All our Shimmering Skies — book review

All our Shimmering Skies, by Trent Dalton

Like the gorgeously lush cover, this book is almost too sumptuously overgrown with luxuriant succulents to be true. If that sounds a mouthful, you should read Dalton’s descriptions of the Australian outback.

Molly, our spunky but naive child heroine, walks away from the bombing of Darwin and I was expecting Australian desert. But she walks through many variations of the cover picture. “… a stand of black wattles and soap trees with flat round black fruits and then down an avenue of trees with mottled cream-grey bark and stiff leaves exploding with small ripe red fruits. These tree clusters are all canopied by a dense climbing vine with orange-yellow flowers shaped like starfish …” I’m wondering what to make of this dreamy psychedelic landscape and the vividness of the descriptions, which are offered in stark contrast to the city in the background. The voice is often passive: “Seen from the orange-red sky above and looking down and closer in and closer in, they are three wanderers crossing a vivid floodplain cut by sinuous rivers and wide freshwater channels dotted with lily-fringed waterholes. The sun low and honeyed.” (Love that repetition and the honeyed sun.)

It seems a strange response to trauma. Unexpected, perhaps intriguing.

Continue reading “All our Shimmering Skies — book review”

No Friend but the Mountains — book review

No Friend but the Mountains, by Behrouz Boochani

This is an indescribably sad book about inhumanity. A man, born and raised in a war zone, escapes his home country with nothing more than his life (and “home” is a word that needs re-thinking in the context of this story) and yes, he gets away and is rescued at sea from a sinking boat by the Royal Australian Navy.

Thank God, you would think. Wouldn’t you?

Continue reading “No Friend but the Mountains — book review”

The Dickens Boy – book review

The Dickens Boy, by Tom Keneally

Definitely my book of the year so far. I’m a Keneally fan (since Schindler’s Ark all those years ago) and a Dickens fan with a keen interest in Victorians and colonial history and here’s The Dickens Boy with all that wrapped up in a gloriously written novel. Keneally is a master storyteller with characters I can really care about and a honesty that makes me believe that everything here could be true (and quite a lot of it seems to be). Just goes to show you don’t need clever literary devices or pretentious language to write a captivating book, you just need to tell a bloody good story.

Continue reading “The Dickens Boy – book review”

Hell Ship—book review

Hell Ship by Michael Veitch

This is a book club book if you are a group of readers with a fanatical interest in the minutiae of colonial immigration in the 1850s. In which case, I salute you. Invite me along to join you, sometime.

Veitch, though, might be a bit much of an enthusiast, even for me. The cover and title promises a book set on the high seas but there is way more than that. Most of the detail is of the societal conditions and politics behind the immigrations: the Wakefields, the lure of colonial wool and gold, the Scottish clearances. There is a full chapter about the Birkenhead emigration depot in Liverpool where the passengers collected before departure and the last quarter of the book covers the crisis in immigration that followed the ship’s arrival in Port Phillip and its quarantine.

Continue reading “Hell Ship—book review”

Call Me Evie – book review

Call Me Evie, by J P Pomare

Generally speaking I avoid books with red and black covers and an image of a traumatised girl. So much crime/horror treats murder, rape, kidnapping of young women as entertainment.

But I met the intelligent and likeable J P Pomare at the Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival and realised all the fuss about his book might suggest I have my genres confused. “A top-rate psychological thriller,” said a friend in the know. “Literary suspense” said another. I decided to overcome my prejudice. I picked up red-and-black Evie.

I realised at once I had opened an unusual book.

Continue reading “Call Me Evie – book review”

Boy Swallows Universe – book review

Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton

Oh my God. It’s true. This extraordinary story of Eli Bell growing up in suburban Brisbane amid drug addicts and gangs and criminals and the poignancy of children making sense of the mess…this is based on his life. Trent Dalton’s. The mother he loves so much he breaks into prison to be with her at Christmas. The best friend, Slim, who shares his stories of Boggo Road prison and may (or may not) have murdered a cabbie. The Vietnamese Golden Triangle heroin dealers and their hit men. Might be easier to read not knowing these things were based on a real life.

I SO love this book. It has that rare bit of genius that I search for in fiction: a mixture of quirky but believable characters, a story that grows, an unusual setting (actually, I hated the setting), and writing so sharp it makes you bleed.

Continue reading “Boy Swallows Universe – book review”

The Boy Behind the Curtain – book review

The Boy Behind the Curtain, by Tim Winton

Tim Winton is a shy bloke. He’s a West Australian surfer who has list of accolades for his literary work and by all accounts has been very industrious, often behind-the-scenes, in saving the wild, natural spaces of Australia. All credit to him for this. I feel I should love him.

I think the reason I don’t might be the shyness.

The Boy Behind the Curtain – what does that promise if not a great reveal? He’s going to let us in and introduce us to the man behind That Eye, The Sky, Cloudstreet, Dirt Music. (All great reads, BTW, told by a thinking Australian). But does The Boy Behind the Curtain fulfill its promise and take us into his head?  Here are a collection of good stories, grouped together as an autobiography, but I’m not feeling personal passion. He’s still a writer telling stories at a narrator’s arm’s length.

The first two chapters, on his habit of pointing a gun at passers by from behind the curtain and an endless ramble on 2001: A Space Oddessy were an odd opening choice, neither seemed to illustrate a thread. I suppose he became an author, so had people in his sights, and there was a good line about space junk “every new marvel is on its way to being landfill” that could lead to his later environmentalism. But do these incidents define his childhood enough to warrant this focus?

It’s a strange place to start.

There are a great couple of chapters on near fatal accidents – a stranger’s, his father’s and his own, which are personal and raw. But then there are pages on his childhood car, a huge chunk on Sunday religion which yes, must have played a big part in his life but could have been much tighter in the telling.

All through this book I’m waiting for something. We hear about his dad – including a rather personal incident I’ll bet his dad would rather be forgotten, we get a mention of a sibling. His mum gets a wee look in. There is a hint of a wife somewhere in the distance. At some stage there’s bound to be a bit about writing books, do you think? He’s “Australian’s greatest novelist” according to the blurb (Peter Carey, anyone? Tom Keneally?)  Family and writing – two pretty big topics. So back to the book…

There is a long essay about a lecturer of whom he is rather scathing during her tenure, seeming to agree with his classmates that “at the time they felt they’d learnt nothing useful from her.” But she goes on to be famous and Winton is almost sycophantic in his retrospective regard for this “genteel old lady” (she was 55. Watch it, Tim). We get stories of her literary successes, her book launches, her promotional and business style, her clever repartee. This is the behind-the-curtain writing story we don’t get regarding Winton himself.  There is barely a mention of his writing before he is on a cool environmental crusade and is suddenly billed as the “celebrity activist”  brought out to bring in the crowds, the bait to get the press along. Hang on – when, how, did he get famous? Is he too modest to tell us that all this time he was writing and getting accepted by publishers, growing a following, receiving awards?

And, I have to know. Where is the love?  On page 189 he goes whale watching with his wife, to whom we have not been, and never are introduced. They met at school, she’s a nurse. Call me a romantic, but who you love and how you love and what happens to you through love and how you deal with love’s confusions is intrinsic to who you are.  We may have been invited behind the brick wall, but the curtain is firmly pulled. This enormous omission frustrated me throughout the book.

But on to the good bits, of which there are many.

His environmental activism in saving a remote West Australian reef is an inspiring essay. The decency and and camaraderie of those involved, even among opponents, is heartening. He calls it a “lesson in personal prejudices,” and we’ve probably all been there.

Winton always writes beautifully of landscape and seascape.  There are lovely passages of littoral regions. I looked this up, it technically means the shore line but he put in my mind an evocative image of that magic place where the wet sand meets the dry, or where the scrubby edge of desert meets the salt pans. “The littoral – that peculiar zone of overlap and influx…”

He shares the aspect of his daily life that includes dolphins, whales and all kinds of sea creatures (but not the wife, children, mother, friends – should I read something into that?).  “The Wait and the Flow” piece is a sufie/writing metaphor, and I guess the “curtain” of the title is also a surfy nod – that mysterious space behind a breaking wave.

And the whole book is scattered with read-them-twice metaphors. He found the story of Space Odyssey “a big shiny wheel that seemed a little short of hand-holds” (I take it back, maybe it was a defining moment), a Hillman sedan that “smelt like an abandoned cinema” – we had one of those. Urban greenies and rural business people are “the facially pierced and the bark-knuckled”. I like the indignity he suffers when kicked out the the Coral Bay pub for being barefoot after 6 p.m. There are standards.

He ends with a metaphor of an Art Gallery visit – child to man, which seems retrospectively contrived for the theme. He first enters the NGV barefoot and cowering but years later strides out “like a man in boots”.

Most of these chapters have been published before.  As a collection of articles they are interesting, sometimes provoking. But they are a strange choice for a  autobiography, billed on the cover as:  “A deeply personal book, one that throws much light on the reclusive Winton as a man and as a writer.”  It really doesn’t. The curtain twitches, but we only glimpse the outline of the boy.

%d bloggers like this: