Book reviews

Archive for the ‘Australian author’ Category

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.

Ada by Kaz Cooke

I’m a fan of Kaz Cooke’s newspaper columns, children’s stories and life-advice books. The Terrible Underpants is hilarious and perfect for reading to young primary-school aged nieces, while Girl Stuff is exactly the thing to give teenage girls additional confidence. A friend gave me Real Gorgeous years and years ago and I’ve often dipped in to it. Unfortunately, I was disappointed by Ada.

Ada is a novel based on the life of a real person, Ada Delroy, a dancer, comedian and singer who toured the world with her own vaudeville troupe in the late 1800s. In this book, the fictional Ada tells her story in the first person to a visitor, a young man, as she is dying of tuberculosis in Melbourne.

Ada’s story is fascinating and her voice is hilarious, but tiring. She fades in and out of consciousness with the assistance of morphine in little blue bottles.

Life on the stage wasn’t as glamourous as it looked to the audience, with performers having to leave their children behind due to the constant travel and money woes, jealousies and rivalries between performers, scams, the theft of each other’s acts and constant packing up and travelling. There was a wonderful sense of belonging between the troupe members though, who were closer than most families, and the excitement of performing for royalty, miners and everyone in-between.

I loved the references to Melbourne from the turn of the century. I checked on places I hadn’t heard of before and was delighted to find photos of long-gone coffee palaces and cafes. The following description is the Melbourne I know, although it doesn’t smell anymore:

Melbourne smelled like an outhouse, but if you sook some eucalyptus oil on your hanky she was beautiful – even the buildings seemed full of ease, with generous porticos and gracious wide stairs in the honey-coloured local stone forever bathed in golden light. Everything had extra decoration: wrought-iron ‘walks’ on the top of shiny zinc and copper rooves, arched windows with gargoyles on the upper corners, windowsills wide enough to sit on and swing your legs.

The photos used in the book are real too and include photos of Ada and her company, advertising photos and posters. The story also includes references to various performances by Harry Houdini while in Melbourne.

While I loved the historical element of the story and the Melbourne references, Ada’s actual voice was the weak point. Her constant jokes and cheekiness and funny little sayings were too relentless to be able to appreciate the story comfortably. I enjoyed the historical references enormously though.

The Tree of Man by Patrick White

The Tree of Man by Patrick White is so good that I’m afraid of not being able to do justice to it in this review. I’m desperate to convince other people they should read this book and don’t think I can do any better than the quote on the back cover of the copy I read from the New York Times Book Review from when this novel was first published, in 1955:

A timeless work of art from which no essential element of life has been omitted.

Superficially, The Tree of Man is a story of the lives of an Australian couple who settle a remote property and bring up a family.

After the death of his parents, Stan Parker went to live on a property near Sydney which he had inherited, clearing the land and building a shack before finding a wife to share his life.

As a young couple Stan and Amy were happy, taking pleasure in each other and their lives, which were made up of repetitive days upon days of farm chores and conversation which barely skimmed the surface of their deepest thoughts. Their quiet lives were rarely interrupted, but when it was, it was by a big event, such as a flood where Stan and other men from the area assisted stranded neighbours, or war, or the birth of their two children, Ray and Thelma.

When they reached middle age, Stan and Amy seemed to lose the connection they had when they were younger, realising they never truly understood each other and that they probably never would, although both continued to desire this understanding their whole life. Their children grew up and left home, going on to disappoint them in all of the ways that children do and leaving Amy wondering aloud to Stan if perhaps together they weren’t a good match to breed. In old age, the city had expanded out to their farm and they were both still trying to understand life, death and god, although not religion. The last chapter absolutely floored me, with Stan and Amy’s grandson deciding to write a poem about life before deciding the subject was too big for him.

The Tree of Life reminded me of Australian artist Frederick McCubbin’s painting The Pioneers. Made up of three panels, it shows a selector and his family starting out on their land, the second panel showing that over time they have become established before ending with the city having come to them and a death. I would love to know if this painting, which I occasionally go and look at in the National Gallery of Victoria during my lunch time, influenced Patrick White’s story. I think there is a quote from the book with the painting in the gallery, so it seems possible.

Each appearance of Amy’s friend and neighbour, Mrs O’Dowd, was a source of amusement due to the trouble she brought on herself wherever she went. In the early days she almost got herself and Amy ‘jobbed’ after insulting a group of young men, another time the two of them were chased around and around the O’Dowd’s dirty, falling down hovel by Mr O’Dowd who was trying to shoot them while he was shickered. I’ve never heard the word ‘shickered’ before, but it makes me laugh and I don’t even drink. Later, it come out that Mrs O’Dowd wasn’t really a ‘Mrs’. Somehow Amy wasn’t as shocked as I was.

Despite the simplicity of their lives, Stan and Amy lived a life full of every emotion that every person feels. They experienced hope and sorrow, jealousy and lust, hurt and hopelessness, joy and acceptance, confusion and apathy. They hide their feelings from each other and from themselves, with rare moments of understanding and seeing into each other.

The everyday life part of the story made me feel nostalgic for my family stories from my grandparents times, clearing the land which would become the family farm, day in and day out doing manual chores, feeling affection for their cows and eating what they could grow themselves, helping their neighbours and being helped themselves in times of need, battling natural disasters and building a family, the men going off to war while the women carried on at home, later seeing their children grow up to make their own way in the world and being left behind eventually to continue their own lives, becoming grandparents, growing old and selling off or leaving the farm, watching old friends die, until their own time had come.

Patrick White is a huge name in Australian writing. He won the inaugural Miles Franklin award and loads of other writing prizes including the Nobel Prize for Literature before taking himself out of the running for further prizes, in order, as he said, to give younger, less established authors a chance to win. He took a public stance in controversial Australian issues of his time, including opposing Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and becoming ‘antiroyalist’ after the 1975 constitutional crisis. He was also quoted as saying that he would be embarrassed to be held up to the world as an Australian writer, when he felt as if he was at heart a “cosmopolitan Londoner”. I don’t think the ‘cultural cringe’ which Australian artists felt in the 1950s through to around about the 1980s is a thing anymore, but it was a popular mindset at that time. Later, White opposed uranium mining and spoke publicly to call for the destruction of nuclear weapons.

The Tree of Man has a level of detail which I’ve rarely come across in a novel. The writing is beautiful and I read some of it aloud to myself (not on the train) just for the pleasure of hearing how the words went together. I could almost turn back to the first page and re-read this book again, but there are plenty of other books he has written too, and I’m torn. The Tree of Life is going to be a difficult book to beat for my book of the century (if I live that long).

The Tree of Man was book seven for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.


Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion & Anne Buist

I’ve been a bit hit and miss with Graeme Simsion. I enjoyed The Rosie Project, was bored by The Rosie Effect and irritated by the main character’s middle-aged self-indulgence in The Best of Adam Sharp. Happily for me, I found Two Steps Forward to be a joyful, inspiring read, a romance mixed with a travelogue.

The story follows Zoe and Martin as they walk the Camino Way from Cluny in France to Santiago in Spain. Zoe has been recently widowed and didn’t know the walk existed until she arrived in Cluny from America to visit a friend for comfort, while Martin, an Englishman who has recently divorced, builds a cart with the intention of making his fortune from the sale of the design after he completes his journey towing the cart.

Zoe and Martin’s chapters are told alternately. Their paths cross regularly as they walk and their friendship eventually grew into a romance, although both had emotional baggage as well as a physical struggles to deal with along their way. Zoe needed to face up to her husband’s death and the loss of her own identity during their marriage, and Martin, the end of his marriage and his ability to meet the emotional needs of his teenage daughter.

Other characters include a German engineering student who romances his way along the Camino Way, a group of Brazilian women who party (and taxi) their way to Santiago, hostile hosts, kind strangers and loads of other walkers.

My only grizzle about the story is that Zoe’s emotional balance after being a widow for only three weeks seemed unrealistic to me, but the parts of the story which deal with the walk itself are fascinating. In real life, the journey from Clunes to Santiago is approximately 2000 kilometres and takes about three months to walk. The afterword says that the authors, who are married (to each other) actually walked the Camino Way twice together.

I enjoyed learning about the history of the walk, a pilgrimage which is several centuries old, also about the logistics of the journey, including the approximate distances between towns, how pilgrims feed themselves along the way, where they sleep and the financial cost of making the journey. A film called The Way was referenced several times in the story, and I’ll probably watch it sometime soon to get a more visual idea of the scenery.

Obviously, I’m thinking of learning French and Spanish, and have begun walking around the block to get into training with the intention of making my own trek one day. There will be blisters…

Tag Cloud