Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Australian fiction’

Force of Nature by Jane Harper

 

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Force of Nature is the second novel by Australian author Jane Harper featuring likeable good guy Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk, who was introduced to readers in her first book, The Dry.

Aaron become involved in the story of Force of Nature after a whistleblower, Alice Russell, failed to return from a team-building exercise hiking with work colleagues through the rugged and isolated Giralang Ranges. Before going missing, Alice had been surreptitiously collecting information for Aaron’s case against the firm she worked for.

Alice and four other women, including the company’s CEO, went into the bush Friday afternoon. They carried with them their tents, sleeping bags and a limited amount of food and water. One of the women had a compass. They were supposed to surrender their mobile phones before they went into the bush, but Alice, an aggressive and argumentative rule-breaker, kept hers. At some point over the weekend the women’s group became lost and Alice tried to phone Aaron, although because of the remote location and poor signal, all he received was part of a voice message asking for help. After the women’s group got lost Alice become separated from the group, for reasons that made me feel anxious for her wellbeing.

A men’s group from the company did a similar hike along a different route over the same weekend but reached the finish safely. The difference between the dynamics within the two groups was obvious, with tensions within the women’s group playing a part in them being unable to effectively work together to find their way out of the bush.

The story flicks back and forward between the women’s time on the hike and while they are lost in the bush, as well as afterwards as searchers look for Alice. Aaron and his partner, Carmen Cooper, assist with the search but are also required back in Melbourne when they learn that Alice’s teenage daughter’s boyfriend has released sexually explicit footage of her onto the internet.

I’m grateful that my company stick with barefoot lawn bowls*, city scavenger hunts and other relatively safe events for our end-of-year parties and team building exercises, instead of sending us to trek through the bush, kayaking through rapids or jumping out of perfectly good aeroplanes.

The idea of spending a weekend hiking with my workmates doesn’t appeal to me and I’m sure it wouldn’t appeal to many of them either. Being lost in the bush is a particularly Australian fear, as most of us would have experienced school camps in similar locations to Force of Nature‘s fictional Giralang Ranges, or day or weekend hikes through national and state parks that are bigger than some European countries. There are often news stories about lost hikers, some of whom are found and some who are not. In the bush there are snakes, bushfires, extreme heat or cold just to name a few of the factors hikers contend with. In Force of Nature, the characters were also in an area known for its links to a serial killer reminiscent of Ivan Milat, who was responsible for the deaths of at least seven people later found buried in the Belanglo State Forest in NSW.

The two groups were underprepared for the hike, but as the manager of the company who ran the exercise constantly reiterated, they’d never lost anyone before… In hindsight, providing flares to groups along with compasses and tents would probably have been a good idea.

I suspected nearly every character in the book of having a hand in Alice’s disappearance and of course, was completely wrong about what actually happened. I loved watching Aaron’s character develop and I liked his relationship with his partner, Carmen, who I hope returns in future books. I enjoyed Force of Nature even better than The Dry, and that’s saying something.

*Although, let’s be honest, barefoot lawn bowls and alcohol probably shouldn’t be mixed. An Escape Room, anyone?

 

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A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

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A Long Way From Home is by celebrated Australian author Peter Carey.

Why I read this book I don’t know, since I just can’t seem to find a way to love Peter Carey’s style. I couldn’t finish Oscar and Lucinda, finished but didn’t love The Chemistry of Tears, and this time around, wasn’t crazy about A Long Way From Home. It must be me. The man has won the Booker Prize twice.

The story begins with Irene Bobs and her husband Titch, a car salesman, moving to Bacchus Marsh, a country town in western Victoria during the 1950’s to escape Titch’s bullying, show-off father. Irene and Titch befriend their next door neighbour, Willie Bachhuber. Willie is on suspension from teaching school after dangling a student out of a two-story window by his feet. Willie is also the reigning champion on a rigged radio quiz-show.

Bacchus Marsh was a very English country town after World War Two where, with his German heritage, Willie is an outcast who suffers casual racial abuse. He abandoned his wife in Melbourne after she had a black baby, believing she had had an affair with an American family friend. Willie was attracted to Irene, but by the time the Redex Trial started was having an affair with her sister, who by then was living with her children in a caravan in the backyard of Irene and Titch’s house.

Together, Irene, Titch and Willie set off around Australia in a brand-new Holden on the Round Australia Redex Reliability Trial, competing against Titch’s father, whose ego has continually got in the way of his good sense. Irene and Titch left their children behind to be looked after by Irene’s sister, driving while Titch navigated. Irene and Titch’s aim is to win the Trial for the publicity for when they open their much-dreamed of car dealership on their return to Bacchus Marsh.

By the time the Redex Trial got to outback Australia the Bobs’ team was in the lead, but when Titch’s father unexpectedly died during the Trial their future was jeopardised as they had sunk all of their savings into the event. Irene made arrangements to have the body shipped back to Melbourne then abandoned a grief-stricken Titch to continue racing with Willie.

In the outback, tall, blonde Willie became more and more confused as he was repeatedly refused entry into pubs by owners asking to see the papers allowing him to move between districts, while the Aboriginals he met along the way seemingly recognised him as one of their own. At that time, ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal people were allowed to move around provided they had a Certificate of Exemption, while ‘full-blooded’ Aboriginal people were restricted to certain areas.

The story was told alternately by Irene, Titch and Willie.

I loved reading about the Redex Trial and the setting of the country town in western Victoria felt true. The cultural references made me smile, particularly the Holden vs Ford thing, which is as Australian as football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars…*

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I liked how the story changed from being one of white Australia in the 1950’s to becoming a history of Australia from an Aboriginal perspective. My problem with Peter Carey’s writing is the lack of connection I feel with his characters. Irene didn’t feel true to me and neither did Titch or Willie. I’m disappointed to feel this way, because otherwise A Long Way From Home is a good story and well told.

*Hands up if you remember that advertising jingle?

 

 

 

 

Deep South edited by Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood

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Deep South is a collection of short stories from and about Tasmania, Australia, edited by Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood. Each story is by a different author and is from a different time in Tasmania’s history. Together, the stories, which are not told chronologically, create a picture of Tasmania. It is not always pretty.

Some of the authors are quite well known Australian writers, and others were well known in their time. Others I had never heard of but am glad to have met. There are no weak links in the collection.

The following stories were the ones that hit me hardest.

The first story, Black Crows: An Episode of ‘Old Van Diemen’ by A Werner is from 1886. It is the story of a man who didn’t believe it was right to kill Aboriginals and was prepared to hang for his beliefs, although at the time killing Aboriginals was not illegal, and was actually encouraged and even considered a sport by some. This story leaves no doubt as to how devastating European settlement was to the Aboriginal population.

Nectar of the Gods is by HW Stewart and was written in 1928. It is a story of an Aboriginal community from a time before Europeans arrived, when a young man named Merriwee found and enjoyed a fermented liquid in a cider tree. The magic of Merriwee’s discovery were celebrated in corroborees year after year at the same place and season.

Death of a Ladies Man by James McQueen was written in 1985 and showed me an Australia that I recognised. In hindsight, it isn’t one that I should feel particularly proud about, although this story will probably be the one I will remember. The story is narrated by a young man whose brother, Chris, has just died. Chris was a football star, a larrakin who was loved by everyone, including their father, a tough old bugger if ever I’ve seen one. At the time of Chris’s death he was knocking about with an Aboriginal girl, soon after, there is speculation that she might have been pregnant with her and Chris’s child. The racism in this story made me cringe, because this is the Australia of my childhood. The setting felt familiar and comfortable, but also terribly, terribly wrong.

How Muster-Master Stoneman Earned His Breakfast by Price Warung (William Astley) is probably the most brutal story in the collection. It was written in 1890 and tells the story of a convict’s last day on earth before he was to have been hung for killing a bullying overseer on the road-gang he was working on. Thinking that he couldn’t be punished further, Convict Glancy escaped the morning he was to be hung to spit on the grave of the man he murdered, then returned to be hung. Unfortunately for Convict Glancy, it turned out that he could be punished further. My understanding is that this story was based on real people and their lives.

The Magistrate, written in 1930 by Roy Bridges is a romantic story of a family of wild boys, their beautiful and spirited sister, and the handsome young Police Magistrate who has been sent to capture the bushrangers. This story was more predictable than others in the collection but still enjoyable.

Preserves by Margaret Scott was written in 2000 but told a story from an earlier time, of an industrious and capable woman who could “make do with whatever lay to hand.” Mrs Zena Bromyard “was one of the best cooks in the district, famous for serving three vegetables every day for three hundred and sixty-five days of the year. Her picnics were legendary and her fruitcakes and sponges sure-fire winners at every show. Her jellies and jams, her chutneys and sauces, her bottled fruit and vegetables had carried off trophies all over the state.” Mrs Bromyard questions everything she believes in after a child was fatally injured and she was as helpless as anyone else to do anything to save the child.

There were stories of young men in the early days of Tasmanian settlement working (idling) for the government, gold miners and fraudsters, and convicts mutinying and sailing their ship back to England. Contemporary stories were recognisable to me as either the Australia I live in now or recent history, although with a Tasmanian flavour.

Before I finish, a note on the cover art of this book which is titled Three Truchanas children at Lake Pedder in 1971, before the flooding of Lake Pedder by the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission. Before 1972, Lake Pedder had been a glacial-outwash lake and was a National Park. This status was revoked by the Government and the lake flooded, although not without much protest. The unsuccessful campaign to save Lake Pedder led to a successful campaign to save the Franklin River from damming and to the formation of the Australian Greens political party. A present-day group continue to push to have Lake Pedder drained, to let time restore the flora and fauna and to expose the unique pink quartzite sand beach below.

 

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The pink sand beach of Lake Pedder prior to 1972.

Photo: Peter Sims

Lake Pedder was flooded when I was a very small child, but I remember the outcry when the government proposed damming the Franklin River. This would all have passed me by except that I thought the cover art was beautiful and looked up the story behind it.

I would welcome a second collection of Tasmanian stories along the lines of Deep South.

 

 

The Sound of One Hand Clapping by Richard Flanagan

 

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I’ve been keen to read The Sound of One Hand Clapping since reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Australian author Richard Flanagan, but also putting it off, as I was expecting a misery-fest. I wasn’t far wrong. This story is beautifully written, but so sad…

The Sound of One Hand Clapping is the story of a migrant father and daughter living in a remote part of Tasmania during the 1950’s. Bojan Buloh came to Australia for a new life after leaving Slovenia after World War 2, where he witnessed and was the victim of atrocities which I found hard to read about. In Tasmania Bojan met Maria, the love of his life, and married her. They had a daughter, Sonja.

When Sonja was three years old, Maria, who had also come from Slovenia after the war, walked out into the snow with a cardboard suitcase packed with her life’s treasures, leaving Bojan to bring up Sonja alone.

In Tasmania, Bojan found himself building dams, back-breaking, unskilled work, alongside other European migrants with similar background stories to his. He drank heavily, and found himself unable to live the normal, boring life Australians were known for and which he had wished for. When he drank, Bojan verbally and physically abused Sonja. The abuse continued throughout her childhood and teenage years.

Sonja was farmed out from time to time to live with other people, but she always ended up back with Bojan. When she was old enough she left home and went to Sydney and did not return to visit her father until the late 1980’s, when she was in her mid-thirties and pregnant.

For the story of a father and daughter who are migrants struggling to communicate their horror and loss to each other, their community or their adopted nation, The Sound of One Hand Clapping is an extraordinarily wordy, descriptive story which needs to be concentrated on and read carefully in order to be understood.

I struggled reading about Bojan’s brutality towards Sonja, all the while knowing that they loved each other. Somehow, he and Sonja accepted his violent behaviour as a cry for relief from his memories of the war in Slovenia, from losing his wife and from being unable to articulate his feelings about his soul-less work, the remote location so different from what they had hoped for and for his drinking. Understandably though, as an adult, Sonja also struggled with becoming emotionally close to anyone.

Bojan was hard on himself too, berating himself for being an illiterate ‘wog’, a derogatory term for migrants from Europe after WW2. These days ‘wog’ is an affectionate term (noting that in Australia people from ethnic backgrounds have long since claimed it for themselves), but in the 1950’s the term was an insult. Bojan was also well-aware that his behaviour was brutal and unacceptable, but he and Sonja never verbally acknowledged this, although thankfully they did find a way to face their future as a father and daughter.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping is a terribly sad story. Right now, I’m not sure if I can face anything else by Richard Flanagan despite the beauty of his writing.

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.

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.

 

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