By Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll
FICTION PICK OF THE WEEK
Born for You
Magdalena McGuire, Ultimo, $32.99
This short-fiction collection from Magdalena McGuire is a moody exploration of motherhood from 12 perspectives. In the title story, the narrator wrestles with her urgent need to have a baby, despite making an environmentally conscious decision to sidestep parenthood. A dystopian flourish allows her desire to be sated through an online catalogue – babies are advertised online, where they’re bought and sold with a mouse click, and delivered to new owners by post – and she makes a furtive purchase … without telling her partner.
Other stories include one about a new mother during the pandemic, and Salt Madonna, an evocative tale probing memory and migrant identity, in which a man takes his ageing mother on a sweltering tour of a Polish salt mine.
McGuire creates emotional ambivalences and many of these domestic stories have an unsettling vibe. She’s also a dab hand at unexpected twists.
Lindsay Lynch, Hodder & Stoughton, $32.99
Do Tell is fuelled by celebrity gossip and scandal in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Edie O’Dare, a character actress of modest ability and prospects, turns to a side hustle as a gossip columnist, and quickly draws a wide audience hungry for scuttlebutt on the stars. She comes across as a cynical wisecracking dame, dishing the dirt on the cutthroat world of the film industry, but she’s also a sleuth of sorts. Her investigative skills come into play when a young actress goes public with a rape accusation against a leading man, and Edie becomes entangled in the sensational trial that follows. Lindsay Lynch has chosen a subject that promises scurrilousness and titillation and intrigue, and perhaps shades of hard-boiled detective fiction. But compared with non-fiction accounts of the studio system that ruled Hollywood at the time, the novel is surprisingly flat, and could have avoided falling into ennui with a more savage and satirical eye.
Lucy Campbell, Ultimo, $34.99
Small-town mystery collides with maternal grief in Lucy Campbell’s Lowbridge. Longtime residents of the titular town remain haunted by the summer of 1987 when teenager Tess Dawes went missing, her sudden disappearance never solved. Three decades on, Katherine Ashworth has moved to Lowbridge, still mourning the death of her daughter. Raw with loss and at a loose end, Katherine is drawn to discover more about the missing teen and dives into the records of the local historical society. She soon finds evidence of a second girl who vanished without a trace and becomes obsessed with unearthing a truth long buried. Campbell doesn’t carry off split timelines without effort, and readers will need to persevere with this one due to the pace: it is a very slow burn at first, as the author establishes small-town atmosphere and patiently lays down the background for a disturbing reveal.
Night in Passchendaele
Scott Bennett, Macmillan, $34.99
Military historian Scott Bennett has published two histories of Anzacs fighting in WWI. Night in Passchendaele draws upon his research and imagines a clandestine postscript to one of the bloodiest battles on the Western Front. It’s 1919. Wilfred Rhodes, an officer traumatised by the slaughter of his platoon at the Battle of Passchendaele, has one final mission.
He is under classified orders to infiltrate the graves-recovery unit and remove Captain Charles Kingsley, whose radical views his superiors see as a threat. Rhodes faces an ethical dilemma as he comes to suspect that there’s a secret about the conduct of a fateful battle that the military wishes to keep hidden.
Bennett overwrites the period lingo (I’ve never read a novel that uses “cobber” more times than this one) and it slightly undermines an otherwise interesting clash between idealism and cynicism in the aftermath of the Great War.
NON-FICTION PICK OF THE WEEK
Marie Darrieussecq; trans., Penny Hueston, Text, $35
In this literary and analytic meditation on insomnia, French author Marie Darrieussecq writes that when her children were born, a door opened, they came in and sleep walked out. Her 20 years of chronic insomnia aren’t just because of that, but childbirth marked a before and after.
Drawing on her life as well as literature (it’s amazing just how much of it is either about or involves insomnia – think Proust), she delves into the condition in multiple ways, such as listing solutions (medication, wine and rituals), consulting a “somnologist” and the nostalgia for sleep.
Written in clear but sometimes almost dreamy prose, there are moments when the sheer tiredness comes off the page and becomes felt. But there’s affirmation too, for out of this experience has come an intriguing portrait of the Kingdom of Insomnia.
Don’t Dream It’s Over
Jeff Apter, Allen & Unwin, $34.99
When the album Crowded House was released in the US in August 1986, Rolling Stone called it “a near perfect piece of popcraft”. Even so, it took until April the following year for its signature tune, Don’t Dream It’s Over (one of the most perfect pop songs ever written), to peak at number 2. Seasoned rock biographer Jeff Apter gives us a light, engaging portrait of the powerhouse behind Crowded House – Neil Finn.
He takes us from the early years in small-town New Zealand and singalongs around the family piano, to Australian success in Split Enz (collaboration and rivalry with brother Tim), being down and out in London, the double-edged nature of fame, and more.
So, when the slow burn success of Dream happened, it was the result of years of writing and learning, hence the confidence of Finn’s songs. Makes you go back to the music.
Where the Flaming Hell Are We?
Craig Collie, Allen & Unwin, $34.99
“Now, I’d like a really nice soldier to take care of my luggage.” It’s unlikely the request, from a refined English woman, was granted. The scene was Piraeus during the chaos of the Allied withdrawal from the Greek mainland in April 1941, after the German invasion. It’s one of the vividly created scenes in Craig Collie’s study of the shambolic campaign. And things didn’t improve when the troops (mostly Australian and New Zealanders) fetched up on Crete.
Bletchley Park had cracked the Enigma code, command on Crete knew the invasion would be airborne, and they knew the date, May 20. It didn’t help.
Interestingly, when the Germans floated to earth, the troops on the ground aestheticised it, one soldier writing of them as “white handkerchiefs being let go out of a carriage window”. Using first-hand testimonies, this is dramatic popular history.
Line of Blood
Craig Horne, Melbourne Books, $34.95
The eponymous “line of blood” refers to the Indigenous dead in the Frontier Wars, and was coined by British-born anthropologist and explorer Alfred Howitt (1830-1908), a distant cousin of the author. This is a salutary exploration of the complexities, layers, even messiness of history and its prominent players. In a sense, there are two Howitts: the celebrated colonial explorer who found the remains of Burke and Wills, the lauded public figure, the meticulous documenter of Indigenous culture and customs; and the social Darwinist who saw them as an inferior people, destined to extinction, his studies driven more by ambition than compassion. Craig Horne was brought up to revere his distant relative, but dismantles the surface myth and lays bare the dark bundle of contradictions underneath in candid writing.
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