Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 7, 2020

Six Degrees of Separation: from Wolfe Island, to …

This month’s #6Degrees starts with Wolfe Island.  It’s Lucy Treloar’s stunning follow-up to her debut novel Salt Creek.  Follow the links to see why you should read them both…

I’ll take an easy leap to Between a Wolf and a Dog by Georgia Blain. But although I think this novel was her best book ever, it’s not really an easy leap: I can’t go there without remembering that this was Blain’s last book before she died in 2016.  She was so young, and so brave.  Take a moment to read her obituary and the accompanying comments to see how much she meant to us all.

It’s International Women’s Day this weekend, and that leads me to courage of a different kind.  Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was a work of great courage, which while it changed so many lives, also brought ridicule in the media, and insults from men who derided her because they said she ‘couldn’t make it’.  To those women I saw featured on 7.30 this week, and the fatuous ABC producers of the segment about ‘still being sexy at 50’, I can do no better than to quote Germaine whose idea of empowerment is a very different one:

Maybe I couldn’t make it. Maybe I don’t have a pretty smile, good teeth, nice tits, long legs, a cheeky arse, a sexy voice. Maybe I don’t know how to handle men and increase my market value, so that the rewards due to the feminine will accrue to me. Then again, maybe I’m sick of the masquerade. I’m sick of pretending eternal youth. I’m sick of belying my own intelligence, my own will, my own sex. I’m sick of peering at the world through false eyelashes, so everything I see is mixed with a shadow of bought hairs; I’m sick of weighting my head with a dead mane, unable to move my neck freely, terrified of rain, of wind, of dancing too vigorously in case I sweat into my lacquered curls. I’m sick of the Powder Room. I’m sick of pretending that some fatuous male’s self-important pronouncements are the objects of my undivided attention, I’m sick of going to films and plays when someone else wants to, and sick of having no opinions of my own about either. I’m sick of being a transvestite. I refuse to be a female impersonator. I am a woman, not a castrate.

So, now, to a woman who refused to give in to a different kind of destructive force …

I am reading, oh, *sigh* so slowly and in infuriating short bursts till my eyes complain, Subhash Jaireth’s new book Spinoza’s Overcoat, Travels with Writers and Poets (Transit Lounge, 2020). I will, in due course, write a proper review of this exquisite book, (update, here’s my review) but today I want to pay tribute to Marina Tsvetaeva, who is the subject of his second chapter, ‘Tsvetaeva’s Garden’.

Marina Tsvetaeva (Wikipedia*)

Marina Tsvetaeva was a Russian Soviet poet, said by many to be the preeminent poet of 20th century Russia. Jaireth pays homage to this extraordinary woman with a pilgrimage to the house she lived in during her exile from Stalinist Russia in the 1930s. You can read about her tragic life at Wikipedia but what Jaireth brings to life is her anguishfor which she beseeches God to send her a garden:

The trying conditions in which the poem made its appearance can be imagined by reading Marina’s letters […]. ‘The house was cold because there was no gas for heating.  ‘I write with my hands trembling,’ she notes in one of the letters, and this is ‘either because I am old or perhaps it is too cold in the house.’

Here are the first four lines of the poem:

Za etot ad (For this hell)
Za etot Bred (For this delirium)
Poshli mne sad (Send me a garden)
Na straroch let (In my ageing years).

The hellish conditions of her existence are announced emphatically, but she wants to be compensated for the nightmare she has been forced to endure. She wants her God to send her a garden so that she can have some respite in her ‘old age’.

A garden as solace…

The concept of a garden as solace is one that is explored in one of the most beautiful books I have: Remembered Gardens by Holly Kerr Forsyth. She profiles women and the gardens they created, telling the stories of pioneer women creating gardens as a form of solace in their loneliness and grief, and as a creative and intellectual activity. Yes, they were often women of privilege but they endured the loss of friends and family left behind in England, and like many women of the 19th century often suffered the loss of their children as well. They had no gardening guides to tell them what would grow and what wouldn’t, so they had to use trial-and-error and experimentation with their plantings. The author tells their stories with empathy and compassion, but also with admiration for their achievements.

Gardens are not the only debt we owe to women.  In Jane Jose’s book Places Women Make, I learned about the mostly unacknowledged contributions of women to our urban landscapes.

Cities are much more than collections of buildings; they are places where people gather for art, culture and commerce.  Cultural places are places we often visit alone but where we don’t feel alone.  We share what we see and experience with others, and we feel a sense of belonging and connection, even if we don’t know or don’t talk to the others participating in the cultural event.  Cultural places fulfil a need to gather, to share, to learn and to experience something unexpected, or beautiful, or challenging.

Culture can nurture us, and the women who give us cultural places to share art and ideas change the lives of others. (p.131)

As I said in my review:

Philanthropic women have made a huge contribution to the nation’s cultural life.  Notable examples of women whose interest in the arts has prompted the development of galleries and cultural spaces include Janet Holmes à Court, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Dame Roma Mitchell and Yasuko Myer.  Perhaps less well-known are Goldie Sternberg who donated her collection of Chinese art to the Art Gallery of NSW; and Ulrike Klein whose foundation funded a purpose-built concert space for chamber music just outside Adelaide.  Women in administration who have made a difference include Kate Brennan, the first CEO of Melbourne’s Federation Square; and Joan Masterman who was the driving force of the Freycinet Walks and Friendly Beaches Lodge on the stunning east coast of Tasmania.  And then there’s Tess Brady who was a key driver for the creation of Australia’s first book town: Clunes Booktown; and Stephanie Alexander who has been a huge influence on the community and school gardens movement.

That brings me nicely to concluding with one of the books from our cookbook collection: Cooking and Travelling in South-West France by Stephanie Alexander. Not just a woman who has transformed domestic cooking but also an inspirational writer as well, Alexander is also the author of The Cook’s Companion.  Our guests never cease to compliment the home-made ice-cream I serve, which comes from the section on lemons.  It is so easy, and so delicious, and adaptable when the limes are in season too.  No photo can convey how scrumptious this ice-cream is, you just have to make it yourself, and then you will never buy store-bought ice-cream again.

Citrus syrup cakes served with lime ice cream and a choc-orange garnish


*Image credit:

So that’s my #6Degrees: from a dystopian novel about climate change, to a cookbook that celebrates the simple pleasure of cooking well.

Next month’s book is Anna Funder’s ‘classic on tyranny and resistance’ – Stasiland. And yes, I’ve read it!! (If you haven’t, and IMO every thinking adult should, Fishpond has a second-hand copy today for $15: Stasiland).

Thanks to Kate at Books are my Favourite and Best for hosting:)


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 6, 2020

The Albanian, by Donna Mazza

The Albanian, Donna Mazza’s debut novel, is a book that will divide readers.  Some will find its self-destructve central character exasperating, others like me will read on in appalled fascination.  The experience of reading it is not unlike Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl where the safety of a teenage girl taking frightening risks keeps a reader on tenterhooks throughout the narrative.

In The Albanian, a young woman takes frightening risks with her safety when she falls in love with the idea of adventure and fails to see the dangerous nature of her relationship with the young man who exemplifies romance to her.

This is the blurb:

Rosa is a young woman from a small, country town in Australia who longs for mystery, adventure, and the exotic. She is fatally attracted to a romantic image of Eastern Europe, arriving alone in Dubrovnik in the months before the implosion of the old Yugoslavia. Rosa has no idea of the politics, yet she ends up dangerously drawn into a relationship with a young Albanian on his path to becoming a political refugee. Unable to tease apart destiny, reality, and fantasy, she becomes a captive of her heart and the excitement and danger of the unknown.

Bored brainless by her inane life in Bunbury WA, Rosa sets off as many young people do, to see the world.  She doesn’t take one of those One-Wonder-Per-Day under-26 tours, she wanders about, alone, breathtakingly naïve, and makes her way to Yugoslavia, then on the brink of war.  Her biggest danger, however, is not that she becomes caught up in the looming war.  Rather, it seems to be that her style of dress and independent demeanour attracts the attention of men who think she is ‘easy’.  Through good luck rather than anything else, she manages to evade them until she meets the nameless Albanian whose forceful behaviour attracts her, and she ends up in his bed.  From this point on she is torn between this fatal attraction and her denial of what she knows deep down to be true.  He is a violent, angry man; he is abusing her physically, mentally and financially, and she is out of depth in trying to understand his culture and his needs as a refugee.

A book like this will rouse readers to consider the issue of female independence.  I am in sympathy with the movement to Reclaim the Night: I have always thought that women should be able go freely where they wish, whenever they wish, without being molested by men, or worse.  I tested this out many times when I was a young woman and I never came to any harm.  But today, in the wake of the upsurge of violence against women, I am not so sure.  I remember the outrage when in the wake of the murder of a young woman in a public park, a police officer advised women to avoid walking alone in solitary places at night.  Feminists were furious.  Today, I think they are both right. I remember the words of a rhyme my mother taught me when I was learning to drive:

This is the tale of Gustavus Gay
Who died maintaining his right-of-way
He was right, dead right, as he sped along
But he’s just as dead as if he were wrong.

I am torn: if women back off from asserting their rights because of threats of violence, how do we progress?  I hope that the women I know are prudent and risk-averse, but at what cost to freedom and independence?  There was a joy in walking alone through a dark shortcut paddock in the country town I once lived in.  Just me and the stars.  So I don’t know the answer to this conundrum, and this book The Albanian brings freedom v prudence into sharp focus when Rosa’s anxious Australian friends try to warn her about the risks she is taking.  (And they don’t know the half of it, because she doesn’t tell them).

There’s only one review at Goodreads, from a reader who found the characters really annoying.  Yet the novel won the TAG Hungerford award for an unpublished MS in 2005, and the author went on to write Fauna, a novel which I found very interesting indeed.

I’d be interested to hear from anyone else who’s read it.

PS Update re my eye surgery: I tell you this not to be boring, but because the euphoric chatter around ‘miracle’ cataract surgery needs to be countered.  I wasn’t imagining the horrid headaches I’ve been having.  They are related to higher-than-expected pressure in the eye that was operated on, which is a not uncommon reaction to the eye-drops that are part of the regime that must be followed (for weeks) after surgery. High pressure in the eye is a risk factor for glaucoma, which can cause instant, irreversible blindness.  I’ll pass on what the specialist said: anyone experiencing a severe headache and blurriness in the eye/s needs to get to medical help, urgently.

Author: Donna Mazza
Title: The Albanian
Publisher: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2007
ISBN: 9781921064616, pbk., 368 pages
Source: Goulburn Valley Regional Library, via interlibrary loan, courtesy of Bayside Library

Availability: Fishpond: The Albanian or direct from Fremantle Press.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 6, 2020

2020 Stella Prize shortlist

Here it is:

From the press release:

Chair of judges and Stella Prize co-founder Louise Swinn said the shortlist includes ‘authors who are household names alongside some we are just getting acquainted with’.

‘The six books on this year’s shortlist are all outward-looking, and they tell stories—of illness, family life, friendship, domestic abuse, and more—in remarkable ways,’ said Swinn.

This year’s prize is judged by Swinn, editor Zoya Patel, poet Leni Shilton, and journalists Monica Attard and Jack Latimore.

The winner of the prize will be announced at a ceremony in Sydney on 8 April.

Thanks to Books and Publishing for the info:)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 5, 2020

Meet an Aussie Author: Richard Anderson

Photo credit: Sally Alden

It’s just a short while since I read and reviewed Richard Anderson’s Small Mercies, and I was keen to find out more about this author who I’d just discovered.  So I was delighted when he agreed to tell all for Meet an Aussie Author!

Richard Anderson did a journalism degree in Bathurst back in the ‘80s (with Chris Hammer, Amanda Keller and Andrew Denton et all) but has been a farmer in northern NSW for close on 30 years.  He is married to Sue, and they have two adult children, Issie and Matt, who both work in the city.

Richard always told himself, he says, that when he got time, he would write a novel… but it wasn’t until he was in his 50s that he completed and self-published his first novel Spon Com Vermillion.  Now 57 years old, he says that because it took him so long to get going, he has more stories than outlets and so is currently working with some film people on other projects. But he is still very much a farmer and writing is something that he does as a pleasure and a complete contrast to the rest of his life.

Richard’s first traditionally published novel was The Good Teacher in 2017 which came out through HQ at Harlequin. In 2018 Scribe published Retribution and then Boxed in 2019. Those two were crime novels, and Small Mercies (Scribe, March 2020) is a change of direction into contemporary fiction.

Here are Richard’s answers to my questions:

1. I was born… in the small town of Boggabri in northern NSW. My parents were farmers not far from town.

2.When I was a child… I scribbled lines in the pages of exercise books before I could actually write

3.The person who encouraged/inspired/mentored me to write… is my agent Jane Novak. My mother encouraged me but she died when I was 25, before I could accomplish anything. To most people around me deciding to write is a bit like taking up lacrosse: fine but why would you?

4. I write in…  our main room at our dining table and in the office.

5. I write when... mostly in the early morning but sometimes at night and occasionally when there’s dust storms, smoke haze, floods or bitter winds.

6. Research is… pretty thin.

7. I keep my published works in… the bookcase

8. On the day my first book was published, I… went back to work.

9. At the moment, I’m writing… an outline for a TV series and a new novel. I’ve already completed my next novel.

10.When I’m stuck for an idea/word/phrase, I... go to work or for a drive or a walk. I wrote my first novel driving a coal truck and I find driving on open roads a good way to think about story (but the radio has to be turned off).

This is the view that inspires Richard… it all looks beautifully green at the moment, let’s hope it stays that way.

Thanks for participating, Richard!

PS Thanks to Richard for submitting all this copy exactly as asked, so that I could whip it together without straining my eyes.  I am seeing the specialist tomorrow and although he doesn’t know it yet, he is going to reassure me that this constant headache is going to go away when the other eye gets done next week…


Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 4, 2020

2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards shortlist

With thanks to Twitter and @theockhams, here is the 2020 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Shortlist.


Aue by Becky Manawatu (Makaro Press), see the review at Alys on the blog. I read this review and put this one on my wishlist for Indigenous Lit Week because the author is Maori.

Pearly Gates by Owen Marshall (Vintage, Penguin Random House), see my review

A Mistake by Carl Shuker (Victoria University Press), see my review

Halibut on the Moon by David Vann (Text Publishing)


Moth Hour by Anne Kennedy (Auckland University Press)

How to Live by Helen Rickerby (Auckland University Press)

Lay Studies by Steven Toussaint (Victoria University Press)

How I Get Ready by Ashleigh Young (Victoria University Press)


Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Mahina-Tuai, Damian Skinner (Te Papa Press)

Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance edited by Stephanie Gordon, Matariki Williams, Puawai Cairns (Te Papa Press)

We Are Here: An Atlas of Aotearoa by Chris McDowall and Tim Denee (Massey University Press)

McCahon Country by Justin Paton


Dead People I Have Known by Shayne Carter (Victoria University Press)

Shirley Smith: An Examined Life by Sarah Gaitanos (Victoria University Press)

Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry by Paula Green (Massey University Press)

Towards the Mountain: A Story of Grief and Hope Forty Years on from Erebus by Sarah Myles (Allen & Unwin)

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 3, 2020

Book Industry for Climate Action Group (BICAG)

I’m very pleased to be promoting this action group because (a) its aims are so worthwhile (b) if its first action is any guide its strategies will be effective and (c) my niece who works in publishing (Hi K!) is a founder member.  The following is copied shamelessly from the press release at Books and Publishing because my eyes still aren’t up to much just yet.

Writer Sophie Cunningham, children’s author Lorna Hendry and Berbay sales and marketing manager Kirsty Wilson have founded an industry action group to address climate change.

The Book Industry for Climate Action Group (BICAG)Book Industry for Climate Action Group (BICAG) is a ‘literary-focused group that actively encourages curiosity and rebellion’. Other founding members of the group include The Garret podcast host Astrid Edwards, Readings Kids bookseller Angela Crocombe, and a number of Black Inc. staff, including head of marketing and publicity Kate Nash, associate publisher Jo Rosenberg, editorial and production director Kirstie Innes-Will, and production manager Marilyn de Castro. The newly formed group said in a statement: ‘The climate emergency is the defining issue of our times and there has never been a more urgent need to understand our predicament. As always, it is books that have the power to inspire and transform us.’

The group’s first action is the creation of a reading list called Books for the Climate Emergency, which offers recommendations of fiction, nonfiction, classics, young adult and children’s books.

‘The implications of climate change are escalating and, as with everything, there is a book to help with that,’ says Cunningham. ‘There are books to help kids understand what’s going on. There are books that allow you to engage imaginatively with the crisis, and ones that give you the kind of practical advice that makes a complex situation less overwhelming.’

Copies of the reading list will be available at writers festivals and bookshops nationally, according to the group, and it is also available for download here.

BICAG is looking for new members to join, and anyone interested can contact the group via email or on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.


I have copied the Fiction, Non-Fiction and Classics booklists from the reading list, with links to my reviews:

Fiction helps us imagine what our world could look like, and there are no more powerful tools at our disposal than our creativity and empathy. These works tackle the theme of climate change from different perspectives.

  • The Glad Shout by Alice Robinson, Affirm Press, 2019, see my review
  • The Trespassers by Meg Mundell, UQP, 2019, see my review
  • Wolfe Island by Lucy Treloar, Pan Macmillan, 2019, see my review
  • From the Wreck by Jane Rawson, Transit Lounge, 2017, see my review
  • Clade by James Bradley, Penguin, 2015
  • The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau,  Bloomsbury Australia, 2015, see my review
  • Oryx and Crake, (part 1 of a trilogy) by Margaret Atwood, Hachette Australia, 2013 (I read this too long ago for it to be reviewed on this blog)

These books will help you get your head around the complex issue of climate change and how we can – and must – address it.

  • Earth Emotions: New words for a new world, by Glenn Albrecht, Cornell University Press, 2019
  • Letters to the Earth: Writing to a planet in crisis by Jackie Morris, Jo McInnes and more, Harper Collins, 2019
  • On Fire: The burning case for a green new deal byNaomi Klein, Penguin, 2019
  • The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after warming by David Wallace-Wells, Penguin, 2019
  • We Are the Weather: Saving the planet begins at breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer, Penguin, 2019
  • Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming by Paul Hawken, Penguin, 2017
  • How Did We Get Into This Mess? Politics, equity, nature by George Monbiot, Verso, 2017
  • Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in without going crazy by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, New World Library, 2012

This summer, our unique environment has been ravaged by the effects of climate change. Australia is one of the countries most exposed to climate change, making the local perspectives offered by these titles required reading.

  • 2040: A handbook for the regeneration by Damon Gameau, Pan Macmillan, 2019
  • City of Trees by Sophie Cunningham, Text Publishing, 2019, see my review
  • Superpower: Australia’s low-carbon opportunity by Ross Garnaut, Black Inc., 2019
  • Sunburnt Country: The history and future of climate change in Australia by Joëlle Gergis, Melbourne University Press, 2018
  • The Handbook: Surviving and living with climate change by Jane Rawson and James Whitmore, Transit Lounge, 2018, see my review.  (I have bought half a dozen copies of this and given them to my friends and neighbours. Because the message is, we have to do this together.)
  • The Long Goodbye: Coal, coral and Australia’s climate deadlock by Anna Krien, Quarterly Essay 66 Black Inc., 2017


Mass global climate protests might be a new phenomenon, but climate change isn’t. These writers tried to galvanise us into action years ago. It’s not too late to read their work, and it’s not too late to demand action to protect our planet.

  • Dark Emu: Black seeds: Agriculture or accident? by Bruce Pascoe, Magabala Books, 2014, see my review
  • This Changes Everything: Capitalism v the climate by Naomi Klein, Simon & Schuster, 2014
  • Climate Code Red: The case for emergency action by David Spratt & Philip Sutton,  Scribe, 2008
  • Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, nature and climate change by Elizabeth Kolbert, Bloomsbury, 2006
  • An Inconvenient Truth: The planetary emergency of global warming and what we can do about it,  Al Gore, Rodale Books, 2006 ( saw the movie. I thought it would change everything, but it didn’t.
  • The Weather Makers:The history and future impact of climate change by Tim Flannery, Text Publishing, 2005
  • The End of Nature by Bill McKibben, Anchor, 1989; reissued 2006 by Random House
  • The Sea and the Summer by George Turner, Orion SF Masterworks, 1987

About us the BCAG
The Book Industry Climate Action Group is made up of publishers, booksellers, writers, editors and other publishing professionals
who share a deep concern about the global climate emergency. We work within the principles and shared values of Extinction Rebellion. To find out more, go to
This reading list is a work in progress. We would love your input. Please send us your suggestions for other titles or newly released books on the theme of the climate emergency.
If you want to be kept in the loop when the list is updated, or if you would like a digital copy for your business or workplace, let us know.
March 2020

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 2, 2020

2020 ABIA Longlist

The 2020 Australian Book Industry Awards longlist was announced today.  To see the whole list, visit Theresa Smith Writes: what follows are the categories that include a book or two that I’ve reviewed…

Biography Book of The Year

  • Australia Day, Stan Grant (HarperCollins Publishers, HarperCollins Publishers)
  • Born-Again Blakfella, Jack Charles (Penguin Random House Australia, Viking)
  • Gulpilil, Derek Rielly (Pan Macmillan Australia, Macmillan Australia)
  • Penny Wong: Passion and Principle,  Margaret Simons (Black Inc., Black Inc.), see my review
  • Tell Me Why, Archie Roach (Simon & Schuster Australia, Simon & Schuster)
  • The Prettiest Horse In The Glue Factory, Corey White (Penguin Random House Australia, Hamish Hamilton)
  • When All is Said & Done, Neale Daniher, with Warwick Green (Pan Macmillan Australia, Macmillan Australia)
  • Your Own Kind of Girl, Clare Bowditch (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)

General Fiction Book of the Year

  • Bruny, Heather Rose (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), see my review
  • Call Me Evie, J.P. Pomare (Hachette Australia, Hachette Australia)
  • Cilka’s Journey, Heather Morris (Echo Publishing, Echo Publishing)
  • Good Girl, Bad Girl, Michael Robotham (Hachette Australia, Hachette Australia)
  • Peace, Garry Disher (Text Publishing, Text Publishing)
  • Silver, Chris Hammer (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
  • The Scholar, Dervla McTiernan (HarperCollins Publishers, HarperCollins Publishers)
  • The Wife and the Widow, Christian White (Affirm Press, Affirm Press)

General Non-fiction Book of the Year

  • Accidental Feminists, Jane Caro (Melbourne University Publishing, Melbourne University Press), see my review
  • Against All Odds, Craig Challen and Richard Harris (Penguin Random House Australia, Viking)
  • Banking Bad, Adele Ferguson (HarperCollins Publishers, ABC Books)
  • Fake, Stephanie Wood (Penguin Random House Australia, Vintage Australia)
  • Kitty Flanagan’s 488 Rules for Life, Kitty Flanagan (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
  • See What You Made Me Do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse, Jess Hill (Black Inc., Black Inc.)
  • The Yellow Notebook: Diaries Volume I 1978, Helen Garner (Text Publishing, Text Publishing)
  • Troll Hunting, Ginger Gorman,  (Hardie Grant Publishing, Hardie Grant Books)

Literary Fiction Book of the Year (I’ve read all of these, except the one I don’t want to).

  • Damascus, Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin)
  • Exploded View, Carrie Tiffany (Text Publishing, Text Publishing), see my review
  • Room for a Stranger, Melanie Cheng (Text Publishing, Text Publishing), see my review
  • The Drover’s Wife, Leah Purcell (Penguin Random House Australia, Hamish Hamilton), see my review
  • The Weekend, Charlotte Wood (Allen & Unwin, Allen & Unwin), see my review
  • The Yield, Tara June Winch (Penguin Random House Australia, Hamish Hamilton), see my review
  • There Was Still Love, Favel Parrett (Hachette Australia, Hachette Australia), see my review
  • Wolfe Island, Lucy Treloar (Pan Macmillan Australia, Picador Australia), see my review

Small Publishers’ Adult Book of the Year

  • Cosmic Chronicles, Fred Watson (NewSouth Publishing, NewSouth)
  • Feeding the Birds at Your Table: A guide for Australia, Darryl Jones (NewSouth Publishing NewSouth)
  • Invented Lives,  Andrea Goldsmith (Scribe Publications, Scribe Publications), see my review
  • Kindred, Kirli Saunders (Magabala Books, Magabala Books)
  • Paris Savages, Katherine Johnson (Ventura Press, Ventura Press), see my review
  • Sand Talk, Tyson Yunkaporta (Text Publishing, Text Publishing), abandoned
  • Split, Lee Kofman (Ventura Press, Ventura Press)
  • The White Girl, Tony Birch (University of Queensland Press, University of Queensland Press), see my review

Ok, that’s it, 15 minutes at the computer is about my limit at the moment.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 2, 2020

Small Mercies, by Richard Anderson

A fine-grained study of a marriage and a land in crisis.  A wonderful book. – Jock Serong

I couldn’t agree more, Jock! Small Mercies is wholly engaging—a character-driven novel where the unforgiving Australian climate is an unpredictable character as well.

Richard Anderson is a second-generation farmer from northern NSW and this book is his third novel: he is the author of two rural-crime novels, Retribution (2018) and Boxed (2019).  But Small Mercies is a novel of contemporary life: set on a property in drought-ravaged New South Wales, it traces a brief but destructive period in a marriage under stress from a devastating medical diagnosis and the long-term uncertainty of small-scale farming in Australia.

Ruthie and Dimple have been married for a long time and they know each other well in the way of long-term marriages.  They’ve raised two sons, both of whom now have fulfilling lives in the city.  J is content where he is but Finnie might want to return to the land one day.  For now, life revolves around the daily grind of handfeeding the cattle, watching the weather forecast for long-overdue rain and the constant anxiety that maybe this ‘drought’ may never break.  It may be a harbinger of climate change that will ruin them.

Two catalysts provoke a crisis in an otherwise stable life and relationship.  Ruthie’s medical diagnosis makes her newly conscious of her own mortality and the need to make a difference.  She persuades Dimple to go with her to confront the exasperating loudmouth Wally Oliver, a wealthy landowner who spruiks on radio his claim that small farmers are doomed and the sooner they leave the land to large operators like him, the better. Though things are not easy, Ruthie and Dimple are not struggling as many of their counterparts are: they have managed their farm in full awareness that drought has always been part of the cycle of farming in Australia.  They manage their finances knowing that there will be lean years, and they manage the stock and the land to see the drought through.  But Ruthie is outraged on behalf of others less well-off than they are, and Dimple knows that many of his counterparts are struggling with mental health issues and that this kind of doom-laden talk could cause lasting harm.

So they set off on a road trip to have their say, but this temporary escape from their burdens breaks a communication drought in their relationship. Both of them are reticent; both of them have learned over many years to avoid confrontations; and both of them have kept quiet about minor indiscretions in the past. But now Ruthie is restless, and she wants to make the most of life, while Dimple’s contentment with the farm lifestyle is undermined by his uncertainty about the long-term future of the farm.

This portrait of a marriage coming unstuck as a result of external factors applies just as much to people in the city.  Last week the iconic Holden brand deserted Australia, and the impact goes beyond the people who have lost their jobs and businesses as a result.  The decline of manufacturing in advanced economies contributes to a pervasive sense of uncertainty about the future.  No one has secure jobs anymore, and that anxiety permeates the economy because people who can, are saving their money for the looming ‘rainy day’.

[It seems ironic to use that expression these days: a ‘rainy day’ in Australia would be a good day in many places.]

Small Mercies depicts the way a lifetime of hard work and loyalty can be challenged by the stress of factors beyond our control, and how the offer of what seems like a way out can be disastrous.  It’s impossible not to become invested in these characters: though their regrets, hopes and fears are revealed to the reader through the limited third-person narration, their responses to each other are sometimes made through guesswork informed by knowing each other so well, but also sometimes in ignorance of how their capacity to endure is changing.

Small Mercies isn’t just a window onto the crisis on the land.  It’s the love story of an older couple too, something we don’t often see in fiction.

Highly recommended.

Author: Richard Anderson
Title: Small Mercies
Cover design by Scribe, cover image by Chris Ison/Shutterstock
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2020
ISBN: 9781925849707, pbk., 204 pages
Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Available from Fishpond: Small Mercies and direct from Scribe


This post is shamelessly copied from the Press Release because my eyesight is a-hem ‘compromised’ at the moment (24 hours after eye surgery) but I just had to make the effort because Australian-Iranian author Shokoofeh Azar’s The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree has been longlisted for the 2020 International Booker Prize longlist.  Please note that while the publisher in the longlist is named Europa Editions, it was in fact first published by Wild Dingo Press here in Australia, and I reviewed it in 2017.


Today we announce The 2020 International Booker Prize longlist. This year the judges considered 124 books and have whittled it down to their ‘International Booker Dozen’.

The 2020 International Booker Prize longlist is:

  • Red Dog by Willem Anker, translated by Michiel Heyns. Pushkin Press.
  • The Enlightenment of The Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar, translated anonymously. Europa Editions, see my review.
  • The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, translated by Iona Macintyre and Fiona Mackintosh. Charco Press.
  • The Other Name: Septology I – II by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls. Fitzcarraldo Editions.
  • The Eighth Life by Nino Haratiscvili, translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin. Scribe UK. see my review
  • Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Shaun Whiteside. William Heinemann.
  • Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Ross Benjamin. Quercus.
  • Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes. Fitzcarraldo Editions.
  • The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder. Harvill Secker.
  • Faces on the Tip of My Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano, translated by Sophie Lewis and Jennifer Higgins. Peirene Press.
  • Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell. Oneworld.
  • The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchinson. Faber & Faber.
  • Mac and His Problem by Enrique Vila-Matas, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes. Harvill Secker.

The works selected are translated from eight languages and originate in Europe, South America, Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia. They explore diverse topics, including grief, dystopias, rural life, and the histories of their countries. Samanta Schweblin, author of longlisted Little Eyes, has previously been longlisted for Mouthful of Birds and shortlisted for Fever Dream. Previously shortlisted translator Sophie Hughes appears on the list twice, as the translator of Hurricane Season and co-translator of Mac and His Problem.

The longlist was selected by a panel of five judges, chaired by Ted Hodgkinson, Head of Literature and Spoken Word at Southbank Centre. The panel also includes: Lucie Campos, director of the Villa Gillet, France’s centre for international writing; Man Booker International Prize-winning translator and writer Jennifer Croft; LA Times Book Prize for Fiction-winning author Valeria Luiselli and writer, poet and musician Jeet Thayil, whose novel Narcopolis was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012.

Every year, we award a single book that is translated into English and published in the UK or Ireland. We aim to encourage more publishing and reading of quality fiction from all over the world and to promote the work of translators. Both novels and short-story collections are eligible. The contribution of both author and translator is given equal recognition, with the £50,000 prize split between them. Each shortlisted author and translator will receive £1,000, bringing the total value of the prize to £62,000.

How quickly the months roll around!  Once again it is time for me to share my reading for the Indonesian bookgroup to which I belong, and this time, the book is a classic of Indonesian literature, The Rose of Cikembang (Boenga Roos dari Tjikembang) by Kwee Tek Hoay (1886-1951), translated by George A Fowler in 2013.   First published in 1927, the story dates from the era of Indonesian nationalism before WW2 and independence from the Dutch and before Bahasa Indonesia became the official language. As it says in the Introduction…

The Rose of Cikembang (pronounced ‘Chee-kem-bhang’) was part of an already remarkable body of modern mass literature, now largely forgotten, which had been created over the previous thirty or so years mainly by Indonesians of Chinese descent in a language that had long been known as Low Malay, or simply Malay.  This was a rich linguistic stew that contained in its fundamental Malay broth chunks of Javanese, Hokkien words and grammatical structures, Balinese—Balinese house slaves and soldiers being in wide demand in early Batavia—Portuguese, and Dutch.  The particular mixture varied from port to port, depending on the dominant language of the respective hinterland.  It was called ‘Low’ to distinguish it from the ‘High’, or more courtly, and supposedly linguistically purer, variants of this lingua franca of archipelagic commerce and general communication. (p.vii)

In other words, a translator’s nightmare! In the Translator’s Note, George Fowler notes other challenges too: colloquial idioms and terms of a bygone era in all their—to put it mildly—idiosyncratic spellings. He also acknowledges the help of his Hokkien-speaking wife Scholastica Auyong, as well as other colleagues and Ms Wikan Satriari of Lontar in cracking the mystery of Kwee’s own approach to Romanising Hokkien words and spelling Dutch ones. From his profile at Words without Borders, I can see that Fowler is a full-time freelance commercial and literary translator of Chinese, Indonesian, Malay and Tagalog, but even so, the work in translating this short work must have been very demanding.

Cover, second printing, 1930 (Wikipedia)

The blurb summarises the classic status of this novella in Indonesian literature:

First published in 1927, The Rose of Cikembang is an excellent example of the so-called peranakan literature of the Netherlands East Indies, a literary form that was written in a variant of the Malay language then prevalent in the urban centres of the Indies and a forerunner of today’s Indonesian. Peranakan literature was created by writers and publishers of largely Chinese descent and flourished between 1900 and the Japanese Occupation beginning in 1942.

The Rose of Cikembang was one of the most beloved novels of popular and prolific writer Kwee Tek Hoay (1886-1951). Highly sentimental, this story is rich in many of the often controversial themes he was famous for: interracial love and the lives of its offspring, fate and karma, and mysticism and reincarnation. The Rose of Cikembang was reprinted twice and twice made into a movie, including one of the East Indies’ first talking picture shows.

It certainly is sentimental, and melodramatic too.  Contemporary readers will chafe at the representation of compliant women whose only ambition is to serve a man.  But just as there can be serious study of pulp paperbacks for the mass market Anglosphere in the popular genres of romance, westerns and sci-fi, The Rose of Cikembang merits interest because of its audacious themes.  You only need to look at the Wikipedia entry to see that the novella has been the subject of serious scholarship.

But what’s in it for the everyday contemporary reader?

Well, it’s set a century ago so it’s a window on a world long gone.  The plot features an Indonesian of Chinese heritage who has been working contentedly as a manager on a plantation, with his nyai (concubine) by his side.  Ay Cheng has no wish to marry because he loves Marsiti, and while her devotion to ironing his shirts and sewing on his buttons might grate today, she loves him too, and these companions share special moments like revelling in the beauty of the sunset.  So when his father Pin Lo turns up and lays down the law about how he has to marry Gwat Nio to ensure the financial future of the family, Ay Cheng is devastated and refuses to do it.  Pin Lo does the emotional blackmail thing with Marsiti who actually takes control of the situation and decides that she will leave because it’s in the best interest of the one she loves.

One of Kwee’s preoccupations was, apparently, the importance of education for women and girls.  Despite his distress at losing the one he loves (not even knowing where Marsiti has gone, though she had promised to tell him once he was married) Ay Cheng eventually finds himself enjoying Gwat Nio’s company because she is an educated and refined woman who can take her place in any company.

Ay Cheng, who loved music, was very attracted by Gwat Nio’s talent at playing the piano.  And whenever there happened to be guests, men and women of all races, Gwat Nio would always join him in greeting and talking with these guests in such an appealing way, so different from the country-bred and shy Marsiti who used to always go off and hide if there were visitors.  Thus, the longer Ay Cheng lived with Gwat Nio, the more he came to feel that this wife of his was far more estimable compared to his nyai of earlier days: he began to sense that he had been wrong and had behaved stupidly when he had first refused to marry Gwat Nio and had wanted to live forever with the Sundanese woman.  (p. 23)

The arrival of a daughter within a year of marriage cements his new relationship, and he begins to forget Marsiti.

Every good popular novel needs a crisis and it arrives when Ay Cheng has had to relocate to Batavia (now Jakarta) because his father-in-law is not going to live long. On his deathbed, (yes, a deathbed scene, with a half-finished sentence…) he begins to reveal information about Marsiti that in the stage version of this book would certainly have had the audience sit up and take notice.  And this death is very promptly followed by the death of the only other person who could shed any light on the mystery.

(Or so we are led to think, of course).

There is then an abrupt change of scene with the lovely daughter Lily reaching betrothal age, and the reader is kept nicely in suspense, about her inauspicious dream, the fortune-teller’s gloomy prediction, another death, a good deal of gender neutral histrionics (LOL not just hysterical females) and some strange resemblances, which raise a sceptical frown unless the reader shares a belief in reincarnation.  (Though, sceptic that I am, I do not forget the Victorian enthusiasm for spiritualism, and the same thing occurring after the Great War.  When premature death rates were high, it must have been comforting to believe that the loved one was not gone forever.)  All this drama eventually resolves, yes, with some remarkable coincidences, and a remarkable capacity for ‘moving on’ concluding with an homage to the purity and durability of true love.  It’s easy to imagine the curtain coming down on the stage play of this story and the audience erupting into thunderous applause, not a dry eye among them.

What will we talk about at my book group?  The role of women almost certainly.  Here’s an excerpt that set my antennae twitching, even though I am always wary of expecting to find the values and mores of the present in books written in the past:

‘Forgive us, Juragan.  Rose was in no way at fault in that matter.’
‘In what matter?’
‘In the matter of the young juragan falling down in a faint at the grave.  Before that, he tried to take hold of Rose.  In her fright she broke free and ran off, not knowing what had happened.’
‘I haven’t come to make an issue of such a small thing.  Never fear, Bapak, I am not blaming you or your grandchild.  Call her, for I want to meet her.’ (p.66)

So, here we have a young girl of seventeen tending her mother’s grave, when a complete stranger advances on her and tries to take her in his arms.  She gets away, and he faints.  Who is the one who is traumatised here???  Yes, there is a class difference and this is a strictly hierarchical society, signalled by the word juragan (which is Sundanese for ‘Sir’, with feudal overtones), but still, this girl’s grandfather is apologising for upsetting the young man after he had assaulted the girl, and the young man’s father is magnanimously accepting the apology, while also demanding that the traumatised young woman be brought before him.  The reader is not invited to imagine the terror of this girl when she is summoned before the father of her assailant, but I imagine her trembling in her room—reliving the assault and feeling paralysed by fright.

Best to read the story as a fairy tale, and accept (albeit through gritted teeth) the way women and girls have to submit to being treated like possessions with no feelings of their own.  This is a story about love and its power, and it asserts the value of education for women, and yet they are ‘given’ to suitors by their male parent, and expected to conform to the bizarre manoeuvrings of complete strangers.  (There is more in store, much more, for this young woman than just fending off a young man!) Like fairy tales, The Rose of Cikembang is a morality story which reinforces the submission of women in a patriarchal society.  It makes a very interesting contrast with Pramoedya’s Buru Quartet in which the nyai sold by her parents as a concubine to Herman Mellema is a woman of great agency: self-educated and a successful businesswoman for whom the only constraints are racist laws imposed by Indonesia’s colonial overlords.  Pramoedya, however, was writing half a century later, and moreover, as the Introduction to The Rose of Cikembang explains, Kwee in the 1920s was writing about a sub-culture within Indonesia, with a value system all its own.

Leaving the scholars to unpick the story as they may—for the everyday reader IMO, The Rose of Cikembang needs to be read in that context as an element of transmission of values that we do not share, and simply enjoyed as light entertainment.

Image credits:

PS I’ll be AWOL for a day or two after cataract surgery on the day before this is scheduled to publish on Friday morning, but expect to be back on deck sometime over the weekend.

Author: Kwee Tek Hoay (1886-1951)
Title: The Rose of Cikembang (Boenga Roos dari Tjikembang)
Translated by George A Fowler
Publisher: Lontar Foundation, 2013
ISBN: 9786029144246, pbk., 150 pages
Source: Personal library, with thanks to Halina for sourcing it in Indonesia

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 27, 2020

New translated fiction on the TBR

I don’t usually do posts about what’s on the TBR because I’m more interested in reading reviews of enticing books than admiring pictures of book-covers, and I assume most other keen readers are the same.

But my latest haul from Readings is the result of a new initiative at Melbourne’s favourite bookshop…

As regular readers know, most of the translations I’ve reviewed here come about because of Stu at Winston’s Dad, the home of translated fiction and an irresistible source of new titles for the TBR. For a long time, while other bloggers reviewed niche translations, specialising in one language or another, he was just about the only reviewer of a wide range of translations, sourcing them from specialist UK & US publishers that didn’t (and with the exception of Glagoslav mostly still don’t) reach out to readers in faraway Australia. And truth be told, most of these books had to be bought from those global bookstores that have never done any favours for authors and publishers, because the translations were simply not available in bricks-and-mortars shops in Australia.

But Readings have recognised the zeitgeist and to support the rise in interest in translated fiction, have just started a new feature on their blog, Translated fiction to read this month.  You can make sure you don’t miss it if you follow @ReadingsBooks on Twitter, or their blog or subscribe to Readings Monthly and their e-news.

Keen-eyed readers will of course have noticed that

    1. Only The Doll and The Hungry and the Fat were featured on the Readings blog. I would have bought Napoleon’s Beekeeper but I already had a copy courtesy of Giramondo Books and The Unwomanly Face of War has been on my radar for a while, so this was a good time to buy it. Apple and Knife is on the reading for the Indonesian bookgroup that I belong to.
    2. These four books do not on their own qualify for free postage so, yes, I bought a couple of other titles to be eligible for that: Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs which somebody recommended after I read Girl; and also Witi Ihimaera’s The Matriarch which I needed to complete his trilogy and plan to read during Indigenous Literature Week later on July.

Readings does a great job of promoting the work of local authors, but because these books are written by people who don’t write in English, you’re less likely to see them at festivals or author events.  Which is why it’s so good to see them being promoted with this monthly roundup, because I believe that reading translated fiction is one of the best ways to learn about the world outside the Anglosphere.

Though of course a sojourn in just about anywhere in Europe is a good way to do that too!

PS I’m out of action for a little while because I’m having cataract surgery that at the same time will (hopefully) fix another eye problem that I have.  But I’ll be back to chat about this and other bookish things ASAP.

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 24, 2020

Elephants with Headlights, by Bem Le Hunte

Bem Le Hunte is a British-Indian-Australian author with an international readership.  Although born and educated in India and England, her writing career began in Australia when she moved here in 1989.  Her first novel, The Seduction of Silence (2001) was shortlisted for the 2001 Commonwealth Writers Prize and her second novel There, Where the Pepper Grows (2006) was widely praised by the likes of Geraldine Brooks and Thomas Keneally.  Elephants with Headlights is her third novel, due for release next week on 1/3/20.

The quirky title comes in the prologue from the musings of Siddharth, when he is considering the improbabilities of an India catapulted into an unrecognisable new era.  His colleague is enthusing about driverless cars and the prospect of India being the first to have them, but Siddarth—despite being a shrewd futurist is not so sure.

What kind of algorithm or sensor would account for the cow that decided to give birth in front of the Toyota three cars ahead in the traffic jam on the MG Road? Or the cartwheeling, kajalled* child beggars by the side of the road? Or the elephants that returned home down the side streets after attending one of those grand Delhi weddings?  Why, they’d only fairly recently passed a law that these elephants would have to wear headlights at night—would they equip the prehistoric beasts with sensors next? (

* kajal means to emotionally blackmail someone.  (See definition 5 at the Urban Dictionary).

This is the blurb:

…Elephants with Headlights is a collision between east and west, modernity and tradition – between driverless cars and ancient lore – and a world that needs revolutionary reappraisal. In this world, Savitri, named after a Goddess, refuses outright to marry anyone. Her brother, Neel is intent on marrying an Australian girl called Mae, much to the displeasure of their mother, Tota, and father, Siddarth. But do they have the power to command love or destiny? Only the family astrologer, Arunji, knows, yet his truth is tempered by obligations to the family that transformed his life.

It’s that collision between east and west, modernity and tradition which makes this novel so fascinating to read, and much of it is very amusing.  Neel’s mother with her status-conscious ambitions was never going to make it easy for her only son and heir to the family business to marry an Australian girl—and while Mae (who’s a Byron Babe with hippie parents) had wanted an Indian wedding, she has no idea at all about the social mores observed by the family she wants to marry into.  To further the bonding process, for example, she goes swimming with her future mother-in-law Toto—where she attracts the attention of the handsome lifeguard…

He watched Mae a little too intently as she climbed into the pool, attempting to disguise his appreciative smile.  Toto, who was standing between the two of them, noticed his gaze and turned to see that her would-be daughter-in-law had taken off her towel to reveal a blue wing painted onto her white left buttock.  Not only that, it was fully exposed in her G-string bikini, and seemed to disappear somewhere between her legs…

‘Mae, Mae, wait…’

It was too late.  Mae had climbed into the pool backwards, blue prominently on display, and had started her laps, speeding past every Indian lady splashing in the pool getting ‘exercise’ during that Ladies’ hour. (p.68)

These cultural collisions cause mayhem and before long this marriage is in peril. OTOH, Toto seems to be having no luck at all in finding a suitor for Savitri, who regards arranged marriage as an insidious trap.

The novel, however, is more than just an amusing clash of cultures.  The transition to modernity brings with it a loss of community and amenity, and also a decline in the old values that held the business community together.  Siddharth is resigned to the corruption that underlies the uncontrolled building boom, and uses his own connections to further the interests of his family and friends.  But he is shocked when an unexpected ‘gift’ enables him to learn about nepotism and embezzlement within his own business, and he is hurt and dismayed that a colleague of long-standing is prepared to do a runner to avoid being caught out.

At the same time, the author is alert to the inequities of Indian society, and the ‘accidental’ success story of Arunji shows that a great deal of impressive talent is wasted in a economy where the poor usually have no opportunity for social mobility because children have to support their families instead of going to school.

Savitri’s visit to Byron Bay celebrates the freedom that women have in Australia.  She discovers the joy of sunshine on her bare skin, of bodysurfing and of relationships free of the restrictions that steer women in India into soulless marriages.  Her actions force both her parents into a reappraisal of their expectations and the way they enforce them.  That’s not to say that India is presented in a negative light, because what we see is a vibrant, lively society where family bonds mean a great deal and there is a spiritual element to life and death, but still, this novel made me appreciate the opportunities Australian women enjoy.  It’s great to read a book that (as Sue Woolfe says in the blurb) dances through countries, cultures and ideas with wit and verve. 

Highly recommended.

Author: Bem Le Hunte
Title: Elephants with Headlights
Cover design: Josh Durham, Design by Committee
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2020
ISBN: 9781925760484, pbk, 290 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Available from Fishpond: and direct from Transit Lounge

You can read a sample chapter here.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 22, 2020

Fauna, by Donna Mazza

Fauna is a compelling novel, I started it last night and loafed in bed today until I’d finished reading it.  The really interesting thing about it, is that although you find out what happens in the end, you don’t, not really, and that is very creepy indeed. The novel is a highly intelligent work of fiction which made me think of the disconcerting issues raised by Paddy O’Reilly’s remarkable novel The Wonders which also raised questions about what it is that makes us human.

Fauna is set in a very near future, in a world so very nearly like the present.  It begins in the everyday Perth suburbs, with a family eating takeaway in the messiness of daily life, the kids Emmy and Jake going to school and weekend sport, Isak (the father) busy with work and paying the bills, and Stacey, newly pregnant ad wholly absorbed in her future child.  There are brief allusions to the messiness of the world on TV, and to the comfort and relief of watching people cook and renovate houses. 

But with the birth of the infant, the family takes up an offer of a lifestyle far beyond their means and they move to a beautiful but isolated property in southwest WA where the family’s predicament is less likely to arouse interest.  This suits the researchers who are operating on the edges of legality but it exacerbates Stacey’s loneliness.  Like The Wonders, this novel draws attention to the intrusive media which can make life hell for anyone who is different, and she fears interaction with anyone outside their small family in case awkward questions are asked.  Because what this couple have done is to assuage their longing for another child by participating in an IVF research project which mixes their genes with those of some other creature.  It’s part of a project to reverse the extinction of creatures like the Tasmanian Tiger.  LifeBLOOD® does not tell them much about what they are in for, but with the arrival of Asta, their anxieties move far beyond worrying about whether their semi-human offspring will be hairy or not.

The novel traces Asta’s development year by year in successive chapters, and what becomes clear is that the confidentiality provisions of the contract they have signed have turned their lives into something resembling a witness protection program.  Stacey has had a difficult childhood due to her mother’s peripatetic lifestyle, and her only family connection now is with a brother who also fled Australia but—unlike Stacey—stayed overseas.  She cannot share her anxieties with him, and as the novel progresses their predicament impacts on her relationship with Isak as well as on their other two children.  The economy with which Mazza conveys this is more powerful for being open-ended.  When Stacey sends photos of her new house to Alex, he replies with ‘Did you win the lottery and not share with me?’ Stacey does not reply.

In some ways she is her own worst enemy, choosing not to take advantage of opportunities to get to know well-meaning locals who assume that Asta is a special needs child with a rare genetic disorder.  That’s how the couple have been advised to counter curiosity about her appearance, but unlike Isak, Stacey isn’t comfortable with this.  Like most of us, Stacey has not read the fine print, and finds the explanatory website alienating and confusing.  But as Asta grows, her future as an investment by LifeBlood® becomes harder for Stacey to deny, and eventually she takes extreme action to protect the child to whom she is utterly devoted, at the expense of everything else.

The setting is evoked in beautiful prose, contrasting the nature that surrounds them with the nightmarish use of technology for obscene profit. On the day Stacey drops her kids off at their new school, there is a violent storm:

Veined with sea foam, the waves curl and crash, spraying high into the wind.  Mist hurls back, dampens my shaking car.  Black coastal rocks bathed and tangled in a lacework of foam.  An endless race of breaking water headed for the coast one after another.  A great queue out there across the expanse.

The sea has risen with the storm, grown as if there is more of it.  It triggers images of the future.  Perhaps somewhere across the ocean there is a coast depleted when we are overwhelmed.

A band of sunlight falls on the green horizon, distant flecks and sprays of white-capped waves tell me this churning will go on for a few hours yet.

The car windows have misted over with our breath.  The lovely child fills her baby seat with her broad body.  She sleeps soundly, her wide lashes fanned against her pale cheeks.  Mothers with blond children walk by, their little ones packed tight against the wind, and she is here, hidden from view in the still-cold air of the car.  (p.177)

I couldn’t find book group notes at the Allen & Unwin website but I doubt if they would be needed.  Start by asking ‘what did you think?’ and the discussion will outlast the wine and nibbles, for sure!

Author: Donna Mazza
Title: Fauna
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2020
ISBN: 9781760876302, pbk, 312 pages
Source: Bayside Library

Available from Fishpond:Fauna and good bookshops everywhere

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 21, 2020

2020 Australian Book Design Awards longlist

The Australian Book Designers’ Association has just announced its Book Design Awards longlist: there are 17 categories, all of which you can see here.

The categories that most interest me are

  • commercial fiction
  • literary fiction
  • biography, autobiography and memoir
  • non-fiction

Here they are:

It’s hard to judge between them when I’ve some of them and can see how the designs relate to the book content, but my favourite of these is The Sea and Us, designed by Josh Durham from Design by Committee.

I’m amazed to see that I’ve read only two in this literary fiction category, but once again my favourite is designed by Josh Durham from Design by Committee, I think that cover for The Returns is both beautiful and clever.

In this category I like From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, with its pitch perfect cover by W H Chong.

And finally, the only category where I’m choosing without being influenced by having read the book, and I’m afraid I think they’re a rather dull lot.  I quite like  Songspirals by Lisa White but it’s not really very original, and I quite like the cunning of Capturing Nature by Pfister + Freeman—but none of these make me want to pick up the book and read the blurb in the bookshop.  I don’t know if it’s eligible but I’d have nominated Island Story… and I am guilt-stricken because I forgot to include the details about the designer when I reviewed it, and it was from the library so I can’t check it now.  If anyone has a copy, please let me know so that I can amend it.

Update: I went to the library today and found the book: the designer is Imogen Stubbs, and she has a portfolio of really lovely designs at her website. On her About page it says that Imogen is the art director at Text Publishing, where she has worked as a book designer and production manager since 2011. She manages the book and marketing design program while also designing covers for literary fiction, non-fiction, young adult and middle grade titles.  IMO this is the book that should win the prize hands down!

What do you think?
Which would you choose for the shortlist, or is there something else that you wish had been nominated?

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 20, 2020

One Amazing Thing, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

I stumbled on this intriguing book at my local library, attracted firstly by the name (because I like Indian fiction) and then by the blurb. It’s a kind of contemporary Canterbury Tales, i.e. stories told by a group of strangers, but in this case they are linked by being trapped in a building damaged in an earthquake.

In that sense it reminds me of Ann Patchett’s Orange Prize winner Bel Canto—based on the Japanese embassy hostage crisis—and of Simone Lazaroo’s Sustenance which featured a group of tourists trapped in an Indonesian hotel by terrorists.  These characters in extremis open up to each other because they think they have nothing to lose. Facing a likely death, they reflect on their lives and identities and are able to be honest with each other because they are being honest with themselves.

The characters in One Amazing Thing are stuck in a passport and visa office in an unnamed American city: they are all en route to India for one reason or another.  They are, as the blurb suggests, a diverse bunch of people:

A punky teenager with an unexpected gift. An upper-class Caucasian couple whose relationship is disintegrating. A young Muslim-American man struggling with the fallout of 9/11. A graduate student haunted by a question about love. An African-American ex-soldier searching for redemption. A Chinese grandmother with a secret past. And two visa office workers on the verge of an adulterous affair.

The collective struggle to survive begins with identifying which parts of the building are comparatively safe, and accessing food and water.  Without much argument, the leader who coordinates this is Cameron, whose experience as a soldier has given him skills in crisis management.  He holds the torch which provides the only light, and he assesses the state of the space they are in, and harvests the snacks the travellers have, for sharing.  At the beginning they have access to tapwater in the manager’s personal toilet, and the water which is seeping in from somewhere is only enough to soak the carpet.  Cameron also lays down the ground rules: no shouting or sudden movements which might trigger further damage to the walls or ceiling.

But group cooperation only goes so far.  The other young man resents the unquestioned assumption of power by Cameron and he resents being ordered about.  A smoker craving a cigarette risks an explosion from the gas leak.  One hides her tranquilisers and becomes more relaxed than is wise, and another has a secret stash of booze.  The exceptionalism which led them to migrate to America or transcend their personal circumstances doesn’t vanish because they are in this life-or-death situation, even as the waters rise and the building quivers around them.

In the wake of a crisis which nearly led to immediate disaster, Uma (who was reading Chaucer which she was reading to make up for a university class she was missing) suggests that they each tell a personal story, one amazing thing from their lives, which they have never told anyone before. As the hours pass without rescue, and punctuated by tension that rises with the waters, they take it in turns to tell stories of love and family, regrets and shame, guilt and redemption.

The reader, as the novel progresses, becomes invested in the characters. As the sense of unease deepens, it’s difficult to resist sneaking a look at the last pages to find out if they survive.

One Amazing Thing is Divakaruni’s twelth work of fiction for adults but she also writes for children.  Wikipedia (lightly edited to remove links and footnotes) tells us that she was born and educated in Calcutta but is now a teacher of writing at the University of Houston.

Her short story collection, Arranged Marriage won an American Book Award in 1996, and two of her novels (The Mistress of Spices and Sister of My Heart) as well as a short story The Word Love were adapted into films. Mistress of Spices was short-listed for the Orange Prize. Currently, Sister of My Heart, Oleander Girl, Palace of Illusions, and One Amazing Thing have all been optioned to be made into movies or TV serials.

[…] Divakaruni’s works are largely set in India and the United States, and often focus on the experiences of South Asian immigrants. [She] has published novels in multiple genres, including realistic fiction, historical fiction, magical realism, myth and fantasy.

There’s an amazing roll call of blurbers on the back cover: Jhumpa Lahiri, Louise Erdrich, Ha Jin, Lisa See and Abraham Verghese.  IMO, their praise is well-deserved.

Author: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Title: One Amazing Thing
Book design by Shubbani Sarkar
Publisher: Voice, Hyperion (Harper Collins), 2009
ISBN: 9781401340995, hbk, 220 pages
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: One Amazing Thing

It seems only a short while ago that I read Malcolm Fraser’s Dangerous Allies in which he questioned whether the US alliance was still a useful foreign policy option for Australia, but it was actually six years ago.  That book was published back in 2014, when the world was a very different place.  That was before the Brexit referendum and it was when President Obama was in the White House.  We had our own troubles here with Tony Abbott as our embarrassing Prime Minister, but back then we could not have imagined that before long there would be clowns like him in power elsewhere, nor could we have guessed how much damage they could do to a fairly stable world order.

So this issue of Australian Foreign Affairs is timely.  The blurb tells you its contents:

The eighth issue of Australian Foreign Affairs examines the changing status of the United States as its dominance in the Asia-Pacific faces challenge from China and its “America First” foreign policy marks a shift away from global engagement.  Can We Trust America? looks at the uncertainties for Australia as questions arise about the commitment of its closest ally. Michael Wesley calls for an alliance makeover as China’s ambition puts US–Australian ties under strain. Felicity Ruby delves into the uses and consequences of America’s intelligence and surveillance facilities in Australia. Brendan Taylor explores how the United States can strengthen its position in a contested Asia. Kelly Magsamen reports from America on how it can preserve and enhance its role as a great power. John Blaxland proposes a compact with our Pacific island neighbours.

There are book reviews too, in which Helen Clark reflects on the role of foreign policy advisers, and Jacinta Carroll probes the making of Australia’s security state.

Michael Wesley’s article covers recent shifts in Australia’s thinking about the American alliance, but it concludes with the surprising advice that America needs us more now than it has in the past, and that we should stop invoking loyalty and sacrifice to give the alliance a marriage-like status.  What has happened, he says, is that since 9/11, both sides of politics in Australia have shaped a narrative about US/Australian shared values, and these have been invoked to create a slick marketing campaign about fighting shoulder-to-shoulder from one end of Eurasia to the other. This narrative…

…occludes the true history of the partnership, ignoring the complementarities and disagreements, the strategic calculations and limited liability commitments, in favour of a chronical of mutual loyalty, ideological solidarity and undying fealty. (p.21)

But the reality is that America wants to deny supremacy to any other power, and that means they want to return to their traditional strategy in Asia to counter China.  They need to disperse their military bases and that means that our geography is important to them.  But from our point of view…

Primarily, we should seek to make it less about fighting a seemingly inevitable war and more about preventing an entirely avoidable one.  As Sino-American rivalry deepens, the weight of our attention is on our alliance obligations in the event of war.  We forget that the primary reason for alliances is to prevent wars.  In the fervid dread about China, the challenge of Asia has dragged Australia and the United States into a military mindset, to the detriment of the diplomatic and developmental arms of their statecraft.

No doubt a clever military strategy will be necessary to prevent China from dominating the region, but it will not be sufficient.  We must deploy the other arms of our statecraft to build a set of institutions and norms to stabilise a contested power order, or the region will become increasingly prone to conflict.  (p.27)

Felicity Ruby’s essay ‘Silent Partners’ begins with the shocking image of Trump and Morrison having dinner in the White House, while only hours before Pine Gap had almost certainly helped aim the drone that mistook Afghan pine-nut farmers for Islamic State fighters.  Thirty civilians were killed, and forty were injured.  In the same week, she tells us, the memoir of the whistleblower Edward Snowden was published, a reminder that what is in the public domain about the Five Eyes signals intelligence-gathering alliance, is known only because of him.  Her point is that:

At a time when faith in the rules-based international order and trust in the United States’ willingness and capacity to exercise global leadership is decreasing, Australians need to understand the functions of Pine Gap and similar facilities and to evaluate the role they play in the nation’s defences, foreign policy and international standing. (p. 31)

It’s rather creepy to read that successive Australian Prime Ministers from Gorton to Whitlam did not know some really basic information about Pine Gap, since revealed by Snowden and by Wikileaks.  There is a legitimate case for some operational secrecy  but that ought surely not to apply to the highest levels of our government!

Malcolm Fraser makes an appearance in this essay: during the trial of six people who entered Pine Gap territory during the 2016 protests, the judge allowed him to be a surprise witness when he…

…allowed a seven-minute ABC Radio interview with former prime minister Malcolm Fraser to be played to the jury.  All in the court heard his distinctive voice echoing the concerns shared by the defendants about the role of Pine Gap in nuclear and conventional wars and drone strikes, and in the undermining of Australia’s potential for an independent foreign policy.

Fraser’s reversal of opinion on Pine Gap carried weight because of his roles as defence minister and prime minister, as well as his attempt during the Whitlam dismissal to amplify the controversy over the lease renewal on Pine Gap, which had recently been revealed to have significant CIA connections. (p.46)

Exactly.  As I said in my review the view that the expanded role of Pine Gap was actually dangerous to Australia carries a different kind of freight when it’s expressed by an old Conservative.  Ruby contrasts that with academic Hugh White’s  How to Defend Australia which, she says, fails to acknowledge the risk to Australia from nuclear weapons that facilities such as Pine Gap represent.  

And it’s ironic that we can’t ourselves comply with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons — an Australian initiative that won the Novel Peace Prize —  unless the United States shuts down the relay ground station at Pine Gap that supports nuclear warfighting systems.

Brendan Taylor’s ‘Message to Washington’ builds on Michael Wesley’s point that we can and should keep out of US-China hostilities, and he invokes the situation at the start of the Cold War as a guide, when strategist and diplomat Dean Acheson recommended countering Moscow’s strength, aggression and expansionist plans with what were called ‘situations of strength’, areas around the Soviet perihery where America was so strong that Moscow wouldn’t even contemplate aggression there.  Taylor acknowledges that implementation of this strategy was muddled but America needs to get its current directionless act together because they face challenges in their relationships with Taiwan, the issues in the South China Sea, and the fact that geography favours China too strongly in these growing situations of weakness.  

But of course Trump is the problem here.  The US has never liked balance-of-power politics anyway, and it likes to see itself as exceptional, and now they have a president with an overt disdain for alliances and a dysfunctional administration. Taylor seems to think that Australia has a role to play in counselling America. I would like to think he’s right, but the Morrison government doesn’t exactly inspire confidence…

Kelly Magsamen writes about the longer view, beyond the next presidential election. He says that the strategy of ensuring US dominance in all areas is outdated and expensive to pursue.

A more realistic approach than chasing primacy or pulling back would be for the United States to aim to ensure that all countries in the region can make their own security and economic choices, free from coercion. (p.78)

I suspect that’s an approach that a lot of countries in our region would prefer too. But intriguingly, Magsamen says that the US can only achieve a competitive political and economic model in this contested arena if it invests in its own people because they are its competitive strength.  The problem is that:

The basic economic and social compact with the American middle class that propelled the United States into the role of global superpower and ensure this position for decades is increasingly at risk. (p.79)

It would be interesting to know more about what she means by this, other than the need to solve domestic problems like gun violence and governance issues, and dealing with the growing distrust of American democracy and its institutions.

One of the things I like about this journal is that its contributors don’t always share the same opinions.  Magsamen, for example, contests Taylor’s suggestions about using the Acheson model, basically because the US and Chinese economies are  as co-dependent as they are rivalrous which was not the case with the US and the USSR.

John Blaxland’s ‘The Fix’ shifts the focus onto the micro states of the Pacific, suggesting that we develop mutually beneficial compacts with our smaller neighbours.  Obviously there would be sensitivities about this, and it will only work if Australia avoids a patronising, domineering and selfish approach, and agrees to safeguards that ensure the dignity of the states involved.  It would be interesting to learn more about this, perhaps in another AFF journal.

I really like these long form essays which take the place of what I used to be able to read in the quality press.

Editor: Jonathan Pearlman
Title:  Can We Trust America? A Superpower in Transition
Publisher: Schwarz Publishing, Issue 8, February 2020
ISBN: 9781760641771
Source: personal subscription.

Available from Schwarz Publishing or your local newsagent or library




Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 16, 2020

The Silence of the Girls, by Pat Barker

Lots of people like this book, and it was nominated for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but I found it dull.  Perhaps this might not be so for readers who don’t already know Homer’s Iliad, but I do, so I knew exactly what was going to happen because Barker’s plot so closely follows the original story from the 8th century BC.  Without the narrative tension of an unfamiliar plot the book needed other aspects to create reader engagement: it needed to be interesting because it offered the female perspective omitted from the original epic, and the writing needed to be vivid and captivating.  And IMO it is inadequate in both respects, and Barker’s ambition to redress historical gender inequity in an archaic piece of literature and link that to the contemporary #MeToo movement is not enough to redeem it.

Perhaps it’s not fair to compare Barker’s coarse and unlovely prose with the stunning poetry of Homer’s original.  But even in translation, (I most recently read the Fagles translation), The Iliad is suffused with striking images and powerful rhythms, and David Malouf in Ransom showed that a prose version can be beautiful as it tackles the tortuous redemption of Achilles and the journey of the enemy king towards full humanity.  Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles isn’t beautiful in the same way, but it explores the psychology of the protagonists in a popular version written for an audience unfamiliar with the original story.  To give Barker the benefit of the doubt, perhaps her crude style may have been deliberate: maybe she did not want to glorify the story in beautiful prose as her predecessors have done because her version of it is an ugly story.  As her character Briseis says on the last page, an audience doesn’t want to hear about

…the brutal reality of conquest and slavery.  They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls.  They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp. No, they’ll go for something altogether softer. (p.324)

But still, the shallowness of the writing is a disappointment because I have previously really liked Barker’s novels, ever since I read The Regeneration Trilogy. 

But the story written from the women’s perspective is a disappointment too.  The original epic is set during the Greek siege of Troy during the Trojan War,  and its focus is the conflict between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles, and the terrible inhumane consequences of their intemperate natures. But (as you’d expect in an any ancient epic) those inhumane consequences do not include mention of what some cultures now call ‘collateral damage.’  Pat Barker’s aim was to bring alive the fate of the women and girls who were captured and enslaved and raped.  Well, she does this, sometimes in revolting detail, so if a reader lacks the imagination to understand the fate of women as a consequence of military defeat in countless cultures and from ancient times to as recently as in Germany’s defeat in WW2 and in the Yugoslav wars (1991-2001), then The Silence of the Girls will supply the story.

But although Briseis narrates most of the story (except, awkwardly, the parts that she could not personally have witnessed) this novel is (inexplicably) still mostly focussed on the story of Achilles and his intemperate rage.  Everything Briseis thinks and says and does occurs in that context. It’s disappointing because if you have read any literature about people who were enslaved in the Holocaust, or imprisoned in Japanese POW camps or kept in grim circumstances for their ‘moral improvement’ in female factories and workhouses, you will know about the inner resources that people drew on in order to survive.  In captivity and enslavement, despite the horror and the dehumanising treatment and the physical exhaustion, people found ways to connect with and support each other; to sustain their own cultures, history, music and literature; to teach the children and each other; to use grim humour as a covert counter to their all-powerful captors; and to hope and plan for a different future.  But there is very little of this in The Silence of the Girls.  And apart from the final sequence where Briseis recognises that Achilles’ child that she is bearing will be part Trojan as well as Greek, there is little sense of the women as survivors.

Yes, that’s historically accurate, up to a point, because the Trojan culture was vanquished.  And yet there is a Troy museum in Turkey where you can see tear catchers, glass and terracotta perfume bottles, figurines, gold pieces, necklaces and bracelets, coins, ornaments, bone objects and tools, metal containers, terracotta potteries, weapons, axes and cutters, milestones, inscriptions, altars, sarcophagi, sculptures and many other special pieces from the area’s 5,000-year old history.  The Trojans and their culture were not obliterated.

In my disappointment about what this novel might have been, I found myself remembering Anna Lanyon’s Malinche’s Conquest, a book which explores the life of the woman given as a slave to Cortes in Mexico and how she survived by relying on her intelligence, her skill with languages and her courage.  And then there’s Elisabeth Storr’s Tales of Ancient Rome trilogy, which brings to life the Etruscan civilisation absorbed into Rome through the figure of Caecilia, a Roman noblewoman who is used to barter peace through a diplomatic marriage with the neighbouring Etruscans. She is not a slave, but noblewomen married off to secure alliances had very little freedom all the same.

It occurs to me that contemporary readers who haven’t learned anything about classical civilisations at school and come to The Silence of the Girls as newbies to the world of Ancient Greece, may well come away with the impression that the Greeks were brutish monsters.  Well, they were, just like all the cultures of the ancient world, and yes, just like all the others, they used women as possessions.  But they also bequeathed aspects of western civilisation that are still valued today. See this four part series at The Snarky Historian:

You might also get the impression that the Greeks paid no attention at all to the fate of the Trojan women.  Not so.  Euripides wrote a play about them in 415BC during the Peloponnesian War. 

There are numerous reviews to counter my lack of enthusiasm for this novel, but these two are representative:

Simon at Tredynas Days admired it too reviewed it here. 

Author: Pat Barker
Title: The Silence of the Girls
Cover art by Sarah Young
Publisher: Penguin Random House UK, 2018
ISBN: 9780241338094, pbk., 325 pages
Source: Personal library

Available from Fishpond: The Silence of the Girls: Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019


Sometimes, it’s just a case of being in the right place at the right time…

The Spouse and I went to a book launch today at the Victorian Artists’ Society in East Melbourne.  The book is called Pictures and Prose, Existentialists and Atheists Speak, and the reason we were interested in this somewhat esoteric publication was because The Spouse is included in it.  As I’m sure readers have gathered by now, he is a man of many interests and from time to time he has given a talk at the Existentialists’ Society (even though he isn’t one of them).  And he was giving a talk there when Melbourne painter, printmaker and photographer Raffaella Torresan was there sketching the presenters and that is why he is in the book which is a collection of talks given at the society.

His talk was titled ‘Skepticism, Science and Scientism, and I don’t need to read it because I already have.  (I have proofread all his items for publication, and his philosophy essays for uni as well.)  There are other talks which look quite interesting but my eyes aren’t up to close reading today, so that’s for another time.  What I was able to do today was read the other book I bought, which is called Poetry & Ideas, Text and Images, and it’s a beautiful collection of illustrated poetry.  While The Spouse was doing his ‘Swing and Sway’ radio show at 3CR I went round the corner to a beaut restaurant called Lladro in Gertrude St, and over a scrumptious lunch and a very nice glass of wine, I browsed through what is a very fine collection of poems (in well-spaced, easy-to-read print)…

The back cover includes a blurb from Bruce Dawe, and a list of the poets:

Raffaella Torresan’s Poetry & Ideas is a very beautiful integration of Raffaella’s dramatic artwork with specially chosen, theme poems, by many of our most notable poets, whose work has been specially chosen by Raffaella for the book.

Poets: Jordie Albiston, Eric Beach, John Beaton, Patrick Boyle, Kevin Brophy, Jen Jewell Brown, Edward Burger, Grant Caldwell, Dimitri Cingovski, Jack Charles, Libby Charlton, Domenico de Clario, Jennifer Compton, Robert J Conlon, Eddie Dalton, Bruce Dawe, Jim Dodd, John Flaus, Gary Foley, Sybelle Foxcroft, Anna Gruenz, Lynn Hard, Jennifer Harrison, Kris Hemensley, Matt Hetherington, James Hickey, Jeltje, Marietta Elliott-Kleerkoper, Komninos, Chris Lawrance, Geoffrey Lehmann, Kerry Loughrey, Patrick McCauley, Maurice McNamara, Ian McBryde, Phil Motherwell, Les Murray, KF Pearson, Nick Powell, John Ridland, Homer Rieth, David Shepherd, Pamela Sidney, Leon Shann, Lish Skec, Alex Skovron, Kerry Scuffins, Steve Smart, Kenneth G Smeaton, Gavin Sanderson, Fiona Stuart, Yvette Stubbs, Colin Talbot, Peter Tiernan, Tim Train, Michael Ward, Lauren Williams.

The themes declare a preoccupation with conservation and environment, grouped by issues such as nuclear power, whales, trees and sustainability.  In ‘Keep it in the Ground’, Bruce Dawe has two poems, ‘The Way to Chernobyl’ and ‘Going to the Ball’:

Will you be my partner at the Nuclear Club Ball?
Everyone’s going this year…
There’ll be free Strontium-90 for one and for all
and if you say Yes I’ll be happy to call
and we’ll dance the fandango of fear!

There’ll be new folks a-plenty from East and from West,
and there’ll be room for big parties and small:
Kim Jong-il will foot it along with the best,
while in Tehran they’re planning another big test
and hoping no fall-out will fall.  (p. 2)

Dawe goes on to list the other members of the nuclear club who will be there, all of them oblivious to the problem of plutonium and what on earth will we do with it all.

The late great Judith Rodriguez has a poem called ‘Leave it in the Earth’ in this section too.

‘Weep Leviathan’ has poems about whales by Les Murray and by Melbourne performance poet Komninos who manages to pack a great deal of thoughtful commentary into just nine lines—and there is also a brilliant poem called ‘Imagine’ by Patrick Boyle, which begins like this…

Imagine the wailing
imagine the furore
if an elephant was harpooned
its body dragged across forest floor (p.15)

Imagine the outrage he exhorts us, and pleads for us to imagine then/the death of a harvested wild whale.  

Lauren Williams has IMO the standout poem in the section called ‘Trees’.  In ‘History Lesson’ her poem of seven stanzas begins like this:

The last people of E___ kept building
a big economy, a great stony-faced economy
forever gazing offshore, their slogan
mantra, buzzword: More.

The great stone economy was hungry.
It devoured trees and oil, whatever the people
could wrest from the soil, and for dessert, desert —
a crumble of salination and extinction, served hot. (p. 29)

In the section called ‘Greed’ there are poems whose themes you can guess from the titles: ‘Plastic hangs in the trees like fruit’ by James Hickey is heart-breaking, and ‘Mars Realty (it’s Gotta be Red) by Bruce Dawe comments on the absurdity of colonising another planet once we’ve ruined our own.  But Lynn Hard’s ‘State of the Union’ is brilliant too…

Everything must go,
except the lies.

So we’ll keep the flag
and let the country go,
we’ll board up the libraries
and keep the bumper stickers,
we’ll buy prejudice
and sell wisdom
we’ll lose the farm
but keep the name for the housing development
we’ll invest in last week
and asset strip for tomorrow. (p. 47)

Her poem ends, so pertinently: and no one/will get back to you.

There are lots of really thoughtful poems in the section called ‘Beauty’ including John Ridland’s ‘Pear’ which challenges our ideas about what we think ‘beauty’ is.  The pear survives the gentle fingers of the pickers and the careful checker at the supermarket, and it bears itself with the dignity/of one who can boast My great-great-great grandpère/was painted by Cezanne. That pear had decomposed/(before Cezanne got the composition right but Cezanne still saw him fresh off the tree, unblemished, ripe. Such a gorgeous image… beauty unchanging despite the ravages of time.

It’s somewhat similar to Patrick Boyle’s ‘[there beauty is]:

there    beauty is
in the trust shining from your eyes
in the generous warmth of your body’s coiling
in the gentle lilt of your voice’s joy
in the welcoming smile that finds shape
on these defining edges of your being
these manifold curves (p.55)

This is just a taste of the lovely poems in this collection, thoughtfully illustrated by the artist.  I’ll leave you with some words from Lynn Hard, ‘To a Lady Who Does Not Like My Poetry’ because it’s a good reminder that reviewing poetry is always risky!

She does not think straight
this critic of mine,
her thought has too little meat,
too much wine.  (p.62)

Contact Raffaela at her website if you are interested in buying a copy of this lovely book.

Edited and drawn by Raffaella Torresan
Title: Poetry & Ideas, Text and Images
Publisher: Devil Dog Castlemaine, 2015
ISBN: 9780646940397, hbk., 166 pages
Source: Purchased for $10 at the launch of Pictures and Prose, Existentialists and Atheists Speak, also drawn and compiled by Raffaella Torresan.


Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 14, 2020

I, James Blunt, by H V Morton

As Bill from The Australian Legend remarked just recently, the provenance of second-hand books is sometimes almost as much fun as the contents. I owe my discovery of this rare little booklet by the great travel writer H V Morton (1892-1979) to Niall Taylor from the H V Morton Society…

Members of the society receive regular bulletins from Niall and other contributors, and these are now available online at the HVM blog. It was in January this year that Niall posted a reprint of an article by Kenneth Fields which had originally been circulated as HVM Collectors’ Note No.6, on 22nd April, 2004.  The article (which I urge you to read by following that link) was about HVM’s role in producing propaganda for the Ministry of Information during WW2.  I, James Blunt is a slim novella published in 1942, and it’s rare now because it is so fragile, printed under wartime regulations on soft paper and with a very soft cover.  I did a search and was lucky to pick up an affordable copy from New Zealand that was advertised via AbeBooks.

This is from the dustjacket blurb:

The Diary of James Blunt will remain fiction as long as England condemns complacency and brings to times of good news the same high courage and resolution which inspire and unite her in her darkest hours.
It is September 1944. James Blunt, a retired tradesman living near Farnham, is one of the millions of Britons suffering under the Nazi heel. In secret, he keeps a diary. Through his eyes we see the Gestapo at work in an English village, German troops goose-stepping past Buckingham Palace, the whole face of Britain unrecognisably altered by humiliation and tyranny.
‘James Blunt’s diary’, says H V Morton, is dedicated to all complacent optimists and wishful thinkers, and to those who cannot imagine what life would be like if we lost the war.’

The novella is only 56 pages long, but it makes for fascinating reading.  It is set in what was in 1942 the very near future: five months after the Capitulation in 1944 with Britain now learning the reality of Nazi Occupation.  James Blunt is a veteran of the First World War.  He is devastated by Britain’s defeat and is very worried about his family.  His wife Elsie was killed in the Blitz, and he has a daughter called Marjorie and two grandchildren called George and Ann.  While the children are now of an impressionable age and must start in one of the new German primary schools for indoctrination, Marjorie’s husband Jack works in a shipyard taken over by the Hermann Göring Company.  His record as a trade unionist makes him very vulnerable because they are always the first to disappear.  Blunt is also anxious about his sister Elsie, whose imprudent letters put them both at risk now that the Gestapo has complete control of the Post Office. 

Along with overt signs of occupation which include removing the word ‘Royal’ from everything, hanging Swastika flags everywhere and renaming all the places that alluded to British victories (such as Waterloo and Trafalgar) with the names we in our time have come to despise (such as Himmler, Goebbels and of course Hitler), there is now a pervasive climate of fear and suspicion. No one dares express opinions in the pub, reporting on the appalling suicide rate is forbidden, and the presence of German officers demanding identity cards on pain of severe punishment makes any venture away from home perilous.  For those of us who have read a bit or seen films or TV series about the Occupation of France, these tyrannies are familiar.  What makes it ghastly is that they take place in a country that has always been proudly independent and with which we in Australia identify for historical reasons.  Even if you have no love for Britain and her own conquering empire, reading this little novella is a salutary experience, once you realise that every one of Britain’s ‘possessions’ would be have been subject to the same tyranny.  (I learned on my recent holiday in New Caledonia that New Caledonia refused to submit to Vichy law and that Australia supported their refusal to acquiesce to fascism.  We might not have been able to do that had Britain capitulated, and we should never forget that Britain stood alone against Nazism with America pragmatically waiting in the wings for far too long).

I am fascinated by books written contemporaneously with war, when the author had to live with the immediacy of warfare and could have had no idea what the outcome might be.  Irene Nemirovsky is a powerful example of this, writing vividly about the evacuation of Paris in the wake of the Nazi advance, and — with no knowledge of how long this war was to last — about the complexity of living with an occupying force and an enemy soldier billeted in the house.  She was not to know that the Nazis would catch up with her and that she would perish in Auschwitz.  H V Morton, when he was writing this novella in 1941, would have had good reason to be pessimistic.  The authenticity of his writing is what gives it power: like my parents, their family and their friends living through the Blitz and watching Europe fall, he expresses the fear that gripped them day by day. Although they did not know the full horror of the Nazi regime, they knew what had happened in France and they knew how vulnerable Britain was.  They knew they were alone against a powerful foe and until December 1941, they knew that American isolationism offered no assistance.  HVM wrote this story because he knew how vitally important it was to sustain morale, and he was asked to do it because the Ministry of Information knew how popular he was, but still, I wonder just how convincing it might have been when the situation looked so dire.

Fascism is on the rise in Europe, and populism in Britain and the US hasn’t helped. I, James Blunt is an unsubtle piece of propaganda that expresses a profound truth, that we should—those of us in democracies—cherish the freedoms that we have, because if we don’t defend them, one day it might be too late.

PS I am making an unenthusiastic visit to the eye specialist this afternoon, with the possibility that he may wish to do a ‘procedure’ there and then.  I have no idea whether this might affect my reading and writing, but I hope that normal service will resume ASAP.

Author: H V Morton
Title: I, James Blunt
Cover design: not acknowledged, but impressive because it places the individual first and foremost, with the emphasis on the word ‘I”
Publisher: Methuen and Co, 1942
USBN: None, pbk, 56 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Hard To Find Books NZ via Abebooks, $50.00 AUD

Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 12, 2020

The Innocent Reader, by Debra Adelaide

I wish, I really wish, I’d found time to read this book before last Christmas—because if I had, by now, you would all have your own copy and so would your friends because you would have given them all a copy as a present.  I am not really a fan of books about reading, but The Innocent Reader has brought me so much pleasure, I hardly know how to begin.

Perhaps at the end?  In the last chapter titled ‘In Bed with Flaubert’, Adelaide writes an uncannily accurate description of what it’s like to be what she calls an incompetent sleeper. Somehow, she manages to describe the torture of insomnia with humour and grace, listing every trick, remedy, therapy, from folklore tale to contemporary medical advice, and every suggestion from people who claim to suffer from insomnia themselves, and have cured it by one simple method or another:

Nothing works.  You count sheep.  You count goats.  You count animals in masses: fleas on dogs, schools of sardines, a hive of bees. Locusts, budgerigars and ants—anything that lives in large groups—you count them all and still, and after the nine hundred and ninety-ninth termite, the one thousandth fruit bat, sleep remains elusive.  You memorise then recite the Periodic Table of Elements and still remain awake by the time you arrive at 118, oganesson.  (p.250)

As she says,  your body is unbelievably wily.  It is fooled by nothing.   And so, just like me, she reads.

If you can’t sleep but your brain isn’t alert enough to be useful and learn introductory Spanish or memorise the  Crimes Act (1900) then you can at least comfort and indulge yourself with reading novels, and long romantic poems.  Medications wear off, warm drinks go cold, therapeutic pillows and blankets become stiff and lumpy, but the books remains the same. (p.252)

Yes.  Reliable, patient, responsive to our desire yet always like new. Beautiful books, written just for us, as this book has been written just for me by Debra Adelaide.

I love what she writes about how other people seem to get by with reading the paper and watching the news, but reading—which is supposed to fill up the gloomy void of ignorance—instead expands it. Because we readers are never satisfied:

The more you read the more you become aware of the enormous holes in your reading, and the more authors there are to read unfold before you.

Arrive at adulthood as I did having read Austen and Dickens, and lo! there are the other classics… and then there are the French and German ones you didn’t discover until middle age.  And then, what about the wealth of contemporary writing, and translated fiction, and all the underrated women authors that you haven’t read?  I was reminded of this just yesterday when I was chatting with Joe at Rough Ghosts—he had just written a superb review of Saudade, a book from Angola which had broadened my horizons because I knew nothing at all about Angola until I read it. I could wallpaper my library if I printed out the number of times I’ve introduced a review with the words ‘I knew nothing about this #InsertSubject/Country/History until I read #InsertNameOfBook’.

Yes, the books you read do this to you, and that’s not all. Adelaide doesn’t mention the way blogging friends writing enticing reviews add to this delightful problem.  No wonder we all have groaning TBRs and not enough storage place.  Not even me, with my purpose-built library.

There is an hilarious essay about Adelaide’s experience with students at writing schools.  I once started  a course in Professional Writing and Editing (and nearly finished it but abandoned ship when a Writing Non-fiction turned out to be writing for tabloids.)  She has not only described my Short Story class perfectly, but *cringe* me as well.  Why, she asks, do people sign up for courses taught by experienced writers, who have books in the marketplace and experience with publishers, only to take no notice whatsoever of the teacher’s published work or her advice?  Everybody wants to be a writer, but nobody wants to learn what it really entails because they think they already know.  It must be exasperating.

Her advice to writers BTW contains so many gems there is little I can say except that every aspiring writer should buy this book, but I will share this one, because I love it so:

There is a lesson to be learned in all of the above [in the chapter called ‘Terms and Conditions’] but it is not a lesson about the craft of writing, rather one about human nature.  Whoever became a good parent by reading a book on the topic or attending antenatal classes?  They became good when their child cried and cried and they found they could soothe her by stroking her forehead or by holding her prone or by taking her for a walk.  They will not even know this until then try one thing then another, until they find whatever it is making that baby cry, and how to fix it.  Writers must similarly work it out for themselves, and not just for them as writers, but for that particular story, script or book, because there is one other certain thing: what works for one novel sure as hell is not going to work for the next. (p.157)

I had another cringeworthy moment when I read ‘Do Not Tell Me a Story’…

Everyone has a story in them.  Everyone has a novel in them, or so it is frequently said.  And humans tell stories.  It is part of who we are, though some cultures prioritise storytelling much more than others.  So it makes sense that people everywhere, from cocktail parties to wedding receptions and the signing queues in bookshops, lean forward confidentially and offer you a story, if only you are prepared to write it.  Mission: Impossible.  Your job, Mr Phelps, should you choose to accept it, is to write a 150,000 word bestseller based on this incredible tale I am giving you right now, and be eternally grateful.  Good luck, Jim. (p.107)

Yup, I’ve done that.  Not quite like this example, but still…

Here is the scenario, which every writer has experienced more or less, and in any variety of circumstances.  For clarity’s sake I will streamline the story.  In this case it is at a fiftieth birthday party.  A woman I have never met before, upon hearing I am an author, leans towards me and tells me she has a story for me, and it is such an extraordinary one that I will want to put down my glass of wine and race home to my desk and commence writing it that very evening.  It is the story of her family, and the things you wouldn’t believe! It’s a long saga spreading across five generations.  (p. 108)

And on this woman goes for three-quarters of a page…

Well, we’ve all had to work out strategies for extricating ourselves from interminable family history stories at social occasions.  At least in my defence I can say that my ‘story’ came about over a chatty lunch with the author Susan Johnson, and I had no intention of suggesting that she (or anyone else) should write it.  She was the one who said it should be turned into a novel.  I told her she could use it herself if she wanted to. (I don’t think she ever has).

There is an interesting article about reviewing, its ethical obligations and the diminishing opportunities for paid reviewing—and also the first acknowledgement I have ever seen in print that despite the democratisation of reviewing and the interference of algorithms at Goodreads and Amazon, the fact is there are numerous excellent literary blogs and online journals delivering quality reviews to readers, all free.  I don’t count my little blog as in the company of the ‘excellent’, but ANZ LitLovers is informed by a lifetime of serious reading, and it is sincere, and careful, and as respectful and honest as I can make it.  So it is rewarding to see a counter to the dismissive opinions of so many in the print media.

I’ve worked backwards through this lovely book, and ended up at the chapter entitled ‘Reading is Sport’.  What a splendid argument for justifying absconding from sport in one’s school days! It’s true, reading is sport.  You do exercise your eyes.  And your mind. And it’s also true that sport is nothing more than a cruel series of jokes invented for the physical and emotional torture of types like myself.  And likewise, a reader who tries to fit in and be ‘normal’ by playing netball is doomed to fail.  I once filled in for a missing player because the team thought I’d be good at it since I was tall. Proximity to the net is no help if you miss catches, or you hold the ball too long, or you throw it to the wrong team.  Debra Adelaide does not mention ducking when the ball comes unwanted in your direction, but trust me, that doesn’t make you an asset to the team either…

I don’t know why schools inflict sport on readers.  The world does not need more sporting types.  It needs more readers.

Author: Debra Adelaide
Title:  The Innocent Reader
Cover design by Debra Billson, cover image by George Cave Gaskin/Getty Images
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2019
ISBN: 9781760784355, pbk., 257 pages
Review copy courtesy of Picador (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Available from Fishpond: The Innocent Reader: Reflections on Reading and Writing and good bookshops everywhere.

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