Fiction

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This is a first novel from Alexander Buzo, the playwright of the 1960s and 1970s who gave vitriol a new status in the Australian vernacular and who, through characters like Coralie Landsdowne (Coralie Landsdowne Says No) and Edward Martello (Martello Towers), raised pretentious speech to new levels of social acceptability. In a published comment on audience reception to Martello Towers, Buzo describes Edward Martello as ‘an educated ‘rake’, who is, in keeping with the style of the play, articulate beyond the grounds of naturalism’ and concludes, ‘Still, as long as they’re enjoying themselves’. Defensive disclaimers from writers hint at a nervousness which must, eventually, find its way into the writing usually in the form of overkill. The worst recent example of this is the introduction to Clive James’s Brilliant Creatures in which a rather affected statement of pre-emptive failure is intended to head the critics off at the pass if they were to do anything as unkind as suggest that the work was any more frivolous than intended by its author, who, of course, intended it to be.

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Paul Radley’s novels are about loss and growth. The first, the prize-winning Jack Rivers and Me, showed how ‘Peanut’ was forced to shed his imaginary companion as a part of his joining the world of school. My Blue-Checker Corker and Me dealt with a twelve-year-old boy’s reaction to grief at the loss of his racing pigeon. Now, in his latest, he takes us through five years in the lives of two mates from just before they leave school until one of them dies in the mud of New Guinea. The setting of the novel is again his fictitious township of Boomeroo, but the time is now the late thirties and first years of the war.

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At a time when novels by women must run the gauntlet of feminist criticism it is surprising to find one which is prepared to discuss love and female dependence without any deference to feminism. Natalie Scott makes it clear that her heroine lives in ‘liberated’ times but she insists that the need for love remains a fundamental human weakness or strength. Furthermore, she is not afraid to link a woman’s desire for beauty with her need for love. The traditional feminine concern for beautiful things and personal beauty becomes in The Glasshouse part of a search for completeness, though the other interpretation – that it is evidence of feminine materialism and obsession with security – is also acknowledged. At the same time, Natalie Scott’s writing is careful, considered, occasionally witty, and always finely crafted. Her narrator, Alexandra Pawley, convincingly conveys the attitudes of an intelligent and well-groomed woman who desperately wants to form her life into a beautiful pattern.

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Eric Rolls begins his Celebration of the Senses with an image of his wife’s left buttock shining through a split in an old blue sheet ‘like an early morning moon’. He ends the book with the smells of his semen and her cunt as the warm sheet is lifted and the day begins. He shares his delight in his partner (‘I will not name her. A name both exposes and confines her’) as he shares all the sensual pleasures that give him his being and inform his work.

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Eddie Leonski was a private in the United States Army who was tried and executed for strangling three women in wartime Melbourne. Barely three weeks elapsed between the first murder and Leonski’s arrest. He was executed six months later, in November 1942. There seems no doubt that Leonski committed the crimes; whether he had a fair trial is another matter.

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At its best, popular fiction is almost cinematic. As readers, we know what to expect but still gasp in awe as the rug is pulled from under us in pursuit of thrills, chills, and narrative twists. Honey Brown’s second novel, The Good Daughter, is a fine example of the modern ethos. It reads like a classic girl-gone-bad screenplay. Rebecca Toyer, from the wrong side of the tracks, meets Zach Kincaid, a rich boy with skeletons in his closet. They are drawn together, but family secrets threaten to drive them apart. When Zach’s mother goes missing, Rebecca is implicated in her disappearance. During the course of the narrative, she encounters drug dealers, crooked cops, and her fair share of sex, lies, and betrayal. Zach struggles to cope with his family legacy. From early on, he is the powder keg that threatens to ignite the book’s narrative.

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When Miranda Ophelia Sinclair, ‘Moss’ to her friends, discovers a document featuring the name of her heretofore unknown father, she sets out to find him and to discover her genetic roots. Her complicated family history is gradually exposed when she finds her father, Finn, living as a near-recluse in a town called Opportunity. Finn’s next-door neighbour is Lily Pargetter: aged, lonely, haunted by memories and ghosts. Her nephew, Sandy, is a middle-aged man-child, ineffectual but harmless. This eccentric cast of characters could easily hold its own against Alexander McCall Smith’s creations; however, Evans sets her protagonists on a predictable and fairly scripted path, resulting in a message-driven narrative.

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Matthew Flinders, arriving in Sydney in 1803 after circumnavigating Australia, wrote to his wife bemoaning ‘the dreadful havock that death is making all around’. The sailors in Peter Mews’s Bright Planet have a more phlegmatic attitude. At least twelve of the ship’s complement of sixteen fail to survive the expedition. There may be more, but death becomes an everyday occurrence hardly worth mentioning. By the end, we are not entirely sure whether the remaining characters are alive or dead.

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It’s not racism that makes my mother – once a poor girl from the Welsh valleys – side with the Howard government on the refugee issue: it’s an instinctive territorial defensiveness that can be easily exploited by emotive phrases: illegals, queue jumpers, people smugglers. She’s not alone, if her friends, other relatively prosperous, tax-paying senior Australian citizens, are anything to go by; but it’s not a hardline position. All it might take to soften their attitude is a copy of The Haha Man by Sandy McCutcheon, a rollicking good read that highlights the refugee plight without a whiff of the lecture hall.

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In 1927 the London firm Chatto & Windus published a book titled A Chinaman’s Opinion of Us and of His Own People. Supposedly the translated letters of a young Chinese man, Hwuy-Ung, sent home during his years spent in Melbourne, the writing suggested itself to its European and Australian readership as a delightful take on their society as witnessed by an innocent outsider; an enchanting, amusing and unwittingly insightful journal of a sensitive and bewildered Oriental gentleman. Written by an Australian called Theodore John Tourrier, the book was eventually exposed as a hoax, a cheeky, vaudeville-style tease hamming up the image of the courteous and comical Chinaman.

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