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Discworld is a world and a mirror of worlds. This is not a book about Australia. No, it’s about somewhere entirely different which just happens to be, here and there, a bit…Australian. Still…no worries, right?

Tonight is a very exciting night. Stephanie and I are travelling down to Sydney to see Terry Pratchett speak at the Sydney Opera House. In fact we are about to leave in the next twenty minutes. So here’s the deal. This is going to be an abridged review. I am posting my initial impressions of the book and then this evening, when we eventually arrive home, I will throw up some more of a review, as well as some thoughts on the talk itself.

With added Garth Nix (that fellow gets around…which reminds me, I also need to write up something on Zombies Vs Unicorns.)

First off, this is a Rincewind book. My very first Pratchett novel featured Rincewind and each title has continued that initial Fritz Leiber-esque fantasy pastiche of The Colour of Magic. These Pratchett novels are vaguer than the Ankh-Morpork novels, filled with the exciting stuff of pure Pratchettian imagination (is that a word?….it is now).

The book opens with the wizards of the Unseen University concerned over the state of the Librarian. Originally an ordinary wizard transformed by a random magical event into an orangutan (one that happened to involve Rincewind) and who has since come quite to like being a hairy biped, thank you very much. Unfortunately the magical morphic field of the Librarian is in flux and he is being transformed into sundry other shapes and objects. The wizards decide the best solution is to find Rincewind, who might be able to help them stabilise the Librarian by providing them with his original name – unfortunately he is far away on the land of Ecks-Ecks-Ecks-Ecks.

Rincewind himself has somehow managed to survive the typical (and oddly Australianish) flora and fauna. In fact he continuously finds water and something seems to be protecting him from any harm.

Could he be destined to save the land of Ecks-Ecks-Ecks-Ecks? And what does a god who believes in Evolution have to do with this?

Later folks – ride is here!

Still, to move to Australia…the distance, the cost, the reversal of day and night, summer and winter, left no room for compromise, no room for any semblance of a long-distance relationship.

Hmm, yes, I can relate.

Stephanie and I criss-crossed the world two or three times. That sentence carries associations of whimsy, spontaneity ‘ah sure let’s just hop on the ol’ plane there and fly to Austraaaliah’. The truth was the entire process made for a lot of heartache, a lot of planning, expenditure and of course, it is still not over. So I was delighted to receive this book in the post from author Christine Darcas, accompanied by a lovely note, which addressed the similarities between our situation and the plot of the book.

Hell that note might have led me to give the book a good review anyway! (Fortunately I enjoyed it regardless).

Ginny’s career in New York has just hit a large speed-bump. A personality clash with her boss meant that when a series of firings hit the office her head was on the chopping block. Add to that a problematic relationship with an ex-boyfriend who seems to relish complicating her life, when she calls an old friend in Australia and gets an invitation to visit, there really does not seem like anything is keeping her from going.

Except of course her many unresolved issues with her mother, all bound up in feelings of abandonment courtesy of a long-departed father that still affect both women. For Ginny her prematurely concluded dancing career, following rejection from an elite ballet academy as a teenager, is an event in her past that has crystallized her feelings of resentment towards her mother. Why was she encouraged to dance for so many years despite having the ‘wrong body type’?

Ginny’s friend Eloise is working in Melbourne on assignment from New York. Unlike Ginny, she is confident, professional and focused on her career. Except when the two meet, she finds her formerly unflappable friend devastated by a pregnancy scare. Ginny has left her own life in New York in a shambles and has travelled the world only to find herself involved in a new mess.

However, Australia is the new ‘land of opportunity’. There Ginny finds herself new friends and even a new romantic interest. What’s more she rediscovers her love of dance, this time choosing salsa over ballet. The possibility of a new life in Australia forces her to choose between leaving everything and everyone she knows behind and a fresh start in a place where she has no connections, or real support.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. For one I really enjoyed how the internal emotions of these characters are realized and many of them quite likable too. The loaded exchanges between Ginny and her mother feel very true to life. In fact that was what I enjoyed most about the book – the sense of ordinary realness.

Please do not understand what I mean by that phrase, I am not damning Darcas’ writing with faint praise. I feel Spinning Out does an excellent job of capturing moments in people’s lives. Tragedies occurs in small doses, but can stretch out across a lifetime. The decisions Ginny makes at each turning point have profound effects, even if at first they seem whimsical. Romance too, is not depicted as some cosy end of a narrative. In fact Darcas’ storyline covers material that other writers might stretch out into two, or three novels. Much like Stephanie and my adventures in yo-yoing across the globe, there are no easy endings.

Gentle humour and a sense of what is real combine to make a beautifully understated novel about finding your way in life.

With my thanks to the author for the review copy.

The moment when you realise you’ve drifted away from the safe shore is terrifying and truly liberating in its brutal extreme. It suddenly hits you: you’re on a motorbike with every single thing you own in boxes on the back, and you don’t know where you’re going to sleep that night or where you’re going to eat or where you’re going to get fuel. You don’t know who you’re going to call if you break down; every kilometre you cover takes you one stroke deeper into the unknown.

Yeah so I read a new book every day – and have done for the last two hundred and forty-eight days – but this guy has got me beat. “Oh Emmet, you fool”, I hear you say, “Nathan Millward rode a decommissioned Australia Post bike from Sydney to England and you sit on trains and read books. Of course what he did is far more impressive.”

Shut up.

This is a fascinating story about a young man and his own encounter with the Australian Department of Immigration – who in the face of the fast approaching elapse of his work visa was convinced to travel across the outback, sail to East Timor and from there motor along across Asia, the Russian steppe and Europe. Happily I see from his website that he’s back in Sydney. In fact he’ll be signing copies of his book in Dymocks, on George’s Street tomorrow at 6pm.

I would love to get my copy autographed, but erm, this is actually a library book. ‘cough’.

Our hero Nathan was actually encouraged in his mad scheme by his Canadian girlfriend Mandy. Perhaps she made the suggestion because she thought it fit his free-wheeling nature, after all he had returned to Australia after his first stay purely in order to be with her (once again, I can relate). Switching the lady in his life from his girlfriend to ‘Dorothy’ the second-hand 105cc Honda Postie bike, Nathan sets off – but not before a random encounter with then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who bemusedly signed his helmet.

On his long, difficult road Nathan meets many like-minded adventurers and kind souls who help him along the way. He also has intimidating encounters with corrupt border guards, suffers bouts of paranoia from anti-malarial medication, witnesses extremes of human poverty and manages to wander into more than one site of civil conflict.

The other journey faced by Nathan is his strained relationship with Mandy. One of the book’s real strengths is its honest expression of emotional vulnerability, as well as its discretion – Nathan is at pains to point out that his girlfriend’s real name is not Mandy. It is a really affecting portrayal of a couple separated by circumstances beyond their control. With his trusty laptop allowing him to maintain email contact with a growing number of friends back home and around the world, Nathan’s story begins to gain more traction with the Australian media. A book deal with ABC manages to land exactly when he requires some additional funding on his mad tour of the globe.

When I started reading this I quickly found myself becoming fascinated with this riveting tale. So much so I even got it into my head to include some snarky remarks in my review about how The Long Way Round mounted a similar expedition with security and a camera crew in tow. To Millward’s credit he respectfully acknowledges the efforts made by McGregor and Boorman, revealing himself to be quite a magnanimous soul.

He is also a very entertaining guide on this sometime dangerous, sometime beautifully described trek through incredible landscapes. One aspect of the book I really enjoyed is how so many other people helped Millward on his journey. Joe from One Ten Motorcycles, the man who sold him Dorothy aka Dot, proved to be especially helpful, keeping in touch with his customer on his unusual quest, passing on advice whenever the Honda ran into trouble, even sending him spare parts via the post.

I even found myself becoming a bit weepy when I came to the last stretch of the book. This must be one of those clichéd ‘emotional journeys’, they talk so much about on book review shows. I also love how Millward refers to Dorothy and himself as ‘we’, which is both sweet and a poignant reminder of just how alone he was at times on the road.

A wonderful story, filled with thrilling adventure, thought-provoking observations and a welcome depiction of human kindness.

I grabbed a bit of posterity for myself, unwittingly, when some of the fans started running towards the stage and I did my bit at the microphone. ‘Hey! You in the black T-Shirt, slow down!’ Hundreds stopped in their tracks.

Six years ago a friend of mine used to throw me some work checking concert tickets during the summer months. I needed the cash and it was a good way to see up and coming bands – as well as more established acts – for free. So at one of more popular music festivals I was at the head of a long queue of punters when I noticed a friend approaching at a rapid clip with a few mates. He had seen me and I could tell, was hoping that I would let him in gratis. Unfortunately for both of us I had a superior standing beside me with a scanning device designed to detect imitation concert tickets.

Those who know me have  often pointed out that I am rarely ‘in the moment’. So it was a surprising example of quick thinking on my part that caused me to turn to my superior just as my friend reached us and state “This man has no ticket”, then laugh in his shocked face, clap him on the shoulder and wave him and his party through. My superior took it as a joke and there were smiles all round.

Michael Chugg has had a far broader career in the music industry than I. He is also just as upfront about various examples of skullduggery. It comes with the business. What distinguishes Chugg from many other movers and shakers in the industry is that he is a well-known icon within Australian music. More a force of nature, thanks to his career-long tendency to take to the stage when needed to harangue the more unruly elements of the audience, he is also responsible for bringing acts such as The Police, Bon Jovi and Pearl Jam to Australia.

He was also devoted to helping Australian acts achieve more international reknown and throughout the book sings the praises of acts whether or not he ever got a chance to work with them, such as Crowded House, The Skyhooks and Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs. Chugg also expresses his frustration with the failure of acts such as Richard Clapton and Stevie Wright in foreign markets.

On the personal side Chugg describes how his wheeler-dealer personality evolved from his working class background in Tasmania, attributing much of his behaviour, relationships difficulties and addiction issues to the earliest period of his life. It’s not many people who can claim they became a coke addict due to peer pressure from Fleetwood Mac. Successive marriages break down due to time spent on the road, plus the attendant temptations that accompanied touring. Rock bottom was a frequent destination, including spending time behind bars in a Californian jail. Eventually Chugg achieved a sense of peace in Phuket, although he continues to run his own entertainment company, utilising many of the connections he made throughout his long career.

I first heard of Michael Chugg on the excellent Australian panel show Spicks and Specks. He related the same anecdote on air that opens the book – the absurdly decadent rider demanded by Fleetwood Mac on their tour. While it is clear that Chugg has an incredible reputation, it is a shame that his voice is not retained by his co-writer. One sentence in particular I found difficult. But for my powers of persuasion, he might have avoided the lengthy jail term that was to befall him.

This book is less a kiss-and-tell in the time-honoured manner of You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, than a chance for Chugg to settle some scores. His drug addiction is invariably justified as being due to others, or his control of it being cited as superior to that of other music industry figures, such as Stevie Wright, who would endure mental health issues.

As he describes how his career with company Frontier starts to chafe, he begins to refer to them as the evil empire, complaining after he went independent that former colleagues were badmouthing him to clients. After all, he was now a business rival. His indignation makes little sense to me. One shining light in the narrative is his friendship with Aussie rocker Billy Thorpe, which is a relief in amongst all the negativity.

I found reading this book bittersweet, which is a shame.

It was always portraits with me. Portraits of other people. For forty years my work was images of strangers. Then it changed. She brought about the change. I don’t know how it happened. It’s a story, not an explanation.

Oh sweet relief. Today I finished my #NaNoWriMo entry. It’s already been submitted and I can breathe a sigh of relief – before the more arduous task of rewriting begins. After all, and I cleave to this point, I have not written a novel, only 50K words. An important distinction to make.

Still the process has given me a newfound respect for writers and the dedication that they show to their craft. Writing is a process of discipline and routine, ensuring the consistency of the initial idea, but still allowing the story room to breathe, to perhaps become something unexpected. These are all things I will have to learn if I want to be a writer, but I hope I have made a first step in that direction.

Today’s book is about artistic ambitions, the struggle between the life of the artist and the final work of art. The story’s nameless narrator is a well-known portraitist based in Canberra. In the autumn of his career he meets an academic on exchange at the university he haunts. Jessica Keal, a still young woman with a past that is the reverse of his own. He agrees to paint a likeness of her for a commissioned study of Australian academics and the two fall into a routine of artist and subject, casually revealing more and more of their former lives.

Jessica is a fourth generation Australian, who left her farming background in the Araluen Valley outside of Canberra for the life of a university academic in London. Returning to Australia she discovers a host of recriminations waiting for her, personified by the mother she left behind. The artist, in turn, left London for Australia when he was fifteen, cutting himself off from the frustrated failures of his own father, who hoped his son would become an author so that he could vicariously enjoy his success. Instead the artist chose to paint portraits of strangers, to capture the lives of people he does not know, so as to avoid questioning his own history.

The artist explains that sitting for a portrait is actually a process of give and take. Throughout the process he begins to reflect more on his own past, just as Jessica opens up to him about her fears and concerns elicited by her return to the family home in Canberra. The artist does not stop with one painting of his subject, he produces dozens, crowding out the spaces of his studio, capturing her in different poses and attitudes. In studying her he learns more about how a life can be understood as a sequence of experiences.

Reading this I was reminded of Lucien Freud’s painting of Kate Moss. What did they talk about I wonder? Alex Miller has the narrator initially tempt the vanity of Jessica in order to convince her to sit for him, but it becomes clear that his need for her to take part outstrips the flattery of her ego. His obsession with her transcends the causal force of sexual desire. It becomes the key to understanding his own life’s failures and inadequacies. In particular his refusal to paint members of his own family points to his shame at leaving his father behind, as well as his absent relationship with his wife and son, now both long gone.

It is interesting that the narrator’s father wished for the artist to become a writer, as his process of painting Jessica produces a series of portraits that fit into a loose narrative of her own life. The most startling moment for the two of them is when he paints her absence in a setting she has posed for a statement on the childhood long gone that is preserved in Araluen.

Miller’s descriptions of the farm belonging to the Keal family and their relationship with this natural environment is wonderfully detailed, with unchanging oak trees and swimming holes transporting Jessica back to her childhood self simply by coming into proximity with them. However, while this novel is concerned with the process of painting, it focuses more on the internal monologue of the artist faced by a blank canvas, the blurring of the painter’s own self with that of the subject, sourcing experiences from both in order to bring the painting to life.

Studied, intimate and very inspiring.

 

 

This book we proudly delicate, to Aussies overseas,

You’re trying to make a safer world, for all our families

Last Saturday I read Fly Away Peter by David Malouf, which featured an astonishing vision of a Hades dedicated to Australian Diggers who lost their lives during World War One. This book features a collection of poems, stories and memories of home, intended to lift the spirit of Australian service personnel working overseas.

That said my favourite story in the collection is Melanie Harris’ Loon Kitten Stories, which has nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan, but does feature a determined kitten named Sarge. This simple tale of the author and her flatmates attempting to break in a fiendishly intelligent feline manages to raise a smile and remind the reader that sometimes the simplest things in life can lift the spirit. A year in the life of one frustrated cat owner becomes an epic story of human versus ball of fur and claws. It is a sweetly endearing comic tale.

Swede by Sergeant Grant Teeboon also is concerned with the furry kind, a police dog in this instance, who takes a distinct dislike to Margaret Thatcher. Then Allan Goode’s Mateship defines that most quintessential of Australian qualities by comparing it to the relationship between two puppies.

For the most part though the book features poems and stories from service personnel telling of difficult experiences in distant lands; with families and loved ones waiting for them at home. It is also a book about Australia and Australian pride, about why the Diggers are so well regarded.

Broken into a series of different sections, some dedicated to humour, even romance, the book reminds us that these are men and women who have left so much behind. It also serves to remind them what is waiting for them when they return. Not everyone agrees on the case for war and certain pieces express the anger of those fighting for a cause they are not convinced is a worthy one. Nevertheless once committed the Diggers will not refuse to serve.

In addition to the intimate thoughts expressed in verse and prose, Postcards from Home also features art and photography dedicated to the sights of Australia. Carlo Travato’s illustrations feature throughout the book, but his drawings of quotidian objects are startlingly detailed. There are also photos of some ordinary things, such as a mother possum with its child. Some contrast the familiar sight of Sydney bay with a certain animal in shot. Another comical image has a rather confused Santa Claus stuck halfway up a post.

A sudden change of tone is offered by Kris Farrant, a Canberra based musician who submitted a series of poems taking their inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu Mythos. At first I was surprised, after all I am very familiar with the line That is not dead which can eternally lie, but I have always considered that New England writer to be something of a cult concern. However, it just goes to show how home itself is a collection of memories and things that are not fixed in the soil of Australia. R.A. Dee’s Charmers is a humourous, yet quirkily romantic tale, without a single squamous in sight (and thank Cthulu for that, a Lovecraft romance is not something I would like to read). Both writers offer contrasting views on life at home….alright not so much with the Cthulu, but you can read Lovecraft at home! They might discourage that in the armed services.

This is a book dedicated to a good cause and is quite a heartfelt at that. Many thanks to Odyssey Books for the review copy.

There was still everything to do – one saw that at a glance. But Ashley saw things differently from his father and grandfather. They had always had in mind a picture they had brought from ‘home’, orderly fields divided by hedgerows, to which the present landscape, by planning and shaping, might one day be made to approximate. But for Ashley this was the first landscape he had known and he did not impose that other, greener one upon it; it was itself.

I am constantly amazed by this country and its incredible flora & fauna. I have spoken here before about how much I enjoy just sitting on the porch watching the birds. The other morning I found a number of baby Huntsman spiders in the house. Considering I have developed a sudden fear of spiders since coming here – well they’re bigger and poisonous unlike their European cousins – I found the little creatures surprisingly cute. However, a lot of Australia is also familiar. After all it was colonized by Britain over two hundred years ago and has kept pace culturally. Here I am on the other side of the world drinking Dr. Pepper.

The two protagonists of this novel, Ashley and Jim, view Australia’s natural state as a privilege, its untamed landscape something that should be preserved. The two men are both descended from English colonists, yet divided by class. Still they possess an equal fascination for the land they think of as they own.

Ashley encounters Jim during an afternoon ride through his ‘property’, and is inspired to hire the young man (though there are only three years difference between them) to identify the different species of birds who inhabit the area. He declares the land to be a sanctuary, a refuge for the wildlife that they find there, not to be tilled, shaped into gardens, or plots.

While Ashley is a ‘to the manor born’, product of wealth, having studied in Cambridge and Germany and become accustomed to a life of leisure, Jim’s fascination with the land is the result of his desire to escape his violent father. Secretly he fears that he has inherited the family lust for violence. The monitoring of birds proves to be his dream job, a calming and meditative activity. Imogen Harcourt, a fellow naturalist, becomes the final piece of the trio, helping Jim catalogue the species of birds with her detailed photography.

The second half of the novel disrupts this quiet sense of calm, with the call to war in Europe dragging both Ashley and Jim across to the other side of the world, the one to officer class, with his employee sent into the trenches around Armentières. The horrors of war transform Jim’s perception of the world. Where previously he could lose himself in the wonders of nature, his posting on the frontline causes him to envision a future defined by the industry of war itself. Everything free and natural that he loves will be so much collateral damage in the territorial conflicts of man.

David Malouf’s writing is both poetical and elegiac in its descriptions of two men’s growing awareness of the transience of nature and human experience. Jim’s thoughts in particular are beautifully captured. Malouf even finds strange comedy amidst the chaos of war, with a German soldier earning the nickname ‘Parapet Joe’, for his habit of shooting his machine-gun to jazz rhythms. This is later followed by a stunning vision of the afterlife, with the Australian Diggers living up to their name for all eternity.

Malouf’s story is also one of ‘refugees’, with Imogen and Jim sighting a bird native to England that has made it all the way to Queensland. Whereas Jim thinks he has discovered a new species, to Imogen it symbolizes everything she has left behind. Jim and Ashley insist on they’re being ‘native Australians’, with Aboriginals appearing only briefly during the course of the novel. They do not realize how they themselves are refugees. When the war in Europe overtakes them it is only they fading memory of the beautiful landscape they have left behind that gives them hope.

This is a delicately moving and beautifully phrased novel.

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