Osbert the family dog is considered too scruffy to attend Aunt Cathy's wedding. Can the children make him presentable in time?
It's the day before Aunt Cathy's wedding. Father has decided the family dog, Osbert, cannot attend. He's too scruffy looking. The family has had Osbert since he was one month old, and they'd hoped he'd turn into a terrier, but they've had to settle instead for a black poodle with limp fur. The children – Ann, Peter, Jane and Andrew – are terribly upset. They decide to take Osbert to Monsieur Toto, a popular ladies' hairdresser. Monsieur Toto is very busy with appointments, but decides to take on this urgent job. When the children pick Osbert up they are delighted with the transformation. Osbert has had a permanent wave, his fur is shampooed, his legs shaved into cowboy trousers and his head topped off with a spray of orange blossom. He's the hit of the wedding!
Noel Streatfeild, famous for her children's novel Ballet Shoes, first published Osbert in 1950. It fell out of print immediately after and has only now been revived, almost seventy years later. It's a charming, funny, quirky story, with delightful illustrations by Susanne Suba and sure to appeal to children and adults of all ages. A re-discovered gem that shouldn't be missed.
Osbert, by Noel Streatfeild. Published by Scholastic. $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Edna O'Brien paints an unforgettable portrait of the lives of African women.
A group of Nigerian girls are abducted from their school by a militant jihadi group. They are taken to a secret camp and undergo all sorts of horrors, including genital mutilation and pack rape. To show the girls their possible fate should they not submit to the militants' authority, they are made to witness a woman's public stoning.
The focus of the novel is Maryam, who narrates her story. She has been through so much trauma and hardship that she is not even sure of her age. Married off to a jihadi soldier, she has a baby girl, but manages to escape the camp. Finally reunited with her mother after much danger, it would seem her ordeal has ended, but it's only really just begun.
Irish novelist Edna O'Brien's new novel is a work of great courage, integrity and artistic risk-taking. Taking on the voice of a young African woman (the story is based on the Boko Haram abductions) is a brave step, but in such skilled hands it pays off. O'Brien's novel has urgency, fire and anger. Written with consummate skill, even grace, it's an unforgettable portrait of the shocking abuses of girls and women.
Girl, by Edna O'Brien. Published by Faber. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A young woman goes on a journey of self-discovery in this intimate, understated debut from Chinese author, An Yu.
Jia Jia lives in her Beijing apartment with her husband, Chen Hang, a successful businessman. It's more a marriage of convenience than love, and there are suggestions that not all his business dealings are above board. One morning Jia Jia walks into the bathroom of their apartment to find her husband in the bath, his head submerged. Nearby is a strange, enigmatic drawing he has made of a man with a fish's body, what comes to be called “the fish man”. Was it suicide, or accidental death? Maybe something more sinister?
Left alone in the world with a large, four-bedroom apartment, Jia Jia embarks on an uncertain new life, one of self re-creation. She strikes up a friendship with Leo, who runs a bar near her apartment, and takes on some freelance work as an artist. The idea then strikes her to take a trip to Tibet, replicating the exact journey her husband had taken before his untimely death.
In Tibet Jia Jia meets some new people who help her unlock the mystery of “the fish man”, the strange picture her husband had drawn before he died. In the process, new information is also revealed about her troubled mother, who died young.
Braised Pork is the first novel by 26-year-old An Yu. She was born and raised in Beijing, moved to New York as a teenager and now lives between Paris and Hong Kong. She writes her fiction in English. This is an engaging and elusive debut - elusive in a good way. The story is set out in clear and simple prose – it’s a dream to read – and is rich in ambience, describing city life and its feelings of isolation. As the story progresses, it becomes more evocative and contains many dream passages where Jia Jia falls into what is described as a “world of water” that is linked to “the fish man”. This world of water could be described as a state of being, almost a state of nothingness, that offers relief from Jia Jia's grief and depression. In the world of water, Jia Jia doesn't have to be anything, but can be happy to simply exist. It's a dark, yet meditative place.
Some readers may find Braised Pork too abstract and intangible. The more evocative dream sequences can leave you scratching your head as to what it all really means. But too much explanation could have tipped this sensitive and delicate story, with its strong vein of magic realism, into something more blunt and prosaic.
A highly enjoyable debut and an author to watch.
Release date 21st January, 2020
Braised Pork, by An Yu. Published by Harvill/Secker. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Jarrett Kobek explains what’s wrong with the world in this cathartic, darkly comic novel.
It's impossible to place the novels of Turkish-American writer Jarett Kobek in any kind of category: they seem written in complete opposition to contemporary literary fiction. His anarchic style, which eschews story arcs and character development, has strong overtones of Kurt Vonnegut, and even Charles Bukowski. Kobek’s books are part razor sharp diatribe against the capitalist system, part riff on modern mass media and technology and part biting satire on just about everything. All this is loosely held together with mercurial plots and zany characters, picking their way through the debris of modern life.
Only Americans Burn in Hell begins by introducing the reader to the work of Elizabethan hack writer, Richard Johnson, and his 1599 Arthurian romance, Tom a Lincoln. That work features an island inhabited entirely by women called Fairy Land, with its reigning queen, Celia. Jarett takes some of the characters from Tom a Lincoln and revives them as supranatural beings who live for centuries, ending up in modern day California. Only Americans Burn in Hell spins madly out of control as a myriad of different elements are thrown in: a rich Saudi, a cult film-maker, Guns and Roses concerts, rants about Donald Trump and a blistering, thoroughgoing attack on the publishing industry. Indeed, the book is a major j'accuse against the liberal media, seen as nothing more than a money making machine for its amoral corporate masters. Kobek does a great job of following the money, explaining who pays for liberal opinion and reportage. (There are paradoxes aplenty in this: tax dodging, anti-union Jeff Bezos owns the left-leaning Washington Post, while the liberal entertainment industry created Donald Trump.)
Kobek's book won't be for everyone. It's acerbic and often full of profanity. One thing is sure: you won't read it in a state of torpor. It will keep you eyes pinned open in shock to the very end.
Only Americans Burn in Hell, by Jarett Kobek. Published by Serpent's Tail. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Garry Linnell’s portrait of escaped convict William Buckley is a stunning triumph.
William Buckley (1780 – 1856) is surely one of the most intriguing and enigmatic characters of Australian history. He fought Napoleon as a soldier in the King's Own Regiment in 1799, but later came undone for receiving stolen goods - a bolt of cloth. He was given 14 years and sent to New South Wales, arriving upon the Calcutta in 1803. Exhausted and terrified, Buckley soon bolted with three other prisoners. The group separated and Buckley spent weeks on his own, living off shellfish. He probably would have expired, if not for the contact he made with the local Aboriginal people who thought he was a ghost, one of their ancestors who had died, then “jumped up” again as a white man.
Buckley spent the following 32 years living with the Wadawurrung people. He was respected by the Wadawurrung and was influential in trying to preserve the peace between different clans and groups. In 1835, Buckley re-entered European society. He was given a pardon by Governor Arthur and worked as an interpreter. This role as intermediary took its toll on Buckley, who saw many abuses of First Nations people and moved to Van Diemen's Land for the rest of his life.
Garry Linnell takes an interesting approach in Buckley's Chance, presenting the narrative in an almost fictional form. In some ways the structure of the book is like an 18th century epistolatory novel, with Linnell addressing himself to an imaginary Buckley, posing questions about his emotional state and responses to key events. Almost like speculative fiction, this style of writing gives the book a tone of intimacy and humanity, asking the reader to imagine Buckley's personal conflicts and psychological states of being. The narrative is interweaved with thorough research and quotes from key contemporaries, making the book invaluable as an early history of New South Wales, Tasmania and most notably, Victoria.
The portrait that emerges of Buckley himself is of a sad and tortured soul, caught between two cultures, one exterminating the other. His two years working with the Port Phillip Association, most notably with John Batman, was extremely painful as he assisted the land grab that saw widespread dispossession of the Wadawurrung and other peoples. Yet for all that we have on the record, plus Buckley's own memoir, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley written by journalist John Morgan (Buckley was illiterate), the man himself remains frustratingly distant and mysterious. He was often portrayed as a dolt, but surely knew more than he let on.
Buckley's Chance is a tremendous achievement. Engaging, passionate and fascinating it's a book that invited the reader to re-imagine Australia's formative years, a time that was harsh and often horrific.
Buckley's Chance, by Garry Linnell. Published by Michael Joseph. $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
China business expert Rebecca A. Fannin explains how China's tech sector is fast catching up to the West.
China's pursuit of technology dominance has progressed through three stages, according to business writer and China expert Rebecca A. Fannin. The period between 2003 – 2010 saw the flourishing of internet start-ups, phase two saw a boom in mobile phone-centric start-ups and today China is putting up stiff competition in artificial intelligence, biotech, self-driving cars, robotics, mobile payments and more.
At first China was a quick and effective imitator, but is now pulling ahead in key areas. While there are pitfalls for China's tech titans – a repressive government that could close shop on any business that gets too powerful, a lack of profitability for many emerging start-ups, despite large market share – the overall picture is of an emerging tech dragon to rival the West.
The way Fannin paints it, China could be on the cusp of global tech dominance, leading to economic dominance and a shake-up in the world order. Nothing is assured in this cut-throat world, but the sheer speed with which China has caught up with the West is no doubt ringing alarm bells in government and policy circles.
A fast paced overview of a quickly evolving tech sector with enormous potential for global disruption.
Tech Titans of China: How China's Tech Sector is Challenging the World by Innovating Faster, Working Harder and Going Global, by Rebecca A. Fannin. Nicholas Brealey Publishing. $29.99
Siberian bears, ruthless oligarchs, crashing ice sheets and corrupt officials come together in this splendid contemporary thriller.
Investigator Arkady Renko is worried about his girlfriend, Tatiana Petrovna. She's a journalist and often disappears for dangerous assignments. When she abruptly leaves for Siberia, with only a few clues as to her whereabouts, Arkady takes on an assignment that allows him to follow and check up on her. He discovers that Tatiana has been working with oligarch, ex-political prisoner and now presidential aspirant, Mikhail Kuznetsov. She's doing what she believes is the right thing, supporting Kuznetsov's anti-corruption platform, but it's a murky world of money, politics and terrorism.
Arkady, too, has his hands full. Sent to Siberia by Prosecutor Zurin, he's tasked with investigating suspected Chechen terrorist, Aba Makhmud. He also starts inquiries into another oligarch, Boris Benz, which takes him deep into Siberia, to the city of Irkutsk, where he sustains some serious injuries. When two politically motivated murders are uncovered, Arkady is given orders by Zurin to perform some nasty – and illegal – business. If he doesn't follow through, Zurin threatens dire consequences. Caught on the horns of a dilemma, Arkady doesn't know what to do, until fate provides some spectacular twists of its own.
The ninth in the Arkady Renko series of thrillers, which began with Gorky Park, Martin Cruz Smith's latest is a sophisticated, neatly organised and well paced mystery with enjoyable characters, crisp dialogue and moody atmospherics. For those interested in the politics of modern Russia, there is plenty to satisfy, with brief discussions of Putin, corruption and the murderous oil economy. And just when you think the story may be running out of puff, the last fifty pages delivers a breathtaking finale.
Classy and enjoyable stuff.
The Siberian Dilemma, by Martin Cruz Smith. Simon and Schuster. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A great biography of one the twentieth century's towering intellectual figures.
Susan Sontag is best known for her essays such as “Notes on Camp” and “Against Interpretation”, published in the late 1960s. Her 1977 book, On Photography, a collection of essays originally published in the New York Review of Books, is considered the seminal text on the subject. Sontag also wrote fiction, with mixed results. Early novels such as The Benefactor and Death Kit are considered opaque and difficult, while in the early 1990s Sontag had a best seller with The Volcano Lover.
In Sontag, by American writer and translator Benjamin Moser, the reader is treated to a first class biography. It mixes cultural and political history, philosophy, literary analysis and of course, the complex and divided character of Susan Sontag herself. She emerges as a troubled, difficult, cantankerous, hypocritical, generous and vulnerable woman. Determined to present herself in an idealised aspect – as a thinker, intellectual and cultural warrior – Sontag often hid her true self, keeping her 15 year relationship with Annie Leibovitz a secret, even from her sister. This friction between real self and self as brassy persona meant the writer was a “house divided”. Relationships – friends and lovers alike – were never stable, always subject to Susan's unreasonable and explosive personality.
Fascinating, absorbing and intellectually rigorous, Sontag provides a window on a key cultural figure of the last 50 years, summing up an age, its art and literature.
Sontag: Her Life, by Benjamin Moser. Allen Lane. $59.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Child prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett wrote The House Without Windows, a song in praise of nature, at the age of twelve.
A young girl, Eepersip, finds living in a house – restrictive doors, windows, rooms and their attendant rules for living – repugnant to her. She decides to leave her parents' house and live in the wild. At first Eepersip roams the woods and meadows, making friends with animals and exulting in the plant life. She eats berries and roots, drinks freshly gathered water and makes comfortable beds in the wild for sleeping. Eepersip lives in a kind of ecstasy; a pure joy inhabits every waking minute of the day. She can't imagine going back to living in a house. Her parents, Mr and Mrs Eigleen, have different ideas. In a comic game of cat-and-mouse, they try to capture Eepersip and bring her back. But their half-hearted, ill conceived strategies always fail, often farcically. In one episode Eepersip actually jumps over her father and runs in the opposite direct.
Having experienced the wonders of the woods, Eepersip decides to discover the delights of the sea. For the third part of the novel, Eepersip treks to the mountain tops, where she experiences a near transformation, giving the novel a mesmerising, glittering finish.
Barbara Newhall Follett began writing The House Without Windows when she was eight and finished it at age nine. The manuscript was destroyed in a fire and so she began re-writing it from memory. Where memory failed her, she recreated, letting her writing go off in new directions. She was only twelve years old when her novel was published in 1927.
The House Without Windows is certainly an astonishing feat, for a writer at any age. The book is suffused with a magic and wonder; the descriptions of fish, animals, plants, insects all convey an utter ecstasy of experience. The book also offers psychological lessons. Eepersip eschews identity – there are sections where she doesn't even like to be called by her name – in favour of merging with the natural world. To achieve happiness and oneness with all things, the ego must be erased. By the novel's end, Eepersip, as a solid personality, with name, family history and place in society, has almost disappeared, replaced with a humming presence, a oneness with the world.
A book of mind boggling originality from a preternaturally gifted writer.
The House Without Windows, by Barbara Newhall-Follett. Hamish Hamilton $22.99
Staff review by Chris Saliba
Adventure – and some danger – looms for young Stuart Horten when he finds a box of old coins that hold the clue to his great-uncle Tony's mysterious disappearance.
Ten-year-old Stuart Horten has his fair share of troubles. His family has recently moved to the town of Beeton due to his mother's work. It's hard making new friends, especially when you're anxious about your height. Stuart is short, and he fears he's inherited the short genes in his family. His name doesn't help matters: S.Horten, or Shorty Shorten as he was teased at his old school.
Stuart's father grew up in Beeton and the Hortens have quite a bit of history in the town. Things start to get interesting when Stuart learns that his great-uncle, known by his stage name as Teeny-Tiny Tony Horten, was a famous magician who mysteriously went missing. Stuart also learns that the Horten family ran a factory, Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms, which was integral to developing some of Uncle Tony's greatest illusions. When Stuart discovers some old coins, they lead him on an adventure to find out what exactly happened to Uncle Tony.
Lissa Evans' first novel for children, Small Change for Stuart, (now re-printed) is a brilliantly constructed adventure story with plenty of magic, wonder and just a touch of nostalgia. Looking back to the 1940s, it's a time when technology was clunky yet magical nonetheless. Stuart must use his outdated coins, found in an old box belonging to Uncle Tony, to activate a series of coin operated machines - a toffee dispenser, a weighing machine etc. - which give him clues to find Uncle Tony's magic workshop and find out what happened to him. Comic relief comes in the form of the Kingsley triplets – April, May and June – who live next door and run their own newspaper. The girls are delightfully bossy and April, who has a real bent for sleuthing, ends up performing some heroic duties. There is also some danger in the form of the ruthless Jeannie (with her hopeless flunky Clifford in tow), who wants Uncle Tony's workshop for herself.
This is classic family holiday reading, the kind of adventure you want to keep coming back to.
Small Change for Stuart, by Lissa Evans. Published by David Fickling. $16.99
Book review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books