Category Archives: Advanced Reading Copies

The Lucky Galah

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog. As soon as I saw the title, and read the blurb, I was sold.


“The Lucky Galah” by Tracy Sorensen is a historical novel set in Western Australia that is partly told from the perspective of a galah called Lucky. In 1964, a man called Evan Johnson drives across Australia with his wife Linda and daughter Johanna to work on a coastal tracking station ahead of the 1969 moon landing. They move into a new purpose-built house next to the Kelly family, a seamstress and fisherman with plenty of daughters. Marjorie and Linda become friends after the birth of Marjorie’s fifth child, and Johanna finds herself with an instant pack of friends. However, through the eyes of the Kellys’ pet galah, things aren’t as hunky dory in the Johnson family as they may seem.

This is a pretty delightful debut novel and I have to say, I was absolutely in love with Lucky the galah as a narrator. I adored Lucky’s perspective of the world, the way that Sorensen wove in facts about birds through Lucky and the relationship between Lucky and Lizzie. I really enjoyed the balance between bird behaviour and a knowledgeable narrator, and I thought it was a great way to foster empathy for a non-human narrator. I also really liked Lizzie, and I think my favourite parts of the books were the interactions between this unlikely pair. Lizzie was a great example of how an Aboriginal character can be depicted in a respectful and interesting way, and I would have liked a lot more Lizzie airtime. Essentially though, there are a lot of similarities between this book and the great classic Aussie film “The Dish” so if you enjoyed that take on a very particular time in Australia’s history and the interaction between scientists and the salt of the earth.

However, there were a couple of things that I wasn’t quite as enamoured with. I wasn’t particularly interested in Evan and Linda’s story, and the ending in that regard was ambiguous where I felt like Sorensen could have taken a bit of a stronger stance either way and made a bit more of a point. I also felt like the relationship between Marjorie and Linda could have been hashed out a bit more. Sorensen did explore some issues around class difference, but this again felt unresolved at the end and I thought there was scope for Linda to have reconciled those differences. Finally, the transmissions from the dish to Lucky I found to be maybe a little too experimental. I can see how they were a useful mechanism for keeping Lucky as the narrator but keeping the story focused on the Johnsons and the Kellys. However, I think I would have almost preferred a more linear narrative but all just through Lucky’s eyes. Maybe there were just a few too many things vying for attention.

To be honest, I think Lucky was a brilliant character and I would have loved an entire book from Lucky’s perspective. As it is, this was still a strong and interesting novel that wove in many different issues around an exciting part of Australia’s history and I think most people will enjoy this quirky debut.


Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Lincoln in the Bardo

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog Woden. It has one of those cool die cut designs where you can see an image through the “window” of the front cover, although this was not used in the final design of the book. As this was not my first George Saunders book, I gave it to my Dad to read first because I knew he enjoyed Saunders’ short stories. When my Dad gave it back to me saying he wasn’t able to finish it I was intrigued. This book was this year’s Man Booker Prize winner – surely it must be fantastic, right? I had to find out for myself.


“Lincoln in the Bardo” is the first novel by George Saunders and is part historical fiction, part magic realism. Based on the events surrounding the death of Willie, the young son of America’s 16th president Abraham Lincoln, the story takes place on the night of Willie’s funeral. Distraught by the death of his son, Abraham Lincoln visits the body in the crypt where Willie is interred. However, unbeknownst to his father, Willie’s spirit emerges that night to mingle with the other souls who have not been able to move on to the afterlife.

The absolute first thing to say about this book is that it has an incredibly creative and refreshing narrative structure. The story is told by a chorus of voices, some of whom are ghosts encountered by Willie and some of whom are guests at the party thrown at the Lincoln’s house. The voices are sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory and provide a multifaceted glimpse into the man that was Abraham Lincoln and Saunders’ concept of a limbo inhabited by ghosts who cannot move on. I found that the beginning of the story was very compelling. There was a particular scene where the guests were giving simultaneous yet contradictory descriptions of what the weather had been like that evening that I thought was a great comment on the fallibility of history and human memory.

However, it’s difficult to sustain such novelty and momentum in a novel and I did feel as though the latter half was neither as strong or as structured as the former half. While I found the gossipy exploration of Lincoln’s presidency and family life fascinating, the concept of the bardo – the space between life and afterlife – seemed as though it grew muddier as the book progressed. There were several confusing concepts, such as Willie’s peculiar susceptibility to being consumed by vines made of shrunken tormented souls. Although adding a sense of urgency to the plot, some of these aspects of the intermediate state in which Willie finds himself don’t make a great deal of sense. Why would the fate of a child’s soul depend on the conduct of the other souls he is surrounded with in the cemetery where his body is left?

For fantasy to allow the reader to effectively suspend disbelief, the author needs to set rules for their imagined world that are at least coherent, if not plausible. Saunders was making exceptions as fast as he was making the rules to his bardo otherworld and ultimately I found it hard to follow and therefore hard to immerse myself in. Other parts of the story, like the African American ghosts, seemed incidental and shoehorned in at the last minute.

I think this is absolutely a wildly imaginative book and Saunders is definitely not short on creativity. However, as in my review of “The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil”, I think he can sometimes be either too blunt or too abstract in his story-telling. Would I have given this the Man Booker Prize? I’m not sure. I’ll have to read some of the other contenders and compare.


Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Pretty Books


I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog bookshop, and I was very keen to read it. This is the third book I read on my five weeks of American literature, and I read it while I was travelling through California and managed to finish it just on my last day in San Francisco – a city that features in one of the chapters. I took this photo while I was staying in a friend’s apartment in one of the beautiful old San Francisco buildings.


“Homegoing” is the debut novel of Yaa Gyasi. The story is a two-pronged family saga on either side of the ugly history of slavery in what now is Ghana. Each chapter is dedicated to a member of the respective families of Effia, a Fante woman who is married to an English governor and whose descendants remain in Ghana, and Esi, an Asante teenager who is captured and sold as a slave to the Americas. Joined both by their past and their future, Effia and Esi’s story unfolds over successive generations.

This novel is a really interesting exploration of the role of African nations and state warfare in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in particular during the 1700s, a role that I really did not know about at all. Gyasi uses her novel to contrast the lasting impacts of slavery against the lasting impacts of European colonisation in Ghana: two very different sides of the same coin. While Effia’s descendants grapple with their role in perpetuating slavery and later in overcoming British rule, Esi’s descendants must survive slavery and later segregation and institutionalised racism.

Gyasi is a very tactile writer and this book has a strong focus on the senses and the body. The African chapters in particular give a very keen sense of place, time and people. This is part of the reason why I felt that the African chapters are much stronger than the American chapters. I also felt that despite some of them living in extreme poverty, Effia’s descendants seem to have rather more self-determination than their American counterparts and I felt like their personalities were far more nuanced and individualised. In contrast, Esi’s family line seem a little more like caricatures and, although character development within a single chapter is understandably a difficult feat, they seem much more rigid. I think if you were after a more engrossing family saga just about race in America and moving through slavery to segregation to today, I would probably recommend “Cane River” over this one.

However, the historical importance of the story as a whole and the contrast between the two family lines does work quite well. Although the changing chapters can be a bit jarring at times, it is nevertheless a fascinating story and Gyasi is a strong enough writer to link all the complex threads together by the end.


Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Historical Fiction

The Museum of Modern Love

I received an advanced reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog Woden and in fact won (and declined) another copy in a contest. This book is the 2017 Stella Prize winner, so already it had very high expectations to be met.


Taken at the National Gallery of Australia. There is a fantastic exhibition on currently featuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists called Defying Empire which, if you are in Canberra, you must go see.

“The Museum of Modern Love” by Heather Rose is a novel based on a real piece of performance art that was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “The Artist is Present” was both a retrospective and performance piece performed by Marina Abramović. As Abramović sits for 75 days, and people line up every day to sit across from the famous artist and look in her eyes, others gather around to watch the performance. Jane Miller, a teacher and new widow who has taken a holiday to escape her grief. Arky Levin, a successful composer whose wife has left him and made him promise not to follow. Healayas Breen, a journalist and friend of Levin’s. Brittika van der Sar, a PhD student from the Netherlands. Then there is Abramović herself and the mysterious narrator who appears to be watching over her. The performance continues, every day, and the audience becomes a community linked together by this once in a lifetime experience.


This book just didn’t do it for me. Maybe it was reading another book about the highly glamourised art world after reading not one but two recently, including the 2015 Stella Prize winner, but I think that wasn’t quite it. A very large proportion of this book is dedicated to chronicling the life of Marina Abramović, and at times this book felt almost more like a biography than a novel. I understand the author actually herself attended “The Artist is Present”, and I think I would have enjoyed her own experiences more. To me, for the most part, it seemed like it was piggy-backing on someone else’s creation. In this vein, I was frustrated by the almost incessant pop-culture references throughout this book. In a similar way to “The Elegance of the Hedgehog“, (which this book even references at some stage as an example of a great book, so there you go), there was a consistent undertone of cultural snobbery that irked me.

I also found some of the commentary in this book a bit grating. For a lot of the book, whenever somebody sat down in front of Abramović, Rose described a man with an angelic face, or a woman with strong jaw, unless they were anything other than white, in which case it was a “black woman” or an “Asian man” with little to no other description. I just feel like in 2017, if you’re going to point out a person’s ethnicity, you need to point out EVERYONE’s ethnicity. White is not default. Other comments that left me frowning included things like:

  • “What sort of Japanese child read Tennyson? Levin wondered”;
  • “There are visitors from Brooklyn, Bombay, Berlin and Baghdad. Well, perhaps not Baghdad, because that is a war zone of broken buildings, dust, heat and not a bird to be seen”;
  • “It will all be about money and the Chinese. Who wants that?”; and
  • “But Harlem had been making itself over for millions of years. Before white and black, there were Indians, and before Indians there had been mastadons and bison”.

Then there was the character of Levin. I resented every second of air time Levin was given, and I resented how we were supposed to empathise with basically the world’s worst husband. Jane, Healayas, Brittika and even Levin’s daughter were all far more interesting characters and I think should have been emphasised more in this story. Instead we’re forced to watch as Levin sacrifices his family for his own career and then give him a gold star when staring into a woman’s eyes gives him the courage to do the bare minimum required for an active participant in a marriage.

Ultimately, I think there are two kinds of readers: the readers who will enjoy books like “The Museum of Modern Love” and “The Elegance of the Hedgehog”, and those of us who won’t. Maybe this will be the book for you, but it wasn’t for me.


Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

In Farleigh Field

I received an advanced reading copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. I don’t read many mysteries but I’m always eager to try new things and with autumn just beginning here, a novel set in a British manor was just the thing to cosy up to on a weekend.


“In Farleigh Field” by Rhys Bowen is a novel about an upper class British family during the 1940s. Lord Westerham, his wife Lady Westerham and three of their daughters have had to relinquish part of their stately home Farleigh Place to local soldiers. Their third daughter Pamela is working a secret government job at Bletchly Park and nobody has heard from their second daughter Margot, who was designing clothes in France, for a long time. When a young London boy Alfie who is billeted at the gamekeeper’s house stumbles across a grisly discovery, he and Lady Phoebe, Westerham’s youngest, rush to tell the authorities. The mysterious body draws family friend and the son of the local Vicar Ben Cresswell back to Farleigh on a top secret mission. Ben grew up rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Westerhams, and although he finds an old flame rekindled, he discovers that maybe he doesn’t know the people in those circles as well as he thought he did.

This book is a great little romp perfect for a bit of weekend escapism. I’m loathe to say it because I’m sure the comparison has been made over and over, but if you enjoy period dramas like Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs, especially against the social equaliser background of the second world war, you’ll most certainly enjoy this. This story is another snapshot that adds to the mosaic of the British war experience and the remnants of the English gentry. Bowen has an easy, fluid style of writing that lets the story speak for itself. Her dialogue is particularly enjoyable, and her foray into M15, codebreaking and double agents is compelling reading. I particularly liked her treatment of women and romance in this story, and felt that she gave a real sense of the desire of young women of the times to gain useful knowledge and skills to do their part. I also liked how she handled the changing social attitudes towards sex and explored the diversity of sexual expression without judgment.

This is Bowen’s first standalone novel and it is a very enjoyable read that is clever enough to be engaging, but simple enough to relax into.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Mystery/Thriller

Wish for Amnesia

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. Described as a literary novel, and with quite a strange cover showing what looks like human skin, I was keen to see what it was about.


“Wish for Amnesia” by Barbara Rosenthal is a surreal novel about a man called Jack Rubin, his lover and world famous blind African artist Beatrice, his marijuana-addicted wife Caroline, and his genius daughter Jewel. Distancing himself from his Holocaust-survivor parents and plagued by voices which constantly criticise him, Jack finds himself becoming a popular icon for social progress. As he becomes more and more engrossed in his secretive work intertwining computer programming and DNA, he becomes less aware of the goings on in his family. Caroline’s increasing dependence on marijuana, cosmopolitan yearnings and perfectionism directed towards her daughter leads to disaster and Jewel seeks solace in her godmother Beatrice’s arms. When Beatrice experiences a miracle, her actions and inactions afterwards represent ultimate betrayal and the Rubin family is torn apart.

This is such a richly dense novel that I am finding it hard to encapsulate all that goes on in just a few short paragraphs. Rosenthal’s book is literary with an unresolved undercurrent of magic realism and science fiction. It explores themes of intergenerational trauma, intellectualism, mental health issues, addiction, race, disability, sex and love. “Wish for Amnesia” is an insight into the art world and the nouveau riche and explores themes of motherhood, emotional neglect and the mentor/mentee relationship. I found a lot of parallel themes in this novel to that of “The Strays“, especially where the self-importance and apparent genius of the father (and, by proxy, the equally talented but underappreciated mother) overshadows the needs of the child(ren), creating space for their exploitation. I also found parallels to “Maus” and another book I read recently called “The Butcher’s Daughter“, especially to do with the children of Holocaust survivors and their (often futile) attempts to reject their Jewish heritage.

This book is quite dark and each of the main characters are deeply flawed narrators. For the past couple of days I have found myself contemplating the amount of uncertainty was left at the end. Was Jack’s secret project and the information he believed he had found real? Was Jewel’s recollection of the events after the car crash accurate or just adolescent fancy? Was Beatrice really magic and was she really trying to sabotage Jack and his family? There were a lot of unresolved questions at the end of the book as well, especially about the extent to which the key events at the ending were related.

There were enough themes and issues contained within this book to make a few novels, and there were times where the amount Rosethal was giving the reader to deal with felt a bit overwhelming. Nevertheless, this is a very clever, powerful and complex book that demands full attention and careful consideration. This is not a book about good and bad, but a book about the contest between priorities of the mind, the priorities of the body and the priorities of the soul.


Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, General Fiction


I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Allen and Unwin, and I have to say at first I was a little bit skeptical. As someone who has lived and studied there for 6 years cumulatively, and who has spent an extra 8 years formally studying Bahasa Indonesia, I always have my hackles up a bit when it comes to fiction set in Indonesia. I was expecting something along the lines of “Eat, Pray, Love” – a cringey story of a white woman’s self-discovery at the expense of smiling locals. I was also expecting it to be the product of yet another writer’s retreat in Bali with only a cursory engagement with local culture and almost no awareness of the rest of the archipelago whatsoever. However, when I was having coffee with a friend recently and we visited a bookshop afterwards, leafing through the pages she pointed out that it looked like it was peppered with correctly colloquial Indonesian phrases. Perhaps I had judged this book too quickly. I decided to give it a go.


“Fearless” by Fiona Higgins is a story about six westerners who find themselves grouped together on a retreat of the same name: a week-long program to help them battle and overcome their greatest fears. Two Australian women Janelle and Cara, Englishman Henry, Frenchman Remy, Italian man Lorenzo and American woman Annie all converge together under the tutelage of Pak Tony and between them connections start to grow and walls start to crumble. Until, that is, the unthinkable happens.

This book is an easy and captivating read. Higgins has an astute eye for social detail and the each of the six characters comes alive with their own stories and fears. You can tell that Higgins has spent time living in Indonesia – this story has authenticity and complexity far beyond what you could get from a two-week holiday. I particularly enjoyed some of the cultural clashes between the westerners and the locals, especially when the westerners have their own values challenged or overhear locals criticising their wealth and privilege. Higgins is a self-aware enough writer to really shine a light on the hypocrisy of cultural supremacy. Although I shy away from westerners who go to popular tourist destinations to “find themselves”, I felt like Higgins’ characters and their journeys were nevertheless interesting and complex enough to carry this story. The six main characters are tested in more ways than one, especially Lorenzo and especially when the ultimate disaster strikes. Higgins also provides a solid introduction to the cultural and religious tensions that exist in Indonesia as well as its cultural and linguistic diversity.

However, I have to say, the one thing that irked me was the depiction of Balinese women. There were almost no Balinese women who spoke in this book, and when they did speak, they were almost never named characters. The majority of the interactions between the characters and Balinese women involve observing their exploitation, humiliation or servitude. More than one character notes how dainty, slim and attractive Balinese women are and I found that to be in stark contrast to Janelle’s plot line about championing self-worth away from body image. While there was a wide range of named male Indonesian characters of various age and background, I really felt like Indonesian women did not get a fair shake of the stick.

Nevertheless, this was a compelling story jam-packed with social issues and suspense and if you’re going to read a story about westerners finding themselves in Bali, make it this one.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, General Fiction