Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Black Tide’ by Peter Temple


1999, 356 p.

That’s it. I’m not reading another Peter Temple ever.

In fact, I said that to myself after I had to re-read Truth for my CAE bookgroup earlier this year. I looked back at my original blog post and everything I said there, I say again. Too disjointed. Too much conversation. Too confusing. And definitely not worthy of a Miles Franklin prize.

I’m amazed to find that I’ve read as many Peter Temples as I have. I quite liked The Broken Shore, but by White Dog the appeal had worn off. In the Evil Day was set in Africa, but it had all the same problems (too disjointed, too much conversation, too confusing etc).  He does dialogue well, but why doesn’t (didn’t) he just write plays? At least the speaker is identified in a script and you don’t have to count back to see who’s talking. And who are all these people he keeps bringing in? Or capturing a setting, which he also does well: why doesn’t (didn’t) he just write travel books?

At least Black Tide is a Jack Irish story, and I can see Guy Pearce, the three old blokes at the pub, Cam, Harry Strang and Stan the bartender in my mind’s eye.  Thank God for television, I say. The dodgy betting is here, and the carpentry, and a bit of sex, along with a confusing story about dodgy companies.  But I really have no idea what it was about.

So that’s it. Ned Kelly Awards and Miles Franklin prize be damned. If someone chooses another Peter Temple for bookgroup ever again, I’m just going to say “Nup. I don’t like Peter Temple”.

My rating: 6/10

Read because: ONLY because it was chosen for my CAE bookgroup.

‘Short Walks from Bogota’ by Tom Feiling


2012, 288 p.

Before I went to Colombia recently, I tried to find books set there. Of course, there’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez but (dare I say it?) many of his books are rather similar and I wanted to read something different.  But everything I read seemed fixated on violence and drug-crime. Are there no other stories to be told about Colombia?

Tom Feiling found a similar phenomenon. He had been in Colombia in its violent decades, but in 2010 he went back, spurred by then-president Alvaro Uribe’s declaration that the country had moved from terrorism to tourism.  Tourists would need a book about the ‘new’ Colombia, he thought, and so he decided to write it.

However, he too has written a book that is steeped in drugs and violence, but he bookends this period by accounts of colonialism and twentieth-century history, and a view towards the future. It’s not a ‘walking’ book as such, although he does his fair share of hiking and talking and bumping around on the back of motorcycles and trucks. He visits Bogota (which I did not) and Medellin (which I did), and many other mainly rural places as well, many deep within the ‘orange’ Reconsider Your Need to Travel section of the map on the Australian Government Smart Traveller Website. Even in a book hoping to get beyond drug-violence, he found that it had shaped the Colombia that he found in 2010.

The book is written in a chatty, discursive, self-deprecating style and it paints vivid word-pictures of landscapes and people. It was published in 2012, and I think that Colombia appears to have been more successful than he anticipated in writing a new narrative for itself- although the persistence of so many Reconsider Your Need to Travel regions some seven years later is disturbing.

I finished reading this when I returned, and perhaps that was the ideal way to read this book. I may have been a bit turned off my plans for solo-60+female travel had I read it earlier.

Sourced from: purchased e-book

Read because: I was going to Colombia, but I didn’t finish it until I returned

My rating: 8/10

‘Argentina: A Modern History’ by Jill Hedges


2011, 336 P.

I purchased this book on e-reader to take with me to Argentina, which I was visiting at the time. As is the way of such things, I was so tired at night that I couldn’t concentrate enough to read it, and ended up finishing it in Colombia. [In turn, the book that I purchased to read about Colombia I finished reading in Chile!]. I wanted something readable and relatively current, with enough ‘back story’ to make a ‘modern’ history intelligible.

This book certainly fitted the bill. The author received a PhD in Latin American Studies from Liverpool University, and at the time of publication was Senior Editor for Latin America at Oxford Analytica since 2001. It is eminently readable, and does not assume much prior knowledge, which is just as well for me.

The book starts with the constitution of 1853, which still stands today. The first two chapters deal with national consolidation, and the ‘golden age’ of the Argentinian economy, and especially its relationship with Britain and emulation of European elite lifestyle. The rest of the chapters deal with the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The book focuses on political players, most especially Peron and the generals who followed him during the dictatorship. She gives a really good explanation of Peronism (which exists in some form today) although she is critical of its populism and lack of philosophical/political principle. She points out that  the conditions under which leftist groups were ‘disappeared’ during the dictatorship started after Peron returned for a third term in the 1970s, and certainly her retelling of his political manoeuverings makes it difficult to space him on the political spectrum. While Peronism was explained well, the Dirty War was not as clearly described.

Perhaps because of this political narrative, the book also has a strong economic emphasis as well (are the two separable, I wonder, in any history or especially in this one?). The recurrence of broken promises and endemic corruption is depressing, as is the volatility of the economy and the democratic compromises it brings in its wake. This is very much a top-down analysis, focused on the political sphere, with little attention paid to social or cultural conditions.

I’m not in a position to take issue with any of its arguments – indeed, to even identify where her perspective differs from others’ – but I found it very readable and informative, and it enhanced my enjoyment of Argentina, even if I did finish it after I’d left it!

‘Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir’ by Catherine de Saint Phalle


2016, 256 p.

There is no shortage of memoirs about parents written by their children.  Too often, there is an underlying whine of grievance in such memoirs – admittedly, quite often justified- because the parents are too cruel, too self-absorbed or too mad, and the author/child is seeking to blame or understand (and often both at once).  Alternatively, there are memoirs of parents bathed in nostalgia, sorrow and yearning: yearning for a return to a simpler time and regret for lost opportunities and all the things the author did not say at the time.

Poum and Alexandre falls into neither of these camps. It’s significant that the title makes no reference to the author at all – there’s no ‘my’ in the title- and the subtitle ‘A Paris Memoir’ emphasizes place. The book is written from the child’s point of view, but the author’s own life, and most particularly her adult life, is largely absent, except in the final section. The book is written in three parts: ‘Poum’ dealing with her mother Marie-Antoinette, nicknamed ‘Poum’ because of a childish game in bouncing down stair ‘poum, poum, poum’; ‘Alexandre’ dealing with her father; and then a final short coda involving both parents.

Both Poum and Alexandre are eccentric. Poum is a disinterested mother, just as happy to stay in bed with her books, as to spend time with her daughter. Alexandre imbues his daughter’s mind with Greek myths, praise for the Magna Carta, and tales of Napoleon. Both parents are drawn to tales of blood and savagery, and they share these with their daughter, irrespective of her age.

Their daughter, Catherine, spends much of her early life away from her parents. Born in England, ostensibly  because of the freedoms bestowed by the Magna Carta, she is largely raised by her nanny Sylvia, and Sylvia’s own family. When she finally settles in France, she can barely speak French, and the book is largely devoid of friends or any other contacts other than her family.

Told from Catherine’s point of view, there are many gaps and non-sequiturs. Alexandre is already married and has an older, first family and what seems to be an ever-increasing number of offspring that Catherine gradually learns about, but does not meet. Alexandre and Poum are cousins, and have fallen out with their families over their relationship. Poum tries doggedly to maintain relations with her own family, but there is tension and resentment, and Catherine feels it. This ‘situation’ swirls around Catherine and her parents, marking them out as different and disreputable. Perhaps it’s this exclusion that turns them towards each other in a fey, irresponsible and downright strange way.

Yet there is no judgement here. Catherine describes them with love and acceptance, even though as a reader you find yourself raising a sceptical eyebrow or huffing with disapproval at the sheer irresponsibility that both parents display at different times.   The book is beautifully written, and it certainly subverts the chronological memoir genre. It shuttles backwards and forwards, and tells events from multiple perspectives. It withholds as much as it gives.  And yet at the end of the book, you realize just how much Catherine has given you as a reader, and you are left with a puzzling and yet rich view of her parents – much how the author finds herself. This is a challenging memoir, but I suspect that I will remember it long after the ‘misery memoirs’ have merged one into another.

Read because: CAE bookgroup selection (mine). And several people on the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge website had read it

My rating: 8


I have added this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge database

‘The Hand of Fatima’ by Ildefonso Falcones


2010, 887 pages – yes, 887 pages. Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor

Oooffgghh!! That was a long read! I was about to write that I rarely read big chunky historical fiction books but on reflection, that’s not true. I loved Kristin Lavransdatter, I eagerly await the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and I really enjoyed Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy. Perhaps it’s that I often read trilogies and suchlike as they are released, several years apart. But I read this book all in one gulp.

I heard about it from a guide who took me on a historic walk in Cordoba last year, and I very much enjoyed reading about places that I had been in Granada, Seville and of course Cordoba.

It is set in 1564, long after the reconquest of Spain by the Christian Kings. However, as we see all too often in the midst of the sectarian wars that still afflict us, mere conquest is not enough to expunge the beliefs, stories and world view of a conquered people. The Islamic Morisco people in 16th century Spain are defeated, but restive, and uprisings erupt across Al Andalus, put down violently with massacres and enslavement on both sides.

Hernando is the son of an Arab woman and the Christian priest who raped her.  His stepfather despises him, and he kidnaps Hernando’s one love, Fatima, and takes and mistreats her as a second wife to spite him. He is shunned by the Christians who educate him into their beliefs, and he secretly visits Hamid, an old teacher who educates him into the Islamic beliefs. These two streams of belief, which he can call on when he needs to, mean that he is distrusted by both sides as he moves between the two cultures.

It is his facility with both Christianity and Islamic that drives him to a project to unite the two faiths through the figure of Mary, who is revered by both traditions. I found this part rather tedious and I’m not sure that it was really necessary to the story. But overall, it is a rather driven narrative, which barely takes a breath. Just when you think that things are about to be resolved, yet another twist occurs…and hence the nearly 900 pages.

I hadn’t heard of this book, which is written by a best-selling author. I was surprised for a moment to find that Lisa at ANZLitLovers had read it (until I remembered just how widely she reads) and her review is much more detailed than mine. I wasn’t even sure if it was written by a male or female author, but after reading the sex scenes with too much throbbing manhood for my liking, I decided that the author must be a man. I was not wrong.

To have the book recommended by a Spanish speaker, keen to show the beauties of her cities, is no small thing. It complicates the easy historical concepts of ‘conquest’ and ‘reconquest’, and I very much enjoyed the descriptions. When I was told about the book, I was reassured that I’d be able to find it in translation which is just as well. I doubt that I’ll live long enough to translate a book of nearly 900 pages in Spanish!


‘The Eastern Curlew’ by Harry Saddler


2018,  212 p.

What’s the life of a shorebird like? What’s it like to live a life of contact activity, when even your moments of rest are full of wakefulness? To gorge yourself on food twice yearly, and become obese, and burn all that fat off, year after year? To fly wing-to-wing with dozens or hundreds or thousands of your fellow creatures, for days at a time? To find upon your arrival, starving and exhausted, that your feeding grounds have been destroyed? (p. 203)

A couple of weeks ago I listened to an ABC Background Briefing podcast called The Bird and the Businessman. It’s about Toondah Harbour outside Brisbane, where developer Lang Walker wants to build a residential enclave. It’s situated within Ramsar-listed wetlands, but money is talking here. It’s also one of the feeding grounds for the Eastern Curlew, one of the migratory shorebirds that travels each year from Australia to China and Korea to the Arctic to breed, and then flies back again. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a program that made me so angry: listen to it.


Panthus [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons

The Eastern Curlew is written by a keen birdwatcher, who traces the path of the Eastern Curlew, much as Ann Jones did in her excellent OffTrack series of programs Flying for Your Life.

The book is divided into three sections: Seeing, Moving, Being. The first section, Seeing traces his own growing awareness and fascination with the curlew, then moves on to the misnaming of the Eastern Curlew as Numenius madagascariensis, even though it doesn’t go anywhere near Madagascar.  The chapter ‘The Sea Curlew’ celebrates the indigenous response to curlews, particularly around Roebuck Bay near Broome, where they congregate before heading off to Asia.

Part II, Moving, starts with a chapter about bird tracking. The author then takes us to Dandong, China which he has mistaken as his destination instead of the similarly-sounding Donggang. It is a critical ecosystem for curlews: it is also one of China’s major ports. Netting, channelling, draining and road and seawall construction are all threatening the location. After leaving China, he goes to the mudflats of Ganghwa and the developing city of Gunsan, where the South Korean Government hopes to build a ‘dream hub’, surrounded by the 33-kilometre long Saemangeum seawall. Although the Korean government spouts their environmentally-friendly construction practices, all is not as it seems.

In attempting to justify the intentional destruction of the tidal mudflats at Saemangeum, the South Korean government stated that the birds would simply fly elsewhere. But the birds were never going to relocate. One of the reasons there are so many species of shorebird in the world is that each species has adapted to take advantage of a subtly different niche within tidal mudflasts. Different rivers, flowing to the sea through different geologies, create a wide variety of mudflat ecologies- and, as in any environment, variety in mudflat habitat leads to variety in the species found in that habitat. (p. 151)

Part III, Being, takes us to the Arctic and Lemmenjoki National Park in Finland, and the frantic mating and hatching before the birds leave for the Southern Hemisphere again. The chicks are left to fend for themselves. Then, we head back to the local wetlands in Cheetham in Victoria, where again developers are circling. The final chapter takes us to the Melbourne museum where he inspects the collection of curlew carcasses, collected mainly in 1990 at the Werribee Sewerage Treatment Plant, including object B.17906, a female which was collected nearly forty years earlier. As he closes the drawer,

…it occurs to me that the drawer contains the densest concentration of eastern curlews that I’ve ever seen, anywhere. (p. 198)

This is a beautifully written book. The proof-reader seemed to go a.w.o.l. for a couple of pages, and it jarred so painfully because the rest of the book is so careful and lyrical. The book meanders and goes off onto tangents, but what comes through clearly is the love of watching, the sorrow and anguish at our impotence against larger economic forces, and the feeble beating of a spark of hope that it doesn’t have to be this way.

When it comes to the conservation of migratory shorebirds, moments of hope are too few and too far between. Yet the very exuberance of these birds’ life cycle, the unfathomable vastness of their exertions, itself is a kind of hope: there are few animals in the world so full of life. And if there’s one fundamental truth about life, it’s that it wants to persist. If we can give it enough of a chance to do so, it’ll take that chance. (p.207)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8.5

The East Asian – Australasian Flyway Partnership (EAAFP)

BirdLife Australia

‘Mistress of her Profession: Colonial Midwives of Sydney 1788-1901’ by Lesley Potter


2017, 133 p plus notes.

I suspect that, of all the different types of historians, family historians are probably the most attuned to the world of the midwife. In their family trees they trace those successions of births just two years apart, often over two decades; those births of the baby followed by the death of the mother in the days and weeks afterwards. Most probably, other women were present at these events, but they are largely invisible. It was this invisibility that attracted me to this book.

The author of Mistress of her Profession emphasizes the difficulty of finding these midwives within the sources, but she has managed to locate and name some of them. Having done so, Lesley Potter then aims to

discover not only midwives’ attitudes to midwifery and to understand the kind of midwifery they employed, but also to discover the attitudes of others (patients, doctors, coroners and others in authority) towards them…. the purpose is to bring the colonial midwife to life, to encapsulate her humanness, fraught with all her faults, ideals, values and anxieties: to explain and interpret her past to the present generation. (p. 6)

Her book starts with a case study, one of the eight which separate the chapters. Sarah Ann Hopkins, who boarded the Steadfast from London in 1848 as an emigrant to NSW was a trained midwife, possessing a diploma from Westminster Lying-in Hospital. As a trained midwife, she accepted the temporary position of matron on the Steadfast, working under the supervision of a Dr Read. Seven confinements took place on the ship, and not all had happy outcomes. Twenty-four year old Lydia Lever went into premature labour, triggered by dystenteric diarrhoea (it doesn’t do to think about just how awful that must have been). Her premature baby died, and she died about six weeks later. That same day a second baby was born, this time to 26 year old Jane Calder. The baby died at five days, and the next day Jane Calder’s one year old child died. Twenty year old Matilda Humpreys developed ‘epilepsy’, which was often the diagnosis of eclampsia at the time. Nor did this baby survive.   Four of the babies and mothers did survive, and one of these was Sarah Ann Hopkins herself. Just in this one case study, we have writ large the uncertainty of childbirth in the early nineteenth century.

Potter divides the midwives of colonial Sydney into several groups. First there were the convict midwives, many of whom only became midwives after transportation, using midwifery as a way of gaining respectability and a economic foothold in the colony. The second group were free immigrant midwives, often widows, who had been practising as untrained midwives in their own communities prior to immigration. Third, as the century drew on, overseas-trained midwives emigrated for a range of reasons. Finally, there were colonial-trained midwives who appeared at the end of the 19th century, some of whom were registered with the Australasian Trained Nurses Association.

The books starts with Aboriginal birthing. Probably as a result of the curiosity of early officials and naturalists, there are quite detailed descriptions of indigenous births. Although (and because?) the details in these descriptions sprang from the mindset of ‘otherness’ held by their male writers, they provided more information about actual practices in terms of pain relief and rituals than the European sources about European births did.

Where Potter was able to find such information was in the coroners’ inquests, but even in these there is not the detail that she as historian, and I as reader, wanted to know in terms of pain relief and the actual birth. What is interesting is that most 19th century cases involving midwives charged with misdemeanours associated with childbirth did not advance to higher courts (p. 41). Most often the verdict was ‘visitation by God’ or ‘natural causes’, reflecting the ignorance of an all-male jury.

Of more concern was the charge of ‘for want of medical aid’ , which spoke to the authority relationship between male medical doctors and female midwives- a familiar story even today. Midwives and nurses operated in a legal system that did not recognize them or consider them part of the health system. The law had no precedent  whereby a midwife at fault could be prosecuted, and as a result several midwives whose care was deficient, escaped sentencing. Likewise, the number of midwife-abortionists is unknown, and here too the courts were reluctant to convict.  But as the century progressed, their activities increasingly fell under the purview of the law.

The book traces through the beginnings of maternity care in Sydney, from the Female Factory in Parramatta, through the unsuccessful efforts of Dr Tierney to establish a private lying-in hospital, the development of the Benevolent Asylum, which did not have trained midwives until after 1879 and the gradual increase in private lying-in and maternity homes, especially in the 1890s. Midwifery was a commercial enterprise for women acting independently, and after midwifery training was instituted in the late nineteenth century, employment opportunities within an institutional setting increased. In terms of training, Australia followed the British trends, and midwifery became a certificated qualification, earned through on-the-job training in hospitals. However, as in Britain, midwifery training was kept separate from the training of medical men (although as Potter notes, there were men-midwives). Legislation and registration had to wait until the twentieth century.

I enjoyed the case studies which separated the chapters of these books, which generally illustrate the chapter to which they are attached.  They vary in the amount of detail that Potter was able to uncover, and unfortunately some of them are rather bare-bones, factual accounts. But even this highlights the difficulty of the task Potter set for herself.

I found the law chapters in this book the most illuminating, but even they do not really answer my questions about what it was like to give birth in colonial times. Did they sit? stand? lie? What was the attitude towards making noise? And even the most basic question- what did they do with all that boiling water that people were sent off to fetch in the movies? (or was that just a way of keeping them busy?) I recognize the paucity of the sources, but I do wonder if Potter had access to the records once training moved into more institutional settings which might have shed more light on this. Were there textbooks? Did new, more standardized techniques  replace traditional, ‘old wives tales’?

Potter has brought many of these women out of invisibility by naming them, but I’m not sure that she actually achieved her aim of bringing them to life or explaining and interpreting them to the present generation. I think that perhaps, given the limitation of the sources, her aim may have been too ambitious, and for me, still unmet.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.


I have included this book as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.