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Click here to email the reviews editor, Vanessa Baird. book reviews

Her Sister's Eye
by Vivienne Cleven
(University of Queensland Press, ISBN 0 7022 3283 1)

The Australian outback town of Mundra is plagued by its history of disappearances and suspicion. Its streets echo with rumours of murder and atrocities, and its people are scarred by the oppression of its indigenous people. The earth itself seems to have been made barren by the events that once took place there.

Her Sister’s Eye Into this town young indigenous writer Vivienne Cleven gathers characters that range from the wandering savant Archie Corella, who remembers nothing of his past but his name and whose face has been left horrifically scarred by some hidden event, to Sofie, a woman with the mind of a child who is a dangerous adversary yet an easy victim.

Cleven uses magical realism to heighten the novel's disquieting sense of place and to explore the tensions of sexual predatoriness and racial menace in a trans-racial outback community. Not surprisingly, the novel charts a course through both indigenous issues and the role of women.

Her Sister's Eye attempts to expose the mysteries of the past in order to render them harmless. The most moving moments are those where Cleven writes from the gut and it is here that she creates her most inventive passages and most liberating humour.

Like the town's scarred earth, its lifeblood river both gives and takes. It provides some balance to the fire and the heat that come sweeping through in dust storms. The river also holds mixed memories for the characters, and functions as Sofie's cathedral, where she talks to the fish.

There is a humanity and accuracy to Cleven's writing that will richly reward readers who deal with the painful subject matter. This is a challenging novel.

Rating [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]      GF

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Blood Diamonds:
Tracing the Deadly Path of the
World's Most Precious Stones
by Greg Campbell
(Westview Press, ISBN 0 8133 3939 1)

Blood Diamonds Diamonds originating in war zones - 'conflict diamonds' or, less euphemistically, 'blood diamonds'- amount for about four or five per cent of global output. While this may be a small percentage - something stressed repeatedly by De Beers, the cartel which virtually controls the world diamond market - it has been estimated that this bloody trade has caused 3.7 million deaths and displaced 6 million Africans.

Greg Campbell's absorbing investigation opens in sickeningly graphic but appropriate fashion with an account of a brutal and commonplace atrocity as teenage fighters of the Sierra Leone rebel gang, The Revolutionary United Front, chop off the hands of innocent villagers caught up in the fighting.

Campbell's book clarifies why the bloodiest and most protracted African wars have been fought in those countries - Sierra Leone, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo - with abundant natural resources. These wars, beyond ideology or morality, are simply struggles to control the wealth and funnel it to Western corporations. War, in these terms, is an 'economic endeavour' and the civil war which has destroyed Sierra Leone is, in Campbell's memorable phrase, 'a 10-year-long jewellery heist'.

Blood Diamonds is first-rate journalistic sleuthing, tracing the webs that link the legitimate diamond trade, shady Lebanese dealers, conscienceless rebel groups and, through conduits in neighbouring Liberia and Guinea, organizations such as Hizbullah and al-Qaeda. In laying bare the squalid secrets behind the trade in this 'purest' of gems, Campbell has provided an overdue reminder of the real price to be paid, in suffering, mutilation and death, by the victims of the world's manufactured hunger for diamonds.    

Rating [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]    PW

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Letters to the Celestial Serbs
by Gojko Beric
translated by Saba
(Saqi Books/ The Bosnian Institute, ISBN 0 86356 731 2)

For over 20 years the veteran Serb journalist Gojko Beric has been filing acerbic pieces on the social and cultural mores of his compatriots for the Sarajevo newspaper Oslobodenje. When war and devastation came to Bosnia, Beric gained an international reputation for his honest and incisive accounts of life in the besieged city. As a Serb living among Croats and Bosnians he was, more than most, forced to confront his identity and loyalties. Letters to the Celestial Serbs, his latest collection of journalism, covering the post-war period from 1996 to 2001, shows that he has lost none of his insight or integrity. There are pieces on what it means to be a Serb, and fine considerations of the ambiguous roles played by the Serbian Orthodox Church and Bosnian President Alia Izetbegovic.

The author mentions Voltaire's observation that history is one long chain of human misfortune and then wryly wonders what Voltaire would have said if he had lived in the Balkans in the 20th century. There is indeed little in these pages for even the most Panglossian of observers to cling to. However, Beric does make the case repeatedly and doggedly for the irreducible shared humanity of Serbs, Croats and Bosnians in the teeth of the rampant nationalism, fanatical hatred and bloodletting unleashed by the break-up of Yugoslavia. As he writes in an article called 'The Bugbear of Reconciliation'- the 'forces of life and survival impose on the Bosnians, Serbs and Croats just one choice: peace and the painstaking restoration of lost trust.'

Rating [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]      PW

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music reviews

Shining Brother, Shining Sister
by Jackie Leven
(Cooking Vinyl COOKCD250 CD)

Jackie Leven It's difficult to place Jackie Leven. The Scot is one of those singer-songwriters whose complex talents have never been properly served by the often simpler demands of music industry and audience alike.

Leven wrote songs that wanted to be poems and poems that wanted to be songs and, if he never quite managed this crossover in the past, then Shining Brother, Shining Sister is the bravest stab that he's made to date.

Taking its title from a Pablo Neruda poem, the album's relationship to poetry is inextricable. Twelve poets (Mandelstam, Yeats, Rilke and Sitwell among them), twelve songs. Mostly the poems are tacked on to Leven's own big, airy numbers, as codas read by invited guests who include Robert Bly, Ron Sexsmith and Eddi Reader. The effect can often be sprawling - it's difficult to know who's doing what - but it is always interesting.

Although the album's production is sometimes let down by predictability (wailing train noises to accompany a railroad lyric, hammers for an industrial motif) and some excruciating lyrics (an addict's 'life lived in vein'), that doesn't detract from the reach of Leven's songs themselves. Shining Brother, Shining Sister bubbles with a similar kind of passion to that of Bruce Springsteen, his songs observing the minute and finite detail of life.

Rating [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]      LG

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Border/La Linea
by Lila Downs
(Narada World 72438-10265-2-6 CD)

Lila Downs, combining killer voice and solid cumbia rhythm. After dropping out of music school and spending a period following the Grateful Dead, Lila Downs was back home in Oaxaca, Mexico, when a neighbour asked her to translate a document from English into Mixtec. The letter, from the US authorities, informed the neighbour that his son had died trying to cross the border - 'la linea' - into the States. This experience of being what she calls an 'oracle of death' underlies Border, an album dedicated to the immigrant experience.

With a background that combines opera training with mariachi music, Lila Downs has produced a powerful, heartfelt work that deftly avoids unnecessary hectoring. From the first bars of 'Mi Corazón Me Recuerda', the strength and vitality - a combination of killer voice and solid cumbia rhythm - are irresistible. Using pre-Columbian and Mexican instruments with guitars, drums and sax, Border is, in lyric and sound, about the presence and human significance of Mexico's indigenous people.

Although the songs are mostly in Spanish, their themes - often loss in the widest sense - are given clear English translations. And for those who can't read, there's a spine-chilling medley of Woody Guthrie's 'Pastures Of Plenty' and 'This Land Is Your Land' with Downs' own 'Land' making the point eloquently.

Lila Downs is about to become a superstar for her duet, 'Burn it Blue', sung with Caetano Veloso on the soundtrack of the recent Frieda Kahlo movie. Great, her music deserves the widest audience possible, but it's not just because of a single song that Downs should be sought out and fêted.

Rating [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]    LG

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film and video reviews

Life and Debt Life and Debt
directed by Stephanie Black

The statistics ram the message home. When, in the 1970s, Prime Minister Michael Manley bitterly accepted the need for a 'short-term' IMF loan, Jamaica's debt was $800 million. It's now $7,000 million and the Jamaican economy is in ruins.

The IMF - controlled by the US, Japan and western Europe - forced Jamaica to devalue its currency and abandon agricultural subsidies. Jamaican produce became dearer while cheap subsidized imports, from the US and American-owned companies, swept in. Bye-bye Jamaican agriculture.

Stephanie Black interviews Manley, smiling IMF representatives, textile workers trapped in a modern form of slavery, and articulate but impoverished farmers. This is a seething, reasoned documentary. And it should make you angry - globalization is a killer.

Rating [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]    ML

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directed by Gillies MacKinnon

Harry Eden’s astonishing performance as a boy struggling to get his mother off heroin. Paul is 10 years old. His father is dead. His mother, hooked on heroin, can hardly function. Stoical, careworn Paul looks after her and his younger brother. In an early scene we see Paul getting his brother ready for school and preparing breakfast in bed for his mum, Mel. Devoted and ever-thoughtful, he doesn't forget her 'medicine' - he melts a spoon of H over a flame then, preparing the syringe, checks there are no bubbles in the needle.

Pure is the story of Paul and Mel's love for each other and his struggle to get her off the heroin. It's also a struggle with Lenny, his dad's best mate, a pimp and dealer, who supplies her. With his paternal grandmother, who wants to take in her grandchildren. And with the local care authorities.

The heart of the film, the relationship between mother and son, is beautifully delineated and convincing. It's hard to believe that Canadian Molly Parker, as Mel, is acting - her East London accent is perfect, and, as she sinks, her skin texture deteriorates, her face and eyes swell up. Director MacKinnon has shown (Small Faces, Hideous Kinky) how well he works with child actors, but the script asks a lot of Harry Eden playing Paul - too much, in fact. He's astonishingly good, but it's not surprising he can't find the hysteria and rage that a child in his situation is likely to feel.

Pure occasionally sentimentalizes - but at its core it's a gripping, truthful story of love and commitment.

Rating [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]      ML

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