Random House Australia

How do you get a first novel up and running? Random House has done so with a show of faith unusual amongst Australian publishers ... and faith can move mountains of books. The Last Time I Saw Mother is handsomely produced and has an equally handsome print run of 20,000. It’s been sold into the shops in numbers and its author – Manila-born Sydney-based copywriter, Arlene J. Chai – has had her name linked with Amy Tan and Jung Chang. The back cover has a brisk encomium from Bryce Courtenay, who encouraged her to write. Effective marketing indeed, although one reviewer has commented on an element of cultural cringe.

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Australia is not the science-fiction capital of the world; in fact we are probably not even on the map. This unfortunate fact would change if we could produce more writers like Paul Collins.

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There is a quality in James Ellroy’s fiction that evades analysis and exceeds his popular status as a successful author in the ‘crime genre’. This quality is in part connected to his demanding narratives, which inevitably leave one with the nagging feeling that there is a great deal one has failed to understand, and which prompt (often multiple) re-readings of his novels; but it is also connected to his stylistic and structural development, an aspect of his work that is generally ignored.

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Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan & Kissed by the Moon by Alison Lester

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December 2013–January 2014, no. 357

Never ruin a perfect plan’ is one of the masterful Shaun Tan’s Rules of Summer (Lothian, $24.99 hb, 52 pp). On a bone-strewn landscape, four thimbles with legs, tails, and horned heads are caught mid-procession. Two of them carry a knife and fork twice their height. The smallest one has turned its Ned Kelly visor head to salute. In doing so, he has trodden unaware on the tail of the one in the lead, who is carrying a strawberry as big as himself. The tip of the tail lies under his foot, dropped like a skink’s. A crow watches from the shadows. The narrative in this one picture would be enough to keep a reader absorbed for hours. The many colours of summer are textured contrasts.

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Not for Turning by Robin Harris & Margaret Thatcher by Charles Moore

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November 2013, no. 356

Our media treat leaders as personifying everything that matters, yet social scientists disdain leadership. Most of what we know about leaders comes from biographies. And biography, dominated by those wishing either to demonise, or to celebrate, their subject, is a craft monopolised by insiders, acolytes, and journalists. Regarding Margaret Thatcher, academics have discussed her premiership (1979–1990) in terms of economic change, social history, value transitions, and party decline. They display a disabling ambivalence over whether she was an agent or a manifestation of tectonic shifts. In parallel, there have been multiple biographies, the first published before she was defenestrated by her own party. A great deal, then, has already been written.

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With this decadent Young Adult novel, described as a ‘bubble-gum-gothic fairytale’, Allyse Near pulls off a surprising magic trick, combining the darker moments of the Brothers Grimm with the modern daydream-realism of Francesca Lia Block.

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Fog a Dox by Bruce Pascoe & Figaro and Rumba and the Crocodile Cafe by Anna Fienberg

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May 2013, no. 351

Animals and friends are a perennial subject in children’s literature, and the junior novels and series books reviewed here highlight those interests. Most of these titles, however, are also notable because they are told with humour, even whilst exposing the anxieties of children.

Fog a Dox (Magabala Books, $19.95 pb, 111 pp, 9781921248559) is a new novel for primary-aged children by esteemed Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe. The intriguing title springs from fox cub Fog, one of three pups rescued by ‘tree feller’ Albert Cutts and reared by his dingo-cross dog, Brim. Fog’s vixen sisters leave when they are old enough to survive on their own, but Fog stays, balancing his fox instincts with learned dog behaviour; Albert describes him as a ‘dox’.

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‘Genius,’ as Arthur Rimbaud put it, ‘is childhood recovered at will.’ Rimbaud himself abandoned poetry at the age of twenty and thereafter refused to look back, but Patrick White exemplified the rule in writing The Hanging Garden. He was sixty-eight at the time, and had just completed his rancorous memoir Flaws in the Glass (1981); having disburdened himself of a lifetime’s gripes and grudges, he now re-imagined adolescence in a novel about two refugees – a boy from blitzed London, a girl from Greece – sent to Sydney early in World War II. He worked on it for a few months at the start of 1981, then set it aside, suspending the lives of the disparate but psychologically twinned characters at the end of the war.

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The Longing is an ambitious first novel. Set in the Western District of Victoria, with parallel narratives in the mid-nineteenth century and the present day, its principal theme is the occupation of Gunditjmara country by white settlers, and the decimation of Indigenous tribes. Novel writing is, of course, an act of imagination, and writers should be commended for their research, tenacity, and inventiveness, but I cannot ignore the social and political implications of this particular story, and cannot help but be alert to the authenticity of its three main voices and the sentiments they express.

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‘I’m sitting in my tower, cogitating.’ Well, Dessaix admits, it’s not a real tower, though he likes to think of it that way. Actually, it is an elevated writing room in his house in Hobart, with a view of the mountains to the west. He is cogitating, not meditating – he’s particular about this – and the thoughts he proceeds to capture on the page are those of a mind given to rambling. As he sits there, the train of thought moves off to connect him with other writers in other towers, widely distant in place and time: Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst in Kent, Michel de Montaigne in rural France, W.B. Yeats in County Galway, Rainer Maria Rilke at the Château de Muzot in Switzerland.

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