Eleven-year-old Mitch feels a little out of place when his Fly In – Fly Out (FIFO) dad’s behaviour becomes erratic. Mitch makes friends with an ailing magpie, whom he names Maximus, and they heal each other.
This inventive novel deals with themes of self-esteem, family love and first love with tenderness and skill. It draws on Steve Heron’s long experience as a worker with children. Steve, the founder of the BUZ programs (Build-Up Zone) for primary-aged children, has written before, but this is his first full-length novel for children.
I enjoyed it. Be-friending a magpie is obviously drawn from experience. The book contains a brilliant description of an inter-school football match.
Maximus means ‘the Greatest’ in Latin, and Steve shows the journey to greater self-esteem in a way that will appeal to middle- and upper-primary readers.
I am a friend of Steve’s and a former colleague, and I am proud to commend this engaging story.
Canberra-based David Vernon has been running the Stringybark Story Awards since 2010 to promote Australian short story writing. Writers are rightly sceptical of contests where you are asked to pay a fee to enter and then pay to purchase the collection. This would be vanity publishing. In Stringybark’s case, there is an entry fee and the e-book collection is then free to all the authors included. Having entered three or four Stringybark awards, however, I am satisfied that David Vernon’s enterprise is good for writers.
This year 249 entries were received and a panel of four judges including Vernon made the selection of 37 stories.
This year’s selection range over a diversity of themes and styles: there are stories reflecting on mortality and birth, drought and love, children’s imagination and loneliness – the human condition with an Australian accent.
Unlike some contests where the requirements of the contest cause a certain uniformity in the stories, the story-telling in Stringybark is diverse. All are well-crafted, some are strong on dialogue, one is a framed monologue, some are vernacular, others more literary.
It’s hard to review such a variety, but I enjoyed nearly all the stories. Some like Mark Scott’s The Jam Tin evoke the quotidian feelings of diggers in the trenches in World War I. Roger Leigh tells the story of a day-dreaming boy Missing in Action whose fantasies contribute to an actual kidnapping. His ability to show us the boy’s perspective stayed with me long after reading it.
The old lady’s vendetta in Gab Gardner’s Timber! kept its surprise till the last paragraph. An Indian kid included in a game of cricket, a dance instructor in a country town finding a way to make dancing cool, funerals, starting afresh – the plots go on. Martin Lindsay scared me on a Lonely Stretch. There’s even a gentle story by this reviewer about a West Australian con-man.
Timber! is a collection to enjoy and to come back to. I will be looking out for future Stringybark anthologies, and more and more content to enter their contests.
Greg Sheridan, God is Good For You: A defence of Christianity in troubled times, Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2017.
$24 paperback (online), $14.85 Kindle Book.
Reviewed by Ted Witham.
Greg Sheridan is a foreign affairs journalist at The Australian. From the few pieces I have read I have the impression that he takes a conservative political line in his journalism and that his style can be heavy-handed.
Sheridan’s new book God is God for You was recommended, and for that reason alone I added it to my Kindle as holiday reading. I was pleasantly surprised in every way.
God is Good for You is certainly, as the sub-title says, a defence of Christianity. It is a well-argued, highly informed piece of apologetics. Sheridan’s voice is quiet, reasonable and forceful. He engages the so-called new atheists with strong evidence that belief is more reasonable than non-belief. He shows that many of the benefits of Western democracy come directly from Christianity, and he invites us to explore Christian responses to evil and suffering.
In Part 2, he interviews Christian politicians and national leaders from the major parties, and insists that many politicians are motivated by their faith. As one politician says, ‘You find more Christians in Parliament than in the general population.’ He explores new expressions of Christianity, including Pentecostal churches like Planetshakers in Melbourne and the counter-cultural movements of traditional and new monasticism.
He confesses himself surprised by the pervasive reach of the Focolare movement and interviews its Australian leader, Lucia Compostella. In Perth, he visits Providence City Church with its steady gaze on the new place of Christianity in Australian society – not persecuted, but a minority in exile from the old paradigm of Christendom.
He critiques limited understandings of leadership in the mainline churches and their weak use of traditional and social media.
I was pleasantly surprised at the catholicity of Sheridan’s gaze across the whole church scene, and at the open tone of his writing. There were points of disagreement for me. While I agreed with his statement that Christian faith makes radical claims of transcendence, he made too easy an equation between transcendence and the supernatural, a concept I wanted him to at least qualify. However, points of disagreement were actually few.
This book could safely be offered to any thinking citizen, Christian or not, for its reasonableness, and to any optimistic Christian for its clear-eyed analysis of where we are in modern society and its remedies for the future.
Jeremy Heimans & Henry Timms, New Power: How power works in our hyper-connected world – and how to make it work for you, Sydney: Macmillan 2018.
ISBN 9781743540138; Available online from $25
Reviewed by Ted Witham
You would have to say that the Coalition Government is terrified of the progressive membership organisation GetUp! Not only are there more members of GetUp! than there are of the two main parties combined, but GetUp! has proven expert in using ‘New Power’ to advance specific agendas. Despite two attempts to pass legislation to clip GetUp’s power, the Government has not succeeded in destroying the organisation.
New Power reveals some of the thinking behind GetUp! and its international counterpart Avaaz. Heimans and Timms describe ways to mobilise a community using social media, how to spread ideas, raise funds, and gather participants for action. They use case-studies like Uber, Donald J. Trump, #MeToo and Reddit to show how people seeking change blend old power with new power to influence others.
Some like candidate Trump used new power to consolidate old power values. The TED organisation spreads ideas by mixing old and new power to retain quality control of TED talks and invite wider participation through TEDx talks. Through this blend of power, Pope Francis and Candidate Obama are ‘Crowd Leaders’ using new power techniques to further new power values. After his election, however, President Obama became more a ‘Cheerleader’ using the old power structures of the presidency to further new power values.
ISIS is a clever manipulator of new power techniques in the service of old power.
The authors of New Power, Australian Jeremy Heimans and Briton Henry Timms write from experience. Heimans, co-founder of GetUp, began that organisation in 2005, before smart-phones and the spread of social media, with the intention of harnessing the internet to spread progressive ideas and change Australia for the better. Timms is CEO and President of 92 Street Y, a ‘cultural and community center that creates programs and movements that foster learning and civil engagement’.
I read the 324-page book in a 48-hour period. The writing is engaging; the stories are fascinating. The implications for action, whether in leadership or in engagement with one’s community are clearly described.
Anyone interested in changing the world – bringing home the refugees from Nauru, stopping the environmental depredations of Adani, or just reminding your politician that you vote – will find good food for thought in New Power.
Glyn Maxwell, Drinks with Dead Poets: The autumn term, Oberon Books, 2012. Hardcover, 200 pages.
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Drinks with Dead Poets was a delightful surprise. A professor of poetry called ‘Glyn Maxwell’ turns up in a mysterious village to teach a term of poetry. He meets his eclectic class and directs them to readings of a series of 19th Century poets. Professor Maxwell is not sure if it is by his doing, or the organisation of Kerri, the efficient registrar, but each poet has been invited to the village on the Thursdays of the autumn term.
Each poet arrives in the village according to their personality. Nature poet John Clare walks in across the fields. Emily Dickinson, visiting from the States, arrives by train. The Brownings, Robert and Elizabeth, their relationship as ambiguous as ever, are fetched in their coach. W.B. Yeats appears on the island in the middle of the lagoon.
Each poet behaves in character. It takes some time to warm the serious Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, but once relaxed, he speaks with great joy about the craft of poetry. The conversations teacher and students have with these poets are the actual words of each poet.
Although Professor Maxwell has been allotted a little room off the village hall for his teaching, a lot of the action takes place in one or other of the drinking establishments in the village. The professor is occasionally successful in imparting deep insights about the poets.
The professor himself has limited success in asking questions or directing the questions of the audience. One of the students asks each poet, ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’, and this hackneyed request is met with incomprehension, sarcasm, or gentle correction according to the temperament of the poet in residence.
By using this public reading format, the book avoids long quotations from these poets, providing representative snippets instead.
After a hip-hop celebrity recites a mangled version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in Coleridge’s presence, the students tune into the idea of poetry as performance, and look forward to hearing subsequent poets read their work, with questions following.
In November, the professor’s birthday is celebrated in wild style in a nearby country house. In December, Lord Bryon and the students repeat Bryon’s exploit in the Hellespont by swimming across the icy village lagoon.
The professor is never quite sure whether his class is part of the college, or an unofficial elective: poetry is taken not quite seriously by this academy. On the other hand, this professor drinks with students and even sleeps with one of the female students. He would be the subject of disciplinary hearings if he were officially on the staff! These drinks are taken with a suburban bacchanalian spirit which grows out of the playful premise that dead poets can drink with 21st Century students.
I missed out on studying the Romantic poets because of the cycle of the English curriculum at Uni. This wonderful book has partly made up for that. If you love poetry, and you are intrigued by the fantasy setting Glyn Maxwell has created, you will thoroughly enjoy taking Drinks with Dead Poets.
Claire G. Coleman, Terra Nullius, Hachette Australia 2017
$20 paper, $5 e-book
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Set in occupied Australia, Terra Nullius tells three inter-weaved stories: the first is a residential school for Natives run by Settler Nuns headed by a fearsome Mother Superior, Sister Bagra. In this school, Native children have been forcibly taken from their families and are given a basic education so that they will graduate to domestic service in Settler households.
The second story is the escape of Jacky from a similar place. Jacky is determined to find his birth family. He is told that they may be at the former town of Jerramungup, so proudly takes the name ‘Jacky Jerramungup’.
The third group of Natives live fearful lives in a series of squalid camps, always on the run and moving to a new location as the Settlers drive them into the desert. The only advantage of this is that the Settlers cannot live in the desert.
First-time novelist Claire Coleman, a West Australian Noongar, drops little hints that this is not the occupied Australia we know when the British Settlers occupied the land and treated the indigenous people with cruelty. About half-way through the book, she reveals that these Settlers come from a space-faring Empire, and these Natives are black and white survivors of their arrival.
The Settlers are nicknamed Toads by the Natives because they need moisture to survive. Because of the ever-present threat of Settler violence, the name ‘Toads’ is never used in their hearing.
The three main characters, Sister Bagra, Jacky and Esperance, the de facto leader of the ever-moving camp, are vividly drawn, as well as a big cast around them: Sergeant Rohan the indefatigable hunter of runaway Natives; Johnny Starr, the outlaw Settler whose little gang gathers up Jacky Jerramungup on their way to an eventual show-down with Settler power, and Father Grark the reluctant Inspector sent to Sister Bagra’s mission.
I liked Terra Nullius very much. An atmosphere of dread induced both by the Settlers and the difficulty of surviving in the desert pervades the book. The West Australian settings are familiar but changed. The characters are never reduced to caricatures: most Settlers genuinely believe that the Natives were not human; the Native characters are clear individuals.
The pacing is well-handled. Towards the end, I couldn’t put the book down I was so afraid for Jacky and Esperance, and with reason!
It is a didactic novel. I suspect that Australians sceptical of Aboriginal claims will not be convinced by its premise, and may even be annoyed by its ideas. However, it will appeal to people looking for reconciliation and deeper insights into our shared history, settler and native.
This collection of nearly 50 poems is the second for Ivan Head. Dr Head is a West Australian priest, former director of AIT and Canon of St George’s Cathedral, who has spent the last 27 years as Warden first of Christ’s College in Hobart and then of St Paul’s College within the University of Sydney. He and his wife Christine are now moving into retirement in Sydney.
Many of the poems have been published in Quadrant (where Les Murray is the poetry editor), the West Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. Their presence in those publications suggests their high quality.
Ivan is a poet who celebrates birds and flowers, trips by train and trips to London and the US. In some the words tumble just to celebrate language:
Montezuma met a Puma going to the fair Said Montezuma to the Puma let me taste your ware. Said the Puma to Montezuma No I prefer my fare rare and so he ate him then and there.
Many of the poems are complex with multiple levels of meanings. I enjoy recognising the double- or triple-meaning, but also knowing there may be more levels that I don’t get. In Swan River, Ivan reflects on boyhood memories of throwing a kylie, or thrusting a home-made gidgie towards a Cobbler. And then:
Aboy knows that prawns rest beneath the sand by day. It is like knowledge of the Pleiades. Under the Narrows Bridge I stood for hours and left a line out all night just in case Something big went past.
After the series of Noongar words and the reference to arcane knowing, the pleasure of ‘Something big’ might mean a fish to catch, or, it might mean deep knowledge of culture, Aboriginal and Western. And it might mean something even bigger.
An undercurrent of Christian faith and theology, which on occasion rises to the surface level of the poems, holds them in a strong web of meaning.
Ivan has a strong ear for the music of words, their sound and rhythm. All his poems are free-form and show the influence of modernist and Beat poetry.
I found real pleasure in their Australianness. The poems are about the plants and animals of Cookernup (near Bunbury), Perth and Sydney. They are about our childhoods in the 1950s. Even when the subject is not directly Australian, Ivan’s attitude is. He punctures pomposity. Here he reduces the English Reformation to Henry VIII’s armour.
…. And now he’s gone, the ghost isn’t in the machine. Just the carapace remains
And what the commentator gawks at for the screen is the gigantic iron cod-piece
With nothing in it.
The Magpie Sermons is printed on quality high-gloss paper and bound simply in a hardcover embossed with gold leaf.
Poetry lovers will enjoy reading, and re-reading, these poems of celebration, irony, contemplation and joy.