Recursion by Blake Crouch

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

An interesting story of memory manipulation that had me engaged initially but became more confusing as the characters time-travelled back and forth down various memory trails. Reading it was like a hike in the woods that gradually lead into a maze of blind alleys.

The story centres on two main characters – brilliant neuroscientist Helena Smith and New York detective Barry Sutton.  

We meet Sutton when he is called to a skyscraper where a woman is threatening to commit suicide. She tells a very unusual story of having vivid recollections of an alternative life she thinks she’s lived. The pain of what she is missing is apparent when she tells Sutton: ‘My son has been erased’ (8).

The phenomenon she described is called False Memory Syndrome and everyone is totally baffled by it. Sutton decides to follow up on the leads the woman has given him. He eventually winds up at a place called the Hotel Memory where a different kind of journey awaits.

Some years before these events and on the other side of the country, Smith’s mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s. This provides her daughter’s motivation to investigate memory loss and whether it can be rebuilt/repaired somehow. Her research has hit a wall when she is thrown a financial lifeline by reclusive billionaire Marcus Slade. At first, Helena thinks that Slade’s goals match hers but over time her doubts grow.

The setting for Smith’s and Slade’s research project is straight out of a Bond movie: a disused oil platform far out in the Pacific Ocean where there are no nosey neighbours to worry about. Tight security and restricted access also feature heavily.

This theme of remote out-of-the-way locations is copied when Sutton and Smith get together in their own efforts to halt the devastating consequences of this memory manipulation. Over several time-lines, they build home/lab complexes in the Midwest desert, a remote part of Scotland and freezing Antarctica among others. The action in each setting replicates itself on a loop of build, research and try again.

I have reservations about why the writer had them do this five or six times; if it was to build suspense then it didn’t work for me. Another issue is, with only one exception, how come no-one in authority becomes curious about these advanced research facilities in remote places?  Wouldn’t they get wind of such unusual activity and investigate? What about the media?

Character development is problematic because many have multiple ‘lives’ and each is often different from the previous one. Two examples – at first Barry Sutton is a detective coping with the loss of his teenage daughter and marriage breakdown to Julia, then later on he becomes a highly skilled research assistant and husband to Helena. Billionaire Marcus Slade is a drug-dependent research assistant in another existence. Perhaps reliving part of your life over and over would bring about some peculiar tweaks to your basic personality and skill-sets.

One strength of the writing is the sense of regret and loss conveyed in some scenes. Barry goes back in time to the last moments he shared with his daughter, unaware of what was about to befall her. A sliding doors moment we can relate to. Another good example is the scene of the woman threatening suicide; her desperation seems real as is the detective’s dilemma of how to react.

Also, some of the scientific concepts that are touched on are indeed intriguing. The brain’s neural activity at death, the role of smell and touch in memory recall, the idea of deja vu and the connection between our shared memories are some of these.

While the possibility of altering memories is a good idea, the story’s premise of characters going back to an earlier life to change outcomes has a major problem. If you’re strapped into a chair or float tank in New York in 2019, how can you walk around in 2008 with the knowledge gained in the meantime? Can knowledge be sent back through space/time?

I would recommend this novel to those with an interest in time-travel stories set against a contemporary background.

Barry Crouch is a bestselling novelist and screenwriter who lives in Colorado. His novels include ‘Dark Matter’ a New York Times bestseller and the ‘Wayward Pines’ trilogy. Netflix has purchased the rights to ‘Recursion’.

 Recursion

(2019)

by Blake Crouch

Macmillan

ISBN: 978 1 5098 6666 3

336 pp; $29.99

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Love Song by Sasha Wasley

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Love Song is the third book in the Daughters of the Outback series by Sasha Wasley and the film rights to all three novels have just been sold. Soon readers will be able to view Willow, Free and Beth on the screen amid the beautiful Australian landscape. The earlier books in the series, Dear Banjo and True Blue have been popular among readers in Australia as well as Germany and will soon become available as audio books.

These books are all set in the Kimberley region of Western Australia and, while Willow has returned to the family property after studying and working in the University of Perth’s agriculture department, Free and Beth have chosen to follow their own dreams. Beth became a doctor running her own medical practice in the fictional Kimberley town of Mount Clair, while Free followed her artistic interests.

Beth is the oldest of the sisters and has often been referred to as the bossy one. Like all the sisters Beth has known from an early time what career she wished to follow. Having lost her mother to cancer she was determined to become a doctor and applied herself diligently to her studies. Her success and compassion for others often resulted in her being asked to tutor struggling students. This is how in year 12 she meets Charlie Campbell, an aboriginal lad who has come into the town to continue his year 11 studies. They fall deeply in love and then, abruptly, one day Charlie is gone without a word, leaving Beth heartbroken.

Beth returns to Mount Clair as a doctor which includes servicing the aboriginal settlement, a day’s travel from the town. She has developed a strong bond with all her patients especially the little aboriginal girl with cerebral palsy and becomes involved in the dynamics of both the town and settlement. Her involvement with her aboriginal friends increases when a mining company wants to set up an operation which would include a wet canteen next to the settlement which has been a dry zone for many years.

To Beth’s surprise and apprehension, Charlie, who is now a big star on the alternative rock scene, returns to the area also to fight for the settlement. It had never registered with Beth that these were Charlie’s people. Things become awkward as both seem to be harbouring resentment for the other over what happened years ago.

Sasha Wasley’s writings focus on human emotions and human flaws making her characters resonate closely with the reader because they appear so ordinary. The reader cannot help but like Beth who is strong, solitary, sexy and community minded, but still has feelings of insecurity in her relationships and fears about her own future health considering her mother’s death from cancer. Charlie is handsome, talented and popular with a loyal following, yet he too suffers with uncertainty when personal relationships are involved. Both have trust issues. A few times their behaviour, as a result, frustrated me considering the mature persona they present within their immediate environment. They both have a high degree of compassion for others as well as sense of duty, casting them into leadership roles, yet around each other they seem to lose all confidence.

The author has the innate ability to address social issues pertaining to the environments which dominate her storyline. In her latest book, Love Song, the social issues highlighted, are those concerning mining on or near aboriginal lands and isolation of aboriginal settlements with their health issues especially when there are medical conditions which require special consideration. Another issue Sasha Wasley touches on in her latest novel is representation on social media. Charlie didn’t realise that his publicist had set up an Instagram profile for him and was shocked when he found what had been posted. ‘I can’t have her posting shots of other blokes and pretending it’s me’(240), was his angry response. This is a story about the inter-connectedness of the various groups who make up most of the population in outback Australia especially in the Kimberly region.

On revisiting the first novel about Willow Patterson, I was struck by the similarities between it and the story about Beth. In both cases young love leaves deep wounds which are fed over the years by an unwillingness to address the issues that were responsible for creating such feelings. Fortunately, by the end of the storyline common sense prevails, teaching the reader the valuable lesson, that when conflict occurs it is better to get the issues out into the open rather than allow them to fester inside.

Even the covers are similar. Both include the amazing red and blue of the Kimberley region with a major theme from the respective book featured in the sky. In Dear Banjo it is words from letters Willow did not read while in Love Song it is the handwritten musical notes reminding the reader of Charlie’s singing voice always in the back of Beth’s memory. The fact that there appears to be a formula followed in these two books does not take away from this new novel. If it works for Nora Roberts why not for Sasha Wasley?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the Patterson girls, in this beautiful remote area of Australia, following their lives as they each find the love they so deserve. They are all so different in their personalities and passions which allows the author to explore different social issues in each story line. I look forward to reading about Free at some time and also seeing them all on the screen.

Love Song

(June 4, 2019)

By Sasha Wasley

Penguin

ISBN:978-0-14-378456-2

$32.99;368pp

Advancing Australia Edited by Amanda Dunn & John Watson

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

Advancing Australia Ideas for a better Australia is a 130mm x 196mm, 145 page booklet containing articles from many expert thinkers and edited by Amanda Dunn and John Watson. The Foreword to the book is written by Michelle Grattan AO, Professorial Fellow of the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra. She has been a member of the Canberra parliamentary press gallery since 1971.

Her contribution was written before the Federal Election in May 2019 and it seemed clear that she was expecting a change of government. The title given to her essay was, The end of uncertainty? How the 2019 federal election might bring stability at last to Australian politics. Whatever her beliefs she writes, ‘campaigns can count, and upsets can come, as happened dramatically in 1993’. She warns that, ‘whichever side wins in May, the incoming government will inherit a bitter, sceptical, exhausted electorate’ (iii).

The book is then divided into eleven chapters, with each promoting the ideas of three or four writers all of whom are Professors at Australian universities or Directors of well-known organisations.

Chapter 1 covers issues about what major parties should do if they win government (and even if they don’t). Carol Johnson suggests that if the Liberals win the 2019 election it may be time for them to rethink their economic narrative, that the challenges of 21st century Australia may require them to draw on some of their earlier, social liberal perspectives. Frank Bongiorno proposes that a Labor Government would occupy a political centre that the coalition had foolishly vacated.

Chapter 2 contains four articles expressing views about Australia’s popularist influences, workplace challenges, fair taxes and planning for the next recession. Professor of Economics at UNSW Business School Richard Holden believes that a recession is overdue and that unorthodox approaches might be necessary, measures such as quantitative easing as an example. He also puts forward a proposal pursued by New Economics Equality Initiative at UNSW called the ‘green stimulus’ plan, a list of significant environmental expenditures that would be documented and ready to implement immediately. He states that preparing for a financial crisis is harder than for a mere recession.

In chapter 3 the chronic problems in Medicare and private health insurance are covered with Stephen Duckett asking if it is time to ditch the private health insurance rebate and whether more visits to the doctor means better care. Jane Hall, Professor of Health Economics, proposes a rethink for the A$20 billion-a-year Medicare System floating an idea of ‘bundled payments’ to GPs who would have control over all the services that a particular patient would need with their specific medical problem.

Education is the focus for chapter 4 with articles from Tim Pitman and Peter Goss. Comparisons are made between the policies of the two major parties with a definite Labor bias. In chapter 5 moving climate politics beyond ideology and into action is the theme suggesting that we can be a carbon-neutral nation by 2050, if we just get on with it. Concerns on the extinction of Australian species are also raised and readers are provided with ten recommendations to help ‘staunch the wound and maintain Australia’s wildlife’ (66). Five writers contributed to these two essays.

In chapter 6 Eddie Synot discusses The Uluru Statement, Mark Kenny the Republic and Alex Reilly  asylum seeker issues. The writers suggest that there still remains a deeply ingrained and negative attitude towards indigenous people and their experiences in Australian society and until this issue is solved the Republic aspirations will remain a ‘difficult project burdened with overblown hopes’ (75). A history of asylum seeker policies is also provided in this chapter, again with a particular political bias.

Chapter 7 delves into ways that a future Australia can build a safer, more equitable society. Peter Whiteford shares his opinions on the more than A$10 billion spent on social security and welfare and the so called ‘zombie measures’ applied in the past, with a suggestion for immediate priorities and beyond. Bianca Fileborn gives her thoughts on gender-based violence while Liam Elphick shares his ideas on marriage equality focusing on what next for LGBTI and rights in Australia, outlining key areas for reform.

The title for chapter 8 is Securing the Nation without Fear or Favour and Damien Manuel suggests seven ways the government can make Australians safer – without compromising online privacy.  Greg Barton promotes the idea that National security is too important to be abandoned to the politics of fear.

The final three chapters cover areas concerning Managing the China relationship, Australia’s place in a turbulent and rapidly changing world, the culture wars within politics, manipulation of the ABC, people power concerning population, migration and regional Australia with contributions from Tony Walker, Susan Harris Rimmer, Chris Wallace, Denis Muller, Liz Allen and Stewart Locke. These writers bring their expertise from their higher education in disciplines of law, history, journalism, social science and sociology. All are leaders in their respective fields and bring thoroughly researched and logical perspectives to their topics.

Throughout the reading of this book I had the impression that most of the writers strongly believed that after the May election there would be a new philosophy in Australian government as many in their contributions highlighted what a Shorten government would do for our future. When comparisons of policies were discussed most of the writers appear to favour the Labor perspective. With the election not going as predicted I wonder if Melbourne University Press was a little premature in publishing this book before the election results were finalised. It seems an embarrassing miscalculation on their part.

The statement on the back cover of this book reads, ‘Politics in Australia is in a dire state. We have the diagnosis, but what’s the cure?’ There are some very good and logical ideas presented in this publication which any government could benefit from perusing when looking for a way forward i.e. a cure. To obtain the most value from the ideas in this book I recommend one article at a time to allow for absorption and analysis.

I believe the contributors to this book are all associated with the organisation The Conversation which works with academic experts to inject evidence into public debate. They publish commentary, research and analysis from Australian universities and the CSIRO so readers can be assured of the validity of the information presented.

This book is one of those publications and regardless of the bias is a serious read for anyone who closely follows Australian politics.

Advancing Australia

(2019) (March)

Edited by Amanda Dunn & John Watson

Melbourne University Press

ISBN: 978-0-522-87593-5

$19.99;160pp

Matilda Empress Queen Warrior by Catherine Hanley

"Matilda" by Catherine Hanley

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Matilda – as implied by the subtitle to this new biography – was a remarkable woman whose story is not often found in the history books.  There are a few reasons for this.  First, there is a paucity of contemporary material on her; second, there is almost nothing of her personal correspondence or journals and therefore almost nothing to reflect her thoughts or ideas.

This paucity of material is compounded by her gender.  Matilda lived in a period when daughters were of lesser value than sons.  Consequently, they held fewer public roles and were less likely to appear in contemporary and official documents.

In 1991, Marjorie Chibnall wrote a biography of Matilda The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English.  Dr Catherine Hanley acknowledges this ground-breaking work and adds that her intention is not to replace it but to ‘contribute to an ongoing debate by providing a new and different interpretation of Matilda’s character and actions’ [2].  Dr Hanley seeks not to provide a work of scholarship but one which provides an accessible and engaging history.

She has succeeded admirably challenging the supposed scarcity of material by engaging in detective work which has uncovered documents of every type to shed light on one of the most important figures of the 12th century.

Matilda was of impeccable royal blood – she was the daughter of King Henry I and grand-daughter of William the Conqueror; her mother Edith-Matilda was the daughter of Malcolm III King of the Scots.  She was also ‘born in the purple’ – that is, she was born to a reigning king unlike [for example] Elizabeth II who was born before her father was crowned King George VI. Matilda’s duty as a king’s daughter was to make a matrimonial alliance which would be advantageous to her father.

In February 1110, Matilda – just eight years old – was on her way to meet the man who would be her husband, the Emperor Henry V [of an empire not yet called the Holy Roman Empire].  Henry V was in need of cash which would come with Matilda’s dowry and Henry I needed the alliance with a prestigious and well-established dynasty as an ally against the French king Louis VI.

Her first duty when arriving in Henry’s court in Liège was interceding publicly on behalf of Godfrey count of Leuven who had fallen into disgrace.  It was said that Matilda – even at eight – ‘performed her part well’ [20].  At age 16, in 1118, Matilda acted as Henry’s regent in Italy.  In keeping with the status of women in the 12th century, she was exercising authority on behalf of her husband, but nevertheless, she was able to put into practice the skills she had learned alongside her father in England.

In 1120, Matilda’s brother and the heir to the English throne William was on board the White Ship when it sank killing almost all on board.  A contemporary writer describes the tragedy – Thus the conquering sea … destroys the King’s sons [one is illegitimate] and ends wordly honour [44].  This event had long-term consequences for England and for Matilda.  Aside from the deep grief felt by Henry, he now had a major problem – there was no obvious heir to the throne of England.

In 1125, after only eleven years of marriage which produced no children, Henry V died – Matilda ‘felt a great sadness’ [33] at his death.  They had been an effective team and Henry had been the most important person in her life since she was a child.  Matilda’s father Henry I had remarried after the death of Edith-Matilda in May 1118 but the second marriage did not produce any children.  The conflation of these events led to Henry I now considering being succeeded by Matilda.

The line of succession was not as clear cut in the 12th century as it became later in the 16th century.  Henry needed to persuade his barons to accept Matilda as his heir.  In her favour was the fact that she was the only candidate who could claim ‘porphyrogeniture’ – that is, born to a reigning king.  Henry had used this argument himself to justify why he took the throne of England in 1100 rather than his older brother Robert.  However, given the potential difficulties ahead for any woman to succeed to the throne, Henry decided the best course was for Matilda to marry.  To whom she would be married would be determined by what was the most advantageous alliance to be made.  Henry wanted to form a strategic alliance with Anjou – an area which bordered Normandy to the south.  Further, he believed that, if Matilda married, her sons would be heirs.  Thus, Matilda would marry Geoffrey the elder son and heir of the count of Anjou.  Geoffrey was thirteen; Matilda was twenty-five.  The marriage would proceed after Geoffrey turned fourteen and was of an age to marry.  Matilda ‘would have to grit her teeth and bear it in the name of future ambition’ [65].

The strategies to place Matilda on the throne after Henry’s death went for naught.  Her cousin – also a grandchild of William the Conqueror – was crowned and anointed king of England on 22 December 1135.  In 1139, after she had completed her wifely duties with Geoffrey and produced three sons, Matilda could now actively plan to claim the throne for herself.

The path to the throne for Matilda was not one that had been trodden before.  There was no law preventing a woman from acceding to the throne and there were precedents but only where the woman was acting on behalf of a male.  In fact, ‘there was not even a word for what Matilda wanted to be’ [145].  The word ‘queen’ simply meant the wife of a king.  Matilda wanted to be a ‘female king’.  Matilda’s quest to become the ‘female king’ led to many years of destruction for the people of England.  The Peterborough Chronicle 1070-1154 states bleakly –

Never before was there more wretchedness in the land, nor ever did heathen men worse than they did.

Wherever men tilled, the earth bore no corn because the land was all done for by such doings; and they said openly that Christ and His saints slept. [175]

When it seemed that Matilda could actually become queen, there was such a ‘brutal reaction’ to the extent that Matilda realised that she was never going to be queen in her own right.  ‘The male-dominated, self-interested society in which she lived was simply not ready for such a thing’ [176].

In November 1153, the Treaty of Winchester was sealed.  The Treaty brought to an end eighteen years of conflict and restored the control of lands to those who owned them on 1 December 1135 – that is, the day on which Henry I died.  In the words of Henry of Huntingdon: ‘Thus the mercy of God brought to the broken realm of England a dawn of peace at the end of a night of misery’ [218].  Matilda’s eldest son Henry was now the heir to the throne of England and, just over twelve months later, on 19 December 1154, he was crowned king of England.  He was aged twenty-one.

Matilda’s legacy was the House of Plantagenet which began with her son Henry II and concluded 334 years later with the death of Richard III.  She was born at a time when the constraints on her gender were substantial and unable to be thrown over.  Matilda – in spite of those constraints – achieved much more than she could have been expected to.  She was ‘master of her fate and agent of her own destiny’ [250].

Dr Hanley in her Introduction to this marvellous book states that Matilda is ‘one of the most remarkable individuals of the Middle Ages’ [1].  The epitaph on her tomb – commissioned by Henry II – reads:

Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest by her offspring

Here lies the daughter, wife and mother of Henry.

The epitaph references her father Henry I of England, her husband Henry V of the Holy Roman Empire and her son Henry II of England.  Typically for that era, she is defined by the men around her; but there is more to Matilda than that.  Dr Hanley brings a fresh and feminist view to the life of Matilda and re-interprets her roles and actions through access to a comprehensive range of contemporary sources. 

Dr Hanley provides an extensive history of Matilda which is enhanced by a writing style which brings an excitement which in lesser hands may have been nothing more than an historical textbook.  The text is complemented by extensive notes on the primary and secondary sources, a comprehensive bibliography and an index.  A number of illustrations supplement the written word but there is no known image of Matilda herself.

The subtitle to the book is Empress Queen Warrior.  These few words summarise Matilda’s life and could well live on as her epitaph.

Dr Hanley is a writer and researcher specialising in the Middle Ages.  She was born in Perth Australia and has written a number of books and is a contributor to the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology.

Matilda

Empress Queen Warrior

[2019]

by Catherine Hanley

Yale University Press

ISBN 978 0 300 22725 3

277pp; $40.25

To order a copy of Matilda Empress Queen Warrior at the Footprint Books website with a 15% discount, visit http://www.footprint.com.au.

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

I LOVE MY MUM BECAUSE Written by Petra James Illustrated by Alissa Dinallo

Petra James: I Love My Mum Because

Reviewed by Angela Marie

There’s something about a book.

There’s something about holding it in your hands and carefully turning the pages.

A book is a gift and how wonderful if that gift recognises and celebrates the love and affection between mother and child.

I LOVE MY MUM BECAUSE is an interactive picture book targetted at the 3 to 7 age group. It is an activity book to take time with, either quietly with a collaborator if the child is very young, or, for the older child, by torchlight under the covers so as not to spoil the surprise.

And what a beautiful surprise it would be. A time capsule to cherish. 

Petra James and Alissa Dinallo have presented a carefully crafted and designed book. It comprises many double pages, each delivering a clear focus on a specific and varied point. Activities vary from the concrete, such as matching up big and little shapes, colouring the most beautiful bunch of flowers possible and recognising cloud shapes, to the abstract. My favourite – She blows BUBBLES! Write a wish or two inside the bubbles. Close your eyes and blow the wish away.

There are reminders of the important things (from a child’s perspective) that mothers do, such as telling the tooth fairy not to get lost, in the guise of a problem-solving maze, and helping to create art works, in this case beautiful butterflies. For the child there is an acknowledgement that your mother knows and understands you. In She knows which colour I am, the child can colour an emotional rainbow. 

There is space for creative and original art by drawing portraits and decorating birthday cakes. There is something for every little person to do and enjoy. And I LOVE MY MUM BECAUSE need not be finished in total to be presented to Mum but could be built on over time. 

I LOVE MY MUM BECAUSE is a book that remains interactive in the giving of it. It’s a book to snuggle up with together as you both search for the single scoop ice-cream cone or the hidden mum. It reinforces one of childhood’s important understandings – that the giving can be as much fun as the receiving.

I LOVE MY MUM BECAUSE is presented in hardback, making this book durable enough to withstand many handlings. It lends itself to becoming a journal by having the growing child add something extra year by year, reflective or fun. Does there need to be a special occasion to present this to Mum? Definitely not, but birthdays, Christmas Days and Mother’s Days beckon.

And fathers have not been forgotten. Watch out for I LOVE MY DAD BECAUSE arriving this year in August. Sure to be every bit as child-friendly and enjoyable.

PS Love the endpapers!

Petra James knows children and their tastes. She has been in publishing for more than twenty years, thirteen of these with works for children. She has authored ten books for middle-grade readers. Alissa Dinallo has designed for more than 200 titles, having been a book designer for eight years. In 2015 she was awarded the Australian Book Design Association Award for Young Designer of the Year and made the Forbes 30 Under 30 Arts list in 2018. A dynamic duo.

I LOVE MY MUM BECAUSE 

(2019)

Written by Petra James

Illustrated by Alissa Dinallo

Pan Macmillan Australia

ISBN 9781760784386

36pp; HB $14.99

THE SHELLY BAY LADIES SWIMMING CIRCLE by Sophie Green

Reviewed by Angela Marie

  “Elaine’s tennis ladies had their own idea of a class system …Humans strive to sort themselves into strata wherever they find themselves – even, or perhaps especially, in a former penal colony.  The only group where she hasn’t found that is in her little swimming circle…They’re all equals in the water: each of them wanting to be out there, feeling the embrace of the ocean, the power of achievement, the sun on their faces as they dry off afterwards.”


As we read on, we learn more of the deep and personal pains of our swimming circle. Dig a bit deeper and we learn the secrets that are held so close that they do not want to name them and reopen the scars. But read on and see the evolution of true friendship, arising from practical purposes, through the beginnings of trust, to a deep, loyal and fierce protectiveness. As in real life, our protagonists face the challenges that they never assumed would happen to them or their loved ones. They face the fluidity and the ebb and flow of life. This is echoed within the story by the structured changing of the seasons and the heralding of spring. A call to optimism and to finding joy even in the smallest of things. 

Welcome to Shelly Bay. Captured within the environs of Sydney, yet a world away from the frenetic pace of big city existence. Welcome to the blending of old and new, in housing and development, and social circles, and the shadows that stick to us and cannot be jumped away from. Welcome to the Australia of 1982 to 1985, and attitudes that are perhaps not so removed from now. 

THE SHELLY BAY LADIES SWIMMING CIRCLE, and the circle itself, evolves slowly and purposefully, each protagonist developing and revealing aspects of character initially realised by the reader alone. Meet the widowed sage, Marie, yearning for the company of her deceased husband and understanding that relationships do not have to be perfect to be perfect. Swimming is her driving passion and saviour, and she plunges through the breakers every morning at dawn. This ritual endows her with the strength to be herself. Meet Theresa, housewife and mother of two young children, craving and claiming back time to be herself. Theresa volunteers at the local hospital and, with a mission to get fit, returns to her love of swimming. Meet Leanne, a nurse, isolated by choice and circumstance, challenging herself to achieve something she did not have the opportunity to learn. And our final circle member, Elaine, an English woman marooned on this great island, far from home and children, and keeping company with the bottle. A circle with members years apart in age and life’s experiences. A group with seemingly few common denominators save swimming.

THE SHELLY BAY LADIES SWIMMING CIRCLE is about the evolution of friendship and, essentially, the evolution of self. Why we do and what we do. It’s about the changes we make to accommodate the needs of others in our lives, be they friend, family, acquaintance. It’s about assessing those choices and acting on this. The ability to understand that we can’t change what has already come to pass but we can change our response to it and understand ourselves more deeply. It’s a reminder about the layers we all wear and how we cannot presume to know others unless we are truly connected and worthy. And then there’s no guarantee.

We are reminded that we may be unfairly hard on ourselves, and that even seemingly small adjustments can be monumental and life changing. That there is pain in the suppression of feelings and the awkwardness of re-emergence. There is encouragement to see distractions for what they are and to take opportunities when they are presented.

The cast of supporting characters represent the multifaceted community we know. We meet Theresa’s disconnected husband, Andrew, and her ciggie-smoking, card-playing Nonna. We meet Marie’s wise Father Paul, the encouraging swim coach, Matt, James, Elaine’s supportive doctor husband, Gus the handsome gardener and more. Who will help who, and how? How will all these pieces fit into the puzzle? Is there such a thing as happy ever after? 

Sophie Green’s tale is a good read. It reaffirms that true friendship is precious. It will not cause you to reach for your dictionary, but it may cause you to reach inside and take some moments to ponder.

Friendship resonates within the writings of author Sophie Green. Her much-lauded novel, The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club, draws on the building of bonds and was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards for General Fiction Book of the Year 2018. She is a prolific and versatile writer, publishing many adult content ebooks and non-fiction works, and writing about country music on her blog, Jolene. 

Sophie Green lives in Sydney. Among her life experiences she has been a bookseller and a yoga teacher, completed a law degree and now works in publishing in addition to writing. She has a self-confessed love of the Northern Territory, basing her fictitious book club there. This reviewer feels that there will be many more interesting tales to come.

THE SHELLY BAY LADIES SWIMMING CIRCLE

(2019)

By Sophie Green

Hachette

ISBN 978 0 7336 4116 9

pp 428; PB $29.99; Ebook $12.99

The People vs the Banks by Michael Roddan

The People vs The Banks

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

The People vs The Banks is a compelling tale of the events leading to Australia’s royal commission on misconduct in financial services – the first in eighty years.  The action takes place in recent years, with emphasis on the commission’s activities from December 2017 to February 2019. Michael Roddan demonstrates how close we came to not having a commission at all. A series of financial, legal and political events over several years eventually prevailed over reluctant governments and recalcitrant banks.  

Each chapter brings new depths of depravity as one by one, whole sectors of the industry are dismembered. “The life insurance industry was used to raking in big coin, but it wasn’t used to spending that money on customers or reinvesting in its own businesses. The inability to prudently manage their own operations would put life insurers into a potential death spiral”.

For those who took a day-to-day interest as the rackets unravelled – there was a plethora of information. The institutions were destined to be seen as a public enemy, but the depth and breadth of the schemes and scams were extraordinary. At the time, it was hard to keep track of who were real baddies and those who were just baddies; let alone understand the cultural viruses that infected our once esteemed and trusted money managers. Not to mention the government regulators, who clearly were not up to the task. 

What this book does – and does well – is to pull together all of the threads and make sense of them in both a contemporary and historical context. A reader might wonder if the offenders really understood what was coming after them. This is a tome that begs to be put down – yes, put down – because each page is packed with facts and quotes that have the reader reeling with the complexity and audacity of it all. One needs time to cool down and reflect on the implications of these hundreds of revelations. We might even need more time still to fully comprehend their complete make-up.

It is evident that Michael Roddan has expertise in these matters and presents a very complex assessment of a very complicated situation in words that most laypeople would understand. Revealed was a money-making machine, greased and oiled by weak governments, influenced by shameless lobbying, rampant liquidators and emasculated regulators. Customers and the general public were largely trusting – or at least unaware. Even those customers who had experienced the worst were largely powerless to fight.

One heinous practice that the Commission uncovered was the generous loans offered to farmers, based on inflated property valuations. Some were given “such a good deal” that they could hardly refuse (shades of The Godfather?).  Soon after, the banks would reduce the valuation and demand repayment or loss of the farm: “Bankers were moving from farm to farm like locusts, stripping them of all they could, just to earn bonuses.”

Astute and colourful commentary enriches the content. In contrasting the industry superannuation fund evidence with that offered by the banks, the author says:

“Much of the time, the bankers could barely be trusted with their responses. It didn’t seem like they believed the answers they were giving, either. Not only did the industry fund executives say what they believed, but you got the idea they also believed what they said.”

This particular analysis is welcome because it goes to the heart of political power – the industry funds have a union/Labor connection and the retail have a big banking/Coalition connection. We are even privy to a Government Minister’s attempt to influence Michael Roddan’s media commentary to denigrate industry funds while ignoring transgressions of the banks.

He also observes the curious inverse relationship between bank performance and executive remuneration: 

“Over the period of [CEO] Smith’s reign, ANZ’s share price fell 6 per cent. Over the last five years of his leadership, it was the worst performing of the major banks on the local share market. Still, he became the highest paid major banking executive in Australian history. Over his eight years at ANZ, he took home close to $100 million. As a banker, even if you lost, you still won.”

The author warns that a telling point which can often be lost is that much of the activity undertaken by banks was useless:

 “With rivers of gold flowing into company coffers, banks employed an unusually large number of workers to engage in increasingly obscure and unnecessary work.”

The credibility and power of this book lie in its insightful distillation of the commission’s factual analysis and its political objectivity.  The final chapter is the only disappointment. It includes an odd apologia for the role played by an ineffectual Government Minister and singular praise for one of her backbencher colleagues.  There is also speculation about dark futures for industry funds. Not unreasonable perhaps, but a curious departure from the unprejudiced account of the commission. 

Schadenfreude can be entertaining, but it is usually short-lived. It was difficult to avoid delight when dissembling bank executives were roasted by Commissioner Hayne and his legal team.  With the ink still barely dry on the report, eighteen senior executives have already been vaporised.  Yet somehow, there is already a sense that not only will banks continue to thrive, but that the creative minds and bean counters will quickly roll out new schemes to enrich the executives and shareholders at the expense of the long suffering customers.

The People vs the Banks is a must read for anyone in this country who deals with money – and isn’t that most of us? At once appalling and fascinating, it is a cracker of a book. The final word belongs to Michael Roddan:

…”the royal commission showed the financial industry for what it was. ….It was a bubble inflated by useless fees, harmful kickbacks and commissions, and sustained by a lobbying network that at every point tried to keep the grift going.”

Michael Roddan is a journalist with The Australian. He worked at Business Spectator and has written about economics, policy and politics, regulation, banking, insurance, superannuation and financial services.

The People vs the Banks  

(April 2019)

By Michael Roddan

Melbourne University Press

ISBN: 9780522875188

342pp

$34.99 (paperback)

How the Classics Made Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate

 

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

I plead guilty to more than a little disquiet when Jonathan Bate’s latest book crosses my desk. However, I know Bate’s work very well and I admit that he is not the person to waste his time on something that is unoriginal. He has never simply re-worded some other scholar’s work and presented it as his own. But Shakespeare again! The mind fills with names of writers who have trodden this well-worn path. Stanley Wells, Margreta de Grazia, Frank Kermode and the inimitable Helen Vendler come easily to mind.

Jonathan Bate does not disappoint. It is not some new unearthing of knowledge hitherto unknown to scholars that this researcher goes after. He begins, after a bit of messing about, with the issue of what fired Shakespeare’s imagination. From this comes the question of Shakespeare’s “distinctive valuation of the imagination which…owed a huge debt to pagan antiquity” (7). His thesis is established immediately. To develop this idea Bate emphasizes the grammar school education of Shakespeare’s time, which he considers to be more than an adequate preparation for the life subsequently followed.

His memory, knowledge, and skilfulness were honed by classical ways of thinking: the art of rhetoric, the recourse to mythological exemplars, the desire to improvise within the constraints of literary genre, the ethical and patriotic imperatives, the consciousness of an economy of artistic patronage, the love of debate, the delight in images (7).

Bate argues that certain aspects of Shakespeare’s classical inheritance have until now been neglected, “perhaps because they are hiding in plain sight” (12). The common currency of the canonical figures that shaped a tradition has not been investigated fully. Shakespeare’s periodic adoption of an Horatian tone has rarely been discussed. The exemplary force of Cicero has not been researched especially given the centrality of Ciceronian ideas to modern humanist political thought. The significance of the neo-Latin pastoral poet, Mantua, whose name Shakespeare evokes in Love’s Labour’s Lost remains unearthed.

Bate, quite legitimately I accept, extends his sources on Shakespeare beyond the realm of direct contact. Not having read Justus Lipsius, Shakespeare yet provides traces of neo-Stoicism in his plays which he must have absorbed from elsewhere. In like manner Tacitus appears in various guises. The Epicurean tradition was probably absorbed from his reading of many of the essays of Montaigne, for Shakespeare would hardly have had access to the De Rerum Natura of Lucretius. Bate continues to pile on the evidence. Horace and Juvenal exemplified satirical writing to the Elizabethans. Further, “readers in the 1590s would have been familiar with the idea of Cicero as a model of prose style” (13), would have known that ‘Ovidian’ meant the language of seduction. Shakespeare’s writing, not to forget his acting – could have an Ovidian, Horatian, or Ciceronian bias and he could expect his audience to recognise the different classical styles. Bate recognises that Shakespeare was “equally steeped in ‘parallels’ between ‘precedent times’ and the ‘government’ of the ‘present state’. In this sense, Shakespeare was a Cremutius Cordus to [Ben] Jonson’s Tacitus” (15).

So, what is Bate up to? One answer is that by considering what Shakespeare, directly or indirectly, took from the classics, Bate can fill in some of the gaps in our current knowledge of the Elizabethans. More broadly, Bate hopes to show that Shakespeare’s imagination and his sympathies were shaped by classical schools of thought. In other words he wants to contextualise Shakespeare within the wider ‘intelligence of antiquity’ in England in the sixteenth century, including the political and cultural imperatives that drove the urge to imitate classical exemplars.

Shakespeare was almost always Ovidian, more often than is usually supposed Horatian, sometimes Ciceronian, occasionally Tacitean, an interesting mix of Sencan and anti-Senecan, and, I suggest, strikingly anti-Virgilian – insofar as Virgilian meant meant ‘epic’ or ‘heroic’ (15).

Shakespeare’s form of “classical fabling” (15) was closely attuned to sexual desire and was, therefore, profoundly antiheroic. His imagination was “magnetically drawn to dreams and visions, nightmares and ghostly apparitions, to the magic of theatre and desire, and thence to intimations of immortality” (16). Thus “the arc of the book curves from Shakespeare and the classical tradition to Shakespeare becoming the classical tradition – precisely at the moment when, paradoxically, he was being praised for not being overlearned in the classics” (16).

What Jonathan Bate has set out to do in his series of E.H. Gombrich lectures, from which this book derives, has taken up a lengthy part of this review. That was deliberate on my part. No necessity exists to ask if Bate’s book is a scholarly tome, if he has presented his material fairly, expanded his material to properly explain the significant areas of argument, and so on. The answers are ‘yes’ in every case. The man is a balanced, highly respected authority, and my perusal of the remaining chapters of his book shows me exactly what I expected I would read.

In Chapter 2 the troublesome word ‘divine’ in Shakespeare is seen as “an animating intelligence, a spirit of freedom and especially of continuall motion” (35). Thus the poet’s eye may keep alive the dreams and visions that delighted the past and “offer ways of seeing that take us beyond the constraints of our present” (5). In another chapter Bate examines the vicissitudes of Classical Age politics in shaping those of Shakespeare’s Age, while in Chapter 4 Bate reveals that “by trumping the ancients, Shakespeare enabled his nation to stand apart from the rest of Europe. A national literature had been born, and he was at the centre of it” (63).

Chapter 7 is an absorbing foray into a Ciceronian world played out in the era of Leicester and Burghley, Essex and Cecil. Shakespeare demonstrates a neutrality on the stage that keeps his plays below the interest level of powerful rulers. In Chapter 10 comes the intricate, but delightful, place of poetry in the Elizabethan consciousness. This is best described by Bate himself:

A principal source of the imaginative power of the literature of the period is the paradox whereby the Renaissance delight in feigning was exercised and celebrated by writers who were at the same time ideologically committed to the building of a reformed English nation” (167).

He instances the nation builder-poet Edmund Spenser who wrote with intensity in delivering his fanciful Bower of Bliss, and, of course, Shakespeare. Again and again, at pressure points in the plays, we find Shakespeare defending the power of mental images, or phantasms (174).

The message in Chapter 11 is that the stage becomes a new public arena for the open exploration of love, sex and marriage (187), while in a piece of whimsy that I’ve discovered appeals to me, Bates’s discussion of Timon of Athens reveals that “the two sex-workers Timandra and Phrynia are the only female characters in the play. They speak just seven lines between them. In a world without eros, woman is silenced” (209).

Bates next reveals that Seneca provided Shakespeare with three different models for the climax of a tragedy (230), before proceeding to a discussion of that ‘undiscovered country from which no traveller returns,” the world that was of such interest to Hamlet. We are reminded of Macbeth’s meditation on life as a ‘poor player’, one full of sound and fury (“like an old-fashioned Senecan ghost” (251) signifying nothing. “One day we will all be shadows” (251) is a reminder I could have done without.

Chapter 14, called In the House of Fame, has the most delightful introductory paragraph that I will comment on no further. It begins a chapter dealing, of course, with Shakespeare’s much delayed fame, and makes the point that fame, for writers, is never assured. However, not many who love the English language, would deny that:

It is the ultimate mark of his fame that he is to us what those ancient Roman authors were to him: the basis of a liberal education, the core of studia humanitas. He is our singular classic” (276).

Prepare yourselves for a thorough work of scholarship, with clear explanations and comprehensive referencing in a series of Notes on each chapter, an Appendix, and an index. An absolute tour de force, a scholar non pareil, in every regard.

 

How the Classics Made Shakespeare

(2019)

By Jonathan Bate

Princeton UP

ISBN:  978-0-691-16160-0

$US24.95; 384pp

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Washington Black – the third novel by award-winning Canadian writer Esi Edugyan – is a bildungsroman; that is, a novel which focusses on the moral and psychological growth of a young protagonist from child to adult.  Washington Black, the eponymous protagonist, or ‘Wash’ as he is known to his acquaintances, is at the beginning of the novel an eleven-year-old slave on Faith Plantation in Barbados.

The owner of the sugar plantation is the cruel and harsh Erasmus Wilde.  Wilde refers to the slaves as ‘filth’ and to Wash in particular as ‘the nigger’s calf’.  Cruelty and a complete denial of their humanness is the lot of the slaves and all they can hope for is that, when death comes, they will return to their homeland in the afterlife.  Without sensationalist writing, the author brilliantly conveys this overwhelming despair in a few succinct sentences.

Faith itself darkened under our new master.  In the second week, he dismissed the old overseers.  In their place arrived rough men from the docks, tattooed, red-faced, grimacing at the heat.  These were ex-soldiers, or just island poor, with their papers crushed into a pocket and the sunken eyes of devils.  Then the maimings began. [8]

Wash, however, is offered an opportunity to leave the fields when Wilde’s younger brother ‘Titch’ sees Wash and considers that he is exactly the correct height and weight to provide ballast in a ‘cloud-cutter’ [or hot-air balloon].  Reluctantly, Wilde agrees to handing over a slave to Titch and Wash takes the first step on a journey which will change his life forever.  Initially, he is simply required to be the labourer carrying pieces of the cloud-cutter to the top of a suitable hill for re-assembling before its launch.  Before too long though, Titch begins to see an intelligence and wit in Wash which he had previously masked for fear of being seen as presumptuous.  With Titch’s encouragement, Wash learns to take scientific measurements and, at the same time, demonstrates a surprising talent for fine drawing.

Gradually, a close friendship grows between Titch and Wash based on a mutual respect for each other’s skills and talents.  Wash begins to see Titch as family and, as he grows more comfortable in this strange arrangement, he develops in confidence and ability.  He also begins to believe he has an opportunity to live as a free person, and thus is planted a longing for a different life which ultimately leads to heartache and disappointment.

Two significant events occur and both have a major impact on Wash.  The first results in Wash being seriously burnt on one side of his face – he is left with horrific scars.  The second necessitates Titch and Wash leaving the plantation in the middle of the night and travelling secretly to the United States.

Wash’s thoughts as he and Titch make their way to the States eloquently express his new-found confidence in himself and even more importantly in the value of his life.  He says … and I knew, too, how strange it felt to be alive, and whole, and astonishingly worth saving. [149]

Although the slave trade had ended some years before [in the novel, the year is now 1832], there remain the residual prejudice and cruelty towards those who are black.  Wash eloquently and despairingly says as he discovers that he cannot be safe in the United States –

I had imagined my existence a true and rightful part of the natural order.  How wrong-headed it all had been.  I was a black boy, only – I had no future before me … I was nothing.  I would die nothing, hunted hastily down and slaughtered. [165]

Wash and Titch leave for Canada and then the Arctic Circle where Titch hopes to find his once-believed-to-be-dead father.

It is at this point that the story falters a little.  Credulity is strained as they manage to penetrate deep into the Arctic and survive.  Titch abandons Wash there for reasons which sound false to the reader and later – after he discovers what they are – to Wash as well.  Wash makes his way to England and the story is back on track.

In England though, the learning gained by Wash through his relationship with Titch goes for nothing in London.  He is reduced to working as dishwasher or a laundry boy.  Aged only 15, Wash on catching sight of himself in a mirror, says to himself I saw in my eyes a lightlessness, a methodical will for violence.  I knew I must move on, or kill, or be killed. [230]

Wash does move on and his life improves – but he constantly needs to prove his worth.  For a young black man, there is no avoiding the prejudice endemic in society at the time.  Wash is exhausted by the need to prove himself and questions now begin to arise regarding the ethics of removing a person from his environment [however tragic] and transplanting him into another which resists and opposes him at every turn.  One character asks rhetorically – Is it natural to sever low beings from their true and rightful destinies?  From their natural-born purpose? To give them a false sense of agency?  [291].  No answer is offered and the reader must draw her/his own conclusions.

The novel concludes somewhat ambiguously.  Now in Morocco – for reasons best left to the reader to discover – Wash wakes one morning as a sand storm moves in.  As Wash says – There was no trace of human presence anywhere, neither trail nor footsteps.  I stepped out onto the threshold … I went a few steps forward.  [417]

It is a metaphor for his future.  Wash can see nothing behind and nothing in front – apart from the distant blur of the eastern horizon towards which he now takes a few steps.

Washington Black is a brilliant book – beautifully and sensitively written by Esi Edugyan – with a powerful message about how our past is within us and goes with us wherever we go.  Ultimately, we are alone and must determine our own futures.

Esi Edugyan is an award-winning Canadian author.  She has won the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Award and both this book and her previous book Half-Blood Blues have been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize.

Washington Black

[2018]

by Esi Edugyan

Serpent’s Tail

ISBN 978 1 7812 5897 2

417pp; $22.99

Slugger by Martin Holmen

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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Readers of up-and-coming author Martin Holmen will be interested in the writing style that has a dynamic  immediacy of impact in the book Slugger. How to paint a character so that he or she is immediately recognised, how to present insights into the lives of the people around the central character, and how to display a quirky sense of humour that differs with each character  – all that is part of the portfolio that Martin Holmen shares with his readers. It takes more than style to write a best-selling novel. This is a best seller for a very particular group of readers.

The book’s subject matter is unordinary. Holmen’s protagonist is as uncouth and lacking in human empathy as the worst. His story is not easy to support, unless you have an affinity with men who maim and kill, and enjoy a life of cigar dumpers, booze, and a homosexual lifestyle. As the book concludes, the main character has been dealt a hand that was always his to have. By then he has made his particular presence dominate the book.

It is an unusual way for a young author to make his mark in literature. Comments already made about the author’s prowess have a ring of truth but are noteworthy also in that nobody appears to have ever published a review that says that noir literature like this is confronting but not necessarily lasting. I’ve not seen one. Surely a writer toils to produce a text that will be remembered for its quality, not as a seamy expose of a drunken sot, more derelict of worth than admired.

To this point I have written about the character who leads the story. I’ve intimated that the character is vivid and whose presence maintains his fellow characters in his shadow. I’ve suggested that the book is a series of violent episodes, rather than a well-connected series of actions that one would expect to find some degree of identification with.

While I have difficulty with this genre, I thoroughly commend the author for his story-writing techniques which are of the highest order. Irony and satire, incident-specific humour, sadness and pity, handled so as not to diminish the human condition – these are great strengths. Slugger’s funding of the young woman, caught in child and dreading a forced abortion, to allow her to have her baby in more favourable circumstances, his support for an old mate even to the extent of carrying him on his back – these examples give a more rounded view of the main character.

To explain why I felt the end of the story was satisfying would be to spoil the tale. I would very much like to recommend this book to readers, but I cannot. I see a great writing career ahead for this author, but for me the whole yarn is too black, the dominant character, who really does control the book, too much of a ‘grub’ to receive my support.

Slugger

(2019)

By Martin Holmen

Echo Publishing/A & U

ISBN: 978-1-76068-598-0

$29.99; 348pp