Category Archives: Book reviews

‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler


2014, 336p.

One of the problems with writing a book that is almost completely reliant on a big narrative twist in the middle is that you can’t really review it, without spoiling it for others. So, I won’t do either- review it, or spoil it.

The book is told in the conversational narrative of an American woman looking back over her childhood, which was ruptured when her sister left.  And I’ll leave it at that.

How would I have reacted to this book without the ‘great reveal’, I wonder? Probably not as favourably, because there’s a sort of shocked delight in going back over your assumptions when you’ve had them turned upside down.

Once you’ve read the book, do an image search for the front cover. It’s interesting that some of the front cover designs give away the story much more than the cover on the version I read (above).

Read because: it was a CAE bookgroup selection

My rating: 7/10

‘Her Mother’s Daughter’ by Nadia Wheatley


2018, 352 p.

I’ll be honest: I don’t really like the ‘parental memoir’ books, even though I seem to keep reading them.  You know the ones I mean, where a child (often already an established writer) writes the biography of one of their parents, interweaving it with their own memoir and ‘journey’ in trying to understand their parent/s. I’ve read my share of them, historian Jim Davidson writing about his father; Biff Ward writing about her historian father and his wife; Catherine de Saint Phalle writing about her Parisian parents Poum and Alexandre; Marie Munkara writing from the point of view of a member of the Stolen Generations re-discovering her family; Anne Summers writing about her mother and a painting, and Magda Szubanski writing about her family and coming out.

That’s a lot of books for a genre that I’ve said I don’t like. I am uncomfortable with the stripping-bare of a parent who cannot defend their actions, and I dislike the sense of long-held grievance that often permeates a child’s judgement of their parent, no mater how long ago these childhood events occurred.

So why, then, did I read this ‘parental memoir’? I think it’s probably because I admire Nadia Wheatley as a biographer through her excellent biography of Charmian Clift The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift and I was interested to see how a professional biographer/historian deals with the problem of writing a hybrid biography/memoir. [It was this methodological curiosity that led me to read Davidson and Summers, and will probably lead me to Jill Roe and Brenda Niall one day.] More immediately, it was as a response to reading excellent reviews by Jonathan Shaw and Sue at Whispering Gums.

The title of Wheatley’s book Her Mother’s Daughter is an act of claiming back her relationship with her mother. She was told by family that because she was only nine when her mother died, she couldn’t possibly remember her. Besides, she was told, her mother would have hated her Leftist policies. It was in reconstructing her mother’s life as an adult, from what people told her about her mother, and drawing on her own memories written at the time of her mother’s death in a valiant attempt to stop them dissipating (surely the act of a future writer and biographer!) that she realized that her mother would not have rejected her because of her politics and that she was, indeed, more of her mother’s daughter than her wider family recognized.  The choice of title is also an act of distancing herself from her father, to whom she was often likened, and with whom she had a fearful, strained relationship. His behaviour, as her research proved, was even darker than she realized as a child.

The book is written in four parts. The first section ‘Neen’ tells of the early life of Wheatley’s mother Nina Whatley, born in 1906 in northern NSW, whose own mother died while Nina was young. Her life seemed destined to end in nursing her much-loved elderly father and her less-loved stepmother, but World War II was her escape, when she enrolled as a nurse and worked with the 6th A.G.H. in Greece and Palestine. After the war she worked in refugee camps with Displaced Persons with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, taking up a position of responsibility that saw her nicknamed “Miss UNRRA”.

It was in these camps that she met the English doctor, Dr (John) Norman Wheatley, as described in Part II ‘Nina and John’. Dr Wheatley was married (although separated) at the time, and unknown to Nina he had a darker side that manifested itself through his alter ego ‘Mr Black’, a legal identity that he used for gambling, dodgy enterprises, affairs.  Already here as a reader you sense the perils for Nina in finally marrying Dr Wheatley. Their affair, while it was clandestine and without responsibilities, filled their weekends with liaisons, parties and travel. When Neen unexpectedly fell pregnant, he did not welcome the child, and Neen returned home to Australia to have her child.

Part III ‘Nina, John and Nadia’ is the longest section of the book, and it conveys well the anxiety evoked in this little girl by her father’s capricious, heedless and manipulative behaviour. They shift from one house to another as her father’s enterprises turn sour. Her sardonic father plays mind-games with both mother and daughter, with his menacing repetitions “do you understand?” when telling or showing Nadia aberrant  anecdotes and images. When Neen complains of chest pain, he ignores her, dismissing the pain as psychosomatic, a diagnosis too easily conveyed and shared amongst the male-dominated psychiatric fraternity. It was a dismissal that probably robbed Neen of years of health.

In the final Part IV, after Neen’s death, Nadia goes into the care of a school friend’s family; a paid arrangement she later learns, and one where she is vulnerable. The relationship with her father, already brittle, petered out.

Looking over this summary, there’s not a lot of joy here. Disappointments and betrayals, when they occur, seem inevitable. Yet, the book does not have the howl of grievance that too many parental memoirs have, perhaps because Wheatley’s intent is to recover her mother in order to identify with her, instead of to judge. The judgement is directed towards her father instead.

There is a narrative distance between Wheatley the author and Wheatley the character, and I think it is this detachment and – is ‘professionalism’ the word?- that makes this book a work of biographical reconstruction as much as memoir.  Most of it is written in the third person, but occasionally Nadia Wheatley the adult biographer breaks into the narrative, commenting on information that she has uncovered, responding with scepticism, regret or shame (as when she realizes that Neen’s inheritance of the family home had caused such resentment in the family). Wheatley has brought her biographer’s eye to her own family, contextualizing it within the mores and expectations of the time, filling in background information about the refugee schemes after WWII and psychiatric medicine during the 1950s, particularly in relation to women. She is explicit about her sources – her mother’s letters (often quoted verbatim), interviews and conversations with family members,  discussions with people who knew Neen – as a way of testing her own reality and memory against those of other people. Although the structure of the book is mainly chronological, it skips back and forth, shifting between third and first person. It is a deft book, written with confidence. Its emotional tone is dispassionate, and you, as a reader, do the emotional work of being enraged at people’s self-centredness, fearful of what seems inevitable, and hollowed by grief and unfairness. That Wheatley has brought you to this place is a testament to her skill as a writer.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book

My rating: 9/10

AWW2019I have included this on the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge database


‘Fortune’ by Lenny Bartulin


2019, 292 p.

Everyone knows the gods love a good joke, and look… They grinned and nodded between themselves and then pointed down at the crowd, made more random selections: him, her, her, him et cetera. Choices made, they whipped up the sticky tendrils of fate and loosed the surging winds of change (those puff-cheeked cherubs) and ..then the gods took a well-deserved afternoon nap. All that’s left for us are the incomplete maps, to conjecture and argue their scale. (p. 33)

We’re often uncomfortable at the thought of the randomness and contingency of our lives. Even if we don’t believe in a host of gods up in the sky, playing us like chess pieces, it’s unnerving to think that our scheduling and planning can be upset without warning. These capricious and heedless gods of chance pop in and out of Lenny Bartulin’s Fortune, smirking and upending the life trajectories of a sprawling cast of characters reaching from Napoleon’s Berlin of 1806, through to the convict settlements of Australia, ending up on the killing fields of the Western Front.

Characters move in and out of this novel but there is particular interest in four: Johannes Meyer, who is press-ganged into Napoleon’s armies and bounces from one dire situation to the next; Elizabeth von Hoffman who traverses the empire through her connections with different men; Claus von Rolt who deals in the objects of empire, and a questing philosopher Krueger.  This is not a straight-forward narrative, but instead bounces from one character to another, leaving some behind without warning, bringing someone in for little reason before bundling them out again.  It is almost like a film in the way that it cuts abruptly from one scene and storyline to another.  It reminded me a little of Barthes’ The Sotweed Factor or Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman in its quick scene changes, large cast of characters and its insouciance about their fates.

The text is divided into ten ‘books’ that move chronologically. Each book is divided into  multiple ‘chapters’, each with a subheading, some only a page in length, others longer. I found the last two ‘books’ unnecessary, where the action jumped from the late 1830s up to 1916. I’m not sure why the author felt he had to do that – some misplaced Anzackery perhaps? The settings are well-known to us through books popular image and film – Napoleon on his horse, a bit of Robert Hughes’ Fatal Shore or For the Term of His Natural Life, the colonial excesses of Joseph Conrad. Nonetheless, there has been good research go into this book – for example in the Dutch sugar plantation cities of the South American coast – and the book wears the research with a chuckle.

I read this book in one sitting, on a cold Saturday afternoon which I think would be the perfect way to enjoy it. I don’t think that I could have kept all the characters in mind had I read it in my usual 15-minutes-before-bed mode.  It has glowing blurbs from young(ish) Australian male writers and journalists – Geordie Williamson, Paul Daley and Chris Womersley, and there does seem something ‘masculine’ in the writing [says she, not quite knowing what she means by this] – perhaps the nihilism, sexuality and virtuosity that pervades the book?  I enjoyed it for the romp and its vitality. It requires concentrated reading, and it rewards it.

My rating: 8.5 and possibly 9 out of 10

Sourced from:  Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

Other reviews: Lisa at ANZLitLovers didn’t like it: Melanie Kembrey of the SMH did.


‘Angel of Death: Dulcie Markham, Australia’s most beautiful bad woman’ by Leigh Straw


2019, 251 p. & notes

Historian Leigh Straw has been working on the underworld in Sydney between the 1920s and 1950s for some time. This book forms the third part of a trilogy. In The Worst Woman in Sydney: The Life and Crimes of Kate Leigh (2016) looked at underworld figure, sly grogger and cocaine dealer Kate Leigh, while in Lillian Armfield: How Australia’s First Female Detective took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and Changed the Face of the Force (2018) she looked at Lillian Armfield, the policewoman who, excluded from other types of crime fighting, was charged with chasing down young girls and diverting them from the vices of prostitution and addiction. Working on these two opposing forces – the criminal and the police officer- she kept coming across Dulcie Markham, who was well known to both Kate Leigh and Lillian Armfield. Obviously fond of the long book-title, in Angel of Death: Dulcie Markham, Australia’s most beautiful bad woman, Straw traces the life of this beautiful and notorious woman, who traversed Australia and was completely embedded within the underworlds of the cities in which she lived.

And Dulcie Markham was beautiful: stunningly so. She was known as “Pretty Dulcie”, but she was also known as the “Angel of Death” and “The Hoodoo Girl” as the men with whom she associated were shot and stabbed in a mounting rollcall of violence and death. Born in 1914 in Surry Hills (in Sydney) she ran away from home at the age of fifteen and took up prostitution as one of Tilly Devine’s girls, at a time of rivalry between the two Sydney crime-madams, Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, and at a time when sly grog, gambling, larrikins and the Razor Gangs made Sydney a dangerous place to be. She first appeared in court as a member of Sydney’s underworld in 1931, when she gave evidence – or more correctly, stalled in giving evidence- at the inquest into the death of her erstwhile lover by her more recent paramour. This was the first of a number of deaths of five lovers and husbands where she was not physically present, but could well have been involved.

It is interesting to see how the sources available have shaped this story. Dulcie Markham was certainly talked and written about, and her police file was bulky, but she herself rarely spoke to reporters and there is virtually nothing written by Markham herself. As a result, Dulcie’s story was completely embedded within the stories of other people. At times I felt as if the author let herself be caught up too much with these other minor personalities, who had crime histories just as sordid as Dulcie’s.  Sometimes the excursions were triggered by some association, for example a sudden jump forward to the murder of a prostitute in the 1980s when discussing whether Dulcie was intimidated – a fairly tangential connection.  Perhaps it’s part of the crime writing genre itself (I’m thinking of John Silvester’s columns in The Age) but there’s a chatty, familiar chumminess and a bit of a chortle that comes through when the excesses of the underworld are being written. It makes me a little uncomfortable.

Yet this intimacy with the underworld is written within the academic framework of sources, academic books and theses, endnotes and bibliographies. The book wears its research lightly.

What these interwoven anecdotes and networks do demonstrate, again and again, is the violence which seemed almost casual, and the narrow line between being a perpetrator and being a victim.  Dulcie was herself shot and bashed, but bound by the code of silence as part of milieu in which she moved.  Surprisingly, although charged and convicted many times,  she spent remarkably little time in jail herself.  Clear, too, is Dulcie’s mobility as she shifts between Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, each time bobbing up in the middle of that city’s underworld, and switching her name frequently. Once in, it was hard to escape.

Straw contextualizes Dulcie’s life well, giving insights into the nature of criminal empires, the specific crime scene in a particular city, the nature of prostitution, and more general social life in Australia across these decades. Her final chapter, when she weighs up Dulcie Markham’s life is strong, where she discusses the trope of the ‘femme fatale’ and assesses her against Anne Summer’s dichotomy of ‘Damned Whores and God’s Police’. As against all the things that we don’t know about Dulcie Markham, Straw concludes:

What we do know is Dulcie May Markham was one of the toughest crime figures in Australia from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the violent neighbourhoods of crime across three cities, she proved herself by utilising the avenues then open to women involved in crime- prostitution, sly-grogging and gambling houses. Dulcie showed great intelligence, resilience and a staggering ability to live through intimidation and violence. She was a survivor in a world that saw few live to retire as she did to a quieter life. (p. 243)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7/10

AWW2019 I have included this book on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

‘The Road to Unfreedom’ by Timothy Snyder


2018, 279 p & 60 p. footnotes

Perhaps it’s a function of geography and economics, but here in Australia at this time we are more concerned about the rising power of China than we are about the rising power of Russia. Nonetheless, we’ve been aware of it through reading about the U.S. election and the Mueller Report, through watching with curiosity the Maidan protests in Ukraine, and more tragically through the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines MH17, which prompted particular Australian attention because of the large number of Australians on board.

The subtitle of this book is ‘Russia, Europe and America’ and with its very current focus, it seems a little incongruous that it should be written by a historian, rather than a political scientist.But historian Timothy Snyder is, and he was a close associate and friend of the late Tony Judt, another acclaimed 20th century historian. Echoing the title of F.A. Hayek’s treatise on market liberalization, The Road to Serfdom, Snyder’s book explores the danger posed to the Enlightenment values of reason and reasonableness through two linked historical narrative forces: the politics of inevitability and the politics of eternity.

The narrative of inevitability is the sense that the future is just more of the present, with nothing further to be done, as exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s hubristic and premature claim of the triumph of Western-style liberal democracy marking “The End of History“.  Communism prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 had its own politics of inevitability: “nature permits technology, technology brings social change; social change causes revolution; revolution enacts utopia”. (p.7)

When the politics of inevitability collapses, as it did in 1991 for the Soviet Union and in the wake of the GFC for Western economies, it ushers in the politics of eternity. He focuses on Russia, but any country could slip into the politics of eternity (and indeed, perhaps several other countries are already doing so). The politics of eternity places one nation at the centre of a cyclical story of victimhood (p.8), where progress gives way to doom, crises are manufactured and manipulated, and citizens experience elation and outrage at short interval (p.8). In both forms of politics, history and facts are used in particular ways.

Inevitability and eternity translate facts into narratives. Those swayed by inevitability see every fact as a blip that does not alter the overall story of progress; those who shift to eternity classify every new event as just one more instance of a timeless threat. Each masquerades as history; each does away with history. Inevitability politicians teach that the specifics of the past are irrelevant, since anything that happens is just grist for the mill of progress. Eternity politicians leap from one moment to another, over decades or centuries, to build a myth of innocence and danger. They imagine cycles of threat in the past, creating an imagined pattern that they realize in the present by producing artificial crises and daily drama. (p. 9)

Snyder argues that Russia was the first 21st century power to reach into the politics of eternity, and that it has been increasingly successful in exporting it to other countries.  He points to Vladimir Putin’s championing of the fascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin, an early critic of Bolshevism who was expelled from Russia in 1922. Impressed by the ideas of Hitler and Mussolini, Ilyin proposed a lost, innocent “Russian Spirit” which would throw of the Bolshevism inflicted on an innocent Russia by the West, which would be rescued by a manly, virile redeemer who would unite his people to welcome God to return to the world and help Russia bring an end to history everywhere.  Vladimir Putin identified Ilyin as his chosen chronicler of Russia’s past (even though Ilyin was no historian); he organized the repatriation of Ilyin’s remains from Switzerland to Moscow for reburial in 2005, and he ‘brought home’ his papers from a university in Michigan. His essays were reprinted and reportedly, given to all Russian civil servants.

The purpose of his book, Synder claims, is “an attempt to win back the present for historical time, and thus win back historical time for politics” by “trying to understand one set of interconnected events in our own contemporary world history, from Russia to the United States, at a time when factuality itself was put to the question.” (p.9). His book moves roughly chronologically from 2011 onwards in six chapters titled as opposites: Individualism or Totalitarianism; Succession or Failure; Integration or Empire; Novelty or Eternity; Truth or Lies; Equality or Oligarchy.  He identifies two of Ilyin’s strategies at play: first, identifying enemies to the Russian spirit – homosexuals, Muslims, Jews, separatists, and second, exporting to other countries an attack on truth and facts by outright lies and manipulation, with the aim of using disinformation to divide and polarize democracies (most particularly U.S. Europe and Britain).

We saw the first of these at play in the Breslin school massacre and the Moscow theatre siege, which were blamed on Chechen separatists. With the invasion of Crimea, the poisoning of Alexander Litvenenko and the Skiprals in London, the ‘intervention’ in Ukraine, and the shootdown of MH17 we saw outright lies as the Russian government denied all involvement despite clear evidence to the contrary. We have seen how Vladimir Putin models himself as a hyper-masculine, horse-riding, shirtless ‘redeemer’- and indeed, with the exception of Angel Merkel and Marine Le Pen, women have no place at all in Snyder’s book. And with the Mueller report (which had not been released at the time of publication of this book) we see Russian influence in American politics, even if Mueller did not directly link it with Trump personally. Snyder suggests that Russia is content to use Trump as a ‘useful idiot’, pumping him up as a ‘successful businessman’ and allowing him to sow his own distrust and manipulation of facts. Russia is happy for the European Union to turn on itself and splinter through Brexit,  and it has the computer networks and resources to give prominence to far-right politicians in the West and prod these forces into action.

This book is meticulously footnoted, drawing both on newspaper articles (as one might expect in such a recent history) and academic texts. It is a fairly complex read, and in joining the dots it ranges across countries and events. In doing so, he takes the time to explain the event before weaving it into his broader argument. I found this book chilling and depressing. I’m not sure that individuals are going to have the strength to resist such powerful forces, and everywhere I look – America, Britain, Europe – I find even more reasons to despair.

Perhaps he didn’t want to end up at such a bleak destination because he closes his book by arguing the importance of truth; distinguishing between the true and the appealing, and resisting cynicism. “To seek the truth means finding a way between conformity and complacency, towards individuality.”(p 278)

If we see history as it is, we see our places in it, what we might change, and how we might do better. We halt our thoughtless journey from inevitability to eternity, and exit the road to unfreedom. We begin a politics of responsibility. (p.279)


Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 9


‘Brisbane’ by Matthew Condon


2010, 314p.

I’ve been in Brisbane for the last week, and it seemed a perfect time to read Matthew Condon’s Brisbane, part of New South’s suite of books  about Australia’s capital cities written by established literary authors who had grown up in that city.  This is the first time I’ve read one of these books about a city other than my own, and you can read my response to Sophie Cunningham’s take on Melbourne (my city) here.

These books are not history books in themselves, but are instead a literary response to the city.  The author can choose her/his own approach.  But history is almost inevitably drawn into the analysis, and I was a little surprised that Condon didn’t draw more on his own work into Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s Brisbane of the 1970s and 1980s, which informs his own trilogy of the time (Three Crooked Kings, Jacks and Jokers and All Fall Down– none of which I have read).

Instead, there are two motifs that Condon uses in his book.  The first is ‘the boy’, who I strongly suspect is Condon himself, who hidden under his Queenslander house in Brisbane in the 1960s, draws a map of the city in the dirt, marking his own significant places.  The second motif is an obelisk placed in the city under the aegis of Frank Cumbrae-Stewart, then president of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, as part of the centenary of the settlement of Moreton Bay. The odd thing is that the obelisk is placed in a most inhospitable place that is not the right spot anyway. You can read about my own adventures trying to find the damned thing here.

The book moves slowly in a roughly chronological fashion, but there are lots of flash-forwards and backs, with the memories of ‘the boy’ interwoven throughout. The writing is beautiful and evocative, steeped in Brisbane sunshine and a little abashed at Brisbane’s try-hard attempts at sophistication and modernity.  I suspect that this whole series is aimed at readers who are very familiar with the cities described, and I found myself a little frustrated at the lack of a map and the easy assumptions made by the author that a stranger would immediately know suburbs and locations.   But this insider-ism honours the intent of the books to be travel-books-without-leaving-home, written for those ‘at home’ rather than visitors. They are impressionistic rather than instructive.

That said, I think that my experience of Brisbane was enhanced by having read this book, despite being an outsider, and next time I go to another city featured in the series, I’ll read that city’s  book too.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: ebook from SLV.

‘Constellations: Reflections from Life’ by Sinéad Gleeson


2019, 242 p.

It’s strange that the book that annoyed me most this year, Lee Kofman’s Imperfect, and one of the best books I’ve read this year, Constellations deal with very similar subject matter. Like Lee Kofman, Sinéad Gleeson had a childhood marked by illness, and then six months to the day after her wedding, she was diagnosed with leukemia. With a major operation to fuse her severely arthritic hipjoints, she (like Kofman) would have her share of scars, and she, too, has considered other women whose bodies have betrayed them. But where I felt that Kofman’s book was self-indulgent, bitter and almost voyeruistic  in its observations on her own and other peoples’ flaws, Gleeson’s book is deeply human and ultimately optimistic. Reflecting on the metal implants, stitches and  surgical interventions on her own body, she writes

I have come to think of all the metal in my body as artificial stars, glistening beneath the skill, a constellation of old and new metal. A map, of tracing connections and a guide to looking at things from different angles. (p. 17)

And so, with this title, each self-contained chapter is marked out by a star map of the constellations that reference, often obliquely, the content. While certainly some of the chapters deal with her illnesses, she ranges further into a consideration of motherhood, friendship and Alzheimers. This collection of stories looks forward as well as back, with a concern not about the ‘body surface’ as Kofman would call it, but an honest and deeply compassionate appreciation of – and she does appreciate, value, honour – the person inside.

She uses interesting constructs to structure her narratives. In ‘60,000 Miles of Blood’ – the length of all the blood vessels in the human body- different sections of her writing are titled by blood group:  A+, A-, B+, O etc.  In this story she reflects on her own diagnosis of leukemia, blood donation, periods, Blood of Christ, DNA. In ‘Where Does It Hurt?’ she uses the adjectives in the McGill pain index to verbalise pain (Hot/Burning/Scalding vs. Wretched/Blinding) as the headings for small reflections on pain, some in verse, some in prose. ‘Panopticon: Hospital Visions’ is actually written in hospital, a series of very short paragraphs, observing the ward around her.

It’s not all illness. In ‘On the Atomic Nature of Trimesters’ and ‘The Moons of Motherhood’, she writes about pregnancy, birth and early motherhood. She observes other people and their relationships to their bodies- Frida Khalo, Lucy Grearly and Jo Spence in a chapter similar and yet so different to Kofman’s work. There’s a chapter about the Irish referendum campaign to amend the constitutional ban on abortion (which I heard about in a podcast) and she gives us one of the most insightful and respectful stories about Alzheimers that I have ever read in ‘Second Mother’.

These are beautiful stories, detached and yet deeply human, written in crystalline prose. With Kofman’s Imperfect, I could feel myself taking a step back from the author, not wanting to associate with her. My response could not have been more different with this book. Here is a  breathing, loving, compassionate human – ‘body surface’ and deeper – and one that I wanted to stand closer beside, to hear more.

My rating: 9.5 /10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library