I had a dilemma. In a room about ten metres away two authors of speculative fiction were about to discuss their work. I’d planned to attend for weeks. The problem? My replacement volunteer hadn’t shown up. The next session for my current room was about to start.
I didn’t really have a choice. I stayed – and the magic that happens at writers festivals was present in abundance.
It was 2013 and I was at the inaugural Newcastle Writers Festival. The session I stayed for was Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis discussing their book, The Marmalade Files, with 1233 ABC’s Paul Bevan. It helped that I was interested in hearing them, but I wasn’t a fan of political novels. I could count on one hand the number of novels in that genre I’d read in the last twenty years.
The anecdotes ran thick and fast. It was obvious these two knew the political landscape like the back of their hands. The session ended with Chris Uhlmann describing what it was like to break the story on ABC news of the change of prime minister when Kevin Rudd was rolled from leadership. I was converted. I bought their book.
Although different to most other things I read, I enjoyed the difference. Lewis and Uhlmann said they knew a lot of anecdotes they could never publish, so they made up characters and attributed real deeds to fictional people. A scary thought, but it makes for good reading and more than a few laughs. The story revolves around a journalist who receives leaked information, anonymously, about the Defense Minister. But that’s only the start …
It’s well paced, with enough intrigue to drive the story forward. With obvious parallels to some real political figures, I just hope not all of the stories are true.
Lewis and Uhlmann returned to the Newcastle Writers Festival this year, its third year, with the release of their second book, The Mandarin Code. This time I made sure I attended their session, which they shared with Paul Daley and Jessica Rudd, discussing the revived popularity of political novels. Of course, I bought their new book, but what I didn’t expect to do is buy the books of the other two. This is not my genre, but they were just too interesting.
I’ve saved The Mandarin Code for the moment, but have finished Paul Daley’s Challenge. It’s about Danny Slattery, the leader of the Opposition, who is facing a leadership challenge in the run up to an election in the coming twelve months against a government and prime minister whose best days are behind them. He’s toed the party line, but now has had enough. Beset by attacks on multiple fronts, he resolves to stick to his principles and refuses to cave in to the pressure. But the question is, who he can trust?
While Daley’s protagonist is the leader of a Labor Opposition, the author is equally scathing in his portrayal of the Left and Right sides of politics. Danny has his political principles, but is coming back to awareness of them after too long letting them languish in the name of pragmatism. He sees many of his own faults, excusing some as inevitable consequences of the job, but also unable in many ways to see how far he’d diverged from what he hoped to be.
Challenge is written in the first person, so we see everything through Danny’s filter. It’s not a pretty one. I found his character compelling but not likable, though readers will differ in how they respond. I wouldn’t want to be on his staff, or his friend, but his viewpoint is undeniably a window into a life I’ll never have. Perhaps Daley’s journalistic experience produced a more honest picture than any memoir of an actual member of parliament, because there is no real Danny Slattery to worry about what we’ll think of him. We get Danny, warts and every other bump, bruise, ulcer, and all.
A couple of things to note about style. If bad language bothers you, skip this book. Daley was obviously going for gritty realism, including the internal dialogue. The other thing is my personal taste. There’s a trend in a lot of writing to omit quotation marks for speech, and this novel follows that trend. I find it distracting, because I often find myself having to re-read lines as I’ve assumed they either were or weren’t direct speech, and the following lines then don’t make sense. I know some authors like it, but I find it reduces clarity, and can’t see it adds anything to the writing.
A good find, once again from a writers festival.
Only Paul Daley’s Challenge counts in my Aussie Author Challenge, as I read The Marmalade Files ages ago.