Allen & Unwin

Writing a book on a large, multifaceted, and complex historical subject on which there is a vast amount of source material is a little like sculpting a substantial yet elegant statue from marble. In this case, the sculpting process is far from complete. A potentially valuable book remains submerged within this long and inadequately edited volume. A clue to the problem lies in the subtitle, which asserts that the book is ‘the complete story of the Australian war’. There is, of course, no such thing as a complete history: even the longest multi-volume histories must decide what to exclude.

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Midnight Empire, the second novel by Canberra author Andrew Croome, depicts political intrigue and acts of violence that play out against the backdrop of the so-called ‘war on terror’.

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The Amber Amulet by Craig Silvey & Word Hunters: The Curious Dictionary by Nick Earls and Terry Whidborne

by
November 2012, no. 346

Craig Silvey’s The Amber Amulet is a deceptively simple tale that hides many classic themes within its layers. By night, twelve-year-old Liam McKenzie patrols Franklin Street in the guise of super-hero the Masked Avenger, aided (and sometimes hindered) by his sidekick, Richie the Powerbeagle. The prime belief underpinning the Masked Avenger’s doctrine is the enormous potential of dormant energy that is trapped in gemstones and minerals, which hold specific powers. He believes that energy is omnipresent, but as the world is both positively and negatively charged, he is very aware that the balance between good and evil can easily be disturbed, and he is thus constantly on the lookout for ‘Trouble’.

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In Overland back in 2006, Ken Gelder singled out Michelle de Kretser’s first novel, The Rose Grower (1999), as evidence of a contemporary Australian literature in crisis. Its foreign and historical setting, horticultural fetish, focus on private manners and primped prose, he argued, flaunted a rarefied and élitist aesthetics that wanted nothing to do with the ‘political realities’ of ‘ordinary life’. With Questions of Travel, it is as if de Kretser is responding to this charge. This is a novel whose ambitions, which are considerable, are driven by a desire to engage with, not retreat from, both the wider world and the common reader. What we have here is a quite different type of Australian literary novel from the one that Gelder identified, though one that seems to be gaining ascendancy – one that is less arch, more cosmopolitan, and more seriously engaged with the larger events and problems of our times.

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Fighting to the Finish does not get off to a good start; its title is overstated. The First Australian Task Force (1ATF), trimmed down in 1970 from three to two battalions, withdrew from the Vietnam War by December 1971. The small remaining advisory group withdrew in December 1972. Fighting finished in April 1975, when more than 180 battalions of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) swarmed around Saigon, causing it to fall. It hardly seems sensible to declare that the Australian Army fought to the finish over two years before the end of the war.

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One of the first things that Australians learn at school or on arrival as migrants is that this country has a rich history of war. Australia’s military tradition has been an integral part of the making of modern Australia. World War II opened doors to a wave of European migration and cultural enrichment, and each conflict since then has been followed by a similar surge of social development. Australia has grown up on war – or, at least, we have grown through it.

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As creative writing programs continue to surge in popularity, it has become something of an uphill battle to recruit students for literature courses in universities. In an environment overstocked with would-be writers fixated on the image of a potential publisher whose own field of vision is a mass of BookScan figures, a collection of critical essays on a literary writer has something of an ambassadorial role to play. Can those who profess an interest in books and writing be persuaded that there is value in complex engagements with context and tradition, form, and theme?

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For a young academic in need of a job, 1964 was a lucky time. After three pioneering years with small enrolments, Monash University was bracing itself for the first big influx of postwar baby boomers. Above the flat and muddy stretches of Clayton farmland, where Wellington boots had been the footwear of choice, the first tall buildings were emerging. The Arts wing of the twelve-storey Robert Menzies School of Humanities was in pristine state when I moved into Room 727 in the department of English, on the seventh floor.

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Why is the measure of love loss? As I worked my way through the hundred vignettes that comprise My Hundred Lovers, my thoughts kept returning to this first line of a novel by Jeanette Winterson that is similarly preoccupied with the interlinking of the body, love, sex, and death. My Hundred Lovers is the story of a life rendered as a litany of bodily memories. The twin-faced abstractions of desire and loss have lured and impelled the narrator through her worldly existence; this is a journey of self-formation made through metaphors of desire and dissolution.

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Fernando Nottebohm has been interested in birdsong since early childhood. By 2001 he had spent thirty years at Rockefeller University in New York studying how birds learn to sing, concentrating on canaries who are capable of learning new songs each year. His interest has been to study birdsong as ‘a model for the brain’. He studied the brains of caged birds and birds in the wild. The birds that needed to forage and escape predators produced more neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is essential to memory.

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