Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Blue Cat, by Ursula Dubosarsky

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Ursula Dubosarsky writes about Sydney during the Second World War, from a child's perspective. 

Columba is a young girl trying to come to grips with a world that is strangely changing, and perhaps not for the better. The year is 1942, the place Sydney, Australia. She hears stories around her, especially from her brassy friend Hilda, that a frightening war is happening overseas. Then the war comes one step closer in the person of Ellery, a mysterious young boy from Europe. Ellery is German-Jewish, doesn’t speak English and is a refugee. The book ends on a hazy, dreamy note, with Columba, Ellery and Hilda running through Luna Park in pursuit of a missing cat, the blue cat of the title.

The Blue Cat is an impressionistic story, told gently in a patchwork fashion. (The text is accompanied by photographs from the era.) Told from a child’s perspective, the reader gets glimpses of the adult world during the upheaval of wartime - news stories of the Nazis occupying Paris and the bombing of Darwin, neighbourhood gossip, the gruff comments of Columba’s father. For young readers (10-14)  interested in trying to imagine what it might have been like living in Australia during the Second World War, then The Blue Cat provides a moving story to contemplate.

The Blue Cat, by Ursula Dubosarsky. Published by Allen and Unwin. ISBN: 9781760292294  RRP: $19.99

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Good Daughter, by Karin Slaughter

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Two crimes, twenty-eight years apart, need to solved. Two sisters, their lives ruined by murder, haven't spoken to each other in two decades. Karin Slaughter's new thriller will have you in its thrall.

1989, North Georgia, the small town of Pikeville. The Quinn family have lost a considerable amount of money. Rusty, a lawyer and father of the family, can't help but take on legal cases that no one else will touch: rapists, brutal murderers and other low lifes. His legal bills are never getting paid and so the family has moved into an old farmhouse. One night, while Rusty is out, two men let themselves into the house. One of the men, Zachariah Culpepper, is known to Rusty. His intention is to murder Rusty, but confused and angry he kills Rusty's wife, Gamma. The two sisters, 13-year-old Charlotte (“Charlie”) and 16-year-old Samantha (“Sam”) witness the murder. They are dragged out into the woods by Zachariah, where some truly horrific things happen to them.

Twenty-eight years later. Both sisters are now practicing lawyers. Sam works in New York, while Charlie has remained in Pikeville. The relationship between the two sisters is deeply fractured. They have barely spoken to each other in two decades. A major drama changes that. Charlie manages to get caught up in a school shooting. Kelly Wilson, a baby-faced 17-year-old student who is lacking in intellectual development, has shot two people dead at the Pikeville middle school. Why did this apparently simple natured girl commit such a crime? As Rusty cannot take on the case due to a stint in hospital, both sisters must work together to find out what really happened. Many skeletons come out of the closet and grievances are aired until the sisters find healing and forgiveness.

I must confess to not reading any contemporary crime novels, but Karin Slaughter's muscular prose and expert sense of pacing and suspense grabbed me from the first page. I knew I didn't have a hope of resisting and would have to finish the book's 500 pages. While The Good Daughter is ostensibly a thriller, with two crimes at its heart that need solving, much of the story concentrates on the difficult relationship of the two sisters. You presume that the sisters would be close because of their shared trauma, but the opposite is the case. It takes the novel's considerable length to tease out all the difficulties of their relationship and finally achieve a reconciliation. At the heart of the Quinn sister's problems is a family secret one of the sisters, Charlie, has been forced to carry for most of her life. Hence the ironic title: Charlie is the good daughter, holding onto a secret for the good of the family, but destructive to herself.

The Good Daughter is quite an achievement. It's a complicated, multifaceted story that is brilliantly organised. There is a lot here for the reader to sink their teeth into. It's crime plot is rivetting, while the human drama of the two sisters is absorbing and emotionally satisfying. A thoroughly enjoyable read, but one that will also haunt you for days after you've finished it.

The Good Daughter, by Karin Slaughter. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9781460751732 RRP: $32.99

Release date: 1st August 2017

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Friday, July 21, 2017

This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, by Jerry Brotton

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The story of how a politically shrewd Queen Elizabeth tried to build military and trade alliances with the Islamic world. 

Elizabeth I reigned from 1558 until her death in 1603, an amazing forty-five year stretch of power. She is a figure central to English history, a political maverick who saw off Spanish attempts at invasion. What is perhaps less known is her wheelings and dealings with the Islamic world, most notably the Ottomans and Moroccans.

Religion at this time was just as much about politics as it was about faith. England was grappling with the devastating divisions between Catholics and Protestants. Elizabeth was Protestant, but a majority of the country remained Catholic. Sectarian violence often led to massacres and hideous executions. To be suspected of the wrong religious allegiance could mean your life was at risk. The major international conflict for Protestant England was with Catholic Spain. All energies were marshalled to see off the Catholic menace.

Just like in our own time, political allegiances and enmities wove a complex web. Religion made things even more beguiling. Elizabeth tried to establish a power bloc against the Spanish by cultivating diplomatic ties with the Islamic Ottomans and Moroccans, sending out trade missions and  bribing rulers with all sorts of lavish gifts. English officials, diplomats and royal advisers would reason that Protestant Christians had more in common with Muslims than the hated Catholics. For example, Islam shared the Protestant ban on material representations of god and the prophets. The English made all sorts of convoluted arguments, full of hypocrisy and delusion, in order to try and get Islamic military assistance to fight Catholics. Indeed, Elizabeth would help arm Muslims:

With the queen's sanction, Protestant English merchants were removing metal from ecclesiastical buildings - including lead roofing and bell metal - and shipping it to Constantinople to arm Muslims fighting against Catholics.

Elizabeth also formed a military alliance with Morocco to defeat Spain with a pre-emptive strike on Cadiz in 1596.

The English public knew a fair degree about these political shennanigans. Figures like Muhammad al-Annuri, the Moroccan ambassador who arrived in London in 1600, made many public appearances. His swarthy good looks, seen in an official portrait, make him look like a model for Othello. As Jerry Brotton writes, Shakespeare probably started to write Othello six months after al-Annuri's arrival.

  Muhammad al-Annuri (1600; Unknown artist)

Public attitudes to Muslims came through in the theatre, most notably in the plays of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe (and in lesser figures such as Thomas Kyd and Thomas Dekker). A substantial chunk of This Orient Isle is devoted to a fascinating interpretation of these plays, culminating in Shakespeare's Othello. What Brotton finds is that the theatre reflected the deeply ambivalent views the public held towards the Muslim world, often willfully misinterpreting Islam and its scriptural beliefs. Othello himself, while nominally Christian, is an unsettlingly mysterious character: did he start life as a Muslim, or a pagan, then convert? We're not sure. Brotton writes that Othello is a "profoundly ambivalent figure who embodies so much of Elizabethan England's contradictory relations to the Islamic World."

Indeed, while Elizabeth was sending out proclamations expelling "blackamoors and negroes" from the realm, she was secretly negotiating alliances with the Moroccans. As happens today, when one's political fortunes are sliding (as were hers at the time), spreading xenophobia is a useful trick.

This Orient Isle is full of rigorous scholarship, fascinating critical interpretation and enlightening  history. Jerry Brotton shows how, while much has changed in 400 years, a lot has also remained the same. 

This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, by Jerry Brotton. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141978673 RRP: $24.99

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Four family members are killed when arsenic is placed in the sugar bowl. Eldest daughter Constance is blamed, but did she do it?

Two sisters live in a large family house on the outskirts of a small town. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood, who narrates the story, is the younger sister and Constance the older. They live alone on the isolated family estate with their Uncle Julian. Six years previously, a shocking crime happened in the house. The Blackwood parents, a younger brother and Uncle Julian's wife, Dorothy, were murdered. They were all poisoned with arsenic that had been put in the family's sugar bowl, meant to be sprinkled on their evening treat of fresh garden berries. Uncle Julian had tried a little of the sugar, but managed to survive. Constance never took sugar on her berries while Merricat had been sent to bed early as punishment.

Constance was accused of the multiple murder. She stood trial, but was acquitted. Despite this, the sisters have been despised and loathed by the people of the town. Children taunt Merricat, who is the only one to leave the house and enter town to do the shopping, with the cruel rhyme Merricat, said Connie, would you like a cup of tea / Oh no, said Merricat, you'll poison me. The sisters live almost as scapegoats, the townsfolk gleefully pinning every fear and prejudice onto them.

Despite the hostility of the outside world, the sisters, along with Uncle Julian, live with a degree of harmony among themselves. Constance tends her garden, with its wild plants and herbs, Merricat performs her own little rituals, nailing family heirlooms to trees, while Uncle Julian writes his memoirs. Into this safe little group enters cousin Charles. He is determined to get his hands on the family safe that he knows contains a fortune. During a fight with Charles, Merricat accidently starts a fire. The townsfolk then rush the house, throwing whatever they can at it. In the aftermath of the fire, a confession is made and we learn who committed the murder. Yet even this disclosure of the murderer leaves much moral ambiguity: the motivation for the strange events at Blackwood house are never really revealed.

Shirley Jackson's last novel, published in 1962, is a relentlessly strange tale of Gothic suspense. It's reminiscent of schoolyard stories of witches' houses on the edge of town, boarded up old properties that invite perverse childhood speculation. The story brilliantly evokes the prejudices that communities can use to torment outsiders. Jackson relishes depicting parochial, petty, small-minded thinking, exhibiting a delicious misanthropy that almost equals that of her contemporary and fellow American, Patricia Highsmith. This is a novel that in a subtle way celebrates outsiders and rebels who don't fit in.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a true original, its cast of oddball characters truly believable and  with an uncanny plot that is genuinely scary. Its rising sense of foreboding is almost unbearable, but as Oscar Wilde once wrote, "The suspense is terrible. I do hope it will last."

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141191454 RRP: $19.99

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Golden Basket, by Ludwig Bemelmans

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Before writing the classic picture book Madeleine, Ludwig Bemelmans wrote and illustrated a charming short novel for children called The Golden Basket (1936). 

Two young sisters, Melisande and Celeste, travel with their father Horatio Coggeshall from London to Bruges, the main city of Belgium, and stay at a hotel called The Golden Basket. It's called this because a golden basket sits on its roof. Their first night in a foreign city is full of wonder and excitement. They get out of their warm bed and sit at the window to peer out into the Medieval city at night and marvel at its beauty. 

Soon enough the sisters meet Jan, the son of the hotel keeper, Monsieur Ter Meulen. Jan is a boy who's not averse to adventure (he has a pet a frog that can predict the weather) and he takes the girls to visit many of the city's wonderful places. In one scene the sisters visit a cathedral with their father, Horatio, and meet a group of school girls, one of which is Madeleine.

There is much to delight in this magical novel. Bemelmans describes the day-to-day working of the hotel and its characters with considerable charm. There is also much humour which is mingled with the novel's subtly surreal flavour. A favourite scene shows Jan carrying the moveable garden from inside the hotel to outside so it can be watered. So much of hotel and city life seems unconventional, yet liberating for that very reason.

The Dover edition of The Golden Basket is a special treat, printed as it is in a large format with gorgeous colour illustrations. Don't miss this delightful classic!

The Golden Basket, by Ludwig Bemelmans. Published by Dover. $22.95

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Thursday, July 6, 2017

No is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Naomi Klein persuasively argues that the election of Donald Trump is not an aberration. It is the culmination of years of neo-liberal influence on policy, politics and society. 

No is Not Enough was written in record time, unlike Naomi Klein's other books, which have taken years to research. Ostensibly this is an anti-Trump treatise. Klein shows how much the Trump administration is really just a kleptocracy. The collected wealth of Trump's key officials is in the billions of dollars. Their record on labor rights and the environment is appalling.

The main thesis of No is Not Enough is that the election of Donald Trump should not really surprise at all. It is something we have been slowly and blindly walking into. The neo-liberal philosophy that has been pushed for the last thirty years or so has strongly argued for smaller government, less regulation and ultimate faith in markets. The election of Donald Trump is the natural end game of neo-liberalism. The market has replaced government.

While many readers may groan at the thought of a book on Trump - afterall, don't we see and hear too much of him everyday? - there is plenty of smart analysis here. Klein does an excellent job following the money of everyone in the Trump camp,  right down to Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. The sections that deal with Trump as a brand name provide a good reminder that Trump is not a creator of value, but a brilliant self-promoter. He rose from the ashes of financial ruin by becoming a reality television star and leasing out the Trump name for dodgy developer projects.

No is Not Enough ends on a positive note. Klein documents groundswell movements that are rising up and having some wins. Canada's Leap Manifesto, a political manifesto created by writers, artists, leaders and activists, and with which Klein was involved, garnered a lot of support and influenced Canadian election results. It called for a restructuring of the Canadian economy and an end to the use of fossil fuels.

This is a bracing, urgently argued call for change. 

No is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein. Published by Allen Lane. ISBN: 9780241320884 RRP: $29.99

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Friday, June 30, 2017

North Melbourne Books July Newsletter - featuring Jarvis

In the July edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to writer and illustrator Jarvis about his hilarious and utterly brilliant new picture book for children, Mrs Mole, I'm Home!.

It's the story of Morris Mole. He is tired from waiting tables at Gordon Ratzy's nightclub and so goes home. The only problem is he can't find his glasses. Never mind, Morris Mole thinks, he should know the way by now. And so off he burrows. "Mrs Mole, I'm home!" he cheerfully exclaims, but every time he always finds himself in the wrong home - with a family of rabbits, then owls, then penguins and finally crocodiles.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Jarvis 

North Melbourne Books:  Morris Mole is tired from working all day serving tables at Gordon Ratzy's nightclub. He now has to get home but can't find his glasses. Never mind, Morris Mole thinks, he should know the way by now. And so off he burrows. "Mrs Mole, I'm home!" he cheerfully exclaims, but every time he always finds himself in the wrong home - with a family of rabbits, then owls, then penguins and finally crocodiles. Will he ever get home and enjoy some worm soup? Where did you get the idea for the story?

Jarvis: As with most of my ideas I think of an image first. The image that popped in my head was a little mole popping out of the ground somewhere he shouldn’t be shouting ‘I’m home!’. It’s a very simple idea, but there was lots of room for humour!

NMB: Morris Mole is wonderfully cheerful and optimistic that he'll get home eventually. Is he based on anyone you know?

J: He is a trier! I hadn’t really based him on someone but my wife, Jenna, is always optimistic and cheerful ….and without her glasses is completely lost…hmm you’ve got me thinking now...

NMB: There's always so much humour in your picture books. There's some terrific gags in Mrs Mole, I'm Home! Are you the sort of person that likes to make jokes and have a laugh?

J: Unfortunately yes I’m one of those annoying people who tries to make jokes….ALL the time, but fortunately that helps when I do kids events and school visits!

NMB: Your illustrations are always wonderfully vibrant, colourful and happy. Who are the artists you draw inspiration from?

J: I love Miroslav Sasek, Quentin Blake, Ralph Steadman, Peter Blake, and lots of newer artists too….Marta Altes, Yasmeen Ismail and Keith Negley. All these people have colourful work that jumps out at you, and they all feel honest and handmade. Im just more comfortable with bright colours!

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

J: Recent reads: John le Carre – The Spy Who Came in From the Cold; Ali Smith – There but for the; and I’m looking forward to starting Limmy – That’s Your Lot.

I’m always nosey when it comes to picture books, and although I don’t have kids I do buy a picture book now and again…NO! by Marta Altes is one I pick up again and again.

Mrs Mole, I'm Home!
by Jarvis. Published by Walker Books. RRP: $16.99

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Last Man in Europe, by Dennis Glover

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Dennis Glover's debut novel, The Last Man in Europe, tackles the last fifteen years of George Orwell's life, culminating in the writing of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

It's hard to believe that George Orwell felt his great novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, not up to scratch. He hoped it would sell a mere 10,000 copies. Writing the novel had pretty much killed him. Orwell grievously neglected his health, allowing his tuberculosis to fester by exposing his lungs to the inhospitable and chilly winds of Jura, an island off Scotland. His doctor warned Orwell not to return to Jura, after having undergone a most arduous treatment. But Orwell ignored his doctor. The novel was the thing, and Jura the perfect place to write it.

Dennis Glover's The Last Man in Europe covers Orwell's life from 1935 until his death in 1950. The story opens with Orwell working in a bookshop and meeting his wife, Eileen. He is in the midst of writing Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a light comedy about an aspiring writer. The novel then progresses through other key periods in Orwell's life: the Spanish Civil War, his relationship with  H.G. Wells, the research he did for The Road to Wigan Pier and so on. One amusing section describes Orwell anonymously entering a bookshop to see how they'd displayed Animal Farm. After being told it was in the children's section, he surreptitiously picked up all the store's copies and placed them with the adult books.

All of this is a build up to the creation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It's a great tragedy for literature that by the time Orwell had figured a way to truly express himself, his health was in terminal decline. Nineteen Eighty-Four was written in a great race against death. Glover does a brilliant job of describing Orwell undergoing extremely painful treatment for his tuberculosis, also showing how these experiences directly influenced his work. His own downtrodden and weakened body, ravaged by disease, was a model for Winston Smith's undergoing torture in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The Last Man in Europe perfectly captures Orwell's simple, no-nonsense writing style, his speech and the language of the times. Glover has skillfully pieced together Orwell's story from a careful reading of his books, essays, journalism, letters and diaries, creating a seamless whole.

Fans of Orwell will find much to enjoy in The Last Man in Europe, while those intrigued by Nineteen Eighty-Four and the man who created it will be rewarded with a novel that is a pleasure to read but also instructive about the personalities and politics of Britain in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Last Man in Europe, by Dennis Glover. Published by Black Inc. ISBN: 9781863959377 RRP: $29.99

Release date: 3rd July, 2017

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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Mighty Franks, by Michael Frank

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Meet Aunt Hankie, a mix of Auntie Mame and Diana Vreeland, but on steroids.

Literature is littered with mad, eccentric aunties. Think Graham Greene's Travels with my Aunt, Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame or more recently, David Walliams' Awful Auntie. Short story and travel writer Michael Frank takes this theme into new territory with his memoir, The Mighty Franks. Part fabulous bon viveur and part monster, Michael Frank's Aunt "Hankie" Harriet is the type of character you love to read about, but would be terrified to meet.

The story starts with Michael Frank's family, living in Los Angeles in the Sixties. The family's mix was a bit unusual to begin with. Two sets of siblings married each other. Admittedly, this does get confusing. Sister and brother Harriet and Marty married brother and sister Irving and Merona. Merona and Marty are the author's parents.

From a very early age, Aunt Hankie lavished special attention on her young nephew, Michael. She felt they were simpatico, cut from the same cloth, lovers of art, literature and beauty. She was effusive in her praise of him and generous. Often she would claim she wished that Michael was her son (she never had children of her own.) Money was no problem for Hankie. She and her husband Irving were successful Hollywood screen writers. One of Hankie's passions was for "antiquing", going on jaunts to the antique shops and coming back with more and more sculptures, furniture and various objets d'art, stuffing her "maison" full to the brim. For these trips she always enlisted her beloved Michael, a co-conspirator. Wildly generous, she always bought Michael exotic presents during these trips antiquing.

Michael Frank describes himself as being almost addicted to Hankie's glamour, artistic flair and erudition. He soaked it up like a drug. But there was also a downside to Hankie's generosity and fast-track company. She was possessive, dictatorial and often totally unreasonable. Her steely willpower was absolutely frightening. When Michael developed into an adult, pursuing his own interests, and therefore needing some distance from Aunt Hankie, there were all sorts of dramatic conflicts. She accused him of betraying her and being ungrateful. Her tyrannical behaviour only got worse as the years progressed, turning her into an impossible, Norma Desmond-like caricature.

Hankie herself is undoubtedly a brilliant and bracing character. She really is a mix of Patrick Dennis' Auntie Mame (one of Mame's catchphrases, Live! live! live! perfectly mirrors Hankie's philosophy of More! more!) and legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who claimed to fire staff if she didn't like their shoes.

Written in a beautiful lapidary prose, Michael Frank's detailed anatomy of his relationship with his aunt is a compelling meditation on the mystery of personality. Why are we so relentlessly the way we are?

The Mighty Franks: A Memoir, by Michael Frank. Published by 4th Estate. ISBN: 9780008215200  RRP: $27.99

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Sunday, June 25, 2017

They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention, edited by Michael Green, Andre Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope

Harrowing personal stories from those who have experienced Australia's detention centres.

Staff review by Chris Saliba

They Cannot Take the Sky is part of an oral history project that captures the stories of asylum seekers who have experienced Australia's harsh detention centre regime. Thirty-five current and former detainees, from nine different countries, tell their stories in a series of interviews. Some stories were pulled at the last minute for fear of retaliation.

There are common themes and experiences that appear in the detainees' stories. Detention centre staff are often cruel and harsh, repeatedly telling asylum seekers that they will never be admitted to Australia; serious complaints are never responded to; day-to-day living is made as humiliating as possible (people are not called by names, but rather immigration identity numbers); and generally people detained feel they are being tortured psychologically.

Most people seeking asylum who have experienced detention are depressed, fearful and often losing their minds. They are bewildered that they have fled danger in their own county, coming to what they thought was a country that defended human rights, only to end up in a Kafkaesque nightmare.

These stories are harrowing for their hopelessness and extreme distress, yet they also contain great dignity. They Cannot Take the Sky is a vital document of Australia's mandatory detention policy.

They Cannot Take the Sky: Stories from Detention, edited by Michael Green, Andre Dao, Angelica Neville, Dana Affleck and Sienna Merope. Published by Allen & Unwin. ISBN: 9781760292805 RRP: $29.99

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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, by Louise Milligan

An unflinching examination of the career of George Pell. 

Louise Milligan is an investigative journalist with the ABC, working for the 7.30 program. In Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, Milligan examines not only George Pell's career, but also the culture of the Catholic Church and how it has dealt with the sex abuse scandals involving paedophile priests.

Of course, in many ways, Pell and the Catholic Church are one. Pell has risen in the church's hierarchy (as Cardinal he could even be chosen as the next pope) and advocated for a return to more rigidly conservative values. Many of his speeches and writings have criticised what he considers to be a too permissive attitude towards sex. His is not a progressive voice.

There are two main issues that Cardinal deals with. The first is how much Pell knew was going on in the Catholic Diocese of Ballarat. Whilst some of the worst abuse was happening, he was attending meetings and was in discussions with other priests. He was an integral part of this culture. Did he have an inkling of why some priests were being moved about so much? Did he ask enough questions, if any?

The second issue that the book examines are the accusations laid against Pell himself of abuse. Are his accusers reliable? Many have criminal pasts, does this disqualify their testimony? Do the accusations, from several different people, start to paint a coherent picture of abuse?

All of these are questions that the reader has to decide for themself. One criticism that can perhaps be levelled at Milligan's book is the tone. The author sometimes uses a mocking and cynical language towards Pell. You wonder if a line of impartiality has been crossed. Having said that, the research in Cardinal is thorough and tenacious. Milligan is a dogged journalist who will leave no stone unturned and has interviewed a wide range of people – victims, police, clergy and lawyers.

Reading Cardinal is an emotional roller coaster of a book. It is deeply, deeply harrowing. So many suicides, so many lives utterly destroyed. A church that didn't seem to think much of the sexual abuse of children. The attitude was simply that the abused children would quickly “get over it” and get on with their lives. The book is also an indictment of social and cultural power imbalances: Catholic priests, and the church they represented, were not to be doubted. Several children, when they did come forward and tell their parents of their abuse, were actually beaten or verbally abused by their parents. It was unthinkable to accuse a priest of sexual abuse. No wonder on average it takes thirty-three years for a victim of abuse to come forward.

At least now, with books such as Cardinal, the victims of abuse are getting a voice.

Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell, by Louise Milligan. Published by Melbourne University Press. ISBN: 9780522871340 RRP: $34.99

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A compelling collection of stories that go some way to explaining life in North Korea.

Bandi is the pen name of an anonymous North Korean writer. The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea comprises eight short stories, each about thirty pages long, written between 1989 and 1995. The manuscript was recently smuggled out of North Korea and is published for the first time. Bandi (the word means “firefly”) still lives in North Korea.

The stories describe many aspects of North Korean life. The wife of a man whose relatives have been denounced by the Party secretly takes contraceptive pills because she can't bear to think what fate her child might have; a couple are dragged off to jail because their young son was scared of a portrait of Karl Marx; a man who has spent his life faithful to the Party suddenly realises he has been duped by socialism's promise and becomes so consumed with rage he has a heart attack; an elderly woman has a chance meeting with Kim Il-sung (“the Great Leader, Father of Us All”) and is crippled with absolute terror.

This is an extraordinary collection. Bandi's stories are lucidly written, with an emphasis on individual characters faced with impossible situations. They are completely absorbing and explain the mindset and sufferings of those living under a totalitarian regime. Essential reading.

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea, by Bandi. Published by Serptent's Tail. ISBN: 9781781258712 RRP: $27.99

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Sunday, June 11, 2017

African Psycho, by Alain Mabanckou

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A Congolese man plots a murder as an act of hero worship.

Gregoire Nakobomayo is an orphan and car mechanic. He lives in a Congolese town that he doesn't name, but in an ironic-comic tone calls He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot. He gives other place names similarly cryptic, hyphenated titles. Gregoire tells his own story, of his rough childhood and upbringing, of his self-loathing and ugliness (he has a rectangular shaped head that he keeps shaved). But before this quick sketch of a personal history, Gregoire boasts of his intention to kill his girlfriend, Germaine. He tells us in the first line. “I have decided to kill Germaine on December 29.”

It takes a while to get to Germaine's story. Firstly Gregoire pays a long worship to his hero, the Great Master Angoualima. Angoualima is a famous serial killer and a coarse philosopher on the virtues of immorality. Throughout the novel Gregoire obsequiously calls him “Great Master”, even though he never meets him because before he can, Angoualima is found murdered. His discovered body is described as that of an ugly little man, almost an evil, menacing sprite, with six fingers on each hand, a bulging skull and a harelip.

Angoualima later visits Gregoire as a ghost or spirit and berates him for his cowardice, all the while espousing his own anti-social credentials (“I sh** on society.”) Angoualima is a grotesque, comic figure, like something out of Chaucer or the Marquis de Sade. He revels in his own putrid immorality.

Gregoire's girlfriend, the plucky Germaine, we learn in the novel's third part, is a prostitute. She's a procuress, running a sex ring from a local restaurant which she uses as cover. She discusses her trade in a matter-of-fact way, and her bag of sex aides is described at comic length. Gregoire decides to kill her, not because he hates Germaine, but rather to live up to his idol, the Great Master Angoualima. But all does not go to plan, for Gregoire, much like Jean Genet's anti-heroes, is a hopeless bungler and fool.

It's hard to think of a stranger novel you'll read. Alain Mabanckou has written an absurdist, existential black comedy that leaves an uncomfortable feeling. Gregoire is such an unreliable narrator that in the end it's not even clear that his hero Angoualima and girlfriend Germaine even exist. They could well be the fevered creations of his imagination. If anything, one pities Gregoire. Committing murder is his one chance of elevating himself, but his incompetence makes him sure to remain a non-entity, on society's bottom rung.

A work that is disturbing, comic, absurd and unforgettable.

African Psycho, by  Alain Mabanckou. Published by Serpent's Tail. ISBN: 9781781257876 RRP: $19.99

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Friday, June 9, 2017

The Last Bell, by Johannes Urzidil

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Five witty and ironic stories from a European writer not well known to English reading audiences. 

Johannes Urzidil (1896 - 1970) was a German-Czech writer, poet and historian. Franz Kafka was a part of his intellectual circle of friends. Urzidil fled Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 for England, finally settling down in America. The five short stories in The Last Bell were written during the 1950s and 60s.

All the stories in this collection, though written in exile, reflect Urzidil's Bohemian heritage. The title story is set during the Nazi occupation of  Czechoslovakia. A housemaid in her early thirties, Marska,  is suddenly given all of her employer's posessions. "Mister and Missus," as the brassy maid refers to them, have had to flee the Nazis. This leaves the housemaid discombobulated. Is this turn of events good fortune, or does it presage disaster to come?

In "The Duchess of Albanera" a boring bank clerk who leads a very regimented life does something mad on the spur of the moment. On a visit to the State Gallery, he steals the famous portrait of the Duchess of Albanera. He keeps the modestly sized painting at home, but people start to notice strange behaviour on the bank clerk's behalf.

The third story, "Seigelemann's Journeys", concerns a travel agent who has remained curiously stationary in life. When one of his clients falls in love with him, he fabricates all sorts of stories about his great travels, trying to make up for an embarrassing lack of adventure.

"Borderland", a story that stands in contrast to all the rest for its ethereal atmosphere, is about a 12-year-old girl who has a special gift for apphrending the secrets of nature.

The final story, "Where the Valley Ends", is an anatomy of a civil war that erupts in a small village over the disappearance of a cheesecake. As the narrator makes clear, humans can't help bickering and quarrelling over small matters, turning these petty gripes into grand political machinations.

Most of the stories in this collection are comic in tone and nimbly written. Urzidil writes in a neat prose that grasps the reader's attention right from the first page. The theme of the stories is how humans delude themselves in trying to impose order on rolling, chaotic, real world events. When the housemaid in "The Last Bell" has a sudden good stroke of fortune in receiving a gift of so much money, she decides she will live it up and live like a queen. But things soon go off the rails. In "Where the Valley Ends," the narrator scoffs at how humans attribute good luck to their own personal prowess:

"...everyone whom fate has favoured just a little fancies that he's capable of doing and understanding more than others."

This is an eminently enjoyable collection of stories from a little known writer, brought vividly to life in this recent translation by David Burnett for Pushkin Press. A small literary gem.

The Last Bell, by Johannes Urzidil. Published by Puskin Press. 9781782272397  RRP: $24.99

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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Mouse House, by Rumer Godden

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A busy family of mice find a new house to live in...

Mary has been given a beautiful little doll's house as an Easter present. In fact, it's really a "mouse house" as two doll-like mice made out of flannel occupy the little house. A he-mouse that wears a suit stands on his hind legs in the sitting room while a she-mouse, wearing a lovely dress, stands in the bedroom. Their little mouse house is beautifully decorated. In the window sills stand thimble-sized pots of geraniums made out of scarlet silk.

In Mary's house, in the cellar, there's a broken flower pot that sits in a corner. A real family of mice live in the pot. The problem is there's no room in the pot for this large family of mice, especially Bonnie, one of the youngest mice. Trying to escape the cramped conditions, Bonnie bravely leaves the cellar, runs past the house cat and up the stairs to Mary's room. There she finds the mouse house. What bliss! She makes herself at home, but knocks over the he-mouse and she-mouse. When Mary finds the mouse house in such disarray after Bonnie's visit, she decides to keep the he-mouse and she-mouse, but relegate the mouse house to the cellar.

At last, the mouse family can move out of their old, cramped flower pot and into more suitable lodgings.

This is a charming, dainty little story, perfect to read out aloud to youngsters in one sitting. The contrast between the busy and disruptive little mice and the order and composure of the mouse house makes for some gently comic scenes. The descriptions of the mouse house's furniture show the connoisseur's delight in the miniature world of doll's houses: they are intricate and just-so right. The story also benefits from Adrienne Adams' wonderful illustrations.

Rumer Godden's Mouse House, first published in 1952 and now reprinted in this lovely New York Review of Books imprint, is a delight and a treat.

Mouse House, by Rumer Godden. Published by NYR Children's Collection. ISBN: 9781590179987  $29.95

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