Review: Gunshine State

I’ve been keen to post a review of Andrew Nette’s latest novel, Gunshine State, on this blog. But seeing as how Andrew is not only a great crime writer but also my life partner, I could hardly be the one to do the review. Instead, it’s my pleasure to welcome crime writer and guest reviewer Jock Serong to the blog, with his review of Gunshine State. Read on…

gunshine-state-paperback-wraparoundGunshine State by Andrew Nette
280 Steps
Review by Jock Serong

There’s a fine line to negotiate when you’re making fiction of the pulp kind. From Raymond Chandler to Frank Miller, if you’re going to do pulp you have to bow to certain conventions, without ever allowing yourself to wallow in cliché. For this and so many other reasons, Andrew Nette’s second novel Gunshine State is a triumph.

Gary Chance, the dark and deeply compromised hero of Gunshine State, takes us on a wild ride from industrial Port Pirie in South Aus, to Surfers Paradise, then down to Yass, away to Thailand and finally to Melbourne, on a whirlwind journey out of the clutches of various bad guys and into heaps more trouble besides. The other location that figures heavily – though the action never goes there – is Afghanistan; functioning as a kind of netherworld from whence all the bad guys emerge; and where they learn their evil trades. There’s levels of badness involved here (the nearest thing to a good guy winds up shooting someone at point blank range), but the deepest circles of evil depicted by Nette spiral inevitably back to Kabul.

The tropes of pulp fiction, as I was saying, are masterfully deployed. The hideout in the grotty rural motel. The hooker with a heart of gold, dabbing the hero’s wounds while he grimaces. The coffee and stakeouts in parked cars. And guns: guns everywhere. Snub-noses, automatics, sawn-offs…in the streets of Nette’s imagination there was never an amnesty, or if there was, these shadowy figures have ignored it. I fear there’s some truth in that notion.

Surfers Paradise in particular looms large in this tale of double crossing and heists gone wrong. The gangsters there, Costello and Dennis Curry, are survivors of the Vietnam War, the Fitzgerald Inquiry and the halcyon days of the city itself. There’s a sense that the corruption and its rewards have passed into younger hands and they’ve been left tending the ferns on their high rise balconies, old and embittered. The book’s title hints at the old aphorism about the Gold Coast being a sunny place for shady people: this is a masterful depiction of a metropolis gone to seed.

The plot hurtles forward, aided by the constant motion of the characters – no-one sits still for long in this tale, and we’re treated to perilous car rides, motorbikes and even, memorably, a boat. All of this racing around helps to underscore the fact that mistakes are being made: misjudgements born of haste and fatigue that will have bloody consequences. Very few of these shiftless hustlers have the luxury of reclining in their lair and thinking out their next move.

Gunshine State is gruesome, visceral fun and it never lets up for a second. What a quantum leap it is for Australian crime to see the mean streets of Philadelphia or Chicago seamlessly overlaid onto the bistros of our eastern seaboard. If you’ve got the eye – and Nette certainly does – noir is everywhere you look.


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Crime writing & Festivals Part 2

The third weekend in November presents me with an embarrassment of riches. Friday, I’m in Geelong for the annual Word For Word Non-Fiction Festival, and Saturday in St Kilda for the Sisters in Crime Australia SheKilda 3: One Day Crime Spree.

As paword-for-word-logort of the Word for Word Festival, I’m running a workshop on ‘Showing and Telling’ as follows:

Showing and Telling
Friday 18 Nov, 10.00AM – 1.00PM, Waurn Ponds Library
Writers are often told, ‘show, don’t tell’.  While ‘telling’ is useful, even necessary, most people don’t realize how vital ‘showing’ is. Showing allows the reader to follow the author into the moment and experience it as though they are present. Using the proper balance of showing and telling will make your writing more interesting and engaging. In this workshop, award-winning writer Angela Savage will take you through a series of exercises designed to make your writing more vivid and alive.

Cost: $50 adult / $40 conc. Bookings here. The whole program is worth checking out.

shek3-bookmark-bannerI have a couple of enviable tasks at SheKilda 3, chairing a fabulous panel in the morning and, in the afternoon, compering The Great Debate, which features some of my favourite people crime fiction writers.

Domestic Noir: Ambivalent mothers, disappearing daughters, murderous marriages
Sat 19 Nov, 11.30AM-12.30PM, St Kilda Town Hall
Compere: Angela Savage
Panel: Honey Brown, Anna George, Wendy James

The Great Debate… Dames vs Dicks: Men should stick to hardboiled; women should stick to cozies
Sat 19 Nov, 4.00PM-5.00PM, St Kilda Town Hall

Compere: Angela Savage
Dames (Affirmative): Vikki Petraitis, Leigh Redhead and Sue Williams
Dicks (Negative): Robert Gott, Andrew Nette and Jock Serong

I’ll be participating all day Saturday at SheKilda, from Prof Sue Turnbull’s keynote address on the state of women’s crime writing at 9.30AM, to the 23rd Annual Stiletto Awards at 6.15PM, when Sue will be in conversation with Nicole da Silva, star of Wentworth and Rush. Nicole will present the Scarlet Stiletto Awards, after which Kerry Greenwood will present a special Silver Stiletto to mark the 25th Anniversary of the Sisters in Crime Australia. The Silver Stiletto short story competition was open only to previous Scarlet Stiletto winners–all 17 of us.

The complete, action-packed SheKilda 3 program is here.

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Crime writing & Festivals Part 1

When people ask, ‘How are you?’ I try not to respond with, ‘Busy.’ For me, ‘busy’ is what American novelist and teacher John Gardner calls a ‘feeble abstraction’ that ‘says almost nothing’. Gardner exhorts us to tell our stories in concrete terms.

So, how am I on this first day of November?

darebin-picI’m preparing for a full-on month of writing classes, crime fiction festivals, academic conferences and family celebrations.

First up is a Crime Writing Workshop for Darebin Libraries, next Sat 5 November, 1.00PM – 4.00PM at Northcote Library, as part of Nanowrimo, aka National Novel Writing Month. As always, I’ll be putting the ‘work’ into ‘workshop’ with an action-packed afternoon of input, group discussion and writing exercises. The workshop is looking pretty full, but bookings are still open for a few more days. See here for details.

The following weekend is the 10th Reader’s Feast Bookstore Crime and Justice Festival. I’ve been involved in this festival for many years and I’m looking forward to being part of the tenth anniversary celebrations. Although I’m not personally involved in the Saturday morning session, since I helped put it together, and as it features some of my favourite people crime writers, I figured I can give it a plug here:

cj-festivalSaturday, November 12, 10.00AM-11.00AM
The Metropolitan Hotel, 263 William St. Melbourne

Aussie Noir
Home grown crime fiction is experiencing something of a golden age at the moment with some remarkable books currently available – join Andrew Nette (Gunshine State), Zane Lovitt (Black Teeth) and Jock Serong (The Rules of Backyard Cricket) as they discuss this phenomenon under the watchful eye of writer and panel chair crime writer
Leigh Redhead (Thrill City) who is also currently undertaking a PhD thesis on this very topic.

Saturday, November 12, 2.30PM-3.30PM
The Metropolitan Hotel, 263 William St. Melbourne

Asia Noir
In a festival that has looked at bodies in snow in Scandi Noir and home grown villains in Aussie Noir, we finish with a look at what is fast becoming ‘the next big thing’ in crime fiction – Asia Noir. Join Andrew Nette (Gunshine State), Cath Ferla (Ghost Girls) and, as participating chair, Angela Savage (The Dying Beach).

Tickets and full program here.

On the third weekend in November, I’ll be running a workshop on ‘Showing and Telling’ as part of the Word For Word Non-Fiction Festival in Geelong, and participating in the Sisters in Crime Australia SheKilda 3: One Day Crime Spree. Stay tuned for more details…

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Review: The Rules of Backyard Cricket

cover_rules-of-backyard-cricketIt’s been a while since I’ve read a crime novel, let alone reviewed one. But I can’t let Jock Serong’s new book, The Rules of Backyard Cricket, go through to the keeper without singing its praises.

The Rules of Backyard Cricket had me in its grip from the first bounce. No amount of sledging from my opponents (read ‘family members demanding my time and attention’) could distract me from its thrall. Even for someone as disinterested as me in the actual sport of cricket, this novel is an absolute winner.

Okay, enough with the bad cricket puns.

The story is narrated in the first person by Darren Keefe, who along with his older brother Wally, is a star cricketer, until an injury ends his playing career. The novel opens with Darren bound and gagged in the boot of a car, a bullet-hole in one knee, watching the broken white lines of the Geelong Road ‘recede into the blackness’. But it wasn’t this dramatic premise alone that got me hooked. Darren has clearly behaved badly — he considers being abducted and stuffed in a car boot ‘a moral counterweight to the things I’ve done’ — but there is something endearing, almost poetic in his voice. I desperately wanted to know how in the hell he ended up where he did, and what the hell was going to happen to him.

Each subsequent chapter opens with Daz in the car boot, reflecting on his past. He traces his life from childhood, when he and Wally established their rules of backyard cricket, through his stellar though short career as a professional sportsman, his subsequent stint as a television commentator and former-celebrity-for-hire, to his ignominious (apparent) end. What transpires makes for an utterly engrossing read.

Serong won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Crime Novel for his debut Quota, but as he explained at a recent event, he eschewed the ‘obvious choice’ of writing a sequel. Instead, he took a phrase he described as ‘the stone in my shoe: the rules of backyard cricket’ and turned it into a story about what siblings can do to each other and be forgiven. And not forgiven.

A second source of inspiration was the tedious trips Serong regularly took along the Geelong Road from his home on Victoria’s southwest coast to Melbourne. To liven up the drive, he started imagining what might be involved if someone was travelling the same stretch in the boot of a car. Darren Keefe tells us, ‘To my sad surprise, whether you’re crawling home from Christmas with the aunts, or waiting to be shot dead and incinerated by gangsters, the Geelong Road turns out to be just as boring.’ However, Serong makes the journey anything but.

Serong admitted to being obsessed with cricket and books as a kid. But while cricket is the context, the themes he explores in the novel in terms of corruption, accountability and transparency are universal. The book is underpinned with questions about who can get away with what and why, though these questions are character driven, never didactic. As one character says towards the end of the novel,

‘Do you know I heard the Pope the other day going on about corruption in sport. The fucking Pope. Goes to show, doesn’t it? Sport goes to the heart of everything. If you can reach inside it and fuck with its innards, you’re actually messing with society, Daz. How ’bout that. Bigger than drugs. Bigger than hookers and porn, because people shy away. They can smell the desperation. But the same people will go on consuming sport long after they know it’s rotten to the core…’

I’d go on, but I don’t want to risk putting off potential readers by gushing. Suffice it to say the back cover blurb that draws a parallel between The Rules of Backyard Cricket and Peter Temple’s best work is no exaggeration. Serong pulls off what I consider an Australian crime writer’s most sought-after Quinella (to use a metaphor from another sport): a literary crime novel that qualifies as genuine Australian noir.

Read it.




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Writing across cultural boundaries in the contemporary era

Last week American novelist Lionel Shriver gave a keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival, in which she railed against ‘identity politics’ and the ‘concept of “cultural appropriation”‘, because they were hindering her ‘right to write fiction’. She argued that writing fiction ‘is a disrespectful vocation by its nature – prying, voyeuristic, kleptomaniacal, and presumptuous’, while bemoaning the ‘climate of scrutiny’ and ‘super-sensitivity’ that was constraining the work of ‘writers from traditionally privileged demographics’ like herself. ‘[A]re we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong?’ she asked in a tone so disdainful, it comes through in the transcript. Little wonder audience members like Yassmin Abdel-Magied elected to walk out on her.

As it happens, at the same time Shriver was delivering her speech, I was recording one of my own, albeit for a much smaller audience: a lecture for first year university students, on the ethics of writing across cultural boundaries. My fiction is largely inspired by the years I spent living and working in Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, and they’d been set as reading my 2010 novel, The Half-Child. I wanted to locate my work in the wider context of Australians writing about Asia; this meant talking about the Orientalist constructs that dominated Australian impressions of Asia for the better part of two centuries, which Alison Broinowski documents in her often blistering critique, The Yellow Lady (1996). While I admitted that Australian writing hasn’t entirely moved away from prejudices and stereotypes, I talked about how factors like globalisation and the emergence of Asian Australian writers have contributed not only to cultural hybridisation, but also a new accountability when it comes to the business of image-making.

As I explained in the lecture, I find this new accountability exciting. I’m by no means put off the attempt to imagine myself into the hearts and minds of people whose lives appear to bear little resemblance to my own. I agree with Gene Luen Yang, author of graphic novel American Chinese that ‘our job as writers is to step out of ourselves, and to encourage readers to do the same.’ But I’m aware of the need to step with care and humility. I feel a strong sense of responsibility when I write across boundaries of identity. I’m compelled to be meticulous in my research, and scrupulous about including representatives from the communities I write about among my early readers. I’m aware of fiction’s capacity to cause pain, and I’m far more fearful of this than of public scrutiny and criticism (being read!). Nothing gives me more satisfaction – no, it’s stronger than that, more joy – than when a Thai reader tells me I got something right.

Following the outcry, then backlash, in response to Shriver’s keynote address, I questioned whether I was merely using different language to say the same thing – to justify my choice as a writer of fiction ‘from traditionally privileged demographics’ to write  stories set in Asian countries that feature characters from a range of nationalities, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, abilities, and equally stories that reflect the pluralism of the Australia in which I live. But I believe it’s more than a matter of semantics. Where Shriver and I fundamentally differ – vast disparities in our sales figures notwithstanding – is that where she sees writing fiction as a right, I see it as a privilege. And with privilege comes responsibility. As novelist Jim C Hines put it in his excellent rejoinder to Shriver’s speech,

As a writer, I do have the freedom to write whatever I want. But to my mind, with great freedom comes great responsibility. I have an obligation to get it right, to the best of my ability. To recognize the power of stories. To understand that publishing is not an equal playing field, any more than the world as a whole. To listen. To recognize that there are some stories I’m not the best person, or the right person, to tell.

This, too, is what I tried to say in my lecture: that both the process and the outcome of writing fiction is about initiating a conversation, a dialogue between the work and the reader, between author and audience. Yassmin Abdel-Magied recognised this when she questioned the intent behind Shriver’s speech: ‘Was it to build bridges, to further our intellect, to broaden horizons of what is possible?’ Brisbane Writers Festival volunteer and blogger Yen-Rong recognised this when she wrote:

We definitely need to have more conversations around the way we approach culture, identity, and all the bits and pieces in between. Responsibility does not just lie with the writer, because literature is, at its very heart, a collaborative effort.

It strikes me that Shriver does not want the dialogue. She wants to retain her right to offend, but objects when others want the right of reply. She wants to write with impunity like the colonialists of old, condemning the right of others to question her ethics – a point made by Juno Díaz on his Facebook page. She wants to write without being subject to criticism by the people she writes about – ignoring the fact that, as writer Omar Musa points out in a recent article, criticism is a fundamental part of this process: “There will be people who will tell you that maybe you didn’t quite get this right, and you just have to cop that flack.”

There is a certain irony, then, in what Shriver says towards the end of her speech – words that, amid the railing, resonated for me:

The reading and writing of fiction is obviously driven in part by a desire to look inward, to be self-examining, reflective. But the form is also born of a desperation to break free of the claustrophobia of our own experience.

Surely the most effective way to break free of the claustrophobia of our own experience is to invite others into our lives, not just our imaginations?




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The 2016 Australian Crime Writing Award Winners Are…

Fair Dinkum Crime

Although your humble correspondents have been woefully inattentive, this year’s Davitt and Ned Kelly Awards for Australian Crime Writing have been awarded this weekend as part of Melbourne Writer’s Festival celebrations. It seems we’ve both got some reading to do given the very few of these titles we’ve gotten around to (so far).

Davitt Awards (Saturday 27 August) Sisters in Crime Australia

ResurrectionBayViskicBest Adult novel
– Anne Buist, MEDEA’S CURSE (Kerrie’s review, Bernadette’s review)
– Candice Fox, FALL
– Sulari Gentill, GIVE THE DEVIL HIS DUE
– Bronwyn Parry, STORM CLOUDS
– J. M. Peace, TIME TO RUN (Bernadette’s review, Kerrie’s review)
Emma Viskic, RESURRECTION BAY (Bernadette’s review) Winner

FerrisRiskBest Young Adult Novel

– Kathryn Barker, IN THE SKIN OF A MONSTER
Fleur Ferris, RISKWinner
– Ellie Marney, EVERY MOVE
– Maureen McCarthy, STAY WITH ME

xfriday-barnes-under-suspicion.jpg.pagespeed.ic.1XSQMpfW6IBest Children’s Novel


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Life’s a beach

I couldn’t resist sharing this photo of an anonymous handsome stranger (okay, he’s a member of my family) reading my novel The Dying Beach in Krabi province, southern Thailand. Most of the novel is set in Krabi, on the exquisite Andaman coast.

The Dying Beach readerA good book, Rita Felski writes in Uses of Literature, make you feel ‘sucked in, swept up, spirited away’. So if you’re not fortunate enough to be in a position to take a holiday in Thailand right now, for a fraction of the cost, you can be transported there by reading The Dying Beach.

“The Dying Beach is…the perfect escapist read.” (Good Reading)

What have you read lately that’s taken you to another place?


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