Book reviewers Steven Carroll and Cameron Woodhead take a look at the latest fiction and non-fiction releases. Here are their reviews.
Non-fiction pick of the week
The Australian Secret Army
Michael Veitch, Hatchet, $32.99
In the early days of Australian military intelligence, they were formally known as ‘Reports Specialists’. During World War II, this team of civilian observers, spread across the South Pacific, achieved collective fame as coast guards. Michael Veitch’s gripping account of their exploits puts names to that collective fame.
There were around 100 individual operators in 1941 whose job it was to observe Japanese movements and travel to Australia via Port Moresby. They were never meant to fight, but once the war started they became invaluable spies and much more – the rescue of Lark Force (left for dead by the Australian Army after the fall of Rabaul) by a district officer, Keith McCarthy, his coast guard team and the incredible Gladys Baker is worth a book in itself. They also saved JFK in the Solomons. It’s crisp, confident and witty.
Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington, HarperCollins, $34.99
It’s not so much an extemporaneous account of this year’s election as a very engaging and highly informed account by two flies on a wall. Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington, returning to the 2019 loss that scared so many Labour, take the reader into Anthony Albanese’s squad group: his small-target (“de-Bill the message”) strategy that put all emphasis on what the authors call the Morrison government’s “clown show”.
What stands out is Albanese’s tenacity and pragmatism, the effort to remain optimistic as well as recording how much he loved to “beat Morrison like a drum”. Mind you, he didn’t write his victory speech until Morrison conceded.
The authors also capture a pivotal moment, reflecting that the country had changed and was just waiting for a pair of safe hands.
Clinton Fernandes, MUP, $24.99
The understatement, says Clinton Fernandes in this candid and detailed survey of Australia’s position in international relations, is that Australia is “a middle power trying to maintain a rules-based international order.” The reality is that we are a “sub-imperial power supporting the US-led imperial order”.
The crucial term here is “rules-based” (introduced by Kevin Rudd and taken up by Hilary Clinton), a post-World War II state of affairs that economically and politically affirms international liberalism. The United States is at the top of this imperial order, while smaller countries like Australia play a sub-imperial role.
Fernandes examines the implications of this in relation to Taiwan, the rise of China, and the extent to which this constitutes the “national interest”. He ends by posing an alternative: a “democratic and equitable international order”.
Nicola Harvey, Scribe, $32.99
For years, New Zealand-born Nicola Harvey led a hectic media life in Australia. Although raised on a farm, she had embraced an intensely urban life with her husband. Then came a miscarriage and everything changed.
At the suggestion of his farmer father, they left behind the old life, moved to New Zealand and became dairy farmers. His account of change, part memoir, part environmental bugle call, is conversational and often lively in its evocation of manure, death, and daily life on the farm.
It also introduces him to the intricacies of changing agriculture to become more environmentally friendly, leading him to tackle topics as diverse as methane-producing cows and conflicts over the food labeling. Emblematic of the new life is the birth of his daughter, and the ongoing fight to create a better world.
Fiction selection of the week
Julia Prendergast, Thornless Wonders, $24.99
A collection of fiction of great economy, intensity and accomplishment, Julia Prendergast bloodrust stands out from the pack of Australian short stories, not just for its bitter insistence on emotional truth, but for its almost overdeveloped ear for the contemporary voice.
The suite of tales, snapshots and fragments returns to a theme introduced in the overture, Contrapuntal, in which a woman seethes with silent rage as she welcomes her adult children on her birthday. Unexpected angles on motherhood – from a mother trying to care for her stoner son to a young man assisting his own mother’s emergency delivery – are sketched against a larger canvas of Australian domestic life.
Prendergast is an author unafraid to strike surgically below the surface of the mundane, and her prose has a jagged, unflinching, remorseless quality that exposes complex realities beneath.
Less is wasted
Andrew Sean Greer, small, brown, $29.99
Andrew Sean Greer Less is wasted bequeaths us a sequel to the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner Less. It recounts the adventures of the ill-fated Arthur Less, a moderately successful American queer novelist who avoids emotional frying pans (in the first book, the prospect of attending an ex-boyfriend’s wedding) by getting engaging in literary fires.
This time, Less is on the run after the death of an ex-lover who leaves him with a claim from the executors for unpaid rent. Annoying, but not as diabolical as the circuit of small literary events he attends to escape his misfortunes.
The mix of literary farce and comedy of gay mores sticks to the same formula as the first novel and should appeal to the same readership. Anyone who has encountered the absurdity of, say, judging a book award or being buttoned up by oddballs at literary festivals will smile in recognition, though Greer’s wit might seem too cute and contrived, and that the search for emotional depth beneath the surface fun is not. totally get there.
Our missing hearts
Celeste Ng, Petite, Brown, $32.99
Another sequel that does not eclipse the novel that preceded it is Our missing hearts by Celeste Ng, whose hit suburban mystery Small fires everywhere was adapted for television. It’s not a sequel, though it shares a dystopian focus with its predecessor. It is set in a United States that has been overtaken, after years of crisis, by an authoritarian regime that erodes civil liberties, plays on xenophobic fears, and persecutes PAOs (people of Asian descent).
Noah, twelve years old, grew up with his father (white), a former university, now a librarian, sidelined by the power in place. His mother, Margaret, is a poet living in exile. When the mixed-race boy receives a cryptic message from him, he must decide whether to stay with his well-meaning but conniving father or seek out his dissident mother.
The novel has a chilling and plausible outline given recent political trends, but lacks the kind of imaginative detail – the world-building (and in particular the psychology of regime sympathizers) is often simply telegraphed – that gives its power to the best dystopian fiction.
One more mountain
Deborah Ellis, Allen & Unwin, $16.99
In The breadwinnerDeborah Ellis featured Parvana and Shauzia, two Afghan girls who dressed as boys to support their families during Taliban rule in the 1990s. The author has since incorporated their stories into a fictional children’s series, of which all royalties were donated to Canadian Women For Women, an aid agency in Afghanistan.
One more mountain witnesses the terrible return to power of the Taliban. Parvana is now in her thirties and is desperate to keep vulnerable people away – including a girl forced into marriage – as the Taliban take over the country, with all the restrictions on women that foreshadow. It’s not just women who are worried about Parvana: she wants to send her young adult son, Rafi, to America to live with his aunt as the situation deteriorates.
These hard-hitting books inspired a Netflix animated series; the latter continues a dramatic and revealing story for school-aged readers.
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