Review: Australia Reimagined, Hugh Mackay

Being a journalist up close to the political and media spin cycle, seeing oppositions become governments that fail to live up to our hopes as miserably as the predecessors who get voted out, while social and environmental problems only deepen, is endlessly disillusioning. I spend many days battling cynicism and weariness.

In particular, reporting on and reading about climate change, seeing David Attenborough’s Our Planet burst onto screens in all its beauty and urgency, knowing potentially irreversible destruction is happening right now without action to avert it fills me with a creeping despair that is increasingly clouding life. I am far from alone in this.

As the screws have been tightening, a review copy of Australia Reimagined by Hugh Mackay, Australia’s best known social researcher, has landed quietly on my desk.

It sat there months, among other things that needed dealing with (e.g. climate change!)

One day I picked it up. I needed something to amuse me during a lunch break that wasn’t a screen. I had no preconceptions. I enjoyed a previous book of his, The Good Life, but I expected this to be a bit boring, to be perfectly frank. A book about Australian society? Yawn!

I was entirely unprepared to be swept swiftly away, by a surging river of ideas.

I began to read the book every lunchtime. At the end of every lunchtime I put it down with increasing reluctance. And at the end of the week I put the book on the back of the bike, brought it home, and spent the weekend devouring the rest, with the kind of fervour that’s usually more to be expected from new-release crime fiction.

Anyone – and I’d hazard a guess that it’s many of us – anyone who feels even vaguely, even a niggle, that there might be something somehow wrong or contradictory about the way we live in this country today – despite all our luck and progress and privilege – should read this.

In a marching argument loaded with insights on the Australian-specific version of Western culture, Mackay examines our trends in privacy, technology use, religion, marriage, loneliness, anxiety, multiculturalism and gender and demonstrates how these trends are feeding into each other, affecting our social cohesion, dragging us down as a people.

It’s a story about ourselves we need to hear. But it’s not a lecture and while it’s at times shocking, it’s never depressing. Quite the opposite: it’s illuminating, empowering, hopeful.

Mackay offers new ways to think about reviving and transforming our broken and disenchanting political system, our crippled public education system, our toxic gender stalemate – and more.

For someone feeling so broken-down by the situation described in my opening paragraphs that sometimes, in my darker moments, I struggle to see the point of even continuing to work, it’s like a breath of fresh air.

His ideas made me want to spring up from my chair after every chapter and take some kind of practical, actionable step. I think anyone who read this would feel the same, but depending on their own problem or passion, the action they would take might look quite different from mine.

Therefore, at various times while reading I wanted to thrust this book under the noses of my brother, sister, mother, husband, boss, colleague and friend, and there’s no better recommendation for a book than that. It would make a great gift (I’ve already lent mine out!)

If I had known how much I would love it, I would not have let it languish in a ‘to read’ pile; I would have placed it on top and read it before anything else.

As should you.

 

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Review: The Dry, Jane Harper

My colleague Heather handed me a book. Just read the first page, she said.

It wasn’t as though the farm hadn’t seen death before, and the blowflies didn’t discriminate. To them there was little difference between a carcass and a corpse.

 

The drought had left the blowflies spoiled for choice that summer. They sought out unblinking eyes and sticky wounds as the farmers of Kiewarra levelled their rifles at skinny lifestock. No rain meant no feed. And no feed made for difficult decisions, as the tiny town shimmered under day after day of burning blue sky.

 

‘It’ll break,’ the farmers said as the months ticked over into a second year. They repeated the words out loud to each other like a mantra, and under their breath to themselves like a prayer …

 

The body in the clearing was the freshest. It took the flies slightly longer to discover the two in the farmhouse, despite the front door swinging open like an invitation…

 

Of course, I instantly borrowed the book, a debut novel from Australian journalist Jane Harper that has bagged so many awards that the stickers jostle for space on the cover.

I had to find out what happens next, as enigmatic federal agent Aaron Falk goes home for the funeral of Luke Hadler, the best friend of his childhood and teens – who has, it appears, taken his own life.

It’s no ordinary funeral, though: before his final decision, Luke also shot his wife and little son, sparing only his baby daughter.

The town largely accepts that the searing drought, the heat, and perhaps the prospect of his farm going under all combined to send Luke over the edge.

But Luke’s parents are desperate for some alternative answer. And so Falk, a financial crimes specialist, makes a reluctant promise to them that he will have a poke through Luke’s affairs.

In part because of old loyalties, in part to protecting a secret of his own from that long-ago past he and Luke shared.

Falk finds that the local police sergeant has his own doubts and suspicions about what happened on that farm and together they begin an off-the-books investigation.

But things get increasingly nasty in the town as the heat builds, and you begin to wonder if Falk can solve this increasingly sinister riddle before violence breaks out once more.

Harper’s parched and lonely setting forms a backdrop to a plot that’s like kindling, artfully laid to build to a fast and furious burn.

And her crackling creation of Kiewarra proves itself as much a character as Luke, or Falk, in the heart-stopping role it plays in a nailbiting climax.

I never expected this debut novel to be quite so complex and layered – I guessed again and again, but the truth shocked me when it came, like a cold plunge into a deep river on a sweltering day.

A riveting blend of literary and crime fiction, it is full of disquieting truths about about rural life and community.

I had to work to make myself keep it going for three days; luckily, I’m late to the Jane Harper party, so I can immediately go on to the sequel, Force of Nature, also published by Pan MacMillan.

There’s also the film version coming, optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, starring Eric Bana as Falk.

Read and liked The Dry? Then you might enjoy this recent interview with Jane Harper on literary podcast The Garret in which she discusses the book and her path to publication.

Review: River of Salt, Dave Warner

‘I’ve made some enquiries on your behalf. Shaloub’s bodyguard is a giant, name of Granite. Granite’s no professor but he remembers absolutely every piece of tail set foot in the Cross.’
You might already know Dave Warner’s name. He’s an Australian musician who’s authored three previous crime novels, one of which won the Ned Kelly Award.
He was recently in Perth to promote his latest book, River of Salt, and I picked up a copy to see what all the fuss was about – I hadn’t actually heard of Dave Warner myself, but I do love Australian fiction and crime fiction, and I was intrigued by the jacket quote from prolific thriller writer Michael Robotham: ‘Part Goodfellas and part love letter to Australian coastal towns, this wonderfully imagined crime novel is like riding the perfect wave.’
It’s 1961 and Blake Saunders, a former Mob hitman from Philadelphia, has escaped that life to start again in a sleepy town on Australia’s east coast. He owns his own bar, the Surf Shack, plays in a band and surfs compulsively, slowly washing clean the sins of his past. But he can never quite lose the feeling there’s a target on his back.
So when a prostitute is brutally murdered in a nearby motel and a piece of evidence at the scene points towards the Surf Shack, Blake feels compelled to act, to clear the wolf from his door once and for all by solving the murder the police seem eager just to tick a box on.
I’m attracted to the writing early – it’s strong and clean and loaded with evocative similes. Like,
skies grey as an elephant’s belly.
And,
The wind probed their clothes like the fingers of a dead man.
And,
His belly pressed flat into the board, which gently rose and fell like a crumb on the chest of a snoozing giant.
And,
He moved quietly as cancer.
If similes don’t excite you as much as they do me you’re a fool, but I’ll tell you more anyway.
Warner spends the early part not launching straight into the mystery, but sketching out a compelling cast of characters who hook you just as well as a bloodied corpse opener would:
Blake, a brooding heartthrob with a dark past and a killer’s instincts, full of guilt and regret. His yardboy Andy, a simple sap who loves the fish in The Surf Shack’s giant tank, and knows them all by name. Bar manager Doreen, beautiful and capable, but nursing a deep loneliness. Crane the beach bum, an alcoholic and a poet. Kitty the innocent, but smart and gutsy teen who wants so much more than what her hometown can offer.
The scene shift from Philly to Australia makes for an attention-grabbing contrast, and the menace and darkness of the Mob bleeds into the new setting quite perfectly. I had wondered how convincing it was going to be, the American fish out of water, but the details laced through are perfect, consistent and never overdone.
And 100 pages in, this simmering mystery comes to a rolling boil, with twist after twist keeping me wildly speculating, heightened in drama by Blake’s personal drive for a solution – and for absolution.
Blake is bound to appeal to readers: the man with dark stains on his conscience, but a moral imperative to act, and a strong sense of justice. Like Jack Reacher, but with a humanising longing for love and redemption.
Perhaps he should have let it go, left it to Harvey to get it right. But he couldn’t … He did not deserve any of this: playing his guitar in his own bar with a beautiful woman like Doreen working alongside him, surfing in the crystal ocean, watching the sun rise like a gold coin over a sheet of pure silver. He’d suspected all along it hadn’t just been gifted to him, that there must be more to it, some fine print like on a winning lottery ticket. This was the fine print. You have to help those who can’t help themselves, you have to protect and serve those who serve you.
Warner has strongly evoked a time and a place; but he has also riffed on honesty, human connection, guilt and love – and how the past will never, really, quite let you go.

Review: The Scholar, Dervla McTiernan

The ScholarDervla McTiernan’s debut The Ruin, introducing Irish detective Cormac Reilly, was a hit. It’s already been optioned for film by Australia’s Hopscotch Features.
So it’s safe to say this follow-up has been highly anticipated. 
Reilly is first on the scene when his partner, Dr Emma Sweeney, finds a hit and run victim outside Galway University. 
Her instinctive call to him means Reilly lands a case he never otherwise would have been called on to investigate; and it’s a big case.
A security card in the dead woman’s pocket soon identifies her as Carline Darcy, a gifted student and heir to Irish pharmaceutical giant Darcy Therapeutics. 
The profile is high and the pressure even higher as Cormac investigates and evidence mounts that the death is linked to a Darcy laboratory and, increasingly, to Emma herself.
Eventually, he is forced to question his own objectivity. 
The plot’s intricate and satisfying and it’s definitely a page-turner – I made a few half-hearted attempts to put it down, but I kept picking it up again. I was supposed to go to a party that Saturday night. Needless to say I didn’t make it to the party.
Charismatic Reilly and his beautiful, brilliant yet troubled girlfriend Emma Sweeney are intriguing. Not irritatingly virtuous, but likeable and nuanced. I’m already looking forward to seeing how they develop in the next book.
All the characters, in fact, particularly the police – such as lazy and resentful Moira Handley (who sounds creepily close to Myra Hindley), harassed and overstretched Carrie O’Halloran, smart and loyal Pete Fisher – feel authentic, all drawing the reader to invest more deeply in the story. I’m already hoping to meet them again in the next book.
McTiernan is a former lawyer from Ireland who has moved to Western Australia and the book’s glimpses into the Irish police force feel exotic to a Perth reader, and totally convincing in their procedural and legal detail.
Ireland’s an ideal setting for crime novels, with its atmospheric landscapes and complex social history, and I’m not the only one who loves it; before, I only really knew of Ian Rankin, but it turns out Irish crime is booming, leading to nicknames such as Celtic Crime, Hibernian Homicide and Emerald Noir (the latter  coined by beloved Scottish crime author Val McDermid).
I’m so happy to add Dervla McTiernan to my must-read list. Since she now lives in Perth, I get the Irish settings I love with the chance to support a local author. Win-win!
This was a solid read, and I can’t wait to see this writer develop into a stalwart of the genre. I have a feeling Detective Cormac Reilly will be around for a while yet.

‘We need young voices’: Why Freo Press has launched a $20,000 writing prize

Many industries are bringing in younger employees at the expense of more experienced ones, but there is at least one WA job overwhelmingly given to older people: the job of author.

WA author Craig Silvey wrote his first novel, Rhubarb, when he was 19 - but he's an outlier.
WA author Craig Silvey wrote his first novel, Rhubarb, when he was 19 – but he’s an outlier. Credit: Marco Del Grande 

Fremantle Press is known for introducing West Australian voices to a national audience, but what might surprise is that they are overwhelmingly the voices of people aged 35 and older.

And the chatter they’ve heard across the industry suggests that a lack of young stories is not just a local problem.

This is why the organisation, in partnership with the Fogarty Foundation, has launched one of Australia’s richest literary prizes – $20,000 cash, plus a Fremantle Press publishing contract – and the first and only one exclusively for young West Australian writers.

The inaugural biennial Fogarty Award is open to a previously unpublished work of fiction, narrative non-fiction or young adult fiction from any WA writer aged 18-35, and is intended to kick-start the winner’s career, support further creative work and bring more diversity to the submissions the Press is receiving.

“We’re not really getting those younger voices,” Fremantle Press publisher Cate Sutherland said.

“It’s been a reasonably consistent problem across a long period of time.”

She said the Press had authors in their mid to late 30s, their mid-40s, even in their 80s – just very few under 35.

Many high-profile Australian authors began young, including such names as Craig Silvey and Sonya Hartnett, Isobelle Carmody and Tim Winton; but they are the shining exceptions, not the rule.

Fremantle Press publishers had speculated that perhaps the ability to find an instant online audience had taken some energy that young writers might otherwise have spent on a “longer trajectory”, Ms Sutherland said.

Read the rest of this story here on WAtoday.  

Perth doctor’s ‘happy bowel’ guide brings him shitload of fans

Who could have predicted that one of the biggest crowds at Perth Writers Week would be the one that gathered to hear a doctor talk about bowel movements?

Nevertheless, people lined up around the building to see Perth colorectal surgeon Michael Levitt, recently appointed WA’s chief medical officer.

Dr Levitt's book has struck a chord in the community.

“I think there were about 150-200 people, and it was packed – eventually they just had to close the doors,” he said.

“It was [Perth emergency doctor and author] Michelle Johnston who interviewed me, so I guess they figured if I wasn’t entertaining, at least she would be.

“I was a little surprised by the crowd though. It’s not my first book – I’ve written three books about bowels now.”

But this book is something of a departure from the first, The Bowel Book, published in 2002 by Oxford University Press – a textbook of bowel disorders aimed at the general public.

The second, The (Other) Women’s Movement, published in 2008, focused on managing constipation and while it was more approachable than the first, Dr Levitt said it still had “too much detail for general interest”.

But The Happy Bowel, whether it’s the bright cover, engaging tone, the endearing cartoons inside or a combination of it all, has enjoyed runaway popularity.

"An empty bowel is a happy bowel."

“In the course of a career your thoughts inevitably change over time; are subtly modified, based on feedback from patients,” Dr Levitt said.

“I also wanted to write a bit more in my voice.

“This subject is about significantly troublesome systems, and I have found approaching it with a lighter heart gets people onside.

“Every person in the planet has their bowels open in their own quirky fashion. Having that on the table, as it were, I think I get more information and patients become more receptive.”

But the book is not about cancer, colitis, Chrohn’s Disease, or even haemorrhoids.

It is for people who simply find bowel actions difficult – to start, to stop or to control in general. Who struggle with constipation, incontinence and dissatisfaction.

It’s what doctors call “functional” bowel disease.

To illustrate how function fails, Dr Levitt first describes what a “good action” looks and feels like.

“Prompt, effortless, brief and complete,” he said. “And the single most important thing? The strong urge that says, go now.

“People who can generate that urge but choose to go early, like guys who grab a book and wait on the platform waiting for the train to arrive, get into trouble.

“And people who never get that urge, more often women, have another significant problem.”

Read the rest of this article on WAtoday.

‘Girl Painter also Good Cook’: The story of a (female) artist

“Until Nora entered, winning the Archibald had remained the province of male artists for seventeen years. It would be another twenty-two before a woman won a second time.”

In bookstores now.

So begins the biography of Nora Heysen, Australia’s first official female war artist and the first of the country’s biggest art prize, the Archibald Prize for portraiture.

The biography was launched this week by Perth writer and journalist Anne-Louise Willoughby.

And on Thursday, on the eve of International Women’s Day, Willoughby attended the launch of a Melbourne exhibition seeking to restore Heysen to what the author describes as her “rightful place” of prominence in the Australian art world.

Heysen worked alongside her father Hans Heysen, known for his distinctive paintings of the eucalypts surrounding their family home in Hahndorf, South Australia. But she also worked all over the world and made a lifelong friend in urban landscape painter Jeffrey Smart, who regarded her so highly he made himself available to contribute to this biography before his death.

But Heysen spent her life struggling to be recognised as an artist first, and a woman second.

“What was so extraordinary is that while her work and its historical context is covered in art collections, we didn’t know anything about her life,” said Willoughby, a writer with a background in art history.

“These things kept cropping up in my study, that nothing was known about her save a list of her works.

“Why was she the first woman to win the Archibald? How did she come to be the first war artist of Australia? Things like that don’t happen out of the blue.”

Read the rest of this story here on WAtoday.