Jane Austen's sister, Cassandra, tells her story in this beautifully done historical novel.
It's 1840 and Cassandra Austen, sister to the famous Jane, has come to the village of Kintbury on a solemn mission. Her sister's letters, containing much that is private and should remain so, are hidden somewhere in the vicarage. Cassandra has a plan to destroy any “dangerous” correspondence that compromises the reputation of her dear, long departed sister. Many of the letters are to Eliza Fowle, a close friend of Jane's. As Cassandra reads the letters, a whole world comes rushing back, of former loves and personal tragedies, and memories of Jane.
Gill Hornby's Miss Austen (the title refers to Cassandra, not Jane) is a great triumph, painting a vivid portrait of the lives and precarious fortunes of women during the early 19th century. The novel jumps back and forth between 1840 and the period 1795-1817, Jane's great period of literary activity. The core of Miss Austen concentrates on Cassandra's emotional life, her loves, personal losses and troubled pursuit of happiness. Insightful and emotionally satisfying, Gill Hornby's book works brilliantly as a page-turning novel and an eye-opener onto the Regency period, especially its treatment of women.
Miss Austen, by Gill Hornby. Random House. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A middle-aged man still stuck in adolescence gets a wake-up call.
Micah Mortimer runs his own meagre mr fix-it small business, a technical help service for befuddled older clients. He scoots around town, a removable Tech Hermit sign on top of his car, solving computer glitches for the technically illiteratey. The scenes where Micah's mystified yet cheery customers wrestle with their computer outages and breakdowns are hilarious and heartwarming. Who hasn't encountered a parent or grandparent who feels certain technology is playing mischievous tricks on them?
Micah hasn't really got his life in order. In his mid-forties, he still lives like an adolescent in his small apartment, using an outmoded coffee machine from a previous tenant. He has a “woman friend” ( the use of “girlfriend” is deemed too immature) named Cass. She is a teacher, good-hearted and generous, we later learn. Cass is experiencing troubles with her rented apartment and when Micah fails to appreciate the difficulties of her situation, she gets exasperated.
Fans of Anne Tyler won't be disappointed with this charming little gem. All of her special ingredients are present: realistic dialogue, well drawn and believable characters, easily recognisable situations and a general warmth of tone.
Redhead by the Side of the Road is just what a really good book should be: enjoyable, cathartic and uplifting. It will make you happy to be alive.
Redhead by the Side of the Road, by Anne Tyler. Chatto & Windus. $29.99
Release date 15th April
Review by Chris Saliba
In this deeply personal and often harrowing story, journalist Shannon Molloy tells of a year of intense homophobic bullying he experienced during high school.
The time is the year 2000. The AIDS crisis is just in the rear view mirror and marriage equality is a long way off. At school, rampant homophobia is the norm. No one questions the prerogative of boys to beat and bully anyone they think is gay. Being an effeminate boy – marked out by walk, hand gestures and voice – is a red light to bullies. Daily abuse, humiliations and intermittent beatings are to be expected by the victim. To make matters worse, teachers, principals, counselors and religious instructors never call out this homophobia, letting it go unremarked.
Shannon Molloy grew up in the seaside town of Yeppoon, located in Central Queensland and attended an all-boys Catholic school. Fourteen chronicles one year in Molloy's life, the age of fourteen. It's a year of unremitting hell, saved only by the support of a small group of close friends. It's staggering to read of the total lack of school support for someone who is clearly being abused on a daily basis. When an older boys tries to sexually abuse Shannon, figuring he's gay and therefore can be raped, Shannon manages to escape, only to be captured again by a teacher patrolling in her car, who promptly returns him to school. No protocols are in place to allow him to safely explain what had happened. In another harrowing scene Shannon is told to go and see the school counselor. Ostensibly the reason for the meeting is to come up with a strategy to stop the bullying. The counselor goes on to tell Shannon that he has a gay walk and therefore the bullying is his own fault.
Things get so bad that Shannon starts plotting an escape. It's extraordinary that a young man, in the care of a school, should have to think seriously about options for getting out, as a matter of desperate urgency. To remain becomes increasingly untenable, even if most of the adults around him can't see it.
Now a News Limited journalist, Shannon Molloy has written an essential document of the times. This is a book of searing honesty and palpable pain, making clear why school bullying programs are so vital. Read this book to understand the sense of shame and humiliation that goes with being a victim of homophobia.
Fourteen: My Year of Darkness, and the Light That Followed, by Shannon Molloy. Simon & Schuster. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A fun, energetic new installment in Louis Sachar's Wayside School series.
On the thirtieth floor at Wayside School, Mrs Jewls's class continues apace. All sorts of weird and wonderful things are going on. The kids are trying to collect one million nail clippings, Kathy has a bad case of “oppositosis” (she can't help but counter everything with its opposite), Jason is bravely trying to read a book with 999 pages and Mrs Jewls likes to rhapsodise on the wonders of the humble paper clip. There is much consternation when the children are taken to the rooftop to study cloud formations. Mrs Jewls describes the different types of clouds, but suddenly gasps when a dark cloud is spotted. With horror, she pronounces it the "Cloud of Doom".
Acclaimed children's writer Louis Sachar's latest book is a treat. Relentlessly inventive and comic, with 30 quick-moving chapters, it makes for a satisfying holiday read. The broad cast of characters is especially enjoyable: there is the librarian Mrs Surlaw with her giant stuffed walrus students can hug, the eccentric psychiatrist Dr Pickell and the hilariously mean Kathy (“That beard is really ugly. I guess your face must be even worse, huh?”). The school cook, Miss Mush, and her famous Rainbow Stew, should not be missed.
This is the kind of pitch-perfect book that can be safely put into the hands of any child. Adults will get a kick out of it too!
Wayside School Beneath the Cloud of Doom, by Louis Sachar. Bloomsbury. $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Hop, Skip, Go: How the Mobility revolution will transform our lives and our planet: John Rossant and Stephen Baker
Two experts explain how we will travel in the future.
Cars are great, as long as everyone doesn't drive. When everyone does, congestion and dangerous emission levels are the result. Commuting by car in some major cities, such as Los Angeles, has become almost impossible. Traffic barely moves, resulting in lost hours better spent elsewhere. What to do?
Mobility expert John Rossant and business journalist Stephen Baker team up to present transport solutions from the future. They visit cities and tech start-ups that are pushing ahead with new, better ways to do travel. There are businesses trying to build cars with less of a carbon footprint, cutting edge ride-share services and apps galore to more efficiently marshal travel services. The authors even look at the possibilities of drones – either to carry online ordered packages or humans.
Most of the future's mobility revolution will be run not on fossil fuels, but on data. Our mobile phones will allow technologists to figure out the most efficient ways for us to get around. The downside, or course, will be the loss of privacy and surrendering so much of our personal data to big business and government.
Hop, Skip, Go is one of those technology books that likes to repeatedly predict how we will live in the future. At best, we're given an array of nascent technologies. Which ones take off, if any, is anyone's guess. Also, there are bound to be “black swans”, those unpredictable events that turn all received wisdom upside down. Having said that, Rossant and Baker have written a valuable book that explains why car travel has become untenable and the possible ways it might be wound back to some degree.
Hop, Skip, Go: How the Mobility Revolution Will Transform Our Lives and Our Planet, by John Rossant & Stephen Baker. Published by HarperCollins. $32.99
An excellent primer on emerging power struggles in our region.
How does the world balance China's emergence as a global super-power? What are the risks ahead? How do nation states dilute China's hegemony and avoid capitulation to its interests? These and other pressing questions are examined in Rory Medcalf's elegant and absorbing Contest for the Indo-Pacific.
The Indo-Pacific, a term first used in the mid-nineteenth century, is making a comeback in government circles, its geographically inclusive language seen as a bulwark against Chinese aspiration. Currently the region, spreading across East Africa to West Asia, is a strategic puzzle as countries jostle for power and position.
Medcalf, an academic and former diplomat, argues that the so-called Indo-Pacific's middle players – Japan, Australia, Indonesia, India, etc. - could collectively hold China's power in check. By mid-century, the combined economic and defence capability of these middle powers will match China's. Cooperation and coordination in such an alliance would not be easy, but could bring substantial benefits.
Contest for the Indo-Pacific provides a nuanced and subtle assessment of emerging power struggles in the region, with a strong focus on China. Optimistic, yet realistic about the possibilities of war and conflict, this is an essential guide for anyone – politician, policy specialist or informed citizen - interested in the future of the region.
Contest for the Indo-Pacific: Why China Won't Map the Future, by Rory Medcalf. Published by La Trobe University Press $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
This review first published at Books + Publishing. Click here.
When Melbourne journalist Chrissie O'Brian gets a tip off that a string of fatal accidents at the Port of Melbourne may not be so accidental, she finds herself drawn into a frightening world of corruption and cover-ups.
Journalist Chrissie O'Brian has a secret past. Responsible for a tragic accident in New Zealand, she narrowly escaped a prison sentence. Now unable to continue working in New Zealand, her boss has managed to shoehorn her into a new job at The Argus in Melbourne, Australia.
The trouble is, there is much resentment around her appointment at The Argus, especially from her new boss, Harry. Making matters worse, Chrissie is suffering constant anxiety attacks and nasty flashbacks from the accident.
When Harry assigns Chrissie to write a puff piece about a female crane operator who works at the Port of Melbourne, things take an exciting yet scary turn. Chrissie is warned there are some dodgy practices happening at the port, which helps to explain the recent spike in serious accidents. Chrissie promises to investigate, but before she can, a workplace death occurs.
The unions argue it's Grange Industries, who run the port, that is responsible for the accidents. Grange blames the unions. The police get involved, but their intentions look dodgy. Soon another fatal accident happens and Chrissie, too close to the investigation, fears she could be next.
Set on the streets and gritty byways of inner city Melbourne, Karina Kilmore's crime debut Where the Truth Lies is a winner. With decades of experience as a print journalist, Kilmore has written a tale that explores a swag of important issues: the fate of the modern media in the digital age, gagging of information by politicians under the guise of anti-terror laws and the power of big business and the unions. Kilmore's gritty style and first hand knowledge of news rooms gives this debut a fire in the belly. The main character, Chrissie, is well drawn. She is tenacious and yet deeply vulnerable, flawed but human.
Entertaining and informative, often gut wrenching in its honesty, Where the Truth Lies is a wild journey through Melbourne's murky underground.
Where the Truth Lies, by Karina Kilmore. Published by Simon and Schuster. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A scruffy looking dog gets a make-over.
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
Book review by Chris Saliba
A snappy, fast-paced primer on China's technological rise.
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 & Going Global, by Rebecca A. Fannin. Published by Nicholas Brealey. $29.99
Book review by Chris Saliba
A harrowing portrait of a young African woman's abduction and abuse by acclaimed Irish novelist Edna O'Brien.
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. Faber. $29.99
Book review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books