Category: book review (Page 1 of 2)

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

Book review – The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent

Title: The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning

Author: Jeremy Lent

Publisher: Prometheus Books, 2017

The author

Jeremy Lent is a Cambridge University literature graduate, a Dot Com entrepreneur with an interesting and colourful past, and now a sustainability guru calling himself an integrator.

The book

The basic premise of the book is that human history can be studied through the lens of human cognitive development, a new approach to history.  The metaphors and world view held by society are instrumental to its future.

Lent has integrated/synthesised the research and thinking from literally hundreds of sources. In a work of five hundred plus pages there are over a hundred pages of notes, further reading and references. He has drawn upon disciplines as diverse as archaeology, neuroscience, and systems theory – the study of complexity and chaos.

The book opens by contrasting the voyages of Chinese Admiral Zheng with an armada of three hundred vessels and the voyage of Christopher Columbus in three leaky boats. Columbus changed the course of history and Zheng’s armada left almost no imprint on the world.

So why aren’t we all speaking Chinese?  Lent contrasts the deeply seated metaphors underpinning Chinese and European thinking and values: how each society views their position in the world.

Dualistic thinking and monotheistic religions figure heavily in Lent’s discussion. And he also explores the question “why the Industrial Revolution occurred in Europe and not the Islamic world or the Chinese world”, which were both more technically advanced at the time.

The Patterning Instinct is professionally written and easy to read, even if the subject matter is difficult to comprehend.  The book contains challenging and frightening conjectures, for example, that the “will of the people”, even in Western societies, is manipulated by a small elite group of society, and the species humans exploit the most is – humans!

In the final chapter Lent turns to systems theory and the study of complexity to suggest humanity is about to go through a period of significant transition. He couples this with his cognitive history to explain some of the human forces at play, speculating about, but not predicting, potential directions. We have a choice, he suggests.

It would be easy to dismiss Lent as just another new-age guru trying to make a living from humanity’s need to find meaning to our lives, but this work deserves more than a casual “oh, I read an interesting book the other day…” while sipping a chardonnay.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson, June 2020

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book review group

Book review — The Crossing by M.M. Riches

Title: The Crossing

Author: M.M. Riches

Publisher: Ginninderra Press, 2020

This intriguing Australian debut novel by M.M. Riches, a Ballarat Writers member, takes the reader back to the 1960s. A young nun travels to Cobbs Crossing, a country town in the Mallee, to work as a trainee teacher at St Cuthbert’s, an orphanage run by the Catholic Church.

Sarah, the protagonist, finds more than she bargained for at St Cuthbert’s. Most of the children are Aboriginal and although supposedly orphaned, she discovers many are not. A newspaper reporter befriends the young nun and together they uncover disturbing facts about the orphanage. Sarah is conflicted between her role and beliefs as a Catholic nun and her commitment to the children and to the truth.

The book shines a light on the devious and misguided ways that resulted in the mistreatment of Indigenous people by white Australians in the not-so-distant past. The author cleverly weaves humour and humanity into the more sinister and shocking aspects of this story. The book is finely researched and carries with it a poignant and important message. The characters are engaging and believable.

M.M Riches captures the essence of what it is to stand up for fairness and equity with a story arc that holds the reader until the very last page. The author is to be congratulated on this well-structured and beautifully written book. 

2009 Australian of the Year Mick Dodson said in his testament to M.M. Riches’ novel, “Characters in this book are real. I have met them in my lifetime. They are part of the story of the Stolen Generations, an integral part of the shared history of our country. Every Australian should read this book”.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche, September 2020

Ballarat Writers Inc. book review group

Book review – No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

Title: No Friend But The Mountains – Writing from Manus Prison

Author: Behrouz Boochani; translated by Omid Tofighian

Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia, 2018


Journalist, writer, filmmaker with a Masters degree in political science,
Behrouz Boochani fled Iran, came to Australia as a refugee and spent six years on
Manus Island. He chronicled prison life with only a hidden mobile phone.

A forward by Richard Flanagan ranks his work with world prison literature.

After a horrific sea crossing, Behrouz arrives at Christmas Island on 23 July
2013 – four days after the ruling against boat arrivals. He and his companions are
confronted with wire fences and CCTV cameras. They are stripped, body-searched, handcuffed, paraded before the press and transferred to Manus prison.

The men no longer have names but numbers. Games are prohibited. Soccer
balls are forbidden but cigarettes are supplied – cigarettes that can be withdrawn. They must stand in queues for the phone, toilet, cigarettes and long queues of
paracetamol dependency. They must queue for meals. Often no food is left. A
mango tree outside the fence tantalises starving men.

In small rebellions, the men sing and dance, infuriating the Australian guards.

Many guards are ex-military. They wear black gloves with little metal spikes
and terrorise the prisoners.

A naked prisoner escapes the terrifying solitary confinement cell. Guards pin him down, crushing his face to the ground. His back is bloody. He is cuffed. They beat him with a stick and laugh. They leave him lying there, wounded.

The Immigration Minister visits and issues terrifying threats: stay here forever
or return to danger.

Some have coping mechanisms, many do not. Fear, torture and neglect lead to suicides and the terrible riot of 2014. After the riot, the men are paraded to witness the dead and injured bodies of fellow prisoners.

Behrouz Boochani granted asylum in New Zealand

Behrouz unflinchingly describes the worst of humanity and one of the darkest
chapters of Australian history, a regime designed to break its victims, yet his account is a triumph of the human spirit. Producing such a masterpiece with only a
contraband mobile phone was an extraordinary achievement, the skill involved
breathtaking.

Barbaric cruelty is exposed through exquisite writing, haunting poetic
passages and even moments of merriment.

The effort to do justice to such an epic has been daunting. Many times I felt
an over-whelming sense of national shame but I could not turn away.

Reviewed by: Maureen Riches, August 2020

Ballarat Writers Inc. book review group

Book review: Pretty Girls by Lisa Portolan & Samantha McDonald

Authors: Lisa Portolan and Samantha McDonald

Publisher: Big Sky Publishing

Year: 2020

About the authors

Lisa Portolan is a journalist and author from Sydney. She has previously published two books, including bestseller Happy As (Echo, Melbourne).

Samantha McDonald is an Australian director and producer. She has a degree in Law and Communications.  Growing up there was always a focus on looks and it took her years to reclaim her own story.

The main character in Pretty Girls, Evie, is based on Samantha’s own story, though fictionalised. 

Review

What has brought Evie, a thirtysomething single parent back to Redfern? Her excuse – her dying father in hospital with cancer.

There is no love for her father, an abusive embittered old man. Her return is almost instinctive: part obligation, part need; a last chance?  Life during her early Redfern years was hard; her brother and mother did not survive.  The trauma of Evie’s teenage years is told through a series of flashbacks to mid 1990s Redfern interspersed with her current-day struggle.

Set against the backdrop of family violence, racism, and predatory male attitudes towards stereotypically attractive girls, Lisa and Samantha do not hold back on the gritty realism.  However, it is told honestly, not overdone or grotesque.   

Pretty Girls slated for production

It takes a relationship with Indigenous ex-boxer Mr G for Evie to begin to find her way. Initially she wants closure and an understanding of who she is, there are questions needing answers.

The relationships with her own daughter and Mr G set up a juxtaposition with her own life and these relationships are important for Evie’s eventual self-reconciliation.

There is a certain amount of irony in this story, Evie’s survival is likely to be largely due to a fighting spirit inherited from her father, but it is tempered with empathy, not bitterness.  It is this duality that Mr G finds attractive.

Pretty Girls could easily be dismissed as just another account of male violence, racism, and hardship.  But this is not a story of exposure or retribution; it’s a story of healing and self-reconciliation, of Evie taking back her life story.  It is about finding love and of giving and receiving, a story of optimism. 

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson, June 2020

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book review group

Book review: Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe

Author: Mirandi Riwoe

Publisher: University of Queensland Press

Year: 2020

Mirandi Riwoe wrote a prize-winning novella The Fish Girl before writing Stone Sky Gold Mountain. She lives in Brisbane and has a PhD in creative writing.

This historical novel tells a poignant story of two young Chinese siblings and is set in Australia in the late 1800s. Ying, disguised as a male, and Lai Yue, her older brother, arrive in the North Queensland goldfields after fleeing their home in China. Their aim is to accumulate wealth before returning to China to find their younger siblings. They exist in meagre and sometimes dangerous conditions with long working hours panning for gold.

Driven from the goldfields, Ying takes refuge with and works for a Chinese storekeeper. It’s during this time she meets Meriem, a young woman who has experienced her own troubled times and works as a housekeeper for a brothel worker. The intriguing friendship between Ying and Meriem slowly develops over time. Lai Yue, after squandering his gold to buy opium, joins a droving crew as a cook in an attempt to redeem his losses.

Find out more about Mirandi Riwoe at The Garrett

Mirandi Riwoe tells a compelling story, it’s both gentle and harsh.  The author demonstrates an acute understanding of human frailty and resilience, highlighted by the injustice and discrimination dished out to minority groups on the goldfields. The issues of racism and sexism are explored through acute story telling and beautiful writing.

The three main characters are memorable, the pace, structure and the ending developed to perfection.  The plight of early Chinese miners in Australia is rarely explored in its own right but this book brings the lived experience to the page, which, in my view, makes this story unique.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche, June 2020

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book review group

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