Caroline Baum’s Highlights from the September Booktopia BUZZ

There’s nothing tame about this bunch. This month is all about extremes. Extremes of desire, of behaviour, of crisis situations, of people tested to the limits of desire, survival, transgression and boundaries crossed. Find out how far you’d be prepared to go. Live dangerously. Pick up a book.

N.B. Caroline Baum and former Buzz editor, Toni Whitmont, will be chairing sessions at a Sydney Jewish Writer’s Festival event on 1st Sept 2013. Participating authors include Laurent Binet, Professor Bryan Gaensler, Andrea Goldsmith, John M Green, Kooshyar Karimi, Hugh Mackay, Nikki Stern, Boaz Bismuth, Michael Bar-Zohar…

Click here to view the full version of the Booktopia BUZZ



by Anya von Bremzen

You know how sometimes you feel a book is so special that it has been written with you and only you in mind?

Well, that’s how I felt about this book. Having known several Soviet citizens at very close quarters, I understand how central food and the lack of it is to the national psyche. And I once celebrated the fall of the Berlin wall with a themed New Year’s Eve dinner of which the centrepiece was a fiendishly difficult dish: Coulibiac, a traditional Russian fish pie with a yeast dough casing that took two days to make and which my friend and I baked in the shape of a hammer and sickle for extra effect. (It was spectacular, I have to say, but never to be repeated.)

So this book had me at hello, comrade.

Anya Von Bremzen is already an acknowledged authority on the cuisine of her homeland thanks to her award-winning Please To The Table cookbook. Now she has written a substantial,tasty,bittersweet memoir which uses food to examine the disastrous agricultural and social policies of the communist regime under Stalin, Khrushchev and even Gorbachev, when hardships and privations forced a nation to queue for meagre rations even when there was no war on.

Drinking the brine of irony that pickled a nation’s sanity – only just – Bremzen composes a personal menu memoir of  great anecdotes and characters but the book really belongs to her superb, indomitable mother, her cooking and her spirit.

Na zdarovie, tovarisch!



the-young-lionTHE YOUNG LION
by Blanche d’Alpuget

It’s been a long time since Blanche D’Alpuget turned her hand to fiction and it’s good to have her back. This time she’s decided to tackle historical fiction, which allows her to revisit her longstanding interest in power and passion in a story about the ascendancy of the Plantagenets, the most powerful dynasty to rule England.

The twelfth century in England and France is a time of abundance and intrigue, of endless strategy, plotting and insurgency, of illicit bedchamber visits and risky liaisons. D’Alpuget wears her research lightly, takes permissible liberties with confidence, relishes the opportunity to explore  the dark motives of her ambitious men and women and keeps a tight rein on plot and pace.

You can almost hear her young lion roar.



a-history-of-silenceA HISTORY OF SCIENCE
by Lloyd Jones

The Christchurch Earthquake caused more than buildings to crumble and the very earth to liquefy. It opened up chasms in a family’s memories and exposed its long buried secrets. In this remarkable unsettling and sad, sad memoir, Lloyd Jones harnesses his unsentimental, unvarnished prose to exhuming the tragic truth around his mother’s yearning for her own mother and to a closer examination of the unhappiness that corroded his family without ever being named. A painful book to read, and, one imagines, an even more painful one to write.

By the end, far more than the ground has shifted.



the-raven-s-eyeTHE RAVEN’S EYE
by Barry Maitland

Barry Maitland delivers another  polished and  atmospheric  whodunnit, set on the canals and waterways of London. He’s really got a feel for the close knit community of slightly damp, offbeat house boat dwellers where a woman  is found dead , apparently asphyxiated by a faulty gas stove.

Making investigations more difficult, DI Kathy Kolla and DCI Brock are  struggling against the impact of budget cuts, restricting their ability to do their job thoroughly as their bosses  apply pressure to make savings. God knows why anyone would want to join the police force under these circumstances.




by Fiona McFarlane

Ladies and gents,  could I have a drum roll please?

Writing a novel is like walking a highwire. So when  a new artiste makes her debut, you expect a wobble or two. But not in this case. I don’t know where she’s been hiding up to now, but Fiona McFarlane is a bright new star in Australian fiction.  She’s got all the  assurance and the confidence of a seasoned performer. Here she enters the ring with a story about fear, trust, ageing and death; to borrow from another profession where skill is paramount, she handles her themes with a light deft touch, like an expert pastry chef blessed with cool fingers.

Ruth is a widow who lives by the sea. Sometimes alert, sometimes confused. At night she thinks she hears a tiger prowling inside her house. Then, out of the blue,  Frida appears as a home help, a carer companion who can keep the tiger at bay.  At least for a while. But perhaps the tiger is not the only predator and there are other things to fear….

This is a book about serious things but it made me smile.  I felt I was in capable hands right to the very end. Enchanting, original and bold, McFarlane is a tiger tamer indeed.

Many happy returns.




by Matt Greene

By now we are pretty used to books written in the voice of clever, slightly smart alec  kids. Sometimes they are slightly aspergers-ish, and we savour the way that distorts their understanding of the simplest expressions; sometimes they are outsider geek types, sometimes they have lost a parent and sometimes they are ill. So the set up for this novel is not new. But what sets it apart is that  Alex, the boy who narrates this story is irresistibly charming. He’s intelligent but not annoyingly so. He’s perceptive but he still gets the wrong end of the stick, comically so. He’s got a brain tumour and ever since he’s had surgery, things in his life have shifted a bit. Tender, funny and wise.



my-island-homicideMY ISLAND HOMICIDE
by Catherine Titasey

Remember that TV series RAN (Remote Area Nurse)? Well, this has the same feel as that.  It’s set on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait  and written with such a lovely sense of place that you can almost feel the warm air on your skin.

When Thea takes a job as the officer in charge of the local police station, she reconnects with her mother’s islander roots, but instead of a relaxed idyll she finds herself  caught up in a community divided by a brutal crime. What’s more, the locals believe that  maydh, their version of black magic, is involved.

Fortunately for Thea, life is not all crime solving. An encounter with a dishy fisherman  shows her the potential for another life in the tropics.

The author, who lived on TI and fell in love with her own fisherman,  writes with a genuine affection and respect for Islander people and their culture and captures the slower rhythms of their days in this very likeable yarn.



by Chris Womersley

When it comes to unsolved crimes, few are as intriguing as the mystery of who stole Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986.  It was the perfect crime in every way, and the beauty of it was, no one was harmed. Sure, reputations were bruised, but  ultimately the painting was safely returned.

Wommersley uses the theft as the basis for a really meaty set up; his narrator Tom is an innocent young man who moves from the country to bohemian Melbourne, falling in with a louche crowd of artists, who live in the same apartment building called Cairo and  involve him in their plan to steal the Weeping Woman.

Seduced by his more sophisticated friends , their unconventional charisma and flamboyance, Tom is eager to please,  particularly if it means he can be with Sally, the beautiful singer married to the dangerous, arrogant Max Cheever.

With the identity of the real thieves still unknown, there is plenty of room for speculation about who the Australian Cultural Terrorists really were and their motives. Wommersley seizes the opportunity that these uncertainties offer, and fashions a compelling and almost plausible story.



by Michael Katakis

I love a slim volume that feels substantial.

This collection is a gem. A quiet, understated, un-flashy series of notes, observations, sketches of places  which do not  hinge on the  author’s personality. In fact, the author here is so self-effacing as  to almost disappear. He visits places  popular and remote, peaceful and  war ravaged, talks to strangers, goes to a concert, visits monuments and homes, always listening carefully. Gentle, thoughtful, refined impressions free of cliches and assumptions.



a-thousand-pardonsA THOUSAND PARDONS
by Jonathan Dee

You’d think that a contemporary fable about public relations would have to be fairly hollow but this sharply observed satirical novel confounds expectations.

When Ben and Helen’s marriage collapses, their life of privilege ends abruptly. Helen takes their teenage daughter Sara and heads to Manhattan to look for work. There she gets her first job in years in PR discovering that she has a rare gift for  handling the trickiest clients, getting arrogant  business types to admit their mistakes and apologise. But can she apply her principles of forgiveness to her wayward husband and increasingly  distant daughter?

A playful take on self-invention, self-destruction  and second chances.



night-filmNIGHT FILM
by Marishma Pessl

This slick glossy psychological thriller is a knowing, clever, noir-ish puzzle.

Cult horror director Stanislas Cordova has not been sen in public since 1971 but is the subject of extreme fan cult status. Now his daughter Ashley  is dead. Did journalist Scott McGrath see her at night in Central Park? Together with an aspiring actress called Nora and a young man called Hopper he decides to investigate. Their inquiries lead them into dark places real and imagined. A very contemporary take on obsession, celluloid celebrity and  manufactured mythology, this is a teasing and  manipulative narrative written with smart New York polish and sophistication, announcing Marisha Pessl as a major new talent. Images and clippings taken from media sources  and underground web sites add an extra layer of dis-information and intrigue.



pursuing-love-and-deathPURSUING LOVE & DEATH
by Heather Taylor Johnson

‘Tell me what you did before I was born’ or ‘How did you and dad meet?’ are common enough questions faced by parents.

Not every parent is going to answer as honestly and fully as Suzanne Harrington.

Faced with the suicide of of her children’s father, she feels compelled to confess to all the alcoholism and pill popping of her youth; the bohemian adventure of a trip across India; the unorthodox way she approached fighting cancer… You have to hand it to her: she’s gutsy, with a huge appetite for life and no-holds-barred candour. It makes for a compelling account of recovery, but if I were the author’s son and daughter, I might have wished for it to be shared with me in greater privacy.



by Paul Harding

Grief is such a rich seam. No wonder  writers cannot resist visiting it. And yet it is fraught with clichés and sentiment. Not here, though. This marvelously economical book  avoids the pitfalls thanks to writing that is both  refined and truthful.

When Charlie Crosby loses his beloved thirteen year old daughter Kate  in an accident, he is paralysed by loss. His marriage crumbles and he finds himself alone in the small town of Enon, Maine, where his family have lived for generations. Flooded with memories  he loses himself physically in intoxication and solitude,  holding his pain close.

Harding’s elegiac, tender prose captures the closeness between Charlie and Kate, their easy companionship and shared rituals together with some wonderfully drawn local characters –  cemetery caretaker Aloysius Shank and grandfather clock owner Mrs Hale make  two memorable cameos.



by Malcolm Knox

Mining is like meat eating, says Malcolm Knox. It’s an intriguing comparison, typical of this lively and timely take on the national preoccupation with digging up our resources.

Although the subject may not be of universal appeal, you can be sure that award winning journalist and novelist Knox has created a compelling narrative that blends history and current social and political debate. He animates the industrial landscape with a cast of erratic characters, from the early diggers to today’s magnates ,making the facts and figures human. it’s a significant contributions to our understanding of who we are economically and culturally.



the-beethoven-obsessionTHE BEETHOVEN OBSESSION
by Brendan Ward

Brendan Ward never does things by halves. I know this, because  we were briefly colleagues and I’ve witnessed his uncompromising intensity and dedication first hand. Still, he does not  expect more of others than he does of himself.  I never knew that Beethoven mattered to him to such a degree, thanks to his mother’s passion, which she passed on to her only son from the earliest age,  when he learned the piano in a modest Queensland  home.

Now Ward tells the surprising story of where this obsession has led him: into  a seemingly crazy project to record all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas with an Australian pianist on a unique Australian made piano. It’s a terrific yarn about so much more than music: it’s about friendship, audacity, vision and innovation. It’s about why some dreams fail but are worth dreaming anyway. It’s about how the spirit of the Olympics lit more than one torch, allowing  us for a moment to think  bigger, better, bolder, before spluttering out, extinguished by cold realities.

With characteristic commitment and willingness to embrace the newest methods,  Ward has also produced a richly curated e-book version which includes one hundred music files and images, making  it a great gift for anyone who loves classical music and  technology.


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The Booktopia BUZZ

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