Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 23, 2022

The Woman Upstairs (2013), by Claire Messud

All those of us who haunt the Op Shops know the feeling… that title that beckons from the shelf?  Why is it familiar? Is it already on our shelves?  Is it a book desired but not purchased because of fleeting attempts to rein in book-buying habits?  Did it win a prize?  Or (#OminousWarningBells) is it one of those over-hyped books that are best avoided?

Well, at $2.00 per book in my local Salvos store, it’s worth the risk.  The money goes to a good cause — and I can always recycle the book anyway…

As it turned out, I hadn’t wasted my money.  Claire Messud’s fifth novel The Woman Upstairs isn’t IMHO great literature and it doesn’t have anything particularly profound to say, but I enjoyed reading it.  And when I looked it up at Goodreads, I found that it had gathered a good deal of international attention.  It was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize; the Arab American Book Award Nominee for Fiction; the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction; the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction, the International Dublin Literary Award, and (less convincingly) the Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction.

Reminiscent of Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal (2003) in its portrayal of a needy teacher whose life seems derailed by inertia and thwarted hopes, The Woman Upstairs features Nora Eldridge, a good and worthy soul and a popular teacher at an elementary school in Cambridge Massachusetts.  Privately, she is an unrecognised artist, a maker of Lilliputian dioramas portraying the tragic worlds of subjects like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Alice Neel and Edie Sedgwick.

…I was making a tiny replica of Emily Dickinson’s Amherst bedroom, about the size of a boot box, each floorboard in place, the re-creation of her furnishings exact and to scale.  Once I’d made her room, and made her, as perfectly as I could, in a white linen nightie with ruffles, my aim was to set up circuitry so that my Emily Dickinson might be visited, sitting up by her bed, by floating illuminations — the angelic Muse, her beloved Death, and of course my gilded mascot, Joy herself. (p.77)

It was to be a series.  Virginia Woolf putting rocks in her pockets; Alice Neel in the sanatorium to which she was committed at 30 years of age; and Edie Sedgwick in Warhol’s Factory.  Nora toys with the series title A Room of One’s Own? She thinks the question mark is the key…

So, Nora has a career; a creative pursuit albeit one with morbid tendencies; a couple of great friends including the irrepressible Didi, and a (somewhat distant) family. But that is not enough.  She wants more.  In the age of liberated women, she wants to conform to her own expectations of love, family and children.  And why not? Why should she be content to be unmarried and lonely, and to ache with longing for a child of her own to love?

Fatally, desiring more, she latches onto an expat family, the Shahids, whose child Reza enrols in her class.

Nora (prone to over-thinking) directly addresses the reader about this, revealing her illusions about a friendship doomed to hurt her:

You’re thinking, ‘But this poor woman, this middle-aged spinster, from where could she have conjured the idea that she had a family; or rather, that she had any family besides her father languishing in his ointment-pink apartment, and her Aunt Baby encrusted in her Rockport condo among the memorabilia, and, like a remote galaxy, [her brother] Matt and Tweety and their kid out in Arizona? But families have always been strange and elastic entities.  Didi is much more my family than Matt could ever be. And I knew it, with each of the three Shahids, intuitively.  I needed them, sure, and we can all argue about the moment when the balance tipped and I needed them so much that I would be hurt.  But you can’t pretend they didn’t need me too, each in his or her way.  They wouldn’t necessarily have admitted it — except Reza — but you can’t tell me that they didn’t love me. The heart knows.  The body knows.  When I was with Sirena, or Reza, or Skandar, the air moved differently between us; time passed differently; words or gestures meant more than themselves.  If you’ve never had this experience — but who has not been visited by love, laughing? — then you can’t understand. And if you have, you don’t need me to say another word. (p.150)

Well, yes, they do need her, as expats often need someone to take the place of the supports they have at home.  Nora is useful as Sirena’s dogbody assistant in the creation of her art installation, as a babysitter for Reza, and (a-hem) as companionship for Skandar.  But Nora can’t see it.  She is ready and ripe for the inevitable betrayal.  It’s her own lack of self-worth that has made her vulnerable: at a mere 37 years-of-age, Nora has undervalued herself as a spinster, an under-achiever and a nobody, and what she needs more than anything else is hope.  The Shahids deliver this.

I wanted to give them all a good shake!  (No, not Reza.  He’s just a kid.  But the adults, yes.)

Author: Claire Messud
Title: The Woman Upstairs
Design by Sean Garrehy LBBG (Little, Brown Book Group)
Publisher: Virago (an imprint of the Little, Brown Book Group, Hachette), 2013
ISBN: 9781844087327, pbk., 304 pages
Source: personal copy, OpShopFind, $2.00


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 22, 2022

The Bookseller of Florence (2021), by Ross King

No, this isn’t a review of an historical novel.

The Bookseller of Florence is a marvellous art history book about a hero of the Renaissance called Vespasiano da Bisticci (1421 – 1498) who was the preeminent book merchant of his era.  He contributed to the store of knowledge from which we still benefit today by hunting out manuscripts from the ancient world that were decaying in dusty monasteries all over Europe, and then he hired the most talented of scribes to copy the manuscripts and had them illuminated by the finest miniaturists so that the books were glorious works of art.  His clients were popes, kings and princes who proclaimed their status by founding magnificent libraries to outdo each other.

My favourite chapter explains the technicalities of making a book before the advent of the printed book.  As King says, in the chapter called ‘Antique Letters’:

The word ‘manuscript’ comes from the Latin manu scriptus, ‘written by hand’, but any manuscript was the product of much more work than simply the writing of a single hand. It was a months- or even years-long, multistep process calling for the expertise of a series of tradesmen and specialist craftsmen from parchment makers to scribes, miniaturists, goldbeaters, and even apothecaries, carpenters, and blacksmiths. (p.99)

It began with finding the manuscript, the search for which is detailed in a previous chapter, where it is shown how important it was to get hold of a quality exemplar.  In Chapter 6, King tells us that Petrarch complained that, so sloppy were the scribes of his day, and so full of errors were the manuscripts they produced, ‘an author would not recognise his own work.’  Vespasiano had a good eye for the best of texts, but he was also highly skilled in acquiring the best of materials.  Occasionally he used paper, but the most beautiful and expensive material on which to write was calfskin, or vellum.  Readers who are fond of animals are best advised not to read the details of the finest and whitest vellum available. Suffice to say that the supply of hides for parchment was always dependent on the dietary preferences of the local population, and in Italy the appetite was for goats, and that supply was impacted by Lent when people did not eat meat.

Benedictine Antiphonary (Wikimedia Commons)

For hundreds of years, the transmission of knowledge had depended on carnivorous appetites and good animal husbandry.  Large volumes with hundreds of pages required the skins of many animals.  One goat was often needed for each page of parchment in a large liturgical book such as an antiphonary, while a Bible might take the skins of more than two hundred animals — and entire herd of goats or flock of sheep. (p.100)

And why were the butchers of Florence required to move their operations into the shops on the Ponte Vecchio? So that they, like the tanners, fish sellers and beltmakers, for reasons of hygiene, could turf their blood and slops into the Arno instead of fouling the streets.

Clearly, from the description given of the processing (which I will spare you), parchment makers needed to have strong stomachs.  But they also needed to have considerable finesse in scraping the skins to 0.1mm (1/250 of an inch), because if they were careless it would be uneven, or tear.

For Vespasiano, his work was a labour of love.  He wasn’t just a bookseller and a librarian, he was a humanist who believed that resurrecting the wisdom of the ancients could ‘illuminate the world’, and it took some courage to work with some contentious texts.  There were religious debates about whether Plato’s abstract, utopian philosophy was compatible with Christianity — which was no minor matter in those days of severe penalties for heresy or apostasy — and the philosophical differences between Plato and Aristotle’s practical common sense had political import as well.  Florentine humanists were active in world affairs and looked to Aristotle to support their views on patriotism and civic affairs, while Platonists were interested in the pursuit of truth, free from distractions like war and making money.   At different times this intellectual divide impacted on Vespasiano and his commissions. (He had a comfortable living, but he was never wealthy.)

Inevitably, the printing press made its way to Italy, and Vespasiano faced competition from cheaper, mass produced books. Its arrival went ahead without the Luddite riots and sabotage of the Industrial Revolution, mainly because it didn’t put people out of work — it grew the market for books instead and created work for many people.  Besides that, the illuminators and other craftsmen were still used to decorate these early printed books, and though Vespasiano believed (quite rightly) that his books were better quality, for most of his lifetime the two forms coexisted in harmony because the wealthy still wanted beautiful books.

What was a problem was that the printing press made possible the publication of books in the vernacular.  Prior to the printing press there were hardly any books in the languages spoken by ordinary people, and the fear was that inaccuracy in any translations of the Bible would lead to heresy. (Hence the argy-bargy about Henry VIII’s Bible of 1539 in English.)

Vespasiano retired in 1480 at the age of 58, not so much because his business was being displaced by mechanisation, but because he was disillusioned about the state of the world. His idealism faltered along with his belief that Christian faith could bring salvation.  It had been a bad year: there was war, plague and incursions from the Ottomans under Mehmed II, who had conquered Constantinople; taken Negroponte, (a strategic port);  raped, pillaged and trashed Otranto; and attacked Venice though he did not conquer it.

In his retirement Vespasiano, took up writing, offering the benefit of his (unmarried) years in the form of didactic advice to women. To quote Wikipedia:

His accounts plunge the reader into the social world of Florence; they contain delicate pictures of manners, charming portraits, noble female figures, of which last point it is possible to judge by reading the biography of Alessandro Bardi (ed. Mai, 593). The general tone is that of a moralist, who shows the dangers of the Renaissance, especially for women, warns against the reading of the novels, and reproaches the Florentines with usury and illicit gains. Vespasiano is a panegyrist of Nicholas V, the great book-lover; he is severe to the point of injustice against Pope Callistus III, the indifferent lender of books, which, however, he did not give over to pillage, as Vespasiano accuses him of doing.

He would not have approved of me reading novels!

About the author:

Ross King’s website tells us that he is the bestselling author of books on Italian, French and Canadian art and history. Among his books are Brunelleschis Dome (2000), Michelangelo and the Popes Ceiling (2002), The Judgement of Paris (Governor General’s Award, 2006, [see my review], Leonardo and The Last Supper (Governor General’s Award, 2012), and Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies (Charles Taylor Prize, 2017). He has also published two novels (Domino and Ex-Libris), a biography of Niccolò Machiavelli, and a collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s fables, jokes and riddles. He is the co-author with Anja Grebe of Florence: The Paintings & Frescoes, 1250-1743 (2015), the most comprehensive book ever undertaken on the art of Florence.

Image credit: Benedictine Antiphonary (Wikimedia Commons

Author: Ross King
Title: The Bookseller of Florence
Publisher: Chatto & Windus, London, 2021
ISBN: 9781784742669, pbk.,481 pages including

  • a map of Florence, 8 pages of colour reproductions on glossy paper and numerous B&W images throughout the text; and
  • an Epilogue, Acknowledgments, Image credits, a Selected Bibliography, Notes and an Index.

Source: personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $34.99


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 21, 2022

Iris (2022), by Fiona Kelly McGregor

Fiona Kelly McGregor is, according to her website a cross-disciplinary author, artist and critic who writes novels, essays, articles and reviews.  Some readers will know her as a performance artist, but most notably as the author of Indelible Ink (2010) which won the Age Book of the Year. (See my review.)  Her previous fiction also includes Strange Museums (2008); Chemical Palace (2002); Suck My Toes (1994), short stories re-issued by Scribe as the ebook Dirt (2013) along with the novel Au Pair (1993) which I read and enjoyed before I started this blog or (alas) even a reading journal. She was named as one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists in 1997.

Mcgregor’s website tells me that this new novel Iris, is the first in a duet of novels based on the life of real-life Iris Webber:

a petty criminal active in Sydney’s sly-grog underworld from the 1930s-1950s. Set 1932-37, Iris is an epic and picaresque ride through inner-city slums; a doomed love story peopled with scammers, gangsters and thieves. It’s an interrogation of how society criminalises its most marginalised people.

So the 448 pages that I’ve just read is but the first instalment of prodigious research for McGregor’s doctoral thesis!

(Mercifully) the novel doesn’t read like a thesis.  Written in a profusion of short vivid sentences, peppered with (a-hem) lively language and authentic slang of the era, it tells the story of a woman who was a survivor, but whose survival was always only tentative.  And while Iris comes across as a woman determined to be in charge of her life, I came to the end of the novel feeling melancholy because her life was so compromised by crime as a solution to extreme poverty.  She and her friends were constantly in and out of gaol for both petty crime and on remand for more serious crimes, and the ‘Refty’ was a brutal place.  A very brutal place, where Iris was often cold, hungry, and recovering without medical attention for the beatings that had been dished out to her.

In a life characterised by insecurity in all the things that matter (shelter, income, safety, dignity) it was the insecurity of her friendships that seemed most tragic to me.  Conned — not too reluctantly, it must be said — into sex work when she arrives in Sydney after a disastrous marriage in Glen Innes, Iris has a transactional view of sex until she meets the love of her life, Maisie.  But Maisie, and her other friend Kath, and the brothel madams that support her are all living on the margins too, and their own survival has to be their top priority. Loyalty is a luxury they can’t always afford.  Yes, they thieve together in gangs, and they pay each other’s bail when they can, but there are long periods in gaol on remand for murder when Iris has no visitors, and no certainty that the witnesses she’s relying on for her defence will come through for her.

Iris is a long and occasionally confusing novel with a lot of characters, and there were times when I felt that repetitions made it too long for itself.  But when I turned the last page I realised that it needed to be the length that it is.  The life of Iris, and people like her, living in a society that had abandoned the victims of the Depression, was not an episode that can be tucked into a tidy novel of about 300 pages.  That kind of life was a relentless, grinding struggle to find food and shelter and a measure of safety, and it went on and on for years and years.  Iris is not like Amy in Olga Master’s Amy’s Children (1994, see my review) who likewise comes to Sydney to escape the poverty of rural NSW during the Depression but manages to transcend her situation to make a life of dignity.  Iris in McGregor’s novel has more initiative, more talent and greater adaptability than Amy ever had, but what she lacks is Amy’s patience.  Amy accepts that there is no way upward but to accept a life of privation and to value small victories when she achieves them.  Iris, when she makes the fateful decision at Sydney’s Central Station not to go to a stultifying life with her aunt, wants more, and she wants it faster.  And life has already taught her that being ‘good’ and working hard just leaves her open to exploitation.

Iris lives life on her own terms.

Other reviews are at The Conversation, Arts Hub and other paywalled sites.

Author: Fiona Kelly McGregor
Title: Iris
Cover design by Amy Daoud
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan) 2022
ISBN: 9781760787684, pbk., 448 pages
Source: Kingston Library


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 20, 2022

Top Ten popular book reviews from ANZ LitLovers for 2022

The Newtown Review of Books (an excellent site for book reviews) has just published its NRB readers’ favourite reviews of 2022, and it was nice to see in amongst a bunch of international titles, an Australian book that I really liked made the cut: Edwina Preston’s Bad Art Mother. (See my review here.)

Popularity is a perplexing phenomenon when it comes to books — and book reviews.  Often the most popular is not the best in any field of endeavour, McDonalds is testament to that.  But we in the book-loving community are fascinated by all things to do with our obsession. So, #NoSurprises, the NRB post made me wonder what my most popular reviews were, and so off I went down the rabbit hole…

Well, there’s no dislodging the reviews cribbed by students looking for material they can plagiarise.  Consistently at the top for many years are Alex La Guma’s In the Fog of  Seasons End (here); Elechi Amadi’s The Concubine (here) and Ways of Dying by Zakes Mda (here); closely followed by Noli Me Tangere (Touch me Not) by José Rizal (here) which is a set text in the Philippines; and Monsieur Ibrahim et Les Fleurs du Coran, (Monsieur Ibrahim and The Flowers of the Qur’an), by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt, (here) and Petit Pays, (Small Country), (here) by Gaël Faye which I guess are set texts in France. This year these stalwarts are joined by posts about the Russian short stories in A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Sanders (here) because he uses those stories in the writing course he teaches.

So, flicking to one side all those and a very popular review of Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah’s After Lives, here’s my Australian and New Zealand Top Ten, links are to my reviews, numbers in brackets are the books’ places in the original WordPress list.

  1. Things We Didn’t See Coming (2010), by Steven Amsterdam (No. 5)
  2. The White Girl, (2019) by Tony Birch (No.13)
  3. A Fringe of Leaves (1976), by Patrick White (No. 15)
  4. Death of a Coast Watcher, (2020) by Anthony English (No. 16)
  5. The Labyrinth, (2020) by Amanda Lohrey (No. 17)
  6. The Solid Mandala (1966), by Patrick White (No. 21)
  7. After Story, (2021) by Larissa Behrendt (No. 22)
  8. The Penguin Best Australian Short Stories (2020), edited by Mary Lord (No. 26)
  9. Potiki, (1986) by Patricia Grace (No. 28)
  10. Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams) (2021), by Anita Heiss (No. 29)

Notice that?  Not one of these is a book published in 2022…

I have my suspicions about some of them.  I know Patricia Grace’s Potiki is a set text in New Zealand, and here in Australia, so is one of the top Australian posts: Things We Didn’t See Coming, by Steve Amsterdam (2010).  ‘Dead Roses’ in The Burnt Ones, by Patrick White, is my second top post overall, and *sigh* is this because universities set a short story collection to introduce students to White?  Or, is there fresh interest in White, given that A Fringe of Leaves and The Solid Mandala are right up there?

Not only that. Even an amateur statistician like me can see what’s wrong here.  The longer ago the post was published, the longer it has to make an impact in the ratings.  It has nothing to do with popularity, and everything to do with longevity.  So although I read and reviewed 49 Australian releases this year, not one of them makes this Top Ten ANZ list.

Let’s try again… here are the most popular of my reviews of Australian and New Zealand 2022 new releases:

  1. The Uncaged Sky, My 804 Days in an Iranian Prison, by Kylie Moore-Gilbert
  2. This Is Not Journalism, by Margaret Simons, in Meanjin, Winter 2022, Vol 81, Issue 2, edited by Jonathan Green
  3. Bedtime Story, by Chloe Hooper
  4. Bad Art Mother, by Edwina Preston
  5. One Bright Morning, by Wendy Scarfe (2022)
  6. The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, by Nathan Hobby
  7. Limberlost by Robbie Arnott
  8. Loveland by Robert Lukins
  9. Telltale: reading writing remembering, by Carmel Bird
  10. The Signal Line by Brendan Colley

What does this mean? Not much, I think.  Reviews of two terrific books, Kim Mahood’s Wandering with Intent and Philip Salom’s Sweeney and the Bicycles, which I published only last week, have had no time to make an impression in the rankings, and my review of Iris, by Fiona Kelly McGregor which I finished last night, appears not at all because I’ve only just started the review.  But it will still ‘count’ in any analysis of reviews from 2022.

That’s daft, isn’t it?

And none of this answers the real question: is the popularity of a post a measure of the review or of the book?

I dunno.  But it was fun to do this, even if it is completely inconclusive!

Sometimes at this time of the year I look at the succinct lists and images that others post about their favourite books of the year, and I consider being more decisive and changing my annual Best Books List into something more concise and Instaworthy.  

But no, I just can’t do it. 

I could never be a literary prize judge: I hate whittling lists down to some arbitrary number and I really don’t know why I even try.  Truth be told, this post is more about expressing my gratitude to each and every one of these authors for writing a book that gave me hours of reading pleasure. 

So as in previous years, these are the books I really liked and admired during 2022.  They are books that I read in 2022, not necessarily published in 2022.  The contenders are ANZ authors only.  If you read this blog regularly you know that I also read international authors and translations too, but for this list, well, there are plenty of other sources recommending books published elsewhere.  All links go to my reviews.

I read 169 books in 2022, less than in previous years.  Some of my reading time went on 15 books which I abandoned, the highest that’s ever been.  I got sucked in by hype, by award nominations and by the prevailing narrative that it is a social duty to read books on certain worthy topics.  (I don’t count these abandoned books as ‘read’, I don’t review them and I don’t rate them at Goodreads because that would not be fair.) But for most of my books this year, my instincts were right.  I chose well, and wisely, and publishers who know my taste alerted me to books they thought I’d like — so I’ve had a good year. 

As in previous years, I’ve longlisted the books that I rated 4 stars, but only if I also remembered why I liked them so much when I looked at their covers at Goodreads.  (NB I reserve five stars for exceptional books not just something I really liked.)

New Zealand books are in Italics.

NB I reserve the right to add any extra books that I read between now and the end of the year if I think they warrant it! 

The Longlists

Fiction Longlist, in alphabetical order.

Yes, it’s long.  I read some remarkably good books this year and all of these are worth your time and money. There are two from NZ. 

  1. Limberlost, by Robbie Arnott (2022) Text Publishing
  2. The Rain Heron, by Robbie Arnott (2020) Text Publishing
  3. Water Music, by Christine Balint (2021) Brio Books
  4. Blood in the Rain, by Margaret Barbalet (1986) Penguin Books Australia
  5. Time and Tide in Sarajevo, by Bronwyn Birdsall (2022) Affirm Press
  6. The Silence of Water, by Sharron Booth (2022) Fremantle Press
  7. A Stranger Here, by Gillian Bouras (1996) Penguin Books Australia
  8. The Islands, by Emily Brugman, (2022) Allen & Unwin
  9. The Grease Monkey’s Tale, by Paul Burman (2010) Legend Press, London UK 
  10. True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey (2000) Knopf 
  11. Marlo, by Jay Carmichael (2022) Scribe
  12. The Signal Line, by Brendan Colley (2022) Transit Lounge
  13. Hovering, by Rhett Davis (2022) Hachette
  14. Leaving Owl Creek, by Sandy Gordon (2022), Finlay Lloyd
  15. The Graphologist’s Apprentice, by Whiti Hereaka (2010) Huia, NZ, 
  16. The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted, by Robert Hillman (2018) Text Publishing
  17. To Become a Whale, by Ben Hobson (2017), Allen & Unwin
  18. Hydra, by Adriane Howell (2022) Transit Lounge
  19. Salonika Burning, by Gail Jones (2022), Text Publishing
  20. Only Birds Above, by Portland Jones (2022), Fremantle Press
  21. Corporal Hitler’s Pistol, by Tom Keneally (2021),Vintage (Penguin Random House)
  22. Freedom Ride, by Sue Lawson (2015) Black Dog Books
  23. The Tower, by Carol Lefevre (2022), Spinifex Press
  24. The Pebbled Beach at Pentecost, by Andrew Lemon (2021), Australian Scholarly Publishing
  25. The Coast, by Eleanor Limprecht (2022), Allen & Unwin
  26. The Morality of Gentlemen, by Amanda Lohrey (1984), Montpelier Press in association with The Vulgar Press
  27. Loveland, by Robert Lukins (2022), Allen & Unwin
  28. Random Acts of Unkindness, by Anna Mandoki (2022), Midnight Sun Publishing
  29. Stardust and Golden, by Doug McEachern (2018), UWAP (University of Western Australia Press)
  30. Every Day is Gertie Day, by Helen Meany (2021), Brio Books
  31. Below the Styx, by Michael Meehan (2010), Allen & Unwin
  32. Moon Sugar, by Angela Meyer (2022), Transit Lounge
  33. The Electrical Experience, by Frank Moorhouse (1974) Angus & Robertson
  34. Loop Tracks, by Sue Orr (2021), Upswell
  35. Other Houses, by Paddy O’Reilly (2022), Affirm Press
  36. A Place Near Eden, by Nell Pierce (2022), Allen & Unwin
  37. Bone Memories, by Sally Piper (2022), UQP (University of Queensland Press),
  38. Bon and Lesley, by Shaun Prescott (2022), Giramondo
  39. Bad Art Mother, by Edwina Preston (2022), Wakefield Press
  40. The Roaring Nineties (The Goldfields Trilogy #1) , by Katharine Susannah Prichard (1946), The Australasian Publishing Co by arrangement with Jonathan Cape London
  41. Golden Miles, by Katharine Susannah Prichard (Goldfields trilogy #2), Virago
  42. Winged Seeds, by Katharine Susannah Prichard (Goldfields trilogy #3), Virago
  43. The Good Captain, by Sean Rabin (2022), Transit Lounge
  44. The Restorer, by Michael Sala (2017), Text Publishing
  45. Sweeney and the Bicycles, by Philip Salom (2022), Transit Lounge
  46. One Bright Morning, by Wendy Scarfe (2022), Wakefield Press
  47. The National Picture, by Stephen Scheding (2002), Vintage (Random House)
  48. Theatre of Darkness, by Thomas Shapcott (1998), Vintage (Random House Australia) 
  49. Orphan Rock, by Dominique Wilson (2022), Transit Lounge
  50. The Visit, by Amy Witting (1977), Mandarin Australia, a division of the Octopus Publishing Group.

Non Fiction Longlist including Life Stories in alphabetical order (I read 30 books of Australian NF, but only one from New Zealand.)

  1. Black, White and Exempt, edited by Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones (2021)
  2. Telltale: reading writing remembering, by Carmel Bird (2022)
  3. Cannon Fire, by Michael Cannon (2022)
  4. Mothertongues, by Ceridwen Dovey & Eliza Bell (2022)
  5. The Well in the Shadow: A Writer’s Journey Through Australian Literature, by Chester Eagle (2010)
  6. New Literary History of Australia (1988), edited by Laurie Hergenan (Decolonising a Blog… a work in progress #4)
  7. The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, by Nathan Hobby (2022)
  8. The Big Teal, by Simon Holmes à Court (2022)
  9. Bedtime Story, by Chloe Hooper (2022)
  10. Tales from the Greek, by John Hughes with artwork by Marco Luccio (2022)
  11. Actions & Travels, How Poetry Works, by Anna Jackson (2022)
  12. True Tracks, Respecting Indigenous knowledge and culture, by Terri Janke (2021)
  13. Lohrey, (Contemporary Australian Writers series) by Julieanne Lamond (2022)
  14. Old Vintage Melbourne, 1960-1990, by Chris Macheras (2022)
  15. Wandering with Intent, by Kim Mahood (2022)
  16. The Uncaged Sky, My 804 Days in an Iranian Prison, by Kylie Moore-Gilbert (2022)
  17. A Paper Inheritance: the passionate literary lives of Leslie Rees and Coralie Clarke Rees, by Dymphna Stella Rees (2021)
  18. Richard Wright, the Life and Times, by Hazel Rowley (2001)
  19. The Idea of Australia, a search for the soul of the nation, by Julianne Schultz (2022)
  20. This Is Not Journalism, by Margaret Simons, in Meanjin, Winter 2022, Vol 81, Issue 2, edited by Jonathan Green

My favourites of 2022

Most Memorable ANZ LitLovers Australian Fiction Books of 2022 in alphabetical order

Yes, it’s a long shortlist. I’ve been brutal but now it gets to the stage where I really can’t remove anything else.  Look at all these terrific books published in the middle of a pandemic… and then look at the others which have stood the test of time.  

  1. Limberlost, by Robbie Arnott (2022)
  2. True History of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey (2000)
  3. The Signal Line, by Brendan Colley (2022)
  4. Hovering, by Rhett Davis (2022)
  5. The Graphologist’s Apprentice, by Whiti Hereaka (2010)
  6. Hydra, by Adriane Howell (2022)
  7. Salonika Burning, by Gail Jones (2022)
  8. Only Birds Above, by Portland Jones (2022)
  9. Freedom Ride, by Sue Lawson (2015)
  10. The Tower, by Carol Lefevre (2022)
  11. The Pebbled Beach at Pentecost, by Andrew Lemon (2021)
  12. The Coast, by Eleanor Limprecht (2022)
  13. The Morality of Gentlemen, by Amanda Lohrey (1984)
  14. Below the Styx, by Michael Meehan (2010)
  15. Moon Sugar, by Angela Meyer (2022)
  16. The Electrical Experience, by Frank Moorhouse (1974)
  17. Loop Tracks, by Sue Orr (2021)
  18. Other Houses, by Paddy O’Reilly (2022)
  19. Bon and Lesley, by Shaun Prescott (2022)
  20. Bad Art Mother, by Edwina Preston (2022)
  21. The Roaring Nineties (The Goldfields Trilogy #1) , by Katharine Susannah Prichard (1946)
  22. The Good Captain, by Sean Rabin (2022)
  23. Sweeney and the Bicycles, by Philip Salom (2022)
  24. The National Picture, by Stephen Scheding (2002)
  25. Orphan Rock, by Dominique Wilson (2022)

Most memorable ANZ LitLovers Non Fiction and Poetry Books of 2022 in alphabetical order

NF is tricky: There are books of major signifiance like Terri Janke’s True Tracks, and those that  taught me something I ought to know like Aberdeen and Jones’ Black, White and Exempt and those that will have a lasting effect on how I interpret the world like Margaret Simon’s essay about journalism.  

And then there are literary biographies which have the advantage of being my absolute favourite form of NF…

  1. Black, White and Exempt, edited by Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones (2021)
  2. Telltale: reading writing remembering, by Carmel Bird (2022)
  3. Cannon Fire, by Michael Cannon (2022)
  4. The Well in the Shadow: A Writer’s Journey Through Australian Literature, by Chester Eagle (2010)
  5. The Red Witch: A Biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard, by Nathan Hobby (2022)
  6. True Tracks, Respecting Indigenous knowledge and culture, by Terri Janke (2021)
  7. Lohrey, (Contemporary Australian Writers series) by Julieanne Lamond (2022)
  8. Wandering with Intent, by Kim Mahood (2022)
  9. The Idea of Australia, a search for the soul of the nation, by Julianne Schultz (2022)
  10. This Is Not Journalism, by Margaret Simons, in Meanjin, Winter 2022, Vol 81, Issue 2, edited by Jonathan Green

The ANZ LitLovers Non-Fiction Books of the Year are… 

I hope my reviews here and here give some measure of the intense pleasure I had in reading these books about two of my favourite authors.

The ANZ LitLovers Fiction Books of the Year are… 

*drum roll*

(Every one of the books on my shortlist could be a winner, but as you can see from my reviews (here and here and here) there was something about these three that stole my heart as well as my head.)

Over to you

Your thoughts on my choices?  What was your most memorable book of the year?

PS, the next day, I have updated this to include the publishers of the fiction list, and it is no surprise to me to see that 59% of my longlist comes from members of Small Press Network Australia!

PS 20/12/22 If you’re interested to see the Best Books in our neighbourhood, visit the Asian Book Review’s 50 Highlights from 2022. 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 14, 2022

2023 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist

Well, if they wanted to bury this announcement, they couldn’t have picked a better time than the onslaught of the festive season… why do they do this????



I am *amazed* that Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost is Highly Commended (see below) but not shortlisted.



  • Childhood by Shannon Burns
  • Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong by Louisa Lim
  • Our Members Be Unlimited: A Comic About Workers and Their Unions by Sam Wallman
  • People who Lunch: Essays on work, leisure and loose living by Sally Olds
  • Root & Branch: Essays on Inheritance by Eda Gunaydin
  • The Uncaged Sky: My 804 Days in an Iranian Prison by Kylie Moore-Gilbert (See my review)

Indigenous Writing

  • Astronomy: Sky Country by Karlie Noon and Krystal De Napoli
  • Harvest Lingo by Lionel Fogarty
  • Tell Me Again by Amy Thunig
  • The Upwelling by Lystra Rose

See here for the shortlists for Drama, Poetry and YA and Unpublished MS.  If only publicists would send us shortlists in printed lists, it would be much quicker than having to harvest them by hand from the website.  (Have I whinged about this before? Yes, probably.)

Highly Commended

(These do come from a convenient printed list on the website.)


  • All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien (HQ Fiction: an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Limberlost by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing), see my review
  • Loveland by Robert Lukins (Allen & Unwin), see my review


  • Bedtime Story by Chloe Hooper (Scribner Australia), see my review
  • Big Beautiful Female Theory by Eloise Grills (Affirm Press)
  • Hard Labour: Wage Theft in the Age of Inequality by Ben Schneiders (Scribe Publications)

Indigenous Writing

  • Cartwarra or What? Selected poems and short stories by Alf Taylor (Magabala Books)
  • Masked Histories: Turtle Shell Masks and Torres Strait Islander People by Leah Liu-Chivizhe (Melbourne University Publishing)


  • Orange Thrower by Kirsty Marillier (Currency Press in association with Griffin Theatre Company)
  • An Indigenous Trilogy – Act I: Three Magpies Perched in a Tree by Glenn Shea (The Storyteller)


  • Harvest Lingo by Lionel Fogarty (Giramondo Publishing)
  • Song of Less by Joan Fleming (Cordite)

Writing for Young Adults

  • My Spare Heart by Jared Thomas (Allen & Unwin)
  • Sugar by Carly Nugent (Text Publishing)
Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 14, 2022

Sweeney and the Bicycles (2022), by Philip Salom

After his foray into coastal Victoria in The Fifth Season, (2020, click here for all my reviews of this author’s novels) Philip Salom returns to inner urban Melbourne in his latest novel Sweeney and the Bicycles.  And as with the unforgettable characters of Waiting (2017) and The Returns (2019), Sweeney is peopled with a cast of misfits who resist easy judgement—yes, even the one who is an ageing standover man.

Sweeney is the central character, a divided man folded into a skinny man.  He is attending therapy with Dr Asha Sen for a traumatic bashing in prison which left him brain-damaged.  In the course of the novel, however, it becomes clear that the damage to his psyche was caused by his abusive father. Whose satirical choice of name for his only son is indicative of his contempt for the boy which spills over into breathtaking violence.  And cruelty: when the gift of a bike enables an emerging independence that this brutal father cannot control, he takes it away from Sweeney, thus triggering an ongoing obsession with stealing bicycles in adulthood.

The theft of Rose’s bike from outside Asha’s rooms is just one of the complications in Sweeney’s emerging relationship with Rose.  He is anxious about her reaction when she learns his criminal history, but he also fears her expectations.

One of the troubles we have as people, Dr Sen says, is we carry elevated expectations of others.  We ask too much of each other.  Not directly, just in our general sense of them showing loyalty and allegiance, and never changing. We’re greedy.  On top of everything that is good, we want more.  Feelings will change, there’s no stopping that.  Our egos have trouble with that.  We can feel let down. (p.355)

Dr Sen herself experiences this at the very beginning of the book.  She’s had knee surgery, and had some rudimentary expectations about her husband…

She waited in her hospital room for Bruce to ring back after her initial call to say she was out of the operating theatre, had rested and was now swinging along on crutches.  For him at the very least to text her, to see how she was recovering, ask what it was like now, etc, and to know if he should bring her anything.  Chocolates? Another book? (p.1)

The first contact between Sweeney and Rose was fleeting: it’s when Rose and her domineering sister Heather are on the tram and Heather tries flirting with Sweeney.  Did I mention that he’s good-looking, if not for the horrific S-shaped scar on the back of his head, courtesy of a prison thug called The Swat? He hides the scar with beanies and hats, and it’s a Panama hat much like the one in Rose’s bicycle basket that triggers Asha to accost Sweeney in the street…

Sweeney has a lot to hide.  His post-university years on a commune where he supplemented the group’s income with thefts from pharmacies.  His time in prison; the post-injury anxiety that isn’t well-controlled.  That he’s never had a job.  His divided self which expresses itself in two contrasting homes: the valuable terrace in Parkville left to him by his grandmother (where he hides the bikes), and the rooming house which he shares with a motley crew of eccentrics—ex-prisoners The Sheriff and Froggie, and Jim Smith who has trouble understanding and remembering things.

Salom’s eccentrics are described as losers in some commentary about Sweeney and the Bicycles but that’s not what they are.  Ok, they don’t have jobs or cars or much in the way of material possessions, and they have mannerisms and behaviours that are incompatible with middle-class respectability.  But they resist labelling.  They’re more than a share household in a rooming house, they’re a disparate bunch of people living successfully together despite their differences.  A dark sense of humour prevails in their conversations, and they band together to stare down the threat from a bunch of thugs who are a menacing presence in the story.

For Sweeney, whose alcoholic mother stood by and watched her husband’s brutality without intervening, this substitute family is protective and the rooming house is the home he never had.

Salom’s preoccupation with hi-tech surveillance is revealed through the contrasting characters of Rose and Asha Sen’s husband Bruce Leach.  Rose’s data gathering is benign, used to design routes for efficient pedestrian traffic management in places like train stations.  But Leach’s facial recognition technology (FRT) in the form of CCTV and drones — ostensibly for keeping us ‘safe’ from terrorists — is increasingly invasive, though people don’t know it. (Sweeney does: for his bicycle-theft operations he marks up his face with signs and symbols in a deliberate attempt to confuse the FRT so that he can’t be identified.)

I’ve only ever once seen a drone and that was when a kid and his father were experimenting with programming it down at the park. They had difficulty getting it off the ground.  But Salom provides some creepy examples of the abuse of surveillance technology. A drone swooping low over a back yard to snoop on a woman sunbathing; public ignorance about the ubiquitous use of new types of near invisible CCTV;  and in a pointed reference to a certain former federal Minister for Home Affairs, Salom depicts Asha and Bruce in heated disagreement about the use of this surveillance to clear middle class streets of ‘undesirables’.

What Asha does not know is that surveillance is being used to track down a stalker in the university environs, and that Bruce tampers with it when he suspects he knows who the stalker is.  And there’s something else that — like most of us —she doesn’t know:

Whether his good wife knew it or not, there is a surveillance more intrusive than anything in his own realm of AI.  His use of it is depressingly minor when, like the fear over 5G, the current software can do what people have long suspected: spy on people from their own mobiles.  AI that listens in, records, uses the phone camera to collect images of places and people without the owner ever realising. This software is spreading worldwide. (p.385)

Power — who has it, and how is it used — is a key theme in this impactful novel.  Power relations in prisons that have nothing to do with how its victims behave; the covert power of people monitoring surveillance systems; the political power that’s generated by Othering; the enforcement power of the criminal class; the terrifying power of parents over children; and the low-key power of subversive behaviour, for individuals living on the margins of society. Through the characterisation of Clifton, whose passive-aggressive alienation is reinforced by screen time and the extreme hostility of the dark web, Salom also challenges the naïveté of believing in the power of psychiatry to modify the behaviour of seriously disturbed individuals. Or (as The Sheriff learns to his cost) believing in the ‘safety’ parroted by politicians.

Salom’s novel does not provide all the answers.  Sweeney’s trajectory towards an anarchic kind of apathy is gradually revealed and then perhaps halted, and there are hints at reasons for a general lack of ‘belonging’ in the cast of characters, but the reader can only guess at why Clifton is the way he is.  This ambiguity is one of the strengths of the novel, IMO.  Though love and friendship can be a rebuttal of all that’s wrong in the ungenerous complexity of urban life, it’s only ever tentative and the open-ended conclusion of this novel is a refusal to provide a safe and comforting fantasy alternative.

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth reviewed it for The Conversation too.

Author: Philip Salom
Title: Sweeney and the Bicycles
Cover design by Josh Durham/Design by Committee
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2022
ISBN: 9781925760996, pbk., 399 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 12, 2022

Wandering with Intent (2022), by Kim Mahood

Kim Mahood is one of our most interesting thinkers about the interface between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia.  Writing my review of her previous book Position Doubtful (2016) coincided with attending the Indigenous Language Intensive program organised by Writers Victoria, which was designed to guide non-indigenous authors to write respectfully about Indigenous people, their culture and history.  Kim Mahood has made it her life’s work to do just that.

As she says in the preface to Wandering with Intent:

To essay means to try, to endeavour, to attempt.  It implies risk and failure.  It is also the only way to find out whether something is possible.  These essays are a sort of written equivalent of hunting and gathering, of wandering with intent.  They are the product of my own wandering among the conundrums and contradictions of the cross-cultural world I’ve chosen to inhabit, and of my intent to understand and honour it. (p.xi)

In today’s cultural climate of identity politics and cancel culture, it takes courage to traverse this territory.  For some, there are hard and fast lines that delineate who has the right to speak and write about Indigenous issues, and as we are already seeing in the context of the forthcoming referendum on the Voice, there are differing perspectives and disconcerting hostilities between First Nations themselves.  So what is it that impels Mahood to venture into this complex territory?

What compels me is watching relationships play out at the edge of cultural systems that baffle and subvert each other, where the frontier is still adaptive and resistant, the population is predominantly Aboriginal, and the land is a living entity that influences the lives of the human players.  It is a dynamic and volatile world that has been impacted by colonialism but has retained its Indigenous character, much of which is interpreted by the white world as dysfunctional, but which continues to function with remarkable tenacity.  I’ve spend years seeing the Indigenous people I know grow and change, take on responsibilities or avoid them, make choices about how to be the Indigenous player on someone else’s agenda. (p.xiii)

This collection of 17 essays written over more than 15 years includes nine which were previously published… in Griffith Reviews 15, 36 and 63; (reissued in The Best Australian Essays 2007); The Monthly in 2015, 2017 and 2019; the Chicago Quarterly Review 2020, and in the Australian Book Review 2019.  Since I don’t subscribe to any of these, I have missed out on every one of these remarkable essays so I was very pleased to see them published together in this must-have collection.

This is the book description:

In these finely observed and probing essays, award-winning artist and writer Kim Mahood invites us to accompany her on the road and into the remote places of Australia where she is engaged in long-established collaborations of mapping, storytelling, and placemaking. Celebrated as one of the few Australian writers who both lives within and can articulate the complexities and tensions that arise in the spaces between Aboriginal and settler Australia, Mahood writes passionately and eloquently about the things that capture her senses and demand her attention — art, country, people, and writing. Her compelling evocation of desert landscapes and tender, wry observations of cross-cultural relationships describe people, places, and ways of living that are familiar to her but still strange to most non-Indigenous Australians.

At once a testament to personal freedom and a powerful argument for Indigenous self-determination, Wandering with Intent demonstrates, with candour, humour, and hope, how necessary and precious it is for each of us to choose how to live.

The essay which, for me, best encapsulates the dilemmas of the frontier is ‘Kardiya are like Toyotas’: white workers on Australia’s cultural frontier.  This essay is available to read online because it went viral when it was published in the Griffith Review ‘What is Australia For?’ The expression comes from a Western Desert woman remarking on whitefellas working in communities: ‘Kardiya are like Toyotas.  When they break down, we get another one,’ and the essay begins like this:

Unlike the broken Toyotas, which are abandoned where they fall, cannibalised, overturned, gutted and torched, the broken kardiya go away — albeit often feeling they have been cannibalised, overturned, gutted and torched. They leave behind them dying gardens and unfinished projects, misunderstandings, and misplaced good intentions.  The best leave foundations on which their replacements can build provisional shelters while they scout the terrain, while the worst leave funds unaccounted for, relationships in ruins, and communities in chaos.

There are many reasons why kartiya break down. Some break themselves, bringing with them baggage lugged from other lives, investing in the people they’ve come to help qualities that are projections of their own anxieties and ideals. Eager and needy, they are prime material for white slavery, rushing to meet demands that increase in direct proportion to their willingness to respond to them. They create a legacy of expectation and dependency, coupled with one of failure and disappointment.

A more common cause of breakdown is the impossibility of carrying out the work you are expected to do. Two factors in particular are not included in any job description. The first is that if the work involves interaction with Aboriginal people, which is usually the case, this interaction will be so constant and demanding that there will be no time left to carry out the required tasks. The second is that by default the kartiya’s function is to be blamed for everything that goes wrong. Blaming the kartiya is the lubricant that smooths the volatile frictions of community life. For someone of robust temperament and sound self-esteem this is irritating but manageable. If you have an overheated sense of responsibility or a tendency towards self-blame it’s an opportunity to experience the high point of personal failure. (p.36, inconsistencies in spelling of kardiya/kartiya in the essay and the title have to do with alternate orthographies).

The essay is often funny, but it’s confronting too. For example, she makes the point that screening and training people for work in Indigenous communities is inadequate:

….it is mandatory for anyone wishing to work in Antarctica to undergo a physical and psychological assessment to establish whether they will stand up to the stresses of isolation, the extreme environment, and the intense proximity to other people. All the same factors exist in remote Aboriginal communities, along with confronting cross-cultural conditions.(p.37)

Today, Mahood’s essay is a standard text for the induction of newcomers.  In a postscript to it, ‘Trapped in the Gap’ translates the jargon in an academic paper by Emma Kowal about white Australia’s repeated failures in remote Aboriginal Australia. This essay looks like essential reading to me too.

It will surprise no one that my favourite essay is ‘Lost and Found in Translation’ which is not just about the significance of Indigenous languages but also makes reference to works from the canon: D H Lawrence’s Kangaroo, (1923); Patrick White’s Voss, (1957); and Randolph Stow’s To the Islands (1958). Stow, Mahood says, was the writer who described her world in the drought stricken years of her childhood:

Stow spoke to me as no other Australian writers has done before or since. (p.128)

Whether explorer narratives or not, these books all have settings of the search for meaning out in the metaphysical void. 

A ritual manliness.’ D H Lawrence, Patrick White, Randolph Stow and the current exemplar of the genre, Nicolas Rothwell, are male, white, and the inheritors of a spiritual tradition embedded in European scholarship and a European imagination.

Ironically, the writer who most perfectly embodies this sensibility, and one who made the sojourn into the wilderness before writing about it, was female. Tracks, by Robyn Davidson, is her account of her solo camel trek in 1977 across the Gibson Desert from Uluru to the West Australian coast.  Davidson’s quest spoke directly to the great Australian hunger for insights into whatever secrets the desert might hold. (p.129)

In our era, as Mahood says, a deep ambivalence continues to permeate the stories we tell and …

The prohibitions against non-Indigenous writers entering this terrain are intensifying, and the ground is pretty complicated for Indigenous writers, too, who have to prove their credentials in an increasingly complex territorial domain. (p.,130)

We live in interesting times, which makes Wandering with Intent essential reading!

BTW, readers of my review of Position Doubtful may remember my criticism that the B&W images were unsatisfactory.  I wasn’t the only one, and Scribe have taken it on board and included an 8-page colour section in this more handsome edition, which sells for a perfectly reasonable price for a paperback.

See also the review at The Conversation.

Author: Kim Mahood
Title: Wandering with Intent
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2022
ISBN: 9781925713251, pbk., 322 pages + 8pp colour section (photos, maps and artworks)
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 10, 2022

Kim Scott named a State Cultural Treasure

Congratulations to Kim Scott for this prestigious new award and thanks to Kim at Reading Matters for permission to reblog!

Reading Matters

Congratulations to Australian writer Kim Scott who has received a prestigious 2022 State Cultural Treasures Award.

These awards celebrate and honour senior Western Australian artists and organisations who have made outstanding lifelong contributions to their art form and community.

Only 38 people have ever received one of these awards, which were established in 1998 (and known as State Living Treasures Awards) and subsequently awarded in 2004 and 2015.

Scott is a descendant of the Wirlomin Noongar people and wrote his first novel, ‘True Country‘ while he was teaching in Kalumburu, the northernmost settlement in Western Australia, with his wife.

His second novel, ‘Benang: From the Heart’, won the Western Australian Premier’s Literary Award and the Miles Franklin Literary Award, making him the first Aboriginal author to win it.

He won a second Miles Franklin Literary Award with ‘That Deadman Dance’. This novel also earned…

View original post 73 more words

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 9, 2022

River Cottage Great Salads (2022), by Gelf Alderson

Gelf Alderson’s River Cottage Great Salads, has a lot of beaut recipes for salads, but… it’s English, and so some of it just doesn’t apply to Australian cuisine, and more importantly, it’s not making the most of the abundance of Australian produce that we enjoy here. No macadamias, no mango, and no avocado.  (And certainly none of the scrumptious Australian native ingredients that are featured in Australian Native Cuisine by Andrew Fielke, though it’s hardly fair to expect it to.)

I have another caveat too.  I evaluated the recipes in terms of some ‘salad facts’ that I learned from The Conversation. The authors (who are nutrition experts) recommend six categories of ingredients to ‘keep salad boredom at bay’:

  1. leaves, such as lettuce, rocket or spinach
  2. something sweet and juicy, such as tomato, pear, mango, peach or whatever is in season
  3. something with crunch, such as carrot, capsicum or broccolini
  4. a type of nut, such as cashew or macadamia
  5. a cheese, such as feta, bocconcini, mature cheddar, parmesan, edam
  6. something fragrant, such as mint, parsley, basil or coriander.

And, they say, to make the salad into a complete meal, add macronutrients

  1. a healthy carbohydrate source (pumpkin, sweet potato, parsnips, taro, brown rice, quinoa, barley or brown pasta)
  2. a healthy fat source (avocado, olive oil, toasted seeds or nuts)
  3. a lean protein source (eggs, fish, chicken, tofu, tempeh, lentils or legumes).

So, what does Great Salads have to offer? Is it worth the purchase price for an Australian cook?  Yes, I think so… ‘Salad boredom’ is not going to be a problem with these recipes, and some of them do make a complete meal. And of course we can adapt the recipes to take advantage of the produce we have here too!

The Introduction

The book begins with the usual yada-yada and then there’s a useful section on using seasonal produce.  It’s summer here right now, and most of what’s listed is available at this time of the year except for gooseberries.   Then there’s a long section on growing your own vegetables and herbs, and a smaller section on foraging.

Then there’s a useful section on Salad techniques, including char-grilling and barbecuing v roasting, and adding ‘textural interest’ with different ways of prepping the veg: ribbons and shavings; grated, diced; julienned and batons.  (And it’s true, how different even an ordinary salad can look if it’s presented with a variety of shapes and textures.)

Then it’s onto the recipes, which are arranged in seven chapters:

  1. Quick
  2. Hearty
  3. Light
  4. Spicy
  5. Lunchbox
  6. River Cottage Classics
  7. Dressings, Pickles and Krauts

Quick means simple to make, serving two as a light lunch or four as a side.  Most of these do not make a ‘complete meal’ but they’re not intended to.  Among the most appealing are:

  • Celeriac (or fennel, which we have in the garden) rhubarb, hazelnuts and parsley (but toasting & peeling hazelnuts (i.e. heating up the oven) isn’t my idea of simple.)
  • Tomatoes and raspberries with mint (possibly with rivermint instead, and possibly with balsamic vinegar.)
  • Cucumber, grapes, apple and almonds. (Yes, with fresh crunchy bread).
  • Parsnip, chicory, orange and prunes.  (I dunno about this one.  Perhaps worth trying with some leftover parsnip.)

Hearty means ‘big, colourful and comforting’, ‘warm generous recipes’. Recipes serve two as a main. Recipes in this section mostly make a ‘complete’ meal.

  • Kale, apple, goat’s cheese and hazelnut butter.  (I’d go easy on the kale and more heavy-handed with the cheese because I love goat’s cheese, especially these ones from Meredith).
  • Kidney beans with smoky tomato and onion salsa (I reckon this would be brilliant with potatoes roasted in their jackets.)
  • Beetroot three ways with tamari seeds (perfect with beetroot fresh from the garden, and fresh homemade cottage cheese as a dressing !)
  • Cavolo (or kale), peach, cashews and blue cheese.  (Three of my favourite ingredients in one recipe! I wonder how it would taste if we used sorrel instead of kale?)

Light means suitable for snacking, for an accompaniment to a main meal and because they’re seasonal, they have a light carbon footprint.

  • Roast asparagus, feta, almonds and sourdough croutons. (BTW, we experimented with roasting asparagus in the airfryer and #FreeTip it’s a bad idea.)
  • Tomatoes, cucumber, redcurrants and mint. (The redcurrants are a problem.  My search led me to a site that sells them frozen, all the way from Poland.  Maybe substitute heritage tomatoes in different colours?)
  • Peas, mint, oakleaf lettuce and grapes. yum!
  • Apple with toasted hazelnuts and lime: a perfect mid-afternoon snack IMO.
  • Crab with radishes, orange and watercress.  A very pretty dish!

Spicy means aromatic, sweet, hot and invigorating spice!

  • Roast cauliflower with pumpkin seed satay.  (Let’s hope we can get to the cauliflower this year before the possum does.)
  • Mussels, fennel, chilli and cucumber. (Our mussels are bigger than the UK ones in the picture, so this would be even more enticing. They’re cooked in cider.)

Lunchbox is about portable, convenient food.

  • Roast squash (i.e. butternut pumpkin), plums, pumpkin seeds and lime
  • Speedy, herby, lemony beans (just those tins of mixed beans, really easy)
  • Roast squash, blackberries, feta and walnuts (We find feta too salty unless it’s soaked in milk beforehand.)
  • Green beans, five-spice crispy duck and bean sprouts.  (We will pinch the idea, but will cheat and use Luv-a-Duck.)
  • Bacon, new potatoes and lettuce with chunky tartare dressing — my favourite recipe in the whole book.

River Cottage Classics speak for themselves.

  • Potato salad with apples and cheddar looks very good indeed.
  • Carrot, cabbage, ginger and chilli slaw is appealing too — I’ve never thought of adding chilli to coleslaw…
  • Smoked mackerel niçoise.  (Hmm, I dunno about mackerel.  Apart from that the recipe looks pretty much like our version and we use tuna.)
  • Cheaty chicken Caesar salad is for using up leftover chicken, but ours usually goes into the stock pot.
  • Russian salad with sardines.  I love fresh sardines.  Yes, I’ll eat them out of a tin, but fresh caught sardines are divine. The ‘Russian’ salad is basically carrots, potatoes, celeriac, beans, gherkins and mayo, but it doesn’t have Dijon mustard…

Dressings, pickles and krauts… no surprises here but a good recipe for quick pickles if you haven’t already learned how to do this from Masterchef!

There’s also a directory, an index and acknowledgments.

Author: Gelf Alderson
Title: River Cottage Great Salads
Introduction by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2022
ISBN: 9781526639103, hbk., 254 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 8, 2022

2023 Indie Books Awards Longlist

The 2023 Indie Book Awards Longlist has been announced. As usual with this award, I’ve read hardly any of the nominees, but I can certainly recommend the ones I’ve read!

The Shortlist will be announced 18 January 2023, and the Book of the Year on 20 March 2023.

Congratulations to all the authors, editors and publishers!


Limberlost by Robbie Arnott (Text Publishing), see my review

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au (Giramondo), see my review

Horse by Geraldine Brooks (Hachette Australia)

The Tilt by Chris Hammer (Allen & Unwin)

Salt and Skin by Eliza Henry-Jones (Ultimo Press)

The Sun Walks Down by Fiona McFarlane (Allen & Unwin)

Seeing Other People by Diana Reid (Ultimo Press)

The Seven Skins of Esther Wilding by Holly Ringland (Fourth Estate Australia)

Willowman by Inga Simpson (Hachette Australia)

Everyone In My Family Has Killed Someone by Benjamin Stevenson (Michael Joseph Australia)

Debut Fiction

Sunbathing by Isobel Beech (Allen & Unwin)

The Islands by Emily Brugman (Allen & Unwin), see my review

Wake by Shelley Burr (Hachette Australia)

The Mother by Jane Caro (Allen & Unwin)

Cautionary Tales for Excitable Girls by Anne Casey-Hardy (Scribner Australia)

Every Version of You by Grace Chan (Affirm Press)

Jesustown by Paul Daley (Allen & Unwin)

All That’s Left Unsaid by Tracey Lien (HQ Fiction, HarperCollins)

Son of Sin by Omar Sakr (Affirm Press)

Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor (Macmillan Australia)


The Boy from Boomerang Crescent by Eddie Betts (Simon & Schuster Australia)

The Ballad of Abdul Wade by Ryan Butta (Affirm Press)

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Emma Carey (Allen & Unwin)

The Book Of Roads And Kingdoms by Richard Fidler (ABC Books, HarperCollins Australia)

Ten Steps to Nanette by Hannah Gadsby (Allen & Unwin)

The First Astronomers by Duane Hamacher, with Elders and Knowledge Holders (Allen & Unwin)

Raised by Wolves by Jess Ho (Affirm Press)

Nothing Bad Ever Happens Here by Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin)

The Ninth Life of a Diamond Miner by Grace Tame (Macmillan Australia)

The Jane Austen Remedy by Ruth Wilson (Allen & Unwin)

Illustrated Non-Fiction

Bush Life by Beauty in the Bush Collective (Affirm Press)

Eat Weeds by Diego Bonetto (Thames & Hudson Australia)

With Nature by Fiona Brockhoff (Hardie Grant Books)

Sons of War by Paul Byrnes (Affirm Press)

First Nations Food Companion by Damien Coulthard and Rebecca Sullivan (Murdoch Books)

Big Beautiful Female Theory by Eloise Grills (Affirm Press)

Cressida Campbell by National Gallery of Australia (National Gallery of Australia)

RecipeTin Eats: Dinner by Nagi Maehashi (Macmillan Australia)

Tenderheart by Hetty McKinnon (Plum)

Creature: Paintings, Drawings and Reflections by Shaun Tan (Windy Hollow Books)


Frank’s Red Hat by Sean E Avery (Walker Books Australia)

Come Together by Isaiah Firebrace, illustrated by Jaelyn Biumaiwai (Hardie Grant Explore)

Market Day by Carrie Gallasch, illustrated by Hannah Sommerville (Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing)

Ceremony: Welcome to Our Country by Adam Goodes and Ellie Laing, illustrated by David Hardy (Allen & Unwin Children’s)

Guardians: Wylah the Koorie Warrior 1 by Jordan Gould and Richard Pritchard (Albert Street Books)

Floof by Heidi McKinnon (Albert Street Books)

The Bookseller’s Apprentice by Amelia Mellor (Affirm Press)

All The World Says Goodnight by Jess Racklyeft (Affirm Press)

Runt by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin)

My Strange Shrinking Parents by Zeno Sworder (Thames & Hudson Australia)

Young Adult

Cop and Robber by Tristan Bancks (Puffin)

The Museum of Broken Things by Lauren Draper (Text Publishing)

Completely Normal (and Other Lies) by Biffy James (Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing)

A Little Spark by Barry Jonsberg (Allen & Unwin Children’s)

Sugar by Carly Nugent (Text Publishing)

A Walk in the Dark by Jane Godwin (Lothian Children’s Books)

Unnecessary Drama by Nina Kenwood (Text Publishing)

Only a Monster by Vanessa Len (Allen & Unwin Children’s)

The Brink by Holden Sheppard (Text Publishing)

Where You Left Us by Rhiannon Wilde (University of Queensland Press)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 8, 2022

A Brief Affair (2022), by Alex Miller

A new book from Alex Miller is always an event on a booklover’s calendar.  Awarded the Melbourne Prize for Literature in 2012 for his body of work, which now comprises 13 novels, a memoir, essays and short stories, Miller has won multiple awards.  His third novel The Ancestor Game (1992) won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Miles Franklin Award — which he won for the second time with Journey to the Stone Country (2002).  He’s also won the Christina Stead Prize in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards twice…for Conditions of Faith (2000) and Lovesong (2009, see my review). 

My favourites of his mid-career novels are Landscape of Farewell,(2007) and Coal Creek (2013). All his works explore the stories of others to engage his readers’ empathy — sometimes the simple working folk of rural and remote Australia — and sometimes sophisticates from academia.  What gives these contrasting milieu authenticity is that Miller has a foot in both these camps.  Born in England, he began his working life as a farm labourer, and after migrating alone to Australian when he was sixteen, he worked as a horse-breaker and a ringer, while he studied for university entrance.  And then, in complete contrast to this rugged outdoor life, he taught creative writing at tertiary level for many years.

A Brief Affair is set northwest of Melbourne where academic Dr Frances Egan takes the train each day from her family’s farm near Newstead, to work at a university campus that used to be the old Sunbury Asylum.  Architecturally splendid, the building is heritage-listed, but still retains its original gloominess, which you can see here in the video, where the footage is accompanied by some suitably atmospheric music.

The sound of the heavy outer door crashing to behind her echoed through the void of the building.  There was a faintly familiar smell of something chill and undisturbed in the air of the wide foyer.  From where did she remember this smell?  A residue of something from the past that refused to leave the fabric of this place, the ghosts of the once-upon-a-time lunatics refusing to be forgotten.  There was no one about.  She crossed the foyer and climbed the broad stone stairs to the upper floor.  Her runners made a faint squeaky sound in the empty building.  In the beginning, when she had worn heels to work, thinking herself then a kind of goddess, emboldened by her sense of her own success, her heels had struck the desolate silence of the old Welsh slate into life, walking sympathetic murmurs, murmurs of disquiet that belonged to an era of long ago.  The past.  She would put her heels on once she was in her office.  Her runners would go into her satchel for later.  With runners on her feet no one heard her approaching.  It was no wonder they called them sneakers. (p.28)

Dr Egan appears to have it all.  She’s on her way to a professorship, she has a loving family and a comfortable home in one of the loveliest parts of Victoria.  But a one-night stand at a conference in China upends everything and a mid-life crisis is upon her.  Even the children notice that something is wrong, but she is determined to keep her betrayal to herself because she feels that it is somehow sacred.  Back on deck in Australia, she moons around with her memories and she exoticises this lover by calling him her ‘Mongol Warrior’ and ‘a horseman of the steppe‘ and she exalts the clichéd conference tryst as ‘pure’.


#NoteToSelf We are here to learn about the minds of others, not to sit in judgement!

Her disenchantment erupts into disillusionment with her work.  She is bogged down with dealing with an anti-discrimination claim for Occupational Health And Safety, and pushed to exasperation by her bullying boss Skänder and his impulsive administration style for which she gets the blame.  The agendas are always the same, and they never get anywhere.

Matters to be discussed: induction of new faculty member; cooperative education, a new model needed; discounts for staff to allow for research, admin, grant writing, supervision; course leadership, codes of conduct; quality assurance; prepare for enrolment sessions; timetabling; conference funding policy; overseas travel to offshore campuses.

How many times had they met over these issues?  How much talk had there been? How many plans and expressions of hopes?  The steady erosion of her vision. And after it all, here they were, covering the same issues yet again.  Nothing done.  No one cared.  No one really cared.  The culture of the university decayed and no one objected. Not seriously.  Everyone complained.  Complaint was the only thing they had left in common.  No one cared enough to risk their job.  How to bring about cultural change without personal sacrifice? (p.40)

She wants to quit.  Of course she wants to quit… don’t we all at some stage? My fantasies never got beyond abandoning the morning commute and taking the Princes Highway along the eastern seaboard to wherever I landed, but Fran’s fantasies are more exotic.

He and she might travel together by Bactrian camel across the deserts of Mongolia.  She would learn his language.  They would discover the haunts of snow leopards.  They would hold hands and brew tea and make love in the evening at their camp, the whisper of the desert wind. (p.41)

Apart from Dr Egan’s somewhat overwrought state of mind, this novel went awry for me with Fran’s conflation of a 21st century one-night stand and mid 20th century lesbianism as forms of forbidden love.  Fran comes across an old diary written by one of the inmates, who was incarcerated away from her lover who then committed suicide in despair.  Valerie Sommers’ life is a tragedy, forced upon her by the social norms of her time. Her diary reveals her anguish at being parted from the one she loves, but in that era she had no option but to endure.  But Fran, (assuming that her Chinese lover shares her passion beyond that one night), has choices.  They may be unpalatable choices, not to mention hard on her rather nice husband and children, but that is not the same as being locked up for years for failing to conform to societal norms.  Fran knows this, but she still seeks a point of connection, even going so far as to try to seek out other aspects of Valerie’s life.

Reading about past cruelties imposed on the LGBTIQ+ community always makes me angry, so I didn’t have much compassion left for Fran and her mid-life crisis. So no, this novel wasn’t satisfying reading for me.

Kim at Reading Matters reviewed it too, noting Miller’s insight into the female psyche:

Miller is exceptionally good at nuance and his well-drawn female characters are authentic, flawed and believable. He has incredible insight into the female psyche and the issues with which women grapple on a day-to-day basis:

Joseph Cummins at The Guardian notes also that the domestic drama is also linked to an homage to the power of reading and writing because Fran comes to see how writing enabled Valerie to understand the adversity of her life. 

Author: Alex Miller
Title: A Brief Affair
Cover design by Sandy Cull
Cover image: Harvest Landscape, by David Moore, 2022
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781761066573, pbk., 264 pages
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 6, 2022

Septology (2022), by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls

Finer minds than mine have waxed eloquent about this book, but FWIW, I enjoyed it as a slow, melancholy, hypnotic rumination on art, life and the choices we make.

Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2022 and longlisted for the National Book Awards, Translated Literature 2022, Septology is said to be the magnum opus of Norwegian author Jon Fosse (b.1959).  Importantly, as far as I’m concerned, Septology is nothing like the self-indulgent meanderings of that other famous Norwegian author who has mined his own life, and the lives of his significant others, ad nauseam. (I have read one of his, and I hope made it clear in my review that I loathed his cruel observations about his family.)

Septology was originally published in three volumes, all translated by Damion Searls and published in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

  • Det andre namnet – Septologien I-II (2019). The Other Name: Septology I-II;
  • Eg er ein annan – Septologien III-V (2020). I Is Another: Septology III-V; and
  • Eit nytt namn – Septologien VI-VII (2021). A New Name: Septology VI-VII. 

In October 2022, Giramondo published this Australian edition of the series in one volume for the first time.

This is the blurb, from the Giramondo website:

What makes us who we are? And why do we lead one life and not another? Asle, an ageing painter and widower who lives alone on the southwest coast of Norway, is reminiscing about his life. His only friends are his neighbour, Åsleik, a traditional fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, a gallerist who lives in the city. There, in Bjørgvin, lives another Asle, also a painter but lonely and consumed by alcohol. Asle and Asle are doppelgängers – two versions of the same person, two versions of the same life, both grappling with existential questions about death, love, light and shadow, faith and hopelessness. Jon Fosse’s Septology is a transcendent exploration of the human condition, and a radically other reading experience – incantatory, hypnotic and utterly unique.

Septology is not a book for all tastes. Considering that it’s a very long book, not much happens, and some of what happens is confusing.  But by the time the reader reaches the last chapter, it’s impossible not to be invested in the narrator Asle, and to care about what happens to him and the other people in his life.  And to feel a sense of loss on the last page.

BTW There are some ‘spoilers’ in what follows, but nobody reads Septology for the plot. Even during the heart-stopping sequence when there is a risk that Asle might die in the blizzard or fall into the sea under Åsleik’s drunken seamanship, the reader knows that there are many pages to go so it’s not a spoiler to observe that he survives those events.

In Book 1 we meet Asle, an ageing painter sufficiently successful to have made an adequate living out of his art.  Since the death of his wife, he lives alone on the Norwegian coast in Dylgia, a few hours’ drive from Bjørgvin, now known as Bergen. The name Dylgia seems to be a bit of a Norwegian in-joke, because my Google search revealed that it was the site of a battle in one of the sagas.  Well, Septology is a saga, and the central character seems to have struggled with himself for most of his life.

Book I, like Books II-VII, begins with Asle contemplating the same painting.  In Book I, it is Monday.

And I see myself standing and looking at the picture with the two lines that cross in the middle, one purple line, one brown line it’s a painting wider than it is high and I see that I’ve painted the lines slowly, the paint is thick, two long wide lines, and they’ve dripped, where the brown line and purple line cross the colours blend beautifully and drip and I’m thinking this isn’t a picture but suddenly the picture is the way it’s supposed to be, it’s done, there’s nothing more to do to it. (p.3)

These pairings in the painting prefigure numerous other pairings in a work suffused with doppelgangers.

But in Book II, these same thoughts take place on Tuesday and he is less sure about the painting, and by Book V it is Thursday, and he thinks it’s a really bad painting.  By Book VI the crisis in his life is upon him:

… I can’t look at this picture anymore, it’s been sitting on the easel for a long time now, a couple of weeks maybe, so now I either have to paint over it in white or else put it up in the attic, in the crates where I keep the pictures I don’t want to sell, but I’ve already thought that thought day after day, I think and then I take hold of the stretcher and let go of it again and I realise that I, who have spent my whole life painting, oil paint on canvas, yes, ever since I was a boy, I don’t want to paint anymore, ever, all the pleasure I used to take in painting is gone… (p.551)

He doesn’t understand why, but he just wants to get rid of it all and in Book VII, his aversion has solidified.  And this is the man who in Book I was obsessed by light. He sees pictures in his head and paints to clear his mind of them.

…the best way I can tell if a picture is shining, and how strong or weak the light is in it, and where, is to turn out all the other lights, when it’s dark as blackest night […] I always wait until it’s as dark as possible before looking where and how much a picture is shining […] it’s always, always the darkest part of the picture that shines the most… (p.79)

Asle has a neighbour, Åsleik, also living alone, and they have occasional petty arguments driven by mutual incomprehension about art and God, and their mutual dependence on one another.  Åsleik is hard up, while Asle makes enough money for his simple needs, so they maintain a charade of trading favours so that Åsleik can maintain his sense of dignity.  This is not the only way in which Asle endears himself to the reader…

He takes a trip into Bjørgvin to deliver some paintings to his agent Beyer, and discovers his old friend dead drunk in the snow. This friend is also called Asle but to avoid confusion I shall call him the Namesake as Asle does later on in the book.  The Namesake ends up in hospital with the DTs, and Asle finds himself rescuing his dog Bragi and getting perilously lost in a blizzard while trying to find refuge when the Country Inn won’t allow the dog inside. (In Old Norse Bragi is the skaldic god of poetry in Norse mythology. Bragi can also mean ‘the first, the noblest’, so it’s a lovely name for a dog — and this choice of name also tells you something about The Namesake so that he’s no longer just a drunk in the reader’s mind.)  And while Asle is the friend who has cared for The Namesake throughout his alcoholic career, it is The Namesake’s long estranged children who are allowed to visit him in hospital and he is not.

So often friends are more caring than family, but The System doesn’t recognise it.

Asle’s memories surface in ways that are disorientating for the reader.  There are no clear signals to indicate that events are taking place long ago, as when he sees himself and his sister in a playground, or when he encounters The Bald Man that he and the other children have been warned to avoid. (Later, we find the young Asle examining his conscience about the lie he told his mother about the three kroner that The Bald Man gave him to keep quiet.) These excursions backwards and forwards across time blend into one another and gradually form a coherent whole.

Still, Septology is not a book that can be neatly packaged into a chronology, but Book III brings us to his adolescence, when he leaves the family home in Bermen.  He is off to attend the Academic High School in Aga so that he can take the entrance exam for the Art School in Bjørgvin.  But when Beyer (later to become his agent) discovers this emerging talent and buys all his paintings, Asle’s entry direct to the Art School is approved by Eiliv Pedersen (an allusion to Eilif Peterssen, (1852-1928) in real life a notable Norwegian painter).  This is a good time in his life because he also meets the love of his life, Ales.  Young as they are, they marry.

Haunted also by the death of his sister when she was very young, Asle has never got over the death of his wife.  His attachment to her chair reminded me of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary (2012, see my review) where the mother of Jesus keeps his chair close by as a reminder of him…

…one day when Åsleik was over and I was sitting in my chair he sat down in the empty chair next to me and I was suddenly shocked and afraid, yes, it was like I was suddenly jealous and I told Åsleik he had to get up

Get up, I said
and he stood up right away and he looked at me taken aback
I didn’t know, he said
and I felt ashamed of myself
Sorry, I said
I didn’t know, he said again
No of course, I say
But that’s Ales’s chair, I say

and then it was quiet for a long time and then Åsleik asked if maybe it was a bad idea to have the chair always there, the chair where Ales used to sit, and I said no, no, it’s not bad, but I didn’t want anyone else to sit there, because it was like desecrating Ales’s memory, I said and Åsleik said that when Ales was alive he used to sit in that chair all the time and I sat in the other chair and we’d sit there and look out at the water and I said that’s how it was but that was when Ales was alive and was either in the room with us or was somewhere else in the house, but now, now that she’s gone, yes, now it’s only her chair, even I never sit in it. (p.507)

There is a lovely moment when Asle and Ales have just met, and she muses about there being two kinds of time:

…one of the days where something happens, yes, an event, because it’s so strange, day after day goes by and it’s like time is just passing, but then something happens, and when it happens the time passes slowly, and the time that passes slowly doesn’t disappear, it becomes, yes, a kind of event, so actually there are two kinds of time, the time that just passes and that really matters only so that daily life can move along its course and then the other time, the actual time, which is made up of events, and that time can last, can become lasting. (p. 648)

Other readers have commented on the spiritual elements in Asle’s musings. His religion lapsed when he was young but it offered him solace in his old age, and he prays for his old friend The Namesake to no avail. But he seems still to be ambivalent, because Christmas and its obligations tire him, and he hasn’t been to mass for a long time.  Even with such a limited circle of people in his life, he still gets pressured to spend Christmas Day with Åsleik’s sister Guro (who might or might not be the same Guro of dubious reputation in Bjørgvin).  The last pages of Septology trace their journey by boat towards her home, but from the moment that Asle gets the news that The Namesake has died, there is a palpable sense of Asle winding up his life.  He offloads his last painting and he rejects advances from Guro because he is ready for his last great journey.

A word about the translation: this is an heroic work of translation.  Each of the three volumes were published in English in the same year that they were first published in Norwegian, so congratulations should go not only to the translator Damion Searls but also the English publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions. According to their website:

Damion Searls is a translator from German, Norwegian, French, and Dutch, and a writer in English. He has translated eight books and a libretto by Jon Fosse – Melancholy I (co-translated with Grethe Kvernes), Melancholy IIAliss at the FireMorning and Evening (novel and libretto), Scenes from a Childhood, and the three books of Septology – and books by many other classic modern writers.

How lucky we are to have translators and publishers like Fitzcarraldo and Giramondo in Australia who bring us the best of translated fiction like this one!

Author: Jon Fosse
Title: Septology
Translated by Damion Searls
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9781922725363, pbk., 745 pages
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing







Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 3, 2022

Gulliver’s Wife (2020), by Lauren Chater

If anything in this review raises issues for you, help is available at Beyond Blue,
or at White Ribbon Australia
or your local support service.

I made space for three books on my Australian shelf A-D when I took this one down to read during further travails with my eyes. It’s a big, fat book, with a big, well-spaced font, and a coherent chronological sequence of events which made it easy to read in the brief windows of time when my eyes weren’t bothering me.

I admit to being attracted by the beautiful cover design, but the blurb is enticing too.

London, 1702. When her husband is lost at sea, Mary Burton Gulliver, midwife and herbalist, is forced to rebuild her life without him. But three years later when Lemuel Gulliver is brought home, fevered and communicating only in riddles, her ordered world is turned upside down.

In a climate of desperate poverty and violence, Mary is caught in a crossfire of suspicion and fear driven by her husband’s outlandish claims, and it is up to her to navigate a passage to safety for herself and her daughter, and the vulnerable women in her care.

When a fellow sailor, a dangerous man with nothing to lose, appears to hold sway over her husband, Mary’s world descends deeper into chaos, and she must set out on her own journey to discover the truth of Gulliver’s travels . . . and the landscape of her own heart.

Frontispiece illustration by Leonard Weisgard, see below

Like the best historical fiction, the story still has resonance today.  The Gulliver known to those of us who read the children’s version of  Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels, told us about his gentleness and good behaviour and though his motives were mixed, he proved himself to be a friend of the Lilliputians.  But the Gulliver of Gulliver’s Wife is not a nice man, and the novel is a cautionary tale about the complexities and risks of marital loyalty. Which is especially problematic if there is a suspicion of mental illness, but pity and compassion compromise decisions that must be made.

Even today, a traveller who returns home with strange tales that test credibility would raise eyebrows, and in Chater’s novel, it certainly did in the early 18th century.  When Lemuel returns after a long absence with bizarre tales of little people, his wife Mary fears the consequences.  For him, and for her.

She suspects that he is mad, and that means the end of his career as a surgeon, because reputation means everything at a time when medical services were haphazard, to say the least. Worse, unless she can conceal it, his madness, most likely, means incarceration in a primitive asylum.  Mary had seen her mother in an asylum, living with what was probably the late stages of dementia, and she was haunted by it.

But she also has to protect her own reputation.  Having learned long ago that Lemuel is an unreliable husband who drinks and gambles and pawns her most treasured possessions, in the three years of his absence Mary has built up her practice as a midwife to become one of the most respected in her community.   They are still poor, but they are getting by. Any hint of her husband’s ‘malady’ threatens the livelihood on which she and her family depend.  Her son John is away at school, but teenage Bess, who is wilful and impulsive, is a problem.  She is deeply attached to her father, and is still clinging to his careless promises to take her away to sea to become a surgeon like him.

But Mary has another reason to be disappointed by Lemuel’s unwelcome return.  She married the wrong bloke, and the right one, Richard, is still part of her life.  While never compromising her virtue, he has loved her and supported the family through all its travails.  When Lemuel was thought to be dead, there was a prospect of a happier life, and it was only Mary’s determination to be independent that stood in the way.  [And the seven years requirement before there can be a  ‘presumption of death’?]

Added to these domestic complications is the presence of a serial rapist who makes it risky for a midwife to be out and about at night, and a thread about the competition from surgeons wanting to medicalise childbirth.  The author note in the back of the book plays the gender card in noting that ‘male practitioners’ reinforced the stereotyping of midwives while promoting their own efforts to ‘medicalise’ childbirth.  This is not the place to discuss a complex issue, which is still characterised by turf wars muddied by failures of outdated practices on both sides, but I hope that readers don’t just digest the message from this novel, to extrapolate a false narrative from it about contemporary practice.

Because, as Laura Helmoth concludes in her article about this issue at Slate, the medicalisation of childbirth has made it safer for mother and baby:

… when you take a world-historical look at childbirth, it’s not midwives and cozy home births that get credit for making maternal death such an unthinkable outcome today. One of the great victories of modern times is that childbirth doesn’t need to be natural, and neither does the maternal death rate. It’s modern medicine for the win. (Laura Helmoth, American science journalist and the editor in chief of Scientific American, viewed at 3/12/22).

Yes, I feel strongly about this, for reasons I choose to keep to myself.

Image Credits:

Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, Edited for Young Readers, Junior Deluxe Editions, Doubleday 1956, illustrations by Leonard Wesigard (1916-2000).  Do visit Weisgard’s webpage, an homage created by his children. I have a set of these Junior Deluxe Editions, and two more of them were illustrated by Weisgard:  Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Andersen’s Fairy Tales, (which by the inscription in a childish hand I seem to have treasured since I was six years old.)

Author: Lauren Chater
Title: Gulliver’s Wife
Publisher: Simon and Schuster (Australia), 2020
Cover design: Christabella Designs, cover image by Magdalena Wasiczek/Trevillion Images
ISBN: 9781925596380, pbk., 404 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Blarney Books and Art, Port Fairy, $32.99


If you were following the conversation following on from my review of Doreen (1946) by British author Barbara Noble you may remember that reader John Gough reminded us about the iconic ‘Doreen’ from The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915) by C J Dennis (1876-1938) a.k.a. the laureate of the larrikin.  You might remember too, that John responded to my comment that I couldn’t make sense of the slang in the poem with a sample of the annotated edition that he has published.  I didn’t hesitate: this was a prompt for me to invite him to do a guest post about it…

And here it is!

First of all, it is my pleasure to introduce John:

John (Anthony) Gough was born in 1949, in Melbourne, Australia. He attended Warrandyte Primary school, Norwood High school, and Monash University, majoring in Pure Mathematics. He trained as a Secondary mathematics teacher, and after two years of classroom teaching, shifted into Teacher Education for the rest of his working career, mainly in Deakin University (and ancestral institutions). He completed a Graduate Diploma in Education (Children’s Literature) and a PhD on the children’s and adult fiction of British author Penelope Lively. During his career, John published many academic articles on mathematics education, educational computer programming, assessment in education, and children’s literature and English literature. He has published books in all of these areas, as well as some children’s picture-story books published in Papua New Guinea in the early 1980s while John was lecturing there at the University of PNG.

In retirement he has published annotated editions of verse-novels by the Australian poet C.J. Dennis, and the American poet and novelist Alice Duer Miller. He has published long essays on several authors including Elizabeth Goudge, Magdalen Eldon, Margaret J. Baker, Robina Beckles Willson, Ivan Southall, Cliff Green, and Nance Donkin.

That’s a remarkable retirement oeuvre!

So, now to the verse-novels…

Why the Four Verse-Novels of C.J. Dennis Matter

by John Gough

C.J. Dennis (born Clarence Michael James Stanislaus Dennis: 1876-1938) was an internationally best-selling Australian author and poet in the first decades of the Twentieth century. Some of his books remain in print. But now Dennis is neglected and almost forgotten. I think he deserves to be reclaimed as a major Australian writer, appreciated for his appealing characters, their hearty lives, and humour. In particular, we should enjoy his masterpiece ‑ four sequential verse-novels narrated by Dennis’s character, the Sentimental Bloke: The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915), The Moods of Ginger Mick (1916), Digger Smith (1918), and Rose of Spadgers (1924).

But there is a problem. Several.

First, they are written in rhymed verse – not a popular medium for fiction. Fortunately, this is easy verse, except for the second problem – it uses a great deal of obsolete, obscure, Australian slang. Dennis knew this would be unfamiliar to most of his readers, so he included a Glossary, translating the slang into mainstream English. Unfortunately, Dennis’s Glossary is incomplete, and unclear. A new enhanced Glossary is needed.

The third problem is that the setting of the novels – Melbourne and nearby rural hills, and the Great War and its aftermath – is about a hundred years old. The Great War may be unfamiliar. The background details of the novels need to be explained to modern readers.

Trying to understand Dennis’s novels is like trying to read Shakespeare, or Chaucer, without scholarly notes.

We need annotated editions of the novels. In fact, I recently created The Annotated Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, by C.J. Dennis, Edited and Annotated by John Gough (2016), The Annotated Moods of Ginger Mick (2017), The Annotated Edition of C.J. Dennis’s “Digger Smith” (2020), and The Annotated Edition of C.J. Dennis’s “Rose of Spadgers” (2022) – all eBooks at Amazon. I have also uploaded introductory articles about each of these annotated editions at, a free web-resource of academic papers.

This discussion introduces C.J. Dennis’s tetralogy, demonstrating how the annotations help read and enjoy the Sentimental Bloke’s story.

Here is the first stanza in the first chapter, “A Spring Song”.

The world ’as got me snouted jist a treat;
Crool Forchin’s dirty left ’as smote me soul;
An’ all them joys o’ life I ’eld so sweet
Is up the pole.
Fer, as the poit sez, me ’eart ’as got
The pip wiv yearnin’ fer ‑ I dunno wot.

Clear? C.J. Dennis, as Bill, the Sentimental Bloke, often spells phonetically, and has an ungrammatically distinct accent. Let’s correct the spelling and accent.

The world has got me snouted just a treat;
Cruel Fortune’s dirty left has smote my soul;
And all the joys of life I held so sweet
Are up the pole.
For, as the poet says, my heart has got
The pip with yearning for ‑ I don’t know what.

Clearer, now? Maybe there is more to explain, …

The world ’as got me snouted jist a treat;
Crool Forchin’s dirty left ’as smote me soul;
[Here, and elsewhere, the word “me” sometimes, as in the first line, has its usual meaning. But “me”, as in the second line, can also be slang for “my”. Many words, such as “Forchin”, are spelled phonetically, in an Australian accent. The second line says that, cruel Fortune’s dirty (unfair) left-hand fist has struck Bill’s soul. The first line says much the same: “the world has snouted him: his feelings are hurt. Where would a diamond-in-the-rough like Bill, might pick up a literary word such as “smote”? Occasional contradictions between Bill’s working-class vulgarity and his higher-flying vocabulary are part of C.J. Dennis’s humour. A metaphor of boxing combines in these lines with emotional and spiritual matters. I find this funny.]
An’ all them joys o’ life I ’eld so sweet
Is up the pole.
[These two lines mean that all the joys of life that Bill treasured no longer please him. Going “up the pole”, means going badly wrong. Nowadays we say, “things have gone pear-shaped”, although nobody knows what is wrong about the shape of a pear.]
Fer, as the poit sez, me ’eart ’as got
The pip wiv yearnin’ fer ‑ I dunno wot.
[By spelling “says” as “sez”, Bill shows how he “says” the word. We will never know which “poet” Bill refers to, and marvel that he knows any poetry at all! No poet, apart from Bill (Dennis), ever said, “My heart has got the pip with yearning …”, although many poets express the underlying meaning of a profound sense of weariness, depression, despair ‑ and an unsatisfied longing for something unknown. C.J. Dennis himself experienced periods of deep depression. “You give me the pip”, means “I am annoyed or angered by you]

So much, perhaps, for the first stanza. What is the rest of The Sentimental Bloke about? It is the story of a soft-hearted lout who falls in love, mends his naughty ways, marries, and finds the happiness and satisfaction that in the first stanza was “I dunno wot”. Of course, a great deal more happens, and Bill’s path to happiness is often bumpy! And funny!

The Moods of Ginger Mick (also known simply as Ginger Mick) tells how the Bloke’s best friend, Ginger Mick, a street hawker selling rabbit carcasses, volunteers for the Australian Army, once he understands his patriotic duty. He goes to war, …

Digger Smith is about a friend of the Bloke and Mick, who returns from the war, a man broken physically, suffering mentally, but strong and good within.

Rose of Spadgers completes the story. Rose had been Ginger Mick’s de facto (common law) wife. Officially, she is not recognised as a war widow. She struggles to earn a living, tempted to throw her lot in with a gangster. Can Bill honour his best friend, by saving Rose from a fate worse than death? You will have to read the book to find out, …

If you go looking for these annotated editions at Amazon Au you will find that John’s books are muddled up an 18th century John Gough and (for reasons I cannot fathom) some graphic novels.  You will need the ASINs, as below:

  • The Annotated Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, by C.J. Dennis, (2016): B06XV2B9KZ
  • The Annotated Moods of Ginger Mick (2017): B06XV1WPJQ
  • The Annotated Edition of C.J. Dennis’s “Digger Smith” (2020): B087G5YRW5, and
  • The Annotated Edition of C.J. Dennis’s “Rose of Spadgers” (2022) B0B5P9NKFS

Thanks John for your contribution!

Cultural warning: this post contains the names of First Nations authors who have died.

Laurie Hergenan PhD AO FAHA(1931 – 2019) was an Australian literary scholar. Educated at the University of Sydney and Birkbeck College in London, he held academic positions in Tasmania and Queensland.  He was the founder and former editor of Australian Literary Studies (1963) and he published on Xavier Herbert.

And he was also the editor of the 1988 Penguin New Literary History of Australia. 

This literary history, published in Australia’s bicentennial year, has been sitting on the shelf for a while.  I picked it up to see what it had to say about Frank Moorhouse (and The Electrical Experience in particular) and ended up reading it, chapter by chapter, at bedtime.  (Yes, a tad nerdy, I know.)

Even at university, I was not a scholarly reader.  I’ve always been much more interested in the book than in what scholars have to say about it, and I’d always rather know a little about a lot, than a lot about a little.  But this literary history of Australia is fascinating, capturing at a certain point of time, the currents and tides that have ebbed and flowed over two centuries of the written word in this country.

There is a chapter about Aboriginal literature.  Stephen Muecke writes about oral storytelling, and Noongar man Jack Davis and Adam Shoemaker about written texts. Nothing in this book captures more clearly its moment in time than this chapter because it was written before the wealth of First Nations writing that exists today. Acknowledging that Aboriginal writing had gained a foothold in the Australian literary camp, it nevertheless remained unknown and invisible to most Australians.  Based on my own reading experience I would say that was true. The first book I ever I read by a First Nations author was Sally Morgan’s revelatory My Place, and I read it in 1988. I went on to read half a dozen Stolen Generations memoirs in the 1990s, but it was not until 2005 that I read a novel: it was Butterfly Song by Wuthathi/Meriam woman Terri Janke.

The New Literary History of Australia‘s chapter focusses on Aboriginal playwrights (Kevin Gilbert, Robert Merritt, Gerry Bostock, Eva Johnson and Jack Davis); and on David Unaipon, the true father of Aboriginal Literature who produced a significant body of work starting in the 1920s, and the activist poet Kath Walker.  Today, we know her as Oodgeroo Noonuccal, but though she announced her change of name in 1987, it isn’t used in this history. The work of only two novelists are discussed: starting with Wild Cat Falling (1965) by the first Aboriginal novelist, Colin Johnson, a.k.a. Mudrooroo, (a claim that is contested today because Johnson’s Aboriginality is disputed), and Archie Weller‘s The Day of the Dog (1981).

Life writing isn’t mentioned at all, and this omission gives a skewed portrait of Black Writing, and women’s prose writing in particular.  To quote my own exploration of the emergence of Indigenous life writing:

Between the 1967 Referendum and the mid-1970s, however, the [2008 Macquarie PEN] Anthology’s Introduction notes that there was a sudden growth in Aboriginal authorship across a broad range of genres.  As far as I can make out, it was in this era that life writing and autobiographical fiction began to be published in book form for a general readership, and in 1977, Tucker’s autobiography If Everyone Cared was published.  Among her contemporaries who are included in the PEN Anthology were Monica Clare (1924-1973) whose autobiographical novel Karobran: the story of an Aboriginal Girl was published posthumously a year after Tucker’s in 1978, and (almost a decade later) Ida West (1919-2003) who in 1987 published her autobiography Pride Against Prejudice: Reminiscences of a Tasmanian Aborigine.  (See Jennifer’s review at Tasmanian Bibliophile at Large.) Through my current reading of Black, White and Exempt, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Lives Under Exemption (2021) edited by Lucinda Aberdeen and Jennifer Jones(see my review), I stumbled on another early autobiography called Through My Eyes by Biripi woman Ella Simon (1902-1981). It was published a year after Tucker’s.

Nevertheless, this chapter in the New Literary History of Australia makes a case for Black Australian writing that is, IMO, still true today.

Considering Black Australian writing, one is initially preoccupied with those who break new ground: the first Aboriginal novelist, the first Black playwright, the author of the first Aboriginal best-seller.  There is the temptation to invest Black Australian writing with significance merely because it is something different, an indication of the expanding horizons of Australian literature.  But to stop at this point is to do Aboriginal authors an injustice—it is not simply the fact of their writing which is noteworthy, but the style, content and talent of that writing.

Aboriginal literature in English is in part fascinating because of its relative newness, but it is worthy of serious public and critical attention for a number of reasons.  Almost all Black Australian writing has a strong socio-political dimension, even when this aspect is only implicit or allusive.  In addition, Aboriginal writers transform Australian history in many of their works; for example, Colin Johnson’s Doctor Wooreddy’s Prescription for Enduring the Endling of the World (1983, see my review) is a creative revision of the accepted history of race relations in Tasmania.  Aboriginal literature stems from an oral tradition which in longevity dwarfs Western literature and which influences the style, form and dialogue of contemporary Black Australian writing.  Black literature gives non-Aboriginal readers a view of the contemporary face of a prior and foreign culture in their midst, with distinctive attitudes towards authority, sexual relations, identity and humour.  Finally, Aboriginal literature is a post-colonial manifestation of what has been termed the Fourth World.  Even if Aboriginal poets have never had contact with North American Indians or Swedish Laplanders, their verse can be said to share more with the poetry of those minority groups than with the literature of the dominant Euro-Australian culture.

These aspects of contemporary Black writing are not exhaustive but they do illustrate that the corpus of work being produced is far more than counter-cultural.  It is, rather, pro-Aboriginal; a reflection of a strong and adaptive Black culture in modern Australia.  (pp. 39-40)

I don’t claim to be an expert in this field at all, but even from my own reading I can see how so much of this is true.  The strong socio-political dimension is there in Philip McLarne’s There’ll Be New Dreams, (2001) and we can see a transformation in the telling of Australian history in a wealth of novels from Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance (2010) to Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams) (2021) by Anita Heiss. We see a creative revision of race relations in Marie Munkara’s satirical A Most Peculiar Act (2014) and in Benevolence, (2020) by Julie Janson; and we see a view of the contemporary face of a prior and foreign culture in their midst in Larissa Behrendt’s After Story (2021).  The Swan Book, (2013) by Alexis Wright celebrates an oral tradition which in longevity dwarfs Western literature and which influences the style, form and dialogue of contemporary Black Australian writing. Melissa Lucashenko showcases distinctive attitudes towards authority, sexual relations, identity and humour in all her work, but especially in Too Much Lip (2018) which won the Miles Franklin Award in 2019.  None of these books were available to the authors of New Literary History of Australia in 1988, and yet they could see the trends.

I hope somebody is writing an up-to-date History of OzLit that’s written in a similarly accessible and engaging way as this one.

For a discussion about other aspects of this history, do also read Sammy’s review at Goodreads.

Editor: Laurie Hergenan
Title: New Literary History of Australia
Publisher: Penguin Australia, 1988
ISBN: 9780140075144, pbk., 620 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased second-hand $10.00

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 27, 2022

Doreen (1946), by Barbara Noble

I discovered this absorbing short novel via the Backlisted Podcast. At the start of each session they share what they are currently reading, and Barbara Noble’s Doreen (1946) caught my attention immediately because it was about the evacuation of children out of London during the war.  It’s an historical event that has always interested me because my father and his little brother were evacuees, exploited as household help by servants in a big house.  But though he spoke very little about his experience, he did recount an act of kindness when someone used their petrol ration to give him a lift home when he’d sprained his ankle. So his experience was not entirely negative.

I can’t watch videos like this one without getting emotional. My father also talked about being lined up in a hall, and the humiliation of people choosing which children to take, using the same words as those in this video:  ‘I’ll take that one.’


Evacuation Poster, Ministry of Health (Wikipedia)

The evacuation was, as Jessica Mann says in her illuminating preface, an unprecedented plan to move the population elsewhere.

Evacuation was designed both to relieve the authorities of the most vulnerable during the emergency, and also with the altruistic intention that the children of the poor should have the same chance of safety as those whose parents could afford to make their own arrangements for escape. Never before or since have children been taken en masse from their homes in vulnerable cities to live with strangers in safe areas.  (Indeed nowhere else was anything of the kind even contemplated; the French government considered and rejected the idea in 1939, while the Germans decided there was no point in discussing it as the enemy could never penetrate the air defences to bomb German cities. (p. vi)

As we have seen during the pandemic, societies which have high levels of trust in government tend to cooperate more with expectations that the people will do what has to be done, even if they don’t want to.

Nearly one and a half million children left London in two days; on 3rd September war was declared and several days after that parents received postcards saying where and with whom their families were living.  London’s children had disappeared: according to the novelist Storm Jameson the city ‘looked as if some fantastic death pinched off the heads under fifteen.’

Whether to send their children to shelter in safer areas in Britain, or overseas to the Dominions or the United States, was the most difficult decision parents ever had to make.’ (p.vii)

The choice, for parents confronted by Operation Pied Piper was between separation or deathly danger. 

Of all the stories that could have been told about the evacuation, Barbara Noble chose to use a very narrow lens.  Her story is not about a difficult or uncooperative evacuee, or a child who wet the bed in distress each night.  It’s not about exploitation by servants who are bore the brunt of the extra work suddenly thrust on them, and the hardships for children who were given menial tasks that left little time for play or homework. Nor is about children who suffered physical or sexual abuse who had no one they could trust, to tell.  And it’s not about middle-class country families being confronted by working-class children with incomprehensible accents who had different habits and standards of hygiene, or how those children were offended and hurt by patronising attitudes and snobbery.

Noble focusses on one child — ten-year-old Doreen Rawlings — whose mother initially refuses to send her child with the others.  But then the Blitz in all its horror makes her decision untenable:

On her way to the office that morning, walking through streets crusted with broken glass, on legs uncomfortably swollen from a night spent dozing in a deck chair, Mrs Rawlings decided she would have to do it; she would have to send Doreen away to the country. Things weren’t getting any better, they were getting worse. Even her faith in the shelter, which up till now had had an almost fanatic quality, was shaken after last night. The shelter had rocked and her faith had rocked with it. Bombs had fallen and buildings had collapsed, and with them had collapsed Mrs. Rawlings’ obstinate, angry confidence in her own invincible rightness of opinion. But for her pride, she could have wept. Life was hard enough without losing Doreen. (p.1)

Helen Osborne, whose office Mrs Rawlings cleans, finds this indefatigable and stoic woman in tears in the washroom. Helen engineers a generous offer of a private arrangement with her brother, an Oxford solicitor and his childless wife, so Doreen is sent to a kindly home where she is loved and well-treated. Doreen is about a child who came to love both her families, about her host family’s fear of losing her, and about her parents’ fear that the longer she stayed with her host family, the more likely it was that she would be lost to them.  Her behaviour and speech would become different, her expectations of the future would change, and she might not even want to come home at all.

Very perceptive about class differences, the novel explores these effects on the child Doreen, her mother and estranged father, and the couple who come to love her, Geoffrey and Francie Osborne.  The third person narration shows how the child observes people and events and the decisions that are made about her, and how she doesn’t process what is happening.  She is a biddable child, and no trouble to anybody.  It is only when her mother visits at Christmas that her loyalty is tested.  First her mother is critical of the maid Lucy, not because of anything Lucy has done but because Mrs Rawlings has let slip to Lucy’s mother that Doreen’s best friend Edie has been killed in the blitz, and she did not trust Mrs Warman to hold her tongue:

‘Lucy liked my present’, Doreen said happily.
‘You didn’t tell me she was simple.’
‘What’s simple mean?’
‘A ha’penny short. Not all there.’
‘Oh Mum, she’s not. She’s ever so nice.’
‘I dare say.  But she’s simple, for all that.’ She spoke harshly, venting on Lucy her annoyance with her mother.
‘Well, I like her,’ Dorren maintained in a subdued voice. ‘She often brings me sweets.’
‘You didn’t ought to eat a lot of cheap sweets,’ Mrs Rawlings countered automatically. (p.79)

In a scene which captures reality as Doreen experiences it, but doesn’t understand her mother’s insecurities and her sense of herself as a good mother, Mrs Rawlings erupts into further criticism:

Running her hand down Doreen’s woollen stockings, Mrs Rawlings sighed sharply.  What darns! Real botches, they were.  She’d have to cut them out and do them over again.
‘Does that Lucy mend your clothes?’ she asked.
Doreen looked up from her book, surprised.
‘No, Mrs Osborne mends them for me.’
‘Well, I’m sorry for Mr Osborne if she darns his socks like she’s darned these stockings of yours.  Shocking, they are. I’ll have to do them all over again.’
Doreen sat very still, but her face, from forehead to neck, grew slowly scarlet and her eyes filled with tears.
Mrs Rawlings, unnoticing, snipped away angrily with her scissors.  Little bits of black wool fell on the floor beside her.
‘I think you’re very unkind,’ Doreen said at last in a strangled voice.
Mrs Rawlings looked up quickly and stared at her in astonishment.
‘What did you say?’
‘I think it’s a very unkind thing to say that about Mrs Osborne’s darning. She hates darning.  She only does it because I can’t do it myself.  I don’t mind if they’re a bit bumpy.’ Her voice shook. (p.80)

This is the most courageous act of Doreen’s young life, and mother sends her to bed for it.

Barbara Nobel (1907-2001) wrote six novels

  • The Years that Take the Best Away (1929)
  • The Wave Breaks (1932)
  • Down by the Salley Gardens (1935)
  • The House Opposite (1943) (Reprinted by Dean Street Press in 2019)
  • Doreen (1946) (Reprinted by Persephone Books in 2005)
  • Another Man’s Life (1952)

Only Doreen and The House Opposite seem to be available, I’ve just bought The House Opposite for the Kindle, it’s about a couple having an affair during the Blitz… this is the blurb:

It was curious that the aerial bombardment of London, which had ennobled so much that was normally sordid, should only debase a love affair between two people who had managed for three years to overcome the threat to their relations implicit in all such. To die together would be simple. It would not be so simple to be dug out still alive from the same collapsed building.

Elizabeth Simpson is a secretary having an affair with her married boss. Her father is an air raid warden and her terrified mother takes her courage from concealed bottles of rum. Owen Cathcart, their neurotic teenage neighbour, slips out during night raids to watch the fireworks and collect souvenirs of shrapnel. And Bob Craven, a soldier Elizabeth uses as cover for her illicit romance, plans his taxi rides to see the most dramatic bomb damage.

In this riveting drama of life during the Blitz, the extraordinary immediacy and vivid, intimate detail stem directly from the first-hand experiences of Barbara Noble, who lived and worked in London throughout the war. The result is a unique social document and an unforgettable reading experience.

I wish Persephone Books were more readily available in Australia…

Image credit: By Ministry of Health (publisher/sponsor), Cowes, Dudley S (artist), J Weiner Ltd, 71/5 New Oxford Street, London WC1 (printer), Her Majesty’s Stationery Office (publisher/sponsor) – is photograph Art.IWM PST 13854 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain,

Author: Barbara Noble
Title: Doreen
Publisher: Persephone Books, 2005, first published 1946
ISBN: 9781903155509, pbk with French flaps, 238 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Rainy Day Books, The Basin, Vic, via AbeBooks, $25.00

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 25, 2022

Bake (2022), by Paul Hollywood

I wasted no time in experimenting with this cookbook!

Paul Hollywood’s Bake, My best ever recipes for the classics, arrived today, and the cherry cake above is already out of the oven and cooling down for a sweet something after dinner. It’s the easiest cake I’ve ever made: you bung all the ingredients except the cherries and the almonds into the Kenwood, and when you’ve blitzed the batter you fold in three quarters of the cherries, and then you press the rest of them and the almonds into the top of the batter.

(The eagle-eyed reader will notice that the pantry held only slivered almonds instead of whole blanched almonds and a mixture of red and green glace cherries, but necessity is the mother of invention as they say.)

As you’d expect from Paul Hollywood, judge of The Great British Baking Show, there is a bit of yada-yada at the beginning, but the main message is that it’s easy, you can do it yourself, and people will love you for it .

Next time you go round to someone’s house, bake a cake or a loaf of bread and take it with you instead of a bottle of wine or some chocolates.  There’s nothing like making something yourself.  The processes involved, the fact that you can share the experience with your kids and family, it creates those all-important precious, lasting memories. (p.11)

It’s true, isn’t it? There’s just something about baking… I love it when my best friend comes for dinner bearing a tarte tatin. Her husband loves it when I bring a batch of blueberry muffins for breakfast when we go on shared holidays.  The Offspring loves my apple tart, which just like my mother’s version, is packed with fruit and not too sweet. And The Spouse’s favourite is my orange and almond cake… but it could be that there are some challengers in this cookbook…

Chapter 1: Cakes

  • Chocolate Orange Banana Bread.  I have four bananas, they just need to a bit squishier and then I’m trying the recipe. Done! My oven is a bit uneven which is always a problem with a loaf tin rather than a round tin, and it took 10 minutes longer than it says in the recipe, but it smells divine!
  • Victoria Sandwich: interesting to see that he uses half butter/half margarine.  I have some lovely posh jams for the filling… see the photo here
  • Sticky Ginger Loaf: golden syrup and black treacle! And cloves!!
  • Cherry Cake: I chose this one to do first because we had all the ingredients in the pantry, more or less.
  • Chocolate Hazelnut Torte : this one is a definite for a dinner party, it looks impressive but is really easy.
  • Carrot cake: I will need to master the art of piping cream to make it look the way it is in the photo, but the actual cake is simple.  It uses wholemeal flour so we can pretend that it’s healthy.
  • Lemon Drizzle Cake… yes, when our lemon tree stops sulking and produces some fruit.  (Ok, maybe I did prune it too hard, but still…)
  • Chocolate Fudge Cake: three layers of total decadence, see the photo and recipe here
  • New York Chocolate Brownie Cheesecake… to die for.
  • Fruits of the Forest Cheesecake: the most demanding of the recipes, and I’m not quite sure what he means by frozen ‘forest fruits’.  Berries??

Plus there are recipes for Blueberry Muffins, Chocolate Brownies, and Blondies.

(You will have noticed that there are four cake recipes with chocolate.)

Chapter 2: Biscuits and Cookies.

Update 5/12/22: Tried and tested:

  • Hazelnut & Apricot biscuits

    Hazelnut and Apricot Cookies.  A bit misshapen but delicious!

These are all on the To-Do list.

  • Double Chocolate Chip Cookies
  • Peanut Butter Cookies
  • Amond and Orange Biscotti
  • Ginger Biscuits
  • Oat Biscuits
  • Shortbread (nice for Christmas gifts)
  • Chocolate Macarons: it’s true, they are expensive to buy so learning to make them myself is a good idea,  and I can make the Lime variety when the lime tree obliges.
  • Classic Scones
  • Cheese Scones
  • Cheese Crackers

I skipped Chapter 3, Breads and Flatbreads, because we are spoiled for choice with excellent bakeries in our local area, and they deserve our loyalty because they served us well during Lockdown, running home deliveries for the duration — and I also skipped Chapter 4 Pizzas and Doughnuts because pizza is The Spouse’s department and I do not like doughnuts…

However (Update 2/12/22)… The Spouse has experimented with the pizza base recipe and (with his own seafood topping) it really does make a crispy base, even without a fancy pizza oven.  (We have a pizza stone, but not a special oven.) The secret is to dry-fry the base first.

Chapter 5: Pastry and Pies.  It begins with some yada yada about gluten and the essentials of blind baking (to avoid Soggy Bottom) and chilling the pastry if the recipe tells you to. And then, with some stunning photography by Haarala Hamilton, there are some very enticing recipes if you love pastry like I do.

  • Individual fish pies
  • Thai Chicken Pie (with some fancy lattice work, but there is such a thing as a pastry lattice cutter to do the pattern… who knew?)
  • Steak and Mushroom Pie (looks nice, but I am bit wedded to Matthew Hopcraft’s Beef and PepperberryPie.)
  • Meat and Potato Pie
  • Sausage Rolls (if you have never made these yourself, you are in for a treat. My mother was not a good cook and she didn’t like doing it, but her pastry was superb and her homemade sausage rolls were always the first things to vanish at her parties.)
  • The Ultimate Sausage Roll has Stilton in it! And caramelised onions!
  • Cheese and Onion Pasties
  • Hand-raised Sunday Lunch Pie. Now this one looks like a bit of a challenge. I’ve never worked with lard before but it does look like a proper British pie.  You can see the photo and recipe here
  • Beef empanadas
  • Apple pie
  • Pear and Almond Slices
  • Key Lime Pie, see the photo here
  • Pecan Pie. No.  I do not like pecans.
  • Croissants, Pain au Chocolat. Apricot Danish Pastries. Pains aux Raisins.  No.  See comments above about my loyalty to local bakeries.

Chapter 6 is Desserts.

  • Sticky Toffee Pudding
  • Individual Lemon Sponges
  • Chocolate Souffles
  • Bakes Alaska… yes, really!  And why not?!
  • White Chocolate and Raspberry Bread and Butter Pudding. Yesssssssssssssss.
  • Banoffee Pie. (I will never understand why people like this.)
  • Lime Meringue Pie. (Will bake this for my American neighbour when she comes for dinner.)
  • Mango and Passion fruit Trifle: Yum!! white chocolate custard filling and a mascarpone and cream topping, and a mango jelly.
  • Berry pavlova, see the photo and recipe here
  • Mango Meringue Roulade
  • Lemon Tartlets: who doesn’t love a lemon tart?
  • Yule Log: I made one of these once, with chocolate ripple biscuits.  It was ok, but this looks much nicer.
  • Classic Meringues… and finally, a showstopper…
  • Chocolate and Raspberry Entremets*.  The most complicated recipe in the book.  You make a raspberry jam, a chocolate Genoise sponge, a chocolate and raspberry syrup, and a chocolate mousse. After you’ve assembled it, there’s a raspberry glaze. Not like the cherry cake that you can whip up in just over an hour.

*An entremet, according to Dessertisans, is

…a cake composed of multiple components assembled into layers, encased in a mousse, enrobed with a glaze and topped with fine decorations. Entremets come in all different colours, shapes and sizes and can showcase a variety of flavour combinations. Making an entremet requires the precise execution of many traditional French pastry techniques. Entremets are an impressive and delectable dessert and would be perfect to celebrate a special occasion. They are available to buy from patisseries, nice cafes, or as a dessert at high-end restaurants.

This is a cookbook for cooks. I think it’s ideal for beginners because there are plenty of basics that are easy to do, and some more challenging recipes once confidence is established.  The layout is clear and easy to read, and the directions are clear, with photo sequences of the steps for more complicated techniques. The photography is well done too: it shows what the finished dish is supposed to look like, it provides guidance for garnishes and decoration, and where relevant, the photo shows what a dish looks like inside when it’s sliced. Measurements are metric.

Author : Paul Hollywood
Title: Bake, My best ever recipes for the classics
Photography by Haarala Hamilton
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2022
ISBN: 9781526647160, hbk., 302 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 24, 2022

Antigone Kefala wins 2022 Patrick White Award

I am indebted to ASAL @ASAustLit whose Tweet alerted me to the  news that Antigone Kefala has won the 2022 Patrick White Award (funded by Patrick White using the proceeds of his 1973 Nobel Prize).

I first encountered Kefala’s work when earlier this year I read and reviewed her Late Journals (Giramondo, 2022)

To find out more visit The Conversation and Kefala’s page at Wikipedia.

PS It seems that I haven’t noted the 2021 recipient of the award poet Adam Aitken. To find out more about him, visit his page at Wikipedia.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 23, 2022

Salonika Burning (2022), by Gail Jones

Gail Jones ninth novel is an interesting addition to Australia’s literature of World War 1.  Salonika Burning attracted my attention because it features a fictionalised ‘Miles Franklin’ in a setting I’d encountered before, in The Sorrow of Miles Franklin beneath Mount Kajmakčalan, by Ivan Čapovski, translated by Paul Filev (Cadmus Press, 2020, see my review).  Both novels are inspired by an episode in MF’s life when she was briefly working behind the lines in WW1 with the Scottish Women’s Hospital in Serbian Ostrovo. (It is now Lake Vergoritis, Pella Prefecture, in Hellas. National borders and place names change *a lot* in this part of the world).  Čapovski’s novel uses MF primarily as a witness to atrocities little-known within the dominant narratives of the war, while Jones counters the prevailing Anzac narrative in a different way.

The four main characters of Salonika Burning are all fictionalised versions of real people who served behind the Balkan front lines as volunteers.  Their real life identities are Australians Stella Miles Franklin and wealthy adventurer Olive King who bought her own ambulance; along with the surgeon, painter and psychology researcher Grace Pailthorpe and the proselytizing painter Stanley Spencer, who were both British.  As Gail Jones explains in the Author’s Note, none of these people ever met each other in real life, and in the novel, only their first names are given, to disassociate them from their postwar lives.

Of these four characters, only Stella had much of a public profile before the war — but what fame she had achieved in Australia with her notable novel (an allusion to My Brilliant Career, 1901) is lost on her colleagues.  Indeed, Stella’s lowly position in this setting is a humiliating comedown for someone whose authorial ambitions were never matched by achievements after the success of that first novel.  [She was no Louise Mack, the notable Australian journalist who was the first female war correspondent, reporting from Belgium for the Evening News and the Daily Mail.] All of the novel’s characters are outsiders, and their motivations are primarily a search for relevance.  They are people marking time in a war that is mostly offstage and in different ways they are experiencing profound disillusionment.

None of them think that they are being really useful.  Soldiers die despite the surgeon’s best efforts, and once because of a mistake Grace made under the pressure of time. Spencer gets told to stop his religious ravings because the army will not abide a raver and is put in charge of the donkeys. Olive’s ambulance is used as a delivery vehicle when supplies run short because of the disaster in Salonika.  Bossed around by a matron, with no interest or aptitude for cooking even if there were access to decent food, Stella is not a nurse as portrayed on the cover of Čapovski’s novel.

In Salonkia Burning, the characterisation of MF is a counter to her semi-heroic image as fostered by the literary prizes in her name.  In San Francisco to seek her own meaning she left within days of the 1906 earthquake, dismayed by the ruins, the despair and the sense of hope overturned. 

Decisive, Stella bought a train ticket east.  There was no point staying, and San Francisco didn’t want her.  What could be more alien than an Australian woman, motivated by unionism and women’s rights, wandering distrait in a ruined city? (p.26)

She was irrelevant then, but is hopeful of being relevant in this war.

Now more than a decade later, she was a different woman, internationalised and sure.  She was a journalist and a writer, though the fame she sought eluded her.  In London, she found work in the Minerva café on High Holborn, and this was enough to recommend her for a six-month contract with the Scottish Women’s Hospital: ‘assistant cook and orderly’.  In truth, she barely knew a pot from a pan, and had to ask an Irish biddy to give her a few tips. (p.27)

Note the derogatory term ‘Irish biddy’, the implication being that this is Stella’s own usage.  There are other aspects of her characterisation which show her resentment about the menial tasks she is given and the lack of respect shown to her.  She is dissatisfied with what she is doing, not least because she was seeking material for her writing and, laid low by a badly administered anti-malarial injection, she can’t get to see the ruins of Salonika after the fire which destroyed it.

Had she been honest, Stella would have conceded a barrier.  She felt apart from all that she saw and from her workmates and companions.  She’d expected credit and esteem from her role with the Scottish Women’s Hospital but found her own skills negligible and her writer-self suppressed. Now what she might contribute—a literary reckoning with the historical event of a destroyed city—had been denied her.  She had been wounded by a needle, humiliated and laid low. (p.109)

After years away from Australia, she is homesick too, yearning for Australian birds, for the kookaburra and the curlew, that rasped with rude energy and unmelodic cry. 

Stella was in pain and miserable and wondering why she was here.  She was thirty-eight years old and felt that her life was over. (p.110)

(And when Stella does write, she’s writes so much that she is slapdash and careless with spelling and grammar. I was reminded of Jill Roe’s analysis of the real-life MF’s writing failures when I read this, see my review of the bio, paragraphs 3 & 5.)

Reading about Stanley Spencer’s surreal image-making as he performs his duties made me realise afresh that today’s readers can use the wonders of the web to amplify their understanding of a text.  In the novel, Stanley sketches the men but gives away their portraits … while in his head, he plans the paintings he will create.  I’d never heard of Stanley Spencer, but when I found him via Google I could see his style. (And I could see what a ‘travoy’ was too.)

Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916 (1919) by Stanley Spencer (Wikipedia)

Again, as a counter to the prevailing narrative about the postwar experience of men damaged by war, there are intimations of as yet unnamed PTSD among the women who served.  Matron is adamant that there should be no talking about the distressing things they see and experience: it is better, she says, to get on and do one’s duty. This directive makes them distant and insensitive with each other.  Olive is offended by Grace’s dismissive manner when she confides her observation of an old man rescuing small items from the ruins in Salonika:

Olive hated her then.  Not to hear what was being said, not to realise she told the story because she was dismayed by what was being burned or blasted or raided by burly soldiers.  Of all that was gone.  Was going.  Would never be retrieved.  Grace seemed to have no regard for the dense world of sentiment, for small, fragile and personal things.  Nurses said it was the work: to saw through a man’s leg or stitch across a fleshy hole you had to lock down feeling, you had to be exacting and crafty. (p.120)

In contrast to the male mateship of the Anzac narrative the women do not support each other.  The novel is episodic and impressionistic, but most of the time we see inside the minds of the characters rather than hear their dialogue.  So it is the omniscient narrator who shows us that they are judgemental about some ‘scandalous’ behaviour and scornful when one of them cries at a funeral.  Olive cannot not know anything about Grace’s demons.

She’d been told they would blur, all the dying men.  But what was striking was how specific the memories were, how much her mind retained of individual gestures, or words, or the splinters of another life showing in the flesh of a new wound.  Some were innocent, some were fools.  Some were crushed not by their injury so much as by the shame they felt in receiving it, in being handled by girl nurses and strangers and the system that took over their bodies.  With their regiments they had small protective rituals and beliefs, but once at the clearing station or hospital they were a shape on a stretcher, incongruously huge in their own pain as they were tiny in the world’s estimation.  The satisfaction of a medal or commendation was a long way away; at this point they were vastly lonely and alone. (p.128)

And — as we see when one of the four receives the news that was dreaded around the world on both sides — so were the healers among them.  [Who like the overwhelming majority of soldiers, did not receive medals or commendations.]

All wars are awful, but this one remains a mystery to us still.  Soldiers receiving gifts of socks and care packages that were meant for someone who had died before the giver knew it, understand that as cannon fodder they have lost their individuality.

They tried not to think about the fellow whose socks they wore or imagine someone ese wearing socks intended for them.  The logic of substitution. This was an inefficient war, and crude, deathly logic had made them all interchangeable.  It did not bear thinking about. (p.138)

It’s still so true…

Image credit: Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916 (1919) by Stanley Spencer –, Public Domain,

Author: Gail Jones
Title: Salonika Burning
Artwork and design: W H Chong
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2022
ISBN: 9781922458834, hbk., 249 pages
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

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