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

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Dog, by Andy Mulligan

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A sweet and sensitive story about a boy and a dog both experiencing personal troubles.

Eleven-year-old Tom is having a hard time of it. He is 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 dog finally arrives he is named Spider, because of his long, spindly legs.

Spider the dog is having a rough time himself. He was the last of the litter to be chosen. His looks aren’t the best, with his front protruding tooth. A spider named Thread has also made his first few days on earth upsetting. While anxiously waiting for someone to choose him as a pet, Thread the spider descended and told Spider that no one wanted him, that he was too much trouble. Spider doesn’t want to believe this, but his confidence is shaken. Is it really true that no one wants him? Luckily Spider is eventually chosen and gets to live with his new owner.

Tom and Spider become best friends immediately. They sleep in the same room, even though Tom’s dad has forbidden it. A spanner is thrown in the works when Spider realises that Thread, the menacing spider, has secretly followed him to his new home, setting up house in Tom’s room. He continues to bother Spider, undermining his confidence. This leads indirectly to Spider causing all sorts of terrible accidents, getting Tom deeper and deeper into trouble. When Spider realises all the trouble he’s causing, he runs away.

Andy Mulligan’s DOG is both plaintive and funny, with a cast of brilliant animal characters. There’s Moonlight the precious and vain cat, Hilda the goofy fish, Jesse the fox, Buster the tough but noble pit bull and Flea, a very helpful flea. The story mixes elements of R. J. Palacio’s Wonder in its sympathetic portrayal of a boy’s inner life with the innovation of Piers Torday’s The Last Wild trilogy. Andy Mulligan’s writing has a wonderful lightness and pace, while his dialogue has the natural tone of everyday speech.

A story with a sensitive emotional core that is sure to appeal to readers 9 years and up.

DOG, by Andy Mulligan. Published by Pushkin Children's. ISBN: 9781782691716  RRP: $19.99

Release date 18th December

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Sunday, November 26, 2017

Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492 - 1900, by Simon Schama

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Simon Schama's Jewish history is warm, witty and life affirming.

Simon Schama’s Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492 – 1900 is the second instalment of his esteemed Jewish history, following Finding the Words 1000-1492.  The story starts with David the Reubenite, a fifteenth century Jewish mystic who believed himself to be a member of the original Biblical tribe of Reuben and ends with Theodor Herzl, the political activist and writer who is considered one of the founders of the Jewish state in Palestine. In between there is a cast of men and women –  business people, philosophers, writers, political activists, religious leaders – who have shaped the extraordinary history of the Jews. It’s a story of survival, both physical and spiritual, against thousands of years of deeply ingrained oppression.

Jews did not have a nation state to call home, where they could properly defend themselves and seek asylum, until 1948. Until that time, the Jews had to live on the goodwill (of which there was next to none) of their host countries. They led precarious lives, especially in Christian Europe, where the Catholic Church’s Inquisition was in full flight. Being Jewish, you always had to be one step ahead of political developments. Nothing could be taken for granted. Basic rights could be taken at any time, humiliations meted out at any Christian’s whim or arbitrary expulsion from the host country.  When the Habsburg empress Maria Theresa decided to expell the Jews out of Prague, some 30,000 souls had to leave and find asylum in a hostile Europe.

To read this history of the Jews is to also read a history of anti-Semitism. The facts alone of how Jews were treated makes the reader draw breath in astonishment. The Christian imagination was deeply immersed in lurid fantasies of the Jews as demons and hobgoblins. The most persistent Christian belief was in a blood libel – the accusation that Jews kidnapped and killed Christian children, using their blood in Jewish rituals. Such ridiculous beliefs were upheld and promoted not just by the church’s hoi polloi, but by its leaders, priests and popes. No wonder pogroms against the Jews were so vicious.

Despite this, in the centuries leading up to the twentieth, Jews did make breakthroughs (although there was always the feeling that these advances were on shaky ground as irrational anti-Semitism could flare up at any time). Jews found some liberation in the ghettos of Venice, in 1616 the Dutch republic relaxed its rules and allowed the building of synagogues and in England Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries found some degree of acceptance. Of course one of the greatest countries for Jews would be the United States of America, with its guarantee of religious freedom.

Simon Schama writes a bustling, generous and witty history. He covers the general sweep of Jewish progress, but also has a fascination, even love, for the great characters of that story. His vivid descriptions of congested, busy life in the ghetto, its jostle of Jewish culture, food, dress and religious practice, brims with humanity. A book that weighs the triumph and tragedy of the Jews in equal measure, that celebrates as much as it commiserates.

Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492 - 1900, by Simon Schama. Published by Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 9781847922816 RRP: $35

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Secret Life of Cows, by Rosamund Young

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Hours Before Dawn, by Celia Fremlin

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday, November 10, 2017

The Cyberiad, by Stanislaw Lem

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

Or try this wise cracking robot:

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

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

Utterly brilliant!

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

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Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western, by Richard Brautifan

Staff review by Chris Saliba

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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