Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 3, 2015

The Female Quixote, by Charlotte Lennox

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

It’s not until late in the book that one realises the significance of the sub-title to this amusing piece of 18th century literature.  Readers of the period would have been alert to the word ‘adventure’ in  The Female Quixote, or The Adventures of Arabella because, as the Countess gravely explains to Arabella in Book 8, ideas change, and what was proper in a bygone age, may be scandalous in the present.  (And vice versa, in the 21st century).  For poor foolish Arabella, whose head has been turned by the imprudent reading of French romances, the idea of adventure is captivating, and she longs to be rescued from imminent peril by any number of heroic gentlemen.  Alas, for Arabella, the greatest peril she faces is the loss of her reputation because the adventures that she orchestrates can only bring scandal…

Custom, said the Countess smiling, changes the very Nature of Things, and what was honourable a thousand Years ago, may probably be look’d upon as infamous now — A Lady in the heroic Age you speak of, would not be thought to possess any great Share of Merit, if she had not been many times carried away by one or other of her insolent Lovers: Whereas a Beauty in this could not pass thro’ the Hands of several different Ravishers, without bringing an Imputation on her Chastity.  (Bk 8).

The Female Quixote, GirleBooksThe book is, of course, a spoof, a reworking of Cervantes’ famous Don Quixote, which pokes fun at the chivalric tradition through Quixote’s obsession with Rescuing Fair Maidens and Performing Other Heroic Deeds.  Lennox’s heroine, being only a girl, cannot ride off on any Rocinante to tilt at windmills – the adventures must come to her, and so indeed they do.  Hapless servants and passers-by are interpreted as Noble Suitors in Disguise, scandalously using the role of underlings to get close enough to pay their addresses.  These must be banished from her sight, because no True Man Who Loves Her could possibly do so without Pining in Desolation in a cave,  Slaughtering Rivals with the Sword, Dying by Their Own Forlorn Hand or Wasting Away until She Whom They Love with Unreserved Passion Commands Otherwise.   Then there are Others of more Nefarious Intent who lurk in her gardens purporting to be haymakers and from these would-be Ravishers, she must be rescued.  After she has Swooned, of course…

Arabella is exceptionally beautiful, of course, and she is heir to a Great Fortune, of course, and although she is completely barmy and the subject of much gossip, there are, of course, rivals for her affections.  Sir George is The Charming Villain, who is After Her Money, while Charles Glanville Loves her Truly.  Her Sancho is the hapless Lucy, a serving girl of remarkable stupidity but indefatigable loyalty to her mistress.  When, for example, Arabella launches into one of her long and boring expositions of Heroic Tales, citing Cleopatra as a role model for flouting society’s rules, Lucy understands not a word of it.  Indeed she has trouble repeating words of more than two syllables… Her most useful skill is in standing in terrified bemusement until she receives an instruction she understands, which often gives the other characters time to rush off somewhere to intervene in the mayhem.

Glanville’s sister, who is not as pretty, not as rich, and certainly not as keen on any kind of reading or quoting of heroics, is jealous of Arabella, not least because she fancies Sir George for herself.  (From Lennox’s portrayal of women in general, The Sisterhood is nowhere in evidence).  Miss Glanville’s marriage ambitions make it strategic for her to play at being Arabella’s friend while distancing herself from the ridicule that inevitably comes Arabella’s way.   Lennox has a lot of fun satirising Miss Glanville but in some ways she is the most complete of the characters, torn between needing Arabella’s social position to better her own, embarrassed by her antics, and furious at the heartless way Bella treats her brother.  Not understanding that Arabella believes when Charles falls ill that he is sick for love of her and will therefore recover at her command, Miss Glanville is devastated that Bella will not visit him until she feels like it.  When we remember how easy it was to die from fever in those days, a sister’s anguish seems very real.

Any lover of this Fair Maiden must Undergo Ordeals, and Glanville has to put up with many of them, though they are not the ones of Arabella’s fancies.  At first he can’t quite believe that Arabella believes the nonsense she spouts, and then he treats it as a joke and plays along with it.  But it’s not funny when Sir George, who has also read French romances and knows the lingo and the plot lines, turns out to be better at playing along with it and Arabella is impressed by his courting.  Multiple embarrassments pile up and Glanville is anguished by the ridicule she brings upon herself, even from his own father.   Things reach a climax when in London she hurls herself into the Thames to save herself from Ruin while at the same time he has got into a sword fight with a Rival and contrary to Bella’s belief that Heroes are Above the Law, he is in a bit of trouble.

Scholars of the Novel, and of Feminist Literature, study this artful frolic in depth, but I read it for fun.

Author: Charlotte Lennox (1730-1804)
Title: The Female Quixote, or The Adventures of Arabella
Publisher: Girlebooks, on Kindle. Download it here.  First published 1752.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 3, 2015

Plays from the Past still relevant for the Present

Lisa Hill:

Do visit Mairi Neil’s blog for her analysis of the inaugural meeting of The Script Club at the Victorian Arts Centre. At the last minute I wasn’t well enough to go, but Mairi has captured the essence of the session and this is essential reading for anyone interested in Australian arts…

Originally posted on Up the Creek with a pen ...:


In the 70s, when I attended university in Canberra, the memories I cherish are the hours solving the world’s problems while sitting with friends in the campus bar at the Australian National University. At night, we’d have a beer; during the day, a coffee. The intellectual discussions and debates stimulating and meaningful, adding value to the lectures and tutorials provided at one of Australia’s most prestigious universities. I was lucky many of the staff wrote the text books for their particular subjects. My teachers included: Manning Clark, Humphrey McQueen, Daphne Gollan, and Dorothy Shineberg.


At university, I was continuing a tradition started at home by my father and mother. The family would sit for hours after dinner, listening to family anecdotes, sharing stories of our day, discussing current affairs, politics, religion, exploring philosophical questions and ideas thrown up by books, films, TV shows or the daily newspapers.

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 2, 2015

Brigid, by Jill Blee

BrigidOh dear, this is one of those book reviews that I don’t really want to write.  Brigid could have been a much better book than it is…

I discovered Victorian author Jill Blee back in 2009 when I borrowed an audio book called The Liberator’s Birthday, and I liked it so much (see my review) that I hunted out her other titles: her first novel The Pines Hold their Secrets, and her second, Brigid.  (I think I bought them direct from her website, but I don’t seem to be able to find it now).  Unfortunately, this book is not as successful as The Liberator’s Birthday. 

Brigid appears to be a professionally published book with a beautifully designed cover (by David Wong) and good production values – but the text looks suspiciously like a self-edited effort.  There are far too many irritating typos including one in the very first paragraph; there is a persistent problem with the contraction it’s and the possessive pronoun its; and confusion over synonyms like pore/pour and horde/hoard shouldn’t have survived a first proof-reading.   But that’s not the only problem…

Good editing would have tidied up an interesting concept and eased it into a more engaging tale.  The narrator travels to Ireland but has her holiday hijacked by the spirit of her long-dead great-great-aunt Brigid, who bullies her into abandoning her original plans to tour Ireland.  Instead, she is to trace her ancestors’ tragic experience during the Potato Famine and solve a long-standing mystery that prevents Brigid from resting in peace.   This is a story with good potential, but the structure chosen to deliver it derails itself repeatedly.  A travelogue punctuated by irritable conversations between narrator and the dead aunt just doesn’t work.

The first person narrative is a somewhat naïve travelogue of surface details, the kind of thing that you or I might write in a travel diary: finding meals and accommodation, getting lost, discovering the flavour of Guinness and standing in awe of beautiful public buildings like Trinity Library and Dublin Castle.  This narrative livens up when interrupted by the hectoring voice of Brigid, demanding that the narrator search her family’s past to discover the story behind a missing letter that could have changed the lives of many.  Alarm bells ring here, of course, because most family histories-turned-novel (especially sad Irish ones) are about as original as a politician’s lie, but the mystery of the letter seems like a smart hook to keep the reader invested in the outcome.   The conversations between Brigid and the narrator prod her into researching to learn more about the effects of the famine and her ancestors’ poignant attempts to survive it.  Alas, the narrative tension in the mystery of the letter gets side-tracked by the agenda-driven story of the famine and both keep going out of focus because the author keeps interrupting with the travel diary.

On the plus side, Brigid is a great character, the narrator seeming rather insipid by comparison.  Strong-willed and combative, this ancestor would have, as my mother would say, put the fear of God into anyone that crossed her, and she represents the grit and determination that Irish women have long had to have to survive.  Intruding as and when it suits her irascible temper, Brigid insists on a journey through rural Ireland where enough of history remains to confirm or amplify her accusations against the heartless British overlords.  In a belated effort to be even-handed, the narrator demurs sometimes, to suggest that the Irish should take some responsibility for a rebellion that had no prospect of success, but she ends up agreeing with Brigid that there really was no other choice.  (As the reader knew she would).

One of the reasons I liked The Liberator’s Birthday so much was that it brought the story of the Irish in Australia to life, in an original and lively way that YA students of history might enjoy.  But there is a bitterness to Brigid – and a strident determination to exhaust every avenue of British treachery in excoriating detail – that detracts from the story without generating the empathy that the author presumably intended.  Rendering old grudges of history in fiction doesn’t work without authorial control of the material, and IMO a more nuanced picture would have made this into the engaging book it could have been.

Still, I haven’t given up on this author, I liked The Liberator’s Birthday too much to do that.  The Pines Hold Their Secrets is set on Norfolk Island, and the blurb sounds rather interesting.  I’ll let you know how I get on in due course…

Louise at The Australian Bookshelf liked Brigid better than I did.

Author: Jill Blee
Title: Brigid
Publisher: Indra Books, 1999
ISBN: 9780958580540
Source: Personal library, bought direct from the author.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 29, 2015

National Bookshop Day coming up on August 8th

Love your Bookshop

Just a reminder that National Bookshop Day is coming up on August 8th, so make sure you are ready to support your favourite Aussie bricks-and-mortar bookshop… save up your pocket money, smash open those piggybanks, clear the credit card and map out a route so that you can visit as many shops as you can in one day!

I’m going to double-dip: I’ll be in Bendigo for the Bendigo Writers Festival, expecting to be seduced by much that’s in the festival bookshop, but I still need to support my local indies so I’ll be visiting them before or after the designated day:

And if I happen to be in the CBD for something or other, I’ll be dropping in on Readings and Readers Feast as well.

(We may be living on baked beans afterwards until my finances recover…)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 29, 2015

Starlight Peninsula, by Charlotte Grimshaw

Starlight Peninsula Charlotte Grimshaw is a widely-acclaimed author from New Zealand, winner of the 2006 BNZ Katherine Mansfield Award and a string of prizes for her pithily titled fiction:
Provocation (1999); Guilt (2000); Foreign City (2005); Opportunity (2007); Singularity (2009); The Night Book (2010); and Soon (2012).  I don’t like her terse, unadorned writing style, but I found myself drawn into her latest novel, Starlight Peninsula in spite of myself…

It’s the story of a young woman called Eloise Hay who belatedly realises that there’s something odd about the death of her lover, Arthur.  When the story opens the husband she married on the rebound has just left her, and her grief about that rekindles her memories of the shocking day when she came home to Auckland to find the police at her home and the discovery of his body.

Eloise works in media, support staff to the beautiful people who read the news.  The big story at the time she has her existential crisis is the prospect of a prime ministerial dumping because his polls are poor.  There’s also an Julian Assange-type internet hacker who has ruffled international feathers and is wanted by the United States.  None of this seems connected to Eloise and the misery which drives her to see a psychiatrist – until she starts asking the questions she was too shocked to ask at the time of Arthur’s death.  He was an author who pillaged the lives of others for material, and he was poking around in old personal histories that others would rather keep private…

Apart from Eloise’s small personal circle – her obnoxious mother Demelza; her long-suffering sister Carina and her strangely nicknamed daughter The Sparkler; the psychiatrist Klaudia, her handsome new neighbour Simon and her work colleagues, there’s a bewildering cast of off-stage political and media characters who populate the story.  Like the real media and political people in our everyday lives, these characters eventually become familiar and settle into the wallpaper of the story, a story which in a compelling conclusion reveals connections that link ordinary people in society with the rich and powerful.

Grimshaw has an impressive way of using very spare prose to construct atmosphere.  In Opportunity (a collection of linked short stories) I found this style tiresome, and though the book was short-listed for a major international prize, (the Frank O’Connor Award), not to mention the NZ Montana Fiction award and medal for Fiction, I abandoned it.   (See my *blush* somewhat churlish review). But the greater length of this novel allows the atmosphere to build, creating undeniable tension as the pieces start to come together, and the character of Eloise is masterly.  She drinks too much – far too much – and so like the other characters in whom she confides, the reader distrusts her narrative.  It’s very well done.

For Aussie readers and those beyond, there’s also the added attraction of discovering a bewitching landscape with flora and fauna that may send you scuttling off to Google some images!

Author: Charlotte Grimshaw
Title: Starlight Peninsula
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin) New Zealand, 2015
ISBN: 9781775538226
Review copy courtesy of Penguin New Zealand


Fishpond: Starlight Peninsula

Ballad of Desmond Kale

I am reading Roger McDonald’s Miles Franklin Award-winning seventh novel, The Ballad of Desmond Kale, and amongst other things in this rollicking chronicle of the fledgling sheep industry in Australia, I am awe-struck at the author’s genius for characterisation.  Here he is bringing the family of Joe Josephs to life :

Joe Josephs, Warren saw, was not to be judged by the gold threads in his weskit as being too fine for everyday use, or by the vainly perky hat he wore tipped back on his head, that would never stop any sun, and his gold teeth dangerously boasting the wealth that he carried in his smile.  He was a shadowed, thin, sharpish crook of a man, but a cheerful and apparently kindly fellow well met.

You will note that this snippet not only tells us about Joe, but also about young Warren’s astute powers of observation.

This is Arthur, Joe’s son:

‘This one is mighty clean,’ said Arthur, as he dusted a blanket of fleas.  He was a handsome boy of about seventeen, with thick dark eyebrows, a considerable sidelong way of looking a person over, and a greatly hooked nose that got in the way of his prominent dark eyeballs.  He had long fingers and knobbly wrists.  There was a violin case on the ground and Warren imagined he’d heard tunes being played on a fiddle earlier, the sounds carrying on the breezes as he came down the last half hour of track through Mundowey forest, where owls hooted back and forth and there was the ghost of nefarious doings behind every tree.

‘The ghost of nefarious doings’ … a subtle allusion to the way the land was cleared of its original inhabitants …

And this is Martha, Joe’s wife, who introduces herself to Warren by explaining that Joe

is the one that got me lagged for him, when he was already in irons on the filthy Thames, making me his fence without me knowing it, by having passed into my hands, by his cronies, a load of argentry, candlesticks, candelabra and ancestral plate …

If she’s bitter, she doesn’t show it:

As she spoke, Martha looked up at Warren from a humorous brown face fringed by greying brown curly hair.  She was like a stout pot with a stone on its lid, that gave intense rattles with steam shooting out, every time she spoke.  She was the one who gave Arthur his nose, you might say, from hers that was like a jug handle.  The excitement of her conversation hit Warren direct, as she thrust her forehead to get against his, to get a hearing from him, and grabbed hard to his elbow and fingered his funny bone, and stepped on his toes as well.  Then she grabbed both his cheeks and pinched them hard, muttering ‘luffly boy’ before spitting over her shoulder.  As he reeled back from her aim, almost to the edge of the fire, she followed him and broke off her attention, bending over and juggling quart pots, sweating over the fierce hot bed of coals as if she had an argument with them for doing what they were wanted to do, throwing up heat.

The Ballad of Desmond Kale, by Roger McDonald, Knopf, 2005, p255-257

I will be ‘in conversation’ with Roger  McDonald at the Bendigo Writers Festival on Saturday August 9th.  Get your tickets or a festival pass here!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 26, 2015

Thea Astley, Inventing her own weather, by Karen Lamb

Thea AstleyThis biography of Thea Astley is so good I can confidently say that readers will enjoy it even if they’ve never read a word of Astley’s – though they will soon finding themselves wanting to do so.   In telling the story of Astley’s life as a writer, the book traverses Queensland’s emergence from a cultural backwater,  the massive social changes stemming from the Whitlam years, the dynamics of the Australian publishing industry and most importantly of all, the story of Astley the ‘anti-feminist’ who fought all her life for women’s writing to be accorded respect, recognition and adequate remuneration.  They should have named the Stella Prize the Astleys, it would have been so much more apt, IMO.

Now, as you know if you’ve read my previous posts about Thea Astley and her work, she was the multi award-winning author of fourteen novels and three short story collections.  Amongst other prizes, she won the Miles Franklin four times, Premiers’ awards, the Patrick White award and the ALS medal, not to mention an OAM (Order of Australia),  so it seems bizarre that she was constantly badgering her publishers to do more for her and complaining about a lack of recognition.  But Karen Lamb makes a very convincing case that this seemingly perverse behaviour stemmed from a deep insecurity and from an acute awareness that male writers were supported differently both in terms of sales-generating publicity and with promotion of their books into international markets.  Especially in the early years of Astley’s writing career…

Thea Astley (1925-2004) grew up in a staunchly Catholic household, witnessing the unhappy marriage of her journalist father Cecil and his wife Eileen.  Cecil had frustrated literary ambitions, but when Thea sent her parents a copy of her first novel in 1958 their response was less than encouraging:

She had sent a signed copy of Girl with a Monkey to Cecil and Eileen, who had made no comment.  A friend later sent her this same copy, inscribed ‘To Mum and Dad’, having discovered it languishing in the library of the Toowong seminary in Brisbane.

Astley didn’t know that her book had been dumped till some years later, but the silence in response to her debut was eclipsed by the reaction to A Descant for Gossips (see my review):

Astley also sent an advance copy of Descant to her parents.  One day she received a parcel from her parents’ Ashgrove address, containing her novel.  Eileen had fiercely crossed out passages and phrases she considered sacrilegious. Astley understood her mother’s attitudes towards sex and other matters, and constantly reminded her about her marriage outside the faith, but her reaction was still a shock.  (p. 126)

Lamb, a teacher and researcher at the Australian Catholic University, unpacks Astley’s ambivalence about her Catholic upbringing and her guilt.  There was the marriage to Jack Gregson which was (until a bizarre set of religious hurdles were subsequently overcome), not considered a marriage at all because he was divorced and they had wed in a registry office.  Astley was also conflicted about her brother Phil, a repressed homosexual whose mental health suffered within the Catholic priesthood, and she was also fiercely critical about the secondary role of women within the Catholic hierarchy.  There’s an amusing anecdote from a neighbour late in the book where Astley submits the absurd contradictions of Catholicism to pure logic:

In her childhood it has been a sin to eat meat on Friday: you went to Hell.  Once it was allowed, ‘Thea got stuck into whether they were all going to Hell. ‘  She laid the argument out neatly as a tablecloth: How did it work then?  Maybe the others hadn’t gone to Hell.  Ergo, it was a lie.  Ergo, lying was a sin.  Conclusion: there was no Hell. (p. 303)

Faith and its ramifications was only one of the personal issues that Astley explored in her oeuvre.   If like me, you love her novels, you will really enjoy the way Lamb analyses the writing, placing in context the author’s concerns about the restricted lives of women; the constraints of marriage and motherhood; ageing; and place as a source of depression, anxiety and despair.  Astley’s young adulthood was spent in the loneliness of remote Queensland towns, teaching by day and writing at night, and always the outsider.  Her characters are always misfits, but her development as a writer saw her move away from satire because she wanted to explore the complexity of flawed humans:

Astley asked herself who these townsfolk might be, sweating in isolation, with their  flaws, doubts and fears. She already knew, as she said, that ‘Any sort of person can be interesting in circumstances that create antagonism with other people, circumscribing them so that something breaks out.’ (p. 102).

Famous for her theory of the four ages of women as ‘bimbo, breeder, baby-sitter, burden’, Astley found her middle age straddling the era of strong women making a splash in her literary world and elsewhere.   Despite being a protégé of Beatrice Davis (1909-1992) – a rare example in Astley’s early career of a strong female publisher who was pro-women, pro-Australian writing and who knew brilliant writing when she saw it  – Astley was always antagonistic towards the publishing industry but in her later years admired women in the industry who came to be household names: Louise Adler; Jennifer Byrne, Susan Ryan and Helen Daniel amongst others.   She also admired the independence of Mrs Waterman, the single mother of her son Ed’s partner , and these dynamic women influenced the style and preoccupations of her later works which feature strong women who could do things apart from marrying. With a female publisher (Adler) and agent (Jill Hickson) Astley went on to write novels featuring eccentric self-willed women with real agency: Reaching Tin River (1990); Vanishing Points (1992) and Coda (1994), (see my review). Meredith Rose at Penguin edited The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996) and although Rose had moved to Magabala Books in Broome she also edited the acerbic last novel Drylands (1999), recognising its ‘undeniable feeling of the emptiness of everything.  And the fullness of it.’ (p. 302)

Astley was, by all accounts, a prickly personality, but was lucky in her marriage to Jack, a man who gave her space and loved her unconditionally.    (Something one might not expect, given the author’s unflattering portrayals of men! See my review of The Well-dressed Explorer for example, or of The Acolyte.)  Lamb’s admiration for Astley is obvious, but this is no hagiography.   The biography exposes the contradictions of Astley’s personality: she was prone to infatuations (including profligate purchases of real estate later abandoned!) but meticulous about money; over-partial to praise yet hypersensitive and hostile to any criticism; snooty about the value of creative writing courses when she taught one herself; pro-women and anti-feminist; and jealous of the sexual freedoms of the 1970s when she had longed for less repressive mores herself.  She constantly explored the theme of self-interest but was repelled and fascinated by it in equal measure. She was also theatrical; obsessive about recognition; and prone to one-liners that offended her listeners, yet she could be shy, self-deprecating and anxious.

(I think this is why I don’t like the photo on the cover, apart from looking uneasily as if Astley is in a coffin, it shows a face too guarded, with those big hands warding off any intrusion into her space).

There is so much more that I could write about this fascinating and highly-readable biography, but really, it is a case of ‘do yourself a favour’ and get a copy for yourself.  To my mind, it is on a par with Jill Roe’s award-winning biography of Miles Franklin (see my review) and there is no higher praise than that.

Author: Karen Lamb
Title: Thea Astley, Inventing Her Own Weather
Publisher: UQP, 2015
ISBN: 9780702253560
Review copy courtesy of UQP.


Fishpond: Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 25, 2015

Mrs Engels, by Gavin McCrae

Mrs Engels I have been so lucky with my reading lately!  I’m reading a few things at once (as usual):

  • over breakfast it’s Karen Lamb’s brilliant biography,  Thea Astley: Inventing Her Own Weather;
  • Humphrey Bower has been reading Malla Nunn’s Let the Dead Lie to me while I *sigh* sort out the annual tax return;
  • I have succumbed to the Kindle for The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox for when I’m out and about; and
  • for Stu’s Spanish Lit Month I’m reading In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina.   

But good as they are, none of these are bedtime reading.  For the idle hours before I turn out the light, I’ve been reading Mrs Engels, a debut novel from Irish author Gavin McCrae…

The novel is a fictionalisation of the life of Lizzie Burns, helpmeet to Friedrich Engels, who along with Karl Marx developed Marxist theory and communism.  For most of us, these are just names of political theorists, to be admired or despised depending on your political inclinations.  But McCrae has used the skeleton facts of Lizzie’s life,  (that is, as far as I can tell from Wikipedia), to create an engaging distinctive voice to bring these people to life in a domestic setting and to show us the human flaws of men whose ideas changed the course of history.

When the story opens, Lizzie is moving to Primrose Hill in London as Engels’ partner after her sister has died.  As the narrative moves back and forwards in time,  we learn that Lizzie and her sister Mary were born into poverty in Manchester and were working in the mill that the Engels family owned when Engels comes into their lives.  He was sent by his father to learn the family business, but what Engels learned instead was that life in the slums of Manchester was hell on earth.  This was a time when, as Lizzie tells us, working-class men did the sewing and the darning because they were at home while their women went out to work, employable only because their wages were lower than a male wage.  Amongst the poor were the Irish who’d fled the potato famine but found themselves living in dank, filthy slums, riddled with TB and typhus, and with no clean water supply.  (We know this because in 1844 Engels wrote The Condition of the Working Class in England). 

Anyway, Lizzie has her doubts about Engels when her sister Mary fancies him.  There are only two alternatives to working in the mill, marriage or domestic service, and Lizzie doesn’t think much of Mary’s chances of marriage with Engels because of the social gulf between them.  Engels is an educated middle-class man, apparently Protestant, and the girls are illiterate factory workers of Irish Catholic descent. As far as Lizzie is concerned, no one understands men better than the women they don’t marry and there’s not much difference between them.  What matters is the mint that jingles in his pockets and it’s foolish to pass up a good offer for the sake of love.

Love is a bygone idea; centuries worn.  There’s things we can go without, and love is among them, bread and a warm hearth are not. Is it any wonder there’s heaps of ladies, real ladies, biding to marry the first decent man who offers them five hundred a year?  Aye, young flowers, don’t be being left behind on the used-up shelf.  If you must yearn for things, let those things be feelings, and let your yearnings be done in a first-class carriage like this one rather than in one of those reeking compartments down back, where you’ll be on your feet all day and exposed to winds and forever stunned by the difficulty of your life.  Establish yourself in a decent situation and put away what you can, that, please God, one day you may need no man’s help.  Take it and be content, then you’ll journey well.

Lizzie is a pragmatic soul indeed, but few readers will pass judgement on her for it…

Engels, to Lizzie’s surprise,  has a social conscience and is keenly interested in the squalid lives of working-class people.  In the novel as in real life he did indeed set up house with Mary and although they did not marry (because Engels was opposed to the institution of marriage on political grounds) they lived together as a family until her early death.  Against her better judgement Lizzie lives with them, squabbling with her sister and worrying about the extent to which the Engels money was propping up the household of Karl Marx and his wife Jenny.  She’s also troubled by her Catholic conscience: she agrees with Engels in theory, and the realities of her life make her scornful about the pulpit, but her faith lingers.  And she would, really, prefer to be married…

Great events permeate the novel without being heavy-handed.  Lizzie is tempted by a romance with a Fenian called Moss, and the whole household comes to the notice of both the authorities and the gossip-mongers when they provide refuge for members of the Paris Commune who’ve fled to England.  Engels disapproves of both movements because while he shares their ambitions he thinks they’re badly organised and have no hope of success.  For Lizzie, not understanding a word of French in the hubbub, and wryly observing the Frenchmen drink the cellar dry, they’re a housekeeping problem.  The irony of the Great Struggle for Equality going on in her household is that women’s rights aren’t considered at all…

Mrs Engels really is a remarkable debut, and Lizzie is an unforgettable character.  There’s something very pleasing about this woman coming out from the historical shadows into Gavin McCrae’s light-of-day.

One thing baffled me: the cover. I don’t understand the allusion to a zebra. Can anyone enlighten me?

Update (the next day)

O the wonders of the internet!  I am indebted to my Facebook friend Karen and to a review by Erik Karl Anderson who blogs at The Lonesome Reader, for an explanation of the cover art.  (Which is by Scribe, there’s no attribution to any specific artist or designer).

In the novel Lizzie sees a quagga at the London Zoo (p.102).  Now extinct,  the quagga was a  sub-species of zebra found in South Africa, which by the time Lizzie made her visit to the zoo, had been hunted almost to extinction.  It’s on display in a bizarre Christmas exhibit known as a moving crib created in a stable filled with exotic animals [… with] real people playing the holy family.  Lizzie is the only one who sees the irony of this, and finds the collection of impossible animals very sad.  Saddest and loneliest of them all is an animal half-zebra and half donkey standing on three legs in the corner of the stall. 

As you can see from the image on Erik’s site, a quagga did indeed look like an animal half-zebra and half donkey but what Lizzie saw was probably a hybrid from a forlorn attempt at a doomed captive breeding program.  The ‘quagga’ would have been sterile as animals bred from two different species are, and confined alone in a zoo instead of being free to roam in a herd across the African plains, its life would have been a misery.  Erik has made the connection that like this animal, Lizzie is two halves of different things. Like the quagga she does not belong where she is, she is caught between the contradictions of her life and her instincts, she is sterile, and she has no future.

So this cover art reinforces the irony of the title.  Mrs Engels is who Lizzie longed to be, instead of Lizzie Burns, but Engels only married her on her deathbed – out of a kindly token of respect for the remnants of her faith.

Author: Gavin McCrae
Title: Mrs Engels
Publisher: Scribe Publishing, 2015
ISBN: 9781925106688
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publishing


Fishpond: Mrs Engels

Family RoomFamily Room is a dynamic collection of short stories by Indonesian author Lily Yulianti Farid, with whom I will be ‘in conversation’ at the forthcoming Bendigo Writing Festival.  (If you haven’t got your tickets yet, here’s the link: you can buy a session ticket, or a festival pass which gets you into multiple events).  I’m looking forward to it because – as I said in a review of a different collection, Lily is wrestling with the remarkable social and political changes of the post-Suharto era while also interrogating feminist issues in a patriarchal society.  And it’s not often that we in Australia get the opportunity to hear authors from Indonesia, sharing their distinctive view of the world.

What makes this collection so different to any collection of Australian short stories is the political and social context in which they were first published in 2008-9.  Until the resignation of the military dictator Suharto (1967-1998), dissent was very firmly suppressed in Indonesia and publications which offended those in power were very promptly shut down.  Stories which satirise corruption would never have seen the light of day during Suharto’s 31-year grip on power…

The first story in the collection is called Makkunrai and it features the confrontation between a girl and her grandfather, a powerful patriarch who expects to have total control over his family.   This includes arranging the marriages of his granddaughters to useful cronies whether they like it or not.  No one may dare openly challenge his authority, not even his son, as easily crushed as a fragile peanut cracker:

This is what my father told me: ‘It’s not good to be insolent to your grandfather.’
‘But someone has to fight back!’
‘Who would ever dare?’
‘All of us!  Why not!’
‘Who would contradict your grandfather?’
‘All of us!’
‘You’re not afraid of disobeying your elders’ wishes?’ (p. 3)

When the corruption becomes too great to bear, this tame father thinks that the only possible solution is for his rebellious daughter to leave, and it’s the old man’s young third wife who surreptitiously encourages the girl to flee before it is too late.  Too often, a hasty departure is the only solution for dissenters in repressive regimes…

(I did wonder if this was a veiled attack on Suharto as ‘father of the nation’ but the President’s children, also known as Suharto Inc don’t at this distance seem to have rebelled against his rule, on ethical or any other grounds.)

There’s an international flavour to the collection, reflecting Lily’s experience as a journalist.  Many of the characters represent Indonesia’s growing middle-class who travel freely or work as expats around the globe; some are refugees.  Stories which feature characters far from home exude a sense of grief and loss, obsession with unresolved family trauma, or a nostalgia for small-scale commerce and farming which is being lost under globalisation and development.  In ‘Fire’ a daughter in Singapore realises too late that she should have listened to her mother’s stories: the family fled Jakarta after her Chinese father’s electrical store was burnt down in the 1998 anti-Chinese riots fomented by Suharto when he was courting the Islamic vote.   In ‘Day and Moon’ while their servants luxuriate in the abandoned home, a loving couple are separated when they cannot decide whether a husband should follow a wife, or a wife her husband, in pursuit of their ambitions in Japan and the Pacific Islands.  In ‘Lake’ an environmental scientist who studies lakes knows that international travel is not as dangerous as her activist sister Fayza naïvely believed it to be…

While Fayza went to the street to clench her fists and unfurl banners, Zara flew to Montana to join an expedition team.  For years, she immersed herself in research, travelling thousands of miles in the process of visiting lakes in the northern hemisphere that froze in the winter and sparkled in the summer.
‘Be careful, Fayza.’
‘You’re the one that should be careful, living in a foreign country.‘ (p.89)

It is Fayza, believing herself safe at home in Indonesia, who is in peril…

Lily sets her stories in a variety of homes housing families that rarely conform to the traditional stereotype.  It is an adopted son who sacrifices his ambitions to care for an ageing parent when the biological daughter doesn’t care; grandmothers and servants raise fatherless children or the unwanted.  And homes are not safe at all when sectarian violence flares, as it did in Ambon – identifiable in the heartbreaking story ‘Your Father is the Moon, You are the Sun’ by the presence of proselytising Dutch nuns.  They offer the only education available to a child who can never celebrate her birthday because it’s the day her father disappeared fighting the enemy.  His unknown fate inspires mythmaking, but all three versions show him taking risks in order to get home to see his newborn daughter.

In the title story ‘Family Room’ the mother brags to the magazine ‘Homes Today’ that their house has been designed around a central family room to foster intimacy – but it’s a sham.  It’s a tense, miserable home, where the narrator is on tranquilisers and her parents’ relationship has broken down in the face of her father’s token gaol sentence for tax fraud and her mother’s career in environmental politics.  All three siblings have embarrassing secrets that must be hushed up to meet the middle-class norm of respectability.  And there’s a sad and lonely child called Raf whose pleas for mother love are dismissed as whining…

kue lapisThe translation by John H. McGlynn is seamless, though there are a couple of untranslatable words where a knowledge of Indonesian adds to enjoyment.  The story Kue Lapis is translated as layer cake, but you have to have seen it (and tasted it!) to appreciate the complexity of the layers of deceit and moral ambiguities that the cake symbolises in the family depicted in the story!

This is a thought-provoking collection so it’s a pity it’s hard to come by in Australia.  One of our largest online stores is selling it for a whopping $47, and according to Booko Fishpond isn’t much better – though they had a second-hand copy on the day I looked so it’s worth checking there.   Readings, however, who are not listed at Booko for this title, and who didn’t have it in stock on the day I viewed it, will order it in for $16.95 and if you spend more than $19.95 delivery is free.

Author: Lily Yulianti Farid
Title: Family Room
Translated by John H. McGlynn
Publisher: Modern Library of Indonesia, Lontar, 2010
Review copy courtesy of Lily Yulianti Farid and the Bendigo Writers’ Festival


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 21, 2015

Bendigo Writers Festival pass giveaway

Update: this giveaway is now closed.  The winner is author and teacher of writing, Mairi Neil, an occasional guest blogger here at ANZ LitLovers and whose own blog Up the Creek with a Pen is a wealth of writing tips.


You lucky people!  It just so happens that I have a weekend Bendigo Writers Festival pass (August 7-9) to give away, and all you have to do to have a chance of winning it, is to register your interest in the comments below.

This festival pass gives you access to all sessions in Capital Theatre, Bendigo Bank Theatre, Old Fire Station, La Trobe VAC & Trades Hall – but excludes access to certain ticketed events and workshops.  Make sure you check this page for details to avoid disappointment, but trust me, it gets you into more sessions that you can physically attend!

You already know that I am presenting two sessions at the festival, but there are so many other sessions you will be hard pressed to choose what to attend. Check out the program here.

NB The pass was bought at the concession price, so if you don’t have e.g. a Seniors Card or a Student Card, you will need to pay $15 extra when you collect the pass at the festival box office.   (If you are an impecunious author and this is a problem for you, I will pay the extra $15 on your behalf on the grounds that one day you will write a beaut book for me to read).

If you win, I will email your name and email address to festival management so that they can identify you when you collect the pass at the heart of the festival, the Capital Theatre in View St Bendigo.

Please only register your interest if you really would like to attend.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2015

Just what I really needed, a few more books for the TBR

I’ve had a lovely day today: we went to the Bastille Day French Festival at the State Library and had a traditional French Sunday lunch (boeuf bourguignon, cheese platter and tarte au citron meringuée) followed by a Cheese Masterclass; and we wandered round the market stalls and bought croissants and saucisson and other delicious French treats…

But we couldn’t help making a quick side trip to Embiggen Books en route … so conveniently just across the street from The Wheeler Centre (and The Moat café where we were to dine) … and they just happened to have some books that I really needed.  This very morning I had read an encouraging review of Louis de Bernieres’ The Dust That Falls from Dreams… and then I spotted a new one by John Tesarsch called The Last Will and Testament of Henry Hoffman (you may remember that I really liked his debut novel The Philanthropist) … and then The Spouse called me over to the philosophy shelves to check if I already had something he was going to buy … and there was Plato’s Myths, in a nice Oxford Classics edition.  And best of all, there was a copy of The Mary Smokes Boys by Patrick Holland, and you know how much I like his style but somehow I had never read the novel that made such a splash!

We found time to drop into the new exhibition at the State Library too: a stunning collection of paintings by S. T. Gill.  Does that name ring a bell?  Yes, S.T. Gill was the painter whose life was fictionalised in The Profilist by Adrian Mitchell (see my review) and what a pleasure it was to see these paintings bringing early Australia to life.  They are rather like Canaletto’s paintings of Venetian street life because Gill includes so much vivid detail for the eye to explore.  I’m really looking forward to Mitchell’s session at the Bendigo Writers Festival in August!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 18, 2015

Tightrope, by Simon Mawer

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky TightropeIt’s only a day or two since I read Simon Mawer’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (see my review) but I liked it so much I went straight to the newly published sequel Tightrope and finished it this morning.

The novel opens many years after the end of the war when Marion Sutro is an elderly woman meeting up again with Sam Wareham, twenty years her junior and still somewhat star-struck by this enigmatic heroine of WW2.  This opening enables Mawer to fill in the backstory so that Tightrope can be read independently of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky which covers her exploits for the British in Occupied France.  The action of the novel then returns to the last year of the war after Marion has escaped from Nazi captivity in Ravensbrück and her journey of physical and mental recovery from torture and trauma.

This novel is not as engaging a thriller as its predecessor, but it’s actually a more thought-provoking book.  I was reminded of the TV series The Bletchley Circle which conveyed so poignantly the way that women who had played important roles in the war were unceremoniously dumped back into the kitchen in the post-war period. The TV series ramps up the irony that the society which had assumed that their intellectual skills were no longer needed, turns out to need their analytical and code-breaking skills to hunt down a serial killer.  In the novel, Marion, now she’s safely back in England but still suffering post-traumatic stress, is expected to restore her appearance, to find herself a young man, and to marry and have children.

But despite her horrific experiences at the hands of the Nazis, Marion still has some unfinished business, and she’s still subject to the lure of doing something exciting and important with her life.  And as the war in Europe ends, the American betrayal of their allies* over the development of the atom bomb gains in significance.  The real-life pacificist and philosopher Bertrand Russell makes an appearance at the fictional Franco-British Pacific Union (‘pacific’ as in ‘peace’), where Marion works, and shocks his listeners when he proposes that – since the Russians won’t agree to any world government to control nuclear weapons unless they run it – there are only three alternatives: an immediate pre-emptive strike on Russia which the US would win; a war between the two superpowers once Russia had acquired her own atom bomb which would cause catastrophic destruction even if the West won; or to do nothing and allow Russian domination of Europe which would be the end of European civilisation.  Russell says that each alternative is worse than its predecessor, i.e. he seems to be suggesting that the US should take the initiative and destroy the Soviets as a power by using A-bombs on major Russian cities like Moscow and St Petersburg (then called Leningrad).

Appalled by the idea of weapons of mass destruction and wracked with guilt about her own contribution to the atrocities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Marion and her nuclear scientist brother Ned, face a moral dilemma that still arouses passionate debate today.  What are the ethics of leaking nuclear secrets to the Soviets, to bring forward a stalemate between superpowers so that neither side dare attack the other?  (And as we know, this is what actually happened then, and has happened again more recently when someone enabled Pakistan to get its own bomb, to protect itself from India).

Marion’s double life begins again, complicated by her resurgent love life, and the complex moral dilemmas of the Cold War.  The novel doesn’t have the dramatic tension of wartime espionage but rather the clammy deceit of agents and double-agents; and murky issues of deception and identity when which side the characters are on is not a simple matter of patriotism.   However, the narration muddies the waters a bit: it’s not always quite clear whether it’s being narrated by Sam (who is clearly biased towards Marion and not just during his puppy love phase) or sometimes by a more detached third-person narrator whose point-of-view is Marion’s.

Tightrope reminded me of The Memory Room, one of my favourite books by the late Christopher Koch.  Set in Canberra, The Memory Room explores the effects of secrecy on relationships, and on the mind.  Marion’s dissociative fugue early in her recovery adds to her difficulties in all kinds of relationships – including the one that she has with the enigmatic Mr Fawley who pulls the strings in the world of espionage.  I’m only half-joking when I wonder if spies put in Workcover claims for the damage done to their personal lives…

*One of the books on my must-read list is Malcolm Fraser’s Dangerous Allies, in which he apparently argues that the US can’t be relied upon to act in Australia’s interest.  Mawer’s characters’ distrust of the alliance has reminded me to get a copy of it.

Author: Simon Mawer
Title: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky
Publisher: Little, Brown, 2012
ISBN: 9781408703519
Purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $29.99


Fishpond: The Girl Who Fell from the Sky

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 17, 2015

#LoveOzYA Roundup July 2015

Further to my previous post about #LoveOzYA

Chatting with Danielle Binks from the Alpha Reader who’s leading the #LoveOzYA initiative, I asked for some help with finding reviews of what’s good in Australian YA titles and was delighted to find these suggestions landing very promptly in my inbox.

  • Alpha Reader book review: Soon by Morris Gleitzman (June 2015, Penguin Australia).  [LH: This is the latest in the series that began with Once, which features a Jewish boy called Felix, surviving WW2.  I read it when I was still teaching. Gleitzman is a brilliant author.]
  • Imaginary Misadventure review: Pieces of Sky by Trinity Doyle (June 2015, Allen&Unwin)
  • Steph Bowe book review: Frankie & Joely by Nova Weetman (July 2015, UQP)

Within Danielle’s summary of the Centre for Youth Lit’s ‘Reading Matters‘ 2015 Conference, there are links to numerous book reviews as exemplars of the issues discussed, which explored themes of diversity in Australian YA books.  It seems to me that on this one issue alone, it is essential that Aussie kids read their own culture, because our multicultural society is entirely different to the US and UK.  But the books have to be interesting and engaging, of course, not just worthy, or no one will want to read them.

Other contributors to the #LoveOzYA campaign include

  • Readings Children’s Book Specialist, Emily Gale, created a list of #LoveOzYA reading recs
  • Cait Drews for Boomerang Books listed ‘The Best of Australian YA‘, and
  • Michael Earp has created a #LoveOzYA list at Goodreads (and I was surprised to see how many I’d read, mostly dating back to when I was teaching, of course).
Danielle also passed on some upcoming events of interest:

I did a little research of my own to see what the YA offerings are at the forthcoming Bendigo Writers Festival because I’m presenting two sessions there myself and (yay!) have a festival pass for the entire weekend:

  • A workshop session with Ellie Marney, author of Every Breath, part of a series of YA crime novels now published in eight countries
  • A panel session called ‘What’s love got to do with it?’ that includes Fleur Harris whose first YA novel is called Risk.
  • A panel session called ‘Culture, Class and Conflict’ that includes Alice Pung, author of Unpolished Gem, My Father’s Daughter (see Karenlee Thompson’s review), Marly’s Business and Laurinda.

So there’s no shortage of titles and authors and opportunities to hear more about Australian YA books, the issue seems to be finding a way to connect with YA readers so that they begin to value the stories of their own culture at least as much as they value the cultures that are dominating the discourse…

Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 16, 2015

#LoveOzYA – a hashtag dear to my heart!

Earlier this week on Facebook, I came across a post from Books+Publishing about a new initiative to promote Australian YA books.  It has a Twitter hashtag #LoveOzYA, and if you follow my Twitter feed @anzlitlovers, you may have noticed that I’ve retweeted some of their tweets… including the one promoting this poster.


Click on the image if you want to download your own copy or go here.

Now as you know, I don’t read much YA – and I didn’t read it when I was young because there was no such thing in The Olden Days –  but Danielle Binks has written a compelling argument  at Kill Your Darlings for why we should be encouraging our young people to read our own Aussie authors, and her Alpha Reader blog is a wealth of reviews of Australian YA.

So spread the word.  Aussie kids who read OzLit grow up to be adults who read OzLit.  And that matters, right?


Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 15, 2015

2015 Kibble and Dobbie Winners

Just a quick post to share the news about the winners of the 2015 Kibble and Dobbie Awards.  What follows is the press release, courtesy of Perpetual who administer the awards.

Joan London and Ellen van Neerven announced as winners of 2015 Kibble Awards 15 July 2015

As trustee of the Nita B Kibble Literary Awards for Women Writers (the Kibble Awards), Perpetual today announced Joan London and Ellen van Neerven as the 2015 winners of the Kibble and Dobbie Awards.   Ms London won the $30,000 Kibble Literary Award for established authors for her book The Golden Age, while Ms van Neervan won the $5,000 Dobbie Literary Award for a first-time published author for Heat and Light.

The Kibble Awards were established by Nita Dobbie in honour of her pioneering aunt, Nita Kibble – the first female librarian of the State Library of New South Wales.   The Awards recognise Australian female writers who have published fiction or non-fiction classified as ‘life writing’. This includes novels, autobiographies, biographies, literature and any writing with a strong personal element.

Humanities Australia Editor, Emeritus Professor Elizabeth Webby AM, on behalf of the judging panel said: “In her beautifully measured and tender novel The Golden Age, Joan London vividly imagines the lives of young victims in a real children’s polio convalescent home. In spite of the grimness of its subject matter, this is a novel luminescent with joy, sensuality and wisdom. Written in flawless, clear-eyed prose, this book is sure to become a classic.”

“In a style mystical, sensual and realistic all at once, Ellen van Neerven’s remarkable debut collection of stories is startlingly original. She combines down to earth dialogue, descriptions of country and the dailiness of people’s lives with passages of lyrical intensity, which effortlessly convey both the mystical dimension of country as well as its undertones of violence.”

Professor Webby was joined on the judging panel by State Library of New South Wales Coordinator- Education and Scholarship, Dr Rachel Franks, and internationally renowned novelist, Dr Rosie Scott.   Perpetual’s National Manager of Philanthropy, Caitriona Fay, described the Kibble Awards as an excellent example of the impact philanthropy can have in contributing to Australian culture.   “As trustee of the Kibble Awards, we are proud to support and promote Australia’s established and emerging female writers and we congratulate Joan and Ellen on their outstanding achievements.”   Ms Fay also congratulated Helen Garner and Sophie Cunningham, the shortlisted authors for the 2015 Kibble Literary Award, and Emily Bitto and Christine Piper, who were shortlisted for the Dobbie Literary Award.   For more information about the awards, please visit

The nominations for the $30,000 Kibble prize for an established woman author were:

The nominations for the $5000 Dobbie prize for a first-time published author were:

Congratulations to all the winners and nominees and to their editors and publishers!

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