Provocative essay calls Australian politics ‘political paralysis’

Book reviewers Steven Carroll and Cameron Woodhead have recently set their sights on fiction and non-fiction titles. Here are their reviews.

Non-fiction pick of the week


Burn down the house
Jo Dyer, Monash University Publishing, $19.95

A kakistocracy – from the Greek meaning “worst” – is government by the least able in the land. Today’s Australia, argues Jo Dyer (who will run as an independent in the next federal election) is one of them.

She’s disappointed and frustrated with the ALP’s small-scale agenda after the overall agenda of the last election, but she’s keeping her powder particularly dry for the deceptions obsessed with the do-nothing corner of the Morrison government. Australian politics in general, however, has reached a point of political paralysis at precisely the wrong time – when national and global imperatives demand clear and bold policy.

The system must be deconstructed and rebuilt, hence the title. And a range of independents are rising to fill the void. Incendiary, concise stuff, often wittily argued.


Triple helix
Lauren Burns, UQP, $32.99

When Lauren Burns turned 21, her mother worked up the courage to tell her that her father was not her biological father. He was only known as the hospital “C-11” – the 11th sperm donor whose last name begins with this letter.

Official donor information prior to 1988 was confidential. What follows, his quest to find that stranger who informs his DNA, is brilliant deductive detective work that would make Hercule Poirot proud. She writes to him, and he responds with the startling news that her grandfather was Manning Clark.

A photograph of her biological father, the missing puzzle piece in her makeup, sat on her mother’s bookshelf all along in Clark’s memoir. An intriguing, sometimes thoughtful tale of family history and coming face to face with outdated laws that really gets you in.


Made in China
Anna Qu, Scribe, $29.99

It’s not just the opening of the clandestine factory that is Dickensian, much of this emigrant story has a similar veil hanging over it. In 1991, when Anna Qu was seven years old, her mother, who had been in New York for five years, finally returned to China and picked her up.

Qu’s father had died and his mother had remarried and had two more children. From the start, Qu was the outsider – her education didn’t matter, she became more or less the unpaid housekeeper of the house. Punishments ranged from being forced to work in her parents’ clothing factory to being beaten with a metal coat hanger to the point that she tried to jump out of the apartment window.

Her memoirs vividly and poignantly document her childhood, the darkness, the occasional glimmer of light and, ultimately, the breakthrough.


The big switch
Saul Griffith, Black Inc., $24.99

The climate emergency, says Saul Griffith, is not a drill. The kids are right, we have about a generation to drastically reduce fossil emissions – the Amazon rainforest is already showing signs of emitting CO2 instead of absorbing it.

The key to this transition is electricity and Australia, with its vast sun-drenched land mass and low population density, is ideally placed to take full advantage of it. Household savings on energy bills could reach $5,000 per year. Carbon taxes, veganism and carbon sequestration won’t get us there, and while some countries will need, say, nuclear power, electrifying everything is the way to go.

Use only 20% of our pasture for solar generation and we can produce massive amounts of electricity, given enough batteries being made – which he is confident can be done. Optimistic, anti-doomer and practical.

Fiction selection of the week


A world without shore
Helene Gaudy, Black Inc., $29.99

Hélène Gaudy resumes a lesser known arctic expedition in her historical fiction, A world without shore. The year is 1897 when Anna Charlier bids farewell to her fiancé, explorer Nils Strindberg, as he embarks on an extraordinary hot-air balloon ride to the North Pole.

The expedition never returned, and Nils’ fate remained a mystery until more than three decades later, in 1930, when a walrus-hunting ship discovered human corpses, and “a huge fallen balloon, as motionless than an animal washed up on the shore”, as the author says, on a frozen island in the Arctic Circle.

The novel reimagines the fateful voyage, traces the doomed romance that Anna can never forget, and incorporates otherworldly photographs salvaged from the 1930s. Gaudy has an unerring talent for metaphor that heightens her descriptions of the Arctic; she cleverly combines a story of lost love with a spellbinding reflection, inspired by historical evidence, on the will to face the unknown.


The torrent
Dinuka McKenzie, HarperCollins, $32.99

Exhausted and heavily pregnant, Detective Sergeant Kate Miles is a week away from her maternity leave when an armed robbery takes place at a fast food joint in her small town in northern New South Wales.

His workload only increases after his boss assigns him a case review. This one involves the death of a football player killed in a flood a few months prior, officially closed by detectives who found nothing to suggest the death was not caused by the natural disaster. But a simple examination she’s supposed to approve quickly turns into a complex investigation, as Kate digs deeper into the stream of evidence and finds enough to disrupt the initial conclusion.

Dinuka McKenzie’s debut crime novel won the 2020 HarperCollins Australia Banjo Award, and it’s a worthy winner – a gritty, character-driven novel policeman which holds a mirror up to contemporary tensions in rural Australian life and expertly builds from slow burn to adrenaline fueled climax.


only a monster
Vanessa Len, Allen & Unwin, $22.99

In this YA fantasy, 16-year-old Joan Chang-Hunt is no hero. The opposite, in fact. She is half-human, half-monster, and her entire family has special powers. Among other things, they can steal years of the lives of unsuspecting humans to power their own time travel.

When Joan discovers her unique heritage, it puts a damper on her blossoming romance with summer crush Nick (who also hides a dangerous secret) and propels her to team up with Aaron Oliver, another heir to a Monster family who is a sworn enemy for her. own. Their quest to undo a past gone wrong takes them back to the 1990s and delves into the history and lore of the mysterious Monster Court.

A dusk-like the teenage love triangle, magic and monsters drive this dark fantasy, but familiar tropes are turned upside down in unpredictable ways and the world-building is full of elaborate inventions.


Josh Kemp, UWAP, $32.99

This mind-blowing bit of Aussie goth gets its title and flavor from an isolated Western Australian farm. It’s a bewildering place – Banjawarn was briefly part of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo in the 1990s; it was also the location of an unexplained fireball and seismic event, possibly an asteroid explosion, during the same decade.

Josh Kemp begins with a fictionalized version of the latter, the consequences of which were witnessed by Garreth Hoyle, a true-crime writer with a drug problem and a destructive compulsion for psychedelic experiments. When he finds a 10-year-old girl abandoned in the outback, he takes it upon himself to bring her home, ghosts and buried secrets haunting the journey.

The author has found an evocative setting for the dark story that unfolds, but the prose tries too hard to evoke a harsh atmosphere. You can only read a certain number of sentences without verbs before the style becomes mannered, drawing more attention to itself than to the thread it is trying to spin.

Dinuka McKenzie, Vanessa Len, Josh Kemp and Jo Dyer are guests at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

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