BOOK REVIEW: R&R by Mark Dapin (Review by Caroline Baum)

r-rBlam! Author hits target with a bullseye.

Former magazine columnist Mark Dapin has become The War Guy (his military history The Nashos’ War was widely acclaimed) and this novel confirms that status and a whole lot more. I’ll admit when I came to this Vietnam War story about two Military Police – one a seen-it-all hard-drinking womanising American, and one a naïve but very tall Australian with reservations: I didn’t fancy being immersed in that macho violent brutal crude world. But I was wrong, and knew it within the first twenty pages, which were bracingly alive with a heady mixture of bawdy humour and raw masculine energy.

Dapin writes with tremendous swagger (his style is a head-on collision of Steve Toltz and Joseph Heller). In Nashville and Shorty he’s created two memorable characters: an unlikely couple defined by physical and psychological contrasts that suggest they may become enemies. Instead, the very opposite happens and the story of their growing effect on each other unfolds in scenes that are taut and explosive with occasional moments of gentler comedy that allow you to regroup before the next skirmish – there’s a dinner seduction scene which Nashville orchestrates when Shorty takes his nurse girlfriend on a date that he pulls off with surprising delicacy (this is not a book full of subtlety) and good natured fun, creating an oasis of innocence in a narrative that is otherwise steeped in sleaze.

Rude, raw, crude, violent and shocking, this is as satisfying a mateship story as you could hope for if you like yours on the perverse end of the spectrum.

Grab your copy of R & R here!


Mark Dapin

r-rJohn ‘Nashville’ Grant is an American military policeman in the R&R town of Vung Tau, tucked safely behind the front lines of the Vietnam War. Nashville knows how everything works: the army, the enemy, bars, secrets, men and – at least in Vung Tau – women. He’s keeping the peace by keeping his head down and making the most of it.

His new partner is a tall man from a small town: Shorty, from Bendigo. Shorty knows nothing about anything, and he wishes people would stop mistaking that for stupidity.

When another MP shoots a corpse in a brothel, the delicate balance between the military police, South Vietnamese gangsters and the Viet Cong is upset. Nashville and his partner … Read more.

Grab your copy of R & R here!

BOOK REVIEW + PRE-ORDER TO WIN: The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks (Review by Caroline Baum)

Geraldine Brooks is brilliant at taking dusty historical research and bringing it to life by animating obscure figures in flesh and blood. In this case her subject is King David. Outside of his The Secret Chordappearances in the Bible, we know little about him. Yes, he slew (or is that slayed?) the giant Goliath, yes he played the harp and sang divinely, but what else?

Through the eyes of his friend, the courtier and prophet Natan, we get an intimate portrait of David the man and of the era in which he lived: 1000BC, the Second Iron Age.

Just as Brooks herself did as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, when she spent a lot of time talking to the wives of powerful men as a way of understanding local politics, Natan too talks to the women in David’s life to understand his motives and desires: his mother and two wives.

We follow his life’s arc from obscurity to fame, as a king, despot and patriarch in an almost Shakespearean sweep: he is a very flawed human being. In some of the narrative’s most dramatic scenes, he fails as both a father and a ruler, with women paying the price for his decisions. These episodes give the character of David the kind of rich moral complexity which allows Brooks to shine, deploying all her skills as a storyteller and as a chronicler of human folly, vanity and excess.

Order The Secret Chord by October 6th and you could win a Secret Chord hamper, featuring a limited edition copy of the book signed by Geraldine Brooks!
*Terms and Conditions apply.

The Secret Chord

by Geraldine Brooks

The Secret ChordA unique and vivid novel that retells the story of King David’s extraordinary rise to power and fall from grace, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of People of the Book, Year of Wonders and March, Geraldine Brooks.

1000 BC. The Second Iron Age. The time of King David.

Anointed as the chosen one when just a young shepherd boy, David will rise to be king, grasping the throne and establishing his empire. But his journey is a tumultuous one and the consequences of his choices will resound for generations. In a life that arcs from obscurity to fame, he is by turns hero and traitor, glamorous young tyrant and beloved king, murderous despot and remorseful, diminished patriarch. His wives love and fear him, his sons will betray him. It falls to Natan, the courtier and prophet who both counsels and castigates David, to tell the truth about the path he must take.

With stunning originality, acclaimed author Geraldine Brooks offers us a compelling portrait of a morally complex hero from this strange age – part legend, part history. Full of drama and richly drawn detail, The Secret Chord is a vivid story of faith, family, desire and power that brings David magnificently alive.

Order The Secret Chord by October 6th and you could win a Secret Chord hamper, featuring a limited edition copy of the book signed by Geraldine Brooks!
*Terms and Conditions apply.

About the Author

Geraldine Brooks is the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning March, Year of Wonders, and the non-fiction works Nine Parts of Desire and Foreign Correspondence. Previously, Brooks was a correspondent for the Wall Street Journal in Bosnia, Somalia, and the Middle East.

Born and raised in Australia, she divides her time between Sydney and Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. She lives with her husband, the author Tony Horwitz, and their two sons, Nathaniel and Bizuayehu.

Visit Geraldine Brooks’s Booktopia Author Page

Foreign correspondence Nine parts of desire Year of Wonders


BOOK REVIEW: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood (Review by Caroline Baum)

Canada’s literathe-heart-goes-lastry grande dame, Margaret Atwood, is the high priestess of dystopia. As its ruling authority, she invents plots that are devilish in their scary plausibility and disturbingly accurate in their critique of where today’s extremes will lead to if we are not hyper vigilant.

But she is a hugely entertaining and playful Cassandra, peppering her visions of future doom with witheringly sharp satirical dialogue and observation, making the experience of reading this slim but meaty novel doubly uneasy. One minute you are laughing at the pathetic naivety of Charmaine and Stan, a couple seduced into living in Consilience, a gated community to protect themselves from a ravaged society. The next you are wondering what moral decisions you would make under the circumstances they are faced with on the inside.

The scenario she devises to alert us to future danger hinges on the choice between freedom and security, between desires genuinely or artificially gratified. Yes, there is sex with robots.

Get your copy The Heart Goes Last here

The Heart Goes Last

by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood

Charmaine and Stan are young and in love. Victims of a growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, they struggle to keep their relationship alive in the face of increasing poverty. Now living in their car, they survive on tips from Charmaine’s job at filthy dive bar, until the day they see an advertisement for a social experiment offering security, community, and a break from the daily grind of their current existence…

Leaving behind the uncertainty of their former lives, they sign themselves up for the perfectly manicured lawns of Consilience, with its stable jobs and protection from the increasingly unruly and angry population outside its walls. All they have to do in return for this suburban paradise is give up their freedom every second month – with a voluntary imprisonment. But what seems at first to be a balancing act worth investing in for the safety of a permanent roof over their heads, soon turns into a nightmare of conformity, mistrust, guilt and sexual desire…

Brilliantly conceived and executed, with a pace that will leave you breathless, The Heart Goes Last is a powerful satire of life in the twenty-first century, charged throughout with Margaret Atwood’s signature devastating wit, irony and keen perception.

Get your copy The Heart Goes Last here

About the Author

Margaret Atwood was born in 1939 in Ottawa and grew up in northern Ontario, Quebec, and Toronto. She received her undergraduate degree from Victoria College at the University of Toronto the-handmaid-s-taleand her master’s degree from Radcliffe College.

Throughout her writing career, Margaret Atwood has received numerous awards and honourary degrees. She is the author of more than thirty-five volumes of poetry, children’s literature, fiction, and non-fiction and is perhaps best known for her novels, which include The Edible Woman (1970), The Handmaid’s Tale (1983), The Robber Bride (1994), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin, which won the prestigious Booker Prize in 2000. Atwood’s dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake, was published in 2003. The Tent (mini-fictions) and Moral Disorder (short stories) both appeared in 2006.

Her most recent volume of poetry, The Door, was published in 2007. Her non-fiction book, Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth ­ in the Massey series, appeared in 2008, and her most recent novel, The Year of the Flood, in the autumn of 2009.

Ms. Atwood’s work has been published in more than forty languages, including Farsi, Japanese, Turkish, Finnish, Korean, Icelandic and Estonian. In 2004 she co-invented the Long Pen TM.

Margaret Atwood currently lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.

Visit Margaret Atwood’s Booktopia Author Page

BOOK REVIEW: Flower Addict by Saskia Havekes (Review by Caroline Baum)

Flower AddictIf you love flowers, nature, beauty or art start dropping hints now for Christmas if you want to get your hands on this magnificent book by Sydney-based A-list florist, Saskia Havekes, and her team at Grandiflora. 

Dipping flowers in wax or encasing them in blocks of ice, Havekes is always experimenting and pushing the limits, whether working on a small bouquet or on a grand scale for a special event. Her bold ideas about colour, composition and texture demonstrate why she has developed a devoted following in the world of art, fashion and design. 

Writing expressively about her vocation, she pays generous tribute to her suppliers, growers and collaborators, her clients from brides to glossy magazines. 

This book, covering a year’s projects, is a lasting way to extend the pleasure of flowers long after the blooms have faded.

Grab your copy of Flower Addict here

Flower Addict

by Saskia Havekes

SaskiaSaskia Havekes is at the forefront of artistic flower arranging in Australia. Grandiflora is an oasis of beautiful blooms, sculptural branches and lush swathes of foliage at Potts Point in inner-city Sydney.

Saskia’s large-scale installations and breathtaking arrangements are luxurious and bold, stemming from a deep love and appreciation of nature. 

In Flower Addict, Saskia shares some of her favourite floral moments, photographed by Nicholas Watt, who captures all the passion and originality of her work.

Grab your copy of Flower Addict here

BOOK REVIEW: Second Half First by Drusilla Modjeska (Review by Caroline Baum)

Second half firstWhat a welcome return this memoir is, from one of my favourite writers of non-fiction. Fans of Poppy, The Orchard and Stravinsky’s Lunch will, like me, welcome this finely woven lattice of memory.

In a tone of gentle melancholy (very similar to that of her speaking voice), Modjeska scrutinises her own intellectual development and the losses and sadnesses of her life: most particularly and movingly in a tender tribute to her father.

Another section of the book demonstrates Modjeska’s intrepid hardiness in exploring Papua New Guinea and becoming passionately concerned about the conditions there for children’s education. Unlike many intellectuals who would simply throw up their hands in dismay and perhaps write an essay, she decides to do something concrete. Here we see a different side to Modjeska – her hardy practicality and care.

She is also candidly revealing in her account of the painful ending of a long term relationship, ravaged by her partner’s mental illness and that of his son.

Modjeska’s personal reflection is interspersed with her thoughts about belonging, migration and the key writers who have influenced her writing life, most notably Virginia Woolf, thus adding another layer of pleasure and intelligence to this richly cerebral project of honest self examination.

Get your copy of Second Half First here

Second Half First

by Drusilla Modjeska

Beginning with the disastrous events of the night before her fortieth birthday, in Second Half First Drusilla Modjeska looks back on the experiences of the past thirty years that have shaped her Second half firstwriting, her reading and the way she has lived.

From a childhood in England, and her parents’ difficult marriage, to her time as a young newlywed living with her husband in Papua New Guinea; arriving as a single woman in Sydney in the 1970s and building close friendships with writers such as Helen Garner, with whom she lived in the bookish ‘house on the corner’, and the lovers who would – sometimes briefly – derail her, to returning to Papua thirty years later to found a literacy program, this new book by Drusilla Modjeska is an intensely personal and moving account of an examined life.

In asking the candid questions that so many of us face – about love and independence, the death of a partner, growing older, the bonds of friendship and family – Drusilla Modjeska reassesses parts of her life, her work, the importance to her of writers such as Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, among many others. The result is a memoir that is at once intellectually provocative and deeply honest; the book that readers of Poppy, The Orchard and Stravinsky’s Lunch have been waiting for.

Get your copy of Second Half First here

About the Author

DrusillaDrusilla Modjeska is one of Australia’s most acclaimed writers. She was born in England but lived in Papua before arriving in Australia in 1971.

Her books include Exiles at Home; the NSW Premier’s Award-winning Poppy; Sisters, which she co-edited; the Nita B. Kibble, NSW Premier’s Award and Australian Bookseller’s Book of the Year Award-winner The Orchard; Timepieces; and Secrets with Robert Dessaix and Amanda Lohrey. She is also the author of the bestselling Stravinsky’s Lunch and her first novel, The Mountain, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Miles Franklin Award, the Western Australia Premier’s Award and the Barbara Jefferis Award.

Visit Drusilla Modjeska’s Booktopia Author Page


The Orchard Exiles at Home The Mountain



BOOK REVIEW: M Train by Patti Smith (Review by Caroline Baum)

m-trainThis slim volume is hard to describe and to categorise. It appears to be about nothing much and yet it has a haunting quality. Smith is a poet in every phrase and every cadence.

Fuelled by superhuman coffee intake (fourteen cups a day!) she goes in search of the best beans on the planet, drifting, digressing, dreaming and reading. Seemingly directionless and flimsy, this is a marvellously seductive collection of fragments that demonstrate Smith’s erudition as a reader of obscure and classic texts and proves that her first book, Just Kids, was no fluke.

In that stunning debut, her incredible roster of friends from Mapplethorpe to Burrows featured prominently. Here, she is closer to the dead than the living (with the exception of Marukami), paying homage to Frida Kahlo, WG Sebald and Schiller on meandering pilgrimages that defy time.

A marvellous book to get lost in.

Get your copy of Patti Smith’s M Train here

M Train

by Patti Smith

The new book from Patti Smith, one of the greatest artists of her generation.

M Train begins in the tiny Greenwich Village cafe where Smith goes every morning for black coffee, ruminates on the world as it is and the world as it was, and writes in her notebook.

Through prose that shifts fluidly between dreams and reality, past and present, and across a landscape of creative aspirations and inspirations, we travel to Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul in Mexico; to a meeting of an Arctic explorer’s society in Berlin; to a ramshackle seaside bungalow in New York’s Far Rockaway that Smith acquires just before Hurricane Sandy hits; and to the graves of Genet, Plath, Rimbaud and Mishima…

Woven throughout are reflections on the writer’s craft and on artistic creation. Here, too, are singular memories of Smith’s life in Michigan and the irremediable loss of her husband, Fred Sonic Smith. Braiding despair with hope and consolation, illustrated with her signature Polaroids, M Train is a meditation on travel, detective shows, literature and coffee.

It is a powerful, deeply moving book by one of the most remarkable multi-platform artists at work today.

Get your copy of Patti Smith’s M Train here

About the Author

Patti SmithPatti Smith is a writer, performer and visual artist. She gained recognition in the 1970s for her revolutionary merging of poetry and rock. She has released twelve albums, including Horses, which has been hailed as one of the top one hundred albums of all time by Rolling Stone.

Smith had her first exhibit of drawings at the Gotham Book Mart in 1973 and has been represented by the Robert Miller Gallery since 1978.

Her books include Just Kids, winner of the National Book Award in 2010, Witt, Babel, Woolgathering, The Coral Sea, and Auguries of Innocence.

In 2005, the French Ministry of Culture awarded Smith the prestigious title of Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres, the highest honour given to an artist by the French Republic.

She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

Smith married Fred Sonic Smith in Detroit in 1980. They had a son, Jackson, and a daughter, Jesse.

Smith resides in New York City.

Visit Patti Smith’s Booktopia Author Page

Just Kids woolgathering The Coral Sea

GUEST BLOG: Caroline Baum on judging the Stella Prize

CaroJudging a literary prize is the one thing that no algorithm, no matter how sophisticated, can do. It is an intensely human and subjective endeavour. Now that the winner of this year’s Stella prize has been announced, I can say with complete honesty that this was the hardest prize I have ever judged: partly because of the sheer volume of books that we five judges had to read, in a relatively tight time frame, and partly because the quality of the books made it such a difficult process.

I spent a lot of this summer reading so intensely that on some days, I simply never got dressed. I taped the three criteria to my bedside table -original, excellent and engaging- and repeated them to myself like a mantra whenever I was unsure.

Some books snuck up on me unexpectedly, including a couple I had missed when they came out. One or two had completely failed to appear on my radar, causing me genuine concern: how could it be that I had overlooked them, when my role at Booktopia gives me the opportunity to see everything that’s out there? Answer: I’m human. An algorithm could come up with a formula that suggests what I might like based on previous preferences, but it won’t necessarily spot the book I failed to notice.

Judging for the Stella introduced me to some voices I will now follow with acute and sustained interest: Sofie Laguna and Biff Ward, I await your next books keenly.

As the process and the summer wore on, emails trickled through in the heat, becoming more urgent as deadlines neared. Oh the relief of realising some of my most fervently held enthusiasms were shared!

I thought of what it takes to do this as a kind of fitness, requiring muscle tone like a long distance athletic challenge. You need reading stamina to stay the course as well as lots of uninterrupted time.

When it came to whittling the longlist down to the shortlist, I read all twelve books again to get to six. There was no way round it. The revelations on re-reading were astounding and sometimes conviction-shaking – which just goes to show how much you miss when you are binge-reading, swallowing a book down without digesting it properly.

Our deliberations, when we finally came together on a warm day in Melbourne, were respectful, polite, fair but intense. Navigating towards the shore of consensus, we avoided the rocks of heated argument, all equally keen to avoid boiling it down to the simple, bald maths of a vote.

Being the first cab off the rank in the sequence of the year’s literary prizes is interesting: when the lists appear for prizes like the Miles Franklin it is surprising to see where you overlap and where you don’t.

I think it’s great for the vigour of the culture if one book does not scoop all the prizes, but it was surprising to see that our winner this year was not even longlisted for The Miles Franklin, given that The Strays certainly ticks the box when it comes to the vexed criterion of depicting an aspect of Australian life.

If Joan London wins it for The Golden Age, that would mean a pair of prestigious wins by two fine women writers who use language with similar precision, delicacy and maturity, despite the fact that one is making her debut, and the other is arguably one of our finest midcareer novelists. Both books about outsiders with heightened sensibilities, and which bring a fresh perspective to complex aspects of our past.

Caroline Baum is Booktopia’s Editorial Director, for which she produces The Booktopia Buzz. She also writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, Qantas in flight magazine, Slow Magazine, SBS Feast and other publications about books, food, travel, the arts, and aspects of contemporary life.

230914carolinebaumbuzzheader616+x123Check out Caroline’s Books of the Month in The Booktopia Buzz


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