Book reviews

Archive for the ‘Australian author’ Category

The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman

Robert Hillman, who wrote The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted is a new-to-me Australian author.

The story follows Tom Hope, a farmer from somewhere up in central Victoria during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story began with Tom’s wife Trudy running away because she was bored with Tom and the farm, only returning a year later because she was pregnant with another man’s child. Trudy eventually ran away again, leaving Tom to bring up three-year old Peter.

Tom and Peter were mates. I loved reading about Peter as a young child shadowing Tom all over the farm, helping and asking Tom questions which he seriously considered before answering to the best of his ability. Their relationship reminded me of my own father and of my childhood growing up on a farm.

Both Tom and Peter’s hearts were broken when Trudy joined a religious cult and took Peter to live with her on Phillip Island, miles away from the farm.

Eventually Tom met Hannah Babel, a Hungarian immigrant who opened a bookshop in the town. Hannah was a Jew who somehow survived Auschwitz, although her young son and husband didn’t. Hannah’s back story, almost unfathomable to the people of Hometown, was woven into her and Tom’s present. They fell in love and married, but when Peter ran away from the cult to return to Tom, Hannah made it clear to Tom that she could not risk loving another child.

I loved the innocence of the time this book was set in, particularly the lack of awareness the Australian characters had regarding events in other parts of the world, all of which somehow amused Hannah, who had seen and experienced so much.

Australians, children, they know nothing.

Tom, Hannah and Peter are wonderful characters. Tom was quiet and strong, Hannah extravagant and bold, while Peter had the makings of being a man of Tom’s stature.

The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted didn’t make me feel as much as it could have, however, that is not a complaint. Some parts of each of the character’s lives were tragic, along with events within Tom and Hannah’s community, ranging from the childlessness of their friends to floods that took the homes of their neighbours, even a double-murder for a reason which on one hand seemed trivial but on the other was enormous, but the characters coped with everything that came their way in a stoical, keep-your-chin-up manner, and as a result, so did I as a reader. In fact, I felt stronger and more joyful for having read this story without wallowing in misery, taking my cue from the main characters.

The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted was a surprisingly joyful book and I will seek out more of this author’s works.


Dear Robertson: Letters to an Australian Publisher edited by A.W. Barker

I was digging through my bookcase recently when I found a forgotten treasure, Dear Robertson: Letters to an Australian Publisher, and thought it was about time for a re-read.

The book is made up of letters written to and from George Robertson by various Australian authors over forty years. George Robertson was the ‘Robertson’ of Angus & Robertson, Australia’s leading publisher and book seller of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The correspondents make up a ‘who’s who’ of Australian writing and publishing of the time and include Banjo Paterson, Norman Lindsay, May Gibbs, Miles Franklin, Henry Lawson and many others who are still Australian household names today.

Most of the letters have a friendly tone, in keeping with George Robertson’s generous nature which shines through the letters again and again, however the following letter tells it like it is to a would-be-writer who must have irritated Robertson.

Dear Sir,

Your stories are quite hopeless and we feel sure you will never do anything worth while. Give it up and take to gardening, or something else that’s useful in your spare time.


I’ve been a fan of C.J. Dennis’s poetry since childhood and after coming across letters to and from the author of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke in this collection, scampered back to my bookshelf to confirm that yes, my old copy were published by Angus & Robertson. Dennis’ first letter to the firm was overly instructive and George Robertson wrote back to the creator of The Bloke to tell him “We like your stuff, but we don’t like your letter.” Eventually the two parties came to an understanding and later a friendship, as well as a successful business partnership.

The hesitant tone of Miles Franklin’s first letter of enquiry to George Robertson is delightful.

Herewith a yarn which I have written entitled “My Brilliant (?) Career”. I would take it very kindly if you would read it and state whether or not it is fit for publication.

George Robertson was in England on business when the manuscript arrived and Angus & Robertson rejected the book! Luckily, Henry Lawson took matters into his own hands and My Brilliant Career was first published in 1901 by a firm from Edinburgh, William Blackwood & Sons, who published Lawson in England. On Robertson’s return from England, Angus & Robertson went on to publish the book in Australia.

Henry Lawson was himself a bush poet and writer, possibly Australia’s most famous. He struggled with alcoholism and mental health issues. George Robertson’s letters to him as well as to Lawson’s friends show that Robertson did all he could to help Lawson financially, as well as trying to protect him from himself, all the while recognising what an enormous burden Lawson was to everyone who knew him.

One of the earliest books published by Angus & Robertson, in 1895, was Banjo Paterson’s The Man From Snowy Rover and Other Verses. There can’t (or shouldn’t) be many Australians who can’t recite at least a little bit of the title poem. Or of Clancy of the Overflow, or The Man From Ironbark.

The book is ended beautifully with a tribute to George Robertson from a fellow publisher, Sydney Ure Smith, written in thanks while he was still alive. The letter thanks and praises Robertson for what he had done for Australian publishing and is as delightful as anything else in this collection.

Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty

I loved Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty! I’ve been a bit hit and miss with this author’s books in the past, as I’ve loved the contemporary Australian settings and characters of her stories, but have disliked her story-telling technique her characters all knowing something which the reader doesn’t, and not telling. Nine Perfect Strangers tells the story without harking back to anything and I found this a far more enjoyable read.

The story follows nine people who meet at a health and wellness retreat in a remote location in Australia.

The main characters include Frances, a middle-aged, overweight author, whose most recent romance novel has been rejected by her publisher, Ben and Jessica, whose marriage is failing after they won millions of dollars in the lottery, Tony, a former AFL star and Carmel, whose husband recently dumped her for a younger woman. More minor characters included a bereaved family of three and an extraordinarily handsome man who regularly holidays at health retreats.

The retreat at Tranquillum House began with massages, mindful (?) walks in the bush and a diet tailored to each of the guest’s needs, along with a five-day period of silence, however things went pear-shaped when the retreat’s director used illegal and unconventional treatments on her guests without their awareness or consent.

Top moments for me included a section where Frances found herself in an imaginary conversation with dead friend and insisted that she was a fictional character, and the protagonist, no less. I laughed out loud.

I also found myself smiling when divorced mother-of-four Carmel realised that in exchange for her husband, she’d got herself an upgrade, because his new wife wanted to be involved in the children’s lives and was mad to take the girls to their ballet lessons and all that that entailed. For those of you who have never experienced children’s dance schools, trust me, you’ve had a lucky escape. Parents are expected to sew costumes, gather wispy strands of baby-fine hair into buns, put make-up on children without making them look like clowns then sit through endless performances of tiny children wandering aimlessly around on stage before their own child finally gets to perform in their own blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. And take it from me, when your own child finally makes it on to the stage, you won’t be able see them anyway became they will be hidden behind some other kid who is the size of a truck… Or you’ll be asleep.

Nine Perfect Strangers is a funny book with an over-the-top plot and great characters, The story is light and enjoyable and would make a great beach read.

Preservation by Jock Serong

Preservation is Australian author Jock Serong’s most recent book. I bought this about six months ago, but have a silly habit of delaying things I’m looking forward to in order to prolong the pleasure of anticipation, so have only ‘allowed’ myself to read the book now. Ridiculous, I know…

Preservation is a fictionalised story of the survivors of a shipwreck which happened in 1797, when the Sydney Cove was wrecked near Preservation Island on Bass Strait (between Tasmania and the mainland of Australia). Seventeen people, made up of five British and twelve Bengali sailors, took a longboat to the Gippsland coast where they were wrecked again. The men then set off on foot to Sydney, a town of only 1500 people at that time, by following the coast a distance of 700 kilometres. Only three of them arrived, including William Clark, a Scottish merchant whose diary entries were used as the foundation for this book.

The story has a number of narrators which include the three shipwreck survivors, William Clark, a fictitious character named John Figge and Clark’s lascar manservant, a boy named Svrinas. Other chapters are told by Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, whose job it is to ascertain what happened to the wrecked ship and to the men on their way to Sydney. Joshua’s wife Charlotte is also a narrator, and her chapters help to connect that of the British settlement in Sydney with the Aboriginal people who were already there. Each of the chapters is accompanied by a picture which helps the reader to determine who is speaking. Charlotte’s picture is of gum leaves, Svrinas’ is a lotus, Joshua’s is the crown and so on.

Joshua struggles to learn what happened to the survivors (and to those who didn’t make it to Sydney) due to the gaps between what Clarke and Figge tell him compared to what Clark wrote in his diary. It is clear that Clark and Figge are motivated to hide what actually happened on the trek to protect their wrecked cargo, ostensibly tea but actually rum.

The fictional story of the journey from the beach in Gippsland along the coast to Sydney is fascinating. The survivors set off on foot, crossing rivers in rafts they built along the way. They were watched the whole way by Aboriginal people in each district they passed through, sometimes interacting with them in a friendly way, being fed and assisted along their way and other times being treated with hostility. Some of the survivor’s behaviours caused the hostility and was sadly indicative of British attitudes at the time towards people of other races. It was interesting to read of the lascars and the Aboriginals’ respect for each other and more ready acceptance of each other’s ways.

Having lived on the NSW south coast for many years, I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the areas the survivors passed through and was able to recognise the places where various events occurred, even though they were not named, including a near drowning in as the men crossed the Clyde River at Batemans Bay.

John Figge is a frightening character who almost but not quite, dips into the supernatural. I didn’t like this aspect of the story and thought his character and story strong enough to have been satisfactory without this element. I also thought that the storyline connecting Charlotte with John Figge was unnecessary, although other parts of her story were vital.

I didn’t enjoy Preservation as much as I’ve liked other of Jock Serong’s books (The Rules Of Backyard Cricket is particularly brilliant) but it was an interesting read. I’m in awe of this author’s ability to tell a completely different story in each one of his books.

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

Bridge of Clay is by Australian author Markus Zusak, who also wrote The Book Thief and The Messenger.

It took me a while to connect with the story in Bridge of Clay but once I did, I was unable to put this book down. Even now, a week after finishing the book, I haven’t quite let go of the story’s characters.

The story of the Dunbar family is told Matthew Dunbar who is the eldest of five boys living in a ramshackle house next to a racecourse in Sydney. Matthew tells the story of the Dunbars through the eyes of his brother Clay, who knows all of the family’s stories and secrets. It includes the story of their parents, Penelope, sometimes called the Mistake-Maker or the Broken-Nosed Bride and of his father Michael, otherwise known as the Murderer. It is also Matthew’s own story of looking after his brothers, Henry the scammer, Rory the ferocious, Tommy the baby and of course Clay, who binds the family together when things went terribly wrong from the family.

Matthew tells his family’s stories in great detail, with descriptions that initially seemed corny to me. His voice is occasionally abrupt and the story is told in bits and pieces, which jump around in time and place. I think my initial dislike of Matthew’s voice was what took me so long to connect with the story, however once I figured out that Penelope taught all over her children to love Homer’s works, Matthew’s narration style made sense. It also explained why all of the family’s animals were named after Homer’s characters, including Achilles the mule who had figured out how to get into the kitchen from the backyard.

The stories eventually link together to make a complete family saga. I formed enough of a connection with the characters and their lives to need tissues as I sniffled through their sorrows and I also laughed aloud a couple of times too, never a good look on a crowded train… I also loved how Australian Bridge of Clay is and that the characters share a love of Australian stories and legends, including that of Phar Lap.

I plan to re-read Bridge of Clay eventually to pick up on anything I missed the first time.

Women of Letters curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire

Dear all,

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a letter. I’m not even certain of how much a stamp costs these days.

Women of Letters: Reviving the Lost Art of Correspondence is a book of letters, curated by Marieke Hardy and Michaela McGuire who originally asked women from around Melbourne to write a letter to a theme they were given for a monthly fundraiser for Edgar’s Mission Animal Rescue Shelter. The themes ranged from ‘To the night I’d rather forget,’ ‘To my nemesis,’ ‘The letter I wish I’d written,’ and ‘To my turning point.’ The letters written for these events were later curated into this book.

Most of the letter writers are well known Australians. Most are by women, although there is also a small section of letters written by men with the theme, ‘To the woman who changed my life.’

One of my favourite letters was Jenny Valentish’s to Adam Ant, ‘To my first pin-up,’ which reminded me of being a teenager in the 1980s. It also reminded me of how much I still like men who rock eye-liner.

I also enjoyed Cal Wilson’s letter to the organisers of the 1995 Wellington Film and TV Technical Awards, which started with an apology for her behaviour in ‘To the host of that party.’ Thankfully she wasn’t hungover at work the next day, because as she helpfully explained, she was still drunk.

‘To my first boss’ was a theme which was always going to get mixed responses. Robyn Butler was lucky enough to babysit in a house with a huge colour television, all the Coca Cola she could drink and boxes of Lolly Gobble Bliss Bombs. And she got paid… Noni Hazlehurst, however, struggled in her first job with a director who treated her as though she didn’t matter. Luckily, Noni realised that she did.

Virginia Gay wrote a gorgeous break-up letter to love in ‘A love letter.’

Working to your schedule is a bit daunting. I meet someone and within thirty to forty seconds I’m gazing at them like the moment in telemovies where the music swells, the close-ups start and people whisper; Daytime Emmy.

Helen Garner’s letter, or series of notes in ‘The letter I wish I’d written’ was another of my favourites. I particularly liked her thank-you note to her Nanna, who gave her her first typewriter. I also liked her note to a child who had been bullying her daughter in school, telling the bully that she was never really in danger of her bashing her up…

Each of the authors had a different style and a different story to tell. To avoid having all of the ideas run into each other, I limited myself to reading a single letter each night. I hadn’t heard of all of the writers, although they are all Australian entertainers. I liked most of the letters, some were funny, some serious. Some were more thought-provoking than others. I expect different letters will resonate with different readers.

Hope this letter finds you as well as it leaves me.

Sincerely, Rose

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson

Extinctions by Australian author Josephine Wilson won Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2017.

The main character, Professor Frederic Lothian is a widower in his late sixties who recently moved into a retirement village in Perth, Australia. Before retiring from work Fred was an engineer who specialised in concrete structures. When the story started Fred was living a reclusive life, swamped by the modernist furniture and clutter from his former home which he was unable to part with, dodging personal relationships and avoiding thinking about his son and daughter, both of whom he has abandoned in different ways.

I struggled with Fred’s coldness during the first half of the book. Fred had lived a lifetime of not getting emotionally involved with other people, not interfering, not going out of his way to assist or understand other people and never giving anything of himself to others when an accident which he could have prevented by interceding occurred and he met his next-door-neighbour, Jan, who forced him to understand that his behaviour was selfish, particularly towards his own family members.

Fred’s daughter Caroline lives in London where she was working to create a museum exhibition of extinct species. Caroline, who is Aboriginal, was adopted by Fred and his wife Martha. Caroline struggles with her father’s lack of accountability, particularly after her mother’s death when she was left to manage the care of her brother Callum alone. Callum had been in a care facility for many years after suffering brain-damage in an accident which Fred contributed to.

By the second half of the book, I was a lot more interested in Fred and the other character’s stories. Bit by bit, because of Jan forcing Fred to discuss and take ownership of his life, we learn why Fred is the way he is, the ins and outs of his marriage with Martha, and what Caroline makes of it all.

The timeline of the story is ridiculous, in that Fred changed from being a selfish old git to becoming the man he should always have been after 24 hours of emotionally prodding by Jan, not to mention that all of the loose ends were neatly tied up by the end of the book. I didn’t feel a strong sense of ‘Australian-ness’ with this story either, although the boo does cover some very big Australian issues. However, I did enjoy Extinctions overall and thought the writing was very good. I also like the idea that it is never to late to be a better person.

**Spoiler alert** If anyone else has read this, please let me know if you think that Ralph was Callum’s father.

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