Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Australian fiction’

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…

99 Interpretations of The Drover’s Wives by Ryan O’Neill

99 Interpretations of The Drover’s Wives by Scottish author Ryan O’Neill is one of the most inventive books I have read in years. The author has taken Henry Lawson’s 1892 classic Australian short story, The Drover’s Wife and retold it 99 times.

The Drover’s Wife tells the story of a woman, alone with her four children and a dog in a two-room bush shack 19 miles from another shanty. Her husband has been away droving sheep for six months. The action begins with her oldest child, Tommy, spotting a black snake which disappears under the house before she can kill it.

The woman puts her children to bed that night on the kitchen table and as she watches for the snake to re-emerge, she reads the Young Ladies Journal and remembers the events of her life which she has managed alone, such as the time she fought a flood, another time when she had to fight a bushfire, crows, maddened cattle, a menacing swaggie and saddest of all, when one of her children died and she rode the 19 miles alone carrying her dead child in the hope of finding assistance.

In the morning the snake comes out from beneath the house, and together with the dog, the drover’s wife kills it with a big stick. The story ends with Tommy telling his mother he’ll never go away droving when he is a man.

Ryan O’Neill’s 99 versions of the story are extraordinarily varied. There is a fable, a parable, a cryptic crossword with answers and a text version with emojis. The Year 8 English Essay version and The Sporting Commentary versions are hilarious. I particularly enjoyed A 1950’s Children’s Book, which left me feeling unexpectedly sorry for the snake.

Now not far away from the house of the drover,

Half asleep in the sun without any cover,

As long and thin and straight as a rake

Was a friendly black reptile called Cecil Snake.

The 99 interpretations also include Glaswegian, Math Problems and Postmodern. There is a version in the style of A Golden Age Detective Novel, another as Finnegan’s Wife and a Cosmo Quiz to find out, Which Wife Are You?

The Ocker version spoke my language.

Dead set, it was the snake! Tommy came up like the blue blazes, game as Ned Kelly, but she held him off as the dog nabbed the snake by the tail. Then she walloped the bugger a good one on the noggin and chucked it on the fire.

The 99 retellings of this story has added to my enjoyment and appreciation of Henry Lawson’s original story. I cannot imagine what this writer will do next, but I’m already looking forward to finding out whatever that might be.

The following is a link to Henry Lawson’s original story.

Happy Australia Day for tomorrow, everyone.

Stories: The Collected Short Fiction by Helen Garner


Stories: the Collected Short Fiction contains some of Australian author Helen Garner’s best known short stories. There wouldn’t be too many Australian readers of a certain age who haven’t read Postcards from Surfers or My Hard Heart, both of which are in this collection.

The only fiction I’d read by Helen Garner prior to this collection was Monkey Grip, which I found too grungy for my tastes. While I didn’t finish Monkey Grip, I appreciated the author’s unpretentious and honest writing style and after reading Everywhere I Look, a collection of essays and extracts from the author’s diaries I decided to try her fiction again.

Most of these short stories had an autobiographical feel, including A Happy Story. The narrator buys two tickets for her teenage daughter to see a rock band and is unwillingly roped into attending the concert when none of her daughter’s friends can go. Luckily, the narrator’s sister says she will take the other ticket and the narrator enjoys a happy trip home listening to classical music through her car’s radio. This story is set in Melbourne, and although the Entertainment Centre is now the Collingwood Football Club’s headquarters, the familiarity of the setting is there. The band playing was Talking Heads, which firmly set the story in a particular time.

Postcards from Surfers is from the 1970s and is an Australian classic. A woman flies up to Coolangatta to stay with her parents and her aunt on the Gold Coast, back when the developers couldn’t sell apartments in their brand new high rises. The woman’s backstory is told in a series of postcards to a former lover named Philip. Reading between the lines, I didn’t think the narrator was over Philip…

Little Helen’s Sunday Afternoon also has an autobiographical feel. Little Helen is a fish out of water, too young to understand her mother and aunt’s conversation and humor. After being sent to play with her cousin Noah, Little Helen will probably be scarred forever after being shown horrific photos of maimed and deformed children.

The narrator in The Life of Art tells little stories about her friend which together make a whole story. The following one made me laugh, because it is true!

My friend came off the plane with her suitcase. ‘Have you ever notices,’ she said, ‘how Australian men, even in their forties, dress like small boys? They wear shorts and thongs and little stripy T-shirts.’

Civilisation and its Discontents stars another character named Philip. I knew I was right when I said the narrator (author?) in Postcards from Surfers wasn’t over Philip.

I preferred Helen’s Garner’s essays and non-fiction to her fiction so plan to read more of these in future. I don’t expect to agree with or like everything she writes, but I like that she is an author who isn’t afraid to say what she thinks.

Force of Nature by Jane Harper



Force of Nature is the second novel by Australian author Jane Harper featuring likeable good guy Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk, who was introduced to readers in her first book, The Dry.

Aaron become involved in the story of Force of Nature after a whistleblower, Alice Russell, failed to return from a team-building exercise hiking with work colleagues through the rugged and isolated Giralang Ranges. Before going missing, Alice had been surreptitiously collecting information for Aaron’s case against the firm she worked for.

Alice and four other women, including the company’s CEO, went into the bush Friday afternoon. They carried with them their tents, sleeping bags and a limited amount of food and water. One of the women had a compass. They were supposed to surrender their mobile phones before they went into the bush, but Alice, an aggressive and argumentative rule-breaker, kept hers. At some point over the weekend the women’s group became lost and Alice tried to phone Aaron, although because of the remote location and poor signal, all he received was part of a voice message asking for help. After the women’s group got lost Alice become separated from the group, for reasons that made me feel anxious for her wellbeing.

A men’s group from the company did a similar hike along a different route over the same weekend but reached the finish safely. The difference between the dynamics within the two groups was obvious, with tensions within the women’s group playing a part in them being unable to effectively work together to find their way out of the bush.

The story flicks back and forward between the women’s time on the hike and while they are lost in the bush, as well as afterwards as searchers look for Alice. Aaron and his partner, Carmen Cooper, assist with the search but are also required back in Melbourne when they learn that Alice’s teenage daughter’s boyfriend has released sexually explicit footage of her onto the internet.

I’m grateful that my company stick with barefoot lawn bowls*, city scavenger hunts and other relatively safe events for our end-of-year parties and team building exercises, instead of sending us to trek through the bush, kayaking through rapids or jumping out of perfectly good aeroplanes.

The idea of spending a weekend hiking with my workmates doesn’t appeal to me and I’m sure it wouldn’t appeal to many of them either. Being lost in the bush is a particularly Australian fear, as most of us would have experienced school camps in similar locations to Force of Nature‘s fictional Giralang Ranges, or day or weekend hikes through national and state parks that are bigger than some European countries. There are often news stories about lost hikers, some of whom are found and some who are not. In the bush there are snakes, bushfires, extreme heat or cold just to name a few of the factors hikers contend with. In Force of Nature, the characters were also in an area known for its links to a serial killer reminiscent of Ivan Milat, who was responsible for the deaths of at least seven people later found buried in the Belanglo State Forest in NSW.

The two groups were underprepared for the hike, but as the manager of the company who ran the exercise constantly reiterated, they’d never lost anyone before… In hindsight, providing flares to groups along with compasses and tents would probably have been a good idea.

I suspected nearly every character in the book of having a hand in Alice’s disappearance and of course, was completely wrong about what actually happened. I loved watching Aaron’s character develop and I liked his relationship with his partner, Carmen, who I hope returns in future books. I enjoyed Force of Nature even better than The Dry, and that’s saying something.

*Although, let’s be honest, barefoot lawn bowls and alcohol probably shouldn’t be mixed. An Escape Room, anyone?


A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey


A Long Way From Home is by celebrated Australian author Peter Carey.

Why I read this book I don’t know, since I just can’t seem to find a way to love Peter Carey’s style. I couldn’t finish Oscar and Lucinda, finished but didn’t love The Chemistry of Tears, and this time around, wasn’t crazy about A Long Way From Home. It must be me. The man has won the Booker Prize twice.

The story begins with Irene Bobs and her husband Titch, a car salesman, moving to Bacchus Marsh, a country town in western Victoria during the 1950’s to escape Titch’s bullying, show-off father. Irene and Titch befriend their next door neighbour, Willie Bachhuber. Willie is on suspension from teaching school after dangling a student out of a two-story window by his feet. Willie is also the reigning champion on a rigged radio quiz-show.

Bacchus Marsh was a very English country town after World War Two where, with his German heritage, Willie is an outcast who suffers casual racial abuse. He abandoned his wife in Melbourne after she had a black baby, believing she had had an affair with an American family friend. Willie was attracted to Irene, but by the time the Redex Trial started was having an affair with her sister, who by then was living with her children in a caravan in the backyard of Irene and Titch’s house.

Together, Irene, Titch and Willie set off around Australia in a brand-new Holden on the Round Australia Redex Reliability Trial, competing against Titch’s father, whose ego has continually got in the way of his good sense. Irene and Titch left their children behind to be looked after by Irene’s sister, driving while Titch navigated. Irene and Titch’s aim is to win the Trial for the publicity for when they open their much-dreamed of car dealership on their return to Bacchus Marsh.

By the time the Redex Trial got to outback Australia the Bobs’ team was in the lead, but when Titch’s father unexpectedly died during the Trial their future was jeopardised as they had sunk all of their savings into the event. Irene made arrangements to have the body shipped back to Melbourne then abandoned a grief-stricken Titch to continue racing with Willie.

In the outback, tall, blonde Willie became more and more confused as he was repeatedly refused entry into pubs by owners asking to see the papers allowing him to move between districts, while the Aboriginals he met along the way seemingly recognised him as one of their own. At that time, ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal people were allowed to move around provided they had a Certificate of Exemption, while ‘full-blooded’ Aboriginal people were restricted to certain areas.

The story was told alternately by Irene, Titch and Willie.

I loved reading about the Redex Trial and the setting of the country town in western Victoria felt true. The cultural references made me smile, particularly the Holden vs Ford thing, which is as Australian as football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars…*


I liked how the story changed from being one of white Australia in the 1950’s to becoming a history of Australia from an Aboriginal perspective. My problem with Peter Carey’s writing is the lack of connection I feel with his characters. Irene didn’t feel true to me and neither did Titch or Willie. I’m disappointed to feel this way, because otherwise A Long Way From Home is a good story and well told.

*Hands up if you remember that advertising jingle?





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