Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category

Deloume RoadDeloume Road by Matthew Hooton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I met Matt Hooton at a recent Adelaide literary event, where he read some of his work. He reads very well, in an almost hypnotic, low-key way. I got talking to him briefly afterwards, and discovered he came from Vancouver Island. I cycled up Vancouver Island about 10 years ago, and rode through the area of Mill Bay where his book, “Deloume Road” is set.  I bought a copy that night which Matt signed for me.

The story focusses on the lives of a handful of characters who live on Deloume Road. The chapters are short, each centering on one character. Almost every chapter commences with an event from the previous chapter, but from a different character’s perspective. I thought this worked very well. It reminded me of a poetic form, the pantoum, where lines from a stanza repeat in the next stanza, and so a sort of connecting loop or thread is established. Each chapter is short, making the book a relatively easy read. The author builds strong images of the events of one summer on the island.

The characters are well constructed, and I found myself caring about them, which is not always the case with books I’ve read recently: two brothers, one of whom is handicapped in some way; their best friend, a clumsy lad; another boy, with abusive parents; a Korean woman who married a local man; a refugee from Europe working as the local butcher; a veteran of the Korean war; the veteran’s wife.

Towards the end I felt that the author was telegraphing the conclusion, but then it took a somewhat different turn. Even so, the ending was perhaps not as strong as the rest of the book.

Overall, a very good read, especially for what I believe is Matt’s first, and so far only, novel.

Matt’s website is: Matthew Hooton

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The Book of Strange New ThingsThe Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I heard Michel Faber talk at Adelaide Writers Week 2015, and was very impressed. There was some discussion about this book, which encouraged me to obtain and read it.

The book had the potential to be really irritating for an atheist like me, almost to the point of giving up after a few dozen pages. It tells the story of a reformed alcoholic / drug addict, Peter, who has become a full-on evangelical Christian preacher. He wins a job with a huge corporation called USIC to be minister to a race of aliens on a distant planet. Now my logical mind was able to believe in the existence of such a planet and such an alien population. But I found it hard to believe that Peter would never find out what USIC stood for, or why they were engaged in this distant project, or what exactly happened to his predecessor.

Still, I was mostly hooked by the story, despite spells of irritation. The irritation mostly revolved around Peter’s total naivety and impracticality, which contrasted starkly with his wife left behind on earth to face an imploding western civilisation. I also found it hard to believe in the coldness and passivity of the USIC staff at the interplanetary base. Some of the technical aspects were also a touch hard to swallow. And for an atheist, reading a book where many of the characters are called “Jesus Lover”, is also a challenge.

Despite these reservations, I mostly enjoyed the book. It’s an interesting and original premise, the pacing is good, and it holds the reader’s interest right through.

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The FreeThe Free by Willy Vlautin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I heard Willy Vlautin speak at Adelaide Writers Week 2015. A likeable, engaging, laid back man he is, as you’d expect from an alt-country singer/songwriter. He spoke passionately about the fate of brain damaged ex-servicemen in the U.S.A., mostly struggling to survive under the huge burdens of medical expenses and depression.

“The Free” is about one such ex-serviceman, but also about other working poor and marginalised people struggling to keep their heads above water in neo-con America.

It does paint a gripping picture of their lives. But I struggled at times to follow the narrative, which switches between reality and anaesthetic induced dreams. It is in the dreams that the concept of “The Free” is introduced – apparently a band of tea-party type vigilantes (I think). It didn’t quite work for me and left me dissatisfied. But an author worth following.

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26662666 by Roberto Bolaño
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve heard this book mentioned in hushed tones in recent years; the way the people refer to “Ulysses” (James Joyce’s that is) i.e. an epic, a revolutionary book.

I sort of agree, but have some nagging doubts. Bolano was Chilean, and wrote in Spanish. So bearing in mind that this is a translation, the first thing that strikes you is the extraordinary beauty and complexity of the language. There are passages that take your breath away. There are passages (like “Ulysses”) which extend a sentence over several pages with little or no punctuation.

It is a very long book (neary 900 pages), and you often wonder where it is going. On the other hand, it is somehow very readable. Split into 5 sections (which may have originally been intended as 5 separate books), it ranges back and forth between continents and periods, with a large cast of characters, making it, at times, difficult to follow.

It primarily traces the life of a fictional obscure novelist, Archimboldi, and the efforts of three academics experts to find him. A large part of the book is set in Mexico in a city with an epidemic of feminicide (based on the real Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez).

I’m glad I read it, and can honestly say I enjoyed it. But I have a nagging doubt that maybe, just maybe, it is highly pretentious.

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Time’s Long Ruin
by Stephen Orr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How can you make a story “gripping” when the outcome is well known? Somehow Stephen Orr manages to achieve this. Many Australians, especially Adelaideans, know about the Beaumont children. This book is loosely based on their story, with some significant changes, the most obvious being names and exact locations. Nevertheless, the incident on which the story is based is unmistakable to most Australians over the age of 40.

Orr recasts the story, from the point of view of the next door neighbour and best friend of the children, who is now adult, looking back on his childhood. The boy’s father also happens to be a police detective, which allows Orr to provide a full picture of the police investigation.

The book beautifully re-creates a suburban community in the 1960s. This is its strength really, and you learn as much about life in that small part of Adelaide as you do about the children themselves.

There are parallel threads running through the book: the family lives of the boy, of his neighbours, of the railway crossing operator, of the local chiropractor. Orr paints their lives with great warmth and insight.

It’s a very good book indeed: both as a gripping page turner, but also as a historical perspective on what may have been a turning point in Australian society – the point at which trust and community began to disappear.

My only criticism is that perhaps the book is a bit long. Then again, I was never tempted to skip over sections.

Highly recommended

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Not the Same Sky

Not the Same Sky by Evelyn Conlon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third Wakefield Press book I’ve read within the last month. The first two ‘flowed’ – there was something about the writing style that made me want to carry on reading, something about the stories that drew me in. I did not quite have the same experience with “Not the Same Sky”. Although the story eventually captivated me, it felt somewhat disjointed.

This is maybe partly due to Conlon’s writing style and perhaps because the plot is unnecessarily layered. For me the story is about the girls who were shipped from Ireland to Australia. I wanted to know more about them, to go into their characters more deeply. Just as I thought this was happening, Conlon veered off into the life of the ship’s surgeon who cared for them on their trip. Whilst he is an interesting character, I felt deprived of information about the girls. And then wrapped around these stories is a thinner story about the current day Irish stonemason who travels to Sydney to consider a memorial for the girls. This seemed superfluous to me.

It’s an epic tale, and almost succeeds, but left me dissatisfied and feeling that the books was more of an effort than it could have been; that the story was not given full justice.

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Underground RoadUnderground Road by Sharon Kernot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an impressive first novel. The characters are well drawn. There is a mood of impending doom from early on, and Kernot builds tension right through the book. It is a gripping read, but also takes time to incorporate significant social commentary, without being ‘preachy’. The lives of the inhabitants of one street are intertwined, each facing different challenges: bullying, domestic violence, gambling, mental illness, adjustment to retirement. The characters are engaging and the reader is drawn into their world from page one.

Whilst it is set in contemporary Australia and has specific Australian references (Centrelink, Commodores, ‘pokies’ etc.), it might almost be any western country where people face similar challenges.

Highly recommended.

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The ClearingThe Clearing by Tim Gautreaux

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quite a gripping read. A mix of almost ‘wild west’ (though set in the deep south), environmental and anti-war novel. An original take on early 20th century America, seeing it from the point of view of two brothers whose business it is to despoil the cypress forests of Louisiana – awareness of the destruction they are inflicting is only on the edge of their consciousness. The setting is a lawless isolated logging town. One brother is crippled by what we now know as PTSD, from his war experiences. The other is trying to come out from the shadow of his older brother, and from the control of his father.

There a few clichés here – the younger brother being saved from drowning under ice by his older brother; the violent climax which could be from almost any western film.

But Gautreux writes well, and the story is absorbing.

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BAP 2011

Poems are Dreams – Or Not?

He says that poems are dreams

manifest on paper

that poems are from

your deep subconscious

they float up to the surface

of your brain then flit down

the neural pathways

into your fingertips and onto

the tip of your pen.

But what if he’s wrong?

what if they are an expression

of frustration with everyday life?

what if they are anger

at the foolishness of politicians?

what if they are observations

of simple events?

what if they are cracks in the edifice

through which we shine a torch?

what if they are a reaction

to life’s tragedies and triumphs?

what if they are rampant emotions?

what if they are jokes

played on or with the reader?

what if they are all of these

and only some are dreams ?

 © Mike Hopkins 2011

I was given a copy of The Best Australian Poems 2011 (editor John Tranter), as a departing gift from some very nice work colleagues on finishing my contract with Country Health SA last week.  Today, I cycled up to Brownhill Creek, sat under a river redgum with a thermos of rooibos, and started to read it.

I read about a quarter of it, and then dipped into other parts of the book at random.  I was almost immediately hit by the impenetrability of many of the poems (not all of them e.g Jude Aquilina and Melinda Smith are two exceptions  in what I’ve read so far). So then I did what I don’t usually do.  I read the editor’s introduction.  In it, John Tranter proposes that poems can be read as dreams.  He says of his selection of Australian poems:

“I suspect that these baroque and potent imaginings can only have come into existence as fragments of dreams or nightmares”


“enjoy this fragment of dream-work”


“of course if you don’t agree with my line of thinking, you can always ask for a second opinion”.

Well, my opinion, partly expressed above, is that if he has used this filter (i.e. looking for poems which resemble the result of dreams), then he has excluded all sorts of equally valid types of poems. I’ve always found dreams (mine and anyone else’s) difficult to interprete (other than the obvious Freudian interpretations).   Maybe this is why I don’t understand many of the poems in The Best Australian Poems 2011.

Am I the only one who has this difficulty? I’ve had it with previous editions of the book, but I don’t have it, for instance, with Best of American Poetry anthologies. Nor do I have it with most of the poetry I hear around Adelaide.  Are these “dream poets” writing for the general populace, or just for each other?  Am I being harsh, or is it just that I don’t “get it”?  Have Australian poetry anthologies been ‘captured’ by a sub-set of Australian poets who all write in the same style, for the same small audience?

Perhaps Darryl Kerrigan should edit Best Australian Poems 2012?: