History of a hard man: Neil Balme memoir stands out from the pack – Sydney Morning Herald

Posted: August 23, 2022 at 12:03 am

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Book critics Fiona Capp and Cameron Woodhead cast their eyes over recent fiction and non-fiction titles. Here are their reviews.


Neil Balme: A Tale of Two MenAnson Cameron, Viking, $34.99

When former Richmond strongman Neil Balme contacted novelist (and Age columnist) Anson Cameron in 2020 and asked if he would be interested in writing his story, Balme chose well.

The result is not just the tale of a footballers life, but a thoughtful character study of an intriguing figure: a man of paradoxes and contradictions, a thug on the field with a history of violent episodes, but to those who know him a thinker, mild mannered, someone who goes his own way, but also a players player keenly aware of the collective of football itself.

Cameron covers his playing life, his coaching and key administrative roles at various clubs, plus the impact of football on his private life with sympathy, wit (he has a great turn of phrase) and the kind of intellectual inquiry his complex subject requires. A genuine cut above usual sports writing.


RiggedCameron K. Murray & Paul Frijters, Allen & Unwin, $32.99

For all our nonsense talk of being an egalitarian country, Australia according to World Bank data is one of the most unequal in the developed world. Cameron Murray and Paul Frijters boil this down to something they call the game of mates, the title of their 2017 study, Rigged being an updated version.

In the nature of a parable, they invent a devious, corrupt villain called James, and an ordinary sucker, Sam, who indirectly foots the bill. But its a real-life tale of networks within networks. James works for a government department in land development, gets to know certain developers, jumps the fence and joins them armed with all his inside knowledge and contacts, resulting in massive government contracts.

Transport, mining, banking, COVID schemes that lined companies profits, you name it. The same principle applies.


The WitnessTom Gilling, Allen & Unwin, $34.99

Much has been written about the infamous Sandakan death marches in Borneo during World War II, this latest study focusing on one controversial figure: Australian Warrant Officer Bill Sticpewich. Of the 2400 Australian and British POWs sent to Sandakan, only six escapees survived. Sticpewich was one of them.

Drawing on records and other texts (especially Tim Bowdens interviews with survivors), Tom Gilling creates a vivid picture of the brutality of camp life and sadism of the commander Captain Hoshijima. Sticpewichs evidence during war crimes trials was so compelling it sent Hoshijimi and others to the gallows.

But was he a heroic survivor or a collaborative opportunist out for himself at the expense of everyone else? The truth is possibly somewhere in between. Whatever, its a dramatic tale of war and survival.


My Father and Other AnimalsSam Vincent, Black Inc., $32.99When Sam Vincent, a would-be writer in his 20s, offered to help out on the family farm just outside Canberra after his fathers hand was damaged in an accident, he could not have seen how events would unfold.

At first, he worked alongside his father, a sort of unpaid apprentice learning the trade, at the same time getting to know his father, warts and all. Then his mother suggested he needed a project of his own, which led to him becoming an orchardist, specialising in the Smyrna fig, which in turn led to grazier school and learning about holistic farming. Then, seven years later, his parents moved off the property, and he was suddenly in charge: a farmer, albeit a kind of accidental one.

True to his title, Vincent recounts it all in a droll, amused and bemused Durrell-esque style. Its also a window onto the new rural Australia.


Every Version of YouGrace Chan, Affirm, $32.99

Set in a 2080s Melbourne ravaged by climate change, Every Version of You envisages a world where those who can afford it gel up and plug in to spend time on an unspoilt virtual planet known as Gaia. When the tech to allow a full upload into Gaia emerges, people choose to leave their physical bodies behind.

For Tao-Yi, her boyfriend Navin and their friends, the decision tempts and torments: Navin, plagued by ill-health, hopes to find release from suffering; Tao-Yi is left to wonder why shes so reluctant to surrender, as her friends upload themselves one by one.

With an intriguing blend of cli-fi, philosophy of mind and transhumanist themes, Grace Chans novel delivers striking science fiction steeped in absurdity and dystopian menace.

Grace Chan is a guest at the Melbourne Writers Festival.


Cult ClassicSloane Crosley, Bloomsbury, $29.99

Sloane Crosley, author of the sharp-witted essay collection I Was Told Thered Be Cake, takes on the New York dating scene with a twist in her second novel, Cult Classic.

We follow the disgruntled editor of a psychology magazine, Lola, who is newly engaged to a devoted fiance, Boots, but might be developing an acute case of cold feet. Awkwardly, Lola keeps running in to her exes. With the first, outside a Chinese restaurant, she relights an old flame, but when she continues to run intoher exes again and again, something more bizarre than a coincidence is afoot.

Cult Classic is Twilight Zone-style speculative fiction that fuses acerbic dating memoir and digital media satire into a romantic parable with a neat twist.


Isaac and the EggBobby Palmer, Headline Review, $32.99

This sensitive and assured debut novel from Bobby Palmer deep-dives into the perils of extreme grief. After the sudden death of his wife, Isaac Addy is in such anguish he finds himself on a bridge about to jump off. A nearby cry of suffering stays Isaacs hand; he heads into the woods and discovers Egg, a mysterious creature who starts as an inarticulate companion then evolves, ushering in an emotional transformation.

Isaac and the Egg could easily have been twee, but this unstinting study of grief is delivered with the seriousness of a fairytale. And while he uses a whimsical premise, Palmer is at pains to avoid sentiment and always has a well-judged flash of gallows humour at hand to leaven the novels bleaker intensities.


HydraAdrienne Howell, Transit Lounge, $29.99

A young antiquarian, Anja, snaps at work and gets fired. She has a lot going on already: her mother has died recently and her husband left her after a hellish trip to Greece.

When Anja hits rock-bottom, shes drawn to an eerie sea change, using her inheritance to lease an isolated cottage by the sea. But it isnt long before she becomes convinced that shes not alone in the bush, that her every move is being watched, and tension builds as Anja begins to seek an unseen presence and confront the cause of her unease.

Adrienne Howell has written a paranoia-inducing modern gothic. It does suffer from the letdown of an uninspired reveal, but not before showing off the authors distinctly gothic vision and talent for creating suspenseful atmospherics.

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History of a hard man: Neil Balme memoir stands out from the pack - Sydney Morning Herald

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