Book review

Books that Made Us: Episode Three

Picture credit: ABC / The Books that Made Us

The final episode of the Australian TV series ‘The Books that Made Us’ was screened on ABC TV last night. (If you live in Australia and missed it, you can catch up on iView. You can also read my thoughts on Episode One here and Episode Two here.)

This episode was entitled ‘Power’ and looked at novels largely through the lens of the power dynamic between men and women, and white people and First Nations people. There was also one book about politics and corruption.

The books covered in episode three

Here is a list of the books mentioned in this episode. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my reviews.

There was also a montage of books by indigenous writers, which would make an excellent reading list for those who want to explore more by our First Nation storytellers. The list includes:

To be honest, I thought this was the weakest of the three episodes. I would have loved to have seen Thea Astley’s ‘The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ mentioned, which looks at the power-mad superintendent on a punitive mission for Aboriginals, but perhaps that novel isn’t well known enough.

And where were the novels about war? For instance, David Malouf’s ‘The Great World’, Roger McDonald’s ‘1915’ or Richard Flanagan’s ‘The Narrow Road to the Great North’. But again, maybe the program makers didn’t think there was a specific title that was popular enough to include and Flanagan had already had his name up in lights in the previous episode.

Interestingly, most of the books named in this series, not just this episode, have been adapted for the screen so there was plenty of footage to show and part of me wonders whether that was a prerequisite for inclusion.

And while I’m being a little critical, I must say as much as I do like Claudia Karvan, we did see an awful lot of her on screen — and how many times does she have to cry while doing a reading? I know she’s an actress, but the waterworks were a bit much.

But still, it was WONDERFUL to have our literature celebrated on the small screen like this. Be great if someone could now make a program about Southern Cross Crime, cos that’s recently put us on the world stage and there’s plenty to discuss and showcase.

Did you watch this TV series? If so what did you think? And regardless, do these lists make you want to explore more Australian fiction?

& Other Stories, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting, Tice Cin

‘Keeping the House’ by Tice Cin

Fiction – Kindle edition; And Other Stories; 242 pages; 2021.

I had heard plenty of great things about Tice Cin’s Keeping the House, but it didn’t really work for me. I just could not engage with the story, nor the characters.

The blurb claims it’s about three generations of a Turkish family living in North London who import into the UK heroin hidden in cabbages.

It features a cast of characters that is so vast it’s difficult to keep track of who’s who. That’s despite the fact there’s a dramatis personae at the front of the book. (I read this on Kindle and, unlike a physical book, it’s next to impossible to flick back to the front to look up names as you’re reading, which ruins the experience.)

That narrative is broken up into dozens and dozens of chapters, most only a few pages long, and each is told from a different character’s point of view. No sooner did I come to understand that Ayla, for instance, was the mother, courageous enough to take the plunge in the illicit import business, than the chapter would end and a new perspective would be introduced from another character’s point of view. Right from the start, the storyline felt disjointed.

The time frames also jump backward and forward, which normally wouldn’t bother me, but I was struggling to keep track of all the characters so my poor overworked brain could not cope with the changes in chronology, too.

It began to feel like I was reading something that had been influenced by our busy online lives, flicking from one social media platform to another, following snippets of conversations and news from a myriad of sources, and yet, for me, this style and structure felt too chaotic to make sense.

Yet the characters are well-drawn (if occasionally difficult to distinguish from one another) and the scene-setting and insights into ex-pat Turkish culture are exemplary. The writing is lyrical, original, astute.  There are sublime poems dotted throughout the text, too.

Some of the chapters, especially those with lots of dialogue, are arranged like theatre scripts, minus the directions but clearly outlining who says what, which are fun to read.

Ali: Funny. So we have three things we’re going to do. I send your gear to Jersey, the rest we’ll sell off to this Jamaican dealer I know – all very street level – and then I send leftovers to some posh houses near Muswell Hill or something. Full of university people. You don’t want everything going off to one place if you want this to be quiet.
Ayla: Jersey?
Ali: Yes. Taking the stuff to Jersey is worth three times more. Little bags worth three thousand sell for seven thousand. Once you’ve gotten someone on board, the hundred miles there are no problems. There’s about a hundred users in the place, so police know when there’s stuff on the island. You can spook them with a boo, though. Their prisons are full of non-islanders.
Ayla: They can’t fit more than a hundred in one of their prisons?
Ali: Something like that.

There are lots of Turkish words and phrases, all translated in the text, too, which adds to the flavour of the novel. And there’s a dark brooding atmosphere that infuses the story, one that drips with an undercurrent of violence and often blatant misogyny.

Keeping the House is not exactly a “fun” read, but structurally the author is doing interesting experimental things and clearly has a lot of talent. It’s the kind of work you’d expect to see nominated for the Goldsmith’s Prize, for instance.

Maybe add it to your list if you’re looking for something challenging and different or if you know this part of north London well. For me, I think it might have been the case of the right book but the wrong time…

6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Ethan Frome’ to ‘Constellations’

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation (check out Kate’s blog to find out the “rules” and how to participate). I don’t generally participate in memes (they always feel like “filler” content to me), but I do like this one because it lets me explore my archive and share reviews of books that have been hidden away for a long time.

As ever, click the title to read my full review of each book.

This month the starting book is…

‘Ethan Frome’ by Edith Wharton (1911)

I read this one back in the day I worked in the Myer Melbourne Bookstore (1990-94), then the biggest bookstore in the Southern Hemisphere (or so we were told at the time), hence there’s no review on this blog. It was around the time the Martin Scorcese film adaptation of The Age of Innocence came out (all the staff went to a preview screening so that we could then push sales of the book). I read the book and enjoyed it so much I thought I would try something else by Edith Wharton and so that’s how I came to read Ethan Frome, which I loved. It’s a heartbreaking read about a man with a limp and how he came to acquire it under bittersweet circumstances.

‘Of Human Bondage’ by W. Somerset Maugham (1915)

In this semi-autobiographical novel, the narrator, Philip Carey, has a limp because he was born with a club foot. The story charts his life from the age of 9 when his mother dies and he is sent away to be raised by his aunt and uncle in a vicarage in the countryside. This, too, is another heartbreaking read, because Philip spends so much of his adult life struggling to just get by despite being sensitive and intelligent. I adored this book and found it so affecting I never wrote a review of it, but the thing that stuck in my head so much was how brutal life was for those in poverty when there was no welfare state to offer assistance of any kind.

‘This Mournable Body’ by Tsitsi Dangarenmbga (2021)

A story about a woman fallen on hard times, this is another deeply affecting read that shows what happens when someone falls into poverty but is unable to rise above it despite having a university education and a lot of potential. I read this one last year and still occasionally think about it. There are two more novels in the trilogy which I plan on reading at some point…

Soviet Milk

‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena (2018)

Another story about thwarted potential, this novella is set in Latvia when it is under Soviet rule. It shows the impact of an oppressive political regime on an individual’s ability to fulfil their potential and their intellectual freedom. The story also looks at the long-lasting repercussions on mothers and daughters when the bond between them is damaged.

‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux (1988)

Damaged mother-daughter bonds are explored in this brutally honest memoir, which became a bestseller in France upon publication in 1988.  Ernaux not only examines the fraught relationship she had with her mother, but she also charts her mother’s life from her poor upbringing in a small Normandy town to her marriage and success as a shopkeeper; from her retirement to her death in a geriatric hospital in Paris where she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s.

‘Minor Monuments’ by Ian Maleney (2019)

This collection of 12 essays explore the ways in which an entire family can be impacted when a loved one has Alzheimer’s — in this case, it was the author’s paternal grandfather. There are common themes throughout the essays — memory, sound, loss, the meaning of “home” and our connections to place — which lends the volume a strong coherence, but it is the recurring mentions of his grandfather, John Joe, a presence that looms large in almost every essay in this collection, which provides a cumulative power that is deeply affecting.

Constellations book cover

‘Constellations’ by Sinéad Gleeson (2019)

This is another essay collection revolving around a personal response to illness. It includes highly personal accounts of issues and events the author has experienced, including adolescent arthritis, leukaemia, hip replacement, motherhood, love, grief — and the disdain of male doctors. It’s a hugely readable collection themed around the body, illness and how the relationship between the two shapes our identity.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about a tragic accident that leaves a man with a lifelong disability to an essay collection about illness, via stories about poverty, thwarted potential and Alzheimer’s disease.

Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Book lists

Books that Made Us: Episode Two

Picture credit: ABC / The Books that Made Us

The second episode in the three-part TV series ‘Books that Made Us’ was screened on ABC TV tonight. (If you live in Australia and missed it, you can catch up on iView. You can also read my thoughts on Episode One here.)

This episode, called ‘Place’, was themed around cities and landscapes that have featured so strongly in Australian fiction, but it could easily have been called ‘History’ because it covered Aboriginal dispossession and our convict past, among other changes in Australian society over the years.

There were lots of wonderful interviews with most of the authors name-checked below, including footage of the late Patrick White, after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature (the first and only Australian to achieve that honour).

The books covered in episode two

Here is a list of the books mentioned in this episode. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my reviews.

The next episode, entitled ‘Power’, will be screened next Tuesday at 8.30pm.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Liam Davison, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, University of Queensland Press

‘The White Woman’ by Liam Davison

Fiction – paperback; University of Queensland Press; 154 pages; 1994.

Liam Davison’s novella The White Woman is a fictionalised account of the real-life search for a woman said to be lost in the wilds of Gippsland, Victoria, in the early 19th century.

Newspaper reports claimed she had been taken by Blacks who were holding her captive. But no one really knew who she was or exactly who had taken her. A cynical person — *cough, cough* me —  might think it was merely a cover to explain why so many Aboriginals were massacred at the time.

There were rumours of course, stories which couldn’t be discounted. She was the educated daughter of an English lord; the mother of children; a child herself. She had entered religious orders. In the end, all we had was the name the blacks had given her. Lohantuka. White woman. To be honest, I fear she was something different to each of us; mother, daughter, lover, wife. Or all of them.

Looking back

The story is written from the perspective of a man who participated in the search some 30 years earlier. The son of a fellow participant has contacted him, wanting to know what happened, so the narrator directs the tale at him using a second-person narrative.

His tale is intimate, with a tone of regret. He knows that the search was not actually about the so-called “virtuous woman lost in the bush, held by savages against her will” but about the men who wished to rescue her. And he knows that their view of the Blacks was prejudiced and wrong because it was simply easier to see them as “savages, brutes, the very opposite of what we are ourselves” than to seek out the truth.

That truth — ugly and dark — runs like a “heretical undercurrent” throughout the tale. It hints that the white men were the savages, the ones intent on blood thirsty acts using carbines, muskets and lengths of rope. These unsettling stories, not fully told or fully admitted to…

[…] still linger after all these years, snippets of gossip, part hearsay, part conjecture, but always with the possibility of truth behind them; things about ourselves so far outside the realm of acceptability we couldn’t hope to face them. They didn’t reach the papers. […] “The Highland Brigade”. “Sons of Scotland”. You’ve heard of them? Infamy doesn’t fade. You see, the stories still being told, their feats still grow in stature. Groups of men set out against the blacks – not spontaneous eruptions of violence, but calculated, well-planned expeditions. Sorties, hunts, call them what you want. They had a purpose.

Based on a real expedition

The book is based on the ‘White Woman Expedition’ led by Christian J. DeVilliers in 1846, a party of men who departed Melbourne for Gippsland, a treacherous journey by sea and land into wilderness not previously explored by Europeans. (You can read a bit more about the expedition in this summary of an academic paper published in 1999, which the author used as part of his research.)

It features beautiful descriptions of the bush and the waterways that are explored (including places that are well known to me such as Wilson’s Promontory and Port Albert on the South Gippsland coast). There’s a real sense of remoteness and a mild terror of the unknown. And the characters, which range from uptight to fearful, sanctimonious to petty, are depicted with great nuance. You really get to feel the tensions between rival parties (DeVilliers tried to work with the Gippsland police commissioner Tyers and the Border Police, who weren’t particularly cooperative) and even within Devilliers’ own party.

It’s not a plot spoiler to reveal the white woman is never found, but what the men do stumble across is horrific and stomach churning, the kind of evidence that history has long chosen to ignore. This important novella helps put everything in context and through the device of fiction reveals to us the long hidden truth. It’s a remarkable — and moving — achievement.

Lisa from ANZLitLovers has also reviewed this book as part of a personal tribute to the author — Liam Davison and his wife were on board Malaysian Airlines Flight MH-17 when the Russians shot it down over disputed territory in Ukraine in 2014. There were no survivors.

Please note this book appears to be out of print. I purchased mine second hand at a charity book sale earlier in the year. 

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Thicker Than Water:  History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir’ by Cal Flyn: This is a travelogue-cum-historical-biography about the author’s great-great-great uncle, Angus McMillan, a Scotsman who fled the Highland Clearances and emigrated to Australia in 1837. McMillan was regarded as the “Father of Gippsland” but new evidence suggests he was responsible for massacring hundreds of Aboriginals. Unsurprisingly, he has now come to be known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”. McMillan is the man who started the rumour of the missing white woman…

I read this book for Novellas in November (#NovNov), which is hosted by Cathy of 746 Books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck 

I also read it as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

Australia, Author, Book review, Chatto & Windus, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Richard Flanagan, Setting

‘First Person’ by Richard Flanagan

Fiction – Kindle edition; Chatto & Windus; 400 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

Richard Flanagan is one of my favourite authors, but I put off reading First Person for years because I had seen so many bad reviews of it. I guess I didn’t want to have my high opinion of him altered in any way.

But I now wonder if those reviews, all published in the UK when I was living there, just didn’t properly appreciate the fact the story was about a real-life fraudster, John Friedrich, who dominated the Australian media landscape in the 1980s and early 1990s. It turns out that when Flanagan was a struggling writer — while he was penning his first novel Death of a River Guide — he was contracted to write Friedrich’s memoir.

This novel is a fictionalised account of what it was like to act as the ghostwriter of “Australia’s biggest conman”, a man who lied about everything, including where he was born and gave Flanagan so little to work with he had to make large chunks of it up. It’s a book about truth and lies and the grey margins in between, and it’s a riveting exploration of ethics and morality in publishing long before the internet or social media blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

But first, let’s talk a bit about Friedrich because I think it’s important to really understand the strange and slippery character that is at the heart of this novel.

Australia’s biggest fraudster

Friedrich, who committed suicide in July 1991 just days after he appeared in court on charges involving defrauding the banks of almost $300 million, was a complicated man.

He came to Australia, from Germany, in the 1970s using a fake name and fake qualifications. After various stints in construction and the Uniting Church, he joined the National Safety Council of Australia in Victoria, where he later became executive director. He was lauded as a hero (he was granted the Medal of the Order of Australia in 1988) because he greatly expanded the council’s role to become a vital search and rescue operation, investing money in high-tech equipment and state-of-the-art aids, but when it collapsed financially, thanks to millions of dollars worth of bank loans that couldn’t be repaid, he went on the run.

When he was found, after an exhausting nationwide manhunt, he was charged with 92 counts of obtaining property by deception. It later transpired that he was not an Australian citizen and did not have a valid birth certificate. Who exactly was this man? And how had he pulled the wool over so many people’s eyes?

In First Person, much of Friedrich’s backstory is not fully explained — it’s assumed you know about this conman’s activities — but there’s enough information for you to piece together the idea that he’s not to be trusted, that he’s done bad things and that there are so many rumours swirling around him — did he work for the CIA, for instance — that it’s seemingly impossible to get a handle on who he really is.

And that’s the dilemma that faces the narrator in the story: how does he produce a truthful ghostwritten memoir of a man who is so lax with the truth?

Fictionalised tale

But, of course, this is a novel, not non-fiction, so the Friedrich character goes by the name of Siegfried (Ziggy) Heidl, and the narrator is an impoverished writer from Hobart called Kif Kehlmann. Kif is writing a novel while working a series of unsteady jobs to make ends meet. He has a young daughter, Bo, and his wife, Suzy, is pregnant with twins.

The offer of a six-week job in Melbourne to ghostwrite the memoirs of a man due to go to prison tempts Kif because of its potential to break him into publishing, while also netting a much-needed $10,000 fee. But it comes with all kinds of strings attached (this novel does a nice send-up of the publishing industry and the bizarre “rules” of the trade), and when he meets Ziggy he does not like him very much and struggles to get any information out of him that could be used in the book.

Being nice doesn’t cut it, and Kif is too weak and ineffectual to deal with a hard nut like Ziggy who comes out with extraordinary words of wisdom and advice, quoting Neitzche and philosophising about life and how to live it.

You want to live without enemies, Heidl said, that’s your problem. You think if I am good and kind and don’t speak ill of others I won’t have enemies. But you will, you just don’t know it yet. They’re out there, your enemies, you just haven’t met them. You can seek them out or pretend they don’t exist but they’ll still find you. Trust me. You want to be like a dog that everyone likes, but there’s not a dog alive someone doesn’t want to kick or kill. You want everyone to be your friend. Why? Why bother?

Ziggy spends a lot of time having lunch with contacts, including investors he claims are going to help him build a space station in Queensland, while avoiding Kif as much as possible. Kif, in turn, spends a lot of time gnashing his teeth and then taking out all his frustrations on his poor hapless wife when he returns home for weekend visits to Hobart.

The narrative begins to build when it’s clear Kif is not going to meet deadlines or word counts set for him by the seemingly greedy publisher, Gene Paley, for whom he is working.

It’s not a plot spoiler to say that Ziggy dies — though whether by his own hand or someone else’s is one of the puzzles Flanagan explores in this fictionalised account — at around the three-quarters mark, and then First Person loses a bit of steam. The remaining quarter of the novel is taken up with Kif’s life after the memoir is posthumously published, riffing on the idea that his exposure to so many lies and untruths has somehow infected his own psyche, so it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not anymore.

Kif seems unable to reconcile the idea that writing novels for a living is a noble profession. A woman he meets in a New York bar sums it up neatly for him:

It’s fake, inventing stories as if they explain things, Emily was saying. Plot, character, Jack and Jill going up the hill. Just the thought of a fabricated character doing fabricated things in a fabricated story makes me want to gag. I am totally hoping never to read another novel again. Novels disempower reality, the beard said.

First Person is an eloquent, if somewhat uneven, exploration of truth, corporate greed and the idea that the past always catches up with you.

For another take on this novel, please see Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers.

Sue at Whispering Gums has also reviewed this book.

If you like this, you might also like:

This documentary on 9 Now, is a good summary of the John Friedrich case. It’s part of the Australian Crime Stories series, so it’s likely to be geo-restricted to those with an Australian IP address.

Otherwise, this promo (see below) for a documentary that I don’t think has ever been made sums it all up rather neatly:

I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

Book lists

Books that Made Us: Episode One

The first episode in the three-part TV series ‘Books that Made Us’ was screened on ABC TV last night. (If you live in Australia and missed it, you can catch up on iView.)

This episode, called ‘People’, was themed around great characters from Australian fiction. This was how it was described on iView:

As an actor, Claudia Karvan knows great storytelling is all about people, great characters. What truths we can uncover about ourselves through the fictitious characters of Australian novels?

Having been starved of Australian literary fiction for about 20 years while living abroad, it was a delight to see this beamed into my living room! I was so familiar with the names and had read several of the books. I had even interviewed one of the authors in the past (hello, Tim Winton) and met another a couple of times (hello, Christos Tsiolkas).

While there was perhaps a bit too much focus on Karvan in the show and too heavily weighted toward contemporary fiction, there was enough meat on the bones in this episode to keep me entertained. And I even learned a thing or two. It wasn’t highbrow or dumbed down, but tread a careful middle ground.

And, more importantly, it wasn’t all fawning over writers and praising their work. In her opening interview with Christos Tsiolkas, Karvan confessed she never finished the book because she hated the characters so much! I’m sure that’s not the first time Tsiolkas has had that criticism levelled at his book, but perhaps the first time he’s had to defend it on television. I think he did it pretty well!

The books covered in episode one

I thought it might be interesting to list the books covered in episode one. Here they are, in alphabetical order by author’s surname. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my reviews

  • ‘They’re a Weird Mob’ by Nino Culotta [not read, but we had a copy in the family home when I was growing up – amazed to discover it was written by an Irish-American, not an Italian immigrant]
  • ‘True History of the Kelly Gang’ by Peter Carey [abandoned in my pre-blogging days but as a much more experienced reader, I would be prepared to give this one another go]
  • ‘The Choke’ by Sofie Laguna [not read this, but in the TBR]
  • ‘Too Much Lip’ by Melissa Lucashenko
  • ‘The Lebs’ by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
  • The ‘Edith Trilogy’ (‘Grand Days’, ‘Dark Palace’ & ‘Cold Light’) by Frank Moorhouse [admittedly never heard of it but want to read immediately!]
  • ‘Honeybee’ by Craig Silvey
  • ‘The Slap’ by Christos Tsiolkas
  • ‘Cloudstreet’ by Tim Winton [read and loved when it first came out in the early 1990s and am probably due for a reread!]

The next episode, entitled ‘Place’, will be screened next Tuesday at 8.30pm.

Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Jock Serong, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Text

‘The Rules of Backyard Cricket’ by Jack Serong

Fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

It seems ironic that the day I finished reading Jack Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket, the Australian men’s Test captain, Tim Paine, resigned from his position, bidding a tearful farewell in what could have been a scene lifted directly from this novel.

In Serong’s brilliant book, all the cricket clichés we know and love are here, and the sport, which is regarded as a “gentleman’s game”, is shown as anything but with its sledging and corruption and bad-boy behaviour.

Its heroes, which are lauded in Australia and turned into holier-than-thou celebrities (even if it’s just to sell vitamins on TV!), are skewered beautifully in this wildly compelling and entertaining story about two talented brothers from Melbourne’s working-class western suburbs who grow up to represent their country in international cricket.

One brother is bad, another is good — and it’s this tension between the two that powers the story along faster than anything Dennis Lillee could ever deliver!

Childhood memoir

When the book opens we meet the narrator, Darren Keefe, who is locked in the boot of a car, bound and gagged, with gunshot wounds to his legs. The car is belting down a road somewhere, but we don’t know who is behind the wheel or what Darren has done to get into this precarious position.

I’m suspended in space here, between wakefulness and sleep, maybe even consciousness and death, and I fear the gag will suffocate me if I doze off. A world apart from the world in here.

The story then spools back to Darren’s childhood in suburban Melbourne in the 1980s, and from his position in the boot of the car, he tells his warts-and-all story, from talented child cricketer to white-ball superstar before falling from grace and reinventing himself as a TV commentator and after-dinner events speaker.

His older brother, Wally, is more successful than him, rising to become captain of the Australian men’s Test team. He’s the more responsible sibling; he’s more level-headed, logical and steady, whereas Darren is a trouble-maker, a likable larrikin who enjoys women and drink and gambling and drugs too much to take anything too seriously.

One columnist says he’d pay to watch Darren Keefe because something amazing might happen, but he’d bet the house on Wally Keefe, because the necessary will happen. Journalists love the potential clichés we suggest: Cain and Abel, Jekyll and Hyde, Noel and Liam.

The one guiding force in their life is their determined and gutsy single mother, who recognises their talent when they are young boys, creating a perfect pitch for them in the backyard and working long shifts in the pub to pay for the best kit she can buy them.

Bad boy antics

It’s pretty clear from the outset that Darren has a wild streak in him that can’t be tamed. Here’s what he says about his school days:

I’d cheated on tests (detention), burned centipedes with a magnifying glass (caning), thrown a bolt-bomb on the road near the bus stop (caning) and fed a paper clip into a powerpoint (electrocution and caning). Most recently, I’d clean-bowled a grade-four during recess and, when he refused to vacate the crease, I’d spontaneously waved my dick at him. The timing was poor: Brother Callum was standing directly behind me as I did it, confirming that if you chant the Litany of the Saints often enough, the Holy Ghost will grant you invisibility.

But his talent with the bat means he rises through the ranks quickly — as a 12-year-old he’s playing in the seniors, by 20 he’s in the state squad and the leading run-scorer in Victorian district cricket — and before he knows it he’s playing white-ball cricket for Australia. He gets married but doesn’t really settle down — he likes partying too much.

It doesn’t help that his best friend has gangster connections (and may or may not be working for them), so there’s always plenty of drugs, mainly cocaine around, and with that comes violence and reputational crises to sort out. And then, when he’s offered a bribe to help “throw” a game, well…

Rip-roaring tale

The Rules of Backyard Cricket is one of those rip-roaring tales that take you in unexpected directions. I loved following the antics of these two brothers and their wonderful mother (who later succumbs to Alzheimer’s) and seeing how their careers unfold over two decades or so.

It’s a literary coming-of-age tale, but it’s also a crime story because how Darren ends up in the boot of a car is the consequence of illicit activities. Every new chapter begins with a reminder that Darren is in the boot against his will, and it’s these glimpses of his confusion and anger and pain during these moments that helps build the suspense, making the novel a page-turner because you want to find out why he’s there and whether he will ever escape.

But the story is also a kind of loose satire about cricket because there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek swipes at how Australia treats its sports stars and how sports stars use the media and their celebrity to build their profiles and career. It’s set in the latter half of the 20th century, before social media and the internet took over everything, just at the point when cricket became properly professionalised, but much of what is written here still resonates today.

There’s a lot here to unpick about morality and ethics in sport, about sibling rivalry and the lengths parents will go to to help their children succeed, but most of all The Rules of Backyard Cricket is just a great big enjoyable romp.

I suspect Jock Serong had a lot of fun writing this; I certainly had a lot of fun reading it. This one will be in my Top 10 reads of the year for sure.

If you like this, you might also like:

‘Spinner’ by Ron Elliott: an entertaining story about a 12-year-old boy, a talented spin bowler, who plays Test cricket at international level for Australia in between the wars.

I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Christos Tsiolkas, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘7½’ by Christos Tsiolkas

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 360 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In 1963, the Italian film director Federico Fellini directed a film called in which a troubled filmmaker struggles to get a new movie off the ground. Weighed down by the project, he retreats into the inner world of his thoughts, recalling past and present romantic entanglements, which, in turn, begin to affect his film work so that it becomes increasingly more autobiographical.

Christos Tisolkas’ new novel, 7½, transposes that idea into the world of literature, placing himself as the central character who is working on a new novel, all the while getting lost in his own thoughts, remembering his childhood and writing a memoir of sorts.

Three storylines woven together

I have three stories I wish to tell. The simple nature of our craft is to vomit these stories out on a page. It is an ugly analogy but I think it is apt.

The book is comprised of three main threads, which evolve over time, and criss-cross over each other like an intricately woven tapestry. It’s a book that merges meta-fiction with auto-fiction, throws in some nature writing, offers lots of musings and thoughts about art and beauty, love and eroticism, and attempts to explain the meaning of literature and why novelists do what they do. But despite these many disparate threads, it feels like a seamless, effortless whole.

In the first thread, we meet a writer called Christos Tsiolkas who has headed to the southern NSW coast for a couple of weeks solitude to focus on his writing. Here, in a beach-side cottage, he goes for daily swims, breathes in the beauty of the world around him and shuts out all distractions, including his mobile phone which he locks away in a room, only using it to call his partner who remains behind in Melbourne.

The second thread is about writing and why Christos has decided to shun the usual topics — “Morality or Politics or Race or Class or Gender or Sexuality” — he covers in his work. We find out about the genesis of his new novel, which may or may not become a screenplay for a film.  He tells us how he came up with the idea, why it’s important to him and how he is struggling to write it — and then we get to read it in what feels like real-time as the story develops. This novel is about an American porn star, Paul Carrigan, who lives in Australia and is married to an Australian woman with whom he has a teenage son. Carrigan is offered $180,000 to sleep with an ageing fan in California, and the novel follows what happens when he makes the trip.

The third and final thread is the story of Christos’ own life, beginning with memories of his childhood in working-class Melbourne where he was raised by his Greek immigrant parents. Much of what he writes tries to explain how his personal beliefs, his homosexuality and his appreciation of art and beauty have all been shaped by his experiences.

A book about beauty

It can sometimes be a risk for a writer to include different threads in the one work because there’s always the danger that a reader will prefer one over another. But I enjoyed all of the storylines in 7½, perhaps because they were woven together so skilfully but also perhaps because they inform each other: you know, for instance, that Christos watched porn as a young man and that informed his decision to write a novel about a porn star.

I especially enjoyed his musings on literature — he doesn’t claim the novel is dead, but he does say it has become  “timid” and “cowardly”, with writers looking over their shoulders seeking approval from peers, colleagues, friends and social media, instead of being true to their selves. Later he accuses novelists of becoming homogenised:

Every bloody novelist sounds the same now, whether they are American or Austrian or Angolan or Andalusian or Australian. All the same cant, all the same desire to shape the world to their academic whims and aspirations. All this compassion and all this outrage and all this empathy and all this sorrow and all this fear and all this moralising and not one sentence of surprise in it.

Perhaps one of the most telling scenes in the book is when Christos has a frank conversation with his friend Andrea about his work. He confesses that he is writing a novel about beauty because it’s a challenge to capture beauty on the page.

“I want it to be simple, almost straightforward in its intent. If I were a poet, it would be easier. Or if I were a musician. It is harder to distil beauty into prose. The novel is treacherous.”

But she accuses him of taking the easy option, of no longer wanting to change the world with his writing.

“You can’t write about beauty,” she says calmly. “You  don’t have the talent.”

The usual topics

Despite what the author might say, doesn’t shun the usual, sometimes controversial or confronting, topics that are present in his earlier work (see all my reviews here), because you can’t write about beauty without discussing morality and politics and gender and class and so on. The topics might not be capitalised but they are still there.

He’s often at his “Christos Tsiolkas best” when writing about the erotic, the sensual and the pornographic, albeit seen through the lens of a gay man (he’s obsessed, it would seem, with men’s hands and armpits — indeed sweaty, smelly, unshaven armpits are mentioned a lot in this book, you have been warned). But if you have read his work before, this won’t surprise you.

But where this novel works best is in that grey space between memory and imagination, where creativity collides with memoir, and how noticing a particular fragrance or hearing a familiar song can transport us back to another time and place, and how that is deeply connected to our emotions and, in turn, our sense of self.

might not be your usual Tsiolkas novel, but it’s just as powerful and thought-provoking, if not more so, than anything he’s written before.

I read this book as part of #AusReadingMonth, hosted by Brona’s Books

Author, Book review, Joshua Hammer, Non-fiction, Publisher, Simon & Schuster, true crime

‘The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird’ by Joshua Hammer

Non-fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 318 pages; 2021.

For around 18 years (1998-2016), I worked on specialist magazines in the UK covering all kinds of subject matter, from equestrian sport to gamekeeping, in which I had no specialist knowledge — just natural curiosity and a willingness to learn new things and ask a lot of questions.

During 2005-2010, I was deputy editor, later rising to the editor, on a weekly publication about birdkeeping (even though I knew little about birds). We used to run four pages of news every week, the great bulk of it about bird crime — specifically, the theft of birds and or their eggs from the wild — and conservation.

Later, I was freelance sub-editor and then permanent content editor on a weekly country sports magazine that ran a lot of stories about birds of prey being persecuted (allegedly by gamekeepers protecting their gamebirds) or “going missing” in the wild under unexplained circumstances. In fact, in 2015-16 we ran so many stories about hen harriers that I’m surprised we didn’t change our name to Hen Harrier Weekly.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I was immediately intrigued by Joshua Hammer’s non-fiction book, The Falcon Thief, when I saw it on the shelf because it covered a topic with which I was relatively familiar.

Subtitled A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird, it charts the life, times and crimes of a convicted wildlife thief who worked across three continents as well as telling the story of the British policeman who was instrumental in securing a conviction. It’s part police procedural, natural history treatise and true crime tale, and it reads like a well-crafted, page-turning novel. It is narrative non-fiction at its very best.

Airport arrest

The story begins with the apprehension of Irishman Jeffrey Lendrum at Birmingham International Airport, in the UK, on 3 May 2010. He was headed to Dubai but never got on the flight because a security guard noticed him behaving suspiciously. He was apprehended by officers from the Counter Terrorism Unit, but he didn’t have a bomb strapped to his body —  he had 14 fragile peregrine falcon eggs taped to his abdomen.

Lendrum claimed he was suffering from spinal trouble and that he was carrying eggs — which he claimed were from ducks — because they “force him to keep his stomach muscles taut […] and strengthen his lower back”.

(Isn’t that the most ludicrous thing you have ever heard? As the book reveals, Lendrum is notorious for making up ludicrous stories and this is not the worst of it.)

Investigations revealed the eggs had been stolen from a remote cliffside in Wales, most likely “on order” for wealthy clients in the Middle East, specifically Dubai, where rich sheiks pay huge money — up to $40,000 for a single bird — to secure the very best birds for falconry racing. This is an exclusive sport offering millions of dollars in prize money (the Abu Dhabi Falconers Club’s annual President Cup, for instance, offers a purse of $11 million) and prestige.

A lengthy investigation

Lendrum’s arrest made headlines because nobody had been caught smuggling rare raptor eggs in the UK for decades. This is where Detective Andy McWilliam, of the UK’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, steps in. The unit struggles for money and credibility (few people see wildlife crime as “real” crime), so the case is a chance to prove its worth.

A headline-making conviction of a notorious wildlife criminal could protect the unit from closure — or even, if McWilliam, was very, very lucky, get his budget significantly raised for the next year.

The book weaves together these dual narratives — of the crime and the investigation — and highlights how both men develop an almost symbiotic relationship that spans years and continents because Lendrum didn’t just do this once, he did it multiple times.

As well as being an epic police procedural cum adventure tale, The Falcon Thief is also a brilliant history of the illicit trade in birds and their eggs, the multiple reasons for it, why it is such a vital issue to address and how authorities across the world are working together to end it.

It shows how Dubai, in particular, has fuelled the black market for endangered birds of prey because of the belief that  “falcons stolen from nests are innately superior to those bred in captivity”.

Two brilliant characters

The author describes this as a “shadowy world”, one that draws in Lendrum, who, it turns out is a well-travelled, fearless character almost too fantastical to be true. He’s an intelligent ornithologist, an obsessive egg collector, a skilled climber, a brave adventurer, a clever businessman, an imaginative liar and a master manipulator. His crimes stretch back decades, from his early life in South Africa, where he made a name for himself as a well-respected wildlife enthusiast volunteering on research projects, to a businessman in the UK using his shopfront as a cover for illicit activities.

His foe — McWilliam — is equally intriguing. A policeman with decades of experience, who shunned promotion because he liked walking the beat, and then used his skills in a newly emerging field of investigation, he’s the resilient, hard-working, never-give-up type of bloke you want on your side.

This is a hugely enjoyable book, well-paced and filled with enough natural drama and tension to make it a page-turner. Will he or won’t he get convicted? What daredevil feats will Lendrum commit to feed his obsession? Will McWilliam’s unit get closed down and will he have to give up the chase? You will have to read it to find out…

I read this for Non-Fiction November (#NonFicNov) hosted by various bloggers of which you can find out more here. (Note, there’s a whole bunch of prompts for the month, but reading by schedule doesn’t really work for me, so I hope the hosts don’t mind me reading and reviewing non-fiction on a whim. )