Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 4, 2015

The Mothers, by Rod Jones

Warning: some people may find the content of this review distressing.  Please accept my sincere apologies if this is so, and visit the Australian Government’s Find and Connect website for counselling and support services.


The MothersRod Jones’ new novel The Mothers is such a different book to Julia Paradise (see my review)- it’s hard to believe it’s by the same author.  At one level, it’s a family epic which begins with the travails of a single mother in the early 20th century, but on another level it’s a social history that interrogates motherhood and mothering in a way that I haven’t come across before – not least because it’s written with great sensitivity by a male author whose own life experience bleeds into the book.

As I mull it over, I wonder what kind of reader this novel will speak to… Peter Pierce in The Australian was a bit hard on it, I think.  I found the first few chapters less enticing than I’d expected -but as Jones quickly moves more into the period of living memory, there is less overt reliance on research and the voices become more authentic.  Alma, born in 1909 and married in her teens only to be tossed aside for a new woman when barely into her twenties, reacts emotionally as most of us would, but her choice to leave Fairweather was an unusual response for those days.  And I suspect that choosing to go home with a man she didn’t know is something most women with small children would hesitate to do today, even if they were homeless…


Fortunately, Alma falls on her feet, so to speak, and Alfred Lovett’s mother takes her in out of charity – and doesn’t kick her out when she gets pregnant with Molly, born in secrecy towards the end of the First World War.   But this kindness comes at a cost: Alma’s life becomes a lie and her dependence on Molly’s father for financial support and occasional visits offers no way out of poverty and social exclusion.  Her voice is bitter and confused because she craves the respectability she can’t have in the days before no-fault divorce. She wants the security and social position that comes with a man about the house but she doesn’t love Alfred – and never did.  She was just achingly lonely.

When times get really tough, Molly is placed in care, at  the Melbourne Orphan Asylum in Brighton.  (Click here to see an image that shows how forbidding it must have been to a small child.)  In these chapters the naïve, confused voice of Molly is a poignant reminder that institutions like this, no matter how benevolent their intentions, were dreadful places for children to be.   Denied the secrets of her birth Molly grows up tentative, insecure and over-protective of David, the child she eventually adopts.

If I had some doubts about the authenticity of Alma’s voice, there were none at all about the voice of Anna, David’s mother in the 1950s.  This story of her foolish love for a man who wasn’t worth it; her well-meaning parents’ decision to place her in The Haven, a punitive Salvation Army home for unmarried mothers; and her doomed ambition to keep her baby is heart-rending.   Jones captures the ostracism so well, I was reminded that when I was a small child the back pews in church were reserved for ‘the bad girls’, dressed alike in dowdy drabs so that everyone would know who they were.  (Not that I knew then why they were ‘bad’.  That understanding came much later, along with my shame that I had labelled them that way to my equally ignorant friends.  It just shows how easy it is to drift into judging others.)

David is a difficult child, restless and insecure because he picks up on Molly’s insecurities about her own childhood and her mothering.  To the irritation of her husband Percy (who of course wants to raise a more ‘manly’ son) she mollycoddles David and keeps him home from school with feeble excuses about being unwell.  Despite this he gets to university and becomes radicalised in the fervour of the 1970s.  And that’s the era of free love, and spurning bourgeois institutions like marriage…

The women’s voices threaded through the narrative share common problems: an inability to assert themselves; the judgemental attitudes of others; and a passionate love of their children that isn’t supported in the worlds they inhabit.  Young men don’t come out of this novel well, but there are loving fathers even if they get it wrong.

Readers will, I think, read this novel differently if they know the background to its writing, so here’s the link to Jane Sullivan’s interview at the SMH – make up your own mind about whether to consult it.  It certainly enriched my admiration for this book after I’d finished my reading of it.

PS Pity about the cover.  This book deserves better.

Author: Rod Jones
Title: The Mothers
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781922147226
Review copy courtesy of Text

Fishpond: The Mothers and all good bookstores.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 2, 2015

Quicksand, by Steve Toltz

QuicksandI finished reading this book late last night and I am still overwhelmed by it.  It was unputdownable for the last 200-odd pages, and food for considerable thought long after the light was turned off.  Definitely a contender for any intelligently-judged awards that are going around.

It’s a wild ride.  Words tumble over themselves in torrents as narrators Aldo and Liam hurtle through a kind of brotherhood forged in grief for their dead sisters.  They have nothing else in common at all except their wit:

Until I met him, almost all my male friendships were based on homoerotic wrestling or the lighthearted undermining of each other’s confidence, but for Aldo and me, our connection was of like minds on pointless adventures, whether that be taunting bouncers outside nightclubs, riding shopping trolleys down suicidally steep declines, or attending first-home auctions to force up the bids of nervous young couples.  In those days, Aldo and I had such great conversations that every sunset seemed like the end of an era.  We were young and there were no unpleasant surprises waiting for us in bathroom mirrors.  We did things we wouldn’t feel guilty about for literally years.  Nobody was on a diet.  (p. 91)

Wickedly funny one-liners surge through a surf of black humour crashing through the reader’s mind as the plot unfolds: it’s very dark.  Very dark indeed.  Too lively to be called a ‘meditation’ on suffering and resilience, the novel is more of a forensic dissection of how the absurdities of modern life can conspire to inflict misery on undeserving victims.  The novel doesn’t answer the existential question that threads right through the novel: what is the point of suffering?  But it excoriates the reader with what that question might mean for its main character.  The Biblical Job had nothing much to complain about, by comparison…

Aldo is a failed small-time entrepreneur, crippled both literally and figuratively by his endless bad luck.   A wholly unsuccessful marketer of bad ideas and useless innovations, he is a catalogue of disasters, ultimately realising his two greatest fears: incarceration in prison, and imprisonment in hospital.  While Aldo mocks his own misery with witty one-liners such as ‘if there’s a foot-sized crack in a thousand-kilometre pavement, my foot will find it’, Toltz’s black humour is relentless in depicting the misery of paraplegia and the brutality of prison.  It’s not for the faint-hearted.

Liam, an opportunistic but good-hearted would-be author who mines his friend’s misfortune for the book he’s been trying to write all his life, is sucked into the quicksands of Aldo’s life.   Liam’s worked hard at not getting qualified for anything, because he believes his teacher’s advice that a job to fall back on becomes the job that prevents a writer from writing.  Alas, undergoing police training as research for a book inadvertently gives him a job he doesn’t want, but it turns out to be helpful to Aldo.  In a running gag, Liam is constantly summoned to the station by world-weary colleagues to deal with Aldo’s latest catastrophe.   Aldo has a doctor on call too – to deal with assaults by outraged creditors, a cake-fork in the jugular at a Buddhist wedding, repeated suicide attempts, oh, and cancer too.  (LOL He seems to have escaped an STD despite his visits to a brothel called the Enigma Variations, but then, I might have missed it.)

What Aldo doesn’t have is a lawyer on tap.  And he needs one, from his first brush with the law as a teenage virgin accused of rape, to charges of infanticide, manslaughter, sex slavery, and murder.  The old saying ‘He who represents himself has a fool for a client’ was never so true as it is for Aldo and juries convict him out of sheer exhaustion from the barrage of postmodern literary devices he deploys in his own defence (poetry, a Socratic dialogue with God, a barrister’s address and more) .  Toltz piles absurdity on absurdity and nothing is too serious for a joke in this sprawling pseudo-memoir.  (It’s 400-odd pages long, but it’s easy to read).

A burlesque of minor characters includes Morrell, the art teacher at Zetland High whose book of banal aphorisms Artist Within, Artist Without becomes Liam’s bible to quote at whim; and Aldo’s women: the singer-songwriter Stella who likewise uses Aldo as a tragic muse; Mimi whose insanely jealous boyfriend Elliot just happens to be in the same prison as Aldo; and Leila, his hapless mother who dies in penury after lending him money for another of his crazy schemes.

Like the failed entrepreneurs of the 1980s, Aldo is indefatigable:

I always knew my insolvent friend was about to remount the entrepreneurial horse when he started talking about untapped markets.  The ageing population!  Women over forty struggling to conceive!  Couples with mismatched libidos!  Honeymooners with creeping malaise!  Insomniacs with global dread! Shoppers with ecoparalysis! Corporate bandits ashamed of their bodies! Upscale couples one set of genitals away from being totally interchangeable!  Under-tens with overweening narcissism! Baby boomers in terminal decline! Rich space tourists!  Face-transplant recipients! Speakers of all 6909 living languages!  That was Aldo, always trying to solve a dilemma.  How does one delineate between hope and false hope?  How can one tap into the nauseating pandemic of public marriage proposals?  How do you sell a product to anticonsumerists? Where should one go to manufacture clothes for obese toddlers and newborns in the ninety-seventh weight percentile?  (p. 32)

Everything in this novel is about excess, but the tone avoids hectoring because it’s always undercut by its own deadpan humour.  Aldo persuades Liam to have a party at his place while his parents are away, so that he can invite Stella…

… ‘What if nobody comes?’ I said in a near-whisper, and then, thinking of the epic party hurricanes that had legendarily decimated teenagers’ homes, added, ‘Or too many?’

‘Jesus, Liam, no one’s asking you to go swimming with sharks during your menstrual cycle,’ Aldo said.  ‘A little get-together.  That’s all.’


The sight of my ruined house was compelling.  The skylight smashed from below.  The broken banister, suspended.  Downstairs, every window shattered.  A human-shaped hole in the plasterboard.  The floor a minefield of glass and shredded gyprock.  My uncle’s urn on its side, emptied of its contents.  Graffitied walls. Tiled kitchen floor sticky with beer, red wine collected in the grout.  Cat wearing my old McDonald’s hairnet.  Whatever carpet or curtains or couches remained carried the stench of cigarettes woven into the fabric.  The front gate was all hinges and no gate, the pink driveway had been torn up, the Hills Hoist was wrestled to the ground, the lemon tree set on fire, the letterbox kicked over, flowerbeds trampled flat.  There was nothing left to protect.  I remember promising my mother I would do the dishes.  (p. 103)

More painful humour undercuts the blackest of scenes as Aldo contemplates the cycle of the brutality of gaol punctuated by hospital treatments for cancer :

One night, the silence thickening around me, I lay on the floor of my tiny cell, regretting the past, hating the present, dreading the future, thinking that since I suffered the hell of anticipating a rapist unbuttoning his pants or a doctor tapping a syringe, and since it was invariably followed by an IV hookup or an actual rape, this meant I had pre-traumatic stress disorder, then trauma, then post-traumatic stress disorder, often simultaneously.  Then I thought: If thinking is only a poor form of dreaming, and dreaming a poor form of pure being, and pure being a poor form of nonexistence, then nonexistence is a poor form of never-having-existed-at-all.   Frankly, I was pissed off that to vanish and dissolve by an act of will, to liquefy in my sleep and disintegrate body and soul, to be uncreated and unborn –  decreated – like Simone Well writes about, was beyond my ability.  All the time, inmates’ voices from adjoining cells filled my own:

– Who took my lucky shiv?
– She was raped and murdered? That’s mission creep.
– Guard! I shouted. Ever consider soundproofing these walls?  You can do it with egg cartons? (p. 361)

Narcissism fills this novel.  Artists and writers want to use Aldo for inspiration; doctors want to keep him alive; women want to love him to nourish their own self-worth.  But the Apocalypse, as Aldo says, is not a sudden, brief event … It goes on for generations.  This hard-won realisation gives him his one successful enterprise, marketing himself as a user-friendly god for the 21st century…

I am still thinking about whether there is redemption for anybody by the end.   I like a book that does that…

Quicksand has been widely reviewed.  I like this one by Justine Jordan at The Guardian and this interview by Pip Cummings for the SMH is interesting too.

Author: Steve Toltz
Title:  Quicksand
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2015
ISBN: 9781926428680
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin Australia

Fishpond: Quicksand  and good bookstores everywhere.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 27, 2015

Shearer’s Motel, by Roger McDonald

Shearers' MotelAs you know if you read my recent post about the Bendigo Writers Festival, one of the sessions I’m presenting there is The Chronicler of Oz, in conversation with Roger McDonald.  I know Roger’s work through his novels, which I’ve been reading since Mr Darwin’s Shooter was published in 1998, but I wasn’t familiar with his non-fiction.  So I was delighted to find that Shearer’s Motel  (which won the 1993 National Book Council Banjo Award for non-fiction) is still available, and I’ve just finished reading it.

As readers also know by now, I am an indoors sort of person, and like Anita Heiss I find thatFive stars are the only stars I want to sleep under‘.  But if anyone can convince me of the wonderment of outback life, it’s Roger McDonald, with stunning evocations like this:

He came to the summit of a low range, hardly more than twenty or thirty metres’ inclination above the dark scrub.  Mild as the elevation was, it had the effect of pushing the horizon down all around, creating a star arena.  He had never seen such stars.  He was at the centre of their wheel.  They put him into their system, shifting across the cab of the truck as he moved along, cramming against the windshield, heaping overhead and cascading down and around and below.  Stars filled the rear-vision mirror and reflected on the insides of the windows, stars overlaying stars in sheets and panels of smoky, frozen light.  He was drunk from repetition and delay as he stopped and went on, stopped again to piss into a ground-fog of Mitchell grass and prickly shrubs with his head tilted back under the stars; stopped to sit on the heat-creaking bonnet of the truck, then leant back with his spine arching like a space-surfer, afloat on stars, surrendered to them, taken aback.  He wanted nothing but this rising into the star-sky.   (p. 176).

Based on McDonald’s own experience working as a cook for shearing teams, Shearers’ Motel recounts the story of  ‘Cookie’, a man in search of his own story, cutting loose from his wife and children and their small farm to venture into remote outback life.  He says he’s doing it to earn the money they need, maybe $1000 each week, but really, newbie pay is less than half that.  His motivation is that he is drawn to the kind of world he grew up in.  It makes him come alive, being drawn to half remembered places.   From one station to the next, living and working in conditions that would test most of us beyond endurance, Cookie joins shearing teams in outback NSW right at the time that Kiwi shearers were entering the industry… undercutting pay rates and challenging long-standing union dominance.

McDonald has earned the title of The Chronicler of Oz because of this ability to realise a vivid world with memorable characters whether real or imagined, and at the same time to interrogate a bigger picture.  On one level, Shearer’s Motel is a story of man trying to find himself, in search of somewhere to belong, knowing that he wants to be a writer, but needing a story to tell.  Without sentimentality, McDonald contrasts the brief joyous life of Cookie’s Jack Russell terrier living in the moment, with that of a man who always belonged where he was headed, never where he was. On the stations Cookie plays the role of an  outsider, accepted by the other men because he meets their needs, giving them ‘Australian food': meaty, barley-think, soapscud-grey soups, stringy roast legs of mutton and coarsely baked potatoes, thick yellow custards and heavy steamed puddings but also baking memorable bread and rolls, taking pride in a job well done.  If you fancy yourself as a cook (as I tend to do) it’s chastening to read about the difficulties under which he works…

But the book does more than this: it shows us a presser who grew up near Cookie being ashamed of working in a non-Australian shed in Australia.  He’s a union man with a long memory and he feels like a traitor to his mates.  At the same time, McDonald undercuts the reader’s empathy by revealing this man’s racism.  He likes the Maori as individuals but he doesn’t like them moving around in controlled teams, having power and agency.  He preferred the way things were, with the occasional Aborigine working invisibly and ‘in his place.’

But Cookie also listens to why the Kiwis have come.  In New Zealand they worked hard  in tough jobs seven days a week and got nowhere.  They have come to Australia because they want a better life for their kids.

Shearer’s Motel is an ironic title, given that the living conditions of shearers is utterly unlike even the shabbiest of motels.  Wilga station is shown to be disgusting.  These working conditions were a revelation to me, I had no idea that people could be expected to put up with them, and did.  Maybe they still do.  In one case, the boss-cocky’s contempt for the men on whom he depends for his income, is made obvious.   It’s apparently the usual rule that the station supplies freshly killed meat on the first night so that the cook can put a meal together for the team as it arrives, but at Grogandi he gets told that can’t be done.  Later, Cookie goes into the homestead to make a phone call and discovers the perfidy:

As he drank, he eyed the killing cradle.  Fresh purplish blood sparkled on the cement.  Fresh meat hung in the meat house.  This was rich.  It showed contempt for people.  Up at the book-keeper’s room, a spray of blood marked the shiny brass doorknob, and on the cream-painted door-panel there was a bloody thumb print.  No station hand would be so careless around a boss’s office.  This was a boss’s doing.  He’d lied about not killing his own meat, and now he was off somewhere in his Piper Tri-Pacer, chasing preselection for the Liberal Party, and talking about his respect for the workers. (p.147)

This book is rich in exquisite language and imagery but my favourite part of all comes from the chapter called ‘Driving Across the Sky’.  Cookie is driving to his next job in his battered old truck, when he hears an archaeologist talking on the radio:

Upper Egypt had gone back to the desert, she said.  Goats and sheep had eaten the place down to the roots and trampled the fragile humus.  Before the sands blew in, tomb robbers operated, broaching hoards of treasure and stripping dead royalty of jewels.  They came in secret, through darkness at a late hour.  They came like locusts devouring like browsers and grazers, like anyone with a need, a craving, a determined and driven motive to strip until finally nothing worth taking was left.  Smoking torches were doused, a rock was rolled over the door, sand drifted in, the air grew thick and stale and nobody entered the tombs for thousands of years, when anything at all, any fragment, any leftover told a story.  And there was always something left.  Something to take away, said the speaker.

He understood this.  It was where he came in.  The tale of the local lout, the opportunist, the farm worker and the family man challenged the story of kings.  A trail of broken stones showed what had been.  The throne of painted timbers, the barge of bales, the noble dog on a taut leash.  It was all there in the shed life.  The patterns of the stars ruling.  (p. 174)

I also like McDonald’s intense awareness of Australia’s ancient history.  Ours is an immigrants’ country, and the yarns the shearers tell are part of our national story, but…

All of them trod over what had ruled before, before there were sheep or white men, in this spirit country stretching down into time, past empires of Egypt, and secularised, now, by the economy of sheep. (p.175)

Shearers’ Motel brings to life an industry which most city-dwellers never see.

Author: Roger McDonald
Title: Shearers’ Motel
Publisher: Vintage, 2001
ISBN: 9781740510516
Source: Personal library, purchased from Brotherhood Books.


See the Random House website; Fishpond currently has second copies as well.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 26, 2015

Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis

BabbittMy reading has taken me from one sad marriage to another, though the discontent is about more than gender relations.  In Babbitt, by the Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis, there is alienation between the sexes because women (albeit sympathetically portrayed) are limited creatures who know nothing of the discontent that the anti-hero Babbitt feels, but there is also a piercing satire of the American Dream gone sour.  The emptiness of a successful realtor’s life is stripped bare, and Babbitt’s unease is depicted in ensuing vignettes which show the mindless conformity of his contemporaries; the meaningless consumerism; the careless racism; the selfishness and lack of empathy; and – worst of all – the overwhelming arrogance of their belief in American superiority, by which they mean White American middle-class superiority.  It is a brilliant book.

Lewis was awarded his Nobel in 1930 “for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters”  which was perhaps a tactful way of saying that Lewis was satirising an American middle-class who were products of an almost religious belief in capitalism and consumerism.  With Babbitt (1922) he was writing between the wars but before the Depression, and although I have also read Main Street (1920) (see my review) I have yet to read any of his later works.  There are so many, I would welcome suggestions for which one might best show how he responded to the catastrophe…

Reading this on the travel-necessity Kindle, I have highlighted so many excerpts it is hard to know where to start.  This is a scene where Babbitt and his pal Paul Riesling are on the New York express for a getaway in Maine.  Lewis reports the conversation in the carriage without naming the characters because…

Which of them said which has never been determined, and does not matter, since they all had the same ideas and expressed them always with the same ponderous and brassy assurance.

They pontificate on prohibition and a fellow’s personal liberty, business conditions down South, overpricing and service standards in southern hotels, declining standards in clothing manufacturing (except collars, because one of them sells collars) and the science of business:

To them the Romantic Hero was no longer the knight, the wandering poet, the cowpuncher, the aviator, nor the brave young district attorney,  but the great sales manager, who had an Analysis of Merchandising Problems on his glass-topped desk, whose title of nobility was ‘Go-getter’, and who devoted himself and all his young samurai to the cosmic purpose of Selling – not of selling anything in particular, for or to anybody in particular, but pure Selling.  (Kindle location 1803).

Paul Riesling makes the mistake of being highbrow when he sees the beauty in the flame of a factory furnace against the darkening sky, but the conversation recovers to consider the issue of railway punctuality…

The porter entered – a negro in white jacket with brass buttons.

‘How late are we, George?’ growled the fat man.

‘Deed, I don’t know, sir. I think we’re about on time,’  said the porter, folding towels and deftly tossing them up on the rack above the washbowls.  The council stared at him gloomily and when he was gone they wailed:

‘I don’t know what’s come over these n—–s, nowadays.  They never give you a civil answer.’

‘That’s a fact.  They’re getting so they don’t have a single bit of respect for you.  The old fashioned c–n was a fine old cuss – he knew his place – but these young d—-s don’t want to be porters or cotton-pickers.  Oh, no!  They got to be lawyers and professors and Lord knows what all!  I tell you, it’s becoming a pretty serious problem.  We ought to get together and show the black man, yes, and the yellow man, his place.  Now, I haven’t got one particle of race prejudice.  I’m the first to be glad when a n—– succeeds –  so long as he stays where he belongs and doesn’t try to usurp the rightful authority and business ability of the white man.

‘That’s the i! And another thing we got to do, said the man with the velour hat (whose name was Koplinsky) ‘is to keep these damn foreigners out the country.  Thank the Lord, we’re putting a limit on immigration.  These D—-s and H—–s have got to learn that this is a white man’s country, and they ain’t wanted here.  When we’ve assimilated the foreigners we got here now and learned ’em the principles of Americanism and turned ’em into regular folks, why then maybe we’ll let in a few more’.  (Kindle location 1831-2, censored offensive words are my editing.)

Well, George Babbitt’s journey is a kind of road to Damascus… as the plot advances with events that shatter the security of Babbitt’s domestic world he flirts with rebellion, behaving much like an adolescent and earning the ostracism of his business contemporaries.  At the same time he loses his moral compass, engaging in corrupt business practice in order to gain the approval of people he believes to be his social superiors.  It’s easy for a reader to condemn Babbitt, but remarkably, Lewis retrieves sympathy for his wayward character when his wife has a near-death experience and he realises what family means to him.  There is a limited kind of redemption for Babbitt at the end when he responds to his son’s elopement in a way that shows some development in his value system.

Reading this book in the 21st century made me wonder what Sinclair Lewis would have made of contemporary American life and business.  There is a fine intelligence at work in this novel, a capacity to analyse and dissect the world of the early 20th century.  Which author writing today is his heir, critiquing society and local politics with forensic skill?

Author: Sinclair Lewis
Title: Babbitt
Publisher: Project Gutenberg



As regular readers know, ANZ LitLovers hosts Indigenous Literature Week each year in the second week of July to coincide with NAIDOC Week here in Australia. (5-12 July, 2015).  This is a week when Australians celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and this year the NAIDOC Week theme is We all Stand on Sacred Ground: Learn, Respect and Celebrate.  ANZ LitLovers’ contribution to NAIDOC week is to celebrate all forms of Indigenous Writing, and to promote books by Indigenous authors.  As Tony Birch has said, too many Australians remain ignorant of the creative and intellectual reach of Aboriginal writing, and IMO it’s a community of engaged readers who could change that.

But this year Indigenous Literature Week will take place to coincide with the First Nations Australia Writers’ Network Workshop, which is being held in Melbourne in August.

That gives us plenty of time to choose a book to read!

Thanks to contributions from a fantastic bunch of participants in previous ILWs the reading list is growingFor reasons of space and time and personal preference  my reading list is limited to literary fiction titles by indigenous Australian and New Zealand authors but participants are free to choose any form you like – short story, memoir, biography, whatever takes your fancy!  The permanent link to my reading list (and to other sources) is on the ANZLL Books You Must Read page in the top menu, and you can also find it in the list of Pages near the bottom of the RH Menu.

Thanks for the reminder about this, to Jessica White who writes the Diversity Roundup at Australian Women Writers.

Random 13 Oh, I do love it when a random number generator picks a most deserving winner of a giveaway!  Yes, as you can see, of the 13 entries for this giveaway, it was No 7 that won it, and that is my dear friend Karenlee Thompson who has contributed so many wonderful reviews to this blog!

Peripheral Vision

Karenlee has won a copy of Paddy O’Reilly’s new collection of short stories, Peripheral Vision which is already creating a buzz around town and it was only released this week:)   Karenlee, of course I already know your address, so I shall forward it to UQP and they will send the book to you ASAP.

This is the blurb from UQP:

A teenager on the tram meets an old man claiming to be Jesus Christ. Six young women band together on a night prowl. A Filipino immigrant clashes with his eldest sister, who has brought him to Australia for a better life. And in a future where dogs have risen up against their owners, a mother is alarmed by her adolescent daughter’s behaviour.

Through such diverse characters, Paddy O’Reilly takes us into the fringes of human nature – our hidden thoughts, our darker impulses and our unspoken tragedies. By turns elegiac and acerbic, but always acutely observed, Peripheral Vision confirms O’Reilly as one of our most inventive and insightful writers.

For O’Reilly, Peripheral Vision is the culmination of years of fascination with a form that offers infinite possibility in voice, character and style.

‘The stories were written over a number of years and were selected to sit together in a collection that is varied in style but has an overarching theme of the moment where a character glimpses another world, another life, another possibility that may not have occurred to them before.’

If you’re not familiar with the versatility and sheer classiness of Paddy’s writing, don’t waste any more time.  See her profile at Meet an Aussie Author, which has links to all her books and my reviews of them, and discover just how good she is.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 23, 2015

Meet you at the Bendigo Writers Festival August 7-9, 2015

The theme of this year’s Bendigo Writers Festival is The Good Life, and it promises to be a treat for booklovers of all kinds.  I went to this festival last year and it was, as you might recall from my blog post, a wonderful weekend with sessions that appealed to both The Spouse (who likes non-fiction) and to me.   All the festival venues are within walking distance of accommodation in central Bendigo, and there are so many nice eateries, we were spoiled for choice.  So you can imagine how thrilled I was to be asked to participate as a panellist: I will be presenting two sessions there.

My two sessions are both on Saturday:

Bahasa Indonesia, with Lily Yulianti Farid.  Lily is an Indonesian writer and journalist, currently based in Melbourne, and founder of the Makassar International Writers Festival. Her short story collection, Family Room, is published by Lontar Foundation, and she’s also been published by Affirm Press in Joyful strains : making Australia home.  I found it in my library: it’s a collection of memoirs about the expat experience of living in Australia, edited by Kent MacCarter & Ali Lemer, and Lily’s memoir is an intriguing piece about the difference between wet kitchens in Indonesia and kitchens in Australia.  LOL It has been far too long since I’ve had occasion to use Indonesian in conversation, so our chat will – despite the title of this session – be conducted in English and we’ll be exploring cultural contrasts in The Good Life between our neighbouring countries. .

The Chronicler of Oz, in conversation with Roger McDonald, the Miles Franklin winning author who christened me ‘Ambassador for Australian Literature’.   Roger is the author of nine novels, including 1915, (see my review), The Slap (see my reviewMr Darwin’s Shooter and The Ballad of Desmond Kale, which won the Miles Franklin Award in 2006. His most recent novels are When Colts Ran (see my review) and The Following, (see my review)  and his non-fiction includes Shearers’ Motel (which is on my bedside table) and The Tree in Changing Light (on my TBR)I am looking forward to talking about how his novels interpret The Good Life in contemporary Australia… 

There are so many other excellent sessions on offer I haven’t yet been able to decide what to go to myself, except that I definitely want to go to Almost True with Adrian Mitchell (whose book The Profilist I’ve just read (see my review) and on Sunday, People I Know with stunning new talent Jane Rawson whose book Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists has one of my all-time unforgettable characters (see my review).  There are heaps of writers reviewed here on this blog including Amanda Lohrey,  Nam Le,  Alice Pung, Alice Robinson, Brenda Niall,  Cate Kennedy, Geraldine Wooller, Graeme Simsion, Ilke Tampe, Jane Sullivan, Janet Butler, Kirsten Krauth,  Latika Bourke, Kristina Olssen, Nicholas Jose, Paddy O’Reilly, and other authors I’ve read before I started blogging including Carmel Bird, Tariq Ali, Don Watson, John Marsden, Judith Brett, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Robert Dessaix, Raymond Gaita, and Robyn Davidson.  I haven’t seen a roll-up of Australian talent like this at a festival since the old days of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival when it was at The Malthouse.  And if that’s not enough, there’s comedian John Clarke, and writing workshops as well.

Don’t miss this festival – Bendigo is an easy drive from Melbourne or beyond, and an even easier and cheaper train journey.  If you can tear your eyes away from the lovely scenery you can even read a book on the way!  You can buy festival passes or single tickets – tickets and information is all here.

Come up and say hello if you see me about, I’d love to meet you:) I’ll be wearing my ANZ LitLovers name badge or you might be able to recognise me from a slightly more recent photo than the one on my About page.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 23, 2015

2015 Miles Franklin winner

Some time ago, I set myself the goal of collecting and reading all of the Miles Franklin winners.  But I stopped collecting when publishers stopped publishing major authors like Alex Miller in hardback, and the quest to read them all is faltering because the award has been given two years in a row to books I tried and abandoned as of no interest to me.

If you are interested in what the judges have described as “raw, high-energy and coruscating language” about domestic violence, this year’s MF winner, The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna is for you.  I’m no Pollyanna but gritty Australian realism in books and film bores me unless it’s got something else to offer as well, and I abandoned this book as dreary and unreadable.

This is what I wrote at Goodreads back in September last year.  I didn’t review it here because I didn’t finish it.

Groan… not another Australian novel about a dysfunctional family.
No thanks, not another achingly sad child narrator with an intellectual disability.
I’ve read 50 pages, I’ve given it a go, but I could not muster a shred of interest in this.
Enough said. I see from other reviews here that plenty of readers think it’s wonderful, so I shall say no more and move onto my next book.

Yes, once again my opinion of the Miles Franklin winner is once again so different to that of the judges, my advice is for you never to be influenced by me in any gambling you might undertake.

As you know if you read my reviews, I thought highly of two on the shortlist: The Golden Age by Joan London, (see my review and a Sensational Snippet) and After Darkness by Christine Piper, (see my review).  Tree Palace by Craig Sherborne remains on my wishlist.

Moving on….


Lisa Hill:

Don’t miss Karenlee’s review of Lost Boy and Other Stories!

Originally posted on Karenlee Thompson:

If, like Sylvia Plath, you have feared “the death of the imagination”, rest easy: it is thriving and flashing itself in the latest collection of shorts released by Margaret River Press.

One of my annual highlights is to receive the Margaret River Short Story Competition anthology. I have had the pleasure of reviewing the collections since the inaugural 2011 competition and this year I am, once again, not disappointed.

lost boy

In the imagination stakes, the winning story Lost Boy is a tour de force.  Who conjures this boy who speaks in a language of stick figure sketches? What acute observational eye brings to life the kind hearted cop who …

 … felt an almost talismanic attachment to the boy, not only because he’d picked him up, like a lucky coin, but also because he’d been the first to extract conversation, of a sort, from him. (15)

or the foster parents …

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 21, 2015

The Pumpkin Eater, by Penelope Mortimer

IMG_2344 (800x600)Sometimes, when I’m away from home, the place where I’m staying has a selection of books on offer, usually the detritus of ‘holiday reads’ and a useful reminder that The Rest of the World reads stuff so utterly unlike the books I read, that I might as well be a different species of human.  But occasionally, in amongst the dross, there lurks a treasure, and so it is up here in the Gold Coast apartment where I am staying during my father’s time in hospital.

The Pumpkin EaterPenelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater is a brilliant book, and I am not surprised to find from GoodReads that it has been reissued as a classic by NYRB.  (The copy up here is a well-loved Penguin from 1979.)  Published in 1962, The Pumpkin-Eater pre-dates all the feminist writing that was so exhilarating to read as the sixties progressed, but I knew Mortimer’s name because I’ve read something of hers before.  (Daddy’s Gone A-hunting, I think, but it’s too long ago to be sure).

For those who have forgotten their nursery rhymes, (or sadly never knew any) the title derives from this rhyme:

Peter, Peter, pumpkin eater
Had a wife and couldn’t keep her
He put her in a pumpkin shell
And there he kept her very well.

(*shudder* When you think how ancient this rhyme is, it is quite horrible to think how it reflects confining women’s lives over the centuries).

Mortimer’s novel begins with an unnamed wife in a psychiatrist’s chair and the black humour is evident from the start.  He is the classic patronising male of the sixties (and if you think you know this type now, trust me, you have no idea what they were like when their power was unbridled and our courage was prudently tentative).   Things have fallen apart for Mrs Jake Armitage – and no wonder – because as the novel progresses we learn that because her life is confined (as so many were) to the role of wife and mother, there is nothing for her to do or be because her (fourth) husband is so wealthy that parenting and keeping house have been outsourced, and his philandering has taken her other role off the agenda.  Her one option is to have yet another baby (there are already so many that they are uncountable) but her husband doesn’t want that and his solution is to browbeat her into a permanent solution.

It sounds bleak, and in some ways it is because it is so representative of what was the norm in western societies and still is the norm in many places around the world.  But there are also hilarious scenes, as when the novel retraces the girlhood of its inspiring heroine.  At her boarding school, where she lacks social cachet because she does not have older brothers as lures, her friend Ireen (sic) bursts into the library with some dreadful news:

‘I’ve been looking for you everywhere,’ she said.  ‘I’ve just had the most awful news.’
‘What news?’
‘Well, you know we were going to Spain this hols -‘
‘Yes. Well?’
‘And Roger was going to bring Brian and maybe the McLarens were going to come with Eric and David -‘
‘Yes. Go on.’
‘Well! Now it seems we can’t go because of this stupid old war! It just seems we can’t go and that’s all there is to it!’ She threw a crumpled letter down on the green baize.  ‘I just got this letter.’
‘What war?’ I asked, disbelieving.
‘Don’t ask me!  Some old General’s invaded it or something.’
‘Invaded what?’
‘Spain, you clot. I don’t know.  Nobody ever tells you a thing in this place.  I don’t see why we can’t go anyway.  I mean, nobody’s going to shoot us or anything, are they?’
‘Oh no,’ I said.  ‘They wouldn’t be allowed to.’
‘Well of course they wouldn’t.  But Pa says it is quite out of the question and we’ve just got to resign ourselves and go to Littlehampton.
‘How awful for you,’ I said vaguely.  I had never been abroad, and Littlehampton sounded rather distinguished to me.
‘Awful?  I could die! Of course Roger won’t invite Brian there. I mean, there’s nothing to do in Littlehampton.  Honestly, I could kill that Franco!
‘Who’s he?’
‘This old General who’s invaded Spain.  I mean, it’ll probably ruin the rest of my life, not spending these holidays with Brian.  I should think we might have got engaged quite easily.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘It’s jolly bad luck for you.’      (p. 51)

Ireen is fourteen…

Part of the interest in this novel is the credibility of the narrator.  Always defined by her role in relation to others, (Jake’s wife; ex-wife of two more husbands and widow of one; Dinah’s mother) she is established at the outset as confused and confusing.  There are elements of what she says which might be self-delusion, fantasy, or paranoia.  She confirms this herself, at the end:

I have tried to be honest with you, although I supposed that you would really have been more interested in my not being honest.  Some of these things happened, and some were dreams.  They are all true, as I understood truth.  They are all real, as I understood reality.  (p. 157)

We are meant to be left in doubt, I think, because in 1962 there was no ‘solution’ for what Betty Friedan called ‘the problem with no name’.   An intelligent, sensitive, wise woman for whom society had no use except as a wife and mother, was, in the sixties, caught in a horrible trap when motherhood came to an end and she had been replaced as a wife by household staff and a succession of lovers.

The book begins with the powerful symbol of this woman telling the psychiatrist about tidying her own mother’s wool drawer on wet afternoons.  The wool was all useless scraps, too small to do anything with, and she was made to tidy it for something to do, like they make prisoners dig holes and fill them up again.  Is it Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that says that in middle age we need to look back on our lives and feel we have done something useful with the time that we have?  How can that be done, if the society you live in denies you the opportunity?

I loved this book.  It’s a reminder of just how lucky I am to have been born in a place and time where I have had the opportunity to do and to be…

Author: Penelope Mortimer
Title: The Pumpkin Eater
Publisher: Penguin, 1979
ISBN: 0140021663
Source: Found in an apartment on the Gold Coast (and left behind with some regret).




Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 19, 2015

The Burial, by Courtney Collins

The Burial

I admit it, I bought this book by mistake.  There was huge hype over a book called Burial Rites by Hannah Kent, and I accidentally bought this one instead, on my Kindle.  (Burial Rites turned out to be a mistake too, but I only borrowed that one from the library so it didn’t bother me to return it abandoned and unread).  But this one, The Burial, lurked on my Kindle until, travelling, I just wanted to read something Australian and so I finally got round to reading it.

I should say, at the outset, that I know many people whose opinion I respect, liked it.  Kim from Reading Matters did and so did Annabel Smith.  There are many 5-star reviews on GoodReads, and it was nominated for the Dobbie award in 2013.   Indubitably, it has a very strong female character (a child circus-performer who becomes a cattle-thief and murders her brutal husband, then outwits all the men she comes across), so it’s no surprise it was nominated for the Stella too.   The story romps along with lively plotting which is ok if you’re in the mood for page-turning and are willing to suspend disbelief here and there.  All that’s ok-ish, it goes with the genre.

And the writing is good.  There are passages that show real writing talent, and the evocation of the Australian bush is just lovely for a homesick traveller.  Collins brings to life the colours, the scents, the sounds, and the eerie beauty of the bush with real style.

But *pained expression*, a dead baby narrator?  Every time I came across this omniscient  narrator talking about its mother, I had to grit my teeth to keep reading.

For a different perspective, see The Newtown Review of Books and Kim’s review.

PS: Kevin from Canada was more forgiving of the narration than me.

Author: Courtney Collins
Title: The Burial
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2012
Source: Personal copy, no idea what I paid for it.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 18, 2015

Book launch: Solly’s Girl, by Ros Collins

As you know from my previous post I wasn’t able to get to the launch of Solly’s Girl by Ros Collins but thanks to Ros, I’m able to share some photos from the day.  I think this is probably the only book launch ever to include a pale blue vintage Lambretta!

If you missed it before, here’s the link to Karenlee Thompson’s review of the book.

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If you’d like to order the book, click the link to download the order form.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 18, 2015

Nothing, by Henry Green

NothingNothing, by British author Henry Green (1905-1973) is a sly comedy of manners that is almost Shakespearean in its twists and turns.  It features a young couple who become engaged to marry but – having discovered some gossip – fear that they may be siblings, because their respective parents had an affair in the past.  The engagement offers opportunities for their parents to have renewed close contact, which in turn creates jealousies from their respective suitors, and a denouément that is breathtaking.

The characterisation is classic Green.  Mrs Jane Weatherby, Philip’s widowed mother, is a wily, manipulative woman who uses her great charm and still attractive appearance to orchestrate events.  She thinks that bluestocking Mary who works in a government office isn’t good enough for her Philip.  Widower John Pomfret, on the other hand is doubtful about Philip because he uses the wrong tailor and has provided an inadequate engagement ring.  These objections identify these parents as relics of a passing social world, bemoaning their reduced circumstances in the postwar era where Mrs Weatherby has only an unpunctual Italian cook who seems to be feeding her younger daughter’s neuroses as well as making the meals, and John Pomfret can’t really afford his club any more.

Delivered through witty dialogue the plot advances with all kinds of droll asides: jealous Liz Jennings who drinks too much and – on the shelf at 26 – is avid in her pursuit of older men; Elaine Winder, a gossip who can be relied on to spread disingenuous stories; and Richard Abbott an admirer of Jane Weatherby who tries to play a straight bat as a gentleman should.  There is also a running gag (which doesn’t sound funny, but is) about Arthur Morris who has to have a toe amputated after he got a nail through his shoe.  It is Arthur, who becomes progressively more ill in hospital who might know the truth about Philip and Mary’s true relationship…

I bought this book in the London Review Bookshop on my recent (aborted) travels before things went awry.  Stu from Winston’s Dad had introduced me to Henry Green and so when I saw this trio of Green novels, it appealed immediately.  Well, events conspired to make reading it a somewhat disjointed process, so I may not have done it full justice in this brief review, but if you haven’t tried Green, Nothing is a good one to start with, or Loving which I read a year or so ago and enjoyed very much too.

The other two titles still in store to read are Doting and Blindness. 

PS Re the forthcoming draw for the giveaway for Paddy O’Reilly’s new book, I’ll do that ASAP, I just felt I had to write this review first while the book is fresh in my mind.  I have a lot on my plate up here in Qld because of the situation with my parents, and I have to fit blogging in to scraps of time as they arise.

Author: Henry Green
Title: Nothing, Doting, Blindness
Publisher: Vintage Classics 2008
ISBN: 9780099481485
Source: Personal library, purchased from the London Review Bookshop.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 16, 2015

Home again

Originally posted on Travels with Tim and Lisa:

Hello to my faithful readers: we had to cut short our trip because of my father is gravely ill, so we’re now back in Australia after a gruelling 36 hours.

To Stuart at Academy Travel in Australia: you are wonderful. He was in touch within 20 minutes of my text, listened, and then said he would ring back in half an hour with a solution. It was four in the morning in Brussels, and Sunday in Australia. He rang back, and everything was sorted. We were on the train to Paris with connecting flights and kindly considerate treatment from everyone at Singapore Airlines – with a rental car ready for us at Brisbane as well.

*weak smile* The hospital won’t let us in to visit until 10:00am and they are very strict with double-locked doors and all, so we have time for a quick shower and some breakfast…

Bye for…

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 15, 2015

The Queen of the Tambourine, by Jane Gardam

The Queen of the Tambourine Winner of the 1991 Whitbread Award, The Queen of the Tambourine is Jane Gardam’s fourth novel, written well before Old Filth (2004) which is the novel which brought her to my notice.  I was rather fond of that novel because Sir Edward Feathers (whose nickname Old Filth (FILTH = Failed In London Try Hong Kong) reminded me of an eccentric friend of the family from my childhood.  I liked Jane Gardam’s style.

Anyway, I’d had The Queen of the Tabourine on my TBR for ages, and I was in the mood for something interesting but not too demanding, but it turned out to be much more interesting than I’d expected.  Once again, there is an eccentric character, and like Sir Edward, Eliza Peabody has travelled widely during the days of Empire, but there the resemblance ends.

It’s an epistolary novel, written entirely from Eliza’s point-of-view, and none of her letters are ever answered.  The first one presents her as a well-meaning busybody, offering advice to her neighbour Joan who has apparently abandoned the respectable suburbs of London and gone to Bangladesh.  Eliza’s effrontery is breath-taking, but if Joan is offended, neither Eliza nor the reader ever knows it, because the correspondence is entirely one-sided.  Before long, the reader isn’t even sure that Joan exists…

The genius of the novel is that the narration shifts and changes with Eliza’s state of mind and it is never quite clear how much of what she says and does is real.  Middle-aged, and at a bit of a loose end now that her husband is back in England, she has busied herself with Good Works, but one suspects that most of her beneficiaries breathe a sigh of relief when she departs.  Gardam’s droll vignettes confirm her as an exasperating woman, with only one real friend, one of The Dying, who recognises that there is more to Eliza than first meets the eye, and christens her ‘The Queen of the Tambourine.’  It is he who alerts the reader to the need to withhold judgement.  As her personal life unravels and she tries desperately to create a new self, Eliza becomes a poignant character rather than a batty old bossyboots.

There is much to like about this book, especially the sharp wit and dry British humour, but one of its gentler aspects is Gardam’s treatment of Eliza’s neighbours.  At first she is an object of embarrassment and scorn, and they avoid her as best they politely can.  But as it dawns on them that her valiant efforts are concealing a personal tragedy, they draw her into their lives and find themselves liking her.  (Mind you, the scenes where the childless Eliza takes on baby-sitting are alarming, to say the least!)  Middle-class communities are often mocked in British contemporary literature, but The Queen of the Tambourine shows that they are just like people anywhere, who mostly rise to the occasion when it’s necessary.

It made me think about my own street, and my own good-hearted neighbours.  And it made me think about the need to keep more of an eye on our older ladies who live alone…

I’ll be somewhere in Belgium when this is scheduled to publish, but I’ll be monitoring comments so I’d love to hear from you:)

Don’t forget that while I’m away from home, you can follow my travel blog at Travels with Tim and Lisa.

Author: Jane Gardam
Title: The Queen of the Tambourine
Publisher: Abacus Books, 1991
Source: Personal Library

Try the Op Shop or the library.


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