Category Archives: Novels

Telling You How It Feels

Author: Brendan Cowell

Publisher: Pan Macmillian Australia

Year: 2010

RRP: $26.95

How It Feels is a good title for Brendan Cowell’s debut novel, because you’ll seldom find another book that so meticulously, brashly tracks how it feels to grow up.

The novel is told from the perspective of Neil Cronk: a shy, artsy boy in Cronulla who is itching, scratching, dying to get right back out of it, in that idealistic way that kids think they are bigger than the place they come from- in this case, Sydney.  However, Neil has more ties to Cronulla than he can count: his equally outcasted best friend Gordon, his other best friend, popular and attractive surf head Stuart and his beautiful, smart girlfriend Courtney, whose brother Tommy killed himself a few years earlier, and whose family is all but destroyed over it.

The novel returns at regular flag posts in Neil’s life, between him finishing his HSC, his move away from Sydney and his return to Cronulla ten years later. And in that time a lot has changed. One of the gang is famous, two of them are getting married, and one of them is dead (and not to spoil anything but it’s not who you think).

To talk about the tone of the novel is mighty difficult without giving too  much of the plot away because it is so nostalgic- but for a reason. It’s equally as difficult to not give away the ending of the book and almost stupid not to, considering that anyone who picks it up will have pretty well figured it out about halfway in. Not that it matters, because even without a surprise ending its still really compelling stuff. Cowell finishes each of his chapters by introducing a new twist or new idea, which is a kind of cheap theatric in novel writing, but since How It Feels already is based on this reflective kind of confessional, it works as a technique in pulling you through his massive novel.

Furthermore it all works because the book is so damn well clever- and even more so, the more you think about it. The reason for Neil’s inability to get his act together and make things work with Courtney is foreshadowed so many times you couldn’t count it, but Cowell masterfully cloaks these admissions in Aussie vernacular, so they are dismissed rather than given the weight they deserve. Even when, rather obviously, Courtney’s badly traumatized mother refers to Neil as a son, or mentions how much he looks like Tommy, the significance of this to his relationship with Courtney is not realised until the book is well and truly finished (or given a second read).

As a thematic, Tommy’s suicide, along with all the others in the book, is never truly discussed, never addressed, and like in life hangs as a ghost over Cowell’s sea of characters. Whether or not suicide is as frequent in ‘The Shire’ as the book represents is unknown, but the resonation of each individual death, and the eventual blasé attitude in which the subject is broached, stands true and pure like gospel.

The only real criticism would be how much the book relies on sex to be titillating. It could very well be called How It Feels Between his Legs because hardly a page goes by without the work ‘fuck’, especially in reference to Courtney. While this is somewhat addressed by the ending it’s a little tiring, and if the main plotline wasn’t so meaty, you’d probably close the book during one of the very mundane orgies Neil experiences.

It also becomes tiring because, while troubled, Neil is not a very likeable person. He is arrogant and brash, rude and self-centred, which leads to the downfall of so many of the characters in the novel. But depression is, afterall, the selfish disease and in this way Cowell presents a very realistic picture indeed.

And indeed the whole book is. It’s hard not to find Cowell’s novel extremely uncomfortable, just because of how emotionally true to life it is. As someone from Sydney longing to get out of the place and find something else, a lot of what Cowell’s narrator was saying resonated in an eerie way, almost as if it were my own thoughts printed on that page. This is where the book’s core and the book’s hearts lies: because who among us hasn’t wished to just hop on a plane or a bus or a train and never ever come back? Well if you have then this is How It Feels.


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Jonesing for a Mystery? Then Meet Jasper

Genre: Historical Fiction

Author: Craig Silvey

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Press Year: 2009

RRP: $32.95

It’s 1965. Charlie Bucktin lies safe in his room where there is a knock at his window. An indigenous teenage boy is there, with a secret. They steal into the night, and the boy shows Charlie just what he is hiding- a young, beautiful girl is in a secret grotto, hanging from her neck.

This grizzly scene is what Craig Silvey confront his reader with just 3 pages into his novel Jasper Jones, a book that is itself one of those fascinating creatures you can’t pull your eyes away from. It’s hauntingly, disturbingly, hideously beautiful; a horrifying roller-coaster that grabs you from the throat right at the beginning and refuses to lesson it’s grip.

The novel is told from the perspective of Charlie Bucktin from Corrigan, a fictional hick-town in Western Australia. His perspective guides the mystery from the first scene where the boy of the novel’s namesake barges into Charlie’s life with an uncomfortable secret, when he discovers the mysterious death of Laura Wishart.

Laura’s death isn’t the only mystery here because the notorious Jasper Jones isn’t Charlie’s friend but an almost town myth: a “half-caste” delinquent whom entire small country town have turned against, just as notorious as Corrigan’s own Boo Radley, Mad Jack Lionel.

It is for this reason that the plot thickens. Jasper convinces Charlie that if they tell the police about Laura’s body, they’ll blame him without a second thought. Instead, the boys hide the girl and seek to uncover the mystery themselves: made all the more emotional for Charlie who is in love with Laura’s younger sister Eliza.

Jasper Jones is a historical fiction and interweaves several plotlines around the central one. Right from this disturbing introduction the stories are full of dark topic matter: incest, abuse, racial discrimination, suicide and adultery. But these topics are done with the kind of delicacy that doesn’t make it seem like a burden. Silvey doesn’t harp on these moments of drama, instead the tragedies are left to simply hang as they would in life, to describe an Australia on the outskirts both morally and geographically.

But the novel also isn’t all doom and gloom. Silvey’s characters are young and so he uses the kind of humour that only children can have in times of despair to his advantage. It’s never black, it’s never sarcastic- it’s fun, lighthearted, witty and incessantly intelligent. This provides great moments for Silvey to show off a little, and the prose is riddled with literary intertextuality from Batman to Capote.

Most of this comes from Charlie’s best friend, the Vietnamese Jeffery Lu. Silvey could have reduced Jeffery to a comedic sidekick but instead, Jeffery and the rest of his family are given substance by being the point of tension in the small rural community. Their presence serves to show the reactions of white Australia to the Vietnamese in the midst of the Vietnam War.

Jasper Jones is not without its flaws. There are times where the witty banter between Charlie and Jeffery is so hideously overdrawn that you stop paying attention to it entirely. And the sheer impossibility of Jasper Jones’s quick-sticks friendship with Charlie is an oversight that Silvey never really aims to correct. But the novel is so compelling and rich that you forget these tiny oversights, and become entrapped in whatever Silvey wants to tell you next.

All of this pulls you into a poignant ending where all the teens lie in the grass after the impossibility of what they’ve just faced, and stare up into the moonlight in a silent vigil.

It is these kind of moments that make you realize that Jasper Jones is not a gem of a novel: it is a seed, not unlike a peach pit stolen by the boys of Corrigan from Mad Jack Lionel’s yard. It is warm, spawn from the fruits of books before it and full of sentimentality beyond its years.

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On to the New World, Good Sir!

Genre: Fiction

Author: Peter Carey

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton

Press Year: 2009

RRP: $24.95

Peter Carey writing a book about exploring the new world makes complete sense because, lets face it, the man writes place as though he were Christopher Columbus himself. It’s one of those delicious pairings, like when KitKat met caramel, that once there you wonder how the hell no one came up with the idea earlier.

I’m glad he didn’t though because Parrot and Olivier in America is a book with all the growth and maturity of someone able to risk it all and write what he wants after a buxom career.

The novel chronicles exactly what it tells you. John Larritt, called Parrot because of his ability for uncanny impersonations, is an artist turned not-quite servent. He is persuaded by his not-quite-master to accompany spoilt, French Revolution baby, the noble Olivier de Garmont to America. Olivier- spoilt and arrogant- goes to the new world under the pretence of writing about the American penal system for the French monarchy, but it’s more to protect him from growing unrest toward the artistocracy in his home country.

Like all of Carey’s novels, there is a strain of historical truth in Parrot and Olivier in America. This time the basis of the idea is essentially a historic re-telling of Alexis de Tocqueville’s journey to America to write Democracy in America. This becomes a major theme in the book, not unexpectantly, as Carey’s novel tend to focus on an underclass of some kind. Other Carey signatures feature prominently too: contrasting dual perspectives between the two major characters, and a complex but strong-willed female lover, this time in the form of Parrot’s mistress and fellow painter- the firey Mathilde.

The book is set in America and Carey, for quite some time now, been an expat over there himself but it’s almost as if he just can’t stay away from home. He manages to include a sneaky little storyline about Australia as Parrot takes a wander through the Botany Bay of yesteryear.

You can’t fault Carey.  For someone so bitterly underrated his writing makes lesser novels not only pale in comparison, but faint, wheeze and keel over. While some authors will sit there and slave to give birth to some pittiful little book that wreaks of struggle, Carey effortlessly pulls you through his 600 page, hardcover monster with little more than an encouraging slap on the back. Parrot and Olivier in America  is an ambitious undertaking but one that Carey achieves with complete and utter ease.

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The Cleaner Side of Dirty

Genre: Erotic Fiction

Author: Tobsha Learner

Publisher: Harper Collins

Press Year: 2011

RRP: $32.99

Yearn by Tobsha Learner, it should be warned, is not the kind of book to read on a train, or a bus, or in the park, or in your family living room, or -lets face it- in any place where your pink-tinged blushes will be noticed.

The collection of 9 short stories border on the cleaner side of dirty, but the cheeky tales are still the kind of bedtime reading that’s best kept hidden from Nan. It’s typical of romantic, erotic fiction with its funny names for sexual organs and blush worthy sex scenes. But beyond the naughtiness that seems to be a sort of hook for the novel there are some really skillful examples of prose.

Funnily enough the best story in the book is the only sexless one there. Learner’s tale of the morbidly obese desk jockey who lives as a sex-warrior/predator in cyber world Second Life is bitterly funny, well crafted and sings with a kind of voice not evident in the rest of the pieces. It’s hard to write sex in distinctive character voices and this is something Learner struggles with. But beyond this the stories work well, both collectively and as stand-alone pieces.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of sneaky sex, and Yearn is the kind of indulgence that would certainly become the ‘town bike’ of the ladies’ friendship circles. It could well and truly make Lady Chatterley blush, but its written with enough care and sophisticated to keep it firmly off the porno pages.

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Sifting Through the Junk

Genre: Fantasy

Author: Patrick Holland

Publisher: University of Queensland Press

Year: 2006

RRP: $24.95

Patrick Holland’s The Long Road of the Junkmailer does exactly what it says it will: it sends its reader to sort through junk and takes an awful long time to do so.

By ‘junk’ I don’t mean ‘worthless’. It’s more the feel of the novel. The fragments of the story come together like sifting through piles of other people’s belongings at a garage sale, or a glory box of Nan’s old things. It is erratic, non-circular but strangely nostalgic.

The novel follows Erskine, the Junkmailer of the novels namesake as he haphazardly delivers his mail through Brisbane. On the way he picks up other strange characters whom Holland is deftly opposed to calling by name (arduously referring to them as “the girl who has forgotten to cry” and “the foxhunter”). Somewhere in this curious pile of odd-ends and some almost-magic realism the junkmailer finds himself drifting in and out of a storyline.

It’s not here that the novel finds its strength. Holland’s greatest talent is the creation of place, and he manages to delve the audience into this vagrant wilderness: the other-worldly Brisbane of someone on the outskirts. It’s delightfully dark and antiquated here as the junkmailer finds himself lost in its history: the display homes of the 1950s, the consumerist 1980s, and the ageless outback of anytime in between. All the layers crash upon each other, in a fragmented collage of what Brisbane looks like the day before the apocalypse.

It is exactly this that is the problem. The audience is only looking at this world: gazing from the sidelines, much like the vagrants in the novel. Holland’s prose is too full of tricks, and too self-aware to allow the audience to really feel the place that is so meticulously described to them. The author wraps up his story without his reader and when he leaves, all they take from the journey are fragments of meaning: his baggage, his junk.

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Art and Everything in Between

Genre: Fiction

Author: Peter Carey

Publisher: Knopf

Press Year: 2006

RRP: $24.95

Peter Carey may have named his novel Theft- a Love Story but it’s more a story about love, the war that comes from it, and all the emotional shades of grey in between.

For this reason, the novel actually begins knee-deep in the thick of it. Michael “Butcher” Bones, has just been released from jail after attempting to steal his own masterpiece back from his ex wife’s house. Butcher is now older and instead of a fresh-faced painter, his paintings are fresh out of style. But he is not alone. Butcher is caretaker to his “damaged 200 pound” brother Hugh: a relationship built on historical mistrust and war, especially now that Hugh feels neglected by Butcher’s selfish stint in prison.

The broke but ever resilient Butcher decides to take refuge at the country abode of his last remaining patron: the pretentious Jean-Paul Milan, who is vainly hoping Butcher’s work will return to the fashionable galleries he once occupied.

And it is in his setting that a sophisticated stranger walks straight into the chaotic sandwich that is Butcher and Hugh’s warring existence; trudging through Jean-Paul’s swollen, muddy paddock in her shiny Manolo Blahniks.

Her name is Marlene Leibovitz and she isn’t here for Butcher. Marlene is a big fish in the art business, but her involvement will see both Butcher and Hugh involved in a mystery and each other’s lives.

It is the storyline that runs from here that makes the novel so damn hard to categorize. It is part family drama, part crime scene, part Bond movie, part murder mystery and part love story.  With so much to cover some authors would leave their audience trying to case after the storyline the way you flag down a bus, but there is nothing frantic, nothing difficult about following Carey’s work. It is so fluent that it seems almost musical and it’s not hard to imagine the bulk of it ending up as a movie one day.

Only it’s so complete as a novel it would be a shame to see it in film. Particularly so is the dual narration of Butcher and Hugh which contextualises the perpetual war between the brothers, and the most startling example of Carey’s talent in creating voice. Butcher with his abrasive, pessimistic, ‘fuck you’ attitude to his art- the love of his life and the bane of his existence- is a firm departure from his brother. Hugh’s chapters are pure genius as deals with the past that haunted the two brothers, and the cards fate dealt him in being in the care of the arrogant Butcher.  Carey writes Hugh in a style that both delicately shapes his mental condition and artfully draws from it: they are hyphenated, cryptic, illogical, capitalized and yet beautifully, beautifully poetic passages. These intertwining chapters and perspectives detail the true anger and conflict between the two brothers that runs parallel to storyline of the novel.

The other confession that the voice reveals is the relationship between Carey and Butcher. Carey uses Butcher to lament the woes of the artist and the similarities between the two are wanton to be ignored. Both Carey and Butcher come from Bacchus Marsh in Victoria: a small, artless town in the middle of nowhere. Butcher is frustrated by the difficulties of staying in fashion given this type of beginning in life: in poor backwards Australia, which is always at the end of the world in every respect. Carey, unlike Butcher, managed to jump ship and reside in the U.S, which is a dream of the unlucky Butcher who instead struggles against his fate.

And that’s what this novel is mostly about. You need not be an expert in art to understand poor Butcher and his hubris, because, for something about art, it is surprising lowbrow. It is full of odors and bodily functions, struggle and failure- basically, all the humanity that comes from behind the art.

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