Book & Publishing News:
* Today’s poem is from the veteran BRUCE DAWE, commenting on the events in Libya [ to be read by my guest, John Regan.]
* Last Night my fortnightly colleague JOHN BARTLETT compered a very successful evening at the Geelong Art Gallery where nine poets from the region, who featured in last year’s Best Poems…
* I have mentioned before this year the centenary celebrations at ST. PAT’S SCHOOL in West Geelong. If you have suitable memorabilia, their archivist Glen Turnbull is working solidly on the history. Contact the school.
* I am just starting to get into yet another book entitled, “Gallipoli”, but this one is from the person in charge of Oral History at London’s Imperial War Museum, Peter Hart. It is like no other book I have come across so far on that awful campaign in that there seems to be equal sourcing from the Allied and the Turk [and GERMAN] sides. I will talk about it closer to April 25th.
* Last week I referred to the recent publication of an anthology of mystery stories by the venerable and prolific Joyce Carol Oates, one of my favourite writers, now in her Seventies. Blow me down if she hasn’t another new release, a memoir, based on her 46 years’ marriage, “A Widow’s Story”. I am really looking forward to reading it. Great reviews so far.
* JANE SULLIVAN will be well-known to readers of the Saturday “Age Review” for her weekly newsy column about books and writing. I have just begun her new novel, “Little People”, based on the life of a late 19th century world-wide show business phenomenon, the diminutive “General Tom Thumb”. Very amusing and even engrossing so far.
* Next week, I will talk about “Little People” [from Scribe,pb] and an arresting first novel, “Me and Mr. Booker” by Brisbane-based screenwriter, Cory Taylor [whom I will be interviewing the week after.]
This Week’s Reviews:
‘The Tower’, by Michael Duffy
This man is a jack-of-all trades. A publisher in his youth, he is now both a print [ Sydney’s “Sun-Herald] and radio [ Radio National’s “Counterpoint”] journalist. He is a recent newcomer to the ranks of our already-formidable crime writing fraternity, with “The Tower”, and this month’s “Simple death”.
Knowing a little of Duffy’s background, I wasn’t surprised by elements of his work which separate him from the current Australian crop who operate in this popular genre. Firstly, this is a longer book than we usually get from the likes of Corris or Maloney certainly. Secondly, his main character, Troy, resembles Conelly’s Los Angeles-based Bosch or Rankin’s Edinburgh-loving Rebus than his Australian compatriots. Troy is eternally reflective. He is married to Anna, an Indian-born nurse who is suffering prolonged post-natal depression – or at least their marriage is in a sexual no-go phase which is causing Troy considerable pain. His angst seems also spiritual. Orphaned while still a child, he became a street-kid, rescued from a pointless life by the intervention of Fr. Luke, a Bob-Maguire-type suburban priest who helped him develop a sensitive conscience – and a love of the Scriptures, to which the policeman turns in times of stress. Another characteristic is the mild sophistication of some of the other characters. Shannon, is the Irish engineer-cum-security operator, coke-sniffing and randy, who can quote WB Yeats on cue. We get to know Shannon very well and his role in the novel is central.
The location is contemporary Sydney. Skyscrapers continue their upward thrust; Chinese money is pouring in; building unions are highly-politicised, as is the police force…Strangely though, I feel the newcomer [from a few weeks back], Katherine Howell:”Violent Exposure”, caught the feel – smells, sounds, emotions – of the harbour City with more intensity than Duffy, in a far less-ambitious novel. There is lots of CBD busy-ness, but none of the excitement even I was able to sense on my recent visit of a few days.
Troy is a member of the Murder Squad at “Sydney Central”, called in to investigate the suspicious circumstances of a woman from the upper level of a new building site, “The Tower”, set to become Australia’s highest skyscraper. From the first day of his involvement, Troy is in the headline-boasting spotlight. Almost overnight, the squad is investigating three killings. In-house competition and politics are bubbling away and Troy just doesn’t know whom to trust. Becoming his uncertain sidekick is “Mac” McIvor – who reminded me of “The Bill’s” sexily-balding Burnside of years ago: a little bit dodgy, maybe, but reliable finally in a scrap. Troy’s superiors seem unsure of our hero’s capabilities and he is being shuffled about, meanwhile finding out key information on his own…and seemingly with the unselfish help of afore-mentioned Shannon. Shannon is a vital link to the powerful, assured and very smooth Chinese businessman, Mr. Wu, the force behind the new building. If this sounds complex, it is, somewhat; Duffy weaves a mean plot with just enough red herrings to keep the reader alert. I had difficulty sorting the relevance of one or two characters, and the goings-on “below stairs” were a little incredible. By and large, however, the story is pretty well anchored in current events in our big cities [and, remember, Duffy’s day job is as a crime reporter, so he knows!]
The crime investigation/procedural dimension is handled very well, but it is the characterisation of Troy that gives this book its edge. He is a genuine feeling…and therefore troubled 21st century male. This is not just a crime novel, then. He is trying to make his way in a job he loves and thinks is important, while balancing the usual personal responsibilities. I found him thoroughly credible.
MICHAEL DUFFY is a most welcome new novelist [to me] on the scene.
MICHAEL DUFFY: The Tower,[ A&U pb, 2010,pp 465, rrp $22-99.]
‘The Colony’ by Grace Karskens
The latest history of the early years of our nation is called simply “The Colony – A History of Early Sydney” – when it deserves to be called fresh and revisionary. Karskens lectures in Australian History at the University of New South Wales and she is an excellent teacher who maintains just the right balance between thorough and far-reaching information and the sort of human interest that derives from fluent story-telling. You may wonder what is there that has not been said before. This time last year Tom Keneally enthralled me all over again that this period was largely all about individual people [as did AN WILSON in last week’s “The Victorians”.]
Isn’t it ironic that the further we get from, say, our colonial history, the more information seems to be becoming available, thanks to our ICT records-keeping and research capabilities. Karskens’ early “Sydney Cove’ is, of course, a very harsh place, but – unlike Robert Hughes’ unrelenting “Fatal Shore” – Karsken’s is a place of hope and enterprise [ not just in business.] In spite of the repeated instructions from ‘Home’ to maintain a punishment regime, almost from the beginning there were realistic opportunities for reform and the pursuit of a way of life that the transported – and, indeed, the free settlers could only have dreamed of in Britain. Our writer cites carefully four elements of colonial Sydney which more or less guaranteed not just survival but not-too-distant prosperity. Firstly, Sydney was a MARITIME settlement, [many of us still rush to make our sea changes!] The discipline was of a naval/military bent which was inevitably and continually scaled down in the practice if not the letter of their law[s]. Secondly, for the first 40 years, there was no central monetary system. This meant the officer class, paid in sterling, quickly achieved a monopoly in trade, with lots of illegal side effects, sure. Though illegal, it meant a thriving little economy in practice, in rum, sealing products, etc. Further, the geography of the little colony – on a harbour, locked in North, South and West by the Hawkesbury Estuary, the Blue Mountains and the Wollongong escarpment respectively – was inevitably drawn into the commercial life of the “East Indies” and India. Finally, the convicts actually brought with them a thriving consumerism: they wanted “things”. They were mostly urban people and, though money-poor, quickly developed bartering systems for all manner of goods.
This is a very brief look at this excellent book. I would like to talk more about the section on “The Macquaries” [sic]: the author points out the influence in policy-making – especially regarding infra-structure – which Elizabeth Macquarie wielded.
Many of “her” gardens around the Harbour survive to the present. Lachlan himself –“the father of Australia?” – is given a bit of a going over by Karskens though finally he is seen not quite as progenitor of the nation we became, but much more than the over-sensitive squanderer of public [i.e. British] monies Commissioner Bigge would have him to be, the lay visitor to Sydney can hardly miss such Macquarie “relics’ as the “Rum Hospital” [now part of the NSW parliamentary precinct],The Hyde Park Barracks, St. James Church [as well as St. John’s at Parramatta],the South Head Lighthouse, etc.
This book is a marvellous new contribution to our treasury of knowledge about the “Foundation Years”. I liked the latter parts where Karkens revisits the conflicts out on the Cumberland plains – now the source of political battles, at State and Federal levels, interestingly. Indeed, the book continually goes “beyond the fringes”, as does the author, to push our assumptions about where we came from as a “Commonwealth”. A terrific book.
GRACE KARSKENS: The Colony, A&U pb, pp 670, rrp $49-95
This Week’s Poem:
“Libya 2011” by Bruce Dawe [courtesy of “The Australian”, March 20th]
This week we were celebrating the visit of two rock’n’roll veterans and you heard,
- “Ridin’ With The King” by BB King [and Eric Clapton]
-“Heartbreak Hotel” by Leon Russell [and Willy Nelson]