First Person by Richard Flanagan

Intriguing.

‘They say there are only three rules for writing a book.’

In 1992, Kif Kehlmann was young, broke, married with one child and twins on the way.  He was living with his wife Suzy and three-year-old daughter in Hobart, trying to finish the novel he’d been writing for years.   The need to make some money was becoming urgent.  And then, Kif is approached to ghost-write a memoir.  Siegfried Heidl is a notorious conman and corporate criminal: about to go on trial for defrauding the banks of $700 million.  Kif will receive $10,000 if he can ghost-write Heidl’s memoir in six weeks.

Kif moves to Melbourne, leaving his heavily pregnant wife and daughter behind.  Sure, he’ll travel home on weekends, and the babies aren’t due just yet.  In Melbourne, Kif hooks up with his old mate Ray.  It’s thanks to Ray that he’s been offered this job, and $10,000 will be very handy.  But trying to get any information out of Heidl is difficult.  And the publisher, Gene Paley, is pushing Kif for progress.  After all, in this part of the publishing world, timing is everything.

‘This too you learnt from Heidl: how easy it is to remember; how hard to know if there is truth in even one memory.’

As the story unfolds, as Heidl’s trial date approaches and is then brought forward, Kif is under increased pressure to deliver.  It’s difficult to sort fact from fiction in what Heidl tells him, especially when Heidl turns Kif’s questions and suggestions into his own experiences. Is Kif writing Heidl’s memoir, or is Heidl reshaping Kif’s life?  If Kif has done a deal with the devil, how will he survive it?

’My first novel, I was aware, had suffered from being autobiographical, but now I feared my first autobiography was becoming a novel.’

I found this novel intriguing. The story opens with Kif reflecting on 1992 with the events around ghost-writing Heidl’s memoir.  It then shifts to Kif’s present, to the changes in his life and circumstances.  Kif may have survived the experience, but he’s not unscathed by it.

I wondered how much of the material for this novel was drawn from Richard Flanagan’s own experience of ghost-writing John Friederich’s autobiography ‘Codename Iago: The Story of John Friedrich’ in 1991.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

 

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One Halal of a Story by Sam Dastyari

‘How did I get here?’

Sahand (known as Sam) Dastyari was born on 28 July 1983 in Sari, Mazandaran Province, Iran to an ethnic Azeri father and a Persian mother.  His parents were student activists in the 1979 Iranian revolution.   Sam Dastyari arrived in Australia in January 1988, aged four.  He has been an Australian Senator, representing New South Wales since August 2013.  Before that, Sam Dastyari was the General Secretary of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Labor Party.  He is the first person of Iranian origin to sit in an Australian parliament.

He’s fitted a lot into his 34 years: enough for an interesting memoir.  It’s a combination political memoir and migrant story, presented as the five parts of a Halal snack pack (the Box, the Base, the Cheese, the Meat, the Sauces).  Hmm.  It’s a quirky presentation, but what would you expect?  It’s (un)fortunate that Sam Dastyari bears some resemblance to Rowan Atkinson, at least in the photograph on the cover of the book.

On more serious matters, Sam Dastyari writes of his parent’s experience of Iran after the fall of the Shah in 1979.  His mother was arrested by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The Dastyari family (parents Naser and Ella, Sam and his older sister Azadeh) migrated to Australia in 1988.

‘We fled the tyranny of Iran, but we did it without applying for refugee status.  We did no because desperate people will use whatever means are available.  For us, the family migration program represented the easiest path.’

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting when I picked up this book, but I was pleasantly surprised.  This book contains more substance than I might have expected given some of Sam Dastyari’s media appearances and his misjudgement(!) in allowing a Chinese donor to pay a travel bill.  Perhaps Sam Dastyari has more to offer politics than simply being a powerful member of the New South Wales Labor Party who seemed to have been in the right place at the right time to secure a Senate seat.  Certainly, the memoir is both engaging and humorous.  And his experiences, of migration, of being ‘foreign’ are ones that many Australians can relate to.

I’ll await with interest the next instalment in the life and times of Senator Sam Dastyari. This first instalment is well worth reading.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall

Humber Boy B by Ruth Dugdall

‘His body is like a starfish as it falls, limbs curling in then stretching wide.’

Noah, a ten-year-old boy, is killed after falling from the Humber Bridge in the UK.  Two brothers were seen fleeing the scene.  The brothers are charged.  The older of the brothers, Adam, aged 14 is released after four years.  The younger brother, ‘Ben’ aged 10, is found guilty of Noah’s murder and serves eight years.

Aged 18 and renamed Ben, ‘Humber Boy B’ is released into the community.  Ben’s release causes uproar:  Noah’s mother, Jessica, uses social media to try to track Ben down and others threaten retaliation.  Ben’s probation officer, Cate Austin, together with others is charged with keeping him safe.

So, Ben is released into a community away from his family.  He needs to learn to negotiate a world which has changed in eight years, and he has no idea who he can trust.

What really happened on the Humber Bridge eight years earlier?  And why is Ben, the younger of the two brothers, considered more responsible for Noah’s murder than his older brother?  Why was Noah with Ben and Adam in the first place?

As the story unfolds, shifting between the day of Noah’s murder and the present, we learn of Ben’s childhood, of his dysfunctional family.  Did Ben ever have a chance?  An indifferent alcohol-dependent mother, a stepfather who detests the sight of him. But this is only a small part of the story.

Ben is not supposed to have any contact with his mother or brother, but he’s lonely and sends his mother a card.  Gradually he settles into a rhythm: he learns how to shop (but not how to cook), he’s found a job, the man he works with takes a friendly interest in him.  I start to believe that Ben may be able to make a new, successful life.

But the past never lets Ben go.

There are several twists in this story, and an ending that I found incredibly sad.  I kept wondering how I would react if Noah was my son.  Would I, like Jessica, want to try to find answers?  Could I abandon Ben, as his own family did?  So many questions to consider, no satisfactory answers.

I understand that this is the third of Ruth Dugdall’s novels to feature Cate Austin.  I’ve made a note to seek out the first two. This is a powerful, well-written novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

How to Dress a Dummy by Cassie Lane

How to Dress a Dummy by Cassie Lane

‘I was a weird kid.’

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect when I picked up this book. While I vaguely remembered hearing Cassie Lane’s name, I certainly had no detailed recollections.  But I was intrigued by this sub-heading on the cover:

‘From international model to worst dressed at the Brownlow.  How I learned to love imperfection.’

So who is Cassie Lane?  She was an international model, an ex-girlfriend of Collingwood AFL player Alan Didak, and has completed degrees in Creative Writing and Editing, and in Communications and Psychology. This book is both memoir and exploration of image.  Cassie explores both her own self-image, as well as her projected public image.

As so many of us do, Cassie grew up feeling like she didn’t fit in.  She describes, often with self-deprecating humour, various mishaps as a child and as an adolescent.  And then, at age 16, Cassie developed large breasts.  She was tall and otherwise slender.  A career as a model, with work overseas, beckons.

In this book, Cassie writes of the unreal (and unrealistic) world models so frequently inhabit.  She writes of the (seemingly) endless partying, of the pressure, of the drugs.  She also writes of the vulnerability, of living only in the moment, of surviving some pretty bad lifestyle choices. I began to think that Cassie must be invincible, but decided instead that she was very fortunate to survive.

And that’s the key to this memoir. Cassie is reminded, brutally at times, that modelling is work for young women. I felt uncomfortable at times while reading this book.  My inner judgemental parent wanted Cassie to make different choices earlier.  My inner awkward teenaged self could relate to not fitting in, to a certain herd instinct and wanting to belong.  You are smart, I wanted to say, you have other choices.  You are a valuable person, not a saleable product. And I’m not going to mention the hazards of pubic shaving with a rusty razor, or bedbugs.

By the end of the book, I was cheering for Cassie.  She’d survived the rampant sexism and objectification of the modelling industry, the very public life which is part of being the girlfriend of an AFL star, and acquired insight along the way.

I closed this book, happy that I’d read it and pleased that Cassie Lane had made a new life for herself.  I enjoyed her humour and could relate to more aspects of her journey than I would have thought possible at the beginning.  Congratulations, Cassie!  I hope to read more of your work in future.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2017

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

‘Diana Cowper had planned her funeral and she was going to need it.  She was murdered about six hours later that same day.’

So, who murdered Diana Cowper and why?   The police find this case puzzling, and call in some outside help.  Meet Daniel Hawthorne, formerly a detective inspector with the Metropolitan Police in London, who had previously provided advice on a television series Anthony Horowitz was involved in.  Hawthorne wants Anthony Horowitz to write a book about him.  A book which will involve Horowitz shadowing him while Hawthorne, who has been called in by the police to assist, gets on with the business of solving Diana Cowper’s murder.

Initially reluctant, Horowitz is drawn in to Hawthorne’s investigation.  After all, he doesn’t have another book ready to write.  And Anthony Horowitz’s first-person narrative makes this an interesting read.  The story is a mix of mystery and suspense, weaving Horowitz’s real life as an author and scriptwriter around the challenge of working with Hawthorne. It’s a challenge for Horowitz: he usually has much more control in the work he does.  But the case itself has caught his attention, and he can’t leave it alone.  Even when Hawthorne gate crashes his meeting with two important Hollywood directors!

I found this an intriguing story.  A good page-turning read.  I’m a fan of at least two television series that Anthony Horowitz wrote scripts for, am aware of the Alex Rider series, and enjoyed ‘Magpie Murders’.  ‘The Word is Murder’ is cleverly done.  There are several possibilities to consider and the various twists and turns in the story kept me guessing.  Highly recommended.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

‘We hanged him in front of Kingsbridge Cathedral.’

‘A Column of Fire’ opens in 1558, at a time when religious conflict is rife in England.  Power in England has shifted precariously between Catholics and Protestants, with very little tolerance of those holding different views.  Across Europe, the Reformation is gathering pace. In Kingsbridge, where Ned Willard wants to marry Margery Fitzgerald, the same divisions come into play.  Ned leaves Kingsbridge to work for Princess Elizabeth.

Over the next fifty years, we follow Ned during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and the early part of the reign of King James. Ned works as part of Queen Elizabeth’s secret service and network of spies, set up to try to give early warning of assassination plots and rebellions.  Margery, as a committed Catholic, works to support the efforts of the priests.  Will Margery and Ned ever find happiness together, or will the religious divide keep them apart?

‘A Column of Fire’ is the third book in the Kingsbridge series. While it didn’t hold my attention quite as closely as the first two books, I enjoyed the way in which Mr Follett had his major characters present at many of the significant events of the second half of the 16th century.  I didn’t feel the same connection to either the Kingsbridge families or the Kingsbridge Cathedral that I felt in the earlier novels, but that didn’t really impact on my enjoyment of the story.  While Kingsbridge features throughout the novel, many of the significant events take place elsewhere.  At over 700 hundred pages, this is a big novel, but it is a comparatively quick and easy read.

If you are interested in this historical period, and especially in the theme of religious intolerance and the impact of the Reformation on individuals, you may enjoy this novel.  It could be read as a standalone novel if you’ve not already read the first two novels in the series.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith