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Category: books

Playing with Matches, by Michael Faudet

The Black Dress, by Deborah Moggach, book cover

Playing with Matches (published by Simon & Schuster, November 2021), by Auckland, New Zealand based author and poet Michael Faudet, includes a selection of his best previously published writings, plus thirty-five new works of poetry and prose. Playing with Matches lands, I believe, in bookshops shortly. The cover – in case you were wondering – was designed by Barcelona, Spain, based French artist Malika Favre.

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Walkley Book Award 2021 longlist

Nine non-fiction titles make up the longlist of this year’s Walkley Book Award, including Witness, by Louise Milligan, The Winter Road, by Kate Holden, and Lowitja: The authorised biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue, by Stuart Rintoul.

The Walkley Book Award celebrates Australian writers who take enduring subjects from news, eyewitness accounts, investigations and history. Their books bring readers immersive detail, clear analysis and new revelations.

The Walkley Book Award differs from the Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism, which are possibly the better known of the Walkley prizes. The shortlist will be announced in December, and the winner will be named on 11 February 2022.

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Who is M in The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon?

Looking in on the shut ins

NOTE: this article is choke full of SPOILERS for The Shut Ins by Katherine Brabon. If you haven’t read the novel, bookmark this page and come back when you have.

The Shut Ins is the second novel by Melbourne based Australian author Katherine Brabon, following up her 2016 Vogel Award winning debut, The Memory Artist. Mainly set several years ago in Japan, The Shut Ins recounts five people’s varying experiences of hikikomori, a Japanese term used to describe those who, for whatever reason, feel compelled to cut off all contact with the outside world, and confine themselves to their room. Sometimes they stay locked away for years before leaving their self-imposed internment.

Through the thoughts of five characters, Brabon takes us into one person’s hikikomori journey, a man in his late twenties, called Hikaru Sato, who has stayed in a room at his parent’s apartment for three years. We first learn of Hikaru’s story through Mai Takeda, an old classmate of his, who one evening after work runs into his mother, Hiromi Sato, ten years after Mai last saw him at high school. Long story short, Hiromi asks for Mai’s help in persuading Hikaru to leave his room. But Mai has problems of her own.

She recently married a conservative salaryman, known only as J, who expects her to give up working and start a family with him. When we meet Mai, she is anything but enthusiast about the prospect, and seems, if anything, to have a closer emotional bond to the reclusive Hikaru, whom she hasn’t seen or spoken to in a decade. In addition to Mai’s perspective, we hear from Sadako, a young woman working in Tokyo as a hostess, who entertains J – presumably without Mai’s direct knowledge – while he’s on week-long business trips to the Japanese capital.

The stories of Hiromi, and in the third act, her son Hikaru, are also explored, along with the thoughts of an unnamed Australian woman, who is travelling alone in Japan, and is interested in hikikomori. But perhaps the most intriguing character in the book, is one we don’t meet, a woman known only as M. The Australian traveller, who I’ll refer to as the Narrator, said she and M, who is Japanese, lived in the same share house, while they were studying at a university in Melbourne. But who is M, and why is she referred to only by the letter M? Is M a pseudonym for Mai, Mai Takeda? It’s tempting to think so for several reasons.

Mai’s name starts with the letter m, while the Narrator refers to her friend as M. How obvious. We also know Mai went missing at some point in 2014. Meanwhile the Narrator – who may or may not be an alter-ego of Brabon’s – writes that M, who becomes known to us through the Narrator’s notes, “no longer lives in Japan.” But unlike the stories of Mai, Hikaru, Hiromi, and Sadako, which are dated during 2014, we don’t know when the Narrator penned her notes. It may have been several years later. To illustrate this point, an ABC article tells us Brabon visited Japan in 2014, and 2017, while The Shut Ins was published in 2021.

It’s reasonable then to believe Mai made her way to Australia, as she created a new life for herself, and spent several years studying there. We later hear that M left Australia, and was working as a translator in Malta. She certainly didn’t seem keen to return to Japan. But there are other clues. At the time M and the Narrator were flatmates, we learn M had recently left a relationship. Could that be Mai’s marriage to J? M told the Narrator she had, until arriving in Melbourne, only seen herself through the “mirror” of other people.

Could this have been a reference to the expectations Mai’s family, and J, had placed on her? To marry – before she was “too old” – and have children. The Narrator also makes the comment that M’s long dark hair touched her elbows. We were also told Mai’s hair had been equally as long, when she was at high school. There really seems to be little doubt. M is Mai. And after reading about her somewhat cloistered life in Japan, we’re left hoping Mai did escape, and make a new start. But it’s not that straightforward.

In an interview at Theresa Smith Writes, Brabon said she has a friend called Mio who lives in the Japanese city of Shizuoka. In her notes, the Narrator tells us she stayed with M’s parents in Shizuoka. Mai, however, and her parents, lived in Nagoya, although Mai was born in the Gifu Prefecture. But it is possible Mai’s parents later moved to Shizuoka. What’s not so plausible perhaps is their “forgiving” Mai for leaving her marriage to J, something they had expected of her, to say nothing of her skipping the country to live as she chose.

Does it then seem likely her parents would go so far as to accommodate a friend of hers, such as the Narrator, who they may have viewed as aiding Mai in achieving her ambitions? At this point M and Mai are beginning to look like quite different people. But what then of M’s unnamed Japanese male friend, whom she suggested the Narrator meet whilst in Japan, as he could tell her more about achiragawa, a term meaning “the other side”. Achiragawa may be a place, one safer than their present environment perhaps, that hikikomori, in a sense, aspire to reach.

Could M’s male friend be Hikaru? If anyone could talk about achiragawa, that would surely be Hikaru. The male friend, who now lives in America (the other side?), happened to be visiting Japan at the same time the Narrator was there. We learned Hikaru liked America, it was one of the few topics he discussed with Mai, while they were at high school together. In emails to the Narrator, M’s male friend spoke of his “long new life” in America. This suggests the existence a previous “old” life, perhaps one he wanted to distance himself from.

But if the male friend is Hikaru, and M isn’t Mai, how does she know about Hikaru? Could that connection be through M’s mother, who was a social worker? Possibly her mother’s work involved helping rehabilitate shut-in people like Hikaru, after they decide to return to a more normal life. While M’s parents resided in Shizuoka, and Hikaru lived in Nagoya, it is possible M’s mother travelled to Nagoya for work, or it might be Hikaru stayed in a facility in Shizuoka after leaving, or more to the point, being removed from his room.

The Narrator also tells us “I was in Japan, alone, when the story of Mai Takeda came to me.” That also would suggest M and Mai are different people, but not necessarily. It could be M spoke more about her past life once the Narrator landed in Japan, since she was potentially meeting Hikaru. But in the end, we’re left with a satisfying mystery as to whether M is Mai, and M’s male friend is Hikaru. The Narrator and the male friend had planned to meet each other, but at the last minute, literally as she was approaching the appointed meeting place, the Narrator decided not to go ahead.

She had alluded to a reluctance to meet face to face, having become comfortable with her more anonymous, though in-depth, email correspondence, with M’s male friend. It is also a savvy outcome on Brabon’s part. Because the in-person meeting doesn’t proceed, we do not establish that M’s male friend is actually Hikaru, nor by extension do we ascertain that M is Mai. This looks to be a question we will continue wondering about.

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One hundred Notable Books of 2021

One hundred Notable Books of 2021, compiled by The New York Times. Quite a few titles I recognise, many I don’t. Be nice to see more Australian work making the cut, particularly in the fiction segment, but overall an impressive list of books, spanning fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and memoir categories.

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David Stratton and the future of cinema

Renowned film critic David Stratton has recently written a book, My Favourite Movies (published by Allen & Unwin, November 2021), which as the title suggests, is a selection of his personal favourites. But having watched close to what he estimates to be thirty thousand films during his life, choosing just one hundred and eleven titles to feature in My Favourite Movies, was no easy task, as Stratton explained in a recent interview with FilmInk.

In the course of the discussion, he also offered his thoughts on the current state of cinema, something I’ve been wondering about, especially in the light of the pandemic, and the impact lockdowns have had on the industry.

There have been tremendous changes in every area to do with film. The opportunities for commentary on film have been reduced and of course the film industry itself has changed dramatically. I wonder sometimes whether the cinema will survive.

That’s bleak commentary coming from one of Australia’s best known film critics.

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The Black Dress, by Deborah Moggach

The Black Dress, by Deborah Moggach, book cover

In American film director David Dobkin’s 2005 movie Wedding Crashers, we see Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, known as John and Jeremy respectively, getting a kick out of showing up at strangers’ weddings. They’re both outgoing and personable, and quickly ingratiate themselves with the bridal party and their guests. Their charade is so convincing, everyone believes John and Jeremy are somehow part of the family.

It could be Prudence, the protagonist in The Black Dress (published by Hachette Australia, July 2021), the sixteenth novel of British author Deborah Moggach saw John and Jeremy in action, and decided to take a leaf out of their book. Instead of weddings though, seventy-something Pru, having purchased a black dress from a charity shop, goes to funerals. It’s not so much that she enjoys funerals, but you know, there’s bound to be a well-off widower or two in attendance.

Right about now you might be wondering what Pru is thinking. But consider: her husband recently left her, her adult children are busy with their own lives, and her friends are also otherwise occupied. What then is wrong with going to a funeral here and there? While Pru’s plan to hook-up with eligible widowers seems like a good idea, she soon discovers, to borrow the words of William Shakespeare, the course of true love never did run smooth…

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Goodreads Choice Awards 2021

Goodreads Choice Awards 2021 banner

The first round of voting is open in the 2021 Goodreads Choice Awards. From now until Saturday 28 November 2021, Goodreads members will be able to vote for their favourite title of twenty books, across seventeen categories, including fiction, romance, horror, science fiction, nonfiction, memoir, graphic novels, and young adult.

In the second round of voting, which will be open from 30 November to 5 December, titles will be whittled down to ten books per category, and members will be able to vote for their preferred book in each. The winners of each category will be announced on Thursday 9 December (which is less than three weeks now hereabouts).

Books published in the United States in English, including works in translation and other significant rereleases, between November 18, 2020, and November 16, 2021, are eligible for the 2021 Goodreads Choice Awards.

The Goodreads Choice Awards are said to be the only major book awards decided by readers.

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Seven and a Half, by Christos Tsiolkas

Seven and a Half, Christos Tsiolkas, book cover

The premise of Seven and a Half (published by Allen & Unwin, November 2021) by Melbourne based Australian author Christos Tsiolkas, reminds me a little of the concept of the Metaverse. In short, an array of technologies, many that are currently still in some form of development, will allow us to live in one world while we inhabit another, or maybe even several, as the case may be.

You could be in Sydney, but sitting in on a meeting of colleagues in London, and feel like you were in the same room. Later you could be “present” at a concert in Los Angeles, again feeling as if you were really there. But back to Seven and a Half. An author has travelled to a small coastal Australian town. Free of the distractions of city life, he begins to write. His novel is about an author trying to write a novel. Here we have meta-fiction, rather than Metaverse though.

The protagonist of Tsiolkas’ “written-author” story is a retired porn star named Paul, who has been offered a chance to make a comeback. The “written-author” seeks to write sensual prose, drawing on the author’s present proximity to nature and the ocean, without becoming sordid. A challenge perhaps, as Paul becomes immersed in the dubious merits of the world he is returning to.

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The Voss Literary Prize shortlist 2021

Gail Jones, Vivian Pham, and Nardi Simpson, are among authors named on the shortlist of this year’s Voss Literary Prize. The award, initially intended to honour the best written work in the world, yes, the whole world – whether published or unpublished – each year, was established in honour of Australian historian Vivian Robert de Vaux Voss who died in 1963. While originally conceived by Voss in 1955, the first award was made in 2014, following the death of the original beneficiary of Voss’ will. Tara June Winch, the winning author in 2020, with her novel The Yield, took home five-thousand dollars in prize money.

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On quitting the day jobs to become a published author like Christian White

Golf buggy driver. Call centre operator. Editor of porn videos. These were some of the jobs Australian thriller writer Christian White worked on the way to becoming a published author. If you want to succeed, and have the requisite determination to succeed, you will succeed, says White, in an interview with Melbourne based journalist Kylie Northover.

White, 40, has wanted to be a writer since he was a teenager, having an “iron-clad plan” to be a best-selling author by 25. “That shifted because 25 came and went, so I changed it to 30, which also came and went,” he says. “When I went past 30 and there was still no career in sight, I made the decision to just focus on writing for the love it – I really do just love the craft.”

And then there’s this nugget of wisdom:

He also realised he’d be better off writing the kinds of books he’d like to read. “Early on I was going to write deep, thoughtful novels – it wasn’t until I started writing thrillers I went oh! Because I love reading thrillers,” he says.

Write what you like reading. I think it’s something many aspiring authors overlook in the burning desire to become a published author. White’s third novel Wild Place was published last month.

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Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, book cover

Not that it’s my intention to traumatise you with the workings of my subconscious, but the premise to Piranesi (published by Bloomsbury Publishing, August 2021), by British author Susanna Clarke sounds like the sort of dream I might have. The setting is an old, dilapidated multi-level building, and is home to the titular protagonist known as Piranesi, who refers to the enigmatic structure as the “House.”

And dream-like is the best way to describe the dwelling. An ocean floods the lower levels of this labyrinth, providing food and fuel – in the form of seaweed – for Piranesi. The sprawling hallways of the house’s mid-section stories are lined with statues, while the upper floors are shrouded in clouds. Save for an old scholar, whom Piranesi calls the “Other”, who makes brief appearances a few times a week, the building is otherwise deserted.

But one day Piranesi begins to notice messages chalked onto walkways around the House. Do they point to the presence of a third person within the building? The Other sees them a portent of bad things to come. In order to discover the identity of this mysterious third person, and what they want, Piranesi will need to learn more about the House and its history.

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Can turning to the light side of the force change the world?

Can the light side of the force (à la the Star Wars universe) change the world? Washington D.C. based American author Stephen Kent, writer of How the Force Can Fix the World, believes some of the core principles of the Star Wars stories – hope, humility, and balance among them – can be of help to humanity in times of uncertainty.

We’re living in a time of unprecedented and rapid change. An age of chaos. Democracies are in decline worldwide. Dictators are ascendant. Civic organizations are crumbling. People feel lonelier and more rudderless than in any other time in recent history. We’ve tried to slow down, and in some cases we, like Anakin, have tried stop the change, but failed at every turn. The fears that come with living in an age of disruption have produced public anger, and that anger has swelled movements of hate.

And for those who are strong with the force, American journalist and editor Meg Dowell recently interviewed Kent about the book and its concepts, on the Followers of the Force Podcast.

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Klara and the Sun and AFs. What are AFs, and why are they needed?

Klara and the Sun representation

WARNING: while there are no explicit spoilers here (for instance I don’t describe how Klara and the Sun ends) this article does give away some story points…

Klara, the titular character of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2021 novel Klara and the Sun, is an AF. She is an artificial friend. AFs are robots that are able to walk, talk, think, and perceive the world around them. In the near-future universe Ishiguro has crafted in his eighth novel, AFs, who appear to be similar in appearance to humans, are highly intelligent companions for teenagers. Despite their human-like qualities though, AFs are easily distinguishable from people. But Klara is said to differ from her AF contemporaries by way of her keen perception and curiosity.

As narrator of the story, Klara often describes in great detail what she sees, or hears, even if she doesn’t always fully comprehend what she has witnessed. Early in the story, as she sits in the display window of a store selling AFs, she watches two older people – a man and a woman – run into each other on the outside street. Their joy at meeting for what may be the first time in decades, is palpable, but Klara is confused by the obvious pain the two people also appear to experience.

While then we may be walking into a future where children will one day have keenly smart and perceptive android-like friends, the question remains as to why there is a need for AFs in the first place. In an introduction to the story’s plot on the Klara and the Sun Wikipedia page, we are told children are schooled at home by tutors through tablet devices (objects Klara refers to as oblongs). For this reason, families who can afford it, buy an AF for their housebound children, as opportunities to socialise with people the same age are said to be limited. But is that really the case?

Soon after coming into the service of a teenage girl called Josie, Klara meets many of her (human) friends at a gathering called an interaction party, hosted by Josie’s mother. The name alone suggests such gatherings are standard, but not necessarily. The dynamic among Josie’s guests implies most the teenagers know each other well. While interaction parties, by virtue of their name, sound like regular affairs, that the event takes place at Josie’s house is notable. For one thing, she lives in a remote region, restricting opportunities to interact with people her age.

But what of her friends? Do they also live in similar circumstances? It seems unlikely every last one does, meaning many would be able to see other teenagers living nearby, outside of schooling hours, thus negating the need (and cost) of an AF. It is also obvious Klara is something of a novelty to some of Josie’s friends. While they’re familiar with AFs, and the attributes of models like Klara, few have actually seen one before. This suggests AF ownership is an exception, most people don’t need them, as they probably live relatively close to others.

For instance, at one point Klara travels with Josie and her mother, Chrissie, to the city where they stay at the apartment of a family friend. While there are vaguely alluded to significant problems in the world Klara and Josie inhabit, they have not resulted in a mass exodus from large urban centres, nor their abandonment. People continue to live and work in cities as usual. Those residing in remote areas then do so by choice. And while we know Josie is ill, and may not get out as much as other teenagers, the need for a carer for her alone would not be reason enough to fill the world with AFs.

It is through this illness – the unfortunate side effect of what seems to be a common genetic modification procedure some teenagers go through – we come to realise Chrissie, Josie’s mother, has another possible purpose in mind for Klara. But again this idea is not the usual intended function of an AF. We’re still left wondering why there is an apparent wide need for AFs such as Klara. Might they then be there to undertake tasks or parental obligations that some parents are unable, or unwilling, to fulfil themselves? For example we know Klara acted as a chaperone at times.

When Rick visited the bedbound Josie in her room, Klara was told to always be present. While she sat with her back to Josie and Rick, Klara could still hear what they were saying and doing. When once asked to leave Josie’s room during one of Rick’s visits, Klara initially resisted, saying she’d been “instructed to ensure against hanky-panky.” But that directive had been issued by the ever-present, live-in, housekeeper, Melania. If she, and by extension Chrissie, was so concerned about “hanky-panky”, surely Melania could’ve been present during Rick’s relatively short visits.

So far there’s little an AF can do that another person – be it a friend, or family member – couldn’t. Josie certainly had plenty of both in her life. Perhaps then AFs were a vanity item. Something you had to have, so you stood apart from other people. A must have, though ultimately dispensable, gimmick. Or was an AF’s unswerving loyalty and devotion the reason they came into being? Like an artificial intelligence chatbot, “someone” who’s always there, who’s always ready to listen, and someone who is never offended no matter how badly they are treated?

What a world to live in…

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The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich

The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich, book cover

The Sentence (published by Hachette Australia, November 2021), written by Minnesota based American author Louise Erdrich, is a book set in a bookshop. A bookshop with a difference though. The independent bookshop, also located in Minnesota, is haunted by a ghost. And not any old ghost either. No, the shop has become the afterlife abode of Flora, who happened to be the store’s most irritating customer during her (regular) lifetime.

Now she’s back, and back to stay, unless a way can be found to get rid of her. To this shop comes Tookie, a new employee, who’s recently been released from prison after serving a ten year sentence. She’s looking for stability and normality in her life, and has even gone so far as to marry, Pollux, the now former police officer who originally arrested her many years earlier.

Set during a turbulent chapter in the city’s recent history, with Black Lives Matter protests, and the Covid pandemic, Tookie learns she has one year to somehow extricate Flora from the shop. But Tookie has her work cut out for her. The intentions of Flora, who must have a few scores she wants to settle, soon move from the annoying to the sinister…

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The Deep, by Kyle Perry

The Deep, by Kyle Perry, book cover

A rugged coastline. A treacherous, turbulent, ocean. An air current so deadly locals call it the black wind. A remote village, home to the Dempsey family for generations. A family who has a made a name and livelihood for themselves as fishers and drug dealers. And then there are the names. Mackerel. Ahab. Blackbeard. It’s a nautical blend of ingredients indeed.

Such is the setting for The Deep (published by Penguin Books Australia, July 2021) the second novel of Burnie, Tasmania, based Australian writer Kyle Perry. But the inhabitants of Shacktown, on the Tasman Peninsula, wake to a troubling mystery one day. A young relative of the Dempsey’s, Forest, who disappeared seven years earlier, aged six, and long assumed to be dead, along with his parents, Jesse and Alexandra, has inexplicably appeared on a nearby beach.

A cross tattooed onto Forest’s back suggests he has been in the captive custody of Blackbeard, a rival drug lord who is intent on muscling into the illicit Dempsey family operation. But Mackerel and Ahab are reluctant to help the family deal with Blackbeard. Mackerel is on prison release, and any misstep will see him incarcerated again, while Ahab wants to turn his back on the family’s shady business ventures…

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Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr

Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr, book cover

Sometimes I find the synopsis of a book so intriguing I feel compelled to write about it for that reason alone. Cloud Cuckoo Land (published by Simon & Schuster, 2021), written by American author Anthony Doerr, is such a novel. The first point of interest are the settings. Constantinople, now Istanbul, in past times the capital of several large empires, is one.

Here a teenage girl called Anna lives, in the lead up to the fateful 1453 siege of the city, and final remnant of the Byzantine Empire. In her spare time, she reads a book, the story of Aethon, a man who yearned to become a bird, so he could fly to a better place. The next setting is five hundred years later, in Idaho, where Zona, a woman in her eighties, is preparing a group of children to take part in a play based on Aethon’s story. The final setting is somewhere in interstellar space, where Konstance, a resident born on a generational colony ship, is transcribing the story of Aethon, after he father recited it to her.

And here we come to the second point of interest, an ancient story that links people living centuries apart, people keeping – in their own way – Aethon and his story alive, many centuries after its original telling. While the nature of the story appeals to me, like any book, it’s not for everyone, if the comments of some GoodReads members are anything to go by.

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Andrew Pippos wins 2021 Readings Prize

Sydney based Australian writer Andrew Pippos has been named winner of the 2021 Readings Prize for his debut novel Lucky’s. Congratulations.

As any book lover knows, walking into a bookshop and being confronted with hundreds (if not thousands) of books to choose from can be overwhelming. It is also one of the best feelings in the world. The Readings Prize shortlist is here to help narrow the field a little, to encourage readers to pick up a book by a first- or second-time author they don’t know and to give it a try.

The Readings is an award that focuses on newly published authors, a few more prizes like this are needed.

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