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Book Review: The Biology of Luck

The Biology of Luck

The Biology of Luck is a story that bursts onto the page and into your imagination, shimmering with life. From the first page I could tell it was far from just another tale set against a New York City backdrop.

Jacob M. Appel tells the story of Larry Bloom, an unattractive tour guide who is hopelessly in love with charismatic free-spirit, Starshine Hart. Larry has spent the last two years immortalising Starshine in his as-yet unpublished novel, also entitled The Biology of Luck.

Now he’s set to play his trump card. He has a date with Starshine and an envelope from a publishing house in his pocket.

The novel takes the reader on a journey through the day leading up to the date, alternating between Larry’s perspective and chapters from his manuscript. Here’s where it gets tricky. Larry’s novel tells the story of Starshine’s life on the day leading up to the date, the day he feels he will win her heart.  The result teams whimsy, grit and metafiction in a spunky metropolitan fairy tale.

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Poems of a Feather

A bird’s eye review of Australian Poetry Journal 4.1

Mitchell Welch


The recent launch of Issue 4.1 of the Australian Poetry Journal took the form of a webcast panel discussion featuring APJ’s new editor Michael Sharkey in conversation with four prominent poetry editors (ABR’s Lisa Gorton, Seizure’s Fiona Wright, Mascara’s Michelle Cahill and Cordite’s Kent McCarter). During the discussion, McCarter admitted a certain degree of editorial ornithophobia, citing an over-representation of ‘bird poems’ in each issue’s expansive slush pile. Bird poems are so prolific that they scarcely need defending, but I think it’s helpful to remember that all poems are somewhat auspicious in nature (in the Greco-Roman sense). They are, or can be, prophecies of momentous clarity bounded by gestures through timespace, and after all, there are few gestures more earthly or universally captivating than the arc of a bird in flight.

Sky gazing is a thoroughly (though not exclusively) human behaviour, and there are birds of flight on every continent. Of course, language can never contain the universal, but perhaps the experience of staring into space, deep in a thought suddenly underscored towards its epiphany by the unexpected swoop of birdlife is about as close as we can get. It’s hardly surprising that ancient sky-gazers assigned meanings to patterns of birdflight, which are as cursive as any written language. The practice of reading these meanings is older than Rome itself. Perhaps this is why Michael Sharkey, a scholar no doubt well versed in the classics, has scattered birds all through the new issue.

Anne M. Carson’s Yula: the return captures the annual repatriation of migratory shearwaters to Phillip Island, a routine auspice that is nonetheless filled with ‘so many birds their wingbeats / are palpable in the dark’. Elsewhere in the issue, birds appear in brief cameo roles: Andrew McDonald’s birds address us in exultation, while Rose Hunter conjures pelicans, and Duncan Richardson pairs ‘stirring gulls / and rusting chains’. Jenny Blackford’s penguins don’t stir or sweep or soar, but ‘beat strong wings / under the ice’. Even Philip Salom’s fond biography of the ‘major minor poet’, William Hart-Smith, can’t ignore his poetry of birds, his cormorants and herons – even a Boomerang is ‘wood into bird and bird to wood again. / A brown-winged bird from the hand of a brown man’.

Perhaps Charlotte Clutterbuck’s Post-modern, in its fittingly self-conscious way, best captures the relationship between augury and art: ‘Brancusi’s wingless birds / suspended above the water / so that art exists fully / only for the one moment / in which you kneel on the rim / of the pond’.

Later in the discussion, when conversation turned to the idea of themed issues, Michael Sharkey flagged his intention to abandon them, a departure from his predecessor Bronwyn Lea’s approach. Indeed, birds are more motif than thematic anchor in this issue; APJ 4.1 presents the work of more than fifty Australian poets, and only a few are augurs. Though some are prepossessed by birdlife, it’s perhaps worth noting that even when the skies aren’t filled with feathered wings, there are still the auspices of so many moths, bats and biplanes left to read. But after those, there are poems that look earthward instead of skyward, and those that gaze to the horizon. Some of the most arresting poems manage to fold these three dimensions into origami kites that remain for the most part anchored in reality, which I suspect is where Michael Sharkey’s editorial thread will keep future issues carefully tethered.

Book Review: The Luminaries

The Luminaries

The Luminaries is a lot of things, but at the centre of all of them it is a murder mystery. In 1866 an old hermit has been found dead in his home and a wealthy young man has gone missing. In Part 1, Walter Moody arrives in the gold mining town of Hokitika in New Zealand ready to make his fortune. What he finds instead is a meeting of twelve men who each have overlapping connections to the mystery.

The murder mystery is the catalyst for all subplots, which have something to say about friendship, love, betrayal and the culture of several different nationalities. Catton has written an exquisite Victorian style novel that is culturally relevant to contemporary literary society and society as a whole.

In 2013 The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize. Winning is an achievement in itself; however, for Catton it was a specific kind of achievement. Upon winning the prize Catton became the youngest winner of all time at the age of 28, and author of the longest piece of work to ever win the prize at 832 pages. Awards and press coverage followed and her publisher Granta ordered a new print run of 100,000 copies.

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Book Review: Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility

Austen fans can be a fearsome bunch. Many are generally hostile towards any human being who deigns to mess with the perfection of an Austen novel.  But that is exactly what UK writer Joanna Trollope has done for the Jane Austen Project – an ambitious venture from HarperCollins, involving the re-release of Austen’s complete works, reimaged by six contemporary authors. Trollope’s book is phase one – Sense and Sensibility. 

Of course, there are countless examples of books and films that rework classic novels for a modern audience.  Not all of them are good. Some may argue that not many of them are good. And so I approached the Jane Austen Project with an open mind and a dash of skepticism.

But before I get ahead of myself, here’s some introductory info on Sense and Sensibility.  I assume most people perusing this review will be familiar with the book but for those who are not, Sense and Sensibility (1811) is Jane Austen’s first (published) novel. It’s the story of two sisters, Eleanor and Marianne Dashwood, who are the complete opposite in temperament.  Eleanor is sensible, levelheaded and cool as a cucumber – or so she appears.  Marianne is passionate, dramatic and looking to be swept off her feet.  When their father dies, most of his money and property goes to a son from a previous marriage.  The girls inherit next to nothing and must relocate from their home, Norland Park, to a little cottage belonging to a distant relation.

Sense and Sensibility (2013)

I’ll admit, it has been years since I read the original Sense and Sensibility. Reading Trollope’s book for the first time was a surprisingly nostalgic experience, as she manages to capture the spirit and the atmosphere of the story quite naturally.  She transcribes the characters and the plot in clever and subtle ways – for example, she explains the inheritance situation by writing that Eleanor and Marianne were unable to inherit because their mother and Mr Dashwood had been in a de facto relationship.  In this way, the modern setting takes a backseat rather than becoming a distracting centerpiece.

Another particular highlight was the character development given to the third and the youngest Dashwood sister, Margaret. The younger characters in Austen novels are rarely fleshed out.  But thirteen year olds usually have opinions when they’re dragged across the country to a new home and a new school. In Trollope’s version Margaret is hilarious and a great addition to the story.

On the downside, as faithful as Trollope is to the original novel (something she certainly get points for) I don’t think she is 100% faithful to the contemporary setting. While the Dashwood sisters drive cars, listen to iPods and attend school, their whole situation feels very old-world.  They are depending on their family’s kindness, attending dinners, parties and picnics and lacking the skills and experience to support themselves comfortably without a male provider in their lives. Maybe this is how some young women live today, but it didn’t feel familiar to me as a reader.

There was also something distinctly old-fashioned about the dialogue – not so much the language itself, but the way it was constructed and delivered. Given the Jane Austen Project aims to reimagine Austen for today’s readers, I was expecting a modern story, written in a thoroughly modern style. Trollope’s approach does work well once you’re accustomed to it, just not in the way I imagined it might.

The Verdict:

Trollope successfully captures the heart of  the story and the characters  and transports them to a new setting without lapsing into silliness (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?).  She certainly did Austen no disservice with her efforts.  However,Sense and Sensibility (2013) didn’t feel like a totally modern take – it would have been interesting to read an Austen story written in a more contemporary voice – if you can’t get into classics because of the old-fashioned style, you may not find this much better.

All in all, reading this book allowed me to relive Sense and Sensibility through a fresh gaze, something I found thoroughly enjoyable.  I hope the purists don’t throw rocks at me for saying that.

This review was originally published on Just a Little Whim.
Follow Kate on Twitter @kate_elilly

Book Review: Barracuda


After finishing Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda I am both relieved and resentful. The feeling is only relatable to drinking coffee that is too hot. You don’t want to burn your mouth but you know the coffee is good. To say that Barracuda is good is an understatement. By no means should I or anyone compare what Tsiolkas has done to coffee, but the sensation is the same.

When reading Barracuda you want it to end because what becomes of your friend Danny Kelly becomes so important to you. You want to know if he makes the Olympic Games and thus the need for peace of mind via a satisfying ending burns inside you. You have to know how to deal with the want and let it sit with you. The pages turn and you inch closer and you are burning and you still don’t want to stop. You start to think ‘classic Danny’ when you recognise one of his idiosyncrasies and when his familiar chants ring through your mind like a beautiful haunting chorus.

Barracuda is about Danny Kelly, a boy from a working class family in the suburbs of Melbourne. Danny is not like any of the other working class kids at his school though. He is an elite swimmer with the physical talent and mental discipline to fulfil his dream of making the Olympic Games in 2000. Danny moves to a private school with a better facility and coach to take him to the next level. The private school culture and competitiveness show a side of Danny that even he is afraid of.

In modern Western culture success is largely determined by economic and career focused benchmarks. Today’s working class are at a greater disadvantage than ever before. The gap is widening between performance at public and private schools. Elite sport, even with all of its government funding, can usually only be reserved for the kids whose parents are willing to fund the ride. Danny Kelly could not succeed without a scholarship from the private school he affectionately calls ‘Cunts College’. The government and Australian Sports Commission will fund athletes to a certain extent, but what Tsiolkas shows so poignantly is that at that grass roots level sport in Australia is still controlled by the people who can afford to be great. Tsiolkas shows that in a society claiming equality, inequality still reigns in the background of organisations like the Australian Swimming Team.

The importance of success is something that no one needs to be convinced of but when the stakes are set so high, and set that high by ourselves, the risk for failure is constantly present. Each misstep can lead to disastrous consequences for Danny. Barracuda examines our innate want of glory and our innate fear of failure. Then it goes beyond examination and exposes them. Barracuda is about redemption. Barracuda, at its most fundamental level, is a novel about redeeming ourselves. Danny must redeem himself time and time again. Tsiolkas asks ‘How long does it take to forgive yourself?’ A question Danny will ask himself and a question that Tsiolkas poses to all of us reading.

Christos Tsiolkas has crafted an imaginative story structured to leave you gasping. Barracuda shows what it means to be human in Australia; it shows what it means to be human at all. What Tsiolkas has shown with Barracuda is that he is one of the greatest Australian writers working today. The structure is intricate, the plot is ferocious, the characters are familiar and at the same time unfamiliar. Weeks separated from Danny Kelly the impact lives on. I feel that I am now living post-Barracuda.

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamMeyers1