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According to the author’s note at the end of The Grand Hotel, this will probably be the last of his stories to be set in fictional Mangowak, a coastal town in south-western Victoria. The first, The Patron Saint of Eels (2005), won the 2006 Australian Literature Society Gold Medal. The second, Ron McCoy’s Sea of Diamonds (2007), was shortlisted for the 2008 New South Wales Premier’s Prize for Fiction.

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The Book of Human Skin details the trials and tribulations of an innocent Venetian noblewoman named Marcella Fasan, a girl ‘so sinned agin tis like Job in a dress’, Gianni delle Boccole, loyal family servant and bad speller, explains. Marcella’s principal antagonist is her older brother Minguillo, who, out of filial jealousy and a desire to be the sole heir to the family’s New World fortune in silver, makes her a prisoner, a cripple, a madwoman, and a nun. Think Jacobean tragedy meets Gothic novel, then add some – namely a crazy Peruvian nun called Sor Loreta, who, in between fasting and self-flagellation marathons, terrorises the saner sisters at the convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa. It is these four characters – Gianni, Marcella, Minguillo, Sor Loreta, plus the kindly Doctor Santo Aldobrandini, a specialist in skin and its maladies – who, unbeknown to one another, take turns narrating this novel.

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John Birmingham’s After America is the second book in what is clearly intended to be a trilogy of page-turners – a follow-up to his Axis of Time trilogy, the swashbuckling alternative history which saw a US carrier battle group transported back in time to the middle of World War II. After America, the sequel to Without Warning (2009), is set in a decidedly dystopian alternative present, the result of a mysterious energy wave that wipes out most of the human and animal life forms in North America in 2003. As one might expect, chaos ensues. A global ecological catastrophe has accompanied the human disappearance, a civil engineer from Seattle (the only big US city to survive the wave) has been elected president, Israel has launched nuclear strikes on its Middle East neighbours, and groups of well-organised pirates from Lagos have taken over New York City.

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At its best, popular fiction is almost cinematic. As readers, we know what to expect but still gasp in awe as the rug is pulled from under us in pursuit of thrills, chills, and narrative twists. Honey Brown’s second novel, The Good Daughter, is a fine example of the modern ethos. It reads like a classic girl-gone-bad screenplay. Rebecca Toyer, from the wrong side of the tracks, meets Zach Kincaid, a rich boy with skeletons in his closet. They are drawn together, but family secrets threaten to drive them apart. When Zach’s mother goes missing, Rebecca is implicated in her disappearance. During the course of the narrative, she encounters drug dealers, crooked cops, and her fair share of sex, lies, and betrayal. Zach struggles to cope with his family legacy. From early on, he is the powder keg that threatens to ignite the book’s narrative.

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When Miranda Ophelia Sinclair, ‘Moss’ to her friends, discovers a document featuring the name of her heretofore unknown father, she sets out to find him and to discover her genetic roots. Her complicated family history is gradually exposed when she finds her father, Finn, living as a near-recluse in a town called Opportunity. Finn’s next-door neighbour is Lily Pargetter: aged, lonely, haunted by memories and ghosts. Her nephew, Sandy, is a middle-aged man-child, ineffectual but harmless. This eccentric cast of characters could easily hold its own against Alexander McCall Smith’s creations; however, Evans sets her protagonists on a predictable and fairly scripted path, resulting in a message-driven narrative.

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In an essay on the poetry of George Crabbe, Peter Porter wrote, ‘It is a great pleasure to me, a man for the littoral any day, to read Crabbe’s description of the East Anglian coast.’ Happily, there is by now a substantial and various array of writings about Porter’s work, and I would like simply to add that his being, metaphorically, ‘a man for the littor ...

Odd to start by quoting P.G. Wodehouse: ‘She was a girl with a wonderful profile, but steeped to the gills in serious purpose.’ Bertie Wooster is complaining, in ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’1, about Honoria Glossop, who has forced upon him ‘Types of Ethical Theory’. ‘Odd’ because anyone steeped to the gills i ...

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

      Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus   (1922)
For what it is worth, my own view is that in contemporary Australia the dialectical quest for truth about the indigenous culture, by open argument and counter-argument, is no less important ...

You’re opening a packet of star anise with a knife
designed for taking the sides from fish, when
two things happen simultaneously: the muscle
below your thumb some call the mound of Venus

Writing a matter of hours after Charles Dickens’s death on 9 June 1870, an obituarist for The Times of London remarked, ‘The story of his life is soon told’. The publication of Dickens’s friend John Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens between 1871 and 1874 soon gave the lie to these words, revealing a far more complex and damaged Dickens than the reading public had ever suspected this novelist, journalist, actor, social reformer and bon viveur to be. Since the 1870s thousands of pages have been devoted to scrutinising the life of the self-styled ‘sparkler of Albion’, including G.K. Chesterton’s Charles Dickens: A critical study (1906), Edgar Johnson’s magisterial Charles Dickens: His tragedy and triumph (1952) and Claire Tomalin’s superbly readable account of Dickens’s infatuation with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, The Invisible Woman (1991).

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