Review: Slush Pile by Ian Shadwell, for The Australian

Slush Pile

Sometimes an author will have one big hit and then … nothing. When we meet Michael Ardenne, the antihero of Ian Shadwell’s Slush Pile, it has been more than a decade since he won the Man Booker Prize for his debut novel Ephesus. Now, he is ‘as dry as an old dog turd’. Instead of writing, he pseudonymously occupies message boards about his own book, watches porn, drinks his cellar dry and leers at the teenage girl next door.

Read the rest of the review here.

Craig Sherborne’s Tree Palace and Craig Sherborne, #555writers

tree palaceYesterday:

The plane is just about to descend as I draft this. Craig Sherborne is sitting in the row in front and I’ve just finished his beautiful novel Tree Palace. I’ve been completely lost in the story of this family of itinerants, or ‘trants’, as they call themselves in the book. The family—connected by both blood and companionship—have settled in Barleyville, a fictional town in North-West Victoria, after having been on the move for so long. Settling means many things: there’s the baby that Zara, a teenager, has just had; a child she struggles to recognise as her own. There’s also the fact that settling means the locals get to know the ‘trants’ better, including the police. It may be a bit harder for Shane and Midge, the brothers, to carry on their business of removing antiques from abandoned houses, and selling them on to a dealer.

The main character is Moira, Zara’s mother, who takes on the responsibility of baby Mathew, while her daughter deals with the trauma of birth. Moira is an incredibly sympathetic character; I ached for and along with her, even when (perhaps especially when) she lies, is selfish, or takes a situation too far. But the whole family is compassionately drawn; the novel is so compelling (I didn’t want to put it down) because you care how they’ll turn out. Tree Palace is engagingly written, in an omniscient style, moving in and out of different characters’ points of view (one of the hardest ways to write, in my opinion). The reader dips inside the characters’ heads and finds gems.

Moira couldn’t bring herself to like just one cup and saucer, however pretty and floral and only five dollars instead of a fortune. She’d had her heart fixed on a full, gleaming complement. She didn’t know why exactly. Some ladylike fantasy of being a better person in better times. Settling for one cup would ruin the fantasy and make her resent needing fantasies. Fantasies were just another way of saying your own life won’t do.

At the end of the chapter, she is happy to walk away with one floral cup and saucer. And proud, later, when her daughter hungrily sips tea from it.

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne

Today:

Place is hugely important in Tree Palace. On a panel at Tweed Library yesterday with Ashley Hay, Craig spoke about the fact that when he first moved to country Victoria he hated it, and the wind-blasted plains. But then he became used to the landscape and learnt to love the wind, the fierce sun, the branches always bending down, and the rocks in the ground.

The wind is ever-present, and pertinent, in Tree Palace. Stirring up the earth just as the trants are trying to set their feet firmly upon it. And tinkling through the chandelier strung over a tree. The chandelier—a spoil from one of their raids on an abandoned house—is put up in a difficult moment, at a dimmed prospect of work, and is appreciated and treated with reverence by Moira.

Moira served a meal while above there was a meal for the eye: the Milky Way wore white gloves and brought its best silver service. The chandelier glistened as they dined.

There are wonderful descriptions of both peaceful and aching aloneness in the book. Moira loves her family and is often the one to draw them together, but she is also independent, and her needs are strong. Being alone for her can be a solace.

Aloneness freshens you. Makes you listen and look at the world properly without distraction. The wind sounds louder. Sometimes the sky has a moon all day and you remember to notice it.

Midge, Shane, Zara and Rory experience their own ways of being alone and apart from the family, by choice or reluctantly. Midge struggles with his place, being a sort of step-uncle to the kids, often held at arm’s length when he aches to hold, and give love.

You’ll learn more about this book—and the books of the other authors on the tour—in the coming days, as I follow them around and run a few of the sessions myself. I hope to also give an impression of the authors themselves. In this first post, what I’ll tell you about Craig Sherborne is that he likes his martinis very dry, and he skipped school to see David Bowie in 1978.

Learn more about the #555writers tour and click through to the program from here.

Zacharey Jane, Ashley Hay and Craig Sherborne at Tweed Heads Library

Zacharey Jane, Ashley Hay and Craig Sherborne at Tweed Heads Library

Review: Herman Koch’s Summer House with Swimming Pool in The Australian

summer houseSummer House is a dark satire, scalpel-sharp and more cohesive than The Dinner, with a more complex unreliable narrator, a compelling structure, and a sutured but festering wound of themes.’

Read my review of Dutch author Herman Koch’s disturbing novel Summer House with Swimming Pool here.

I also reviewed his previous novel, The Dinner, for The Australian.

Review: Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame in Readings Monthly

owls do cryI reviewed Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame (released with a new foreword by Margaret Drabble in the Text Classics series) for Readings Monthly, with the book still ringing in my head (hence the style of the review). When I read Frame I am reminded, too, that a writer might deliberately eschew grammar rules, in aid of rhythm or mood (and that’s the only nod I’ll give on here to something that happened last week). Here’s an extract:

‘[Frame] pierced the world with her eyes and her senses and we’ll always have the treasure, like this, her first novel, sitting among the best modern novels, so sharp and vivid a voice, so sure so early on, despite the hurt and horror of what she had already been through; a writer and a poet waiting always inside her (and here now) in the place of treasures and darkness, with her own sense of punctuating space, her own way of seeing how the world is like the body and how the body contains a torrent of images and worlds of associated sensations…’

Read the rest here. And then go and buy it (and everything else by Janet Frame).

Detachment, surfaces, excess: No Limit by Holly Childs

No LimitHologram is a new venture publishing novellas by writers under 30. Hologram is associated with Express Media, a fantastic organisation that provides support and development opportunities for young Australians in writing and media.

The first book to be published by Hologram is No Limit, by Holly Childs. It’s about Ash, who is stuck in Auckland due to a volcano, or the apocalypse—she’s not sure. Ash is seeking her cousin Haydn but then is dragged in aimless directions, encountering people and places. This book is all detachment, surfaces and excess: pop culture references, superficial nostalgia, technology, and falling quickly for one another. There’s a dissociative aspect, between the characters’ experiences and reality: one character Skypes her sister while the sister simultaneously uploads screenshots from the conversation to tumblr, without using her hands. The characters rave during the apocalypse, making comments about clothes and shoes, movies, tech. This could be symbolic of a detached interplay of online and offline worlds, connected and disconnected selves.

The action in No Limit is quite banal, there’s no ‘plot’ per se, and the characters’ motivations are faddish, shifting (no doubt deliberate and conceptual, though as a reader it takes effort to care about what might happen). The novel’s strength lies in Holly Childs’ intense novel-world (reflective of contemporary Gen Y and Millennial experience), which is completely self-contained. All metaphors and similes are relevant:

Haydn is looking right into her eyes, ‘When I came, my cum was green. Like bright green.’ His lip trembles. ‘Like Gak.’

The language is at times overwhelming, in the sense that excess information is overwhelming, like having too many tabs open. And so I think this, too, is deliberate—this onslaught—though it could alienate some readers.

Texts that are name-checked reflect the tone of the novella (retro-futurish), such as Tank Girl and Hackers, and if you like William Gibson or Bret Easton Ellis you might also want to pick this up.

I’ll be publishing a review of the second Hologram title, Elisabeth Murray’s The Loud Earth, in May.

Profits of Doom by Antony Loewenstein

Profits of DoomMelbourne University Publishing
9780522858822 (paperback)
9780522864366 (ebook)
August 2013

In Profits of Doom, Antony Loewenstein investigates the effects of predatory, vulture or disaster capitalism on individuals, communities, the environment, and future prospects of entire countries. Loewenstein’s work is powerful because he goes to Afghanistan, Christmas Island, Papua New Guinea, and other places ravaged by greed, corruption, complacency, and misdirected aid. He takes us there, and he talks to people at all levels, unafraid to present us with opinions that contradict his own (though reinforcing his own argument effortlessly through the picture he paints of the damage done).

In Australia, he visits detention centres, exploring the effects (on the detainees, the staff, and the wider community) of privatisation, revealing the fact that companies with dodgy track records are still given contracts. To avoid fines, there is also a culture of dishonesty: ‘… cover-ups of breaches [such as incidences of abuse] are routine and both tolerated and implicitly supported by the highest echelons of the Serco [company] hierarchy’. Loewenstein discovers a general ignorance of asylum seekers’ rights in order to maximise profits (ie. drawn-out processing times), and a dehumanisation of asylum seekers who, at the top, are referred to as ‘products’.

In Papua New Guinea Loewenstein visits ‘an abandoned wasteland’, Bouganville, where there are talks to reopen the mine which caused so much strife and continues to effect the environment. Disaster capitalism, as Loewenstein describes it in regards to PNG, is predatory corporations supported by foreign aid payments and tax concessions, insulated from media and political scrutiny, preventing a country from reaching true independence. In another village, Loewenstein hears of women selling their bodies for food because the company that has moved in has stopped them from fishing.

In Afghanistan Loewenstein looks at the local war economy, investigating private security personnel—their role in the conflict, how the officials see it and how the locals do.

In Haiti Loewenstein finds large parts of the capital Port-au-Prince still in pieces after the 2010 earthquake, and provides many examples of ‘canny capitalists sifting through the ashes of disaster, looking for business opportunities’. For those who argue in favour of job creation when multinationals move in, Loewenstein has found that it’s more likely that cheap, exploitative labour is the effect, in vulnerable areas, tying locals to an (often restricting, often polluting) corporation, removing other chances of sustainable growth in a community.

Loewenstein uncovered an unfortunate structural failure where many big NGOs (not all, there are some great examples of on-the-ground charities working with locals in the book) act as conduits to ensure Western business interests.

Profits of Doom provides essential, eye-opening information about systems of exploitative capitalism, how they operate, who profits, and the effects on the ground. It’s written in an accessible, engaging style, with quotes from people at all levels, and Loewenstein’s first-hand observations and experiences. I was a big fan of his 2008 book The Blogging Revolution, and will continue to read the work of a journalist whose concerns are undeniably relevant, who investigates and presents cases with care, rigour, and verve.

Antony Loewenstein’s website/blog is always a great source of information on current events.

Loewenstein will also be appearing at the 2014 Perth Writers Festival.