Margaret Thatcher, The Clash and the IRA bombings form a turbulent background to this drama about late 70s England.
It's the late 1970s. The Labour government is on the nose with the British public. There are endless strikes and general industrial trouble. The garbage collectors' strike pushes everyone's patience to the limit, as rubbish piles up on the streets. Even longtime Labour supporters are now willing to give Margaret Thatcher a go. It's also a time of violence, with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) launching terror attacks and assassinations.
Four characters from different walks of life make for a multilayered plot in Anthony Quinn's new novel, London, Burning. Young policewoman Vicky Tress finds herself uncovering corruption in the police force, and manages to help save an innocent man accused of helping the IRA. Journalist Hannah Strode interviews high-level politicians and celebrities alike, often finding herself drawn into tricky situations. Freddie Selves is a theatre director with a high profile and a penchant for affairs on the side. Finally, there is Callum Conlan, an Irish academic suffering writer's block and trying to find a personal direction in life. All these characters throng a busy, turbulent London at a time of critical change.
London, Burning is wide ranging, with a large cast of characters and a story that sprawls in many directions. The novel would easily convert into a television series, with its historical focus and different plot strands. Quinn does tie up a lot of loose ends quite neatly in the end, but the book doesn't have a sharp focus or point of view. It presents more as an ambient piece on late 70s London, with a soundtrack featuring the likes of The Clash, David Bowie and Joni Mitchell. Music lovers of this period will enjoy discussions of their favourite albums and artists. Even Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" makes an appearance.
An enjoyable, page-turning trip through a time that would usher in a new political orthodoxy.
London, Burning, by Anthony Quinn. Published by Little, Brown. $32.99
A pithy, entertaining short history of China.
Writer and sinologist Linda Jaivin takes the reader on a speedy, drive-through history of China, starting with Stone Age Peking Man (homo erectus pekinensis) eking out a living along the Yellow River's fertile alluvial plain, through millennia of dynastic rule – the Zhou, the Qin, the Hang etc. – right up to the last great dynasty, the Qing. Incursions from the British (the humiliating Opium Wars) and the Japanese (the Rape of Nanking) during the 20th century caused great instability and civil war. Mao Zedong and the Communist Party would eventually win, only for China to be further plunged into turmoil, with famines and the so-called Cultural Revolution causing extraordinary mayhem and disorder. Jaivin finally documents the economic rise of China in the post-Mao era and ends with a word of caution about the repressive, authoritarian government of President Xi Jinping, with its cult of personality.
Linda Jaivin writes a snappy history, thronged with a teeming cast of great personalities. Special attention is paid to women's contribution, through sketches of female warriors, politicians, scientists, radicals and trailblazers. For those seeking perspective on this complex and multifaceted society, The Shortest History of China is instructive and enjoyable.
The Shortest History of China, by Linda Jaivin. Published by Black Inc. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An evolutionary biologist looks at the future of sex.
According to evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks, the future holds an abundance of artificial intimacy. New sex technologies, from sex robots to virtual reality porn, will anticipate our every desire. So clever will the algorithms mining our personal data be that they will predict our every need. Dating apps will cut out the time wasted swiping and scrolling, express matching us with life partners we never knew we were meant for. Even further, machines could learn fantasies we never knew we had.
If all this sounds daunting, Brooks does weigh the possible negatives. Too much time spent enjoying ArtInt (artificial intimacies) could take time away from real-life relationships. Behemoth tech companies knowing your most private desires wouldn’t be able to resist the financial opportunities. But on balance, Brooks believes, the good will outweigh the bad: the lonely and sex starved will get some relief, and society will benefit from a more contented population.
From primatology to today’s incel culture of sexually frustrated young men, Artificial Intimacy takes an historical survey of human sexuality, employing the disciplines of economics, psychology and evolutionary science. Witty, accessible, always fascinating but surely contentious, this is popular science that will appeal to readers of Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens.
Artificial Intimacy: Virtual Friends, Digital Lovers and Algorithmic Matchmakers, by Rob Brooks. Published by New South. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba. First published at Books + Publishing
Five biographies of pioneering women who pushed boundaries and changed the world forever.
The title of this book, Square Haunting, is a bit of a misnomer. Taken from Virginia Woolf's 1927 essay “Street Haunting”, about the ethereal pleasures of walking London's city streets, Francesca Wade's debut concentrates on pioneering women who broke boundaries. Mecklenburgh Square is the location where five extraordinary women – Hilda Doolittle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Ellen Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf – lived at one time or another. The five didn't work together in a concerted cultural effort, although there were informal links and much mutual admiration.
Mecklenburgh Square between the two world wars was an easy going place where the rent was cheap, perfect for society's fringe dwellers, intellectuals and artists. Landladies didn't ask too many probing questions and independently minded women could attain that most cherished “room of one's own”, rather than the typical destiny of marriage, children and putting husband first.
The five biographies that are the core of Square Haunting centre on the often soul destroying difficulties of trying to establish a career in a male dominated world. Well credentialed and talented women were passed over time and time again in favour of mediocre but well connected men. The anthropologist, Jane Ellen Harrison, is a good case in point. She was continually denied university roles based solely on her gender.
The poet Hilda Doolittle and crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers would both write about the importance of female independence and being equal partners in marriage. Historian Eileen Power wrote books that highlighted the important, but overlooked, roles women had played in the past. She was also a passionate pacifist. Virginia Woolf needs no introduction. Wade concentrates on Woolf's feminist writings and her final, tortured months at Mecklenburgh Square as Hitler's bombs devastated the city.
Francesca Wade has written an inspiring history of the decades between the wars, through the prism of five brilliant writers and activists. Inspiring because it shows how tenacity and courage, sometimes sacrifice, can bring forth change. Hilda Doolittle, Dorothy L. Sayers, Jane Ellen Harrison, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf all laid the path for future generations and the freedoms we enjoy today.
Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars, by Francesca Wade. Published by Bloomsbury. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Geppetto writes his tragic story from the belly of a huge fish.
Geppetto is a simple woodcarver who lives in the small town of Collodi. He decides to carve a puppet, a wooden boy. Having finished his work, Geppetto is satisfied. The puppet is a handsome one, like a real boy. Then soon enough the wooden boy starts to kick his legs. Not only that, he speaks. Pinocchio is a mischievous boy and Geppetto often has to pull him into line. He tells lies and several times runs away. On his last escape, after much searching, Geppetto learns that some men not liking the look of Pinocchio have thrown him into the sea. Distraught, Geppetto wades out into the ocean, only to be swallowed whole by an enormous fish, maybe a shark or a whale, it can't be decided.
Inside the fish, Geppetto discovers the schooner Maria. It's an old, decaying ship, once led by Captain Tugthus. There are crates of candles, dry biscuits and the captain's journal which Geppetto writes in. The swallowed woodcarver spends his day mourning his son and yet hoping for his return. He writes in his journal day after day, re-imagining the past, his dank environment causing him mad hallucinations, the candles running down one by one until there are no more to light the way.
English novelist Edward Carey's The Swallowed Man is highly original and brilliantly imagined. The classic Pinocchio story is re-worked into a dark, brooding, sometimes mad meditation on art, death and parental love. The book's mood is drenched in grotesque intestinal images, of decaying fish, bone and blood. Somewhat like the nautical descriptions of Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, only much darker. Like Carey's previous book, Little, based on Madame Tussaud's youth, The Swallowed Man concerns itself with our visceral responses to art, how we create dolls and toys to love, believing them to be almost, if not, human.
An intimate story, seen through a ghoulish lens, about love, loneliness and what we hold dear.
The Swallowed Man, by Edward Carey. Published by Gallic Books. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A genius book that explains big problems and concepts in an easy to grasp manner.
Do you read lots of books and articles about climate change but still find you have only a foggy idea of what it all really means? If so, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster will set you on the right path. Bill Gates brings his considerable analytic skills to the planet's biggest and most complicated challenge, translating it into an accessible explainer. All those facts and figures, graphs and computer models, are boiled down to two simple numbers, 51 and zero. Currently we put 51 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere per year. That figure needs to be brought down to zero. Otherwise the planet's temperature will undoubtedly continue to rise. Babies born today, without effective action, will experience a planet eight degrees hotter than today in their old age.
This task will not be easy. Our economy, dependent on cheap fossil fuels, has been baked in over centuries. To change the world's power grid to renewables will take decades, not years. Emissions from agriculture pose a special problem, as people's diets are cultural and difficult to change. In a world where millions of people need to be lifted out of poverty, more pressure will be put on global emissions, as poor countries improve their standard of living, consuming more energy and meat.
The solution, according to Gates, is a mixture of technology, business and government. Governments can legislate to price carbon, creating a more level playing field. Technology, especially the riskier research and development, when backed with government money, can produce winners that business can capitalise on and improve.
Avoiding a climate disaster will be a huge task, not fixed by merely buying electric bulbs and purchasing an electric car, although all this helps. It will involve huge technological change, government commitment and global co-ordination. Perhaps some changes in our behaviour. To not do anything seems impossible. Leaving today's children with a planet eight degrees hotter – with the chaos and destruction that will cause – can't be an option.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need, by Bill Gates. Published by Allen Lane. $39.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Monica Dux comes to terms with her Catholic means
Writer and columnist Monica Dux grew up Catholic during a time of social upheaval. At home and at school, she was taught about Jesus, Mary and the Apostles. It was a way of life, and a very specific identity, being Catholic, one that never left you. But as young Monica grew up she became sceptical and left the church's teachings way behind. The thing about Catholicism, however, is that you may leave it, but it never leaves you. Lapsed is Dux's attempt to come to terms with what influence Catholicism continues to exert over her life, looking back from middle age.
The result is a mix of humour (lots of laugh-out-loud moments, in fact), memoir and Catholic history, examining in detail the church's many weird beliefs and practices. The section on child abuse scandals covered up by senior clergy burns with rage and indignation.
A highly entertaining book, chock full of gags and zingers, but with a serious core of self-examination.
Lapsed, by Monica Dux. Published by ABC Books. $34.99
Release date 7th April
Review by Chris Saliba
Novelist Nick Gadd remembers his wife Lynne through their many walks through inner city Melbourne.
Nick Gadd and his wife, Lynne, spent two years circling Melbourne's inner-city suburbs. “Psychojogging”, they called it, walking and exploring, theorising and researching the many odd and uncanny places they visited. When Nick's wife died from cancer, he decided to write up their expeditions as a way of dealing with his grief. Throughout the book an intimate portrait of Lynne is built up through remembered conversations and shared experiences.
In many ways, Melbourne Circle is a quirky and enchanting history of inner Melbourne, from the working class suburbs of Yarraville and Footscray, to the glamour of South Yarra's 1930's outre apartments, as designed by architect Howard Lawson. Many will be surprised to read about Maribrynong's once bustling bomb factory, the Yarraville retirement flats built on toxic waste that sank and that masterpiece of modern architecture, the ETA Peanut Butter Factory in Braybrook (its design was internationally recognised.)
For those who like to absorb their history on the streets – pondering the life of former arcades and post offices, piecing together “ghost signs” faded on old brick walls and staring in wonder at our architectural curios – there is much to delight in Melbourne Circle.
Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss, by Nick Gadd. Published by Australian Scholarly Publishing. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A female robot is recruited to help with a family going through a difficult time
Klara is an artificial friend (AF) that spends her days in a shop window, waiting for someone to buy her. She's a slightly older model, a B2, so she often feels anxious that she will be passed over in favour of the newer B3 models, just being unpacked from their boxes. Klara loves it when she is positioned at the front of the window and can catch the sun's rays, which recharge her batteries and makes her feel wonderful. In fact, she almost worships the Sun, giving him a male gender and an upper case title.
A 13-year-old girl named Josie repeatedly visits the store with her mother and talks to Klara. They are testing the waters to see if Klara would make a good AF. After much deliberation between mother and daughter (Josie's mother is always quite tense, her mind often preoccupied) they decide to take the machine home.
The novel is set in the near future and social divisions have become exacerbated. Josie has been “lifted”, genetically edited for superior intelligence, while her good friend and neigbour, Rick, hasn't. Effectively, they belong to different castes. This causes some fundamental friction within their friendship, and their mothers are at loggerheads on how to manage their aspirations. Added to this list of complications, Josie has some unidentified health problems, potentially life threatening.
Ostensibly this is a science-fiction novel, an exploration of a possible future where AI dominates, yet the character of Klara reads more like a Victorian servant. She is observant, there to meet people's needs and knowing when to hide herself away when delicate social situations require it. Besides her ability as a machine to feel human emotions – anxiety, fear, love – she also experiences naivety, believing in the omnipotent powers of the sun. She prays to “him” and is convinced a pollution sputtering building site contraption is the Sun's implacable enemy.
Kazuo Ishiguru is a supremely skilled storyteller. The novel unfolds with the precision of a Swiss clock, a tantalising suspense built into every page as we slowly learn about Josie's illness, its cause and the mother-daughter tensions that permeate. In many ways, Klara and the Sun is a middle-class drama, soaked in guilt, regret, and failed parental aspirations, observed calmly through the eyes of Klara, the astute yet naïve home help, much loved but ultimately dispensable.
Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguru. Published by Faber. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Lech Blaine revisits a deeply traumatising event from his youth.
In 2009, Lech Blaine and six of his friends were involved in a horrific car crash in Toowoomba, Queensland. No drink-driving or breaking of speed limits was involved, although the car was clearly overloaded (two were travelling in the boot). The group was still in their teens, just boys. They were travelling at 95 kilometres an hour, five kilometres under the limit. When a back tyre hit some gravel the car spun out of control. People at the accident site later commented that Lech was hysterical, crawling out of the car despite being told to sit still until help arrived. Being young and fit, Lech presumed everyone would pull through. Death never entered his head. But over the coming days the seriousness of the injuries would provide a harsh dose of reality. Three of his friends died. One close friend suffered permanent brain damage, unable to walk or talk.
Car Crash, a memoir of this grief stricken time, describes the author stumbling numb and confused through the aftermath. It covers an hallucinatory, nightmare year and paints an emotionally complicated portrait of a group of young teenagers, ill equipped to deal with sudden, inexplicable death.
Lech Blaine is a preternaturally gifted young writer, still in his twenties. His prose shows an easy sophistication and surreal wit, constantly throwing out pleasant surprises. While the book is ostensibly about a group of young Toowoomba teenagers, describing their culture of sex, sport and alcohol, Blaine also spends much of the memoir concentrating on his relationship with his separated parents. His father is a sports loving, Labor voting union man, while his mother is the sensitive lover of literature, burdened with mental health issues. These sections brilliantly evoke complicated familial relationships, how children are formed by their parents, but also act to counter their influence.
Grief and confusion as experienced by young men, leavened with a smart sense of humour and a true writer's gift for subtle observation.
Car Crash: A Memoir, by Lech Blaine. Published by Black Inc. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books