Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 5, 2023

2023 Bendigo Writers Festival Friday 5th May

Well, here we are at the Bendigo Writers Festival and it’s been a great day so far.

Thanks to the kindness of our neighbour G., Amber is enjoying a weekend break filled with treats and walks and tummy rubs, while we made our way up the highway to Bendigo.  As in previous years we are staying at the City Centre Motel which is closest to the festival and handy to good eateries too. We have already scoped out the best places for dinners and breakfasts and scrumptious afternoon tea cakes… and The Spouse has made a preliminary visit to a secondhand bookshop called Bendigo Book Mark and made some preliminary purchases.  (They have two floors of books to survey so it can’t be done in one visit…)

I’ve made only one purchase so far.  I started off at a session called ‘Old Ideas for New Books’, with Gabrielle Wang, Reece Carter, Ailsa Wild and host Cecile Shanahan.  The authors told entertaining stories about the sources of their book ideas, but I couldn’t stay for all of it because I wanted to get to ‘Art and Influence’ with artist and polymath Imants Tillers in conversation with Ian McLean who is Professor of Art History at the University of Melbourne.  It was Tillers’ book that I bought: it’s a collection of essays called Credo (Giramondo, 2022), and I have already read the first one, which is fascinating.

Tillers began in the 1970s as a conceptual artist, moving on to postmodernism in later years, and his paintings, said McLean, are full of ideas and how they manifest — thinking machines, he called them, from before the advent of AI.  As you can see if you search a little online, the paintings are covered in poetic-sounding names and are like songbooks… so you have to take time to ‘read’ them.

Most of Tillers’ process is by hand.  He writes — drafts and edits — by hand.  There’s no typewriter or computer in his studio, where he reads a lot and keeps copious research notes, 6000+ he says! He likes to do everything himself, in a lo-tech uncomplicated way because it helps him to focus on the content. He says that something is lost when we see his paintings on a screen.

What interested me so much is that his work is based on three fundamentals:

  • quotation,
  • appropriation, and
  • repetition.

The question of appropriation is a live one at the moment, especially in respect of First Nations art, and he admitted that he got himself into strife in his early days but now works more in collaboration.  He feels that he has some connection with First Nations people because his family’s country of origin Latvia has been colonised over and over again, yet Latvians have been able to maintain and develop their culture through oral traditions, as Australia’s First Nations have done.

It was a very interesting talk leaving me with much food for thought.

The next session was called ‘Who Cares? and, hosted by Liz Connor, featured Richard Denniss from the Australia Institute; journalist Paul Cleary; and Simon Holmes à Court, whose book The Big Teal (2022) I reviewed before the last state election.  The main thrust of the session was that those who benefit from the status quo especially neo-Liberals have a vested interest in people being disengaged from politics, and that people play into their hands when they deride politicians as being all the same and that none of them are worth voting for.   Again, this was a session offering food for thought…

I plan to go to one more session today: ‘The Soul of a Place’, featuring Oslo Davis, Louisa Lim, Lauren Mitchell and host Shannon Schubert, and then we’ll have dinner at Jo Jo’s.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 4, 2023

2023 Age Book of the Year winners

Two superb books have won this year’s Age Book of the Year.

Wandering with Intent (2022) by Kim Mahood won the Non Fiction Book of the Year.  My review is here, and you can read an extract at Inside Story. 

And in a decision that will pleased the many who have loved Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost (2022), the judges have awarded it the Fiction Book of the Year.  My review is here.

There’s a special offer on these two books at Readings...

Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 3, 2023

The Fire and the Rose (2023), by Robyn Cadwallader

Readers want different things from historical fiction, but I’m quite clear about what I want.

Pontificating recently at Whispering Gums, I stated that I have grown out of what are…

…basically relationship novels dressed up in historical finery and these days I want more from HistFic than *yawn* power, gender and class. We are awash with novels about power, gender and class and very rarely, it seems to me, is there anything different about them except their settings. So many of them are starring *amazing*, *feisty* women determined to rise above their oppression that it’s a cliché.

Continuing on my soap box, I went on to clarify why HistFic can be great reading.  (Links are to my reviews).

HistFic can be a brilliant story of character, as in Wolf Hall. It can shine a light on as aspect of life that we rarely consider, as in A Terrible Kindness. It can offer insights into how ambition impacts on father-son relationships as in An Ungrateful Instrument, and most wonderfully for us here in Australia, it can tell the stories of our geographical neighbourhood as in Typhoon Kingdom or The Pebbled Beach at Pentecost. Update: or Death of a Coast Watcher.  If only there were more of these!

Themes with art and artists can tip a novel over into one I want to read…

Likewise, HistFic that explores injustice in the past can shine a light on pernicious effects that persist to this day.  Robyn Cadwallader’s latest novel The Fire and the Rose isn’t just a novel of star-crossed lovers frustrated by religious differences, and it isn’t just an independent woman confronting barriers to her ambitions.  Even if you know something of the long history of anti-Semitism, this novel is a confronting exposé of its prevalence in England in the medieval period, from the role of the church in perpetuating an untrue historical record to the king’s expulsion of all Jews in 1290. Most powerfully, as it says on the back cover blurb:

… it is also a novel about what it is to be made ‘other’, to be exiled from home and family. But it is also a call to recognise how much we need the other, the one we do not understand, making it a strikingly resonant and powerfully hopeful novel for our times.

Readers of The Anchoress (2015) will remember Eleanor, the child who is taught to read and write by Sarah, the anchoress. Twenty years later in The Fire and the Rose, the orphaned Eleanor is working as a housemaid for a wool merchant in 13th century Lincoln.  She has hopes of getting more satisfying work as a scribe, refusing a patronising offer from marriage from Jevon, a man who tells her he’s prepared to overlook the birthmark on her face.

Eleanor steps back.  ‘I live well enough here.  I like it.’

‘You like cleaning someone else’s house for him, digging in someone else’s soil, tending a feeble garden?’

She glares. ‘I can write, Jevon.  I have skills I want to use for more than estate accounts.’

He steps closer. ‘Ellie, don’t be foolish.  You’re a woman.  You won’t get work as a scribe.  You either scrub Stephen’s pots and dig his garden, or you marry me.’ He pauses and gestures to her face. ‘And there’s not many men as will see past that.’ (p.29)

Unsurprisingly, Eleanor decided she was better without a man at all. 

But then there’s Asher, a Jewish spice merchant…

Initially, Eleanor shares some of the prejudices she hears all around her, but her regular visits to buy spice pique her interest in the Hebrew script.  He’s intrigued that she can read and write, and despite the prohibitions — social and legal — a covert relationship eventually results in the awkwardness of a pregnancy. When her pregnancy is known, her employer sends her packing, leaving Eleanor without an income or a home.

The friendship of other women supports Eleanor through this difficult time.  Because I take an interest in the way that older women are represented in fiction, I particularly liked the dynamic characterisation of Marchota, an older Jewish businesswoman reviled for her alleged part in the kidnapping and torture of a boy called Luke.  Her dignity and resilience in the face of persecution is impressive, and she becomes Eleanor’s mainstay despite her own troubles.  During the real-time chronology of this novel, there were mass imprisonments of Jews, arbitrary executions, punishing taxation and the humiliating requirement forcing Jews to wear a yellow badge, and these statutes affect the Jewish characters at different times.

Asher, Marchota, Chera and Milla are all impacted by restrictions on how they can make a living, measures intended to pressure them into conversion.  The looming forced expulsion of all Jews from England forces Eleanor to consider whether she should convert so that they can marry and leave England together.  But Cadwallader doesn’t romanticise things: Eleanor is alienated by Asher’s strict observance of some religious rules, while he chooses to ignore the religious law to lie with her.  She’s offended that he considers bowing to pressure to marry within his community, and she resents the fact that it is she, not he, who must submit to a shaming ritual imposed by the church because she can’t hide being an unmarried mother.  She has little time for priests and the church but she has her own devotion to the Virgin Mary and she has a daughter who would be subjected to the prejudice which is widespread throughout Europe and the Middle East.

But Asher isn’t a hypocrite.  Struggling to reconcile his love for a woman not of his rigid faith, he’s confused:

‘I’m sorry, Ellie.  None of this is simple.  We should stop.  I won’t keep breaking our law.  It’s dangerous, and it makes me betray my beliefs.  They’re important to me, probably more than you would understand.  You need to stop coming here.  It’s wrong. (p.72)

The narrative tension that propels this novel is the couple’s dilemma about how to reconcile their love with their personal beliefs as well as the social and legal restrictions that beset them.

Notable in the setting is the depiction of extreme cold.  Eleanor’s brother Tom, dies of the cold in the grey year, the year of deaths. This (as explained in the extensive Author’s Notes) is a reference to the 1257 volcanic winter in the wake of the catastrophic eruption of Samalas volcano on Lombok in Indonesia. It is this kind of attention to detail that makes Cadwallader’s historical fiction a pleasure to read.

The Fire and the Rose has also been reviewed by Anna Creer at The Canberra Times.

Author: Robyn Cadwallader
Title: The Fire and the Rose
Cover design by Sandy Cull, gogo gingko
Publisher: Fourth Estate, (Harper Collins), 2023
ISBN: 9781460752227, pbk., 374 pages including Author’s Notes and Acknowledgements
Source: Review copy courtesy of Harper Collins

Considering that Henry Handel Richardson is one of my all-time favourite authors, there is not nearly enough about her on this blog.  Apart from reviews of Maurice Guest (1908) and The Adventures of Cuffy Mahony and Other Stories (1979), there’s more about HHR than there is by her.  It’s because I read her magnum opus The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney back in my university days and re-read it twice before starting this blog.  In 2004, however, I wrote copious thoughts about Australia Felix (Book 1 of the trilogy) in my reading journal and will one day add it to my Reviews from the Archive.

I started reading Michael Ackland’s Henry Handel Richardson, A Life (2004) because I was a bit indignant about the representation of HHR in Brenda Niall’s Friends and Rivals (2020, see my review)… but I got distracted, and need to start again…

But in the meantime, I was surprised and delighted to find HHR within the pages of the latest edition of HEAT (Series 3, Vol 8.) And you are in luck, dear readers, because Cameron Hurst’s essay is available to read online.  Click the link in the blurb from the Giramondo website below.

Some things have nothing in common until you put them together, says artist and collector Patrick Pound about his series of found photographs in our latest issue. The writers in HEAT Series 3 Number 8 seem similarly drawn to overlooked meaning. In ‘Shopping’, a short story by Katerina Gibson, a young arts worker in Melbourne overcomes an obsession with designer clothing. The late Hong Kong writer Xi Xi, in a work of autobiographical fiction, processes a cancer diagnosis. Essayist Cameron Hurst finds herself attending a meeting of the Victorian Spiritualists’ Union after reading Henry Handel Richardson. And poets Judith Beveridge and Paul Muldoon transform unassuming animals, people and places into singular moments.


Xi Xi (trans. Jennifer Feeley) Mourning a Breast  prose
Judith Beveridge  Animal Poems  poetry
Patrick Pound  Air Heading Right  art
Cameron Hurst  Send Me a Sign?  prose
Katerina Gibson  Shopping  prose
Paul Muldoon  Three Poems  poetry

Frontispiece by Julie Rrap

Cameron Hurst is a writer and sessional academic who teaches art history at the University of Melbourne and Monash University.  Her essay is both wry and illuminating about HHR and the fad for spiritualism that was prevalent in HHR’s era.

There are other good things in this journal, particularly the poetry of Judith Beveridge with surprising insights about our Australian pest species — among which she includes the local toms fighting, a sound of wild hissing—as if bagpipes were asphyxiating (p.38):

  • Bluebottles… so many swimmers ran out of the sea, branded with welts / or wearing scarlet copies of the tentacles of a swarm of bluebottles (p.35)
  • The Cuttlefish … with its alarm of pigments (p.36)
  • The Leech… Gatherers, poor women, wading in bogs and swamps found you with their feet and legs (p.37);
  • Animals in Our Suburbs, 1960s … In our suburb no one had a lapdog.  Who’d ever heard of a lhasa apso, a shih tzu, or a bichon frisé? (p.38)
  • Listening to Cicadas … The aural equivalent of downing eight glasses of caffeinated alcohol (p.39)

You can subscribe to Heat here, or find individual issues in good bookstores.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 27, 2023

Toby’s Room (2012), by Pat Barker

Toby’s Room, as you can tell from the front cover design, continues Pat Barker’s preoccupation with themes of war, survival and recovery, so I was interested to read at Wikipedia that before writing the Regeneration Trilogy (1991, 1993, 1995) she felt that she had been typecast as a northern, regional, working class, feminist—label, label, label—novelist.

Since I’ve only read her war novels and one of her forays into rewriting Greek myth, I hadn’t come to this conclusion at all.  Perhaps I should read Liza’s England (1986) which has been waiting patiently on the TBR since I found it years ago in an OpShop. Wikipedia tells me that her other novels which apparently acquired these labels were

There are class distinctions in the novel, but I hadn’t paid much attention to them because they seemed extraneous to the main theme of memory and how it is constructed.  Which was wrong of me, because when you’re sending men to war as cannon fodder, it does matter that the officers are better fed than the men, and that even when they are wounded, they are treated better than the men…

Toby’s Room explores the WW1 lives of characters from Barker’s previous novels, but her focus has shifted to the medical aftermath for the wounded and how families process bereavement.  Elinor Brooke, Kit Neville and Paul Tarrant  are fictionalised versions of real-life students at the Slade School of Fine Art and so is Mr Tonks was their intimidating teacher there.  Toby Brooke who is ‘Missing, Believed Killed’ is based on Vera Brittain’s brother who was not known to be gay when Brittain wrote Testament of Youth. (See Paul’s review at Goodreads if keen to know more.)

Paul Tarrant enlists, while Kit Neville, (a stretcher bearer) and Toby, (a medical officer) go to tend the wounded in the battlefields in France. Elinor, meanwhile, studiously ignores the war — until she no longer can because she senses that she has not been given the truth about Toby’s death.  She reaches out to Paul and Kit who are back in England after being wounded… Paul with a painful knee injury and Kit with his face grossly disfigured by flying shrapnel.  Kit’s medical treatment at the hands of the (real-life) pioneering plastic surgeon Harold Gillies gives rise to a harrowing depiction of how society treats the wounded: children run away in horror; young men wonder if they will ever have a girlfriend; and they are shunned in their previous haunts because their friends—while recognising that they are heroes of a war that they support—don’t know how to react to their grotesque faces.

Elinor joins Tonks as part of the facial reconstruction team, recording the patient’s faces before, during and after surgery.  But her motives are muddy: she wants to help, and she wants to use her skill as an artist to assist with the grim task of making these faces less confronting.  But it’s also a way to meet Kit face-to-face when he has refused to respond to her letters about Toby’s death.  Paul objects to her taking advantage of his vulnerability like this, but she is adamant that she has a right to know about what is being concealed from her.    She thinks it will help her to come to terms with Toby’s death, while Kit is equally adamant that it is better for her to be protected from the truth.

Things are further muddied by the unconventional Brookes brother-sister relationship, but that is something best left for readers to uncover for themselves.

BTW Barker has provided a link to the Gillies archives where you can, if you like, see the portraits done by Tonks but be warned, they are extremely confronting.  OTOH what is remarkable is the way that Tonks has captured the men’s eyes with great sensitivity.  You can see their humanity; you see them as people and not as a carnival of horrors.

Author: Pat Barker
Title: Toby’s Room
Cover photography by Jeff Cotendon
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin Group), 2012
ISBN: 9780241145227, pbk, 264 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books


Everyone my age knows the name of the Australian journalist, writer, and public intellectual Donald Horne AO (1921-2005) because everyone my age has either read The Lucky Country (1964), or heard everyone else talk about it so much that they thought they didn’t need to read it themselves. Indeed, the title of that book went into the vernacular where it is misused all the time to signify what a beaut country Australia is.  Misused because, as the blurb at Goodreads tells anyone who looks it up:

Horne took Australian society to task for its philistinism, provincialism and dependence. The book was a wake-up call to an unimaginative nation, an indictment of a country mired in mediocrity and manacled to its past.

Ouch.  But true.  It was still mostly true when I read it in my young adulthood, even after three years of a progressive government in 1975. Greg at Goodreads thinks it was still true in 2015 and in comments we can see that a reader called Terry Wang thought so too in 2021 … but I think that’s a bit harsh… though you do have to wonder a bit about an electorate that …

Let’s not get sidetracked.

Most people, however, do not know that Horne also ventured into writing fiction. There is probably a good reason for this.  As always I am open to correction, but I suspect that his sole venture into the novel, The Permit, which was published in 1965 by the independent publishing company Sun Books, sank like a stone into oblivion.  Because, alas, it isn’t very good at all. It’s derivative, tedious and predictable.

Five or ten pages into ‘Monday’, the first chapter of this ponderous satire, and a reader will recognise its origins in Franz Kafka’s posthumously published The Castle (1926, Das Schloss). With chapter headings named by the days of the week, the reader of The Permit will find by the heavy-handed end of ‘Tuesday’ that actually, it would be better to re-read The Castle.

And that’s what I did.  I’d already read The Castle round about 1982, probably as a set text for my BA, but I had a Naxos audio book, narrated brilliantly by Allan Corduner, and translated by David Whiting, and it was a fresh and refreshing experience to revisit this classic of absurdism.

As you can see at Wikipedia, The Castle can be summarised like this:

Dark and at times surreal, The Castle is often understood to be about alienation, unresponsive bureaucracy, the frustration of trying to conduct business with non-transparent, seemingly arbitrary controlling systems, and the futile pursuit of an unobtainable goal.

Long before I was a teacher, I was a public servant in the State Film Centre.  My father was in the Commonwealth Public Service, and I’ve been married to a couple of public servants too.  Our careers have taken us to different employers and self-employment as well, but all of us worked very hard indeed at our public service jobs and none of it was time-wasting or arbitrary so none of us would agree with Wikipedia’s characterisation of bureaucracy in The Castle.  Indeed when I first met The Spouse, he could not offer me a date for three weeks and I thought that was because he had to coordinate a string of other women in his life.  Wrong.  He was slaving away till two and three in the morning helping to steer legislation through the parliament. Democracy is not time-wasting or arbitrary.

Bureaucrats and politicians have always been cheap targets, but at least Kafka’s absurdism is entertaining.  K arrives in a village to take up a position as a land surveyor, but it turns out that there has been a mix-up and there is no position.  To sort this out, he embarks on a quest to meet with a bureaucrat called Klamm but he soon discovers that the village is so intimidated by the authority of the Castle, that his efforts are considered highly problematic and he gets himself into all sorts of bother.  Not least when he decides to marry Frieda so that he overcomes the problem of not having a residency permit.  To get accommodation he has to take up work as a cleaner.  Although the reader knows that nothing K can do is going to resolve his problem, nothing in the novel is predictable, and much of the absurdism seems perfectly real.

Horne’s The Permit, however, plods through his scenario with weighted boots.  Adam Richmond needs a permit and when it is refused he writes to enquire about the reasons because he can’t appeal until he knows what they are.  He is then summoned by letter to the Department of Permits for a meeting with Mr Kitchener.  After some argy-bargy, he presses his point…

‘I want to know why you have refused my application.’

‘It wasn’t me who was in a position to refuse your application.  Your application…’

‘Well then, I’ll use the passive voice.  Will you please tell me why my application has been refused?’

‘This Division has had a great deal of experience in these matters.’

‘I want to know why my application has been refused.  How on earth can I appeal unless I know that? You must tell me.’

Kitchener again looked over Adam’s head into the main office as he recited another article of faith.  The procedures of his Division as to the establishment of procedures to be followed in regard to appeals of this kind were in line with procedures laid down with reference to the conduct of such appeals throughout his Department as to such matters, he explained.

‘Would you please answer my question?’

‘Yes, Mr Richmond, I shall answer your question if you like.’ Mr Kitchener drew himself up and looked straight at Adam.  ‘You may rest assured that your case has received full consideration, but it is not the policy of this Department to reveal the reasons as a result of which decisions have been reached in regard to such cases.’

‘This is just damned silly.’

‘Maybe it’s silly to you, Mr Richmond, but the rules of this Department have been devised with full regard…’

‘How do you know you’ve disqualified me for the right reason? You may be wrong.’

‘I can only reiterate what I have formerly stated.’ Kitchener smiled.  He was pleased with the way he had put it. He again looked straight at Adam.

‘But you haven’t stated anything.’ (pp.13-14)

Undaunted, Adam reaches out to the press (The Daily Trumpet) where Adam is invited to take up a position as a Displaced Intellectual.  This, in Chapter 2, ‘Tuesday’ leads to a media pile-on and an entirely predictable depiction of cynical backstabbing politicians and their incompetent hangers-on.  It turns into a political scandal that resolves itself by Saturday. Bearded university students sing ditties at demos supporting the rebel Richmond; Kitchener survives a dressing down by his Minister.  There is a farcical exchange during Parliamentary Question Time; and a show trial. There are libellous remarks about Richmond made under Parliamentary privilege, a split in the party, a Ministerial resignation, a lot of drinking and an excessive use of CAPITAL LETTERS. The tabloid journos have names like Jack Buzz and Shennanagen; the politicians have names like Sam Lefter from the Progressive Party, and the Honourable Brisbane Balloon. Bill Croni and Joe Fickser are corrupt lawyers, and then there’s Burlap the policeman who thinks that the cells are not the place for a gentleman like Adam Richmond.  The city is called Fairville.

Subtle as a sledgehammer…

Long, long out of print, and no wonder.

PS Oops, I nearly forgot, I was prompted to read this because The New Literary History of Australia (1988) says Horne was interested in ruling elites alienated from the culture of the country they live in. See p 436.

Author: Donald Horne
Title: The Permit
Publisher: Sun Books, 1965
Cover design by Brian Sadgrove
ISBN: none.  Pbk., 1875 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased secondhand for a song.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 25, 2023

The Last Time We Spoke, (2016), by Fiona Sussman

The title of Fiona Sussman’s second novel haunts the narrative: The Last Time We Spoke refers to the endless regret when hasty words turn out to be the last words ever spoken to someone you love.  But, in a different context in the novel, it also refers to a kind of benediction that provides a way forward when it seems there is no way to go on.

Winner of the 2017 Ngaio Marsh Awards for Best Crime Novel, and a nominee for the 2016 New Zealand Heritage Book Awards, The Last Time We Spoke isn’t a crime novel in the genre sense of the label. It explores the aftermath of a violent home invasion, the theme apparently triggered by a spate of violent youth crime in New Zealand.

A 2015 New Zealand Social Development report makes findings that have parallels in Australia.  While it notes falling rates of youth crime due to the implementation of various reforms, its key finding is that:

An estimated one in twenty New Zealand children are known to Police for offending before reaching 14 years of age. Boys are twice as likely as girls to offend as children. Māori children are approximately three times more likely than non-Māori children to become known to Police as an offender by age 14.

The reasons, as we all know, are complex, but the report’s findings also include recommendations about prevention, i.e. preventing young people from offending and entering the justice system, and if that fails, there needs to be effective intervention to increase the likelihood that they do not reoffend.

Sussman’s novel explores just how hard that can be for the individuals involved.  It begins with an ordinary family living an ordinary life on a New Zealand farm.  Just two adults, and a much-loved adult son, on the verge of independence.  And on an ordinary night these lives are shattered by the arrival of two young thugs who take from Carla, everything she has.  They break into the house, and smash it up in the quest for money and drugs. They assault Carla’s husband Kevin, they rape Carla, and they kill her only child, Jack.  Kevin can’t even attend Jack’s funeral: he never recovers from the assault and has to go into institutional care. Carla can’t manage the farm alone and has to sell it and move into a mean little apartment in town. And for her, the road to recovery is beset by intrusive journalists, unhelpful family, profound loneliness and mental health problems that resist counselling and medication.

Any one of us would wonder how to go on, in a situation like that.

The narrative however, interleaves Carla’s situation with that of Ben, the younger of the thugs, aged only 16.  He has grown up in a home where a succession of violent men have bashed his mother into compliance, and where he and his five younger siblings have lived in fear, neglect and abuse.  For him, joining one of the rival gangs is inevitable: it’s where he feels some sense of belonging and it’s the only place in his world for him to gain any kind of status. The courts took this into account when he was given a lesser sentence than the older boy, but if Ben serves his full sentence, he will be almost thirty when he gets out.

Carla crosses paths with Ben again when she very reluctantly agrees to take part in a restorative justice program.  It’s quite clear to her that this arrogant, disrespectful boy is only parroting his apology in a naïve attempt to improve his chances of parole, chances which are non-existent because of his violent, uncooperative behaviour in prison. The meeting is a failure.

But from this disastrous meeting, Ben realises that he needs to be better at faking sincere remorse. And that begins a long journey which leads to a kind of redemption that brings Carla some kind of reason to live. Some of what happens stretches credibility, but the fact that you or I could not imagine any kind of restorative justice in such a situation does not mean that it cannot happen.  The Endnotes and the Research Bibliography show that the novel is thoroughly researched.  Perhaps when you have nothing left, any kind of attempt — flawed or otherwise — offers a small spark of hope.

That said, this is a hard novel to read.  Ben’s life is awful, but Sussman never excuses what he has done and she depicts Carla’s devastation with harrowing detail.  It’s not a novel for the faint-hearted.

Between the alternating chapters, is an ongoing narrative addressed to Ben.  It’s titled ‘Beyond’,  and it purports to be from the Spirit of his ancestors, linking Ben’s criminality with the loss of Maori culture.  (This is a familiar lament in Australia too.) I think it’s meant to make readers recognise youth crime as one of the effects of colonisation, but I found it inauthentic and irritating, and all too easy to skip.

I bought this book because of the enticing review by Felicity Murray at The Reader, the blog of BooksellersNZ.

PS This is the third novel by Fiona Sussman that I have read.  To see my reviews of Shifting Colours (2014) and Addressed to Greta (2020), click here.

Author: Fiona Sussman
Title: The Last Time We Spoke
Publisher: Allison& Busby, 2016
Cover design by Christina Griffiths/bookdeluxe
ISBN: 9780749020262, pbk with French flaps, 319 pages
Source: Personal library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 23, 2023

The Stone Angel (1964), by Margaret Laurence

I owe my discovery of the Canadian author Margaret Laurence (1926-1987) to Joe from Rough Ghosts.  Thanks to the miracle of Google Meet, we chat each week about books and so I didn’t need to wait for Joe’s review to order The Stone Angel, the book for which Laurence is best known.

This Side Jordan (1960) was her debut novel, and The Stone Angel is the first in the semi-autobiographical Manakawa Sequence.  My 2016 edition includes an Introduction by Michael Schmidt which tells me that this classic of Canadian literature—

—divides readers in ways that serious literature, no matter how amusing and wry the writing, often does. Those seeking characters with whom they can identify, a sympathetic narrator, conventional uplift or tragedy, are going to be puzzled and disappointed by a book so apparently conventional, yet so determinedly offbeat. (p.vii)

For readers my age, it is only too easy to identify with a woman struggling with ageing.  90 year-old Hagar Currie Shipley is considerably older than me, but she faces the loss of her independence with anger about its indignities and her refusal to be ‘put into’ aged care is part of a future that too often crosses the mind. I am currently reading Brigid Delaney’s Reasons Not to Worry, How to be Stoic in chaotic times … and I wonder how stoic I will be when the time comes.

I think I will probably be a cantankerous old woman too.

As Schmidt points out in his Introduction, Hagar is actually two characters: the protagonist and the narrator.  Neither of them are sympathetic.  Hagar the protagonist is belligerent, defiant, judgemental and too often deliberately cruel.  Her own worst enemy, she is a snob who married ‘down’ to thwart her father, and she maintains an internal monologue which is savage in its condemnations of others.  But as memory usurps reality, her inhibitions weaken, and her hypercritical remarks no longer remain private.  Her son Marvin and daughter-in-law Doris bear the brunt of this, but we only see the situation from Hagar’s point-of-view. So Doris is a frump who wants to be rid of her, and she can count on Marvin to be too weak and indecisive to act.  (Doris, of course, is the one who bears the burden of Hagar’s frailty: getting up in the night, laundering the sheets, fending off the complaints about her cooking, dealing with the falls, taking her to the doctor and so on.)

Hagar the narrator could moderate this negative impression of the protagonist, but she takes her time about it.  She interprets Hagar’s memories provoked by events and by the cherished objects in her house, and slowly a back story emerges.   It is through the narrator that we see Hagar’s shame and her regrets, and late in the novel we learn about the horrific tragedy that she represses.  It is through the narrator that we frame Hagar’s self-analysis and recognise that it is her own behaviour that makes her life so joyless.  She thinks that society judges her (or would, if they knew), the way that she judges it.  Like a corset she can’t take off, she can’t be rid of the rigid conservatism and expectations that she learned from her widowed father and Aunt Doll who brought her up.  So often we see her say that she could have said or done this or that, but doesn’t.  And the moment is lost.

Like women everywhere, Hagar has a sense of responsibility.  Often it’s misguided, and in the case of her intervention in her son’s love life, it’s cruel, but when the husband she left is dying, duty brings her back to the drought-ravaged farm that she hated.  Reminiscent of the powerful way that John Steinbeck depicted drought in The Grapes of Wrath, we see the desolation and the poverty.

At the Shipley place the rusty machinery stood like aged bodies gradually expiring from exposure, ribs turned to the sun.  The leaves of my lilac bushes were burnt yellow, and the branches snapped if you touched them.  The house had never been anything but grey, so it wasn’t any different now, except that the front porch, which had been made of green lumber when the house was built and had been warping for years, now had been given a final pliers twist by frost and wore a caved-in look, like toothless jaws.

Our horse-drawn car pulled into the yard, and the dust puffed up around us like flour.  My marigolds were a dead loss by this time, of course.  I’d planted them behind the house to use as cutting flowers and they’d kept on seeding themselves, but now only a few wizened ones remained, small unexpected dabs of orange among the choking weeds, dry sheepsfoot and thistle. The sunflowers had risen beside the barn as always, fed by the melting snow in spring, but they’d had no other water this year—their tall stalks were hollow and brown, and the heavy heads hung over, the segments empty as unfilled honeycombs, for the petals had fallen and the centres had dried before seeds could form. In the patch where I had grown radishes and carrots and lettuce, only the grasshoppers grew, leaping and whirring in the bone-dry air. (p.164)

And before we can feel pity for a woman seeing her years of labour devastated like this, the narrator undercuts it.  What does she say to John, her son who is looking after Bram?

‘He’s really let the place go now,’ I said.  ‘It breaks my heart to see it.’

‘What would you have done? ‘ John said.  ‘Hired a rainmaker? Got the ministers to pray or the Indians from the mountains to dance for clouds?’

‘I don’t believe it has to be this bad,’ I said. ‘It gives him an excuse never to lift a finger.’ (p.164)

But the sense of duty kicks in, so we also see Hagar, who cannot bring herself to offer comfort to Bram, set to work cleaning the house that’s been so neglected in her long absence.

The house had that rancid smell that comes from unwashed dishes and sour floors and food left sitting on the table.  The kitchen was a shambles.  You could have scratched your initials in the dark grease that coated the oilcloth on the table.  A loaf of bread sat there with the butcher knife stuck into it like a spear.  A dish of stewed saskatoons, the berries hard and small, was being attended by a court of flies.  On a larded piece of salt pork a mammoth matriarchal fly was labouring obscenely to squeeze out of herself her white and clustered eggs. (p.165)

Hagar cannot abide a dirty house.

Authorial irony delivers to Hagar a refuge from the plans of Doris and Marvin that is absolutely filthy.  She gives Doris the slip and ends up in an abandoned cannery.  She who has judged every woman in her acquaintance by the clothes they wore and the way they did their hair, finds herself in a pitiable state.  She disgusts herself but we, the readers, feel the pity we’ve been withholding.  But the barbs don’t stop and she maintains a fading grasp on reality even as her capacity to refute it weakens.

How pleased Doris would be, if I went back, to say she’d known all along she couldn’t trust me out of her sight for a moment.  How she’d sigh and sidle up to Marvin with her commentary.  And then she’d—

Of course.  I’d almost forgotten.  They’d crate me up in the car and deliver me like a parcel of old clothes to that place.  I’d never get out.  The only escape from those places is feet first in a wooden box.  I’ll not be forced.  They can go hang, the pack of them, the hounds, the hunters. (p.181)

Schmidt in the Introduction tells us that Margaret Laurence was ‘rediscovered’ as a ‘proto-feminist’ in the 1980s but that sold her work short.  

Certainly her protagonist is a strong woman, but not an imitable one, and not a readily sympathetic one.  Laurence was writing a book less in a realist tradition, more in the manner of, say, Bunyan, or of the George Eliot of Silas Marner, a book tending to allegory, rich in symbolism whose literal aspects are vivid and real, but whose fictional reality is of a different order from the ‘realism’ with which she is often robed. (p.xi)

The Manakawa Sequence consists of:

Read Joe’s review of The Stone Angel at Rough Ghosts here.  Thank you Joe!

Author: Margaret Laurence
Title: The Stone Angel
Cover art and endpapers: ‘Farm’ c.1933, by Prudence Heward
Publisher: Apollo, an imprint of Head of Zeus, 2016, first published 1964
ISBN: 9781784977696, pbk., 301 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Fishpond

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 21, 2023

The Bookbinder of Jericho (2023), by Pip Williams

The Bookbinder of Jericho is a companion novel to Pip Williams’ international bestseller, The Dictionary of Lost Words. Word of mouth will ensure that it will walk off the shelves, because it is the kind of historical novel that people like: a triumph of adversity set in a recognisable landscape, with a feisty female character with brains and a heart.  But whereas The Dictionary of Lost Words had a universality of theme that appeals because it explored the gendered and social limitations of ‘approved’ language, (see my review), The Bookbinder of Jericho is not so much about ‘knowledge withheld’ as about the class system in England during WW1.  Peggy Jones isn’t denied entry to Oxford because she’s a woman, it’s because she’s working-class.

And while that’s quite interesting, as historian Clare Wright has shown us, it is in sharp contrast to Australia, which in the early 20th century was internationally recognised as one of the most progressive societies in the world.  Women had the vote from the time of federation in 1901, and old money and old class systems had been faltering in influence throughout the 19th century.  In allowing women like Peggy’s wealthy friend Gwen to study but not to graduate until 1920, Britain England was well behind Australia where women had been admitted to the University of Melbourne since 1881 and Julia Margaret (Bella) Guérin became the first female graduate of an Australian University, with a BA in 1883 and then a Master of Arts in 1885.

For many of us, The Dictionary of Lost Words introduced an aspect of history that had been hidden.  But The Bookbinder of Jericho with its theme of working-class womanhood breaking down educational barriers traverses familiar territory. The 20th century was a period when the barriers to education, and women’s education in particular, gradually broke down.  Though the pace was faster in Australia than in England, women were admitted to universities, and awarded degrees.  There were gendered social and structural restrictions that had to be dealt with in the transitional period, and economic barriers limited access as well.  And though less so in Australia, as in England, there were class barriers.  It was all much harder to do without role models, and people of any gender from outside the establishment were made to feel like trespassers when they ventured into the halls of higher education.  Today, it is still easier if you are rich.  But everything is easier if you are rich…

Williams focusses her working-class character’s ambitions on Oxford,  delineating the class distinctions between Peggy the narrator, and Gwen — ‘Town’ and ‘Gown’. The contrast is between the working-class people who do the bookbinding at the Oxford University Press, and the upper-class people at the university who use those books to study, and are free to be dilettantes like Gwen.   Into this mix come WW1 refugees and the wounded from Belgium: Lottie, a librarian from Louvain who has experienced devastating loss, and the badly disfigured but still eligible love interest Bastiaan. In different ways both these characters provide support for Peggy in her quest.

The novel is also a character study of the ways in which caring for others can be a limitation on achievement. The principal at Somerville College delivers an address about how intelligent women should not succumb to the pressure to volunteer to help the flood of wounded men and to fill the empty places in industry, but some women do it anyway.  (Having battled parental obstacles to get a place at Oxford, the real life Vera Brittain famously gave it up to volunteer.) Or like Peggy and her wealthy mentor Gwen, they ‘do it all’.  Peggy volunteers after her day’s work at the bindery when she should be studying for the entrance exam, and Gwen volunteers when she should be studying for her course.

Aunt Tilda, volunteering on the battlefields, provides a woman’s perspective on the carnage through her letters.

The novel also explores how caring for others can be a self-imposed limitation.  Since her mother’s death, Peggy is responsible for her neurodivergent twin sister.  Maude doesn’t actually need her as much as Peggy thinks she does because Maude blossoms within the mutually respectful relationship with Lottie.  But Peggy’s relationship with Maude fulfils two contrasting roles in the novel: it gives her an excuse to abandon her ambition when she fears failure, and it gives her an excuse to defer any relationship with Bastiaan in favour of study rather than marriage.  Maude’s independence rests on routine: on the satisfying work she does at the bindery and on the accepting circle of people who care about her.  It wouldn’t translate readily to Belgium, and even if Britain let the refugees stay after the war, Bastiaan (an architect) has work to do restoring the shattered battlefields in his homeland.

All this is interesting enough, and Williams is not too heavy-handed with resentments against the patriarchy.  But, for me, the intricacies of bookbinding filled too many pages: it is just not as interesting as the intricacies of creating the Oxford Dictionary.  What I really liked was Peggy’s discovery that translation matters.  When she is struggling with learning ‘useless’ Ancient Greek to overcome the final barrier to university entrance, Miss Garnell the librarian shows her how a reader is at the mercy of the translator, their times, their perspective and their gender.  She reads the lofty translations that posit Odysseus as hero on his return to Ithaca, and then she draws attention to the hero’s revenge against the suitors who besieged Penelope in his absence.

‘Now let’s see how our modern scholars have interpreted it.’

She found the relevant page in each of the translations, including Ma’s, and laid them beside each other.  ‘So, remember, Odysseus has returned to Penelope after twenty years, found his house full of suitors and slain them.  But he doesn’t stop there,’ she said, and her finger jabbed at each line in turn.  ‘He tells his son to kill the women who lay with the suitors.  And no matter what translation you read, we are told that they are strung up by their necks so their deaths are an agony, and their feet twitch until there is no more life in them.’ She straightened.  Took a deep breath.  Looked at me.  ‘What are we to think of these women?’ (p.336.)

One translator calls them ‘maidens’, another as ‘handmaids’ akin to servants, and another as ‘prostitutes’.  Why does it matter?  Miss Garnell explains that the words used to describe us define our value to society and determine our capacity to contribute.  And they also tell others how to feel about us, how to judge us. A direct translation would be females, but that is not, says Miss Garnell, an apt translation for our times.  Homer did not need to tell his listeners that these women were slaves; they knew that. But a modern translation needs to be explicit, so that contemporary readers understand that the women had no choice.

‘They were bondmaids,’ I said.  Slave girl.  Bonded servant.  Bound to serve until death.  It had been in Women’s Words.

‘Exactly.  They couldn’t refuse to go with the suitors any more than they could refuse to do the laundry.  But the reader might think less of a prostitute who has been paid, or a maiden who has gone with the suitors of her own free will.  And they will not judge Odysseus so harshly for the punishment that he oversees.’

‘And so he remains a hero.’

‘Quite,’ said Miss Garnell, and she closed each book.  ‘In my opinion, the men who translate Homer have not always served the women well.’ (p.337)

That, of course, sent me to the Fagles 1996 edition of The Odyssey, translated nearly a century after this fictional conversation, to see how a more modern translation fares. (I have sampled Emily Wilson’s 2017 translation and found that she’d killed the poetry.)  Fagles tells us about the cruel deaths, and he doesn’t use the word slave though the women bear the yoke of service.  But Odysseus’s old nurse tells him that they all went tramping to their shame, thumbing their noses at [her] at the queen herself. (The Odyssey, by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, 1996, ISBN 9780140268867, p.452)

Alas, there is no Duolingo course in Ancient Greek!

Author: Pip Williams
Title: The Bookbinder of Jericho
Cover design by Andy Warren & Affirm Press
Publisher: Affirm Press, 2023
ISBN: 9781922806628, pbk., 432 pages
Review copy courtesy of Affirm Press

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 19, 2023

2023 ABIA Book Awards winners and shortlists

Updated 26/5/23 The winners have been announced. Winners for the categories below are in bold.  For other categories see the ABIA website here.

The ABIA (Australian Book Industry Awards) shortlists have been announced.

There are heaps of categories, I’m only including Adult categories, for other categories visit their website. As usual for this award, I’ve read hardly any of them…

Winners will be announced on Thursday 25 May..

Literary Fiction Book of the Year
All That’s Left Unsaid, Tracey Lien (HarperCollins Publishers, HQ Fiction)
The Sun Walks Down, Fiona McFarlane (Allen & Unwin)
Horse, Geraldine Brooks (Hachette Australia)
Seeing Other People, Diana Reid (Hardie Grant Publishing, Ultimo Press)
Limberlost, Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing), see my review

Small Publishers’ Adult Book of the Year
Humanity’s Moment, Joëlle Gergis (Black Inc.)
Cold Enough for Snow, Jessica Au (Giramondo Publishing), see my review
The Dreaming Path, Paul Callaghan (Pantera Press)
Tell Me Again, Amy Thunig (UQP)
Warlpiri Encyclopaedic Dictionary, Mary Laughren, Kenneth Hale, Jeannie Nungarrayi Egan, Marlurrku Paddy Patrick Jangala, Robert Hoogenraad, David Nash and Jane Simpson (Aboriginal Studies Press)

Social Impact Book of the Year
Come Together, Isaiah Firebrace, illustrated by Jaelyn Biumaiwai (Hardie Grant Publishing, Hardie Grant Explore)
How Many More Women, Jennifer Robinson and Keina Yoshida (Allen & Unwin)
The Boy from Boomerang Crescent, Eddie Betts (Simon and Schuster Australia)
Not Now, Not Ever, Julia Gillard (Penguin Random House, Australia Vintage)
Freedom, Only Freedom, Behrouz Boochani (Bloomsbury Publishing, Bloomsbury Academic (AUS))

The Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year
Tell Me Again, Amy Thunig (UQP)
Wake, Shelley Burr (Hachette Australia), see Sue’s review
Dirt Town, Hayley Scrivenor (Pan Macmillan Australia, Macmillan Australia)
The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner, Grace Tame (Pan Macmillan Australia, Macmillan Australia)
Root & Branch: Essays on inheritance, Eda Gunaydin (NewSouth Publishing, NewSouth)
All That’s Left Unsaid, Tracey Lien (HarperCollins Publishers, HQ Fiction)

General Fiction Book of the Year
Dirt Town, Hayley Scrivenor (Pan Macmillan Australia, Macmillan Australia)
The Tilt, Chris Hammer (Allen & Unwin)
Exiles, Jane Harper (Pan Macmillan Australia, Macmillan Australia)
Day’s End, Garry Disher (Text Publishing)
Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone, Benjamin Stevenson (Penguin Random House, Michael Joseph)

International Book of the Year
The Marriage Portrait, Maggie O’Farrell (Hachette Australia, Headline), on my TBR
Young Mungo, Douglas Stuart (Pan Macmillan, Australia Picador)
The Bullet That Missed, Richard Osman (Penguin Random House, Viking UK)
Lessons in Chemistry, Bonnie Garmus (Penguin Random House, Doubleday UK)
Stolen Focus, Johann Hari (Bloomsbury Publishing)

General Non-fiction Book of the Year
Reasons Not to Worry, Brigid Delaney (Allen & Unwin), just picked this up from the library
The Space Between the Stars, Indira Naidoo (Murdoch Books)
Bedtime Story, Chloe Hooper (Simon & Schuster Australia, Scribner Australia), see my review
Bulldozed, Niki Savva (Scribe Publications, Scribe)
Investing with She’s on the Money, Victoria Devine (Penguin Random House, Penguin Life)

Biography Book of the Year
My Dream Time, Ash Barty (HarperCollins Publishers)
Ten Steps to Nanette, Hannah Gadsby (Allen & Unwin)
The Boy from Boomerang Crescent, Eddie Betts (Simon & Schuster Australia)
Heartstrong, Ellidy Pullin (Hachette Australia)
The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner, Grace Tame (Pan Macmillan Australia, Macmillan Australia)

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 16, 2023

Geography (2004), by Sophie Cunningham

Sophie Cunningham’s newest book This Devastating Fever (2022) — described at the SMH as a great novel of enduring significance and enormous beauty — is receiving rave reviews everywhere so I thought it was a good time to review her debut novel Geography which turned up a couple of years ago in an OpShop. Shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, South East Asia (2004), Geography is nearly two decades old now, but it’s aged well and remains compelling reading.

By coincidence I see this morning that Stu from Winston’s Dad has reviewed Sandor Marai’s Conversations in Bolzano which is about Casanova, the (in)famous libertine whose name is synonymous with womaniser. Geography is about a woman Who Should Know Better who goes weak at the knees over An Unworthy Man.  Like all Catherine’s friends in the novel, the reader wants to stop this train wreck of a ‘relationship’… but does not lose patience with its vulnerable narrator…

It is a measure of Sophie Cunningham’s skill as an author that she makes an absorbing tale out of this.  Set in two time frames in transnational settings, Geography signals from the outset that the relationship has ended, but we do not know if Catherine is over it, or if she’s going to fall under Michael’s spell again. And the thing is, it’s not about the things that make a relationship great.  As her loyal friend Marion says in bafflement:

‘Just don’t wake up one morning to find five years have gone by and you’re still hooked.  He’s not real, Catherine.  You don’t know him. Nothing is more alluring than a man you make up in your head.’

‘Of course he’s real.’

‘No, he’s not. He’s drama and chaos.  He’s Los Angeles.  He’s good sex. ‘ Marion stared at me in exasperation. ‘You don’t get it, do you? With real boyfriends you do things. You hang out after you have sex.  You talk about stuff. All you’ve done with this guy is f___, get a postcard or sit by the phone in a range of exotic locations.  It is not a relationship.’ (p.98)

It’s just lust. (BTW, the language is ‘earthy’ and there’s a lot of episodes that take place in bed.  And other places, notably a bathroom sink which *chuckle* sounds rather uncomfortable to me.)

Marion’s partner Raff says (p.87)

‘You’re not still interested, are you?’ He looked at me. ‘Jesus, you are.  Women, I’ll never understand them.  It’s the nice men like me that always get passed over.’ (p.87)

This self-deprecating joke has serious intent because Raff is genuinely concerned about Catherine.  In the household they share with Catherine in inner-city Melbourne, these two are expecting a baby to add to their family, of which Catherine is a much-loved member.

With rare exceptions, there’s a bit of a dearth of nice men in contemporary fiction, but there’s a nice available man called Tony who is waiting patiently for Catherine, and Catherine’s brother Finn in New York is also a nice man like Raff.  The playful dialogue between these siblings sparkles with humour and shared understandings.  Dialogue is a real strength in this novel.

The other strength of Geography is its settings.  In the post-Michael timeframe, Catherine is finding herself again while travelling in Sri Lanka and India with Ruby.  In the futile pursuit of a relationship that’s never going to happen she goes from Melbourne to Los Angeles (with side trips to New York to see Finn), and Sydney and back again. One particularly vivid episode featuring getting snowed in by a blizzard in New York, prefigures the extreme weather events we are getting used to now.

As the novel progresses, allusions to catastrophes begin to mount, putting the whole  ‘relationship thing’ into context.  Catherine associates events in her own life with the disasters, natural and manmade, that happen to other people.  She went to see a memorable football match at the same time as seeing Timothy McVeigh in leg-irons and handcuffs after the Oklahoma bombing when 163 people died.  She notes that it was two years after the Waco siege  when 86 people died.  She worries about Michael when the Northridge earthquake shakes Los Angeles with a death toll of 57.  In a portent of the catastrophic bushfires that are now regular events, there is a vivid portrayal of Michael and Catherine in a Sydney blanketed by smoke:

As the fires got closer to Sydney the air became thicker.  We would wake up in the middle of the night, coughing in a smoky room.  There were two hundred fires burning around New South Wales; it was if everything was swimming in a sea of smoke.  Each night on the news there were fire stories, and, one night, a shot of a reporter in the centre of town gesturing to the fiery suburbs behind him with a broad sweep of the arm.  Houses were burning; the city was ringed by fires.  A man in a torn, blackened singlet was filmed in front of the wreckage of his house. He shrugged.

‘Everything is ash,’ he said.

There were stories of heroes, of fifteen thousand fire fighters from New South Wales and volunteers pouring in from around Australia.  Of people abandoning their cars on the highway.  Of a family pet exploding into a ball of flame as it tried to escape.  Of fire cutting people off so they couldn’t drive out backwards or forwards.  People in outer suburbs started to clear their gardens of dead wood, clear the land around their houses and hose everything down.  They stood on their roofs with their hoses; waving them at the flames as if they could shoot the fire, kill it dead.  Five houses in a Sydney street burnt down and the tabloids went crazy, running photos of the charred remains of a little girl’s Christmas presents on the front page.

‘It’s Christmas,’ the people who had lost everything said on the news.  ‘Things like this shouldn’t happen at Christmas.’

But things like this always happen at Christmas.  I thought of my friends whose father had walked out on Christmas Eve.  Remembered getting up to fetch the newspaper on Boxing Day when I was a little girl and seeing the photo of a city, Darwin, obliterated by a cyclone. […] Christmas, I thought, is exactly the time of year shit like this happens. (p.79-80)

Cunningham’s writing, especially the non-fiction that I’ve read, has continued to explore catastrophe.  In 2014, ten years after Geography, Cunningham went on to write Warning, The Story of Cyclone Tracy, (see my review) and City of Trees (2019, see my review) is an exploration of living with the loss of trees.  This Devastating Fever is on my TBR, and it’s about living through what feels like the end of days.

Geography, written all those years ago, reminds us not to waste any of them.

Author: Sophie Cunningham
Title: Geography
Cover design by Chong
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2004
ISBN: 9781920885038, pbk., 243 pages
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind, $3.00


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 15, 2023

Inner Song (2023), by Jillian Graham

Anyone who’s interested in Australian music history will want to read Jillian Graham’s Inner Song, a Biography of Margaret Sutherland.  But I have more than a casual interest in the 20th century history of music in Melbourne because it was the era of my piano teacher, the prominent concert pianist Valda Johnstone (1914-2007).  She was a contemporary of the notable Australian composer and performer Margaret Sutherland, and from my archive of VJ’s concert programs, I know that they performed on the same program at least once —

Musical Society 9.9.1944, Assembly Hall, Melbourne 8.15pm under the patronage of George A Nicholas and R Kaye Scott, President Herbert David.  Members of the Forces admitted free.

Afternoon of Music, 22 June 1965, VJ and Phyllis Bachelor performing a Pavane by Sutherland

VJ also had the sheet music for Sutherland’s Second Suite: Chorale Prelude, Mirage, Lavender Girl, The Quest (published by Allens).  It had the performance timing noted on the front cover so she must have performed it somewhere, maybe on radio.  (She was a regular on ABC 3LO and on NZ radio when she toured New Zealand.)  VJ had a handwritten score for ‘Mirage’ too. I donated it to the State Library of Victoria after her death, along with the rest of VJ’s papers.

With co-pianist Phyllis Batchelor (1915-1999), VJ also performed, at least once that I know of, a composition of Sutherland’s.  (VJ had a huge repertoire, and as you can see from the sheet music deposited at the SLV, she liked playing modern compositions.) This typewritten program shows that Sutherland’s piece was a Pavane for two pianos— for an ‘Afternoon of Music’ in 1965.  Held at the home of Mr and Mrs John Doyle in Normanby St, Kew, it was a performance for an award in the name of the music critic for The Age, Dorian Le Gallienne, who was also a composer.  (I have a program for a concert held at the Kelvin Hall (later the Playbox Theatre) that includes his composition for two pianos called ‘Legend’).

#Digression: When I was a teenager, I went twice with VJ to recitals held in private homes.  Do people still offer their homes as performance spaces like this, I wonder?

Margaret Sutherland AO OBE (1897 – 1984) was a composer, performer and activist for the musical arts community, playing an important role in lobbying for our Melbourne Arts Centre when the site was at risk of development.  Despite periods of time when her output was limited, (and a disappointing number of lost scores, how did that happen??) — as you can see from a partial list of her 90 works at Wikipedia, she was a prolific composer, best-known perhaps for her symphonic poem ‘Haunted Hills’, which you can hear at You Tube here.

As Jillian Graham explains in this comprehensive biography, Sutherland composed across all forms, including a symphony called ‘The Four Temperaments’; concertos like this one for violin and this concertino; an opera called ”The Young Kabbarli’; poetry set to music; solo, duet & trio pieces including sonatas; and a large oeuvre of chamber music such as this String Quartet No 1.  Commenting on this, Graham explains that Sutherland prioritised writing smaller chamber works because…

She enjoyed writing for unusual combinations of instruments and felt more comfortable with chamber music. ‘I can’t think of anything I’d rather do in the whole world,’ she said in 1965.  ‘I love the intimacy of writing for a small group of musicians rather than for a big orchestra.  I suppose this is reasonable—women don’t go in for tackling epics.’ Again, in 1968, she equated a feminine sensibility with chamber compositions, arguing that women’s offerings should not be devalued because they did not conform to the dominant masculine paradigm.

‘A woman can contribute in a special kind of way.  I don’t think that women want to write the same type of things as men, but their contribution is no less important.  They [men] seem to have the same yardstick all the time, this symphonic business.’ (p.103)

But the cost and difficulty of having orchestral work performed was also a factor.

[Having works performed was] “very difficult in the past.  Now we have grants.  In the past many of us had to write our own parts, even orchestral parts. It was a very expensive thing to have an orchestral work performed: £250 at least.  We used to have to wait years to get a first performance, but by then you would have moved on to other areas.” (p.103)

#Digression: I know this to be true.  The Spouse formed his own jazz orchestra, the Australian Cotton Club Orchestra (ACCO) so that he could have his arrangements performed, and I memorably had to lend a hand with writing out the piano part for an arrangement of ‘Japanese Sandman’ while he did the other parts which had to be ready in time for the recording.

Copying parts is not something a creative person wants to do; it’s just laborious work which demands great care and attention to copying exactly what’s in the score, for each individual part.  The bigger the ensemble or orchestra, the more tedious work involved, which takes time away from the creative impulse. These days, it can be done on a keyboard linking to a computer, but it wasn’t like that in 1988 nor in Sutherland’s day either.  It costs money to have someone else do it, and Sutherland lobbied for grants to have this work done.

That ‘Japanese Sandman’ arrangement for the ACCO was commissioned by Bill Armstrong for The Bill Armstrong Collection (1989, WEA) so I was interested to see that Sutherland didn’t receive her first commission until 1966 at the age of sixty-nine, and even then it was thanks to the insistence of Robert Hughes!

As foundation chair of the Australian Performing Rights Association (APRA), Robert Hughes refused to end a meeting until they agreed to commission Margaret.  In early 1967, she began work on her three-movement String Quartet No 3.  Written for the Cremona Quartet, whose members she knew well (Leonard Dommett, violin 1; Sybil Copeland, violin 2; John Glickman, viola; and Henry Wenig, cello) Margaret was influneced by the emotional quality of intensity and rapport she noted in the group.  The result was a confident exhibition of modernism that moved beyond her previous string quartets.

A second commission followed, this time by the Australian Musicians Overseas Scholarship Fund for a piano piece.  Extension was one of three piano works written in 1967… (p.202).

One of the really terrific aspects of this biography is that Graham is a musician herself and writes knowledgeably about Sutherland’s musicianship, style, and continuous innovation.  (This is not necessarily the case when a journalist with no music background writes a bio!)   For example, in discussing Extension and Chiaroscuro I and II, Graham explains…

The title Extension refers to the thematic and tonal material extending from the basic shapes and pitch orders of the opening passages, as is also the case in the Chiaroscuros.  As ever, Margaret was seeking new directions for her musical language, and in her last two years of composition, wanted to demonstrate her mastery of contemporary methods. (p.202)

Though not wealthy, Sutherland had a fairly privileged upbringing in a family that was prominent in the arts.  She had good role models in her aunts who encouraged her to follow her creative instincts and enabled her education both at home and at the Conservatorium of Music.  But family finances became compromised after the deaths in middle age of her father and all her uncles, and she had to work at teaching piano (which she hated) to save the wherewithal for her first overseas trip.

It was not a study trip in the usual sense because she did not make much of the opportunity for tuition in the UK or Europe.  Sutherland, even as a young musician, had very firm ideas about the impact of tuition on creativity, and was already expressing opinions about the teaching at the Albert Street Conservatorium, transferring to the ‘Con’ at Melbourne University because she wanted to work with Edward Goll (1884-1949) whose ideas she preferred.  But she developed a longstanding dislike of the conductor Bernard Heinze  (1894-1982) who was Ormond Professor of Music at the University of Melbourne and the dominant musical figure in Melbourne for decades.

#Digression#2 Heinze was also a great mentor to VJ at the ‘Con’ and as a conductor, which led to many engagements at the Myer Music Bowl and the ABC.  Indeed, as VJ told me when we were working on her (unpublished) memoirs, he called her up one day to discuss a problem that was limiting her career opportunities…

‘Valda’, he said, ‘I’ve got a serious matter to discuss with you… you are a very bad sight reader.’  ‘I know’ I said, ‘You needn’t tell me, I know.  What can I do?’  He said, ‘I’ll tell you what you can do – go to the market and buy a shilling’s worth of music, take it home, read it, play it and throw it away.  And then go and buy another shilling’s worth.’

‘And also, besides that,’ he continued,’ You want to get into a studio where you’ll have to play for some of the students, a singing studio or something where you have to play accompaniments.’

‘I said I’d do that, and in a fortnight I received a phone call from the ‘Con’, asking me to go and interview a Russian baritone who had come to Australia and was looking for a young pianist – would I go up and meet him?’

So Valda went off to his home in South Yarra and so began a long association with Adolf Spivakovski, a bass-baritone teacher of opera and brother of the violin virtuoso Nathan ‘Tossy’ Spivakovski (who Sutherland hoped would play her compositions, p 102).  Although VJ was a concert pianist in her own right, Heinze’s intervention was the catalyst for a successful career as a sought-after accompanist, leading to VJ’s long association with the sopranos Sylvia Fisher, Kathleen Goodall and Irene Branston, and with the violinist John Glickman and visiting celebrities such as the Viennese tenor Mario Dane.

In other words, networking was just as important back then as it is now, and alienating important people isn’t usually a good idea. Because Inner Song documents exhaustively the many hostilities that Margaret Sutherland had … with Bernard Heinze, Eugene Goossens (1893-1962);  Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014); Margaret Schofield; George Dreyfus, (b.1928) and ABC radio broadcast management … the biography gives the unfortunate impression that whether her abrasive criticisms were justified by her frustrations or not, she was (a-hem) ‘difficult’.

Well, Beethoven was notoriously cranky, and though that caused him difficulties in his lifetime, it hasn’t impacted on his place in musical history and it doesn’t impact on Sutherland’s legacy as a composer and a role model for other women.  It may be that her personal life didn’t help.  Sutherland’s marriage was apparently a disaster, and the lack of support and interest in her career impacted on what she was able to achieve, though Graham concedes that we only have her side of the story, and Sutherland had ‘edited’ that, getting rid of everything that was a reminder of a marriage that ended none too soon in divorce.

Well of course we want a bio to be honest.  A hagiography that conceals a subject’s flaws isn’t worth reading IMO.  Maybe being driven by an ‘inner song’ isn’t compatible with congenial relationships, not if you have to keep standing up for yourself as a trailblazer.  But it was good to read that Sutherland did have some longstanding friendships, including the musicologist and fellow Lyceum Club member Lorna Stirling (1893-1956) who collaborated with Sutherland in organising the Midday Concerts during the war years and in the campaign for the Arts Centre; and the welfare activist and international affairs specialist, Ada Constance ‘Con’ Duncan (1896-1970).

There is a great deal to like about this biography, but my interest waned from time to time because resentments about the patriarchy partially overshadowed the story of a successful woman composer of the 20th century.  I don’t doubt that Sutherland’s career was hampered by the gendered limitations of her era, and it’s an important part of her story, but though a feminist of long standing, I wearied of hearing so much about it.

Margaret Sutherland was a woman of remarkable achievement who deserves to be remembered for her contribution to 20th century music, nicely summarised at the Australian Music Centre where you can hear samples of her compositions:

The stature of Margaret Sutherland is unique in Australian music. She is honoured both as a distinguished composer and as one who continuously generated fresh interest and activity in the field of music. She asserted the importance of new music, particularly the work of Australian composers, and demonstrated her commitment to this belief by an extraordinary range of activities.

Inner Song is also reviewed at the Queensland Reviewers Collective. If (paywalled) Limelight hasn’t reviewed it yet, they surely will.

Author: Jillian Graham
Title: Inner Song, a Biography of Margaret Sutherland
Cover design by Pfisister + Freeman
Publisher: Miegunyah Press, an imprint of Melbourne University Press, 2023
ISBN: 9780522878233, hbk., 283 pages including Selected References, Endnotes, an index and 12 B&W photo reproductions.
Review copy courtesy of Melbourne University Press

If you are interested to hear some of the remarkable music composed by Australian women, visit this site at the Australian Music Centre where you can hear samples from a CD called ‘Women of Note Vol 2’.

You can read an obituary for Margaret Sutherland here:

Margaret Sutherland AO OBE 1897 – 1984

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 12, 2023

One Illumined Thread (2023), by Sally Colin-James

Appearing at the Sydney Writers Festival in May this year, Sally Colin-James is the author of the historical novel One Illumined Thread — which was written with the support of the 2020 HNSA Colleen McCullough Residency Award, the 2020 Varuna PIP Fellowship Award, the Australian Writers Mentoring program, and the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival Mentorship Award.  Her work was also shortlisted in the 2021 First Pages Prize, and was completed with a PhD scholarship.

It is remarkable to see how much support this one novel has had, and it just shows that (although there’s never enough to go round, of course) there are some great initiatives in the Australian writing landscape to help emerging writers on their way.

The Visitation by Mariotto Albertinelli (1503) (Wikipedia)

Set in three time frames, from the Biblical era to the Renaissance to the present day, One Illumined Thread is linked by the artistic pursuits of three unconventional women.  The story begins in the present day with a small scrap of textile in the hands of an unnamed museum conservationist in Adelaide who believes that the tapestry might depict the visitation between the pregnant cousins, Saint Elisabeth (mother of John the Baptist) and the Virgin Mary.  This Renaissance painting by Albertinelli is now in the Uffizi Gallery but was originally in the chapel of San Michele alle Trombe in Florence.

All three women are childless and in need of consolation in one way or another.  The museum conservator’s adult son has died and her need to hide from an abusive husband back in Melbourne means that she confides in no one. In Judea Elisheva marries Zakharya but is childless in an era when this excluded her from the society of other women.  She takes up glass-blowing and creates a vial that conceals a message within.  In Renaissance Florence, Antonia’s parents marry her off to the much older Mariotto Albertinelli (1474-1515).  It’s an affectionate marriage despite his scandalous behaviour, but she is childless too and she takes up the quest to create the perfect white paint.  I enjoyed this strand of the story most, but, well, with my love of Renaissance art, I would, wouldn’t I?

I have a beautiful illustrated three-volume Folio Edition set of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, but alas, it’s only a selection translated by George Bull and it doesn’t include Albertinelli’s story.  Vasari (1511-1575) was a painter in his own right, but he is renowned as the first art-historian and biographer of several Renaissance artists, including Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.  He invented the genre.  He was also an inveterate gossip and scholarship has shown that his entertaining anecdotes about the artists are not always accurate.  For the strand of the story set in Renaissance Florence, Colin-James has fleshed out Vasari’s description of Albertinelli as we see it at Wikipedia:

According to Giorgio Vasari’s Life of Albertinelli, the painter lived as a libertine and was fond of good living and women. Albertinelli reportedly had experienced financial problems and operated a tavern to supplement his income as a painter. At the end of his life he was unable to repay some of his debts, including one to Raphael. His wife Antonia, whom he married in 1506, repaid some of his loans.

Even readers who haven’t been lucky enough to visit Florence will enjoy the vivid descriptions of Antonia and her unconventional life, and the Judean strand seems well-researched and realistic, but the contemporary strand seemed to me to be a bit overwrought.  There were also a couple of high-tension moments in all three strands where the reader is ‘left hanging’ while the narrative reverts to another strand.  To my mind, these disruptions didn’t make the novel a page-turner, it made it occasionally manipulative and irritating.  But overall, One Illumined Thread is a striking debut and I suspect that many readers will love it.

Author: Sally Colin-James
Title: One Illumined Thread
Publisher: Fourth Estate, (an imprint of Harper Collins)
ISBN: 9781460762103, pbk., 359 pages including Guides to the Aramaic Language Used, and to the Italian used, plus an extensive Author’s Note, and Acknowledgments, so the novel is really 332 pages in length
Source: Kingston Library

Image credits:

The Visitation by Mariotto Albertinelli – ; english Wikipedia,, Public Domain,

Two things to note if you are an author of historical fiction, aspiring, emerging or otherwise:

  • The 2021 First Pages Prize is an international award for authors who don’t have an agent.  It is open to un-agented writers worldwide, who enter their First Five Pages (1250 words) of a longer work of fiction or creative nonfiction. Winners receive cash awards, a developmental mentorship, and an agent consultation.
  • The Historical Novel Society Australasia has just announced that entries for the 2023 The ARA Group Historical Novel Prize are now open. Worth $100,000 in prize monies, the ARA Historical Novel Prize is the richest genre-based literary award in Australasia. It incorporates both an Adult category and a Children and Young Adult (CYA) category. The Prize is a celebration of historical fiction, and a real opportunity to foster the genre on a grander scale. Entries close on 14 June 2023. For more information, visit the HNSA here.
Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 11, 2023

Momentum (2002), by Mo Mowlam

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, retrieving unpublished reviews from my journals 1997-2007

With the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, I have been #understatement disappointed by the media reports that fail to acknowledge British MP Mo Mowlam (1949-2005) as the catalyst for the peace agreement. Today ABC media reports credited the US for achieving it, and when I looked up the Wikipedia article about it, it mentions Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern but not the woman who was Minister for Northern Ireland, the first woman to hold the post…

So I  dug out my review of Momentum, The Struggle for Peace, Politics and the People, Mo Mowlam’s candid memoir which I read nearly twenty years ago.

Mowlam was not only innovative and determined in her approach, she was incredibly brave.  Wikipedia (in a separate article to the Good Friday Agreement article which makes no mention of her), tells us that a reflection of her personal approach was the organisation of a walk about in Belfast city centre. She abandoned the unproductive refusals to negotiate with Sinn Féin, and met their leader Gerry Adams. This led to a second IRA ceasefire and Sinn Féin being included in the multi-party peace talks.

When the Ulster Loyalist prisoners in the Maze prison tried to sabotage the peace process, Mowlam gambled on progress and her own personal safety and made an unprecedented visit to the prison, talking face-to-face to the prisoners, some of whom were convicted murderers.

The talks led to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement achieved on the 10th April 1998, bringing an end to conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles.


I’d listened to this memoir as an audiobook for the daily commute, so I couldn’t take notes to use for my journal.  I wish I’d written more, but I took note of the principles she initiated as preconditions for successful negotiations.

Momentum, The Struggle for Peace, Politics and the People, by Mo Mowlam, narrated by the author, first published 2002

From my reading journal, dated 8th July, 2006 (which was the anniversary of the July bombings in London).

Mo Mowlam was the British Minister for Northern Ireland who engineered the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.  Although I didn’t really know much about her, I admired her because she succeeded where so many had failed, and she did it all while having radiotherapy for a brain tumour.

I learned some useful things.  She says that

  • You need to know your history but not live in it.
  • You have to talk to both sides even if one of the sides are terrorists because there is no hope of resolving it otherwise. (Even if what they want is unreasonable.)
  • There will always be those who benefit from the violence who will sabotage a peace process so you need a design an agreement that doesn’t fall apart because of the actions of extremists.
  • Timing is very important …

Author: Mo Mowlam
Title: Momentum, The Struggle for Peace, Politics and the People
Audiobook narrated by the author.
Publisher: Magna, 2002
ISBN: 9781859036877
Source: Kingston Library

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 10, 2023

Testament of Friendship (1940), by Vera Brittain

I read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship for the 1940 Club hosted by Kaggy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon from Stuck in a Book.

Books about female friendship are ubiquitous these days, but in Vera Brittain’s day (1893-1970) it was all about noble male friendship (a.k.a. mateship here in Australia) while close female friendships were sometimes the subject of speculation and gossip.  Just as Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933) was the first to step outside the male experience of WW1, so too was her story of her intimate but platonic friendship with a woman who meant the world to her.  Testament of Friendship is poignant reading because Winifred Holtby (1898-1935) died aged only 37 from Bright’s Disease, (now known as nephritis, i.e. kidney disease.)

Despite its tragic conclusion, the book is a lively account of two clever young women determined to do something useful in the world.  They met at Oxford, where in the absence of men mostly at the front, they enjoyed comparative respect for women.  Both had served in the war, Vera as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse and Winifred in the  Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), an experience which she used in her writing, as seen in the Sensational Snippet I published last week.  Although Brittain’s pacifism cost her some respect during WW2 which was looming even as she wrote this tribute to her friend, Testament of Friendship documents how young women could be politically active as feminists, socialists and pacifists, and could take on significant roles in the issues of the day.

At the same time, the women shared a grief for all that had been lost in the devastation of that pointless war.  Vera had lost her fiancé, her two close friends and her brother, while Winifred’s ‘love of her life’ returned psychologically damaged and not capable of settling to anything.  Oxford, they found on their return, was a changed place too.  Chapter VI explains how it was inhabited by three incompatible groups engaged in a spiritual tug-of-war:

  • The dons in their academic twilight, barely illumined by occasional visits from younger or more enterprising colleagues who had joined the Army or taken posts in Government offices.  These senior members of the academic staff had waited out the war in discomfort, not because they were pacificists, but because the chaos of war threatened their decorous intellectual routine;
  • The returning servicemen, back to finish their interrupted studies, impatient with the university’s  restrictions on their liberty after years of peril, independence and extreme responsibility. Ex-colonels and majors in their late twenties did not respect curfews to protect morality!
  • The youthful contingent of schoolboys and schoolgirls who had spent the war in classrooms and on playing fields resented the transformation of Oxford by their disillusioned seniors. Even as the Treaty of Versailles was setting up the conditions for WW2, their aspirations were to build a new world. So battles raged in common rooms, debating societies and university magazines.

Of all that I have read about the aftermath of WW2, I had never come across this dissection of the ferment in universities!

Vera and Winifred were determined to be writers, and more importantly, to live to their potential rather than have lives circumscribed by society’s expectations.  The support they gave each other was not just mentoring and encouragement, it was practical too. When Vera met her eventual husband (George Caitlin) who she refers to only as G., he had to fit into their relationship, not (as is so often the case even today), the other way round.  In the event they opened up their home to Winifred and Winifred babysat Vera’s children John and Shirley, and became a much-loved ‘aunt’.  Although they lived a privileged lifestyle compared to many, they both worked very hard at their craft, juggling domestic responsibilities which were not just the care of Vera’s children, but demanding obligations to extended family as well. There seem to have been endless crises necessitating extended periods of nursing in Winifred’s family when all her attempts to find quiet time to write were frustrated.

Writing this biography five years after Winifred’s death, Brittain is still haunted by guilt that she did not do enough for her friend in the last years of her life.  Winifred was indomitable and she concealed how ill she was from everyone, but still Brittain cannot forgive herself.

Not one of us who loved her most dearly is guiltless; not even one.  But if we ever stand before the Recording Angel and bitterly confess the measure of our joint responsibility for her premature end, it will be her loving, distressed astonishment at our remorse which alone will save us from our just punishment for the wrong we did her.  (p.442)

Although this biography of her friend is a sincere testament to an important friendship, it is not a hagiography.  Vera includes Winifred’s poetry at the start of every chapter and where relevant throughout the text, not because it’s particularly good poetry, but because it offers insights into Winifred’s thoughts and emotions.  We read about some incidents where Winifred lost her temper, made imprudent decisions, and was taken in by exploitative activists from South Africa, but these pale into insignificance beside the anecdotes about Winifred’s courage, selflessness, generosity and thoughtfulness.  She packed an extraordinary amount into her short life, as a journalist, a novelist, a lecturer, a fundraiser and speaker for great causes, and a champion of the people exploited by the white majority in South Africa.

In 1935 Winifred wrote this about feminism:

‘The old excuse ‘I’m only a woman’ is still heard in the land,’ she wrote in a Silver Jubilee [of George V]  article published by The Queen the following spring, ‘but its power is waning.  This is the foundation of all future achievement — to have faith in oneself and one’s capacity.  All art, all leadership is impossible without that confidence which the past achievement of women, limited as it may have been, has made possible.  ‘I’m a woman and proud of it’, is the modern cry.  Tomorrow, perhaps, we shall hear less of both, and more of ‘I’m a human being, and so it is my responsibility to do such and such.’ And then it will matter less whether there has, or has not, been a woman Shakespeare.  It will matter only that humanity achieves great art, great statesmanship, great science and great sanctity; that one sex is not shut off from such achievement and that both rejoice in what humanity at its best can be.’ (p.383)

Today, Winifred Holtby is best known for her novel South Riding, posthumously published in 1936. Wikipedia tells me that all her novels, together with a collection of short stories and a collection of her journalism, were reprinted by Virago in the Virago Modern Classics series in the 1980s.  Her Will funded literary awards in her name. 

Rohan Maitzen at Novel Readings has written extensively about Vera Brittain, both as an author in her own right and as part of the literary milieu that included Virginia Woolf and Rebecca West amongst others.  I recommend browsing through Rohan’s posts with a cup of tea and a biscuit at hand if you want to find out more about this remarkable era in 20th century literature.

Testament of Friendship is second in Brittain’s Testament Trilogy.

Update 11/4/23: Thanks to Ali’s comment below, I have discovered that Heavenali has a wealth of reviews of Winifred Holtby’s writing.  Type Holtby into the search box at the top of her blog and you will find reviews of:

Author: Vera Brittain (1893-1970)
Title: Testament of Friendship
Afterword by Rosalind Delmar
Publisher: Fontana Paperbacks in association with Virago Press, 1981, first published by Macmillan and Co in 1940
Cover design not credited
ISBN: 0006363539, pbk., 453 pages
Source: personal library, purchased for $3.00 from the (now defunct) Rhyll Book Exchange on Phillip Island.

You can hear more about South Riding at Backlisted.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 9, 2023

Combined reviews: Praiseworthy (2023) by Alexis Wright

Updated 28/4/23

13/4/23 Updated to include a new review, see below…

A new novel from Waanyi woman Alexis Wright is an Event, and Praiseworthy, just released by Giramondo has already been garnering plenty of reviews.  For those intimidated by its 700+ pages, here are some professional reviews which may tempt you to take the plunge.

(I’ll add reviews from LitBlog circles as and when they become available.)

Most of these reviews are paywalled, but still, for those with access, it’s worth collecting them here. Plus, some of these publications let you read an article every now and then so you might be lucky.

Declan Fry at the Guardian

Clare G Coleman in The Saturday Paper. Coleman identifies with the South Coast Noongar people of Western Australia

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth in the Australian Book Review

Jane Gleeson-White at The Conversation

Jack Cameron Stanton at the SMH

Tony Birch in The Monthly.  Birch identifies as a Fitzroy Blak of Aboriginal, Irish and West Indian descent.

Brief thoughts from Steve Harmon in The Guardian’s Bookmark This

Notable for the absence of any review or any mention in its ‘Notable Books’ page or anywhere else, is The Australian’s Weekend Review.  (April 8-9, 2023).  Presumably its new editor didn’t take Geordie Williamson’s 2022 advice to watch out for it. Update 22/4/23: An omission since rectified.  There is a review by Geordie Williamson in the Weekend Review of April 22-23.)

Update 13/4/23: the first of reviews from the world of LitBlogs:

Tony at Tony’s Reading List.

Alexis Wright is from the Waanyi people in the Gulf region of Queensland.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 8, 2023

Spell the Month in Books April 2023 Linkup

Spell the Month in Books is a linkup hosted on Reviews From the Stacks on the first Saturday of each month, but that’s the day for #6Degrees, so here we are, a week later instead.

This month the theme is Anything Goes so I’m going to feature recent Australian non-fiction releases, recent meaning ‘in the last four years’ to shine a light on books impacted by the pandemic. These are all terrific books.

Links go to my reviews.

Accidental Feminists (2019), by Jane Caro

Penny Wong, Passion and Principle (2019), by Margaret Simons

Rivers, the Life Blood of Australia (2020) by Ian Hoskins

Imaginative Possession (2021), by Belinda Probert

Life as Art, the Biographical Writing of Hazel Rowley (2021), edited by Della Rowley


Thanks to Jennifer for reminding me.  Her April list is here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2023

Winter is Coming (2016), by Carolyne Larrington

Did you know, my dear readers, that I am an unabashed Game of Thrones enthusiast? I have not (yet) learned High Valerian,  and I haven’t actually read the books though I’ve collected them all from OpShops, but from the time we watched the first HBO episode out of simple curiosity, we were hooked.  And so when I stumbled on Oxford University’s TORCH Book at Lunchtime featuring a presentation of ‘All Men Must Die’ by Professor Carolyne Larrington, I reserved its predecessor Winter is Coming at the library.   And discovered at Goodreads that Jennifer at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large had read it already, seven years ago when it was first released.

Winter is Coming (2016) interrogates GoT Books 1-5 and Seasons 1-5, so All Men Must Die: Power and Passion in Game of Thrones (2021) is its sequel, but unlike Winter is Coming which has a lot of love at Goodreads, All Men Must Die seems to have disappointed the diehard fans.

Whatever about that, I found it fascinating to read in Winter is Coming about the ways in which the series draws on history, mythology and medieval literature tropes.  The book is segmented into an Introduction and five chapters which explore the Known World and its power bases in the North, the West and the East. But despite their differences, these power bases have much in common, much of which is derived from the medieval world.

The cultures of the Known World, mostly but not exclusively framed by the norms of Westeros, share a good number of deep-seated cultural beliefs: about rank and gender, about honour and face, hospitality, justice, weapons and the habits of dragons. (p.9)

(Which are, as we see in the end, amoral weapons of mass destruction wielded in the pursuit of power.)


A Minstrel Sings of Famous Things by JR Skelton 1910 (Wikipedia)

Outsiders of low status play crucial roles in the GoT narrative.  This is a world where Rank, Birth and Honour determine life chances from the outset, and everyone — even Shagga (the low-status leader of the Stone Crows)  announces his lineage at the moment of introduction. In the old English epic poem, Beowulf the narrator makes repeated references to Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow, which evokes memories of his deeds and makes his son acceptable to the King of the Danes.  So it is in GoT.

Bloodline is everything for the members of the Great Houses, and their relative standing is determined by the length of their history. p.15)

Yet Lord Varys rises from a childhood as a castrated beggar to the Small Council, despite having no land, no House, and only an honorific title.  Lord Baelish is a newbie.  He only inherited his land and title recently and he’s a social inferior with the derisive nickname ‘Littlefinger’ but he rises to be Master of Coin.  Bronn is only a sellsword (a mercenary) but his friendship with Tyrion Lannister is for sale at a critical moment, enabling him to rise without any lineage.  And then there’s Jon Snow…

(And that’s because Jon Snow has Honour despite his dubious lineage!)

Membership of a lineage endows nobles with what is perhaps the most important constituent of individual characters: their sense of personal honour.  Honour — particularly for a man — revolves around keeping his word, not allowing others to insult him and remembering the history of his House.  If he is a bastard, he begins at a disadvantage; if he has no surname, for example, his chances of acquiring honour are very limited indeed.  Theon is excluded from some of the responsibilities which go with membership of House Stark, by reason of his ambiguous status — one that’s revealed only gradually in the early episodes of Season One.  His position as a hostage compromises his sense of honour, particularly in the face of his father’s unyielding view of what constitutes Greyjoy honour, with terrible political and personal consequences. (p.19)

When it comes to ambiguous status… Joffrey and Tommen’s reign isn’t questionable because of incest but because of their father’s lineage.  They are not of Baratheon blood and blood is everything. (Which is why even as late as the 20th century Lady Di had to submit to a virginity test. I could not believe at the time that she was prepared not only to go along with it, but for it to be made public.)

What’s different to tales of the medieval period is that there’s no religious underpinning to GoT.  There are the Old Gods and the New, but they don’t seem to disapprove of things one way or another, and when Jon Snow betrays his oath to the Old Gods, it’s his friends in the Night Watch who bring him to his senses, not any fear of divine retribution.  Ethics in GoT, says Larrington, are mutable and situational.

But honour defines the individual and it can be lost, won, sacrificed or leeched away.  The Red Wedding damages the Bolton reputation forever, because it betrayed the rules of hospitality which is, as Larrington writes in the section subtitled ‘Guest-Right’ a central obligation of human interaction. Larrington writes that it’s hard to think of real-life or even fictional parallels to the horror of the Red Wedding but gives as examples of breaching the rules of hospitality Chaucer’s ‘Man of Law’s Tale’ and the infamous Glencoe Massacre of 1692. There was also a Black Dinner of 1440.

(Horror at weddings occurs in real life in the present day, as you will soon see if you Google ‘terrorist attacks at weddings’).  There have been terrorist attacks at weddings in Yemen, Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan.)

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from original MS, artist unknown (Wikipedia)

Medieval romance explores the complicated matter of hospitality in one of my favourite tales,  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Guests are vulnerable, but when they arrive under your roof

they can bring unknown complications, pre-existing enmities from which a good host will have to defend them, or as in the visit of Robert and his in-laws to Winterfell — the hosts may discover things about their guests that must not be known to others.

Other examples of the rules of hospitality being breached include the theft of the dragons in Qarth, and Catelyn is all the more outraged when she wrongly believes that Tyrion was responsible for sending an assassin to kill Bran because he had entered her home as a guest.  (To say nothing of Jaime and Cersei’s breach of the rules of hospitality when they try to silence Bran forever!)

In the section subtitled ‘Justice and Vengeance’, Larrington reminds us that

Law codes tend to be among the earliest texts created when a society gains the technology of writing.  Even before literacy arrived in pre-Christian Iceland, laws were codified, and a third of them were recited by the Lawspeaker every year at the Assembly (the Althing) so that they might be remembered, discussed and, if need be, modified. (p.39)

In GoT, the king, or his Hand, hears cases and received deputations from aggrieved subjects.  In Season One, we see Bran learning these ropes in his parents’ absence under the patient guidance of the Maester Luwin. But as we see in the case of Tyrion’s trial, justice is very easily denied, and trial by combat (a genuine medieval custom) depends entirely on relative strength and strategy, and in Tyrion’s case in his ability to buy a stand-in.

The obvious flaws in the procedure meant that the practice fell out of favour, in England in the fifteenth century and in France in the mid-fourteenth century.  (p.40)

(But duels based on a code of honour persisted. Pushkin famously died in a duel in 1837.)

Vengeance, says, Larrington, shapes the arc of the entire story: the vengeance taken by Robert Baratheon for the abduction of Lyanna Stark by Rhaegar Targaryen.  

The call for vengeance when a family member is killed is endemic in honour societies like Westeros, a culture which remembers through stories passed down through generations. (p.42)

In modern societies calls for vengeance are moderated by the sense that vengeance perpetuates more violence, but in the world of GoT honour requires that revenge be sought for such losses, the more so when the original victims were killed in some dishonourable way.  The Martells pursue vengeance, and so does Arya with her list of people she plans to kill.  (Because she was a child, I did not take her seriously until she plunged Needle into a man who was mocking her dead brother’s body with the head of his direwolf, Grey Wind. It’s a shocking scene, and not because he wasn’t on her list.)

The section subtitled ‘War and Weapons’ explains a man’s relationship to his weapon.  The Dothraki wield arakhs with their lethal curved blades but what they value most as weapons of war are their horses.  On the other hand, the highly valued swords forged from Valyrian steel are reminiscent, says Larrington, of the old swords brought over from the continent to Anglo-Saxon England.

It took time for the smiths, transplanted into a new landscape, to discover supplies of iron ore and to locate the charcoal needed to raise the forge temperature high enough to make strong, flexible steel, neither too brittle nor too pliant.  Old English poetry often mentions the serpentine design in the best-quality swords; this was produced by pattern-welding, twisting and fusing individual rods of steel together, forging and reforging them for suppleness and strength, exactly the technique which perished with the smith of Valyria.

In Beowulf, the swords which are particularly valued are the old ones; they carry with them the mana, the aura of those who have been killed by them in past battles; they are redolent of victories won. When an enemy is defeated, the victor takes his sword and makes his defeat part of the weapon’s history. (p.47)

Beowulf uses the borrowed sword Hrunting but it fails because only Grendel’s mother’s own ancestral sword can pierce her hide.

And all this is just the beginning, from the Introduction and the first chapter. I found it fascinating to learn about the historical and mythological resonances of Game of Thrones and am tempted to chase up Larrington’s sequel as well.   (And to watch the entire series again in the interim. We have them all on DVD.)

About the author

Carolyne Larrington has the sort of academic career that looks enticing indeed.  She’s a prolific author, producing both academic texts and books for the general reader.  On her website, she says:

My research interests lie in medieval English literature, along with Old Norse literature, and general European medieval texts and cultural history.

I work particularly on Old Norse mythology, Arthurian literature and emotion in the medieval period. Increasingly I have been working on medievalism topics – the study of the medieval in the modern period. This has resulted in two books on ‘Game of Thrones’, and a book on folklore and place in the British Isles.

I am currently writing on Old Norse myth and its reception in the modern world, and am also working with Stuart Lee to develop the activities of the Oxford Fantasy Cluster in public outreach.

Professor Larrington thinks that GoT will be Tolkienian in its influence, long term.

Author: Carolyne Larrington
Title: Winter is Coming, the Medieval World of Game of Thrones
Publisher: I. B. Taurus, 2016
Cover design not credited
ISBN: 9781784532567, pbk.,252 pages including Notes, Suggestions for Further Reading, and an Index
Source: Bayside Library

Image credits:


Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 6, 2023

2023 BookPeople Book of the Year longlists

Copied shamelessly from the announcement at Readings Bookstore (via Twitter)… so links go to where you can buy the books…

The 2023 BookPeople Book of the Year longlists have been announced! These awards celebrate the best books of the year, as judged by Australian book industry members.

Below are the longlisted titles from across the three categories.

Adult fiction book of the year

Adult nonfiction book of the year

Children’s book of the year

The Shortlists will be announced on the 21st of April., and the winners on Sunday 18 June in Adelaide.  I haven’t been able to find out what the winners receive…

BookPeople is the new name for the Australian Booksellers Association.  Someone thought it was a good idea to change a name that clearly signalled who they were, to a name that obscures the group’s business purposes and could mean almost any person who reads a book.  Their About page tells me that it’s about Bookselling Business meets Bookselling Culture.  However, they are still Doing Good Things in terms of advocacy so what’s in a name, eh?

These awards are not the same as the ABIA (Australian Book Industry Awards) sponsored by the Australian Publishers Association.  Their awards will be presented on the 25th of May in Sydney, and their shortlists will be announced on April 19th. If they had a longlist, I can’t find it.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 4, 2023

2022 ACT Book of the Year Award winner and shortlist

Update 28/4/23 And the winner is…

*drum roll*

Believe in Me by Lucy Neave.  So well-deserved…

Read my review and get yourself a copy!

The 2022 ACT Book of the Year Award shortlist has been announced.

This is an award for contemporary literary works by ACT-based authors, from any genre, i.e. fiction, non-fiction and poetry.  This 2022 award is for books published in 2021. Wikipedia says that the prize is worth $10,000.

Congratulations to all the finalists!
  • Milk by Dylan van den Berg,
  • The Kindness of Birds by Merlinda Bobis, see my review
  • Two Afternoons in the Kabul Stadium: A History of Afghanistan Through Clothes, Carpets and the Camera by Tim Bonyhady,
  • Killernova by Omar Musa,
  • Believe in Me by Lucy Neave, see my review
  • Failures of Command: The Death of Private Robert Poate by Hugh Poate, and
  • As Beautiful As Any Other: A Memoir of My Body by Kaya Wilson.

If it isn’t paywalled, you may be able to read more about the award at The Canberra Times.

Previous winners whose books I’ve read include

  • 2019: Robyn Cadwallader  for Book of Colours, see my review.)
  • 2018: Paul Collis for Dancing Home, see my review
  • 2017: Tom Griffiths for The Art of Time Travel : Historians and their craft, see my review
  • 2015: Mark Henshaw for The Snow Kimono, see my review
  • 2012: Bill Gammage for The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia, see a Sensational Snippet
  • 2010: Marion Halligan for Valley of Grace, see my review
  • 2008: Tony Kevin for Walking the Camino : A Modern Pilgrimage to Santiago, see my review
  • 2005: Tony Kevin for A Certain Maritime Incident : the sinking of SIEV X
  • 2004: Marion Halligan for The Point
  • 2001: Alan Gould for The Schoonermaster’s Dance, see my review
  • 1997: Francesca Rendle-Shor for Imago, see my review
  • 1993: Marion Halligan for Lovers’ Knot

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