Shadowboxing by Tony Birch


You might all remember me raving about Tony Birch’s 2012 book Blood as soon as I read it last year. There’s something raw and just so good about his writing.

I’ve been meaning to read Shadowboxing forever. Hearing Tony speak at the launch of the Australian special of McSweeney’s last year reminded me and I took it home the following day. It’s been sitting on my ‘to read’ pile ever since.

Over the holidays, I tend to shy away from books that I think are going to be ‘too serious’. It’s the time I read crime, or comedy, or don’t read at all, getting totally absorbed in mediocre daytime TV. As much as I loved Blood, I couldn’t forget the stormy undertones. Without knowing a lot about Shadowboxing, I’d assumed that it would be an even darker predecessor, raw and shocking. I felt like I’d need my thinking cap on. So it sat on the pile, along with all of my good intentions, until the day I finally left the house with nothing but my bag and the book.

What I had forgotten, about Blood and about Birch as a writer is his matter-of-factness, the fresh tone that makes even cruel subject matter immensely readable. His writing is authentic and clean, steering clear from overt drama, instead trusting the reader to find the drama in each piece for themselves.

In Shadowboxing, the life of a son is chronicled through ten short stories. Picking through his memories, we follow Michael from childhood through to becoming a father himself.  Suburban Melbourne is the living backdrop of the pieces, and the changing scenery is as important as the evolution of the characters themselves.

Whether you’ve lived in Melbourne a day, a lifetime, or never stepped foot on Smith St in your life, you’ll feel grounded in the pages of Shadowboxing. The spaces are as real in history as for the reader. When the Red House is demolished the loss is personal. Each insult, each punch, each silence is felt beyond the pages. I moved to Melbourne nearly ten years ago. I didn’t see the Smith St of Shadowboxing, and yet it seems as though I’ve walked it myself, that I know both the street and its characters intimately as their lives spill out of rented houses and onto the now familiar pavement.

Short stories aren’t for everyone, despite how wonderful they can be (if you’re not convinced, I highly recommend the short stories of Roald Dahl). Shadowboxing though, will appeal to both lovers of short stories, and to those who prefer the experience of a whole novel. Really, the ten connected pieces in this book are less like short stories, and more like a style choice – ten cohesive chapters with shared characters and lives, all told by the same narrator. The difference though, is that the narrator is almost given the choice of the memories he chooses to share, so they can be close to home, or recalling a random incident, from childhood or adulthood. Overall this means that each piece could easily be read (in any order) alone, or as a part of the greater package.

I’ve still to read Father’s Day, but have no doubt that it will live up to my (now high) expectations. Like Scot Gardner, Tony Birch’s writing is perfectly Australian (an Australia that will have truth for the people who have ever lived here, not the camped up Australia so often seen on film). There’s no dwelling on the many gum trees that surround us, or particular native birds, and yet Australia is instantly recognisable as the setting.

Like BloodShadowboxing is a brilliant book – personal, captivating and immediate.

Life In Outer Space

Life In Outer SpaceLife In Outer Space is a book of firsts – it’s the first book put out by Hardie Grant Egmont’s Ampersand Projectthe first YA novel by self proclaimed book nerd Melissa Keil, and the first time Sam Kinnison meets a girl that he could just fall in love with.

I was lucky enough to be asked to write teachers notes for this one, which you can keep an eye out for here and so read the book a while ago now. Unfortunately Big Life Events have kept me from blogging for a while (and may make my blogging sporadic for the first part of this year), so my review itself is shamefully late – sorry Melissa!

Sam is perfectly happy with the way his life is going.  He’s seen the movies. For a geek like him, he knows that high school is going to pretty much suck. But that’s okay. He knows where he stands, and it’s not like he doesn’t have grand plans for life beyond the school corridors.

When Camilla Carter shows up he’s pretty sure that he’s got her pegged. She’s your standard cool girl, destined to fit in. It doesn’t hurt that her dad’s a fairly famous music journo, practically a free pass to hang out with any crowd she wants to. Which is why Sam’s so shocked when she picks his. He’s not in the market for new friends, and is definitely not looking to fall in love, but it seems like life, and Camilla Carter, might just have other plans for him.

Life In Outer Space is not only a great debut for a fresh new voice in Aussie YA (think Lili Wilkinson or John Green – witty, charming and funny) but also sets the tone for the Ampersand Project overall. There’s a freshness that breathes through the pages of this, and regardless of what comes next for the Ampersand Project, it’s clear that they have an eye for unique, clever writing. Melissa Keil is by no means a novice to the publishing industry (she works as a children’s book editor), and her editing background and love of the genre is apparent in all aspects of her writing.

I often talk about how nice it is to read a book that reminds you how good reading can make you feel – not how clever it looks on your shelf, not how proud you can be of your endurance having slogged through it, but a book that reminds you of how fun it can be to just let the threads of a story wrap themselves around you and pull you in. It’s so important, especially as life throws up more and more alternatives to taking the time out to read a book, to remember that feeling of reading a book for the pure pleasure of it. Life In Outer Space is that book.

Camilla and Sam, along with the supporting characters, are witty and real – enough that you wish you knew them in highschool, but not so much that you feel that you’re watching twenty-somethings trying awkwardly to walk in teenage shoes. Keil’s writing is spot on for the current trend of being super snappy and succinct and the movie references and lists throughout break up the text in a way very reminiscent of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. There’s no sense of trying too hard, or pushing to fit into a particular mold, just good writing by someone who’s clearly having a great time doing it.

With the ongoing uncertainty of the future of the Australian Book Industry, it’s both a relief and a reward as a reader, writer and critic to see the strength of emerging voices like Melissa Keil’s, and publishing initiatives like the Ampersand Project.