2017 Reviews


April

Snake Like Charms, Amanda Joy (UWA Publishing)
The word that comes most readily to mind in describing the poetry of Amanda Joy is ‘surprising’. Like the numerous snakes inhabiting this collection, the poet can lie still, camouflaged in verses of natural and sometimes rugged beauty before striking with sudden precision. Her movement within a poem can be exhilarating – and, as with snakes, it isn’t always easy to see how it works. An impressive volume both in stylistic range and the scope of its subject matter, Snake Like Charms shows Joy most at home in nature, observing human relationships and visceral landscapes with the wary eye of one untamed.


Benang, Kim Scott (Fremantle Press)
Republished 2017 in the 'Treasures' series
Following its inital publication, Kim Scott’s second novel Benang was the joint winner of the prestigious Miles Franklin Award in 2000. The novel tells the story of one Aboriginal man’s struggle for meaningful identity in early twentieth-century Western Australia, a society in which racist ideology seeks to dehumanise, indeed eradicate altogether, the indigenous population. Blending fictionalised family history, archival material, magic realism, and a poetic rendering of the indigenous connection to the land, Benang shifts from anger and lament to a celebration of the resilience and sense of community of Aboriginal culture. Beautifully written and profoundly moving, its exploration of the psychosis of racism and its plea for justice and compassion continue to powerfully resonant in contemporary white Australia.


Rubik, Elizabeth Tan (Brio Books)
Elizabeth Tan’s debut novel-in-stories Rubik is a puzzle whose pieces initially appear so disparate that one cannot imagine how they are to meaningfully connect. The death of Elena Rubik. A multi-purpose octopus. A piano teacher’s disappearance. A conspiracy in film, if one looks close enough. Tan soon reveals the astounding cleverness of her narrative, interweaving layers of reality and thoughtful social commentary so deftly, you can almost hear the ‘click’ of a Rubik’s Cube as Jules Valentine – Elena’s best friend – advances on an adventure involving many moving pieces. Contemplative and experimental, Tan’s Perth-based fiction is thoroughly refreshing and reveals a new local talent to be celebrated.


 

Twenty Two Years to Life, Mohammed Massoud Morsi (Mohammed Hussein Miheasen)
Twenty Two Years to Life is the story of a young man and woman who fall in love, get married, and plan a family together. It is perhaps the most ‘normal’ story in the world – a love story. Except that in the life of this deeply devoted couple ‘normal’ is also a harsh world of permits, razor wire, scarcity and fear. The dichotomy between love and oppression echoes through this powerful narrative, taking the reader on a shifting journey between the delicate and the devastating. In Twenty Two Years to Life Morsi, writing with tremendous empathy, has distilled a political conflict into a very human, visceral story. In doing so he asks us all to consider what a person bereft of hope might eventually become capable of.


My River Sanctuary, Robin Bower (RB Publishing)
Set by the Swan River in South Perth, My River Sanctuary weaves a heart-warming story around two women. Kim, a Chinese-Australian woman, is yearning for connection with her teenage son and with her own heritage. She enlists the help of Ara, a newly arrived asylum seeker from Afghanistan to re-build her father’s market garden into a modern-day urban farm. The garden’s smells, textures and bounty fill Kim and Ara with memories and connection beyond their own imaginings. Told across a thrity-year time span, My River Sanctuary is a big story of love, rejection, prejudice and identity, and throughout, that big old river, constant as ever, rolls on.


Her Mother's Secret, Natasha Lester (Hachette Australia)
At its heart Her Mother’s Secret is a love story played out against the backdrop of the Roaring Twenties. Ambitious chemist Leonora East leaves her home in England seeking an opportunity to create accessible cosmetics for all women in a time where lipstick and mascara were a taboo, the devil’s tonic of loose women, movie stars and harlots. In this, her second historical fiction novel, Natasha Lester recounts a vibrant depiction of post-war New York and the birth of women’s liberation in a post-war society. This is a captivating tale, eloquently written and engaging to the last page. Her Mothers Secret is yet another reminder of how far women have come, a signature theme which Lester has firmly put her stamp on.


March

The Perth Freight Link: Stranger than Fiction, David Whish-Wilson (The Monthly Essays, March 2017)
In this compelling essay for The Monthly, Whish-Wilson has married his deep knowledge of Perth's social and environmental development with the sensibility that perhaps only a crime writer can bring to the complex, murky story of 'Roe 8' and the Perth Freight Link (PFL). He methodically and eloquently unpacks the history of the contentious project, citing experts' reports and modelling that recommend against the project but have been ignored; pointing to layers of bureaucracy and legislation that have been side-stepped or dealt with simply through retrospective re-writing; and questioning the manner in which private sector contracts have been awarded. While Whish-Wilson's case against the PFL is laid out with surgical precision, a deeply poignant take-away from this essay is the image of large flocks of the endangered Carnaby's black cockatoo endlessly circling the now devastated wetlands ...



Ways of Being Here, Rafeif Ismail, Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes, Tinashe Jakwa and Yuot Alaak (Margaret River Press and Centre for Stories)
Don't let its size fool you - this little volume of four short stories by four Western Australian-based writers of African descent packs a big literary punch. This is a powerful collection of stories that speak of loss, of family and belonging, of identity, of memory, of horrendous acts of brutality and small acts of kindness. Each one is bold, brave, disturbing, and above all beautifully written, and each will reward re-reading. Ways of Being Here is another impressive title in MRP's expanding list, giving voice to alternative experiences and bringing four new writers to well-deserved attention.


Bloodlines, Nicole Sinclair (Margaret River Press)
Interweaving two narratives that shift between a close-knit farming community in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt and village life in the islands of Papua New Guinea, Bloodlines contrasts the story of thirty-year old Beth, struggling to come to terms with a recent tragedy, with the story of her parents, Clem and Rose, and their intense love for each other. Exploring the attachments that we form to those places we call home and the strength – and complexities – of the bonds that grow within families and communities, Bloodlines is a novel about belonging and about recognising your place in the world. This is an ambitious, big-hearted, at times confronting novel from an exciting new voice in Western Australian literature.


Before You Forget, Julia Lawrinson (Penguin Random House)
Established young adult author Lawrinson takes on new ground in this tragi-comic exploration of the impact of early-onset Alzheimer's on a family. Told through the eyes of Year 12 art student Amelia, the story is unflinching in its description of the effects of this heartbreaking disease, but leavened throughout with heart and humour. As Amelia navigates the difficult terrain of adolescence, she must also come to terms with her father's personality change, erratic behaviour, and subsequent diagnosis, and renegotiate her relationship with both parents as family dynamics shift. A wry, resilient character, Amelia is above all realistically drawn – at once angry and sad, short-tempered and tender as she tries to find a place for herself within an experience that makes little space for the young. As well as shining a clear light on an important topic, Before You Forget is a compelling story full of compassion, tightly and beautifully told.


Old Growth, John Kinsella (Transit Lounge)
John Kinsella is a master story teller and poet. His new collection of 27 short stories centres around the lives of ordinary people living in the Western wheat belt. Kinsella has a knack of getting to the heart of things and readers of Old Growth will be drawn in, moved and surprised as they walk alongside these powerfully drawn characters. There are dark themes running through these stories – dysfunctional families, male violence, and lives on the margins of society. There is also hope and redemption and the occasional plot twist! Prepare to be delighted and unsettled all at once when you dive into this compelling collection.



February


The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry,
eds John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan (Fremantle Press)

Edited and with a long and informative Introduction by two of Australia’s leading poets, this large, beautifully presented volume is a must for all readers of WA poetry and a wonderful introduction for those with less knowledge. It’s a ‘historically based anthology’, but as the Introduction explains, the greatest concentration is on the post-Second World War period. The choice of poets is broad, including many Indigenous writers, those of non-English speaking backgrounds, and those born or living outside WA, but connected to the State. It’s both ‘diverse and fluid’. And the selection of work has been similarly well informed, with each poem chosen being one the editors ‘respect, like or consider relevant to the historical overview’ of the volume. There is wide recognition of earlier survey anthologies, and the editors’ concern with environmental issues and those of ‘belonging’ in its broadest sense underlies the Introduction and many of the choices made.  Enjoy this valuable collection for many years.


Border Crossing, Caitlin Maling (Fremantle Press)
Whereas Caitlin Maling’s first volume of poetry was firmly rooted in Western Australian soil, her second reads more like fragments in a travel journal. Ranging from Houston and Monterey to Malaysia and Vietnam, Maling reminds us that — as Neil Finn wrote — you always take the weather with you. Some poems, like the wonderful ‘California’,  are lyrical narratives capturing felt recollections of a particular moment in time. Others are powerfully direct, while still others work through wild juxtapositions, like a roll of adventitious snaps that reveal a photographer’s soul. Border Crossing may not always be melodic, but will resonate with many.


Frame, AK Alliss (Atlas Productions)
Frame is a fast-paced cyberpunk thriller set in the near future in a world of omnipresent danger: decimated by climate change, with creeping totalitarianism, and subjected to daily occurrences of “McTerrorism”. Hannah, working as a content producer for a social media celebrity, notices a tie to a terrorist organisation hidden in an image she is manipulating. This sets her on a journey to confront the truth behind her husband’s death, and to unravel the real force behind a global conspiracy. Raising questions about celebrity culture and the increasingly dominant role of technology in every aspect of our lives, Frame is topical and prescient. A hugely enjoyable genre-bender from an exciting new voice.


History Mysteries: The Lost Explorer",
Mark Greenwood (Penguin Books)
One in a series of four gripping stories of little-known yet fascinating Australian events, The Lost Explorer leaves you eager to read more. Before disappearing, Leichhardt, an 1840s migrant, achieved remarkable accomplishments in exploration, naming rivers, plants and animals never previously seen by Europeans. Mark Greenwood lays bare the historical investigation process, including quotes from journals, photographs, maps and newspaper cuttings of the day. Mark’s humorous, lean storytelling would have been enjoyed by his namesake, Mark Twain, whom he quotes: ‘Australian history … is so curious and strange … It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies.’


The Drifter, Anthea Hodgson (Penguin Books Australia)
A new addition to the rural romance genre, Anthea Hodgson’s debut novel The Drifter is an easy and enjoyable weekend read. Local readers will identify with its WA Wheatbelt setting - the sheep farm, the colloquial language and the typical country town rituals. After a life-altering event, young and carefree Cate Christie escapes to her great aunt Ida’s farm to deal with her demons. During her self-imposed exile, she meets the mysterious squatter Henry, who is hiding a few secrets of his own, and discovers she has much to learn from her aunt about life and about love.


January

Hooked on Herring, Jacqueline Hagan (Margaret River Press)
Over the past five years, Margaret River Press has produced a range of books that are as pleasurable to hold and to look at as they are to read. The latest of these is the beautifully designed, hard-back publication Hooked on Herring. It's surprisingly joyful to explore a cook book that celebrates one specific ingredient - in this case, the versatile and flavorful herring - and in these pages you will discover many mouth-watering recipes that have been collected by the author during her years of travel. The recipes are interspersed with anecdotes from her travels and presented on the page within a design aesthetic that is both contemporary and nostalgic. Hooked on Herring is a book destined to become a staple in your kitchen.


Return of the Dinosaurs, Bronwyn Houston (Magabala Books)
“Imagine if dinosaurs came back to Broome! What would they do?”
Inspired by the ancient dinosaur footprints that can still be found along the Kimberley coastline, Bronwyn Houston takes the reader on a lighthearted and fun-filled exploration of how dinosaurs would enjoy Broome life in the modern age. Would they go to the movies? Frolic on Cable Beach at sunset? How would they cope with the planes and tourists? This whimsical fancy is beautifully offset with fun, brightly coloured illustrations accompanying “tongue-in-cheek” reactions by the dinosaurs as they navigate their way through the sights of Broome. Children will enjoy the dinosaurs on their escapades and the reactions of the locals to them being there. There is fun to be had by all in Return of the Dinosaurs.



Writing the Dream, various contributors (Serenity Press)
Twenty-four writers, some well known, others less so, published in a wide range of genres, contribute to this anthology. Their varied accounts of how they realised the aspiring writer’s dream of being published are followed by five tips for those who follow that dream. While there are no surprises, they provide timely reminders: read widely and attentively; stick to a writing routine; find a good writing group/editor/agent; and so on. Most importantly, keep writing! Guy Salvidge passes on Harry Crews’ advice: ‘Put your ass on the chair.’ Full of interest, this is a book for  both writers and readers.


On Aspiring: Journey Beyond Courage, Wendy Campbell (The Glastonbury Company)
On Aspiring is Campbell’s ‘heart on sleeve’ memoir of her quest to overcome deep-seated psychological fears and significant physical health issues to achieve a personal goal – to reach the summit of one of New Zealand’s premier technical climbs, Mt Aspiring. While much of the book is given to the story of 'before' and 'after', readers with their own personal experience of climbing are likely to respond most strongly to the passages describing Campbell’s challenging time on the mountain. On Aspiring is ultimately a book that will resonate with readers who are seeking motivation in their own lives and who are open to finding inspiration in the determination and success of another.