Book reviews

Archive for the ‘Australian author’ Category

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko was the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award for 2019 and as such, was the obvious choice for me to begin fulfilling my New Year’s resolution of buying a book by an Australian author each month.

Not only was Too Much Lip the obvious choice, but it turned out to be a thought-provoking, unsettling and worrying look at an Australia that I know exists, but ignore. What am I ignoring? The contemporary version of Australia that many (not all) Aboriginal Australians live in. Why do I ignore this Australia? For my own peace of mind. I’m a privileged white Australian with everything I want and more. I’m automatically trusted and respected, I have choices. I have my family around me, work I enjoy and financial freedom. I have the support of the law. I was encouraged to continue my education. I’ve never been subjected to racism of any kind. I’m very grateful to be who I am, which came about just from being born. Most of the Aboriginal characters in this book don’t have and are unlikely to get what I have. Those that do are what the other characters derogatorily call ‘coconuts,’ Aboriginal people who live their life according to ‘white’ values. The question now is, can I keep ignoring these differences in real life?

Too Much Lip is set in a fictional town in Woop-Woop called Durrongo, in Bundjalung country in northern NSW. The name Durrongo amused me because it reminded me of ‘drongo,’ an Australian slang word for an idiot. I’d love to know if the author planned this. One of the characters refers to the town as the “Place of Centrelink fraud”.

The main character is Kerry Salter, who roared back to her family home on a stolen Harley Davidson motorbike with a backpack full of cash from a robbery her girlfriend had just been sent to prison for. Kerry’s Pop, who was both respected and feared throughout the Salter family and greater community, was dying and Kerry only planned on staying around long enough to say goodbye.

Kerry’s Pop grew up on a mission and did not know where his country was. As an Aboriginal, this meant that a vital part of his self was missing. As a successful boxer he earned some protection from the trouble that most Aboriginal people experienced from white Australians and later in life was able to provide his family with a home of their own and some security. Kerry’s mother, Pretty Mary, a former alcoholic, was nursing him as he lay dying.

Also living in the family home was Kerry’s brother Ken, a big, angry, former football star who had recently been released from prison. Kenny’s violent temper kept everyone around him on tenterhooks as he bullied his way through life. Kerry was horrified to realise that Kenny’s teenage son Donny was very often the brunt of his irrational rages and was suffering from anorexic.

Kerry usually bolted when the going got tough, but when her backpack full of stolen cash was stolen from her by a local politician, Jim Buckley, she stayed on in Durrongo, planning to steal it back. When she learned that Buckley was selling the land on the local river to a consortium who planned to build a jail, Kerry and the rest of the extended Salter family decided to fight the development as a land rights issue. The river and Granny Ava’s Island was more meaningful to them than I could have imagined, as the location of where Kerry’s pregnant great-grandmother Ava had been shot swimming across the river to escape white men. The river was also the home of the totem animal of the men of the family, a shark.

Kerry’s stay in town became more complicated when she met Steve, who she remembered as a dorky schoolboy but who was now a very attractive man. The only thing wrong with him is that he was white. And a man.

Kerry’s trait of ‘too much lip’ referred to her inability to keep quiet rather than voice her opinion, particularly when negotiating her way around Kenny.

While it took me a long time to stop feeling as if I were being assaulted by the constant, often vicious swearing, I accept that this also felt true to how the characters should speak. The language in this book was full of a slang that I recognised but don’t use, but also included words I don’t know, Aboriginal words such as ‘jahjams’ for children, ‘womba’ for crazy and ‘gunjies’ for police.

I was constantly shocked by the violence which the family took for granted, the crime, the poverty, the drinking, the gambling and the double standards, even those that they used themselves (for example, Kerry was furious when her cash was stolen from her, but ignored the fact that it had been stolen by her girlfriend in the first place). I was also irritated by the Salter family’s attitude towards Centrelink and government benefits, because as a worker, that’s my hard-earned tax the characters were treating as a right rather than a privilege, and their disregard for the law. Despite these moral quibbles, I was on Kerry’s side all the way through, regardless of the terrible choices she often made, as her and her family’s secrets were exposed. It was easy to recognise that their often shocking behaviours were just the symptoms of their family’s problems.

The family’s and local history continued to complicate the present for Kerry and her family. Aboriginal families were split up as children who were considered ‘white enough’ were stolen from their families. The children in the Salter family weren’t always safe from their own family members. Buckley’s grandfather had been a police officer who treated the Salter family and other Aboriginals in the area with terrible violence. The local policeman’s grandfather, who had settled the area and became a cattle baron, was even more violent than the politician’s grandfather, and had fathered a great many of the Aboriginal children in the area. Many wrong deeds continued to impact the people in this book for generations after each event.

Despite the questions racing around in my head, I found Too Much Lip to be a very funny book. There are moments of hope and joy and some inspirational characters, including Kerry’s Uncle Richard who showed Kenny a better way to live, by promoting traditional Aboriginal values instead of expressing himself violently. Kerry’s other brother, Black Superman, is another wonderful man who fosters emotionally and physically-damaged children. I loved reading about the character’s connections with birds and animals and of course, with the land which been built on over many generations of family stories. I also loved the glimpse of mystic connections with all of these elements which I believed in completely.

This has been a very difficult review to write. I’m not just commenting on a story, but on who Australians are. Not only that, but I’m publishing this on the Australia Day public holiday, which Kerry would hate (Invasion Day). Australia Day means something different to all of us, but we are all Australian and this year I’ll be thinking of what it means to be an Australian, thanks to this book.

Too Much Lip has left me with a lot of questions about what we have to do next, as a nation and as individuals, to be the best that we can. I feel as I’ve made a beginning by listening.

Too Much Lip came to my attention after Whispering Gums reviewed the book last year. You can read Sue’s review here:

I’ll be tracking my progress of my New Year’s Resolution to buy a book by an Australian author each month on my ‘Buying Australian’ page.

The Year of the Farmer by Rosalie Ham

The Year of the Farmer is by Australian author Rosalie Ham and will be enjoyed by readers who appreciate dark humour in a novel. Ham’s previous novels, The Dressmaker, Summer at Mount Hope and There Should Be More Dancing share this trait.

The Year of the Farmer is a contemporary story of life on the land featuring Mitch Bishop, whose drought-stricken farm somewhere up in the Riverina has been in his family for generations. Mitch is married to Mandy, who used to be the town bike (I know this is 2020, but in this small town these things still matter). No one likes Mandy, not even Mitch.

Mitch should have married his school sweetheart Neralie, but she left town to make a go of it in the city and left to his own devices, he succumbed to Mandy’s attentions. Mandy suckered Mitch into getting married by telling him that she was pregnant, but as everyone else in town knew, she couldn’t have fallen pregnant as she’d had “an infection.”

When Neralie returned to town to run the only pub in the area for 100 miles, Mitch and everyone else’s lives were turned upside-down.

Not only was Mitch’s marriage a mess, but the drought had been going on for years. Most punishing of all for him and other local farmers was their battle with the Water Authority Board to get enough water from the river to irrigate their land. To make things worse, a pack of townie’s dogs were killing sheep, rain at the wrong time was threatening to ruin the crops and Mandy’s constant need to make other people unhappy was adding considerably to the town’s woes.

There are multiple factions in the district, all with a different opinion about what was best for the river (and themselves). Corrupt politicians and townies were trying to make money from selling the water, developers wanted to siphon water into a man-made lake overlooked by a new apartment building and even the farmers had different volume requirements depending on what they were farming. The farmers weren’t in agreement with each other on other matters, either. Some were using chemicals which were detrimental to the river while others didn’t use chemicals on their crops when they should have which caused weeds to infiltrate their neighbours’ properties. I appreciated everyone’s point of view but think if I had to take a side I’d go with the Riparians, who had the health of the river at heart.

For those readers who struggle with cruelty towards animals that farmer’s consider to be vermin, be warned that a cull was required to set things right.

Not only is the humour in the Year of the Farmer dark, but it is mean. I really enjoyed it.

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.

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