Monday, 12 March 2018


Whistler's Bones is a sprawling frontier adventure that tells the story of an absolute nugget of Australian history, Charlie Gaunt. Gaunt's adventures take him through a number of significant events in Australian and world history - a veritable Forrest Gump of his times. The book is a great read, and I think one of the author's finest.

The story of Gaunt, a real-life historical figure, represents a largely untapped vein although many of the people wrapped around that vein, including the Duracks and Nat Buchanan, are better known. As a young teen, Charlie Gaunt leaves his family and life in 1880s Bendigo to find what sort of life he can make for himself armed with little more than some potential as a horseman. Thus begins the story that takes him across Australia, and across the world.

The strength of this novel for me, aside from the enthralling story telling, lay with the unfiltered retelling of Gaunt's story. Although an interesting and intriguing character, he is abundantly flawed. Some of his actions are indefensible and deplorable. In Gaunt, Whistler's Bones delivers a boy-to-man character we can at times admire, at times sympathise with and at times despise.

The author's decision to focus primarily on Gaunt's early manhood, and retell the rest of his story in brief, underpins the fondest memories and greatest regrets that would stay with Gaunt for life. In resisting the temptation to lionise Gaunt and turn him into a champion of causes and rights that exist now but didn't then, Barron provides a near-as-possible to accurate rendering of the man and his times. And while I'm sure the author is uncomfortable with the terms used and attitudes towards aboriginal Australians at the time, they are present in the book in unvarnished detail because to modify them would be revisionism.

Having grown up in Goulburn and being educated at St Pat's, the story of the Durack family and their epic cattle drive across to the Kimberleys was known to me, but I have to admit not in such detail or breadth. Whistler's Bones is a worthy addition to Australian literature and is deserving of being included in Australian school curricula where Gaunt's choices, the treatment of indigenous Australians and frontier life in Australian would provoke informative discussions and perhaps a desire to read more of this era and better understand it. This painstakingly researched book has certainly sent me in that direction.

I've read a number of Greg's books, but enjoyed this the most. Barron is a fine author at the peak of his powers telling stories he is passionate about. Five stars.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

AFTERMATH - Chuck Wendig

This book was a lot of fun.

It is the first part of a trilogy that picks up shortly after return of the Jedi and which fills in some of the gaps between that trilogy and The Force Awakens - first part of the third Star Wars trilogy.

The format is similar to the Return of the Jedi film - multiple strands that progressively quicken and come together in the end - and it introduces new characters on both sides of the republic/empire rift.

What I especially liked were the "interludes" that were essentially "meanwhile, elsewhere in the star wars universe" segments Through these we see what Leia, Han, Chewie, Mon Mothma and others are doing and even though that don't relate specifically to the central story, presumably these interludes will come together by book three.

The style is fun and Chuck Wendig seems to have slotted in nicely in picking up the tone used by Star Wars Universe writers. If you're a long time Star Wars fan, give it a crack. It's part of the new canon, so this series may well give some hints of what's to come. 3.5 stars.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

BORN TO RUN - Bruce Springsteen

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which is probably no huge surprise as a card-carrying Springsteen fan-boy.

Obviously I enjoyed finding out more about Bruce Springsteen, but I was also impressed by his writing technique. It's colourful and even poetic in places and Bruce really loves a comma. Why stop at one synonym when a shopping list of ten more can nail what you're striving to say that much better.

This autobiography not only seeks to provide a historical rendering of the Bruce Springsteen story but also an in depth analysis of his own psyche complete with revelations about the extent of his personal depression and his fears of following his father into more pronounced mental illness.

Having read the Peter Ames Carlin biography, some of the subject matter was already known to me but the two definitely aren't different gospels of the same story. Some matters that appear important don't exist in the other and (on a small number of occasions, such as the discussion of why he didn't appear at Woodstock, versions of the Bruce story differ significantly.

Fanboys will discover that Bruce had a lot of bands, a lot of girlfriends and a lot of houses. So many of each it can be hard to keep track.

On a strictly writing level, I found the introspective moments concerning what he was trying to achieve with music and hi life... or those about battling his inner demons... though artfully described were sometimes overly handled and overcooked until the point he started to make is lost in florid, if mostly impressive prose.

And in each case, he would return to those themes a number of times which had the effect of strengthening the points he was making but diluted the impact of what might otherwise have been poignant, definitive moments of storytelling.

In terms of content, I was already prepared to discover that Bruce, by his own admission in this (and that other biography... and maybe in others as well) was frequently self absorbed, a control freak, egotistical, prone to fits of anger, often disloyal to girlfriends (and even a wife... and, you could argue, to the E Street Band) and a perfectionist. He doesn't shy from these admissions in his attempts at being a truly honest, self-exposing artist. Will Carlin in his book nominated times Bruce had struck a girlfriend, this book doesn't describe that event but gives plenty of instances of behaviour that he agrees was boorish or plain unacceptable.

So it's MOSTLY a warts and all book, and despite the long list of flaws his most enduring positive traits are also on display... long term friendships, generosity and willingness to look inward among them. I admired his honesty in admitting he took up with Patti Scialfa while still married to Julianne Phillips, although not the act itself. I was however disappointed with the ease with which he cut the E Street Band adrift and then call them back together. But as Max Weinberg has said elsewhere, referring to the fact it's Bruce's band, "we're not the Beatles here."

Bruce makes no bones about it. He believed from early on, after stints with failed band democracies, that the only way to keep a band together was with a clear band leader who offered a benign dictatorship with clear rules. It was always his vision that came first, but he admits a great debt to his band mates without whom he agrees there would've been no BOSS.

In some ways it's a little like reading about John F Kennedy, such an inspirational man to many, but whose failings and foibles did much to undercut his legacy. Springsteen the artist stands in this book bare, admitting all of the faults he can see and saying to the public, this is it. It's who he is. The whole enchilada. And Springsteen the writer delivers the story in very engaging style.

They say you shouldn't meet your heroes. Through this book, I've met him a little more closely (and in 7 days will meet him much more closely in concert), and he remains a musical hero. A rock and rolling folk philosopher whose impact on me remains undiminished and accounts of his demons only serve to make the bond stronger.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

DAUNTLESS - Jack Campbell

Not a bad read. There are enough good science fiction concepts and questions - such as how do you communicate across a spread out fleet when relativistic speeds affect and delay communications; also the use of a .1 speed of light speed limit is a clever way to ensure there's no time dilation upon the fleets return to home.

Beyond that, the main character's incredibly overstated self doubt, the overuse of the co-president's questioning of his every move and the baffling formation descriptions that, even when provided, didn't help me with a mental picture - each reduced the enjoyment of a fun and intriguing bit of space opera. I'll probably try the next in the series but there'd need to be a lot less introspection and a bit more plot and character development to hold me beyond that.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

ROCANNON'S WORLD - Ursula K. Le Guin

Great story (and at 112 pages, a very quick read). I first ran into Ursula Le Guin back at school when I read the Earthsea Trilogy which was a showcase for her mastery of world building. Rocannon's World was her first novel and that world-building skill was already evident.

Protagonist Rocannon is a geographic surveyor putting together key details of all of the planets he visits... break down of types of sentient life forms, levels of intelligence, geographic specificities etc. He'd slot right into Star Trek's reconnaissance services or Hari Seldon's Encyclopedia Galactica.

He provides assistance to one particular world and then, thanks to time dilation from near-light-speed travel, visits them some decades later (only a handful of his own years) to find they're in need of his help from other races who DON'T respect Trek's Prime Directive.

I'll stop there... no spoilers... but it's a very clever story that effortlessly crosses over between sci-fi and fantasy with the life forms on said world analogous to several fantasy tropes.

The best science fiction stories ask "what if" questions and shows us worlds we have barely imagined. Le Guin, a bona fide grand master of science fiction, delivers in spades... weaving time dilation into the plot (one of the first stories to do so) and even inventing the "ansible" device which many subsequent SF writers have borrowed.

Rocannon's World was followed by another eight loosely-connected novels in the Hainish Cycle (including the award winning Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed) in addition to a bunch of short stories, so this is the perfect place to start. You can buy the first three novels in an omnibus edition - World's of Exile and Illusion. So do yourself a favour.

Friday, 7 October 2016

WET GRAVES - Peter Corris

This is the first Cliff Hardy yarn I've read since my late teens/early twenties. The first time I went on an adventure with the private detective I was not long out of school and living in Sydney and it was the first time I'd read a book where the landscapes, streets and points of interest were all local. I clearly remember Cliff pelting down Anzac Parade trying to lose someone following him, and in my mind I was urging him to turn into High Street (where I lived in 84)... and he did. There's something engaging about finally reading a yarn where the addresses helped paint the picture unlike exotic but unfamiliar backdrops like Hollywood Boulevarde and Route 66 that I'd never seen and didn't help me picture a thing. So picking up another Cliff Hardy yarn - which I read entirely on a smartphone - was a bit of a walk down memory lane (another street address I'm familiar with).

Author Peter Corris is a bit minimalist on scene setting and character building but that works just fine for this world weary, ambivalent Aussie gumshoe. This yarn is a good one... short and direct with a plot and subplot that more or less come together in the end. The lead character is a former soldier and former insurance investigator and a half-decent fighter who seems to lose more fights than he wins. But the Harbour city, and the Harbour and Harbour Bridge, are characters themselves. And just what could tie together relatives of the original bridge makers? Corris' descriptions of parts of Sydney that Hardy visits aren't elaborate and the author probably relies a little too much on the readers ability to bring their own memories and knowledge of the areas to the table. But it's a good Aussie yarn and a good whodunnit.

In short, I want to get back into reading the adventures of Cliff Hardy. This one was first published in 1991 and there's a sizeable queue of other Cliff Hardy's waiting to be read. Unfortunately goodreads doesn't let us do half stars in our star ratings or I'd give this a solid 3.5 (or 7 on the ten scale) but have rounded down to fit the available stars.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

BRUCE - Peter Ames Carlin

They say you shouldn't meet your heroes, and that's one of the reasons I put off reading this Bruce Springsteen biography for a while. At the time it was printed in 2012, it was one of the first semi-authorised biographies about "the Boss". While it makes it clear that it isn't authorised in the sense of being commissioned by Bruce and co., it features comments and details from Bruce, most of his family members (except wife, Patti) all of the E Street Band, many former band member and all key management and production staff. Bruce's advice to the author is to write the truth... and that appears to be what he has done.

The book definitely doesn't fudge or hide Springsteen's flaws. At times he is shown to be selfish, brooding, self absorbed and controlling... it even has accounts of times when he raises not only his voice, but a hand to a former girlfriend. But the book also recounts tails of Bruce's generosity, loyalty, idealism and self-doubt. We hear about the people he has stood by through thick and thin, and some that he parted with seemingly at a whim (and then frequently re-invited them into his circle).

Is it warts and all? Who knows... maybe it skipped a few warts. But with multiple views provided of most events and incidents in the book it seems like a thorough attempt at triangualting the truth. The Bruce shown in this book is one who was emotionally stalled by the almost loveless relationship with his dad in his youth through to his early 20s (spoiler alert... it gets better) and who finds a way to deal with the many binary contradictions inside of him through therapy in later adulthood.

The author has built the story around key moments with more detail of the first half of Bruce's career than the latter, but functionally that works. It's where the most of the dramatic developments lie. Bruce's own autobiographt comes out in September this year, and this book (one of MANY Bruce biographies) is a pretty good ounterpoint to compare and contrast with. Personally I would have called it "Darkness on the edge of Bruce"... but it's a great read, especially if you're a fan boy like me, and discovering his flaws didn't in the end change my status as a fan.