Category: book review (Page 1 of 2)

Book review – The Spiral, by Iain Ryan

Title: The Spiral

Author: Iain Ryan

Publisher: Echo/Allen and Unwin, 2021

Be warned: things are not straightforward in Iain Ryan’s third novel. The Melbourne writer, twice a winner of the Ned Kelly crime fiction award, has gone meta in his third novel.

Ryan’s prose is clean, well suited to the genre as he weaves noir grit and fantasy brawn into an intriguing thriller.

As the book opens, academic researcher Erma Bridges has some explaining to do. There’s scuttlebutt about her relationships with colleagues and students, an attack and a suicide, and a stalled research project threatening to destabilise her career. As one might expect of a book called The Spiral, things go downhill from there.

As a counterpoint to Erma’s first-person narrative, Ryan offers the barbarian Sargo, referred to in the second person. Sargo is a figment drawn from the pages of a choose-your-own-adventure style book, sexless, lethal, on a quest to overcome an amnesiac state of being. The barbarian is a character created by a famed writer of choose-your-own-adventures who is at the centre of Erma’s research, a reclusive figure who just may hold the key to Erma’s career success.

Erma’s quest for the writer takes her from the sandstone halls of The University of Queensland to the seedy alleys of Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley to the lush surrounds of a secluded mansion in the Gold Coast hinterland. In the background, there are female students being abducted, crime figures linked to Erma’s colleagues, and the central mystery of Jenny: Erma’s research assistant, a woman with a link to the writer, a handgun and an axe to grind.

As Erma descends into the mysteries, Sargo’s branching narrative intrudes, requiring the reader to choose their own path through the barbarian’s maze that offers insights into Erma’s secrets.

It’s a journey of self-discovery and revelation, for Erma and the reader as Sargo. Of course it ends in blood. Of that, there is never any choice.

Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung, March 2021

Jason Nahrung is Ballarat Writers publicity and communications officer

Book review – From Where I Fell, by Susan Johnson

Author: Susan Johnson

Title: From Where I Fell

Publisher: Allen and Unwin, March 2021

The author

Susan Johnson is a well- known and accomplished Australian author who has produced eight novels, a memoir, and a non-fiction book. She is internationally published and has lived in Europe for periods of her life. She currently lives in Brisbane, Australia.

The book

From Where I Fell is a clever and engaging novel based on two women living completely different lives, continents apart. Pamela Robinson from Australia sends an email to her ex-husband and by mistake the email finds Chris Woods in the United States, who happens to have a similar email address.

The two women continue exchanging correspondence and an unlikely friendship ensues. It is a time of intense change and soul searching for both although their circumstances couldn’t be more diverse. Pamela, a single mother of three boys who chose to leave their father, seeks guidance and support from those around her. Her sons are out of control and she battles each day to be the parent she expects herself to be. Pamela is highly anxious, doubts her own ability to cope and struggles to set boundaries, for herself or her sons. Her ex-husband refuses to have contact with her.

Chris is married to a quiet man who’s almost invisible. They have no children, but Chris’s elderly Greek mother is noisily threatening to return to Greece to die in her home country.  Chris carries the heavy burden of being a martyr, at work, with her friends and at home. She carries disappointment stoically and is kind but stern in her approach to life. She is known for her strong tendency to lend a helping hand where needed, until she oversteps the mark and is oftentimes condemned for her severe remarks and actions.

Pamela and Chris are both on a journey toward personal change. Their emails bounce back and forward progressively revealing current details of their lives. The two individual narratives are poignant in their own right and as the unusual friendship of the two corresponding women develops, so too does the intensity and honesty. A third story is represented in their interactions. Often brusque, apologetic, empathic, at times brutally truthful, beautiful, cringe worthy and pithy.

Reading From Where I Fell felt slightly voyeuristic and yet the compulsion to keep reading was all consuming. The struggles that surround the lives of women in caregiving circumstances, grief and disappointment are subtly identified and to some length unpacked. Cleverly, Susan Johnson leaves Pamela, the sender of the mistaken email, with the last word.

Trent Dalton gave praise to Susan Johnson’s latest book. ‘This is Susan Johnson at her most original, daring bone-deep and deliciously raw. I fell, too, with aching heart and tickled rib, under the spell of this extraordinary book.’

An intriguing and clever novel born of (but not in) COVID-19 times when emailing and electronic communication was and still is substituted for personal contact. The modality of this work replicates and extends our experiences over the last year. Susan Johnson never disappoints.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche, March 2021

Ballarat Writers Inc Book Review Group

Book review – The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, by Garth Nix

Title: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

Author: Garth Nix

Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020

The Author

 Garth Nix is an award-winning writer of fantasy fiction, mostly for young adults.  A full-time writer since 2001 with about thirty titles to his credit, Garth is no stranger to the world of publishing and book selling. He is a 1963-edition Melburnian now living in Sydney with his wife and two children.

The Book

At eighteen, Susan, an art student, is ready to step out into life.  But first she must find out who her father is. Her mother, though loving and caring, is vague and a scatterbrain; perhaps too many drugs in her early days, an excuse for not remembering the details of Susan’s father. Susan’s only clues include a silver gilt cigarette case, a faded library reading room ticket, and a so-called Uncle Frank in London.

The story, set largely in a somewhat alternate 1983 London, opens with the demise of crime boss Frank Thringly at the hands of a young and attractive Left-Handed Bookseller called Merlin.  Frank is a Sipper (of blood), there being no such things as vampires.  The Booksellers are an extended secret family policing the mythic Old World to prevent it intruding into the Modern World. Left-handed family members are action oriented, doing the dirty work in the field, such as eliminating miscreant Sippers. Right-handed members are intellectual.  The family also sells books.

Merlin is caught red handed, so to speak, by Susan, but before she can call the police the two are attacked by a horse-sized bug. Merlin shoots the bug and gives Susan the choice of staying to be killed by Frank’s evil associates or escaping through the open window with him.  Taking her chances, she opts for Merlin and the window, and quickly becomes enmeshed in the intrigues of Booksellers and the Old World.

After the initial escape from danger, Susan is aided by Merlin and his sister, Vivian, in unravelling the secret of her father and her connections to the Old World. The obvious romantic spark between Susan and Merlin smoulders in the background while they escape from attacking monsters and thwart the ambitions for power and domination by evil forces. The trio’s quest for the truth becomes a battle for the future.

Garth has done a great job of putting this story together. He borrows from classic Hollywood chase movies and at one point our heroes are pursued by villains and police, the police at times made to act like villains. 

Read a second opinion

book review by jason nahrung

The underlying themes and metaphors are familiar to this genre, with demons and mythical characters as metaphors for the challenges of life and growing up.  Garth also touches on the ideas of challenging the status quo, and the flow of responsibility from generation to generation.  

The story has an endearing quirkiness, a typical English silliness, perhaps reminiscent of the era in which it is set. There are plenty of  colourful phrases  like “pre-owned mustard-coloured three-piece suit”, “two-inch Cuban heels and “being stuck square on his roseate nose with a silver hatpin”. Adding to the eccentricity are nuances such as the idea of a special safe house run by Mrs London, the use of Black Cabs by the Booksellers referencing the TV spy series of the time, Callan.  One might even wonder if the name Frank Thringly is a nod to the infamous Melbourne actor Frank Thring?

The Left-Handed Booksellers is an entertaining, fun read, well-paced with engaging characters; a light-hearted romp through some of the darker aspects of life. Perfect for idling away a few hours of a COVID lockdown.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson, February 2021

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Book review: Lament, by Nicole Kelly

Title: Lament

Author: Nicole Kelly

Publisher:  Hawkeye Publishing, 2020

Nicole Kelly is the author of short stories and non-fiction articles, and is currently working on her second novel.  She is a school teacher and lives in rural Victoria.

Lament, written as historical fiction, is her first published novel. It was short listed in the Hawkeye Books Manuscript Development Prize in 2019, and later accepted for publication by Hawkeye in 2020.

The novel opens with Ned Kelly and his gang arriving in Glenrowan. From there they set out to derail the train travelling from Benalla in the belief a contingent of the Victorian Police Force are on board. In the expected aftermath of the train crash, the gang plan to take hostages, then ride on to Benalla and rob the local bank. However things don’t go as expected, and Ned begins to realise he and the gang have to change their plans.

Written in the first person, Ned is an observant, descriptive narrator. His voice is strong, full of rage, and his belief in the Kelly gang is unwavering. But as their plans begin to unravel, Ned begins to see the potential for another way of living and starts to question what he really wants to do with his life.

This leads Ned and the Kelly gang to move away from the High Country, and, in an attempt to begin again, they make their way down south. As they start to build a new life for themselves, their plans again go astray, and they are left to face the repercussions of their past lives as bush rangers, forcing them to deal with the devastating consequences. 

Nicole Kelly has written a fast-paced, exciting novel – part fiction, part fact. In her hands, Ned Kelly comes alive as we hear his thoughts, his fears, and his yearnings. The characters in the story are well drawn out, with their adventures told in captivating detail that leaves the reader with an understanding of how life was for members of the Kelly gang and their families.

Ned Kelly is portrayed as a proud man, with a firm self-belief that he would be remembered. As indeed is the case.

But Lament presents us with another version – one that explores the humanity of Ned Kelly, and with it, an enthralling story that offers another side to the life of the man who has become such a part of our Australian history.

Reviewed by: Linda Young

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Book review: When the Apricots Bloom, by Gina Wilkinson

Title: When the Apricots Bloom

Author: Gina Wilkinson

Publisher: Hachette Australia, 2020

Gina Wilkinson is a journalist, foreign correspondent and documentary-maker.  In this debut novel we follow three young women living in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The story is based on the writer’s personal experience of life in Baghdad under Saddam.

Two teenagers pledge love and loyalty with a blood oath. Huda is a village girl. Rania is a sheikh’s granddaughter, Iraqi nobility. After sharing a delightful adolescence on the banks of the Tigris, Huda and Rania lose contact.

When Saddam seizes power in Iraq, war, sanctions and tyranny bring the golden years of the Fertile Crescent to a bloody end. Tensions with Washington increase and a nervous Iraq increases security. Embassies withdraw non-essential staff.  Iraqis live in fear of Saddam’s secret police. They can invade your home, threaten your children or even snatch you off the streets.

Twenty-four years after their oath, Huda and Rania are struggling to raise their own teenagers in dangerous circumstances. Rania has contacts in the resistance. When Huda’s brothers are killed in a brutally crushed uprising, Rania disappears, hiding a shameful secret. Huda holds Rania responsible for the boys’ deaths.

When Huda lands a secretarial job at the Australian Embassy it seems too good to be true. Then the secret police order her to spy on Ally Wilson, the young wife of the Australian Deputy Ambassador to Iraq. The brutal intrusion of uniformed men into her home shatters Huda’s world. Her teenaged son, they warn, can be ordered into the regime’s murderous militia which trains boys to be killers.

Ally must hide her American citizenship, a deception that is dangerous. Western women are not safe on the streets. Ally, naïve and reckless, goes out alone. Huda tries to protect her even while she is forced to spy on her.

Read a Q&A with Gina Wilkinson about When the Apricots Bloom

at better reading

The secret police order Rania’s teenaged daughter to the presidential palace where sadistic sexual practices are known to take place. Rania and Huda are now reunited in an uneasy alliance to save their endangered children. They plan to smuggle them out of the country by forcing Ally to use her diplomatic position to help them.

In a world that nurtures suspicion rather than trust the women push the boundaries of safety. Friendships form despite the dangers and torture them in an emotional tug-of-war as the regime forces them to keep secrets from each other. The closer they become, the more they fear each other. Emotions are on-edge as they fight off the urge to trust. Blood oaths are stronger than anything … aren’t they?

Wilkinson weaves a gripping, page-turning plot of intrigue, fear and courage. When the Apricots Bloom takes us into a world that is foreign, exotic and terrifying as its strong characters struggle under the rise of tyranny. It challenges our comfortable existence and our privilege and reminds us that nations we have demonised and gone to war with are populated with people just like us. Knowing that I had more in common with the naïve Ally Wilson than with the brave Iraqi women, I read When the Apricots Bloom with sadness, huge respect and admiration for the courage of those who survive and resist. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It will not disappoint.

Reviewed by: Maureen Riches, January 2021

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Book review: The Time of Our Lives, by Robert Dessaix

Title: The Time of Our Lives – Growing Older Well

Author: Robert Dessaix

Publisher: Brio, 2020

The author

Robert Dessaix is an Australian writer and life commentator.  He is best-known for the autobiography A Mother’s Disgrace and the novel Night Letters.  His writing is informed by a life of travel, learning, and deep, diverse friendships with “interesting” people.

The book

This is an intimate insight, almost a monologue, into Dessaix’s personal tussle with the finite nature of life and its inevitable end. His own advancing years, brushes with death and the imminent demise of Rita, his partner’s mother, focuses the conversation (largely one-way) on life and what it means to live a meaningful life. 

It is set largely in Java, and Rita’s room in the nursing home.  Rita is frequently used as a springboard into the unknown and to contrast the ideas he is trying to draw out.

Little nuances and details add colour and dimension, turning the ramblings of an old man into a story. The use of Javanese village life and inclusion of references to friends in cleverly crafted little side snippets create a multi-layered, thoughtful and interesting reading experience.

There is good advice in here for the young, though I fear it would be lost on many of them.

Listen to an ABC Radio interview with Robert Dessaix on The Time of Our Lives

Patricia Karvelas on The Drawing Room

Dying features heavily; the idea that we inevitably reach a point of finality drives a lot of Dessaix’s thinking. To grow old well, he suggests, you need to be satisfied you have lived well. Consequently, he includes a lot of discussion on living. Of course, Dessaix’s idea of living well, or anybody else’s for that matter, may differ to yours.

There is a memorable little analogy that suggests you do not want your life to be like the traveller who finds the best coffee shop, restaurants, and places to go on their last day at a location they will never return to.

I must confess I was expecting an epiphany or two when I set out to read this book. However, I was disappointed: two out of three of Dessaix’s major life conclusions I had already reached, despite not having lived an exotic life such as Dessaix’s.  For other conclusions … you will just have to read the book for yourself, which I heartily recommend.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson, December 2020

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Book review – Infinite Splendours, by Sophie Laguna

Title: Infinite Splendours

Author: Sophie Laguna

Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020

Sophie Laguna is a multiple award-winning writer. Her second adult novel, The Eye of the Sheep, won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2015. 

I read Infinite Splendours with my heart in my mouth. There were times when I wanted to stop reading but the power of Laguna’s storytelling and her stunning craftsmanship kept me in there. The tension in the book is brilliant, as is the descriptive work, particularly the surrounding landscape.

Set in 1953,  the story is about Lawrence, ten, and his brother, Paul, who is eight, raised by their mother in Victoria’s Grampians. The boys’ father, known only through a shadowy photograph, died in service during the war.

Lawrence, a sensitive and clever child, is central to the story. His mother dotes on her son’s school achievements and his future looks bright. He has a favourite teacher and on Fridays, art day, he begins to discover his love and enjoyment of art. A long-lost uncle arrives to stay and takes an interest in Lawrence. Fatherless, the boy is hungry for attention and quickly they develop a bond. Paul, the younger brother, is not at all taken with the uncle and avoids him.

Eventually, Lawrence is betrayed in the worst way possible and his carefree childhood days are taken from him. Shattered and lost, he limps into adulthood, develops a stutter and his younger potential is behind him. Lawrence works for a short time on a local dairy farm. His mother dies and he becomes a hermit, living alone in the family home at the foot of the mountain. Paul returns to bring him food and what little support he will accept. Lawrence discovers his artistic passion again and paints prolifically.

A new family moves in next door with children. The ten-year-old boy quickly becomes a focus for Lawrence as he lives out his own regressed development and faces a situation that could lead to him repeating the wrongs done to him in the past.   

This novel raises questions of psychological and societal importance – the acts of childhood betrayals and the potential or actual impact on the lives of victims.  The pace is slow and leaves the reader nowhere to hide, but it’s a brave and courageous write by Laguna, into a darkness that most of us don’t want to know about, although we do.

Infinite Splendours is a harrowing but compelling read. A story I’ll never forget.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche, November 2020

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Book review — One Punch, by Barry Dickins

Title: One Punch: The tragic toll of random acts of violence

Author: Barry Dickins

Publisher: Hardie Grant, 2020

The author

Barry Dickins is a well-known Australian author, journalist, playwright, actor, artist and educator. He is the author of numerous books – fiction, memoirs, non-fiction, collections of essays – and plays.

In 1995 he was awarded the Louis Esson Prize for Drama for his stage play Remember Ronald Ryan, and the Amnesty Prize for Peace through Art.

The book

Barry Dickins writes of the random acts of violence perpetrated upon individuals, and looks at the gratuitous violence witnessed daily within our society. He researches ‘one punch’ deaths – whereby one punch to a victim results in their death. He describes the history of the events, the perpetrators, the court cases and the verdicts, and interviews the families of the victims.

In Barry’s search for information and understanding, he speaks with witnesses, medical staff who attend the victims of violence, school teachers, a former judge and a priest.  

Unable to interview the offenders, he wonders at their remorse.

Research update: 127 Australians killed by coward punches since 2000

JENNIFER SCHUMANN, VIFM/MONASH UNIVERSITY,2019

The author describes, in down-to-earth prose, the many acts of violence seen within society, including unprovoked attacks perpetrated on vulnerable people and property, and aggressive acts by motorists.

Throughout the book, Barry looks back on a safe and loving childhood and ponders the differences between those earlier years and now.

Violence touches Barry’s life when a family member, out walking with friends, is brutally attacked by a group of young men.  This leaves Barry with a ‘revolving disbelief’ that anyone would want to do harm to an innocent person.

Stop the Coward Punch

DANNY GREEN’S FIGHT AGAINST ONE-PUNCH ATTACKS

Reading this book was like sitting down with a long-time friend and listening as he tells his story in a gentle and caring way.  Barry writes of the violence and trauma in such a manner the reader is not traumatised by the reading. Instead we come to an understanding of the complexity of this subject.

Barry does not offer a solution, nor does he try to solve the question of why these things are happening – for who can?  But he has opened our eyes to it.

One Punch is a book that needs to be read.

Reviewed by: Linda Young

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Book review – The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, by Garth Nix

Title: The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

Author: Garth Nix

Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is lefthanded.jpg
As Garth Nix prepares to mark the 25th anniversary of his popular Old Kingdom series next year, his latest book also offers some nostalgic touchstones.

The 1983 UK depicted in The Left-Handed Booksellers of London is a slight variant of the one in the history books, as flagged by subtle touches such as the all-female leads of the TV show The Professionals. And then there’s the magic, of course, firmly grounded in the tradition of the likes of Alan Garner and Susan Cooper.

By centring his action in a secret cabal of magicians operating from London bookstores, Nix – at one time himself a bookseller – gives himself room to dip the hat to writers seminal and popular. He also gets to have a lot of fun.

The booksellers, whose magical inclinations are indicated by their handedness, operate as a kind of CI5 for the magical realm, keeping a lid on the folkloric, mythical and magical creatures and societies who interrupt the mundane workings of the human world.

Watch an interview with Garth Nix about The Left-Handed Booksellers of London

WITH DODD AND SUMNER AT FORBIDDEN PLANET TV

The story starts with a bang, when Susan is exposed to left-handed bookseller Merlin, whose personal quest intersects with her attempt to find her mysterious father.

Nix keeps the action coming as the pair are joined by Merlin’s (right-handed) sister Vivien in an ever-deepening plot that draws in the conventional authorities as well as the resources of the booksellers. Spells and swords, machineguns and helicopters are deployed as the stakes – and the body count – continue to rise.

Nix manages the action well, manoeuvring his engaging characters without contrivance and allowing enough downtime for breaths to be drawn and romance to stir. Their world makes sense, too, with a consistent and understandable magic system, and the relationship between the booksellers’ Old World and the mundane authorities of the New World in logical balance.

With the re-release of Sabriel and its follow-ups to court a new generation of fans, the booksellers’ tale is a reminder of why Nix is one of Australia’s most successful writers, and a fine addition to his bibliography. One can only hope this is but the first chapter in the booksellers’ adventures.

Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung, November 2020
Jason Nahrung is Ballarat Writers’ publicity officer

Book review — Max by Alex Miller

Title: Max

Author: Alex Miller

Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020

Castlemaine-based Alex Miller is the winner of multiple national and international awards and a recipient of the Manning Clark Medal for outstanding contribution to Australian cultural life. His latest work, Max, his first non-fiction book, is a tribute to a man he loved and who loved him, a man who was his mentor and inspiration.

Imagine you are a writer. A friend shares with you mysterious fragments of his past. This friend shuns the limelight yet you have always suspected that “beneath his modesty, lurked a secret wish to have the story told”. Then your friend dies.

Max is a Jewish/German socialist intellectual who opposes the rise of the Third Reich. He is deported to Poland in 1933 and emigrates to Australia in 1945. His torture at the hands of the Gestapo, the demise of the German Labour Movement and the destruction of ideals to which he has devoted his life, have broken Max and brought him to the end of hope.

When Max dies, Miller feels he has betrayed his friend by not writing his story. He goes to Berlin in search of Max’s mysterious past as a resistance fighter. Miller believes that the torture Max suffered is the reason his memories are so fragmented. His quest leads him to a darker suspicion. He begins to fear that his friend was not a hero, after all. He gets to know Max better by meeting people who suffered similar experiences. The fragile Jewish community of Breslau, for instance where latent anti-Semitism still hovers.

An interview with Alex Miller about his book, Max

with david speers at abc radio’s the drawing room

Miller compares the rise of the Third Reich with the extreme right in the Western world today. A constant theme is that many Jews couldn’t believe what was happening until it was too late – they didn’t believe it was possible, they just didn’t see it coming. Miller suggests history seems fated to repeat itself and offers the chilling warning: “By the time we are aware of it, it will be too late to bring it down.”

After the war, Max was denied compensation because he was unable to provide documentary evidence. Miller points to this inhumane situation repeating worldwide today: failure to produce paperwork is often an excuse for governments to avoid helping refugees.

Honouring Max’s telling, the writing is divided not into chapters, but “fragments”. It is rich with sensitively portrayed images of place and human interaction …Miller’s reluctant visit to Auschwitz … his walk through the Thuringia forest … the post-war decay still evident in parts of Europe and the loving restoration of buildings that were burned to the ground because they were Jewish.

For me this book was a gift, emphasising as it does the importance of listening to traumatised people, and the value of every life. The story of futile resistance against an evil power will resonate with today’s refugee advocates.

Reviewed by: Maureen Riches, October 2020

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book review group

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