Gleitzman: Grace

book coverGrace tells the story of her family’s escape from a fundamentalist Christian cult in this powerful Young Adult novel from one of Australia’s best writers in the field. She is a teenager who has never known anyone outside her church community, because its members are forbidden to speak to the ‘unsaved’ except with special exemptions. They go to church schools, marry within the church and work in church-owned businesses. They accept the Bible, as interpreted by their Elders, as the ultimate authority on every aspect of their daily lives, and they accept cruel and bizarre punishments meted out by the Elders for any questioning or infringement of the doctrine.

Grace’s father has quietly questioned this peculiar way of life and brought up his children to do the same but he has not been quiet enough and, as the book opens, is expelled from the community. Continue reading “Gleitzman: Grace”

Sara Gruen: Water for Elephants

Sara Gruen Water for ElephantsIf you ever wanted to run away with the circus, if you have ever been passionately in love with the wrong person, if you are scared by the idea of a lonely old age in a nursing home, if you know some animals are cleverer and nicer than most people, if you love larger-than-life characters, lost worlds, high adventure and fairytale endings, then this book is for you.

Set in the USA in 1931, a period defined by Prohibition and the Depression, Water for Elephants follows Jacob Jankowski as he drops out of veterinary school and accidentally joins Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show On Earth, travelling by train across the country.

Circuses are failing just like other businesses and life on the road is tough. Uncle Al, the ringmaster who bought the Benzinis’ circus and their name, is a good showman, an unscrupulous businessman and a brutal boss. Roustabouts are ‘redlighted’ – thrown off the moving train – when they make trouble, and sick horses are fed to the lions when cash runs short. But Jacob and his unlikely collection of friends Camel, Kinko, Marlena, Rosie and Bobo (not all human but all worth knowing) are at the heart of the story, and it is a story with a big, warm heart.

Allen & Unwin, $29.95

Afterword: the novel became a reasonably good movie in 2011 – read about it on Rotten Tomatoes.

Review first published Dec 2006,
posted here 2020.

Venero Armanno: Candle Life

candle life coverA young Australian writer in Paris, drowning in grief for the death of his girlfriend, is drawn into a surreal series of events by an enigmatic expatriate American. Sonny Lee, first encountered as a vagrant on the streets, may or may not have been the important literary figure he claims to have been, but he does eventually set the novel’s unnamed narrator on a path that spirals down into the darkness of the Parisian catacombs. His disturbing influence is counterbalanced by a sweet, mute Russian prostitute and an uncomplicatedly affectionate young Frenchwoman.

Candle Life has many parallels with John Fowles’ The Magus, likewise centred on a young writer isolated in a foreign community and manipulated into strange and frightening experiences which ultimately bring him self-knowledge; both even have sub-plots revisiting the Second World War, but The Magus is fifty years old, and shows it, while Candle Life is absolutely contemporary. For its major characters, all living on the fringes of society, stability is inconceivable while identity is fluid and drugs, casual sex and gratuitous violence are commonplace. Fowles would have been appalled by the collapse of social institutions, but he would have recognised that his questions about identity and the relationship between truth, fantasy and fiction, had been tackled anew with vigour and integrity.

Brisbane-born Venero Armanno teaches creative writing at the University of Queensland. The mode of his seventh novel matches its content, dreamlike in its swirl of action and illusion and its sudden changes of perspective. Candle Life is a wild, brilliant book.

Vintage, $32.95

Review originally published July 2006,
added to this site October 2020.

Mick Jackson: Ten Sorry Tales

ten sorry tales coverTen Sorry Tales is a collection of wondrous stories about quirky characters and bizarre events. Open it to meet a boy who brings a butterfly collection back to life, a girl who collects bones, an evil old horse which steals buttons, and two old ladies who gut and smoke their visitors like herrings and keep them around the house for company.

Jackson works in the very English tradition of Roald Dahl, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett and Mervyn Peake. The humour is wickedly understated and an unspoken sense of community makes even the weirdest behaviour somehow congenial. Nature, too, is welcoming, so that a small boy can run away from his abusive home to live peaceably with the animals in the forest.

The collection obviously belongs on the fantasy shelf, and like most good fantasy it can be enjoyed by all ages. Buy it for yourself but don’t be surprised if your children steal it, or buy it for your children but make sure you borrow it from them. It is, incidentally, one book you can judge by its cover – the illustrations by David Roberts complement the text perfectly.

‘Ghoulish and heart-warming’ is not a common combination, but it describes Ten Sorry Tales better than any other.

I found myself trying to ration these stories like fancy chocolates so that they would last longer.

I failed.

Faber and Faber, $29.95

Review originally published Dec 2005,
published here 2020