Category Archives: Reviews

(Another) year of independent reading

WHILE the world has been distracted by a pressing pandemic, a small group of readers in the northern NSW New England region committed to reading and discussing a range of independently-published books, and now they’re getting ready to announce the pick of the crop.

Trophy handmade by Richard Moon

This is the second year the High Country Book Club based in Glen Innes has awarded a literary prize. Across 2019 we read a broad range of titles published by readers in three continents and gave our first gong to Lady Bird & The Fox by Australian author Kim Kelly.

In 2020, our pool of choices was extended from indie authors to the publications produced by independent presses, those that don’t have huge marketing machines behind them and could do with a boost. Since we’re based at The Makers Shed, a destination for handmade, skill-sharing and artisanal products, our focus on indie titles is apt.

Our reading year kicked off with Jo-Ann Capp’s Four Hot Chips (published by Boogie Books). The true story of one family’s childhood cancer journey, this is a heartbreaking and ultimately uplifting short read, exploring relationship dynamics when loved ones are under pressure.

We continued with The Worst Country in the World by London-based Patsy Trench, which documents the author’s search for the reasons her ancestress Mary Pitt migrated from Dorset to New South Wales in 1801. Replete with fictionalised scenes where history remains undiscovered, this book is an eye-opener about colonial Australia.

In Hide (published by MidnightSun) we ventured into fiction. Penned by South Australian author S. J. Morgan, this thriller took us on a wild journey from Thatcher’s Britain to the Australian outback, via a chilling look into international bikie culture.

Staying with fiction, we read Kim Kelly’s Walking. Partly based on true events, this novel explores the world of orthopaedic surgery in the first half of the 20th century, through the eyes and experiences of patients, practitioners and their loves, lives and hopes.

You Had Me At Hola by Leigh Robshaw took us on a true-life South American odyssey, recreating the author’s 1990s adventures to find her heart’s desire in foreign lands. Scenes from this title are still regularly talked about in book club meetings months later!

We were visited by Yumna Kassab to kick off the second annual High Country Writers Festival with a discussion about her short fiction debut The House of Youssef (published by Giramondo). This acclaimed collection sheds light on lives in the Lebanese-Australian community.

Mary Garden’s Sundowner of the Skies (published by New Holland) was an external and internal adventure, documenting the 1920s England-to-Australia flight of Mary’s father Oscar Garden, and exploring what high achievers do when they give up their wings.

To complete the year, we read Hayley Katzen’s debut memoir Untethered (published by Ventura Press) and were delighted Hayley could join us for another writer’s festival session to chat about her search for a sense of belonging from academia to farm life in the Clarence Valley.

All High Country Book Club titles are available for purchase from The Makers Shed, and can be posted to readers within Australia. Browse our online bookshop.

Congratulations to all the finalists in 2020… we’ve been uplifted, challenged, thrilled, frightened, moved, angered, entertained and encouraged to keep reading by your engaging works of fiction and non-fiction.

The winner of the High Country Indie Book Award 2020 will be announced during the High Country Writers Retreat on Saturday October 24. Bookings essential! Join the High Country Book Club by attending The Makers Shed on the third Saturday of every month from 10am-12pm.

“I noticed your profession, so I know you’re scum”

“I was privy to the final gasp of the great newsmakers.”

A Writer introduces his latest book.

AFTER a career in publishing, marketing and other creative dalliances that was more like the verb (‘move swiftly and in an uncontrolled way’), I arrived relatively late to journalism.

A decade in, I received the comment in the title of this foreword from one of my social media readers. It was posted in reply to an appeal from me for the commenter to take in the whole of my 800-word piece before dissing the point I was trying to make.

The import was brutal. I was expected to step away from the debate about my own work. I was nothing more than the journalist who wrote it, not to be trusted on that basis alone. Had I persisted, the grab-bag of insults would surely have included ‘fake news’.

What on earth was I thinking, becoming a journalist in my forties?

Most of my journalism has taken place in the shadow of the social media’s rise at a time of enormous upheavals and fractures in the journalistic landscape. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to earn a living as a reporter and editor for almost ten years, usually taking positions that no-one else wanted because the pay was terrible and the prospects of advancement zero.

My first full-time journalism contract was inexplicably based on the template for engaging a builder. A year-and-a-half later, the boss tried to dump me because advertising sales were gently drifting downwards and he thought it better to install an unskilled family member as the writer.

I held my nerve, cited my tradesman’s agreement in an assertive conversation, and tried to imbue my employer with courage when he cried and begged me not to make him honour it.

This strangest of arrangements lasted until the office locks were changed on me before my final pay arrived in the bank account, and the first gap in my journalism career opened wide.

I did what so many of us do: I started a blog and learned to publish online. The lure of the Publish Button was strong but it hadn’t quite found the sweet spot to kill the media just yet, because soon enough I was asked to interview for a position at Fairfax Media.

As one of the company’s last sub-editors I was privy to the final gasp of the great newsmakers, working with subs capable of taking the shoddiest copy and transforming it into double-page spreads with multiple lead stories, down-pages and briefs, all spell-checked and “legalled” in under 15 minutes.

It was an education like no other in a newsroom environment swiftly replaced by a landscape where news-making means almost nothing.

Along the way, my writing output increased to the point where I was often heard to confess that there’s no off switch.

This is undoubtedly due to the rise of digital and independent publishing tools which allow writers to reach a wider audience than ever before. Finding a readership is still the challenge it always was for wordsmiths, but securing our place in the flow of digital media is as easy as a username and password.

So it was a defining moment for me when seasoned journalist Margo Kingston, also formerly of the Fairfax stable, offered me the chance to write for NoFibs.com.au. The gig: a regular column. The subject: the Arts.

“The articles in this collection walk the indefinite line between politics, art, culture, identity and equality.”

Getting an encouraging green light from a respected commentator is rare. Doing the work for free, yet having editorial control, presented the perfect antidote to hours spent shaping the work of other journalists while still on deck as a paid, casual sub-editor at a Fairfax newsroom in Queensland.

The resulting output forms most of the articles in this volume, written over a four-year period (2013-2017) during which Tony Abbott’s brief prime ministership was played out then snuffed out, leaving Australians to endure the fallout.

The articles in this collection walk the indefinite line between politics, art, culture, identity and equality, traversing the period when journalism as we knew it went into its death throes and started to slide behind pay walls.

They also document the final, frustrating years of Australia’s journey to marriage equality; the belligerent delays, missteps and guesswork in delivering marriage equality to a community in which 60 per cent of voters continually told our representatives that we wanted a change to the law.

Here lies the key to understanding every long-form title I wrote across the same period, and why I often crossed over into activism in addition to journalism.

Any ‘scum’ still writing articles for general readership these days are either overstretched under a masthead, or still plugging away independently for very little return, more likely nothing. This book is dedicated to every one of them.

eBook | BUY NOW

If you’re still reading this, just 800 words in with no digital bells and whistles to amuse you, your attention span is fit and you’ll probably make it to the end. If any of it leaves an impression, please take that incredibly rare action that is a gift to independent writers and a necessity if we want journalism to survive: share it.

An extract from Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Dodging reality with E.M. Forster

A writer’s review of E.M. Forster’s The Life to Come.

IN THESE glimpses through the window into Edwardian and post-war restrictions on homosexuality, much of them still chillingly relevant to our times, E.M. Forster recreates his own inner life – and that of gay men everywhere.

8073306Where his living, breathing gay protagonists meet allegorical endings in Classical juxtapositions, Forster was simply staying the hand of damnation he witnessed in the shadow of the Oscar Wilde trials, keeping these men safe in another place and time.

Any writer doing that, and in private – most of these works were not published in his lifetime – was likely to be calming his own rising sense of panic and anger at tired British fears about sexual diversity.

Other stories (such as ‘The Obelisk’ and ‘Arthur Snatchfold’) are gloriously lust-filled in and around taboo themes of male sex, yet always replete with Forster’s tempering wit.

My favourite is the collection’s first, ‘Ansell’, the story of an academic forced to eschew the life laid out for him in books and letters, which has undertones of Forster’s most complex novel The Longest Journey.

“Essential reading, particularly for conservatives who believe it’s ‘all good now’ for the LGBTIQ community.”

‘Ambergo Empedocle’, the story of a strapping young Britisher, honest to his bootstraps and set for a life of convention, is an Italian-set tragedy akin to Forster’s debut novel ‘Where Angels Fear To Tread’. It explores the state of closeting so accurately, and the desire for anything but inhabiting a life where the core restriction cuts to the soul.

Forster often sends his protagonists to other states instead of this world in the denouement of his stories. More often than not, author or protagonist label this a ‘dodge’, a kind of schoolboy’s mind game.

It’s a literary technique that comes straight out of classical mythology, but Forster’s use of it inspired generations of writers decades after he’d hung up his literary tools, including Joan Lindsay, the Australian author of Picnic at Hanging Rock.

While they blend myths and legends with a Sci-Fi edge, these moments reveal Forster capturing the genuine suicidal motivations experienced by a significant proportion of same sex-attracted people.

I have read and reread these stories all my adult life, and will continue to do so. They are essential reading, particularly for conservatives who believe it’s “all good now” for the LGBTIQ community.

In them, Forster is celebrating what he got away with sexually and emotionally, yet imagining what the risk could have cost him. Thank Jove he didn’t burn them, like he did some of his other gay-themed work.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.