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

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Fremantle Press, literary fiction, Publisher, Ron Elliott, Setting

‘Spinner’ by Ron Elliott

Spinner

Fiction – paperback; Fremantle Press; 472 pages; 2010.

If I said this was a book about cricket, I suspect many of you would have absolutely no interest in reading it. But even if you hate the sport, there’s plenty to love about this story. Even Lisa Hill from ANZLitLovers, who is not a cricket fan, found herself enthralled by this one. (I’m grateful to Lisa for sharing the love and buying me a copy of my own…)

This novel is the first by Ron Elliott, who is also a television director and screen writer based in Western Australia. It’s apparent that he has probably written it with an eye towards the big screen, because Spinner would make a terrific kid’s movie. It’s got brilliant dialogue, for a start, but it’s also packed with plenty of drama and is peopled with richly drawn characters. And there’s enough plot surprises to keep people on the edge of their seat throughout.

The story is set between the wars. Australia is in the grip of the Great Depression and there’s not much to smile about. Even the national cricket team is experiencing a slump and losing out to its great cricketing rival, England, which has brought out a killer team for the latest test series.

That’s where our hero enters the story. David Donald is a 12-year-old orphan whose father died in the battle fields of France during the Great War. His mother drowned in a dam on the family farm, where David is now being raised by his maternal grandfather, George Baker.  George, a “Scottish calvinist”, was once a spin bowler for the state side, and is now training his grandson in the fine art of spin bowling.

David, who has especially long fingers, has a real talent for it, particularly as he seems able to use finger spin and wrist spin techniques when delivering the ball. (Here’s your first cricket lesson: spin bowlers usually use one of these techniques, not both.) In fact, David is so impressive as a spin bowler that he catches the eye of the Australian Cricket Board, and — you guessed it — he becomes the youngest ever member of the national team.

Initially, I thought the story was preposterous (a kid who plays Test cricket at international level!!), but it somehow works because of Elliott’s understated writing style. On the surface this is a simple tale about one boy’s rise to national hero. But underneath there’s a whole lot more going on about the Australian psyche, the way men relate to one another and the redemptive power of sport to cheer up a nation.

Because Spinner is told in the third person, we get an overview of events to which David is not privy. He’s a child after all and much of what happens goes over his head.

And while he’s being ferried around the country in the care of his Uncle Michael, we see that Michael is a spinner of a different variety. He’s what Australians would call a bullshit artist, a man who likes to spin the truth in order to earn a bob or two. When David begins to understand that his uncle is not all that he seems, you really feel his pain — and bewilderment.

While Spinner is fiction, Elliott has clearly based some of the characters on real cricketing heroes from the past and simply changed their names. The fun, if you are a cricket aficionado, is trying to work out who’s a thinly veiled version of who. (I spotted English cricketer Douglas Jardine from the 1932-33 Bodyline series for a start.) It’s also worth reading to try and spot which ball delivered by David Donald is based on Shane Warne’s “ball of the century”.

If you don’t know anything about cricket there is a useful glossary of terms at the back, along with a diagram explaining field positions.

As a love letter to the game of cricket Elliott has certainly hit a six!

Spinner is aimed at a younger audience, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The book is not available outside of Australia, but you can order the paperback direct from Fremantle Press website or purchase an digital version from eBooks.com

UPDATE: According to the publisher, who kindly left a comment below, the book is now available to British readers via Amazon.co.uk and American readers via the Independent Publishers Group website.

Australia, Author, Book review, Craig Silvey, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Windmill Books

‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey

Jasper_jones

Fiction – paperback; Windmill Books; 304 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Oh dear. I’ve read a string of rather mediocre books recently and, sadly, this one falls into that category too.

Jasper Jones has only just been published in the UK, but it’s been out in Australia for six months or so and garnered plenty of critical and commercial acclaim. Indeed it’s been named on this year’s shortlist of Australia’s prestigious fiction prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, which should give some indication of its literary merit. However, in my view, it’s far from being anything other than fairly ordinary.

The book is set in a Western Australian mining town in the 1960s in the summer which opens with Doug Walters’ test cricket debut, in which he scored a century against England, and the disappearance of the Beaumont children at Glenelg Beach on Australia Day in 1966. In the six weeks or so between these two pivotal events in Australian history, 13-year-old Charlie Buckton gets caught up in a pivotal event of his own.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say he gets carolled by the town’s teenage outcast, Jasper Jones, into hiding the body of a girl who has been found hanging from a tree. Jasper, who is half Aboriginal and likes a whisky or two, is such a bad boy he believes that he will be blamed for the girl’s death, hence the desperate need to get rid of the “evidence”. Why Charlie gets roped into it is never made entirely clear, but it sets up the premise for the rest of the book in which Charlie’s summer is plagued by the very real fear that his involvement in the crime will be discovered.

I suppose you could call this a coming-of-age story, because it charts Charlie’s last not-quite carefree summer as a child on the cusp of becoming an adolescent. He spends most of his time hanging out with his friend, Jeffrey Lu, falling in love with Eliza Wishart, and avoiding the wrath of his mother.

But while Silvey paints a convincing portrait of a teenage boy coming to terms with his loss of innocence, he is far less convincing on so many other fronts. The prose style is overly verbose, to the point of being over-written, and the broad brush stroke references to racism in a small town (as a consequence of the Vietnam war), just seem trite. (I’m reminded of Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand, which referred to asylum seekers in Britain in a similar manner.) And it doesn’t help that Charlie and Jeffrey feel too contemporary to be living in the mid 1960s. I mean, what kids back then made jokes about “coming out”? I’m not even sure that phrase was in use in 1965 (although I’m willing to be corrected).

I’m slightly puzzled as to why this book has received so many glowing reviews. Yes, it’s a nice story and there’s a real urgency to the first couple of chapters. Yes, the camaraderie and banter between Charlie and Jeffrey is deliciously funny if somewhat cheesy and peurile. And yes, there’s a stand-out description of a local cricket match in which Jeffrey plays a star role.

But on the whole I found the book slightly wearisome and most of the scenes felt forced and contrived. It’s almost like Silvey modelled his style on Bryce Courtenay after watching reruns of the Wonder Years. Throwing in a few topical issues, such as racism, just hammers home the point that this book is simply trying too hard on so many different levels. What were the Miles Franklin judges thinking?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Holland/Netherlands, Joseph O'Neill, literary fiction, London, New York, Publisher, Setting

‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill

Netherland

Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 248 pages; 2009.

Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland was famously long-listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize, attracting a flurry of support from mainly North American critics who loved the cricket element of the book. (The Vulture section of the New York Times has quite a good summary of the acclaim it garnered upon release. And President Obama also turned out to be a fan. )

But on the other side of the pond the response was more mixed. And if you dare check the Amazon.co.uk reviews you’ll see the broad spectrum of views it’s attracted which range from glowing five-star accounts to less-than-complimentary one-star assessments.

Thinking that the novel was about cricket, I picked it up at the start of the Ashes series last month hoping to get myself in the mood for a summer of competitive sport between two old rivals, Australia (my homeland) and England (where I now reside). Six weeks on, the five-match series is now at level pegging and the deciding final match will be played this coming Thursday, so what better time to review the book?

Living in the netherland

While Netherland could be regarded as a paean to cricket, this is not a novel about cricket. This is a novel about what it is like to be an outsider and living in the fringes, or as O’Neill’s apt title suggests, in a state of being neither here nor there — the netherland.

For while the protagonist, Hans van den Broek, chooses cricket as his refuge, there’s a lot more going on here than the “gentleman of sport”. Hans is an immigrant — Dutch-born but educated in Britain and now residing in Manhattan, with his wife and young son. He’s desperate to fit in and goes through the whole rigmarole of gaining his US drivers license, if only to become that little bit more embedded in the culture.

Connecting with people who play cricket in New York is yet another way he can “connect”, albeit with an immigrant underclass. And, tellingly, the one man with whom he forges a tentative friendship, Chuck Ramkissoon, winds up being pulled out of a New York canal with his hands tied behind his back. (Note, this isn’t a plot spoiler: O’Neill reveals this fact up front and much of the novel is about Hans recalling his relationship with Chuck, trying to pinpoint what it is about that man that could have resulted in someone wanting to murder him.)

Disintegration of a marriage

Netherland has also been described as a post-9/11 novel, but again, this label has been slightly misconstrued. While the book reflects the kind of “netherland” residents in Manhattan might have felt in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Centre, a kind of eerie state of no longer feeling comfortable in their homes, this isn’t the sole premise of the book.

O’Neill uses it as a vehicle to explain the disintegration of Hans’ marriage, for while Hans is content to be “carried along by the dark flow of those times” his wife is not. She no longer feels safe in the city and decides to return to her native England, taking their infant son with her. Hans, unable to commit to such a move, finds himself living a kind of transatlantic lifestyle, dividing his time between New York and London. Again, it’s a netherland existence, neither a New Yorker, nor a Londoner; neither a married man, nor a bachelor.

Ironically, having read this book, I, too, felt kind of ambivalent about it, not quite sure if I loved or loathed it. I finished it maybe a month ago but simply haven’t had the time to review it, but strangely, with the passing of time, the story has coalesced in my brain and I’ve found myself thinking about certain elements.

I wonder now what was holding Hans back, why he was passive on so many different fronts — his friendship with Chuck, who clearly had a lot of dodgy things happening in his life; and his foundering marriage — and let events wash over him without really taking any action himself. Was it a psychological netherland that constrained him, or would that be taking the netherland theme a step too far?

The healing power of cricket

One of things that has stuck in my head is the sense of belonging Hans achieved by playing cricket in New York, even though some of his fellow sportsmen could not speak English and he refused to adapt his batting style to the “American way” which meant “the baseball-like business of slugging and hoisting”. I loved that each weekend was spent in a van, travelling around the five boroughs, to play a “friendly”.

We sat mostly silent in the van, absorbed into the moodiness that afflicts competitors as they contemplate, or try to put out of their minds, the drama that awaits. What we talked about, when we did talk, was cricket. There was nothing else to discuss. The rest of our lives — jobs, children, wives, worries — peeled away, leaving only this fateful sporting fruit.

As an aside, I was watching BBC Newsnight a week or two back which featured a story about the NYPD running a cricket competition to help improve relations with the city’s ethnic minorities.  “That sounds just like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland,” I told my Other Half, who was watching it with me. Then, lo and behold, the presenter Gavin Esler interviewed, via satellite, O’Neill, who came across as one of the most articulate, gentlemanly and genuine author interviews I’ve ever seen. You can watch it here. It was enough to make me want to read more of his work, so if you’ve read any of this other titles, I’d love to hear your thoughts…