There was a mini Australian literary festival tucked in the midst of this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival programme.  I enjoyed every minute – and all the books I read as well.

Paul Howarth 12 August 2018

Paul Howarth holds dual British/Australian citizenship and has written a – there’s only one word for it – stunning historical novel.  One of those novels that it is impossible to look away from, if you can bear an honest and unflinching look at brutality of Britain as a colonising power. Howarth said he wanted to explore what happens when societal constraints are removed, when the moral compass of those in power and those supporting them are way off.  Only Killers and Thieves, published by Pushkin Press, concerns the colonisation of Queensland and the genocide of the indigenous people of Australia, seen through the eyes of a 14-year old boy forced to take part in a heinous crime.  A full review of this 5-star extraordinarily vivid novel will follow, but let me nail my flag to the mast  – this novel got my vote for the Edinburgh Book Festival Debut Book Award, and is a strong contender for my personal book of the year.

Reinhard Kleist 12 August 2018

Now I know Reinhard Kleist is German (and the only German in the 2018 Edinburgh International Book Festival programme, unless I’ve missed something), but he was here promoting his graphic novels, featuring a certain Nick Cave, whose music I know to be dark – perhaps even darker than dark.  I’d never heard his music before but, let me tell you, it sounded great when played classically by The Zephyr Quartet, and then, somewhat less conventionally by The Ukelele Death Squad, both , I think, from Adelaide.

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The music was accompanied by live drawing from Kleist – each picture completed in perfect time to the song being played.  It was a fabulous event, perfectly suited to the new and improved Spiegeltent.

Damon Young 13 August 2018

Any cobwebs in the brain, remaining from the late night before, were swept away by Damon Young, from Tasmania.  His book, The Art of Reading, is not about the beauty of books, but about the beauty of reading. A more enthusiastic and appreciative lover of reading, I will never have the pleasure of hearing again.  Here are a few quotes.

It is a beautiful and dignified thing to grow up to be an excellent reader.

Reading at its best is not solitary at all.  Language is a shared project, and sharing books is a great joy. I wrote The Art of Reading to share my reading with the world.

Hands up, if you’ve read Dan Brown. (Many hands were raised.)  I’m sorry.  (Then later in the event)  I got a strange pleasure out of reading Dan Brown.  It was like wearing a hairshirt.

The Art of Reading explores the six virtues that reading demands: patience, courage, curousity, temperance, justice and pride.  Virtues?  Now it seemed that many in the  audience (myself included) liked the idea of being/feeling virtuous.  His book sold out out at the signing after the event!

Elise Valmorbida 17 August 2018

Elise Valmorbida, now domiciled in London, was brought up Italian in Australia, and her fourth novel, Madonna of the Mountains, is testament to her Italian heritage.  It is set in a remote Venetal mountain hamlet during the time of Mussolini. “I wanted to explore the mucky morality of living through a war and how ordinary people survived it”, she said.  Her “heroine”, Maria, is, therefore, not the smartest, not the prettiest, not the oldest, nor the youngest of her family.  “She is,” said Valmorbida, “quite ordinary”.  The novel was difficult to reasearch, given the lack of material with regard to the effects of the time on the ordinary populace.  Nevertheless the novel is a success.  I read its 450 pages in just 3 sittings.  Maria’s story is firmly rooted in the Veneto region of Italy with great attention paid to tbe regional food, sayings and beliefs.  The dialect is also present.  “I found an expert to ensure it was right,” said Valmorbida.  “My aim was to document a disappearing, if not already disappeared world”.

Emma Viskic 24 August 2018

And so Pushkin Press bookend this mini Australian culture fest with Emma Viskic’s second release, And Fire Came Down (which I devoured before the event).  This winner of the 2018 Davitt Award for Best Fiction explores the racism still prevalent in contemporary Australia.  “We were the wogs (a racial slur),” said Viskic, a 3rd generation Australian, still sporting the surname of her Croatian grandparents.  On being qualified to write her deaf protagonist, Caleb, she went to school with a girl who was profoundly deaf.  Nevertheless she was wary of writing outside her experience, and was reluctant to send Caleb out into the world.  But he insisted.  She originally wanted Caleb to be female, but the character didn’t work.  So now she has a male lead, who thinks he’s invincible. His deafness, of course, gives him specific vulnerabilities, but also certain strengths.

”Is he smart?”, I asked during the Q&A (because there were times during the second novel, when I wanted to shake him!) “Yes”, replied Viskic. “He has a high IQ but his EQ is questionable. He is also very good at doing things that are not good for him.”

This will be a four part series and Viskic is pacing the backstories of her characters.  Even so, they still surprise her.  She did not know, for instance, that Caleb’s ex(?)-junkie brother Ant, was going to become such a central central character in And Fire Came Down, until she wrote it,

How does she get to know her characters?  She writes pages and pages of dialogue.  Most of it remains unpublished.  But she writes and writes until her characters say something very revealing.

Of the fact that her younger brother’s middle name is Anton.  “The naming of Caleb’s brother was not intentional,” she said.  “But at least my brother is talking to me now!”

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