Click here for news about the shortlist and links to Combined Reviews from the Man Booker International Prize Shadow Jury.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 24, 2017

Meet an Aussie Author: Danielle Binks

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you might remember from 2015 a snippet of news about the #LoveOzYA campaign and a follow-up post later that year? It is now my pleasure to introduce readers to the driving force behind it… along with some very exciting news about a new initiative to support Australian writing.

Danielle Binks is a book-blogger, writer, freelance arts media commentator, youth literature advocate, literary agent with Jacinta di Mase and – most recently – she has edited and contributed to the just-released ‘YA event of the year’ titled…


Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology

I’ve varied the usual Meet an Aussie Author format so that Danielle can tell the story of #LoveOZYA and the publication of the anthology…

Q: What is the hashtag, #LoveOzYA?

A: It’s a grassroots movement – #LoveOzYA = ‘Love Australian Young Adult Literature’

Q: What was the grassroots movement in response to?

A: It all started in 2015, when the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) surveyed public libraries to find out the list of Top Ten Most Borrowed Books.

There were lists for Adult Fiction, Adult Non-Fiction, Children’s and Young Adult (YA) – and in all but one category, there was an even-split of five international authors and five Australian. Except on the YA list, which was dominated by American authors and featured only two Australian. And the American YA books listed were all bolstered by film and television adaptations and tie-ins – basically, MEGA international marketing campaigns that our Aussie titles just weren’t competing with.

The Aussie YA community’s response was the creation of #LoveOzYA — a hashtag coined to harness the conversation, and talk about our love of Australian young adult literature, and to champion our stories.

The hashtag and grassroots movement eventually transformed into an official website – – and then HarperCollins came along and decided to pay tribute to the campaign with a book.

Q: Is #LoveOzYA about stopping reading all international books, and just reading Australian-lit?

A: Not at all! #LoveOzYA was born from readers and writers and all who love Australia’s national youth literature, and YA generally! It was not born out of patriotism or a rejection of international voices — far from it. #LoveOzYA has been about the inclusion of voices.

Basically, we want Aussie teens to be able to see themselves on the shelf and on the page.  But right now there are about *nine* international titles, for everyone *one* Australian sold in the YA section of your typical bookshop … We hope to encourage teenagers to fall in love with their national youth literature, so that they grow into adult readers who seek out Australian stories and support local authors, and keep our books community thriving.

It has been a movement, as the name suggests, about love.

Q: So, what’s the #LoveOzYA Anthology about?

A: The Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology is a collection of ten original short stories, written by some of Australia’s best-loved YA authors – including Alice Pung, Jaclyn Moriarty, Amie Kaufman and Will Kostakis, to name a few!

It’s an anthology that spans genres – from contemporary to science fiction, magical realism and there’s even a time-travel tale thrown in! We wanted to show all that Aussie YA has to offer, and that it can be as BIG, BOLD and MARVELLOUS as anything that American blockbusters can produce. Hence the rather cyclical title invoking beginnings and endings, to highlight our own momentum and re-imagining .

At the launch: Lili Wilkinson, Melissa Keil, Ellie Marney, Michael Pryro, Danielle Binks, and Amie Kaufman (Photo credit: @cakeandmadness, who also made the cake!)

Even our beautiful cover-art was created by local Australian typography troupe, ‘The Letterettes’ – and one of their calligraphers, Kate Pullen. So the whole book really is an ode to the Australian creative industries, in many ways.

Not only does the Anthology help spread the message of the grassroots campaign, about supporting Australia’s youth literature (and in many ways, linking back to ‘Books Create Australia’ too) – but the short-story collection is perfect for “reluctant readers”, time-poor students, and this ‘Begin, End, Begin’ (with its kaleidoscope of stories) is also encouraging teens to read outside their genre comfort-zones and discover new voices.

In that sense … it’s also the perfect read for adults, and all who love Australian stories and our books communities!

Q: Tell us a bit more about you, as the Anthology editor

A: Well, I’ve been a book-blogger since 2009 – when I started ‘Alpha Reader’, also known as “my solo book club.” I studied Professional Writing and Editing at RMIT, and for two years I was a ‘Kill Your Darlings’ online journal contributor, writing all about youth literature.

Last year I was invited to join Jacinta di Mase Management, as a literary agent seeking out young adult and middle grade authors (those writing for 8-12 year-olds). I consider myself very lucky that I’m getting the opportunity to contribute to the #LoveOzYA of the future with this unique role, finding the books that Aussie teens will (hopefully) be falling love with for years to come, just as I did when I was a young reader consuming the likes of Melina Marchetta and John Marsden …

YA has always been my reading home, even after I technically “aged out” of the readership – I’ve always found it’s an area of publishing with the most rapid change and exciting intersections of audience and industry.

I refer to myself as a “youth literature advocate”, someone who loves YA but understand it’s primarily for teens and they should be respected, and encouraged to embrace the books that are for them. Which is why I was so honoured when HarperCollins invited me to edit ‘Begin, End, Begin’ – offering me another opportunity to talk about #LoveOzYA and supporting our national youth literature … and also, to be the “emerging voice” contributor to the Anthology. I feel like I’m being given the opportunity to give back to the community that embraced and shaped me, turning me into a reader for life.

The ‘Begin, End, Begin: A #LoveOzYA Anthology’ (HarperCollins, 2017, ISBN 9781460752319) is edited by Danielle Binks, and includes stories from young adult authors Amie Kaufman, Melissa Keil, Will Kostakis, Ellie Marney, Jaclyn Moriarty, Michael Pryor, Alice Pung, Gabrielle Tozer, Lili Wilkinson and Danielle Binks herself.

Available from Fishpond: Begin, End, Begin: A #Loveozya Anthology
and all good bookshops – and there’s a limited, foil-edition available from all Dymocks Bookstores.

You can find out more about Danielle and follow her reviews and other YA news at Alpha Reader.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 23, 2017

Lenin the Dictator, by Victor Sebestyen

Via the Twitterfeed @SovietVisuals 22/4/17

When The Spouse and I visited Russia in 2012 (well before anti-Russian sentiment reached its current peak) we were surprised to see that statues of Lenin were still intact and still in place.  And by coincidence, as I was drafting this review, the Twitterfeed of the often hilarious @SovietVisuals offered an example that shows that young people still hold Lenin in regard.  Since it goes some way towards explaining this persisting affection for the leader of the Soviet Revolution, this new biography, Lenin the Dictator by Victor Sebestyen is timely, and not just because of the 100th anniversary of the revolution.  As I said when reviewing Tony Kevin’s Return to Moscow, IMO in our messy interconnected world, it’s now more important than ever to understand countries like Russia.

Lenin the Dictator is also very good reading.  From the first chapters about Lenin’s childhood to the story of the revolution itself, this book kept my attention throughout.  Just occasionally I had some doubts about the author’s objectivity*, but by and large this biography seems to be a balanced account of the life, achievements and flaws of one of the most significant figures of the twentieth century.  Inevitably, the story of Lenin’s life is also the story of the Russian Revolution, and this book is also a clear and lucid explanation of how this remarkable event took place.

Because it was remarkable.  The Bolshevik revolution could have faltered at so many different moments in time, but Lenin as its leader was lucky that it happened at all and was then utterly ruthless in maintaining it in its early days.  And yet in some ways, revolution of some sort was inevitable: Russia in the early twentieth century was an economic basket case and there had been agitation for reform for decades.  Sebestyen makes it clear that the collapse of the Romanov dynasty was brought about by their own stupidity, incompetence, refusal to change and the epic, thoughtless scale of the bacchanal, the drinking and promiscuity, [which] went beyond decadence.  One after the other the Tsars had presided over a country that desperately needed political and economic reform, and they maintained their grip on power with ruthless repression that was a model for the Bolsheviks to subsequently follow.  Lenin’s own brother was hung at the age of twenty-one for agitating for political reform, and the entire family was one of thousands exiled to keep the activists out of Petrograd (Leningrad/St Petersburg).

By the time of the First World War, there was so much unrest that the army was barely functional, and with 17 million dead in the trenches, there was strong support for making peace with Germany (and the Germans were only too happy to fund the Bolsheviks whose policy was for an armistice).  There were riots, strikes and assassinations, which triggered violent repression in return.  For his own safety Lenin and his supporters were out of the country for long periods of time, and there were so many different groups with different political agendas that when the Tsar finally abdicated and a provisional government took over in March 1917, it was total chaos.  The actual business of the Bolsheviks storming the palace in October 1917 was more like an episode of the Keystone Cops than a revolution that would change the world.  (On my travel blog, I struggled to convey the sense of awe I felt on being in the room where the October Revolution began).

The biggest mistake that the Provisional Government made was to underestimate Lenin:

Ministers in the Provisional Government were congratulating themselves that they had been clever to allow Lenin back into the country, convinced that his extremism had made life easier for them.  The Socialist Revolutionary leader Victor Chernov, Minister of Agriculture, said Lenin’s ideas were so radical and ‘raving’ that the ‘Bolsheviks’ dangers will be limited and localised.’ Prince Lvov, the Prime Minister, told Vladimir Nabokov (father of the novelist), his closest aide and Chief Secretary to the Cabinet, ‘Don’t worry about Lenin.  The man is not dangerous – and besides, we can arrest him whenever we want.’  (p.293)

How wrong they were…

Biographies are at their best when they trace the influences on a person’s life and explore their personalities, and what makes this biography so interesting is the way that Sebestyen presents Lenin as a human being rather than a Cold War symbol.  Using resources not available until the post-Soviet era, he shows how Lenin was radicalised and how he formed his unshakeable belief that a socialist revolution was the best option for any society. Sebestyen says that Lenin genuinely believed that he would make lives better through his actions.

Lenin never felt that he had to justify his actions.  To him, accepting help from the Germans – and as would become clear later, large amounts of their money too – would have seemed rational and reasonable.  Lenin by this time in his life had ceased thinking in conventional moral terms and would have felt it entirely acceptable to take help from anyone if it would bring forward the socialist revolution in Russia – and then throughout the world. (p.275)

Yet beside this indefatigable attitude was a man of contradictory personality.  He could be secretive, conspiratorial and perfectionist, berating his supporters and aides and threatening them with very harsh punishments, and his rages over petty matters were breathtaking.  Yet his private secretary Lidia Fotieva said that

…most of the time he was kind in personal matters and good-humoured: ‘I think it can be said he worked jovially … with a great deal of laughter.’  This was something often said about Lenin, which is not always easy to square with his demanding, difficult, domineering and ruthless persona.  His sense of irony was acute, often at the expense of someone else.  But some of his stern critics noted a broader sense of humour, even occasional silliness.  Gorky often remarked that ‘Lenin loved to laugh… and when he laughed it was with his whole body.  On occasions he was overcome with laughter and would laugh sometimes until he cried.’ (p.427)

There are many interesting snippets in this bio, including the fact that Putin’s grandfather was a cook at Lenin’s dacha.  I was especially interested in Lenin’s reading tastes, formed when he was a young man not allowed to continue his studies at Kazan University as punishment for his brother’s activism.

So he educated himself, quietly in the countryside.  ‘Never later in my life, not in prison in Petersburg or in Siberia, did I read so much as in the year after my exile to the countryside from Kazan, he said later.  ‘This was serious reading, from early morning to late at night.’  Leon Trotsky later described it ‘as the crucial time that forged him as a socialist… the years of stubborn work in which the future Lenin was formed.’ He pored over the socialist classics and works of philosophy, economics and history which his brother had read so avidly. (p.61)

Apparently he loved Turgenev, was opposed to the Tolstoyan world view, and hated Dostoyevsky even though he acknowledged his genius.  By coincidence when I was reading this biography I also stumbled across Tariq Ali’s article about Lenin’s literary interests and how they shaped his views, in The Guardian.

Despite the hardships delineated in this life story, this is not a biography to make anyone feel much sympathy for Lenin but the death of his lover Inessa aged 45 seems a cruel blow.  Commentary from the time shows that he was devastated by the loss.  His wife Nadya knew about Inessa, and was apparently accepting of their relationship… like Lenin, she was devoted to the ideals of the revolution but wholly pragmatic about achieving it, so she was apparently prepared to tolerate Inessa in its service. (In fact, she and Lenin subsequently adopted Inessa’s orphaned children).

When it came to Lenin’s own death after years of ill-health and overwork, Nadya was strongly opposed to the way his legacy was used by the ensuing regime, but her objections were ignored. In keeping with the simple lifestyle he had always had, Lenin had wished to be buried next to his mother and sister, and Nadya and the rest of the family had wanted a plain and simple headstone, but Stalin and Co overruled all that and for their own purposes embalmed the body and created the cult of Lenin.

There was genuine grief at Lenin’s death, though how spontaneous it was and how much was hijacked by the regime remains a matter of argument.  Hundreds of thousands of people – perhaps as many as a million – waited in the freezing cold and driving snow to catch a glimpse of his body.  For the entire four days he lay in state there was an honour guard attending him.  At first there were eight soldiers, replaced every ten minutes.  But so many people wanted to serve – Party workers, GPU officers as well as troops – that the guard was doubled to sixteen and later trebled to twenty-four and was changed every five minutes.

The death of Tsars was traditionally attended by large-scale public displays of mourning.  But none was as large as this.  (p.501)

The mausoleum was still open for viewing when we were in Moscow in 2012, but our guide was cracking jokes for his western audience about how the queues were there to make sure that Lenin was actually dead.  I bet he doesn’t do that with Russian tourists!

The study of power is always fascinating, and Lenin’s ascent to power was remarkable.  About half of the book covers Lenin’s childhood and activities before the October revolution, and the second half covers his period as leader until his death in 1924 aged only 53.  There is also a helpful summary of the principal characters at the back of the book in case the reader loses track of the names, there are detailed notes for every chapter, there is a comprehensive index and there are some startling photos.  It is an indication of Lenin’s continuing significance that the cover of this book is just an image of Lenin – no name is needed.

Lenin the Dictator is also reviewed at Inside Story.

*There was, for example,  a sarcastic remark about Churchill on page 448 – admittedly a man with plenty of flaws as the historical record shows, but sarcasm is a bad look in a bio, IMO.   And I was just a little bit doubtful about Sebestyen’s certainty in attributing the order to kill the Tsar to Lenin, when he  himself says:

There is no paper trail proving that Lenin gave the orders to kill the tsar.  It is unlikely that he would ever have signed such a warrant, and even if he had, he would surely have covered his tracks most carefully.  Even if any evidence had existed, the Soviet magnates who succeeded him would have destroyed it.  But there is no doubt that Lenin gave the order – almost certainly verbally to his then second-in-command, Sverdlov, and probably at a meeting in the Kremlin on 12 July 1918.  The timing and details were left to others – Sverdlov and his henchmen – but the decision to kill all the Romanovs and to do so in secret was Lenin’s.  It is likely that apart from Lenin and Sverdlov, most of the Red magnates did not know the murders had taken place until two days after they had happened. (p.401-2)

Sebestyen goes on to record a meeting at which the execution of Nicholas Romanov was announced by Sverdlov, and Lenin’s equanimity at the announcement.  This doesn’t prove anything since we all know that contentious issues are often thrashed out behind closed doors, and it beggars belief that – whether acting on Lenin’s orders or not – Sverdlov would have announced it without briefing Lenin in private first.

In later paragraphs Sebestyen says that in previous discussions about the fate of the Romanovs, Lenin had played along with the idea of a show trial but prevaricated. 

All the time he and Sverdlov had known the fate they envisaged for the Emperor; it was a question of how and when his execution would take place and whether Nicholas alone would die.  Lenin had no conscience about regicide. To him, the Tsar was a ‘very particular class enemy’ and the Romanovs were a ‘300-year-old disgrace’.  His dilemma was fear of what the Germans and Kaiser Wilhelm would do if the Bolsheviks murdered his cousins. He wasn’t at all worried about popular opinion inside Russia.  He was sure that few people cared what happened to the Tsar and his family (p.403-4)

Well, maybe, but the endnote seems to suggest that this certainty about Lenin’s responsibility for the executions depends mostly on a conversation that Trotsky subsequently had with Sverdlov and recorded in his diary.  (Though there are two other sources referenced and of course I haven’t read them.  They are both recent post-Soviet era books so they are secondary sources not primary sources like the diary).  Given that the Trotsky-Lenin relationship was hostile at different times, and that this information comes third hand, the evidence looks a bit flimsy to me.  It’s also quite possible that Sverdlov or the bunch of drunks who actually did the deed acted without authority and that Lenin may have had no option but to sanction it afterwards because he would have looked a complete fool if he didn’t.

However, my slight doubts about Sebestyen’s interpretation of events on this matter doesn’t detract from my opinion that this is an excellent biography, and well worth reading!

Author: Victor Sebestyen
Title: Lenin the Dictator, an intimate portrait
Publisher: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2017, 569 pages
ISBN: 9781474600453
Source: review copy courtesy of Hachette

Available from Fishpond: Lenin the Dictator: An Intimate Portrait

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 22, 2017

2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards winners

Here are the winners of the 2017 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, announced tonight at the Sydney Writers Festival and highlighted in bold below.

Update, the next day: Do read Jonathan Shaw’s account of the awards night, it’s terrific.

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction

“Vancouver” #3 in the series Wisdom Tree by Nick Earles (I read the first two in the series but lost interest after that) Update, the next day: Obviously I should have kept reading them because Vancouver won the People’s Choice Award!

“Their Brilliant Careers: The Fantastic Lives of Sixteen Extraordinary Australian Writers” by Ryan O’Neill, see my review

“The Museum of Modern Love” by Heather Rose, see my review (IMO this is the standout title for the prize).

“Where the Light Falls” by Gretchen Shirm, see my review

“After the Carnage” by Tara June Winch, see my review

“The Natural Way of Things” by Charlotte Wood, see combined reviews

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing

“The Memory Artist” by Katherine Brabon, see my review

“Letters to Pessoa” by Michelle Cahill, see Karenlee Thompson’s guest review

“Dodge Rose” by Jack Cox, see my review and Alys Moody’s at the Sydney Review of Books

“Our Magic Hour” by Jennifer Down, see Elly Verranti’s review at SMH

“Portable Curiosities” by Julie Koh, see collected reviews at Koh’s website

“The Bonobo’s Dream” by Rose Mulready, see my review and Daniel’s review at All the Novellas

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction

“Everywhere I Look” by Helen Garner, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums

“Talking To My Country” by Stan Grant, see my thoughts here (it’s not really a review)

“The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft” by Tom Griffiths, see my review and Jim Davidson’s review at the SMH

“Avalanche” by Julia Leigh, see Lara Feigel’s review at The Guardian

“Our Man Elsewhere: In Search of Alan Moorehead” by Thornton McCamish, see Richard Trembath’s review at The Conversation

“Prince of Darkness:The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street’s First Black Millionaire” by Shane White, see Elizabeth Elliot’s review at the American Historical Association

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry

“Ghostspeaking” by Peter Boyle

“Burnt Umber” by Paul Hetherington

“Breaking the Days” by Jill Jones

“Fragments” by Antigone Kefala

“Firebreaks:Poems” by John Kinsella

“Comfort Food” by Ellen Van Neerven

Ethel Turner Prize for Young People’s Literature

“Elegy” by Jane Abbott

“The Ghost by the Billabong” by Jackie French

“The Sidekicks” by Will Kostakis

“One Thousand Hills” by James Roy and Noël Zihabamwe

“The Boundless Sublime” by Lili Wilkinson

“One Would Think the Deep” by Claire Zorn

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature

“Magrit” by Lee Battersby, illustrated by Amy Daoud

“Something Wonderful” by Raewyn Caisley and Karen Blair

“Desert Lake” by Pamela Freeman and Liz Anelli

“Iris and the Tiger” by Leanne Hall

“Figgy and the President” by Tasmin Janu

“Welcome to Country” by Aunty Joy Murphy and Lisa Kennedy

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting

“The Hanging” by Angela BEtzien

“You and Me and the Space Between” by Finegan Fruckmeyer

“The Drover’s Wife” by Leah Purcell

“Ladies Day” by Alana Valentine

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting

“The Code, Series 2 Episode 4” by Shelley Birse (joint winner)

“Sucker” by Lawrence Leung and Ben Chessell

“Down Under” by Abe Forsythe (joint winner)

“The Kettering Incident Episode 1” by Victoria Madden

“Afghanistan: Inside Australia’s War” by Victoria Midwinter Pitt

“Cleverman, Episode 5 ‘Terra Nullius’” by Michael Miller

Multicultural Award NSW

The Hate Race” by Maxine Beneba Clarke, see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums

“Offshore: Behind the Wire on Manus and Nauru” by Madeline Gleeson, see Fiona Capp’s review at the SMH

“Not Quite Australian; How Temporary Migration is Changing the Nation” by Peter Mares, see Morag Fraser’s review at the SMH

“Of Ashes and Rivers that Run to the Sea” by Marie Munkara, see my review

“Promising Azra” by Helen Thurloe, see Natalie Salvo’s review at Natalie Salvo’s Portfolio

“The Fighter: A True Story” by Arnold Zable, I couldn’t find a review of this except at the paywalled Australian.

NSW Premier’s Translation Prize

J.M.Q. Davies, translator of (amongst others) Slaves in their Chains by Konstantínos Theotókis, (on order from Fishpond)

Penny Hueston, translator of (amongst others) Little Jewel by Patrick Modiano

Jennifer Lindsay, translator of Indonesian non-fiction and especially Tempo, see this article

Royall Tyler, see this article at Wikipedia for a list of works translated

Multicultural NSW Early Career Translator Prize

Jan Owen

Christopher Williams

Indigenous Writer’s Prize – Biennial prize next awarded in 2018

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 22, 2017

Treading Air, by Ariella Van Luyn

It seems to me that there are two kinds of historical fiction…

Firstly, there is the genuinely escapist read in the Jean Plaidy tradition, i.e. aristocrats and the serving class in a long-ago world, with the star-crossed lovers and political intrigues that belong there.  The egalitarian nature of Australian society makes this a tricky genre for Australian authors, because they have to draw on hierarchical societies remote from our own, but Elisabeth Storrs has done so successfully with her Tales of Ancient Rome trilogy.

Though I enjoy escapist reading occasionally, more interesting to me is the historical novel which aims to shine a light on some aspect of past life,  (including a sub-genre based on a real life which I’ve tagged Rescue A Woman from Oblivion).  Australian examples of these from my recent reading include The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley about the forgotten wife of John Gould (see my review); Jill Blee’s novels about the Irish in Australia; Crimes of the Father by Tom Keneally which explores clerical child abuse (see my review); and Long Bay by Eleanor Limprech based on the true story of a woman gaoled for performing abortions in the Federation era. (See my review).

The injustice of a past era is a common theme in these novels, and Treading Air, the debut novel of Ariella Van Luyn, tackles it through her character Lizzie O’Dea who becomes a prostitute in Townville during the 1920s.  Based on what little is known of the real-life Elizabeth O’Dea, Van Luyn’s  story begins in 1943 when Lizzie is in the Brisbane Lock Hospital, an isolation hospital for people who have venereal disease.  Punctuated by chapters about her time in the ward, other chapters tell Lizzie’s back story about her life of poverty and limited choices, her unsatisfactory relationship with her husband Joe, and her gradual disillusionment as she fails to achieve even the most simple of her ambitions, to have a home, financial security, children and family.

The predictability of this tale of woe is leavened a little by the characterisation of Lizzie as a lusty young woman who discovers her sexuality through her clientele, but I didn’t find it very convincing.  (You can read Van Luyn’s academic paper which demonstrates how the tensions between discourses of women’s criminality and sexuality can be explored through the representations of a historical figure based on newspaper articles found in the archives here).  (Yes, this is a PhD novel). (Update: no it’s not.  Van Luyn’s unpublished PhD novel was called Hidden Objects.)

Sue at Whispering Gums liked it better than I did and the novel was shortlisted for the 2012 Queensland Literary Awards in the unpublished manuscript category. (Update: No, it wasn’t, that was the novel Hidden Objects.  I apologise for the confusion between these two novels: I read the blurb at Affirm Press and assumed that the prize-winning PhD novel was Treading Air.)

BTW I am not sure of the current relationship between Affirm Press and Simon and Schuster, the publishing firm subject to a ban on reviews because of its publication of a far-right troll peddling hate speech. I’m not into censorship but when there’s not much an Australian can do to repudiate Trump’s new America, I decided that I had enough books to read without supporting an American publisher who offends my values, so I decided not to read or review their books too.  Treading Air lists its publisher as Affirm Press, an Australian publisher based in Melbourne, and as you can see from their About page, they are in transition away from their association with S&S. But  when I googled the title to find other reviews to link to,  the first search result showed Treading Air listed on the S&S website.  However, I did not know this when I drafted this review and it has not influenced my opinion of the book.

Update: (the next day) I have had an email from Keiran at Affirm Press, clarifying this issue.  He says their relationship with S&S finished at the end of June and they are switching to Hachette.  He also says that the role S&S played and Hachette will be playing from the end of June onwards is simply a sales one. All publishing, editorial, publicity and marketing is managed by Affirm themselves – they simply get the books into stores on their behalf.  Thanks to Keiran for so promptly letting me know about this:)

Author: Ariella Van Luyn
Title: Treading Air
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781925344011
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Treading Air

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 21, 2017

A Chink in a Daisy-chain, by Phil Day

I am reading Kruso by Lutz Seilerat the moment, a chunkster which won the German Book Prize, and because it’s a bit of a challenge, I’m breaking up the reading with other books that are not so demanding.  Phil Day’s whimsical A Chink in a Daisy-chain makes an interesting companion, because just as Kruso is an homage to Robinson Crusoe, A Chink in a Daisy-chain owes a debt to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.  But it’s only 61 pages in length, and it’s absurdist and playful (which Kruso certainly isn’t).

Anna Welch in the foreword guides the journey:

Phil was beginning to get very tired of sitting by his colleague on the couch, and of having nothing to do … So begins a journey, entered via a chink in a chain of thought, as a man recalls a literary daisy-chain woven about a fictionalised girl on an imaginary riverbank on a distant golden afternoon, perhaps that of 4 July 1862.  If you follow all the links in these daisy-memory-chains, you’ll find the connections are allusive but not elusive, as long as you know your Alice.

Well, I know my Alice quite well.  I read it, and its companion Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, when I was a child,  and I reread it more than once, and we had a recording of it which we listened to obsessively (my first ever audio book!).  The narration was by the inimitable Joyce Grenfell, and I have a CD pirated from our original LP.  I can’t find any reference to this LP online, but if you don’t know Joyce Grenfell, try this video at YouTube and then imagine that wonderful resonant voice intoning Down … Down… Down. … `I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?  I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth…

All of which is to say that I have no idea how readers might enjoy Day’s deceptively rambling thoughts if they haven’t read Alice, or worse, have only encountered Disney versions of it.  But I liked it, because it’s good fun to follow the daft imagination of a creative mind.  Alice has become a middle-aged Canberran drifting through the warrens of memory, along with a disappearing cat called Hobbes, and a  colleague called Shillams, as pedantic as the White Rabbit and with a penchant for drinking home made cocktails which have the effect to which his name (reversed) gestures.  The reader instantly despises Mr S as soon as he dismisses Carroll as just playing with words.

I have categorised the book as a memoir because it draws on elements of Day’s life, but it isn’t.  It’s more of an absurdist essay so I’ve classified it as that too, alongside all those very serious Quarterly Essays.  By its very nature this little book has made me do something as absurd as trying to classify it – but it seems so mean to just leave it adrift in Uncategorised where no one will ever find it.

Its blurb says:

The book is a creative essay, cum personal reflection, on the relationship between Lewis Carrol’s Alice books, personal identity and argumentative opinion. It is the first in a three-book series Phil plans to write on the embattled nature of individual intellectual and creative autonomy.

There’s are words missing from that blurb: ‘playful’, ‘mischievous’ and ‘whimsical’.  If you know your Alice, you’ll love it.  And if you don’t, well, you really should!

Oh, and as you might expect, there are wonderful Tennielish illustrations by Day as well.

Author: Phil Day
Title: A Chink in a Daisy-chain
Publisher: Finlay Lloyd, 2017
ISBN: 9780994516527
Review copy courtesy of Finlay Lloyd

Bookshops which carry Finlay Lloyd titles can be found on the FL website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 20, 2017

The Hope Fault, by Tracy Farr

Tracy Farr is an author I discovered when her debut novel, The Life and Loves of Lena Gault was longlisted for the Miles Franklin award in 2014.  (See my review here).  The novel went on to be shortlisted for the Barbara Jefferis and the WA Premier’s awards, and it’s been published in the US and the UK as well.  The Hope Fault is her second novel.

I’ve tagged Tracy as a Kiwi in my Meet a Kiwi Author series but although she’s lived in New Zealand for twenty years, she grew up in Australia, and The Hope Fault is set in a fictional town called Cassetown in south-western Australia.  It feels like the Margaret River region on a very wet day, though the action of the novel takes place almost entirely inside a house.  But the rain begins as the extended family arrives at the weekender that now has to be packed up and vacated, and the full-on, pelting deluge persists throughout the weekend.  They can always hear it from inside guttering and gushing, sinking into the earth, wetting, muddening, all damp and glorious.  Sometimes they feel a bit anxious about the strength and intensity of this rainstorm, but their house is like an ark, with representative souls to carry on into the future, whatever the rain may bring.

A place of family memories, the house brings together for this one last time: Iris, the quiet, reliable one who stitches everything together, and her son Kurt; her ex-husband Paul, his new wife Kristin and their nameless baby; and (arriving late) Marti, the ‘life of the party’ sister of Iris.  Marti’s daughter Luce travelled down with Iris, not with her mother, for reasons that become obvious. Not able to join them is Rosa, mother of Iris and Marti, and now mute after a stroke and in aged care.  But she is not forgotten – the family is planning celebrations for her 100th birthday which coincides with Kurt’s 21st.

The novel reveals itself through expansive quotidian dialogue, and the inner thoughts of Iris, Luce and Kurt.  The reader hears the voices of Marti, Paul and Kristen (and of course the baby) but they are mostly undifferentiated family babble:

Luce says, ‘There’s got to be a ceremony.  Like a party.  You can’t just start calling her a name, after all this time.
‘Yeah, yeah, that’s the plan, Lu.  A party.  On Monday.  Here.’
‘A christening, but without the Christ.’
‘With fairy godparents.’
‘Of course.’
‘What about Jacko and Alba?’
‘What about them?’
‘They’ll be p__ off.’
‘Nah, they’ll be relieved.  They’ve been hassling us about the name ever since she was born.’
‘Since before.  Ever since we told them I was pregnant.’
‘But they’ll be p__ off not to be here.  Not to be invited.  Her only grandparents.
‘If you don’t invite them, they might show up anyway.  Like magic.  Cast a spell.  A curse. Like a pricking finger.’
‘But you never have evil grandparents in a fairy story.  Stepmothers, yes. Not grandparents.  I think we’re safe.’
Luce looks at Kristin when Iris says stepmothers, but Kristin doesn’t seem to mind.  (p.75)

But, as always, it’s the introverts who are the most interesting characters.  It’s through the private thoughts of Iris, Kurt and Luce, that the story gains its narrative drive.  For a novel where not much happens, there are surprising moments when the reader feels a sense of anxiety when characters get lost literally and spiritually, when they leave the cosy safety of the house and stumble around down at the bay, and when mobile phones reveal themselves to be as unreliable as they are.

But what I liked best about this novel was the middle section, in Rosa’s silenced voice, travelling backwards through time. This section is introduced by a fragment of poetry by Kristin Hersh:

One hundred fingerprints I hear
A hundred linger in my ear
Counting backwards I count you in.

The brief chapters – some only a paragraph – are titled ‘100 – now’; ’99. Two hours ago’.  ’98. Two days ago’, counting back the slow days in aged care but gathering speed as they reveal Rosa’s fascinating life and some family secrets.  I like this because it reminds us all that people in aged care are real people with real lives and they deserve respect as well as care.  I got to know some of the residents at my father’s aged care home and they were all such interesting people who taught me things I didn’t know.  One of my favourites was Zeila who loved to dance and had been a make-up artist for brides in Sri Lanka.  She laughed wryly when I said how nice it must have been to be working with people who were happy on their wedding day, and corrected me.  No, they were crying, she said, because they were arranged marriages and the women did not want to marry the groom.  Our assumptions are so often wrong…

The cover design is by Nada Backovic, and it is just perfect for this wise and illuminating novel.

PS (an hour later) Oops, I almost forgot to mention the title… (and *smacks forehead* I had bookmarked it especially!)

Kristin finds a book of poems in the bedroom, and has this to say:

‘The poems are good.  They’re beautiful, simple.  He was – it turns out – a scientist.  A geologist.  The centre of his book of poems is a haiku based around this idea of fault.  But it turns out to be a literal fault, a geological one, that he worked on as a young student, as a geologist. (p. 66)

Tracy Farr has structured this book around a fault line too, with fractures that mirror geological fault lines…

Author: Tracy Farr
Title: The Hope Fault
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2017
ISBN: 9781925164404
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Hope Fault or direct from Fremantle Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 16, 2017

2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards

The 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards were announced today.   Below is the shortlist and (thanks to Twitter #Ockhams) the winner in each category  is highlighted in bold.

The Wish Child Love as a StrangerBilly Bird The Name on the Door is Not Mine


  • Can You Tolerate This? by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press)
  • This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art by Anthony Byrt (Auckland University Press)
  • My Father’s Island by Adam Dudding (Victoria University Press)
  • The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840-1920 by Ben Schrader (Bridget Williams Books)


  • Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933-1953 by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press)
  • A History of New Zealand Women by Barbara Brookes (Bridget Williams Books)
  • New Zealand Wine: The Land, the Vines, the People by Warren Moran (Auckland University Press)
  • Ann Shelton: Dark Matter, edited by Zara Stanhope and managing editor Clare McIntosh (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki)


  • Fale Aitu | Spirit House by Tusiata Avia (Victoria University Press)
  • Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird (Victoria University Press)
  • Fits & Starts by Andrew Johnston (Victoria University Press)
  • This Paper Boat by Gregory Kan (Auckland University Press)

There’s some interesting commentary about the shortlist at The Spinoff.

I don’t really know what I was expecting – I only chased up this book because it was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards – but The Art of Time Travel, Historians and the Craft is such a wonderful surprise!  To describe it as a collection of portraits of fourteen Australian historians is underwhelming to say the least, yet it turns out to be a captivating book which charmed me from start to finish.

The very first historian chosen is Eleanor Dark.  Yes, the author of the much-loved novel that many Australians read at school, The Timeless Land. The choice of a novelist to lead the fray is emblematic of Tom Griffith’s approach: though Griffiths is himself a professor of history, he’s not hidebound by a formal academic definition of what historians might be, or where they might find their material, or what they do with it.  So the chapter about Eleanor Dark is a wonderful portrait of a novelist whose research and ways of interpreting it told Australians an important story about who we are as a nation.  This chapter kept making me want to retrieve my Eleanor Dark novels from the shelves and read them all over again, with fresh insights.

Curiously, Griffiths held me captive again with his next entry, Keith Hancock.  I’d heard of him, but I’d never read his stuff the way I’ve read Eric Rolls, Geoffrey Blainey, Henry Reynolds and Inga Clendinnen –  all of whom get their own chapter too.  So it was from Griffiths that I learned that ‘If there were a Nobel Prize for History,’ observed Stuart Macintyre in 2010, ‘Hancock would surely have won it.’  It was Hancock’s pioneering work of environmental history, Discovering Monaro (1972) that provoked this accolade, and by Griffith’s account of it, it’s one I want to read.  (I missed a lot of good books in the early 1970s when I was a young mother.  We had no money for books and the Seymour library wouldn’t let non-residents join.  I guess in the Vietnam years they had lost a lot of books to soldiers passing through via Puckapunyal, but it was the only time in my life when I was libraryless, and it’s a good thing I had a small baby to amuse me instead.)

With perhaps one exception, the portraits are not uncritical homage.  Griffiths points out that Hancock was writing at the same time as the dramatic beginnings of a revolution in understanding Aboriginal Australia. 

In Canberra in the 1960s and early 70s Hancock was at the heart of an archaeological and anthropological research frontier.  But he remained trapped in his culture’s blindness about frontier violence.  Although he acknowledged the general pattern of violent European conquest, he claimed that in the Monaro, ‘as almost nowhere else, resistance and retaliation did not ensue.’  It was the classic local historian’s apologia: it didn’t happen here.  (p.17)

Well, subsequent research shows that it did, and Griffiths – while admiring his subject in general – also notes another blind spot, that Hancock overlooked the unyielding endurance of Aboriginal identity in his region.  Geoffrey Blainey gets the same objective scrutiny: admiration as a master of narrative history who can evoke the material reality of past daily life with telling detail but also a flawed and sometimes stubbornly conservative historian who

stands apart from emerging environmental narratives that undermine dominant imperialist accounts of Australian origins and which attend to our distinct geological and biological inheritance.  (p.81)

(I’ve only ever read A Shorter History of Australia (1994) which for some reason I only reviewed at Goodreads, not here, and I was so unimpressed (and bored) that I have left unread two or three Blaineys which made their way chez moi courtesy of The Spouse.  (Well, I might have read The Tyranny of Distance, (1966) but I think it’s just one of those books referenced so often it seems as if I’ve read it).

The chapter about poet and activist Judith Wright is brilliant.  Once again I wanted to drop everything and ransack my shelves: I have The Generations of Men (1959) but not Cry for the Dead (1981).  These two works, Griffiths says, written decades apart, form the substance of his exploration of Wright’s purposeful discovery of a new kind of writing:

In the 1970s Judith Wright decided that she needed history.  Wright was arguably Australia’s best known and most admired poet of the twentieth century.  From the 1940s her poems had entered the national literary consciousness.  Her early poetry was popular and critically acclaimed because of its distillation of white pioneer mythology, yet she was to become a critic of that inheritance.  When her activism quickened in the 1960s, Wright’s poetry was judged to have suffered.  One of the ways that her career has been characterised is that she sacrificed her writing for her politics; her politics stole time from her writing, but it was also perceived to diminish the quality of what writing she could do.  But I think there has been insufficient attention paid to the new kinds of writing she was doing.  The two fires, the two passions that burned within her, were art and activism, and one way that Wright came to reconcile them was to choose a different kind of art, that of history.  Poetry and activism came together to produce disciplined non-fiction.  (p.94)

In discussing these two books, Griffiths dissects Wright’s journey from a semi-autobiographical pioneer story to a lament for a damaged land dispossessed of its people.  It’s a journey that we as a nation all share, even those who choose to ignore it for the discomfiture it brings.  I am lost in admiration for the author of this chapter for his insight and the clarity with which he makes his case…

The Art of Time Travel is illuminating for non-historians because it covers interesting intellectual battles over what history is and how it might operate… The chapter about Inga Clendinnen analyses the dispute with Kate Grenville and of course The History Wars is covered too, but there was also, for example, a stoush over archaeological history, over whether the artefacts might not only speak for themselves, but should be kept free of documented history which might interfere with interpretation.  And there was disdain for public history in its early days, not just as it’s manifested in family history but also the history of public buildings and so on.  (There was a sad little aside about historians having more job opportunities outside universities than within them.  We will come to rue the latest round of funding cuts to our universities, the way the Americans rued the day they discovered that defunding language learning meant they had next to no one who could speak Arabic).

There is so much to tell you about this book, but I don’t want it to be a book you don’t need to read because the reviewer has told it all.  It’s too good for that. I’ll just tempt you more by listing the historians and their chapter names, an enticement in itself:

  1. The Timeless Land: Eleanor Dark
  2. The Journey to Monaro: Keith Hancock
  3. Entering the Stone Circle: John Mulvaney
  4. The Magpie: Geoffrey Blainey
  5. The Cry for the Dead: Judith Wright
  6. The Creative Imagination: Greg Dening
  7. The Frontier Fallen: Henry Reynolds
  8. Golden Disobedience: Eric Rolls
  9. Voyaging South: Stephen Murray-Smith
  10. History as Art: Donna Merwick
  11. Walking the City: Graeme Davison
  12. History and Fiction: Inga Clendinnen
  13. The Feel of the Past: Grace Karskens
  14. Dr Deep Time: Mike Smith

Author: Tom Griffiths
Title: The Art of Time Travel: Historians and their Craft
Publisher: Black Inc, 2016
ISBN: 9781863958561
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 14, 2017

Hinterland, by Caroline Brothers

I stumbled on this book quite by accident when I was checking Goodreads to see if Steven Lang’s new book Hinterland was there, and discovered this one with the same title, by Australian journalist Caroline Brothers, who is living and working in the UK and Europe.

Hinterland is a remarkable book.  This story of two brothers on an odyssey across Europe to find a home in the UK where they have human rights pulls at the heart strings, all the more so because it is based on an awful truth.  Of the hordes of refugees descending on Europe and the UK, hundreds are unaccompanied minors.  In the back of the book where she tells of the genesis of the book, Caroline Brothers explains how her characters Kabir aged eight, and Aryan aged fourteen, are a composite of children she has met and who told her their stories.

The story begins as the boys cross a river into Europe on a journey that began in Afghanistan.  Escaping the Taliban, they have made their way through Iran and Turkey, and are now at the unwelcoming border into Greece.  They have nothing but the two layers of clothing on their backs, clothing which is needed for the nights when they have to sleep out in the open.  This odyssey means that they are often unimaginably cold, hungry and dirty, and always terrified of being caught and sent back.  What keeps them going is the mantra that Ayran has taught Kabir: Kabul-Tehran-Istanbul-Athens-Rome-Paris-London, places that have been memorised as the pathway to a new life.

The characterisation is very good.  Most of the story is narrated through the perspective of Aryan, making the reader aware of his doubts and fears, his protectiveness towards Kabir, and his occasional irritation with his little brother and the overwhelming responsibility he has to bear.  It is Aryan who has to take the initiative when they arrive somewhere new and encounter unexpected difficulties.  It is he who must decide who to trust and who to fear.  He doesn’t always get that right, and Kabir doesn’t always listen, and some terrible things happen when the adults they encounter are exploitative and cruel.

The author captures the reality of a Europe that we mostly never see in economical prose and a poetic sensibility:

‘This is where I leave you,’ the boy says.  He wears a Turkish evil eye symbol on a leather cord around his neck and rarely meets their gaze.  With his one dextrous hand, he lights a cigarette and the molten tip of it burns a hole in the icy air.

‘Make for that tall tree – can you see it? – just before the river bends,’ the boy says in halting English.  Aryan thinks they must be almost the same age. He follows the boy’s finger; he can just make out the skeleton of an oak in the residue of light.

‘When you get there, cut the [inflatable] boat like this.’  He makes slashing movements with a pocket knife in the air.  ‘Turn it over and sink it.  Then if they find you, they can’t send you back.

‘After that you climb the embankment to the road.  When you get to the wall, keep low.  Wait till you hear the truck stop.  You must not speak.  Come out only when the driver gives the word.’

With his good hand, the boy undoes the rope that ties the first to the second boat and ushers them aboard.

‘How long till the truck comes by?’ somebody asks.

The boy shrugs.  ‘Just wait till it comes,’ he says.  His features are gaunt in the darkness that settles on their skin like ash.  ‘I go now.  Remember, if you get caught, you have never seen me.  If you get sent back, we’ll take you across again.’ (p. 7)

For those of us who have travelled across Europe by intercity train, the journey of these two children is all the more extraordinary.  The idea of children dealing with the seething crowds, the indifferent ticket sellers, the confusion of platforms and signs – all in languages these kids don’t speak – is difficult to imagine and yet this is the reality, complicated further by the ever-present fear of capture by the authorities.   This story is derived from the true stories of unaccompanied minors who traverse a universe that is at best indifferent to them, but is more often hostile and pragmatic.  Few people in this story take pity on these kids, and the authorities never do, seeing them merely as a problem that needs to be removed further back to where they came from.  Shockingly, the violence of tear gas and truncheons is sometimes used in official efforts to get rid of the unofficial ‘camps’ that spring up in parks and deserted areas near staging points in the journey.

This is an important book, with an ending that will haunt all but the most heartless.

Author: Caroline Brothers
Title: Hinterland
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2011
ISBN: 9781408830352
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Hinterland

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 12, 2017

Dodge Rose, by Jack Cox

Regular readers know that I am making my way through James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and have begun to recognise aspects of it that have made their way into other works of fiction – but I never expected that reading it would be good preparation for reading Jack Cox’s Dodge Rose, recently shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for New Writing.  The opening lines only hint at what lies in store:

Then where from here.  When the train rolled over a canopied bridge the eyes of the boy in the opposite seat opened and closed to the broken sun but he dozed on. His head was rocked against a woollen sleeve.  Eliza had stretched her legs out in the space beneath his feet and now she crossed them and pressed her thumbs to the bundle in her lap.  The shoes above hers swung back and forth like pendulums staccato lights between the shadows that beat through the carriage through the bridge but for all his moving parts the boy remained oblivious and his brief eyes gave back nothing but the wrong end of his reveries.  Eliza yawned and turned towards the window.  Before wide green plots the spokes of the canopy blew past, then they were gone. (p.1)

I will say at the outset that there is much about this book to like but also much that puzzled me.  I suspect that re-reading would reveal some answers, but that clever as this work of fiction undoubtedly is, I did not like it enough to want to re-read it now even if I could.  (It is due back at the library).  It might, however, be a book that niggles away at me demanding to be re-read in the way that Ulysses did, (and still does although I’ve now read it four times).  Dodge Rose might be the brave start of a great author’s career.

Or it might, as others have suggested, be a prank written to prove a point …  In fact, I was quite surprised to see from the photo at the ABC RN Books and Arts page that Jack Cox is actually a real person… because I had wondered, thoughts triggered partly by the allusive names of the title and its author, and partly by my adventures in reading Mud Map, Australian Women’s Experimental Writing whether Dodge Rose was written by a women’s collective.  I can only rationalise this intuition by noting that feminist issues of power and agency jostle for dominance throughout the book.  (Yes, I realise that men can be feminists too).


There are two narrators to deal with: the first is ostensibly Max (Maxine), a woman who (eventually) tells us that she was in childhood described by her parents as a bit mentally retarded.  But by page 5 the reader knows something is amiss anyway.  I have recorded in my journal that Max’s memory is awry: Is she odd? Stoned?  Lying?  She doesn’t remember how the lynx or I go there.  Does she, substituting candlestick for the word phone have dementia?  But as can be seen from the opening paragraph, this narrator also relates Eliza’s journey to Sydney, which took place before they met…

Whatever about that, Eliza as Power of Attorney for her mother, is there to sort out her estranged aunt Dodge’s estate.  She was not expecting to find Max in situ, and Max as an apparent adopted child of Aunt Dodge is not the only surprise.  The complex legalities which ensue lead to a labyrinthine discourse on property law from page 38 to 56.  I tired of this after four or five pages, reverting to scanning to get through it, so I am indebted to Alys Moody’s review at the Sydney Review of Books for her insights about it:

… a lawyer explains to the women the complexity of the Australian property system, a complexity that is born of the attempt to import and apply the British doctrine of tenures and estates to the newly colonised Australian land. As the lawyer explains, such a system was ‘worse than buttered mackerell for the settlement in New South Wales’.


The problem as this lawyer explains it is not just that Dodge never owned her apartment, but that the whole concept of property ownership is stunningly precarious in an Australian context, built on the anachronistic application of property rights deriving from a feudal society to a newly colonised land. At stake, then, is not just the question of whether Max and Eliza can inherit property from Dodge, but the larger and more anxious question of whether and how Australia can inherit the frameworks and structures of British property law, the principles that make property real and that order the Australian land into a European possession.

This anxiety about grafting British frameworks onto the Australian landscape is a quintessentially settler colonial concern. It gestures to the unspoken illegitimacy of the colonial project.

Characterisation is not a feature of this book, but I found that I liked Eliza less when she discovers that the estate is worth almost nothing because Aunt Dodge didn’t, after all, own the flat (Sydney real estate!!)  and there’s no money in the bank to pay the outstanding rent.  Eliza comes of a wealthy family, and when, (she thought), there was a lot of money involved, she was willing to share the inheritance with Max, dubious as Max’s legal claim might be since there are no documents to be had, not even a Will.  Nice, I thought – an ethical character standing in contrast to the pompous intricacies of the legal system which rarely offers justice, much less ethical solutions.  But when Eliza learns that the furniture (but not the fixtures) is all that might be theirs to share, she starts a hasty process to sell it before any claimants have a chance to appear.  Not so ethical after all.  Ah well…

I am making this part of the story seem more coherent than it appears at first reading.  This is not a book to read, as in curl up and turn the pages one after the other to follow a storyline of some sort.  This is a book where stopping to take notes is a good idea, so that when something crops up in later pages, the elusive cues and resonances might have found their way into the notebook.  Pages 96-7 I found incomprehensible (à la Finnegans Wake without the linguistic word play).  Here’s a sample:

Outside the traffic was building, or had been, once upon a time.  Here we go.  It’s possible you may be losing your head.  Or your hands.  That would be a decorous exergue to the principle of separation.  Offering baskets of Dead Sea fruit in a cephalophoric procession, on a pier glass.  Make way for the square world development.  What did I say about lifting apart I seem to recall that was better.  Robbed at the Foule Oke.  High above the future tumult I straightened my stockings if I hadn’t started ripping my hair out by the roots already, rhetorically.  Forget it it’s too late now. (p.96)

The second narrator (also female) makes her appearance shortly after this, on page 99.   By the memories related, she seems to be Dodge Rose herself, perhaps telling stories about her life to Max.  The era is the very early 20th century, (dated by a reference to ’09, blink and you’ll miss it) and the flat is a centre for a Bohemian crowd of theatre people.  There are shopping trips to Sydney’s department stores, and references to the pioneering age of flight.  There is a visit to the family property at Yass, where a character called x joins them.  This anonymous naming and her subsequent relegation to the kitchen alerts the reader to her Aboriginality, which is confirmed by a reference to Wybalenna, the settlement at Flinders Island which George Robinson fatally set up as a refuge for Tasmanian Aborigines in the 19th century.

Again, I am obscuring the difficulties of interpreting the narration.  It is full of truncated sentences, run-on sentences, abbreviated speech, gaps, idiosyncratic punctuation, very long paragraphs, (deliberately) misplaced or wrongly used words.  It is distinguishable from the first narration by the absence of capital letters altogether with one or two exceptions.   The author of Dodge Rose makes no concessions to the reader at all: there is work to be done in making sense of this fiction, and I suspect that interpreting it could perhaps follow Tindall’s approach to interpreting Finnegans Wake.  He did it with a team of students bringing their combined knowledge to bear on the puzzles.  The question is, of course, is Dodge Rose going to be worth investing such time and scholarship?  Maybe just a bookgroup, eh?  A patient and determined bookgroup…

For there is also another long, very long ramble, this time about the pernicious behaviour of banks.  The Commonwealth Bank in particular, which Google tells me began operations in 1912.  This section goes from p.147 to p.160 and it is boring.  I assume it’s meant to be: this book is too clever for it to be a mistake.  It’s a parody of a style, I think, in the way of James Joyce, but Joyce knew when to stop. In Chapter 3 of Finnegans Wake can get away with a two page list of insults; he doesn’t test the reader’s endurance by making it three.

And there’s the same problem IMO, with four pages of onomatopoeia representing the smashing of a piano.  Here’s a bit of it:

j hop oepf eso po o tt te eem ens ennnna ak tg ebor e nes s ssii oos  soo ss oo (p.188)

Four pages of this, and that’s the end of the book, apart from acknowledgements including about the B&W pictures in the text.  That’s something else I didn’t understand.  Why were there six duplicates of the 1920s bathroom from Home Beautiful?  Well, one of them has a scribble on it: if it’s a game of spot-the-difference I couldn’t be bothered investing my time in peering at them.  And what is the point of the blurred image of the CBA board room?  It’s almost impossible to see what it is.

Something else: the acknowledgements also say that an earlier version of this book was submitted for the degree of Master of Philosophy at the University of Sydney.  Rousseau wrote novels like Émile to espouse his theories of education (see my thoughts here) so this snippet intrigues me.  I wonder what the Australian philosopher Damon Young who wrote The Art of Reading could contribute to a reading of Dodge Rose?

Author: Jack Cox
Title: Dodge Rose
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2016
ISBN: 9781925355611
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Dodge Rose

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 11, 2017

Asking for Trouble, by Peter Timms

The latest instalment in the politics of entitlement in the Oz literary scene is an article claiming that it’s necessary to live in Sydney or Melbourne to be successful.  It’s had more publicity than it deserves IMO, but amongst other rebellious thoughts I won’t bore you with I have now forgotten, it made me think, here we go again with the idea that literary prizes define success and therefore they ought to be ‘fair’.  Not only must acclaim be gender neutral, now it must be evenly distributed among the states and territories.  As if there were some kind of curve of normal geographical distribution that applies to literary genius…

(The Americans demanded their ‘fair’ share of the Nobels so long and so hard (and so irrationally) that the judges finally gave in last year just to shut them up, and by doing that made fools of themselves and the prize, not to mention demoralising the current literary greats of the USA).

I digress.  *chuckle* It’s so easy to do on a blog!

Tasmania.  For anyone who knows anything about Australian literature outside of Sydney and Melbourne, that’s really all I need to say to rest my case, (though I could just as easily make my case around WA or Qld or SA or even Canberra not to mention regional authors scribbling away in the Blue Mountains or Woodend et al).  But since I love our Tassie authors dearly I will indulge myself by naming some names: Richard Flanagan, Amanda Lohrey, Christopher Koch, Christy Collins, Rohan Wilson, Favel Parrett, Heather Rose, Robin Mundy, Helen Hodgman, Sheridan Hay and Karenlee Thompson.  That’s just the ones reviewed on this blog, otherwise we’d be here all day.

Every month the Tasmanian Writers Centre recommends some books to read:

Each month the TWC publishes four recommended reads on our website. Three of the recommendations are recent releases by a local Tasmanian writer, an Australian writer and a children’s writer. The fourth is a Tasmanian classic that you may not have got round to reading, or that you may not have read for a long time.

What’s more, they have a competition for giveaway books, and that’s how I heard about and won a copy of Peter Timm’s novel Asking for Trouble. (I’d just reviewed Peter Timm’s idiosyncratic In  Search of Hobart in the City South Series, so I knew I liked his style).

Asking for Trouble is deceptively simple.  Set mostly in 1950s Melbourne, the novel starts out with a crusty old narrator called Harry Bascombe reluctantly agreeing to be interviewed for a TV series investigating old crimes, and then it launches into his memories of childhood.  I loved reading this, because this was the Melbourne that existed ten years before our family migrated here.  I’ve been here so long now that people just assume I remember Menzies and the Olympic Games and the arrival of TV, but no, that was all before my time and so the rich domestic historical detail was a delight to read.

But even as I enjoyed the childhood dramas – the teachers good and bad, the friendships and the bullying, and the mysterious business of making sense of the adult world around Harry – my readerly brain was reminding me that there had been a crime, one noteworthy enough to interest a journalist over half a century later.  The pages whizzed by, (and if there were clues I missed them entirely) until suddenly the book took a darker turn with the death of Harry’s mother in a car accident.  Amid the nostalgia, this brought me up short: I had almost forgotten how many people used to die on our roads every year.  Victoria’s 2016 road toll was 291 – a terrible number for all those who loved the victims and a number that doesn’t reveal the extend of trauma among the injured – but still an astonishing reduction from 1034 in 1969, the year that The Sun News-Pictorial ran one of the most effective newspaper campaigns waged in Australia.  Declare War on 1034 was the slogan and it led to  .05 blood-alcohol laws, random breath testing and compulsory seatbelts, and by being effective, changed the mindset that road deaths were inevitable.  Since then we now target speed, drug-affected driving and fatigue, and our goal is a road toll of zero.  So it was disquieting to see how everybody in Harry’s world just accepts a violent death in a road crash, and Harry, big-noting himself among his friends, knows so much about road deaths that he is able to describe his mother’s death convincingly even though he wasn’t there.

There are other signals that Harry’s narration is not entirely to be trusted.  There’s a lot of self-justification going on which sits uneasily with the way he does rather too much blaming of others; he assumes a victimhood but doesn’t seem to mind it much; and the way he distances himself from feeling any emotion doesn’t quite seem to have been his choice as he claims.  His hard-hearted attitude towards his intellectually disabled brother is another jolt out of nostalgia, not just because – authentically so – Harry uses words that we would never use these days (such as ‘mentally retarded) but also because his father simply puts Frankie in a ‘home’ after mother dies, and they then dismiss him from their lives.  Harry never knows where Frankie was sent, or even if he is still alive, and despite his offhand and offensive way of describing Frankie, there are intimations that Harry was fond of him, and missed him, and regretted never asking his father where Frankie was.

Still, despite these hints and others that Harry is not just a curmudgeonly loner, the concluding scenes are a cunning surprise and suddenly this novel becomes a much darker exploration of the ‘innocence of childhood’.  It’s quite unsettling…

You can find out more about Peter Timms at his website.

Author: Peter Timms
Title: Asking for Trouble
Publisher: Fourth Estate, Harper Collins, 2014
ISBN: 9780732298432
Source: won in a Tasmanian Writers Centre competition.

Available from Fishpond: Asking for Trouble

If you haven’t given up on my adventures with Finnegans Wake, you might remember that last week’s post mentioned that Chapter 5 stars ALP:

the ever-changing Anna Livia Plurabelle,  who – since her husband Earwicker (HCE) is struggling with Original Sin and metamorphoses into Adam, Noah, Lord nelson, mountain or a tree –  is at different times going to show up as Eve, Isis, Iseult, a passing cloud or a flowing stream. 

She may have been mentioned in these manifestations in chapters 1-4, but I confess that up to now I haven’t paid her much attention.  It may be premature to say so, since I have barely begun with this book, but I wonder if someone has done a PhD on the way James Joyce treats women in his fiction?  I mean, Molly, yes, of course, she’s one of the most famous women in literature, but still, most of his women are afterthoughts or sidelines, and they are both temptation and trouble.  Eve is, always is, IMO, a metaphor for ‘blame the woman’.  Anyway, we shall see…

Tindall tells me that this chapter harks back to the incriminating letter in the dump in chapter one, and  the structure is simple:

First an invocation, next a litany of sorts, and then a long lecture or sermon on the text.  A dream-lecture, this analysis, like all the materials of dream, conceals and reveals at once.  (Tindall, A Reader’s Guide to FW, p. 98)

Tindall says that Joyce uses the lecture to mock literary criticism, its disciplines and pretensions so mercilessly it is hard to see how any of us can still pursue them.  (IMO he need not have worried, of all the things we lack in the 21st century, literary criticism isn’t one of them…)

He says there are lots of c18th literary references – not a century in which I’m well read.  (And what I have read, with the exception of Candide, Manon Lescaut and The Vicar of Wakefield)  I haven’t liked much.  The Tale of a Tub, Emile, Fanny Hill?  I’d just as soon not have spent my time on those, and as for Castle Rackrent and The Mysteries of Udolpho, well, let’s just say I’d be surprised if they turn up in FW).

There is a reference to a funeral, the weather and a whole lot of people, but

However important this text, it is trivial, illiterate and repetitious.  However simple it is obscure. Certainly about life, is it art?  If it stands for the Wake, it resembles by simple difficulty perhaps or by difficult simplicity. Anyway, detaining our lecturer, it teases him as the Wake teases us.  (Tindall, p.103)

The letter is signed Toga Girilis and apparently its literary style is modelled on that of Nora Joyce – unimpeded by punctuation or capitals because for Joyce such illiteracy became the heart of literature.  There’s a fifth thunderclap to look out for too, announcing another version which denounces HCE’s indiscretion in no uncertain terms.

downmindlookingated. (Penguin Modern Classics Kindle Edition, p. 113, Loc 2587).

But there are many confusing shifts of identity again… and I doubt I would have known that any of this chapter pertained to ALP if I hadn’t been told.  Joyce actually begins this chapter with two-and-a-half pages of alternative names for ALP’s mamafesta (manifesto, i.e. this letter that damns Earwicker) and I could not see the point of reading these closely.  (Like that interminable list of poets in Bolano’s  The Savage Detectives!)   (BTW the FW audio book skips these pages of alternative names too so I did not feel guilty).

Campbell OTOH recommends the reader to make herself familiar with  Sir Edward Sullivan’s description and analysis of The Book of Kells, and particularly its reproduction of the “Tunc page”.

The Book of Kells, ‘Tunc page’ (Wikipedia Commons)

The Book of Kells, a magnificently illustrated sixth or ninth century Irish Psalter, was buried like our letter, to protect it from the invading Danes, and was dug up again, centuries later, very badly damaged.  The meticulously executed, unbelievable intricacy of the profoundly suggestive ornament of this monk (sic) work so closely resembles in its essential character the workmanship of Finnegans Wake that one is not entirely surprised to find Joyce describing the features of his own masterwork in language originally applied to the very much earlier monument of Celtic art. The Tunc page of the Book of Kells is devoted entirely to the words ‘Tunc crucifixerant XPI cum eo duos latrones (Matt xxvii, 38) i.e. ‘Then there were two thieves crucified with him’.  The Greek XPI (Christos) is an interpolation.  The illumination is an astonishing comment on this text, strangely suggestive of pre-Christian and oriental symbols.  The reader of Finngans Wake will not fail to recognise in this page something like a mute indication that here is a key to the entire puzzle: and he will be the more concerned to search its meaning when he reads Joyce’s boast on p 298 ‘I’ve read your tunc’s dismissage’. (Campbell, p.101)

Alas, I don’t happen to have Sir Edward’s analysis, and what’s more, dear readers, I must confess #EpicFail that my most diligent perusal of Wikipedia’s reproduction of this Tunc page  has not resulted in any recognition of a potential key to the entire puzzle.  (But next time I am in the Trinity College Library I will be sure to ask the guide to flip the pages over for me so that I can have a proper look and will let you know what I find).

However, Campbell provides the opening words of Sullivan’s study and then shows how Joyce parodied it.  Anyone familiar with Ulysses knows how clever Joyce is at doing this sort of thing, but here in FW the texts that he parodies are so much more obscure, it’s rare for me to get the joke.

But I did get this one:

The unmistaken identity of the persons in the Tiberiast duplex came to light in the most devious of ways. The original document was in what is known as Hanno O’Nonhanno’s unbrookable script, that is to say, it showed no signs of punctuation of any sort. Yet on holding the verso against a lit rush this new book of Morses responded most remarkably to the silent query of our world’s oldest light and its recto let out the piquant fact that it was but pierced butnot punctured (in the university sense of the term) by numerous stabs and foliated gashes made by a pronged instrument. These paper wounds, four in type, were gradually and correctly understood to mean stop, please stop, do please stop, and O do please stop respectively, and following up their one true clue, the circumflexuous wall of a singleminded men’s asylum, accentuated by bi tso fb rok engl a ssan dspl itch ina*, – Yard inquiries pointed out → that they ad bîn “provoked” ay Λ fork, of à grave Brofèsor; àth é’s Brèak – fast – table; acùtely profèššionally piquéd, to=introdùce a notion of time [ùpon à plane (?) sù’ ’ fàç’e’] by pùnct! ingh oles (sic) in iSpace?!   (Penguin Modern Classics, Kindle Edition, p. 123-4, Loc 2749-2767).

*bits of broken glass and split china

My Folio edition, as I’ve said before, has illustrations and the picture for this chapter is on their website (it’s the third image).  It shows a hen scratching among ‘a middenhide hoard of abjects’ […] foraging for a record of the past. Because this chapter is about writing,  writing thithaways end to end and turning, turning and end to end hithaways writing and with lines of litters slittering up and louds of latters slettering down, the artist John Vernon Lloyd shows the hen finding the tea-stained letter and a quite everwaylooking stamped addressed envelope’ and there is a writer’s hand with a quill, and letters from the alphabet.   But there are other symbols too that I am starting to recognise: the Wellington monument, Humpty Dumpty’s Wall (with an image of Christ crucified within it, to reinforce the idea of the Fall of Man) and bits and pieces from the museyroom too.  However there are also insects: a fly, a centipede and a beetle – and I have no idea why they are there.

So on to Chapter 6!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 10, 2017

Vale Rosie Scott (1948 -2017)

I am sad to pass on the news that Rosie Scott has died of brain cancer this week.

Rosie Scott, A.M. was a writer who believed in the political power of words.  She was an active member of Sydney PEN and served on the board and executive of  the Australian Society of Authors (ASA) for ten years.

She was a teacher and a mentor, a poet, a playwright and an award-winning novelist with six novels to her credit:

  • Glory Days (1988)
  • Nights with Grace (1990)
  • Feral City (1992)
  • Lives on Fire (1993)
  • Movie Dreams (1995)
  • Faith Singer (2003)

Her most recent work was focussed on human rights. She co-edited with Tom Keneally two anthologies about refugees and asylum seekers

  • Another Country (2004)
  • A Country Too Far (2014)

and with Anita Heiss in 2015 she co-edited The Intervention Anthology (see my review).

The citation for her Order of Australia Award is for her significant service to literature as an author and to human rights and inter-cultural understanding.

Australia needs people like Rosie Scott.  She will be sadly missed.

It’s no coincidence that I’m reading this book: Series 6 of Un Village Français has just become available, and I am binge-watching Series 1-5 before we watch the very last of the series.  This brilliant French TV program interrogates the period when France was under Occupation, and the village of Villeneuve is right on the border with collaborationist Vichy France.  It’s a series which defies easy judgements, and as Wikipedia says:

Both main and supporting characters’ individual loyalties, friendships, morals, and family ties are routinely put to the test as a result of greed, hunger, violence, anti-Semitism, power struggles, and unseen events occurring during World War II as the village’s resources and manpower are increasingly diverted towards supporting the German war effort.

The very interesting aspect of recent French efforts to deal with this difficult part of their history, is that it is being said that one of the reasons for the defeat of Marine Le Pen in the  French presidential election is that many French people feel distaste for her far-right political party, the French National Front,  because it is tainted by Holocaust denial and its support for anti-Semitic activities in Vichy France.  Events that took place more than half a century ago still resonate…

No Place to Lay One’s Head is a memoir of a Polish Jew caught in Vichy France when the Germans were rounding up the Jews for deportation to the death camps.  Born in Poland, Françoise Frenkel had been a bookseller in Berlin, running a very successful French-language bookshop with a notable clientele.  But as things became more and more impossible under the Nazis, she had to leave it all behind and flee to Paris, and from there she had to keep moving from place to place in order to avoid capture.

As in the TV series, we see the honour and resolve of the French people tested as more and more Jewish people need their help.  There is a moment in Un Village Français when Sarah, a secular Jew, confronts the Mayor, Daniel Larcher with the unpalatable truth: that if the collaboration were only supported by awful people it would fail, but it is accepted by the townsfolk because he, widely liked and respected, supports it and tries to make it work in the interests of peace.  Well, in Vichy France there were those who would easily denounce Frenkel, and those who risked their own safety to provide a hiding place, and there were also those who did not like the collaboration but went along with it for the sake of peace.  Reading a memoir like this makes each of us wonder what we might have done in the same situation.

No Place to Lay One’s Head is a calm, reflective work, written in 1943 shortly after Frenkel had illegally crossed the border into neutral Switzerland.  It was first published in September 1945 and then it slipped into obscurity.  It has only recently been rediscovered and published in English translation.  But Frenkel is no Irene Nemirovsky – her style is entirely different.  Nemirovsky – who was murdered by the Nazis in Auschwitz – was a successful novelist before the war and became internationally famous when her Suite Française was discovered by her daughters in 1998 and published posthumously in 2004.  But Frenkel was not a professional writer, and she was not writing fiction in ignorance of what was about to happen.  Her story is written out of the bitter refugee experience, but it is understated and singularly unemotional as if she was repressing her feelings while recording the facts of her experience.  Research has shown that Frenkel’s husband was deported from Drancy and murdered at Auschwitz in 1942 but she never mentions him, not even when describing the good times in Berlin when he ran the bookshop with her.  She had family in Poland too, but she mentions them only to say that her despair knew no bounds.  She meets up with cousins briefly in Vichy but loses touch with them when they return to Belgium after the armistice, and we hear no more about them.  Of her friends in Berlin she says next to nothing as well, yet we see as the memoir progresses that she makes friends while on the run and cares about these people enough to keep an eye on their survival.  The dossier and chronology at the back of the book show that she disappeared into obscurity after the war with nothing much known about her until her death in 1975.  One can only hope that she found peace in her latter years.

From Paris Frenkel made her way to the town of Avignon and was charmed by its sleepy peacefulness.   But the reality of war is that food is short, transport is in chaos, and the prospect of receiving a letter at the post office becomes a beacon of hope:

The post office served not only as the major form of contact with the world, the miraculous invention that channelled the voice of somebody who had disappeared, an appeal, a response, it also served to fill the overwhelming hours of emptiness.  It replaced the solitude with vague hope and created a form of human solidarity among those gathered at the counter. […]

The loneliness of those weeks was a dreadful burden evident on faces at the station, at the post office, on park benches, on café terraces, everywhere. (p.59)

Before long, peaceful Avignon is full of soldiers – demoralised wounded and demobbed French soldiers, and German officers strutting through the streets.  Queuing for food begins, and the endless checking of identity papers takes on a macabre significance.  Travel is prohibited without a safe-conduct pass, and these are denied to foreigners like Frenkel.  Some circumvent these restrictions with marriages of convenience, and Frenkel gets round it with the help of French friends and sets off for Nice.  At this time (1940)  the Germans are in the ascendant and all the news is bad as they occupy one country after another.   Guests at the hotel discuss the situation with varying degrees of acceptance and sometimes very little sensitivity to the refugees among them.

As for the refugees, they did not participate in discussions.  Offended by these indirect attacks, they would confer with each other about the possibility of a change of hotel and atmosphere; but politics was being discussed everywhere, and equally vehemently.

When they thought of the persecution rife in so many other countries, their own lives seemed almost enviable, and they would fall silent.

Pride was no longer appropriate. It was an inaccessible luxury, even for the French at that time.  (p.81)

But persecution pursues Frenkel as it pursued other Jewish people throughout Vichy France.  Things become more and more difficult, and hiding in confined spaces made me realise afresh how disciplined people like Anne Frank had to be to live in confined silence for months and years on end.  The story of Frenkel’s eventual escape over the border after successive attempts is heart-stopping, but it ends abruptly with these words:

The Swiss soldier walked on ahead of me, unobtrusive, carrying the pitiable bundle of belongings that had been my companion on my successive attempts to flee.  In it was everything I had taken with me from France, save my grieving and deathly tired heart. (p.253)

Given the current refugee crisis around the world, the publication of this book is timely indeed.

Author: Françoise Frenkel
Title: No Place to Lay One’s Head (Rien ou poser sa tête)
Translated by Stephanie Smee
Foreword by Patrick Modiano
Publisher: Vintage Books (Penguin Random House Australia), 2017
ISBN: 9780143784111
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Available from Fishpond: No Place to Lay One’s Head: With a Preface from Patrick Modiano


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 8, 2017

Storyland, by Catherine McKinnon

In the blurb at Goodreads, Catherine McKinnon’s Storyland is described as an unfurling narrative of interlinking stories, in a style reminiscent of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and so it is, but I would call it ‘Cloud Atlas Lite’ though not in any disparaging sense.  Cloud Atlas was a challenging book, and not just because of its innovative structure.   Shaped by its split narratives without chapter titles or numbering the 500+page book demanded intense concentration and a good memory: it’s one of my rare 5-star novels but it was definitely not an easy read.

Storyland, while sharing the same split narrative structure, is not in the same demanding league.  The five narratives stretch through time in a way that immediately makes sense to us here in Australia, and the narrators are named as well, with a table of contents to convey the blueprint too.

Will Martin 1796
Hawker 1822
Lola 1900
Bel 1998
Nada 2033 and 2717 (huh?  The same person? How can this be?) –

The conclusions of these narratives then travel back in time i.e. in reverse order, starting with Bel’s and finishing with Will Martin’s. Rightly so, the pre-settlement Aboriginal presence is woven through all the narratives, which are connected by an ancient artefact and through the land on which events take place, the Illawarra in NSW.

Will Martin’s narrative derives from the true story of first contact with the Elouera and Wadi Wadi people of Dharawal country, but young Will, although excited by his role as an explorer with Bass and Flinders, can’t foresee its historic importance.  He, a cabin boy in the company of officers with whom he can never forget his lower status, only knows that the future can’t be foreseen. Thanks to Baneelong, a senior man of the Eora people of Port Jackson in Sydney,  Will can name the stars in two languages and this puts his travels into a new perspective:

Now I gaze up at the stars and moon every night and, moreover, speak them in two languages, where once I did not give thought to them at all.

Now I know how big the world is.

Before, not knowing the world’s bigness meant that tomorrow looked like yesterday.

Yet knowing makes it harder to spy ahead, as now I see tomorrow as unmade and know it will always be so.  (p.33)

For Will, the journey in Tom Thumb II means a quest for recognition as well as for precious water.  It is his fault that the water container is contaminated and he wants redemption for that, but he also wants to be treated as an equal by the older men, and he wants his role in their survival and achievements recognised.  His interactions with the people he calls ‘Indians’ are marked as much by fear as by curiosity because he thinks they are cannibals, and his experience with an indigenous friend in Sydney has taught him that he cannot always discover what is fibbery with Na, as everything in this land is strange, and what appears strange may not be.  So Will is always on the alert because he finds the ‘Indians’  unpredictable and therefore untrustworthy.  He places little value on their expertise, expressing surprise that they are unwilling to trade an expertly made axe for a hat or even his shirt.  While reading Will’s narrative I kept remembering Inga Clendinnen’s illuminating Dancing with Strangers which uses the historical record to interpret First Contact events in an open-minded way that is respectful to the Eora.  Clendinnen showed that things could have been different but McKinnon stays true to history.  Fear and confusion trump tentative friendship and before long Will is preparing the shot for the officers’ muskets… while the older men are preparing their triumphalist version of the story for when they return to Sydney.

(BTW There is a children’s book by Christine Hill called The Journey of Tom Thumb II which I would be buying for my school library if I were not so happily retired from teaching!)

A quarter of a century later Hawker’s narrative takes place when settlement has extended to farms and the massacres that accompanied them.  He is a convict, bitter about how his brother in England had married his girlfriend after he’d been transported, and bitter about his prospects of ever getting a ticket-of-leave.  This narrative is also marked by a yearning for recognition: Hawker works harder than the malingerer Lambskin, who is ruining his chances of ever leaving Captain Brooks’s 1300 acres, but he’s also fed up with having to tolerate daily humiliations and the overt contempt of men who regard themselves as his betters.  But Hawker also lusts after one of the Aboriginal women… he doesn’t see the irony of his own contemptuous view of her human rights at all.

In 1900 Lola discovers that same lack of respect.  By now the shortage of white women to marry has translated into children of mixed heritage, and although Lola is a smart and determined young woman running her family’s farm since the death of her parents, ignorant men like their neighbour Mr Dempster objects to his daughter Jewell being friends with Lola and her siblings Abe and Mary.  When Jewell goes missing, it’s the adolescent Abe who is blamed because it is known that he fancied her.  McKinnon captures perfectly Lola’s sense of bewildered disbelief and outrage that men like Dempster consider themselves too good for anyone with dark skin.

McKinnon’s characterisation – and her skill at rendering voice – comes into its own in Bel’s narrative.  She is a precocious 10-year-old, who interprets her confusing world with perceptions both appropriate to her age and yet prescient.  Bel yearns for freedom and adventure too, and even thought there are strict rules it’s a great day when she and her pals escape her ‘helicopter’ parent to raft around Lake Illawarra in an echo of Will Martin’s voyage.  But there Bel and her friends meet an Aboriginal woman adrift in the cynicism of the indigenous art market.  Kristie has a boyfriend who treats her very badly and Bel becomes caught up in violence that her mother never dreamed of.

This novel doesn’t resile from Australia’s violent history: although it’s always offstage, it’s a constant thread in all the narratives.

The narrative set in the future is not just central to the structure of the novel, it’s also central to its purpose.  In telling stories linked by place, memory and special objects Storyland transcends time, connecting our Australian past, present and future.  It’s a book I really liked for the breadth of its imaginary worlds and IMO it is destined for shortlists everywhere.

You can read a sample at the Harper Collins website, and you can hear an interview with the author at ABC RN Books and Arts.

PS There are a growing number of reviews of Storyland but I liked this one at Sam Still Reading.

Author: Catherine McKinnon
Title: Storyland
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins) 2017
ISBN: 9781460752326
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Storyland

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 6, 2017

Six Degrees of Separation, from The Slap, to….

Yikes #6Degrees is back already, where does the time go?!

Hosted by Kate at Books are My Favourite and Best this month’s starter book is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas.  Having said my piece in my review, I refer you to …

Another book with the same name, Roger McDonald’s The Slap is fascinating reading.  Here, the slapped child is a firebug in a place prone to bushfire.  Dealing with this disturbed child like this is a dilemma faced by authorities all over Australia during the bushfire season.

We’ve been ‘lucky’ this bushfire season in Victoria.  It hasn’t been as disastrous as in some other years.  Memories of the catastrophic Tasmanian fires in 1967 inform Karenlee Thompson’s empathetic collection of short fictions, Flame Tip

One of Karenlee’s stories features most unusual characters: whistling kites, who hustle their prey using the path of a fire.

Medusa One Snake, large and regal and known for the pitch-perfect quality of her rising notes; Swifty, her handsome if not overly bright partner of three years; and their youngest son Scout Junior, capable of independence but not keen to branch out into the unknown. (p.46)

From birds as characters to other animals, and I am reminded of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.  Even though so many of us live in cities now, wild places still fascinate us, which is why I liked ….

Wildlight by Robyn Mundy. I just loved the way she captured the teenage girl’s horror about being out of mobile phone and internet range when her family set off to spend months on one of Tasmania’s remote southern islands.  There’s more to this novel than just teenage angst, so why it didn’t capture more attention, I do not know.

I guess some books – even some of the best – just slip under the radar.  This year’s Miles Franklin longlist brought to light a novel called Waiting by Philip Salom.  Although I don’t – can’t – read everything, I like to think that I keep up with most of what’s new in Australian literary fiction, but I hadn’t heard a word about this one, and I am waiting (pardon the pun) for my copy to land in my post box so that I can see what it’s like.

And that segues neatly into a shout out to Leah Kaminsky and her debut novel The Waiting Room. This powerful novel is about a Melbourne woman living in Israel who has to confront living without the sense of security that we take for granted in Australian cities. I’ll be going to hear Leah Kaminsky speak at the 2017 Williamstown Festival very soon:)

From a novel about the fallout over a slapped child to a novel exploring how a sense of safety isn’t something all societies can share …  that’s my #6Degrees this month!


Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 6, 2017

Seven Signs of the Lion, by Michael M Naydan

Nicholas’s tour of the museum took him from the ninth century or so nearly to his present. It was filled with history, with the labours of people from his patria’s past, with weapons of all kinds used to defend the land. While he looked closely at the various displays, each object had a story to tell. He was left with the feeling that something or some things there in that museum of antiquities would be invaluable to his quest. He just needed to keep himself open to the messages the objects might provide for him in the telegraphic language of musty time.  (p. 208)

That is exactly how I felt throughout this puzzling book.  As with most of the rest of the 330-odd pages, I waded through eight pages of description about the objects in this museum with a feeling that something would reveal the author’s purpose as long as I stayed open to the possibility.  But I remained mystified.   Because of the reference to lions in the title my antenna went on alert when Nicholas saw a lion on a flag… I paid special attention when Nicholas felt pressure in his chest when he moved away from a particular portrait… I wondered if there was a Da Vinci Code element to it all when he got to the church relics.  Were there clues I was missing??

Seven Signs of the Lion might be described as a journey of self-discovery.  A dissatisfied academic at a minor university travels from the US to the city of Lviv to unravel his conflicted feelings about his identity and Ukrainian heritage.  He is an observer wanting to belong, and he is predisposed to like everything he sees.  What amounts to a travelogue is framed around a pseudo-mystical dream where he is told to go to the city of lions where all the answers will be if he makes the journey.

Snippets, just patches of words quilted together.  Nicholas wished he could have remembered more.  In those moments right after lucid awakening, everything is clear.  Just a short time later the dream memory like a stained glass window broken by a thrown brick and fallen to the ground was now shattered in shards and losing its narrative.  You could see parts of it in individual pieces, but its wholeness was gone.  Perhaps the wholeness of it would have made more sense to him.  But then again, it was now a mystery.  Mysteries leave a trail to follow to solve and a pressing need to solve and resolve them.  And Nicholas needed to find the glue to reconstruct the shattered stained glass narrative for himself. (p. 13)

BTW I reckon this passage would make a great exercise for wannabe editors to practise on.  That second last sentence… *shakes head in dismay*.  But the passage does show how brilliant that cover art is.  Alas, I couldn’t find acknowledgement of the artist.


Where you and I just pack our bags and go check out the ancestral homeland, this Nicholas has a quest.  If I interpret it correctly, he believes that if he finds seven signs of the lion, order will be restored out of chaos, restless spirits will relax and gosh! he will be the one to sort it all out.  He is The One!  Wow, there could even be a geo-political dimension to this because Lviv is in Western Ukraine and, as we all know, there’s a civil war on the eastern border with Russia.  (#Spoiler: As it turns out there is plenty of anti Russian sentiment, but that’s as far as it goes).

Now, I am an experienced reader, and I know that there are writing styles in other cultures that require a reader’s flexibility and imagination.  Middle Eastern writing seems florid, Chinese writing involves lots of reading between the self-censored lines. European writing can have allusions to unfamiliar myths, religions, history and popular culture.  Contemporary authors can add to the complexity by playing with form, structure, style and language and by borrowings from other cultures as well.  That’s common with bi-cultural writers who are living in the US and UK.  (It’s exactly what the Irish writer James Joyce was doing when he wrote his masterworks in France).  Muddling through such creativity is part of the reading adventure, and it’s the reader’s job to adapt and make sense of it rather than criticise the book for not being similar to what is familiar.


What if the reader – who is indeed conscious of all of the above – has a suspicion that the writing is not very well done? That it’s a brave attempt at conjuring what the blurb calls part magic realism, part travelogue, part adventure novel and part love story but it just doesn’t work as a novel or even a hybrid?  I can only give my honest response here.  For me, the book doesn’t ‘work’ in any of these separate components, and it doesn’t work as a whole either.

I can’t comment on the magic realism without giving away the ending, except to say that it reminded me of student essays which traverse all kinds of plot diversions only to find themselves trapped in their own maelstrom, from which the only escape is: magic.  That is not what magic realism is about.  It’s not a device to rescue an author from failures of planning and imagination.

There’s not much to say about the adventure either.  An adventure/quest novel needs a narrative drive and this one doesn’t have it.

As for the love story… Revealingly, Nicholas likes the ‘freedom’ to enjoy the old-fashioned sexism of male-female relations in Lviv because he finds it stressful to have to watch himself with American women.  He does a great deal of observing and classifying potential women, their bodies and their clothes, and he describes their coy flirtations.  It is tedious in the extreme.  He narrows his would-be conquests down to Raya and Ada neither of whom have any personality because the characterisation is so weak.  They merely act as tourist escorts for the travelogue.

The travelogue is boring.  Lviv may well be a gorgeous place and (so Wikipedia tells me) the cultural centre of Ukraine, but this book does not make me want to go there.  Much of the travelogue is like a badly-written student essay, all description and no apparent coherent purpose, except to tell.  The museum chapter is typical.  He describes moving from room to room in chronological order as the guides direct him to do.  He describes the things in it.  He doesn’t comment that contemporary museums elsewhere are experimenting with new ways of presenting their materials, themes, interactive displays and so on, so this is an old-fashioned museum.  This might be why it’s so cheap to visit and why he’s the only visitor for most of his time there.  Although he’s a bit uneasy about a portrait removed from a coffin where it belonged, there’s nothing about the hot issue in museums today: giving back – and getting back – stuff that’s been appropriated from other countries, surely an issue given Lviv’s history as a city so often under conquest.   I’d like to know why a tailors’ guild in a country miles away from Africa might have appropriated the image of a lion on its flag. But no, Nicholas the narrator spends half a paragraph on the pattern of a parquetry floor. He does that elsewhere too, in a church, briefly luring me into thinking that floor patterns would reveal some element of the quest, but no, they’re just floor patterns, like you see in buildings all over Europe.

Nicholas the narrator lectures his readers too, as if they were his hapless students.  He uses Ukrainian words (Romanised from their Cyrillic alphabet) and then – unlike other authors who use these words in context so that readers can deduce what they mean – explains what they mean in English. He literally tells us which syllables to accent in the words.  He explains cultural aspects of Lviv, in a heavy-handed way, ad nauseam.   It’s as if he feels his readers are too dim to work things out for themselves and must be told so that they don’t get it wrong.

As far as I can tell mine is the first online review of this book and it’s disappointing that I can’t find much to recommend it.  It is an homage to a city that the author clearly loves.  He obviously feels proud of this heritage and wants to share its treasures with an audience, perhaps with some urgency because of current geo-political tensions.  But while Michael M Naydan is a respected translator of Ukrainian and Russian literature, this novel is a major disappointment.

City of Lions As it happens, I have a copy of City of Lions by Józef Wittlin and Philippe Sands, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Pushkin Press, 2016).  The book consists of two essays about the same city, Lviv.  I think I might move it well up the TBR, so Seven Signs of the Lion has  at least achieved its goal of piquing my interest in the city…

Author: Michael M. Naydan
Title: Seven Signs of the Lion, a novel
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, London, 2016
ISBN: 9781911414179
Source: review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications

Available from Fishpond: Seven Signs of the Lion or direct from Glagoslav


I haven’t been able to get to the Williamstown Literary Festival for the last little while, but I’ve just bought my tickets for the 2017 festival (June 17-18) … and you can get yours too at the festival website.

There’s a wide variety of sessions to suit all tastes, but you can probably guess the sessions I’m going to.  Authors with links have been reviewed on this blog.

The cost (earlybird rates) for this great weekend is a mere $62, postage of the tickets included!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 4, 2017

The Birdman’s Wife, by Melissa Ashley

I wanted to like this novel with its gorgeous cover and superb design, but contrary to my expectations, I made rather heavy weather of The Birdman’s Wife.  It’s been shortlisted for the General Fiction Book of the Year in the ABIA awards, it sounded rather interesting, and it’s had good reviews, but…

The Birdman’s Wife is written in a genre that I’ve christened Rescue-A-Woman-From-Oblivion.  These women have larger-than-life husbands whose fame so overwhelms them that we know next to nothing about them.  Germaine Greer did it best with Shakespeare’s Wife (see my review) and Glenda Korporaal did it not quite so successfully with Making Magic, the Marion Mahoney Griffin Story (see my review).  It’s a difficult task for an author to undertake because, by definition, these women whose lives were overshadowed by their husbands have very little presence in the historical record.

Well, Melissa Ashley became fascinated by the wife of the famous ornithologist John Gould, and despite the frustrations of disappointing archives, her PhD became this novel, the fictionalised life of Elizabeth Gould, one of the artists who illustrated his magnificent monographs about birds of the world.

Sue Bond at the Compulsive Reader thought it was an outstanding first novel, Dorothy Johnson at the SMH admired its lyrical passages, and Tracy Sorenson at the Sydney Review of Books was impressed by the way the novel tackles the ethical issues of bird collecting while keeping the focus on Elizabeth Gould’s achievements.  It has dozens of five-star reviews at Goodreads too.

But IMO it’s much too long.  It’s nearly 400 pages and a lot of it is repetitive.  Yes, we learn about how Elizabeth Gould met and fell in love with John Gould, and how she mastered the skills to illustrate his wonderful books about birds.  We learn about her growing family, the historically significant people that she meets, the death of two of her children, her anguish about leaving her children to travel with Gould to Australia, and her experiences in Hobart and country NSW in the late 1830s.

But there’s an awful lot about killing birds, the disgusting business of eviscerating them, stuffing them and stitching them back together again, arranging them in cabinets and finally painting them.  We hear about the mess, and the smell, and we hear about it a lot.  There’s a fair bit about childbirth as well, for each of the eight children that Elizabeth bore.  Yes, there’s a great deal of detail about a woman who only lived to be 37, and IMO at times the temptation to include all the PhD research and the author’s experiences as a volunteer taxidermist should have been resisted.

Yet despite this wealth of detail I didn’t find Elizabeth a wholly convincing character.  Elizabeth narrates the novel, and while her ‘voice’ sounds authentic for the era, she has some disconcertingly 21st century moments.  She is coy about the bedroom, but she discusses contraception with her husband.  She forges a satisfying partnership with a man who in the name of science is ruthless about killing huge numbers of birds (both intentionally and also through ignorance about how to care for them), and then expresses tentative and quickly suppressed concerns about it.  She defies convention to go traipsing around the bush for her art but meekly acquiesces to a husband who objects to her portrait depicting her as the artist that she was.  The John Gould of this novel is mostly an insensitive workaholic and yet she is endlessly forbearing.  I would have believed it better if they’d had a flaming row sometimes…

But I am out of step with critical opinion, so you’d better not take any notice of me.

Author: Melissa Ashley
Title: The Birdman’s Wife
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781925344998 (hbk.)
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The Birdman’s Wife
Or direct from Affirm Press, where you can also buy it as an eBook.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 3, 2017

A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools, by Bill Laws

I haven’t finished reading this book, but I’ve got myself all excited and even though it’s a bit self-indulgent, just have to tell you about it.

Yesterday I went to an event at my local library, where Jane Edmonson of ABC TV Garden Australia fame was the speaker (and I learned a trick or two to deal with gall wasps).  The librarians had set up a display of gardening books, and I made off with A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools by Bill Laws.  It’s not a new book, it came out in 2014, but I’ve never seen it in the shops or I would have snapped it up like a shot.

This is the blurb:

A green thumb is not the only tool one needs to garden well—at least that’s what the makers of gardening catalogues and the designers of the dizzying aisle displays in lawn- and-garden stores would have us believe. Need to plant a bulb, aerate some soil, or keep out a hungry critter? Well, there’s a specific tool for almost everything. But this isn’t just a product of today’s consumer era, since the very earliest gardens, people have been developing tools to make planting and harvesting more efficient and to make flora more beautiful and trees more fruitful. In A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools, Bill Laws offers entertaining and colourful anecdotes of implements that have shaped our gardening experience since the beginning.

As Laws reveals, gardening tools have coevolved with human society, and the story of these fifty individual tools presents an innovative history of humans and the garden over time. Laws takes us back to the Neolithic age, when the microlith, the first “all-in-one” tool was invented. Consisting of a small sharp stone blade that was set into a handle made of wood, bone, or antler, it was a small spade that could be used to dig, clip, and cut plant material. We find out that wheelbarrows originated in China in the second century BC, and their basic form has not changed much since. He also describes how early images of a pruning knife appear in Roman art, in the form of a scythe that could cut through herbs, vegetables, fruits, and nuts and was believed to be able to tell the gardener when and what to harvest.

Organized into five thematic chapters relating to different types of gardens: the flower garden, the kitchen garden, the orchard, the lawn, and ornamental gardens, the book includes a mix of horticulture and history, in addition to stories featuring well-known characters—we learn about Henry David Thoreau’s favourite hoe, for example. A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools will be a beautiful gift for any home gardener and a reassuring reminder that gardeners have always struggled with the same quandaries.

Ok, it does look as if Mr Laws doesn’t know anything about indigenous tools used on this continent for 60,000 years or more, but he does credit the invention of the lawnmower to The Victa from Australia in 1950.  And let me tell you, although it is quaintly English, this book is fascinating.  Who knew that the humble tape measure had such stories to tell? Did you know that

… the original Imperial yard was based on the hand of the English king Henry I, or more specifically the distance between the distance between the tip of the royal nose and the thumb of his outstretched arm? (p.139)

Those bolshie French revolutionaries *chuckle* had to have something more suitably egalitarian (even if they didn’t quite exactly know where the North Pole was back in 1799)

 to mark the influence of the new regime, and by 1799 the decimalised metre was in place.  Gallic gardeners grumblingly adopted the metre, shrugging their shoulders at the explanation that the new metre represented one ten-millionth of the distance between the equator and the North Pole.  (The actual distance was calculated, for the time being, between Dunkirk and Barcelona). (p.140)

And did you know that according to Chinese legend, the serrated edge on the saw was inspired by the edge on a blade of grass?

But I had barely browsed through a tool or two, when I learned something that has puzzled me for ages.  Just yesterday I was chatting with Karen at Booker Talk about The Cheltenham Square Murder by John Bude, a book that interested me as you can see from my comment:

It seems I must read this one too, though crime fiction is not my thing…
I visited Cheltenham [UK] when I was very small. My older sister and I were offloaded onto a childless step-aunt while younger sister was being born. I have vivid memories of broad beans from my uncle’s garden, of seeing a calf just born, of hot chocolate and biscuits at bedtime, and of splendid cakes baked for our birthdays, blue for her and pink for me. We were sorry to go home, except for the broad beans…
And now I live in Cheltenham in Melbourne. All the streets around us have Cotswolds names: Swinden, Cobham, Evesham, and so on, and many of the houses have cottage gardens, though not so many in these time poor days, alas. But my guess is that in multicultural Melbourne, most of the residents have no idea of the provenance of the names.
We went to Cheltenham when we were in the UK in 2010 but we didn’t do a nostalgia trip, we did touristy things like visiting Gustav Holst’s house and the museum.

(BTW If you enjoy Karen’s blog at Booker Talk, don’t miss her very good news.  It made my day).

Five minutes after this conversation I opened up A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools for browsing over my morning coffee.  Now,  I had always assumed that these streets around us here were named out of someone’s nostalgia for the Cotswolds.  After all, many places all over the world are named after English places.  The Americans even have a London, which is surely ridiculous.  (It’s a town in Ohio of less than 10,000 people.) But now, thanks to Fifty Tools I know the real reason for our street names.  In the chapter about ladders, I discovered that in the 1930s the fruit bowl of England where all the orchards and market gardens were, was known as the Vale of Evesham.  *The penny drops*: and that’s when I remembered that before the land was subdivided for housing in the 1950s, our suburb was all market gardens and orchards too! (And there are still market gardens just up the road, though these days they grow mostly flowers).

A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools is a lovely book, and I should point out that it would make a lovely gift for the gardener in your life:)

Author: Bill Laws
Title: A History of the Garden in Fifty Tools
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2014
ISBN: 9781743317969
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: The History of the Garden in Fifty Tools

Older Posts »