Caroline Baum’s Highlights from the August Booktopia BUZZ

by |August 5, 2013

There’s nothing tame about this bunch. This month is all about extremes. Extremes of desire, of  behaviour, of crisis situations, of people tested to the limits of desire, survival, transgression and boundaries crossed. Find out how far you’d be prepared to go. Live dangerously. Pick up a book.

N.B. Caroline Baum and former Buzz editor, Toni Whitmont, will be chairing sessions at a Sydney Jewish Writer’s Festival event on 1st Sept 2013. Participating authors include Laurent Binet, Professor Bryan Gaensler, Andrea Goldsmith, John M Green, Kooshyar Karimi, Hugh Mackay, Nikki Stern, Boaz Bismuth, Michael Bar-Zohar…

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by Michael Duffy

You only have to watch the news to see that it does not get more topical than Drive By.

This gritty, complex, multi-layered novel is based on the spate of shootings between rival drug gangs that have riddled the streets of south Sydney in the past couple of years.

Duffy, a seasoned regular observer of the courts, has created two memorable characters: Bec, a part-Aboriginal detective, who has a distinctive vocabulary that wrong-foots her colleagues: and Honest John, a  keen Toyota mechanic and member of the Habib family who would really rather not have to think too hard about what his brothers have been up to and just wants to marry his Aussie girlfriend.

With years spent watching court cases unfold, Duffy demonstrates a very sure hand and a light touch with character while twisting the plot like a fish on a hook. You’ll have to do your share too. Duffy does not dot all his Is and cross all his Ts, making the reader fill in gaps and do some of the work. It’s a satisfying, rewarding experience, being treated like a grown-up.

Fresh, gripping and as on the money as today’s headlines.



if-i-tell-you-i-ll-have-to-kill-youIF I TELL YOU I’LL HAVE TO KILL YOU
by Michael Robotham

A great collection of pieces by some of Australia’s most popular crime writers with terrific lists of advice for wannabes and must-read recommendations.

I especially liked Liz Porter’s piece about the quiet back-room forensic experts who do the unglamorous, methodical work that never makes it into the fictional or televisual versions of investigations.




the-deep-whatsisTHE DEEP WHATSIS
by Peter Mattei

Eric Nye is like the character George Clooney played in Up in the Air. Smart, smooth, ruthless, he fires people at the New York advertising agency where he works. But an intern ruffles his groomed feathers and suddenly his life spirals out of control. Who is she and why is he suddenly questioning everything about his shallow, expensive lifestyle?

A satire on the modern day cynicism and amorality of Gen Y targeting consumerism, corporate culture and the excesses of the advertising world. Nye is the 21st century version of Mad Men’s Don Draper. Stylish, heartless, seductive, damaged. In other words: the end is Nye.



my-brilliant-friendMY BRILLIANT FRIEND
by Elena Ferrante

A superbly perceptive, nuanced, profound portrait of friendship between two young women in Naples in the 1950s. Think of it as like one of those classic neo realist black and white films by Roberto Rossellini or Vittorio de Sica.

Elena and Lila grow up together. But only one of them stays at school to continue her studies, while the other, prettier and ostensibly brighter girl goes to work in the family business making shoes with her brother Rino, a young man with a troubling intensity.

While Elena studies hard, Lila is courted by handsome brothers from a Camorra family, playing a dangerous game of defiance in a tight knit community. As the two girls reach womanhood, their friendship shifts its balance as they navigate their destiny faced with poverty, politics, and unspoken rules.

Rich in the detail of everyday life in a poor but proud neighbourhood, unsentimental, intimate, this is a truly memorable novel and the very welcome first instalment in a trilogy. Part two will be out in late September.




by Griffith REVIEW 41

This birthday edition of the Griffith Review is definitely a cause for celebration.

Always agenda-setting essays. High quality writing that takes the pulse of the nation bringing considered, measured analysis to a broad spectrum of social issues. In this issue, there are plenty of gems, including Melissa Lucashenko’s piece about women and poverty – a powerful, plain-speaking portrait of life on the margins.

At a time when long form journalism is under threat and the voices in our public debate are often off-puttingly condescending, hectoring and discordant, this is the elegant alternative.

Many happy returns.




by Alissa Nutting

Ignore the terrible title for Australia: it gives completely the wrong impression: this is not a book about boat people.

It’s set in Tampa, Florida where a smart, sexy thirty-something married predatory schoolteacher seduces prepubescent male students.

Written with the same brutally caustic voice as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, this is a disturbing, provocative, re imagining of Lolita with a gender reversal. Bound to cause a kerfuffle and generate a lot of heated debate.



the-second-life-of-amy-archerTHE SECOND LIFE OF AMY ARCHER

I started this the same week that British police announced they were reinvestigating the disappearance of Madeleine McCann and tried to imagine how profoundly distressing this novel would be to anyone who had suffered the disappearance of a child.

It’s been ten years since Amy Archer went missing, and in the wake of her disappearance, her parents Beth and Brian have split. Beth continues to visit psychics in the hope of hearing from her daughter.

Suddenly out of the blue a woman turns up on her doorstep to tell her she knows what happened to Amy and introduces her to Evie, a little girl exactly the age Amy was when she disappeared, who seems to know everything about her and to be somehow channeling her.

An unsettling creepy story about manipulation and hope.



the-food-of-love-cookery-schoolTHE FOOD OF LOVE COOKERY SCHOOL
by Nicky Pellegrino

There are no recipes in this lighthearted holiday gastromance, except for how to live life.

Preferably in Sicily, eating copious amounts of canolli and gelati with good friends and charming men.

Predictable? Si, but a harmlessly charming bit of escapism for those who can’t afford the airfare.



by Trevor Shearston

I wish this was called something else.

You’d never guess from the title that it was a novel about Ben Hall, the notorious bushranger, and his relationship with his son Harry.

You’d also never guess that it was beautifully written, authentic, unromantic, atmospheric and full of psychological nuance. But it is all that and more, and a very welcome addition to the bushranger literature of Peter Carey, Rob Drewe and Courtney Collins.

The women – wives, and sisters of outlawed men, are especially well drawn, strong and forthright. And the life of the men, hiding out in the bush, their fireside banter, feels real and believable in its discomforts, companionship, risk and grime.



the-swan-bookTHE SWAN BOOK
by Alexis Wright

Ok, confession time: I struggled with this. Just as I did with Carpentaria, which I pushed through, willing myself to get further as if hacking my way through dense rainforest telling myself that I was on to the Indigenous version of Cloudstreet (I was not the only one to think it, but even that did not help me succeed).

The same thing happened here. I got brief glimpses of brilliance, flashes of humour interspersed with furious rants about the Intervention and whitefella attitudes to the blackfella way of life (Closing The Gap is a slogan that earns special derision). But in the end the book defeated me.

Its premise is terrific: it’s a futuristic, apocalyptic, dystopian vision of a continent of sea gypsies struggling in the aftermath of an environmental meltdown. Prophetic stuff. The Indigenous survivors (reminiscent of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild) nourish themselves with stories, myths and legends. The language is poetic, the imagery visually and often gorgeous (a hatching of blue butterflies near a fishing hole among the paperbarks) nature abundant and teeming, but the style is dense, repetitive and intimidating.

I know this is an important book by a major talent, and I admire its sweep and uncompromising ambition, the way it proclaims Aboriginal Magical Realism with boldness and defiance. But it’s not an easy read, and its mockery is at times off-puttingly harsh, leaving this reader feeling slightly battered and unwelcome.

I hope it will find others with more courage, determination and persistence.



by Michael Kathryn Heyman

Kathryn Heyman’s latest novel taps into very recent memories of natural disaster and the way people behave under extreme duress.

The setting is a flood, much like the recent ones in Queensland. So it’s not hard to imagine the scenes of chaos in a Brisbane hospital as a nurse is forced to make triage decisions about who to save when resources start to run out.

Faith, hope, charity all come into play in this satirical yet dark morality tale.



the-liberty-treeTHE LIBERTY TREE
by Suzanne Harrington

‘Tell me what you did before I was born’ or ‘How did you and dad meet?’ are common enough questions  faced by parents.

Not every parent is going to answer as honestly and fully as Suzanne Harrington.

Faced with the suicide of of her children’s father, she feels compelled to confess to all the alcoholism and pill popping of her youth; the bohemian adventure of a trip across India; the unorthodox way she approached fighting cancer… You have to hand it to her: she’s gutsy, with a huge appetite for life and no-holds-barred candour. It makes for a compelling account of recovery, but if I were the author’s son and daughter, I might have wished for it to be shared with me in greater privacy.



the-sweetest-hallelujahTHE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH
by Elaine Hussey

Memphis 1955. Jazz singer Betty Jewel is dying and needs to find someone to care for her daughter Billie. So she places an ad in the paper seeking a loving mother for her daughter. On the other side of town, widow Cassie Malone spots the ad and thinks it could be the answer to her prayers. Despite the building  racial tension of the south, the two women forge a strong bond, despite a shocking revelation about the identity of Billie’s father.

It’s a great set-up and a heart-warming story about friendship transcending social barriers. I wished the writing were a little more free of southern fried cliché and molasses sentiment. My taste runs to the more piquant, astringent flavour of The Help.



no-mercyNO MERCY
by Eleanor Learmonth, Jenny Tabakoff

There is something irresistibly compelling in the darkest stories of human behaviour, something necessary about facing the worst we are capable of, no matter how savage.

Using William Golding’s classic, The Lord of the Flies, in which a utopia soon turns dystopic, this fascinating study of human nature poses the question: what happens in real life scenarios of extremes? Does humanity degenerate into social implosion as Golding would have us believe? How does the process begin and what causes survivors to abandon altruism in favour of ruthlessness?

Bringing together historical examples of terrible shipwrecks and other calamities, the authors analyse each case in the light of current psychology. Well researched and well argued, lively and energetic, No Mercy is full of insights into leadership, loyalty, sacrifice and compassion that will challenge readers to wonder what they might do if similarly tested.


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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

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