Category Archives: Book Reviews

Linda G – When She’s Good…

Linda Grant – ‘Upstairs at the Party’, ‘A Stranger City’

We Had It So Good’ was so good. It was my introduction to the writing of Linda Grant. It was a portrait of the lives of UK baby-boomers I read at the turn of the decade. The novel convinced me that I’d always be reading her through the following years. The next book she authored that I picked up, ‘Still There’, was, well, not so good. It was a struggle. I made it through, expecting to be rewarded in the end. I wasn’t. So, I was put off.

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When I spotted, a few years later, ‘Upstairs at the Party’ in a remainder bin for a couple of bucks, I thought I’d give her another shot. It sat on my ‘to read’ shelf for a few more years after purchase. Then there came the glowing review for her latest, ‘A Stranger City’. It seemed my cup of tea, but before I shelled out thirty plus dollars, remembering I had been burnt before, so to speak, I decided to tackle ‘Upstairs at the Party’, just to make sure. And you can probably guess the outcome of this little tale. It was excellent, so off I went to my favourite bookshop, duly bought the new one and settled in. It made a promising start. It seemed it had an interesting array of characters with the action, initially, zeroing in on those with a link to an unidentified body fished out of the Thames. How could nobody in the whole metropolis of London not miss this young woman who threw herself, it is suspected, off a bridge? The copper investigating the fatal incident had no leads and is troubled by that; a documentary film maker, who just happened to be producing a series on missing persons, included her story. Then there’s the nurse who was in the vicinity; she going on to disappear, as well, for a short time. She featured in the documentary as well, bringing her a modicum of fame. Yep, it seemed all set up for an engrossing read.

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But then the author does a right turn into the world of immigrants to her city. Then followed by an imaging of London in decay, just a short time down the track post-Brexit. It seems as though Boris hasn’t been too successful in extracting the UK from Europe. It’s not a future I’d want to be involved in. Finally we reunite with the original cast, but by then it was too late for me. It’s all tied together, but even so, again I really struggled to complete the novel. Reviewer Jake Arnott, writing in the Guardian, describes this homage to an ever-evolving city, as being ‘…fractured and uncertain…’ as the huge metropolis it portrays, although his is a favourable report. Too fractured and uncertain for me, I’m afraid.

On the other hand, ‘Upstairs at the Party’ was the real page-turner. I relished it and raced through to the conclusion. It, claims Ms Grant, is partly autobiographical – and proves that she is an author certainly worth reading, with this or ‘We Had It So Good’ obvious starting points. Both books observes our generation looking back. In this case its back to a twenty-first birthday party where, upstairs, away from the action, a terrible event occurred for one of the guests. This morphed into a happening that changed lives. I was rapt in this more, to my mind, cogent work as secrets of the past are unravelled to allow us to see how the fortunes of a golden, gifted group of people play out.

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But the quandary now is this. When the next Linda Grant comes out, will I chance her again?

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The author’s website = https://www.lindagrant.co.uk/ =

Preservation – Jack Serong

My impressive and lovely daughter-in-law manages the company that runs supplies to the Furneaux group of islands in Bass Strait from its base at Bridport on Tassie’s north-east coastline. The hardy and handy crew that ride the flat-bottomed boats to Lady Barron on Flinders Island, as well as a smattering of other locations in these capricious waters, know well that in the past many ships passing through did not make it to their destinations. The area is a shipwreck graveyard. One of the earliest of these was the ‘Sydney Cove’ out of Calcutta.

It’s objective was the eponymous colonial port and outpost, less than ten years old, with a population of only a few thousand souls. Most of those were there against their wills. Many of its inhabitants suffered from a great thirst. The purpose of this ship’s voyage was the business of slaking it. Their carrier had been renamed, back on the Hooghly, as a selling point, but unfortunately the accompanying merchant never had the opportunity to find out if this act was to his financial benefit. After the long voyage south into the Roaring Forties, from India, it was lost just north of Cape Portland on the little isle later to be named Preservation. This was at a time (1797) when the passage and open seas between Van Diemen’s Land and New Holland had yet to be fully mapped. For the survivors of the wreck the only chance of long lasting survival was to make contact with Sydney. A small party would have to find their way north, first by long boat and then by Shank’s pony, for 700 clicks. Their trek to seek assistance for their fellow seafarers back on Preservation Island is one monumental feat for those formative years of European occupation, but is still shrouded in mystery. There is so much we do not know. Why, for instance, did only three of the original party actually make it, found by fishermen crawling along a beach on the outskirts of civilisation as they knew it? Serong deftly adds fictional flesh to the bones that have eked down to us.

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The only remotely accurate historical account of their privations comes from the merchant, 27 year old entrepreneur William Clark. The other survivors to make it to Port Jackson were two seamen, one white and the other an Indian. Serong gives them identities. One is a chancer who has stolen an identity to evolve into Mr Figge. The other is a youthful Bengali servant to Clark, Srinivas.

Governor Hunter, under pressure from both London and the Rum Corps, needs to investigate the veracity of Clark’s tale before he sends off a rescue party to the south. He appoints Lieutenant Joshua Grayling to unravel the stories of the two men and the boy. He discovers enough inconsistencies to drive a truck through – if they had them in the olden days!

Jack Serong’s two previous tomes – ‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ and ‘On the Java Ridge’ – had both been winners in my book. The former lawyer does not let his fans down here.

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Through Grayling’s interrogations we get to know the interviewees, that is, if they are to be believed. This is especially the case with the two adults, but once the Lieutenant twigs that the servant can speak English, matters become a tad clearer. We also discover much about the officer himself, his ailing wife, who becomes more and more central to the story, as well as the very early days of our oldest white settlement. The original Australians also figure prominently. Pemulwuy is just outside the settlement’s boundaries, waging his rearguard action against the invaders, terrorising the new arrivals. But many of his people are drawn to the new arrivals. These Aboriginals are yet to be clothed and made ‘respectable’, but are ultimately ruined by the foreigners and their prudish religion. The trekkers, battling their way from Eastern Gippsland up to almost their goal, also had the first landholders to contend with. Largely the Gurnai Kurnai and Eora were benign, often proffering help that was sometimes accepted, sometimes not.

How far Serong’s story may be at variance to the actualities of the event we simply do not know. It is historically correct, though, that a sensation was caused by the trio’s arrival in the colony. This focused the minds of the movers and shakers of the time to send Flinders and his mate Bass off to map around the Furneaux Islands and to discover the Strait. It was then opened up to our first viable industry – for better or worse. Sealers and whaling ships were soon operating in those waters.

I await Serong’s next publication with much expectation.

More on the author here = https://www.textpublishing.com.au/authors/jockserong

Man Proposes, God Disposes

Erebus’ – Michael Palin, ‘Painting in the Shadows’ – Katherine Kovacic

It wasn’t Edwin Landseer’s painting ‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’, described by the author of ‘Erebus’ as ‘gruesome’, which aimed to tug at the heartstrings, that got me. The artist’s take on the iconic ship’s ill-fated final voyage shows the remnants of its crew’s final stand against death – a flag and assorted debris being torn apart by polar bears. This portrayal did the job for C19th England still coming to terms with the loss of Franklin’s expedition. But for me the more moving images in the tome came from an art form still in its infancy. They showed the top brass of the two vessels that tried to force their way from ocean to ocean via Canada’s North West Passage, ‘Erebus’ and ‘The Terror’. The daguerreotypes of Sir John, James Fitzjames, Francis Crozier and the other brave/foolhardy souls were so poignant to this viewer. They are actual; not confected by an artist aiming to please. At one stage in the book Palin examines each of these early photographs and tells the reader what it demonstrates about each of the doomed sitters.

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Of course the writer of ‘Erebus’ is best known for being a member of ‘Monty Python’. Some may even describe those other crews’ story, spending their final months trapped in the ice before seeking a way out, as Pythonesque in nature, if it all wasn’t so tragic. In the far Northern American wastes they were befuddled, failing to take the advice of the few native inhabitants they encountered, resulting in a nation in mourning. A determined woman, Franklin’s wife Jane, moved heaven and earth at first to find the men, then later to discover the whereabouts of their remains. She became a constant thorn in the government’s backside as they attempted to move on from the disaster.

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In all this there are, of course, links to my own island; this one not in the hard ice of the far north, but a stepping stone to that vast frozen mass further south. The same two stalwart boats used, under a different command, Hobart as a base for explorations to Antarctica. In those tough, small, confined wind-powered transports a feat was achieved, unimaginable to contemporary minds – so a later exploratory excursion in the Northern Hemisphere, with the ‘Erebus’ to the fore, was to be almost certain of success, wasn’t it? The other synchronicity is that greeting the ship’s earlier commander, James Clark Ross, received when he arrived in the Derwent, both going to and coming from his attempt to reach the South Magnetic Pole, was from none other than the governor of Van Diemen’s Land. Waiting for him were Franklin and his wife Jane. So the book contains impressions of my city from that time, as well as Palin’s own take on a burb that has come alive, thanks to the MONA effect. He was here to research this very readable tale of a boat built in the shadow of the Napoleonic War; a vessel that took its time to find its enduring place in history. It’s a history that doesn’t end till its rediscovery a mere five years ago.

After ‘Erebus’, I then turned to the next book from my pile of ‘to reads’, Katherine Kovacic’s ‘Painting in the Shadows’. Blow me down that a few chapters in I realised that the painting at this whodunnit’s core was none other than ‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’. What are the odds? You wouldn’t read about it.

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Kovacic’s first foray into the field of crime fiction, with an art slant, came with ‘The Portrait of Molly Dean’, an examination of an historical murder on the fringes of the local 1930’s art scene. It received favourable reviews, as did this her sophomore effort. Having a penchant for going across to the big island to check out art galleries I thought ‘Painting in the Shadows’ could be something I’d take to.

The Landseer work has arrived in Melbourne with a bit of a rep for bringing bad luck. That takes hold as soon as the masterpiece is about to be hung, quickly followed by a death in the gallery, a loosely disguised NGV. Our heroine, Alex Clayton, with her sidekick/semi-love interest John Porter, think there may be more to a story that the local plod have put down to accidental poisoning. So off they go to do some amateur sleuthing, as you do. What could one then throw into the mix to add an extra bit of spice? What else than a suspected Whiteley forgery. It’s hardly an original thought, but our dynamic duo think they’re on to possibly quite the scandal.

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Really, I did struggle with this, although it is meant to be a light frothy page-turner. The snappy repartee between the two main protagonists just grated for me and although the although she knows her art, the writer’s desire to demonstrate that at every chance detracted from the flow, as did her constant opinions on every work name-dropped. I persevered till the end and as it approached, my interest perked, but it will not live long in my memory. I know there are others who disagree. Peter Craven, one of our nation’s best reviewers, describes ‘Painting in the Shadows’ as being akin to the works of Michael Innes, Peter Temple and Shane Maloney – so there you go. So, if those authors appeal then judge for yourself.

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I do like the randomness of an unexpected coincidence – the one painting featuring in two disparate yarns back to back. Crikey.

Michael Palin’s website = https://www.themichaelpalin.com/

Katherine Kovacic’s website = https://www.katherinekovacic.com/

After the Lights Go Out – Lili Wilkinson

Doomsday preppers. They’re out there, making ready, these modern day Noah’s Arkians. And who knows? The way this planet is changing, nothing would surprise me. This weird weather, turning our seasons around. Is an electromagnetic pulse just around the corner, as Lili Wilkinson’s ‘After the Lights Go Out’ suggests? Could these not-so-oddballs have it right? Could they be the ones to survive an apocalypse if it happened today? Tomorrow?

It’s a great read this. Designed for the YA market, I relished it. Maybe I could have done without the gun violence, but when has doomsday arrived without great American heroes blasting away to save the world. And we have a couple of Americans, too, in this outback saga – well almost. They’re Puerto Rican actually. As one would expect, not everyone gets out alive.

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The page-turner features a dad whose fate is unknown after an underground explosion. It’s a result of atmospheric disturbances that impact on the remote township of Jubilee where the lights well and truly go out. Rick Palmer has moved his family from the city to future-proof them. He’s trained his three daughters – 17 year old Pru and younger twins Blythe and Grace – in all they’ll need to know to survive a cataclysmic event with or without him. When the latter occurs, though, the girls have a decision to make. Do they take to The Paddock, their impregnable below surface bunker, or share their expertise and resources with the community? Rick would be mortified and angry if it wasn’t the former. Complicating matters, the lasses have discovered the opposite gender and dad wouldn’t be happy with that either.

There’s the renowned outback ingenuity and resilience afoot in this novel. It is fascinating the journey Wilkinson takes us on as the survivors reshape their world – something as simple as a crystal set from my youth is reborn to try to help save the day. Jubilee becomes completely cut off so what is actually happening in the outside world becomes a vital obsession. It’s a question that’s takes so long to be answered when retro-technology is all they have to rely on.

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This is an engrossing work and for the most part wholly believable. If it happens, are you prepared?

The author’s website = http://www.liliwilkinson.com.au/

Carrollathon

‘A New England Affair’, ‘Spirit of Progress’, ‘The Year of the Beast’ – Steven Carroll

Never in my wildest dreams would I claim to be capable of wordsmithery to the finely honed marvel of literary excellence that Steven Carroll presents to the Australian reading public, doing so for several decades now. His ‘Glenroy’ series; his novels revolving around TS Eliot have been a mainstay in my own book perusing life for quite a while, with one of the above titles inspiring a little scribing of my own. ‘A New England Affair’ tells part of the history of the aforementioned poet’s both restrained yet tumultuous private life – that of his longstanding and unconsummated relationship with fellow American Emily Hale. In it we encounter both his wives as well – the first being Vivienne Haigh Wood. Marrying her in haste was largely the best way he could see to dispose of his virginity. His second spouse, Valerie, wedded him in his later life. She finally gave him some private bliss and sexual satisfaction. She was only touched on in the novel, but I was fascinated that Valerie was around forty years his junior. What was her motivation in marrying such an ageing beau – was she a gold digger for fame by association and/or financial security, or was there genuine love in the mix? I turned to the ether to find out more and discovered it seems to have been the latter. I was able to flesh her out a tad more and produced a blog piece, entitled ‘Gap’, as a result. This revolved around her life with perhaps the greatest poet of last century, mixed in with a tale of a retired teacher and a salesperson from Kaboodle. If you’re so inclined, please do read it – but it does contain prose that is a little spicy.

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In ‘A New England Affair’ we encounter Miss Hale, at age 74, when she has retreated into her inner person, the outcome of her final rejection years before by Tom Eliot. She is making a journey of significance by ketch out to the Dry Salvages, a notorious rock formation off her country’s North East coast. It is of importance to her because of a halcyon period she spent with her man of letters back in the day in the area. She takes this journey with an ageing seafarer at the helm; a journey to dispose of memories; a journey fraught with danger as there’s a storm a-brewing. Over the course of making the crossing she casts her mind back to those days when she had hopes, as well as to those when she had none; to when her dream was shattered. There were two moments when she could have possibly had what she wanted, so she reappraises those and what might have been. The problem was that their sameness got in the way. Both were socially withdrawn – unable to adequately communicate their real feelings. Eliot was hampered by his faith and of course, later on, by a wife he had little affection for, but much guilt because of. He did go on to find Valerie; Hale went on to shrivel.

More cerebral reviewers than I have pointed to allusions in the book to verses in his poetry, as well as to the works of Henry James and Jane Austen. I can’t claim to be nearly that savvy. It was the waste of almost, but not quite, two lives that got to me. One was renewed by a less corseted younger woman, with that taking me to another place.

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Another of Carroll’s tomes had been sitting on my shelves for some time – it was, in fact, one of the six works of fiction from his examination of the Yarra City suburb of ‘Glenroy’. With supposedly the final offering of those being released in early ‘19, I decided I’d better tackle this one too.

In 1946 Sidney Nolan painted one of the author’s forebears, Katherine Carroll. The artist had read a newspaper report of a woman living on the fringes of the city in a manner long past. His take on her became the painting ‘Woman and Tent’. Carroll weaves her story into both ‘Spirit of Progress’ and that sixth publication, ‘The Year of the Beast’. The earlier novel also features ‘The Art of the Engine Driver’s’ (first in the series) engine driver Vic, his wife Rita, a Nolanesque dauber in Sam and a journalist, George. He is the reporter who has discovered a strange older woman living in a tent, with few of the modern amenities by then taken for granted. Sam is in love with an art gallery owner who, unfortunately for him, is just out of reach, prompting him to consider being part of the diaspora of arty types back to the Mother Country. Meanwhile, a solitary farmer, by whose land Katherine is camped, develops some feelings for her, becoming, to an extent, her keeper. And on the fringes lurks a developer, a portent of the Melbourne to come.

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It’s an enthralling read, as is the last of the one’s focusing on this part of the city, but one that takes us from the 1940s back to the conscription debates of the Great War. The normally sedate metropolis is in turmoil, with the seething masses of protesters, for and against, filling the streets. Here we again encounter a younger Katherine as a stern and religious sister to Maryanne, a single mother-to-be with the older woman doing her best to assist in the final stages of her pregnancy. Maryanne has already lost her teaching job because of her dalliance with the child’s father and when word gets out that he is a small town draper of German extraction, she loses her community standing as well. You can imagine how all that goes down back then. In the mix is a footballer who falls from grace, as well, in a city awash with anti-Hun sentiment (shades of today’s antipathy, in some quarters, to those who follow the Islamic faith). He’s suspected of spying for the enemy, whereas it is another secret he is harbouring. Milhaus is assisted by an unexpected ally in Maryanne in his unburdening of it. Then we have Father Geoghan, on a god’s mission to save Maryanne from herself.

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At some stage I must do an audit of what I’ve read of Carroll’s writings and try to fill in the gaps so I can boast I have consumed all of his oeuvre. But never fear – each book can be read as a stand-alone, such is the writer’s skill. But with the six books on the one ‘burb and the three that has Eliot involved, Carroll has created his own ‘beast’. I also loved his earlier works from late last century – ‘Remember Me, Jimmy James’ and ‘The Love Story of Lucy McBride’. If you too decide to slip into some Steven Carroll, I feel confident he will enchant and engross.

‘Gap’ = stevelovell.id.au/2019/03/23/gap/

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing – Hank Green

During my lifetime we have had some wonderfully benign aliens come visit us from galaxies far, far away and from closer to home. As a child I tittered at the gentle antics of ‘My Favourite Martian’ and later, the more frenetic ones of Mork. Then there was the delight of ET and we eventually got him home. And now there’s Carl. He’s(?) unlike anything that’s come before and is he truly non-threatening? Are there no harmful intentions?

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The forces for enlightenment, led by 22 year old discoverer of the first Carl (they quickly proliferated), April, think not. On the other hand, the Trumpsterites figure their intentions are evil and want to nuke them out of existence. The Carl’s simply remain static – except for a flighty hand or two. They’re great lumps of metallic substance of strange properties – and possessing the odd ability to seemingly control human dreams. What is going on taxes the best minds in the land, but April sets herself the task of solving the conundrum.

Not usually drawn to sci-fi, I came to ‘An Absolutely Remarkable Thing’ through the strong recommendation of my beautiful writerly daughter and the power of the author’s surname – Green. You know who he’s the brother of, don’t you? None other than the amazing John. It’s a great gene pool for, apart from the nerd-speak that was completely beyond me, this was an enjoyable read. The emphasis was as much on the relationships between those supporting April as it was on the action. Constantly being desperate to ward off those jingoistic hawks, bent on alien destruction, made our gallant hero’s life a misery. A female President was also attempting to get her head around the situation and to know who to believe – if only we had one of her ilk today. She was a great addition character-wise. This story has much to say about the pitfalls of celebrity, particularly once the media, on-line and off, work themselves up unto a frenzy. Then, of course, there are the trolls.

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April is a thoroughly modern main protagonist who leans towards same gender relationships, but gets a tad sexually diverted along the way as she focuses on her calling of sorting out the hovering Carls.

Green’s tome is almost an absolutely remarkable thing in itself. You will not regret delving into it, sharing some of your time with the spunky April, going to a place never trodden before.

The Author’s website = https://www.hankgreen.com/ =

Wife and Husband

The Whole Bright year – Debra Oswald The Land Before Avocado – Richard Glover

We’d have to go back to ‘The Secret Life of Us’ for a more engaging home grown tele comedy-drama series than ‘Offspring’. We’d have to go back to Clive James’ ‘Unreliable Memoirs’ for a funnier and more engrossing chronicle of growing up in Oz than ‘Flesh Wounds’. The award winning small-screen success that ran for seven seasons was written by Debra Oswald. The autobiography came from the pen of Richard Glover, Sydney newspaper columnist and radio identity. Both had new books, that I’ve just caught up with, in ‘18. They are wife and husband.

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Sometimes it’s no easy task to move from one form of writing to another, so I am led to believe, but Oswald does it seamlessly. She has produced another gem, to accompany her small screen offering, with her new novel ‘The Whole Bright Year’. This the author developed from her stage play, ‘The Peach Season’. An offspring too is front and centre. Zoe, only child of widowed orchard owning Celia, hasn’t caused a great deal of angst for her mother during her teenagerhood. That changes when hard-bitten Sheena and her ‘all over the shop’ step-brother, Keiran, arrive to do some peach picking. It’s not a peach from a tree that the 18 year lad starts to take liberties with. As for Zoe, she turns out to be no shrinking violet either. The mother daughter relationship starts to go awry as Zoe takes a shine to the unreliable young man with the law on his tail. He’s been rescued from his bad big city influences by his half-sister and Sheena is determined to keep him on the straight and narrow. But she hadn’t reckoned with Zoe. When his past does catch up with him, Celia has a crisis on her hands – how much can she interfere in her daughter’s affairs? Neighbour Roza and her unhappily married son Joe are good guys to have in your corner as events spiral out of hand.

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Single motherhood, first love and the kindness of friends all figure in this warm novel of ripe fruit and unsavoury city life versus the healing powers of going bush. I enjoyed it so much.

Hubby does pretty well with ‘The Land Before Avocado’ as well. It’s hard to imagine that, in the decade that produced safari suits, the wine cask and non-compulsory seat-belt wearing, avocados were still to emerge in their rightful place as top of the food chain for the scene setters of today. Glover takes us back to a time when homosexuality was outlawed, kids roamed freely from breakfast to dark and the execrable fondue was the height of dining sophistication. The author takes our hand as we transverse the landscape looking for its pluses and minuses – and the latter wins hands down. He gives us plenty of evidence for this – sometimes too much – to show we have it far better these days of digitality and hand-held connection to the planet, despite their pitfalls. Glover conducted much of his research in the magazines of the time, designed for the fairer gender, particularly the Women’s Weekly. He was very interested in the recipes. Most contained huge dollops of mayonnaise. In the book he’s at his best when writing on such topics as the family diet, life for kids and the archaic divorce laws. But his assertion that the only aspect of the 70s that was superior to today was the music. Really? What a fuddy-duddy. There’s no qualms when it comes to the 21st Century being better for gays, indigenous peoples, gender balance, attitudes to migration and multiculturalism as well as equality of the sexes. But, boys and girls, we still have a way to go. Oh, and our tucker’s improved immensely.

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So, if you can’t remember or imagine what life was like before the av and social media, take a trip back in time with Richard Glover. He presents a world that would be almost alien to the millennials. I survived it, almost unscathed. Maybe you did too. Would I want to go back there? No way. This book answered that.

More on Debra Oswald = https://www.penguin.com.au/authors/debra-oswald

More on Richard Glover = http://www.richardglover.com.au/

The Lost Man – Jane Harper

Whether it was the busyness of the festive season, when I was trying to read Harper’s ‘The Lost Man’, or the lack of charismatic lead Aaron Falk from her first two novels (‘The Dry’ is currently being made into a movie), it did take a while for this offering to truly engage me. It was not until about half way through that, yes, I had to up the ante because I needed to find out just what exactly was the solution to the mystery of Cam Bright’s inexplicable death in the wastelands. Why commit suicide the way he did it? There must be easier ways, surely.

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Eventually it dawns on brother Nathan that maybe it wasn’t self-inflicted. He figures out there’s more to this outback tragedy than meets the eye – there’s just so much that doesn’t add up. Nathan himself is damaged goods. The woman he took a shine to is now married to Cam – or was. His own missus has long fled the family property way, way back of beyond, taking their son with them. At least he still gets to see him. Nathan has also committed one of the desert’s major sins and thus has been sent to Coventry by all the neighbours and townsfolk in his sparsely populated community. He’s virtually living a life as a semi-hermit until his brother’s terrible passing. This rips him out of his negative mind-set and he begins to realise that maybe a change is possible.

But if it wasn’t by Cam’s own doing, who orchestrated it and why? As this is processed the deeper we delve into the novel, the more it is realised that Cam wasn’t exactly who his nearest and dearest thought he was. In fact, Nathan may not be the only black sheep. Younger brother Lee, or Bub as he is known, emerges as someone who may have reason to have perpetrated the foul deed, but then, it turns out, something also doesn’t make sense with the behaviour of ‘Uncle’ Harry. And was the departed one’s marriage to Ilse as strong a union as had been thought? There’s also those two Brit backpackers, always on the fringe of events. As well, a blast from the past presents herself in an unsettling manner. Liz, the matriarch, is grieving, for her son, the fracturing of the family and the gradual whittling away of what her late husband had built up. All this keeps Nathan and the reader guessing to the end.

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Set where agriculture is a fragile activity, ‘The Lost Man’ has a whiff of Winton’s ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ about it, containing, as it does too, a dominant and challenging landscape. Its harshness is as foreign to most of us littoral dwellers as the other side of the moon. This is not the equal of ‘The Dry’, but Harper’s reputation will not be diminished by this cracking (once we get going) Aussie whodunit.

The authors web-site = http://janeharper.com.au/

Puddin’ and Dumplin’

They are gorgeous, these girls. Willowdean Dickson and Millie Michalchuk would turn heads in any situation for their sassiness and plus-sized curves. They possess a beauty that is radiant and their allure appeals to any number of the opposite gender. Pat of the issue, though, is often the owners of such charm and comeliness just can’t see it.

Julie Murphy’s ‘Dumplin’ was a NY Times bestseller and hit a chord with a YA audience craving for ‘real’ role models. This wasn’t lost on director Anne Fletcher, star Jennifer Aniston or songbird/national treasure Dolly Parton. They have combined to present a film version now streaming on Netflix.

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It’s a production with a heart as big as Texas. Willowdean, played with elan by Aussie Danielle Macdonald, is a 17 year old student of Clover City High and a diner waitress. Her mum (Aniston) is a fading local beauty, running the annual pageant Miss Teen Bluebonnet, being a former winner back in the day. She tries to be a good mother but is not entirely tactful when it comes to her daughter, throwing around the family’s pet name for her. Dumplin’ is not always impressed. The younger Dickson, partly in retaliation, spunkily decides to enter the beauty/talent contest, but her spark of defiance quickly morphs into something else. It becomes a rallying cry for a few other outsiders – the larger than life Millie and lesbian goth Hannah.

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Bo (Luke Bernard) is the love interest here. He obviously adores Willowdean’s curves, as well as her other more cerebral attributes, but it takes a while for our heroine to accept his advances as genuine. It is a delightful journey, this adaptation. We know exactly how it will all pan out in the end – and that doesn’t take away the shine at all. It is a comfortable way to spend some time with a small screen. The author gets a minute cameo (can you spot her towards the end?) and it is also worth checking out Dolly on YouTube performing ‘Girl in the Movies’ from the soundtrack. Just beautiful.

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Meanwhile Ms Murphy has produced a companion volume to coincide (deliberately or otherwise) with the release of ‘Dumplin’. ‘Puddin’ is certainly a match for its predecessor in the readability department, focusing on Willowdean’s mate Millie. It’s basically an odd couple tale as circumstances bring Miss Michalchuk and school dance queen turned bad girl Callie together. This tome, despite its 400 plus pages, is an easy peruse as Millie works at chipping away Callie’s rough edges, as well as trying to figure out what is going on with her hot and cold beau-hopeful Malik. It features many characters from the first book and it is interesting comparing the movie’s version of Millie with how one pictures her in print. With ‘Dumplin’ featuring in many awards on release, its follow-up should be equally popular. Maybe there’ll be a version on a big or small screen of it too!

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Netflix site for ‘Dumplin’ = https://www.netflix.com/au/title/80201490

Julie Murphy’s website = http://juliemurphywrites.com/

Dolly Parton performs ‘Girl in the Movies’ = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdSKR8EHnXY

The Master and the Newbie

The Bogan Mondrian – Steven Herrick Cedar Valley – Holly Throsby

He’s been around for a while, has Steven Herrick. A new one from him is a cause for celebration. For Holly Throsby came the big test – her sophomore novel. Her first publication was a ripper, but it is the case with many starting out that the second offering can be problematical. Her first book was well regarded by the critics and public alike. How would number two stack up?

Both authors this time have gone bush to regional centres. Herrick’s is located not too far away from the big smoke, up in the Blue Mountains around Katoomba. Throsby’s is further out, at Cedar Valley, just down the road from Goodwood. It’s set in the recent past, the former novelist’s in the present.

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Herrick consistently turns out quality product with engaging characters all YA (and other) readers can relate to. His latest is no exception. If there’s a wrong side of the tracks in Katoomba, Luke’s from there. He’s no fool, but school isn’t high on his list of priorities and he’s sorely missing his knock-about father. He struggles to give emotional support to his grieving mother. He’s into photography, always a plus, likes dogs and a rough diamond of a fellow he meets near his swimming hole, who just may be involved in criminal activity. Charlotte is new to his class and you would think, seemingly, has it all – but something is not quite right with her world either. Her father is knock-about too, but in an entirely different sense. And the lass has a thing for the artist Mondrian. These two damaged souls team up and try to set their worlds to right.

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There’s much to relish in ‘The Bogan Mondrian’. I wouldn’t rate it amongst Herrick’s best, but the same deft, sensitive and assured touch he’s used in all his past work remains evident – long may he keep producing these captivating tomes for us to cherish.

On handing over ‘Cedar Valley’ to the lovely assistant in Dymocks I asked had she read ‘Goodwood’. She answered in the affirmative, stating she loved it. She hadn’t read this latest tome, but reported that one of her customers had given the feedback that it wasn’t nearly as commendable. That almost put me off buying it myself. Now I’m pleased I did – pleased to assure that, in my view, that customer was wrong. I thought this the superior of the two. Perhaps it was that, at 21, the main protagonist was a little older than the one in ‘Goodwood’ and therefore appealed more to me. Perhaps it was its link to a very mysterious real event in Adelaide decades ago. Whatever, this was a real page turner.

Benny comes to the small town, temporarily, to find out more details about her recently deceased mother, Viv. She was resident in the valley for a while. The daughter knows little about her mum and is attempting to discover more from Vivian Moon’s old friend Odette. Some of what she finds out isn’t entirely to her liking, but what is is her burgeoning friendship with the older woman, her job at the local pub and the town itself. But how is her arrival linked with that of another soul who turned up on the same day and promptly sat down in the main drag?

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Throsby’s pace is quite laid back, taking her time to get around to presenting a neat answer to all the questions the various threads raise. There are also the usual bucolic stereotypes, but the novel wears these well and it never lapses into tweeness. The total package is a joy.

Having already conquered the world of music, Margaret’s daughter has the potential to do the same with her writing. With a bit of luck, one day, when we hear her name, we may think of her latter talent rather that the former. It doesn’t matter though. She’s magic at both.

Holly’s website = https://hollythrosby.com/

Steven’s website = http://www.stevenherrick.com.au/