By Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll
Books to read this week include new titles from Kate McCaffrey and Holly Throsby, plus the new Furphy Anthology.
Book critics Steven Carroll and Cameron Woodhead cast their eyes over recent fiction and non-fiction releases. Here are their reviews.
Fiction pick of the week
The Furphy Anthology 2022
Hardie Grant, $35
The third year of the modern Furphy Literary Award is the first – pandemic measures now largely behind us – to have a non-virtual awards ceremony and book launch. Between its rich prize pool and broad theme of “Australian life in all its diversity”, it continues to attract our best and brightest short-story writers, with winning and selected entries compiled in a dashing hardback anthology.
The 2022 winner is veteran short-story writer, novelist and poet Cate Kennedy. Droll observation and philosophical humour permeate Art and Life, which follows a violin prodigy turned busker as he starts university and goes mad for the commercial possibilities of conceptual art.
The runners-up are in the same league: Lisa Moule’s The Game, a lightning tour of the politics and personalities of a primary-school staff room, and Natalie Vella’s Winter Is For Regret, a troubling domestic scenario that swells into confusion and latent violence. This book is certainly a reliable stocking-filler for fans of Oz lit.
Kate McCaffrey, Echo, $29.99
As popular a phenomenon as they have become, true-crime podcasts are a risky thing to explore in crime fiction. Kate McCaffrey’s Double Lives is a case in point.
Radio journalist Amy Rhinehart looks to cash in on the success of the genre, reopening the murder of a transgender woman, Casey Williams, by her partner Jonah Scott as a “live” true-crime investigation, so that her listeners discover clues as she does. Her quest reveals Casey’s backstory – a bruising look at the treatment of transgender people – and it also effectively mines the experience and psychology of cults.
Yet, the expository nature of the podcast transcript doesn’t allow the same narrative flexibility, or dramatic potential, or control of pace or suspense, as a more free-wheeling form and the prose writing is often rather telegraphic, short-changing in execution what is clearly a marketable (and zeitgeist-fuelled) trend in crime novels.
Holly Throsby, Allen & Unwin, $32.99
Inspiration from crime podcasts has been drawn in subtler ways by Holly Throsby, who was listening to the Teacher’s Pet podcast about the murder of Lynette Dawson when her third novel, Clarke, began to coalesce.
The book opens with the police descending en masse to excavate a suburban backyard, much to the dismay of tenant Barney Clarke. Across the road, Leonie Wallace is convinced her friend Ginny’s body will be found. However, the homicide case isn’t the only mystery in town. Barney is a loner: his wedding ring doesn’t seem to come with a spouse attached. Meanwhile, Leonie lives with four-year-old Joe (not her son) whose mother seems to be missing, too.
Throsby uses one successful facet of podcasts – a canvas that spirals out to focus on and fully humanise typically peripheral characters. It’s a book that sketches a precise small-town psychology, and credibly captures the way crime can ripple through an ordinary neighbourhood.
Sally Hepworth, Macmillan, $34.99
Pippa and Gabe move into a clifftop residence in Portsea on the tip of the Mornington Peninsula. Half their luck, you might think, it’s a beautiful spot. But they seem to have overlooked the fact that their property backs on to The Drop. There had to be some reason for the relatively affordable sale price, and it turns out their dream home adjoins a suicide hotspot.
Locals keep flinging themselves onto the rocks below, and Gabe soon turns into something of a local hero when he talks no less than seven desperate people down from the edge. When the eighth cannot be saved, police are called, and the picture-perfect family endures a nightmare investigation. At first, Pippa clings to Gabe’s account of events, but her own memories of that night tell another, more disturbing story.
Hepworth delivers an Australian domestic thriller in swift and clean prose, with enough momentum and well-placed twists to keep the pages turning.
Non-fiction pick of the week
Look! We Have Come Through!
Lara Feigel, Bloomsbury, $29.99
D.H. Lawrence once infamously said that women should be subservient to men – then went on to write novel after novel in which his female characters were no such thing.
In this superb combination of memoir and criticism, Lara Feigel goes straight to the paradox of Lawrence, a writer who, for all his bombast, she thinks did more than most to first bring the modern woman into literature. Written during Britain’s lockdown with Lawrence as her companion, she re-appraises Lawrence at the same time as his critics (especially Kate Millet): loving him and loathing him.
It’s this resolution to take on Lawrence in all his sanity and madness that makes this such an absorbing work. A personal and incisive study of one of the most significant novelists of the 20th century that makes you want to read Lawrence again.
Patricia Clarke, NLA Publishing, $34.99
Most readers and viewers are used to women journalists being front and centre in TV and print journalism, but veteran writer Patricia Clarke documents the sheer slog it took to arrive at this point – while also pointing out that there is still a long way to go.
Her survey of the eponymous “bold types” starts in the 1860s and runs until the immediate post-war years, incorporating cameo portraits of some fascinating, diverse, brave and resilient characters – such as Janet Mitchell who risked her life to report in the early 19030s on the Japanese invasion of China at a time when the few female journalists around were confined to “women’s pages”. Earlier reporters had to send their copy back to Australia by ship.
This account is a thoroughly engaging, sobering and inspiring group portrait of how slowly the wheels of change can turn.
Wasim Akram (with Gideon Haigh), Hardie Grant, $45
The truly gifted are almost impossible to describe or analyse. Wasim Akram is a case in point. We can talk of the Pakistani bowler’s sheer speed (from a short run), the astonishing swing, and the Exocet yorker, but it doesn’t capture that something else he had.
Growing up in Lahore playing street cricket others saw it very early on, as his engaging memoir reveals, for at the age of 19 he wasn’t only on the world cricket stage, he was already a force. He not only talks about cricket and mentors such as Imran Khan (and addresses the match-fixing allegations surrounding the World Cup in 1992), but also broaches the unpredictable politics of Pakistan, and talks honestly about his private life: the death of his first wife, being a father, late diabetes diagnosis, cocaine habit (resulting in rehab), and second marriage to an Australian. His is a mature reflection.
The Battle of Long Tan
Peter FitzSimons, Hachette $49.99
On August 18, 1966, Australian soldiers in Vietnam set out from their base at Nui Dat on what was to be fairly straightforward patrol after the base had come under mortar fire the previous day.
By 3.30pm they were under massive fire and had run into what turned out to be about 2000 Viet Cong troops – the Australians (with three New Zealanders) numbering 108. That patrol became the largest and deadliest battle Australians fought in the war.
Although there can be a bit too much melodrama, Peter FitzSimons is good at capturing the sheer shock and chaos of those terrifying hours in the rubber plantation near the deserted village of Long Tan. And the surreal, for on that day Col Joy, The Joy Boys and Little Pattie were in concert at Nui Dat, soldiers on the plantation being able to hear the bass guitar.
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