Category Archives: Australian Books

The Old Lie

Military space opera science fiction

Content warning: war

I was very excited when this book came out recently, because I enjoyed the author’s debut novel so much. These past couple of months have hit the publishing industry hard, with book tours and events being cancelled en masse across the country. So, in a small effort to support local bookstores, I went and bought this and a few others from Harry Hartog Woden who were running a book takeaway service. The cover design is so striking. I was hoping to get this review up in time for ANZAC Day, but alas, it was not to be.

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“The Old Lie” by Claire G. Coleman is a science fiction novel with several point of view characters. Corporal Shane Daniels volunteered for the war and fights the enemy planetside through mud while dreaming of the family left behind. Jimmy is on the run with no documentation or support, trying to find his way back home one station at a time. William is trapped in a cell in a medical facility, with no way of knowing if he can ever leave. The only thing more impressive than Romany “Romeo” Zetz’s flying skills is Romeo’s reputation with women. Weakened by a terrible sickness, Walker is trying to make his way home to his grandfather’s country.

Coleman has constructed a clever novel using multiple perspectives to examine the human impact of war. Although the intergalactic setting may seem far fetched, this is a well-researched novel and the things that happen in this book are all based on things that have happened historically. Even the title, drawn from Wilfred Owen’s poem Dulce et Decorum est, is well-considered. Coleman paints layer upon layer of complexity and the individual stories, particularly Jimmy’s, are engrossing. While the experiences of the main characters seem worlds apart at the beginning, with Shane and Romeo more than willing to risk their lives for the war, as the book progresses, the true nature of the Federation and their positions in it becomes clear. This book is at heart a political commentary on the way Aboriginal people were treated following military service in the World Wars, and it is excellently executed.

However, this is not an easy book to read. War novels aren’t exactly my cup of tea, so the first half of the book, which is all no guts, no glory, was a bit hard going for me, someone who would prefer no war altogether in fiction and real life. This book, like the reality of war, is incredibly violent and that violence, physical or otherwise, is extremely confronting in Coleman’s hyper-realistic style. Coleman uses a lot of tools to hit her point home, but after a while I was a little overwhelmed by the “hammering of small-arms fire”, “stomach contents” and “the screams [that] would not stop”.

A well-written and well-researched novel that science fiction buffs and war history aficionados will enjoy equally.

 

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Science Fiction

Cedar Valley

Small town mystery set in 1990s Australia

Quite a few years ago now, I received an Advance Reading Copy of a book by a debut novelist, and absolutely loved it. I was very excited to go along to see the author talk about her second book about 18 months ago and get myself a signed copy. However, like several books, this one has sat on my shelf patiently waiting its turn until now.

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“Cedar Valley” by Holly Throsby is a small town mystery set in a fictional town of the same name. On the day that Benny Miller, a 21 year old university graduate, arrives in Cedar Valley trying to connect with her recently deceased mother, a man is found dead out the front of a shop on the main street after sitting there alone for hours. While the town tries to make sense of what happened, Benny begins to learn more about the people who live there, especially her mother’s best friend Odette, and more about the mysterious life of her own mother.

Throsby is a thoughtful author who gently explores a number of issues peripheral to the main mystery at the heart of the novel. There are three main point of view characters including Cora, the owner of the curios shop outside which the man was found dead, Tony, the police officer investigating the case, and Benny. Cora and Tony both have a fair bit on their plate, including coping with the sudden decline of Tony’s mother who is also Cora’s best friend. I really enjoyed how Throsby subtly but critically portrayed Tony’s home life, and how he was both unlikeable yet relatable. I also really liked Odette and her warmth towards Benny, despite them never having met before. It soon becomes clear that the book is less about the mystery of the man, which the characters soon realise is very similar to the Tamam Shud case, and more about Benny coming to terms all the questions she has about the truth of her mother’s life.

I’m just going to pause the review there, and mention an incredible coincidence that happened while I was reading this book. Throsby is very upfront about the influence of the Tamam Shud case on her book, and late one night while reading the book, I started reading up a bit about the case. I was familiar with it, but I couldn’t remember a lot of the details. One of the first things that comes up when you start researching the case is the origin of the phrase tamam shud. It is the last line in a book called “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”. Now, this book sounded extra familiar to me because just that weekend, I had ordered a care package curated by Beyond Q Books, which completely coincidentally included a copy of “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám”.

There is a lot of speculation, but some people believe that the particular edition of the book the line tamam shud was torn from may hold the answer to a mysterious code that was found inscribed in the back of the same book, which has since been lost. One of the most well-known researchers of the case advised that he had been searching for a FitzGerald edition of the book with no success. My heart was pounding now, and I jumped out of bed to check inside the title page of my book. “Rendered into English Verse by Edward FitzGerald”. No. Way. I flipped to the last page and quickly googled a photograph of the original torn out phrase: not a match. It was a different font. Feeling both disappointed and relieved, I was finally able to go to sleep.

Anyway, back to the book. I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed Throsby’s first novel. In “Goodwood”, I was very invested in Jean as a main character and despite all the leads and speculation throughout the novel, the ending was incredibly satisfying. In this book however, it was the peripheral characters I was more interested in. Benny felt like more of a lens than a leading character, and I didn’t really feel particularly invested in her. I found myself wanting to know much more about Odette, and how her own interesting life had unfolded. I think I was also hoping that with no resolution about the Tamam Shud case, that Throsby would allow the reader a bit of closure in this book, but alas it was not to be.

A meditative novel that carefully examines the relationships that form between residents of small towns, and leaves you perhaps with more questions than answers.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller, Signed Books

The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling

Young adult novel about family, culture and mental health

Content warning: mental illness

I mentioned in an earlier post that I went a little overboard in the #AuthorsforFireys Twitter auctions, but there was absolutely no way I was going to let this one pass me by. The author was offering a copy of her book to the top 30 bidders, and each book would have the pages HAND PAINTED. Obviously I had to bid. In fact, I took the bidding so seriously that I kept a list of how many bids there were and for what amount so I could make sure that I didn’t miss out.

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I had planned on hand-making dumplings for the phone, but I just couldn’t face it

“The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling” by Wai Chim is a young adult novel about Anna, an ordinary teenager trying to study, keep on top of her chores and try not to get on the wrong side of the popular girls at school. Except Anna’s family isn’t quite as ordinary. Anna’s mum spends all day in bed, and her dad never comes home from work at his Chinese restaurant an hour north of Sydney. She has to look after her younger siblings Lily and Michael, interpret for her parents who moved to Australia from Hong Kong, and try to convince her school’s careers counsellor that she’s taking her future seriously. Up until this point, Anna had been able to keep everything afloat. However, when her mum suddenly becomes much more unwell, it becomes clear that things can’t continue the way they have been. Plus, there’s a boy.

This is an extremely refreshing take on the young adult genre. Chim has a great sense of place, and I loved the mood of Anna travelling between her home in Ashfield and her father’s restaurant in Gosford – sometimes by train, sometimes by car. I also loved the scenes in the restaurant itself, and watching Anna develop confidence and friendships while working in the kitchen in a way that she struggle to at school. Also it’s very hard not to read this book without being hungry the entire time, and I would highly recommend having something delicious to snack on while reading to complete the experience.

Chim covers a lot of topics in this book: friendship, transitioning to adulthood, young romance, culture, family dynamics and in particular mental health. While I’ve read quite a lot of Chinese literature over the past few years, but I don’t think I’ve read any books that use Cantonese before, in particular the Jyutping romanisation system, which I was really interested to learn about. I thought that the way Chim handled Anna’s mother’s illness was very sensitively done, and found a good balance between impact mental illness can have on families and the distress it can cause the individual who is unwell. Rory was a great romantic lead who was able to provide support and advice to Anna based on his own lived experience. He was also just an absolute sweetheart.

I felt that Chim did a really good job of accurately portraying mental illness, especially around inpatient care, the chronic nature of many mental health conditions and the fact that there often isn’t an instant, magical cure. However, I did feel that the chapters towards the end of the book that explore what a new normal looks like for the Chiu family, while very important and emotionally charged, didn’t have the same pacing and tension as earlier in the book.

Nevertheless, I think this is a great example of modern Australian YA. I think that it’s incredibly relevant and tackles issues that a lot of teens, regardless of their background, will get something out of.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Pretty Books, Tinted Edges, Young Adult

Queerberra

Photobook about LGBTIQA+ people in Canberra

As I alluded to in a previous review, I went a little crazy bidding on things in the #AuthorsforFireys Twitter auctions to raise money following the Australian bushfire crisis earlier this year. I think if I had won everything I had bid on, I would have bankrupted myself. However, I have absolutely no regrets about the things that I was lucky enough to win, and this is one of them. Unlike most of the auctions, the offer for this one was that anyone who donated $100 to a bushfire charity would receive a copy of the book. Not contest, just straight up books for donations. Even better, because it’s Canberra, I got to meet with the producer/editor for lunch on a relatively smoke-free day. This book is a sensory delight. The cover is done in textile, the debossing feels amazing, and before you even open it, you can tell it is an extremely professional work.

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Luckily I still have one of my placards with one of the many We Are CBR stickers that I handed out like candy. I actually donated a lot of the memorabilia I had collected, especially stickers, to the National Library of Australia so I’m glad I still had some lying around for this review.

“Queerberra”, produced and edited by Victoria Firth-Smith with photography by Jane Duong, is a photobook showcasing some of the wonderfully diverse LGBTIQA+ people who live in Canberra.

This is a beautifully curated collection of photographs of 100 humans being authentically themselves around the city of Canberra. The photography is incredible, and the book is sandwiched between a foreword by the ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr and introduction by Firth-Smith, and a series of annotated thumbnails or proof sheets at the end with a bit of information about each model. It is an incredibly joyful book to flip through with many familiar faces from the Canberra business, politics, journalism and arts community. Each individual and scene is unique, but there is a real connectedness in this book. A strong sense of unity in diversity.

The timing of this book couldn’t have been better. In a time where we seem to be living through historical event after historical event, it’s incredible to think that this book was published during the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite. While the harm caused to the LGBTIQA+ community by putting their rights to a public vote cannot be minimised, the day that the announcement was made in Canberra was itself an incredible historic event. I ran from the office for an extremely early lunch break to go meet my friends and celebrate, and the street party in Braddon that evening was euphoric.

Initiatives like this were critical to ensuring that this wasn’t a checkbox, academic activity. This was something that affected the rights of real people. The people who live in our city, who we work with, who we sit next to on the bus, who makes our coffee, who represents us in parliament, who helps us when we need help. Our friends. Our families. Ourselves.

So, honestly, to receive a copy of a book like this at such a difficult time for Canberra was a breath of fresh air. If you want something to remind you that the last few years haven’t just been fires and plagues, I cannot recommend this book enough. It is a piece of history.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Photo Book, Pretty Books

Into Bones Like Oil

Horror novel about searching for and escaping the dead

Giveaway details at the bottom of the review

This is a very special book because it was one of the several lots that I won earlier this year in the #AuthorsforFireys Twitter auctions to raise money for the Australian bushfires. I know the multiple award-winning Canberra author, whose books I have reviewed previously and who has been a guest on the Lost the Plot Podcast, and the pack she was offering was a very exciting one. She was offering a copy of her book together with an interactive, multi-sensory experience for the reader to enjoy while reading the book. After I won, we met up shortly afterwards on another very stormy day (which seems to be a theme!) and had the exchange over drinks. I couldn’t wait to set everything up so I could spend a Sunday evening savouring the book and all the items that came with it.

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“Into Bones Like Oil” by Kaaron Warren is a horror novella about a woman called Dora who arrives at The Anglesea, an old boarding house by the coast. The house is run by the friendly but unsettling Roy, and is full of many other guests, some of whom Dora only sees glimpses of at breakfast. It’s a short walk to the beach and an old shipwreck. At first, Dora feels that the guests appear to be all connected by the fact that they are escaping something. Many of them sleep for days without emerging from their rooms. However, the longer she stays at The Anglesea, the more she grows to realise that people don’t seem to ever leave The Anglesea, and neither did the ship’s passengers.

This is an incredible eerie story about guilt and greed, and how those made vulnerable by pain can easily be exploited by others. Dora is a great character, and the more we learn about her past, the more we understand how she ended up at a place like The Anglesea. Although it is a novella, there is plenty packed in and Warren’s writing is complex and insightful. This book seeps into you and lingers long after you finish reading.

Warren is an incredibly vivid writer, and this book really lends itself to enjoying alongside a sensory pack. If you want to make your own pack, here is what you will need:

  • Page 1 – key
  • Page 3 – clock & battery
  • Page 4 – a seashell (to listen to)
  • Page 8 – a scarf
  • Page 15 – a glass and a shot of vodka
  • Page 31 – paints
  • Page 32 – curry
  • Page 48 – striped shirt & Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds Nocturama CD
  • Page 52 – Cheezles
  • Page 65 – soap
  • Page 69 – perfume
  • Page 72 – baked beans
  • Page 74 – girls’ brush

I had so much fun setting up the pack and working through it. I arranged everything clockwise in a circle. I managed to get stuck on the second item, the clock and battery, because I couldn’t quite get the battery in, but managed to wedge it in using the key. When I listened to the seashell, the effect was slightly spoiled by a jet flying over at exactly that moment, but I waited until it passed and tried again. I was a bit of a wuss with the peach-flavoured vodka, and had to mix it with lemonade after the first taste. The paints were great fun, and I was inspired to do a little painting.

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Unfortunately, because I had set everything up at once, by the time I got to the curry at page 32 it was a little lukewarm, but that was easily fixed in the microwave. Also, hilariously, the Dove brand soap had seeped into some of the other items, especially the fabric ones, so everything smelled very clean. The perfume was a really nice touch. I don’t wear much perfume, but there is something very evocative about it.

Anyway, this was an deeply unsettling book that was made all the more immersive with the sensory pack, and both are a testament to Warren’s creativity.

To pay this great experience forward, I will restock the sensory pack and give it to the first person who contacts me via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with proof of purchase of “Into Bones Like Oil”. Open to Canberrans only, and I will drop it off in a contactless way at a location of your choosing. 

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Horror, Novella, Signed Books

Hare’s Fur

Novel about family, trust and ceramics

I picked this book up at Muse one day while having a browse of the bookshop. It’s not secret I love rabbits, and although this book isn’t about any lagomorphs, it still piqued my interest. I have a soft spot for books about ceramics anyway, and I hadn’t heard of this local author before, so I bought myself a copy.

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“Hare’s Fur” by Trevor Shearston is a novel about Russell, a potter who lives alone in the Blue Mountains. Grieving the death of his wife only months previously, Russell continues with his work throwing his beautiful bottles, teapots and plates and glazing them with his signature glaze using ore from a secret place near his home. One day while collecting ore, he finds three children camped out in a cave. Although still raw from his loss, as he learns about their story, Russell must decide how much he can open his heart to the siblings.

This is a quiet, subtle novel with a strong sense of place. Shearston writes beautifully about the art of pottery and leads the reader gently into an understanding of this craft, the skill required and the value of excellent ceramics. I thought Shearston handled the issue of class, one of the main themes in this book, very well. Although not wealthy per se, Russell is an educated, accomplished man who mostly socialises with peers from the art world. His life of routine and contemplation is starkly juxtaposed against the disrupted lives of three kids who have grown up in poverty and are facing the prospect of foster care. The social observation rounds out the reader’s understanding of the Blue Mountains region as a place not only of scenic beauty that attracts tourists and artists alike, but also a place with pockets of disadvantage.

While the strength of this novel is its mood, it is a slow burn so if you’re looking for action or suspense, it might not be for you. This story unfolds slowly and gently with a focus on characters rather than plot.

An enjoyable and insightful novel, perfect for a weekend read.

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Filed under Australian Books, General Fiction

Beauty (Guest Review)

Guest review of memoir about eating disorder

If you spend any time on Twitter, or on the news, you might have come across the #AuthorsforFireys campaign where authors in Australia and around the world ran mini-auctions of great prizes to raise money for the areas affected by bush fires this summer. I offered two auction items, and one lot was the first ever guest post on this blog. The winner was Sydney writer and reviewer Julia Clark who generously donated to the NSW Rural Fire Service, and this is her review. 

Content warning: eating disorders, sexual assault

After the success of her first book “Eggshell Skull“, which saw Bri Lee take on the Queensland justice system for its treatment of sexual assault survivors while she also pursued her own justice, the author returns with another traumatic subject in “Beauty”. Lee takes the opportunity in this extended personal essay to explore her experience of disordered eating, especially as it materialised during promotion for “Eggshell Skull” in 2018. Lee’s representation of her illness is honest, laying her obsessive and circular thought patterns out on the page, but her story never strays into grotesquery in her refusal to make her illness a spectacle.

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Photo by Julia Clark

This second release again demonstrates Lee’s strong and balanced approach to memoir and trauma writing particularly in her invocation of Aurelias and rumination on the concept of “self-control”. As an intelligent and highly educated woman, Lee must navigate the age-old dichotomy of mind and body as made paradoxically difficult by society’s patriarchal expectations of what a woman “should” be. For Lee, the push and pull of demands to be pretty but not too pretty and smart but not too smart manifested in a desire to transcend her body entirely, to shed her womanly form in order to free herself. When explaining the impulse behind her disordered eating Lee says, “I wanted to be full without food, to transcend it.” Then later, when embarrassed by her appearance, “It transported me back to the newsagent’s and the longing for invisibility—or, more accurately, really, for people to see past my body.” The need to live as and nourish this body, which is the marker of a “failure” to meet societal expectations, remains as the unreconcilable question on which hinges Lee’s self-loathing in “Beauty”.

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Photo by Julia Clark

While Lee’s writing shines in its candidness and vulnerability, the book falls down in its attempt to extrapolate and speak to women’s experience of beauty more generally. Two key touchstones of the essay remain largely uninterrogated: 1. Repeatedly beauty is equated with thinness without examination and with little mention of the alternates of ugliness and fatness. 2. Lee easily slips between “I” and “we” in her analysis of beauty standards but does no work to acknowledge the many different ways in which “we” (i.e. women) experience the world and the standards impressed upon us (i.e. through differences in race, gender, age, ability, size, etc). When lamenting how the beauty industry sells images of happiness as much as skincare, Lee writes, “When all our images of happiness and success are also skinny, young, and hairless, it becomes a never-fulfilling prophecy.” Never mind the fact that these images are also almost always white, able-bodied, cisgender, without any kind of facial difference, or without any of the other visual markers of deviance from the beauty standard that Lee leaves unnamed. The assumption held throughout “Beauty” is that the reader is approaching the world of beauty from the same place as Lee, which immediately erases the possibility of other experiences or interpretations outside of Lee’s privileged social position.

With all of that said, “Beauty” is not completely insubstantial as Lee provides a reference and recommended reading list with titles from writers with long careers of interrogating beauty from mainstream and marginalised positions. In this way, Beauty operates as a starting point, a door cracked open for anyone who is searching for the vocabulary to discuss their experience of feeling inferior in the face of the monolith Western beauty industry.

Julia Clark is a PhD student, poet, and theatre reviewer in Sydney. She’s interested in the intersection of aesthetics, objects, and bodies. If she’s not reading or writing, she’s at the theatre. You can read more of her work at juliaclarkwrites.com.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Guest Reviews, Non Fiction