Book Review:On the Java Ridge, by Jock Serong

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_on_the_java_ridge.jpgThere’s something disturbingly satisfying about those rare novels that deliver an upper-cut to your gut. If you’re a masochist like me when it comes to novels, pick up On the Java Ridge.

Literary award-winning Jock Serong packs a punch on board the Java Ridge, an authentic Indonesian phinisi that ferries Australian tourists to remote surfing spots in the Savu Sea. Against the better judgement of Australian skipper Isi Natoli, a group of excited tourists plunge into the reef of uninhabited Dana Island, having spotted virgin surf. Outnumbered, Isi is forced to concede to the tourists’ demands for epic swells and anchors the Java Ridge in the island’s sheltered lagoon. After an idyllic afternoon among the waves, the group set up camp on the shore. With a tropical storm brewing to the north, they hope for a dry night ahead.

Hundreds of kilometres away, the Takalar has also set sail. On board is young Roya and her pregnant mother. They are now only an ocean away from the Promised Land, Australia, after fleeing persecution in Iraq. As the only survivors of their family, Roya, her mother, and her unborn sister have journeyed long and far in search of safety and a new life. Unbeknownst to both the Java Ridge skipper Isi Natoli and the asylum-seekers on board the Takalar, the notoriously refugee-unfriendly Australian government is on the eve of a general election and is relentless in preventing any last minute immigration scandals.

When the Takalar’s engine runs of its mounts and capsizes on the reef of tainted Dana Island, Roya and her mother come face to face with a watery reaper. Dozens lose their lives to the swirling Savu Sea. Yet despite the stormy skies Roya and her mother’s stars align, and they are pulled to safety by the Java Ridge’s skipper, Isi. Woken by the screams for help, identifiable in any language, the Australian tourists rescue as many people from the doomed Takalar as they can. A make-shift triage operation is set up on the island as the Takalar sinks to the ocean floor. Grappling with few supplies and needing urgent medical attention, Isi decides to load the Australians and asylum-seekers alike onto the Java Ridge and set sail for Australia.

Meanwhile in Canberra, the Minister for Border Integrity, Cassius Calvert, is beginning to make some ugly discoveries. Placed minister as a pawn, Cassius is self-absorbed and incompetent. The government has recently announced a new hard-line anti-asylum seeker policy that has the potential to cause public outcry. With the general election looming, it is vital that voters don’t scare. As Cassius starts to realise the grisly nature of the very policy he signed off on, his ineptitude proves him to be perfectly primed not to be able to prevent impending disaster. All the while, the Java Ridge chugs nearer.

Serong has a knack for creating characters the reader will invest in, and it is thanks to this skill that On the Java Ridge gets the reader eating out of the palm of one hand, and then delivers a sucker-punch with the other. Throughout the journey, we are subtly but expertly invited into the rationale of each character, resulting in some of the best understood and cared-for characters I’ve ever read (yes – even deplorable Cassius).

On the Java Ridge is a politically poignant thriller that is hugely relevant as developed nations grapple with the influx of uncontrolled migration. While certain governments draw international criticism on their hard-line immigration policies, there is a simultaneous rise in the popularity of notions such as those carried in the hashtag #RefugeesWelcome aimed against such policies. On the Java Ridge pushes readers to question how far their governments would go, and how far they would allow their governments to go in order to protect their borders. Serong’s novel is a timely reminder that we are all human, and just how easily we can lose touch with that shared identity.

Reviewed by Abbie Treloar

On the Java Ridge
by Jock Serong
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925498394

 

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Book Review: Memoirs of a Polar Bear, by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_memoirs_of_a_polar_bearFor some reason, when I picked up Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, I didn’t think it was actually going to be the memoirs of a polar bear. I completely judged the book by its cover and thought it was a YA book, perhaps like Margo Lanagan’s excellent novel Tender Morsels. Either that, or surely Tawada’s book was an allegory of some sort.
Nope. Memoirs is exactly what it says it is – the recollections and life history of a polar bear, or more specifically, three generations of polar bears, living in Cold War Europe. The first bear, a former performing circus bear now relegated to going to conferences on performing, begins writing her autobiography and eventually escapes the Soviet Union to flee to Berlin. Her daughter, Tosca, then picks up the story as she herself becomes a dancing performing bear. We then see Tosca’s son Knut, born in captivity in Berlin Zoo.

Part of the intoxicating strangeness of this novel is that the bears are bears but, for the most part, no one else seems to notice. The bears learn languages, write, take part in panel discussions, act in children’s theatre shows, and read the newspaper. Their bear-ness does show through sometimes, particularly with the grandmother bear upon her move to Berlin. Wintery Berlin is too hot for her (of course, she’s a polar bear); she play-fights with the human supervising her move to Berlin but she doesn’t realise his terror is real (of course, she’s a polar bear and doesn’t realise what it must feel like for a human to be thrown around by a bear); she blows all her money on buying all the salmon in the nearby shop (of course, she’s a polar bear, what else is she supposed to eat?). But interestingly, these things sound to the reader like cultural clashes. Tawada is talking (in a deliciously odd way) about the immigrant experience here, not the disconnect between humans and animals.

But the relationship between humans and animals is clearly a theme here, and making the main narrators polar bears only highlights the strangeness of being a human. And the cruelty. All the bears are living in a human-built cage – both the grandmother and Tosca are trained in circuses, and the grandmother has memories of being ‘taught’ to stand on her hind legs by having metal plates heated up under her front paws, forcing her to stand like a human lest her front paws be burned. And little Knut is raised in a zoo – treated well and with love by his handlers but, still, captive. Tosca at least has the benefit of a strange and deep bond with her human circus trainer Barbara – a soulful, indescribable communion between the two that seems to transcend language and exists most strongly in their mutually shared dreams. (Told you it was strange.)
Tawada’s prose, as rendered in English by translator Susan Bernofsky, is, by contrast, clear, sharp and fresh. Weirdness has never been expressed so cleanly. The grandmother says, “I lay there like a croissant, embracing Tosca”. The night time square outside her hotel reminds her of a theatre stage, “maybe because of the circular light cast by a streetlamp. A cat bisects the circle with its supple stride.”

This novel may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly was mine. With many thematic strands of motherhood, humanity, captivity, and immigration woven through a generational story that I found absorbing at every turn, Memoirs of a Polar Bear will make you ponder its rare qualities for some time to come.

Reviewed by Feby Idrus

Memoirs of a Polar Bear
by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky
Published by New Directions Publishing
ISBN 9780811225786

Book Review: The Traitor and the Thief, by Gareth Ward

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_traitor_and_the_thief_wardAn entertaining steampunk-esque adventure, The Traitor and the Thief won the Tessa Duder award (for unpublished young adult writers) in 2016. It is well written, taking in elements of Harry Potter and the Cherubs series, whilst also retaining a fresh originality.

Sin is an orphan and a thief, living on the streets and his wits. That is, until the day he is picked up and introduced to COG, a society that takes in skilled teenagers and trains them to be spies, in an effort to prevent, or reduce, the effects of war. Illiterate and not strong with numbers, Sin immediately sets about improving his skill-set with a dedication that is quite inspiration. He swiftly makes friends and settles in to his new way of life. Of course, this newfound prosperity is not to last, for there is a traitor in their midst, and if they are not unmasked, then all of their hopes will be in vain. Can Sin uncover the traitor? Or will his own past catch up with him and lead them all into ruin?

With a sparkling array of characters, an engaging world, and enough twists to satisfy, The Traitor and the Thief should appeal to fans of Philip Pullman and Philip Reeve.

Reviewed by Angela Oliver

The Traitor and the Thief
by Gareth Ward
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781925381504

Book Review: Never Say Die, by Anthony Horowitz

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_never_say_dieAfter reading the first few chapters of Never Say Die I got the distinct impression that Alex Rider is a bit of a young adult version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond – tied to MI6, frequenting exotic places, going up against formidable enemies, the odds being seemingly unfavorable, but of course eventually saving the day. However, the similarities end there between James Bond and Alex Rider. Despite being an asset in some capacity to MI6, Alex Rider is just 15 years old, making the novels just a bit more younger-person friendly. There is an element of unrealism because of the main character’s lack of years, but it was still a really enjoyable story.

As the latest addition to the Alex Rider series, Never Say Die sets the scene with an elaborate crime in Sullfolk, England, with seemingly no real motive or explanation, and the main character thousands of miles away in San Francisco. In the following chapter the crime is then suddenly pushed aside and focuses on Alex Rider, who is struggling to recover from experiences in the novel previous. Those traumatic events are progressively given more detail as Alex takes steps to reconcile the past and solve the mystery that still remains, all the while crossing paths with dangerous criminals not only seeking revenge but also plotting an act of terrorism.

Never Say Die includes plenty of action that go along with a typical spy novel but there are also more complicated elements within to back up the plausibility of the situation. It was at times a bit young but it was understandable given the audience the Alex Rider series is aimed at. That being said it could have easily been a lot more corny but Anthony Horowitz is successful as a whole in the balance he has maintained for such a series – innocent enough to be a young adults novel, but still exciting to actually be worthwhile reading; in my opinion any age group will enjoy Never Say Die.

Reviewed by Sarah Hayward

Never Say Die
by Anthony Horowitz
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781406377040

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_eleanor_oiliphant_is_completely_fine.jpgWhat an absolute joy to read this was, definitely one I will keep, share with others, and put into book club.

Eleanor is almost thirty, she lives in Glasgow, she works for a graphics design company in what could loosely be termed admin, she has worked there for nearly ten years. She has no friends. Her work colleagues think she is odd, they know very little if anything about her and can’t really be bothered to find out more. Every Friday night she leaves work, goes to Tesco, buys two pizzas and two bottles of Vodka. She goes home, demolishes the lot over the weekend, then turns up at work, bang on time Monday morning for another week the same as the previous. She is completely fine. These are her good days.

To the reader, her loneliness is extreme, the walls she has built around herself painful to see. It is hard to fathom the depth of loneliness that people can feel in their lives, and if this is a voluntary state, an enforced state, or a combination of the two. Is there a mental illness of sorts going on here, does she have a personality disorder, has something happened to her to have her life turn out like this at not even thirty? Slowly, page by page, we learn about Eleanor and the carefully structured life and walls she has built around herself over the years. We learn that from about the age of eleven she was in foster care, that she had a boyfriend who was violent to her, that she has a very controlling mother in prison with whom she talks once a week.

Life takes a sudden turn when she bizarrely falls madly for a wannabe rock star, her perfect man. To attract said man’s attention she pays a visit to a beautician, buys some swanky new clothes. She also befriends a work colleague who is forced upon her as the repairer of her work computer. By chance they are out during their lunch hour and assist an elderly man who falls over in front of them. These minutely small human connections are the beginning of the budding and flowering of the wonderful Eleanor. There are some hiccups along the way, as she struggles with her reconnection with the world, letting people into her small tightly held bubble – there are bad days, until finally we reach better days. And of course, we find out all about Eleanor’s early life that put her into foster care at eleven and explains why she has become this strange, out of touch, and odd person.

Eleanor is a wonder to behold. Being so little involved in others’ lives, having no social network or friends, having no need to deal with people in her work, she has lost all the social filters that most of us develop over the years of interacting with others. Our socially conditioned and finely tuned antennae tell us when we say or do something out of kilter, not so Eleanor. Her conversational exchanges are hilarious and endearing, if they weren’t quite so sad; her observations of those around her and how they behave equally wicked and funny, although of course she does not see it like that!

The writing is wonderful, and being narrated in the first person the reader is right inside Eleanor’s head. We root for Eleanor all the way even when she is frustrating the whatever out of us, as do the people she meets in the course of this story. She may be tetchy, difficult to talk with, unpredictable, but all the characters love her, from her colleague Raymond, to the elderly man, to her hairdresser, to her boss – it is as if they can all see the potential in this young woman, but just don’t know how to tap into it. I want to read this book again, it is just great, and gives a tender and sensitive insight into the loneliness that many people must live in. Heart-warmingly wonderful.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman
Published by HarperCollins
ISBN 9780008172121

 

Book Review: A Talent For Murder, by Andrew Wilson

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_talent_for_murder.jpgThe author has merged so well with Agatha Christie the novel reads as grippingly as any of her works. Meticulously researched, he adopts Ms Christie’s persona in this tale of her famed missing eleven days.

Anxiety and panic attacks fill Mrs Christie as she relates the events of what is readily plausible in that time and in her world of crime novels.

Wilson teases us with characters she meets; we want to keep reading to know them, to know more about them. We are in suspense as we read on and learn more. How each character involves with and revolves around each other, and the plot, is breath-holding – in the sense of building our feelings of foreboding, and character empathy.

This book was so well written I devoted two evenings to completing it. Christie, as character, reads people, actions and settings, and records them in such detail that it is easy to believe this story is truth. She shares her emotions – bereavement, stress, loss, anger, desperation – in reasoned detail. Her voice builds reader empathy

Wilson’s re-creation of Christie’s work is exceptional; and, what good news – he is working on the next Agatha Christie Adventure, A Different Kind of Evil.

Reviewed by Lynne McAnulty-Street

A Talent For Murder
by Andrew Wilson
Published by Simon and Schuster
ISBN: 9781471148224
eBook: 9781471148231

Book Reviews: Some Tests, by Wayne Macaulay

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_some_testsMost of us have been sent by the doctor for blood tests, and x-rays, or to specialists if we have been ill. After reading Some Tests, I will certainly be thinking differently with any referral I am given.

The main character Beth Own wakes one morning feeling unwell after being ‘a little off colour’ the day before, and taking to her bed after leaving early from work.

The visiting locum doctor explains to the intern ‘the patient presents as someone who is, medically speaking, in rude health. But at the same time she exhibits symptoms with no detectable pathology: slight headache, dizziness, a heaviness in the limbs, an overall sense of what we might call unrightness’. ‘All right, he said, now we need to send you off for some tests’.

Beth’s riveting journey takes the reader to a series of consultations with a variety of doctors around Melbourne in quick succession, and left me feeling quite exhausted.
Although very unreal, as we all know the modern health system is a waiting game, the book was a fast paced read which I found difficult to put down.

The author Wayne Macaulay’s style of writing used short sentences, frequent paragraphs and line breaks within the short chapters, to create an unsettling feeling of impending doom.

But what is wrong with the 37-year-old wife and mother of two?

In her words she explains, ‘I seem to have developed a special relationship with the moon that somehow relates to my dead mother. I also seem to be seeing more spectacular sunsets than usual, too. But on the other hand in a medical sense, I still don’t know what’s wrong.’

Australian author Wayne Macaulay has written a number of books and Some Tests will appeal to anyone who enjoys a modern novel with some fantasy. Unlike many books about illness this is not heavy going and leaves the reader with many questions about the current state of western medicine, and I felt very sympathetic towards Beth’s husband David, bewildered at the sudden change in his family circumstances.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

Some Tests
by Wayne McCauley
Published by Text
ISBN 9781925355932