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FACP

Fiona the Pig by Leigh Hobbs & Too Many Pears! by Jackie French, illus. Bruce Whatley

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March 2004, no. 259

Where would the picture book industry be without animals? Talking or non-speaking, cute or obnoxious, mischievously alive or poignantly dying, animal characters can be utilised to teach life lessons, and to make complex issues accessible and less confronting for young children. Add humour, passion and strong original writing, and you have a winner.

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Girls like books about friends and relationships. Boys like books about explosions and sport. Right? Like any generalisation based solely on gender, the answers are, invariably, ‘yes’; ‘sometimes’; ‘up to a point’ and ‘of course not’. This latest grab bag of junior fiction contains its fair share of ‘girlie’ books about friendship and ‘boyish’ books about sport. Thankfully, there are also some books to cater for other sections of the spectrum, including sensitive explorations of boys’ friendships and robust girls who trek up mountains.

Meg McKinlay’s Annabel Again (Walker, $14.95 pb, 143 pp, 9781921150104) lands us squarely in girlie territory. When Livvy’s best friend moves away, her world folds. With the best of intentions, her New Age mother hatches a plan to help Livvy forget about Annabel, as quickly as possible. But one year later, Annabel returns and Livvy believes things will be just the same again. But Annabel is distant and hostile, and nothing is the same. Can their friendship be resurrected? This book covers familiar ground, but the treatment of the girls’ friendships is refreshingly angst-free. This is a quick, humorous read that highlights both the strength and delicacy of friendship, and offers some sound advice about when not to listen to your mother.

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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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In the current overwhelmingly dour landscape of Australian children’s fiction, it’s a welcome relief to pick up three books which at least claim to rely on humour for their effect. Of course, humour comes in different forms, with different purposes.

In Small Sacrifices, for instance, Beverley Macdonald isn’t looking for easy laughs. By its contrast with the harrowing events which constitute the story’s climax, the humour Macdonald injects into the first two thirds of the book effectively maximises the impact of the tragedy. Central to the fun at the beginning are the members of the bizarrely extended family belonging to the narrator, fourteen-year-old Harry. We meet them as they gradually assemble for Christmas at a beachside house in the town where Harry’s artily eccentric grandmother lives.

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School Days edited by John Kinsella

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November 2006, no. 286

Hands up those who know where Upper Ulam is. In what Melbourne convent school was Veronica Brady’s spiritual and aesthetic education nourished? Can anyone name Eva Sallis’s latest work of fiction or identify the school, somewhere outside Adelaide, where Sallis practised the violin and took her turn at milking the cow?

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Devotion is more than the portrayal of a woman suffering from post-natal paralysis and grappling with the legacy of betrayal. Ffion Murphy’s impressive first novel alludes to landscapes mythological in scope, and explores the psychological complexities of intimacy, fidelity, sexuality, and language.

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Phil Sparrow lived and worked as a UN aid worker in pre-9/11 Afghanistan for nearly three years. Evacuated when the country was attacked by the US, he returned to Australia and worked as an interpreter for Afghan refugees in Australia. In this book, Sparrow writes about his experiences in Afghanistan and Australia, and his reading of the Australian government’s response to refugees, particularly those from Afghanistan.

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Philip Salom’s tenth collection of poems offers readers an experience akin to falling over the edge of a well into a frightening subterranean world. The Well Mouth is dark, allusive, ironic, brutal, perplexing and confronting, and so it can be alternately rewarding and irritating. Readers should not miss the explanatory paragraph before the prologue; otherwise they risk being as disoriented as the central narrative consciousness, a woman murdered by corrupt police and dumped down a well. She makes the collection cohere as a kind of ghostly medium, channelling the voices of the newly dead, some of whom are described as ‘whistleblower, brothel madam, long-distance driver, woman lost in the bush, old solider’.

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Philip Salom’s poetry has won many awards since his first collection, The Silent Piano, was published in 1980. His poems range widely and have often included fantastical elements, most notably in Sky Poems (1987). The opening of Sky Poems enjoins the reader to ‘Throw out the world’s laws’, promising: ‘Anything you wish, possibly more!’ Such poetry seems to proceed from the assumption that fiction can, after all, be stranger than truth. And, despite its variousness, Salom’s work often returns to certain kinds of strangeness.

His second book, The Projectionist (1983), is a kind of proto-novel constructed as a collection of poetry. It is impossible to summarise this book neatly, but it foregrounds the sensibility of a character called Mr Benchley, a retired film projectionist whose ‘reality’ is partly filmic. In this work, Salom investigates the elusiveness of human experience and reflects on how experience may be represented suggestively through audiovisual technology. He writes in one poem, ‘This playback of life’s feeding / every thread of the rough cocoon’ – the ‘cocoon’, among other things, being the self-reflexive activity of a lonely life.

Playback (1991) became the title of Salom’s first novel, recently reissued. The main protagonist is a male oral historian and folklorist living as a visitor in a country town. At the core of Playback is a mystery centred on a possible, and unsolved, crime, along with the erotic charge of an adulterous relationship between the oral historian and an artist. The novel progresses by counterpointing the past – captured in a growing, if precarious, store of taped oral histories – with the historian’s evolving and increasingly destabilised present. The dynamic is fairly merciless. Various forms of disintegration occur; the novel’s conclusion answers some key questions but leaves others unresolved. In both The Projectionist and Playback, people are shown never to be free of their pasts, even though they remember their lives poorly. They are depicted as often creating themselves and their fantasies on the ground of their own forgetting.

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Levin’s God is a two-part epic. The first half is a take on the Australian rock scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Singer-guitarist Levin Hoffman, on the strength of what people say are ‘great songs’, rapidly takes his band the Barking Dogs to the top of the charts. Levin – believe it or not – finds that success is hollow and that not even his devoted Indian-Australian girlfriend, Shelley, or his long-time friend-cum-manager, Lawrence, can rescue him from his indefinable angst. The second half of the book sees Levin in Thailand, where, lying low at a monastery after witnessing a horrific murder, he becomes a devotee of meditation.

As Roger Hart, Roger Wells was the male lead in the group Little Heroes (not to be confused with their contemporaries, Little Murders), a Melbourne band that spent the first half of the 1980s making interesting rock records. They had a top ten hit, ‘One Perfect Day’, in 1982, which complemented the ‘new wave’ without alienating fans of more established music. Wells now works as a counsellor and has written a book on meditation, so one assumes that Levin’s God is built on a skeleton of experience, though much of the experience seems casually remembered. Tellingly, it is the travail of meditation and Levin’s struggle to purge his own desire and pain through meditative enlightenment that are most credible.

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