Tag: Australian fiction

Book review – Other Houses, by Paddy O’Reilly

Title: Other Houses

Author: Paddy O’Reilly

Publisher: Affirm Press, 2022; RRP: $32.99

Paddy O’Reilly is a well-known Australian writer. She has written four novels including 2022’s Other Houses: The Wonders (2014), The Fine Colour of Rust (2012) and The Factory (2005). She has also written two collections of short stories and a novella, all published over the last couple of decades. Paddy has been short-listed and successful for numerous awards, both in Australia and overseas. Paddy O’Reilly lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Set in Melbourne’s western suburbs, Other Houses tells a vivid story of disadvantage and struggle. Lily is the mum of Jewelee, a rebelling teenager, when Janks, a reformed drug addict joins their family. They decide to leave the rough side of town and move across the tracks. Their motive is to give their daughter a chance to attend a better school and provide her with the opportunities in life they never had.

Lily collaborates with a friend, Shannon, cleaning other people’s houses. Their boss is a shifty character with his  own interests at heart. The daily grind of the work is back breaking for the two women, but they pride themselves on their ability to achieve exacting standards. They are good friends supporting each other and making the most of earning a wage together. The clients they work for are a precious lot but cleaning their houses on a regular basis provides the women with amusement, concern and intriguing insights into the secrets and oddities of other people’s lives.

Janks works in a factory. He and Lily are dependent on both their wages to make ends meet but no matter how hard it becomes, Lily and Janks are determined to turn Jewelee’s life around, and they are comforted when she finally shows signs of responding. They teeter on the edge of financial fragility each week but believe in what they are doing, for Jewelee and themselves. Then something happens that shatters their plan for a better existence.

George Haddad on Other Houses: ‘trauma without the porn’

@ the sydney review of books

This book has Paddy O’Reilly’s signature written all over it: clever and humorous storytelling that bursts alive on the pages. It also contains an honesty that is cringe worthy but so accurate that the reader becomes acutely engaged with the characters. Lily, Janks and Jewelee don’t mince words. They are living and evolving products of a world where privilege is absent and surviving without it is harsh.

Written with a tension that has the reader turning pages, Other Houses provides a window into hardship and poverty and the extreme difficulty of finding a way out. I was left with a reminder of how the circumstance of class inequality and disadvantage is difficult to exit. In fact, for some people and families, escape is near impossible.  

I loved this book and the characters danced in my head for days after I finished reading it. It’s a close-up read. Clever, funny, serious and real.  

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche, October 2023

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Book review – Borderland, by Graham Akhurst

Title: Borderland

Author: Graham Akhurst

Publisher: UWA Publishing, October 2023; RRP: $22.99

The hidden Chosen One trope is as old at least as Arthur, especially in the Young Adult realm, but Graham Akhurst gives it fresh poignancy in his debut novel by using the frame of the Stolen Generations and colonial displacement. In fact, the non-fantastical elements of Borderland are where the tale strikes deepest, the horror elements familiar and the narrative trajectory treading a well-worn path of discovery, mentorship and challenge.

Our hero is Jono, a First Nations lad raised in Brisbane with no knowledge of his mob or Country, his family’s past either not known or obscured by his loving single mum who is, one suspects, battling her own demons. In an echo of the acclaimed TV series Cleverman, Jono is embroiled in a journey of discovery that reveals far more than he could ever have expected about the world and his place in it.

The story opens with Jono feeling like the odd one out, he and his long-time friend, Jenny, graduating as the two Indigenous kids on a scholarship at a prestigious high school. That the discrimination comes not only from classmates either ignorant or jealous but also other blackfellas, who brand him a ‘coconut’, is telling. Hell, even magpies give him a rough time, even out of nesting season.

Aside from his mother, Jenny – attractive, talented and secure in her cultural identity – is Jono’s rock. It is at her instigation that Jono joins an arts academy, where the story picks up the pace. It is here that the pair find themselves on a flight to western Queensland to shoot a ‘documentary’ extolling the virtues of the mining industry to the traditional custodians whose land sits above rich seams of gas ripe for the fracking.

Akhurst looks back at life in Nudgee and forward to his next writing project

@ behind the stripes, 2021

For the boy from Brisbane, the tension of mining interests, economic drivers and preservation of Country is an intriguing backdrop to the simple fact that he is making serious money for the first time in his life – money that can help his mother. This mirrors the argument of trying to better the lot of traditional owners by allowing exploitation of Country, a contemporary conflict that gives the story added social weight. Further illustrating the clash, Akhurst appears to draw upon a decade-old, contentious accusation of methane released by coal seam gas operations setting the Condamine River alight in one of the book’s more evocative scenes.

It is out west that Akhurst finds his most vivid descriptions of landscape in a tale simply told, as befits its young first-person narrator who wields slang, not metaphors. And it is out west where truths are uncovered that will irrevocably change the lives of Jenny and Jono. There is the matter, for example, of Jono’s growing attraction to his confident, mature friend. And there’s the question about that dog-headed monster that’s been haunting him of late, the visions growing in potency despite the medication he has been prescribed. And what about that enigmatic ringer so at ease in the dust and haze of the west, and tales of Dreamtime spirits that may not be as quiescent as believed?

These spirits and other totemic and symbolic meanings are the creation of Akhurst, a Kokomini writer and academic who grew up in Meanjin (Brisbane). In a note, Akhurst, who includes a Fulbright scholarship among his accomplishments, reveals extensive consultation with First Nations people in relation to this story, but he makes the point that he carefully invented settings and cultural elements to avoid appropriation.

This incorporation of beliefs, however fictionalised, and Jono’s growing understanding of their meaning and their relationship to him, are key elements of this coming-of-age yarn that sets the scene for further volumes.

At story’s end, Jenny and Jono both have quests awaiting them that provide further opportunity for social exploration as well as good old-fashioned adventure. As such, Borderland is a solid start, both for our heroes’ journey and Akhurst’s fiction career.

Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Advanced reading copy provided by the publisher

Book review — Southern Aurora, by Mark Brandi

Title: Southern Aurora

Author: Mark Brandi

Publisher: Hachette, June 2023; RRP: $32.99

Southern Aurora is Mark Brandi’s fourth novel. Initially Mark published Wimmera, which won the British Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger Award and the Best Debut at the 2018 Australian Indie Book Awards. The Rip, his second novel, was published in 2019. His third novel, The Others, was short listed in 2022 for Best Fiction in The Ned Kelly Awards. Mark worked in the justice system prior to his writing career. From Italy originally, the author was raised in rural Victoria before moving to Melbourne.

In Southern Aurora, Jimmy is a kid living on the wrong side of the tracks in Mittigunda, a fictional small country town on the Southern Aurora’s line halfway between Melbourne and Sydney. Jimmy has a younger brother, Sam – he’s different, goes to a special school and Jimmy looks out for him. His older brother, Mick, is in jail, soon to be released. His mum’s boyfriend, Charlie, is an angry man causing Jimmy to weave his existence between watching for signs of something about to go wrong and making sure his mother and brother are okay if it does. He lives in a constant state of hyper vigilance. He attends school but doesn’t much care for it; he’s a bit of a loner except for his friend, Danny.

Mark Brandi talks about Southern Aurora

@ the canberra times

Jimmy’s mum has a drinking problem, which leaves her vulnerable and exposes her and her boys to the harmful and dangerous influence of her boyfriend. Charlie comes and goes and so does any normality in their lives. Jimmy and his mum wait in false hope that when Mick returns from jail, somehow life will improve.

A billycart event planned by his school entices Jimmy and Sam to resurrect Mick’s old billycart, The Firefox, from the shed. A series of events take place around the billycart and Jimmy’s honesty is compromised. His inner thoughts are always churning.

From the first page of Southern Aurora, the story grips hard. It bites at the imagination and delivers the reader to the very spot.

There’s hardly any shade at our school, just one big pepper corn tree that makes your hand sticky if you touch the leaves. Most of the yard is boiling hot asphalt.

Mark Brandi brings the voice of Jimmy to the page in a manner that very few writers manage. His acutely accurate descriptions and spare text bring alive Jimmy’s difficult and often tortuous attempts for something to go right for him. This story touches the very heart of what it is to be underprivileged and without power. There are, however, some very poignant and tender moments.

This story remains in the consciousness long after the end of the book.  A story of family, ongoing life struggles and kids who are left to navigate the tough circumstances that adults get caught up in. This book is impossible to put down.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche

Ballarat Writers Book Review Group, June 2023

Review copy provided by the publisher

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