Tag: book review (Page 1 of 4)

Book review: Yeah, Nah!, by William McInnes

Title: Yeah, Nah!: A celebration of life and the words that make us who we are

Author: William McInnes

Publisher: Hachette Australia, 2023

William McInnes is one of Australia’s most popular and well-known writers and actors.  He began his writing career with his memoir A Man’s Got to Have a Hobby.  In 2012 his book, co-written with his wife, Sarah Watt, Worse Things Happen at Sea, was named the best non-fiction title in the ABIA and Indie Book Awards.  He now has a dozen books to his name.

His acting credits include leading roles in Blue Healers, Sea Change, Total Control and The Newsreader.  He has won two Logies and two AFI/AACTA Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.  William now lives in Melbourne after spending his formative years in Queensland.

Language is an important identifier of culture and community and William McInnes looks into the changes in the language of Australia.  This entertaining read is part memoir – a nostalgic look at expressions used in his childhood, his parents’ time and through to the present day.  The book consists of 11 chapters each examining a particular ‘time’, the language used and developed and McInnes’s thoughts and memories.  He begins with Simpler Times and Unprecedented Times (memory inducing for all of us).  He looks at Sporting Times and ends with Calling Time.  Occasionally, I thought he had lost his way but he always neatly brought it back at the conclusion of the chapter.

It becomes part manifesto in chapters like Men of Their Time where he and a best mate devise a list to guide young men in their early to mid-twenties, including their sons, on how to be a ‘good bloke’ and, I must say, if the young men of my acquaintance followed the list they would be on the right track.

William McInnes on his favourite Australianisms

@ ABC australia

McInnes is a wonderful storyteller with an insight into the human condition.  The book has some laugh-out-loud moments and a lot of quiet chuckles and smiles while still getting his point across.  As an example, a former girlfriend dumped him because he surfed like Herman Munster from a TV series in the 1960s.  Being of a similar age, I could really identify with a lot of his reminiscences.  When there was some lingo I hadn’t come across (he did grow up in a different state to me) he explains these terms neatly and succinctly. 

I would recommend this book for middle to older generations for the remembrance of a time past and the reminder that the world has moved on and so has our language.  However, it is still relevant for younger readers for some inside information into a previous time and proof that Australia is still a living language after giving the world “selfie”.  Yeah, Nah! is a particularly Australian term and I think is worth an unequivocal Yeah.  Read it in one sitting or dip into it a chapter at a time.  Make the time even if you’re flat out like a lizard drinking.  You won’t be sorry.

Reviewed by: Marian Chivers, January, 2024

Ballarat Writers Inc Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher.

  • Marian Chivers is a retired librarian with a lifelong interest in reading, writing and language with her work and study involving books from children’s literature to postgraduate studies.

Book review: Mother Earth, by Libby Hathorn

Title: Mother Earth: Poems to celebrate the wonder of nature

Author: Libby Hathorn, illustrated by Christina Booth

Publisher: Hachette, 2023; RRP $24.99

Libby Hathorn is a prolific writer for children, young adult and adult readers. Her work has won honours in Australia, the UK, Britain and Holland, and she has won multiple awards and prizes. Her work has also been translated into a number of languages, and adapted for stage and screen.

Illustrator Christina Booth is also an award-winning author of seven books and has illustrated over twenty, receiving a CBCA Honour Book award for her book Kip.

Mother Earth is a beautifully illustrated collection of poems aimed primarily at children between the ages of four and eight, but there are also poems older children might enjoy. The poems’ main theme is the beauty and vulnerability of the world we inhabit, and repeated throughout is the responsibility of all of us to protect and maintain it.

My first thought was how both message and reading and/or listening pleasure would be delivered,  as this requires delicate balance given the age of its audience. If the educational component is heavy handed, the poetic element can get lost in the facts. What made this danger particularly poignant is that its message is a more important subject for its audience than the adults who will share it with them.

Children, because of their age, respond to the natural world differently to the way adults do. Consequently alongside the need for environmental damage needing to be discussed with children it is equally important that it be relayed with rhythm and beautiful words they can connect with and enjoy.

Libby Hathorn has balanced these two concerns skilfully. Sharing what is meant by the natural environment and its need to be protected is explored throughout, including gentle hints about how this can be achieved. These ideas are presented in entertaining and informative poems alerting children to the need not to take its safety for granted, and what sorts of things that can be done, e.g., the bouncy ‘Say Rubbish to Rubbish’.

The natural world is defined in its full complexity, starting with a poem that talks about how we are all connected with the natural world.

You connected. Me. Us. They.

to things unseen and all you see.

The messages about current happenings doing damage are inserted amongst those concentrating simply on how blessed we are with the world we have. A poem filled with how good it feels to swim in the ocean, for example, is followed by another that recalls a beach walk and how too many of the shells have been removed.

This technique is used throughout, introducing invasive species, the effects of climate change, wildlife loss, etc. These are outnumbered by poems sharing the beauty and magic of the natural world however, so the overall tone is one of celebration.

A poem I particularly enjoyed was ‘Valley under the rock’ which gives voice to the mysterious and unknown about the natural world, recalling to me the otherworldly feel in underground caves, and the peace evoked by the deep silence when I walk deep into bushland to where the sounds of human habitation disappear. This allows reader and listener to experiencing it not just as a collection of one-dimensional facts.

Found a rock cathedral

in mansions of green

ancient secret cavern

glistening, serene.

This book could be used both for reading out loud and for sitting reading alone with a child. The illustrations add colour, shape and movement to the words, and the vivid colours and inclusion of details both large and small in the illustrations support this as well as the size and construction of the book itself. The firm front and back covers means it is easy to hold open, facing outwards.

I practised reading some of the poems aloud and found they lend themselves well to performance, invaluable for the adult reader who is able to add that element to the reading or who just likes to put on a bit of a show, whether teacher, librarian, or adult at home. Repetition is used throughout, and rhythm, for example in the poem on how we are all connected

to butterfly, to hairy ape

to itchy nits, to slipping snake

and another about a storm:

water sobbing

in the doorways

cats hobnobbing

Though all the poems are expressed in simple, vivid language aimed at younger children, a few also include less common words to challenge, inspire and entertain, e.g., coruscant, thrum, gnarled, monotreme. Useful environmentally aware words and phrases are also scattered throughout, e.g., ecosystem, recycling, connectedness to add to children’s vocabulary.

Mother Earth invites questions thus adding to its educational value, but also – speaking as a parent here – opportunity to reassure. Practical solutions are offered, and I can see also how some questions, especially those that need to give hope, might lead naturally to talking about Greenpeace and Landcare, or positive stories like the ongoing emergence of new species.

A small warming. The poem ‘Bushfire baby’ contains a drawing of a wounded koala being given water by an emergency worker to illustrate what happens to animals caught up in a bushfire, which even as an adult I found painful to look at. There are children who might find this image distressful so it’s good just to check that page and be aware of this in relation to your audience, whether just one or a group.

In conclusion, my overall impression is that Mother Earth is anexcellent starting point for introducing children to our natural world and the issues it is facing in the world as it is today. As parent and grandparent, I think it is an attractive, entertaining and useful tool to help introduce our children to the world they will inherit.

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

— Rhonda is a retired librarian, ex child bookworm and previous avid reader and performer of children’s books to her own children and later grandson, clocking up over 20 years’ reading a minimum two books every night.

Book review – Other Houses, by Paddy O’Reilly

Title: Other Houses

Author: Paddy O’Reilly

Publisher: Affirm Press, 2022; RRP: $32.99

Paddy O’Reilly is a well-known Australian writer. She has written four novels including 2022’s Other Houses: The Wonders (2014), The Fine Colour of Rust (2012) and The Factory (2005). She has also written two collections of short stories and a novella, all published over the last couple of decades. Paddy has been short-listed and successful for numerous awards, both in Australia and overseas. Paddy O’Reilly lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Set in Melbourne’s western suburbs, Other Houses tells a vivid story of disadvantage and struggle. Lily is the mum of Jewelee, a rebelling teenager, when Janks, a reformed drug addict joins their family. They decide to leave the rough side of town and move across the tracks. Their motive is to give their daughter a chance to attend a better school and provide her with the opportunities in life they never had.

Lily collaborates with a friend, Shannon, cleaning other people’s houses. Their boss is a shifty character with his  own interests at heart. The daily grind of the work is back breaking for the two women, but they pride themselves on their ability to achieve exacting standards. They are good friends supporting each other and making the most of earning a wage together. The clients they work for are a precious lot but cleaning their houses on a regular basis provides the women with amusement, concern and intriguing insights into the secrets and oddities of other people’s lives.

Janks works in a factory. He and Lily are dependent on both their wages to make ends meet but no matter how hard it becomes, Lily and Janks are determined to turn Jewelee’s life around, and they are comforted when she finally shows signs of responding. They teeter on the edge of financial fragility each week but believe in what they are doing, for Jewelee and themselves. Then something happens that shatters their plan for a better existence.

George Haddad on Other Houses: ‘trauma without the porn’

@ the sydney review of books

This book has Paddy O’Reilly’s signature written all over it: clever and humorous storytelling that bursts alive on the pages. It also contains an honesty that is cringe worthy but so accurate that the reader becomes acutely engaged with the characters. Lily, Janks and Jewelee don’t mince words. They are living and evolving products of a world where privilege is absent and surviving without it is harsh.

Written with a tension that has the reader turning pages, Other Houses provides a window into hardship and poverty and the extreme difficulty of finding a way out. I was left with a reminder of how the circumstance of class inequality and disadvantage is difficult to exit. In fact, for some people and families, escape is near impossible.  

I loved this book and the characters danced in my head for days after I finished reading it. It’s a close-up read. Clever, funny, serious and real.  

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche, October 2023

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Book review – The Broken Places, by Russell Franklin

Title: The Broken Places

Author: Russell Franklin

Publisher: Phoenix Books/Hachette, 2023; RRP $32.99

The Broken Places fits into the genre of biological fiction, defined as a work based on the life of a real person but developed further within a fictional framework.

Nobel Laureate Ernest Hemingway had three sons: John, Patrick, and Gregory, his youngest and favourite. The Broken Places is  positioned within the history of Hemingway himself and the Hemingway family, but the main character is Greg, or Gigi as his family often called him.

Like his father, Greg was highly competitive and adventurous, a boy who won an international shooting competition in Cuba against far more experienced adults. He was fearless, muscular, and very fit. Being a little on the short side, he was also often referred to affectionately by his father as his ‘pocket rocket’. He also excelled academically and, when he left school, undertook medical training, working as a physician in NYC before moving to work in a small country town community hospital.

He and his older brother Patrick had a seemingly idyllic childhood including long stays with their larger than life, loving but overly indulgent father in his estate Finca Vigia in Cuba, including allowing them at a very young age to drink alcohol and smoke. Though he loved his sons he also demanded much of them. Being able to brag about his sons’ achievements gave him much pleasure, and the opposite  was true if they failed, something of which they were both painfully aware. Despite this, they loved their father and in their own ways tried to adjust to the demands he made of them.

Greg, however, had a secret other life. Quite early on in childhood, he developed a fascination for wearing women’s clothing. This  fascination grew steadily stronger as he got older, filling him with  shame and self-loathing.

As he grew into adulthood, he suffered periodic attacks of manic depression. These manic attacks wreaked havoc with his relationships, causing him to escape his marriage and home life and take to the night streets trying desperately to deal with the mayhem in his mind, and usually ending up in bars or parties out of his mind on alcohol and drugs.

Treatment included electric shock therapy but this changed from being a medical intervention to another addiction. Over time he begun submitting to the treatment willingly, even seeking it out for the period of peace and calm that followed. He refers to the sessions as his  ‘shocks’, in the same way an addict might refer to needing more heroin or an alcoholic needing another bottle of whisky.  The relief they provided, however, became shorter and shorter and the mania and the black depression which preceded them would always return.

More about Greg and the Hemingway family

@ the Chicago Tribune

The sections in the book dealing with his growing understanding of his desire to dress in women’s clothing are tragic and convincing. This side of himself was unwelcome but over time he found the only way to stop it from destroying his sanity, and his professional life as doctor, was to allow it a place in his life, in a safe and structured way. Like his ‘shocks’, however, each time he did, the reprieve was temporary. By the end of The Broken Place, however, he comes to a place where he is able to accept himself as all of who he is: Greg, Gigi, and finally, Gloria .This book is how he gets there, as well as how his family tries to support him.

The author, Briton Russell Franklin, states clearly at the start that this, his debut novel, is a fictional work inspired by Gregory’s life. There is no mention of  Hemingway family members in his Acknowledgements but at the end of the work he does provide a useful list of biographical and autobiographical works written by a number of them.

Franklin himself was able to write the book after being selected for the prestigious London Library Emerging Writers Programme 2000-2001 and he thanks those in his cohort there ‘for helping me take myself seriously as a writer’.

 In his Author’s Note at the beginning, and aware perhaps of his responsibility to his subject and possible responses from their fans, he writes:

I make no claims that my approach is definitive, but I hope the reader will appreciate that it arises from a place of love and respect.

I did have some qualms about this work. The book is filled with actual Hemingway family members and references real events and places like Hemingway’s Cuban home so it’s difficult  to extricate what is fiction from the factual.

Franklin’s writing is also very engaging and convincing. His characters leap from the pages and it is easy to see it may be taken as more factual than it actually is.

I enjoyed the book despite these doubts. The list of references is reassuring, and Franklin’s  reference to academic Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 as ‘the original well spring and authority on the real Greg’s life’ offers much. In there may be found a clearer sense of what is true and what is fiction. 

These concerns aside, I found the resolution at the end to be satisfying and the descriptions of his occasional ventures out into the world, unmasked, dressed as a woman – including the terrible  moment his father walked in on him, still only a young boy, dressed in his stepmother’s clothing – painfully convincing, giving insight into how very difficult life is in a world which restricts gender identity to either male or female. The author taking us deep into the loneliness and the shame and  conveying it skilfully and movingly, and, as he promises in his Author’s Note, respectfully.

In conclusion, the title, taken from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, provides in retrospect an excellent introduction to what lies at the heart of his favourite son’s story.

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell

Ballarat Writers Inc. book review group

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – Borderland, by Graham Akhurst

Title: Borderland

Author: Graham Akhurst

Publisher: UWA Publishing, October 2023; RRP: $22.99

The hidden Chosen One trope is as old at least as Arthur, especially in the Young Adult realm, but Graham Akhurst gives it fresh poignancy in his debut novel by using the frame of the Stolen Generations and colonial displacement. In fact, the non-fantastical elements of Borderland are where the tale strikes deepest, the horror elements familiar and the narrative trajectory treading a well-worn path of discovery, mentorship and challenge.

Our hero is Jono, a First Nations lad raised in Brisbane with no knowledge of his mob or Country, his family’s past either not known or obscured by his loving single mum who is, one suspects, battling her own demons. In an echo of the acclaimed TV series Cleverman, Jono is embroiled in a journey of discovery that reveals far more than he could ever have expected about the world and his place in it.

The story opens with Jono feeling like the odd one out, he and his long-time friend, Jenny, graduating as the two Indigenous kids on a scholarship at a prestigious high school. That the discrimination comes not only from classmates either ignorant or jealous but also other blackfellas, who brand him a ‘coconut’, is telling. Hell, even magpies give him a rough time, even out of nesting season.

Aside from his mother, Jenny – attractive, talented and secure in her cultural identity – is Jono’s rock. It is at her instigation that Jono joins an arts academy, where the story picks up the pace. It is here that the pair find themselves on a flight to western Queensland to shoot a ‘documentary’ extolling the virtues of the mining industry to the traditional custodians whose land sits above rich seams of gas ripe for the fracking.

Akhurst looks back at life in Nudgee and forward to his next writing project

@ behind the stripes, 2021

For the boy from Brisbane, the tension of mining interests, economic drivers and preservation of Country is an intriguing backdrop to the simple fact that he is making serious money for the first time in his life – money that can help his mother. This mirrors the argument of trying to better the lot of traditional owners by allowing exploitation of Country, a contemporary conflict that gives the story added social weight. Further illustrating the clash, Akhurst appears to draw upon a decade-old, contentious accusation of methane released by coal seam gas operations setting the Condamine River alight in one of the book’s more evocative scenes.

It is out west that Akhurst finds his most vivid descriptions of landscape in a tale simply told, as befits its young first-person narrator who wields slang, not metaphors. And it is out west where truths are uncovered that will irrevocably change the lives of Jenny and Jono. There is the matter, for example, of Jono’s growing attraction to his confident, mature friend. And there’s the question about that dog-headed monster that’s been haunting him of late, the visions growing in potency despite the medication he has been prescribed. And what about that enigmatic ringer so at ease in the dust and haze of the west, and tales of Dreamtime spirits that may not be as quiescent as believed?

These spirits and other totemic and symbolic meanings are the creation of Akhurst, a Kokomini writer and academic who grew up in Meanjin (Brisbane). In a note, Akhurst, who includes a Fulbright scholarship among his accomplishments, reveals extensive consultation with First Nations people in relation to this story, but he makes the point that he carefully invented settings and cultural elements to avoid appropriation.

This incorporation of beliefs, however fictionalised, and Jono’s growing understanding of their meaning and their relationship to him, are key elements of this coming-of-age yarn that sets the scene for further volumes.

At story’s end, Jenny and Jono both have quests awaiting them that provide further opportunity for social exploration as well as good old-fashioned adventure. As such, Borderland is a solid start, both for our heroes’ journey and Akhurst’s fiction career.

Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Advanced reading copy provided by the publisher

Book review – The Fast 800 Keto Recipe Book, by Dr Clare Bailey

Title: The Fast 800 Keto Recipe Book (Australian and New Zealand edition)

Author: Dr Clare Bailey with Kathryn Bruton

Publisher: Hachette Australia, 2022; RRP $39.99

Why choose to review a cookbook? Those who cook will not be asking that question and since you have started reading this then you already know. Some cookbooks are like another pair of hands in the kitchen, some not. It’s good to know in advance.

I chose this book to review because I wanted to know more about the keto diet. I am not reviewing the diet itself as I am not a medical professional. When I judge cookbooks for purchase I consider whether they contain something I want to know, and how easy they are to work with as a longtime but unqualified cook in an average to small home kitchen.

My approach is based on awareness that all cooks will vary hugely on the specifics but, generally,  we all tend to want roughly the same thing concerning cookbooks: recipes and how we find and put them to use.

Because many cooks, including me, google recipes too, I need to get that out of the way. Googling is great for finding recipes from simple to complex, and also exploring such things as substitutes or what to do with a sausage, half a cabbage and a packet of chips in twenty minutes. But my phone screen cuts out too quickly and laptops do not belong on kitchen benches. Neither cope with sticky fingers or inevitable spills. Keeping successful recipes found on Google is a whole new task in itself, often requiring a print out which must then itself be kept somewhere since it’s more user friendly in non-digital form. 

‘A ketogenic (or ‘keto’) diet is a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet.

read more at health direct

I wanted to know more about the keto diet itself as the little I knew sounded healthy, and I wanted simple recipes that used most of what I already have in my home kitchen, with a few interesting new ones and hopefully new ways of cooking food I already like.

After that, what matters is how easy the book is to use. Though important, this is always secondary. Cookbooks have a distinct role and even a battered op shop cookbook minus its cover is going to be the right one if it contains new ways of cooking mince or the recipe for a Black Forest cake that we are searching for. Some cookbooks are things of beauty but useless in our kitchens if they are not a catalyst for joy on a plate.

For this work – the basic requirement was that the keto diet be clearly and simply explained, by writers I could trust. 

Both Dr Michael Mosley, who wrote both the forward to this volume and Fast 800 Keto, to which this is a companion volume, and his wife, Dr Clare Bailey, are trained and practising medical scientists. Dr Mosley is the scientific and PR backbone of the pair, and Dr Bailey also an enthusiastic cook. She, along with recipe writer, developer and food stylist Kathryn Bruton, are responsible for the recipes.

Both doctors are passionate about the diet and the work does involve a lot of information spruiking its benefits, though that is to be expected. This is offset by a section ‘Exclusions and Cautions’, which lists conditions for which the diet would not be suitable, and also advising anyone considering the diet to always consult their doctor first about pre-existing conditions. There is also helpful advice for a flexible approach allowing for different levels of commitment.

This information is set out clearly at the beginning before the recipe pages so encouraging a fully informed approach before the cooking starts.

The rest of the book contains the recipes themselves interspersed with information listing protein content and calories as these are basic to the keto diet.


Dr Mosley talks about his Fast 800 keto book

@ the BBC

I just wanted to know if the recipes looked good, at this stage having read enough to decide not to follow the diet. Not because I didn’t agree with it but because I don’t like regimented eating. But I did like the recipes and I do like healthy food.

What remains then for potential users is how easy it is to use the physical book in the kitchen environment.

First, how well is the information ordered and laid out? I found the index and contents easy to read, and thorough. The Contents are in bold, and not fussy, separating the book into eight main groups from breakfast through to treats, followed by others under headings like ‘counting carbs’, ‘no fuss dressings’, ‘protein alternatives’.

The index is by ingredient, individual recipes, and recipe groups, for example pancakes, dressings, etc, which makes it particularly useful for searching for recipes according to different needs.                                                                                                                         

Secondly, can it sit upright or lie open on a flat surface at the relevant page? Many can’t and this unfortunately is no exception. This is always a pain when having to check details mid recipe, or find the next step.

Thirdly, is there space for notes? And yes, there is. This is necessary for comments around or near the recipe once attempted. There doesn’t need to be an allocated space. Things like emergency substitutes for missing ingredients, suggestions for changing things around, or just ‘Yum!’

This book is roughly 19cm by 24cm with a bright cover, so easy to find on a cluttered bench. The pages are shiny and a little stiff, so able to cope well with fingerprints, etc. The illustrations are attractive, simple shots of the dish with nothing around it to distract, nice to look at, and useful so we get an idea of what the end result should look like.

I would recommend it to anyone curious about the keto diet, or who likes reading about food generally. A strength is that most of the recipes are really simple and inviting, using easily found ingredients, and also that it is written in a concise, no-fuss style suited to a busy cooking environment. 

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

  • I am a qualified librarian, and have completed a PG in Professional Writing. I read widely, nonstop, and have all my life. My librarian self thinks about who would like to read this book. My writer self clarifies my response, tries to identify where a book succeeds, and where it fails. As a writer I also explore different sorts of writing in order to write better and to fully explore the power of the written word in all our lives.

Book review — I Have Some Questions for You, by Rebecca Makkai

Title: I Have Some Questions For You

Author: Rebecca Makkai

Publisher: Hachette Australia, 2023; RRP $32.99

I Have Some Questions For You is the latest novel from the author of The Great Believer, winner of the Carnegie Medal and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. Makkai has also written for children, and her work has appeared in a number of best reading lists and prominent literary journals.

Bodie Kane has returned to the remote and exclusive Granby boarding school in New Hampshire where she had been enrolled as a sad and lonely child by a wealthy, well-meaning family to complete her final four years of schooling. And also to rescue both her and her deeply depressed mother from years unable to provide for her daughter’s most basic needs.

Now 23 years later and no longer the unpopular, overweight and sulky emo of the past, a sophisticated and successful Bodie has returned to Granby to teach a two-week course on podcasting to a group of film students. But one of her students has chosen the murder of Thalia Keith, Bodie’s bright and popular roommate in Bodie’s final year at the school, as her subject. The murder having never left the public eye due to opinions widely split on whether the right person had been convicted.

The story shifts from the past to present as memories surface in the older Bodie’s mind and through reconnecting with others still at the school. It is also viewed through the lens of her role as teacher to her students, and by connections made in the general arena of social networking, which is itself a constant throughout as the murder is slowly and painfully unpicked.

Rebecca Makkai lives on campus where she went to high school, but the similarities with her novel don’t extend to murder

makkai talks about ‘I have some questions for you‘ with time magazine

There is a wide and varied cast of characters, each bringing their own memories and their own issues both past and present to the search for truth. The most tragic is Omar Wilson, the pool boy accused of the murder, whose story – unusually for a murder mystery such as this – we follow through Bodie’s searching from his conviction and entry into the prison system to the experiences he endures that follow. 

As Bodie’s thoughts move back and forward from the past to the present she also breaks away to address a mysterious other known only as Mr Bloch, speaking to that person as if they were actually present, referring to past incidents in which they played a part in her student years and the life of her murdered roommate. This pops up suddenly throughout, oddly jarring moments in reading where suddenly the reader is deep inside Bodie’s head as if standing before a closed door. This is an interesting strategy and is extremely effective, weaving amongst all the other characters involved.

The question at the heart of it all, however, is not just whether Omar was the real killer, but how he came to be convicted, and what role racism and protecting the reputation of the school played.

As the plot unfolds, brief, factual references listing incidents where racial and sexual power imbalances played a role in investigations and convictions emerge. These reveal those less-desirable organised underpinnings of society manifesting in legal decisions and actions where men who have abused, raped and murdered young girls and women are able to escape prosecution on petty points. All occurring in professional arenas of the law and politics as well as the domestic places on the streets and in homes.

Significant holes slowly emerge as Bodie, her students and others probe the past – particularly how Thalia’s absence in the close-knit community was not noticed until days later, how key people were not interviewed, why the unnecessary delay in cordoning off the crime scene leading to its being compromised, and wildly conflicting stories were not followed up, and more. The investigation slowly emerging as too riddled with incompetence for it to be accidental.

Makkai talks about how to write a boarding school, harassment and murder

@ boston.com

There are a number of other suspects and, while interrogating the past, issues of gender inequality, bullying of the girls, and power imbalances in the past bubble to the surface through her memories. This is shown through a slow unpacking of Bodie’s everyday life in the school as a moody and sullen student, where small ugly acts of humiliation are a daily occurrence but treated as normal, and where there is a layer of inappropriate behaviour by a teacher that goes undetected for decades.  In this hothouse environment where privileged, testosterone-driven young males combine with adolescent rebellion and insecurities, an increasing sense of explosive tension builds, creating a sense that anything can happen, and this carries across every page without let-up.

Tension is finely held throughout. The plot is skilfully constructed given its complexity. Past and present are clearly delineated so I did not get lost on where and when, with all tightly held together, telling a coherent story despite also being riddled with convincing false leads. Part of this is cleverly achieved by the chapters being of widely varying lengths, from one which contains a single question, like a thought suddenly breaking focus, to short and introspective, and longer.

For both those simply wanting a satisfying murder mystery, and those liking some poetry or literary smarts in their murder, this literary mystery will please.

It is beautifully written and though the theme could be said to be an old one, I was hooked from beginning to the satisfyingly unexpected end.

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review — The Witching Tide, by Margaret Meyer

Author: Margaret Meyer

Title: The Witching Tide

Publisher: Moa Press/Hachette, 2023; RRP: $32.99

Margaret Meyer has a wealth of experience, having been born in Canada, grown up in New Zealand where she began her working life, and subsequently working and studying in the UK. She was a journalist and fiction editor in New Zealand, and, in the UK, publishing director for the Museum of London before being appointed Director of Literature with the British Council. She then trained as a mental health therapist and worked in a variety of settings including schools, prisons and addiction recovery centres, as well as her own private practice. She completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia before writing The Witching Tide, and now lives in Norwich.

Her location provides the inspiration for this novel. During the middle years of the 17th century, a witch hunt took place in East Anglia in which at least 100 innocent women were executed. In Britain few witch trials took place in the Middle Ages, however, the majority occurred in the 1600s, reaching a peak during the 1640s of the English Civil War and the Puritan era of the 1650s. Records indicate that about 500 people, more than 90 per cent of them women, were condemned to hang as witches or were burned at the stake (if convicted of another crime at the same time) during this period. One hundred people from one small area constitutes a significant proportion of the population at the time. The women who were targeted were often old, with a bad reputation amongst their neighbours, or who had particular skills with herbs and other healing techniques.

Martha Hallybread, the protagonist of this story, is neither particularly old, being in her 40s, nor with a poor reputation; she is the ex-nurse of her master, Kit Crozier, and now works as a sort of housekeeper for Kit and his wife, Agnes, who is pregnant with the couple’s second child – the first had died at birth. Martha is also the local midwife and is known for the healing qualities of her ‘physick garden’. She has always been mute, communicating by a system of hand signals and gestures, well known to those around her but more difficult for strangers to interpret. Kit is a merchant, and a kind man who treats his servants as family, especially Martha, as it was she who essentially raised him.

Margaret Meyer on the idea that became The Witch Tide, getting an agent and the thrill of a bidding war

@ the Spinoff

The book opens with one of the young servants, Prissy, being taken by a gang of men working for the witch hunters. This begins a time of great upheaval in both the household and the town of Cleftwater. People turn on one another, interpreting illnesses and hardships as evidence of witchcraft amongst some of the local women. At Kit’s bidding, Martha becomes one of the assistants to the witch hunters, seeking marks of the devil on her fellow villagers in order to try to save Prissy.

And Martha has a secret – a collection of items left to her by her mother, amongst them a wax doll, called a poppet. When Martha realises the danger that is looming, she retrieves this poppet from the box of her mother’s items and ponders over whether she should use it, and if so, how. Ancient beliefs, predating the Christianity of the time, seem to inform Martha’s understanding of the power of the items bequeathed by her mother.

Margaret Meyer talks about witch trials and the lessons perhaps not learnt

@ saturday morning on rNZ

Over the course of about two weeks, we see the whole town become consumed with the witch hunt and how this has an impact on everyone from the priest and the judge, to the poorest of the townsfolk, and especially on the Crozier household and their friends. The weather becomes an additional character when persistent rain causes flooding, adding to the misery of the accused women.

There are gritty and disturbing descriptions of the place the women are imprisoned, as well as the other torments they are subjected to in the effort to determine whether or not they are witches. As was the situation at the time, even the most benign events are twisted to provide ‘proof’ of cavorting with the devil or his imps, or of intent to harm neighbours. Martha’s inability to utter spoken words also works against her, allowing inaccurate interpretations of her signing and gestures.

Martha, unlike some of the other characters, ultimately survives the ordeals enacted by the witch hunters, but it is not clear exactly how this happens. It is also difficult to determine how much Martha believes in the power of the poppet and whether she is really at ease with its use. This could just reflect the confusion of the time and be a deliberate device used by the author. However, it means that the Martha character remains enigmatic in relation to her inner thoughts and reasoning. What is not enigmatic, however, is the horror of the events and the unjust ways in which women were treated during that disturbing time.

Reviewed by: Elisabeth Bridson

Ballarat Writers Inc. Review Group

Review copy provided by publisher

Book review — Murnane, by Emmett Stinson

Title: Contemporary Australian Writers – Murnane

Author: Emmett Stinson

Publisher: The Miegunyah Press/MUP, 2023; RRP: $30

Emmett Stinson is a lecturer in Literary Cultures and Head of English at the University of Tasmania. A man of words, a literary academic, and a skilled professional with several career milestones, awards, and publications to his credit. 

Melbourne-born Gerald Murnane is regarded as a serious author of literary fiction, “highbrow material”, some suggest experimental, though in literary circles it is material that warrants deep and meaningful discussion.

Stinson gives us a solid and professional introduction to Murnane and his writing. Making it an excellent companion for anyone deciding to read the works of Murnane. Stinson’s book is informative, written in a way that makes it accessible to a broad range of readers.  There are frequent references to other literary critics and comparisons to other notable works and authors.  The proviso is, one needs to have read widely or at least be motivated to read more; there is a bibliography included.

Murnane is clearly an interesting character, eccentric, and prolific. His writing is…well, in Stinson’s words, “Murnane’s writing hybridises fiction, essay and memoir in ways that anticipate contemporary autofiction.” Stinson’s unpacking of Murnane’s themes and style is a worthwhile guide to Murnane’s works.

It seems Murnane finds literary criticism unsatisfactory, in some ways distasteful.  His relationship to the literary academic world of Stinson could be described as challenging and is sufficiently interesting for Stinson to incorporate this aspect of Murnane into his book. Including an amusing anecdote of Murnane serving behind the bar at the Goroke Golf Club during a literary conference held at the club to discuss the works of Gerald Murnane.  

Emmett Stinson delves into the writing of Gerald Murnane in this extract

@ the guardian

The book begins with an introductory chapter on Murnane the author. I found this to be the most interesting part of the book, giving context and life to an author and their work. I was immediately intrigued and went out to find copies of Murnane’s work; I had not previously heard of Murnane.

There are separate chapters dealing with four of Murnane’s major “late fictions”. These chapters are followed by a conclusion discussing Murnane’s style. The last chapter looks at the late recognition of Murnane’s writing by the literary world, at least the Australian part of the world, noting the attitudes of various critics, and providing insights from an interview with Murnane.

Stinson admits to being a Murnane devotee. However, I felt he was objective in portraying Murnane’s work.  This book is one for the anyone interested in writing as a creative form of expression.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – The Housekeepers, by Alex Hay

Title: The Housekeepers

Author: Alex Hay

Publisher: Headline/Hachette, 2023; RRP: $32.99

Alex Hay has been writing as long as he can remember.  He studied History at the University of York, and wrote his dissertation on female power at royal courts, combing the archives for every scrap of drama and skulduggery he could find, and this knowledge is evident in this, his debut novel, that won the Caledonia Novel Award 2022.

Mayfair, 1906, a Park Lane mansion and a recently dismissed housekeeper combine for an audacious heist orchestrated by a talented and criminally connected group of women.  Never underestimate those below stairs. 

A combination of Ocean’s Eleven and Upstairs, Downstairs, this is an engaging novel with a well-developed plot and characters.  The heist is not just a matter of monetary gain or simple revenge for some of the characters.  As dark and long-held secrets emerge, the stakes become higher and higher. 

Alex Hay talks about The Housekeepers

@ the bookstorm podcast

The plan is to strip the mansion of all its goods on the night the former employer holds the ball of the season.  Seven women; two former housekeepers, a seamstress, a black-market queen, an actress and the amazing duo of Jane 1 & 2 all have skills to offer, scores to settle and everything to gain. 

Well written, well researched and set against a background of new technology, social change, suffragettes, and political conflict.  A fun read with depth and insights into the glamorous world of the newly and the established rich and those who serve them. 

Reviewed by: Marian Chivers, August, 2023

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

  • Maria Chivers has a lifelong interest in reading and writing with her work and study involving books from children’s literature to post-graduate studies.
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