BOOKS

A HIS­TOR­I­CAL NOVEL, A GLIMPSE INTO THE SE­CRET WORLD OF AN AL­CO­HOLIC, AND TWO GRIP­PING NEW NON-FIC­TION READS ARE RE­VIEWED THIS WEEK

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SOUTH OF DARK­NESS

JOHN MARS­DEN

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

VIC­TO­RIA NU­GENT

SUM­MER SE­CRETS

JANE GREEN

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

SHARI TAGLIABUE

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

ELLEN WHIN­NETT

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