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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.

Dimitri Karras and Stephanie Marroulis had dinner at the Thai Room on Connecticut and Nebraska, then went back to Stephanie’s place and watched that cop show everyone liked on TV. Karras noticed that every time they ran out of ideas, the writers would send the main character into a bar so that he could fall off the wagon again for an episode or so. But he liked the show all right. It was something to pass the time.

This book’s blurb carries a quote from Stephen King ‘Perhaps the greatest living American crime writer’. King’s a great man for book blurb quotes, but there is no hyperbole here. After all Pelecanos was one of the writers on The Wire, one of the greatest crime shows on television in recent years (leaving the types of shows described in the quote above in its dust). A show which, I am ashamed to admit, I have yet to make it through the first season. While I do love it, I found myself really caring about the well-realized characters and as I suffer from what Germans call fremdschämen, I am terrified to find out what happens to Kima Greggs after the botched sting. That’s the hallmark of quality in Pelecanos’ writing as well. He makes you care about the lives behind the crime statistics.

In downtown Washington DC, July 1995, three criminals, brothers Frank and Richard Farrow, and karaoke-loving Roman Otis, target a Pizza joint called Mays. The job immediately goes wrong. The gang kill the customers and staff and then shoot a cop alerted by the gunshots. As they speed away in their car, Frank runs over a five-year old boy. Afterwards they dispose of the car and weapons, clean up and go their separate ways. Come January 1998 the case has been declared a cold case, as no evidence pointing to the gang was uncovered. Still Frank has unfinished business in Washington. The cop who confronted them outside Mays shot and killed Richard, though the police never found his brother’s body. Frank crippled the cop that night, but he reckons he’s due more pain.

In the years since the massacre at Mays the family members and loved ones of the victims meet every week at a support group. Dimitri Karras is the father of the boy who was killed by the gang during their getaway. In the years since his marriage broke up, he gave up on his career and his only routine is waiting for the day of the support group to come round again. A family friend approaches private detective Nick Stefanos to help out the bereaved father. Turns out the Karras and Stefanos families go way back, both coming up in the immigrant neighbourhoods of Chinatown in Washington back in the ‘30s. Nick gets his childhood friend a job working in a bar back in the kitchen. Dimitri starts to find his rhythm again, enjoys making new friendships, having a routine that does not focus solely on his grief. Still he can’t forget what happened to his boy, can’t stop thinking that if the opportunity were ever to arise, he would find his son’s killers and let justice be done.

Pelecanos excels in character work and dialogue, but what I really loved about this book was the unofficial soundtrack that runs through each page. The characters joke and poke fun at one another while listening to Motown records, seventies kitsch makes the staff of Karras’ workplace groan, and the go-go music scene native to Washington is touched on. The writer captures a real sense of time and place by discussing styles of music. There is a great scene with karaoke-fan Otis trying to do justice to an Al Green number in a country bar. This murderer and career criminal is left deflated by the experience. In Pelecanos’ fiction we get to know the criminals as well as the cops. Both skirt the moral dividing line and deal in greys instead of black and white.

No lie, I read this book in one sitting. Not only is it a crime drama, this book deals with the morality of justice and the possible comforts offered by the idea of judgement after death. Pelecanos’ Washington is left high and dry by bureaucrats and out-of-state lobbyists and businessmen, with the native populations descended from immigrants left to fend for themselves. The law is not colour-blind.

This is vital, thrilling fiction. Strongly recommended.

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