Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Australian fiction’

On the Java Ridge by Jock Serong

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Australian author Jock Serong’s books are getting better and better. Quota was good. The Rules of Backyard Cricket was really good. On the Java Ridge takes on one of Australia’s biggest, most divisive issues and smashes it!

The story begins with Isi and her boyfriend, who own a surfing charter business in Indonesia. While Joel is in Australia trying to get more money from the bank to keep their business afloat, Isi takes a group of Australian surfers out on their boat to a remote surfing location. On the way they anchor at Dana, a lonely island with great surf where they camp overnight on the beach. In the middle of the night Isi wakes up to the sound of voices in the water calling for help and realises that another boat has been wrecked on the reef.

Isi, her crew from the Java Ridge and the surfers race into the water to do what they can to save the drowning people, managing to haul more than half to shore. The wrecked boat was full of asylum seekers who paid people smugglers to get them to Australia, not knowing that Australia is turning back the boats. Amongst the asylum seekers is a young girl, Roya and her pregnant mother. Along with most of the other asylum seekers, they are fleeing the Taliban.

During the rescue one of the Australian surfers received a life-threatening injury and amongst the asylum seekers, a young boy suffered a life-threatening concussion. One of the Australian surfers is a doctor, who does his best to keep the injured people alive in a tent on the beach with only the contents of the Java Ridge‘s First Aid box. The island is so remote that the Australians are unable to contact anyone in Australia or Indonesia for assistance.

Back in Australia, Cassius Calvert, a former Olympian (sporting stars have always been Australian’s favourite type of hero) is the Federal Minister for Border Integrity. He and his government have just announced a tough new policy saying that they will no longer help asylum seeking vessels in distress. There is an election around the corner and this policy is popular with the Australian people, who are happy to take the line that they don’t want crooks making a business of bringing asylum-seekers to Australia.

A few days before the election, Cassius receives and investigates an unverified report of an asylum seeking boat which appears to have been wrecked at Dana, causing the Prime Minister to show just what he is capable of doing to win an election.

The ending of this book took my breath away. To set the scene, I’m reading away on the train, getting closer and closer to the end of the story and wondering how the author is going to finish everything off, than BAM! I was left gasping, looking around at the people on my train in disbelief at what the author did to his characters.

Funnily enough, it’s like a meeting of the United Nations on my train as people from all sorts of backgrounds live out my way. Quite a few of them may even have been asylum seekers once themselves. No one cared about my big shock, though, instead everyone just kept scrolling through their phones… Ah, the lucky country…

The three books I’ve now read by Jock Serong were in Aunty Gwen’s big bag of books. Jock Serong’s latest book is Preservation and I’ll by buying it to pass on to her once I’ve read it.

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A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill

 

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I’d never heard of Australian author Sulari Gentill before picking up A Few Right Thinking Men because of the beauty of the art work on the cover. I love art deco and the cover of this novel reminds me of travel posters from the 1930s, the colours used by Clarice Cliff in her ceramics, and the beauty of Sydney Harbour and the coat-hanger. The story had a lot to live up to!

A Few Right Thinking Men is the first book in a series of eight books to date in the Rowland Sinclair mysteries.

The main character is Rowland Sinclair, generally known as Rowly, who is an enormously rich young artist who lives in his family’s mansion, Woodland House, in a beautiful part of Sydney. The Sinclair family money comes from a sheep farm out near Yass in country New South Wales, where Rowly’s older brother Wilfred lives with his wife and young son. The Sinclair’s wealth during 1931 is a huge contrast to that of most Australians during the Depression.

Rowly has filled up Woodlands House with fellow artists who are poor but talented. He is in love with Edna, a sculptor who occasionally models nude for him. Edna also lives at Woodlands House.

When the story starts, Rowly seems to be the only person left in Australia who doesn’t care about politics. His friends are Communists while his brother and most of the blokes around Yass belong to the Old Guard. Both groups are suspicious of each other, but when Rowly’s Uncle Rowland is found murdered, the Fascist New Guard are suspected. Rowly, with the assistance of his friends, infiltrates the New Guards by asking party leader Eric Campbell if he can paint his portrait for the prestigious Archibald Prize. Rowly takes his friend Clyde’s name to prevent Campbell from making the connection to the Sinclair name.

I liked Rowly, Edna, his friends, their life style, reading about their art, Sydney, the time the story was set, the way the story was told, everything really except for the politics. Poor Rowly seemed to feel the same way, stuck between extreme groups who wanted to beat each other, tar and feather people, or discriminatory brand names on the foreheads of those who held different political ideas to their own.

I’ll give the second book in the series a go, but hope to find A Decline in Prophets is more of a mystery and less of an Australian political history lesson.

 

 

Datsunland by Stephen Orr

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Stephen Orr, where have you been hiding? Somewhere in Adelaide, I’m guessing, due to the distinctly South Australian flavour of the short stories that make up Datsunland. Many thanks to Whispering Gums for bringing this book to my attention.

Stephen Orr, Datsunland (#BookReview)

The following stories were my favourites;

Dr Singh’s Despair. This story is a ripper. The title character, Dr Singh, came to Australia to work as a doctor in Coober Pedy, an outback town in South Australia, with the intention of bringing his wife and son to Australia once he settled in. (Australia has a shortage of doctors in remote and rural areas, so the Australian government offer overseas doctors working visas to fill the vacancies). What Dr Singh didn’t know in advance was that Coober Pedy was no place for him (or for any civilised person, you would think after reading this story). After a traumatic (and hilarious) three days in Coober Pedy, Dr Singh writes to the South Australian Health Commission to tell them he has returned to India and to stick their job up their jumper.

The Shot Put is a tragic account of an elderly couple in a remote farming area who are doing it tough. Their dearly loved son Tom went missing during World War 1 at Fromelles and never returned, and is presumed to be a coward. After the war the Department of Defence advise they intend publishing the Coward’s List and naming the deserters, self-mutilators and cowards, causing Tom’s parents to try to have his name removed from the list.

The One-Eyed Merchant is the story of a young boy working as riveter in a ship-building yard. I felt a physical jolt when the ending of this story was revealed.

The Adult World Opera was for me the stand-out story in the collection. I suspect the story of six-year old Jay Foster, who is neglected and mistreated by his weak mother and her no-good boyfriend will haunt me for some time to come. The author didn’t spell out how things worked out for Jay, but I felt uneasy and sad for Jay and other children in similar homes as I read this story.

Datsunland is the longest story in the collection and tells of the friendship between teenage Charlie and his music teacher at Lindisfarne College, William Dutton. Charlie’s musical talent comes to the fore as William introduces him to the blues and punk rock, but Charlie is not always ready for the experiences he seeks out. Datsunland itself is the used-car lot where Charlie’s father struggles to make a living selling cheap second-hand cars. Although I had the feeling that William had already settled for a similar numb life to Charlie’s father, there was still hope for Charlie to live a fuller life.

There is a strong religious flavour through this collection of stories. The stories are all about men and boys, many of whom are Catholic. Quite a few of the stories refer to or have characters with links to Lindisfarne College, an elite school where the boys are taught by the Christian Brothers. There are religious zealots and mad priests everywhere you look in these stories.

I liked Stephen Orr’s plain writing style, which led me clearly through a variety of emotions, from laughing at (and with) poor Dr Singh’s failure to see the funny side of things in Australia (!), to feeling horror, sympathy, pity and joy. The stories have a very Australian feel about them, but as a Victorian, the stories also felt ‘South Australian,’ which I enjoyed. I’ve been told by friends who live in SA that there is a rivalry between the Crow-Eaters and the Vics, but as a Vic, I’ve never heard of it. Possibly Goliath hadn’t heard of David before the big fight either.

I’m looking forward to working my way through this new-to-me author’s works soon.

 

Red Queen by H.M. Brown

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I read some of the short stories in Six Degrees by Australian author Honey Brown last year but didn’t finish as they were too explicitly sexual for my taste, but the writing was good and I was keen to find Red Queen because it is an end-of-world novel, a genre I love.

Red Queen starts with Rohan and Shannon, two Australian brothers living in their parent’s cabin in the bush after a flu-like virus has decimated much of the world’s human population. Their father was an end-of-the world-er (gotta love ’em) who built their hidden cabin to be self-sufficient, possibly around the time we all expected the world to end with the millennial bug. He also built massive bunkers and filled them with chocolate and wine and flour and sugar and baked beans in anticipation of just such an event, but sadly he and the boy’s mother died of the Red Queen virus before they could enjoy their foresight.

Rohan, at 38, is in charge. He is tough and angry and constantly annoyed with his younger brother Shannon, who is 23 and a day-dreamer who forgets to keep a look-out for intruders because he is playing his guitar. When someone sneaks into the cabin and starts stealing food, the brothers are terrified they might have been exposed to the virus.

When the intruder makes herself known to Rohan and Shannon she throws herself on their mercy, and the dynamics of the brother’s relationship changes. Denny adds a sexual element to the novel which was more interesting for the possessiveness and jealousy that arose than for the explicitly-described activities themselves.

Of course Rohan, Shannon and Denny aren’t the only survivors of the Red Queen virus and eventually their battle to survive takes an unexpected turn.

I wish the author had told me more about what happened in the cities when the Red Queen virus hit Australia, and more about the background of the virus, such as where did it come from and was anyone immune? I would also have liked a less predictable ending, but there were a few twists and turns which I didn’t see coming.

I have a cold now. I’m filled up with phlegm and can’t stop sneezing. Hopefully it’s only a strain of the Red Queen virus, because I don’t want the Man-Flu. I had the Man-Flu once and it was terrible. It felt like the end of the world…

 

The Choke by Sofie Laguna

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Australian author Sofie Laguna knows how to pull on my heartstrings. The Eye of the Sheep, which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award was excellent, but I think The Choke is even better.

The Choke is a place, a narrow spot on the Murray River which separates Victoria and New South Wales. Justine, The Choke‘s main character, lives with her Pop and his chooks on his three acres on the river.

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Justine will probably be the character from my reading this year who stays in my head forever. She is ten when the story starts and fourteen when it finishes, but this is not a book for children. The Choke is a book for adults, and much like The Eye of the Sheep, demands that we see children who are neglected and in danger and that we act on their behalf.

Justine’s Pop does the best he can for her, but he is physically and emotionally damaged from his time as a prisoner of war working on the Burma Railway. Justine’s father, Ray, is a charismatic, manipulative and dangerous man who comes and goes from Pop’s farm, usually turning up when he needs a refuge. Justine’s two older half-brothers live in town with their mother, who won’t even look at Justine as Ray left her for Justine’s mother. Justine’s mother is either dead or gone. Justine blames herself for her mother’s disappearance.

Justine is dyslexic and struggles at school, but none of her teachers or family notice. She just slides by, unnoticed. Justine has girl friends who occasionally comment that she is dirty or that she smells, but until she makes friends with a boy in her class who is also invisible because of his physical handicaps, has no one on her side. Justine and Michael’s friendship is a joy to both of them, and it was a joy to me too.

As Justine grew older she becomes more at risk, as a consequence of her father’s criminal activities and because she is completely unprotected by her all-male family, and also because of her own innocence. I felt furious with Justine’s Aunty Rita, who also comes and goes, as well as the other women in this book who must have seen and ignored the danger Justine was in.

The writing in The Choke is wonderful. Very Australian, and evocative of the time and place. My anxiety for Justine throughout this book was high, and I often felt uncomfortable and distressed as her story unfolded, but I was left with a feeling of hope for Justine’s future. I’m already looking forward to whatever Sofie Laguna dishes out next.

 

 

 

 

 

Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook

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Wake in Fright was Australian author Kenneth Cook’s first novel. I read Eliza Fraser by this author at a very young age, not sure I was old enough for the story then but the only books which were forbidden to me on my parent’s bookshelves were a set of gruesome Crime and Punishment books because Mum said they would give me nightmares. Thank goodness Wake in Fright wasn’t on Mum and Dad’s shelves, because I would definitely have had nightmares had I read it then.

John Grant, the main character of Wake in Fright, is a school teacher in a one-room school at Tiboonda, a place with a school, a pub and a railway station in the back of beyond. When school breaks up for summer, John hops on the train to Bundayabba, from where he intends to catch the plane to Sydney to spend six glorious weeks at the beach chasing after the lovely Robyn. John in indentured to the Department of Education and owes them another year in the heat and dust of Tiboonda before he is free to get a job teaching back on the coast.

John has spent his school holidays at The Yabba as he hasn’t been able to afford to go back to Sydney, but on this visit, with 22 pounds in cash and a cheque for another 140 pounds, representing his year’s work less expenses (beer is expensive in Tiboonda, but at least it’s cold), he’s almost counting the minutes until he gets on the plane the next morning.

John books a room in a hotel for the night, then heads out to get a meal. From here, things go pear-shaped. John starts drinking with a copper (police officer) who takes him to The Game, an illegal gambling den where Two-Up is played. John plays and wins, then imagines himself winning enough to not have to go back to Tiboonda, and tries again. In a single toss of the pennies, he loses everything.

John wakes up hung-over and broke, facing six weeks in The Yabba with no money, no friends and no hope of getting to Sydney. He falls in with a bunch of drunken miners who share their beer and take him spot-lighting (shooting kangaroos). Reading about these idiots bouncing along a dirt track in the dark, all of them drunk and with their weapons loaded made me shudder. How none of them shot themselves or each other was a miracle.

I felt annoyed with John quite often, he had no common-sense at all and every time he had to make a decision, he made the wrong one, probably because he was mostly either drunk or so hung-over he would rather have been dead.

Wake in Fright was written in 1961 and is a fast, exciting read, although bloke-y and occasionally vicious. There were only two female characters, one a whore and the other, Robyn, an ideal, rather than an actual person. This isn’t a book for those who can’t stomach animal cruelty, there is also casual racism which was in keeping with times. The story is quite dark, too. Regardless of all of the reasons why I shouldn’t have liked this book though, I couldn’t put it down. I’ve never been to Broken Hill, which The Yabba is based on, and now, I’m not sure I ever will.

 

 

 

 

The Life of Houses by Lisa Gorton

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The Life of Houses is Australian author Lisa Gorton’s first novel for adults. She is best known for her poetry and essays.

The Life of Houses is the story of a mother and her teenage daughter who struggle to connect with each other. Anna, the mother, is a successful and well known art gallery owner in Melbourne. Anna’s daughter, Kit, holds herself apart from her mother as a punishment, in the way that teenage girls know how to do so well…

Anna is married, but her husband is in England and she is having an affair with Peter. He has left his wife and wants to have an honest relationship with Anna, but she hasn’t told her husband yet and so seems to me uncommitted to Peter.

Anna sends Kit to stay with her grandparents and aunt for a week at her family home, a grand old house at an unnamed town at the beach. Strange as this may seem, Kit did not know her grandparents or aunt prior to this visit, having only visited them once when she was a baby. Other than this one visit, Anna has not visited her own parents since she returned from England.

Kit’s aunt is relatively normal, but her grandparents are also difficult to know. Dementia and ill health are taking their toll on both. Kit’s grandfather burdens her by telling her that one day the house and all of their belongings will be hers.

I found the characters in The Life of Houses to be too cold and dispassionate for me to care about any of them. Anna and Kit held themselves too far apart from each other, and from me for me to care about them. Anna’s sophistication was off-putting to me too, if she were real she would never see me and I would not be interested in her either.

The language and writing style was so careful and considered that it seemed to me that emotion was missing from the story.

I didn’t feel a strong connection to the Australian-ness of the book either. These characters weren’t people I know and I didn’t feel a strong sense of place. The book is set alternatively in Melbourne and in a beach town not far from Melbourne, and I kept hoping to recognise something that could make this story mine in some way.

I found The Life of Houses to be frustrating aloof, but wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that more serious readers than me loved the story.

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