Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 7, 2020

A Bookish Welcome to November: Spell the Month in Books!

I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m in the mood for some frivolity because the world is a very serious place at the moment and a temporary break is just what I need.

I got this idea from hopewellslibraryoflife who got it from Carla Loves to Read who got it from Mimosa Blossom, who got it from…. and so it goes, what a wonderful bookish world we live in!

Here are my reviews:

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 7, 2020

Peony, by Pearl S Buck, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1938

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from Read the Nobels.

To see my progress with completing the Read the Nobels Challenge, see here.

Pearl S Buck (1892-1973) was not the first woman to win the Nobel Prize, (that honour went to Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf in 1909) but she was the first woman to win it for literature written in English.  However, as the daughter of American missionaries who spent most of her life in Zhenjiang, China  before returning to the US in 1935, she is best known for her writing about China.  The Nobel citation was “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces”.  Of these I have read The Good Earth (1931) in the days before I kept a blog or a reading journal, and I’ve have previously reviewed her Letter from Peking, (1957).  However, in the process of *sigh* reconstructing my Excel reading record lost somewhere in cyberspace, I came across my review of Peony, (1948) in Reading Journal #11, just in time to add it (tweaked a little bit) to Reviews from the Archive.

19th of August, 2006

First edition cover

Peony, is a deceptively simple story of star-crossed lovers divided by race, religion and class.  Written in 1948, it’s an historical novel which explores the role of women in mid 19th century China.

Peony is a bondmaid in a Jewish family who lived in Kaifeng in China in the 1850s.  In the edition I read there was an Afterword*  which confirmed that there had been Jews in Kaifeng for a very long time, and that they were well-accepted by the Chinese as they never were elsewhere.  However, according to Buck, it was this assimilation which led to marrying ‘out’ and the gradual loss of their culture and religion.

*Probably by Wendy R. Abraham, but the book was from the library so I can’t now be sure.

Although the novel is dominated by the story of Peony’s doomed love for David, the son of the house of ben Ezra, it also explores Jewish beliefs and is critical of some aspects of their religion.

There is extensive dialogue about the incompatibility of the 19th century Chinese view of the world and the fundamentals of the Jewish religion.  Through the character of Kao Lien, a Chinese Jew, Buck is quite explicit about the separateness of Jews making them vulnerable to hatreds, and he tells his daughter Kueilin that she will not be happy if she marries into that family because they are a sorrowful people and they worship a cruel god.  Kung Chen, seeking to learn more about Judaism, rejects the concept of a Chosen People and tells the Rabbi that if there is a god, he would not select only The Chosen for salvation because under Heaven we are all one family. 

#Digression, my thoughts today:

Wikipedia tells me that Buck was, in the US, a prominent advocate of the rights of women and minority groups, but I am uneasy about anything that suggests any kind of justification for anti-Semitism, or which implies that minorities are in any way responsible for the irrational hatreds of other people.  However, though it is now well-established that the German genocide targeted all Jews, whether secular or orthodox, or assimilated for generations or not, I am inclined to think that Buck was, in the immediate aftermath of WW2, searching for some kind of explanation for the Holocaust and the comparative tolerance of the Chinese.  To put it another way, her response to the horror of the Holocaust may have been to explore within the society that she knew so well, the costs and benefits of assimilation as protection against it ever happening again.

I think now that Buck in this novel was exploring the vexed question of Jewish assimilation and identity.  Hatreds that fuelled pogroms elsewhere did not occur in China because the Jews were absorbed into Chinese society, but this was at the cost of their traditions and identity.  David’s mother Madame Ezra represents orthodox separatists who feared the loss of a distinctive Jewish identity, and her intransigent refusal to modify her principles even at the cost of her son’s happiness, shows the strength of her determination to protect her family’s faith.

Buck’s interest in this issue may also have been influenced by her own experience of being in a minority faith.  She was the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, so she may also have been critiquing the contrasting worlds of restrictive religions in general, in terms of how they are incompatible with a more light-hearted, humanistic approach to life:

Pearl recalled in her memoir that she lived in “several worlds”, one a “small, white, clean Presbyterian world of my parents”, and the other the “big, loving merry not-too-clean Chinese world”, and there was no communication between them. (Pearl Buck’s page at Wikipedia, viewed 4/11/20)

I’d be interested to hear the interpretations of others who have read this book more recently…



Peony, despite her lowly status, has agency in this tale.  Ever much more than a bondmaid, she had been soothing, cajoling, and manipulating things in the household for a long time, and since she knows that David will never marry her, she schemes instead for him to marry Kuelin (who is Chinese-Jewish, representing assimilation rather than separateness).  David is torn by his duty to his strongly religious mother and her belief that he should marry Leah, the Rabbi’s daughter.  After the quarrel in which Leah loses her temper and slashes him with his sword and then kills herself, he wants to make a redemptive pilgrimage to the Promised Land.

In the event, however, the only pilgrimage made is to the Imperial Palace at Peking.  Peony goes to Kuelin’s father, (David’s father-in-law) to tell them of David’s plans, and he sets up the journey to the palace instead, unwittingly sending Peony to her doom. It is there that she attracts the attention of the Chief Steward, a eunuch, and she has good reason to fear his insinuating behaviour towards her.

His power is such that the only way she can evade him is to enter a nunnery, where she ends her days as abbess, still visiting David’s household, but now as an equal and part of the family.

As a bondmaid, Peony had few choices.  She loved David with all her heart, and spent most of her life meeting his needs and subjecting herself to a loveless life—no husband, and no children.  When he finally realised what she meant to him and offered her concubinage as a way to escape the Chief Steward, again she acts selflessly.  She did not accept because she knew his religion forbade it and he would come to feel guilty about it even if the rest of China did not.

On the other hand, she hated Leah for her beauty but also for the sorrowfulness of her religion that she brought with her.  She schemes to make David marry Kuelin instead but only because she knew Leah could never make him happy.  Again this is an observation on Judaism that may not please everyone, and the contrast between the light-hearted pleasure-loving Chinese sits oddly in the light of Mao Zedong’s revolution and the terrors of the Cultural Revolution.  Buck, writing in 1948, was not to know how nasty, brutish and dull China was to become.

Peony, by Pearl S Buck, first published in 1948, borrowed from Kingston Library.

I finished reading it and journalled it on the 19th of August, 2006

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 6, 2020

Dark Wave, by Lana Guineay

Joint winner of the 2020 Viva La Novella Prize, Lana Guineay’s debut novella Dark Wave is ideal for both AusReading Month 2020 at Brona’s Books. and Novellas in November hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Rebecca at Bookish Beck.

This is the blurb from the back cover:

George hasn’t heard from his ex, Paloma, since she returned to her family home on Songbird Island in the Whitsundays. Now she’s asking for his help to uncover the mystery of who is stealing the family’s wealth, but what they discover is much worse than a case of fraud.

With luscious prose and a sumptuous setting, Lana Guineay’s debut novella is a brilliant reworking of the classic crime novel.

The crime in this case begins with embezzlement which, when fear of discovery looms, leads to murder.  The principal character, George Green, is the archetypal sad sack private investigator but there is a love interest (the beautiful Paloma) whose only flaw is that she is obscenely wealthy, and the social chasm looms wide.  Plus, George is obsessive about surfing, so he’s always ready to drop everything if there’s a prospect of a good wave.  This, as you might expect, puts a strain on his relationship.  Putting a good wave ahead of a good woman is probably not the path to True Love.

But George is still carrying a torch for Paloma so when she calls on him for help he abandons his downmarket accommodation and business premises in Bronte (a beachside suburb of Sydney), and sets off for the (mythical) Songbird Island in Queensland, owned by Paloma’s father and lush with beautiful scenery and lavish tourist accommodation.  (Think luxury-market Orpheus Island rather than family-friendly Hamilton Island).

The ins and outs of the plot are best left to the reader to discover, though I did wonder a bit about the way the mainland police acquiesce to letting the PI access evidence. Maybe I’ve watched too many Father Brown episodes where the dour police detective is forever trying to get Father Brown out from underfoot.

However, what interested me most was the plot complications of a possible cyclone.  As it happens, I am also reading Cyclone, a novella from 1947 by Vance Palmer, and I am pursuing this unlikely reading task (since I haven’t previously found Palmer to be exactly riveting reading) because I’ve been sent a book of LitCrit called Cyclone Country, the Language of Place and Disaster in Australian Literature by Chrystopher Spicer. While this kind of academic study is not the kind of book I usually read, I was lured into it because Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm is included in the study.  And, on a whim, because Spicer told me that Vance Palmer’s Cyclone was also included, I decided to dig up a copy and I’m currently about half way through it.

I should add that I have resolutely not even opened the Spicer book yet, but already I can see from reading Cyclone why ‘the language of place and disaster’ is an interesting topic for study.  Cyclone‘s blurb begins with the statement that it’s a story of conflict and tension accentuated by a brooding cyclone.  Half way through it, there’s a character whose dilemmas are so overwhelming that he almost wishes the cyclone would hit the town and blow all his troubles away.  So when a cyclone looms in Dark Wave, it’s more than just a storm.  It’s a complication that can wash away evidence, evacuate possible witnesses and suspects, and destroy the wealth that separates The Path of True Love.

Enough said, or I’ll give the game away!

Author: Lana Guineay
Title: Dark Wave
Cover illustration by Sam Paine
Publisher: Seizure by Brio Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781922267252, pbk., 197 pages
Personal copy, purchased from Seizure Online $6.99

You can buy the book from Fishpond, Dark Wave, direct from Seizure, or from good bookstores everywhere.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 6, 2020

Meet an Aussie Author: Rosalie Ham


Photo credit: Mercedeh Makoul

After months of lockdown, today I ventured into a real bricks-and-mortar bookshop.  With a wonderful home delivery service, Benn’s Books in Bentleigh have kept me well supplied with books to read but, as we booklovers all know, there is nothing — nothing! — like actually being in a bookshop.  (I was amused that though I have been a good customer for years and years, they took a moment to recognise me with my mask on!)

I was there on a mission to collect my copy of Sienna Brown’s Master of My Fate (which has been shortlisted for the ARA Historical Fiction prize) and to choose a couple of Christmas books for small neighbours, but of course I browsed the New Fiction shelf, just in case there was anything I’d missed in the catalogues and newsletters that come my way.  And I wouldn’t have been the only one pleased to see Rosalie Ham’s just-released sequel to her best-selling The Dressmaker there on the shelf!

I am pleased to bring you this profile of Rosalie Ham in my Meet an Aussie Author series, and my thanks go to Clare Keighery, publicity manager at Macmillan, for her assistance in contacting Rosalie.

Rosalie Ham is a Melbourne writer and teacher. I’ve read everything she’s written, starting with her debut novel, The Dressmaker, (2000) which was adapted to film in 2015 and starred Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving and Liam Hemsworth, then Summer at Mt Hope (2005), and two more, reviewed here on the blog, There Should Be More Dancing (2011) and The Year of the Farmer (2018).  (You might remember that I posted about to a Booroondara Library author event about that one…)


These are Rosalie’s answer’s to my questions:

  1. I was born….in Jerilderie, population 800, hence, my interest in what everyone else is doing, my ability to form an opinion about it and keep it to myself…or not.
  2. When I was a child…there was no TV, so my imagination is mine, it’s not formed by someone else’s interpretation.
  3. The person who encouraged / inspired / mentored me … …was actually many people who said things that I clung to. In the end, it was me who sat down and started writing.
  4. I write … firstly, in isolation. I take off to a motel, or similar, and get the synopsis down. Then I do the best I can.
  5. I write …whenever I’m alone and my imagination is floodlit and pulsing.
  6. Research is… essential, absorbing, enlightening, enriching…and most of it of no real use. But it’s huge fun.
  7. I keep my published works in … my office, on a (small) shelf. It’s rare anyone’s invited into my office.
  8. On the day my first book was published, I … drove 150ks to the nearest book shop and bought a copy. They told me I’d sold three copies. I’d never felt more elated.
  9. At the moment, I’m writing…nothing. I’ve given myself a month off so I’m cleaning out the shed and researching new lawn mowers.
  10. When I‘m stuck for an idea / word / phrase, I … read writers I’m jealous of. That usually does the trick.

I wonder which writers they are?

Thanks for participating Rosalie!

You can buy The Dressmaker’s Secret from Pan Macmillan or good bookstores everywhere.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 5, 2020

Life After truth, by Ceridwen Dovey

Like everyone else, last night I went to bed wondering what the US election might bring, and this morning I can’t quite come to terms with the fact that (at the time of writing) over 68 million people still voted for That Man after witnessing four years of what he has done during his term in office.  It’s extraordinary.  There’s only a difference of about four million votes between the candidates…

So this was a very weird time to be reading Ceridwen Dovey’s new novel — which of course has the usual disclaimers about being a work of fiction — but is set during a Harvard reunion of classmates at a time when a man very like That Man is in the White House.  What’s more, one of the Harvard graduates at the reunion seems very like one of the beneficiaries of That Man’s nepotism — and the book’s prologue begins with one of the characters discovering that this son is dead in suspicious circumstances.  What happens in a Post Truth world when a President’s son gets murdered??

That question is set aside for almost all of the novel.  From the prologue, the story goes back to the beginning of that fateful weekend and — reminiscent of Andrea Goldsmith’s marvellous Reuniontraces what happens as old friends gather to reflect on their past, present and future.  The fate of President Reese’s son and the country led by his father haunts this story only like an undercurrent, as if to hint that the characters’ preoccupations with love, parenting, social status and the implications of AI (Artificial Intelligence) are about to be put into perspective.  It crossed my mind, on and off as I read, (obviously influenced by the election scenario), that the US has an armed population, it permits torture, and it suspends human rights when it suits them to keep people locked up for years without trial.  In the hands of an angry president, these powers are even more frightening.

Yet these friends, though (before the death) they comment publicly in some contexts about Fred Reese and his shameless behaviour, and they certainly think badly of him even if they are too constrained to say so, have other things to think about.  None of them are politically active, and one of them goes so far as to (privately) compare their apathy to the complacent acquiescence of Nazi Germany, where people failed to speak out, to protest or to act in the face of outrageous events.  Underneath the layers of a domestic novel portraying the narcissism, self-doubt and conflicts pf these adults on the cusp of middle age, Life After Truth is a political novel.  One which makes its point subtly, within the pages of an utterly absorbing story about some intriguing and very bright characters.

Jules is a film star, but she’s not the star of the novel.  The narration gives us the inner thoughts of only some of the principal characters.  We see the internal world of Rowan, an almost-too-good-to-be-true school principal whose life is guided by love for his family and concern for others.  We know about his wife, Mariam, whose reflections on life as a stay-at-home mother with two children under five focus on the demands of trying to be a perfect parent.  Eloise, a psychology professor whose field of expertise is ‘happiness’, has become wealthy through best-selling self-help books: she is preoccupied too.  She’s not happy herself because of strains in her relationship with Binx, a young woman involved in radical human body experimentation and the ‘liberation’ of the female from biology.  This includes the creation of Elly+, an android version of Eloise, who Eloise has come to regard as a rival.  We don’t get Binx’s PoV, nor do we get Jules’.  What is revealed is only the others’ protective thoughts about her because her fame has made her life hell, and it’s made it near impossible for her to have a meaningful relationship.  We do know how hard this is for Jomo, because while the others all regard him as a ‘stud’ whose relationship with Jules has always been platonic, his thoughts reveal his self-doubt about declaring his love for her.

Narrative tension pushes the reader on.  What is it, that’s bothering Jules?  Will Rowan put his foot in it again when his love for Mariam and his little girls makes him defensive on her behalf and causes him to make the fatal mistake of speaking for her, as if she weren’t disenfranchised enough already?  Will Mariam crack under the burden of being a full-time parent without any of the help that other (much wealthier) Harvard graduates have?  And how is she going to resolve her developing interest in religion to her staunchly atheist husband? How will Eloise negotiate her doubts, when Binx announces that they’re having a surrogate baby as a political act?  And will Jomo, executive of a luxury jewellery company, propose to Jules and give her the ring that he’s been carrying around for years?

And the president?  Dovey reminds us to keep our humanity no matter what politics may do.

In Boston’s South Station terminal, the giant screen above the passengers waiting for their trains showed the president of the United States sitting on the steps leading into Kirkland House, his head in his hands.  A still figure of grief in the midst of the flurry and bustle around him.  His dark coat was outlined against the bright-yellow background of tape crisscrossing the perimeter, keeping the media at a distance for now.

In all the drama of the last hours, Mariam had not once thought of how he might be feeling.  The president had lost his only child.  It was not something anybody could in good conscience wish upon another parents, now matter how much she hated him.

She pulled Alexis, who was on her lap, closer against her body, resting her chin on her daughter’s head.  The girls were alive.  Rowan was alive.  She was alive.  They had somehow escaped unscathed.

The Mariam of the preceding days — years, even — seemed to exist in another plane of reality, one in which it was normal to worry about things like whether to chop blueberries in half before giving them to her kids, or obsess over how tired she felt doing housework, or have stupid conversations with God instead of with her flesh-and-blood husband.

The Mariam of the present had been cleansed of all these trivial concerns.  Her mind had been wiped clear of everything except the fact that her children were okay.  Nothing else mattered.  (p.278)

Life After Truth is a fascinating look at contemporary life.  Make sure you get a copy!

Author: Ceridwen Dovey
Title: Life After Truth
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Random House) 2020
ISBN: 9781760895365, pbk., 289 pages
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Available from Fishpond: Life After Truth and good bookshops everywhere.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 4, 2020

Kim by Rudyard Kipling, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1907

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from Read the Nobels.

To see my progress with completing the Read the Nobels Challenge, see here.

Kim by Rudyard Kipling, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1907

1st November, 2003

I enjoyed this.  It’s one of those classic books I always meant to read, one that’s part of my British heritage which is known around the world because of Kipling’s influence on the scouting movement.

Kim is a boy enlisted by chance to work for the British Secret Service in India. He is orphaned by a sick mother and a feckless Irish father in service in India, and he lives in the streets.  One day he is captured by the British, who find his ID papers in a scapula around his neck – and they send him off to school.  A certain Commander recognises his potential as an ‘agent’ because he is familiar with Indian street life and its languages.
Kim takes to the streets on a quest for enlightenment with a Buddhist Lama, but is able to serve His Majesty in various other ways as well, including acquiring precious papers implicating an Indian prince’s conspiracy with Russians to the north.  One of his accomplishments in to quell an Indian uprising and in this he is aided by Muhtab, a Muslim, and Hareem, a Hindi – and nowhere is their quisling role questioned.  (I read a similar short story to this in which a British boy singlehandedly quells a riot, in the collection titled The Man Who Would Be King, and no, it’s not ironic.)

Kipling was an old colonialist, after all, and everything I’ve ever read by this author champions the British Raj and the Empire.  It’s a fair bet that he’d never have got a Nobel Prize in these post-colonial days!

I finished reading it and journalled it on the 1st of November, 2003.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 3, 2020

Factory 19, by Dennis Glover

Factory 19 is an audacious novel: Dennis Glover is channelling George Orwell!

Written in the same style of unadorned prose (but not quite with Orwell’s economic word count), Glover’s satire on nostalgia for the old economy might have the Occupy Movement in its sights, but it’s also an unabashed critique of the way we have become trapped in the digital economy.

The story is this: in the setting of a very near future, Dundas Faussett a.k.a. D.F., a charismatic man of extreme wealth  sets up Hobart as a model economy, based entirely on how things were in the pre-digital age which he has designated as 1948.  (Yes, the inverse of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). His fiefdom has no laws, only his vision and his powerful will.  (Which is eventually challenged by an increasingly fractious wife who is less tolerant and more wary of subversion than he is).  The new society at Factory 19 operates like an idealised version of the postwar era: everyone has a job in his factories—which use materials and methods from 1948, to make products from 1948, for people who work in the old hierarchical worker-and-boss structures… with pay and conditions that can only be dreamed of in today’s gig economy.

The story is narrated by Paul Richey, who was recovering on lo-tech Bruny Island after a nervous breakdown caused by working for a politician in the always-available relentlessly-digital demands of the 24/7 news cycle.

Surrounded by my wind-up mechanical clock, AM-FM radio, vinyl long-playing records, cassette player, books and the weekly printed broadsheet they flew in for me from overseas, my mind slowly recovered.  Like a soldier back from war, I still had the occasional nightmare.  For example, I would sometimes kick out in my sleep against imaginary robotic vacuums that were cornering me.  But the simple therapy of living as my grandparents once had worked wonders.  And after three years of such safety — I’ll skip over that almost entirely uneventful period to save the reader — I found myself ready to return, tentatively, to civilisation.  I couldn’t yet live surrounded by the digital economy, so rather than send me to a modern city, they sent me to Hobart.

Before I offend any residents of that fine city, now recovering from all the trouble that followed, I’d better explain what I mean.

After Dundas Faussett closed GoFA, it caused the city’s economy to fall like a Concorde with empty fuel tanks.  The sort of decline that had taken a couple of decades to ruin the world’s once-great industrial cities wrecked Hobart in a matter of months.  (p.28)

And what was GoFA?  Reminiscent of Hobart’s MoNA and the dependence of Tassie’s tourism industry on it, GoFA is D.F.’s Gallery of Future Art, the plaything of this whimsical uber-wealthy man who became bored with making money which is obviously how a lot of billionaires problems begin.  D.F. had made his fortune with an algorithm that broke the world’s sovereign lotteries, (on which governments rely to fund all kinds of things that used to be funded by taxation). He joins the ranks of Bezos, Zuckerberg, Gates, Musk et al), and returns to Hobart to set up his vision of an Arcadia, where everyone is happier without the internet, email, iStuff, and processed food.  People flock to live there because there is also no insecure work or gig economy, and unions have a respected place in protecting pay and conditions.

Only, of course, there are flaws in a society without modern medicine, controls on pollution, gender equity and diversity reforms, and Glover deftly drops the allusions here and there so that the Orwellian contempt for sloganeering, bureaucracy, and totalitarianism emerges.  As in Animal Farm, authorities have privileges denied to the workers, and there comes a time when revolutionary idealism morphs into ends justifying means.

It’s very cleverly done, and the tension in the concluding chapters is all the more compelling for being so unexpected.  I suspect this book might make a lively film…

The cover design by Regine Abos is sheer genius.

Author: Dennis Glover
Title: Factory 19
Cover design by Regine Abos
Publisher: Black Inc, (Schwarz Media) 2020
ISBN: 9781760641764, pbk., 368 pages
Review copy courtesy of Black Inc.

Available from Fishpond: Factory 19 and direct from Black Inc or your favourite indie bookshop.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 3, 2020

2020 Nonfiction November: My Year in Nonfiction

It’s time for Nonfiction November, which begins with my ‘Year in Nonfiction’, hosted by Shelf Aware.

These are Leann’s prompts and my responses:

What was your favourite nonfiction read of the year?

While it’s not exactly a favourite, since the topic of women in the French Resistance is hardly entertainment, A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead was the most impressive book that I read.  Meticulously researched, it pays homage to the courage and initiative of a group of women whose sacrifice should never be forgotten.  For a more uplifting choice, I loved reading A Mouthful of Petals, Three Years in an Indian Village by Wendy Scarfe and Allan Scarfe, first published in 1967 but now in a 2020 reissued edition which describes the highs and lows of an idealistic couple who set up an experimental school in India.


Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

There’s not really any pattern to my choices, but as always I’ve enjoyed literary biography, and Tripping with Jenny, by Mudrooroo was an interesting window into life on the hippie trail.  Other life stories I really liked include Drawn From Life, the autobiography of the expat Australian artist Stella Bowen; and The Woman Who Sailed the World, by Danielle Clode, which tells the astonishing story of the first woman to circumnavigate the world.


What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?

That would be How to Talk About Climate Change, in a way that makes a difference, by Rebecca Huntley.  The title is self-explanatory, but the strategies are well worth knowing, for any issue on which you hope to be persuasive.  But I’ve also ear-bashed everyone about Rivers, the Lifeblood of Australia by Ian Hoskins; and The Innocent Reader by Debra Adelaide.  Both would make great Christmas presents, while Huntley’s book would be a great gift for anyone who cares about climate change, at any time of the year.




What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?  

I like to reflect on my books and reading, and I find the process of choosing answers to the prompts is a good way of revisiting what I’ve read.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 2, 2020

Yournadiyn Woolagoodja, by Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja

The image on the front cover of this stunning book will be familiar to many people because it was featured in the Awakening segment of the opening ceremony at the Sydney Olympics.

The image is a Wandjina, which of the many which feature in the rock art of the Kimberley.  The author of this book, Yorna (Donny) Woolagoodja, a Woddorda man whose artwork features the Wandjina, worked with the creatives behind that part of the opening ceremony which featured Indigenous people from all over Australia.

Wandjina has no mouth because the sound of beginning cannot be heard by human ears. (p.52)

Wandjina was the first image that people found and this why they call them Wandjina because they were the first people.  The Wandjina have their own different names but we do not know all of them anymore.

If you missed it, here is the video, the Wandjina comes in towards the end at about 10:30.

In his own words: Woolagoodja explains why he wrote this book:

I have been teaching the young generation, and I take them back to Country.  To show them.  I have represented my Country, my Culture and my understanding in different ways to aalmara (non-Indigenous people) in Australia and overseas so they can get an idea.  I have worked with researchers, filmmakers, mining companies, government people and I have created a tourism venture — all to help people understand.  I have worked with many people to make books, but now I want to put my own story in my own words.  (p.15)

In this book lavishly illustrated with stunning artworks and magnificent photography, Yorna explains what Country means to him, with detailed attention to the concept of Lalai.  He acknowledges that people often don’t really understand , so it’s best if I quote him directly:

Lalai is about the creation of Country, the finding of children spirits and many other kinds of spiritual things as well as our way of life and the future and what might happen.  All the Country and all the stories go to one meaning — Lalai.

Lalai has all different stories to tell and there are lots of places where you can see what happened.  We are not talking about spirits like a ghost.  The spirits are in the stories and are in the Country.

Lalai is our history of Wandjina and Woogudd creating the Country.  They are in the Country.  You can see them in the caves, the ocean and the clouds too.  I put Lalai into my paintings to help people understand what it means to us.  (p.42)

In the chapter My Woongudd and My Family, he explains the complex kinships and also the skin rules for marriage:

We have a different way of thinking about family.  We don’t just have one mother and one father or aunty or uncle.  All the sisters from our mother or from our mother’s skin group we call them mother and they have to look after us and we have to look after them.  Any of our father’s brothers we call our father and if someone finds your Woongudd spirit then they are your father too.  And it goes like that.  We have a lot of relations and we have to know who they are and who they married to really work it out. (p.116)

Like so many elders in so many cultures, he comments on young people not respecting cultural traditions.

Things are changing with the marriages these days with young people marrying all different kinds of people from different places and forgetting the rules.  It is getting more tangled up and harder and harder to straighten up.  It is too tangled.  If they keep marrying wrong way then its gets too hard to fix up and they lose their way.  When they have kids, now, we don’t know what to call those kids.  (p.121)

Perhaps it is just the way of the world for young people to do want do things differently!

The book covers the story of Namaralay (the name of the Wandjina used at the Sydney Olympics), and also explains the concept of ‘refreshing’ rock art.  Most of us, I expect, think of rock art that’s 40,000 years old as sacrosanct, but Yorna explains that after the Olympics when everyone had seen Namaralay made fresh at Sydney, he wasn’t fresh in his own home.  So they made a special trip to the cave where that image is, found that it was fading away, and repainted it.

When I go to the Wandjina in the cave, what I am trying to do is not like doing it on a canvas.

The Wandjina, he draws you towards him, pulls you into him and that image acknowledges what you are going to do to him.  He gives you encouragement to do that thing.


It makes me feel proud, painting him rather than just doing something on canvas because something in the cave is more important than the canvas.  The canvas is selling something.  Doing something inside the cave is better because it belongs there.  It will always be there.  it is not going anywhere.  (p. 192)

This book would make a lovely Christmas gift for anyone who wants to learn about Indigenous culture, especially if they have an interest in art.

Author:  Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja
Title: Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781925936162, pbk., 256 pages
Review copy courtesy of Magabala Books

Available from Magabala Books or your favourite indie bookshop or Fishpond: Yornadaiyn Woolagoodja

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 31, 2020

The Freedom Circus, by Sue Smethurst

There are many reasons why this memoir makes fascinating reading, but for Melbourne readers of a certain age, it will also bring back memories of ‘the Golden Age of children’s television’.  This memoir is the story of Mindla and her husband Kubush a.k.a. Michael Horowitz, known to those of us who watched The Tarax Show in the 1960s, as Sloppo the Clown.  The photo inserts in the book show him just as I remember him, but you can also see him at this photo gallery, fifth row down on the RHS. (See update below)

Written by Melbourne journalist Sue Smethurst, The Freedom Circus tells the story of her grandparents-in-law, and their astonishing escape from Poland during WW2.  The couple met and fell in love in Warsaw, and they married despite Mindla’s parents feeling dubious about the merits of a professional clown as a husband for their daughter.  Kubush, however, was no ordinary clown: he performed to sellout crowds in the world-famous Circus Staniewski.  It had a permanent home in Warsaw, but it also toured nationally.

And it so happened that Kubush was away on tour when Hitler invaded Poland.  Mindla could not persuade her parents and family to flee with her, but knowing what she did of the occupiers, she set off with her small son Gad on a perilous journey with a people smuggler, to join Kubush in the eastern city of Bialystok. Bialystok was, at that time before the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact was broken by Hitler, under Soviet rule because the two powers had partitioned Poland between them.  But Kubush wasn’t there: the circus had moved on, and Kubush was on his way back to Warsaw to be with his beloved wife and child.  Mindla had no alternative but to journey on to her Uncle Aldo’s house in Sokolka where she was sent by the Soviets to work in a tannery.

Eventually, under pressure for Polish refugees to choose between becoming Soviet citizens or returning home, Mindla left the relative safety of Sokolka and set off on another perilous journey back to Warsaw.   She was not so lucky with the people smuggler this time, and, captured by the NKVD, she was imprisoned in the Bialystok prison under appalling conditions, the worst of which was that she was separated from little Gad.

Kubush, meanwhile, since the Circus Staniewski building had been bombed, had kept himself busy entertaining sick children in the Warsaw hospital.  However, in April 1940 Lala Staniewksa, the entrepreneur who managed the circus, wangled a temporary reprieve from conscription into labour gangs for her performers by reviving the circus to entertain their German occupiers.  This initiative probably saved the life of the clown Faivel Ditkowski who, as a dwarf, was at risk from the Nazi eugenics program.  Hitler’s demand that this Polish circus be replaced by a German one, however, coincided with the establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto, but Lala managed to get false papers for her staff and in a brilliant manoeuvre, arranged for their escape right under the noses of the Germans.  (You’ll have to read the book to find out how this was done!)

Under remarkable circumstances, the family reunited in Bialystok, and once again Kubush’s circus fame saved them.  Stalin loved circuses, and Mindla and Kubush were whisked off to Moscow where they lived in comfort and safety until 1941 when Hitler invaded the USSR and made rapid progress towards the Soviet capital.   Ironically, since Moscow had been good to them, it was the threat from the Germans which eventually led to the couple’s freedom.  They had realised all too soon that in the Soviet Union, they did not have choice: no one could leave the USSR of their own volition.  But instead of being stuck behind what came to be called The Iron Curtain, Mindla and Kubush — along with other Polish refugees and prisoners of war who’d been released to form a Polish army for the fight against the Axis — were evacuated deep into eastern Russia near the border of what is now Kazakhstan.

Their story continues: they survived the bitter conditions in the village of Totskoye, sleeping in tents and scavenging for scarce food; when the Soviets couldn’t supply the Polish soldiers and civilians they were transferred to the care of the British; and they then journeyed 3000km on foot through Afghanistan to British-occupied Tehran.  Google tells me that this is a journey of 596 hours on foot, but little Gad was only five…

It is not a journey for the faint-hearted or weak, but Persia, they are told, is well organised under the joint command of British and American forces.  Food is plentiful and from there, the British will find them a new home somewhere under the King’s rule.

Nothing but hope fuels every blistered footstep along dirt roads and mountainous tracks through Afghanistan and into Persia.

‘Soon we will see the sea,’ Mindla coaxes Gad whenever he is tired and doesn’t want to go on.  The promise of seeing the sea for the very first time buoys him.

She marvels at how the young boy is mature beyond his five years, but then, what else does he know?  His life was been a miserable roller-coaster of suffering and survival. (p.240)

In the Tehran camp, Kubush was soon brightening little faces with his clever tricks and comical routines, but before long they were on the move again. This time it was 2700 miles by sea to Kenya, and then to Camp Nyabyeya in Masindi, over the Kenyan border in Uganda. It turned out to be a bustling Polish village in the heart of Africa, where two thousand Poles were piecing together their broken lives.  That included reviving the circus!

Postwar, they were transferred to Rome for repatriation to destinations in the British Empire, and in 1949 the family which had grown to five, arrived at their final destination: like thousands of other displaced refugees, they made their home in Melbourne, where with hard work, they thrived.  One day The Tarax Show advertised auditions, and Sloppo the Clown arrived on the B&W TV screens of delighted children across Melbourne.

I was one of them, and I am so glad to have learned the story of this wonderful man and his indefatigable wife.

You can hear Sue Smethurst talk about her book at an online author event, hosted by the Latrobe Library, on November 17th.  It’s free, but you’ll need to book here.

Update, later the same day, I’ve just received permission from Sue Smethurst to use the photo of Kubush that’s in the book, and here he is is, as Sloppo the Clown with his Tarax Show stablemate Norm Brown a.ka. Boppo:

Photo credit: the Horowitz family, by permission of Sue Smethurst

Author: Sue Smethurst
Title: The Freedom Circus
Publisher: Ebury Press (Penguin Random House), 2020
ISBN: 9781760890308, pbk., 303 pages
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House

Available from your favourite indie bookshop or Fishpond: The Freedom Circus: One family’s death-defying act to escape the Nazis and start a new life in Australia

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 29, 2020

Mother Tongue, by Joyce Kornblatt

In the lead-up to #NovellasInNovember*, Mother Tongue is definitely one that you should consider if you can get your hands on it.  It should be in shops from October 1st, but a quick hunt around online suggests that though all three of my libraries have it, (one of them in digital form), not all my regular bricks-and-mortar sources have got stocks just yet.  Well, things are a bit Covid-messy in Melbourne at the moment, do not be deterred, Mother Tongue is worth the hunt.

It’s an extraordinary book.  It was launched at Gleebooks where events manager Victoria Jeffreys is quoted as saying She wrote with such compassion and understanding that part of me wondered if some of it was a true story!’ That’s exactly what I thought…

The blurb suggests the existential questions raised by the novel…

What does it mean when the identity out of which one builds a life turns out to be a lie? What is the impact on one’s self and those one loves? Mother Tongue emerges from the fires of shocking loss, betrayal and grief-tested love.’

Mother Tongue is a profound and moving novel that asks complex questions with such crystal clarity they seem simple. Are we formed by our genes? Our history? Or do we make ourselves? How do we lose each other? More importantly: how do we find each other?

… but this blurb gives no hint of the shocking loss.

When we hear news about some monstrous crime committed against a child, we try to imagine what kind of person could do such a thing, and how the child might ever recover to live a normal life.  But imagination fails us.  It doesn’t seem possible to put ourselves in the place of the people in such a situation.  Yet Kornblatt has succeeded in doing so.  She has woven such a story, a feat of imagination that seems utterly real.

It’s not a spoiler to show you what that monstrous crime is, because here it is, on page one:

My name is Nella Pine and this is my life’s story, as new to me as it will be to you who reads it here for the first time.

I am the secret and the one who whispers the secret into your ear.

I am the crime and the narrator-sleuth.

I came upon the facts of my existence as one who returns to her home in the midst of a burglary: here is the shattered glass, the rifled drawers, the thief with the booty still cradled in her guilty arms.

When I was three days old, a nurse named Ruth Miller stole me from the obstetrics ward in Mercy Hospital and raised me as her own.  This was May 7, 1968, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (p.9)

Nella grows up in Sydney in complete ignorance of her real identity until she is middle-aged.  That is when this nurse, who had taken on a new identity as the widowed Eva Gilbert, dies and leaves a letter of explanation for Nella to find.

This is not one of those soppy genre novels about ‘family secrets’, it is about Nella’s journey of reconciling her love for the woman who brought her up, with the crime committed.  It’s about her struggle to restore her shattered identity.  It’s about her dilemma over whether or how to seek out her American family and her real heritage.

What is utterly surprising, and a stroke of unexpected genius, is the beautiful ending.

Highly recommended.

Author: Joyce Kornblatt
Title: Mother Tongue
Publisher: Brandl & Schlesinger, 2020
ISBN: 9780648523321, pbk., 185 pages
Review copy courtesy of Brandl & Schlesinger

Available from Fishpond: Mother Tongue or your favourite indie bookshop.

The Australia Council has released its updated version of the Protocols for using First Nations Cultural and Intellectual Property in the Arts (2020).

Whether you are a reader, a reviewer or a writer, it’s important to know these protocols, which are there to guide us in our interpretation of works involving Indigenous heritage, culture, history and intellectual property.  As Dr Terri Janke,  explains:

“While works by individual artists are protected by copyright, Australia does not yet have a law that prevents alteration, distortion or misuse of traditional symbols, songs, dances, performances and story that may be part of the heritage of particular Indigenous language groups. This is where the Australia Council for the Arts’ Protocols for using First Nations Intellectual and Cultural Property in the Arts comes in. The protocols provide a pathway for collaborations and creation of new Indigenous work.”  (Source: Australian Council website).

Just last week I started to read and abandoned a novel by an English author who, after a short period in Australia during the 1990s, took it upon herself to tell the story of a policeman traumatised by his role in removing Indigenous children from their families under the Stolen Generations policy.  I didn’t review it because I don’t review books that I don’t finish, but it was historically inaccurate and from that standpoint it was cringeworthy.   I say nothing of its merits or otherwise within its genre, but whether this novel was specifically in breach of these protocols or not, it seems to me that to use the tragedy of the Stolen Generations for a mystery/thriller is tawdry and disrespectful.

Which is why I recommend that we can all educate ourselves about these protocols to inform the judgements and interpretations that we make about books.

At the Copyright Agency Ltd website, it sets out ten principles for respecting Indigenous cultural and intellectual property:

  1. Respect
  2. Self-determination
  3. Communication, consultation and consent
  4. Interpretation
  5. Cultural integrity and authenticity
  6. Secrecy and confidentiality
  7. Attribution
  8. Benefit sharing
  9. Continuing cultures
  10. Recognition and protection

For our purposes as readers, reviewers and writers, the implementation of the protocols is demonstrated through case studies which include Tara June Winch’s Miles Franklin Literary Award-winning novel The Yield; and Magabala Books’ Indigenous-led storytelling and writing collaborations.

To read the protocols, click here.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 29, 2020

Smart Ovens for Lonely People wins the 2020 Readings Prize

Readings has announced that the winner of the 2020 Readings Prize is Smart Ovens for Lonely People.

From the press release:

We are delighted to announce that Elizabeth Tan has won this year’s Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction for her short story collection Smart Ovens for Lonely People.

With an astonishing showcase of craft and unbridled imagination, each story in Smart Ovens for Lonely People submerges the reader in a world that is at once strange and familiar. Praised by the judges for its originality and its humour, this is a book that will surprise and beguile readers.

Read the judges’ report in full here.

‘The stories collected in Smart Ovens for Lonely People made me laugh out loud with surprise and delight – not only because they are very funny, conveying enviable literary skill, but also because I have simply never read anything like them, and that is such a pleasure and a delight.’ – Guest judge and 2019 Readings Prize winner Alice Robinson

‘Full of incisive commentary and pin-sharp prose, this is a marvellous and highly rewarding read.’
Joe Rubbo, manager of Readings Carlton

‘Tan is a writer with a voice and imagination uniquely and utterly her own. Each of these stories feels like a distorted reflection of our technologically mired world and they will resonate with anyone who enjoys the works of Carmen Maria Machado, Margo Lanagan and Kelly Link.’ – Jackie Tang, Readings online bookseller

This is the blurb from the book:

Conspiracies, memes, and therapies of various efficacy underpin this beguiling short story collection from Elizabeth Tan.

In the titular story, a cat-shaped oven tells a depressed woman she doesn’t have to be sorry anymore. A Yourtopia Bespoke Terraria employee becomes paranoid about the mounting coincidences in her life. Four girls gather to celebrate their underwear in ‘Happy Smiling Underwear Girls Party’, a hilarious take-down of saccharine advertisements.

For a limited time, you can buy copies of Smart Ovens for Lonely People at Readings for the special price of $24.99 (was $29.99).

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 28, 2020

2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize shortlist

Update 11/11/20 The winner was Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe.

Update on the 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize: the shortlisted novels are in bold.  Alas, all three are the very ones I haven’t read.  (Though I do have Master of My Fate on order at Benn’s Books).

Longlisted entries include:

The Historical Novel Society of Australia has more info at their website.

For further information about each of the authors and their novels, please visit 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize Longlist.


The announcement of the longlist coincides with ARA Group doubling its funding for the inaugural award, increasing the total prize monies to $60,000. The overall prize winner will now receive $50,000, with an additional $5,000 to be awarded to each of the remaining two shortlisted authors.

The increase in funding places the ARA Historical Novel Prize among the top five richest literary prizes in Australia and New Zealand, and makes it the most significant genre-based literary prize in Australia.


Sponsored by the ARA Group,

The ARA Historical Novel Prize is designed to give historical novelists the opportunity to be recognised in a class of their own — for the first time ever as part of an Australian and New Zealand literary award.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 27, 2020

Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam

Rumaan Alam is an author entirely new to me, but I like his style.   Leave the World Behind is the story of a white American family who rent a luxurious rural retreat  on Long Island, and suddenly find their relaxing week interrupted when the owners descend on them in the wake of a total blackout in New York City.  They were on their way home from a concert elsewhere, and to avoid the chaos, they want to stay.  The blurb describes the dilemma like this:

But in this rural area—with the TV and internet now down, and no cell phone service—it’s hard to know what to believe.

Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple—and vice versa? What happened back in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one another?

This is a sly novel, operating with a wink and a nod to expose the inner workings of race and class in America, and also how a privileged lifestyle impacts on other societies and the global environment.  This excerpt (set before their unwelcome visitors arrive) gives some idea of Alam’s style.  On a hot and windy day with a bit of a chill in the breeze, they’ve found the beach, despite the GPS initially unable to locate itself until it recovered its hold on them and they drove under its protective gaze.  

Amanda struggled to spread the blanket, something she’d found on the internet, block-printed by illiterate Indian villagers.  She placed a bag at each corner to weigh the thing down.  The children shed their layers and bounded off like gazelles.  Rose investigated the detritus washed up on the sand, shells and plastic cups and iridescent balloons that had celebrated proms and sweet sixteens miles away.  Archie knelt in the sand some distance from their encampment, pretending not to stare at the lifeguards, hale girls, sun-lightened locks and red swimsuits.

Amanda had a novel she could barely follow, with a tiresome central metaphor involving birds.  Clay had the kind of book he normally had, a slender and unclassifiable critique of the way we live now, the sort of thing it’s impossible to read near naked in the sun but important to have read, for his work.  (p.27)

So much conveyed about this family in just two short paragraphs!

I don’t like the term ‘political correctness’.  In my younger days we used it ironically and interchangeably with ‘ideologically sound’.  With a dawning awareness of how everything has a symbolic meaning, we asked if the male tie was P.C. (though we never abbreviated the term); if our gardens, dinner party menus, breed of dog, length of skirts or taste in gender-sorted reading materials was P.C.  But P.C. came to have a different kind of political meaning when the Right adopted it as a means of sneering at the idealism of the Left.  John Howard and his even nastier successors started the toxic divisiveness in Australia when they badged any kind of reform as P.C., labelling it not a public good but a phony good that was just an idea that people thought they ought to have because it made them look good, not because it had any merit.  From a term that we played with to mock our own earnestness and the attribution of meaning to things we had never thought about though they were part of our lives, P.C. became a term of scornful abuse.  The Left retaliated (‘white picket fences”, anyone?) but the damage was done.  Centrist politics is dead and the History Wars et al have an enduring legacy.

All of which is germane to this novel is because it reveals the way these two (white) adults, Amanda and Clay, are driven by P.C. in its non-ironic sense, even when they’re on holiday away from any witnesses.  In an amusing way, by showing the reader their inner thoughts as well as the dialogue and actions, the reader sees the private reasonings behind the things they say and do.   They have a car that’s not too new (so it doesn’t signify conspicuous consumption) but not too old (signifying that it befits their social status and their support for the US economy).  They live in a neutral suburb of New York City: not poor, not bohemian, not outrageously wealthy.  Clay reads a book so that he can be seen to have read it; Amanda buys the kind of food they ‘ought to’ eat.  It’s a long shopping list, exposing their excess, made more excessive when her attention to providing what a loving mother ought to provide, taking into account everybody’s needs and preferences, fails.  Because then Clay makes a second trip to the store to buy the cereal she forgot to buy for the boy, and Clay then buys even more stuff and also has a covert cigarette he will pretend later not to have smoked.  Even their sex life is a considered decision: lusty, but not too much and not when the kids might be aware of it!

All this reasoning is made clear, not by the things they say but by their thoughts, which are not consistent with their display.  But on a day of wild weather, just as they are going to bed, they hear a polite knock at the door.  It’s the owners of the rental on their way home to NYC who want to stay in what is, after all, their own property, because they’ve heard that the city has gone into total blackout.  Communications are all down so they don’t know why or how, but they fear chaos.  And they are Black.

Amanda and Clay are both suspicious of this story, but for different reasons.  Clay is annoyed about the disruption to their private holiday.  Amanda doesn’t think that they are the kind of people who would own a luxury retreat like this.  They could be servants, she thinks, not owners.  Ouch!

Leave the World Behind is clever and droll and insightful, and I hope it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that this novel quickly overcame my reluctance to read dystopias at the moment!

Highly recommended.

Author: Rumaan Alam
Title: Leave the World Behind
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2020
Design by David Mann
ISBN: 9781526633095, pbk., 241 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books.  (Bloomsbury sent me a review copy but I don’t read proof copies, so I bought my own when the book was released.)


This is a deeply distressing memoir to read: it’s the story of Pattie Lees’ early childhood of terrible neglect and then her sexual, physical and emotional abuse when she was made a Ward of the State. At times it is really difficult to reconcile the smiling face on the front cover with the story within its pages.

Daughter of a white philandering father and an alcoholic mother who was part Torres Strait islander and part Filipino, with some of her siblings fathered by different men, including a brother she knew nothing about until well into adulthood, Pattie’s story is one of poverty, hunger, and being responsible for her younger siblings when she was barely old enough to look after herself.  When her biological father moved them out to the suburbs, perhaps in a misguided effort to limit the mother’s ‘party-girl’ habits, Pattie and the children were sometimes left alone for days.  Her older brother Terry remembers these absences sometimes lasting a week; Pattie remembers it as less than that.  But she also remembers that when they ran out of baby formula for Elin, she resorted to feeding her sugared tea.

Eventually authorities intervened, and when the initial orders for the children’s welfare weren’t implemented, they intervened again.  Elin was taken to hospital with malnutrition, and the others were taken into custody.  The text acknowledges that in these circumstances in those days, it was routine for children of any colour to be placed in the local lockup because there was nowhere else for them to go.  Their mother was allowed to visit.  But still… the idea of children being in gaol is repugnant. As Pattie remembers it, the people in the surrounding cells frightened the children, and no wonder.

The chapter which reproduces the correspondence about where the children were to be placed is chilling.  Pattie’s skin colour was fair, while Elin’s was very dark despite having a very fair Nordic father.  There was no question of foster care being available, and authorities seem to be more concerned about matching the children’s colour to the institution than in keeping the family together. In Townsville waiting placement, her sister Johanne was fostered out, which led to a complete loss of contact for six years, and in the end, Pattie and her brother Michael joined their elder brother Terry on Palm Island, where he had been sent as an incorrigible child, without anyone telling her where he had gone. It was a huge culture shock for her, exacerbated by the very dark children who rejected her because they thought she was white.

The memoir is remarkable for the way that Pattie acknowledges the good along with the bad, especially the teachers who saw her potential.  Thanks to them and her own hard work she won a scholarship to boarding school in Chartres Towers, but that didn’t work out and she was soon back on Palm Island, where she stayed until she was 18 and legally allowed to leave.

Back on the mainland she found work, was reunited with both parents until a chance application to join the Women’s Royal Australian Navy was successful.  She admits that it wasn’t patriotism that motivated her, it was that the armed forces offered secure employment and therefore protection against being sent back to Palm Island.  She settled well into the discipline, because having been institutionalised, she was used to it.  But as was the case in so many workplaces in those days, she had to leave when she got married, and was soon very busy with the care of her children and with re-establishing family connections. Not everything went smoothly, but there is no self-pity or bitterness in this story.

As is so often the case in the Indigenous memoirs I have read, this woman managed to transcend these awful circumstances to serve in the Women’s Royal Australian Navy; to represent Australia at several United Nations development forums; and to become CEO of an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Corporation for Children and Youth Services.  From childhood in a dysfunctional family to a decade in institutional care, she has had a stable marriage with husband Terry for 51 years, and is the mother of four children, grandmother to twelve and a great-grandmother.

Memoirs such as this which attest to remarkable stories of survival are a testament to the resilience of Australia’s Indigenous people.

Author: Pattie Lees with Adam C Lees
Title: A Question of Colour: my journey to belonging
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2020
ISBN: 9781925936513, Pbk., 346 pages
Review copy courtesy of Magabala Books.

Available direct from Magabala Books and from Fishpond: A Question of Colour: my journey to belonging

Le Testament Français was published in the US as Dreams of My Russian Summers, but UK publishers retained its French title even in translated editions.  It was the first book ever to win both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis, and it became a bestseller in France and elsewhere.  I picked it up from Brotherhood Books in 2014 because in my 2011-2012 Year of Russian Reading I’d read Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man (La vie d’un homme inconnu).  And so I knew Le Testament Français would be a fine book, and it is. As the blurb on the back of this edition says:

Once in a while, there comes a book that captivates critics and public alike.  Andreï Makine’s autobiographical novel is such a book… Its subtle blend of memory and imagination is reminiscent of Proust… But in its broad sweep and mystical vision, Le Testament Français belongs to the tradition of the 19th century Russian novelists.  (Independent on Sunday, date & reviewer’s name not provided).

Famously, Makine was born in Russia in 1957, fled the Soviet Union for France in 1987, where he slept rough for a while and struggled to have his writing accepted as authentic because publishers thought a Russian couldn’t possibly write so well in French.  Since they didn’t think it was his own work, he pretended to have translated it, and that’s how this beautiful novel eventually came to be published.

It’s a coming-of-age novel, one in which the conflicted soul of a young Muscovite eventually reconciles his love of all things French with a love of his homeland, Russia.  As a boy he inhabits two parallel universes: the Soviet Union under Stalin, and a dream-world, an Atlantis derived from the stories of his French grandmother who lives in Saranza in Siberia, where he goes for the school holidays.

Charlotte had fled there in the exodus from Moscow in WW2, and never left it.   She was notified twice of her husband Fyodor’s death during the war, and was finally reunited with him long afterwards but he died within a year.  Under Stalin they had been persecuted as foreigners and even after many years in Saranza she is still regarded as  an outsider, and only the woman who delivers the milk feels at ease with her.

But this information about Charlotte’s life comes only in fragments.  The boy learns some of it from Charlotte’s stories and some of it from the ‘Siberian suitcase’, a suitcase of newspaper clippings and photos that Charlotte, in her haste to escape the bombing, grabbed by mistake instead of the case of clothes and food for the journey to the east.  But the stories that entrance the boy are stories of Tsar Nicholas and his wife Alexandra, of their glamourous presence at the Paris Opera, of magnificent ten-course meals with exotic ingredients like bartavels and ortolans garnished with truffles, and of seeing Proust in the park at Neuilly. The boy and his sister live in this alternate world, speaking French fluently in the holidays and Russian during their more prosaic days at school in Moscow, among classmates who mock him for his dreamy, bookish ways.

The power of this wondrous world wanes as he get older.  He starts to raid the school library to read up on everything French, from the Soviet-approved texts about the Paris Commune to the treasury of French literature which has mostly escaped the censor’s attention. He wants to put his grandmother’s tales into chronological order, into a sequence of events, and in so doing makes sense of his people’s history in a way not accessible to others under Stalin’s regime. He is horrified when he discovers how the Tsar met his end, and his coming-of-age is punctuated by these disconnects between his feelings for a magical world of luxury and glamour, art and beauty, and the grim reality of life under the Soviets.  This becomes more pronounced when his parents die and his Russian aunt takes over the care of the children. She is a sturdy Soviet, anti-Stalin and she doesn’t care who knows it.  It is from eavesdropping on her conversation that the boy learns about the notorious Beria, who used to trawl the streets in his big black car, so that he could kidnap pretty girls, take them to his rooms and get them drunk, rape them and then kill them.

As you might expect from an exile, there’s nothing much that’s good about the USSR in Le Testament Français and yet the book concludes with the boy’s love for his motherland and the possibility of truth being revealed under glasnost.

Highly recommended if you can get hold of a copy.

Author: Andreï Makine
Title: Le Testament Français
Translated from the French by Geoffrey Strachan
Cover painting: Place de l’Toile by Gustave Loiseau ©ADAGP Paris and DACS London, 1997
Publisher: Sceptre, 1997, first published in 1995
ISBN: 9780340682067, pbk., 275 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Brotherhood Books


I heard about The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai a while ago, and ordered a copy straight away because it is so rare to find fiction set in Vietnam.

This is the blurb:

Set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War, The Mountains Sing is the enveloping, multi-generational tale of the Trần family, perfect for fans of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing.

Hà Nội, 1972. Hương and her grandmother, Trần Diệu Lan, cling to one another in their improvised shelter as American bombs fall around them. Her father and mother have already left to fight in a war that is tearing not just her country but her family apart. For Trần Diệu Lan, forced to flee the family farm with her six children decades earlier as the Communist government rose to power in the North, this experience is horribly familiar. Seen through the eyes of these two unforgettable women, The Mountains Sing captures their defiance and determination, hope and unexpected joy.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn’s richly lyrical debut weaves between the lives of grandmother and granddaughter to paint a unique picture of the country’s turbulent twentieth-century history. This is the story of a people pushed to breaking point, and a family who refuse to give in.

Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society, OTOH, is set on the other side of the planet from where she lives in Canada, in a village called Chawton in the UK.

This is the blurb:

‘Hope can sometimes be just enough.’

It’s only a few months since the war ended but the little village of Chawton is about to be hit by another devastating blow. The heart of the community, the Chawton estate, and site of Jane Austen’s cherished former home, is in danger of being sold to the highest bidder.

Eight villagers are brought together by their love for the famous author’s novels, to create The Jane Austen Society. As new friendships form and the pain of the past begins to heal, surely they can find a way to preserve Austen’s legacy before it is too late?

And there may even be a few unexpected surprises along the way…

A heartbreaking and uplifting novel of hope, loss and love. Perfect for fans of Miss Austen by Gill Hornby and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer.

It was lovely to hear how these two authors connected with each other because of the difficulties of launching a book during the pandemic.  And they love each other’s books!

Both the authors have had to deal with personal trauma that would devastate almost anybody, so their books enabled them to bond with each other, and they hope that their books will be cheering in some small way for others who might need some literary therapy.  The intimacy of a book connects us in a way that nothing else can.

It was good to hear that Canada has dealt quite well with the pandemic, though they are facing a second wave at the moment.  But Indonesia is not coping well, and that is where Que Mai is at the moment, and separated from her children in Europe and her parents in Vietnam.  She’s been reading a lot, and being able to connect through events like Zoom has helped her to cope.  Christine talked about how here in Melbourne we are all homesick for our bookshops, buying online is just not the same.  But of course there is a great deal more to it than that…

So, to themes in the book: Jenner is interested in multiple social dynamics, showing how a group of people thrown together interact.  She writes to escape her own life, to feel control that she doesn’t have in her own life. She’s interested in how people can elevate each other, and help others rise to the occasion.

Que Mai wanted to honour the suffering of the older generation in Vietnam in the early days of the Communist revolution.  Vietnamese people have a tradition of honouring their elders, and listening to them, but censorship has meant that people are not allowed to talk about the impact of land reforms, for example.  Also, because she has no grandmothers, she wanted to create one for herself in the book. Her family doesn’t even have a picture of her grandmother, who died in the Great Hunger where two million people died. She spoke movingly about meeting Vietnamese people in Australia, and how there are still so many stories to be told.

Both authors talked about stepping out of your own life when you travel or live abroad, and how (especially in Vietnam) there is often only one point-of-view that’s presented in the place where you live.  Que Mai referenced Catfish and Mandala by Vietnamese-American Andrew X. Pham which was about returning to his origins and his thoughts about a re-education camp, which gave her a different perspective on the people of South Vietnam.

During this conversation about travel, I bet I wasn’t the only listener to breathe a prolonged sigh…

This was a great session, and it was good to hear that Que Mai is writing another novel, this time about the children of American servicemen searching for their parents.

Hosting the conversation was the indefatigable Christine Gordon, program manager at Readings, who (like me) has had to squeeze in dinner between this event and the previous one with Josephine Rowe and Anna MacDonald.  But (unlike me) Christine has children to manage as well, so huge thanks to her for bringing us this event!

Links are to Readings bookstore.

Black Inc’s series Writers on Writers has so far featured eight authors, including Patrick White, David Malouf and Shirley Hazzard, but this author talk with Josephine Rowe about the most recent, On Beverley Farmer, is the first one I’ve been able to attend.  Beverley Farmer is the author of A Body of Water, about to be re-released by Giramondo, and This Water: Five Tales, by Beverley Farmer.

Josephine Rowe’s name will be familiar to many; I’ve reviewed two of her books here, and she also has a new collection of short stories called Here Until August.  I’ve also reviewed Anna MacDonald’s new book A Jealous Tide.  

This is the blurb for On Beverley Farmer:

‘Across Farmer’s works there has always been an attraction to those beings who occupy two worlds…Once one has lived elsewhere, lived differently, it doesn’t matter whether she stays to forge a new life or turns back towards the old, or moves on once again; there will always be the shadow, the after-image, of the life not lived.’
Beverley Farmer’s writing reflects on restlessness, desire and homecoming. In this brilliantly acute essay, fellow novelist and short-story writer Josephine Rowe finds a kindred spirit and argues for a celebration and reclamation of this unique Australian author.

Anna read an excerpt from A Body of Water, which consists of fragmentary notebook observations from a melancholy period of Farmer’s fallow period when she hadn’t had anything published for a couple of years.  It was a pleasure to revisit this text, because I know the area she was writing about and once again I could picture the landscape she was portraying: coastal places at Barwon Heads, Queenscliff, and the Great Ocean Road.  Place is such an important element in Farmer’s work. 

Josephine read an excerpt about A Body of Water from On Beverley Farmer, which drew attention to patterns in characterisation and themes, and all kinds of other aspects of Farmer’s writing.  But there was also discussion about a book of essays, The Bone House (2005) which I haven’t yet read. I don’t read a lot of essays, but I suspect that I would enjoy those ones. 

On Beverley Farmer is obviously a book to add to my collection!  

Links are to Readings Bookstore which hosted the event: many thanks to Christine Gordon! 

Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 21, 2020

The Sea, by John Banville, winner of the Booker Prize in 2005

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from The Complete Booker.
To see my progress with completing the Complete Booker Challenge, see here.

The Sea, by John Banville, won the Booker Prize in 2005

October 10th, 2005

The Sea is a brilliant book. I don’t think it can be matched for the quality of its poetic prose or the cleverness of its imagery both sharp and subtle. It arouses intense feelings of nostalgia, loss, impatience and relief – it’s really quite extraordinary.

Max Morden has lost his beloved wife Anna, and he isn’t coping well at all. He’s a middle-ranking art historian and he’s supposed to be writing a book about Bonnard (a French artist), but he’s not getting anywhere because he’s wallowing in grief and old memories and alcohol.

His memories revert to childhood. When he was a child he went on holiday to the ‘chalet’, the cheap part of a holiday village, where he met the Graces, middle-class and socially a step above him and his deserted mother. He becomes a part of their household at The Cedars, playing almost daily with twins Chloe and Myles. He falls in love, as eleven year old boys do, first with the rather slatternly mother (overweight, vague, drinks too much) and then with Chloe, fumbling with her at the beach and at the pictures. Disaster strikes when Rose, inept au pair/governess to the twins, catches Max fondling Chloe’s budding breasts at the beach and they have a blazing row, culminating inexplicably in Chloe swimming out into an unusually high tide, followed by mute, web-toed and probably intellectually-disabled Myles. They both drown.

The memory of this event is so strong that when Anna dies, Max goes back to The Cedars to grieve. As in Marion Halligan’s The Fog Garden, he seems to become lost in memories, overwhelmed by the loss of Anna and the twins. In what passes for life in Miss Vavasour’s boarding house, there are some acutely funny descriptions of The Colonel, Miss V and her awful friend ‘Bun’, but the general tone of the book is of unbearable pain and loss, culminating in Max getting so drunk that he knocks himself out at the beach. He has to be rescued ignominiously by the Colonel, and is finally carted off to be rehabilitated by his daughter, Clair, and her droopy boyfriend, Jerome. Ghastly as this ending seems, in the context of what’s gone before, there seems to be some hope because Max begins to plan escaping to paint in Paris.

It is a wonderful book, richly illuminating in its portrait of grief unresolved. It also shows Max’s painful agonies about which class he belongs to (still an issue in England!) and how needlessly lives can be wasted. Clair has probably left it too late to have either children or the career as an art scholar that she could have had. It is a very moving book, but I loved reading it.

I was on holiday in Italy when I read The Sea, and hated having to leave the book behind. I bought a new first edition when I returned home and had it autographed by Banville when he visited Melbourne!

I finished reading it and journalled it (on scraps of paper, brought home in the suitcase!) in Monterchi, Tuscany, on 20.10.2005.

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