A HISTORICAL NOVEL, A GLIMPSE INTO THE SECRET WORLD OF AN ALCOHOLIC, AND TWO GRIPPING NEW NON-FICTION READS ARE REVIEWED THIS WEEK
SOUTH OF DARKNESS
PAN MACMILLAN, $39.99
John Marsden is one of Australia’s most acclaimed storytellers for young adults, so his first adult novel was well anticipated. South of Darkness is the story of 13-year-old London orphan Barnaby Fletch, and how he came to be transported as a convict to New South Wales. The style has more than a hint of Bryce Courtenay about it, with Marsden going into gritty detail as he tells Barnaby’s tale. Somewhere after Barnaby’s inevitable arrest the narrative unfortunately stagnates, with few characters as well drawn as they could have been. A kindly reverend and a convict with a fondness for literature are among the high points in terms of characterisation. Marsden has chosen to tackle a topic frequently relegated to history textbooks, creating a dark portrayal of late 1700s London and the horrors of convict life, and has left the door open to create a sequel.
VERDICT: Colonial drama
Pan Macmillan Australia, $29.99
Catherine Coombs, or Cat, is working in London as a journalist, and doesn’t mind a drink or two. Or ten. She knows something is missing from her life, but it’s not until her mother Audrey drops a bombshell about her father that things begin to make more sense. Aware her drinking might be something of an issue, Cat attempts to regain control of her life, but soon finds that alcohol is hardwired into her DNA. A trip to Nantucket will have any travel-thirsty reader planning a stay, but it is there that the alcohol issue causes lifelong effects and regrets for the likable heroine. Jane Green is able to capture the essence of a character so vividly it is impossible not to succumb to their good points, but just as in real life, when they inevitably disappoint, the reader is left crushed by the fallout. You’ll want things to happen that won’t, with the end result an immersive, emotional ride.
VERDICT: Family foibles
TUNNEL RATS VS THE TALIBAN
JIMMY THOMSON and SANDY MACGREGOR
ALLEN & UNWIN, $30
Vietnam War “tunnel rat” Colonel Sandy MacGregor knows his stuff. He and journalist Jimmy Thomson have opened the curtain on one of the least known stories of the war in Afghanistan. This book tells the gripping story of the sappers, or combat engineers, the unsung heroes of the campaign. These are the soldiers who travel ahead of convoys scanning with their “wands” for buried bombs. They are also the men who plunge head first into dark tunnels searching for weapons hidden away and often booby-trapped by the insurgents. They carry the flame of their Vietnam War forebears, who established the legend of the “Tunnel Rats”. When they were not detecting and disarming insurgent bombs, the sappers were out building schools, mosques and bridges to try to win the hearts and minds of the people of Uruzgan Province.
VERDICT: Fitting tribute
IAN MC PHEDRAN
THE STRAIGHT DOPE
CHIP LE GRAND
MELBOURNE UNIVERSITY PRESS, $30
The Essendon doping crisis rocked the AFL for more than two years. Journalist Chip Le Grand, at The
Australian, reported extensively on the allegations that Essendon players had been injected with banned substances. Despite all the previous media coverage, this book still manages to be gripping — I knocked it off in a day. Le Grand chronicles not just the doping claims, but how the interests of ASADA, the AFL, the then-Labor government and the Essendon Football Club competed. It reveals how deals are done and won in Melbourne and how the big names — Andrew Demetriou, John Wylie, Mike Fitzpatrick, Paul Little, David Evans — fit together. He also draws links between importer Shane Charter, chemist Nima Alavi, the sports scientist employed by Essendon, Stephen Dank, and their activities around “Peptide Alley” — South Yarra’s anti-ageing clinics. A fascinating read.
VERDICT: Terrific stuff