BOOK REVIEW: The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour (Review by Caroline Baum)

the-last-illusionIn a bold contemporary reworking of a classic Persian epic tale , this is the story of Zal, a boy raised among birds who meets Silber, a magician who wants to pull off the greatest trick in the history of the world. Zal also falls in not-quite-love love with Asiya an anorexic Cassandra-like photographer ( and her humungously large sister Willa). As you can tell from this schematic synopsis, you are in for a wild ride.

Set against the backdrop of the paranoia and anxiety of Y2K ( Remember that? Seems so laughably,innocently absurd to us now) in New York, Khakpour’s concoction is full of portent and ominous foreshadowing of a great looming disaster while tackling what it means to be an ‘outsider’ whether because of your body or your mind. Can Zal, with the aid of his father and his therapist, make the transition from freak to normal? His attempts are both comic and tenderly poignant, as he navigates the perils of what it means to be human.

19918Khakpour’s flamboyant storytelling has the enchantment of a fable laced with contemporary irony. It reminded me of Gary Shteyngart’s Little Failure in its depiction of what it means to feel completely at odds with the world you land in, and Salman Rushdie in its seductive language and imagery.

The author apparently based Zal partly on the case of a 2008 feral discovered living in an aviary in rural Russia, while the character of Silber was inspired by mega illusionist David Copperfield. Using her own experience of coming of age alienation as a migrant from Iran to the US to capture Zal’s, Khakpour says she wanted to conjure up the apocalyptic angst at the end of the century as ‘ a time when the scope of neurotic magical thinking rivalled the enormity of actual impending disaster.’

Fabulous fabulism.

Grab a copy of Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion here

The Last Illusion

by Porochista Khakpour

From the critically acclaimed author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects comes a bold, fabulist novel about a feral boy coming of age in New York, based on a legend from the medieval Persian epic The Shahnameh, the Book of Kings

In a rural Iranian village, Zal’s demented mother, horrified by the pallor of his skin and hair, becomes convinced she has given birth to a ‘White Demon’. She hides him in a birdcage and there he lives for the next decade. Unfamiliar with human society, Zal eats birdseed and communicates only in the squawks of the other pet birds around him.

Freed from his cage and adopted by a behavioural analyst, Zal awakens in New York to the possibility of a future. An emotionally stunted adolescent, he strives to become more ‘human’ as he stumbles toward adulthood, but his persistent dreams in ‘bird’ and his secret snacking on candied insects make assimilation impossible.

As New York survives one potential disaster, Y2K, and begins hurtling toward another, 9/11, Zal finds himself in a cast of fellow outsiders. A friendship with a famous illusionist who claims – to the Bird Boy’s delight – that he can fly, and a romantic relationship with a disturbed artist who believes she is clairvoyant, send Zal’s life spiralling into chaos. Like the rest of New York, he is on a collision course with devastation.

Grab a copy of Porochista Khakpour’s The Last Illusion here

BOOK REVIEW: What Days Are For by Robert Dessaix (Review by Caroline Baum)

what-days-are-forRobert Dessaix knows his readers better than almost any other writer in Australia. He has met many of them personally at festivals over many years after developing an intense intimacy with them as a radio broadcaster. He has groupies who find him so captivating that I have heard them say after his public appearances than they’d like to pop him in their pocket and take him home. But Robert is not a pet. He is a flesh and blood writer who tackles big themes with erudition, elegance, literary grace and sharp, sometimes arch wit. He has a European old world sensibility and does not entirely belong in this century; he is a time traveler who belongs in another, more subtle, less vulgar era.

As one of our great stylists, Dessaix has a singular, distinctive voice and manner, a light yet profound touch addressing literary wanderings together with musings on art, love, friendship. It’s a potently attractive cocktail. But that cocktail got shaken rather than stirred when Robert had not one but two close encounters with death a couple of years ago.

4023926-3x4-340x453Not surprisingly that prompted him to re-assess his life and ask what it was all for. This collection of essays is the result and I am happy to say it announces a sparkling, tender and invigorated return to form. It’s a precious reminder of what is to be cherished and what can be jettisoned when one is faced with one’s own mortality.

Sprinkled with musings on spiritual matters, Dessaix never allows himself to slip into the annoying waftiness of so much writing about the non-material realm. No: he is firmly anchored, indeed at times tethered, to his hospital bed, his home and the world around him, as he considers the Big Themes of his own life and ours with the laser-like attention of a gemologist considering a precious stone.

Before we get swept up in the end of year inane festivities of mindless consumption, over-shopping and over-eating, it’s good to refocus attention on the essentials.

In the end, as Dessaix recognises and reminds us, all you need is love.

Grab a copy of Robert Dessaix’s What Days Are For here

what-days-are-forWhat Days Are For

by Robert Dessaix

Witty, acerbic, insightful musings from Robert Dessaix, one of Australia’s finest writers.

One Sunday night in Sydney, Robert Dessaix collapses in a gutter in Darlinghurst, and is helped to his hotel by a kind young man wearing a T-shirt that says FUCK YOU. What follows are weeks in hospital, tubes and cannulae puncturing his body, as he recovers from the heart attack threatening daily to kill him.

While lying in the hospital bed, Robert chances upon Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Days’. What, he muses, have his days been for? What and who has he loved – and why?

This is vintage Robert Dessaix. His often surprisingly funny recollections range over topics as eclectic as intimacy, travel, spirituality, enchantment, language and childhood, all woven through with a heightened sense of mortality.

Grab a copy of Robert Dessaix’s What Days Are For here

BOOKTOBERFEST GUEST BLOG: Books that have inspired me…. by Andrew Cranna, author of The Bloodhound Boys series

Author: Andrew Cranna

Author: Andrew Cranna

There have been many books that have inspired me to become an author/illustrator and compiling a list of just ten books was veeeeery difficult. Being a children’s writer, it’s children’s books that I’ve always enjoyed and found comfort in. Being a fairly reluctant reader as a child, I was always searching for books that combined expressive text with eye-catching illustrations. My love of children’s books has never waned and I still enjoy browsing through picture books and children’s literature as it always seems to transport me back to my happy childhood.

So here are 10 of my personal favourites. I’ve grown up with many of these titles while some I’ve only discovered in recent years … but all I love. Each book in its own way has contributed to my writing and drawing style.


1) The Muddleheaded Wombat by Ruth Park and illustrated by Noela Young9780732284374

One of my earliest memories is drooling over the pages of The Muddleheaded Wombat. The illustrations in the book would always astound me as a child and I would often wonder how Noela Young could possibly sketch such realistically magical images. I would carry this book with me everywhere I went and spend most weekends trying to copy Noela’s The Muddleheaded Wombat the best I could. I believe it’s this book that sparked my love of children’s books in the very beginning. I now have the great pleasure of working alongside Noela Young, illustrating stories for The School Magazine.

 


a-fish-out-of-water2) A Fish out of Water by Helen Palmer and illustrated by P.D. Eastman

A Fish out of Water is about a fish named Otto that’s fed too much and grows ridiculously out of control … and keeps growing! The story is based on a short tale by Helen Palmer’s husband, Dr Seuss. It’s classic storytelling, decorated with dazzling illustration work. I was always super-duper careful not to feed my pet goldfish too much fish food after reading this book.


3) Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendakwhere-the-wild-things-are

From the moment I read Where the Wild Things Are, I wanted to be Max … the dreamer, the adventurer all dressed up in his animal onesie. The way Sendak transforms Max’s bedroom into a wilderness filled with strange and fascinating creatures is remarkable.


4. Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. Illustrated by Quentin Blake9780141350370

As a child, I thought poetry was boring until I discovered Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl. Revolting Rhymes is Dahl’s take on traditional nursery rhymes through twisted sarcasm and juicy humour. Quentin Blake’s sketchy illustration style complements this collection of dark poetry perfectly. The drawing of the Big Bad Wolf after he devoured two of the little pigs is a personal fave.


5. Gorga, the Space Monster – Choose Your Own Adventure by Edward Packard and illustrated by Paul Granger

Although many teachers from the 1980s may disagree, Choose Your Own Adventure books were viewed as quality AND essential reading by the kids of that generation. They were fun, easy to read, had cracking illustrations and gave the reader the power to choose how the story would end up. I remember trying to collect as many from the series as possible, and … I would always cheat. I’d read the endings first and work my way back … but at least I was reading! My favourite Choose Your Own Adventure book was Gorga, the Space Monster. Gorga was a cute and cuddly purple alien. But watch out … choose the wrong path and Gorga could accidently devour you in one breath! It was awesome!


97814052062806. Tintin – Explorers on the Moon By Herge

I guess people are either Asterix or Tintin fans. I’m definitely the latter. The Tintin series has been a phenomenal success over the years and the books have always been popular in the schools that I’ve attended as a student and now a teacher. Tintin books have timeless appeal with each page exploding with good old-fashioned action. The stories usually involve some kind of mystery that sends Tintin, Captain Haddock and Snowy the Dog off to every corner of the globe. These iconic characters constantly erupt with personality and flare and always seemed to be involved in a high speed car/plane/boat/motorcycle chase. Explorers on the Moon was the most enjoyable read for me from the series.


the-lost-thing7. The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

I’m always amazed by the incredible creativity and imagination of Shaun Tan. His wonderfully strange stories are always complemented with just as unusual, but always breathtaking artwork. The Lost Thing picture book was later transformed into an animated short film, which won Shaun Tan an Academy Award. Each year at my school, I always make a point of showing every new class The Lost Thing film … it’s magical!


8) My Place by Nadia Wheatley and illustrated by Donna Rawlinsmy-place

My Place is a very special book and one of its creators has played a very important role in my life. Not only is My Place one of the great Australian picture books about the nation’s ever changing landscape, but it is also one that changed my artistic landscape forever. In 2012, illustrator Donna Rawlins visited my school to talk about My Place (I’m a primary school art teacher). Donna spied some of my drawings hanging around the school. She took a fancy to one of them and asked me to meet with her colleagues at Walker Books Australia. From this meeting, The Bloodhound Boys was born and so was my career as a children’s author/illustrator. Whenever I see My Place in the library or being read by a student, I always think of Donna and this very special day. Thanks Donna!


the-dangerous-alphabet9. The Dangerous Alphabet by Neil Gaiman and Gris Grimly

The book’s blurb: “Two children, treasure map in hand, and their pet gazelle sneak past their father, out of the house, and into a world beneath the city, where monsters and pirates roam. Will they find treasure? Will they make it out alive?” A mixture of horror and spelling, The Dangerous Alphabet is lots of fun spooky fun, written by the mysterious Neil Gaiman and illustrated by the just as mysterious Gris Grimly. Both author and illustrator specialise in creepiness. Older primary school-aged kids would love this.


And a book I’m itching the read …

10. Hug Machine by Scott Campbellhug-machine

Scott Campbell’s new children’s book about ‘hugs’ looks fantastic. I’ve always been a huge fan of Campbell’s originality and humorous illustration work. The book trailer for Hug Machine (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyRmZDyKPQU) is brilliant. If the book is anything like the trailer, Hug Machine should prove to be very popular.


the-monster-truck-tremor-dilemmaThe Monster Truck Tremor Dilemma (The Bloodhound Boys Series)

by Andrew Cranna

Deep under the Earth’s crust, Skull River City is experiencing unexplained earthquakes AND impending doom. But Rocky and Vince have a challenge of their own – competing in the Monster Truck Grand Prix. A roller-coaster ride full of twists and turns, this lethal race will lead the Bloodhound Boys way off track. Will these undead friends be able to follow the signs back home in time to stop the earthquakes?

About the Author

Andrew Cranna is an artist, educator and author who is currently based in Sydney NSW. Andrew’s cartoons and illustrations are loved by young people across the country and appear regularly in the pages of The School Magazine.

Grab a copy of The Monster Trick Tremor Dilemma here

 

BOOK REVIEW: Charles Bean by Ross Coulthart (Review by Justin Cahill)

Charles Bean, Australia’s official correspondent during the Great War, is one of Australia’s most influential historians. He was, almost single-handedly, responsible for creating one of the most treasured aspects of our national psyche – the Anzac legend.

To Bean, the men Australia sent to the Great War were a heroic ‘race apart’, whose self-sacrifice, courage and valour gave a new birth to our national identity. He later commemorated their achievements in his Official History of Australia in the War and his role in establishing the Australian War Memorial.

A century on, many thousands of descendants still gather at memorials each Anzac Day to remember those lost at war. With about 25 members of my extended family having served in the War, the Anzac legend is a significant part of my own history.

The legend has not remained unchallenged. Some have labelled it an embarrassing glorification of war. It was the target of Alan Seymour’s 1958 play, The One Day of the Year, and as the Great War generation slowly passed on, successive layers of the myth were peeled away. The efforts of Simpson and his donkey were, we are told, exaggerated. Anzacs, it appears, attacked Egyptian civilians, destroying their business premises and homes.

For decades, Bean’s name was a byword for nationalist propaganda. My generation certainly viewed his work with, at best, suspicion and, at worst, disdain. Was this fair? Coulthart’s sympathetic, yet scrupulously balanced account shows we may have rushed to judgement. Bean was a hands-on historian. He got as close to the front as possible, often exposing himself to considerable danger to find out what was happening, and showed great courage in rescuing wounded men under fire. He was meticulous in collecting accounts of battles and sifting fact from fiction. He walked the tightrope between his self-imposed duty to report on the War accurately and the restrictions of official censorship with some success.

Author: Ross Coulthart

Author: Ross Coulthart

Bean, like us all, was no paragon of virtue. He tended to forget his place and intrude into political decisions, especially those involving assignments to command positions. He shared his generation’s passive anti-Semitism, causing him to undervalue the work of the Australian commander, Sir John Monash. To his credit, Bean had a degree of insight into his shortcomings. He later acknowledged and regretted his errors – a further act of courage some current historians could learn from.

Ultimately, Coulthart asks us to confront the issue of whether historians can provide accurate accounts of what actually happened. This biography is a strong affirmation that they can achieve this. Coulthart has a lucid, engaging style which brings readers up close to this subject – so close I occasionally felt I was hovering over Bean’s shoulder as he worked.

This is among the best biographies of an Australian historian available, fittingly released during the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the events Bean meticulously recorded.

Order your Signed Copy of Charles Bean here!


Justin Cahill is a Sydney-based naturalist and historian. His publications include a biography of the ornithologist Alfred North and A New Life in our History, a history of the European settlement of Australia and New Zealand told from the perspective of ordinary people. He has also written on Chinese history, including the negotiations surrounding Britain’s acquisition of Hong Kong and its decolonisation in 1997. Justin’s most recent publication is the first part of Epitome for Eleanor: A Short History of the Known Universe, written for children. His current projects include a natural history of Sydney’s Wolli Creek Valley.

He regularly contributes reviews to Booktopia.

The life of Stephen Hawking to be adapted from book to screen

For much of his life, Stephen Hawking has been a cultural icon. The brilliant mind consigned to a wheelchair, the result of his crippling battle with motor neurone disease. His 1988 book A Brief History of Time changed the way science was looked at by the world, selling more than 10 million copies and being translated into over 40 languages.

Despite this, little is known of Hawking’s private life, from his carefree days as a 17 year-old undergrad at Oxford, excelling in academics and rowing, to his physical decline during his 20s, and marriage breakdown in the mid 90s.

This is all about to change with a new film The Theory of Everything, adapted from his first wife Jane’s acclaimed memoir Travelling to Infinity. Hopefully they do one of the greatest minds of our time justice.

travelling-to-infinityTravelling to Infinity

by Jane Hawking

In this compelling memoir his first wife, Jane Hawking, relates the inside story of their extraordinary marriage.

As Stephen’s academic renown soared, his body was collapsing under the assaults of motor neurone disease, and Jane’s candid account of trying to balance his 24-hour care with the needs of their growing family will be inspirational to anyone dealing with family illness.

The inner-strength of the author, and the self-evident character and achievements of her husband, make for an incredible tale that is always presented with unflinching honesty; the author’s candour is no less evident when the marriage finally ends in a high-profile meltdown, with Stephen leaving Jane for one of his nurses, while Jane goes on to marry an old family friend.

In this exceptionally open, moving and often funny memoir, Jane Hawking confronts not only the acutely complicated and painful dilemmas of her first marriage, but also the faultlines exposed in a relationship by the pervasive effects of fame and wealth.

The result is a book about optimism, love and change that will resonate with readers everywhere.

Grab a copy of Travelling to Infinity here

my-brief-historyMy Brief History

by Stephen Hawking

The extraordinary personal autobiography of the world’s most famous scientist, written solely and exclusively by Stephen Hawking.

Stephen Hawking has dazzled readers worldwide with a string of bestsellers exploring the mysteries of the universe. Now, for the first time, the most brilliant cosmologist of our age turns his gaze inward for a revealing look at his own life and intellectual evolution.

My Brief History recounts Stephen Hawking’s improbable journey, from his post-war London boyhood to his years of international acclaim and celebrity. Lavishly illustrated with rarely seen photographs, this concise, witty and candid account introduces readers to a Hawking rarely glimpsed in previous books: the inquisitive schoolboy whose classmates nicknamed him ‘Einstein’; the jokester who once placed a bet with a colleague over the existence of a black hole; and the young husband and father struggling to gain a foothold in the world of academia.

Writing with characteristic humility and humour, Hawking opens up about the challenges that confronted him following his diagnosis of ALS aged twenty-one. Tracing his development as a thinker, he explains how the prospect of an early death urged him onward through numerous intellectual breakthroughs, and talks about the genesis of his masterpiece A Brief History of Time – one of the iconic books of the twentieth century.

Clear-eyed, intimate and wise, My Brief History opens a window for the rest of us into Hawking’s personal cosmos.

Grab a copy of My Brief History here

a-brief-history-of-timeA Brief History Of Time

by Stephen Hawking

Was there a beginning of time? Could time run backwards? Is the universe infinite or does it have boundaries?

These are just some of the questions considered in an internationally acclaimed masterpiece by one of the world’s greatest thinkers. It begins by reviewing the great theories of the cosmos from Newton to Einstein, before delving into the secrets which still lie at the heart of space and time, from the Big Bang to black holes, via spiral galaxies and strong theory.

To this day A Brief History of Time remains a staple of the scientific canon, and its succinct and clear language continues to introduce millions to the universe and its wonders.

Grab a copy of A Brief History of Time here

BOOK REVIEW: Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant (Review by Caroline Baum)

It’s not just the fact that this novel is set at my university in the north of England that makes me love it. It’s Grant’s superb ability to capture the feeling of the times in this terrifically authentic story about student life, especially the first awkward foray into relationships, friendships, infatuations and other uneasy human manoeuvrings on the road to self-awareness.

Personalities are tried on like clothes, and discarded just as easily. The same goes for identities. Class, intellect, sex appeal and success become increasingly significant markers together with envy and popularity. Mental illness hovers on the periphery, its dark presence prompting tragedy, together with inevitable guilt and regret.

Many readers will recognise something of their student selves in these psychologically acute pages. Grant creates utterly believable, three-dimensional characters with the same clear-eyed wisdom as Margaret Drabble before her.

Grab a copy of Upstairs at the Party here

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Caroline Baum has worked as founding editor of Good Reading magazine, features editor for Vogue, presenter of ABC TV’s popular bookshow, Between the Lines, and Foxtel’s Talking Books, and as an executive producer with ABC Radio National. She is currently Booktopia’s Editorial Director.

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upstairs-at-the-partyUpstairs at the Party

by Linda Grant

The brilliant new novel from the Man Booker shortlisted author of The Clothes on Their Backs

‘If you go back and look at your life there are certain scenes, acts, or maybe just incidents on which everything that follows seems to depend. If only you could narrate them, then you might be understood. I mean the part of yourself that you don’t know how to explain.’

In the early Seventies a glamorous and androgynous couple known collectively as Evie/Stevie appear out of nowhere on the isolated concrete campus of a new university. To a group of teenagers experimenting with radical ideas they seem blown back from the future, unsettling everything and uncovering covert desires. But the varnished patina of youth and flamboyant self-expression hides deep anxieties and hidden histories. For Adele, with the most to conceal, Evie/Stevie become a lifelong obsession, as she examines what happened on the night of her own twentieth birthday and her friends’ complicity in their fate. A set of school exercise books might reveal everything, but they have been missing for nearly forty years. From summers in Cornwall to London in the twenty-first century, long after they have disappeared, Evie/Stevie go on challenging everyone’s ideas of what their lives should turn out to be.

Grab a copy of Upstairs at the Party here

BOOK REVIEW: Hitler’s Last Witness: The Memoirs of Hitler’s Bodyguard by Rochus Misch (Review by Kate Forsyth)

9781925106107Anyone who is fascinated and troubled by Adolf Hitler and his actions will find much to interest them in this memoir written by one of his bodyguards, Rochus Misch. The Führer’s bodyguards accompanied him everywhere, and so were witnesses to many secret meetings and communications. Those hoping for insights into the psychology of Hitler will be disappointed.Misch was chosen as his bodyguard because he knew how to keep his head down, and his ears and eyes shut. He repeats several times that he was chosen because he was someone ‘who would give no trouble.’

Misch is not a natural writer. His style is dry and clipped and to the point (at times I could almost hear his German accent!) Nonetheless, much of his narrative is riveting, particularly as the Germans begin to lose the war and the Führer and his inner circle take up residence in a concrete bunker deep beneath the city. Misch must accompany them, leaving his wife and baby daughter to the mercies of the attacking Russians. He witnesses Hitler’s marriage to his long-time mistress, Evan Braun, and then the murder of the six Goebbels children by their mother. At this action, his matter-of-tone manner breaks down and his real anguish breaks through. ‘The most dreadful thing I experienced in the bunker was not his death. The worst thing was the killing of these children’. Misch was in the bunker till the bitter end, witnessing Hitler and his bride’s suicide and the final admission of defeat by the Nazi generals. His reward for his loyalty was to end up in the Russian torture chambers.

One of the most interesting things about the book is Misch’s unswerving loyalty to Hitler, and the painting of one of the world’s most vicious mass murderers as a normal man and ‘a wonderful boss.’

Grab a copy of Rochus Misch’s Hitler’s Last Witness: The Memoirs of Hitler’s Bodyguard here


Kate FKate Forsyth is the bestselling and award-winning author of more than twenty books, ranging from picture books to poetry to novels for both children and adults.

She was recently voted one of Australia’s Favourite Novelists, coming in at No 16. She has been called one of ‘the finest writers of this generation”, and “quite possibly … one of the best story tellers of our modern age.’

Click here to see Kate’s author page

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