Fiction and non-fiction picks of the week

The Three Secret Cities
Matthew Reilly
Macmillan, $39.99

The Three Secret Cities by Matthew Reilly.

Matthew Reilly’s Jack West Jr. books stand as a pure adventure series with a fair bit of mongrel in them. The latest certainly leaves no ancestor from genre fiction unclaimed, with nods to almost every facet of fantasy, myth, sci-fi, action and any other swashbuckling genre you can think of. Jack is back to save the world, having unleashed dark forces in the previous instalment. As he’s being hunted down by those, this ripping yarn will take him on a quest to find three famed lost cities – Atlas (Atlantis), Ra and Ultima Thule – in a vivid, elaborately constructed odyssey with plenty of twists and some beguiling Easter eggs for die-hard Reilly fans. He’s got more than a few, as befits an author with a profuse imagination honed by the discipline that comes from an absolute commitment to the imperatives of commercial fiction.

The Budapest Job
Alice Spigelman
Brandl & Schlesinger, $29.95

Tom is a bright young architect from Sydney hired to oversee a development in Budapest. It’s 1989. The Soviet Union is collapsing, and as capitalism rushes in to fill the void, the crimes and ghosts of the Eastern bloc’s communist past start to rise. Originally from Hungary himself, Tom’s father was murdered by secret police in the last years of Stalinism, and the project gives Tom the chance to track down the killer and discover the truth. It’s a murky business. Life under communism made collaborators out of the most unlikely people, and true innocents are hard to find. Billed as a fast-paced thriller, The Budapest Job reads more like an over-pruned literary espionage novel – one that doesn’t allow its encounter with the nightmare of history to fully flower.

The Rainbow Conspiracy
Stuart Hopps
Muswell Press, $24.99

The Budapest Job by Alice Spigelman.

The Budapest Job by Alice Spigelman.

Being a gay man in the early years of the AIDS epidemic must have felt like being the victim of a conspiracy. To tentatively walk out the closet straight into a mysterious “gay plague” that would kill your friends and lovers seems almost too cruel not to be deliberate. Stuart Hopps has made the conspiracy literal. It’s 1984, and theatrical agent Clive Spoke is drawn, with his wise-cracking sidekick Shirley, to investigate the death of his first love from an AIDS-related illness. As he comforts the partner his old flame left behind, he becomes suspicious of foul play. His attention turns to a local STD clinic to discover the sinister truth. Conspiracy theories are cold comfort in the face of a human tragedy, so it’s unsurprising the plot falls flat. The main attraction is in the evocation of an important moment in gay history, portrayed with full measure of romance, nostalgia, humanity and gallows humour.

Non-fiction

Reviews by Fiona Capp

The Rainbow Conspiracy by Stuart Hopps.

The Rainbow Conspiracy by Stuart Hopps.

Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age
Sebastian Smee
Quarterly Essay, $22.99

What is happening to our inner lives as the self becomes an artefact for exhibition and exploitation through social media and digital technology? In this beautifully crafted and nuanced piece, Sebastian Smee turns to art and literature to map the elusive, shifting terrain of our most intimate, subjective experience and to explore how it is being eroded by the imperatives of data collection and curated profiles. Onereason we so willingly surrender our selves to technology, he suggests, is that “cohering as a self” requires constant effort, hence the attraction of online avatars and, more disturbingly, a US president who offers an escape from the “ungraspable complexity” of inner life. NetLoss looks to a future in which we learn how to prize our solitude without feeling alone.

Net Loss by Sebastian Smee.

Net Loss by Sebastian Smee.

The Best Australian Science Writing 2018
Ed. John Pickrell
NewSouth, $29.99

For the general reader, there are few better ways to get the backstory to the latest developments and controversies in science than through this annual collection of essays (and poems). While the pieces cover a vast and diverse field – from quantum mechanics to cosmology, from high-powered theory to everyday practicalities such as doing the laundry – pointers to related articles at the end of every section generate a satisfying web of interconnections. Many of these in-depth investigations expose the fallacy of the “big break-through”, the magic bullet or the wonder drug. Prime examples include Rick Shine’s “tool kit” for fighting the cane toad, and Elizabeth Finkel on medical uses of cannabis and what happens when public demand for a cure-all runs roughshod over scientific rigour.

The Best Australian Science Writing 2018.

The Best Australian Science Writing 2018.

The Book of Daniel: From Silverchair to Dreams
Jeff Apter
Allen & Unwin, $32.99

As the grunge-wave broke in the mid-1990s, three cheeky 15-year-old boys burst on to the music scene in a band called Silverchair and went on to dominate Australian rock music for the next 20 years. The Book of Daniel charts the career of the band’s frontman, Daniel Johns, from his early “punked-up grunge” days to his current incarnation as a musician “happy to bring in an orchestra or explore the outer realms of digital-era R&B”. Inseparable from his development as an artist have been his personal crises – anorexia, crippling arthritis, depression and divorce. Like most rock biographies, this is a book for the fans written by a self-confessed fan, but this doesn’t stop Apter from being clear-eyed about his subject’s flaws and missteps as he carves out a solo career post-Silverchair.

The Book of Daniel by Jeff Apter.

The Book of Daniel by Jeff Apter.

The Conversation Yearbook 2018
Ed. John Watson
MUP, $19.99

The Conversation has made its mark by bringing academic research and reflection to a broad readership. The success of this approach is nicely illustrated by two very different contributions. The first is from the “Curious Kids” series in which Andrew Watkins, from the Bureau of Meteorology, explains what causes windy weather while slipping in a few judiciously placed fart jokes. There will be plenty of adults, I suspect, grateful to finally understand the workings of high and low-pressure systems. On a more serious note, Stephanie Trigg’s account of a lecture in which she and her students found themselves “triggered” by a poem about Eurydice in the underworld makes a moving case for the necessity of letting ourselves be ambushed by the unexpected in literature.

The Conversation Yearbook 2018.

The Conversation Yearbook 2018.

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