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.

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:)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 2, 2021

2021 AALITRA Symposium

The AALITRA (Australian Association for Literary Translation) symposium is always an interesting event for anyone interested in translation. When I attended previous events in 2017 and 2019, I enjoyed the buzz of conversation beforehand and chatting with the wonderful people who bring us books in other languages that we would otherwise be unable to read.  The nibbles are always excellent too. This year however, the nibbles are on my desk, and my drink is just a herbal tea, because the event is run by Zoom.

Proceedings began with a Welcome by Jacqueline Dutton president of AALITRA and as I was listening to what she had to say I was of course looking around to see who was there.  Along with the award winning Harry Aveling who I know from my days as president of VILTA (the Victorian Indonesian Language Teachers Association), I recognised some Australian translators of books I’ve enjoyed, including Penny Hueston, Alice Whitmore and Stephanie Smee.  The point was made again and again in this symposium that translators based in Australia do network around the world, and they are published internationally through publishers acquiring world rights to the titles they publish.  So today’s launch of the ‘AALITRA Online Database of Literary Translators’ will make it easier for translators and publishers to find each other.

The opening address was by Penny Hueston, publisher/ translator at Text Publishing.  Widely awarded and with a medal for excellence in translation, Penny spoke with real authority about the challenges and rewards of publishing translated books.  Who chooses and who publishes which texts is a complex issue, and it was clear that sometimes it’s a matter of serendipity.  Not being able to attend and network at the Frankfurt Book Fair because of the pandemic has made things difficult in what is a difficult time for Australian publishing anyway.  For translators, being at the fair can help with getting known, especially if they translate a less well-known language e.g. Albanian.  (Remember when Ismail Kadare won the Man Booker International, and English translations of his books were translations from the French because Albanian-to-English translators couldn’t be found?)

Penny talked about some of the translations published by Text (many of which are reviewed here on this blog), and about issues to do with purchasing the rights. Negotiating world rights makes it possible to share the translation costs with publishers in other countries, but it can impact on translation opportunities here in Australia.  Australia is the smallest English language market, so Australian publishers don’t always get to choose the translator that they want if they have a deal with a publisher in, for example, in the US.  Timing the publication matters too: the US and UK don’t want to be published after the Australian edition hits the shelves. (Other countries don’t mind so much, apparently.)

Many Australian writers are published in translation overseas and can be bestsellers, especially in commercial and genre fiction.  Crime always does well, and so do middle-grade fiction and graphic novels.  But, because of the pandemic, the book market has shrunk, and readers are apparently looking for local authors and local stories. So they are likely to be less interested in translations of overseas titles.  Profitability is always an issue and Text accesses grants from the Copyright Agency and sometimes from cultural institutions like the Goethe Institute.

Very little was said about reviewing in the symposium, which surprised me because it’s supposed to be so important for sales.  Penny noted that reviewing of translations is getting harder because local authors take up the space in the press.  There are various initiatives to support the development of literary criticism and a new generation of critics from different backgrounds. I was tempted to brag about how many reviews of translated fiction there are on this blog (375) and how over time I’ve improved the ratio of male to female writers in translation (see here) but then I remembered that the real heroes of TF are Stu at Winston’s Dad and Meytal Radzinski and I kept quiet.

The next session was called ‘Australian Writer/Translators: Publishing and research experiences’, and it was chaired by Lilit Thwaites, a translator of Spanish. Other panellists were:

  • Brigid Maher (Italian) who presented findings from her PhD ‘Literary Translation into English in Contemporary Australia: Voices, Variety and Visibility’
  • Tiffany Tsao (Indonesian)- publishing with Giramondo, Amazon Crossing, Axis, Audiobooks, and
  • Elizabeth Bryer (Spanish) – publishing with Giramondo, Godine, HarperVia, Picador

This was a terrific session and, truth be told, my favourite, because I heard about some books that were irresistible and just had to be ordered there and then.

Lilit’s translations and publications include

  • The Prince of the Skies by Antonio Iturbe
  • Australian Connection, (Madrid: AECID, 2019), a trilingual anthology of short works by 15 Spanish writers who visited Australia
  • The Librarian of Auschwitz by Antonio Iturbe.

Brigid’s translations and publications include

    • The Mountain (Text, 2020) by Massimo Donati (which is already on my TBR);
    • Set Me Free: How Shakespeare Saved a Life (Text, 2017) by Salvatore Striano;
    • While the Shark is Sleeping (Saqi, 2014) by Milena Agus; and
    • The Countesses of Castello (Scribe, 2010) also by Milena Agus.

Tiffany Tsao’s books and translations include

  • Sergius Seeks Bacchus by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (Giramondo Publishing and Tilted Axis Press)
  • The Birdwoman’s Palate by Laksmi Pamuntjak (Amazon Crossing); and
  • Paper Boats by Dee Lestari (Amazon Crossing)

She has also written this very interesting article ‘Beyond the Binary’ on her blog.

Elizabeth Bryer (Spanish) had a special offer on her novel because she had expected this symposium to be f2f and so had multiple signed copies.  Visit her website here. Her publications include

These translators talked about pitching a book you love to a publisher, and the need to develop ‘a translation culture’ here.  It shouldn’t just be elsewhere.  It was noted that translators tend to be doing it part time.  Hardly anyone works at it full time because of low demand, and the pay and conditions are not great either.  It’s also essential to recognise that translators have to do what they can to promote the author’s book…when they are working with underrepresented languages, they need to do a whole lot more than just translate the book. Tiffany shared a slide about all the other things she does to help the book on its way, which made me realise the enormous often unpaid contribution that translators make to the books we love to read.

‘The Australian Multilingual Writing Project’ was presented by Nadia Niaz.  Nadia is a simultaneous trilingual whose first languages are English, French and Urdu. Other languages she grew up around, listed in the order in which she can understand them include Hindi, Punjabi, Spanish, Italian, Nepali, Farsi, Turkish and Swiss German. She lived in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Switzerland, and the USA as a child and moved to Australia in 2006, where she began her study of poetry and multilingualism.

Gabriella Munoz presented poems about motherhood, grief and loss.

Dženana Vucic presented multilingual poetry, bringing together Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian.  Her poems reference the Siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege since WW2.  Dženana had to relearn her mother tongue after assimilating in Australia when she went to Bosnia to reconnect with family who didn’t speak English.

Dominique Hecq read her work in Belgian French and English.

All these readings were rather melancholy.

Then there was a publishers’ panel chaired by Elizabeth Bryer with Sophy Williams from BlackInc  and Ivor Indyk from Giramondo.  This was a bit of a reality check because both publishers talked about what made their imprints distinctive.  In one way or another, they were both interested in story and the translation was incidental.  Books have to sell, and they have to appeal to Australian audiences.  Sophy talked about The Godmother, (the sequel to which, The Inheritors, I have just read) and some forthcoming books which sound very interesting indeed.  Ivor Indyk talked about how Giramondo is an Italian word meaning means globetrotter or world traveller (Italian) and how his imprint was always intended to be a cosmopolitan publisher.  But, he says, he’s a conceptual publisher, the book has to be a creative work in its own right, with quality translation and cultural relevance.  This changes at different times, and it depends on associations and interests at the time.  (Giramondo’s Chinese titles, for example, arose from a university initiative to open dialogue with Chinese writers.) He says that titles derive from a network of intellectuals, translators and publishers, and that funding is critically important because translations involve a double cost.  Funding agencies are essential for publishing to go ahead.

I asked a question: Noting the importance of funding and grants, do you think there’s a role for the UN in funding translations from languages that don’t get funding from governments and philanthropical institutions in their own country?  The answer was yes, and so I’m looking for suggestions for a beaut hashtag to get the campaign going.

The symposium finished with a plenary session chaired by Tim Cummins.  I was tired by then (and The Spouse had made a Saturday Night Cocktail) but I did notice that Cummins said that all translators are booklovers!

Many thanks to Elaine Lewis for inviting me!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 2, 2021

Book Giveaway winner: The Sweetest Fruits, by Monique Truong

It’s time to draw the winner of the giveaway offer from  Upswell Press.

The Sweetest Fruits is by Vietnamese-American author Monique Truong.

About the book:

With brilliant sensitivity and an unstinting eye, The Sweetest Fruits illuminates three women’s tenacity and their struggles in a novel that circumnavigates the globe in the search for love, family, home and belonging.

In The Sweetest Fruits, three women, Rosa, Alethea, and Setsu, tell the story of their life with Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904), a globetrotting Greek-Irish writer best known as the author of America’s first Creole cookbook and for his many volumes about the folklore and ghost stories of Meiji Era Japan. In their own unorthodox ways, the three women are also intrepid travellers and explorers. Their accounts witness Hearn’s remarkable life but also seek to witness their own existence and luminous will to live unbounded by gender, race, and the mores of their time. Each is a gifted storyteller with her own precise reason for sharing her story, and together their voices offer a revealing, often contradictory portrait of Hearn.

About the author:

Monique Truong is the Vietnamese American author of the bestselling, award-winning novels The Book of Salt, Bitter in the Mouth and The Sweetest Fruits. She’s also a former refugee, essayist, avid eater, lyricist/ librettist, and intellectual property attorney (more or less in that order).

There were 13 entries:

  1. Nicole
  2. Bryn Hammond
  3. Pam from Travellin’ Penguin
  4. Janelle
  5. Marg from The Intrepid Reader
  6. Mark Grieveson
  7. Theresa from Theresa Smith Writes
  8. Jennifer from Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large
  9. Sue from Book Obsessed
  10. Karenlee Thompson
  11. Belinda from Here I Knit
  12. Liz Dorrington
  13. Willow Croft

The random number generator at came up with No 11, so the winner is Belinda from Here I Knit.  Congratulations, Belinda!  To receive your book, you need to provide me with a postal address and permission to pass it on to the publisher who will then send the book to you.  (I will redraw if this condition isn’t met within a fortnight.)

Update 15/10/21: Alas, it turns out that the winner didn’t have an Australian postcode for delivery, so I’ve done a redraw and the lucky winner is Mark Grieveson.  He has two weeks to provide me with a postal address and permission to pass it on to the publisher who will then send the book to him!

Thanks to everyone who entered, and if you missed out, commiserations, you can buy the book from Upswell or good bookstores anywhere.  (Or drop hints so that someone buys it for you!)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 30, 2021

Imaginative Possession by Belinda Probert

Tucked up in the LH corner of the book cover, Helen Garner sums up the impact of this book so well:

‘A wonderfully friendly and likeable book.  It put me in a good mood for days, and taught me a thousand important things.’

A friendly book.  A likeable book.  These are not words we hear too often about the books we read, but in this case they’re true. I’ve been reading Belinda Probert’s Imaginative Possession at lunch time, a chapter each day, and as I’ve bonded with the author through the words on the page, it’s furnished me with interesting things to think about and new ways of looking at my world.

You might remember from a previous post when this book was a giveaway from Upswell Press, that I liked the subtitle Imaginative Possession, Learning to Live in the Antipodes because it makes it clear that migration takes effort and humility.  As a newcomer in many places, a migrant in others, and an outsider in all of them, I know this, and am sometimes impatient with the current narrative about migration being so much a matter of pain, loss and resentment against the host country.  Migrants, as distinct from refugees, choose to come here, and they have an entitlement to go home again if Australia doesn’t suit them.  When refugees can’t go home because it’s not safe, and so many displaced people around the world have nowhere to go at all, it’s a privilege to have a secure homeland.

Humility is not just about recognising that extraordinary privilege, it’s also about recognising a responsibility to learn about the new country. Born in England, Belinda Probert has the humility to recognise this, and this book explains her efforts to learn about Australia, and her enthusiasm for the journey.  Over many years, and through periods of time in Victoria and WA, she explores landscapes; plant, animal and bird life; the concept of distance, space and scale; and Indigenous culture and storytelling.  She recounts amusing anecdotes about her first bullant bite and about learning not to be sentimental about some of the creatures on her bush block.  She tries and fails to develop some expertise in identifying species of eucalypts, but has more expertise with birds because there’s an App for that.  She wrestles (as we all do) with the issue of native plants versus exotics, the topic becoming more urgent than academic as climate change limits what can survive into the future.  She reads voraciously, everything from Don Watson’s The Bush, to Henry Handel Richardson’s Fortunes of Richard Mahoney.

In the last part of Imaginative Possession, Probert tackles the issue of ‘belonging,’ and what it takes to ‘belong’.  For her, grown to adulthood with English concepts of landscape, becoming comfortable with Australian landscapes matters, though it’s hard to do because they vary so much across the country, and here in Victoria, even across the state.  For others — although aware of and concerned about Australia’s colonial history and its impact on Indigenous people — belonging is rooted in social relations, not geography or history.  It can be about getting used to the night sky being different and finding the Southern Cross.  But it can also be about ‘getting’ the Australian sense of humour, or giving birth to their first Australian child…

One of Probert’s friends, Marivic from Cuba, says ‘she belongs to Australia because she can take part in its conversation and because she believes in its virtues.’  She insists that…

…her sense of belonging has ‘not much to do with gum trees, light or space’, but rests on her sense of Australia as a ‘decent society’ — a society which people who have not seen ‘the horrors of the rest of the world’ fail properly to appreciate. (p.152)

Another friend, Manik from India, belongs in Australia…

…’because she has consciously grafted herself here; because she likes the look of the land; because it gives her space as a non-Anglo-Celtic Australian; because she feels accepted by its people; because she holds a commitment to its democracy; because of her memories and because occasionally… she feels an ache for the land’ from her Canberra suburb.  Like Marivic, she knows that Australia must be multi-centred so that everyone can belong, and thinks it is a mistake to place too much emphasis on memories of place.  The key to belonging, for her, is social connectedness. (p.143)

She says that you can belong ‘by intellectual engagement, through affinity, through one’s acceptance by the place, by the local people; and one can belong through contribution to the place.’  

The only thing I would add to that is that ‘belonging’ is not something that is decided by someone else.  It is a state of mind.

Highly recommended.

Author: Belinda Probert
Title: Imaginative Possession, Learning to live in the Antipodes
Cover design by Peter Long
Publisher: Upswell Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9780645076301, pbk., 173 pages
Source: Personal subscription to Upswell Publishing


Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 26, 2021

The Dogs, by John Hughes

When I consulted Tom Chetwynd’s Dictionary of Symbols to unravel the symbolism in the title of John Hughes new novel The Dogs, this is what I found:


The animal instincts as helpful intermediaries between man and nature; or as negative aggression.

Dogs help man hunt the wild animal and round up the domestic animal: So they are symbols of the right inner relationship between man and his animal nature.

Their good nose for scenting unseen prey, or intruders: Intuition, which is aware of other people’s inner nature, sense when something is wrong, and is not easily deceived by others.  (Dictionary of Symbols, by Tom Chetwynd, Paladin, (Grafton, Collins) 1982 ISBN 9780586083512, p.124)

The negative entries about the symbolism of ‘dogs’ include: male aggression, or to represent the masculine aggression of the Animus in women; associated with the underworld and death via forces which hunt and hound the conscious Ego and tear it to pieces from the depths of the unconscious.  

From Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, I found the common allusion to Shakespeare’s horrors of war:

Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war. (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, III, i (1599) (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, p386)

and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s quatrain about the superstitious belief that dogs howl at death:

In the Rabbinical Book, it saith
The dogs howl, when with icy breath
Great Sammaël, the Angel of Death
Takes through the town his flight! (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Golden Legend III, vii (1851), ibid p.385

As you can see from the blurb, all these meanings surface in the terrain explored in the novel:

Michael Shamanov grapples with the idea of his mother’s life and her desire to finish it. Perhaps it’s her life he has been running away from and not his own.

“The story of a life is a secret as life itself. A life that can be explained is no life at all.” — Elias Canetti

Is it possible to write about the living without thinking of them as already dead?

Michael Shamanov is a man running away from life’s responsibilities. His marriage is over, he barely sees his son and he hasn’t seen his mother since banishing her to a nursing home two years earlier. A successful screen writer, Michael’s encounter with his mother’s nurse leads him to discover that the greatest story he’s never heard may lie with his dying mother. And perhaps it’s her life he’s been running away from and not his own. Is the past ever finished? Should we respect another’s silence? And if so, is it ever possible to understand and put to rest the strange idea of family that travels through the flesh?

When the novel starts, the narrator Michael is visiting his mother during her last days in the aged care home where he abandoned her two years ago.  Although Michael berates himself over this and other relationships, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds — a strong, assertive, occasionally aggressive woman, Anna had told him she never wanted to see him again and he took her at her word.  They did not have a great relationship anyway, exacerbated by her enigmatic refusal to tell him anything about her life.  

I gave her a notebook once and asked her to sketch out her life for me, but it remained almost empty.  She jotted down only a few words, place names mainly, that perhaps were a key.  When I asked her to tell me about them, she dismissed the request as if swatting a fly and said, ‘Haven’t I told you enough already? You’re the writer.’ The few stories she did tell me, so seductive to me as a child, seem to me now to draw their significance from another world about which I knew nothing, Smokescreens really, a wonderful shadow theatre of a time she could never let go entirely, though it has betrayed her in such a way she would rather die than allow it real presence again. (p.19)

Childhood, she says, is  a terrible time…

And not just childhood —

We wandered in the forests.  Ate leaves, bark, roots.  Someone said, the boy’s half-dead, he’ll die anyway.  You get me… We slept under bushes, in ditches.  Wherever we turned were Germans.  The men said we had to fight our way through.  We were going to die anyway.  They came to us at night. There weren’t enough women.  All those men and only three of us… You understand. We thought we were going to die. (p.45)

Well, parents don’t IMO have to give up their privacy, and there can be many reasons why they stay silent, including a wish not to burden their children.  But for Michael, whose father committed suicide when he was only seven, the emotional baggage of his mother’s silence results in intergenerational trauma that poisons all his relationships.  His marriage failed, and he despises his son Leo who is a shady property developer on the Gold Coast. 

Unlike the homes of Michael’s schoolfriends full of their family’s history, Anna’s home is austere.

Apart from the furnishings — modern, functional, new — the house was bare. There were no memories of my father, no pictures or photographs on the walls, no decorations or knick-knacks of any kind. (p.92) 

Except for the basement. Anna is a hoarder, but not because she wants to compensate for irretrievable memories of her European past.  She doesn’t want to remember.  

Her hoarding is an act of rescue: all the unwanted, unloved, broken, superseded things of the world are, if not redeemed by her keeping, at least given a home.  They belong.  And there can never be enough. (p.93) 

But when Michael discovers that his mother has been opening up to Catherine, the empathetic nurse at the aged care home, he is determined that she will speak to him.  

When she does, it’s only in shards because she has dementia. 

It would be tedious for me to recount now all the avenues and circuits, dead-ends and one-way streets, the contours of that faltering, inchoate, furtive, febrile, anxious monologue my mother seemed transported by that afternoon —

But he pounces on the opportunity:

What had been lying in wait so long in me, with all the thoughtless purpose of a beast of prey, now leapt.

Only to find that she is still very much in control of the narrative, forcing him to listen without interruption: 

She spoke the way a ship tilts into a swell; as if walking on a rock shelf slick with weed.  And the manner of her speech — more, even, than what she said — came at me like a miss-hit, unreturnable because it does to the ball what no amount of skill or intention can do, and took me by surprise. (p.11)

But with the help of some long-secret letters he pieces together her amazing story.  Anna, it turns out, is the estranged daughter of Ravenna da Spesa, an Italian opera singer who before the Russian Revolution entranced Prince Mikhail Orlov — and, disastrously, his father as well — when she sang at the Tercentenary of Romanov Rule.  Born in 1916 Anna was caught up in World War II and enlisted with the Italian partisans as a nurse, enduring traumatic experiences that she can never forget.

Part 3 enters different territory as Michael ventures into a relationship with the nurse Catherine and renegotiates his relationship with his son because he needs his help. 

This novel is so rich in themes and ideas and striking observations, it deserves multiple readings, and I have only scratched the surface with this review. 

As you can see in this article at the SMH (if it isn’t paywalled), although The Dogs is not biographical, John Hughes has mined aspects of his grandmother’s life to create this moving novel.  It was not until she was in her dying days that he learned about her life:

My grandmother grew up during the Holodomor (the Great Ukrainian Famine) of the early 1930s, in which more than three million Ukrainians starved to death. She survived and gave birth to four children while Stalin cemented his power through the Great Terror, allied then unallied himself with Hitler, and Ukraine was invaded by the German army. She escaped Kiev with my grandfather, and for the last two years of World War II wandered through eastern Europe with these four young children, finally to arrive at a transit camp at the port of Bagnoli on the western shore of the Gulf of Naples, where they were processed by the International Refugee Organisation and shipped to Australia as displaced persons. 

By coincidence, it is only two days since I mused on the near-absence of Russians in our Australian literature, and though in this novel the Shamanov family tree is Italian-Russian, the Russian heritage of Michael and his son Leo contributes to the preoccupations of the narrator!


  • Dictionary of Symbols, by Tom Chetwynd, Paladin, (Grafton, Collins) 1982 ISBN 9780586083512
  • Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, by Ebenezer Cobham Brewer, first published 1870, 18th edition, 2009, edited by Camilla Rockwood, Chambers Harrap Publishers, 2009, ISBN: 9780550104113

Author: John Hughes
Title: The Dogs
Cover design by Chil3, artwork ‘Offerings’ by Abdul-Rahman Abdullah
Publisher: Upswell Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9780645076349, pbk., 312 pages
Source: Personal subscription to Upswell Publishing 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 25, 2021

The Other Side of Beautiful, by Kim Lock

If anything in this review raises issues for you, help is available at Beyond Blue.

Reading this amusing escapist novel reminded me of the times when work was really getting me down and the daily morning commute offered the strong temptation to abandon it.  As I was approaching the intersection of Heatherton Rd and the Monash Freeway, I would consider the ease with which I could simply turn east onto that freeway (which eventually becomes the Princes Highway) and abandon ship.  #HaveCreditCardCanTravel: I could just keep going.  Beyond the outer suburbs, beyond the satellite towns, past Sale and Bairnsdale and Mallacoota.  Over the border along the Sapphire Coast to Merimbula and then see where a road that bypasses Sydney might take me.  The wonder is that I never actually did it because it was more than a fantasy.

The central character of The Other Side of Beautiful does what I was tempted to do, though in entirely different circumstances.  Mercy has had a horror experience at work; she has been lambasted by social media; she is grieving a fraught relationship with her mother; her husband has turned out to be gay; and her house has burnt down, leaving her with nowhere to go. And despite the emotional paralysis and the panic attacks which have kept her a virtual prisoner in her own home, she abandons all of it to go on a road trip from Adelaide to Darwin.  Not in a well-equipped 4WD but rather in a battered old campervan and with only her Dachshund Wasabi for company.

As we all know, the road from Adelaide to Darwin is fraught with perils and anyone intending to take it is advised to be well-prepared because the Australian Outback is no place for the naïve.  But as it turns out, the greatest peril that Mercy encounters is the horrible journalist who used social media to make her life a misery.   Along the way, she meets grey nomads and other travellers — including one who is handsome and gorgeous and knows how to do emergency repairs but is not a love interest because Mercy is too fragile for anything other than tentative friendship at this stage.

It is escapism, and it’s often funny, but it’s entertainment with a serious side in the sense that the author deftly portrays the disabling effects of anxiety and the pressure that can bedevil a high achiever.

I did like the portrayal of Wasabi.  (I’ve had two Dachshunds, both of them imaginatively called Gretel.)  But see how perceptively the author alludes to the punishing workload of medical interns here, and moves on to the character’s loneliness and her need for love:

She’d bought him just before she started her internship, naïvely thinking that the end of med school signalled the beginning of control over her own life.  Maybe a cat would have been a better choice, Mercy thought to herself in the early days, coming home in the bleary dawn after night shift to an avalanche of exploded paper up and down the hallway.  Or even a goldfish, she had thought, walking an excitable, yapping, twisting Dachshund in the dark streets at two am before work.

But Mercy had gotten Wasabi for the same reason anyone gets a puppy: because they embody happiness.  Their fuzzy little faces are gorgeous and irresistible. Their love is unconditional. And no matter how long Mercy was gone, no matter how wrecked she was when she came home, no matter how she had snapped at him or even ignored him, Wasabi was always there.  He never blamed her, never criticised her, never expected her to actualise him.  Always wagging his tail.  Always happy to curl up on her lap and be petted for as long as Mercy needed. (p.178)

You can find out more about the author at her website. 

Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large and Theresa at Theresa Smith Writes reviewed it too.

Author: Kim Lock
Title: The Other Side of Beautiful
Publisher: HQ Fiction (Harlequin, Harper Collins), 2021
Cover design: Christa Moffitt, Christabella Designs
ISBN: 9781867214908, pbk., 350 pages
Source: Bayside Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2021

Book Giveaway winner: The Dogs, by John Hughes

Time to draw the winner for the giveaway offer for John Hughes’ new novel The Dogs, published by Upswell.  You can read about the genesis of the novel here at the SMH.

About the book:

Michael Shamanov grapples with the idea of his mother’s life and her desire to finish it. Perhaps it’s her life he has been running away from and not his own.

“The story of a life is a secret as life itself. A life that can be explained is no life at all.” — Elias Canetti

Is it possible to write about the living without thinking of them as already dead?

Michael Shamanov is a man running away from life’s responsibilities. His marriage is over, he barely sees his son and he hasn’t seen his mother since banishing her to a nursing home two years earlier. A successful screen writer, Michael’s encounter with his mother’s nurse leads him to discover that the greatest story he’s never heard may lie with his dying mother. And perhaps it’s her life he’s been running away from and not his own. Is the past ever finished? Should we respect another’s silence? And if so, is it ever possible to understand and put to rest the strange idea of family that travels through the flesh?

From the Miles Franklin shortlisted author of No One comes a haunting gem of family secrets and impossible decisions.

About the author:

John Hughes is based in Sydney. He has published six books, all acclaimed and highly awarded, including the National Biography Award and Premier’s Book Awards. His previous novels, The Remnants and Asylum were critically acclaimed, and in 2019, No One was shortlisted in the Miles Franklin Award 2020, and you can read my review of it here.

Praise for The Dogs:

“John Hughes’ writing is intelligent, delicate and otherworldly, his narrator bumbling, contrary and oddly endearing. A novel in which the past and the present twine, and the vastness of history crystalises in one man’s troubled here and now. 

Michael Shamanov, son of war survivors, inheritor of nameless devastation, drily humorous admitter of his own failings, is presented with a last-chance opportunity to find love and mercy as they must exist in his world – imperfectly.

A stealth manoeuvre of the emotions. Beautifully restrained, deeply moving”
Peggy Frew

These were the entries for the giveaway:

  1. Pam from Travellin’ Penguin
  2. Diana Blackwood
  3. Jennifer from Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large
  4. Ted Witham from Mind Journeys
  5. Karenlee Thompson
  6. Fay Kennedy
  7. Annette Marfording
  8. Liz Dorrington
  9. Kelly Mihai
  10. Christine Lee

The numbers went into the random number generator at and up came No 7. Congratulations to Annette! Please provide me with your postal address, and confirm to me at anzlitloversATbigpondDOTcom that it’s ok for me to pass it on to Upswell Publishing so that they can send you the book.

If you missed out this time, there’s still a current giveaway for Book Giveaway: The Sweetest Fruits, by Monique Truong, also from Upswell Publishing. 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2021

2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize Shortlist

2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize shortlist has been announced.

The shortlist for the 2021 ARA Historical Novel Prize – Adult Category is:

The ARA Historical Novel Prize winners will be announced at the HNSA virtual conference on 22 October 2021

Links on the titles go to the publisher’s website.

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