All posts in Literary Criticism

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews, December 2016

    I reviewed 10 books for The Weekend Australian in 2016. Most of them were very good, but my review of the book I enjoyed most – published in August – is included in full below.

    Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

    In this outstanding book, Matthew G. Kirschenbaum decodes the relationship writers have had with word processing technology since the literary world began to shift from typewriters to the personal computer. If this subject matter sounds dry, happily it is anything but in the pages of Track Changes. Kirschenbaum, associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, takes on the topic with depth and an accessible prose style. The result should have broad appeal to a general readership and be of special interest to writers, for there is much here to excite the literary-minded.

    Kirschenbaum opens by referencing one of the pop cultural touchstones of our time: Game of Thrones — or, more specifically, A Song of Ice and Fire, the fantasy novels by American author George RR Martin on which the popular television series is based. As he told a talk show host in 2014, Martin chooses to write his books on a DOS-era computer with no internet connection, using an ancient program called WordStar. Describing this combination as his “secret weapon”, owing to its lack of distraction and isolation from any threat of a computer virus, the author also credits WordStar with his long-running productivity.

    By opening with the work habits of a megaselling author and then travelling back in time, chapter by chapter, to the emerging typewriter-based storage technology of the late 1960s, Kirschenbaum eases the reader into a dazzlingly rich and absorbing history. It is fascinating to note the reluctance with which computer-based word processing was first viewed by the publishing industry. Some writers were so wary of being outed as early adopters that they chose not to disclose their new toys to their employers, or even went to the lengths of having their finished manuscripts rewritten using typewriters before submission.

    Although screen size and small memory capacities caused early concerns and frustrations, it was not long before science-fiction writers, in particular, thrilled to the ability to gain greater control over their text, as well as being freed from the tedium of retyping work. Kirschenbaum quotes a Harvard physicist who came to a realisation in the early 80s: “We all knew computers were coming, but what astonishes us is it’s not the scientists but the word people who have taken them up first.”

    Once bestselling writers such as Stephen King, Isaac Asimov and Terry Pratchett adopted word processors and publicly noted the significant improvements in their productivity, it seemed there would be no turning back. As the technology matured, computers and their inner workings became a source of inspiration for writers, too: the likes of William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which popularised the word ‘‘cyberspace’’, for example.

    Track Changes is based on five years of research and the author’s academic bent can be seen in the 80 pages of detailed notes that follow the narrative text, but never in the prose itself. This is a remarkable achievement. For a project that seems geared toward stuffiness, Kirschenbaum’s writing sparkles with well-chosen anecdotes and a keen sense of humour.

    His enthusiasm for the topic is palpable. After a section profiling thriller author James Patterson, whose occasional media nickname is ‘‘The Word Processor’’ — owing to his prodigious output, produced alongside a half-dozen close collaborators — he wonders what type of technology The Word Processor himself runs. “Surely it must be a mighty one!” Kirschenbaum suggests, before revealing the answer: “He works his stacks of manuscripts longhand. How perfect is that?”

    For the author, this subject is intertwined with his own experiences as a writer, naturally enough. It is dedicated to his parents, “who brought home an Apple”, and he notes in the preface that the book itself was written “mostly in [Microsoft] Word, on a couple of small, lightweight laptops”. The book is named for the incredibly helpful feature in Word that allows readers to see the revision history and minute variations between different versions of documents during the editing process. The origin of this feature is only addressed directly in the final chapter, where Kirschenbaum also writes:

    “Writers live with and within their word processors, and thus with and within the system’s logics and constraints — these themselves become part of the daily lived experience of the writers’ working hours, as predictable and proximate as the squeak of a chair or that certain shaft of sunlight that makes its way across the room.”

    As that illustrates, the author has a way with words, not just an appreciation for how they are processed. The final paragraph is a thing of immense beauty, too, and may bring a tear to the eye of anyone who has sat and watched as fingertip pressure applied to a keyboard instantly became words processed on a screen.

    I also reviewed the below books for The Weekend Australian in 2016. They are listed in chronological order, with the publication date noted in brackets.


  • The Weekend Australian book reviews, December 2015

    I reviewed a handful of books for The Weekend Australian in 2015. Most of them were very good, but my review of the book I enjoyed most – published in November – is included in full below.

    The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships by Neil Strauss

    'The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships' book cover by Neil Strauss, reviewed in The Australian by Andrew McMillen, 2015In the opening pages of Neil Strauss’s 2007 book The Rules Of The Game, the dedication reads: “To your mother and father. Feel free to blame them for everything that’s wrong with you, but don’t forget to give them credit for everything that’s right.”

    Eight years later, Strauss — an American author who came to prominence as a journalist for Rolling Stone and The New York Times — has published The Truth, which is dedicated to his own mother and father. “They say a parent’s­ love is unconditional,” he writes. “Let’s hope that’s still true after you read this book.”

    The Truth comes a decade after The Game, which tracked his journey from dateless no-hoper into master ‘‘pick-up artist’’. The multi-million seller is often maligned and mis­understood as a manual for dateless no-hopers looking for cheat sheets on how to attract the opposite sex, yet The Game is a powerful narrative of transformation which ends with Strauss giving away single life after finding love.

    This new book begins with Strauss cheating on his girlfriend — a different woman to the one he met at the end of The Game. What follows­ is a thorough exploration of the inside of his skull, and how his behaviour toward women has been shaped by his parents’ toxic relationship: a hypercritical, overprotective mother and an aloof, distant father who spent his whole life browbeaten by his wife. It’s a superb­ set-up to a long book, which quickly becomes a compulsive read powered by questions of how Strauss can escape his warped childhood and regain the trust of his scorned partner.

    The narrative covers four tumultuous years of Strauss’s life, through sex addiction therapy and a temporary reconciliation with his partner, followed by the supposed freedom of alternative relationships, such as an attempt to live with three sexual partners concurrently. He is aware of how this all sounds to anyone familiar with The Game: he encounters a man at sex addiction therapy who points out that “a book about learning how to meet women is destructive, and a book about learning how to stop meeting them would be good for the world. And ironic”.

    What sells the story is Strauss’s writing, which is never less than engaging, and frequently­ funny, heartfelt, or both. His observ­ations are astute and poignant: when attending a conference for polyamorists — people with more than one lover — and feeling awkward around a bunch of naked strangers, he notes: “Loneliness is holding in a joke because you have no one to share it with.”

    Like The Game, The Truth might be miscateg­orised under ‘‘self help’’ in bookstores, because the questions Strauss grapples with are universal: how to find love, maintain a relationship, and manage sexual attraction to others without jeopardising what you have built with your partner. Like his past few books, it is written in a first-person perspective, yet the lessons he learns during his journey can be understood and appreciated by many. This is a clever gambit­, and part of the reason that his writing appeals widely, as any attempt to directly instruct­ the reader would dampen its impact.

    Throughout the book, Rick Rubin — a famousl­y bearded record producer who has worked with many great musicians, from Jay-Z to Slayer — pops up as both wise counsel and exasperated onlooker to the author’s behaviour. Similarly, a therapist Strauss meets while being treated for sex addiction provides regular guidance and perspective, and occasionally she and Rubin appear in the same scene. All of the characters Strauss draws are three-dimensional and believable, including a few fellow sex addicts who have their own dysfunctional relationships and attitudes toward faithfulness.

    The two individuals who come under the most scrutiny are the author’s parents, however — hence the dubious dedication at the book’s beginning. Now 46, Strauss has been trying his whole life to please his strict, punishing mother, who frequently confided in her son how much she hated her husband. During therapy, he discovers that there’s a name for this sort of thing, where a mother is emotionally dependent on a child and has intimate discussions that should be had with a spouse: emotional incest.

    Learning that his mother wants to be in a relation­ship with him blows Strauss’s mind, naturally, but also helps him to understand why he’s been unable to live in a healthy, long-term relationship. The toxic environment in which he was raised coloured his romantic experiences in adolescence and adulthood. He became more dysfunctional after learning how to seduce­ women in his 30s.

    “My whole life, I’ve been fighting against love for my freedom,” he realises at about page 300. “No wonder I’ve never been married, engaged­, or even had a love that didn’t wane after the initial infatuation period.”

    Strauss is an incisive writer, and his struggle in these pages has to have been the toughest assignme­nt he’s ever taken on. It’s certainly his best and most important work to date. “For me, the best way to understand what actually transpired in any given situation is to write about it until the truth emerges,” he notes at one point. Writing this book can’t have been easy, yet the real genius of his work is the multiple layers at which he engages the reader.

    Just as The Game is often misunderstood as a straightforward seduction guide, The Truth could be misrepresented by those who seek to pursue alternative sexual relationships. As with the book he published a decade ago, though, the destination is more important than the journey, and where Strauss finds himself at the end is a much happier place than where he began.

    I also reviewed the below books for The Weekend Australian in 2015. They are listed in chronological order, with the publication date noted in brackets.


  • The Weekend Australian book reviews: Joel Meares and Liam Pieper, May 2015

    Two books reviewed for The Weekend Australian in a single article, which is republished below in its entirety.

    Sex and drugs and on a roll

    'We're All Going To Die' book cover by Joel Meares, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, May 2015Genuine candour is one of the most difficult emotions to capture in any form of human communication, writing included. There seems little point in committing to write a memoir if not to tell the whole truth and nothing less.

    This is especially so for young writers, whose ambition and urgency to impress by sharing their innermost secrets has become something of a cliche in an era of online ‘‘oversharing’’. Walking the line between tiresome navel-gazing and insightful, rewarding revelations is tough, but with his debut book Sydney writer Joel Meares succeeds with style.

    In his job as arts editor of The Sydney ­Morning Herald, 30-year-old Meares acts as a cultural gatekeeper, deciding who and what is worthy of coverage. In We’re All Going to Die, his astute editing skills are on display across 10 personal essays that illuminate his early life and formative experiences as a young adult. There are ­occasional asides to his professional career but, by and large, Meares uses the book as a vehicle to examine his intertwined paths as a writer, son, friend, horror-film enthusiast and gay man.

    It is on this last path that he is at his ­strongest, through two central chapters that draw the book into stark focus. The first ­concerns Meares slowly coming to terms with his homosexuality in his 20s, after denying it constantly throughout his childhood and adolescence. One section, in particular, ­provoked a sharp intake of breath, when ­Meares writes that he denied his homosexuality because

    … being gay is something you grow up knowing is bad. It’s not just the ‘‘that’s so gay’’ shit of playgrounds, it’s that being gay, the very idea of it, is ingrained as something ‘‘other’’ — it’s still the go-to pressure point when you really want to take a young bloke out right at the knees.

    I’m sad to say that these sentences rang true for me, as someone a few years younger than Meares who has only relatively recently become aware of the gravity of these types of insults. It is insights such as this for which We’re All Going to Die is strongly recommended, as Meares is clearly a man with something to say and ample ability with which to say it. The chapter that immediately follows, titled So Is Dad, concerns his father’s coming out and it is beautifully and sensitively written.

    Elsewhere, Meares writes of his brief but intense enthusiasm for ecstasy and cocaine. “In Subway sandwich terms, I’ve never been a six-inch man — it’s always been a footlong or nothing,” he writes. “With jalapenos.” This dalliance culminates in panic attacks and several visits to the emergency room, capped with a stern warning from medical professionals that some people just can’t handle their drugs. “Drugs scared me once because they were ‘bad’; they scare me now because they are bad for me,” he concludes.

    The essay on drug use is rooted in a feature story Meares wrote years ago about Sydney’s cocaine scene, and the same is true of his chapter on paruresis, or ‘‘bashful bladder’’ syndrome, which grew out of a 2012 article for Good Weekend magazine. In that story, Meares proved himself a willing comic foil for a serious topic by admitting he had long struggled to ­urinate anywhere but in a closed toilet cubicle. It’s fascinating, this psychological quirk that caused many men embarrassment and inner pain when faced with shared urinal situations, such as at music festivals, yet Meares handles it with good humour and grace.

    'Mistakes Were Made' book cover by Liam Pieper, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, May 2015Slightly more embarrassing than being unable to piss in the presence of other men is the act of hugging a pony in northern NSW and unknowingly picking up a tick that burrows its way into the back of one’s skull, towards the brainstem, and breeds. This simple transaction — a hug for a tick — becomes near-fatal for Melbourne writer Liam Pieper, who contracted a bacterial infection that disabled the lymph nodes on one side of his body, partially paralysing him and coming dangerously close to entering his brain. This took place while Pieper was visiting the cannabis countercultural hub of Nimbin. He was on assignment as a freelance journalist, researching a story for an unnamed “Very Important Magazine”. He ended up filing a 15,000-word story that was three times longer than the magazine requested, written under the disorienting effects of the arachnid’s neurotoxins. The “tick-addled gibberish” was spiked by his editor and the writer nearly died.

    This sequence of events isn’t funny. Or at least it shouldn’t be. But the way Pieper contextualises it is very funny indeed. This opening essay, Catching the Spirit, is one of four that comprise Mistakes Were Made, a breezy and compelling read that exhibits Pieper’s hilarious, dark way of observing and interpreting the world around him.

    The central narrative thread through these four stories is the writing, publication and promotion of Pieper’s memoir, The Feel-Good Hit of the Year, released last year, where he wrote about his experiences as a teenage drug dealer, including the time he sold cannabis to his parents. “What I didn’t understand then is that the first angle to a story to come out tends to be the one that stays around,” he writes. “My folks got a little pot off me once, and that would be the defining narrative of my life for the foreseeable future.”

    With this little book, Pieper builds a strong case for redefining his narrative post-memoir: the other essays concern contrasting racial prejudices in Australia and the US, being stopped at Customs by Los Angeles airport and queried on his drug history, and his brief adoption of a dog named Idiot Geoffrey. His writing is electric: charged with meaning and energised by surprising comedic turns. Between Meares and ­Pieper, there’s not a trace of tiresome navel-gazing; instead, true candour abounds.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    We’re All Going to Die (Especially Me)
    By Joel Meares
    Black Inc, 210pp, $27.99

    Mistakes Were Made
    By Liam Pieper
    Penguin Specials, 67pp, $9.99

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘The Abyssinian Contortionist’ by David Carlin, May 2015

    A book review for The Weekend Australian in May 2015, republished below in its entirety.

    The Abyssinian Contortionist: biography of a circus performer

    Book cover for 'The Abyssinian Contortionist: Hope, Friendship and Other Circus Acts' by David Carlin, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, May 2015A biography written across several years in real-time, in the immersive style of narrative non­fiction, The Abyssinian Contortionist is a book as striking and memorable as its cover art. Its author, Melbourne-based writer and teacher David Carlin, charts the course of his friendship with a circus performer named Sosina Wogayehu, who was born in Ethiopia, visited Australia as a teenager in the late 1990s, and has lived and worked here since.

    It feels strange to summarise Wogayehu in a sentence as stark as that, however, as hers is a story of such emotional depth and complexity that it is certainly deserving of a book-length narrative. In Carlin, we have a narrator of rare honesty and bald self-doubt. On numerous occasions he makes clear to the reader that this story was written in close collaboration with its subject: he writes of poring over early drafts of the manuscript with Wogayehu, taking in her feedback and sharpening his prose accordingly.

    At one point, while visiting an Ethiopian locale of special significance, he writes, “I look across at Sosina relaxing in the cool air, chewing on her lunch. ‘Do you think this is where the book should end?’ I ask her.” (The answer is self-evident, as the story continues for another 10 pages.)

    This meta, self-reflexive style of writing easily could have been a gimmick, and quickly tiresome, but from the outset it is clear Carlin is a master storyteller who is well-equipped for the challenge of capturing the life of a woman about whose culture, at the outset, he knows practically nothing. The subject of The Abyssinian Contortionist is clearly a remarkable person of unusual social mobility and ability, yet Carlin manages to navigate the high-wire act of astute observation without falling into hagiography.

    Wogayehu’s story begins in her birthplace, the national capital of Addis Ababa, where the eight-year-old entrepreneur earns pocket money by selling single cigarettes to passers-by each afternoon after school. (This fact alone speaks volumes of her canny character.) Life in Ethiopia is tough, and although her father has a job at a local brewery and her mother runs a combined hotel, restaurant and cafe attached to the family home, their means are limited. Sosina teaches herself how to bend her body into seemingly impossible shapes by watching a weekly German variety show on the only television station in the land, and it is in the family lounge room that her career as a contortionist and circus performer takes root.

    So she joined Circus Ethiopia, a group that performed on Broadway in New York, in London and Europe, and in Australia. A scandal erupted within the ranks of the performers, who were disturbed by their exploitation, financial and sexual, during a visit to our shores. The man at the centre of subsequent charges, Marc LaChance, committed suicide after confessing his sins of pedophilia. A splinter group of 15 performers, mostly teenagers, fled Circus Ethiopia seeking humanitarian asylum from the Australian government, which eventually relented by agreeing that Sosina and her friends could stay.

    It was while working as a director for Circus Oz — “among trapeze bars and tightwire walkers”, as he puts it — that Carlin crossed paths with the young performer, who had recently graduated from the Australian national circus school. As he notes at the beginning, he was drawn to make a book “that traced the contours of the gap” between the two of them. Carlin states early in the piece that he was also looking to write about something other than himself, having published his acclaimed debut in 2010, Our Father Who Wasn’t There, about his father’s suicide when Carlin was six months old, and his resultant search for paternal figures.

    This story, however, would have been a far less compelling read if it were a straight biography, as Carlin-as-narrator is present throughout its telling. His regular asides are by turns poignant and comedic, as the narrative smartly jumps between reconstructed scenes from the past and first-person observations in the present without jarring the reader. This is quite a skill, and it is one of Carlin’s chief achievements here, as the book was written across several years and includes two visits to Ethiopia. The closing chapters see Carlin tagging along to his subject’s home town following a death in the family, where he is allowed the rare privilege of bearing witness to the startlingly wide-screen, surround-sound manner in which Ethiopians mourn and grieve. In these scenes, Carlin’s fish-out-of-water presence — as a tall white guy among a sea of dark skin — is never clearer, and his insights into this foreign culture are many and worthy. Throughout The Abyssinian Contortionist, his writing is so crisp and vivid that, on reading its final pages, I felt a deep satisfaction and a longing for more.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    The Abyssinian Contortionist: Hope, Friendship and Other Circus Acts
    By David Carlin
    UWA Publishing, 244pp, $29.99

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘Something Quite Peculiar’ by Steve Kilbey, January 2015

    A book review for The Weekend Australian in January 2015, republished below in its entirety.

    Steve Kilbey’s rock memoir offers juicy details of The Church days

    'Something Quite Peculiar' by Steve Kilbey book cover, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, January 2015Steve Kilbey’s rock ’n’ roll memoir Something Quite Peculiar is a book best described using the adjective of its title, as the abrupt and unfulfilling closing chapters are completely out of sync with the generous story that comes before. What starts as an entertaining and informative autobiography by one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic musicians peters out and leaves the reader frustrated by what could have been.

    Surely this can’t have been a stylistic decision on the author’s part, as much of the 1980s, the most commercially successful period of Kilbey’s band The Church, are coloured in vivid ­detail and powered by strong narrative momentum. Rather the book’s incomplete nature suggests a writer up against a hard deadline. Fans are sure to be disappointed that the more recent years of Kilbey’s life flash by in too few pages.

    The positives of this book are many, most notably the author’s wry self-awareness and his ability to tell stories. From the opening pages it’s clear we’re in safe hands. Born in Hertfordshire, England, Kilbey was three when his family moved to Australia.

    They settled in Wollongong, where his ­father was a foreman and his mother worked in an insurance office. Their eldest son soon found a taste for attention-seeking — or, as he puts it, “an incredibly precocious pretentiousness was beginning to manifest in spades: an intrinsic desire to perform and be rewarded”.

    In early high school, in the Canberra suburb of Lyneham, he saw a live band for the first time at a school social and saw his future: “I felt implicitly that my place was up on the stage making the music, not down there dancing around.”

    Kilbey’s vast musical IQ thus began developing at age 16, when he opted for a bass guitar instead of its more popular six-string cousin, and began learning his favourite songs by ear. Soon he joined a popular local covers band named Saga. This plum gig earned him almost as much as his father was making, but more importantly Kilbey could play close to 1000 songs by the end of his 18-month tenure.

    These scenes from Kilbey’s youth are written in an easy, conversational style. Richly drawn and compelling, his story is buttressed by plenty of comic self-deprecation and wry foreshadowing for the international rock star he’d become.

    Over the years, much has been made in the music press of the fractious, fraught relationship between members of the Church, a band that has achieved much in its 34-year career and is still recording. Things didn’t begin well when Kilbey enlisted a former schoolyard bully to play drums in the band’s first incarnation. Nor, decades later, when the tedious nature of months-long world tours spent in close confines with the same handful of men would eventually lead to tantrums, sabotaged gigs and mid-tour walkouts.

    Kilbey identifies himself as the ultimate self-saboteur, however, when he tries heroin for the first time in 1991, at age 37, and subsequently loses the next 11 years of his life to addiction. Fittingly, these final chapters take a dark turn, and the frivolous, funny narrator is replaced by a man filled with pain and regret. “It’s quite an upheaval to write much of the story from here on in,” he notes on page 250. “It doesn’t come lightly or pleasantly like the earlier chapters: each memory fills me with shame and revulsion and sadness in differing amounts.”

    Fair enough. The book’s final 20 pages are some of its most interesting and insightful, devoted as they are to describing and analysing this period of Kilbey’s life. However, it’s a cop-out that the third-last paragraph in the book begins, “So I left Sweden in 2000 for a couple of years in America after having met an American girl on tour in 1999, and had another pair of twins.” What? It is bizarre that these seemingly key moments in his life are reduced to a flippant sentence in the closing pages. (We learn in the outro that Kilbey’s first pair of twin daughters, Elektra and Miranda, are musicians in a Swedish pop duo named Say Lou Lou — another interesting admission left way too late.)

    Perhaps cursory dismissals such as these are intended to highlight the egocentric and self-obsessed nature of the author, traits which Kilbey readily acknowledges. But the absence of any detail of his more recent years — besides a brief opening scene at the 2010 ARIA Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and a closing scene at a 2011 Sydney Opera House show — leaves a sour taste. For all the space devoted to discussing songwriting techniques, killer live shows and the importance of strong encores, what’s most peculiar of all is that this fascinating story ends on such a weak note.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    Something Quite Peculiar: Man of The Church. The Music. The Mayhem.
    By Steve Kilbey.
    Hardie Grant, 272pp, $29.95

    Further reading: an extract from my book Talking Smack featuring Steve Kilbey.

  • Australian Book Review: ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah’ by Bob Stanley, December 2014

    A piece for Australian Book Review published in December 2014, republished below in its entirety.

    Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop by Bob Stanley

    'Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop' book cover by Bob Stanley, reviewed in Australian Book Review by Andrew McMillen, December 2014It is difficult to imagine a more satisfying long-form narrative about pop music than Yeah Yeah Yeah. Although the book runs to almost 800 pages, British author Bob Stanley writes with such authority and infectious passion that the momentum never skips a beat. Beginning with the first British hit parade and the popularisation of the electric guitar, Stanley traces the arc through to modern forms such as dance and hip-hop while fulfilling the role of tour guide. He takes the reader through a museum of pop music, pausing before significant artefacts to offer erudite commentary, and encouraging the reader to don headphones and experience the sounds of each era.

    In the introduction, Stanley states his intention of drawing a straight line – ‘with the odd wiggle and personal diversion’ – from the birth of the seven-inch single to the recent decline of pop music as a physical thing. Stanley selects 1952 as the art form’s beginning, and charts its next fifty years through five parts and sixty-five distinct chapters, which intelligently group together artists, labels, scenes, and genres. Footnotes are included on almost every second page, a stylistic trait which the author never abuses; each aside and knowing reference contributes to the wider story being told. The purpose of Yeah Yeah Yeah is to tell pop’s story, and since the vast majority of the most influential pop acts began in either England or the United States, it is in these two engine rooms that much of the narrative is situated. Only a couple of Australia’s contributions are mentioned in passing, most notably AC/DC and The Saints, two seminal rock bands.

    From the outset, Stanley makes clear his unabashed enthusiasm for pop music. Covering five decades of human expression through sound would be a tedious and dreary task if the writer had not been fascinated by records since before he could walk. Fittingly, Stanley is unafraid to wear his own preferences on his sleeve; certainly, the presence or absence of particular artists can be attributed to the author’s tastes, but he never lowers himself into outright sneering élitism. When writing about American rock band Steely Dan, for example, he admits to trying hard to love the band as so many others do, before concluding, ‘I think, as with ninety per cent of jazz, I might like them a lot more one day.’ Regardless of his own response to musical genres, Stanley is willing to engage with the source material and to contextualise these artistic achievements on a grand scale.

    It takes considerable restraint on the reader’s part not to pause every few pages and seek out the music that Stanley writes about. Indeed, much of the fun of reading this excellent book is hearing chorus hooks and key changes play in your mind. We are lucky enough to be living in an age where most of the music discussed in Yeah Yeah Yeah can be heard on YouTube, if not a streaming service like Rdio or Spotify. This technological endpoint is flagged in his introduction, and, thankfully, our forty-nine-year-old narrator is not another Luddite trapped in the past, feebly shaking his fist at the demise of vinyl, cassettes, and compact discs. Stanley does not fetishise the physical product, as so many of his peers do; instead, it is clear throughout that the music itself is what’s important, rather than the medium of delivery.

    Stanley maintains a wry tone throughout Yeah Yeah Yeah, and never slips into navel-gazing academia. The book is all the stronger for this consistent voice. Personal anecdotes are frequent: midway through the book, after pointing out possibly his favourite lyric ever – ‘If I could get a job with that cool rockin’ band / you’d notice me with that red guitar in my hand,’ by British glam-rockers Wizzard – Stanley notes, ‘There it is. The entire pop myth in one couplet.’

    Soon after, in a chapter dedicated to country and western, Stanley points out ‘the most beautiful line in the whole pop canon’, which appears in ‘Wichita Lineman’ by Glen Campbell: ‘I need you more than want you, and I want you for all time.’ It is a line, writes Stanley, ‘that makes me stop whatever I’m doing’. Moments like these enhance the book’s credibility. Another favourite example appears in a chapter concerning New York rock act the Velvet Underground. In one particular section on the track ‘I Heard Her Call My Name’, the band, Stanley writes, ‘had somehow created a noise so brand new that it tore a hole in pop’s natural state of progression, so sharp and freakish and heart-piercing that it makes me burst out laughing every time I hear it’.

    Importantly, the author is not just an excitable tour guide but a practitioner, too. In 1990, Bob Stanley founded a pop group named Saint Etienne. While he is modest enough to leave his own musical contributions out of the book’s main narrative, his understanding of songwriting mechanics, tricks, and techniques is on constant display. While Saint Etienne’s contribution to pop is admirable, and not easily forgotten, Stanley’s written work will last even longer. The book’s subtitle is ambitious, yet there can be no doubt that, with Yeah Yeah Yeah, the author has achieved his storytelling goal.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop
    by Bob Stanley
    Faber, $39.95 pb, 776 pp, 9780571281978

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘The Dark Net’ by Jamie Bartlett, November 2014

    A book review for The Weekend Australian in November 2014, republished below in its entirety.

    Jamie Bartlett’s The Dark Net delves into internet’s murky depths

    'The Dark Net: Inside The Digital Underworld' book cover by Jamie Bartlett, reviewed by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian, November 2014Beneath the surface of the well-trod online paths characterised by familiar corporate names — Google, eBay, YouTube, iTunes — mainstream news and entertainment portals lies a hidden layer: the “dark net’’, a shadier cousin of the comparatively generalist ‘‘cyberspace’’. It cannot be accessed by traditional web browsers, only via anonymising software called Tor, an acronym for The Onion Router, a cute nod to the network’s technical complexity.

    In his introduction to The Dark Net, British author Jamie Bartlett describes this online realm as “a place without limits, a place to push boundaries, a place to express ideas without censorship, a place to sate our curiosities and desires, whatever they may be. All dangerous, magnificent and uniquely human qualities”.

    Yet the dark net is best known for enabling the development and proliferation of two shady human endeavours: marketplaces for illicit drugs and child pornography hubs, areas that Bartlett interrogates in some detail. However, the title of this book is a bit misleading: rather than peeling back the onion’s layers, Bartlett broadens his scope by examining the “myriad shocking, disturbing and controversial corners of the net — the realm of imagined criminals and predators of all shapes and sizes”.

    He begins by tracing the history of the internet, and how the ‘‘online disinhibition effect’’ led to incendiary behaviours such as ‘‘trolling’’ and ‘‘flaming’’. This section is enlightening and well written. Even though I’ve been a heavy internet user for nearly 15 years, I learned a lot.

    “Whether we like it or not, trolling is a feature of the online world today,” Bartlett concludes. “As we all live more of our lives online, trolls might help us to recognise some of the dangers of doing so, make us a little more careful, and a little more thick-skinned. One day, we might even thank them for it.”

    He takes a magnifying glass to idealistic encryption software and ‘‘cryptocurrencies’’ such as Bitcoin, as well as social networks devoted to inflammatory topics such as self-harm, anorexia and British nationalism. The tone throughout is more journalistic than judgmental: “For every destructive subculture I examined,” he writes, “there are just as many that are positive, helpful and constructive.”

    The Bitcoin chapter takes him to a techno-commune in Barcelona, where programmers code through the night, fuelled by the libertarian promise of the unregul­ated currency. But the author isn’t convinced: “… if everyone starts using Bitcoin, government’s ability to tax and spend will diminish: healthcare, education and social security will suffer. The things that hold democracies together, and provide support for the most in need. Societies cannot be broken and fixed like computer code, nor do they follow predictable mathematical rules. If genuinely anonymous communication becomes the norm, it’s inevitable that it will be used by criminals too.” Such caution is prescient: in August, the Australian Taxation Office published a paper stating its views on Bitcoin, including its intention to treat it not as a currency but as an asset, akin to property or shares — a move that has been criticised by Bitcoin proponents as shortsighted and ill-informed.

    The line about criminals quoted above is explored in depth, too, when Bartlett inadvertently stumbles across a child pornography website while browsing the dark net’s Hidden Wiki. “Once I’d opened my Tor browser, it took me two mouse clicks to arrive at the page advertising the link,” he writes. “If I had clicked again, I would have committed an extremely serious crime. I can’t think of another instance where doing something so bad is so easy.”

    This narrative thread takes him to the Internet Watch Foundation, an organisation devoted to removing online child pornography. At its offices in Cambridgeshire, no family photos are allowed on desks, part of an effort to keep private and professional lives separate.

    Bartlett, who is director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at London think tank Demos, also interfaces with illicit drug marketplaces such as Silk Road, receiving a small amount of cannabis through the postal system after paying for it with Bitcoin. Here his tone is one of academic distance: “Inside, the product was carefully sealed, the correct weight and, according to an expert friend of mine, appeared to be extremely good quality.”

    In the book’s most entertaining vignette, Bartlett sits in on a ‘‘camgirl’’ broadcast wherein three young women pleasure themselves and each other in exchange for cash tips from their thousands of global viewers. “The three of them are sitting on the bed in sexy clothes, arms around each other like a school gang,” he writes breathlessly. “I am sitting just off-camera, two feet away from the bed, a pad of paper and my laptop on my knees […] It all feels a little strange, to say the least.”

    Bartlett covers a lot of ground in The Dark Net without becoming bogged down in technical minutiae. Even experienced dark net users will find this book engrossing. He also refuses to buy into the hysteria about this online realm: “In the dark net, we can simply find more, do more and see more. And in the dark net we have to be careful, cautious and responsible.”

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist and author of Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs.

    The Dark Net: Inside the Digital Underworld
    By Jamie Bartlett
    Random House, 320pp, $35

  • The Weekend Australian book reviews: ‘Chemo’ by Luke Ryan and ‘Hitchy Feet’ by John Card, August 2014

    Two books reviewed for The Weekend Australian in a single article, which is republished below in its entirety.

    Running away only to find oneself

    Book cover: 'Hitchy Feet: A Grown-up’s Guide to Running Away from Home and Accidentally Getting a Life' by John Card, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, August 2014A travel memoir based on the author’s experience of hitchhiking around Australia in the late 2000s, Hitchy Feet introduces us to John Card, a Victorian high school science teacher who tires of the classroom and seeks adventure.

    The plot is rather thin: Card has designs on becoming a radio broadcaster, and hitches a counterclockwise path up the east coast toward a university in Perth for an admission interview. This stated goal is something of a MacGuffin, though, as much of the book is instead devoted to narrating the situations Card finds himself in while hitching, as well as putting his past actions under the microscope while reflecting on the man he has become.

    Card was 33 at the time of undertaking his journey, and frequently downcast about his lack of overarching life direction. While in the midst of the book’s most amusing chapter — an all-night drive through the Pilbara with ‘‘Joe’’, who sinks a carton of beer and climbs onto the roof while the vehicle moves at 120 clicks per hour — Card is handed a stack of porno mags by his gregarious companion, a friendly gesture that sends the author into a tailspin of melancholy. He craves intellectual stimulation, rather than something that’ll give him an erection. “I needed a broadsheet newspaper, a certainty for keeping me flaccid,” he writes.

    Card’s experiences as a high school teacher here and in England are well-drawn, and I’d liked to have heard more about this aspect of his life. He admits his initial passion for the job was soon overwhelmed by its challenges — a common story among young teachers — which eventually became cynicism. He believes our public secondary school system plays a vital part in capitalism, as he and his colleagues “looked after children while their parents made money”. Card claims to have no answers to this troubling situation, but his observations from the coalface of a difficult profession are valuable nonetheless.

    While struggling with the job at a London school, he almost clobbers a mouthy Serbian refugee who claims to have seduced his girlfriend. “Admitting my violent longings caused deep conflict within me,” he writes. These desires are rooted in Card’s experience of being bullied as a child. The trauma has carried into his adult life and there are times where the ­author has to fight himself to keep the violence at bay. Add booze to the equation, though, and the task becomes harder. Directionless men and alcohol seem to go hand-in-hand, and Card is no exception.

    These stories tend to be funny, but his segues can be weak: at one point, Card writes awkwardly: “By the time I’d stopped typing late in the afternoon, I’d obtained a raging beer thirst. I quenched it.”

    In the heat of the moment, though, his narration is compelling, especially when his inner monologue kicks in. The following section occurs after meeting some unsavoury parents at a pub in Richmond, western Queensland:

    I lay down on the torn mattress, thinking of Joe’s kids. I had the impression he would call them all little cunts, all the time, because of the ease with which it rolled off his tongue. I started to reflect on how this journey’s voyeuristic quality was patronising on my part. Was I putting myself in these situations in order to feel better about myself? Reaffirming myself as middle class? Was I just there for a laugh? Was I having a midlife crisis? Was I a snob? These were unanswered questions, but I felt very unlike the Joes of the world. Maybe even more middle class.

    Ultimately, it’s this sort of honesty that elevates Hitchy Feet from the middling travel memoir established in the opening pages to the salient insight into the psyche of a smart young Australian man with which we finish.

    Book cover: 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo: A Memoir of Getting Cancer — Twice!' by Luke Ryan, reviewed in The Weekend Australian by Andrew McMillen, August 2014In contrast, readers know exactly what they’re getting from Luke Ryan’s debut book. The 29 year-old author was unlucky enough to have been diagnosed with cancer twice, at the age of 11 and 22. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo centres on of the grimmest periods of the Melbourne-based writer’s life.

    Yet punchlines abound to the point where there’s practically a gag on every page, a large proportion of which cut through due to tragicomic circumstances or the sheer drollness of his observations.

    “Given my white, suburban, middle-class, Catholic upbringing, quite possibly these are the only things of interest to have ever happened to me,” Ryan wryly notes.

    His painful childhood illness is viewed through the wiser lens of adulthood, complete with staircase wit: after returning to school and slipping to the social periphery, the author was told by “a group of horny reprobates” to return to hospital.

    “This was, I felt, both cruel and frankly inappropriate advice coming from anyone besides a medical professional,” he writes.

    The more socially adept older Ryan met the second round with a resolution not to adhere to the cancer narratives of journeys, battles and survivors. These conventional stories were of no interest to him; instead, he opted to craft a comic persona to deny the seriousness of his situation. It worked: he got through the experience with good humour intact, and his 2009 stand-up show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Luke’s Got Cancer, was a sell-out hit.

    Though Ryan’s incisive wit is the chief narrative voice here, he’s not above lifting the curtain to show the anxiety and fear that swirled through his mind offstage. These glimpses of emotional honesty are some of the book’s finest moments and add gravitas to a fine memoir that never approaches self-pity. After all, as he writes in the introduction, this isn’t a book about denying cancer, but about seeing cancer as part of a life, rather than its sum total.

    An intelligent writer of great talent, Ryan wilfully acknowledges that with the publication of this book he has milked this particular subject and its minutiae of sickness and tedium for all it’s worth. Having proved himself a deft hand at the task of painful self-examination, Ryan seems highly likely to excel at whichever topic he chooses to write about next.

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based journalist. His first book, Talking Smack: Honest Conversations About Drugs, is published by UQP.

    Hitchy Feet: A Grown-up’s Guide to Running Away from Home and Accidentally Getting a Life

    By John Card

    Finch Publishing, 224pp, $24.99

    A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo: A Memoir of Getting Cancer — Twice!

    By Luke Ryan

    Affirm Press, 288pp, $29.99

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘High Sobriety’ by Jill Stark, March 2013

    A book review for The Weekend Australian, republished below in its entirety.

    Frank memoir explores the cost of our drinking culture

    'High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze' book cover by Jill Stark, reviewed by Andrew McMillen in The Weekend Australian, March 2013Scottish-born journalist Jill Stark was a health reporter with a blind spot: despite writing about Australia’s binge-drinking culture for The Age newspaper, she would regularly drink to excess, as she’d done since her teens.

    One too many hangovers, however – the last on New Year’s Day, 2011 – set her, at age 35, on the path of alcohol abstinence for the first time in her adult life. The result is High Sobriety, her first book.

    As the subtitle indicates, this is an account of Stark’s sober 2011, one month per chapter. It’s part memoir, part sociological examination of our national drinking habits, and both aspects work well.

    “Just like Scotland, Australia’s default bonding-ritual is drinking,” she writes near the beginning, noting that her homeland is “a place where whisky outsells milk, and teetotalism is a crime punishable by death”. Stark is being melodramatic, of course, but the narrative makes it clear: to cut booze out of her life is almost as serious as excising a limb.

    On announcing her first period of sobriety – three months, as part of a youth-led health program called Hello Sunday Morning – Stark captures her social isolation vividly. When confronted by her peers about her decision not to drink or smoke, she notes that “my identity was suddenly reduced to the sum of the substances I’d chosen not to ingest”. Her transformation from centre-of-party to self-conscious fringe-dweller makes for a compelling contrast.

    Every aspect of Stark’s life is laid bare: her suspicions that she drinks to dampen the fear of being alone; her troubled love life (she realises in March that she hasn’t been sober during sex in years); her depression and anxiety, perhaps exacerbated by booze; her family’s history of alcoholism, including a grandfather who drank heavily until the day he died. “At the heart of that tragedy: alcohol,” she writes after her mother tells this story for the first time. “A drug I have enjoyed with cavalier abandon simply because it’s legal.”

    Her initial three-month commitment soon turns into 12, thanks in part to a popular feature article about her experience in The Age (and resultant book offers).

    Stark is at pains to point out how difficult not drinking is: she wonders if she’ll be able to navigate various events without booze: her birthday, a return to Scotland, the AFL finals series, a friend’s wedding, Christmas parties and so on. These too-regular instances of self-doubt are the only aspect of her writing that grates a little.

    Wedged between her own confessions are historical passages charting Australia’s history with alcohol, with a focus on the relatively recent, media-defined trend of youth binge drinking; a discussion about journalism’s long, slow dance with alcohol on the job, including war stories from older Fairfax scribes; the role of advertising in the liquor industry; and interviews with public health professionals regarding the effects this drug can have on human brains if consumption is not kept in check. Pertinent observations are plentiful and the author’s tone is never condescending.

    Stark makes it through the year, of course, with more than a few self-discoveries along the way. There is a devastating, unexpected personal tragedy near the end, which pulls the book’s premise into sharp focus. As she puts it: “Life’s too short to be wasted.” This is a conclusion reached without moralising, without judging others. It’s a refreshing approach to the oft-loaded discussion surrounding drug use of all kinds. Near the end, Stark writes:

    As rewarding as my year without booze has been, swimming against the tide has been bloody hard, and at times exhausting. It could be even harder for the next generation of drinkers. As long as laying off the booze leads to claims that you’re a boring, un-Australian loser in an environment set up to convince you alcohol makes you cool and socially functional, young people will continue to get pissed for confidence, comfort, and belonging.

    This isn’t a guide to abstinence, nor is it intended to induce fear in those who drink, to excess or otherwise – though some of the statistics quoted are certainly enough to make any reader consider their consumption. Ultimately, it’s hard not to recommend this book: from teenagers experimenting with their first taste, to those who’ve been imbibing for decades, many will find Stark’s story illuminating, touching, and memorable.

    High Sobriety: My Year Without Booze 
    By Jill Stark
    Scribe, 320pp, $29.95

    Elsewhere: I wrote about the founder of Hello Sunday Morning, Chris Raine, for Qweekend in June 2011

  • The Weekend Australian book review: ‘Trust Me, I’m Lying’ by Ryan Holiday, November 2012

    A book review published in The Weekend Australian on November 3. The full review follows.

    New media’s Machiavellis

    “My job is to lie to the media so they can lie to you,” 25-year-old Ryan Holiday writes on the first page of his first book. “I cheat, bribe, and connive for bestselling authors and billion-dollar brands and abuse my understanding of the internet to do it.”

    It’s a frank admission from the marketing director of Los Angeles-based clothing company American Apparel, and one that sets the tone for an explosive insight into new media manipulation.

    Trust Me, I’m Lying documents Holiday’s consistent exploitation of online publishers – from small-fry blogs to the websites of national media outlets – in the name of publicising his client list, which also includes Tucker Max, a popular American author whose stories centre on binge drinking and sexual debauchery.

    By revealing his tactics and explaining his strategies, Holiday exposes the blog-led model of “pageview journalism” as a vapid and desperate sham.

    Though this book concentrates on American websites such as the Huffington Post and Gawker, its message is relevant to all online publishers. Holiday describes his mission “to rip back the curtain and expose a problem that thus far everyone else has been too intimidated or self-interested to discuss openly”. Namely, the web is “hopelessly broken”:

    The economics of the internet created a twisted set of incentives that make traffic more important – and more profitable – than the truth. With the mass media – and today, mass culture – relying on the web for the next big thing, it is a set of incentives with massive implications.

    This economy – in which websites and blogs simply need traffic to sell advertisements, and where a perusing reader and accidental click are one and the same – leads the incessant hunger for new content. By design, this is a situation ripe for exploitation, as the income of many bloggers depends on their page views.

    “It’s a great time to be a media manipulator when your marks actually love receiving PR pitches,” Holiday notes.

    The first half of this book is devoted to how blogs work or, as Holiday describes it, “feeding the monster”. In an apparent nod to his mentor Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, Holiday outlines nine tactics, such as “give them what spreads, not what’s good” and “use the technology against itself”.

    These are all valid tactics that Holiday has used when promoting his clients. However, he notes some readers may be tempted to use them as an instruction manual for manipulation of their own. “So be it,” he writes. “You will come to regret that choice, just as I have. But you will also have fun, and it could make you rich.”

    In the second half of the book, “The monster attacks”, Holiday ruminates on what blogs mean. He takes a blade to press-led online extortion, iterative journalism (one top blogger is quoted as saying “getting it right is expensive, getting it first is cheap”), the sad truths of “snark” writing and “online entertainment tactics that drug you and me”.

    This book is essential reading for anyone working in the media, online or off, and also for those who want to understand how the PR industry influences what appears on screens, in newspapers and magazines, and over airwaves. Marketers and the media are increasingly on the same team; this book is something of a wake-up call.

    “The world is boring, but the news is exciting,” Holiday writes. “It’s a paradox of modern life. Journalists and bloggers are not magicians, but … you must give them some credit. Shit becomes sugar.”

    Similarly, it is a credit to the author’s writing style and analytical abilities that this book never becomes weighed down in media theory. Every point is backed up with penetrating personal anecdotes.

    The narrative is tied to a rich understanding of media history, all the way back to the street vendor “cash and carry” innovation of New York newspaper The Sun in 1833, which is eerily similar to the gaudy, attention-grabbing media model of 2012.

    Holiday is incisive and merciless. It is clear he has the perceptiveness and wherewithal to turn his still-nascent career into a fortune from advising the rich and powerful, yet this book is a step back from that dark art. In the introduction, he writes of his hope that, by exposing these vulnerabilities in the media system, they’ll no longer work as well. We’ll see about that.

    Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator 
    By Ryan Holiday
    Portfolio, 272pp, $26.95 (HB)

    Andrew McMillen is a Brisbane-based freelance journalist.

    For more on Trust Me, I’m Lying, visit its website. You might also be interested in my interview with Ryan Holiday from October 2011.