New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

At the start, this connection of Othello and a primary school in the 1970s seemed inspired. By the end I was just really frustrated by it. 

New boy Osei, from Ghana, arrives at a Washington DC primary school late in the year.

It is 1975 and he’s the only black kid in sight. His connection with popular girl Dee is immediate – they bond, standing against the suspicions, envy and curiosity of the rest of the schoolyard.

But Ian is watching very carefully, and looking for an advantage.

Casper, secure as the most popular boy, is friendly, while Mimi and Blanca wait on the fringes. Over the course of this one day, early sunshine descends into tragedy – misunderstandings, evil machinations, racism, and love all play their part.

A central motif is a pink, strawberry-embossed pencil case – it belongs to Osei’s sister, he gives it to Dee, and she misplaces it, allowing it to become a powerful pawn in a much bigger game.

Shakespeare fans may already get some of the references, for this is Othello transformed as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

On the plus side, the intense tragedy of this story translates surprisingly effectively into the squabbling of these 11-year-olds, and Chevalier has a highly readable style.

But I was left thinking less of the original play – it lost some of its grand tragedy in the shift to childish players. The grandeur of the language in Shakespeare’s original lifts the story above some of its sillier elements.

And while 11-year-olds might be this sexualised in 2017, they weren’t in 1975. This is something that probably wouldn’t matter to a younger audience (that is, younger than 45 or 50), who have no way of knowing that it was ever different. I can’t know if this is how Chevalier remembers it, or whether she did this as a way of connecting with a younger audience.

This book was published in May 2017. 

The Starlings, by Vivienne Kelly

A good read, though it felt like it took a long time to get going. 

Nicky Starling, 8, loves his family, even if (secretly) he doesn’t share his dad’s passion for Hawthorn Football Club.

It’s 1985, the season is just beginning, and nothing less than the premiership cup – his holy grail – will be good enough.

But Nicky’s keener on that other holy grail, the one that occupies the minds and hearts of King Arthur and his legendary nights.

Or perhaps Shakespeare will do just as well, as Nicky repurposes his own action figures and his sister’s discarded dolls to act out his own versions of these great stories.

But behind the scenes, Nicky’s family is falling apart. Secrets, lies, illicit romance, an affair and a family death all pull at the ties that have bound this family together.

Nicky’s innocent observations of what he hears and sees one by one set off detonations way beyond his understanding, affecting his parents, grandfather, sister Pippa, and his grandmother’s nurse, Rose, whom he adores.

Sydney-based Kelly, recently appointed editor of Mumbrella, has a readable style and Nicky makes for an entertaining narrator. His pastiche plays, rewriting Shakespeare and King Arthur, are often hilarious, though there are quite a lot of them, and I’m not sure they were all needed.

The story takes a while to get going, but the scene-setting Kelly does makes each of the later revelations more powerful.

Into the White: Scott’s Antarctic Journey, by Joanna Grochowicz

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It’s one of the great adventure stories, and this is a good introduction for all ages.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s hunt for the South Pole is one of the great, tragic stories of exploration and adventure.

From the day his ship, the Terra Nova, left New Zealand on November 26, 1910, to his death after encountering temperatures of  -40C, it was a tale both of extraordinary achievement and suffering.

Serious scientific research accompanied Scott’s aim of being the first to the South Pole, but he was beaten in that international race by Norwegian Roald Amundsen’s group by just a few weeks.

On his journey back to base, his small group encountered unexpectedly severe weather, and failed by just 11 miles to get to their next food source, only a relatively short distance from base.

It was an extraordinary trip, in circumstances that are almost impossible to imagine.

Grochowicz tells the story simply and vividly, giving life to the crew and fellow explorers who went with Scott so far into those appalling conditions, with just the support of a bunch of long-suffering ponies and sled dogs.

This is a great entry into what is a truly epic story, with a great collection of photographs.

And then go find a copy of Scott’s Last Expedition: The Personal Journals of Captain R.F. Scott – still widely available more than a century after publication in 1913 – for what is the incredible first-hand account.

This book was published in April 2017. The review was also published in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine.

The Night Guest, By Fiona McFarlane

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Australian writer Fiona McFarlane has just won the world’s richest literary prize for young writers, The Dylan Thomas Prize, for her second book, a collection of short stories. This was her first, and it was fabulous. 

Ruth wakes in the night at her seaside home certain there’s a tiger in the house, prowling through her lounge room.

By the time she tells her son her fears over the phone, she realises she just sounds old and confused.

Then Frida arrives, sent by the government, she says, to care for Ruth. What starts as an hour a day of cleaning and personal help gradually encroaches on Ruth’s whole life.

She’s worried at times at what Frida is doing, but also grateful. How would she get by without her large, sometimes fierce, carer? Particularly when the tiger comes again.

As Ruth becomes less certain about the things she thought she knew, her childhood life in Fiji becomes more real and old memories come flooding back.

She makes contact with her youthful crush, a doctor, and the flame is kindled again.

But what is Frida really up to, and can she be trusted?

This startling debut novel from Sydney-based McFarlane is a disturbing and unsettling slow burn of a psychological thriller about love and dependence.

McFarlane places the reader claustrophobically inside Ruth’s increasing confusion, so we can see and fear what’s coming but can’t do anything about it.

The book has already sold around the world.

Update in 2017: The Night Guest ended up being shortlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2014 and for the Guardian first book award in the UK. It also won the inaugural Voss Literary prize.

It was in my 2013 list of best books I’d read that year.

Her new book is titled the The High Places. 

This book was published in 2013. 

The Little Breton Bistro, by Nina George

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Sweet and a little dark. An enjoyable piece of fluff, with the great plus of featuring love and friendship among mature adults.  

Marianne, at 60, is stuck in a loveless, cold, and lifeless marriage.

Frustrated and depressed, she decides she’s had enough, and plans to end her life in the Seine.

But her suicide attempt doesn’t go as she hoped, and the hospital she finds herself in is even worse for her state of mind. She walks out, heading for the sea, and for the chance to do it right this time.

But life – and a certain Breton magic – intervenes.

She finds a town in Brittany that has a little bistro by the sea, and a desperate need for some of her skills.

Bit by bit, as she works and gets to know the locals, Marianne finds purpose and happiness – and discovers that she can start finally to remember who she is, and what she is capable of. And perhaps that might even mean love, finally.

But, having had her attentions for 41 years of marriage, her husband isn’t ready to be forgotten quite so easily.

Though this is somewhat darker than her previous novel – the international best-seller The Little Paris Bookshop – George looks likely to have another hit here.

It’s part of its undeniable charm that the romance that infuses the whole is focused on mature citizens well past their first blush of youth. Corinna Hente

This book was published in April 2017. This review will appear in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. 

Disappearing off the Face of the Earth, By David Cohen

This is one of the strangest books I’ve read. I’m still not entirely sure what I think of it, except that I couldn’t put it down. 

Ken Guy runs a storage facility on the fringes of Brisbane, and he’s feeling quite hopeful.

After a bit of a checkered work and life history, it seems things might be starting to go his way. Business is steady, and he’s in the promising early stages of a relationship, with someone he really likes.

But just down the road, Pharoah’s Tomb Self Storage – a national chain that could put him out of business – is starting construction of a new facility.

And Bruce – a former work colleague who got him involved in some dodgy practices in the past – reappears in his life.

At the start it seems like he’s a useful addition, but strange things start to happen, often at odd times of the night.

People are disappearing, and the one thing that connects them is his storage facility. And why are there so many flickering florescent lights everywhere?

Described as a “surprisingly funny study of physical and mental deterioration”, Disappearing Off The Face Of The Earth is one of the oddest books I’ve read.

It is funny at times, engrossing throughout, and really quite disturbing. This is Brisbane writer David Cohen’s second novel.

This book was published in May 2017

The Last Garden, by Eva Hornung

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Amazing book from one of Australia’s best writers.

Benedict Orion comes home from boarding school – excited to get away from books and into the everyday work of the family farm – to find his parents dead in a murder-suicide.

In deep shock, he retreats, unable anymore to step foot into the home he loved. He finds refuge in the barn, in close quarters with the old mare Melba, and the young feisty stallion Fell.

His neighbours in Wahrheit, a close-knit Germanic religious farming community in South Australia, are patiently waiting for the second coming of the Messiah.

Benedict – now living in the barn, never leaving the farm – remains withdrawn from the horrors of the past or thoughts of the future, existing solely through the horses and the needs of the farm and the passing seasons.

Wahrheit’s pastor keeps watch, visiting and bringing food from the community, seeing the gawky teenager slowly rediscover himself. But there are other pressures building in Wahrheit, and the pastor has to find his own way through doubts and trauma.

Hornung won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for her last book, Dog Boy, which explored some similar territory in the close bonds between boy and animal.

Full of symbolism but not overwhelmed by it, this is a powerful and wonderful book, and the writing is mesmerising. Corinna Hente

This book was published in May 2017

Memoirs: a bit of a whinge, and some bouquets too

A great memoir/autobiography is, to my mind, a combination of two things – powerful writing full of personal insight and understanding, and the story of a interesting or remarkable life.

Great writing can transcend a non-famous life, though fame isn’t enough if the writing is ordinary.

Brian Thompson’s Keeping Mum, which won the Costa Biography Prize in 2006, is one example. It was the story of a bizarre wartime childhood, though in many ways it wasn’t so unusual in what were extraordinary times.

But the way he wrote about it was magnificent. What could have been a misery memoir (I am so sick of them, even if the horror of them demands compassion), was full of humour and compassion. It was moving and funny and wonderful.

Music legend Patti Smith’s Just Kids is magnificent. Certainly she has had an interesting life in a pretty big spotlight, but what makes this book remarkable is the quality of insight, and the beauty of the writing.

Melbourne writer Kate Holden’s In My Skin took what could have been a tawdry and ugly tale – a descent into drug addiction and prostitution, and out again – and turned it into a triumph. Beautiful writing, and a keen understanding. A great memoir.

Anything by David Sedaris. Though I pity his family.

But there seems to be a trend lately in fairly famous people writing memoirs about lives that really aren’t very interesting. And the writing isn’t great enough to make up for this deficit. They are lauded by their literary friends, and sales go through the roof.

But really, just dull.

(I must state here, these are strictly personal views, reflecting what I want in a memoir. I am aware many people will not agree).

A recent example is Magda Szubanksi’s biography, Reckoning. It received a lot of positive press, particularly around the revelation of her father’s work as an assassin in the war.

In part the positiveness of the response is a reflection of the warmth and sweetness of her presence on our TV screens and stages.

But getting to that revelation in the book took a long time. I was at least 150 pages in, and it was still dealing with primary school! And seriously, nothing that interesting was happening.

As she moved into high school there was confusion about sexuality, and some tricky stuff to deal with. But no more than almost everyone suffers in school.

And the writing, while clear and appealing, was fairly procedural. This happened and that happened and then that happened. If I’m going to read about everyday stuff, I need the quality of the insights or the writing to raise it above the ordinary, to give it a reason for me to want to keep reading.

If I want to read about ordinarily-odd and tormenting primary school days, I can write my own. So could most of my friends.

Then came Clementine Ford’s Fight Like A Girl. I picked this up wanting to read more of her terrifically bolshy, outspoken, uncompromising feminist manifesto. She is saying what needs to be said, and I applaud her for it.

But again, for the chapters I managed to get through, this seemed to be a misery memoir, all about how as a girl she got bullied, people were horrible (how dare they!) …

Yes, I’m sure it was bad, but I thought I was buying a political treatise, not a memoir.

Perhaps my lack of connection is a reflection of my age, since she and I are different generations. For a younger generation, it sometimes seems it’s enough to claim victimhood, and then everyone rallies around. In mine, it would never have occurred to us. I’m not saying it was a better way of dealing with things – I’m sure it’s more personally destructive – but perhaps some aspects have stuck. I don’t much like wallowing.

In any case, it’s that kind of sideways memoir I find particularly annoying. I think the writers know their life isn’t actually interesting enough to write about, but they really want to. So they find an acceptable framework and slip it in there.

The latest is a new one, My Life with Bob, by Pamela Paul. She’s the editor of the NY Times Book Review (that earned an instant girl crush from me), and it’s about her “book of books”, a journal she has kept since she was a girl detailing every book she’s read.

It’s about the “deep and powerful relationship between book and reader”, about how and why we read, and about our own stories.

Well, yes. Kinda.

Again, it’s mostly a memoir. Her dating life, her disastrous first marriage, her children, her job history, scattered through with the books she was reading at the time.

And as much as I desperately wanted to love this, because I understand that obsession with reading deep in my bones, the reality is, her life isn’t that interesting. And there is not enough actual insight to make reading about it worthwhile.

Consequently, I find myself reading about one of my favourite topics – books – and I’m bored. And that’s some kind of crime.

However, the memoirs I don’t like have probably outsold the ones I do, which puts me in a big minority, while books like Keeping Mum are long forgotten by the market, if not by me.

On the other hand, it’s clear that books like Reckoning and Fight Like A Girl struck a chord in the local market and people love them.

I just want more.

Some more great memoirs

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain 
Poum and Alexandre, By Catherine de Saint Phalle
Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl – A memoir, by Carrie Brownstein
The White Road: A pilgrimage of sorts, by Edmund de Waal
West With the Night, by Beryl Markham
Dry, by Augusten Burroughs. Or Running with Scissors
H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald
Three Cups of Tea, by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson

Coming up soon on my bedside table

Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Col. Chris Hadfield
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

Some fascinating history, some amusing dialogue, and (for me) an unbelievable romance. Generally quite good fun. 

The Grail, ancient secrets, hidden chambers deep under cathedrals, forgotten ruins, lost books, the legend of Arthur, generations of brave guardians of a precious artifact, an intrepid investigator and his pretty co-conspirator.

So far, so Da Vinci Code.

But this is a universe away from that genre of historic religious thriller. Arthur Prescott is a book-loving university lecturer who is impatient with modern technology.

His passion is the Barchester Cathedral library, where ancient books give him an opportunity to pursue his interest in the Grail, a secret calling passed on to him by his grandfather.

In comes Bethany Davis, there to “digitize” the ancient manuscripts to make them available to all. At first at odds, they become companions in the search for the lost book of Ewolda, the little-known Saxon saint associated with the site, racing against time to save the precious library from being sold and dispersed.

Charlie Lovett, best-selling author of The Bookman’s Tale, is the American son of a Professor of English and his love for Britain shows on every page, to the point where the Englishness of everything threatens to become overly twee. (It’s a thing you see in the books of a few American writers of English crime. Early Elizabeth George is a classic example). And yes, even Jeeves gets a mention.

It could easily have been titled: What ho, Jeeves! Is that the Grail?

But in all, this is a fun and light-hearted romp through history. Some will recognise Barchester as the creation of 19th century British author Anthony Trollope.

Quicksand, by Malin Persson Giolito

I’m not a big reader of Scandi crime, but this is terrific, and very different from the usual. A courtroom drama that’s also a sharp critique of modern society. 

Eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg was always popular and smart, a star student at her high school.

The icing on the cake comes when she starts going out with Sebastian, the charismatic, golden son of the richest man in Sweden.

Everything seems perfect, until it all starts going off the rails. Now she is on trial for murder, after a mass shooting at her school.

When police arrive at the massacre site, Maja is sitting on the floor of a classroom completely unharmed, with Sebastian lying dead in her lap. The four other people in the classroom have been shot.

Maja, near catatonic, is arrested, charged and jailed pending her trial on a whole range of charges. But what brought them all to that point, and how guilty is Maja really?

As she sits through the traumatic trial, supported by Sweden’s best criminal lawyer, we learn the back story – from the joy of her first weeks together with Sebastian to her growing unhappiness, particularly with Sebastian’s vicious father, Claes.

Her closest friendships, with Amanda and Samir, came under strain as drugs and violence increasingly surround her.

Quicksand, which won Best Crime Novel of the Year in 2016 in Sweden, is a belting read, gripping from the first page to the last. Giolito knows her stuff, having worked as a lawyer in a major law firm.

This book is published in April 2017.