Category Archives: Australian Books

The Shepherd’s Hut

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“The Shepherd’s Hut” by Tim Winton is about a teenage boy called Jaxie on the run from the dregs of a brutal start to life in a small Western Australian town. Escaping on foot, he ends up in a salt lake wasteland with dwindling supplies. When he has almost run out of food, water and ammunition, Jaxie comes across a shepherd’s hut, occupied by a stranded and mysterious elderly Irishman called Fintan. The two are very wary of each other, but come to an uneasy truce to not ask any questions about the other’s past. Fintan’s generosity with his basic larder of food, and his uncertainty about when, or even if, replacement supplies will arrive, means that they cannot permanently hide away from their world.

Although this was quite an easy book to read, it is a difficult book to review. The book is written in a kind of stream of consciousness narrative from the perspective of Jaxie, and this is without a doubt the highlight of the novel. Jaxie is a brilliant character full of untold complexity who is both the product of his upbringing as well as a fresh and unique voice. Winton portrays a young man with a sharp mind, one already full of knowledge and understanding if not education and experience. Jaxie’s raw, untempered thoughts are arresting, and hurtle the reader through the book. Although his words may paint him as a tough and harsh kid, it quickly becomes clear that Jaxie is very sentimental and craves to be seen as worthwhile.

This is definitely a book to make you think, and I have been thinking about it quite a bit since I read it, but I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. It’s a very compelling story, but some parts of it I felt were rushed or jammed on. In fact, I think I was in maybe the last eighth of the book, and I couldn’t believe it was about to end and couldn’t possibly see how everything would be resolve (or at least finalised).

I think the tenuous and cagey friendship between Jaxie and Fintan, the centrepiece of the book, was a prime example of this. Winton spends the majority of the book setting up the characters and putting them into a kind of routine, and then just when you felt like the friendship was about to become interesting, the book rushes into a ending that to me felt so coincidental and unlikely that it was jarring. I appreciate the technique of leaving a book open-ended, but I think how you get to that open end is important, and I’m not sure the final climax was really the best choice.

Tim Winton has been writing and speaking extensively about toxic masculinity, and I think for the most part that this book absolutely explores some of the nuances of expressing masculinity and what it means to be a man. However, again, the jarring ending meant that the message felt really muddled and I wasn’t quite sure what the point was anymore.

The language Winton used also obscured the purpose of the book and left me with a lot of questions about class and audience. Jaxie is styled with a very idiosyncratic, colloquial yet thoughtful way of speaking which is very engrossing. However, it also really made me wonder who exactly the audience of this book is intended to be. Is it meant to be for more privileged, metropolitan Australians to give them a taste of wild country life, or is it meant to make it more accessible to blue collar Australians and resonate with them through shared language? Is it meant to be both? I’m just not sure.

Anyway, I can’t really write too much more about this book without giving things away, but essentially this book was a smack around the head and my ears are still ringing. If you’re looking for something to make you think, make you feel and make your jaw drop, this is it. If you’re looking for a comfortable read, you’re not going to find it here.

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The Anti-Cool Girl

Content warning: mental illness, addiction, suicide ideation. 

My experience of this book was a bit different to my usual reviews because I didn’t read it, I didn’t listen to it as an audiobook per se, but I listened to it as a podcast called “Mum Says My Memoir is a Lie“.

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“The Anti-Cool Girl” by Rosie Waterland is deeply personal memoir about Waterland’s experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family plagued by mental illness, addiction and poverty. Waterland chronicles her sometimes hilarious and sometimes deeply painful memories from birth up until just before publication. Although Waterland’s mother Lisa’s alcoholism had prevented her from reading the book when it first came out, Lisa has since sobered up and is ready to challenge Waterland on some of the things depicted in the book. On the podcast, each episode begins with Waterland narrating a chapter from the book and then Waterland and her mother Lisa spend the rest of the episode discussing the events of the chapter, especially around whether Waterland’s recollections are correct.

I think it’s difficult to separate out the book from the podcast because so much of podcast is the book, so this is going to be a kind of combined review. Waterland is a very funny writer, and has a exaggerated, self-depreciating sense of humour that balances out the more serious parts of the book. Waterland is also unflinchingly honest about her feelings and experiences, sometimes in quite shocking (and refreshing) detail. This book is overall an incredibly telling insight into Australia’s care and protection system, the public housing system and the mental health system. Rosie also shares her personal experiences with depression, suicide attempts, bullying and weight gain and then her remarkable success in her writing.

When I first started listening to this podcast, hearing Waterland read a chapter of her book, my initial judgment was that her mother Lisa was a terrible mother whose alcoholism traumatised her children. I think that if I had read the book by itself, that would have remained my judgment the entire way through. However, having Lisa participating in the podcast and responding to each chapter did lead me to think that Waterland was perhaps not always the most reliable narrator, especially in the chapters about her younger years. It also gave me a lot more empathy for Lisa and a better appreciation of her own struggles. However, where the facts aren’t completely clear or when some of the subject-matter gets a bit dark, you can count on Waterland to bring the mood back up with a joke or an embarrassing story about herself, even if it’s a bit embellished.

This is a powerful, hilarious and insightful book that is given a whole new layer of depth through this unconventional storytelling platform. I think the book is good, but the podcast is excellent and it is a very rare opportunity to listen to frank conversations between an author and her subject-matter: her mum.

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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.

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“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.

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Burial Rites

Hannah Kent has been causing a stir in the Australian literary scene recently, and after hearing the news that her debut novel is being turned into a film I figured I had better see what all the fuss was about. When I finished this book, the breath caught in my throat when I read this line in the acknowledgements:

And last, but never lease: thank you to Angharad, for never doubting, and for fortifying me every day, every hour.

Now, obviously this thank you was not intended for me personally, but another Angharad. However, it’s so rare to see my name in print that I was all aflutter after reading it!

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“Burial Rites” by Hannah Kent is a historical fiction novel based on a true story about a woman called Agnes sentenced to death for the murder of a man. While waiting for the sentence to be carried out, she is sent to live out her final days with the family of District Officer Jón Jónsson. Although a significant improvement on her previous location, and although Agnes sleeps with the family in the baðstofa, the welcome from the District Officer’s wife Margrét and especially her younger daughter Lauga is icy. Agnes is permitted religious counsel by the District Commissioner, and she nominates an inexperienced Assistant Reverend who is known as Tóti. As Agnes gradually tells the story of how she came to be accused of murder, Tóti, Margrét and Margrét’s older daughter Steina begin to warm to her.

This is a dark and engrossing story that I was hooked on from beginning to end. Kent has a visceral writing style and this book is like a triad of beautiful landscapes, deep dialogue and unflinching descriptions of what human bodies must do to survive. The picture Kent paints of 1800s Iceland is a bleak one with food shortages, illness and unsafe housing all competing to claim lives. I really enjoyed the way that Kent wove in observations about Icelandic culture without distracting the reader from the story. Agnes is an ambiguous but engaging character, though I think my favourite character would have to be Margrét.

I think the part about this book I enjoyed the least was probably Agnes’ retelling of what happened with Natan Ketilsson, the man she was convicted of murdering. I think that warm but cloying tension of the Jónsson family was fascinating to me, but as Agnes recounts what life was like living with Natan, I felt disengaged somehow. Whether it was because this part of the story relied too much either too much on recorded facts or too much on fictionalisation, I’m not sure.

Interestingly, Agnes’ trial is set to be reheard nearly 200 years afterwards applying modern justice principles. It is certainly a story that fascinated Iceland, and this book was a story that fascinated me. I’m very eager to see what the film is like and to read more of Kent’s work.

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Terra Nullius

I’m doing something a little bit different today and I’m reviewing out of sequence. This was not the book that I read after “Joe Cinque’s Consolation“. This is a book that I read just this week, and I think that today, 26 January, is the right day to review it. I’ve just come home from a rally and I’m ready to dive in.

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This photo was taken at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy during the Invasion Day march on 26 January 2018 and this artwork is from one of the box planters there.

“Terra Nullius” by Noongar woman and author Claire G. Coleman is a novel set deep in the bush. Jacky, a Native, has absconded from the Settler farm he works on as an unpaid servant and is running for his life. Sister Bagra runs her school for Natives with an iron fist, but word of her approach to discipline has reached the Church and a senior representative is on his way to investigate. Esperance is a free Native, evading the Settlers with her Grandfather and community by moving camp deeper and deeper into the desert. However, the constant moving is taking its toll and Esperance fears that the Settlers will eventually catch up with them.

Honestly, the less I say about this book the better. This is really one of those kinds of books where you should really dive in cold and experience it fresh. Coleman is a wildly creative and clever writer, and this book is brilliantly crafted and exceptionally well-researched. Coleman draws upon the massacres and the Frontier Wars, as well as colonial accounts of invasion, settlement and occupation to create a story both familiar and unique.

This is a book that facilitates deep empathy and I feel like on this day, if there is any book you should pick up and read, give this one a try.

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Joe Cinque’s Consolation

Content warning: death, mental illness, murder

I’ve been listening to the podcast “Chat 10 Looks 3” which is hosted by Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb for a while now, and they are both enormous fans of Helen Garner. I have actually never read anything by Helen Garner before, and so I was inspired to try one of her books. I wasn’t quite sure where to start, but there was one story (as someone who lives in Canberra and went to the Australian National University) that I have always wanted to know more about.

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“Joe Cinque’s Consolation” by Helen Garner is a non-fiction book about the killing of engineer Joe Cinque by his girlfriend Anu Singh with a lethal injection of heroin in Canberra in 1997, and the subsequent trials in the ACT Supreme Court. Although not present for the aborted joint trial by jury, writer Helen Garner attended the trials of Anu Singh and her friend Madhavi Rao and interviewed friends and family of the accused as well as Joe Singh to try to understand why this death happened.

This was a really difficult book to read. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the surroundings to me – parts of Canberra, the ACT Supreme Court, even the street where Singh and Cinque lived. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the mental health system to me. Maybe this book just felt a bit too close to home.

Also, maybe it was Garner’s writing style. She had a compelling but really terse tone that seemed quite at odds with her descriptions of her own emotional reactions to the events around her. I read the book and didn’t feel like I found much empathy or even information but instead found a lot of judgment. There was something about this book that reminded me of a Louis Theroux documentary I saw once. Unable to get an interview with Michael Jackson, Louis Theroux instead spends his time interviewing everyone he can who is as close as possible to the pop star, trying to find out the real story. I felt like Helen Garner in this book was a smarter version of Louis Theroux. She tried to get to the heart of the story, but in the end, without being able to speak to Anu Singh directly (which was hardly Garner’s fault) the book felt unfinished somehow. I also felt like despite trying to instead shift the focus on Joe Cinque, and having access to his family, the picture of Joe Cinque was incomplete as well.

There were two other things that got under my skin as well as made me think. The first was that despite all the focus on Anu Singh and her actions, you simply cannot tell this story without shining a spotlight on the inaction of the people closest to her. I think this was a source of tension in the story because although the temptation is to think of Anu Singh as some demonic succubus, the reality is that she did what she did because the people around her didn’t stop her. It was a completely preventable crime, yet nobody prevented it – despite Singh’s clearly deteriorating mental state. I felt like this was a concept that Garner herself struggled with, because I felt like Garner’s gut reaction was to dislike Anu Singh.

This leads me to the second point – Anu Singh through a feminist lens. I think Anu Singh herself was problematic because although everyone who knew her was attracted (or repelled by) her beauty, histrionics, fragility and body image obsession – apparent paragons of femininity – she then rejected that femininity by becoming a criminal of the worst kind. Suddenly she wasn’t a thin, pretty and melodramatic young woman anymore. She was a sinister she-devil who used sex to commit an abhorrent crime. I think perhaps Garner struggled to find an objective medium when it came to Singh’s character, especially one that encompassed mental illness, and particularly a personality disorder. Garner focuses a lot on femininity and female relationships in this book, but despite being drawn to the women she meets while researching this book, she never quite seems to be comfortable in that kind of discourse or those kinds of relationships. The lingering of the book over what Singh and Rao are wearing, how they were sitting, how they were reacting during the trial irked me. Perhaps these superficial observations would have been less prominent if the book had been written today. Perhaps today there would have been more of a focus on Singh’s deteriorating mental health and the inability of society to prevent her from hurting herself and others.

The entire time I was reading this book, I kept misremembering the title as “Joe Cinque’s Desolation”. I was looking for the consolation, as I think Helen Garner was as well, and I honestly don’t think in the end either of us found it. I think this is a powerful, insightful and well-researched book (given the circumstances) but I don’t think that it contained any revelations larger than the fact that Australia’s mental health system needs some significant improvement and people need to take threats their friends make seriously.

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Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow

A lot of people have been talking about this newcomer on the scene of children’s fantasy. The book is by an Australian author, and when I saw a signed copy in the window of a Canberra bookshop, I thought I’d better grab a copy and give it a go myself.

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“Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow” by Jessica Townsend is a children’s fantasy novel about a young girl called Morrigan who is cursed. Blamed for every mishap that takes place in Jackalfax, a town in the state of Great Wolfacre, in the Wintersea Republic, where her father is Chancellor, Morrigan is treated like an outcast by her community and her family. Due to die on Eventide, Morrigan is instead rescued by the charismatic Jupiter North and taken to a magical city called Nevermoor. However, her status in this city is not secure. In order to avoid the deadly hunt of smoke and shadow, Morrigan will have to trust Jupiter’s confidence that she will pass the trials to gain entry and sanctuary into Nevermoor’s prestigious Wundrous society.

First things first, I think kids will probably enjoy this book. Although I’m an adult, if I look at this book through the eyes of my younger self, it’s easy to read, it doesn’t shy away from heavy themes, yet it has a strong sense of wonder about it. There are some really creative elements that I enjoyed in Jupiter North’s hotel like Morrigan’s bedroom that changes daily and the chandelier that regrows. It’s a fast-paced story and Morrigan has a sense of integrity that really resonated with me. Townsend writes in a style that’s both complex and age appropriate and I think has a particular knack for capturing the subtleties of a young person’s emotions and relationships. There was a particular part where Morrigan felt guilty about something and eventually confessed to Jupiter, and I just felt like the whole emotional exchange was handled by Townsend in a really realistic way. Something being a much bigger problem for the child than it is for the adult, but the adult appreciating being told the truth in the end nonetheless. I’m certain I would have whipped through this as a kid.

However, I am no longer a kid, and this is not my first fantasy book. This book has been touted as the next “Harry Potter” and I think that is a fair but not necessarily favourable comparison. Drawing on themes from J K Rowling’s famous series and the gothic atmosphere from “A Series of Unfortunate Events“, this book definitely has a familiar vibe to it. I could go through the various tropes in it, but I don’t want to give away any spoilers. I did really like some of the side-characters, but Morrigan herself I thought could have been a bit more interesting. Maybe after Harry Potter and Bella whatserface from “Twilight” I’m a bit tired of dark hair and pale skin being considered a revolutionary appearance. The trials themselves as well I wasn’t completely sold on. Morrigan felt a little bit like Harry Potter bumbling his way through the Triwizard Tournament meets Jill Pole muddling up Aslan’s instructions in “The Silver Chair”.

Also, there was something about the world building that confused me a bit. The Wintersea Republic seems like a very English-inspired world/country (surprising given Townsend is from Queensland, Australia but again very typical for this kind of fantasy), and Nevermoor is this kind of missing magical fifth state that is only accessible via a type of giant clock. I couldn’t quite get a grip on the relationship between the Wintersea Republic and Nevermoor, and the extent to which the former has magic. Maybe this will be revealed later in the series, but at the moment it feels a bit unfinished.

Anyway, while I may be old and jaded, I’m fairly certain that for lots of kids for whom this will be their first foray into fantasy, this book will be a breath of fresh air and they will thoroughly enjoy the story. For adults who have read several children’s fantasy books, this one will feel very familiar. Perhaps a little too familiar. Either way, it’s about the target audience and the target audience will love it.

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