Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Ice Palace, by Tarjei Vesaas

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A young girl goes missing in a palace created out of ice. 

In rural Norway eleven-year-old Siss is on the way to meet Unn, a new girl at her school. Unn is a bit mysterious, with no father and a mother who died recently. The girls go to Unn’s Auntie’s house, where they try to get to know each other. They are by turns friendly and shy. Unn says she has a secret, the details of which aren’t revealed. The girls then part ways for the day, feeling a little awkward after their first meeting.

The next day Unn decides to skip school and visit an ice palace that has been created at a nearby waterfall. The ice palace, created by the freezing temperatures working on the  splashing water, has many different cave-like rooms. Unn becomes transfixed by the beauty of the ice palace and its many strange natural forms. She steps into one of the rooms and never emerges again.

When the people of the town find out that Unn hasn’t returned, a search is instigated. Some suspicion falls on Siss, however, as everyone knows that Unn confided in her some type of secret.

Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas’s The Ice Palace (1963) is essentially a mystery about an unusual, secretive young girl who goes missing. (Her disappearance has similarities to Australian novelist Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock.) The other main character, besides the girls, is of course the ice palace itself. The novel describes its evolution from gushing torrents of water into a beautiful palace; the first fissures as the warmer weather comes and the palace cracks apart; and finally, its disintegration, sweeping all that came with it into the river system. Vesaas's descriptions of the natural wonders of a Norwegian winter form some of the novel's aesthetic highlights.

A gripping mood piece and a haunting ode to some of nature’s more mysterious work.

The Ice Palace, by Tarjei Vesaas. Published by Penguin Modern Classics. ISBN: 9780241321218  RRP: $22.99

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Sunday, September 9, 2018

Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A computer scientist brings a humanistic approach to the problem of social media.

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, musician and writer. He offers a unique perspective on issues to do with technology and society by way of his long history with the tech community. Both an insider and outsider, he has voiced concerns in books such as You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future about how the open internet culture of Facebook and Google has reduced human expression and potential, while taking our data and monetizing it for huge profits.

In the short and snappy Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Lanier explains how social media is degrading language, spreading misinformation, exploiting cheap labour, alienating people from reality, distorting how they see the world and also making us angry, lonely and irritable.  Quite a list!

Social media is designed to be addictive. Lanier sees it as a form of hypnosis, but a dangerous one.

“Hypnosis might be therapeutic so long as you trust your hypnotist, but who would trust a hypnotist who is working for unknown third parties? Who? Apparently billions of people.”

Lanier coins an acronym to describe the algorithmic machines that track everything we do online in order to create customised feeds: “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent. BUMMER.” In humourous tones reminscent of science fiction writers Kurt Vonnegut and Stanislaw Lem, the reader is warned of how the BUMMER machine is undermining just about every aspect of our lives, from democracy and public discourse to how we see and think about ourselves. BUMMER technology is causing mass isolation. One of the most depressing points that the book raises is how hard it is to know other people now because we don’t know the customised feeds that individuals – billions of individuals – are exposed to. Once upon a time we were all roughly on the same page, but now no one is on the same page.

Ten Arguments is for the most part cheerful and optimistic, firm in its belief that we can keep the internet and smart phones, we simply need to get rid of the BUMMER machine. Beneath the jollity and jokes, Lanier is an erudite and philosophical writer with a gentle, poetic nature. He’s a rare, humanist voice on the subject of computer technology and its impact on us. The book’s final argument for deleting your social media accounts is one of self-knowledge and awareness. “Whatever a person might be,” writes Lanier, “if you want to be one, delete your accounts.”

If you want to gain insights into how invidious social media really is, read Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier. Published by Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 9781847925398  RRP: $24.99

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Friday, August 31, 2018

North Melbourne Books Newsletter - featuring Hilary Rogers

In the September edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to local North Melbourne writer and publisher Hilary Rogers about her new children's book Girltopia.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Hilary Rogers

One day twelve-year-old Clara Bloom turns up to school only to find that there are no boys present. The male teachers are absent too. What could be going on? It appears a mysterious illness has afflicted all the men and boys in the city of Melbourne. No one can figure out why. When Clara realises that her father, who has gone on a fishing trip to regional Victoria, is at risk of catching the mysterious virus, she takes to the road with some girl friends to sort things out. How did you come up with the idea for the story?

When I was working as a publisher, I found myself tiring of the dystopian manuscripts that were streaming across my desk. Dystopian fiction can be utterly compelling and a fantastic way to explore issues that are relevant to young teenagers, but reading one existentially depressing idea after another does get you down after a while.

I hated scary books and films when I was a kid (frankly, I still do) – and I know lots of kids who are the same. I started to wonder what utopian fiction might look like. What would the perfect world for a kid be like? And where would the drama come from in such a world? There are countless stories where the adults are absent or killed off, so I didn’t feel drawn to rehashing that scenario. But, I wondered, what if we got rid of the boys and men? It made me think of all the amazing things women had done in times of crises, particularly when men were all off at war. Of course, a world without boys and men isn’t actually a utopia – nor is it a viable or sustainable idea! – but that’s what is so interesting about it. As soon as I started thinking about it, I was hooked.

Clara has an interesting backstory. Her parents are breaking up and – while she loves them both - she’s also quite angry about it. How did you create her character, or is she based on anyone you know?

Clara isn’t based on anyone I know, but she has a smattering of many people I know – including myself. I have vivid memories of being a kid. I’m not anxious like Clara, but I know a lot of highly anxious kids and I well remember the classic childhood feeling of having no control over your world.

In terms of Clara’s parents splitting up, this is something many kids experience, and I like it because it means Clara is going through a mini-version of what the whole city will go through: her dad is suddenly not there. Just as she is struggling to come to terms with him leaving, the virus hits Melbourne and every woman and girl has to get used to life without the boys and men. Every mother is suddenly a single mum. Every girl loses her dad or her brother.

There’s lot of adventure and laughs as the girls try to evade the police and break through road blockades. It’s a real page-turner of a story. What was the writing process like?

Fingers crossed kids agree with you! For me the writing process is a fabulous shambles. I have days when everything falls into place, the words tumble out and time flies – there’s nothing as good as a good day of writing. But I also have days when nothing seems to work and I’m suddenly enthused about the washing or googling what to do with celeriac. The saving grace for me is that I am always
working on a few projects at a time – including books I’m co-writing with my writing partner Josh Lefers. This means I rarely have time to get too weird or worried about how the writing is going.

Girltopia is your first novel, although you’ve worked in publishing for many years. Has it long been an ambition to write a book yourself?

Strangely, no. I’ve always loved my work as editor and publisher, and I’ve never felt that was less interesting or less creative than writing. But I do think working in-house in publishing has given me invaluable insight into the whole crazy business of book-making. A successful book is so much more than just a great story, and the team required is so much bigger than an author and editor. It needs just the right cover, title, text design, price, marketing material, distribution – and mystifyingly, it also needs a generous sprinkle of pixie dust. But of course, no-one knows where to get the pixie dust. It can’t be bought! Sometimes a project just has a certain magic to it; others have all the right parts but somehow fall flat. I think knowing all this probably helps and hinders in equal parts!

What books are you enjoying reading at the moment? 

I recently read Less (Andrew Sean Greer) and The Female Persuasion (Meg Wolitzer) – both of which I loved. And I’ve just started the new Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered – it’s off to a fairly traumatic start, and is too early to call.

Girltopia, by Hilary Rogers. Published by Scholastic. RRP: $14.99

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, by David Sornig

Staff review by Chris Saliba

David Sornig’s history of West Melbourne’s Dudley Flats provides an absorbing and evocative portrait.

Residents of North and West Melbourne would be well familiar with Dudley Street. The busy roadway passes by the Flagstaff Gardens, the iconic Festival Hall and down into the Docklands area. What is less known is the Depression era shanty town, the Dudley Flats, that was once located at the end of Dudley Street, south of Footscray Road, roughly on the area where the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel and Harbour Town shopping centre now sit.

The Dudley Flats had its heyday, if it could be called that, between the 1920s and 50s. When the land belonged to its indigenous people, a beautiful blue lake occupied a large part of the area. The lake was surrounded by a magenta coloured pigface flower, which grew in wild profusion. But along with European incursions into the land came intense industry, and rendering factories caused the blue lake to be polluted. By the 1920s it was the site of several council and railway tips. It was the tips that formed the backbone of the Dudley Flats economy. Residents foraged in the tips, sold scrap metal and other finds, and built their shacks with reclaimed materials.

The population of the “tin town” at its height was around forty people. It had a notorious reputation. Many of its residents drank, committed petty crime and got involved in fights. Despite this, authorities thought the Dudley Flats were no worse than many of Melbourne’s slums. Authorities who visited saw the makeshift homes were quite well put together and opined that the residents showed considerable resourcefulness.

Novelist and historian David Sornig grew up in Sunshine and well remembers the regular train journey from Footscray to North Melbourne  station, a journey that roughly covered the area that once held the Dudley Flats. It’s a stretch of land that has always haunted the author, with its eerie, no man’s land quality.

In Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp
, Sornig concentrates on three characters who lived in the Dudley Flats: Elsie Williams, a singer and alcoholic, born in Bendigo to Afro-Caribbean parents; Lauder Rogge, a German man who lived on a boat moored on the Yarra; and Jack Peacock, a trader who made a decent living scavenging off the garbage tips. In telling the stories of these three characters, Sornig also tells the strange and wild history of the landmass along Footscray Road, a West Melbourne badlands if ever there was one.

Elsie Williams would walk the streets of North Melbourne, drunk and singing, picking fights, experiencing the racism that went along with the White Australia policy. Lauder Rogge had the misfortune of being German when Australia was frequently at war with that country. He experienced the humiliation of being interned as an enemy alien during the First World War. And finally Jack Peacock, who the authorities spent years trying to remove from Dudley Flats. An outsider, he preferred the lifestyle at the shanty town and never wanted to leave.

David Sornig has written a haunting and humane history of Melbourne’s Depression era, with its focus on the often lawless Dudley Flats, the down and out people who made a life there and the eerie, hostile zone of land that to this day still refuses to be gentrified. Blue Lake employs a novelist’s prose and imagination, bringing to life a seedy part of our city’s history, but done with a great sympathy and sensitivity. A book of superb imagination and scholarship that will transport you to a strange yet familiar land.

Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, by David Sornig. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781925322743 RRP: $35

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No Place Like Home, by Peter Mares

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A book on Australia's housing crisis is well overdue. Former ABC journalist Peter Mares takes up the task.

There are several competing stories for why Australia has such off-the-charts housing prices. One popular argument is that there is a great shortage of supply and we need to build more; another claims that the tax system (negative gearing and a general discount on capital gains tax) is the culprit. No Place Like Home gives a lucid overview of a complex problem, also putting a very human face on it, with chapters devoted to forgotten people, such as the homeless.

The major issue, as Peter Mares sees it, is a cultural one. We have learnt to think of housing primarily as a financial product, rather than as a home. Such thinking has led to some perverse outcomes. Across Melbourne, for example, some 82,000 dwellings lay empty. Apparently, it's deemed economically rational for owners to keep properties empty, rather than rent them out. The benefit is to be able to sell quickly and not be hampered by a 12 months lease. In Australia, we don't see investment in housing as a source of steady rental returns, but rather as a way to make quick capital gains.

Another problem is the creation of outer suburbs wholly dependent on cars. While these houses may be cheap, they are often energy inefficient and demand lots of travel time. They end up being very costly to live in. Mares argues that our middle ring suburbs could easily be further developed and it would be better to domicile people there, closer to public transport, schools and hospitals.

The book makes some interesting suggestions, the main one being a property tax that would divert funds into more public housing. Tenancy laws should also be changed to favour renters. Mares rightly points out that Australia's high housing prices are causing increasing inequality, which in turn is bad for social cohesion and the economy. We need to make changes, but this will be difficult and will take time to turn around.

No Place Like Home is highly recommended. It's humane, sympathetic and contains much common sense. Houses should be primarily for living in, with a secondary use as an investment. In Australia we seem to have gotten things back the front.

Release date 17th September

No Place Like Home, by Peter Mares. Published by Text. ISBN: 9781925603873  RRP: $32.99

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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Fiasco, by Stanislaw Lem

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A challenging masterpiece from an indisputable genius.

Fiasco opens describing events that have taken place one hundred years before the main story. A young pilot named Parvis is sent to Saturn’s moon, Titan, to find another pilot, named Pirx, who was lost there. Parvis experiences a fatal accident during the search and before he dies, manages to activate a device that cryogenically freezes him. One hundred years later Parvis and Pirx’s bodies are exhumed. Scientists manage to bring one of the bodies back to life, using organs from the two, but don’t know whether it is Parvis or Pirx. When the reanimated body is brought back to life, it has no memory and goes under the new name of Mark Tempe.

Tempe is asked to take part in a new voyage, to the planet Quinta, which it is believed harbours an intelligent life form on a par with earth’s humans. The huge mothership  Eurydice is dispatched to a black hole near Beta Harpiae, where it sends off a smaller spaceship, the Hermes, which contains a full crew of scientists, astrophysists and even a Dominican priest.

Once the Hermes approaches Quinta, strange, unanticipated things are noticed. The planet is covered with an extremely high volume of radioactivity, a baffling blanket of white noise. The planet is also surrounded by a ring of ice, the result of all the surface water – the oceans - being somehow forced up into the atmosphere. How or why the Quintans have done this is a mystery.

The crew tries to communicate with Quinta, sending out messages over a sustained period, almost like a bombardment. There is no response. More messages requesting contact with the Quintans are sent, but an eerie silence remains. As a show of strength, the crew decides to create a massive cavity on their moon’s surface, but when the missiles are sent they are intercepted by Quinta’s defense system which sends the missiles off course, only to create catastrophic damage as huge chunks of the moon fall to the planet’s surface.

As a final attempt at contact, the crew decides to project a “cartoon” onto Quinta’s clouds. This works, and the Quintans agree to meet a human ambassador. Mark Tempe is sent to the planet’s surface, but when he arrives, and discovers the strange form the Quintans take, he is horrified by their banal, ugly, incomprehensible forms. The whole expedition has been a bizarre – and tragic - waste of time.

Stanislaw Lem’s 1986 novel is an intellectual, philosophical and aesthetic tour de force. It’s a fully realised alien world set in deep space. Like his other first contact novel, Solaris, it is enveloped in a haunting, eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere. The sense of existential dread is palpable. The crew, slowly going insane, are deluded that powerful computers and probability theory can predict life on an unknown planet. Yet all their superior systems continually fail them. The Quintans refuse to communicate. The crew tries to anticipate every possible reason for Quinta’s unfathomable behaviour, but their only response to the maddening silence is the use of violence. In the end this violence turns out to be a show of weakness and impotence.

The basic theme of Fiasco is the limit of human technology and science. Trying to overreach only leads to madness. It could be argued that Lem is saying the human race is a diabolically mad race (Lem was writing in the middle of the Cold War, when nuclear weapons threatened to blow the globe up.) This is a novel that is deeply pessimistic (even cynical) about the kind of hubris that results from too much faith in technology, mathematics and science.

Fiasco is a difficult novel to read and it demands some attention. There are some flaws: the opening chapter, set one hundred years in the past, is perhaps too long; the text can be dense at times, laden with scientific language; and the plot could perhaps move more swiftly. Having said that, Fiasco is a novel that can have few peers for its astonishing range and depth of ideas, written by a man who is an indisputable genius.  

Fiasco, by Stanislaw Lem. Published by Penguin Modern Classics. ISBN: 9780241334355 RRP: $22.99

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Lizard Music, by Daniel Pinkwater

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Daniel Pinkwater's 1976 young adult novel, Lizard Music, is a delightfully trippy and inventive story perfectly suited to fans of Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan. 

Eleven-year-old Victor’s parents are having some kind of marital trouble and decide to take a vacation by themselves, leaving their children at home. Victor's seventeen-year-old sister, Leslie, is left in charge. Once their parents leave, fast-track Leslie promptly announces she's splitting, taking off on a camping trip to Cape Cod with her hippie friends. She threatens him with dire consequences should he squeal.

Left alone in the house, Victor sees things aren’t so bad. He takes to eating pre-packaged instant dinners and watching lots of late night television. Victor loves television and is a big Walter Cronkite fan. One night, after the last program has run, he sees the most bizarre thing. It’s a group of actual lizards, on the television, playing music. The music is a bit weird to begin with, but then Victor finds he doesn’t mind it so much.

The lizard music is just the beginning of a series of strange and uncanny events. Victor meets “the chicken man”, an elderly Black man whose pet chicken, Claudia, sits under his hat. The Chicken Man, a mercurial figure who keeps popping up in different guises, eventually takes Victor to a place called Invisible Island, which is situated in the middle of Lake Mishagoo. On this island, which floats back and forth on the lakes, there lives a vibrant lizard community. They worship chickens, amongst other strange behaviour.

Daniel Pinkwater’s Lizard Music (1976) is a fun, bizarre, hallucinatory story that gets weirder and weirder, moving from dull, predictable suburbia to a surreal and comic lizard civilisation, complete with mystical places of worship. Written as a young adult novel, it’s also perfectly suited to adult readers. Fans of Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut will find much to enjoy in Pinkwater’s out-of-the-box imagination and eccentric characters.

For anyone who has ever felt themselves to be a fringe dweller, outsider or misfit, Daniel Pinkwater will offer solace with his reassuringly kooky world. A true original.

Lizard Music, by Daniel Pinkwater. Published by New York Review Books. ISBN: 9781681371849 RRP: $16.99

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Friday, August 10, 2018

The Family Tree, by Mal Peet

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A sensitive novella about family breakdown. 

A young man, Ben, is driving in a part of town he doesn't usually visit, a place where his childhood home still stands. On a whim, he decides to make a turn and visit his old house. He immediately regrets his decision as painful memories come rushing back. He remembers his mother and father and their difficult relationship which ended whilst living in the house. Ben especially remembers the treehouse outside, called “The Nest”. His father built it for him and spent much time there himself, trying to escape his problems. When Ben looks over The Nest, now belonging to a new family who have bought the property, he is dismayed at how run down it has become. It obviously has no value for the new family, but means so much to Ben.

The Family Tree, a novella for young adult readers, is a sensitive and heart-wrenching story of family breakdown and the special childhood places that can offer solace from a world of troubles. Mal Peet has written a sparse yet emotionally resonant story, capturing the trauma of watching a parents' marriage disintegrate . Emma Shoard's painterly, expressionistic illustrations provide a perfect match for Peet's sparse prose.

The Family Tree, by Mal Peet. Published by Barrington Stoke. ISBN: 9781781128053 RRP: $16.99

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Tuesday, July 31, 2018

North Melbourne Books August Newsletter - featuring Beck Dorey-Stein

In the August edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to former Obama administration staffer and writer, Beck Dorey-Stein, about her tell-all memoir From the Corner of the Oval Office.

To view the latest edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter, click here. To sign up for our monthly newsletter, click here.

North Melbourne Books Talks to Beck Dorey-Stein

North Melbourne Books: In 2012, quite by accident, you found yourself employed in the Obama administration as a stenographer. From the Corner of the Oval Office covers your five years travelling, recording and transcribing President Obama’s interviews, briefings, conference calls and speeches. The book is rich in detail: people, conversations and fly-on-the-wall observations. How did you get so much of it down on the page? Did you have any particular method?

Beck Dorey-Stein: My particular method was a frantic and inconsistent purging of emotion, mostly when I was feeling the most alienated. Whether it was writing at my kitchen table at sunrise or journaling in my bed at night, writing has always been my salve for scorching isolation. And while working at the White House as a stenographer was thrilling and a blindside tackle of honor and privilege, it was also profoundly isolating. I constantly thought to myself, “What am I doing here? And how did I get here? And where am I going?” Feeling like a weirdo outsider makes for lonely moments but also inspires lovely reasons to write.

NMB: The book is in many ways confessional. You reveal in compelling  detail the many twists and turns of your romantic relationships while working at the White House, in particular one with a fellow staffer. What made you want to write with such brutal honesty?

BDS: It’s the only way I will write. My tolerance for polished veneers is not great — mostly because perfect or impersonal is boring. Life is tough and magical and gross and funny and awkward and heartbreaking and beautiful...why pretend it’s anything less complicated when all the imperfections and struggles are what connect us?

NMB: It was interesting to read about the ambitious and career hungry people who throng the halls of power: despite their success, many are not particularly happy. Was that an irony that struck you particularly while working at such a high level? 

BDS: Yes, very much so, although Tennessee Williams had warned me in his essay, “The Catastrophe of Success,” which I thankfully read on a beach the year before I moved to Washington.  Success is dangerous because, as Williams wrote, “Security is a kind of death...” My politically-driven friends knew they had peaked when they arrived at the White House and that’s as upsetting as it is wonderful. Struggle is key to survival because it sharpens our senses. It makes us fight tougher and love harder. Complacency, which so often chases success, is the true soul-crusher — not struggle or even failure.

NMB: Your book, while being essentially a memoir, is also a search for meaning. It asks what should we do with our working lives, how to spend our time most effectively. Is there a message you hope people take away from the book?

BDS: I learned from President Obama no one is too busy or important to be kind and respectful. It’s important to look up and recognize the humanity in each other. Be kind. It’s not that difficult.

I also learned from President Obama that you need to do the work if you want to get what you want. I lucked out with a Craigslist ad, but I’d still be typing other people’s thoughts and not writing my own words if I hadn’t hustled. Fight for what you want, sure, but more importantly, work for what you want. Our biggest adversaries are so often ourselves.

NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?

BDS: I’m concurrently reading Alisyn Camerota’s Amanda Wakes Up  and Margalit Fox’s Conan Doyle for the Defense. They are both a true joy and gift to read.

From the Corner of the Oval Office: One Woman's True Story of her Accidental Career in the Obama White House, by Beck Dorey-Stein. RRP: $35

Monday, July 23, 2018

My Brigadista Year, by Katherine Paterson

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A young girl braves dangerous counterrevolutionary forces in the Cuban countryside in order to teach literacy.

It's 1961 and thirteen-year-old Lora has joined a paramilitary group to spread literacy. Only two years previously, Fidel Castro had marched on Havana and ousted the corrupt, American backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Lora defies her father and commits to one year as a “brigadista”, an army member teaching literacy in the Cuban countryside. Even thought Batista has been defeated, there is still fighting and treachery going on. Young people have been tortured and executed. Even though Lora's role is to teach reading and writing, it's still a very dangerous undertaking.

American children's writer Katherine Paterson has crafted a seamless novel about a young girl's coming-of-age in a Cuba still torn by political strife. Based on interviews with Cuban friends and personal research, the novel has an effortless quality that makes it feel like it's based on personal experience. You'd never know the author is American and not Cuban. The portrait of Lora as a young girl who wants to do the right thing for her country, but is often scared by the very real possibility that she may be killed by the Batista forces, gives her an authentic feel.

My Brigadista Year doubles as a fascinating short history of the 1961 Cuban literacy program and inspiring story of an independent young girl, volunteering for a worthy cause and finding herself transformed by the experience.

My Brigadista Year, by Katherine Paterson. Published by Walker Books. ISBN: 9781406380811  RRP: $14.99

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Monday, July 16, 2018

Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work), by Gwynne Dyer

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Many words have been written about the Trump and Brexit phenomena, trying to find a logical reason for these seemingly irrational voter outbursts. Renowned Canadian journalist and historian Gwynne Dyer tackles the subject in Growing Pains.

From an historical perspective, Gwynne Dyer argues that humans are hard wired for an egalitarian way of life. Before the advent of agriculture, humans lived in bands of no more than a hundred people. Equality and co-operation allowed these smaller communities to survive. Then came the development of agriculture, the human population exploded and tough, brutal hierarchical political systems were needed to make large-scale civilisation work. Now, we are coming to another major crossroads in human development. We are returning to our egalitarian ways: societies everywhere aspire to have government by democracy.

How does this fit in with Trump and Brexit? Interestingly, Dyer calls Trump the canary in the coal mine. He has alerted us to the fact that a noxious gas has been allowed to infect the body politic. This noxious gas is an inequality that has been expanding for the past three decades. Neoliberalism, which came into full swing under Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, has seen worker wages stagnate, while the rich have gotten richer. Before this period of neoliberal economics, productivity gains were passed onto workers. Since the 1980s, those same productivity gains have gone to the top tier of earners. (Dyer presents stark statistics that show this erosion in worker pay packets, despite their contribution to the economy.)  Automation further threatens wages and jobs in the future.

So, according to Dyer, the reason for so much voter rage is simple: gross inequality, getting worse and worse over a long period. Furthermore, he demonstrates that political and economic elites have simply ignored this anger. Voters finally decided to trash this economic orthodoxy by voting Trump and Brexit.

How to restore the equilibrium? Dyer writes strongly in favour of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a modest, regular living wage paid to all. A UBI won’t be a silver bullet, but it will be a way of reducing inequality and giving people back their dignity.

Gwynne Dyer’s writing is always punchy and witty. His work as an historian and close watcher of global politics gives his insights an added piquancy. Growing Pains is an arresting book, free of ideological cant. It will appeal to readers wanting fresh eyes looking at an often over analysed problem.

Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)
, by Gwynne Dyer. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781925322637 RRP: $29.99

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Saturday, July 14, 2018

Small Country, by Gaël Faye

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The terrible events of the Rwandan genocide form the basis of this devastating coming-of-age story.

Gabriel, or Gaby, is ten-years-old. It’s 1992. His Rwandan mother fled her country in the 1960s due to political strife and took refuge in the neighbouring country of Burundi. She married Michel, a Frenchman, and the couple had two children. Rwanda is again descending into war. Genocide is being planned by the Hutus against the minority Tutsis, and this murderous politics is infecting Burundi. Fear is in the streets, people are being murdered and everyone has grown suspicious of each other.

Gaby and his small group of friends try to innoculate themselves against this poisonous environment, yet they are not successful. Innocence is irrevocabaly lost as they are all dragged into the terrible violence. His mother, or Maman, returns to Rwanda to try to locate missing Tutsi family members, but finds either their butchered remains or news of their murder. She turns inwards, unable to get over the horror of what she has seen.

French-Rwandan Gaël Faye’s debut novel, narrated in the first person by Gaby, is an unforgettable child’s account of war and its lasting psychological effects. The story is told in a light, simple language that develops in gravity as themes of war, mass murder and morality come to predominate. Faye’s descriptions of Burundi before the war, a child’s lost paradise, often have a restrained poetic quality about them.

The tragic events of the Rwandan genocide are made palpable, creating feelings of  grief and terror.

Small Country, by Gaël Faye. Published by Hogarth. ISBN: 9781784741594 RRP: $29.99

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Friday, July 13, 2018

Our Friends in Berlin, by Anthony Quinn

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Anthony Quinn entertains and informs in equal measure with Our Friends in Berlin, a sophisticated and intelligent thriller set in London during the early 1940s. 

London, 1941. Amy Strallen, a single woman in her late twenties, is running a marriage bureau with her friend Johanna Quartermaine. The bureau has been running for about two years and to the surprise of both women has been a roaring success. They had presumed that no one would want to get married during the war, but the opposite is the case. Life is short and precarious; Londoners living under bombardment are eager to find someone before fate intervenes.

Into Amy’s office one day walks Jack Hoste. He claims to be looking for a wife, but he’s a little odd. A little dull, too. Mysteriously Hoste starts bumping into Amy when she’s out of the office and the two strike up a friendship of sorts. It turns out Hoste works for the tax office and is trying to contact a certain Marita Pardoe, who is a friend of Amy’s. The tax office, apparently, owes Marita Pardoe’s husband a large sum of money. But the more Amy gets to know Jack Hoste, the more she finds out that her new friend is not all he seems. Is he a spy? And if so, which side is he working for, the British of the Nazis?

Our Friends in Berlin is a perfectly plotted espionage novel set in London during the bombing raids of the early forties. The story runs at a neat clip, with nicely paced twists and turns along the way without at all feeling contrived.

The novel’s great achievement is its authentic 1940s flavour. It captures  the mood and atmosphere of London during the blackouts – the smouldering ruins, the bombing casualties, the privations and the great fortitude of the people. Quinn’s language is uncanny in its fidelity to the period: it has the feel of Orwell’s early fiction, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, or a Dorothy Sayers thriller. The clever plot is nicely balanced against a cast of fully fleshed, three dimensional characters. Quinn writes women particularly well. The central figure of the novel, Amy Strallen, is drawn with great sympathy. The reader really walks in her shoes for the whole story, feeling her pains and disappointments, her rare moments of happiness and reprieve from war’s misery.

An espionage thriller set during the Second World War doesn’t seem to promise much beyond cheap thrills and cliches. Our Friends in Berlin is a very pleasant surprise, rich in psychological depth and aesthetic pleasures.

I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining yet informative novel about London during the war years.

Our Friends in Berlin, by Anthony Quinn. Published by Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 9781787330986 RRP: $32.99

Release date 16th June

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Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Cow Book, by John Connell

Staff review by Chris Saliba

John Connell describes six months on an Irish family farm, raising calves. An intimate portrait of rural life, its triumphs and heartaches.

After years spent working in Australia and Canada, twenty-nine-year old John Connell decided to move back to his parents’ farm in his native Ireland. The family have been farmers for generations, raising cattle and sheep for sale at market. The Cow Book covers a six-month period and reads like a series of short, freewheeling essays on farming life. Interspersed with the essays is a potted history of the cow, from myths and legends, to how the cow helped colonial expansion, and finally today, to the horrors of factory farming, where cows live their entire lives in brutal feedlots.

Raising calves for sale is hard, messy, dirty work. The book opens with a full-blown description of a calf being delivered. The author’s arm reaches into the cow’s passage and rummages around for the calf’s feet, then pulls it out, trying not to kill the calf in the process.

The calves are grown to about 14 months old, then sold at market. When the calves are young, they must have their horns removed. The normal practice was once sawing them off, but now they are burnt off, which is deemed more humane.

There are dangers involved in farming that city dwellers probably never think of. Cows produce a lot of excrement, which is kept in slurry pits. When the excrement is removed, it has to be stirred up first. One farmer and his two sons were performing this work when their dog fell into the pit. The father tried to rescue the dog, but the powerful methane gas knocked him out and killed him. The two sons died in the same way, trying to save their father. They had no hope against the noxious fumes (no wonder they are so environmentally damaging.)

Despite the subject matter, full of so much death, disease, excrement and bodily fluids, John Connell has written a beautiful and moving memoir. The descriptions of the cows, their personalities, intelligence and ability to remember, induces great respect for these wonderful creatures. At one point Connell wishes that he could communicate with the cows; at another he rather whimsically describes the cows in the field “eating and singing to one another”. Of the family's prize winning bull, Eric, Connell writes, “And so, golden and strong, smelling of rose petal and hibiscus, we took Eric to the show.”

The central drama of The Cow Book is the difficult relationship Connell has with his father. The two often fight, or when they’re not fighting, there are simmering tensions. The son wonders whether he will keep on with the farming life; if he does, he’s committed to producing organic meat. (Interestingly, Connell refuses to eat pork because of ethical concerns he has with the way pigs are farmed.)

The Cow Book is written in beautifully simple, sing-song like prose. Both engaging and instructive, this memoir of farm and family is an eye-opener onto rural life.

The Cow Book, by John Connell. Published by Granta. ISBN: 9781783784172 RRP: $29.99

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Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Vicarage Family, by Noel Streatfeild

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The first in a series of three autobiographical novels by Noel Streatfeild (Ballet Shoes), A Vicarage Family concentrates on the years leading up to the First World War.

The Strangeway family – Isobel, Victoria, Louise and the youngest, Dick – are moving to Eastborne. Their father, a local vicar, has received a new posting. This new job will be good for his career, as it's a bigger vicarage, and could even lead to him becoming a bishop. They are all good and well behaved children, except for Victoria (who we learn in the Streatfeild's author's note is based on herself.) Vicky is argumentative, rebellious and never quite happy. She's resentful of her teachers and somewhat jealous of her sisters, who she sees as being prettier and more talented than herself. For that's her major problem, a mildly existential one: she doesn't know what she's to be in life. Gradually, however, she begins to see that she might have talent as a writer. Her cousin, John, has been giving her books and Vicky has been secretly reading them, even memorising poetry.

While A Vicarage Family reads like a perfectly constructed children's novel, with its well defined characters, differing points of view and naturalistic prose, the book is often suffused with a realism and candour that has the power to shock. Streatfeild, while looking back to her youth during the 1910s, is critical of the mores and attitudes of the times. When Vicky's younger brother Dick is sent to boarding school, it is noted “To neither parent did it seem cruel to send little home-loving Dick to boarding school while still a mere baby.” In another passage Streatfeild writes with a groan of the simple, conservative ways of the vicarage. “God was in his Heaven; the King on his throne; you voted Conservative; the English were the finest people in the world; there was no grey about it - you were right or you were wrong.” The novel also discusses on many occasions the status of women, how little was expected of them, how they were to hope for little for themselves. When the children's father talks about the Suffragettes, active at that time, it is in an angry voice. “They want to behave like men and vote for members of Parliament – which would mean blue murder – the ruin of the country.”

Despite Vicky's many miseries and disappointments, her clashes with authority and self-inflicted wounds, A Vicarage Family still has an idyllic feel about it, of a time when things may have been frustrating, but family in the end was there to protect and cosset you from life's larger dangers. Streatfeild finishes her story in 1914. Suddenly the war appears and the cosy, quite normal world of the vicarage, is turned upside down with a horror never anticipated and little understood.

A Vicarage Family, by Noel Streatfeild. Published by Puffin. ISBN: 9780141368665 RRP: $19.99

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