A group of jobbing actors – ambitious yet disgruntled at working with such cheesy, low rent material – are putting on the play, struggling with budget cuts, a difficult director, bad costumes, ill conceived theatre directions and a host of other woes.

The plot of the children's novel centres on the “super cute” baby chimpanzee Mister Monkey. When Mister Monkey's parents are shot by evil hunters in Africa, a letter arrives from New York. The Jimson family want to adopt him. Mister Monkey flies to New York and learns all sorts of party tricks, notably picking pockets, although he always gives the wallets back. Enter Janice, the evil girlfriend of Mr Jimson. She accuses Miser Monkey of stealing her wallet. And so the family hires lawyer Portia McBailey to defend Mister Monkey.

Forty-four-year old Margot plays lawyer Portia McBailey and the first chapter is devoted to her mid-life personal dramas. Each following chapter concentrates on other characters either working in the play or connected with it in some way. There is the grandfather and grandson who go to see the play; the grandson's teacher, Miss Sonya (the chapter devoted to her terrible dinner date with an environmental lawyer is priceless); Lakshmi the underpaid costumer designer; Mario the waiter who knows the children's book author and always gets free tickets to Mister Monkey productions; Roger the surly director; and a host of other characters. With consummate skill Francine Prose weaves all of these very disparate personal stories into a unifying narrative of human frailty, comedy and vulnerability. Her style is whip-smart and witty, without being gratuitous. The effect is a mix of Anne Tyler and Woody Allen (the story is rich in New York settings), with a bit of Carson McCullers' Ballad of the Sad Cafe thrown in. Prose is interested in the tensions between the inner life (our failings, loneliness and alienation) and the need to perform publicly, to front up for awful jobs, blind dates and other public humiliations. Mister Monkey is a novel that understands all your secret anxieties and hang ups, offering tea and sympathy for your sufferings.

Warm, energetic, witty, urbane – the joys of this very memorable and affecting novel are endless.

Mister Monkey, by Francine Prose. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN:9780062397843 RRP: $27.99

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Sunday, December 31, 2017

North Melbourne Books January Newsletter - featuring Daniel Shand

In the January edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to Scottish author Daniel Shand about his debut novel, Fallow, which sees its Australian release this month.

It tells the story of Paul and Mikey, two brothers who are on the run. Part hair-raising thriller and part absurdist romp, Fallow mixes Patricia Highsmith’s moreish prose with the existential madness of Charles Portis and Samuel Beckett.

You can read our staff review of Fallow here.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Daniel Shand

North Melbourne Books: Fallow tells the story of two brothers in their twenties, Mikey and Paul, who are on the run from the authorities. Paul, the older brother by a few years, narrates the story. He tells of their exploits on the road, often describing his ability to dominate and win in any situation. But as the story continues, Paul’s character changes in unimaginable ways.

How did the idea for Fallow come to you?

Daniel Shand: The book’s origins lie in a short story I wrote, which now makes up the first two chapters of Fallow, give or take. It was the two brothers, hiding out in their tent, in the countryside, all the way up to… Well, I won’t spoil it.

I thought it would be a self-contained piece, but I was so curious about how Mikey and Paul ended up there, and about what they would do next, that the story started to sprawl from there. But the heart was always with this odd couple, bickering in a tent. It was a dynamic that really amused me and one that I knew had a lot of potential.

NMB: The most compelling aspect of the novel is of course the narrative voice of Paul. He’s so believable and menacing, his misanthropy sometimes darkly comic, and then we learn he’s not all that he seems. How did you imagine his character and what was the writing process like?

DS: I have to say, writing Paul was disturbing and fun at the same time. When you get inside the mind of an ‘evil’ person, it gives you permission to voice the worst things that human beings think about each other, and there is something entertaining about being so free. Having said that, it was also quite draining and tended to leave a bad taste in your mouth.

NMB: When the brothers; travels take them to a peace camp run by warring hippie and religious factions, the novel changes register from thriller to theatre of the absurd. These sections are quite satirical and humorous. Are they based on personal experience of any kind?

DS: No, not really. The kernel of truth is that in Scotland there is a permanent protest camp near to a nuclear submarine base called Faslane, which I did visit as a kid, but everything else was pure invention.

NMB: Fallow has been likened to the work of Cormac McCarthy and Iain Banks. Do you have any writers you count as major influences?

DS: Both of those actually, it was such a compliment to have those names brought up in comparison to Fallow. McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses was one of the first books where I thought, I could do something like this. Not that I’m arrogant enough to say I could match the quality, but there was something in the style that spoke to me.

Some others would be George Saunders and Alan Warner. Alan was kind enough to write a positive blurb for the UK cover, which was another highlight in the process.

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

DS: I got a copy of Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin for Christmas. I’ve only just started but it seems to be up my street so far.

After that, I have Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends lined up, as well as Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor—I’m looking forward to both of those.

Fallow, by Daniel Shand. Published by Picador. RRP $17.99

Released 11th January 2018

Friday, December 29, 2017

Fallow, by Daniel Shand

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A thriller that turns into an absurdist farce, Fallow is the compelling first novel from Scottish author Daniel Shand.

Paul and Mikey are brothers in their mid-twenties. Mikey, the younger brother by a few years, is intellectually immature and a “bit sensitive”. He’s somewhat like Lennie Small in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men – physically strong but mentally challenged.

The two brothers are on the run. Mikey has broken his parole, at the urging of Paul, and now the brothers are trying to live by their wits in the Scottish highlands. They camp for a while in a tent, then take over a house, find work digging ditches, steal a van and end up roaming the roads. Along the way they meet several interesting and eccentric characters. The story climaxes, changing from gripping thriller to theatre of the absurd, when the brothers join a peace camp run by warring hippie and religious factions.

Fallow is narrated by Paul, the older brother, and it’s his voice that makes the novel so compelling and psychologically penetrating. He’s clearly a manipulative character, quite misanthropic (Patricia Highsmith’s relish for describing dull middle-class lives comes to mind here), devious and menacing. He plunges the brothers further and further into trouble, and like Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, his lies threaten to box them both in with no chance of escape.

As the story further works itself out, and the brothers join the farcical peace camp, it starts to emerge that Paul is not so reliable a narrator after all. The reader starts to question the veracity of the brothers’ exploits. Paul’s character also starts to diminish, becoming weaker, more pathetic and surprisingly vulnerable. His descent from mean bravado to quivering mess is fascinating and horrifying to watch.

Part hair-raising thriller and part absurdist romp, Daniel Shand’s debut novel mixes Patricia Highsmith’s moreish prose with the existential madness of Charles Portis and Samuel Beckett.

It’s hard to figure out what the final message of Fallow is, indeed if there is one, but nonetheless its portrait of a highly unstable mind will remain burnished in your consciousness.

This is high quality literary fiction, immensely enjoyable, from a remarkably gifted young writer still in his twenties.

Fallow, by Daniel Shand. Published by Picador. ISBN: 9781760556785 RRP: $17.99

Released 11th January, 2018

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Thursday, November 30, 2017

North Melbourne Books December Newsletter - featuring Andy Mulligan

In the December edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to English children's author Andy Mulligan about his new novel, DOG.

It's a wonderful story about eleven-year-old Tom who is having a hard time of it at school. He's also having personal troubles due to the fact his parents have broken up. When his father reluctantly buys him a dog, he couldn't be happier. But the dog, named Spider, has personal issues of his own. When Spider runs away from home, Tom must do all he can to be reunited.

This is a sweet and sensitive story about a boy and his dog, sure to appeal to all readers 9 years and up.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Andy Mulligan

North Melbourne Books: DOG tells the story of eleven-year-old Tom. He's being bullied at school, his parents have broken up and he's not talking to his mother. His father has reluctantly promised him a dog as a pet. When the promised dog finally arrives, he is named Spider. Like his owner, Spider is a bit of a sensitive soul and is worried about his place in the world. Despite wanting so much to be a good and obedient dog, Spider keeps getting himself into trouble. Worried at all the trouble he is causing Tom and his father, Spider decides to run away. What made you want to write a story with such vulnerable central characters?

Andy Mulligan: I’m interested in them, I suppose – and work on the assumption that we are all very anxious and very vulnerable most of the time, even if we get extremely good at hiding it. My memory of being a child is that going to a big new school is fraught with worries, and Tom/Spider is undoubtedly a version of me as I jumped to the wrong conclusions, got confused, lashed out, got hurt, sad and happy again. Sometimes we ache to go back to our childhood, but I think that’s usually because we ache to put things right, or have another go and do less damage. Writing DOG was very much about re-visiting anxious times, and remembering the wondrous relief when things turned out to be not as bad as you’d feared!

NMB: The cast of characters in DOG is so varied and vibrant. There's the self-absorbed cat Moonlight, Hilda the goofy fish, Buster the noble yet tough pit bull, Thread the menacing spider, Jesse the fox and Flea, who is of course a flea. How did you come up with all the characters? Did you choose favourite animals and insects to portray?

AM: Not really. I find the characters emerge instinctively as you hit obstacles in the story, or spot opportunities. Naturally, you want contrasts. The pit-bull was inspired by a terrifying poster on a train, inviting me to donate money to a charity that supported fighting dogs - dogs that had been mutilated in dog-fights. The poor creature staring at me looked so brain-damaged and sad I knew she had to come into the novel. As for the flea, I wanted someone strong, straight-forward and honest and loved the idea that something so tiny and despised could be that character. When you’ve spent time with a cruel, manipulative character – such as the spider, Thread – you yearn to balance it with someone as pure as the little moth. Writing DOG was a real joy.

NMB: The theme of the novel seems to be the importance of true friendship, despite the hardships. What does the story mean to you?

AM: It means a lot to me. It’s a love story, for one thing, and the pulse beating throughout is ‘be kind, and value those around you’ – which is hardly a profound thing to say, but it’s probably the most important thing one can ever learn. It’s very hard to sustain kindness, and live up to the standards we aspire to - because we all get distracted, let ourselves down and take advantage of other people. But the book is about people trying to be better. Tom and Spider discover unconditional love, and in the course of their odysseys learn to be a little wiser in the choices they make. ‘It’s a story about friendship’ sounds trite, but that’s exactly what it is. There is nothing more important than the bonds we forge with those around us, and if we can’t accept and value the love that’s offered we’re in for a very grim time. I’m not interested in getting other people to realize that: I’m trying to realize it myself. That doesn’t mean DOG is personal therapy: it means that just like most writers I raid the personal experiences I’ve had, and work through all those things that still torment and fascinate me.

NMB: DOG in some ways is reminiscent of children's books such as Piers Torday's Last Wild series, with its colorful animal characters, and R.J. Palacio's Wonder for its sensitive portrayal of troubled childhood. What children's writers do you count as influences?

AM: I’m afraid I stay away from other children’s writers, for fear of being frozen with envy – and I dread accidentally copying or stealing. So my influences are from a long time ago – Enid Blyton, who told good, quick stories. I love AA Milne for the profundity of such simple-seeming characters and tales, and there’s a truly terrifying book called Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr that often comes back to me. I read it when I was 10 and it haunted me – I think it made me realize how psychologically powerful books could be. But the great Anthony Buckeridge is always a ghost in my study, too – a beautiful writer of school stories, that still make me cry with laughter. He was the children’s PG Wodehouse. When I’m writing, I always have a Dickens on the go. If I ever get stuck, twenty minutes with Charles unsticks me.

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

AM: I’m re-reading Great Expectations and have just started Monica Ali’s Brick Lane having heard a lovely interview with her.

DOG, by Andy Mulligan. Published by Pushkin Children's. RRP: $19.99

Release date 18th December