Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 22, 2019

2019 Readings Prize Winner

The winner of the Readings prize was announced today, and I’m very pleased to share the news that Alice Robinson has won the prize with her second novel, The Glad Shout. It such a topical book, I am not surprised it won.

Read my review here and a profile of Alice here.

There were other very fine books on the shortlist as well.  Links go to Readings Bookstore.

A Constant Hum by Alice Bishop, see Kim’s review at Reading Matters

Inappropriation by Lexi Freiman, see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes

The Flight of Birds by Joshua Lobb, (update 18/9/19) see my review

A Superior Spectre by Angela Meyer, see my review

This Taste for Silence by Amanda O’Callaghan

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 21, 2019

Book Giveaway: Well-Behaved Women by Emily Paull

It is just a coincidence that Sue from Whispering Gums is running a Giveaway at the same time as me. Sue is offering a special book and event giveaway for Jessica White’s Hearing Maud.  If you didn’t rush out and buy a copy when I reviewed it a little ago, then this is an opportunity for you, but I would really like everyone to buy a copy because I learned so much about deafness from it.  For example, did you realise that a beard makes it harder for lip-readers?  We have recently made the acquaintance of someone who relies on lip-reading, and it has been so easy to modify our behaviour a little and make communication easier —but I wouldn’t have known what to do if I hadn’t read Jessica’s book.


I was contacted last week by the Margaret River Press publicist for a new collection of short stories by Emily Paull, and due to domestic issues i.e. the advent of housepainters taking over my house…


lo! I hear them in the driveaway as I write….

*Long pause*

I didn’t get round to advertising the Giveaway last week.  So here it is!

Emily Paull is a former-bookseller and future librarian from Perth who writes short stories and historical fiction. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies as well as Westerly journal. When she’s not writing, she can often be found with her nose in a book. Her debut collection Well-Behaved Women was edited by WA Premier’s Book Award shortlistee Laurie Steed (whose name you will know because of Nathan Hobby’s review here).

This is from the press release:

In Well-Behaved Women, Paull voices a chorus of characters that reveal and re-evaluate the expectations of women in Australia today—after all, well-behaved women rarely make history.

A woman grapples with survivor’s guilt after a body is found in her garden bed; an ageing beauty queen contemplates her past; a world champion free-diver disappears during routine training…

In moments disquieting or quietly inspiring, this collection considers the complexity of the connections we make—with our family, friends and neighbours, and with those met briefly or never at all.

‘In Well-behaved Women Emily Paull expertly conveys the small but cumulative acts of emotional repression women endure in order to keep the peace. With great skill and poetry, Paull draws our attention to the psychological toll that such daily concessions take. These fabulous stories will make you smile and cry but most of all, will make you angry—on behalf of all these quietly suffering and “well-behaved” women we all know so well.’—Melanie Cheng, Victorian Premier’s Literary Award Winner.


Interested?  Please add your name to the comments below, and I’ll draw the winner in a week or so.  (It all depends on how much time moving the furniture hither-and-yon allows me).

All entries from readers with an Australian postcode for delivery will be eligible but it is a condition of entry that if you are the winner, you must contact me with a postal address by the deadline that will be specified in the blog post that announces the winner.   (I’ll redraw if this deadline isn’t met).  Your postal address will be forwarded to the publisher who will then send you the book.

Good luck everybody!

PS WA readers: Emily Paull is in conversation with Bindy Prichard at the Murdoch University Library.  Details on the MRP website, where you can also find a sample chapter and book club notes.

Author: Emily Paull
Title: Well-Behaved Women
Publisher: Margaret River Press
ISBN: 9780648652113

Available from Margaret River Press and Fishpond: Well-behaved Women


I’m sure I could never run out of things to do in Paris, but I do like this little guide to some of the smaller museums that I hadn’t heard of.  It’s the perfect guide to finding museums you might otherwise miss.  And in these days of over-tourism, it’s probably a very good idea to have some of these museums as Plan B if you’ve neglected to book your ticket to the Louvre before you’ve left home.

The Little(r) Museums of Paris: An Illustrated Guide to the City’s Hidden Gems makes a great companion to Museums and Galleries of London, an Insight Guide edited by Brian Bell and Clare Peel.  On your first trip to London you do all the well-known museums, the British, the V&A, the Natural History, the Science Musuem & the British Library, and then what do you do after that?  On subsequent trips, you work through the wonderful places to go to, that you find in this guide. My edition is 2002, (ISBN 9789812347466)  but we’ve been using this book to plan our 4-5 days in London that start nearly all our European journeys, and there are still some museums that we haven’t ticked off yet.

Well, The Little(r) Museums of Paris is in the same vein.  There’s not quite as much information about the museums, but I like the way the museums are grouped in categories:

  1. Marvels and Machines: on my bucket list now is the Museum of Arts and Tradecrafts which includes the plaster model for the Statue of Liberty; and the Museum of the Cinématheque though I think it’s a shame they’re now focussing on one French film pioneer rather than cinematic history;
  2. History: we’ve already been to the Carnavalet Museum but there were parts of it we didn’t see so I’d like to go back; the Museum of the Middle Ages with the remains of some Roman Baths; maybe the Museum of the BNF (French National Library) though they say it’s closed till 2021;
  3. Architecture and Design: Le Corbusier’s apartment and Maison La Roche;
  4. Around the World: the Museum of Humankind, once used as a cell of the Resistance;
  5. Time Capsules: the Camondo Museum;
  6. Artists and Ateliers: the Rodin Museum; the Delacroix; the Museum of Montmartre and the Berthe Morisot Gallery;
  7. Stage and Page: We’ve already been to Victor Hugo’s House, but then there’s Balzac’s; Edith Piaf’s; and the Museum of Music;
  8. Science and Medicine: the Grand Gallery of Evolution (which, according to a gravestone I’ve seen in Paris, the French are inclined to attribute to themselves rather than to Darwin); the Museum of the History of Medicine; and the Marie Curie and Pasteur Museums (but you have to book in advance for that one);
  9. On the Outskirts: Monet’s house, the National Ceramics Museum and the Renaissance Museum.

That’s just a taste of what’s suggested. I can see that I shall need to make more than one trip to Paris!

The book also includes half a dozen itineraries.  They’re not very detailed, and they don’t include the all important info about which métro station to use, and only one of them suggests nearby eateries, but with the right phone apps, it’s probably not necessary:

  • Saturday in the 16th Arrondisement
  • Museums with Kids
  • A Day in the Marais
  • Plaine de Monceau
  • Sculptors Tour, and a
  • Road Trip

Essential pre-reading for travel… or just for day-dreaming…

Author: Emma Jacobs
Title: The Little(r) Museums of Paris: An Illustrated Guide to the City’s Hidden Gems
Publisher: Running Press, Philadelphia, 2019, 192 pages
ISBN: 9780762466399
Source: Personal library, purchased from The Grumpy Swimmer, Elwood, $26.99

Available from Fishpond: The Little(r) Museums of Paris: An Illustrated Guide to the City’s Hidden Gems

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2019

Girl, by Edna O’Brien

We had heard of them and their brute ways, but until you know something you do not know it. (Girl, by Edna O’Brien, p.85)

It was the kidnapping of the schoolgirls by the Nigerian Jihadist group Boko Haram that first made me disdain #Hashtag campaigns as useless.

The #BringBackOurGirls campaign flourished worldwide, with no less a celebrity than Michelle Obama brandishing her placard — yet it seems to have achieved nothing much at all except that the Nigerian government has been shamed into paying ransoms, thus enriching the terrorists.  Of the 276 girls taken, 112 are still missing and a further 100 were kidnapped and mostly ransomed in 2018.  No one has been held to account for these and other atrocities.  Advocacy for the remaining missing girls has collapsed, and the world has moved on.

Predictably, Edna O’Brien’s new novel Girl, which tells the story of one of these kidnapped girls, has been criticised.  It would be better, so it goes, if the story were told by the victim.  Or a Nigerian.  Or a younger writer.  Or somebody who’s not white.  None of these critics seem to have thought about how those alternatives might happen, or what obstacles might stand in their way.  We know from the Holocaust that it can take a lifetime to be able to articulate the horrors of brutality and oppression; many survivors are only now, in their very old age, starting to tell the stories of their childhoods under the Nazis. Do these critics seriously think that these girls from Chibok, still only in their twenties, many with babies born from repeated rape, and struggling with PTSD and the shame of being ostracised by their own people, are going to write their stories for the public?  And given the corruption and human rights abuses by the Nigerian security services, (see Wikipedia) do they really think that the fledgling Nigerian publishing industry is going to publish anything — no matter who it’s written by — that might revive the criticism of their president’s lack of action and the damage that the Chibok kidnappings did to their country’s reputation?

Of course if the notable Nigerian writers who live in the west chose to write about this issue, it would be published because their names are marketable.  Is there a book about the kidnappings by a Nigerian?  Well, yes.  Helon Habiba (who now lives in the US) wrote a non-fiction account called The Chibok Girls: The Boko Haram Kidnappings and Islamist Militancy in Nigeria in 2016.  That gets criticised too, but it was this comment in a Goodreads review by Tinea that articulates the difference between his reportage and Edna O’Brien’s work of profound empathy:

Habila gets his interview with some Chibok girls, and they repeat the same story they’ve told over and over again to all media. Habila prints it and laments the banality of this story with the same defeatism he laments the banality of bribes at military checkpoints. It seems a disservice to have trekked so far to push these girls to repeat the same story, and then to rewrite it for this book, with no context on their treatment, their wellbeing, the movement to free them, and a throwaway line dismissing the heroism of their escapes– confusing the present dullness from repetition of the story and perhaps ongoing or new traumas with banality in their heroic moments, erasing their agency and daring instead of seizing and centring it.

In contrast to Habila’s book, Irish author Edna O’Brien doesn’t write about the inept government response, the indifference of the media, or the colonialism that’s given rise to the conflicts in Africa. She writes about a girl. And this is how she begins:

I was a girl once, but not any more.  I smell.  Blood dried and crusted all over me, and my wrapper in shreds.  My insides, a morass.  Hurtled through this forest that I saw, that first awful night, when I and my friends were snatched from the school.

The sudden pah-pah of gunshot in our dormitory and men, their faces covered, eyes glaring, saying they are the military come to protect us, as there is an insurrection in the town.  We are afraid, but we believe them.  Girls staggered out of bed and others came in from the veranda, where they had been sleeping because it was a warm, clammy night.

The moment we heard Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,  we knew.  They had stolen our soldiers’ uniforms to get past security.  They pelted questions at us – Where is the boys’ school, Where is the cement kept, Where are the storage rooms. When we told them we did not know, they went crazy.  Then, some others ran in to say they could not find any spare parts or petrol in the sheds, which led to argument.

They could not go empty-handed or their commander would be furious.  Then, amid the clamour, one of them with a grin said, ‘Girls will do’ … (p.1)

Girl gives voice to the young women O’Brien met and listened to, in an unflinching portrayal of their experience yet which also depicts their concern for one another, their courage, their endurance and their capacity to seize opportunity when it arises.

Maryam narrates the story so that we feel it when she is bundled into a truck, when her friend Rebekah seizes the opportunity to jump out when there is a gap in the forest, and when it dawns on her what is about to happen.  We feel it when this girl, little more than a child herself, gives birth and has to struggle with conflicting feelings about a baby born under these circumstances.  We feel it too, when home at last in her village, her baby is taken away from her because it shames her family.  We see, and hear, and feel some very terrible things, because Edna O’Brien has told the story of these girls with all the power of her mighty pen.

As the book explains in the Acknowledgements, O’Brien—in her 80s—made two trips to Nigeria in 2016 and 2017 to talk not just with survivors who escaped, but also the people and organisations helping these young women.   You can read more about her research, and her response to the criticism that she’s not ‘eligible’ to write this story in this article at The Guardian. 

Image credit: Michelle Obama, by Michelle Obama, Office of the First Lady – First Lady of the United States Twitter account, (confirmed account), Public Domain,

Author: Edna O’Brien
Title: Girl
Publisher: Faber and Faber, 2019. 230 pages
ISBN: 9780571341177
Source: Review copy courtesy of Faber and Faber via Allen & Unwin

Available from Fishpond: Girl

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2019

Room for a Stranger, by Melanie Cheng

I’ve been thinking all day about how to write a review of this book.  Melanie Cheng is an award-winning author, and her debut novel Room for a Stranger, has been very widely praised, but although I found it mildly enjoyable, I’m not at all sure that it merits being termed a modern masterpiece

Somewhere in the plethora of reviews about the book, I saw (but now can’t find) something about it being an example of the ‘new sincerity movement’, a repudiation, it seems, of postmodernism and irony.  It is certainly written in serviceable prose, with a straightforward linear plot with just occasional flashbacks, narrated by the two main protagonists, who come from cross-cultural environments but share a deep-seated loneliness.

The story is set in ordinary suburban Melbourne, about 10km from the CBD—which puts it squarely among some now very expensive real estate.   Probably not Albert Park since there are cartoonish bungalows rather than elegant terraces, perhaps out west somewhere, like Coburg or Maribyrnong or Maidstone where houses sell for $800,000+.  As sole inheritor of her parents’ once humble estate, the central character 75-year-old Meg Hughes is almost certainly asset-rich and could downsize to a more manageable apartment, unit or townhouse and still have money left over to live a little.  But she doesn’t do this because she is inhibited by fear of change, she has let inertia take over her life and she is paralysed by lifelong shyness.  What finally prompts her to take a young international student into her home is a visit from a prowler.  Bizarrely, she thinks that taking in a complete stranger from another culture will make her feel safer.  And she thinks she would like the company.

(I know that a reader has to accept the book that’s been written, but I can’t help thinking how interesting this book might have been if Meg had opened up her home to one of the growing numbers of homeless older women. Or the scruffy but likeable couple I met yesterday when I called in at Launch Housing with a question.  Dull respectability meets Nonconformist Attitude! I think I would like somebody to write such a book).


Since the writing is nothing special, this kind of character-driven novel depends entirely on the reader becoming invested in these two characters, and that is the problem that I have.  I think readers will judge it differently depending on their age group.   Millennials and Generation X who perhaps regard anyone over 60 as elderly and past-their-use-by date may find the dawn of a May-September cross-cultural friendship authentic and heart-warming, but I think the novel paints a distorted and very melancholy picture of an older unmarried woman.  Having only very recently been reading Caroline Lodge’s Older Women in Literature project at the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative I am more conscious of the way older women are portrayed, and Meg Hughes as a pathetic and lonely old women doesn’t fit my experience of women in her age group at all.  It won’t surprise anyone my age that I have more friends living alone than in coupledom: in our age cohort there are plenty of women who’ve never married, or are divorced or widowed.  If these women have children, these adult children are often living and working far away, some of them permanently overseas.  But my friends, nearly all of them older than me and some in their 80s and 90s, would be aghast at Cheng’s portrait of Meg Hughes, who at only 75 gives up on life.  No volunteering or pensioner travel or U3A classes or competitive croquet for her!  She loves reading, but she doesn’t even hang out at her library or have any virtual bookworm friends.

(BTW please don’t make the mistake of thinking that all my friends are well-educated middle-class career women with comfortable superannuation funds. That’s not the case at all.)

It was in this frame of mind that I had to keep reminding myself that what might seem like an authentic portrait of a much older woman —because people can become socially isolated when they become frail and housebound—is a character who is only 75.  As Meg potters around her grubby kitchen in her shabby clothes and slippers, not bothering to cook for herself or to keep up the garden, with a social life that consists of a weekly coffee with a couple of women, (one of whom she doesn’t even much like), my rebellious thoughts kept surfacing.  She’s a baby boomer, who grew up in an era of Australian prosperity, and came of age amid grassroots feminist movements and the Whitlam reforms that (amongst other things) made tertiary education possible for women who’d been denied it.   Even when she makes a bit of an effort in the kitchen for Andy, she dishes up unpalatable meals that predate the 1960s Margaret Fulton revolution in domestic cooking.  Why has all this change passed her by?

It’s because Meg is crippled by a lack of self-worth, and has been all her life.  And worse than that, because she blamed herself for her sister’s accident, she has devoted her life to being the carer for her family.  For the care of her disabled sister, and responsibility for her ageing parents until they died.  Again, I know that a reader has to accept the book that’s been written but I feel this could have been an infinitely more realistic book if it had given some hint of the structural reasons why Meg has so categorically failed to take advantage of the social changes of her era.  Like a 19th century spinster in a sexist 20th century family, Meg has been assigned a role that’s crippled her life because until recently there was no National Disability Support Scheme (NDIS), and no one was caring for the carer.

There is a lot more than this to think about in Room for a Stranger.  Like many a debut novelist, Cheng tackles many issues: suburban loneliness, casual and not-so-casual racism, mental health, the clash between the expectations of international students and the reality of being treated like an independent adult, and unreasonable parental ambitions for their children.

But there are plenty of other reviews… see the list at Text Publishing’s page.

PS I can’t speak for any of the other universities, but my alma mater has been running a program for international students for years.  It’s called Welcome to Melbourne, and it pairs alumni with young students.   We have participated in this program, which begins with a meeting at the university, and then lunch or dinner in the alumnae’s homes.  We went on to introduce our Vietnamese student to Melbourne’s tourist attractions and cultural sites, to host an ironic Easter Egg hunt and two kinds of ‘Aussie Christmas’ (i.e. the indoor turkey and pudd version at my place, but also the surf’n’turf outdoor variety at my brother-in-law’s place).  We went to his graduation in lieu of his parents, and that photo has pride of place in my family room.  We are still in contact via Facebook and LOL I’m occasionally called up on for advice in matters of the heart.  Our second experience didn’t last as long, but that’s because the student managed to bring his girlfriend to Australia too!

Author: Melanie Cheng
Title: Room for a Stranger
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 271 pages
ISBN: 9781925773545
Source: Personal library, $29.99


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 16, 2019

The Palace of Angels, by Mohammed Massoud Morsi

I made heavy weather of reading The Palace of Angels, not because of any flaw in the writing, but because of its devastating subject-matter.  For my entire adult life, the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been a running sore, and whether I read Israeli authors or Palestinian ones, whether the books reinforce entrenched positions or argue for some kind of resolution, I always feel oppressed by what seems to be a hopeless situation.

The Palace of Angels consists of three linked novellas, What’s is Past is Dead; Twenty Two Years to Life and The Palace of Angels. What’s Past is Dead is a prequel: it’s about two youths trading hashish for weapons for the Palestinian side.  Their plans are reckless and naïve, but their life experience is not.  They have seen the capriciousness of death and they know, as all Palestinians know, that their side is and always will be outclassed militarily.  To fight back and assert your rights means putting your life on the line.  Submitting to the Occupation means tolerating the daily humiliations without complaint.  This region is full of volatile young people on both sides.  It’s only too easy for patience to snap, with devastating consequences.

Twenty Two Years to a Life contrasts Palestinian life with the lives we take for granted.  Fathi and Farid fall in love and marry, but they have trouble starting a family.  They save up to seek medical help, endure an exhaustive process of getting passports and visas, and finally make it to Canada for specialist help, only to find themselves stranded with little English.  They are helped by a Canadian man who recognises their plight, the irony being that they have to travel thousands of miles to get help that ought to be accessible to them closer to home.  Given the recurring patterns of violent strike and counter-strike, what happens to this little family seems inevitable but is no less heart-breaking for that…

Later on, in The Palace of Dreams it becomes clearer that life under any occupation is full of invidious choices.  Ultimately there is no choice but to choose.  Adnan, a Palestinian, falls in love with Linah, an Israeli soldier.  Their love transcends the violence and hatreds that the conflict breeds but tragedy is never far away.  Adnan’s best friend Ali crosses the line and becomes a militant, and Adnan is torn between the relative safety of doing nothing, or risking his own life to bring Ali back to his anguished mother.  And he has to choose between love and homeland, because there is no possibility of a union with Linah, not on either side of the wall.

Daily life under the Occupation is vividly brought to life.  There are daily queues through checkpoints to get to work, and everyone has to be flexible about schedules because checkpoints can close at random, with no explanation.  Or on the basis of some unspecified suspicion, there can be detention under intolerable conditions, or passengers in a bus can be made to wait in it, in the heat, all day.  Drones patrol the skies and give some warning that a weapons cache is about to be detonated, demolishing whatever building it happens to be in, at whatever cost to the occupants. Inevitably, children die.

And there is nostalgia for a time long ago when Jewish and Arab children played together…

See also the review by Ian Lipke at the Queensland Reviewers Collective. 

PS I found out about this book via the Love to Read newsletter, WA writing.

Author: Mohammed Massoud Morsi
Title: The Palace of Dreams
Publisher: Wild Dingo Press, 2019, 360 pages
ISBN: 9781925893045
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond:The Palace of Angels

The 2020 Scone Literary Festival organiser Janie Jordan has contacted me with information about a forthcoming author event in the Upper Hunter Valley in NSW.

For those who’ve never been to the Hunter Valley, let me tell you that it is a wonderful holiday destination, and combining a literary festival with some wine tourism sounds like a brilliant idea.  We were last in the Hunter in 2010 and you can read about our adventures here.

What follows comes from the press release:

New Event in Scone honours Patrick White: Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature

Award winning Melbourne-based author, Christos Tsiolkas is visiting Scone on November 16 to present the Patrick White Oration, a major new event for the burgeoning Scone Literary Festival, now in its sixth year.

Tsiolkas is the author of six novels including The Slap, which won the Australian Literary Society Gold Medal and the 2009 Australian Booksellers Association and Australian Book Industry Awards for Books of the Year. His other novels include Loaded, which was made into the feature film Head-On, The Jesus Man and Dead Europe, and Barracuda, which was made into an ABC TV drama.
The Patrick White Oration, which doubles as the launch of the 2020 Festival Program, draws on Scone’s strong literary past which includes links to Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature, Patrick White of the famed White family from Belltrees in the Upper Hunter Valley. The Nobel Laureate spent a number of years at the historic Belltrees after his schooling in England.

SLF President, Janie Jordan, said that the Festival’s new strategy to boost Scone’s literary heritage would see more focussed events. “We have strong links to not only Patrick White, but Mark Twain, Donald Horne and Judith Wright.”

She said Tsiolkas was an obvious choice for the new event: “Not only is he an acclaimed writer with many awards to his name, he has written about Patrick White.”

“It’s a huge coup for Scone to have an author of Tsiolkas’s calibre and we’re thrilled to have him in conversation with our Patron, Phillip Adams after he delivers the Oration.

Tsiolkas is expected to address contemporary Australian issues in the Oration.

The Oration, which also doubles as the launch for the three-day, March Literary Festival, is being held on November 16 at a cocktail style event with local food, local wines and entertainment at the historic Scone Arts and Crafts Hall from 5.30-8.30pm.

Tickets are on sale now for the Patrick White Oration at TryBooking  and through the SLF’s revamped website –  and in person at Hunt a Book bookshop in Scone.

Seats are limited so literary lovers and anyone wanting to support the growth of this burgeoning local festival are urged to book quickly.

For further information, please contact Janie Jordan.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 15, 2019

Author event: Emily Goddard at Parkdale Library

I don’t review theatre on this blog, but I’m very interested in the process of creating it, so I was pleased to be able to attend an author event at the Parkdale Branch of the Kingston Library Service today.

Emily Goddard is the writer, performer and co-devisor of a remarkable play called This is Eden, and, thanks to my good friend Mairi Neil,  I will be seeing Goddard in performance later this month at the Kingston Arts Centre.  (We were told this afternoon that there were only five tickets left to this performance, but there are tickets available for the Frankston performance, and maybe others too, see here for tour dates.)

Today at the library Goddard talked about the genesis of this play, which the website tells us is…

…a dark, humorous and provocative anti-bonnet drama inspired by the rebellion and resistance of the female convicts of Van Diemen’s Land.  Using the French clowning technique of Bouffon, where outcasts ridicule and provoke those in power, Goddard and Dee tread a fine line between the grotesque and charming to bring to life an extraordinary tale of rebellion and survival that has conveniently escaped our nation’s history lesson.

The talk began with an Acknowledgement of Country, which also recognised that the story of Tasmanian women convicts is only a part of a terrible era in our history which included the genocide of Tasmanian Aborigines.

Goddard then went on to explain that she had never really been very interested in Australian history as it was taught at school, and she confessed that she’d only joined her mother on a genealogical quest in Tasmania because she’d just broken up with a boyfriend.  But as she retraced her grandmother Sarah Ford’s footsteps at the Cascades Female factory in Hobart, and heard about what she had endured, she began to think about ways this story could be brought to life in performance.

Emily is a 2010 graduate of Ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris, a theatre school which teaches a style of performance called Bouffon,  which mocks those in power using grotesque satire. It seemed appropriate for dramatising the stories of the women, because they used mockery to rebel against the system.  As Goddard explained, they had plenty to rebel against.

Like many of the women transported to Tasmania, Goddard’s grandmother was a victim of poverty, hunger and malnutrition.  She was born in 1816 in Gloucester, one of six children whose father was hanged for horse-stealing.  Her brother was transported after a second offence of theft, but did not survive the ill-fated voyage of the George III in 1835, in which 133 lives were lost. Sarah and her sister followed in 1836, both convicted for stealing, and transported for seven years because it was a second offence.

Based on their behaviour en route, on arrival women were sorted into 3rd class (i.e. incorrigibles) who were given back-breaking hard labour and reduced rations, 2nd class prisoners who were on probation and expected to work their way up to 1st class so that they could be assigned to work somewhere in the colony.  Where they were sent was the luck of the draw, and many absconded from cruelty and abuse, or to be with their lovers, or were sent back to the factory because they were pregnant which was a punishable crime. (These women had to work all through their pregnancies, and then look after their own and other babies.  There was a very high infant mortality rate, higher than the rest of the population.)

The women coped with their circumstances with grim humour. There was  group called the Flash Mob which led attacks on those in authority, and performed skits that mocked the ruling classes.  Unsurprisingly no scripts survive, but the dates and content of these plays is known from the outraged reports about them.  One of those mocked in This is Eden is the Reverend Bedford a.k.a. Holy Willie, who was in charge of moral standards in the colony but had no theological training.  He was married, but was notorious for taking advantage of the women.

Goddard also explained that she hoped the play would have a wider resonance than its historical purpose, because there are parallels with the inhumane treatment of refugees. She talked about how transportation, despite the campaign against it by free settlers, offered the opportunity for a new life to the disadvantaged.  Sarah Ford married, and as an emancipist, moved to Collingwood in Melbourne, raised a family and died aged 76 in 1892.  Despite the horrors of the factory, like many others, this convict built a new life with reasonably positive outcomes.  Goddard likened these circumstances to those of modern refugees, reviled and ill-treated, subjected to great prejudice and feeling shame which makes them want to hide their stories.  She hopes that knowing more about our convict past might change our national attitudes…

PS Last week The Spouse and I went to the Southbank Theatre to see the smash-hit comedy Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui, which I reviewed during Indigenous Literature Week in July.  If you get the opportunity to see this play, don’t miss it, it is wickedly funny, and great entertainment with a subversive message about not taking identity politics too seriously.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 14, 2019

Paris Savages, by Katherine Johnson

I reserved this impressive book at the library about a month ago after I read Jennifer’s review at Goodreads and was not disappointed.  (Jennifer blogs at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large). It’s a remarkable book.

It brought three other books to mind: Jane Sullivan’s Little People which is a novel about people of short stature touring as exhibits (see my review here); Paddy O’Reilly’s The Wonders which exposes the morbid curiosity that lies behind not just the freak shows of the 19th century but also those contemporary ‘human interest’ stories that feature disabled people (see my review here); and Anouk Ride’s The Grand Experiment which I read before I started this blog.  A non-fiction account of real events and based on thorough research, The Grand Experiment is a different kind of Stolen Generations story, in which two young Nyungar boys were taken to Italy by a Benedictine monk from the New Norcia Monastery in WA, to become monks themselves.  They went, apparently, with parental permission, and the plan was well-intentioned, the monks hoping to offer education and opportunities the boys could not have had on the mission. They met the Pope and other notables, but the extent of the education they purportedly received is dubious since neither left a written record. Conaci died in Europe, and Dirimera died soon after returning to Australia.


Paris Savages explores themes which arose from my reading of those three books.  To what extent could ‘exhibits’ in a human zoo have any agency over the way they were represented, when the entire exercise was based on ambitions the participants did not share? In what ways could they be said to have given informed consent? How could they possibly have known what they were in for? Johnson’s novel, based on thorough research, depicts the cultural shock that Anouk Ride discussed, and with the same difficulties: the documentary record is scanty, and there is no record at all of the Indigenous point-of-view.  The author’s note at the beginning of the book explains how she resolved this issue:

According to a retrospective on the subject in Paris in 2012, worldwide, between 1800 and 1958, over a billion spectators attended such acts, marvelling at more than 35,000 individuals, significantly influencing view on ‘race’.

That latter date astonished me. These offensive forms of mass entertainment can’t be consigned to the 19th century.  They were still occurring during my childhood.

Johnson then refers the readers to the Afterword to see her sources, and then goes on to say…

Paris Savages builds on these scant records to envisage the story of Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera, Badtjala/Butchulla people from K’gari (Fraser Island).  Rather than assuming Aboriginal viewpoints, the story is told through fictional characters related in the novel to the German engineer Louis Müller, who is known to have transported the group to Europe. (p.ix)

Johnson’s achievement is to expose the human cost of Müller’s ‘scientific’ ambitions.  Bonny, Jurano and Dorondera agree to go because the Badtjala people are in decline after the massacres which accompany being dispossessed from their land, and Bonny hopes to be able to bring their plight to Queen Victoria’s personal attention so that she will intervene.  The plan is that they will travel to England after being exhibited in Europe, and nobody disabuses them of the improbability of such a meeting.  By narrating the story mostly from the point of view of Müller’s teenage daughter Hilda, Johnson shows the journey from naïveté to full awareness of betrayal.  Müller always caves in to unconscionable exploitation of the people in his care, not just because he is under financial pressure because of the costs involved, but also because he shares the prevailing pseudo-scientific ideas of the German entrepreneurs and the scientists they use to justify what they are doing.

Some of the episodes in this novel are really harrowing.  Apart from the indignity of being housed in accommodation that meant they were always, always on show, and being forced to be ‘authentic’ which meant they were only supposed to speak Badtjala when in fact Bonny could speak German well, the process of constantly measuring their bodies and facial features also included having plaster casts made for display.  Johnson depicts this claustrophobic experience in all its horror.  Hilda is a close observer of all these events and she tries as best she can to intervene, handicapped by her distress at her father’s betrayals of the ideals he seemed to have shared with Hilda’s dead mother, and also by the dissonance in her own identity.  On the island of K’gari, she was independent and autonomous.  In Germany she is constrained by ideas about how young women should behave, and any assertiveness on behalf of her Badtjala friends is frowned upon.  As mutual feelings of attraction develop between Hilda and Bonny, she also finds herself constrained by the prevailing racism: it seems to be acceptable for a European man to be attracted to Dorondera, but the idea of a European woman being attracted to Bonny is shocking.

Like The Grand Experiment, Paris Savages is a different slant on Stolen Generations.  These three Badtjala people had their lives stolen by false promises and betrayals.  Johnson’s novel brings this shameful episode to life in a way that readers won’t forget.

See also Theresa Smith’s review.

Author: Katherine Johnson
Title: Paris Savages
Publisher: Ventura Press, 2019, 352 pages
ISBN: 9781925384703
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond:Paris Savages


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 14, 2019

2019 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prize shortlists

The shortlists for the 2019 Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes have been announced. Thanks to @BplusPNews for sharing this news:

Tasmania Book Prize for the best book with Tasmanian content in any genre ($25,000)

Margaret Scott Prize for the best book by a Tasmanian writer ($5000)

  • Conglomerate by Ben Walter, (A Published Event)
  • Flames by Robbie Arnott, (Text Publishing), see my review
  • Star-crossed by Minnie Darke, (Michael Joseph) (I think this is actually by Danielle Wood, writing romance.  But I can’t open the paywalled newspaper article that just shows its opening lines from a Google search.  See Theresa Smith’s review).
  • The Curious Life of Krill: A conservation story from the bottom of the world by Stephen Nicol, (Island Press), see the description at Island Press.


University of Tasmania Prize for the best unpublished literary work by an emerging Tasmanian writer ($5000)

  • ‘The People’s Park’ by Stephenie Cahalan
  • ‘The Signal Line’ by Brendan Colley
  • ‘The Clinking’ by Susie Greenhill

Tasmanian young writer’s fellowship

  • Priscilla Beck
  • Sam George-Allen
  • Hannah Warwarek.

Voting for the People’s Choice Awards is also now open.

True to form, this prize has unearthed some books that haven’t had much exposure.  So…

I’m posting the description of Island Story: Tasmania in object and text from Goodreads, because its title makes it sound like an academic text about postmodernism.  And it’s not that at all!

A handsome full-colour book pairing unique items from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery with selections of original writing about the southern island.
Indigenous dispossession, a cruel penal history, gay-rights battles; exceptional landscapes, unusual wildlife, environmental activism; colonial architecture, arts and crafts, a thriving creative scene—all are part of the story of Tasmania. And they find their expression in the unparalleled collection of Hobart’s TMAG.
In Island Story, Ralph Crane and Danielle Wood select almost sixty representative TMAG objects: from shell necklaces to a convict cowl, colonial scrimshaw to a thylacine pincushion, contemporary photography to a film star’s travelling case. Each is matched to texts old and new, by writers as diverse as Anthony Trollope, Marie Bjelke-Petersen, Helene Chung, Jim Everett, Heather Rose and Ben Walter.
This is the perfect gift for anyone interested in the island everyone is talking about.

PS I can’t find out anything about Conglomerate but I’ve contacted A Published Event for more information.  Update: Justy Phillips at A Published Event has sent the following description of Conglomerate:

A group of walkers battle with a question – how would their experience of the natural world change if one of them were killed in the bush? Conglomerate takes inspiration from the most piecemeal of Tasmanian rocks: a rock that gathers stones together, but also, one that can fall apart in your hands.

The book is a ‘fictiōnella’ which is part of a larger library of 40 books, Lost Rocks (2017–21), in which A Published Event have commissioned 40 artists from around the world to select and re-compose an absent mineral from a geological rock board found by us in Tasmania in 2015. We have so far published 24 of the commissioned 40 fictiōnellas (novellas drawn from lived experience).

You can buy Conglomerate from our website: or from Fullers Bookshop in Hobart (they also do phone orders). Both places it’s $20. Fyi: I should also add that it’s a limited edition work so we will likely sell out of Conglomerate. Lost Rocks editions are printed in an edition of 300 copies.

The winners will be announced on 5 December.  For more information see their website.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 13, 2019

The Unknown Judith Wright, by Georgina Arnott

Settle back with a nice cup of coffee and something to nibble on: this is a long post, but the book deserves it.

Judith Wright (1915-2000) was an award-winning and much-loved Australian poet, author, environmental activist and campaigner for Aboriginal land rights.  In my battered copy of The 1972 Penguin Book of Australian Verse edited by Harry Heseltine editor, she is described as

…one of the few writers to enjoy unchallenged pre-eminence in contemporary Australian poetry.  Since the appearance of her first book, The Moving Image, in 1946, she has been recognised, both at home and abroad, as a poet of great accomplishments.  Born in the New England area of New South wales, for may years she lived with her family at Mt Tamborine, Queensland. (p.15)

At the time Heseltine was writing, Judith Wright was almost sixty, and living in a bush shack outside Canberra.

I bought Georgina Arnott’s  bio of Judith Wright at the Williamstown Literary Festival in 2017 to complement Fiona Capp’s My Blood’s Country: In the footsteps of Judith Wright, which I reviewed here.  There are also other books about her life, notably South of My Days (1998) by Veronica Brady, and there is also her autobiography Half a Lifetime (Text Publishing, 2001).  But as Arnott explained at the festival, these works don’t adequately interrogate the contradictions in Judith Wright’s life.  Her parents weren’t just wealthy pastoralists, they were from the squattocracy, and the mythology about their lives and achievements shaped the poet’s life more than she wanted to acknowledge.

This is the blurb from Fishpond:

Judith Wright (1915-2000) remains a giant figure within Australian art, culture and politics. Her 1946 collection of poetry, The Moving Image, revolutionised Australian poetry. She helped to establish the modern Australian environmental movement and was a key player in early campaigns for Aboriginal land rights. A friend and confidante of artists, writers, scholars, activists and policy makers – she remains an inspiration to many. And yet, as Georgina Arnott is able to show in this major new work, the biographical picture we have had of this renowned poet-activist has been very much a partial one. This book presents a more human figure than we have previously seen, and concentrates on Wright’s younger years. New material allows us to hear, directly, thrillingly, the feisty voice of a young Judith Wright and forces us to reconsider the woman we thought we knew.

The biographical picture we have had isn’t just a partial one, it’s also somewhat skewed by taking for granted what Wright had to say about herself, particularly with regard to the influence of her parents.  Drawing on her autobiographical writings, biographers have tended to take at face value that her early life in a wealthy pastoral family served only as a launching pad for rebellion.  Arnott’s research shows that this is not the whole picture. In particular, Arnott’s thesis is that Wright didn’t fully acknowledge that her family was complicit in the brutal dispossession of the Indigenous people from the land that became the Hunter Valley, nor that her university years had influenced her thinking.

Along the way, I learned some interesting aspects of history. The early chapters of The Unknown Judith Wright are an interesting introduction to squatter history in New South Wales, and the domestic sphere in particular:

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the home increasingly figured as a private sphere governed by women.  In her account of the ideology informing the architecture of the modern Australian home, Kerreen Reiger describes the early century, middle-class ideal of ‘a peaceful home in which a clear-cut sexual division of labour existed between husband and wife [and where the] children were orderly, “well-governed”‘.  In the Wright household Ethel [Judith’s mother] spent almost her entire time inside the house and Phillip spent most of his time outside it, including at Country Party meetings.  This Judith registered to the extent that all of her childhood memories were arranged accordingly.  ‘I find it all falls into inside and outside for me.  Inside was women…My brothers used to follow the male side,’ which I always thought of internally as the outside.’ (p.78)

The etiquette for the squattocracy meant that Ethel had a lonely time when she became chronically ill.

Though Ethel lived amongst many people, including male and female servants, and farmers on small neighbouring plots, none were considered appropriate social companions.  Her social milieu was made up of large land-owning families of New South Wales and Queensland who were, by dint of their land, set at great distances apart from each other.  Judith observed that ‘one of the chief factors in the loneliness of the women of the “New England aristocracy’ was just this refusal to admit any outsider even to afternoon tea.” She explained, “my mother spent much of her time in solitude. It was not done to talk to the house “girls” and a housewife who was not well enough to do much work about the hosue or in the garden was doubly isolated.” (p.77-78)

For reasons I don’t need to explain, I don’t usually have much sympathy for pastoralists, but this image of a sick woman marooned for years in loneliness by the snobberies of her class is poignant.

And then there was the impact on Judith: then as now, it was expected that the female child of the family would adopt a nurturing role to care for her ailing mother.  Judith resented this, and then she felt guilty about her resentment…

Arnott explores Wright’s lack of acknowledgement of her university years in depth.  Most of us who’ve been to university—at least in the Arts faculty—would acknowledge, I am sure, that our lecturers and the people we met, influenced us in various ways.  But Judith Wright apparently denied that she was influenced by her academic studies at all.  Arnott’s investigations into this part of Judith’s life covers two whole chapters called ‘The Shaping of an Intellect’ and ‘Campus Literary Discussion’, which contradict the view of her biographer Veronica Brady in South of My Days (1998) that Judith’s innate abilities led her to critique conservative aspects of her university curriculum.  Arnott writes that there is scant evidence that Judith did question it. Brady’s claim is not supported by an examination of the university course Judith was taking or by a close reading of her early poetry.  Of course, by the time Judith came to write her autobiography Judith’s own interests lay in social change rather than in lectures that took place fifty years before.  But though the point is made politely, Arnott notes that Brady’s depiction of Judith’s lecturers relies almost completely on Judith’s unchecked recollections. [1] And what Brady failed to unearth (or to acknowledge?) was that the subject Judith failed was Australian history, because she didn’t sit the exam.

Why not? Well, it was taught by Professor Stephen Roberts whose field of research presented an unflattering analysis of inequality within early colonial society and the rapacious behaviour of squatter families like Judith’s.  (His stance was not at all commensurate with Judith’s 1959 history The Generations of Men.) Likewise, Judith’s antipathy towards Roberts later expressed itself in a misleading representation of his treatment of Aborigines in his books.  Like most historians of the period he was remiss, but he did acknowledge that the land was occupied rather than terra nullius, and that the Aborigines did not cede their sovereignty.   I think that a contemporary author fictionalising Judith Wright’s life could write a very interesting chapter about this hostility to Stephen Roberts!

What was also interesting to me in the chapter called ‘Becoming Modern’ was that Judith was very quickly transplanted from her lodgings outside the university into the University of Sydney’s Women’s College, after her father deputed a friend to investigate her risqué living arrangements. Apparently, in 1934, when Wright was admitted to university, it was unusual for women to live by themselves, and the university imposed restrictions on its students’ living arrangements:

…stating that ‘no student shall be allowed to attend the lectures of classes of the university unless he dwells’ with a parent or guardian, a relative who has been approved by the University, in an educational establishment such as a college, or in a boarding house licensed by the university.  Judith was probably risking her place at the University by staying at the Glebe house. (p.114)

Can you imagine any university trying to control student living arrangements these days??

What’s more, it appears that Judith’s admission may have been partly due to her parents’ money and influence.  The College at that time, under the Principal Susannah Williams, was trying to transition from being a social conduit which enabled the children of wealthy families to meet, to an atmosphere of ‘intellectual enquiry’. But it was an uphill battle to reduce the number of unmatriculated female student admissions and to insist that residents had to pass their university subjects. Judith, when she was forced by her father into the respectable environment of the college, had neither matriculated nor passed all her subjects, and it’s not clear why she was admitted there in the first place.   However, Arnott’s research into Wright’ academic record shows that she became a more serious student in her final two years due in part to the mentorship of the incoming new Principal Camilla Wedgwood. [Why the ADB has a photo of Wedgwood in uniform when her war service was only a year of a life full of other much more significant achievements I do not know.]

The main part of this book explores the ways in which Judith engaged (if at all) with radical ideas at university, how she was changed intellectually by her time there, and ultimately whether she was ‘born’ or ‘made’.  In ‘A Very Model Student’ Arnott explores the differences between her research into the roles women had at the student newspaper Honi Soit and Judith’s not entirely warranted scorn for the limited opportunities that were there. Of course it was not progressive by today’s standards, but that it published both feminist and patriarchal views wasn’t acknowledged by Wright, writing her autobiography many years later, and she was not as powerless as she made out because in 1936 she was a committee member of The Arts Journal. 

The idea that she spent years working on the newspaper with no recognition is an overreach. (p.135)

I was also very interested in the chapter which explored the university curriculum because it offers insight into Australia’s cultural history.  Judith was a student during the development of modernism and the emergence of nationalism in Australian literature, and Arnott’s thorough research shows that her time at Sydney University gave her access to what were then élite ideas about what Australian literature could be.

The chapter which analyses early anonymous poems and those with pseudonyms is an indication of how exhaustive Arnott’s research was.  Arnott’s analysis shows that some of Judith’s writing in this period mocked those less well-off or less sophisticated than she was.  There are possible reasons for this: not wanting to appear too earnest, or wanting to fit in, or even intended as sarcasm or parody.  A teenage poem, ‘A Call to Arms’ was described by Veronica Brady as ‘for once’ succumbing to imperial feeling, but the identification of an anonymous ‘Poem 2’ shows that ‘A Call to Arms’ was not the sole poem on this theme.  Rather, it extends the notion of public duty and self-sacrifice in war service to include settler hardships.  It’s obvious why Judith might not have wanted to revisit these early written pieces when she was older and lionised for her left-wing attitudes.  The point is that the image most of us have of Judith Wright and her politics is not the whole story.

This a more scholarly version of Wright’s life than Fiona Capp’s My Blood’s Country I’ve read, and there’s a lot to take in, but it’s an intriguing adjunct to what I’ve read before. For me, it raises once again the thorny issues surrounding whether it’s ever actually possible to condense a life within the pages of a book, and how much of an autobiography can ever really be ‘true’.

[1] To be fair to Veronica Brady, in an undated article at the NLA, she acknowledged that

Truth in biography – and even more in autobiography on which I rely a good deal – is not synonymous with mere fact.

If the 2019 VCE literature text list is any guide, students don’t read Wright’s poetry these days, but you can read some of her poems here.

For another review see John Kinsella at the SMH.

Author: Georgina Arnott
Title: The Unknown Judith Wright
Publisher: UWAP (University of Western Australia Press), 2016, 293 pages
ISBN: 9781742588216
Source: Personal library, purchased at the 2017 Williamstown Literary Festival, $30

Available from Fishpond: The Unknown Judith Wright

Well, it’s not often I get to read the work of a Nobel Prize winning author the day after she is awarded the prize!

I subscribe to a site called Words without Borders, a source of very interesting writing from all sort of sources.  Today, their newsletter contained a short story by Olga Tokarczuk, familiar to many readers for her novel Drive Your Plow [sic] Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones or House of Day, House of Night which was shortlisted for the IMPAC Literary Award.  But #FailingToKeepUp I haven’t read either of these, so I was pleased to have a chance to catch up a little bit…

The Knight is a short story by Olga Tokarczuk and translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft.  This is the blurb from Words without Borders:

Olga Tokarczuk, who first appeared in our pages in 2005 with an excerpt from her wrenching tale of wartime survival, Final Stories, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. She then returned in 2008 with this short story, “The Knight,” translated by Jennifer Croft. Tokarczuk’s explorations of relationships under pressure, whether political or internal, combine a keen sense of character with a sure hand at narrative to capture the essence of humanity. As a couple’s alienation plays out over a chessboard, Tokarczuk’s deft portrayal of feints and attacks maps a marriage at stalemate.

The opening lines with that single word ‘snatched’ show the reader where the story is going from the outset:

At first she tried struggling with the locks, but they were obviously not in sync, because when she managed to turn the key in one of them, the other stayed locked—and vice versa. The wind came in gusts off the sea, winding her wool scarf around her face. Finally he set down both bags in the driveway and snatched the keys out of her hand. He managed to get the door open immediately.

Next thing, he’s ticking her off for sweeping the sand off the deck. He has decided they won’t be using it at that time of the year, and he has decided that he’s the one who gets to decide, and he’s the one who gets to tell her what she should be doing.

He puts the TV on immediately, and she protests and wants to say something else as well—but she doesn’t.

Though the reader’s sympathies lie with the woman because we know more about her inner thoughts, she annoys him too.  He hates it when she smokes, and he doesn’t say anythng.  Because though their marriage is stale, and their irritability levels are high, there’s enough good will to try and make their first night at the beach house a good one, so they don’t risk the second bottle of wine and they play chess. She lets him win, and he knows she let him.  They decide to play a more serious game, one that might last for days…

In 6000+ words, the story plays out over their walks on the beach, the loss of the knight from the chessboard, and their inconclusive night together in bed.  Their mutual hostilities have causes big and small, but the most telling, I thought, was her dislike of the way he photographs her all the time, objectifying her and not really seeing her as a person.

There’s not much in this story to show why Tokarczuk is a Nobel laureate.  #DuckingForCover Stories of marriages bad, mad or sad, are a bit of yawn IMO, and they’re all much like each other.  The Nobel citation reads ‘for a narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.’ I’m not entirely sure that I know what that means, but one day when I get round to reading one of her books, I might find out!

If you would like to read The Knight too, follow this link to Words without Borders (and subscribe to their site while you’re at it).

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2019

2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Shortlist

The 2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards Shortlist was announced last month but I didn’t get round to posting about it here, and now the announcement of the winners is upon us!

Here are the books in contention:

A Stolen Season, by Rodney Hall (my review)
The Death of Noah Glass by Gail Jones
Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko (my review)
Saudade by Suneeta Peres da Costa (my review)
Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

A Certain Light: A memoir of family, loss and hope, by Cynthia Banham
Rusted off: Why Country Australia is fed up, by Gabrielle Chan
Half the Perfect World: Writers, dreamers and drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964, by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell
The Arsonist: A mind on fire, by Chloe Hooper (my review)
Axiomatic, by Maria Tumarkin (see Sue’s review at Whispering Gums)

Australian history
Deep time dreaming: Uncovering ancient Australia, by Billy Griffiths
Dancing in Shadows: Histories of Nyungar performance, by Anna Haebich
The Land of Deams: How Australians won their freedom, 1788-1860, by David Kemp
The Bible in Australia: A cultural history, by Meredith Lake
You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world, by Clare Wright (my review)

Sun Music by Judith Beveridge
Click Here for What We Do by Pam Brown
Newcastle Sonnets by Keri Glastonbury
Viva the Real by Jill Jones
Blakwork by Alison Whitaker

Young Adult
Between Us by Clare Atkins
The Things That Will Not Stand by Michael Gerard Bauer
Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee
The Art of Taxidermy by Sharon Kernot
Cicada by Shaun Tan

For Children’s Literature nominees, see the award website.

The winners will be announced on October 23rd.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2019

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer

Readers with long memories may recall that I heard Andrew Sean Greer speak at the Auckland Writers Festival in May and decided there and then that I would read his Pulitzer prize winning book.  I didn’t buy it then, because I had a suitcase full of books by NZ authors, and I didn’t buy it when I got home because I’d rather spend my money on Australian authors who haven’t won a prize that guarantees best sellerdom all over the world. (Did you know that the Pulitzer winners only get a mingy US$15,000? But the fame must be priceless.)

Anyway, the popularity of Less explains why I have waited all these months for my turn with the book from the library…

To be honest, I can’t quite see what all the fuss is about.  It’s amusing, as Greer was at the festival, but a mild and not particularly witty satire about a middle-aged man’s sorrows just didn’t engage me much.  I mainly kept reading it to offset a really demanding book that I couldn’t make myself read at bedtime, (more about that in due course) but I wouldn’t have cared much if I’d run out of library time, and already I can’t remember much of the episodic plot.

I had my one-and-only laugh-out-loud moment on page 103…

Arthur Less is a mid-list author who has wangled his way into assorted literary commitments around the world in order to avoid the patronising judgements that accompany attending, or not attending, the marriage of Freddy, who used to be his lover.  So Less has a gig in Germany as a guest lecturer at the ‘Liberated University’ because (he thinks) he speaks fluent German.  He has dusted off a writing course he had given at a Jesuit college in California and put the entire syllabus through a computer translation and called it Read Like a Vampire, Write Like Frankenstein.  And instead of the expected three students, he finds the classroom overflowing with 130 students.

‘I am your Mr Professor.’

He is not.  Unaware of the enormous difference between the German Professor and Dozent, the former being a rank achieved only through decades of internment in the academic prison, the latter a mere parolee, Less has given himself a promotion.

‘And now, I am sorry, I must kill most of you.’

With this startling announcement, [LH: Remember, he is American, where they have A Lot Of Guns and Don’t Hesitate to Use Them] he proceeds to weed out any students who are not registered in the Global Linguistics and Literature Department. (p.103)

Less is pleasant, light-hearted reading, and it makes a change to read a gay love story that isn’t a melancholy tragedy. (Actually, it’s rare to read any book, these days, that isn’t angst-ridden).  But it doesn’t strike me as great literature.  I’ve read about a quarter of the Pulitzer winners from Saul Bellow to Annie Proulx and more, but Less IMO isn’t in the same league as the ones I’ve reviewed on this blog:

But then the Pulitzer has always seemed to me to be an uneven prize.  All prizes can be, but I’ve had too many disappointments with it to take much notice of it. I liked Less, but I find it hard to believe that it was the most impressive book of its year.  FWIW it wasn’t included in The Best 20 novels of 2017 at Harper’s Bazaar.

However, Simon at Stuck in a Book has recently read it, and he liked it a lot.  See here.

Author: Andrew Sean Greer
Title: Less
Publisher: Abacus, an imprint of the Little, Brown Book Group (Hachette UK), 2018, first published 2017
ISBN: 9780349143590
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 10, 2019

Rosa, Memories With Licence – a template for other writers?

“Rosa ticked several boxes in the list of why I read books: for enjoyment, to be immersed in a different world, to learn something new, to encourage me to seek more information and to reflect on the human condition.” So says writing teacher Mairi Neil in this enthusiastic review…

Up the Creek with a pen ...

rosa front cover.jpg

It’s lovely to have a book signed by an author and although I couldn’t get to the book launch because of another launch, a friend kindly picked up a copy of Ros Collins’ latest book, Rosa by Hybrid Publishers.

The blurb announces the memories of Rosa are presented ‘with a deliberate overlay of lies and licence.’ The boldness of this statement, a little confronting, especially since the book is labelled Memoir – defined in the dictionary as a narrative or biography written from personal experience.

However, as a teacher of Life Story writing, I’ve lost count of how many times class discussions have debated the concept of truth in relation to the reliability and perspective of our memories, coupled with the attendant fear of causing hurt to someone still alive or even tarnishing the memory of someone deceased.

A memoir is considered ‘Creative Non-fiction’ and…

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 9, 2019

Book Review: Rosa: Memories With Licence by Ros Collins

A perceptive review of a book written by one of my dearest friends!

Theresa Smith Writes

Rosa: Memories With Licence…

About the Book:

As British as Earl Grey tea, ‘Rosa’ has spent most of her life in Melbourne. Her children and grandchildren are all Australian-born, as was Alan, her writer husband. But Rosa is hesitant about an unconditional commitment to Vegemite, mateship and the ANZAC legend; she remains a perennial migrant, often amused by her memories, here presented with a deliberate overlay of lies and licence.

Her family’s history is nearer to Dickens than the shtetls of Eastern Europe; Rosa herself recalls Dunkirk and the Blitz. Beyond the conservatism of 1950s London that she escaped, Rosa flings open the windows and doors to invite the reader into her Anglo-Australian-Jewish family. She refrains from delving into deep psychological examinations of what it means to be an only child, an only grandchild, a reluctant Jewish teenager, and muse to a man whose terrible childhood scarred him for life…

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Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 8, 2019

2019 Voss Literary Prize longlist

The longlist for the 2019 Voss Literary Prize has been announced., and I’ve read more than half of them.

The longlisted titles are:

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Launched in 2014, the Voss Literary Prize is dedicated to the memory of historian Vivian Robert Le Vaux Voss. Last year’s winner was Bram Presser for The Book of Dirt.

For more information about the Voss Literary Prize prize, please see here.

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

The Reader by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (Wikipedia Commons*)

A most interesting report popped into my inbox this morning.  The following comes from a report into the reading behaviour of New Zealanders, and it uses an interesting methodology.  Instead of using what people could recall of their reading, they texted survey participants to see what they were reading at that time. 

Clearly, the research participants were comfortable using a phone to receive the texts.  (It would be no good for me, all my friends know that I hate the phone and for preference, don’t have it anywhere near me. I am unlikely to see their texts until I charge the phone at night.  If it’s urgent, send me an email.)

The research process captures all that other reading that we do. For example, in the last hour this morning, I’ve read 28 emails; read four blog posts; read an article at The Conversation and this report; and haven’t read the news.

I have highlighted in bold, the findings that seem unexpected or worrying.

My thanks go to Melissa Wastney, Communication and Engagement Manager, at Read NZ Te Pou Muramura for permission to quote this press release:

New Zealanders spend half their waking lives online, are flicking between multiple texts at any given time, and are less likely to engage in long text, a new study shows.

Reading in a Digital Age, a unique insight into New Zealanders’ reading behaviour, has been released by Read NZ Te Pou Muramura (formerly New Zealand Book Council)Read NZ Te Pou Muramura (formerly New Zealand Book Council).

Unlike previous studies of our reading habits, this research was in part experiential and involved texting participants at various points across the day and week to monitor what they were reading at that moment in time. Previous studies have relied solely on what people have been able to recall of their reading behaviour.

The study found that at any point in time, two thirds of us are reading something and of those who are reading, 70% are reading online. We are most likely to be reading our emails, news websites or our social media feeds.

This online reading usually involves skimming and switching between different texts and devices at the same time. 53% of those surveyed said they usually skipped over long text when reading online.

44% said they found it harder to read long and challenging content than they did in the past. This is especially true of those aged 25-54 and tertiary qualified New Zealanders.

However, a third say they are reading more now than ever before because of the availability of content and ease and enjoyment of switching between formats.

Older New Zealanders, especially women, are still reading books for pleasure. The research concludes that online reading is displacing book reading, though not replacing it.

Read NZ CEO Jo Cribb says the organisation wanted to follow its previous research reports with a more in-depth look at online reading to better understand what people were actually doing.

“While we know much about our book reading habits, we also know that on average we spend half our waking life online. We wanted to learn more about what and how we are reading on our devices,” she says.

“The good news is that reading is such an important part of New Zealanders’ lives. But it is concerning that we’re finding it harder to read long and challenging content online than we might have in the past.

“We’re excited to release this research and share the challenges and opportunities it presents. We hope it will start a broader conversation about the importance of reading, and especially reading longer text,” says Jo.

Reading in the Digital Age was delivered for Read NZ Te Pou Muramura by Research First Ltd. A copy of the full report can be downloaded here.

One of the key messages in the full report is that much of this ‘reading’ does not reach the level of engagement that has been shown to provide the benefits associated with reading longer form pieces.  I think we knew that already, but in confirming it with research, the full report goes on to say this:

The argument that time spent online or with digital devices potentially undermines (rather than simply displaces) longer form reading is based on what all the time online does to our brains. In particular, the move to engaging with material through ‘continuous partial attention’ means an increase in ‘cognitive impatience’. This leads to the loss of what Professor Maryanne Wolf has called ‘deep reading’ – the kind of reading that requires the reader’s complete attention to understand the thoughts on the page. This lack of engagement means opportunities to develop the brain circuitry needed for deep reading are absent, which may also affect the ability to engage in deep reflection and original thought. Or, as Professor Maryanne Wolf and Mirit Barzilla put it, this change in reading behaviour might:

Short-circuit the development of slower, more cognitively demanding comprehensive processes that go into the formation of deep reading and deep thinking. If such truncated development occurs, we may be spawning a culture so inured to sound bites and thought bits that it fosters neither critical analysis nor contemplative processes in its members.

That is a very scary thought…

What do you think? 

Here’s a couple of little polls, of no research validity whatsoever because anyone still reading this post is by definition a reader of long texts:

Dare I ask… do you detect more shallow thinking among the people you connect with?

To read more about the effects of screen reading, see research here.

About Read NZ Te Pou Muramura

Read NZ Te Pou Muramura changed its name from the NZ Book Council in 2019.  It is Aotearoa’s only national agency dedicated to reading, seeking to build a nation of readers leading to social, cultural and economic wellbeing.

*Image credit:

The Reader by Jean-Honoré Fragonard – National Gallery of Art., Public Domain,

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 6, 2019

Field of Poppies, by Carmel Bird

I was really looking forward to reading Carmel Bird’s latest novel, and I am pleased to say that it does not disappoint!

The voice in this latest novel from one of our best-loved writers is just like one of my dearest friends.  Chatty, discursive, and intelligent; knowledgeable about the history of the world and sensitive to its contemporary woes; warm, witty and kind.  But reading Field of Poppies is not just like a long, leisurely intimate conversation with someone whose wisdom I treasure, it’s also a perfect expression of the zeitgeist.  (And if you want any confirmation of that, check out Australia Talks at ABC Online, to see the issues that are bothering other Australians).

The narrator is Marsali Swift, an older woman who is an irrepressible optimist reluctantly coming to terms with unpleasant truths.  The 20th century was a dreadful century, but the 21st may even be worse.  And there is no hiding from it.  Marsali, a retired interior designer, and her husband William, still working part-time as a doctor, made a tree-change to the (fictional) town of Muckleton in Victoria’s goldfields region, but the world found them there anyway.

Eureka Tower (Wikipedia)

Two events, she tells us right at the beginning, have propelled them back to urban life in the Eureka Tower in Melbourne.  Their Muckleton house was robbed while they were on a jaunt to hear La Traviata at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, and a woman called Alice Dooley has vanished.  As it happens, most of their eccentric possessions were recovered from the robbery, but Marsali still feels that her rural idyll has been violated.  Her sense of security is shattered, partly because she has to face up to the fact that her sense of community is a myth. Robbery isn’t just something that happens in the city, and what makes it worse is that in the countryside, it’s committed by people that you know.

And while Alice was only an acquaintance, an eccentric divorcée who lived alone in the former matrimonial home and played a very valuable violin in a community musical group, Marsali feels her disappearance keenly. It is a sign that evil has come to Muckleton which in their retirement was meant to be a refuge from the meanness of city life.  Marsali (though she’s not religious) suggests a prayer vigil, and the community organises it, but Alice’s disappearance remains an open wound.

Though of course the rest of the world has moved on.  Alice’s Ex, Eamon takes over the house and begins renovations.  [Remember Jon McGregor’s achingly sad Reservoir 13, about how the world moves on after a tragic unexplained disappearance?]

Marsali’s one consolation is her book-group.  It’s called Mirrabooka (!) and not only has Marsali has been with it for ages, she still drives up to Muckleton for its gatherings.  Like most women her age, Marsali has a strong bond with her female friends and their shared experiences mean a lot to her.  They read serious books, (with intentions to read Proust one day), but since the disappearance of Alice, their choices always seem to come round to stories of vanished women as in Picnic at Hanging Rock and Alice in Wonderland.  Their conversations often return to Alice Dooley and her disappearance; through gossip Marsali learns that blood and hair were found on Alice’s fridge handle.  Now in her vivid imagination she keeps seeing Alice with a head wound.

There are three parts to the novel: The Robbery, The Disappearance, and The Mine, which changes life for everyone in Muckleton.

What William and I quickly came to realise was that the road would also cut right across the back boundary of our property at Listowel.  Not exactly on our land, but along the lower edge of it, so that there would never be any peace again.  Not ever.  There would be constant traffic to and from the Soo.  It takes unimaginable energy and wild commotion to destroy forests.  Noise carried fast and far out there.  It jolted and bothered and rattled the windowpanes.  It rattled us.  Seven years of blissful musical peace and harmony and silvery silence, and then first the groans and roars of the making of the road, to be followed by the constant grinding of the traffic.  Back and forth. Day and Night.  The secrets of midnight penetrated by the blinding searchlights of the trucks.  Not to mention the dust.  We hadn’t thought about the dust that would forever fly towards us on the wind, would settle all across the garden, all over everything and right into the house itself. Dust all over everything.  It was fine and gritty and somehow sinister.  I often remembered the asbestos flakes falling like snow on the poppy field in The Wizard of Oz. That was the dust that woke up Dorothy and her friends; this was the dust that had awakened us.  One day I had a kind of vision of the garden all coated and choking in pale yellow dust, and I suddenly found myself sitting alone under the chestnut tree weeping tears of despair, looking up at Listowel in great sadness. (p.159)

[This is exactly how I feel about the people behind us building a double-storey monstrosity of concrete that blocks the sunrise that we used to see through our French windows.  Something that we loved has been taken from us, and it’s gone forever.]

Yet even as Marsali mourns the loss of her rural idyll, she is conscious of perspective and privilege:

When you put this abandonment of our soft velvet existence, with its poppy field and its lovely fossils in the very stones of the house, up against the lives of starving people driven from their homes by war and famine, our journey from Muckleton to Melbourne begins to look absurd and trivial. (p.161)

That’s it, isn’t it? We feel we ought not to complain, but still…

A word about the book.  Bucking the trend to near-universal publication in paperback, Transit Lounge is producing some of its new titles in beautiful hardback copies.  Alec Patric’s The Butcherbird Stories was in hardback, (see my review); so is another new release called The Sea and Us (on my TBR) from Stella short-listee Catherine de Saint-Phalle; and so is Field of Poppies. It has buttercup yellow boards, burgundy endpapers with a design reminiscent of Victorian wallpaper and a reproduction of Monet’s Field of Poppies (as referenced in the novel), and a lush dustjacket as you can see above. At $29.99 RRP, this hardback edition isn’t any more expensive than the retail price of most of the paperbacks we see. And it is just perfect for this extravagantly textured novel, gently satirising the way we focus on ourselves and our own lives while everything is falling apart and the planet is in deep trouble.

Image credit:

Author: Carmel Bird
Title:Field of Poppies
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2019, 240 pages
ISBN: 9781925760392
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond (from November 1st): Field of Poppies and direct from Transit Lounge (where there are also reading group notes) and good bookshops everywhere.

Some of the choices in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die baffle me. The book, the Introduction by Peter Boxall tells us, is supposed to be a guide to books that are landmarks in the story of the novel, a long and rambling affair, full of surprising turns, and unlikely subplots.  So yes, you get a bit of everything and fair enough too.


Jennifer Byrne in the Preface to the Australian edition warns us against being book snobs, and I try not to be, in the case of genre fiction, but why are there four titles by Dashiell Hammett? I mean, once you’ve grasped that this author is more or less synonymous with the change in the detective story from the master detective versus impenetrable crime novel to a more ‘everyday’ approach, what else do this author’s four titles represent in the way of a landmark? I’ve read the yada-yada for the other three titles (The Glass Key, The Thin Man and Red Harvest, and all I can glean is that Red Harvest (1929) was the first hard-boiled detective novel; The Glass Key (1931) helps to establish the genre; and The Thin Man (1932) is different because it features a married couple with a vibrant social life instead of the mythical solitaries of conventional noir investigation thus suggesting that corruption is everywhere in America.

Well, too bad, it’s going to be only 998 books that I’m going to read before I die, because I am not going to read another one of these Hammetts. One is quite enough.  (And it’s very annoying when you consider that those three surplus books could have been replaced by any number of beaut books that they couldn’t find room for,  broadening the scope to include more novels from outside the US and UK, gosh, maybe even something from Australia, eh?) (I still find it surprising that Jennifer Byrne didn’t stick her hand up and say, ‘Hey, there are a couple of other Australian authors besides Patrick White that you might want to include?’)


The Spouse has seen the film starring Humphrey Bogart, and I bet everyone else has too, but I haven’t.  I only hope they did a better job of the twists and turns in the plot than the book, because I knew before I was half way through that—


—the item worth killing people for wasn’t going to be the real thing.

And I am really bad at working out whodunnit in Midsumma Murders, Death in Paradise, Vera, and the Father Brown Mysteries which I watch sometimes when I’m doing the ironing. So anyone even moderately competent at identifying whodunnits will work it out long before I did.

So why did I read it?  #SheepishExpression: Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambings and Simon at Stuck in a Book. are hosting the 1930s book club, and I didn’t have anything published in 1930 on the TBR, so I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and reserve a 1930s library book that was also in 1001 Books. Cakes and Ale came in immediately, and I loved it, (see here) and then The Maltese Falcon and I hate to waste my library’s time so I felt I had to read it too.

I should stop whinging.  It only took a few hours to read.  And now I have only 640 637 books to go.

Author: Dashiell Hammett
Title: The Maltese Falcon
Publisher: Gale Greengage Publishing, 2009, first published 1929
ISBN: 9781597228985, large print edition so it’s 346 pages
Source: Kingston Library

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