Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 23, 2021

2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize winners

The winners of the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prizes were announced today.

*drum roll*

The winner of the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize in the Adult Category is The Burning Island, by Jock Serong (Text Publishing).  You can read my review here.
The winner of the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize in the Children and Young Adult (CYA) Category is We are Wolves, by Katrina Nannestad (HarperCollins Australia).

From the press release:

This year’s winners make the past come alive in an astonishing way. Their luminous prose conjures worlds that intertwine history with imagination to explore themes of survival, identity, desire and power. Both novels embody storytelling at its very best.

In just its second year of operation, the ARA Historical Novel Prize is worth a total of $100,000 in prize monies. The Prize will award $50,000 to the Adult category winner, with an additional $5,000 to be awarded to each of the remaining two shortlisted authors. In the Children and Young Adult (CYA) category, the winner will receive $30,000, while the two shortlisted authors will receive $5,000 each.

Chair and Program Director of the Historical Novel Society Australasia, Elisabeth Storrs, said, “Selected from over 130 entries, the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize winners demonstrate the power of the historical fiction genre to explore what lies hidden and unspoken in society today, illuminated by the sometimes shadowy, yet revealing, paths to our past.”

“The winning novels demonstrate the irresistible prose, unforgettable characters, meticulous research, and epic storytelling for which historical fiction is known. The ARA Historical Novel Prize is a true celebration of the genre, and a real opportunity to foster the genre on a grander scale,” said Storrs.

It is very pleasing to see sponsorship coming from the corporate world, and I wish more of them would do this!

The ARA Historical Novel Prize has been made possible through the generous patronage of ARA Group. The ARA Group, and its Founder, Executive Chair and Managing Director Edward Federman, are committed to supporting the arts and literature.

ARA Group Founder, Executive Chair and Managing Director — and patron of the arts — Edward Federman said, “I congratulate Jock Serong and Katrina Nannestad on winning the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize. It has been a pleasure to be involved in making a long-lasting contribution to the arts, particularly to the historical fiction genre that has not always received the attention it rightly deserves.”

“We’re hopeful the new CYA category and additional funding for the ARA Historical Novel Prize will not only make a considerable difference to the lives of the winning authors, but also shine a light on the historical fiction genre and the work of all entrants across Australia and New Zealand,” said Federman.

The 2021 judging panel for the Adult category included Nicole Alexander (Chair), Carmel Bird and Roanna Gonsalves. The 2021 judging panel for the CYA category included Paul McDonald (Chair), Thuy On and Catherine Mayo.

Congratulations to both the authors, and their editors and publishers.

To see the shortlisted authors, see here. and the longlist here.

Thanks to publicist Sally Wood for her help in preparing this post.

For more information about the awards and to see last year’s winners, please visit the HNSA website.


About the ARA Historical Novel Prize

The ARA Historical Novel Prize gives Australian and New Zealand historical novelists the chance to be recognised in a class of their own, with the most significant prize purse for any genre-based prize in Australasia. Historical fiction is defined as a novel in which the majority of the narrative takes place at least 50 years before publication. A range of sub-genres are eligible, including historical mystery, historical romance, alternate history, historical fantasy, multi-time, time-slip, and parallel narrative novels. The judging criteria include depth of research, widespread reader appeal, with excellence in writing as the deciding factor.

About the ARA Group

The ARA Historical Novel Prize has been made possible through the generous patronage of ARA Group. ARA Group provides a comprehensive range of building services and products to major customers throughout Australia and New Zealand. Through its workplace giving program—The ARA Endowment Fund—the company plays a proud and positive role in the community.

The ARA Endowment Fund currently donates 100 per cent of the interest earned annually to The Go Foundation, The Indigenous Literacy Foundation, and The David Lynch Foundation. ARA Group has also sponsored the Historical Novel Society Australasia’s biennial conferences since 2017, is Principal Partner of Sydney Writers Festival, the Monkey Baa Theatre and the National Institute of Dramatic Art, a Key Partner of The Story Factory, and Presidential Partner of Taronga Zoo. For further information, visit:

About the Historical Novel Society Australasia (HNSA)

Recognised as the home of the historical fiction genre in Australasia, the HNSA supports and promotes the writing, reading and publication of historical fiction across Australia and New Zealand. It is the third arm of the international Historical Novel Society. Our events showcase the best literary talent and enable readers, writers and publishing professionals to celebrate the genre.

The ARA Historical Novel Prize is the crown jewel in HNSA’s suite of literary contests.  HNSA also runs the ARA HNSA Short Story Contest, the TCW HNSA First Pages Pitch Contest, the Colleen McCullough Residency held on Norfolk Island and the Elizabeth Jane Corbett Mentorship for Young Adult historical novelists. For further information, visit:

(BTW, I have been to Norfolk Island.  What a great place for a residency!  I recommend all the museums, the Botanic Gardens and Hilli’s Restaurant. See my travel blog here.)


I am very late to the party with this one.  It won Seizure’s Viva la Novella Prize in 2017, and was nominated for the Stella Prize the following year. It’s been reviewed by all the bloggers in our network, including Jennifer, Kate, Kim, Sue and Marg, to whom I owe thanks because it was her review in 2021 that made me realise I didn’t have a copy of it.  I almost always buy the winners of this prize, but I somehow I overlooked this one…

What can I possibly add?

Readers of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea will recognise the idea of bringing to life a minor character from another novel.  Rhys invented a compassionate back story for the ‘madwoman in the attic’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  Riwoe brings the reader the story of the misrepresented ‘Malay trollop’ in W. Somerset Maugham’s story, ‘The Four Dutchmen’.

It’s not one of Maugham’s better stories.  It’s only five pages long, and three pages of it is devoted to establishing the deep and abiding bond between the four Dutchmen who formed the crew of a trading vessel.  This friendship is severed by the Captain’s ‘susceptibility’ to the charms of the native girls.  His dreams of retirement with one of these girls is quoted at the beginning of Riwoe’s story:

One of these days he would buy himself a house on the hills in Java and marry a pretty little Javanese.  They were so small and so gentle and they made no noise, and he would dress her in silk sarongs and give her gold chains to wear round her neck and gold bangles to put on her arms.  (‘The Four Dutchmen (1928) , in ‘The World Over, The Collected Stories Vol II,  by W. Somerset Maugham, The Reprint Society London, 1954, p. 1082-3)

Maugham was writing in the days of Empire, portraying the last days of colonialism in India, Southeast Asia, China and the Pacific, so it’s interesting to look at how he portrays ‘the Orient’.  Unlike Kipling and Conrad, Maugham does not represent it as dark, primitive and threatening. The threats and ‘uncivilised behaviour’ in his ‘The Four Dutchmen’ comes from these seemingly genial and contented Europeans.

Maugham’s emphasis on the grotesque fatness of the men and the delicacy of the ‘pretty little Javanese’ of the Captain’s fantasy makes the incongruity obvious.  Women, of course, have long been the subject of the superstition of seamen, and the narration establishes early on that these four men didn’t welcome passengers and only tolerated the narrator as an occasional fourth player at cards.  Her presence is unwelcome.

..on one of the trips the Captain took with him a Malay girl that he had been carrying on with and I wondered it if was the one he had been so eager to see when I was on board.  The other three had been against her coming—what did they want with a woman in the ship?  It would spoil everything—but the captain insisted and she came.  I think they were all jealous of her.  On that journey they didn’t have the fun they usually had.  (p.1084)

That jealousy explodes into violence.  Two of the crew are shot, and the remaining two are later tried for murder of the missing girl.

The evidence was flimsy and they were acquitted.  But all through the East Indies they knew that the supercargo and the chief engineer had executed justice on the trollop who had caused the death of the two men they loved.  (p.1085)

This line transforms the victim of murder — the ‘pretty little Javanese’ — into a ‘trollop’ who deserved rough justice because she was held responsible for the two men’s violence.  She has no name, she has no back story, and there is no mention of her in the newspapers that report the trial. And yet she is the centre of the story.

Maugham concludes his story with the ironic line: And thus ended the comic and celebrated friendship of the four fat Dutchmen.  But it is not a comic story, and what happens to this girl, so lightly sketched, is what remains memorable.

Riwoe’s cultural background is Chinese-Indonesian on her father’s side, and the plot outline of The Fish Girl is reminiscent of The Girl from the Coast by Indonesia’s legendary author Pramoedya Ananta Toer, (see my review).  Both stories feature a girl who has no choice, no agency, no independence and no conceivable escape from her fate.  In both stories —with parental acquiescence, an innocent pubescent girl is taken from her village to serve in the house of a Dutch colonist, and in due course is expected to provide sexual services.  Toer’s semi-fictional story of his grandmother’s own experience is an indictment of the way women were exploited in Javanese feudal society, and how that continued in much the same way under Dutch colonialism.  Riwoe allows her character a brief moment of happiness which turns out to be a delusion, and is the trigger for her to be offloaded to the Captain, and all that follows from that…

There’s a very interesting article at Made in China about W. Somerset Maugham and the way his representation of ‘the East’ changed over time.

Author: Mirandi Riwoe
Title: The Fish Girl
Cover art by Sam Paine
Publisher: Seizure by Zoom, 2017
ISBN: 9781925589061, pbk., 97 pages
Source: Bayside Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 22, 2021

2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Award shortlists

I have just enough time to bring you this news: Lockdown ended at midnight last night and today we are having a BBQ with friends so I have things to do!

The 2021 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards shortlists are:


  • A Treacherous Country, K.M. Kruimink, Allen & Unwin, see my review
  • In the Time of Foxes, Jo Lennan, Simon & Schuster: Scribner Australia
  • Lucky’s, Andrew Pippos, Pan Macmillan: Picador Australia
  • The Bass Rock, Evie Wyld, Penguin Random House: Vintage
  • The Labyrinth, Amanda Lohrey, Text Publishing, see my review


  • Flight Lines: Across the Globe on a Journey with the Astonishing Ultramarathon Birds, Andrew Darby, Allen & Unwin
  • The Altar Boys, Suzanne Smith, HarperCollins Publishing: ABC Books
  • The Details: On Love, Death and Reading, Tegan Bennett Daylight, Simon & Schuster: Scribner Australia
  • The Stranger Artist: Life at the Edge of Kimberley Painting, Quentin Sprague, Hardie Grant Publishing
  • Truganini: Journey Through the Apocalypse, Cassandra Pybus, Allen & Unwin, on my TBR

Australian history

  • Ceremony Men: Making Ethnography and the Return of the Strehlow Collection, Jason M. Gibson, State University of New York Press
  • Pathfinders: A History of Aboriginal Trackers in NSW,  Michael Bennett, NewSouth Publishing
  • People of the River: Lost Worlds of Early Australia, Grace Karskens, Allen & Unwin
  • Representing Australian Aboriginal Music and Dance 1930-1970, Amanda Harris, Bloomsbury Publishing
  • The Convict Valley: The Bloody Struggle on Australia’s Early Frontier, Mark Dunn, Allen & Unwin


  • Change Machine, Jaya Savige, University of Queensland Press
  • Homer Street, Laurie Duggan, Giramondo Publishing
  • Nothing to Declare, Mags Webster, Puncher & Wattmann
  • Shorter Lives, John A. Scott, Puncher & Wattmann
  • The Strangest Place, New and Selected Poems, Stephen Edgar, Black Pepper

Children’s literature

  • Fly on the Wall, Remy Lai, Walker Books Australia,
  • How to Make a Bird, Meg McKinlay, illustrated by Matt Ottley, Walker Books Australia
  • The January Stars, Kate Constable, Allen & Unwin
  • The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst, Jaclyn Moriarty, illustrated by Kelly Canby, Allen & Unwin
  • The Year the Maps Changed, Danielle Binks, Hachette Australia: Lothian Children’s Books

Young adult literature

  • Loner, Georgina Young, Text Publishing
  • Metal Fish, Falling Snow, Cath Moore, Text Publishing
  • The End of the World is Bigger than Love, Davina Bell, Text Publishing
  • The F Team, Rawah Arja , Giramondo Publishing
  • When Rain Turns to Snow, Jane Godwin, Hachette Australia: Lothian Children’s Books
Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 22, 2021

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun, translated by George Egerton

Hunger (Sult) (1890) by Norwegian author Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) is, as Wikipedia and 1001 Books tells us, a very significant book in the history of the novel.

Hamsun’s reputation has suffered from his Nazi sympathies, but his early, semi-autobiographical portrait of the writer as a hungry young man is a seminal modernist classic.  Influenced by Dostoevsky, Hamsun here develops a kind of Nietzschean individualism that rebelled against both naturalism and the progressive literary politics associated with Ibsen.  The urban angst of Hunger prefigures the alienated cityscapes of Kafka, but with an insistence on tensions between everyday economics and colloquial reverie worthy of James Kelman.

(1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Edited by Peter Boxall, ABC Books, 2006 Edition, ISBN: 9780733321214, p.206)

Wikipedia tells us Hamsun pioneered techniques of stream of consciousness and interior monologue and Isaac Bashevis Singer called Hamsun “the father of the modern school of literature in his every aspect—his subjectiveness, his fragmentariness, his use of flashbacks, his lyricism. The whole modern school of fiction in the twentieth century stems from Hamsun.”  He influenced numerous authors including Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse and Ernest Hemingway, and he won the Nobel Prize in 1920 “for his monumental work, Growth of the Soil.

But all of this is forgotten as you read the book.  Reading this portrait of a distressed young man at the end of his physical and psychological tether is an intensely emotional experience.  It’s only 134 pages but it took four days to read it, because it is so overwhelming.  It was written in the late 19th century but when we read it today it is with a consciousness of how serious poverty was before the Russian Revolution propelled capitalist economies into developing welfare reforms.  In extremis, the unnamed narrator has nothing to turn to but judgemental charity and the spasmodic kindness of friends, and today in the 21st century that is still how it is in many countries around the world.  His vivid depictions of the state he is in, are brutal.

Although there are comic episodes to relieve the tension, it is the poignant moments that will stay with me.  Wandering about in a market where he has (literally) no money to buy anything, and indeed he has pawned his waistcoat to give some money to a beggar, he comes across the woman who had potted plants for sale.

The heavy crimson roses—the leaves of which glowed blood-like and moist in the damp morning—made me envious, and tempted me sinfully to snatch one, and I inquired the price of them merely as an excuse to approach as near to them as possible.

If I had any money I would buy one, no matter how things went; indeed I might well save a little now and then out of my way of living to balance things again. (p.22)

This yearning for roses despite his acute poverty, and his fantasy that he might save up for some from his non-existent earnings is quite heart-breaking.

The reader, invested in his survival almost from the first page, segues from moments of anxiety, alarm, hope, exasperation and despair as the young man sabotages himself repeatedly.  He is very confident in his ability to earn a living from his writing; he thinks that he just needs the right conditions to get his stories down on paper and editors will accept them for publication.  But he does not have the right conditions: he hasn’t paid his rent and has been asked to leave, he spends a night sleeping rough and he is reduced to scribbling his stories on a park bench.  When one of his stories is accepted and he is able to rent a windswept loft, he loses his keys in a bizarre sequence of events and spends a night in a pitch-dark police cell for the homeless.  And when he is offered a bed for the night with a family, he behaves in such a peculiar way that he is asked to leave there too.  A last gasp attempt to sell his tie and his shaving tickets to a friend fails because he abandons the attempt, overcome with embarrassment, leaving the packet behind.

(Apparently at this time, men did not shave at home, they bought books of tickets to be shaved at a barber.)

He is always so acutely aware of of what others might think of him that he tries desperately to conceal his straitened circumstances.  A friend lent him a blanket but he doesn’t want to be seen carrying it when he’s homeless, so he gets it wrapped up to look as if he’s carrying a parcel.  He lies all the time to save face, giving false names, refusing help, rejecting a small loan from an editor and pretending to be employed.  It’s a way of preserving his fragile self-esteem, and pride is all you’ve got when you’ve got nothing, but it’s self-destructive too.

His interior monologues range from fantasies to hallucinations to dialogues with God, who he thinks is orchestrating his miseries as a test while Demons are grinding their teeth in frustration because he hasn’t yet committed an unpardonable sin.

The cumulative effects of hunger are wearing him down, but he’s not bitter.  When he finally stoops to begging, he gets nothing for it.  His last desperate attempt at the pawnshop sees him cutting the buttons off his coat, but they’re worthless.  It is a relief when there is a reprieve: he he meets a friend, similarly penniless, but able to helps him out a little.

However, he becomes aware that he’s talking to himself and having freakish thoughts, and the reader can’t always differentiate between his deluded state and what is actually happening.  As a portrait of a man on the edge of an abyss, Hunger is unforgettable.

Author: Knut Hamsun
Title: Hunger (Sult)
Translated from the Norwegian by George Egerton
Publisher: Dover Publications, 2003 (first published 1890)
ISBN: 9780486431680, pbk., 134 pages
Source: Personal library

What a pleasure it was to attend a Zoom author event featuring Ramona Koval in conversation with Bernadette Brennan, talking about Leaping into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears!

Gillian Mears (1964–2016), as you see from her obituary here, was a notable award-winning Australian author.  I read The Mint Lawn when it was released in 1991, and her last novel Foal’s Bread in 2011. (See my review here).  Bernadette Brennan has spent three years writing a biography that sounds utterly irresistible.

Ramona Koval began by saying that Gillian Mears was a singular person, and the conversation went on to proving just how singular she was!

Bernadette Brennan says that Mears belongs in Australia’s literary landscape in the generation after Helen Garner and one-and-a-half generations after Thea Astley. She was born in 1964 and began publishing 20 years later in the 1980s, when McPhee Gribble and other women authors were role models for women’s writing.  She was published very quickly: she had barely finished a creative writing and journalism degree, when Bruce Pascoe decided to publish one of her stories and so did Carol Ferrier.  Brennan said that Pascoe was just about begging her for more stories for a collection, and so was UQP.

She was so successful, that only one of Mears’ story collections was ever refused.  Bruce Pascoe thought Fine Flour was good but it should be a novel, and McPhee Gribble didn’t take it either.  Mears was miffed and sent it to UQP who promptly published it and it went on to win prizes.  Imagine, said Brennan, that happening to a young writer in today’s literary landscape!

Mears’ archive is extraordinary: she collected everything! She was always obsessed about collecting and documenting her life.  She kept birthday cards from when she was five in and all kinds of other weird and wonderful memorabilia. She was a diarist, and a great letter writer, especially to her sisters.  She collected all these letters, and even sent her sisters an envelope at the end of the year with instructions to send her letters back for the historical record.  Brennan doesn’t think this was narcissism, it was more a case of holding everything close.  Mears was very keen on control, and keeping such things as letters and school reports enabled control over her life.  This was important to her because she was also fragile, and shy, and unsure of herself, even though she was so confident of her destiny as a writer.  This was because she anticipated being an important writer that people would want to know about, and in the archive she even addresses a future biographer at some stage.

Brennan talked with great humour about the astonishing — overwhelming — quantity of materials that were in the archive.  It was second only to the Fairfax archive, and it was daunting.  At first she thought it would be great, but then it became frustrating.  There were even masses of documents from text messages on Mears’ phone, 4000 pages of it all.  (No she didn’t read them all, she worked out a way of scanning through to see who the messages were from).

Mears was one of four sisters, living in an idyllic rural landscape, away from any other family because of migration from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).  These parents did not have good relationships with their parents and they wanted their girls to have everything that they didn’t have.  The mother was a strong personality, and Gillian was critical of her affairs and her absences which took place at a difficult time in the mother’s life.  The sisters, OTOH, were very close, though there were destructive rivalries in the 1990s when Yvonne began writing.  This was when Mears was well-established and highly awarded and she gave Yvonne a lot of advice.  But she used Yvonne’s title as her own, and also used ‘Yvonne’s’ topic (high jumping) and so Yvonne felt betrayed.

Ramona Koval also raised the always difficult issue of the biographer needing to negotiate the inclusion of stories about people who are still living.  Gillian wasn’t much worried about boundaries, but her family, friends, lovers, and other people were ‘a minefield’.  Their intimate lives were at risk of being exposed in a damaging way, and it took time for Brennan to resolve things.  But Brennan said that what she loved about biography was that it means meeting such wonderful people that you wouldn’t get to meet in any other way, so it was a positive experience.

It’s clear from this conversation that Mears was a flawed and somewhat self-destructive person, but Brennan has a humane view of the difficulties of Mears’ life, especially as her illness became so debilitating.

Leaping into Waterfalls is definitely one to add to my TBR of literary biographies!

You can buy Leaping into Waterfalls: The Enigmatic Gillian Mears by Bernadette Brennan from Readings.

Thanks to Christine Gordon for organising this event.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 20, 2021

Scary Monsters, by Michelle de Kretser

So, firstly, the title is apparently a reference to a song by David Bowie?  Well, I Googled the lyrics… and am none the wiser.

Secondly, the ‘novel’ is actually two novellas, tenuously linked.  One, ‘the past’ is set in 1980s Montpellier, France, and the other, ‘the future’ in a dystopian Melbourne.  It’s packaged in an upside-down format so that the reader can choose whether to read ‘cherry-side-up’ first: the coming-of-age story of Lili in France; or alternatively cherry-blossom-side-up: the satirical story of Lyle in the future.  I can’t see that this experiment in format makes much difference whichever one is read first, though perhaps Lili’s story might put you in a better mood…

De Kretser explains the reasoning behind this upside-down format at the Guardian, i.e. her belief that migration turns lives upside-down, and she expresses her anxiety that publishing the book this way might be seen as gimmicky. Well, I’ll leave that to others to judge, but I will comment on her idea that migrants are viewed as gimmicky citizens whose worth is constantly questioned.  FWIW The ‘migrant as victim’ is an offshoot of identity politics that I reject.  It’s hard — of course migration is hard, change is always hard.  But unlike refugees, migrants choose it.  As a migrant myself I consider it a privilege to have been accepted as a migrant when there are millions of people around the world fruitlessly seeking a new homeland.


I started with the story of Lili.  She’s a twenty-something teacher from Australia, settling into Montpellier in the south of France.  Through Nick, who teaches at the same school, she develops an intense friendship with his girlfriend, a young English artist called Minna. Minna teaches Lili to be more assertive with the landlord who takes advantage of her inexperience to deny her heating in winter.  She also encourages her to dress with the individuality of mismatched clothes because ‘uglification’ is a way of mocking the French preoccupation with appearance.  They have a lot of fun together, but Lili privately thinks that she would be a better soulmate for Nick because she knows more about French literature and culture than Minna does.  However, because Lili is a person of colour, she thinks that she can never be quite ‘enough’.

Lili wants to be a Bold. Intelligent. Woman. like Simone de Beauvoir, and she enjoys posing for Minna’s series of photos called ‘Daring Audrey’.  (This reminded me of Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful in which Mahood’s friend the photo-artist Pamela Lofts posed her in all kinds of ironic feminist critiques out in the Tanami Desert.) But despite having the courage to set off alone across the world for adventures in a different culture, Lili is more often hyper-alert for serial killers and she suspects that her creepy neighbour is plotting to attack her.  Reading this novella first without the brief allusion to it in Lyle’s story makes it end somewhat inconclusively in 1983 two years after the election of the socialist president François Mitterand.

Lyle’s story is a rather heavy-handed satire.  It is set in a surreal dystopian Melbourne where Islam is illegal and there are heavy penalties for mentioning climate change. Sydney has been abandoned because of coastal erosion and bushfires, and the government monitors communications to identify troublesome migrants for repatriation.  Migrants Lyle and his wife Chanel keep their heads down in the outer suburbs while their adult children Sydney and Mel bully them.  Mel is studying architecture in Chicago, but her YouTube channel is about the ‘architecture of the face’ and her speech is loaded with farcical Millennial jargon.  When Lyle demurs about the cost of an American college, Mel tells him she’ll get a better job in Australia with an American degree and it’s really patriarchal of him to destroy her career before it’s even begun.  Mel demands three ‘statement’ dresses for forthcoming social events, and her grandmother Ivy is not to make them because that would be ‘beyond tragic’. 

‘Can’t you wear the same dress?’ asked Chanel.  ‘There’ll be different people in those three places.’

Mel burst into tears.  ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it!’ she gasped between sobs. ‘Gaslighted by my own mother. Oh my god.’ (p.75)

What she wears is monitored by everyone in the world on Instagram…

Millennials are such an easy target for mockery…

Lyle works in Evaluation, a clearing house for Security.  But rather than let the reader deduce the implications for herself, De Kretser rams home the message about oblivious citizens collaborating with state oppression.

If a case involves terrorism, we’re bypassed, and the investigating authority goes directly to our colleagues upstairs.  But as the number of proscribed acts and organisations increases, so too does the number of cases in which Security has a potential but not clear-cut interest.  These murkier cases arrive in our section every day, and we evaluate the risk they pose.  How many times have I tried to explain this to Sydney?  In his opinion, working for the Department equals complicity with a police state.  He throws around terms like ‘coercive powers’ and ‘unlawful surveillance of private citizens’, and I repeat, ‘I’m only an administrator.’ Any reasonable person could see that I coerce no one.  A recommendation is no more coercive than a suggestion.  Security makes all the decisions that count.  Here in Evaluations, we evaluate.  That’s all. (p.38-9)

Sydney’s decision to live in an eco-commune called Shaking the Grass (an allusion to a poem by the Nazi sympathiser Ezra Pound) is therefore cause for alarm.

‘Is anyone in your community leafleting farmers about sustainable crops or tree-planting or animal rights?’ I asked.  ‘Anyone speaking out against the Proud Nazis?  Anyone advocating for Aboriginal rights or women’s refuges or a universal basic income?’ I went on like that, cataloguing activities that attract surveillance and could be banned at any time. (p.85)

BTW the epigraph at the beginning of both novellas is a quotation from Nietzsche, these days a darling of the alt-right (though some biographers say this is because he is misunderstood).

Many of the characters’ names are brands, e.g. Ikea, Porsche and Prada, and all the migrants change their names because they think it’s expected of them.  Ivy is the only one who keeps her name, and is the only one who seems grounded.  But whatever wisdom she has, is offset by Lyle’s patronising narration.

The monsters of the title are racism, misogyny and ageism (targeted at Boomers and older).  The preoccupation with real estate brings Lyle and Chanel to a choice dependant on their inheritance from Ivy, which brings the government’s fast-tracked euthanasia law into the equation.

(This kind of scare tactic in a euthanasia debate always annoys me.  When most people want reform so that they can exercise their right to die if they are in intolerable pain and palliative care has failed them, scaremongers pop up to warn about greedy children bumping off their parents, as if it’s not possible to build in safety provisions to prevent that.)

Some of the black humour in Lyle’s story was droll, but mostly it just made me feel disappointed.  IMO the heavy-handed satire verges on preaching, in a way not dissimilar to Richard Flanagan’s strange thriller, The Unknown Terrorist.  I always warn readers not to let that be their first Flanagan because it’s nothing like his usual style and was written because he wanted to reach beyond his usual readership with his political outrage about terrorism legislation. It was so heavy-handed that his usual readers didn’t know what to make of it. Scary Ghosts feels the same to me, Lyle’s story, that is. Satire with a sledgehammer, pouring scorn on complacent Australia.  Scary Monsters is not what I was expecting from a sophisticated and subtle novelist like De Kretser.

Other reviewers were more impressed:

PS The cherry (and its blossom), BTW, is (in Japan) a symbol of beauty and innocence, good fortune and new beginnings.  And because the cherry has such a brief season, it also functions as a kind of memento mori, reminding us to enjoy the brevity of our lives.  (See The Present Tree).

Author: Michelle de Kretser
Title: Scary Monsters
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781761065101, pbk., 320 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 20, 2021

Featured author: Kate Ryan and her new book The Golden Book

Here’s another author who’s had launch events cancelled because of lockdowns.


Photo credit Susan Gordon-Brown

Kate Ryan is a Melbourne based author of fiction, non-fiction and children’s picture books. Her debut novel, The Golden Book, was published by Scribe in August 2021. Her short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. She won the Writers Prize in the 2015 Melbourne Prize for Literature and the novella category in the 2017 Lord Mayor’s Creative Writing Awards. She is represented by Jane Novak.

For many years Kate worked for publishing houses including Roland Harvey Books, Lothian Books, Macmillan Education and Penguin Books, commissioning new work, and editing fiction from picture books through to young adult novels. These days she teaches creative writing and does manuscript assessment and mentoring work through the Victorian Writers Centre, the ASA and in her own freelance practice, working with numerous emerging writers to help develop and refine their work.

Kate is writing a new novel exploring the intersection between houses and emotion. What do people reveal about themselves through the private spaces they create? What happens to the memories which houses contain? If we move countries as children, how are our attitudes to the homes we make as adults altered? If, as in Jung’s view of dreams, the house is a metaphor for the self, what does this mean for the real houses we inhabit and those who design them?

During lockdown, in a bid to remember a freer life, she wrote an essay on the myriad share houses she lived in during her late teens and early twenties, the diverse characters she came across and the ramshackle journey to becoming independent.

(I do love the sound of this novel about houses.  One of my lockdown projects is to scrapbook all 24 of the addresses I’ve had in my life.  Note that I’ve lived in my present house for over 40 years and you can see how often I packed my suitcase before that!)


Jessie had said they should go at midnight. ‘It’s the gods’ time,’ she said, narrowing her eyes dramatically. ‘Anything could happen.’

It’s the 1980s, and in their small coastal town, Ali and her best friend, Jessie, are on the cusp. With ‘The Golden Book’, a journal of incantation and risk taking as their record, they begin to chafe at the restrictions put on them by teachers, parents, each other. Then Jessie suffers a devastating accident, and both their lives are forever changed.

When Ali is an adult, with a young daughter herself, the news of Jessie’s death brings back the intensity of that summer, forcing her to reckon with her own role in what happened to Jessie so many years ago.

As this stunning debut moves back and forth in time, and Ali’s secrets are forced into the light, Kate Ryan asks profound questions about responsibility and blame, and, ultimately, about love.


The Golden Book is a quietly beautiful debut from Kate Ryan that asks profound questions about responsibility, blame and, ultimately, love … [This] is an exquisite and deeply resonant literary novel that captures the nostalgia of youth.’  Cheryl Akle, The Weekend Australian. 

‘An exquisite study of the liminal space between words and acts, and the necessary redrafting of our life stories. This is a golden book.’ Myfanwy Jones, author of Leap and The Rainy Season.

‘A gorgeous evocation of the wildness of youth, and of what it takes to find love after disaster. Kate Ryan writes from the heart. Earthy, lovely, and profound. A beautiful, resonant book.’ Peggy Frew, author of Islands and Hope Farm

Read a review of The Golden Book at Readings where you can also, of course, buy the book.


  • Publisher: Scribe Publications
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781922310088
  • RRP $29.99

Reading this lively biography of Australia’s first international superstar, Dame Nellie Melba, made me realise how far society has come in just over a century.  Whether we browse the so-called women’s magazines at the hairdresser with bemusement, read the scandal rag headlines surreptitiously in the checkout queue, or just puzzle over the #TwitterHashtags that are trending — celebrity culture is all around us.  Paradoxically, because we are inured to it, it takes a good deal to scandalise us, and it enhances some careers rather than otherwise.

But it was a different world when Nellie Melba was forging her international career.  Scandal in high society could be disastrous in all sorts of contexts, more so in stuffy turn-of-the-century London than more tolerant Paris. Europe, however, had its own political minefields for a naïve Australian to negotiate when she (imprudently married to a wife-basher called Charles Armstrong) embarked on an affair with a playboy claimant to the French throne.

I have previously read Ann Blainey’s authoritative biography of Melba and enjoyed it for its insights into the talent, initiative and determination of this Australian musical icon.  But, as you can tell from the blurb, Robert Wainwright’s bio has a different emphasis…

When most Australians think of Nellie Melba they picture a squarish middle-aged woman dressed in furs and large hats, an imperious Dame whose voice ruled the world for three decades. But there was much more to her life than adulation and riches.

To succeed she had to overcome social expectations, misogyny and tall-poppy syndrome. She endured the violence of a bad marriage, was denied by scandal a true love with the would-be King of France, and suffered the loss of her only child for more than a decade, stolen by his angry and vengeful father.

Against all odds, Nellie Melba became the greatest opera singer of her time on stages across Australia, America and Europe.

Nellie Melba, c1907 (Wikipedia)

(BTW, to counter that rather unflattering image, here’s a picture of her as a lovely young woman.)

Although the reader gets a clear picture of Melba’s life, Wainwright’s bio is more tabloid in style.  I mean this in the sense that sensationalism is used to titillate and engage the reader. Nellie probes into Melba’s personal life with more pages devoted to her relationships, her celebrity, her rags-to-riches lifestyle*, and her scandals, supplemented by gossip from hotel staff.  With Chapter headings such as ‘A doctrine of rivalry’, ‘The devil who leaves’, ‘A diva meets a duc’, ‘To Russia with lust’, and ‘Of envious men’, he tells of an eventful life which brings Melba into a different focus, less of her musical prowess and more of her love life, her marriage travails, and her contractual difficulties.  In this bio, Melba’s domestic and professional dramas are worthy of the opera stage in their own right.  This makes it a most entertaining book, one that is good fun to read.

* It wasn’t really rags-to-riches in the usual sense. Nellie’s family was middle-class and she was short of money at the beginning because her father only grudgingly supported her because he didn’t approve of her choice of career.

Wainwright devotes an entire chapter, for instance, to an incident which warrants only a paragraph in Blainey’s biography.  Hard up in her early days in Paris, Nellie was embarrassed to be reproved for the shabbiness of her dress by her teacher Madame Mathilde Marchesi.  When she explained that she had only one decent dress and could not afford anything else, Marchesi offered to pay for another, but Nellie stood on her dignity and refused.  Unfortunately, since Nellie has no footnotes, it’s not clear whether the following exchange comes from a source such as Melba’s autobiography Melodies and Memories (1925*) or from Wainwright’s imagination filling in the gaps:

Madame seemed flustered at Nellie’s resoluteness and started waving her hands furiously.  ‘I cannot possibly continue teaching you while you are wearing that ridiculous dress.  It is an eyesore.  You must get a new one.’

Nellie had not considered the possibility that she might be dismissed.  The threat of losing her position changed everything.  Bursting into tears, she fled from the room but, as she reached the front door, Madame once again called out for Nellie to stop.  This time, though, her voice was pleading.’ ‘Nellie, Nellie, I am so sorry.  You must not go.  Run to Worth’s now and buy yourself the most beautiful dress you can find.  I will pay.  I will pay.’

Now it was Mathilde Marchesi who was afraid of the consequences of her actions.  Nellie sensed the older woman’s fear and composed herself.  She had come too far to start backing down. ‘No, dear Madame.  Either you must put up with me in this dress or I cannot come anymore.’

Madame Marchesi shrugged and kissed her prized student.  It was a price worth paying.’ (p.59)

But having made so much of this incident with the dress, Wainwright doesn’t explain in the next chapter what Nellie wore for her first performance at one of Madame Marchesi’s soirees.  It included reporters in the audience and Ambroise Thomas, director of the Paris Conservatoire and composer of the opera Hamlet. Surely she must have had something elegant for this crucial performance? I know, it’s trivial to care.  But still…

This is an interesting video about the Melba Collection held by the NGV here in Melbourne, which shows how critical costumes were to the profile of opera stars.

Nellie Melba was one of our superstars, in an era when Australia was said to be a cultural desert.  Nellie, The life and loves of Dame Nellie Melba, brings that era alive.

* Melba’s autobiography Melodies and Memories (1925) was, according to Wikipedia, mostly ghost-written by her secretary Beverley Nichols, who apparently complained that Melba did not cooperate in the process of writing or by reviewing what he wrote.  So it might not be all that authoritative either…

This was the music that I listened to as I wrote this review:

Melba statue at Waterfront City, Melbourne Docklands (Wikipedia)

Image credits:

Author: Robert Wainwright
Title: Nellie, the life and loves of Dame Nellie Melba
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781760878252, pbk., 244 pages including notes, acknowledgement of sources and a bibliography
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2021

From Here On, Monsters, by Elizabeth Bryer

Sometimes I wonder about the wisdom of publicists who hand out new books willy-nilly at Goodreads.  Often, of course, readers respond with the expected five-star review ‘for an honest opinion’  which leaves us none the wiser about the book.  But sometimes, a book which is genuinely impressive but challenging in its execution, receives grudging two- or three-star reviews from readers ‘not usually huge on intensely ‘cerebral’ fiction‘.  And this is what has happened to Elizabeth Bryer’s debut novel From Here on, Monsters.  It has copped remarks ranging from ‘That was weird and went a bit over my head. Not my style of book at all‘ to ‘Lol, what?’ and ‘What began as strangely compelling ended as just strange. Presumably the whole thing is allegorical, or not? The Tragically Hip said it best, “It’s so deep it’s meaningless.”‘.   I would be the last person to suggest that there are IQ or academic requirements to read a book: this blog is a celebration of an ordinary reader’s adventures in fiction and the journey.  But these crude summations of a very fine book are so grossly unfair that I want to cauterise them with some of the well-deserved praise on the publisher’s website:

‘A novel that places the reader into the abyss of storytelling. this is more than a book of secrets, codes, geniuses, history and language. It is more than you could imagine.’ Tara June Winch, author of The Yield

‘Traverses the chasm between truth and history, and challenges our faith in the liberatory potential of art. It’s a modern Australian novel about modern Australia that, refreshingly, doesn’t read at all like a modern Australian novel.’ Shaun Prescott

‘This strange and wonderful novel delights with its language games, but it also understands that such shenanigans are never just games. Words have an impact on how we understand reality. Words can damage humans of flesh and blood. In From Here On, Monsters, Bryer shows us how language is integral to our humanity.’ Saturday Paper.

Firstly, the title. ‘From Here on, Monsters’ is derived from very early maps of the globe, when medieval mapmakers depicted the great empty space beyond the known world with the Latin hic sunt dracones: here be dragons. It meant dangerous or unexplored territories, in imitation of a medieval practice of putting illustrations of dragons, sea monsters and other mythological creatures on uncharted areas of maps where potential dangers were thought to exist. (See Wikipedia, where you can see an example of such a map). The ‘great empty space’ a.k.a. ‘Terra Australis, the Great South Land’ was where Australia balances the landmasses of the rest of the globe.  Today, it is where monstrous denials of reality have sapped our compassion and integrity. In Bryer’s novel, modern Australia is a land of monsters and strange creatures — not bunyips and platypuses, but people who have ‘excised their hearts’ so that they can no longer see the harm they are doing.

The novel, however, is not a polemic, far from it.  It’s a wily, intriguing mystery that plays with parallels, doubles, mirrors, word games, languages and history.  The novel begins in Cameron Raybould’s antiquarian bookshop and a quick look at some of the texts referenced gives some idea of the playfulness that weaves its way through the novel: the Big Issue’s cryptic crossword page; Kafka’s The Trial; a special order for The Opium Wars (but which one??); a customer after some modernists like Zora Neale Hurston, Futabatei Shimei, Osip Mandelstam, and Clarice Lispector.  Then there’s Perec’s Oulipo novel A VoidPliny’s encyclopaedic Naturalis Historia; catalogues of artworks like Elizabeth Durack’s Seeing—through the Philippines and Jennifer Dickerson’s Chiaroscuro; Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding; and Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus. There are still images from an old Frankenstein film too, and James Joyce’s famous palindrome ‘Tattarrattat’ gets a mention as the answer to a cryptic crossword clue.

The Thousand Nights and a Night (Karmashastra, 1885)(cover) (Wikipedia)

The most significant of the literary references, however, is to A Thousand Nights and a Night a.k.a. 1001 Nights — the collection of stories  known to English readers as framed by the story of Scheherazade telling these tales to her husband to save her life. In Richard Francis Burton‘s 1885 translation, Volume 6 contains the story of Sinbad the Sailor.  But (unless you are a scholar) readers of the English version probably won’t know that Burton’s translation was preceded by Antoine Galland’s French translation in 1701, and that curiously combined in Galland were the contradictory figures of the pedant and the fabricator.  Galland’s Syrian manuscript had only 282 stories, so he augmented it with stories from other sources, which is how Aladdin and Ali Baba and Sinbad came to be included in later Arabic versions.  (Who knew?)

Pedants and fabricators are key elements in this novel too, as we see in Cameron’s interview for a job as a ‘wordsmith’. She is invited by an artist, Maddison Worthington, to do a valuation of a trompe l’oeil library – a room whose walls are painted to look like shelves of books in a library.  Of all the applicants she is the only one to work with the deceit and values the ‘books’ as if they are real.  She fears she will not get the job because she has been pedantic in the way she approached the task but the fabricator is delighted and Cameron is hired.

The job is to deliver words and phrases to obscure real things, as in the weasel words we have all come to know so well. Words like ‘downsizing’ (i.e. sacking employees to increase profits) which are used to conceal uncomfortable truths and unethical activities.  Maddison wants these obfuscating words for an artwork, she says, but the truth is much more sinister.  Two of her other employees mysteriously disappear shortly after they do some strictly forbidden snooping…

Cameron has inherited her bookshop from Alistair who has inexplicably committed suicide.  His disappearance is one of many disappearances.  Nearly all the characters vanish at some stage, and so do words, ideas and memories.

One of those mysteriously missing characters is Professor Szilard, who believes that history should be written in the same circumstances as the events it describes.  So the Codex which has come into Cameron’s possession is written in the same medieval language and using the same materials as the era it purports to come from.  What’s more, Bryson’s book mimics the Codex too: some parts of it are printed in landscape and feature a ‘hole’ in the middle of the text, a blank space like the hole in the Codex where the string threads though it to bind it together.  (This reminded me of the great experimental writer B S Johnson’s Albert Angelo, which is famous for having holes cut in some of its pages.)

Jhon, a refugee from Equatorial Guinea, speaks five languages (Bube, Pichi, Spanish, French and English which he is trying to improve), and when Cameron offers him sanctuary in her bookshop, he begins the work of translating the Codex from the medieval Spanish (the language of the coloniser of Equatorial Guinea) into English (the language of the coloniser in Australia). These translations are the sections printed in landscape, and they tell an extraordinary story of how the tale of Sinbad the Sailor made its way to Australia via Arab trade routes which intersected with the Yolngu people of north eastern Arnhem Land. (The Yolngu traded with Macassans two centuries before European contact, and Arab traders were active throughout what we now know as Indonesia, so it’s not as far-fetched as one might think.  Indeed, I used to teach my Year 3 students about this pre-European contact, and they drew scenes of these peaceful encounters using wax and crayons to emulate batik.)

I loved this book.  I love its ingenuity, its humour and the importance of its theme.  It won the Norma K Hemming award but I think it should have been more widely acknowledged.


If you have read all the way down to here and you think this is a book for you, you can buy a copy for just $22 including postage from Elizabeth Bryer’s website.  I’ve bought a copy because the copy I read is from the library, and I want one of my own so that I can read it again whenever I feel like it.


*drum roll*

*surprise!!!* I have also purchased an extra copy for a giveaway.  The usual rules apply: you can enter if you have an Australian postcode, and if you win, you’ll need to provide me with a postal address to pass on to Elizabeth within a fortnight of the post that announces the winner.  Expressions of interest in the comments below, please.

(Feel free to chat about the book as well, of course!)

Elizabeth Bryer is also a translator of Spanish whose work includes Napoleon’s Beekeeper, by José Luis de Juan, (Giramondo 2020, see my review.) Her other translations include Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Blood of the Dawn (Deep Vellum, 2016) and Aleksandra Lun’s The Palimpsests (David R. Godine, 2019), for which she was awarded a PEN/Heim from PEN America.

Image credit: The Thousand Nights and a Night (Karmashastra, 1885)(cover) (public domain, Wikipedia),_1885)_(cover).jpg

Author: Elizabeth Bryer
Title: From Here On, Monsters
Cover design: Debra Billson
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019
ISBN: 9781760781132, pbk., 274 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 14, 2021

Coming Through Slaughter, by Michael Ondaatje

If you choose your partner-in-life wisely, then one of the great pleasures of combining two households is the rapid expansion of the home library. However, in the haste to unpack, it can sometimes happen in a household of many books that a treasure is overlooked, and thus it was not until 2016 that I noticed that — misclassified as a biography amid the jazz collection of The Spouse —  there was a novel, and it was by an author whose books I really like!

Coming Through Slaughter, by Sri Lankan-born Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, was the first of what would be a remarkable oeuvre of award-winning books:

I was, however, mistaken in thinking that Coming Through Slaughter would have made a splash in the year it was published.  The Wikipedia entry for 1976 in literature doesn’t even list it amongst books and authors I’ve mostly never heard of since most of them are genre fiction.  However, what is interesting is that the first book listed features the fictionalised life of a real person with a mental illness.  Hocus Bogus (Pseudo) is a 1976 novel by  Romain Gary, published under the pseudonym Émile Ajar.  One of its critics said that Hocus Bogus is an utterly convincing impersonation of an artistically gifted schizophrenic …

Well, so is Coming Through Slaughter.  It’s a fictionalised life of Charles Joseph “Buddy” Bolden (1877–1931), an African American cornetist, considered by contemporaries as a key figure in the development of New Orleans jazz.  In Ondaatje’s novel, creativity and self-destructive behaviour are linked, culminating in Bolden’s breakdown in 1907 and his death in an asylum in 1931.

Coming Through Slaughter is not the kind of book you read to find out about Buddy Bolden’s place in the history of jazz.  From the jazz collection shelves, The Spouse very promptly came up with an authoritative bio: The Loudest Trumpet, Buddy Bolden and the Early History of Jazz by Daniel Hardie, (toExcel, iUniverse, USA, 2001).  Ondaatje’s book OTOH is a pastiche of fiction, non-fiction, trivia, photos, news reports, a playlist, gossip, imagination, legends debunked long ago and a (perhaps authentic) medical report.  It’s a book where the structure and style mimic Bolden’s music, syncopated into fragments that represent his fame as well as his descent into madness.  The witnesses to Bolden’s life are like soloists in a jazz band, offering quick glimpses of their personalities before they merge back into the collective.

The prologue begins with a water-damaged photo of Bolden in a band, but (until the reader reaches page 66 where the names are revealed) Bolden can only be identified by the cornet he is holding. The photo is accompanied by commentary from Louis Jones, whose interview comes from the William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive at the the Tulane University Library.

Buddy Bolden began to get famous right after 1900 come in.  He was the first to play the hard jazz and blues for dancing.  Had a good band.  Strictly ear band.  Later on Armstrong, Bunk Johnson, Freddie Keppard — they all knew he began the good jazz. John Robichaux had a real reading band, but Buddy used to kill Robichaux anywhere he went. When he’d parade he’d take the people with him all the way down Canal Street. Always looked good.  When he bought a cornet he’d shine it up and make it glisten like a woman’s leg.

(An ‘ear band’ plays by ear and improvises; a ‘reading band’ reads the notes to be played from arrangements that have only a few bars set aside for improvisation by the soloists.  Parading refers to jazz bands playing as they march along the streets of the city, where the audience is on the pavement.  They may join in to dance along, or to engage in a ‘cakewalk’, a competitive form of dancing where the winner defeats an opponent who gives up out of exhaustion).

On the next page there are three images of dolphin sonographs, with an explanation that the two outer images represent a dolphin squawk and a whistle, while the middle image shows how a dolphin can make both signals simultaneously, but no one knows how they can do this.  The implication is that no one knows how Buddy Bolden was able to make the sounds that he did…

Ondaatje depicts an extraordinary world with its own set of values, and he doesn’t spare his readers some very unsavoury details.  It’s an underclass of prostitution, opium dens, alcoholism and gambling.  It’s a world where the casual murder of women attracts little attention, and where ‘mattress whores’ with the pox have their ankles broken by pimps who don’t want the prices charged for their ‘girls’ undercut.  Nobody trusts Webb, who tries to track down Bolden when he disappears for two years: the porn photographer who has the only photo of him hands over a copy but then destroys the negative.

Bolden himself, like many of the men portrayed, sleeps around with other men’s wives and only has to see an attractive woman to be lusting after her.  Even when the reader’s sympathies lie with this very troubled man, it’s hard to suppress schadenfreude when Bolden returns from a long absence during which he’d often thought about how sad his wife Nora would have been, only to find that she’s been living with another musician.  His discomfiture doesn’t last long: the pair head upstairs to the bedroom while the newly bereft musician plays sad piano downstairs.

The end, when it comes, is brutal.  In his first parade after returning from absence, Bolden gets into a ‘cakewalk’ with a dancer and plays on, louder and faster, until he breaks blood vessels in his neck.  From hospital he is taken to an asylum, where he dies many years later.

I read Coming Through Slaughter for the 1976 Club, hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book.

Author: Michael Ondaatje
Title: Coming Through Slaughter
Jacket design by Bob Antler
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.  1976
ISBN: 0393087654, hbk., 1st edition, 156 pages
Source: Gift to The Spouse, purchased from the International Bookshop, Elizabeth St., Melbourne

At the jetty all these years later, something long past seemed to ripple through me in the same way a skimming stone sends waves long after it sinks. (p.143)

Skimming Stones is a beautifully written novel about the childhood experience of a sibling’s potentially fatal illness.  If you know anyone who’s had this experience, you probably know something of the conflicting emotions that siblings feel, long after the event.  Maria Papas captures these emotions superbly in a thoughtful, wise and wholly engaging story.

Grace, an oncology nurse in Perth with long suppressed memories of her little sister Emma’s leukaemia, finds these memories resurfacing when a child called Zoë has a medical crisis on the ward.  Grace takes a rare day off afterwards, to confront her demons and also to make a difficult decision about her current messy relationship.  So the narration and the settings alternate with ease between Grace’s childhood and her adult life.

She drives south from Perth to Lake Clifton,  one of her childhood haunts, near the home where her parents’ fragile marriage was tested by Emma’s cancer.  At the very beginning the family all went to Perth for the initial diagnosis and the harrowing treatment. Later, Grace went home with her father — a selfish, irresponsible, lazy man who put his own needs ahead of his family’s.  What really struck in my craw was that on her return after months away, the mother has to spend her days cleaning the grubby, neglected house because it was so crucial that the immuno-compromised Emma was not exposed to germs at that time.

What this mother could not restore was Grace’s equanimity.

Grace at this time lost all her certainties.  During the long absence she lost touch with her mother and missed the daily tenderness that she had always had.  She lost her language, the Greek mother-tongue that she heard and spoke only with her mother.  She lost the easy intimacy she’d had with Emma, and she lost faith in her father as well.  At school, she lost her identity: she was ‘the girl whose sister has cancer’.

Grace loves her little sister dearly, but she is frightened, alone and burdened with too much responsibility.  She also felt resentful and guilty…

Modern thrombolites in Lake Clifton, Western Australia (Wikipedia)

Nearby lives a woman called Harriet. childless, artistic and motherly.  With an ailing partner called Samuel, Harriet befriends Grace and provides the comfort and mothering that she needs.  Grace yearns for her parents’ marriage to be like this couple’s relationship:

In my house anger never softened so quickly.  Where I came from it lasted days and days and went on no end.  Anger reminded me of the moths near our porch light, the Christmas carols that drifted in from a neighbour’s house, and the smell of someone else’s barbecue. Anger was my mother pulling her clothes off their hangers, the clang of wire against the metal rod, and the contents of her wardrobe in the usual three piles: one for the bin, one for the poor, and one to keep.  It was the blotchiness of emotion on my mother’s face, the sound of my father’s car turning into the driveway late at night, and the daylight which came before any of us had the chance to sleep.  On those mornings, my mother put the cushions back on the couch and my father rubbed his shoulders and neck from a sore night spent on the lounge-room floor. (p.51)

Her parents have conflicting views about the state of this relationship.  Grace has vivid memories of this but the narrative is economical in conveying the terror:

‘Our relationship is miserable,’ my mother said over cereal and a hot cup of tea, and my father replied that it had moments of misery, only moments, and that there were good times too.  He touched my mother.  He rested his hands on her shoulders, kissed her crown, and then left for work as if there was no hole in our pantry door.’ (p.51)

The legacy of this dysfunctional relationship is that Grace has taken her mother’s advice to heart:

‘Make sure you get an education, okay.  A proper one.  Never put yourself in a situation where you depend on a man.’ (p.51)

Grace observes this unhappy home and yearns for another, but she also wants to have a mother who isn’t preoccupied by Emma all the time.  Her solace is the lake, where she is fascinated by its famous thrombolites, and also the forbidden place to which she escaped with Emma from troubles at home.

I was full of storytelling.  I inherited villages form my mother and local histories from my father, who had in turn absorbed the kind of schooling that began with lieutenants and admirals and ended with names like Peel, Herron and McLarty*. He told me the lake was out of bounds—not for swimming, not for walking, not for playing.  It was a forbidden place, the kind of place that swallowed children in muddy sand**.  That’s why we came—Emma and I—because we weren’t allowed. (p.48)

It is at the forbidden lake that an almost fatal crisis occurs.

In adulthood, Grace’s life is messy.  Having devoted her career to the comforting solace of life-saving work, she has met up again with Nate, who she met first as a fellow-sibling on the hospital sidelines.  She bonded with him twice at times when Emma was in extremis, and this connection leads her into an imprudent affair. All her self-doubts and uncertainties collide as she considers her future with or without him.

The City of Fremantle’s biennial Hungerford Award for an unpublished manuscript has brought to attention some of Australia’s most notable authors. Past recipients of the award who are reviewed on this blog include Madelaine Dickie, Brenda WalkerJay MartinGail JonesNatasha Lester, Jacqueline WrightRobert Edeson,  Donna Mazza, Simone Lazaroo and Alice Nelson.  Nathan Hobby’s The Fur is on my TBR, and I am waiting impatiently for his biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard due for release soon.  In 2020 the judges selected Skimming Stones by Maria Papas and it’s a worthy winner too…

*This is a graceful allusion to the environmental and Black history of Australia i.e. the massacres and dispossession of Indigenous people not taught to Grace’s father, and is indicative of the kind of heroism he admires.  Thomas Peel (1793 – 1865) was an early settler of Western Australia and part of the military force behind the Pinjarra massacre in 1834 of the indigenous Binjareb people. (See Wikipedia). Named for Irish emigrants and Isabella Herron, Herron is a suburb not far from Lake Clifton and Yalgorup National Park.   (See Wikipedia here, and State Heritage here in the box titled History).  Sir Duncan Ross McLarty, (1891 –  1962) was an Australian politician and the 17th Premier of Western Australia, credited with the industrial development of WA. (See Wikipedia here.)

** This is an allusion to the boating accident on Lake Clifton in which two of the Herron children died. (See State Heritage here).

Image credit: Lake Clifton thrombolites: SeanMack – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

Author: Maria Papas
Title: Skimming Stones
Cover art: Nada Backovic
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2021
ISBN: 9781760990640, pbk., 202 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 11, 2021

Featured author: Melissa Manning and her new book Smokehouse

Here’s another author who’s taking up my offer to spruik the books of Australian authors whose MWF events were cancelled… (an offer which is still open to any author impacted by the cancellation.)


Melissa Manning is the author of Smokehouse, an interlinked story collection set in southern Tasmania. Her writing focuses on turning points both small and cataclysmic, and has been recognised in awards and published widely, including in The Best Small Fictions (US), To Carry Her Home (UK), Award Winning Australian Writing, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Forty South, and Overland. Smokehouse is Melissa’s debut collection, and was shortlisted for the 2021 USQ Steele Rudd Award for a Short Story Collection.

Some quirky things about Melissa (you can see that mischievous steak in her eyes!)

  • She lived in Budapest for a couple of years in the late nineties where she learned enough Hungarian to get by, often worked through translators, enjoyed Sunday chill outs at the Roman baths and got to travel and work throughout Europe. In 1999 she got married there before moving back to Australia for two or three years (twenty plus years on, she’s still here).
  • She knows how to make mud bricks and build a wood fired oven.
  • Timid as a child, in her adult years she’s scuba dived, hot air ballooned, sky dived and trekked in Peru and the Himalayas.
  • She used to detest public speaking but now she kind of likes it.
  • She once ate guinea pig (on honeymoon in Peru) and it tasted a lot like KFC.
  • She was in a netball team in grade 7 (they lost every game) but was considerably better at gymnastics and trampolining.
  • She’d rather clean the toilet than go shopping.
  • She lived in a caravan for three and a half years when she was a kid.
  • Her family has a pet snake called Scales, and a pet rabbit, called Kevin.
  • When she was a kid, her dog Menace once brought the bitten off end of his tail home in his mouth after a fight with a neighbourhood dog.

You can find out more about Melissa at her website. She tweets here and you can find her at Instagram here.


A man watches a boy in a playground and pictures him in the grey wooden shed he’s turned into a home. A woman’s adopted mother dies, reawakening childhood memories and grief. A couple’s decision to move to an isolated location may just be their undoing. A young woman forms an unexpected connection at a summer school in Hungary.

Set in southern Tasmania, these interlinked stories bring into focus the inhabitants of small communities, and capture the moments when life turns and one person becomes another. With insight and empathy, Melissa Manning interrogates how the people we meet and the places we live shape the person we become.

Where did the inspiration for Smokehouse come from? 

My short story Woodsmoke was inspired by the rural property in Kettering where I lived for some time during my childhood. Woodsmoke, was where Nora and Ollie first came to me and it was only ever intended to be a short story but I was captured by the atmosphere and setting, and I developed a deep curiosity about Nora. Who was she really? Who did she want to be? How might her life be different? Without intending to I found myself elucidating the gaps in Nora’s story, uncovering the people and events that informed her life and the choices she made. This in turn got me interested in the people in her community and their backstories and before I knew it Smokehouse began to emerge as a collection of interrelated stories.

Read a review of Smokehouse at Readings where you can also, of course, buy the book.


  • Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press)
  • Length: 366 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780702263026
  • RRP $29.99
Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2021

Small Acts of Defiance, by Michelle Wright

An interesting editorial dilemma arises as the narrative reaches a crescendo in this interesting debut novel from Melbourne author Michelle Wright.

Small Acts of Defiance is not another of those clichéd historical novels of female Resistance in WW2 France.  This one concerns an Australian — still in her late teens when she arrives in Paris with her newly widowed French-born mother Yvonne after a family tragedy. They arrive just as Paris surrenders to German Occupation but the process of settling in is made easier because Lucie grew up speaking fluent French with Yvonne.  This enables Lucie to put her artistic talents to good use for Margot, who runs an art supplies shop, and thus she makes the acquaintance of a Jewish engraver called Samuel Hirsch and his granddaughter Aline.

It is through Samuel and Aline that Lucie becomes aware of the long history of French anti-Semitism and how readily collaborationists are cooperating with German discrimination, appropriation of property, slave labour camps and deportations.  Revealing the dark underbelly of French wartime history that tends to valorise French Resistance, the focus of this novel is resistance against the oppression of the Jews. The context is portrayed through the moral perspective of an outsider who does not yet know of the genocidal intent of that oppression, but recognises that it was imposed by the Germans and actively supported by existing French anti-Semitism.  Her own uncle is explicit in his irrational hatred of Jews.

The novel contrasts Yvonne’s fear of getting involved with the activities of Margot, Lucie, Aline and their friend Robert, to interrogate the moral issues that arise from resistance in occupied territory where the occupiers react with brutal reprisals. Through the portrayal of these contrasting characters, Wright explores the struggle to reconcile the moral imperative to resist with the risks to family, friends and uninvolved strangers.  Depicting Lucie’s objections to violence, the novel also probes the moral issue of whether killing is justifiable if it’s in a good cause.  It is this interrogation of the complexities of resistance that makes Small Acts of Defiance a very interesting novel.  It’s particularly relevant given the distressing rise of anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism around the world.

However, in the process of a somewhat heated discussion about whether ‘small acts of defiance’ should escalate, Aline’s ignorance of Australia’s Black history is revealed:

Aline looked away.  She didn’t respond immediately, but stood with her arms crossed, taking rapid, shallow breaths.  When she spoke, her voice was tight with anger.  ‘Can you please stop with your “the pen is mightier than the sword” bullshit? It’s not true, Lucie!  Not when the sword is pushing against your throat.  Not when the sword is a machine gun, a Panzer tank.  You don’t understand! You haven’t lived with war.  Your country hasn’t seen bloodshed on its soil.’ (p.233)

This is August 1942, but presumably Lucie in France hasn’t heard about the blood shed during the bombing of Darwin and other northern coastal cities in February of that year, and her response is restrained.  Her father’s recent suicide was triggered by the resurgence of his memories from WW1, but all she says is: ‘My country has lost men to war’ … ‘we’ve known death too.’

Aline says that’s not the same:

‘Even when that was happening, your life went on.  Your towns weren’t under siege.  There were no massacres in your streets and villages.  You don’t know what it’s like to have your home invaded, to have to take up arms and kill or be killed.’ (p.223)

No massacres?? No invasions??  No resistance battles or bloodshed on Australian soil??

Well, that is the editorial dilemma, eh?  Today, you’d have to have had your head under the proverbial rock (or be wilfully ignorant) not to know about massacres, invasions and heroic Indigenous resistance in Australia’s Black history, but a French girl in 1942 wouldn’t have known about it.  And although Lucie is a remarkably mature and thoughtful young woman for her age, it’s probable that her Australian education airbrushed over the brutality of Indigenous dispossession extending from the colonial era into the 20th century.  So this myth about ‘no bloodshed’ on Australian soil is probably authentic for these two characters, and would seem anachronistic if it were otherwise.

The editorial dilemma, however, is that letting this statement stand perpetuates a myth which needs to be comprehensively demolished.  And I’m drawing attention to it because I’m not comfortable with that.

Michelle Wright is an award-winning author whose collection of short stories Fine, was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and published in 2016.  She was awarded an Australia Council residency to complete the research for Small Acts of Defiance in Paris.

Other reviews are at The Unseen Library and at Mrs B’s Book Reviews.  Theresa Smith interviewed the author here.

PS There’s a YouTube video of Michelle Wright answering reader questions about the book here.

Author: Michelle Wright
Title: Small Acts of Defiance
Cover design: Nada Backovic
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021
ISBN: 9781760292652, pbk., 344 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 9, 2021

2021 Nobel Prize for Literature: Abdulrazak Gurnah

The winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was a surprise to almost everybody…nobody was barracking for him on BookTwitter and judging by the media reporting, Abdulrazak Gurnah wasn’t on anybody’s radar.  The Swedish Academy’s choice of this Tanzanian-born, UK-based author for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism came right out of left field.  There isn’t a review of even one of his novels at Michael Orthofer’s The Complete Review which is the most comprehensive review site for world literature that I know of.


Enter an obscure Australian blogger who discovered Admiring Silence by chance at the library and then found three of his novels secondhand at Brotherhood Books!  Did I know he would one day be a Nobel Prize winning author?  No, but I did know that he was an outstanding author and I wanted to read more of his books.

Lucky me, because asked which of his novels he would recommend to start with, Gurnah replied that most of them are out of print.  So what I have on my TBR are treasures, and the ex-library copy of Dottie is a first edition!

Publishers are no doubt scrambling to reissue these and Gurnah’s other novels.  This is the complete list:

Unlike some of the other Swedish Academy’s more esoteric choices, Gurnah’s novels are accessible for the general reader.  If you’d like to check out a sample, Words without Borders has an excerpt from Desertion on their website.

Wikipedia has been busy overnight, you can find out more about Gurnah here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 9, 2021

2021 Love Your Bookshop Day

Today is Love Your Bookshop Day 2021, a day when booklovers all over the country are encouraged to do their bit to keep the bookshops they love in business during this most difficult time.  For me here in Melbourne, it means putting in an order at my favourite bookshops: Readings, Benn’s Books in Bentleigh and Ulysses Bookstore in Sandringham.

Ok, it’s not the same when you can’t browse and binge, but still, I had a lovely time last night choosing what to buy and which from what store.  Suffice to say that the combined effect was to give the credit card a very good workout.

(I’m not even going to pretend that any of them are destined for the Christmas tree, they are all for me!)




Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 7, 2021

Here in the After, by Marion Frith

If anything in this review raises issues for you, help is available at Beyond Blue, or your local mental health services.

Marion Frith’s debut novel Here in the After is the story of the aftermath of terrorism, based loosely on the 2014 siege in the Lindt café in Sydney.  It’s about two characters linked by the experience of trauma: an Afghan Vet living with PTSD seeks out Anna, the sole survivor of the (fictional) Post Office siege, and they find unexpected comfort from one another.

Frith deftly captures the dilemma of those trying to support people living with PTSD, beginning with the wife who’s living with a man’s explosive anger.  Nat isn’t violent towards Gen but his rages are unpredictable and frightening, and he has given up on professional help.  Her friend Claire is worried that these rages will escalate into domestic violence and that being patient and understanding puts Gen at risk. Gen is dancing on eggshells while trying not to trigger ‘The Incredible Hulk’ but, she tells Claire, she’s not scared of him, he’s not trying to control or hurt her and is often gentle and romantic.  Claire is a lawyer and has heard all this before from battered women, but Gen is adamant that she’s not a boiling frog.  She’s riding out Nat’s PTSD because she has seen the best of him and is still ‘in the marriage.’  So the narrative tension is there from the start as the reader absorbs the implications of this situation, and is also alert to the possibility that Nat has been involved in the Australian atrocities in Afghanistan that are currently under investigation.

For Anne’s family, being supportive means struggling with the unknown and having to put boundaries in place.  Anna was badly hurt in the siege, was in hospital for weeks, and is now at home is refusing professional help.  Her adult children and their partners are hovering around, unwilling to leave her alone… while she craves solitude because she thinks no one understands anyway.  Battling with appalling images from the siege that won’t leave her alone, she latches onto her two-year-old grandchild Ollie as a distraction and a comfort.  She wants him to stay overnight, but Laura and Cameron won’t have their child used as a security blanket when Anna clearly isn’t stable.  It’s hard for them to say this, especially since Anna isn’t being honest with herself about her condition, but they refuse her request… The deterioration in these family relationships show how some of the victims of terrorism are not always directly involved.

Nat, battling demons stirred up by the advent of homegrown terrorism derived from an ideology he’d fought against in Afghanistan, feels a failure.  When the terrorists raised that foul flag and shouted their religious slogans and killed eleven people, his reaction was to believe that he didn’t do his job and he’s responsible.  He sets out to find Anna and apologise to her, so that he can be forgiven.  When finally they meet up it doesn’t go as expected because Anna wants to — needs to — believe that the siege was a random crime and not part of a wider problem.  She is torn between not wanting to normalise it by desensitising herself to what happened out of respect for the victims, but she doesn’t want to remember the siege all the time either.  Neither one actually knows the full story of what happened to cause the trauma for the other, but they do find comfort in recognising the confusion, the denial, and the inability to control their own responses to it.

As the story progresses and the hidden truths are revealed, Frith shows how the limitations of amateur counselling arise.  Both Nat and Anna mean well, but they send mixed messages in different ways.  Nat tells Anna that it will never stop being so big, but that she’ll learn to live with the pain, and to live well with it.  Although he hardly knows her, he offers her the platitude that he feels sure that she’ll get through it.  OTOH Anna lectures him when he confesses his doubts about impending fatherhood to her, and her clumsy cliff-top spiritual ritual to honour the lives that he’s taken has a disastrous impact.

Here in the After could easily have lapsed into melodrama or sentimentality, but Frith keeps control of the plot and offers a credible hope in the concluding chapters.

Thanks to Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large for bringing this novel to my attention.

Author: Marion Frith
Title: Here in the After
Publisher: Harper Collins, 2021
ISBN: 9781460759967, pbk., 313 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Here’s another author who’s taking up my offer to spruik the books of Australian authors whose MWF events were cancelled…


Photo by Breanna Dunbar

Karen Ginnane is a Melbourne-based author for middle grade and young adult readers. Penguin Random House Australia published her debut novel, When Days Tilt, in July 2021 and the sequel, When Souls Tear, is due for release in May 2022. These historical fantasy adventures, set in Victorian London and a parallel city, are part of The Time Catchers series. She is represented by Danielle Binks.

Karen self-published ahead of the curve at the age of ten in her home town of Perth in Western Australia. Since A Horse Named Ginger was released, Karen has been variously employed as a freelance copywriter, a marketing director for Paramount Pictures in London, a grain weighbridge operator in rural WA, a swimming teacher, a life model, a deckhand in Chile and an English teacher in Japan. She’s also taught creative writing and bellydance.

Karen received an Invited Residency to Varuna Writer’s House in 2020 for When Souls Tear, her second book in The Time Catchers series, which she took in 2021 (thanks to Covid!)

She’s interested in looking at old stories in new ways, and in stories that explore diverse or historically silenced voices. She’s found that the strange and tilted never seem to be far from the surface, and that ‘place’ keeps muscling in on the traditional territory of ‘character.’

Karen also runs a niche tour operator business with her husband, who is a Londoner, and lives in Melbourne with him and their two Anglo-Australian children. And two cats.

You can find out more about Karen here and she blogs here.


Magic, mystery and darkness – a gripping fantasy adventure for lovers of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. In this page-turning debut, one girl must figure out why she is the key to two worlds, before time itself falls under the control of the powerful and the greedy.

A historical fantasy adventure for teens set between Victorian London and a darker parallel city.

It’s 1858, and there are two queens on the throne. Victoria reigns over London, the biggest city the world has ever known. But London has a secret shadow city, called Donlon, where another queen, the Green Witch, rules her own domain – time.

London is in turmoil. The Thames is at the height of the Great Stink; a blazing comet is searing the sky; technology is moving so fast it seems otherworldly; and the city is exploding with more people than it can hold. Darwin is about to publish his theory of evolution and humanity’s very place in the world is in question. On top of all this, people are disappearing into thin air. If they return, it is with empty eyes and torn souls, never to be the same again. Ava, a fourteen-year-old Londoner, feels trapped by the limited life of a young Victorian woman and by her watchmaking apprenticeship with her father. Her predictable world is turned upside down when she discovers that the body in her mother’s grave is not her mother, but a stranger.

When Ava goes in search of her real mother and her true identity, she is thrust into the dark world of Donlon and must fight a battle to save those she loves and the future of both worlds . . .

Karen is running a giveaway for the book on her website: enter here.


  • Publisher: Penguin Random House
  • Length: 366 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781760895037
  • RRP $16.99

If there is a teen booklover in your life, this might well be a book to go on your Christmas shopping list.  Booksellers are warning us to order early because of supply and delivery problems, so don’t delay.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 4, 2021

Our Shadows, by Gail Jones

Well, I was rather pleased to be wrong about this book!

I won’t share my dismissive thoughts from my journal about Sixty Lights  (2004) or Dreams of Speaking (2007) by Gail Jones: suffice to say that having read two novels by this author I had decided that her style was not for me.  But because Gail Jones has so consistently been included in awards here and overseas, I went on buying her books because — although her novels do attract mixed reviews — I suspected that I was missing out on something. The TBR grew and grew, but Five Bells (2011) and A Guide to Berlin (2015) survived the occasional culls.

Released in 2020, Our Shadows has in 2021 been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Fiction, longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, and shortlisted for the ARA Historical Novel Prize. Brona’s review at This Reading Life and Kim’s at Reading Matters prompted me to read it for myself…

Paddy Hannan (1929) by John McLeod (Wikipedia)

Set partly in Kalgoorlie WA, the novel threads through the birth of the city when gold was found there in 1893 by an Irish émigré and the fraught family history of estranged sisters Frances and Nell Kelly who were born in the 1970s.  The story begins with Paddy Hannan in Ireland and traces his decision to flee the Great Hunger and seek a better chance at survival on the Victorian goldfields.  He doesn’t have much luck, either with with his marriage or with prospecting, until he sails to Fremantle, walks the 600-odd km to Kalgoorlie, and makes a lucky find.  In Chapter 3 we meet Nell and Frances in the late 1980s, bold and defiant girls on the cusp of their teenage years, for whom Paddy is nothing more than a statue on Hannan Street: there was no pioneer reverence and no point of connection.

It was hard to imagine beyond her own story.  When Frances thought of her family in this place, in Paddy Hannan’s place, they seemed melodramatic, as if lodged in the wrong century.  Theirs was a tale of bad luck, the mischance of orphanhood and fate.  Nell and she had been born only eighteen months apart, and after their mother died at her birth, they were dispatched to their grandparents as a cruel compensation.  The couple wept together over the bubs and were inconsolable.  It was 1977. (p.12-13)

Kalgoorlie Super Pit (Wikipedia)

The sisters’ bad luck extends to their father Jack abandoning them for reasons never explained and Aunt Enid’s often malevolent presence in this devastated household where the girls’ grandfather Fred was by then fifty-eight, sick from working in the gold mines and nightly hacking out his lungs in a shuddering growl.  His wife Else was 56.  The mine which brought wealth but not contentment to Paddy has visited silicosis on generations of working men, just as the mine at Wittenoom made Frances a young widow when her husband Will, like his father, died of mesothelioma (the asbestos disease) because he and his brother Mark played as children in the tailings.  This strand of the novel in the near present, signalled by climate change concerns, begins in Chapter 5.  The intergenerational damage done to the health of the miners is intertwined with ongoing damage to the environment, referenced by the Kalgoorlie Super Pit: until recently the largest open cut gold mine in the world at 3.5 kilometres long, 1.5 kilometres wide and over 600 metres deep.  But the resilience of the traditional owners surfaces amid the stark landscape of Lake Ballard, and also in the character of Val who is confident about her own heritage and more articulate about art than the poseurs in the gallery where Frances works in Sydney.

This structure, a patchwork of events moving backwards and forwards through time makes Our Shadows a book that some readers will want to journal as they read.  It’s like the wave that features on the front cover, referencing Japanese artist Hokusai’s The Great Wave.  The novel ebbs and flows across time and place, and comments on a shifting cultural landscape.  Interleaved with the chapters about Paddy and the girls’ past and present, are fragments of thought from Else, one of the tormented elders in a locked aged care unit in Sydney.  Frances, who suffers the weariness of always being the one to organise things because of Nell’s fragile mental health, visits her regularly but fails to make much sense of what is said.  Readers need to be alert to catch the meaning of the scraps as well:

War huh
what was it good for

absolutely nothing
the cleaner’s radio

Clear today cleaner
words cleaner today the names

Fred and Marty imagine.  And the few words he sent her but still  (p.106)

To make sense of this the reader needs to remember that Fred had been a POW on the Burma Railway and then sent to work in the Fukuoka #17 – Omuta Prisoner of War Camp when nearby Nagasaki was bombed.

And before that, he wrote stilted letters to Else, intimidated by the differences between them.

When he shipped out with the 8th Division, he felt suddenly his own fear.  What had he done, leaving his lovely wife Else?  By now he missed her so badly, she spilled into his dreams.  Nightly he found her there, waiting, ready; and nightly he was disappointed and left alone.  He laboured over a letter, but it was empty, insufficient.  Prevented from revealing where he had trained and where he would be sent, he’d jotted a few chirpy lines—guess who I’ve seen here! Your favourite dancer — and signed a cheesy SWALK, Sealed With A Loving Kiss, just as she had taught him. Nothing that was in his heart was written down.  Nothing of the giant, heavy love that he bore for her.  Nothing that meant anything true and sincere. She was a book person, and would know how inadequate he was, how thin in expression and dumb with real feelings.  The soldiers were encouraged to send a letter with their deployment, so he sent it anyhow.  He imagined her reading it in rosy lamplight, kissing the single page fondly, like a woman in the movies. (p.105)

Else’s loss of communication due to dementia echoes Fred’s paucity of language while the sisters’ use of a secret code for private communication contrasts with the silences of their estrangement.  Others refuse to communicate: Paddy Hannan refuses to be interviewed about his pioneering find because it triggers memories of the Great Hunger in Ireland.  Fred refuses to talk about his war and he lies to protect the mother of Marty his mate, who was brutally murdered by the Japanese because he was learning the Japanese language from one of the guards.  They did this because language means power, as we see with Val’s dexterity in code-switching and her selective decisions about when to translate from Martu language or not.

Throughout the novel, thoughts and memories surface unbidden despite Aunt Enid’s insistence that the girls should not dwell on the past.

Brona’s review is more writerly than mine: she has engaged with the symbolism of the shadows, including how scenes in the book shadow each other, while Kim at Reading Matters focusses on the sisters’ relationships and the love and loss in their lives.  Jennifer’s from Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large popped into my inbox this morning and it took great self-control not to look at it till now.  I wish I had peeked first, we’ve both talked about how the narrative ebbs and flows! I recommend that you read them all.

Image credit:

Author: Gail Jones
Title: Our Shadows
Cover design by Chong W.H.
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781922330284, pbk., 309 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 4, 2021

Meet an Aussie Author: Danielle Binks

I’ve never before featured an author twice in Meet an Aussie Author, but the first time I featured Danielle Binks was in 2017 when she came to my attention as an ambassador for Australian YA.  She had launched #LoveOzYA and the first Begin, End, Begin: the #LoveOzYA anthology and the MAAA focus was all about that and not about her own work.  In fact I had never read any of Danielle’s books because I don’t often read YA.

However, as you may remember from my post about the Port Fairy Literary Weekend, Danielle featured in a session about writing historical fiction for young people and I bought and subsequently read her debut middle-grade novel The Year the Maps Changed.  I was impressed, and so were the judges for the 2021 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA)  because it was awarded the status of a Notable Book.

And then, the 2021 Melbourne Writers Festival was cancelled and Danielle’s opportunity to promote her new book The Monster of Her Age vanished. She took up my offer to spruik the books of Australian authors whose MWF events were cancelled (an offer which is still open to anyone impacted by the cancellation), and very generously shared the author’s note about the Australian film industry that accompanies the book as well. You can read about The Monster of Her Age here.

So here we are, it’s time to meet Danielle in her own right.

  1. I was born…. September 15th 1987 in Frankston, on the lands of the Boonwurrung. I grew up along the Mornington Peninsula and still live there to this day; I love it so much that some of its true history inspired my debut book for children, ‘The Year the Maps Changed.’
  2. When I was a child… I was obsessed with Blinky Bill, The Animals of Farthing Wood and the animated Robin Hood. Anthropomorphic animals were totally my jam, and I’d write and illustrate these stapled-together “books” featuring the only animal I could draw halfway decently; rabbits.
  3. The person who encouraged / inspired / mentored me … My grandmother, my Omi. She was a voracious reader and treated books as treats – if I was well-behaved I got a trip to the library, or a Little Golden Book from the supermarket checkout. As I got older my Omi and I would swap books and dive headlong into series together (we became obsessed with Diana Gabaldon’s ‘Outlander’) – we had our own little book club of two, really. She passed away in January 2020, but it was one of my most treasured memories getting to show her my debut book in December 2019 and tell that she made an author out of me.
  4. I write in … I do a lot of my ‘writing’ when I’m walking. That’s when I can clear my head and let my characters talk to me a little bit, figure out the emotional trajectory of the story and just work some things out within myself before committing them to the page. A lot of writing is thinking, and not actively ‘writing’ but it all counts and goes towards the creativity.
  5. I write when … I am a night-owl when it comes to writing. When I’m on a roll I can blast through midnight and go well into the AM. I think that’s a pretty good balance; that I do a lot of my thinking about writing in the light of day and out in nature, and then I tuck myself inside and write into the night.
  6. Research is… A joy! ‘The Year the Maps Changed’, my debut book for 10-14 year-olds, was inspired by true events during the 1999 Kosovo War and a refugee operation in Australia called ‘Operation Safe Haven’. I did a lot of my research interviewing people who lived through those events, trawling through newspaper archives at public libraries, and visiting the sites where my book takes place (especially the Point Nepean Quarantine Station). I considered it my responsibility to tell this true story well and as close to the truth as history demands, and to do as much research as possible – especially knowing that my audience would be young people and they could potentially be studying it, and would absolutely poke holes if I got anything horrendously wrong (as well they should!) For ‘The Monster of Her Age’ I gave myself a small break and made up a fictional Australian film history – but it still had a basis in Hollywood reality, and I still gave myself the ‘homework’ of watching a whole lot of horror movies to get inspired (not at all a chore for me, I love horror movies!)
  7. I keep my published works in … An old bookshelf that desperately needs rearranging, and I hope to one day fill every shelf with my books.
  8. On the day my first book was published, I … was in Melbourne lockdown! But I hung up some streamers, got my top-half presentable for a Zoom virtual launch and then burst into tears because my friends, family, and publisher delivered me flowers and a chocolate mud-cake to celebrate!
  9. At the moment, I’m writing… A new story for middle-grade readers, those aged 8-12. It might be set during 2020, but will be a tribute to the resilience and curiosity of kids. There will be a mystery that proves a great and epic distraction for kids across two continents. I think.
  10. When I ‘m stuck for an idea / word / phrase, I … Walk it out. Get into the world a little bit, let nature do its thing and inspire me.

How wonderful to have a grandmother who rewards good behaviour with books!

You can find out more about Danielle at her website.



Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 3, 2021

Six Degrees of Separation: from The Lottery, to….

This month’s #6Degrees starts with The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.  I read this short story years ago when I was studying Professional Writing and Editing, a course which I abandoned because the compulsory unit on journalism involved using Murdoch tabloids as models.  I didn’t like the Short Story unit much either, but at least The Lottery was memorable, which is more than I can say for the rest of the short stories we had to read…

So while the obvious link from The Lottery could be to another short story, I’m simply going to link to a book by another Shirley — Shirley Hazzard. She wrote four novels, and I’ve read them all (both The Transit of Venus (1980) and The Great Fire (2003) twice) though only two are reviewed on this blog. I’m going to choose The Bay of Noon (1970) which was shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize.  It’s the story of Jenny, who abandons her annoying relatives in post-war London, and sets off by herself, for work as a translator for NATO in post-war Naples.

The Edith Trilogy by Frank Moorhouse also involves a young woman going to work for an international body. Books 1 & 2 of the series, Grand Days (1993) and Dark Palace (2000) trace a woman’s career in the failed League of Nations of the interwar years, while the concluding novel Cold Light (2011) features the expat returning home to Australia when the UN doesn’t want her. This was a wonderful series, and the Miles Franklin judges thought so too when they awarded the MF to Dark Palace.

It takes a certain kind of reading stamina to work through an author’s series.  My most ambitious effort was to read the entire La Comedie Humaine by Balzac, followed by Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, but my favourite has to be Steven Carroll’s Glenroy novels. These novels, including the Miles Franklin winning The Time We Have Taken (2007),  are set somewhere like Glenroy, though the setting could be in any of Melbourne’s 1950s middle ring suburbs, really).  My favourite is The Art of the Engine Driver.

Another author who sets her novels in Melbourne is Andrea Goldsmith, who brings the inner city alive.  Reunion (2009) was described by The Monthly  as a ‘kind of inner-city intellectual counterpart to Christos Tsiolkas’s suburban masterpiece The Slap…a novel about how we live now, about the lifestyles and values of present-day Melbourne and, by extension, Australia.’

Having just read Belinda Probert’s Imaginative Possession, I have to quarrel with the last part of The Monthly’s summation which claims that Melbourne’s lifestyles and values are indicative of those in the rest of the nation.  As Probert makes clear in her discussion about the landscapes of Australia, our country is just too vast and diverse to have lifestyles in common across the continent, and it’s not just a matter of climate and landscape.  As an indication of our cultural values, Melbourne is a City of Literature, (the only one in Australia) and we have the best art gallery in the nation.  We are also proud to be leading the nation in developing a treaty with our Indigenous people.  Plus we have trams, and an obsession with coffee unmatched anywhere else on the continent!

Indeed, it’s the diversity of our cities and towns, lifestyles and values that makes Australia such an interesting place to live.  Reading our literature can take you anywhere.  Kim Lock’s road novel The Other Side of Beautiful takes the reader south from Adelaide to Darwin in the north while No One, by John Hughes unravels our sense of place in Sydney. Anita Heiss’s new novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams) shows how the values of our towns can shift over time, so that now the people of Gundagai are ready to recognise the Indigenous heroes who saved 69 of the townspeople, a third of the population at that time.  The values which inform our novels with urban settings are entirely different to those which feature in the bleak wilderness of Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath or the uncompromising isolation of Wildlight, by Robyn Mundy.

So there we are, that’s my #6Degrees for this month!

Next month’s starter book is Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through? I haven’t read it but I’ve got The Friend on the TBR, perhaps I might read that instead…

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)

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