Penguin Random House

Before reading Richard Flanagan’s new book, Toxic: The rotting underbelly of the Tasmanian salmon industry, it is useful to remember that Australia’s southern isle was once the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land. During the first fifty years of the colony’s existence, a small ruling élite achieved a near monopoly over the island’s most lucrative natural resources, the subservience of the majority convict population, and considerable profit from the public licences and patronage associated with political power. Far from these privileges ending with the cessation of transportation, self-government allowed the establishment to so entrench their interests that no substantial separation existed between the promotion of them and the functions of the state.

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‘I consider myself more a vaudevillean than a scholar,’ George Saunders writes cheekily in his introduction to this collection. Yes, he is indeed a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University in upstate New York, a Booker Prize-winning novelist, and a regular in the pages of the New Yorker, but in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain he is first and foremost a vaudevillean: in seven short acts he sings, dances, and acts the comedian. According to Martin Amis, ‘all writers who are any good are funny’, even Kafka and Tolstoy, and he has a point. Saunders may not be quite vicious enough to qualify as ‘any good’ in Amis’s terms, but he is at least unfailingly sharp and good-humoured.

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Who was John Maynard Keynes? Was he the bookish Cambridge don who penned ambitious theories to overturn the tenets of economics and political liberalism? Or was he Baron Keynes of Tilton, the ardent imperialist who viewed British rule as a benevolent force bringing justice, liberty, and prosperity to the societies it administered? Was he a meticulous Lothario who kept lists of his hookups with anonymous men on notecards? Was he also a political statesman who lambasted the intransigency of his colleagues during fraught negotiations in two world wars?

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It seems hard to imagine that we need more books on World War I after the tsunami of publications released during the recent centenary. Yet, here we have a blockbuster, a 926-page tome, Staring at God, by Simon Heffer, a British journalist turned historian in the tradition of Alistair Horne and Max Hastings.

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Publicists obviously rack their brains for innovative ways to promote their books: new novels have come equipped with bookmarks, balloons, and boxes of matches (Rosie Scott’s Lives on Fire), and six pages of variegated hype is not uncommon for a book targeted as a future best-seller. Random House, however, have recently come up with a format that is genuinely useful to reviewers: a neat, double-sided fold that incorporates – instead of the insistent ‘marketing points’ and the publicist’s puff picking out all the best quotes and rendering them instantly second-hand – a summary of the plot, a couple of style-bytes, and an interview in which the author discusses the genesis of the novel.

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Andrew Johnson’s first day in the White House was less than promising. Whether, as his supporters claimed, he was suffering from illness and had attempted to self-medicate or had simply been celebrating his new position as vice president, Johnson was devastatingly drunk. It was 3 March 1865, the Civil War was rapidly drawing to a close, and the recently re-elected President Lincoln was to deliver his second inaugural address. In prose that would eventually be inscribed across the walls of his marble memorial, Lincoln reflected on God, war, and the emerging challenge of how to rehabilitate a divided Union. The vice president’s words that day were barely decipherable and after prostrating himself before a Bible and subjecting it to a long wet kiss, he was quickly ushered away.

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In his latest novel, Everything I Knew, Peter Goldsworthy uses this famous quotation. Indeed, it is so apposite that it might well have provided the epigraph. Everything I Knew is, in part, a self-conscious reworking of Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953). The first-person narrator, Robert Burns, is a naïve fourteen-year-old boy in desperate thrall to a young woman. But where the emotional life of Hartley’s boy protagonist is destroyed by the precipitate arrival of sexual knowledge, Everything I Knew subverts this notion.

The year is 1964 and the setting is Penola, a country town in South Australia. Robbie is a Year Seven schoolboy, precociously intelligent, restlessly pubescent. His father is the town policeman and his mother a well-meaning but stolid housewife. The community is narrow; everyone knows everyone else. At the beginning of the novel, Robbie is beginning to outgrow Billy, his best friend from primary school, an Indigenous boy with a reputation for getting into trouble that Robbie, to a lesser extent (being white), shares.

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To complement our ‘Books of the Year’ feature, which appeared in the December 2018 issue, we invited some senior publishers to nominate their favourite books of 2018 – all published by other companies.

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Living in the inner suburbs of Sydney, it is easy to become blasé about homosexuality. Gay men are everywhere: streets, cafés, shops, neighbouring houses, dog parks, and gyms. I live near Surry Hills Shopping Centre, an otherwise unspectacular mini-mall. Early evening, however, the supermarket aisles are choked with well-groomed gay men making a show of checking out the produce. I have to confess, after the initial voyeuristic delight, I have come to find this concentration of gay men tiresome. The tanned skin, the razor sharp hair-styles, the muscles, the tattoos and, most annoyingly, the ubiquitous army pants – they blur into a crowd of cosmopolitan conformity. As I crankily push around the shopping cart, clad in my shapeless tracksuit pants and wine-stained T-shirt, I have to suppress the desire to run down the odd unsuspecting homosexual, dangerously separated from his pack.

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In September 2018, NewSouth published a new edition of A Certain Style.

On a chilly evening in 1980, a stylish woman in her early seventies, wheezing slightly from a lifetime’s cigarettes, climbed a staircase just beneath the Harbour Bridge, entered a room full of book editors – young women mostly, university-educated, making their way ...

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