Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2018

AWW Badge 2018As has become tradition, I’m devoting my last Monday Musings of the year to the Australian Women Writers Challenge* – but, this year it coincides with New Year’s Eve. When this post goes live, who knows what revelry I’ll be up to! Hmm … I can but hope! Seriously, though, I wish all you wonderful Whispering Gums followers an excellent 2019 in whatever form you would like that to take. I also want to thank you for supporting my blog with your visits and comments. You make this blog such an enjoyable experience for me.

Now, the challenge … it has continued to go very well. In my area of Literary and Classics, we consolidated 2017’s impressive increase in the number of reviews posted, with roughly the same number posted again this year. Theresa Smith (of Theresa Smith writes), continued to oversee the day-to-day management of the blog, enabling Challenge founder Elizabeth Lhuede to be less hands-on. Elizabeth is, however, still an active presence, particularly when it comes to resolving technical issues, reviewing our policies (such as “do we need to update our definition of historical fiction”?), and so on. The database now contains reviews for nearly 5,200 books across all forms and genres, from all periods, of Australian women’s writing. This means that the number of books reviewed on our database increased by 800 books – a 17% increase. Most of these were new releases but older books were also added, making the database particularly rich for readers interested in the long tail!

Most years, I’ve shared some highlights from the Challenge, but this year was more one of consolidation than of many new happenings, so, in the interests of keeping this post short and to the point, I’ll move straight on to reporting on the reviews I contributed for the year.

My personal round-up for the year

Let’s start with the facts, followed by some commentary. I posted 34 reviews for the challenge, four more than I did in 2016 and 2017, but one, admittedly, was a guest post. Here they are, with links to my reviews:

Jenny Ackland, Little godsFICTION

CHILDREN’S PICTURE BOOKS

Carmel Bird, Dead aviatrixSHORT STORIES

SCRIPTS

Amanda Duthie, Margaret and DavidNON-FICTION

This year I reversed the trend of previous years which saw me reading fewer and fewer novels for the Challenge – 48% in 2015, 40% in 2016, and only 34% in 2017 – compared with other forms of writing. This year, however, novels comprised over 55% of my AWW challenge reading, which proportion more closely reflects my reading preferences.

I read no poetry or verse novels this year, but I did read two plays by Garner. I also read fewer short story collections or anthologies, but I did read more Classics, including individual short stories. I’d love to read more of those. My non-fiction reading was more diverse – that is, significantly fewer memoirs than last year.

Claire G Coleman, Terra nulliusI’m disappointed that I only read two books this year by Indigenous Australian women – Claire G. Coleman’s novel and Marie Munkara’s memoir. I’d like to improve this next year – and have two right now on the “definitely-will-be-read pile”, so that’s a start.

Anyhow, if you’d like to know more about the Challenge, check it out here. We are also on Facebook, Twitter (@auswomenwriters), GoodReads and Google+. Do consider joining us. All readers are welcome.

Finally, a big thanks again to Theresa, Elizabeth and the rest of the team. I love being part of this challenge, partly because I believe in its goals but also because the people involved are so willing and cooperative. They are a pleasure to work with. See you in 2019.

And so, on to 2019

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeThe 2019 sign up form is ready, so this is also my Sign Up post for next year. As always, I’m nominating myself for the Franklin level, which is to read 10 books by Australian women and post reviews for at least 6 of those. I expect, of course, to exceed this.

* This challenge was instigated by Elizabeth Lhuede in 2012 in response to concerns in Australian literary circles about the lack of recognition for women writers. I have been one of the challenge’s volunteers since 2013, being responsible for the Literary and Classics areas.

Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic (Guest post by Amanda) (#BookReview)

I am thrilled to host this post by Amanda who responded to my call on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for a review of Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic, which won the Best Writing Award in this year’s Melbourne Prize for Literature awards. However, Amanda does not have a place to post reviews on-line, so we agreed that I would post it here so it can then be added to the AWW database. Thanks very much Amanda!

Amanda notes that Tumarkin has her own web page, and that Axiomatic has also been shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards to be announced at the end of Jan 2019.

Amanda’s review

Maria Tumarkin, AxiomaticHaving lived outside Australia for several decades I had not heard of Tumarkin.  A professor in Creative Writing at Melbourne University, she is the author of several non-fiction titles, Axiomatic being her 4th and her first with Brow Books publishing – an independent, not-for-profit publisher dedicated to innovative writing at about marginalised topics.

At the time of this review, Axiomatic had won the Melbourne Prize for Literature’s 2018 Best Writing Award. And Axiomatic is great writing but it is also flawed.

More like a compilation of long essays, the title is derived from 5 axioms which are the themes driving each section of the book. The writer then goes on through the essays to dispel the axiom through a collection of real life case studies and experiences.

She opens with her strongest and most heart-wrenching piece “Time Heals All Wounds” about teenage suicide in Australia. Tumarkin’s writing is a powerful composite of investigative journalism, analytical thinking and literary technique. Brutal and unflinching – delivering a  punch to the gut – Tumarkin is able to conjure in the mind’s eye all the complexities and nuances of grief, love and survival  through snippets of conversation and quotidian details. She includes numerous references to contemporary writers, classical literature, Greek mythology and philosophers, deftly combining both fiction and non-fiction.

In terms of critiques – and there are a few – the writing never lets up. There is no pause, no distraction, no break in the narrative for the reader apart from what is self-imposed. Sentences have been meticulously crafted and her writing sings, but it’s hard to appreciate it all because Axiomatic is so unrelenting.

Tumarkin’s arguments are also often convoluted. She veers off on tangents at the slightest provocation and then expands these into auxiliary sections. Her analysis is at its best in the first three sections when dealing with complex social issues, and is less effective and more self-indulgent when focusing on her personal friendships and relationships. (The last section – “You Can’t Enter the Same River” – seems out of place). The book is uneven in quality.

Axiomatic is not balanced nor fair in its judgments. Some would question Tumarkin’s right to take a position on any of these subject but, as she states herself, this has never stopped her in the past, and it certainly doesn’t now. She likes “to kick the floorboards out from under her readers”, so are the shock techniques of her writing her key selling points? If so, she is selling short the stories of these survivors.

Reasoning aside, what Axiomatic lacks from a visceral perspective is hope. Fictitious happy endings are overrated, but hope is not. Tumarkin puts forth unattainable Utopian standards both for society and its participants in order to fix its ills, and therefore Axiomatic is ultimately nihilistic.

As a reader, the one question I have is – what does Tumarkin wish to achieve with this book? She paints in grim detail an Australian society bereft with failings. The unsung heroes rallying against the system and circumstances are alone. But these problems of teenage suicide, poverty, abuse ,corruption and inadequate systems are perennial and  can be made about many countries.

There are no easy solutions to these problems. Tumarkin does not have the answers. Most readers will be both devastated and frustrated with the pieces – is it meant to serve as a rally cry for the rest of us to do more to rectify these issues? You can’t read Axiomatic and not be moved – but then what do you do with this awareness?

If you’ve read Axiomatic, Amanda and I would love to know what you think about it, and Tumarkin’s intentions?

AWW Badge 2018Maria Tumarkin
Axiomatic
Brow Books, 2018
201pp.
ISBN: 9781925704051

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedom (#BookReview)

Clare Wright, You daughters of freedomWell, that was a tome and a half! And in saying this I’m referring less to the length of Clare Wright’s new history, You daughters of freedom: The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world, than to its depth and richness. There are, in fact, two main stories going on here – the story of women’s suffrage in Australia and England, and that of Australia’s leadership in the world, at the time, in terms of progressive politics, of forward-thinking social legislation. They were heady, optimistic times, and the suffragists (being those men and women who advocated for women’s enfranchisement) were part of it all.

Clare Wright frames her history of this period in Australia’s nationhood through the story of five suffragists – Vida Goldstein (1869-1949), Dora Montefiore (1851-1933), Nellie Martel (1855-1940), Dora Meeson Coates (1869-1955), and Muriel Matters (1877-1969). These women should – like that famous suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst is – be household words. Indeed Pankhurst knew and used most of them in her long battle for women’s suffrage in England. Why are they not? Why, for example, asked Clare Wright at the lecture I attended, is there no statue to Vida Goldstein in Victoria? (There is, she tells us in her Epilogue, a memorial park bench in her hometown of Portland, Vic! A park bench!!)

Well, lest we think they are not well-known because achieving suffrage was oh-so easy in Australia, Vida told otherwise to a US Senate Select Committee on US Suffrage during her 1902 USA tour:

Vida wished the senators to know, too, that this was the result of years of hard fighting–in case they also subscribe to the ‘one fine day if just happened’ school of political progress.

In other words, our five women (and all the other Australian fighters for the cause) may not have had to chain themselves to a grille like Muriel Matters did in England in the Suffragette cause, nor refuse to pay taxes as Dora Montefiore also did in England for the same cause, but they had lobbied their case hard. Indeed, while South Australia granted suffrage to its women in 1894, and the new federal government to women in 1902, it took until 1908 for the last state in Australia, Victoria, to do so.

I should clarify here that, although Australia was a leader in women’s suffrage by being the first nation to legislate suffrage for all white adult Australian women, without property qualifications, and to enable those women to stand for parliament, it was just for white women. As Wright says, “it was now race, not gender, that defined the limits of Australian citizenship.”

Writing history

You daughters of freedom is, then, a good read, because the story it tells is fascinating. The five significant women are all wonderful subjects in their own right:

  • Vida Goldstein, the private school girl who “developed a passionate commitment to the underprivileged” and a “zeal for social reform”, and stood for parliament several times to pave the way for others;
  • Dora Montefiore, the committed socialist whose practice of non-violent civil disobedience was observed by a young Gandhi;
  • Nellie Martel, the elocutionist whose militant activism resulted in her being arrested in England and spurned by papers at home;
  • Dora Meeson Coates, the artist whose “Trust the women” banner is now on permanent display in Parliament House; and
  • Muriel Matters, the actor who led the grille protest in the House of Commons, flew in a “Votes for Women” labelled airship over London, and undertook a popular, successful lecture tour on English suffrage in Australia.

I’m not going to share their stories, because you can find them in reviews (like Lisa’s, in the link below), in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (on which their names above are linked), and most importantly in Clare Wright’s book. Each of these women played critical roles in the suffrage fight both home and in England where limited women’s suffrage wasn’t achieved until 1918.

No, what I want to write about is the style, because no matter how interesting or important history is, few (besides the academics and die-hards) will read it if it it’s not written in a way that engages. And this is where Wright shines. It’s a hefty tome, at nearly 500 pages. It’s a complex one which juggles the stories of five quite disparate women, from the late nineteenth century to the second decade of the twentieth. And it is extensively researched, with each page containing not one but several quotes from mostly primary sources (such as newspapers, speeches, and documents from personal papers.) A daunting work for researcher and reader alike.

In my admittedly limited knowledge of historical writing – so I might be barking up the wrong tree – Clare Wright’s approach reminded me somewhat of Thomas Carlyle’s in his three-volume The French Revolution. It’s a few decades since I read Carlyle, but that history could be written with such verve and colour made a big impression on me. Like Carlyle, though perhaps not quite so flamboyantly, Wright is not afraid to use bold rhetorical tools to tell her story. Explaining why 1911 didn’t turn out to be the golden year England’s suffragettes hoped, Wright writes:

Truth be told, the writing was on the wall well before that. The summer of 1911 continued in a national pantomime of over-the-top pageantry and under-the-surface tension with the King and his court centre stage. But the audience should have been shouting, ‘Over there! Look over there!’

Over there  … to Bermondesy […]

Over there … to Ireland […]

And further over there–to Germany […]

The glorious late summer of Edwardian England was about to shatter like a cheap vase.

There is nothing inaccurate in what she says – to my knowledge, anyhow – but the way she says it is fresh, compelling, and devoid of dry or, worse, obfuscating academese. I could pull out example after example of writing that captures our attention, but I think I’ve made my point.

Wright is also careful to make clear where the historical record is lacking. Why did Nellie, for example, suddenly disappear from public life? Wright explains that there are no clear answers, but follows up to discuss the “few clues”.

And, then, almost best of all, there’s the extensive use of contemporary newspaper reportage – surely made so much easier for modern researchers by the wonderful Trove. Wright draws on conservative and progressive newspapers from around Australia to reflect what people – as represented by editors and journalists – were thinking at the time. When Nellie, say, or Vida, were active in England, the Australian papers were watching closely and reporting. Not only does this flesh out our understanding of the suffrage question, but it fleshes out the wider social history.

The book is chronologically told, with evocatively titled chapters, such as, for example, Chapter 28’s “Homecoming Queen, Australia, winter 1910”, which chronicles Muriel Matters’ return home for her lecture tour. However, despite this signposting, readers do have to be on their mettle to keep track of our five suffragettes, to know where they are at any one time, and which of the many political organisations, if any, they’re aligned with. It’s a complicated story that Wright aims to tell – and following it requires attention.

They were heady days …

So, You daughters of freedom, is an engrossing read – but, I have to admit that, as I read it, I became sadder and sadder. This was mainly because of that thread that I mentioned in my opening paragraph, the one to do with Australia’s leadership in terms of progressive politics. What happened to us – us Australians I mean? There we were, at the turn of the century, leading the world, not only in women’s suffrage but in a whole raft of social reform measures, relating to working conditions, conditions for women and children, and, even, Maternity Allowance. We were also the first nation to elect a socialist or Labor government, when Andrew Fisher was swept into power in 1910.

Well, what happened, says Wright, was World War 1, which completely changed the nation’s narrative. But that is another story. Meanwhile, I highly recommend You daughters of freedom, and look forward to Wright’s third book in her planned trilogy on Australian democracy.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has also reviewed this book. She liked it too.

AWW Badge 2018Clare Wright
You daughters of freedom: The Australians who won the vote and inspired the world
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018
553pp.
ISBN: 9781925603934

Katharine Susannah Prichard, Christmas tree (#Review)

Katharine Susannah Prichard

Prichard, by May Moore (Presumed Public Domain, State Library of NSW)

Commenting on my recent post on Katharine Susannah Prichard’s short story “The bridge”, Prichard biographer Nathan Hobby, pointed us to an online version in Trove of her short story, “Christmas Tree”, which he describes as the best of her early work. It’s about farmers, droughts and banks. Seemed very appropriate (to us in Australia right now, anyhow) so of course I checked it out. (And I corrected the OCR-introduced errors while doing so – hope I caught them all.)

So, “Christmas tree”. Published in The Australasian in 1919, it was, according to writer Glen Phillips, the first of Prichard’s stories to be translated – into Chinese in the 1920s! Fascinating eh? It would be interesting to know who read it and what they made of it.

“Christmas tree” tells the story of Western Australian wheatbelt famers Jinny and George Gillard, and is told third person, primarily through the eyes of Jinny who, at the start, is standing at her back door, reminiscing about their thirty years on the farm. The story starts:

Against the dim blue of the summer sky the Christmas trees had thrown their blossoming crests; they lay along the horizon like a drift of clouds, fluted and curled, pure gold.

The trees stood irregularly in the dry, scrubby land of the plain beyond Gillard’s fences to the north of Laughing Lakes homestead. Their trunks were not visible from the backdoor of the house to where Jinny Gillard stood, her eyes on that distant line of yellow blossom. But she was not thinking of the dark, heavy trees which put on an appearance of such opulent beauty at Christmas time. Her thoughts glanced from them and wandered listlessly, ravelling and unravellin, fretted, anxious, thoughts, old hopes, despairs, bitter, weary, and faint, sweet memories.

This year’s crops were, in fact, better than they had been for years, but it’s all too late – it is not they who will be benefiting from this year’s wheat but the bank.

It’s a sad story, but realistic rather than melodramatic. It’s about hard work and bad luck. Jinny knows they are not the only ones who have struggled. Some have had better luck than George who had sown “lightly when a good season happened along, or heavily when the rain kept off, and so had lost both ways” but some are also in George and Jinny’s predicament. The second part of the story concerns a Christmas party underwritten by one Christopher Tregear, who was chairman of the Great Western’s board of directors and “supposed to be one of the wealthiest men in the State”. Many farmers did business with Great Western, “thinking Tregear’s position in it would guarantee them from harsh treatment. But it had not.” Not for George, not for many others, and yet, here they all are, sees Jinny, dancing and singing with him, though “he was not a good friend of theirs.” Of course, we don’t get Tregear’s point of view, but there’s a sense that with the good season coming, compromises could have been reached.

This story is enjoyable on several fronts. Its realism means it conveys the facts without the histrionics that can sometimes distance readers. The realism also makes more effective the underlying theme that with more loyalty and less greed from the men with money, more farmers could survive the bad seasons. But it’s also enjoyable because of the tight, focused writing – from the sly irony behind the parasitic Christmas trees, and the names of the Gillards’ properties, Laughing Lakes and Everlasting, through the evocative descriptive writing, to the pointed repetition of the Gillards’ mantra “Crack hardy … I’m crackin'”.

“Christmas tree” is a story that hasn’t dated. It’s as relevant now as it was 100 years ago when it was first published – stoicism and dignity never go out of date, and we are still challenged by the role capitalist structures play in people’s lives and livelihoods. Another good read from Prichard – but that’s not surprising.

AWW Badge 2018Katharine Susannah Prichard
“Christmas tree”
First published: The Australasian, 20 December 1919
Also published in Potch and colour, Angus & Robertson, 1944
Available: Online at Trove

Apology: I posted this an hour or so ago with the wrong short story title, so have deleted that post, and republished with the right title, otherwise we’ll all get confused (including Google!)

Katharine Susannah Prichard, The bridge (#Review)

Time for another post on a short story available online, but not, this time, from the Library of America. Indeed, it’s not even American, but one of our own – Katharine Susannah Prichard’s (KSP) “The bridge”. As far as I can tell it has been published at least three times: in 1917 in the Weekly Times Annual; in 1940 in The ABC Weekly, which is where I found it; and in 1944 in a collection titled Potch and colour, about which Prichard biographer Nathan Hobby has posted.

Writing about Potch and colour, Hobby says that

Katharine wrote some incredible short stories. I would go as far as to say that I think the form suited her better than the novel, even if she is not as remembered for it. This collection mainly includes stories originally published in journals after her first collection, Kiss On the Lips (1932), but the first appearance of some of them still needs to be established. One story, at least, is quite early – “The Bridge”; I found a newspaper copy of it on Trove from 1917 (unfortunately, it’s not one of her “incredible” stories…).

Hobby then identifies three short stories from the collection as particularly worth commenting on. The first is titled “The siren on Sandy’s Gap” and Hobby says it “manages to be both humorous and an astute critique of marriage.” It’s about Susan – the siren – and her refusal to do “what they [men] say.” The second, “Flight”, is about the forced removal of mixed-race Aboriginal children from their homes, and the third, “The Christmas tree”, is about banks failing wheatfarmers during the Depression.

Now, before I get to “The bridge” a little from KSP herself. In 1967, Angus and Robertson published Happiness: Selected short stories by Katharine Susannah Prichard. It includes two of Hobby’s favourite stories from Potch and colour, but not “The bridge”. Most interesting, though, is Prichard’s Foreword. She talks of her various inspirations, including Thomas Carlyle, and says that Guy de Maupassant’s “Contes Normands” gave her “the short story technique, which, more or less unconsciously” influenced her story telling.

Defending herself against a criticism of her “loose and slipshod English”, she says that she purposefully used “the living speech of our people … making the context of a sentence give the meaning of an unusual word or phrase.” She quotes a Professor Holme who praises her style as responding to the need of her characters, and Nettie Palmer’s statement that her writing “made us remember that there was nothing so well worth writing about as the loves, conflicts, and sufferings of our own people”. Including all this in her short Foreword suggests that she felt the need to defend herself. Anyhow, she concludes with:

All the stories were inspired by an intimate sympathy with men and women in the comedy and tragedy of their lives.

So, “The bridge.” It’s not, perhaps, “incredible”, but it is moving – and reminds me, a little, of some stories by Kate Chopin and Edith Wharton. It’s a brief story about the building of a bridge in southeast Victoria by a young man called Bryant and his off-sider Charley. The main action concerns the opening of the bridge, and the wedding that takes place immediately afterwards.

The story commences with Bryant and Charley reminiscing about some of the challenges they faced in building the bridge. It had taken a year to build, and without any loss of life:

“They’ve got a notion in some parts of the world, a life’s got to go into a bridge if she’s to going to wear,” he [Bryant] mused. “I’m mighty glad no one’s been killed or hurt on our bridge, Charley … and she’s a good bridge … as good a little wooden bridge as there is in the country.”

However, a flood crisis had threatened the bridge. To save it, Bryant needed horses but local farmer Joe Gaines would not help out – until Bryant tried a bit of psychology involving a pretty young woman working in Gaines’ kitchen. He got his horses, but at a great cost to that young woman, unbeknownst to him but discovered by Charley later at the wedding.

It’s a tight little story – about single-minded ambition and sexual jealousy set against female generosity and sacrifice – with a sting in the tail that ironically comments on Bryant’s belief about his bridge. I can see the influence of Guy de Maupassant here – and Prichard’s interest in the lives of women. You can read it at the link below.

AWW Badge 2018Katharine Susannah Prichard
“The bridge”
First published: Weekly Times Annual, 3 November 1917
Also published in The ABC Weekly, 24 August 1940, and in the collection,
Potch and colour, Angus & Robertson, 1944
Available: Online at Trove

Emily O’Grady, The yellow house (#BookReview)

Emily O'Grady, The yellow houseAlthough Emily O’Grady’s debut novel The yellow house won this year’s prestigious The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award for unpublished manuscripts by authors under 35, I wasn’t sure at first that I was going to like it. I think this was because I was feeling I’d read a surfeit of books this year about young people living challenging lives in rural settings – Charlie Archbold’s Mallee boys (my review), Jenny Ackland’s Little gods (my review) and Sofie Laguna’s The choke (my review). I wasn’t sure this was going to have anything new to offer.

However, it wasn’t long before ten-year-old Cub’s voice got me in and I realised that this book had a different spin again, which is that it explores how families of violent or sociopathic criminals, like serial killers, cope in the long years after it all comes to light. It’s a coming-of-age story, in a way, but a very different one. Cub, then, is our narrator. She lives on a “lonely property bordering an abandoned cattle farm and knackery” (back blurb) with her twin bother Wally, her 17-year-old brother Cassie whom she adores, and her parents, Colin and Christine. Within sight of their home is “the yellow house” in which her maternal grandfather, Les, had lived. He had died two years before the Cub and Wally were born – and in the prologue we learn that he had been a serial murderer of young women. The prologue closes with a now wiser Cub telling us:

Now, I know everything he did trickled down and created us all, because it turned out he was the god of all our lives.

So we know at the beginning something that Cub doesn’t know when the narrative “really” starts. Why does O’Grady take this approach? I’m guessing it’s to focus us less on that plot. We know what Cub doesn’t know – or at least enough of it. We can therefore focus on how a family lives with this knowledge rather than on trying to work out, as Cub has to do, what the secret is. It makes Cub a perfect naive narrator: she has the curiosity and loyalty of a child but lacks the wisdom necessary to make the right calls. There’s an added complexity to Cub’s situation which increases her isolation: everyone else in the family knows, including her twin brother. Cub wasn’t told because she’s a girl. It’s no coincidence that she, Coralie, has a baby-ish nickname, while her twin brother doesn’t.

The novel proper starts when Cub is approaching 11 years old, and her aunt, Helena, and 11-and-a-half-year-old cousin, Tilly, move into the yellow house. Tilly’s father, Dermott, we’ve already been told, had driven his car into the dam some time ago and died. It is Helena and Tilly’s appearance which sparks the events that play out in the rest of the novel, events that are “driven” by that violent forbear whose “rotten blood” is in their veins, whose legacy they struggle to shake off.

It’s a horrifying novel. We realise early on that the family is ostracised by the community in which they live, and is struggling emotionally. Cub’s Dad does his best to keep them together but is ill-equipped for the challenge he faces, while her Mum also does her best in her own way, but regularly takes to her bed, with various malaises, many depression-based presumably. Cub and Wally have no other friends at school, something Cub doesn’t fully cotton on to, but we do:

The kids at school were strange; Wally and I played by ourselves at lunchtime, always paired up when we did partner work.

Cub is consequently desperate to make Tilly, so close in age, her friend:

I tried to think of something else to say. I knew we had one chance to make a good impression and I didn’t want to waste it. But the silence felt as deep as the dam, impossible to swim out of. I was annoyed at myself for not practising with the girls at school. I should’ve been prepared.

But, it never quite works. Tilly, dangerously – she’s too much like her mother, Cub’s Mum hints at one stage – is more interested in boys. And, there are boys – besides Wally. There’s Cassie, and his creepy friend Ian. Tilly, like Cub, doesn’t know the story of the “yellow house” and her mother is determined to keep it that way.

The story develops slowly, chillingly, and, it feels, inevitably, as the secrets, parental inadequacy, community prejudice and cold opportunism combine to result in … I’d like to say more, but perhaps should not spoil the plot.

This is not a novel in which everything is explained – as can be typical of naive narrator stories – but there seems to be a specific intention here. At least, I’d say that O’Grady’s aim is not to tease out all the possibilities and permutations of the situation, nor to follow the more usual crime fiction path of restoring order out of chaos. Instead, it’s to encourages us, at each point, to consider what might be happening, why it might be happening, and what might make (or have made) it happen differently. That gives the book a power that those more traditional crime novels don’t have.

Besides this open-endedness which kept me engaged and pondering throughout, there’s O’Grady’s writing. It’s not tricky. There’s quite a bit of dialogue and simple description of what’s going on, as you’d expect, rather than a lot of reflection, but O’Grady has some lovely turns of phrase. At one point Cub is near Cassie’s friend Ian:

Now that I was right up close to him I didn’t know what to do; it was like my brain was wrapped in sticky tape and I couldn’t think properly.

The language and imagery, as this example shows, are appropriate for Cub’s age. And there’s the “yellow house” itself. Yellow has so many connotations. It can suggest something warm, bright, cheery, hopeful, but is also the colour of cowardice and deceit, and can convey sickness. The contrast between these positive and negative meanings of the title underpin the novel’s horror.

Why read this novel? There’s the obvious reason that it explores a subject that many of us must wonder about when we hear of violent crimes – how does the wider family cope, what happens to them? And there’s the associated reason that in so doing it might encourage us to think more empathetically if we found such a family in our midst. But, besides that, it’s an engaging debut novel by a new young writer from whom we will hopefully hear more. It’s always exciting to be in there at the start.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this book.

AWW Badge 2018Emily O’Grady
The yellow house
Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2018
314pp.
ISBN: 9781760632854

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Margaret Merrilees, Big rough stones (#BookReview)

Margaret Merrilees, Big rough stonesIn her latest novel Big rough stones, Margaret Merrilees seems to have done for Australian lesbians what Armistead Maupin did for the American gay community in his Tales of the city series. It is the story, spanning roughly three decades from around 1970s on, of a character named Ro and her lesbian sisterhood in Adelaide. In so doing, it also encompasses some of the feminist activism and sociopolitical concerns of those decades.

Now, Merrilees has appeared here before – with her debut novel The first week (my review) and in my post on her essay about non-indigenous writers writing about indigenous people. I’ll return to this point later …

The novel’s title comes from Miriel Lenore’s poem, “the walls of lesbos”, which is quoted at the beginning of the book. It starts:

to build a lesbian wall
take big rough stones

don’t cut to fit

The poem concludes with the idea that the strength of the wall lies in the combination of the places where the stones touch and the gaps between. This idea perfectly encapsulates the relationships in Big rough stones, because there’s a real sense of a bunch of different individuals who support each other for the long haul. There are points at which they meet. They share political beliefs, for a start, and they share their lives (sometimes as lovers, sometimes in share houses, sometimes in work). But there are also the gaps, those individual differences that either make a community stronger or break it apart. Here, they make it stronger.

Ro, we soon realise, is not the easiest person to live with, not always the most responsible or reliable person, but she’s “sturdy and energetic, descended from a Welsh pit pony and a dour Scot.” She’s idealistic, passionate, and will give things a go. She’s our focal point. The novel is told third person but mostly through her perspective. However, we also get to know several of her friends and lovers, sometimes through her eyes, but sometimes we pop into their heads for a brief while too.

Besides this occasionally shifting third-person point of view, the novel also has an interesting, almost circular, 4-part structure: Now, A while ago, A long time ago, Now. At the novel’s opening – in Now – Ro is in her 60s and learns that she has terminal cancer (so, no spoiler here). We also learn that, at this stage in her life, she wishes she still had someone called Gerry in it. We then move back in her life, eventually reaching “a long time ago” where we meet Gerry and discover why she is no longer in Ro’s life. It’s a sad story. In the final “Now”, Ro is in the terminal stages of her cancer, being cared for by her friends. We see just how strongly that wall has been built. The story reminded me just a bit of Helen Garner’s The spare room – not that Ro tries ineffective alternative medicine, but in the challenges her friends face in caring for a seriously ill person. It isn’t easy.

So, the book is about relationships – lesbian ones, yes, but there’s much that’s universal here too. However, it is also about the times – about political ideals and feminist activism, about the environment and climate change. Several of the women, including Ro, work in a Shelter for abused women. They work as a collective, and we share in some of the struggles of making such arrangements work. We sit in on a collective meeting, after Ro has missed a shift without calling in. There’s discussion and dissension about Ro’s commitment, with one member suggesting this might not be the job for her. Lovely, loyal Maddie speaks up:

I don’t like this. We’ve never been into sacking people or any of that sort of patriarchal shit.’

‘Maybe that’s our problem,’ said Tilda. ‘The place would run a lot more efficiently if we were.’

But this was going a bit too far for the others.

‘No, that’s completely against what we value,’ said the oldest member. ‘People always come first, and that includes workers. It’s up to us to honour Ro’s strengths and figure out how to work with her.’

Ro herself was struck by Tilda’s echo of her own thought. We should have a few more rules, she wanted to say.

She doesn’t say it, though. Instead, she concedes that she was wrong, and offers to work on her relationship with Tilda. An uneasy truce is achieved!

Another quote from the novel that has been used in its promotion provides a good sense of what Ro and her friends were about:

‘You thought feminism would stop violence against women,’ said Julia. ‘And that would stop war. And stop people trashing the Earth. You tried.’

‘Not alone,’ said Ro modestly. ‘I had help.’

Truth-telling

I want to end, however, with Merrilees’ concern about representing indigenous Australians in our stories. Here’s something I quoted from her in my previous post:

To write about Australia, particularly rural Australia, without mentioning the Aboriginal presence (current or historical) is to distort reality, to perpetuate the terra nullius lie. However, for a non-Aboriginal writer to write about Aboriginal people is to run the risk of “appropriating” Aboriginal experience; speaking on behalf of … There’s been too much of that already.

This, as I see it, relates to the issue of truth-telling. There’s the formal truth-telling – via, say, a truth-telling and reconciliation commission – but there’s also the more informal truth-telling that we can all do. Truth-telling is about all Australians coming to a “shared understanding of our history”, which includes “the acceptance of mass killings, incarceration, forced removal from land and forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families”. The now standard welcome or acknowledgement of country statements are part of this.

So, in Big rough stones, Merrilees has taken a sensitive approach. She does not, here, as she did in The first week, have an indigenous character, but she acknowledges indigenous Australians by showing her characters being aware of the “truths”. For example, Alby, one of Ro’s friends gets a job at a mine. Ro is horrified, and says:

‘Shit, Alby. How could you? Mining. Probably on Aboriginal land.’

‘Certainly on Aboriginal land. The whole country is Aboriginal land. This pub is on Aboriginal land.’

True! On another occasion, after a protest in Alice Springs against Pine Gap, Ro ends up in gaol for a night. The cells are disgusting and Ro finds it hard to engage in the political debate about the US base:

The walls were covered in graffiti. The misery and degradation of the previous occupants hung in the air, a miasma, shockingly brutal. The protest about the US base lost its urgency. Here was racism, fundamental, elemental, an Australian truth most of them had never seen before. Not close up. This they should protest about.

She realises that:

She and the others had privilege that no Aboriginal prisoner ever had. They could give up their resistance and walk away any time. And eventually they did.

I think she has hit on a way of not continuing terra nullius but, at the same time, also not appropriating indigenous experience. It may not work in all situations, but here, with politically aware characters, it does.

Fundamentally, Big rough stones is a straightforward, accessible story with a lot of dialogue that keeps the story moving along – but this is not all it is. Like Tales of the city, it offers a realistic, but warm-hearted portrayal of a time and place, with all the attendant personal and political messiness. An engaging read.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this novel.

AWW Badge 2018Margaret Merrilees
Big rough stones
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2018
278pp.
ISBN: 9781743055526

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press.)

Amanda Duthie (ed.), Margaret & David: 5 stars (#BookReview)

Amanda Duthie, Margaret and DavidMargaret and David, the subjects of this delightful, eponymously named collection of reminiscences and essays, do not need last names here in Australia. They are just “margaretanddavid”. But, since we have an international readership here, I should formally introduce them. Margaret and David are Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, Australia’s best-known and best-loved film critics who retired from their television movie show in 2014 after 28 years on air! There were to us as Siskel and Ebert were to Americans. Their influence was immense.

This book, Margaret & David: 5 stars, is essentially a tribute book produced on the occasion of their being awarded the 2017 Don Dunstan Award, an award established in 2003 to commemorate the late South Australian Premier, Don Dunstan, who was a major champion of the arts, including film. The book contains mostly short reflections, but also an extended essay, on Margaret and David’s contribution to Australia’s film industry and culture, and, in fact, to world film culture. The pieces are written by a wide variety of industry people, from producers like Jan Chapman, through actors like Geoffrey Rush, and directors like Cate Shortland and Gillian Armstrong, to film business people, journalists, film festival directors, and even, Margaret’s son, Josh. It’s a delightful read – but a provocative one at times too.

Of course, I enjoyed the insights into Margaret and David’s personas and working relationship – and won’t go into these. If you’re looking for gossip you won’t get it here because Margaret and David were professionals, and were, and are, we are told, good friends. Sure, they disagreed, sometimes vociferously – we all remember Margaret’s “Oh, David!” exclamations – but these arguments always teased out ideas about film. Gillian Armstrong says, “they formed a lively, fiery, passionate, laughter-filled relationship.” If, on the other hand, you’re looking for insights into the history of the Australian film industry, you will get some here. This is not an academic work, but many of the reflections on these two can’t help but comment on the Australian industry and on film culture more broadly, from the mid 1980s when they started on television to the mid 2010s when they finished. Their contribution – and impact – was not only qualitative but, in some respects, quantifiable.

This all interested me, but what I want to focus on in the rest of this post is what the book offered me regarding …

The practice of criticism

… because, fundamentally, criticism is criticism, whether you are discussing film or books, drama or ballet. I enjoyed some of the commentary on this.

Director Gillian Armstrong, while teasing (and forgiving) David about his poor review of her Oscar and Lucinda film, describes perfectly the art of the critic, when she says

It is important to have serious discussions that actually discuss the craft of the director. They shared a real appreciation of the vision behind the camera angles, the lighting, editing, music and casting. But most importantly, their reviewing was about the very heart of those films, the content and ethics.

Leaving aside the terms “review” and “criticism” which tend to be used somewhat interchangeably in the book, I think this statement contains the guts of what criticism or, shall we say, serious reviewing is about: marrying analysis of technique with exploration of content (and ethics). Journalist Sandy George, in her extended essay, puts in this way:

They actively engage in talking about the narrative, the history of the production, what the filmmaker was trying to achieve, and how the film affected them; they don’t engage in reductive talk such as “this is good”, “this is bad”, “see this”, “don’t see that”.

There’s one memorable review they did which several writers commented on: their review of the violent R-rated movie Romper Stomper. Margaret gave it 4.5 stars and David refused to rate it. This review is now famous – and part of this is for the way their discussion was conducted. It was respectful, and considered. You can see the review here.

Other practical issues are teased out – such as reviewing works you don’t like, and reviewing works by friends. On the former, Sandy George quotes David Stratton on writing reviews for “the extremely influential” Variety:

‘I never gave a glowing review to something that didn’t deserve it … but knowing how important a Variety review is, I sometimes went out of my way not to review a film.’

A valid decision I think, though purists would probably say that you should review such films regardless.

George also quotes Margaret about reviewing works by friends. They tried, she said, “not to be friends with filmmakers, but it’s impossible”. She also says:

“I’ve always been kind to Australian films because I’m such a wimp … “

Indeed, one person said that because of this, a good review from David carried more weight!

George goes on to report one distributor’s comment that

one way the pair went above and beyond for Australian films was how carefully they chose their words when one fell short.

Notwithstanding my above comment about not reviewing at times, I also like this approach. Honest reviews are important, but there are ways of being honest. The arts are tough enough, without demoralising those working hard within it, don’t you think?

Anyhow, I enjoyed this book. It’s a quick read but not a frivolous one. I’ll close with a comment made by current SA Premier, Jay Weatherill:

Their love of cinema is real, undiminished and contagious, and they have helped me and countless other Australians to understand the critical role can play in telling our nation’s stories and presenting our values.

AWW Badge 2018Amanda Duthie (ed.)
Margaret & David: 5 stars
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2017
133pp.
ISBN: 9781743055137

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother’s daughter: A memoir (#BookReview)

Nadia Wheatley, Her mother's daughterIn Her mother’s daughter: A memoir, Australian writer Nadia Wheatley has written the sort of hybrid biography-memoir that I’ve reviewed a few times in this blog. All of them, as I mentioned in my recent Meet the Author post, have been mother-daughter stories, Susan Varga’s Heddy and me, Anna Rosner Blay’s Sister, sister, and Halina Rubin’s Journeys with my mother. It’s this hybrid form that I’d particularly like to explore in this post.

And the hybrid I’m talking about is one where the biography is of the subject (mothers, in these cases) and the memoir is of the writer (the daughters.) This is the more common form of hybrid biography-memoir, though my research did turn up others, such as Room to dream by Kristine McKenna and David Lynch in which McKenna’s biographical chapters on Lynch are followed by Lynch’s responses to those.

The biographer’s question

There are, of course, many memoirs by people who, in order to tell their own story, need to figure out their relationships with others, particularly their parents. However, these books remain primarily about the writer. Hybrid biography-memoirs, on the other hand, tend to be as much, if not more, about the other person as the writer. The end result might be the writer understanding themselves more, but the focus tends to be the other. This was clearly Wheatley’s intention. Indeed she told us that her biographer’s question was “Why would a nice person like Neen marry an awful person like my father?”

So, her book’s main focus, then is her mother. Nina (Neen) Wheatley, nee Watkin, was born in northern New South Wales in 1906, and died in Sydney in 1958. She lost her own mother when she was five years old. She and her siblings were separated when her father remarried, with Nina and her younger sister Boo staying with their father and his new wife. It became clear that the family expected Nina to be the parents’ carer in their old age. However, Nina managed to train as a nurse, and go overseas during the war as an enlisted nurse with the 6th AGH (Australian General Hospital), where she worked in Greece and Palestine. She returned to Europe after the war to work with UNRRA and then IRO, caring for Displaced Persons. It was during this time that she met the man – English doctor, John Wheatley – she ended up marrying. It was a bad decision: he was a womaniser, possessive and controlling, and, according to Wheatley, sadistic. Indeed, it’s very likely that, had he – and the medical fraternity more broadly – taken women’s health seriously, Nina would not have died when she did. After her mother’s death when Wheatley was 9 years old, she, an only child, lived with a local family known to her (and chosen by her mother before her death.) This was, for Wheatley, a problematic situation – but this part of the story occupies just the last 20 or so pages of the book, and, while it’s important to the overall memoir, I do want to move onto other points.

So, back to the form. Unlike Wheatley, those other three biographers-cum-memoirsts, Varga, Blay and Rubin, were able, as adults, to question their mothers. They could bring an adult’s eye to their mothers, and ask the sorts of questions an adult might ask. They all tape-recorded their mothers. Wheatley’s mother, however, died when Wheatley was nine, so concocting her mother’s story was a very different challenge. Fortunately – and how prescient of her – she realised that her memories wouldn’t last so, at 10 years old, she started writing down her memories of the happy times she spent with her mother and also the stories her mother had told her about her life. At times I wondered how she could possibly have remembered as much detail as she does. However, given Wheatley was clearly a writer from the start and given what she experienced was so powerful, it wasn’t hard to trust her authenticity. It’s these stories and  memories, together with letters, journals and interviews with family members and friends, and official records, that provide the facts for her mother’s biography.

Step one, then, is the research, but next comes how to marshall it all into a narrative. Varga and Rubin, like Wheatley, take us on a journey of discovery. As Wheatley said during the conversation with Halligan, she wanted to take the reader on the quest with her. She wanted to share the detective story of her unravelling her mother’s story, and not just present the evidence. Varga and Rubin do something similar, but they tell their story first person, sharing when their mother is reticent, when they, as daughters, are challenged, and so on. Varga makes it clear to her mother – and us – that this means “it won’t be her life story, not properly” but would be “filtered” through her “reactions and thoughts”, her “second generation eyes.”

Blay, however, is more formal, presenting her mother Hela and aunt Janka’s stories in their words as transcribed from her interviews with them. She intersperses these with her own perspective in italics. The three voices are thus distinct.

Wheatley, though, uses a different approach again. She tells her mother’s story third person, but, intermittently, will suddenly switch to first person to present her own role in the research or the story, removing us from Nina’s chronology to her own time-frame. Chapter 9, which relates her mother’s life immediately postwar, is a good example. The first 10 pages read like a standard biography, describing what Nina was doing, quoting from letters and journals to support the information, then, suddenly, after a reference to Nina’s father’s death, she flashes to nine years after Nina’s own death (and over twenty years after the time we’ve been in.) Nadia is dining with her Auntie Boo, and casually asks if she knows where Nina’s wedding ring is. Her aunt bursts into tears, saying:

‘Daddy’s will was so unfair! To leave everything to Neen! Not just Glenorie, but everything in it!’ As my aunt moved on in her attack, it turned out that I too was guilty as charged: ‘All those things that Nina and you had in that house at Strathfield, you had no right to them.’

Now, Nina’s father had left “other real estate to his other children” but leaving the family home to Nina rankled so much, writes Nadia, that “some of her siblings would never get over it.” After a page on all this, we are returned to Nina’s life, and the third person voice.

This approach ensures that as well as travelling the journey with Nadia, we also see the impact on her, and her sense of guilt, as she is growing up. There are many insertions like this, including one later in the book when Nadia remembers a time with her father when she was three years old. With this approach, Nina’s story is told chronologically, but Nadia’s is disjointed until after Nadia is born when her story is gradually folded in to the main narrative. It’s a tricky approach, but Wheatley, an experienced novelist and biographer, makes it work, resulting in something that provides both a coherent biography of her mother, and the impact on her. It doesn’t necessarily work if you are expecting a detailed memoir of Wheatley’s life, but that wasn’t Wheatley’s goal.

Defining moments

Interesting as all this is, however, the main joy in reading Her mother’s daughter lies in its social history of the first half of the twentieth century. Wheatley’s story of her mother’s experience as an active participant in World War 2 is vivid, and makes a significant contribution to a less covered aspect of that war. Her story of her mother’s life in Sydney during 1950s is significant too – but terribly so.

Nina’s War “story” was fascinating. Her reports of her early experience are cheerful, full of a sense of adventure and camaraderie, but that soon changes as her real war experience starts. She sees the impact of bombing on civilians in Greece, and she nurses casualties of the Syrian campaigns including El Alamein. She already cared about social justice before going to war, but her desire to help others firmed afterwards. Her experience of forced repatriations, of seeing “Poles packed like cattle in trucks” during her work with UNRRA, was “a defining moment” writes Wheatley. Nina wrote in her journal that “This experience will have an intense influence on all my life.”

Wheatley’s description of her mother’s work with Displaced Persons is inspiring, showing Nina to be a resourceful and empathetic woman who managed to create harmony in extremely difficult circumstances. However, her marriage to Dr Wheatley saw this confident, warm woman brought undone. Her husband’s cruel, self-centred behaviour soon soured all Nina’s hopes of a happy marriage of equals. Nadia writes that he either “provoked arguments” with her mother, or set up “elaborate games in which I was the pawn he used to take the queen.” That – and his womanising – were bad enough but, when in 1956 Nina started feeling unwell, the situation became dire because Nina fell prey to a male-dominated medical system, actively supported by her doctor husband. The belief that the ills women of Nina’s now middle-age felt were all “in the mind” resulted in her eventual destruction. It’s devastating for Nina (of course) and for Nadia from whom so much, before and after, was kept secret – but, for anyone who knows or lived through the 50s, it’s only too believable.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, not all the defining moments of Nina’s life were positive ones.

Now, once again, I’ve outstayed my welcome, so I’ll conclude by saying that Her mother’s daughter is a great read for two reasons. Firstly, it provides a thoughtful, authentic – sometimes exciting, sometimes disturbing – social history of the times. And secondly, with Wheatley’s ability to write engaging narratives, it makes for engrossing, moving, provocative reading. I do recommend it.

AWW Badge 2018Nadia Wheatley
Her mother’s daughter: A memoir
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018
322pp.
ISBN: 9781925603491

Sue Williams, Live and let fry (#BookReview)

Sue Williams, Live and let fryWell, 2018 is clearly “the year of the Mallee” here at Whispering Gums, with Sue Williams’ Rusty Bore Mystery, Live and let fry, being my third Mallee-set book so far this year. The others are Jenny Ackland’s Little gods (my review) and Charlie Archbold’s Mallee boys (my review). By the time I visit the Mallee – next year I hope – I should know it well, though I might stay away from Rusty Bore. Fortunately, that won’t be hard as Rusty Bore is fictional. I say fortunately, because who wants to visit a place known for murders? It would be like choosing to visit Midsomer!

Seriously though, on with the book, starting with the fact that it’s the third in the Rusty Bore Mystery series. I haven’t read the first two, but I’d say this one stands alone well. There’s enough recap for the new reader to quickly pick up the main characters and their relationship with the protagonist, Cass Tuplin, who’s an unlicensed private investigator as well as the owner-operator of the Rusty Bore Takeaway. I’m not a big reader of crime fiction, but I do watch a bit on TV, and I can say that Cass fits the mould of many TV detectives – private or not, licensed or not – in that she has a messy personal life. She’s clearly had a fling with Vern, the owner of the town’s only other shop, but is now with Leo, who’s doing good works in Bolivia but is staying away significantly longer than he’d told her he would. Cass also has two sons – Dean, a not-very-successful policeman in Mildura (a real place), and the-not-very-sensible Brad who’s waiting his court case for “disseminating false information to the market.” There’s affection between mother and sons, but it’s not without tensions – either because Dean is fussing over his mother’s safety, not to mention her unlicensed detecting, or because Cass is too focused on this detecting to listen to Brad well enough to hear what’s happening in his life.

None of this need be taken too seriously, though. As the back cover blurb says, Williams is “Australia’s answer to New Jersey’s Janet Evanovich.” I haven’t, I admit, read Evanovich – shock! horror! – but Daughter Gums has, so I know enough to realise that her crime novels are bright, breezy affairs. And so, certainly, is Live and let fry.

Now, what to say? This is rural crime, and it starts with the disappearance of the aforesaid Vern’s new lady friend, Joanne, from the neighbouring town of Sheep Dip. (There’s nothing subtle in the town names here – Rusty Bore, Sheep Dip, Muddy Soak, Hustle.) Cass, like any self-respecting unlicensed private detective, is reluctant to become involved but, of course, you know she will – and she does. Pretty soon, a murder occurs – not Joanne’s though – and the plot rapidly thickens as we move into the murky world of developers and environmental protection. This has our intrepid Cass driving backwards and forwards across the Mallee in her “little Corolla”, getting into more and more serious scrapes, worrying her sons, irritating the police, and not always making the right calls – as you’d expect.

All this gives Williams the opportunity to provide us with a picture of the Mallee and its inhabitants, which she does in language somewhat different from that we’ve seen in those other Mallee books I’ve read. Here is the Mallee, for example:

As I got closer to Mildura the eucalypt-and-orange desolation gave way to irrigation green, the dark green of orange groves, the brighter, flamboyant green of grapevines, the camouflage khaki of olive trees. I drink it in – green’s not a colour we get that much of in Rusty Bore.

And here is one of its inhabitants:

Nola’s eighty-two and usually quite mentally robust, with opinions carefully cryo-preserved since 1953.

The writing is peppered with gentle, affectionate mocking like this, along with broad satire of various contemporary issues and preoccupations, such as “coffee condescension” from city-siders, and Cass’s own “artisanal” food. We’re also told that

Leo’s import-export business in Muddy Soak folded after the African knick-knack trade fell victim to the decluttering trend.

And there are digs at politics and politicians, such as:

I stood at the desk and waited. A TV flickering behind Taylah showed a surging crowd of middle-aged people in suits. Mostly men, looked like politicians. Another leadership spill? A new Royal Commission? There’d been a lot of debate lately about whether air exists. “If you can’t see it, can’t smell it, it can’t be there.” The slogan of one of the newer political parties.

It’s not subtle, but then Williams’ goal is less social or political commentary than maintaining a light breezy tone and conveying character.

Now, though, back to Cass. Does she get her man (or, not to be sexist, woman)? Well, this is what I’d call “cheery crime”, so yes, one way or another, she does. In other words, without spoiling anything, it all comes out right(ish) in the end and Cass lives to fight (or not, as she chooses) another day. I’m not sure I’ll read another Rusty Bore mystery as I feel I’ve got its measure now, but for those who love light-hearted crime, particularly with an Australian flavour, then Rusty Bore could be just the ticket.

AWW Badge 2018Sue Williams
Live and let fry
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2018
295pp.
ISBN: 9781925603514

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)