SMALL-TOWN SECRETS, BARNESY’S REDEMPTION, JUMPING THE GENDER DIVIDE, AND IN DEEP ON ALI
LITTLE SECRETS Anna Snoekstra HARLEQUIN HQ, $30
Anyone who grew up in an Aussie country town and dreamt of getting out — at any cost — will have some sympathies for Rose Blakey. She’s working at the local pub in tiny Colmstock with her best friend Mia, in despair because her latest application for a newspaper cadetship has been rejected again. She has to find a story to make them finally pay attention. And then she notices something unusual: her little sister playing with a doll that looks uncannily like her. She discovers there are more around town, each looking eerily like its new young owner. Rose senses the beginnings of a story the newspaper might be interested in. She gives those creepy dolls a dark and dangerous undercurrent, and the paper loves it. But as she pursues a follow-up, the stakes seem to be getting higher. There’s a mysterious new man in town, and her personal safety seems to be under threat. Melbourne author Anna Snoekstra is making a name for herself in the local thriller/mystery market and Rose is a compellingly likeable but flawed heroine. A better understanding of how journalism works would have helped.
VERDICT: Secrets have power
WORKING CLASS MAN Jimmy Barnes HARPER COLLINS AUSTRALIA, RRP $50
This is the raucous, high-decibel sequel to Cold Chisel frontman Jimmy Barnes’ harrowing book on his childhood, the best-selling Working Class Boy. Barnes begins with the formation of that iconic band in 1974 and the memoir barrels through years of booze, drugs, groupies and, ultimately, huge commercial success. It’s a fascinating insider’s view of the Australian music industry and the highs and lows of fame. However, beneath it all hovers Barnes’ perennial personal insecurities, documented so candidly in Working Class Boy. He constantly flirts with self-destruction and death, and it’s fascinating how, at his lowest ebb, he manages to marshal enormous reserves of energy to ensure his survival, yet again. This is not just a tale of doom and gloom. It has passages that are uproariously funny. But in the end, Working Class Man is a torch song to the healing power of mateship, love and family.
VERDICT: A rollercoaster ride
MANHATTAN BEACH Jennifer Egan HACHETTE, RRP $33
This historical novel could not be further from Jennifer Egan’s quirky Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad. Manhattan Beach opens during the Great Depression, with preteen Anna visiting gangster Dexter Styles with her bagman father. It is a visit that will change the course of Anna’s life. Several years later, her dad disappears, leaving Anna, her mother and disabled sister Lydia to fend for themselves. Anna goes to work in the Brooklyn Naval Yard to do her bit for the US war effort. But Anna is different from the other girls. Quietly feisty, she begins to harbour ambitions to become a diver. As she butts up against the social mores of the time, Anna grapples with the idea of what it takes to be a good girl. And she continues to wonder what happened to her father. Her search for answers sees her worlds collide. Manhattan Beach does have its lulls, but Egan picks up the pace with a sterling finish.
ALI: A LIFE Jonathan Eig SIMON & SCHUSTER AUSTRALIA, RRP $50
Muhammad Ali’s life and times — the stupendous boxing career and turbulent personal journey — have been documented several times but never as well as this all angles record from the day he was born until his death at 74 last year. Superbly written with fascinating detail based on enormous research — 500 interviews, secret FBI records plus revealing new methodology in boxing analysis — this is not only one of the best sports books but an insightful social essay about a deeply troubled era for human rights in America. For those of us who watched in awe as Ali became one of the 20th century’s defining figures, it is a bittersweet read. That’s because the irresistible charisma and the physical and cultural courage that made him so popular were counterbalanced by his fair share of character flaws, stripped bare here. Even his ring record is shown to be more flattering than it should be.
VERDICT: A knockout