Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Great Melbourne Cup Mystery

Of all the Arthur Upfield books I could have started with, I think I chose The Great Melbourne Cup Mystery because is in the spring racing season here in Victoria, and I went to the Melbourne Cup Tour recently at Mitchelton Winery. It was a great introduction to Mr Upfield, and I'm going to indulge in more in the future!

I think he was writing mostly in the 1920s and 1930s. The introduction to this novel spoke about how most of his novels weren't published until after he was dead. Instead they were published as serials in the newspaper, written week to week with very quick deadlines.
   The language is true to the times, particularly the way that the characters spoke. From his writing, it's also apparent that he had a strong connection to rural areas and people, and seems not to be naive about the realities of particular industries (such as the horse racing industry in this case).
   His novels are many mysteries, and he went on to write lots (29) of novels with a main character who was an Aboriginal half-caste, detective Bony. From having read this novel (and another one which I will write up in a couple of weeks), so far his mysteries are excellent. They are not like modern mysteries where the investigators rely heavily on forensic science and technology. The detectives in Upfield's novels use their brains, and speak to people. The other fresh thing about his writing is that there are no clues to the reader about who has done it - it truly is a mystery all the way until the detective reveals the solution to the readers and the criminals together.
  Simply written, but really endearing, and truly captures the feeling of the time.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Rosie Project

This lovely little romance novel, The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, was a pleasure to read. I had seen a view on the ABC's Book Club, and knew I had to read this Aussie novel that had become so popular.

From Good Reads: "Narrator Don Tillman 39, Melbourne genetics prof and Gregory Peck lookalike, sets a 16-page questionnaire The Wife Project to find a non-smoker, non-drinker ideal match. But Rosie and her Father Projectsupersede. The spontaneous always-late smoker-drinker wants to find her biological father. She resets his clock, throws off his schedule, and turns his life topsy-turvy."
   What makes this novel unique and endearing it the main character, Don. He is clearly autistic, and his friends are trying to get him to self-diagnose by dropping hints. But, although he is very realistic about his lack of social abilities, he does not draw the link between the symptoms of Aspergers syndrome and himself. 
   He doesn't think that he feels like others do, and he's probably right, but that doesn't mean that he doesn't feel at all. So he comes to realise that he does feel love, which is just the most heart-warming moment that I have read in a book for a long time. 
    Typical romance, with a twist. Really enjoyable. 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Turning

Another novel for the Aussie Author Challenge, this is actually a collection of short stories that web together through various connections. The Turning by Tim Winton, which is apparently due to be released in cinemas as a movie. Really interestingly done, but not sure how the beauty of the book is going to translate to the screen ...

It's about ordinary lives, set over the last few decades, set in various times, with various main characters, various tenses and narrators. It's generally set in small coast towns of Western Australia, though usually not specified.
   There's drugs, violence, despair, grief, estrangement, regret, sentimentality, companionship, soul-searching and love. Often the short stories come back to Vic Lang, who appears in a number of stories either directly or indirectly. Other characters are loosely linked as well. Initially, I was confused, but I let go and really enjoyed the voices, stories and journey.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Daughters of Mars

Another book for the Aussie Author Challenge: I read The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally. This was my first Thomas Keneally book, and I absolutely loved the language. This book was set during the first world war, and the language that he uses, not only with the dialogue, is suited to the time. Beautiful.

Naomi and Sally Durance are daughters of a dairy farmer. They escape their the tedium of their lives, and the guilty of having euthanised their mother, when the call for nurses is made in the Great War. The novel has a vast scope, from Africa to Gallipoli, to France and the Eastern Front. But it remains very intimate, closely following these strong sisters caught up in the great mill of history.
   It is interesting that the ending is alternate - you don't really know what happens, and you can imagine their either ending is just as plausible.
   I really enjoyed this novel, and am now a keen Thomas Keneally fan!

Sunday, August 18, 2013


Another Australian novel for the Aussie Author Challenge; I recently finished Batavia by Peter Fitzsimons. I am a fan of Peter's writing - he makes history very accessible and turns the historical figures into three-dimensional (living and breathing) characters. This novel about the ship wrecked Batavia was no different.

This story is truly horrific, and hard to believe that it could actually happen. But they do say that real life is often stranger than fiction. I know that Peter will have taken some liberties in developing character traits, but they can't have been too much of a stretch, since true evil must have existed for these events to have occurred.
   So in the 1600s, a huge ship, travelling for the Dutch East India Company from the Netherlands to Indonesia on a spice run (and carrying a huge fortune of bullion) hit a reef off Geraldton in WEstern Australia and sunk. It was the ship's maiden voyage. The survivors got themselves into low islands along the belt of reefs. The captain of the ship took one of the long boats and got themselves up to Indonesia to return with another ship to rescue those stranded.
   In the meantime, the survivors became divided by the scheming of the 2IC on the Batavia. Gratuitous murder began, along with rape, the division and isolation of groups, bribery and captivity. Of the original 341 people on board the Batavia, only 68 survived!
   Peter's writing brings the history to life in an extremely readable, page-turning form. It is well researched, but presented in such a way that is not just listing facts.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Chain of Hearts

Another novel for the Aussie Author Challenge, but it is a repeat author for this year - I read Chain of Hearts by Maureen McCarthy.

Like Rose By Any Other Name, the central character is a teenage girl with issues. Maureen McCarthy can capture the inner turmoil very well, and the story really takes you into the girl's heard.
   After suffering a trauma that she hasn't dealt with, Sophie has become a problem teenager for her perfect parents, and is shipped off to live with her Aunt in a peaceful outback Australian town. She feels ditched and rejected, but has nothing else to do but get to know her Aunt and other towns people. She learns empathy and the ability to put herself in someone else's shoes.
   The pace is really good, and each character is gradually built up. There are a number of different narrators, with each building their own story, jumping backwards to past events and then back to present time.
   A simple, yet wonderful story - it is about family, friendships, learning to forgive and tolerate others despite differences. I really enjoyed it.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Bush Studies

As part of my goal to complete the 2013 Aussie Author Challenge, I read Barbara Baynton's Bush Studies. It is a collection of short Australian stories, published in 1902.

In some ways, I think the writing in these short stories is very modern. It is abstract. And in some cases, very hard to follow.
   The stories also deal with abuse of women, and the treatment of women in isolated colonies. It depicts a hard life, and I wonder about Bayton's own existence, and the women she met who influenced her stories.
   "Squeaker's Mater" would be her best story, particularly the beginning, how Baynton uses such short sentences to describe such a strong and capable woman being struck down.
   The "Bush Church" story, I found, held a lot of black humour. Baynton is able to paint a picture of these people in such a short time, and they are very vivid.
   Her ability to portray a scene vividly is doubly true in the short story "The Chosen Vessel", where an isolated woman's terror is depicted and then realised!
   I think I'll have to read these short stories again, so that I fully understand them, because I think I missed the gist of a couple of them. They are not easy to read, but I think I admire Baynton a lot.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Rose By Any Other Name

Another Australian author, I read Maureen McCarthy's Rose By Any Other Name. I really enjoyed it, as a light-hearted, quick read. There was a lot of teenage angst (which was probably more suited to a thirteen or fourteen year-old than a nineteen year old), but it was still convincing.


With good character development, the story is fairly simple and believable - it's just about families, and the various members of the family going through various crises. It was good not to read about perfect characters.
   The pace was really good - the timeline kept jumping from the present to events 12 months prior, which kept the story moving forward. The narrator jumped around, and gave very little away in the present-day narration, which was why the story kept jumping back to memories. The narrator wasn't reliable - the story was very tainted with emotion, but the narrator eventually became empathetic to the other characters, which symbolised the growth of the main character.
   For a good summer read on the beach, or a rainy weekend in bed, this is perfect.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Virgin's Lover

I had some fun and read Philippa Gregory's The Virgin's Lover. I really enjoy her books - they bring history to life.

   This novel is about the first years of Elizabeth's reign. It's before she decides to never marry, and there are lots of suitors and scandal.

Saturday, July 20, 2013


This book, 1788, is by Watkin Tench, written during his time as a marine office on the First Fleet and his experience of the arrival and his first four years in the Australian colony. Whilst originally published in 1789, and later parts published subsequently, this version has been edited by Tim Flannery.

Clearly, this book was a non-fiction, but it was written in a style that followed well and was very captivating. Either the language of 1788 translates very well, or Tim Flannery has done a great job in editing.
   I enjoyed this book a lot. Watkin Tench was, I think, a very studious observer and liberal thinker. His observations focus a lot on the environment and the Aboriginals. It was interesting to read and the real characters after which many of the Sydney landmarks are named - Bennelong (the site of the Sydney Opera House) and Barangaroo (the newest and most controversial Sydney harbour development) were in fact lovers, with Bennelong being one of the most approachable Aboriginals who learnt the language and customs of the whites the quickest, and then merged in and out of each culture as he chose.
   This book has actually left a very profound effect on me - I always thought that the first settlors were stumbling fools and quite ignorant. Watkin Tench has changed this for me, and in a way, I think he is now one of my heros. I just wish that more of our founders were like him.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Finnikin of the Rock

A young-adult fantasy novel by Australian author Melina Marchetta. I was hoping that this would have the beautiful character development and emotional connection that her other young adult novels evoke. But it didn't.

I didn't like it. Not much else to say. I think I didn't like it because the characters didn't appeal to me - I didn't love them, or get invested in their mission, nor did I even dislike them. The characters evoked on feelings in me, and nor did the purpose of the characters. I will return to reading Melina's books that are not fantasy stories, because they really are wonderful.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Remembering Babylon

This short novel by David Malouf reminded me of That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott, though it was much shorter and left more gaps for the reader's imagination to fill. Written in 1993, Remembering Babylon won the IMPAC Award, and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award and the Man Booker Prize.

The reason that it reminds me of That Deadman Dance is probably because it is about a pioneer settlement on the fringes of other early Australian settlements, and it involves Aboriginals. In That Deadman Dance, it was an Aboriginal that was cared for and became part of the white society, and then didn't fit in with either communities. Remembering Babylon is the reverse - it is about a young white boy who gets thrown off a ship whilst ill, and lives among remote Aboriginals in Northern Queensland for half his life. Once white settlement starts moving as far north as the tribe he is with, he ventures back to his own kind. But he has nearly completely lost the English language, and most of the English body language as well. It is about isolation, racism, and community. His very presence in the community divides it into two: those who will tolerate and in time love him, and those that are determined to drive him away (from fear of something different).
   The voice of the narrator is very stable and removed, which distinguishes this novel even further from That Deadman Dance. Despite being distant (allowing quite lovely descriptive prose), the narrator often has quite profound insight into the characters (which is the only way that you get to know them well, because their description is not focused on). Having such a detached narrator really allows your own feelings to guide you, inside of being guided by a main character's feelings. I suppose this allows for a very broad range of responses to the novel, based on a reader's own background and sensitivities.
   The narrator does take on some traits of the race of characters that the story is focusing on. The description of the landscape is very different when the characters are white (it is always a very hot, stark and feeling of being crowded-in by the bush) and when they are Aboriginal (there seems to be magic in the bush, as well as a peaceful silence). The only time that the whites seem to be clam in their surroundings is when they are at the house of the lady bee-keeper.
   As well as describing the landscape magically, David Malouf also has some beautiful prose describing some of the cultural and spiritual aspects of the Aboriginal people. I have never read anything that expressed and explained another races' culture so well.
   The only downfall with this short novel is that it just short of dribbles off into a nothing ending ...


Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Secret River

I just finished reading The Secret River by Kate Grenville, which is one of the 10 Aussie books to read before you die. Whilst writing this book, I just learnt that it is a part of a trilogy - it is a great stand-alone story, but it's good enough that I want more! So I will be reading the others as soon as I can.

Winner of the Commonwealth Prize for Literature, the Christina Stead Prize for fiction (NSW Premier's  Prize), the Community Relations Commission Prize, the Bookseller's Choice Award, the Fellowship of Australian Writers Prize and the Publishing Industry Book of the Year Award. It was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the Man Booker Prize. So, it was well received!
   It's about the settling of the Hawkesbury river, near Sydney. William Thornhill is transported in 1806 from a life of poverty in London, to the struggle he faces on the frontier of a new settlement, but the prosperous lifestyle that results from his hard work.
   Unlike other similar stories along the same theme, the dark side of this story is the way the settlers deal with the local Darug Aboriginal people. Kate Grenville doesn't shy away from the racism and the attitudes of the time. It is confronting, and deals with the peer pressure within a small community of settlers. The main character is not a smart man, and he cannot express himself well, let alone explain or acknowledge his own feelings to himself. He grapples with knowing that the Aboriginal people are human beings like himself, yet keeps drawing distinctions to justify his actions and the actions of others - although he is repulsed by those actions at the same time.
   Unlike some of the others that made the list of 10 Aussie Books You Must Read, this one really is!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

On the Jellicoe Road

This is a young adult novel by Australian author Melina Marchetta, which won the West Australia Young Readers Book Award in 2008, and the Michael L. Printz Award in the USA in 2009. It is a great story, and it reminds you how much emotion teenagers feel during those years, and how formative the teens can be.

It's set around a boarding school on the Jellicoe Road in regional New South Wales. The school mainly seems to be for gifted troubled children, and Melina Marchetta taps into the teenage angst very well. But the characters are still endearing, and you really want them to find stability and happiness.
   Heartrending at times, I admire how these teenagers act and their approach to life, despite everything that they have been through. It gave me a lot of hope that people, with the support of good friends, can make it through anything.
   I have read a couple of books recently with endings that seemed premature. This doesn't do that - and it is so satisfying. There were a few places where I thought "Oh, no. It's going to end here", but it continued on and tied up every loose end very neatly, and left me with such a glowing feeling at the end. A perfect young adult book.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Engagement

A novel Australian Chloe Hooper, The Engagement is a psychological thriller that leaves you wondering. I chose to read it after seeing it on The First Tuesday Book Club.

I was annoyed by Liese, the main character, so much that I am not sure if I can past that and actually appreciate the story. I suppose by achieving that level of emotional response, Chloe Hooper may have achieved her result.
   Liese gets herself into the most ridiculous situation - she pretends that she's a prostitute and then agrees to have a weekend alone with her only client. She doesn't tell anyone where she's going. Needless to say, the weekend doesn't turn out to be what she expected.
   The book is fairly explicit. The main character is not described in terms of her facial features, but in terms of her body shape and curves - as a sexual figure.
   Rather than being shocked by the ending, it annoyed me as much as Liese herself annoyed me! It was left so open-ended that your imagination could take it whichever way you wanted, and imagining the future for both characters is an endless question.
   Having said that, it was fairly engaging - the pace was ok - but I was screaming at Liese the whole way through - her thought processes were just ridiculous. So, her character development was well done, in that respect.
   From the above, it's clear that I didn't enjoy my experience with The Engagement, but it has intrigued me abut this author ...

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Odd Angry Shot

The winner of the National Book Council Award in 1975, The Odd Angry Shot was written by William Nagle, an SAS soldier in the Vietnam War, and the book went on to become an iconic movie.

Of course, I have seen the movie - the iconic scene that I always remember is the fight between the scorpion and the spider. I also remember the boredom that was invoked - how much downtime they had (which isn't restful, but everyone is agitated and uncomfortable), and the constant waiting for the next patrol or useless mission and possibly death.
   The book was more powerful for me. It is such a short story, and is says more by what it doesn't say. The spaces between the words scream (the scream of a frustrated young man).
   The language is also very simple - it is perhaps how a young man thinks, and is written in the words that a young soldier would use.
   The camaraderie amongst the young men is very strong, but only 2 of the 4 come home. The surviving characters do not seem to deal with the death of their mates, nor do they seem to get any proper debriefing or psychological care. They are just let loose - they don't seem to be showing any signs of stress, so they must be fine. Or maybe is was just how they dealt with it back then - meaning they didn't.
   The language and the characters as also very Australian, and there seemed to be no coordination between the American and Australian forces in the novel - maybe that's how it felt or there - that there was no systematic approach; that it was all very haphazard. Like the way the book is written - short pieces of memory and scenes important to the narrator.
   This is something I should have read in high school, but it wasn't on the syllabus.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Harp In the South

This is a masterful little book by Ruth Park - The Harp In the South - which made the list of the 10 Aussie Books to Read Before You Die.

Based in the 1940s in Sydney, the story focuses on and Irish family, Hugh and Margaret Darcy, trying to raise their family amid the brothels, grog shops and run-down boarding houses of Surry Hills, where money is scarce and life is not easy.
   It was endearing that the narrator called Margaret 'Mumma', and Hugh was just 'Hughie' - it gave respect to the mother figure, and initially made me think that Hugh wasn't the girls' father, but then created a distance in the relationship between them.
   As well as the extreme poverty that they deal with, they have their grief of having had their middle son stolen off the street and never knowing what became of him.
   The story shines a flashlight on a period of time in their lives - they don't particularly achieve much, but seem to settle and accept the love they have for each other, and find a kind of happiness.
   The characters in this novel are all so real that you fall in love with them and feel their pain, and your heart wrenches for them.
   I think this novel also challenged a lot of concepts that people had on Sydney, at the time. I think it spurred authorities to clean up Surry Hills and make it the expensive, desirable (and trendy) suburb that it is today.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


What a busy year, so far!
   Carpentaria by Alexis Wright is the first book I've even read this year (gasp! shock! - I know!). Other than listening to some audio books, I have been stuck in the first half of Les Miserables, and on this book for months. I felt defeated. I didn't want to read, because I wasn't getting anywhere. Finally, I finished ...

Carpentaria won the Miles Franklin Award in 2007.
   It is based in a small town in North Queensland. The white inhabitants of the town are comical. The Aboriginal people - the Pricklebush people - have divided themselves between Eastern and Western clans, based on a land rights squabble.
   There is also a larger land rights argument that some of the Aboriginal people have the a new mining operation that has opened up nearby.
   The images I got whilst reading this were very stark and graphic. The characters were vivid. But the writing was less so - I sometimes lost the story line and didn't understand what was happening, if anything. The timeline jumped around, so I got confused a couple of time (it probably didn't help that I read it over some months, and kept picking it up and putting it down).
   The book ended with a feeling of hope, but I am uncertain as to the purpose of the story ... or if there even was a story ... or was it just some happenings in people's lives at a point in time?
   This review by Liam Davison has probably done it more justice than I have, if you're keen to learn more.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Sense of an Ending

I had no expectations about The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes when I picked it up, except that it had won the Man Booker prize for 2011 (so it must have been good). I won't give anything away ...

The writing certainly lived up to the expectation - from a literary and prose perspective, the writing was lovely. But I think that the topic would isolate a lot of readers - it certainly wasn't something I related to, or was interested in. I probably only finished the book because I was camping, and didn't have anything else to do! Perhaps it was written for an audience that didn't include my sex or age-group (what does that say about the judges of the Man Booker prize?).
   The Sense of an Ending is also a book that critics have said should be read twice. I can understand that a different light would be reflected on all the insinuations in the novel, if you already knew the ending. But I really don't feel compelled to read it again.
   The ending was not a revelation - it was such a simple little story, so focused down onto a subjective level of the narrator and main character, that the ending didn't really affect me as the reader. I can see that it would have caused a bit of a heart flip for the main character, but certainly wouldn't have been something to obsess about, considering the event in question happened over 40 years prior.
   The hostility and obstructiveness of Veronica still isn't explained, even after the ending is revealed. Nor is the financial legacy that is left to the main character. The ending doesn't seem to justify these points. Maybe Veronica is just a nasty, bitter person - in which case, why would she even engage with the main character at all? Maybe because he's so annoying - his self-obsessing certainly annoyed me.
   Maybe I'll reread it in a couple of years. Right now, I don't have the patience for the characters - I need a break from them.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Aussie Author Challenge 2012

I participated in the Aussie Author Challenge 2012.

   Some of the books may have also been classics, or written by women for the Australian Women Writers Challenge that I also participated in, but here are the titles and reviews (a very mixed bag, so it achieved my goal of reading broadly):

This certainly qualifies me as Dinky-Di!!!

Secret Keeper

I read the Secret Keeper, Kate Morton's new book, over the Christmas and New Year period.
   I got the book as an uncorrected proof, but because I took so long reading Richard Mahony, I didn't get to Secret Keeper until it hit the selves for Christmas.

   I liked the twist at the end, but I didn't really enjoy the whole novel. It took me a long time to get into, the structure of the story didn't suit me. It was such a heavy book to have to get to that ending. The intrigue didn't grab me, and I didn't really care about the characters.
   It's the second Kate Morton book I've read, having read The Shifting Fog last year. The writing is very easy to read - it's modern style and easy language. However, The Shifting Fog kept me moving. Secret Keeper didn't.
   I think the problem may have been that I didn't like the character that we were following in snippets during the World War II period of the novel.
   The daughters were a bit under-developed and stiff, or two-dimensional.
   For such a great Australian author, I don't want to be negative. This book will be enjoyed by thousands of women (and men). It just wasn't for me, unfortunately.