Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Jock Serong’

Preservation by Jock Serong

Preservation is Australian author Jock Serong’s most recent book. I bought this about six months ago, but have a silly habit of delaying things I’m looking forward to in order to prolong the pleasure of anticipation, so have only ‘allowed’ myself to read the book now. Ridiculous, I know…

Preservation is a fictionalised story of the survivors of a shipwreck which happened in 1797, when the Sydney Cove was wrecked near Preservation Island on Bass Strait (between Tasmania and the mainland of Australia). Seventeen people, made up of five British and twelve Bengali sailors, took a longboat to the Gippsland coast where they were wrecked again. The men then set off on foot to Sydney, a town of only 1500 people at that time, by following the coast a distance of 700 kilometres. Only three of them arrived, including William Clark, a Scottish merchant whose diary entries were used as the foundation for this book.

The story has a number of narrators which include the three shipwreck survivors, William Clark, a fictitious character named John Figge and Clark’s lascar manservant, a boy named Svrinas. Other chapters are told by Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, whose job it is to ascertain what happened to the wrecked ship and to the men on their way to Sydney. Joshua’s wife Charlotte is also a narrator, and her chapters help to connect that of the British settlement in Sydney with the Aboriginal people who were already there. Each of the chapters is accompanied by a picture which helps the reader to determine who is speaking. Charlotte’s picture is of gum leaves, Svrinas’ is a lotus, Joshua’s is the crown and so on.

Joshua struggles to learn what happened to the survivors (and to those who didn’t make it to Sydney) due to the gaps between what Clarke and Figge tell him compared to what Clark wrote in his diary. It is clear that Clark and Figge are motivated to hide what actually happened on the trek to protect their wrecked cargo, ostensibly tea but actually rum.

The fictional story of the journey from the beach in Gippsland along the coast to Sydney is fascinating. The survivors set off on foot, crossing rivers in rafts they built along the way. They were watched the whole way by Aboriginal people in each district they passed through, sometimes interacting with them in a friendly way, being fed and assisted along their way and other times being treated with hostility. Some of the survivor’s behaviours caused the hostility and was sadly indicative of British attitudes at the time towards people of other races. It was interesting to read of the lascars and the Aboriginals’ respect for each other and more ready acceptance of each other’s ways.

Having lived on the NSW south coast for many years, I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the areas the survivors passed through and was able to recognise the places where various events occurred, even though they were not named, including a near drowning in as the men crossed the Clyde River at Batemans Bay.

John Figge is a frightening character who almost but not quite, dips into the supernatural. I didn’t like this aspect of the story and thought his character and story strong enough to have been satisfactory without this element. I also thought that the storyline connecting Charlotte with John Figge was unnecessary, although other parts of her story were vital.

I didn’t enjoy Preservation as much as I’ve liked other of Jock Serong’s books (The Rules Of Backyard Cricket is particularly brilliant) but it was an interesting read. I’m in awe of this author’s ability to tell a completely different story in each one of his books.

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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.

The Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong

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The Rules of Backyard Cricket, Australian author Jock Serong’s second novel, is a ripper.

I’ve only recently finished Quota, Serong’s Ned Kelly award winning first novel and would ordinarily have waited a few months before starting his second novel, The Rules of Backyard Cricket. However, these books are on loan to me from Aunty Gwen and I can’t keep them forever, so decided to get a move on.

The Rules of Backyard Cricket starts with Darren Keefe, a former Australian cricketer, gagged and bound in the boot of a car, presumably on his way to be murdered. As the car travels Darren does his best to break free of his binds and while he is doing so, he tells us his story.

Darren’s backstory is told chronologically, which I liked. He starts with his childhood, playing cricket in their Melbourne backyard and fighting with his older brother, Wally, as they are brought up by their single mother after their father up and left one day never to be seen again.

The Keefe boys are good batsmen who grow up to be great cricketers. Their tempers and personalities are completely different, as is often the case with siblings. Darren is a larrikin who takes pride in his reputation as an impulsive bad boy, while Wally’s personality is so measured that the media find him boring. The brothers are enormously competitive with each other. Darren makes the State Team first, Wally follows soon after. Wally makes the Australian side and Darren is a sure thing to be picked next to wear the baggy green cap but loses his chance when he breaks his thumb batting a bouncer bowled by a riled-up West Indian player. The description of Darren’s broken thumb, called a Rolando fracture, had me squirming.

Wally went on to captain Australia, while Darren’s broken thumb left him playing one-dayers, giving the crowd their money’s worth and getting up to no good the rest of the time. Images of Shane Warne being photographed smoking, texting women who he wasn’t married to, and generally misbehaving kept springing to mind, but Warnie was a great cricketer and a larrikin, rather than a would-be great cricketer who missed his chance.

Darren was involved in quite a few dodgy sidelines outside of cricket, any of which could have led to the situation in the car boot, but I was kept guessing to learn what had actually caused this until the end of the story. When it came, I was left gasping.

Darren’s most formative relationship, other than that with Wally, was with his mother. She loved cricket too and encouraged her sons to make the most of their talent. Darren was unable to continue a long-term relationship with any other women, probably for the same reason as many other sportsmen; too much temptation in the form of other women while living out of a suitcase.

What I keep thinking about though, a few weeks after having finished the book, is sibling rivalry. My understanding is that the first child in a family takes on a particular role or set of characteristics, then when the next one comes along and because some traits are already taken, they find something different for themselves to set themselves apart from the first child, and so on and on with all of the following children in the family. So the first child might be the responsible (or bossy) personality, the second might be the rebel, the third the funny one, the fourth the easy-going child and the fifth child so far under the radar they might as well not even be there, etc. Darren and Wally certainly exhibited character differences, but their competitiveness with each other when it came to cricket was extreme.

This story could have used any sport for the setting, but I enjoyed the use of cricket. While I’m not a fan I’m as familiar with cricket as most Australians, having played backyard cricket, filled in on my brother’s team when they were short of players and scored their games when they had a full side. I’ve attended a one day game at the MCG (possibly the longest day of my life) and the sound of a Test Match on television in my parents and my parent in law’s lounge room’s is constant.

So, the rules of backyard cricket are generally the same all over Australia. Over the fence is out, break a window and you’re out, plus you’ll eat dinner off the mantelpiece for a week! Anyone younger than six can’t go out on the first ball and older brothers aren’t allowed to bowl bouncers at their younger siblings. Otherwise, it’s just not cricket…. (sorry, I couldn’t help myself!)

Jock Serong’s third novel is On the Java Ridge and I’ll read it sometime soon.

 

 

 

 

 

Quota by Jock Serong

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Quota, Australian author Jock Serong’s first book, was lent to me by my Aunty Gwen. She reads and buys good books, is a member of a local book group, and attends writer’s talks and bookish functions and as a result, her recommendations are always varied and interesting. In this case, Quota was even more interesting to me because the author had signed Aunty Gwen’s copy of the book. Also, the story is set in a fictionalised version of a fishing town in the Western District of Victoria, an area of the world which I dearly love.

Quota won the 2015 Australian Crime Writers Association Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction.

All of the above pre-disposed me to like Quota before I even started reading, but I genuinely enjoyed the story once I actually started. The story gets off to a great start with the court transcripts of a young lawyer, Charlie Jardim, losing his temper and telling the judge what he really thinks of him. For anyone who has ever wanted to tell someone in authority what they really think, read this chapter and reconsider…

Charlie is left to cool down in the police cells for a few days and once released, finds himself employed by an older, more experienced barrister to do the legwork for a murder case in Dauphin, a fishing town four hours along the coast from Melbourne, where a young man was shot and set on fire on his fishing boat.

The title, Quota, comes from the abalone fishing quota. It probably goes without saying that there is a black market for abalone (not sure why, I think they are too chewy. I think the rareness and cost make them more appealing for people who want things that are had to get, although maybe I’ve just never tried them cooked nicely). Anyway, the murdered man and his younger brother Patrick were running abalone and drugs between Dauphin and Melbourne for the Murchison family, who own everything that makes money in Dauphin.

Charlie is working for the prosecution and needs Patrick to open up to him, as his police statement doesn’t make sense.

Skip Murchison and another man get locked up for the murder and Charlie finds himself unable to get any information out of Patrick or anyone else in Dauphin. Charlie is threatened by the Murchisons and beaten in a seemingly unrelated late-night attack, but is otherwise ignored by the townspeople who are suspicious of him. Charlie makes it clear to Patrick that he is on his side and that Patrick’s needs to be completely honest about what happened out at sea when his brother was killed, but Patrick is an orphan with three younger siblings to look out for and he is not convinced that him being honest is in anyone’s best interests.

I enjoyed this story enormously. The location reminded me of a seedier, smaller version of Port Fairy or Warrnambool and I believe the author actually lives in Port Fairy. The character’s behaviour felt realistic to me, especially the townspeople who wouldn’t give the time of day to an outsider and the town’s dependency on the one dominant family who owned and ran everything. The slangy, laconic dialogue was spot on.

The ending of Quota felt a little muddy, but as this was the first novel by this author, I feel sure that the two books Jock Serong has written since will be tighter. Luckily for me they are in Aunty Gwen’s big bag of books. I’m reading The Rules of Backyard Cricket next.

 

 

 

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