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Hodder

The Thirteenth Night by Jan McNess & Something More Wonderful by Sonia Orchard

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April 2003, no. 250

On the night of 13 September 1993, flight lieutenants Jeremy McNess and Mark Cairns-Cowan were killed when their F-111 crashed at Guyra, in northern NSW. Written by Jeremy’s mother, The Thirteenth Night dwells on the complex fatality of that night, which permanently changed several life stories in an instant. For his mother, who had coped with his exceptionally difficult childhood, winning through in his early teens to a remarkably close relationship, Jeremy’s death was and remains a dark frontier. Beyond lay a strange and cold country. Totally disoriented at first by devastating grief, she found the courage and stamina to pursue the true story of the accident’s cause for five years in the face of institutional defensiveness and media ignorance. This book began as a story for the family, but it is an important book for other readers on several counts.

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Awareness of the tension between fantasy and realism in fiction has been heightened in recent years by the trend in young adult novels towards gritty urban realism. The tension itself is not new, however: in America half a century ago it was known as the ‘milk bottle versus Grimm’ controversy. Although there is a clear distinction between extreme examples of fantasy and realism, the intervening grey area encompasses a great deal of fiction which successfully mingles the two. Thus Sparring with Shadows, though on the face of it another example of contemporary realism, is peopled with characters who are clearly shaped to serve the author’s intentions; they’re believable but they’re not as ‘real’ as hyper-realists might prefer. Black Ice, on the other hand, is built on elements of the fantastic – spirits, poltergeists, séances, and the like – but it sets those elements against a recognisable late twentieth-century background in which a teenage girl is struggling to understand the disintegration of her parents’ marriage.

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Mark Bowling was the ABC’s man in Indonesia from 1998 until 2002, and this book is an excellent account of the period of his posting. It covers a turbulent time in Indonesian life from May 1998, the end of the thirty-year Suharto regime, until May 2002, when the newly fledged nation of East Timor spread its wings. An epilogue adds his involvement in reporting on the most significant event in Indonesian affairs for Australians, the Bali bombing on 13 October 2002.

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Todd Alexander’s début novel, Pictures of Us, ambitiously tackles a smorgasbord of weighty issues – mortality, grief, adultery, homosexuality – through the experiences of one family. The sudden death of Marcus Apperton, husband to Maggie and father of Isabel and Patrick, forces his wife and adult children into an uncomfortable reunion. Left to piece together a fractured family past, the Appertons begin to uncover some unsettling truths about their relationship to each other.

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Australia has never been so prodigal of great men that it can afford to let even one slip into oblivion; yet George Hubert Wilkins (1888–1958) is now hardly a household name. In a life of ceaseless activity, he was a photographer, naturalist, meteorologist, geographer, aviator, submariner, war correspondent, religious thinker, and writer, but he was best known as a celebrated polar explorer. His first biographer, John Grierson, a professional writer, dealt adequately enough with the many lives of Wilkins in 1960, at a time when his subject was still well known. Four decades later, Simon Nasht, a documentary film-maker, offers the Australian reading public an expanded version of Grierson’s biography. Nasht has the advantage of a growing library of polar studies, and his book appears at a time when climatology and extinction of species are subjects of scientific and popular concern.

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The Visitor by Jane R. Goodall & Rubdown by Leigh Redhead

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September 2005, no. 274

Some generals in Australia’s ‘culture wars’ have appointed themselves defenders of a mythical identity against the incursions of multiculturalists and ‘black armbanders’. Literary skirmishes over national identity have been more mundane, concerning mainly eligibility for awards. Certainly, three recent crime novels suggest that Australian writing benefits from adoption of a broad definition. That these three novels vary widely in plot, setting, characterisation and style is understandable given the authors’ disparate backgrounds.

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Malicious Intent by Kathryn Fox & The Walker by Jane Goodall

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August 2004, no. 263

About to present a lecture to medical students, pathologist Dr Anya Crichton notes optimistically, in Kathryn Fox’s new novel, that the word ‘forensic’ in the title will pretty much guarantee her a full house. Sadly, when the overstressed and overambitious students discover that the topic is not going to figure on their exam paper, a significant number depart, therefore missing out on such compelling topics as how to spot the suspicious death of a diabetic, or when to accuse the family pet of snacking on the deceased.

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Oh Dennis, Dennis! For four decades, we’ve had to forgive your indiscretions and blemishes. We’ve done so willingly, because you were not only the fast bowler of a generation, but of that generation’s milestones. For many Australians, their national cricket team of the Lillee, Chappell, Marsh era was as important a cultural statement as the Beatles to the English in the 1960s. The stovepipe creams, the body-shirts, the massive crops of hair and the noses thumbed at the old Establishment, English and local, either drove or represented significant change in Australia. Lillee, ultra-competitive and irreverent (he said gidday to the Queen and asked for her autograph), stood at the forefront of all this. So we forgave him for the aluminium bat, for betting on England, for kicking Javed Miandad, for pulling out of a tour of England to help establish World Series Cricket – for so many things. And here we are again in 2003, still having to forgive him.

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Oh Dennis, Dennis! For four decades, we’ve had to forgive your indiscretions and blemishes. We’ve done so willingly, because you were not only the fast bowler of a generation, but of that generation’s milestones. For many Australians, their national cricket team of the Lillee, Chappell, Marsh era was as important a cultural statement as the Beatles to the English in the 1960s. The stovepipe creams, the body-shirts, the massive crops of hair and the noses thumbed at the old Establishment, English and local, either drove or represented significant change in Australia. Lillee, ultra-competitive and irreverent (he said gidday to the Queen and asked for her autograph), stood at the forefront of all this. So we forgave him for the aluminium bat, for betting on England, for kicking Javed Miandad, for pulling out of a tour of England to help establish World Series Cricket – for so many things. And here we are again in 2003, still having to forgive him.

... (read more)