Life's bitter sweet for Merci Suarez as she deals with trouble at home and school in this realistic, yet heart-warming children's novel.
Mercedes (Merci) Suárez is an eleven-year-old scholarship student, living with her large family in three modest houses (Las Casitas – the little houses) that sit side by side. Besides her parents and brother, Roli, there are her grandparents, Lolo and Abuela, her aunt Tía Inés and cousins Tomas and Axel.
Life as a scholarship student presents its own special demands: Merci must make sure her behaviour and grades are exceptional. A major challenge comes in the form of Edna Santos, a bossy, rich girl who runs the social life of her class. Edna's catchphrase is “no offence”, which she uses to preface her put downs. (“No offence is what Edna says before taking a hatchet to your feelings.”) When Merci is assigned tall, handsome Michael Clark as her Sunshine Buddy (school policy assigns new students with a buddy to help with orientation) Edna gets jealous and starts to cause havoc.
If school problems aren't enough, then there are secrets being kept at home. Merci's grandfather, Lolo, has been acting strangely. He is becoming forgetful and causing much stress in the tight knit family. Merci senses something is not quite right and when all is finally revealed, she feels betrayed.
Cuban-American children's writer Meg Medina has created a realistic, funny, heart-warming story about family and the dramas of school. The large cast of characters are well drawn and the dialogue is punchy and smart, without being brassy. The pushy Edna Santos is an absolute hoot, somewhat like Lucy Van Pelt out of the Peanuts cartoons. Despite her jealousy and deviousness, she's also a consummate socialite who is easy to like. Even Merci admits to her charms.
Merci manages to get through her difficult year and celebrate Christmas with her family at Las Casitas. Life may be difficult, full of unwanted change, but the closeness of her family, with its celebration of food, song and togetherness, ensures life will always have a certain sweetness.
Merci Suarez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina. Candlewick Press $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Niki Savva examines in forensic detail the 2019 election of the Morrison government.
Who were the plotters in Malcolm Turnbull's downfall, and why did they want him gone? And how did Scott Morrison come up the middle, surprising everyone to win the Liberal Party leadership? These questions and more are answered in Plots and Prayers, a detailed account of the tumultuous leadership challenges of 2018.
Author Niki Savva has worked both as a political journalist and as a Liberal staffer, giving her unique insights and a broad range of insider contacts. She brings all this into play, painting a drama of almost Shakespearean proportions, with a cast of ego driven, ambitious men and women, all sharpening their knives and either plotting or planning. The book is a stark, if ugly, reminder that politics is primarily about personalities, with policy coming a poor second.
What went wrong? A decade long war between two of the party's titans, Abbott and Turnbull, meant the Liberals were in constant turmoil. Turnbull didn't help. Brilliant, yes, difficult according to his friends, he was a poor communicator with a Quixotic streak who couldn't see what was happening around him.
Comprehensive and with a wealth of fascinating interview material, Niki Savva has given us a definitive document of the times.
Plots and Prayers, by Niki Savva. Scribe $35
Review by Chris Saliba
Peter Polites second novel is a witty exploration of class, race, sex and money, firmly set in gay Sydney.
Pano is slumming it, his work as a poet barely making an income. When he sees an advertisement on a gay website, he moves in with Kane, an IT specialist. The designer house, in upwardly mobile Pemulwuy, is everything he's ever aspired to. When Pano and Kane fall into bed together, Pano almost allows himself the fiction they are a happy couple. Kane is more interested in a proposed Albanian mosque, to be built across the road. He talks Pano into a plot to discredit the mosque. Meanwhile, Pano has taken on work as a ghostwriter for a dodgy property developer. Can Pano maintain this middle-class facade, or will it all come undone?
Peter Polites' second novel is a dry, witty exploration of class, race, sex and money, firmly set in Sydney and with a cast of mainly gay men. The Pillars drips with an irony worthy of Jean Genet and Joe Orton. One of its main concerns is artifice and the presentation of self. Everything – clothes, décor, cosmetics – are described in mesmerising detail, working up a picture of a superficial, branded world and its deluded denizens.
An astute work of social observation that entertains with a seductive, sly humour.
The Pillars, by Peter Polites. Hachette Australia. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A new voice uses Indigenous Knowledge to bring enlightenment and balance.
Sand Talk, a highly original new book by poet, artist and academic Tyson Yunkaporta, presents Indigenous Knowledge as a way of solving our many contemporary ills. Modern life is out of balance and causing harm. There are problems everywhere – from how the economy is run, prioritising growth that is really a form of death to the environment, to poor personal and spiritual health. Society is based around hierarchical relationships, rather than interdependence and shared knowledge. Our narcissism makes us believe we are better than and superior to each other. The ego constantly gets in the way of clear thinking, obscuring the path to true knowledge.
Tyson Yunkaporta was born in Melbourne and raised in rural Queensland, living with about a dozen different Indigenous communities during his youth. As a young man in Cape York he was adopted by Dad Kenlock and Mum Hersie, and subsequently travelled around Australia, working with Indigenous groups and gaining a wealth of traditional knowledge. It is these years spent learning from Elders and knowledge keepers that Yunkaporta brings to Sand Talk. It is a book that has clearly spent many years in the making, a work that is the result of years of deep thought and meditation. On every page Yunkaporta strives for simplicity and truth, as revealed to him by his experiences travelling all over Australia.
Sand Talk is hard to categorise. It reads as a mix of philosophy, self-help and spiritual text. Yunkaporta has a keen analytical mind. There are many passages of surprising clarity. The author is quick to cut through modern received wisdom to expose the lie at the centre of it. For example, in a chapter discussing violence he says our clean, technological, peaceful cities outsource their violence to other places and peoples. “You carry the pillaged metals in your phone from devastated African lands and communities. Your notions of peaceful settlement and development are delusions peppered with bullet holes and spears.” Another chapter discusses the origins of modern education as a way of ensuring obedience and conformity, with an impressive use of history to make the point. The book is full of such radical examples, showing how Western civilisation uses artifice and polished rhetoric to conceal its darker side.
Written in a simple, clear language, yet demanding concentration and commitment, Sand Talk is like nothing you've read before.
Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Change the World, by Tyson Yunkaporta. Published by Text. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
From teenage angst to bedroom farce, Nina Kenwood's debut romantic comedy for young adults is a winner.
Eighteen-year-old Natalie's world is coming apart. Her wonderful, supportive parents have told her they're separating. Then there are problems brewing with her tight-knit group of friends. She met Lucy and Zach at a writing camp. The three of them were best friends, but then things got more serious between Lucy and Zach. Natalie, without a boyfriend of her own, feels like a third wheel. On top of this there are all of Natalie's personal problems and vulnerabilities. She's terribly introverted, obsesses over the smallest thing and finds social situations – especially parties – mortifying. An acne problem in her younger years has left some scars, both physical and emotional. She hates the idea of showing her body to anyone.
Along comes Alex, a boy one year older than her, who starts to take notice. Through a series of farcical mix-ups, where Natalie and Alex are forced to share a bedroom, the two get to know each other. There are misunderstandings that follow, and when Natalie finds out some unpleasant details from Alex's past, she wonders if she can ever be his boyfriend.
Nina Kenwood's debut It Sounded Better in My Head is a charming, funny, all-too-human coming-of-age story. The novel perfectly captures those awkward, uncertain teenage years when emotions are constantly on the boil. The plot is simple yet cleverly crafted and paced, making it a dream to read.
Genuine, true to life and often quite funny, It Sounded Better in My Head is a winner that deserves wide appeal.
Reading age: 14 +
It Sounded Better in my Head, by Nina Kenwood. Published by Text. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
In 1945, a shocking wave of suicides spread across Germany...
As Soviet troops advanced on Nazi Germany, and all seemed utterly hopeless, large numbers of German citizens chose not only suicide for themselves, but suicide for their families as well. Florian Huber pieces together a chilling, tragic and sometimes bizarre narrative of ordinary Germans trapped in circumstances of their own blind making. Once Hitler had committed suicide, on April 30, 1945, there was no conceivable path out of the national madness he had created. Hitler was all; extraordinary numbers of Germans believed he was a virtual messiah, come to save them. When news got out of the death camps and gas chambers, Germans muttered that Hitler couldn't have known. If he had known, he wouldn't have allowed it to happen. Popular delusions ran deep.
Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself (named after a father who gave his daughter a gun, told her to run and then kill herself) has two major parts. The first is a history of that wave of 1945 suicides, the story of a people immobilised by fear and lacking any moral compass; the second part tries to analyse why Germans got taken in by Hitler. The harsh terms set out for Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, after the First World War, goes some way to explaining Hitler's popularity, but not all. So much still remains an enigma.
The most fascinating parts of the book discuss political scientist Hannah Arendt's experiences on returning to Germany after the war. Ordinary Germans, she discovered, remained indifferent or unwilling to face the crimes of the Nazi regime. These callous, self-pitying responses left Arendt in a state of shock.
A fascinating addition to the history of Nazi Germany, using contemporary diary entries and letters to explain the mindset and attitudes of ordinary Germans who created for themselves a horrific nightmare.
Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945, by Florian Huber. Text Publishing. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Irina Odoevtseva fled Russia soon after the 1917 Revolution and lived in Germany, then France, not returning to her homeland until 1987. She was a poet, memoirist and novelist. Isolde, published in 1929, was her second novel. It has now been translated into English for the first time.
Pretty, doll-like Liza lives in Biarritz, a seaside playground for the rich on the coast of France. She is fourteen-years-old and is much sought after by other boys. One day on the beach she meets Cromwell, an English lad who is a few years older than her. Cromwell professes undying love for Liza, calls her his “Isolde”, and is quickly drawn into her group, which includes her older brother, Antonio, and friend Odette. This young group of carefree youths live the fast life, dining out at restaurants, drinking and generally seeking pleasure. The truth of the matter, however, is that they are all short on money, or if they have money, then it is soon enough running out. The group sponges off Cromwell, while Liza, an innocent, free spirit, talks about meeting up with Andrei, a former boyfriend.
Everyone is riding an emotional merry-go-round, even Liza's mother, Natasha. She has a needy boyfriend, Bunny, who has drained his bank account for her and even started embezzling money. The slavish Bunny is not enough for Natasha, and she takes up with Boris, who is emotionally abusive.
Everything spins faster and faster for this group of children and adults. Pleasure, money, indulgence, fast cars, sex. But as the money runs out and the discarded relationships pile up, everything seems on a crash course for disaster.
Isolde caused a scandal in its day, with its air of delicious decadence and beautiful yet tainted youth. Odoevtseva captivates with her descriptions of the beautiful Liza, her trilling laughter, languid afternoons and breezy, uncomplicated character. The scene in Biarritz is painted as an enticing, voluptuaries’ playground. It’s hard not to be seduced. But as the novel progresses, one feels the hangover of such excesses, until such a dissolute lifestyle catches up with everyone. Ultimately Isolde is a moral story. Living for pleasure, on other people's money, with no consideration for the feelings of others, is the fastest route to hell.
Odoevtseva writes in a light, breezy tone, skilfully weaving into her spirited narrative an impending sense of dread, decay and doom. What a treat for English readers to have this long ignored Russian classic now available in translation.
Isolde, by Irina Odoevtseva. Published by Pushkin. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A Syrian couple flee their country for asylum in London after losing their son, Sami, in a bomb attack.
Nuri and Afra have a seven-year-old son, Sami. They live in the Syrian city of Aleppo. Nuri works as a beekeeper with his cousin, Mustafa. Afra is a visual artist. As civil war tears the country apart, the young family find their lives more and more at risk. A bomb blinds Afra and Sami, their son, is killed. Staying in Syria becomes impossible when Nuri's life is threatened: he must join a militia and start killing. Nuri and Afra make hasty plans to leave, a journey that will take them through Turkey and Greece until they arrive in England, where Mustafa has successfully sought asylum.
Christy Lefteri is the child of Cypriot refugees and was raised in London. She has worked in Athens with refugees fleeing Syria and it is the stories of these people that she has fashioned into a moving story of trauma, exile and grief. Each chapter is divided into two parts, a present tense where Nuri narrates the couple's life in London as they apply for asylum, and a past tense which describes the dangerous journey from Syria. As the novel progresses chapter by chapter the past catches up with the present, and the more shocking aspects of the journey are revealed.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a skilfully crafted novel that works both as an enjoyable aesthetic experience and a testament to the suffering of those who must leave home, family and country for a future that only promises uncertainty. The story contains many shocking scenes and incidents, especially concerning villainous people smugglers, that must be drawn from real life experience.
Read this book to understand the plight of asylum seekers the world over, and be humbled by it.
The Beekeeper of Aleppo, by Christy Lefteri. Published by Zaffre. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Pajtim Statovci's second novel, Crossing, recently translated into English by David Hackson, concentrates on themes of loss, displacement and identity.
Bujar is a young Albanian dealing with an array of problems, personal and political. His homeland, Albania, is increasingly unstable and he feels himself oscillating between being male and female, gay and straight. His best friend, Agim, is feminine, highly intelligent and likes to dress in women’s clothes. The two boys – they are in their mid-teens – decide that there is no place for them in Albania and decide to flee. They spend much time tramping around Tirana, the country’s capital, until they save enough money to travel to Western Europe.
The story takes place along three different timelines and mostly focuses on Bujar. We see him at fourteen in Albania and in his early twenties when living in countries such as Spain, Germany and Italy. He also spends time in New York. The final part of the novel, when Bujar is in his late twenties, sees him in Finland. Throughout his travels Bujar always feels displaced, never quite fitting in, a constant outsider who dreads being asked the question, “Where are you from?” Shame is a recurring emotion, as Bujar feels himself to be both spiritually and physically homeless.
Many of the themes Pajtim Statovci addressed in his debut novel, My Cat Yugoslavia, are reprised here. The political and social history of the Balkans during the 1990s; the nature of being a displaced person; difficult family relationships exacerbated by war; and the terrible loneliness and despair that can result from a diverse gender and sexuality.
Pajtim Statovci is gifted at writing a spirited narrative that keeps the reader always engaged, helped by the fact that his writing is based on personal experiences. There’s no doubting the authenticity of Bujar’s narrative. Statovci also has a wonderfully surreal, even poetic, imagination. There are some beautiful set pieces, especially in the final pages where Bujar dreamily imagines his lover as a horse.
Crossing is often melancholy and haunting, a deeply affecting story of people lost and estranged in the world.
Crossing, by Pajtim Statovci. Published by Pushkin Press. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Chef, writer and farmer Matthew Evans tackles the thorniest of ethical issues concerning our food choices.
On Eating Meat investigates every aspect of meat production – ethical, economic, practical and environmental. In essence, argues Matthew Evans, Australians eat too much meat (three times the global average). Not only that, Australians want to eat cheap meat. And therein lies the problem. Cheap meat is ruinous to the environment, of questionable value to human health, especially when consumed in large quantities, and lastly, is terrible for animal welfare. The sections describing attempts to inspect intensive farming operations – piggeries and chicken factories, most notably – are worrying. Evans was blocked and frustrated at every step. Big corporate producers are secretive and defensive, not wanting the general public to see how they operate.
What is the solution to this problem? More consumer activism for a start, whether it be at the checkout or simply demanding better welfare standards. Evans believes the debate has been set solely by animal welfare activists, especially vegans, whereas meat eaters should be taking a leading role. Ideally, he would like to see vegans and carnivores come together to advocate for better animal welfare standards. While this seems unlikely, there are good arguments made in its favour. Evans shows that whether your diet is vegetarian or vegan, animals still die as a consequence. Orchards cull animals to protect their fruit, seasonal crops kill small animals, such as rodents, egg production involves feeding unwanted male chicks into mulchers and the dairy industry produces unwanted male calves, either killed on site or sent to market.
This is a book that always strives for honesty and balance, in what is often an ethical minefield. Matthew Evans leaves no stone unturned as he looks at food production and its impacts from all possible angles. Every reader will find some new fact to surprise and shock: commercial bees employed to pollinate food crops, the amount of bugs that end up in food, the rampant use of antibiotics to promote animal growth, the impact of feral cats on Australia's native wildlife, etc.
A book perhaps as important as Peter Singer's Animal Liberation for its thoughtfulness and intellectual rigour.
On Eating Meat: The Truth About Its Production and the Ethics of Eating It, by Matthew Evans. Published by Murdoch Books. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books