Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John’ by Helen Trinca


2013, 243 p.

The author of this biography, Helen Trinca, came to know of Madeleine St John through one of her books. So did I.  For me it was The Women in Black, which I read back in 2011 as part of an online Australian Literature bookgroup and reviewed here. Erroneously suspecting that it was autobiographical, it seemed to me at the time to be a “happy, satisfying read” and “a small nugget of a book, affectionate, nostalgic and optimistic.” The film, The Ladies in Black (I hadn’t noticed the change in title before) was released in 2018, and it also struck me as a “feel-good, look-good” movie.

Having now read Trinca’s biography of St John, I couldn’t have been more wrong about The Women in Black being autobiographical.  And if I found the book “affectionate, nostalgic and optimistic”, perhaps that says more about St John’s skill as a writer than anything else, because the author was certainly none of those things.  Instead, she was prickly, bitter and more likely to hold a grudge than indulge in nostalgia.

Born in 1941 while her father was with the A.I.F. in Palestine, Madeleine St John’s mother Sylvette was Romanian, but styled herself as French after arriving in Sydney in 1934. Her father was the barrister and later M.P. Edward (Ted) St John, from a blue-blood conservative family.  The surname, pronounced ‘Sinjin’ niggled at me – something about the Voyager maritime disaster– and Trinca’s book reminds us that it was during his maiden speech as a Parliamentarian that St John attacked his own party and called for  second Royal Commission into the accident (which, when it finally occurred, completely overturned the findings of the first, flawed Royal Commission). But the Ted St John who appears in this biography is not so much the politician, as a father – and in Madeleine St John’s eyes, a very poor one.  Her parent’s marriage was an unhappy one. Her mother was an alcoholic, and Madeleine and her sister Colette were packed off to boarding school. When Madeleine was twelve, her parents divorced and soon afterwards her mother Sylvette committed suicide. Her father badly bungled telling his daughters, and remarried too quickly, to Val.

As Madeleine St John was too ready to tell everyone, her father’s perfidy and betrayal lay at the heart of her own world-view. Her anger and bitterness about it warped nearly every aspect of her life right up to her death. She was mercurial, cruel and self-centred, allowing people to come close and then spurning them when they became too close. The irony is that even though she despised her father and idolized her mother, she combined traits from both of them.  While denying all her life that her mother had committed suicide, she shared Sylvette’s fragile mental health, and suffered depression and breakdowns. She certainly shared her father’s black-and-white views about what was right, and refused to compromise them for anyone. For the sake of her own principles, however she defined them, she often acted against her own interests and burnt many people. She was more like her father than she would ever have admitted.

Madeleine enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1959 and circulated amongst that golden generation who were to head off to England: Clive James, Barry Humphries, Bruce Beresford, Les Murray, Robert Hughes, Mungo MacCallum. In this testosterone-heavy atmosphere, she became one of the sub-editors of Honi Soit (the university newspaper) but was never published in it. She was part of a group of eight girls, dubbed ‘The Octopus’ who joined up with the Sydney University Dramatic Society and regularly met at a cafe in Manning House.  She married and moved with her husband, Christopher Tillam, to America where he embarked on a film-making career. As emotionally brittle as she was, it was no surprise that the marriage faltered. Madeleine moved to England where she worked in a succession of bookshops and antique shops, managed to get council housing and developed an image that combined a  stylishness and snobbery that belied her meagre income. She became rigidly religious, and spent years – even decades- writing a biography of Mme Blavatsky, the Theosophist, which she ended up burning (and which I would have been quite interested to read, really.) She was not published until 1993, at the age of 52, when she released The Women in Black, set in the sun-drenched Sydney of her own adolescence. Her three other works were set in her own London-based suburb Notting Hill, one of which (The Essence of the Thing)  was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, thus bringing her to the attention of the Australian literary scene.

She did not particularly welcome the acclaim that publication brought her, and although it gave her the financial means to travel, she was no happier than she had been previously.  She abhorred the thought that she would be embraced as an Australian by the Australian literary scene, when she had spent all her adult life putting her Australian nationality behind her. In poor health, she eschewed the attempts at reconciliation by her step-mother Val, and continued to draw in and then reject her friends, who would be bewildered by her change towards them.  In poor health from emphysema, she became increasingly concerned to shape her image after her rapidly-approaching death, rejecting one literary executor for another, and demanding the return of letters.

I think that Madeleine St John would have been infuriated by this biography, where the author treats her with a cool impassiveness. She does not buy into St John’s histrionics and manipulations, but recognizes patterns in her behaviour and makes some sense of it, without condoning it. The book lightens, as did St John’s own life, once she achieved her break-through publications, but for Trinca (and me, for that matter), her writing only highlighted the paradox between the writer and her work. Trinca keeps her eyes steadily on Madeleine the character, and there is no in-depth analysis of the books as such. Her footnotes pay testament to the author’s diligence in tracking down friends and acquaintances – none of whom could give unalloyed praise for St John. She was fortunate to be given access to a collection of audiotapes recorded by St John that were left in the keeping of a friend.  She read St John’s own statements about her life with a judicious eye, and combed through the lively but self-serving correspondence that other people had kept, much against St. John’s wishes. Using this network of friends and acquaintances, Trinca manages to weave a background against which St John’s life can be placed; a background that captures the heady optimism of university life in the early 1960s, the tangled connections amongst an intellectual and creative largely expatriate milieu, and the continued warp and weft of family background, no matter how much someone might want to distance themselves from it.

There are a lot of people in this book, and I was often glad of the index to remind myself who was who. It was a little frustrating that the index was organized by surname, whereas the text referred to people, in a familiar tone, by first name. More than once I found myself having to scan the whole index, until I found the first name mentioned in the text.

This is an excellent biography, that captures well the ambivalence of the biographer towards her subject.  It won the Prime Ministers Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2014, and was short-listed for several other awards. The summary on the back cover of the book mentions sadness, tragedy, love and perseverence.  I don’t know if I could be so charitable. Self-centredness, control and vindictiveness spring more to mind for me. And the mismatch between St John’s writing and her own life? I remain mystified, and I suspect that even after all this exhaustive research, I think Trinca might be too.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from:  CAE bookgroup and read for The Ladies Who Say Oooh.


I have added this to the Australian Women Writers Challenge.



‘Sisters/Hermanas’ by Gary Paulsen


1993, 64 p. English/Spanish. Translated into Spanish by Gloria de Aragón Adújar

This YA novella is presented in  both Spanish and English, each upside down from the other. I read it in Spanish, (and it was just right for an Intermediate Spanish student) but if you flipped it the other way, you could read it in English. An effective format for a language learner: the other language was there if you wanted it, but it was enough of a hassle to turn the book over and find the corresponding page that I generally persevered it trying to work it out for myself. I could then read the English chapter, just to make sure that I had got the gist.



Rosa is a 14 year old illegal immigrant from Mexico City who works as a prostitute. She dreams of becoming a model, but in the meantime she endures her lifestyle, sending money home to her mother in Mexico.  Traci is a blonde 14 year old from the suburbs, whose mother is preening her to become head cheerleader, which will launch her into a dazzling career as a beauty queen.

The book presents their stories in alternating chapters, as each of the girls gets ready, then brings them together in a clothing store at a mall. Rosa is hiding from the police, Traci finds her and with a jolt, recognizes them as being sisters  – not literally, but as holder of the same dreams which they are powerless to fulfill in a very imperfect world.

A compelling novella, and just right for my Spanish level.  The original text was written in English, and it was translated into Spanish by Gloria de Aragón Andújar

‘Communism: A Love Story’ by Jeff Sparrow


2007, 294 p.

‘Communism’ and ‘Love Story’- now they are two words that you don’t very often hear in the same sentence. Jeff Sparrow’s book centres on Guido Baracchi, a wealthy Melbourne political activist and Communist, described by historian Stuart Macintyre  as “the knight errant of Australian radicalism…a man of considerable wealth and emotional spontaneity, utterly without guile  or worldly ambition, of luminous innocence and limitless self-centredness” (cited on p. 5).

It’s hard to believe now, with liberalism under threat in many places, with Putin becoming such an unnerving presence and after Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin in 1956, that Communism in the first half of the 20th century could have elicited passion -and yes, love-  amongst its followers. But as Sparrow explains:

Communism provided an alternative. It was, in many way, the alternative, the most important indicator that society could be remade. Between 1917 and 1989, its star shone bright and its star shone dim, but its continuing sparkle in the political firmament allowed millions to believe in a world beyond the free market. Even those who despised communism felt that while it existed, change- whether they wanted it or not- was a possibility.

Today that feeling is gone….With communism gone, few of us can articulate a different kind of society, another economic model or even a philosophical challenge to the buy-low, sell-high ethics of the market. (p. 3)

Guido Baracchi was born in Melbourne in 1887, the son of the Italian-born astronomer at the Melbourne Observatory who had responsibility for the Great Melbourne Telescope.  He provided his son Guido an education that would seem to almost guarantee ‘respectability’.  He went to kindergarten with later Governor-General Richard Casey, attended Melbourne Grammar School where later Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne Bruce was an older fellow-student, and studied at Melbourne University with later Prime Minister Robert Menzies. He was diametrically opposed to them politically.  He threw himself into student politics at Melbourne University, – through the Melbourne University Historical Society no less- was arrested for an anti-conscription speech he gave on the Yarra Bank in 1918, started the Victorian Labor College and edited ‘Industrial Solidarity, the journal of the International Industrial Workers, the successor to the banned Industrial Workers of the World. He was a foundation member of the Communist Party of Australia in 1920, and edited their journal Proletarian.

But if there was romance and idealism, there was also disillusionment, especially in the 1920s. Travelling to Europe in 1922 after the failure of his marriage, Baracchi worked as a professional revolutionary in Weimar Berlin, and was part of the disastrously failed uprising of the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) in 1923. Returning to Australia, he found the Australian communists in disarray.  The Melbourne branch had collapsed completely, many branches were dysfunctional, the Sydney branch was hollowed out. Those members still active were exhausted, others quarrelled over doctrine and Baracchi despaired of the leadership. In 1925, he suggested the dissolution of the CPA as a separate entity, urging the formation of a ginger group within the ALP instead. The leadership of the party expelled him, and he was to pay for this ‘disloyalty’ for years afterwards.

Although not part of the CPA, he travelled to Russia, where he stayed for a year, working as a translator in the Co-Operative Publishing Society for Foreign Workers.  Returning to Australia with his communist credentials burnished, he was eventually readmitted into the CPA. But he wasn’t to be there for long, because he was expelled in 1940 for Trotskyite tendencies. He turned his attention to the ALP instead, hoping to promote socialism within the party and died in 1975 after a day handing out how-to-vote cards for the Labor Party.

I’m not particularly familiar or interested in the intricacies of Marxist theory or the schisms and alliances between different branches of Marxism. However, Sparrow did not dwell on this, although I’m sure that a reader more versed in such things would pick up on observations and comments that just passed me by.

But this book is more than a book about Communism politics in 20th century Australia. Sparrow combines the political and the personal, and certainly Guido had a tumultuous love life, marrying and partnering several times.  There must have been something about him, though, because often his wives/partners got on well with their predecessors and successors. He shifted between Melbourne, Europe,  and back to Melbourne in 1924 to claim his considerable inheritance in nearby (to me) and highly respectable Ivanhoe – the thing that prompted me to read this book in the first place. He travelled through Russia, and later shifted to Sydney where he lived at Castlecrag, the estate designed by Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion Mahony Griffin.

He was thoroughly imbricated in the progressive intellectual network of the time. He had an affair with Katharine Susannah Pritchard, he was a close friend of Esmonde Higgins, the nephew of H.B. Higgins and sister to Nettie Palmer.  He had an affair with the poet Lesbia Harford; he lived with the playwright Betty Roland in Russia, and circulated with her amongst the artists at Montsalvat and Castlecrag. This is a story not just of one man, but of an intellectual milieu, over several decades.

This book brought me everything that I like most about biography: a clear and chronological narrative of events; rich context to make sense of them; depiction of a complex social network around the subject; an appraisal of emotional entanglements, and most importantly, a curiosity about the subject that acknowledges foibles, complexities and inexplicabilities. All this, written with sensitivity and insight- an excellent biography!

My rating: 9.5 / 10

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

‘The Tyrant’s Novel’ by Tom Keneally


2003, 292 p.

I read this book soon after it was published in 2003, when the idea of locking up ‘illegal arrivals’ without visas in detention centres,  introduced in the 1990s by the Keating Government, had been ramped up to the the mandatory off-shore detention of all arrivals by boat under what was euphemistically called the ‘Pacific Solution‘.  The book  has only increased in power in the 17 years since, especially with the very public face of Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, whose book No Friend But the Mountains received widespread critical acclaim. It’s as if Keneally’s book has been brought to life.

Keneally’s novel is in three parts.  Part 1, ‘The Visitor’s Preface’, told in the first person, frames the novel. An unnamed journalist narrator accompanies a female colleague to a thinly disguised Villawood Detention Centre. There he meets ‘Alan Sheriff’, the name adopted by an Iraqi refugee incarcerated there, who proceeds to tell him “the saddest and silliest story you will ever hear”.

The bulk of the body is in Part 2, ‘Alan Sheriff’s Story’. It is also told in the first person as a memoir, although on occasions Alan breaks off to note the detention-centre conditions under which the story is being told.  ‘Alan Sheriff’ is a writer, who after the moderately successful publication of a book of short stories in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, had been working quietly on a novel. When tragedy strikes suddenly and without warning, he puts the novel aside, feeling that his life and work is futile in the face of his grief. Suddenly the summons arrives from Great Uncle (a thinly disguised Saddam Hussein) for him to write a novel within a month which will be published under Great Uncle’s name.  His loyalties to friends who have also become enmeshed in Great Uncle’s web of power, and his fears for their safety, push him to acquiesce.

The novel closes with ‘After-Tale’ which tells of how ‘Alan Sheriff’ has ended up in the detention centre.

Keneally has made a number of authorial decisions here which are interesting.  First, as an article by Caroline Baum reveals, the scenario in the detention centre and the friendship with ‘Alan Shepherd’ are real, and in her opinion, insufficiently disguised. Her article raises questions about the ethics of an author’s use of real people in what is purported to be fiction.

Second, he has decided to replace the Iraqi names of his characters with anglicized ones: Alan Sheriff, Matt McBrien, Andrew Kennedy, Sarah. This adds a sense of identification for an Australian westernized reader, but it is also jarring. I’m not sure if the trade off between making a reader think “This could be me” is worth in effect stripping his characters of all their cultural identity. In Keneally’s hands,  the story is based amongst people of an intellectual/entertainment industry elite, whose lifestyles are not that different from ours.

Third, he does not actually name Saddam Hussein, although in his afterword, he acknowledges his debt to Mark Bowden’s article “Tales of the Tyrant”in the Atlantic Monthly May 2002. Certainly, reading the article after finishing the novel (which I very much encourage you to do), you can see where Keneally has picked up the threads of his own story.

Things happen abruptly in this novel, so much so that you find yourself re-reading to see if you had understood it properly.  Keneally has a rather clumsy attempt at mirroring Shiite/Sunni theology through ‘mediationist’ and ‘intercessionists’, which only muddies the story. I’m not sure that I was convinced by Alan Sheriff’s abandonment of his own novel, and it is an important point in the plot. I can understand why Keneally has chosen to anglicize the names, but I feel condescended to as a reader; as if Keneally expects that I cannot identify with names from another culture.

However, the continued bloody-mindedness of our mandatory detention system has, if anything, worsened, and the increasing presence of so many ‘strongmen’ in politics world-wide means that this book is more relevant today than it was in 2003. Written with a clear political purpose at the time, those politics are even more urgent now.

My rating: 7.5

Sourced from: CAE Book Groups as a book group reading amongst The Ladies Who Say Oooh

‘The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire’ by Chloe Hooper


2018, 245 p.

This book was awarded the Judges Special Prize in the 2019 Community History Awards announced during History Week last year, which surprised me a little.  Not because it’s not a worthy recipient – it is – but I hadn’t thought of it as ‘history’ as such, although of course, one day it will be.  After all, journalism has been described as “the first rough draft of history”.

However I see this book more as journalism than history.  It explores the police case and resultant trial of Brendan Sokaluk, the man found guilty of intentionally lighting the Churchill fires on Black Saturday 2009.  I happened to read it in January 2020 during our summer of smoke (we haven’t yet coined a name for it, perhaps because we fear that the worst is yet to come).  The Murdoch media was (incorrectly) proclaiming arson as the major cause of the fires that have ravaged our east coast this season. However,on Black Saturday in 2009 – which I wrote about at the time here and here– there was a case of arson and it is explored in this book.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I ‘The Detectives’ follows the arson-squad detectives,  dispatched to Churchill while the appalling toll of 173 deaths from the Black Saturday fires was still mounting.  Here we very much see the fire’s immediate impact on both the environment, and on the people who faced it. The detectives inspect the site, they question Churchill residents, and the name ‘Brendan Sokaluk’ keeps arising. When they interview him, they suspect that they are being played, and that he is feigning incomprehension.

Part II ‘The Lawyers’, focuses mainly on the defence lawyer, Selena McCrikard, whom Hooper thanks in her acknowledgments for “her trust”.  Other workers at Victoria Legal Aid, are also thanked “for their time and candour”. Selena McCrikard, like the police, was not sure about Sokaluk’s intellectual capacity, and as part of her defence she uncovers a delayed diagnosis of autism, and a long and sad history of isolation, bullying and disadvantage. Brendan lives in his own squalid house, but his parents have tried to help him to be independent. He had worked in the gardening section at the local university, but his workmates distrusted and disliked him. It’s a pretty threadbare life.

Any sympathy evoked in Part II is put to the test in Part III ‘The Courtroom’, three years after the fires. Parallels spring to mind with Helen Garner, who has written several books based on court cases, but Hooper keeps her distance here, instead of writing herself into the story as Garner often does.  It is interesting to see fire expert Dr Kevin Tolhurst, who has appeared on our televisions and in our newspapers over the last few months, being hung out to dry in the court. The case lasted 23 days, and the jury deliberated for three days.

The book closes with a coda, when Hooper returns  to Churchill.  This is the second time she has been there, having visited it just a few days after Sokaluk was arrested. Returning to it after 2017 she found that the Hazelwood power station, the main employer in this economically depressed area, had been decommissioned after a series of suspicious fires had burnt the coalmine in 2014.  She closes her book with a reflection on fire and climate change. Arson cannot be stopped entirely, and “warmer summers in a changing climate will provide more opportunities for those drawn to lighting fires” (p. 240). The pylons that stretch from the LaTrobe Valley across Victoria, she notes, feed an electricity grid that was responsible for more deaths on Black Saturday than Brendan Sokaluk’s fire.

This is an elegantly written book, conveyed without the mental anguish and ethical turmoil that marks the work of Helen Garner, another non-fiction writer drawn to writing about crime and courthouses. Hooper does not try to pathologize Sokaluk: she leaves that to the courtroom experts.  Neither does she minimize the effect of Sokaluk’s actions on the people of Churchill. Instead, she leaves us with Shirley, who lost both her sons in the fire.  As in her earlier book, The Tall Man, Hooper peels back the layers of contemporary Australian society, and reminds us  – as if we have needed reminding this summer- that fire will continue (and even more) shape our view of ourselves as Australians.

My rating: 9/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library


I have read this as part of the Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2020

‘The Friend’ by Sigrid Nunez


2018, 224 p.

A bit of a spoiler ahead.

This is only a small book, and it feels as if you are reading a memoir or a diary, rather than a novel.  It is addressed to an unnamed, dead friend in the second person “you” throughout, and it is a series of short paragraphs, separated by time and asterisks. The unnamed narrator is a female writer, teaching creative writing at a university as many writers tend to do. Her friend, to whom the book is addressed, was her mentor, a fellow teacher and also a writer and he had committed suicide.

Her friend is/was an egotistical, priapic curmudgeon really, but she loved him- not sexually, but as a friend. He was onto Wife Number Three (all the wives are designated this way), and when Wife Number Three refuses to continue caring for the writer’s huge Great Dane, called Apollo, the narrator reluctantly takes over his care.  It’s a big ask- she’s living in a small, rent-controlled flat in Manhattan, where animals are forbidden. On one level the book is about her deepening love for the dog, which is almost a form of displacement for her love for her friend. But it’s also about death, suicide, and most of all about writing.  Writing as an individual practice; writing as a social practice; writing as an industry.  The book flutters with allusions to other authors, most particularly My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley (which I had never heard of) and Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, which I have read, and which shares a stubborn, unlovely old man. It is very much a reader’s and writer’s book, filtering the world through the words of other people, and using other people’s narratives as a way of making sense of things.

Near the end, there is a curious hiccough, that makes you wonder whether you read it correctly.  It is barely mentioned in the reviews that I have read of the book, which also seems strange.

It’s only a short book, and it quivers with emotion, making it an uncomfortable and yet compelling read.  I finished it wondering “what on earth WAS that book?”

My rating:  8/10

Sourced from: e-book from Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘Kathleen O’Connor of Paris’ by Amanda Curtin


2018, 320 p.

Look again at the title: that little preposition ‘of‘ is important. Artist Kathleen O’Connor was born in New Zealand; her family lived in Western Australia; she lived in Perth and Fremantle herself in old age, but she always saw herself as being “of” Paris. Paris was her artistic and spiritual home, and she was bound there by networks of friends and connections.  Drusilla Modjeska may have written about the sacrifice demanded of women artists in the 20th century in Stravinsky’s Lunch, but Kathleen O’Connor lived her artistic life very much on her own terms.

West Australian- based Amanda Curtin had written about Kathleen O’Connor previously. In 2011, the short story  ‘Paris bled into the Indian Ocean’ was published in a collection of Curtin’s  work. It was based on the legend that Kathleen O’Connor had returned to Australia in 1948, and enraged by the duty she had to pay to bring her own paintings back into the country, threw many of them into the ocean.  In the way that art does, this story and its evocative title spawned an art exhibition in 2014, where artist Jo Darvall responded with her own series of watery images.

As part of her research, Curtin was struck by photographs of Kathleen O’Connor taken at the age of 90 in 1967, where she glares defiantly at the photographer, her hair covered by a stylish scarf, just as the photograph on the front cover shows her in the 1920s.   Reading through a collection of letters to O’Connor held in the Battye Library in Perth, Curtin’s eye is drawn to a rather patronizing letter addressed to her, as a 36 year old woman resident in Europe, by John Winthrop Hackett, a highly respectable patriarch of Perth society,  “…what a brave girl you are to attempt to carve out you own destiny this way”.  Curtin snatches his put-down and brandishes it as an accolade, dubbing O’Connor  “Bravegirl”, a sobriquet she continues to deploy  throughout the book.

While she certainly broke with convention in remaining in Europe unchaperoned and making her own way in the Parisian art-scene, “Bravegirl” was facilitated by her family connections, even though it may not have seemed that way at times. She was the daughter of C. Y. O’Connor, the engineer who is best known for bringing water to the Western Australian Goldfields (fictionalized by Robert Drewe in The Drowner.) The Goldfields Pipeline was strongly criticized, probably prompting O’Connor’s suicide, but  the remaining O’Connor family stayed in Perth, and while not wealthy, did have entree into well-known families.  Compensation for C.Y. O’Connor’s death that the family received from the government helped to support Kathleen during her many years overseas.  However, she worked damned hard too, as seen in the huge number of paintings created during her career, now spread in private and public collections, and often re-named. The list of known exhibitions during Kathleen’s lifetime highlights her visibility, and she has been featured in a number of prominent exhibitions since her death.  And – I have to admit-  I had never heard of her.

Biographers often work hard to capture their subject’s childhood, but old age is often dismissed. Curtin has not baulked at following O’Connor’s life through to the end.O’Connor’s heart and identity might have been in Paris, but she spent many years as an older and increasingly frail woman in Western Australia.  ‘Bravegirl’ continued to paint, and while her world became smaller, she continued her interest in the art world.

The book is replete with pictures, including a series of colour illustrations in the middle of the volume.  I particularly liked the way that the works were located close to where they were discussed in the text, and she numbered the illustrations for easy reference. I was surprised by the muddied, ochred tones of her work, which to me speak more of a smoke-filled room in Europe, rather than any Australian connection.

Interestingly, the 733 footnotes at the back of the book are not divided by chapter – a rather curious approach that I have not seen used elsewhere. The footnotes reflect the deep research that Curtin has undertaken, spanning personal papers, newspapers, memoirs oral histories and interviews, as well as the secondary sources she has used to inform the context she provides so richly.

It’s not easy to know how to classify this book. My library shelves it with the Biographies, but it spills out of that category.  Curtin the author is very much present, and she often struggles again her fiction-writer sensibility, reminding herself that this is not fiction, and warning herself that she is embroidering and imagining. (It doesn’t stop her doing it, though). As with Kate Grenville’s Searching for the Secret River, this is a fiction writer wading through the waters of historical research.  Interlaced with her own reflections is  another rather oblique (and to my mind, unnecessary) set of reflections, set in the present day, as Curtin returns to Australia after farewelling a dying friend, probably the Debi to whom the book is dedicated.

I have mixed feelings about this amalgam of genres. When I first started writing my PhD, we were encouraged by some- not all- of our supervisors and other academics to be adventurous in our writing, and to break out of the conventions of thesis-writing (advice I did not follow, by the way). I have always admired the writing of historians in the ‘Melbourne School’  (Inga Clendinnen, Rhys Isaac, Greg Dening and more recently within the same tradition Tom Griffiths) and their combination of rigour and reflection.  I loved the biographer Richard Holmes’ Sidetracks and Footsteps:Adventures of a Romantic Biographer,  but some 20 years on, I’m wondering if the reflections of the biographer/ biography combination is becoming a little worn.  I, like all other historians, understand and also have felt the tedium, the intensity and the exhilaration of archive work, but I don’t know if it’s enough to hang a book on, especially after so many other people have done so beforehand.

Nonetheless, I value this book highly for bringing Kathleen O’Connor to increased prominence. Even more, the writing and evocation of place and nuance of character in Curtin’s writing, tempts me to seek out her fictional work. There, she won’t have to resist imagination or constantly wrest her work from conjecture.

My rating: 8.5

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library


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


‘The Human Tide: How Population Shaped the Modern World’ by Paul Morland


2019, 282 pages & notes

…demography is not an external factor, injected into a society from the outside and simply having a one-way impact; rather it emerges from society itself and is as much caused by its environment as it is shaped by it. Nonetheless causal links can be traced from demographic patterns in the way the world works and the way in which events unfold. And while the human tide does not determine the cause of history, it moulds it, and it seems clear in most cases that different demography would have led to a different outcome.  (p.236)

As is often the case when I have read a book that has influenced my thinking, it seems that all of a sudden there are examples and illustrations all around me. China’s population, which we were convinced was going to ‘swamp’ us, is suddenly in decline; the US reports the slowest population growth in a century; Tony Abbott warns of a Western extinction crisis; Dick Smith keeps publishing his overpopulation advertisements; and in my own little family I am absolutely revelling in the birth of four grandchildren in four years.

Paul Morland, Associate Research Fellow with the Dept of Politics at Birkbeck College UK, starts his book with England in the 1800s, as the industrial revolution is gathering steam (literally!). He argues that the rise in population and the industrial revolution were each reliant on and fed each other.  Both rose, then stabilized.  The rise in population resulted from a decrease in infant mortality and the increase in life expectancy, and the reduction in children that springs from education of girls.  Furthermore, this pattern has occurred and will continue to occur in societies across the world, albeit influenced by pro-natalist politicians, dictators, immigration and epidemics/natural disasters. This, in a nutshell, is his argument: that population growth eventually stabilizes, even in societies that threaten the West today with their demographic fecundity.  He likens it to a film that starts screening in a cinema at different sessions.  Even though you would see a different part of the film in each individual cinema, they all end the same way.

His book is divided into three parts. Part I is an introduction to Population and History. Population growth matters because it spurs economic growth, but it also makes it possible to wage war without fears of running out of replacement soldiers.  Part II focuses on Europe: first, the spread of the British Empire, second, the German and Russian Challenges particularly leading into WWI, third, the West since 1945 and finally, Russia and the Eastern Bloc since 1945.  Part III is titled ‘The Tide Goes Global: Beyond the Europeans’. Here he deals first with Japan, China and East Asia where the aging of the population can be seen again and again;  then the Middle East and North Africa, where populations are booming in the midst of  (and perhaps, in themselves, fomenting) instability; and a concluding section ‘Nothing New Under the Sun? Final frontiers and Future Vistas’. He identifies Sri Lanka as the ‘goldilocks country’ in terms of population – not too much, not too little  (I wonder if he factored the Tamil ‘outflow’ as part of this?)

He argues that the future will be ‘more grey, more green and less white’. It will be more grey, because the world’s median age will be 40 by 2100. An older world generally means a less-bellicose world (because societies with older populations tend to fight fewer wars), but it also means that there is a smaller cohort to provide the resources to care for an older population.  Green? He optimistically predicts that an increased population – because it will increase, before it stabilizes – will force technological change to meet ecological demands, in the same way that improved technological techniques have averted the Malthusian disaster that was predicted for so many years.  And finally, it will be less white as immigration, especially from the Middle East and Africa, will bring changes to formerly Anglosphere societies.

This is an amazingly broad book, sweeping right across with globe, with even Australia and New Zealand getting a look in. It combines statistics (which made my eyes glaze just a little) with human anecdotes (which brought me back to life again). I think, however, that he is too cavalier with his attitude towards the environment. There’s plenty about people, but he is almost silent about the planet on which they are living – and this is a bad oversight, and one that almost undercuts his whole argument.

That said, however, the book brings demography, which is often an unspoken force, into the spotlight. And once you’ve seen it, you see it everywhere.

My rating: 7.5 / 10    I am really troubled by his ignoring the environmental question

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library


‘The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047’ by Lionel Shriver


2016,  402 P.

[Spoilers ahead]

My local library has taken to labelling their fiction book collection as ‘Romance’ ‘Australian’ or in this case, ‘Humour’.****  Anyone reading this book for a chuckle would be sadly disappointed. Sure, there are spikes of satire and parody, but this dystopian novel could only be called ‘humour’ by someone who shares its libertarian, anti-Government, gun-toting politics. And that sure ain’t me.

[****And don’t get me started on my library’s determination to turn itself into a bookshop by grouping books into ‘Travel and History’ and ‘Mind and Body’ and leaving you to work out the category. Sheesh.]

In 2029 the Mandibles ( get it? jaw bone, consumers etc.) are a wealthy family, waiting on the elderly patriarch to die and allow the fortune to trickle down to his son, Carter Mandible, former newspaper editor, and his expatriate author daughter Enola. Carter’s children, Avery and Florence, and grandchildren are waiting on the inheritance too. Avery and her economist husband Lowell live an affluent lifestyle with their three children Savannah and sons Goog and Bing (get it? names of search engines). Living a more abstemious lifestyle, Florence works in a homeless shelter as a community worker, with her husband/partner Esteban from Mexico and son Willing  (get it? I don’t know if I do. I tired of Shriver’s smartarsery with naming. He was the most competent one there, so perhaps Willing and Able?)

There had been rumbles of trouble brewing before 2029, when the book opens. In 2024 all internet-based infrastructure had failed, a crisis five years later known as the Stoneage or “Stonnage”. It was just a blip – although the government and power companies insisted that all payments to them be made by old-fashioned cheque – and by 2029 it was seen as a problem largely overcome. The real problem came in 2029 when a supranational currency known as the ‘bancor‘ (actually proposed by John Maynard Keynes in 1940) made the American dollar redundant in international trade. Mexican-born POTUS Alvarado defaulted on America’s debt. Deciding to go it alone, the American economy relied on the surrender of all gold reserves and the strict prohibition of the use of the bancor.  Almost overnight the Mandible fortune had been wiped out, along with the middle-class professions which American’s indebtedness had made possible.

Margaret Atwood has famously said in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale that she only wrote about things that had already occurred somewhere in the world at some time. Dystopian fiction – especially in the near future –  is at its best, I think, when it just extrapolates slightly from current events. In this regard, Shriver does pretty well. Our increasing acceptance of digital monetary transactions, the rise of China and Russia as world powers, the increasing Latin-Americanizing of the United States – all these things are happening now, and the book doesn’t demand a great deal of imagination to accept the scenario she is drawing.

But the scenario itself calls from her a great deal of explanation – too much explanation – much of which is carried through conversations at dinner parties and when the much-reviled economist Lowell and his smartypants son Goog and nephew Willing hold forth about the economy.

However, once the scenario has been established, the indignities and implications of economic collapse in our soon-present world mount up. What happens when the toilet paper runs out? How does a family deal with dementia when aged care is impossible?

Shriver squibs it a bit when she leaps from 2029 to 2047 in one jump. The establishment of a new, equally uncomfortable world order is glossed over, and here the politics of the book take over. It’s off to Nevada we go, with no Big Government looking into your bank account, with 10% taxation, with people taking responsibility for themselves.   It’s no Utopia, as the Nevadan keep telling themselves, but it’s freedom. And at this point, my Australian lefty-ness starts to arc up and I remember that I’m not particularly  enamoured of Lionel Shriver as a polemicist.

That said, I have found myself thinking about this book quite a bit since I finished it. When I first started it, I was also watching the excellent Years and Years on SBS On Demand, which I found a bit confusing as they both deal with near-future dystopias. Once I settled into Shriver’s book, and left behind the explanations and moved into the family dynamics, I was transfixed. I still don’t like where I ended up though.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘Learn Spanish with Stories for Beginners’ by Claudia Orea


124 p.

To be honest, I had forgotten that I had ordered this as a Kindle book. I don’t have a Kindle as such (I do have a Kobo) and I only read Kindle books on my tablet. I started reading it, then joined in a group reading of La Distancia Entre Nosotros by Reyna Grande instead.  Once I finished the novel, I remembered that I had this book half-read.

So I find myself in the position of being able to compare a ‘real’ book (albeit a Young Adult book) with a book consciously written for beginners. The ‘real’ book wins hands down. I found myself having to look up about 4-6 words per page in Grande’s book, and it was interesting that the further I went on, the fewer words I had to look up. Most of the words I needed to look up were verbs.  Even if I didn’t recognize the word at first, I was able to work in out in context. In Orea’s short stories, on the other hand, there were many more words that were unfamiliar to me, and they were mostly nouns. Being short stories, and with short sentences, there were far fewer contextual cues. And I suppose that because it is an instructional text, there was a conscious decision to focus on ‘building vocabulary’, hence the long list of new words at the end of each story.

Several of the stories were in the present tense, which is fair enough for a beginners’ book.  However, a number of the stories were either a) boring or b) downright weird. Take for example ‘Las Apariencas Engañan’ (Appearances Deceive). It’s about a man who pimps up his girlfriend to go cruising looking for men, except that the girlfriend is an alligator who eats them.  Hmmm.  However, I’m not a great short story fan in English either – especially when the short story is very short – and so I’m probably not the best judge.

The stories themselves are about 1500 words in length, and after each paragraph there is a vocabulary list. This is good, because you don’t have to go rummaging around at the back of the book or in a dictionary – the words are right there when you need them. There are multiple choice comprehension questions at the end of the story, and I found them useful. There’s then a short summary in Spanish, followed by the same summary translated into English.  There are audio recordings which I didn’t download.  I found the length good, because reading in another language is tiring. I could only read about 2 or 3 pages of Grande’s book in one sitting.

Would I read another book like this? I don’t think so. The words were too disembodied and the stories too banal or too weird. I’d prefer a news article e.g. in BBC Mundo or a book written for its story rather than for its instructional value.