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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Sunday, March 4, 2018

Spring Garden, by Tomoka Shibasaki

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

North Melbourne Books March Newsletter - featuring Dervla McTiernan

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

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

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North Melbourne Books talks to Dervla McTiernan

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

What does the novel mean to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Randomistas: How Radical Researchers Changed Our World by Andrew Leigh

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

Release date 1st March, 2018

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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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