Tag: book review (Page 1 of 2)

Book review — The Bellbird River Country Choir, by Sophie Green

Title: The Bellbird River Country Choir

Author: Sophie Green

Publisher: Hachette Australia, 2022; RRP $32.99

Australian author Sophie Green’s The Bellbird River Country Choir follows a successful track record.  Her 2018 debut novel The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club was long listed for the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year and the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction. It, along with The Shelly Bay Ladies Swimming Circle and Thursdays at Orange Blossom House, were Top 10 bestsellers.  

This is a book about relationships between men and women, about women alone and in their friendships with other women, and between family members held loosely together within their shared experiences as members of a small-town community choir, and the town community itself.

As can be seen in the titles of her other bestsellers, there is a formulaic base to her works, but I say this without judgement.  I, like countless others, value the security of a familiar narrative formula that we already know is going to work for us. Her presence in Top 10 bestseller lists also signifies more than just commercial success. I chose to read this book because I like small-town stories and anything with a choir in it but also because I was in the mood for an easy-reading escape.

From the beginning that is exactly what The Bellbird River Country Choir offers, but as the story unfolded this changed — what it lacked in depth was made up by the range of relationship and personal issues it covered. It does not pretend to be an in-depth exploration, but the events and the feelings, thoughts and reactions of the characters concerned are familiar or easy to identify with. Most importantly, they become characters easy to care about, a vital ingredient in any reading experience.

The choir is the focal place where the main characters mingle and bounce off each other. The other setting is the town itself and the dry, brown country surrounding it. The town itself and surroundings are experienced and explored through the different characters who inhabit it, both longtime and new.

Sophie Green on her books and writing practice

tell me what to read @ youtube

The story begins through the eyes of single mother Alex who has moved out of the city, motivated by a need to live more cheaply and be able to spend more time with her daughter.

Some of the issues the choir members experience include the battle between Alex and her daughter, who desperately wants to return to Sydney to live instead with the beloved grandmother Alex is in continual conflict with; a mother riddled with guilt, released from a jail sentence she knows she deserved, fighting to reconnect with the children she knows she betrayed, and fearful of the townspeople finding out; a close brother-and-sister relationship fragmented by the brother’s schizophrenia after a seemingly normal childhood, his parents unable to cope and the daughter who tries to protect him; a closet artist; a compassionate stepmother unable to bear her own children responsible for those of another; a strong and dignified older woman forced to deal with her husband’s desertion for someone younger; a famous soprano unable to accept her diminished vocal range after a throat operation; a child bullied endlessly at school and her mother’s struggles to help her.  

This tapestry of personal and relationship issues is not unfamiliar. Many can be found behind the closed doors of ordinary homes and streets around us. A success of the work is that they are woven together seamlessly, creating an image of a community of individuals that covers a lot of ground without collapsing under the weight of its own complexity.

In each case the situations the choir members are dealing with are also set within the context of the society in which they play out, and include the thinking and self-exploration by the individuals suffering each trauma, from the irritating or temporary to the toxic. The bullied child exists in the story within the context of the school and the town and the psychology of the school playground — bullying that many parents will identify with. The female victim of a bullying lover looks deep within herself, extricating her own fear, loneliness and a desperate need for affection from the ugliness of the man who abuses her. The soprano is suffering what many older retired Australians experience when their working lives retreat.

It is not a poetic work using clever literary devices, nor does it offer anything new to the genre, but nevertheless I was totally engaged as the story slowly unfolded deeper into the lives of the different choir members and the life of the town. It strength is the skill with which the narrative is constructed: how it all hangs together and its humanity. There are also places where the author captured sensitive and delicate states of being, pinpointing subtle emotional responses.

When the distraught soprano rings an old friend complaining about the choir, we read,

‘Dear me,’ purrs Ivan comfortingly. Which is the reason she rang him: he’s good at being reassuring.

Or another leaving her lover,

Checking twice over her shoulder to see if he’s followed her, because for some reason she feels like prey.

It is still what would be described as light reading but sometimes the simplest of narratives travel a long way. There are one or two undeniably corny bits, but they fit in the end because life is sometimes corny too.

Very satisfying for when you are in the mood for an easy, reliably feel-good read that does not demand much thinking but which carries you away, believably, from your external world with its demands and into another place. With its distinctly Australian setting – located in a tiny fictional town a short distance from Tamworth — it will also appeal especially to small-town Australian readers.

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy supplied by the publisher

Book review — The Gold Leaf Executions, by Helen Marshall

Author: Helen Marshall

Title: The Gold Leaf Executions

Publisher: Unsung Stories, March 2023; RRP: 35 GBP

Helen Marshall comes to be an Australian resident from her native Canada via Oxford, academia laying the trail that has most recently landed her at the University of Queensland where she is a senior lecturer in creative writing. That strong research background, with a particular interest in the medieval, has found its way into her work, as inspiration as well as moments of verisimilitude. And, of course, the doctor can write. Oh, yes.

The Gold Leaf Executions is her third short story collection, adding to two poetry chapbooks and her novel, The Migration (2019). Marshall is an accomplished practitioner of speculative fiction – her bibliography teems with science fiction and fantasy publishers, and her second collection, 2014’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After, won a World Fantasy Award (adding to her Best Newcomer award of 2013) and the Shirley Jackson Award – and her prose has the elegance and voice to entice the big-L literary fan who enjoys the spice of fabulism or magical realism.

Regardless of one’s genre preferences, Marshall’s ability to paint a picture is unarguable:

‘Lydia’s feet had all the grace of birds with broken wings’, she writes in ‘All Things Fall and Are Built Again’.

Or how about this, in ‘Caldera’, where a young woman is finding herself in a folklore-infused Reykjavik:

‘She spent her days by the old harbour watching terns circle and dive, bodies perfectly engineered for flight. She admired their effortless movements, their murderous instincts. The sky was grey. The sea was grey. The world reflected itself, and the birds stitched the two gleaming surfaces together, rising, falling, rising, falling.’

The Gold Leaf Executions compiles a selection of works published between 2014 and 2019, predominantly in spec fic genre publications and anthologies, with ‘Katalog’ unique to the collection. It is an exemplar of the collection’s trend to overtly relate a story, or a part of a story, in this case through the words of the son of an artist testifying to a committee in a harsh, embattled Communist Bulgaria about his father’s – and mother’s – powers.  

Death, as the publisher’s blurb illuminates and the title suggests, is a strong theme in the collection, presented in settings from the everyday to the fractured real to the fantastical. These are also stories of transition or transformation, not just of loss but self-discovery, the fabulous elements serving as the crack in the world that allows Marshall to shine her light on the characters, and not always in the way we might expect.

In ‘The Embalmer’, for example, she purposefully, explicitly, breaks into the narrative to tell us this story is not going where we think it might, especially those used to wading in the dark side of fiction. No, this is how it plays out in the real world of this story, of course it does. While Stephen King is a clear template for her writer Barron St John in ‘Survival Strategies’, ‘The Embalmer’ is not a King story. It’s clearly a Marshall, overtly subverting genre expectation; something she does notably again when she breaks the fictive wall in ‘Survival Strategies’ by namechecking this collection.

This subversion, though, and the clear omniscient narration mentioned above that frames many of the stories, may mean that, for all the beauty and sheer clever writing presented here, mileage will likely vary. The omniscience, perhaps combined with a feeling that some of the protagonists are lacking agency (not necessarily without reason), breeds a certain remove between story and reader. Consequently, narrative drive can be lacking. The voice is strong – the difference in narration between the Cthulhu nods of ‘Caro in Carno’ and ‘Exposure’ to the second person of ‘One-quarter Dreaming, Three-quarters Want’ and the contemporary third-person of US twins dealing with death in ‘Heaven’s Night-blooming Gardens’ is clear – but that distance between reader and protagonist may limit investment.

Regardless, there is plenty to reward here, and it is gratifying to have these stories mustered conveniently in the one volume. I look forward to seeing if her sojourn down under will influence her new works, for surely we can claim this talent as ‘ours’, just as we have embraced her equally masterful and fellow expat Lisa L Hannett.

The sad part for readers outside the UK will be the postage, as The Gold Leaf Executions is available at the moment solely as a limited edition hardback through the publisher’s website (http://www.unsungstories.co.uk/the-gold-leaf-executions-by-helen-marshall). Watch that space.

Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy supplied by the publisher

Book review — Shirley Hazzard: a Writing Life, by Brigitta Olubas

Title: Shirley Hazzard: a Writing Life

Author: Brigitta Olubas

Publisher: Hachette/Virago Press, 2022; RRP $34.99

Shirley Hazzard was an important Australian author, born in 1931 and dying in 2016. Though born in Australia, she left in 1947, travelling through Europe with her family. She finished up in New York where she worked with the United Nations through the 1950s and where she spent the rest of her life. 

Her 2003 novel, The Great Fire, won the US National Book Award, the Miles Franklin award and the William Dean Howells medal, and was named Book of the Year by The Economist. Her 1970 novel, The Bay of Noon, was shortlisted for the 2010 Lost Man Booker Prize; her 1980 novel The Transit of Venus, an international bestseller, won the National Book Critics Circle Award; her novel A Long Story Short won the 1977 O Henry award. and she was shortlisted for numerous other awards. She also wrote non-fiction.

Whenever people speak of her writing. constant reference is made to the particular beauty of her writing, in words like ‘luminous’ and ‘brilliant’, but also wisdom and insight.  From The Transit of Venus we read,

            “When you realise someone is trying to hurt you, it hurts less.

            “Unless you love them.”

or my favourite,

            “Dora sat on a corner of the spread rug, longing to be assigned some task so she could resent it.”

This is an authorised biography written by Brigitta Olubras, a University of New South Wales  English professor whose areas of research includes Australian literature and transnational writing, literary and visual culture, gender studies and narrative ethics. The academic qualifications of the author are reflected in this densely researched work and its layout.

Read an obituary of Shirley Hazzard by James Campbell

@ the guardian

It is difficult to do justice to this very extensive biography of Shirley Hazzard without reference to its sheer volume. It is so comprehensive that it could be described as being at the intersection where biography meets reference work, almost a mini encyclopedia.

Because of this, the work is not just a little daunting, but a huge plus is that its layout is well set out, detailed, thorough, and easy to navigate. It is laid out such that particular areas of interest can be easily located without having to plough through the whole book.

Under Sources we are given a guide to using both Sources and Notes. Both provide guidance for future researchers or those just interested in looking deeper into her subject’s life find more material. Of particular value is a reference to the existence of as yet unorganised material, which is almost all Hazzard’s diaries and notebooks, suggesting the story of her life is not finished. Instead of a bibliography by title as is usual, there is a list of abbreviations for each source used in the copious Notes following. 

This takes the reader to the source, and this, if followed up, is a chance to check the context of quotes and also the location of the item quoted from. The Index is a richly detailed gateway to very specific areas. I found the bits referring to Hazzard’s relationship with her sister interesting. for example, but being scattered throughout made it difficult to get the full picture as they were mainly snippets of information, many pages apart. However, by working my way through the pages listed in the Index under her sisters name, I was able to get a clearer picture. In contrast, the Contents page is a simple chronological list, meaning interest in a particular time frame is very easy to find. My only criticism of this area would be that the text is smaller than the rest of the book and some may find this difficult.

Watch a talk by the author about A Writing Life

the center for fiction @ youtube

The author has used as her source a wide range of published and unpublished material, so unlike a reference tool it is rich with personal detail and pages of photographs, and crosses the boundary between her subject’s personal and family life, and her writing aims and output rather than just being a collection of facts.

Anyone interested in Australian literature generally and Shirley Hazzard particularly would find this very useful to absorb slowly in its entirety or dip in and out of. Those who enjoy biographies would enjoy it as the mix of Hazzard’s personal and professional life makes her come alive on the pages.

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy supplied by the publisher

Book review – The Sorcerer of Pyongyang, by Marcel Theroux

Title: The Sorcerer of Pyongyang

Author: Marcel Theroux

Publisher: Corsair/Hachette 2022; RRP $32.99

The main themes of The Sorcerer of Pyongyang are North Korean political, cultural, economic and social life as it is today, and Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), self-styled on its official site as the ‘’world’s greatest roleplaying game’.

Jun-su, the main character, and those around him are fictional characters depicting North Korean people today, but details of their lives are not. North Korea is real, as is D&D.

Author Marcel Theroux has won a Somerset Maugham Award and the Joseph Campbell Award. His Far North made him a finalist for US National Book Award and the Arthur C Clarke Award, and won him the Prix de I’Inapercu. Theroux has published six novels, and is also a screen writer and broadcaster – including presenting The End of the World as We Know It documentary.

The line between fiction and fact is delicately balanced in this work. The non-fictional aspect revolves around everyday life as a citizen of North Korean today, and how and why it came to be the way it is. The fictional element involves the game of D&D with its rules and the fantastic worlds in which players play roles in imaginary situations chosen by a throw of the dice. The two themes would seem galaxies apart.  The author managed this incongruous combination though initially it did require an openness to the concept of a willing suspension of disbelief in order to make the game’s presence in North Korea believable. Less suspension, however, than required for us to believe in aliens or happy ever after.  

A carefully orchestrated series of errors and hesitation results in a copy of the D&D core rule book being left behind by a family who are  part of a closely monitored  delegation of visiting academics and trade unionists. The book, with a sword-wielding troll and a semi-naked on the front cover, passes through a number of hands to a hotel staff member who takes it home and throws it in a closet.  

This occurs despite its presence in a country with rigidly enforced moral standards and a wholesale acceptance of a totalitarian regime that condemned what it perceived as Western degeneracy.     

The manual is found by Jun-su, on an enforced stay from school while suffering rheumatic fever. He is treated by his teacher, who he calls Teacher Kang, and who is also an expert in the practice of acupuncture. Jun-su shows Teacher Kang the manual and begs him to help him decipher its strange contents. They manage to translate what it contains and learn how to play the game, becoming addicted in the process. Jun-su is fascinated particularly by how it allows choice, something non-existent in their lives. Aware of this, Teacher Kang renames it ‘The House of Possibilities’.   

Jun-su continues to play D&D regularly with Teacher Kang and then later his friends, from late childhood though to his early 30s within the background of his everyday life. School, work, food, living arrangements, social gatherings, personal worries and self-doubts, his first love, a growing love of writing and success as a poet, health issues – all usual parts of growing up except set within a social, political and economic regime totally alien to the average Western reader. But also one which he and all those around him accept as perfectly normal, and more, one in which they feel blessed and protected.

This belief, expertly conveyed, is steadfast, unwavering in the face of such experiences as students being required to watch the public execution of one of their teachers under the orders of the Supreme Commander of Korea, their ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-un. A regime where citizens can be imprisoned simply for accidentally dropping a portrait of the Dear Leader, where kin punishment is the law meaning punishment for a crime is extended to the entire family, including children born in prison. Where friends and family and colleagues are encouraged to spy on one another, and government control invades all facets of life down to a limited list of prescribed hairstyles. One where years of famine resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands is referred to as the Arduous March North because to admit to suffering is an implied insult to the government.

An impressive achievement of this work is the way the story unfolds over the years without question or doubt that this is the best possible world. At no stage do North Korean characters lose faith. Kim is their noble and beloved leader, whose mere appearance evokes a hysterical and tearful joy. It is a wonderful balancing act, Jun-su’s loyalty and unwavering devotion in the background while simultaneously continuing to play the forbidden game. This prevents the narrative from sinking under the weight of its non-fictional elements and introduces something approaching normalcy in the depiction of their lives.

I would recommend this to anyone interested in North Korea. It is an entertaining, albeit chilling, introduction and encourages further interrogation of North Korea today. Those interested in the role a game can play in real life, as all art can, might also find it an interesting take.

In conclusion, I would like to quote the following sentence where a teenage Jun-su says goodnight to a friend after a night out. It contains, it seemed to me, the kernel of the book as a whole.

Against the black of the lightless city, the bus looked like a tank of fish, lit from within, as it receded into the night.

the sorcerer of pyongyang, p.83

Suggesting souls kept in darkness in a city that, in real life, remains unlit at night.

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – Wildflowers, by Peggy Frew

Title: Wildflowers

Author: Peggy Frew

Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2022; RRP: $32.99

Wildflowers is Peggy Frew’s fourth novel. Her first novel was House of Sticks. Her second, Hope Farm, was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Miles Franklin Award and won the Barbara Jeffries Award.  Islands, her third book, was also shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Peggy has published shorter works in various writing magazines. Peggy is also a musician and is a member of Melbourne-based band Art of Fighting.

Wildflowers is a rapidly moving novel about a family of three sisters: Meg, Nina, and Amber. The story is told from the perspective of Nina. Nina’s parents, Gwen and Robert, play shadowy roles, to the extent that the reader may judge them as ineffectual parents to their three very different daughters.

Amber, the youngest sibling, outshines them all and at an incredibly early age looks set to become a successful actor. A mysterious incident ends her hopes and dreams, and she spirals into life as an addict. Nina quietly displays her own insecurities and leads a promiscuous life that results in a psychological struggle of her own. Meg, a health professional and the eldest of the sisters, is the strong and dependable one, who having had her own heartbreaks is determined to manage her families’ frailties and, as is her nature, acts as rescuer and advisor for her family.

Meg decides that Amber needs dedicated support and intervention, and she engages Nina who reluctantly agrees to be part of the strategy. The solution involves a stay in a remote homestead in North Queensland and an action plan that doesn’t necessarily go according to plan. It is during this time that the writer’s diligence regarding the personal and distinctive character styles and personalities becomes apparent as what they are attempting falls into torrid and at times frightening disarray.

Read an interview with Peggy Frew

@ the age

The characters drill their existence into the reader’s memory as the three sisters and their parents move between care, love, despair, dysfunction and frustration. There is an elevated level of emotional energy throughout the story and the issues of love, responsibility and control become challenging. Does a person have the right to take control of a situation for another, claiming it’s for their own good? This is the central theme, one that is dealt with in a daring and at times alarming manner. It raises questions regarding the ethics of taking over another person’s life, albeit temporarily, against their will, and the extreme actions that desperate family members can resort to.  

Wildflowers is intriguing and at times breathtaking, but in brilliant Peggy Frew style, she carries the reader along in total engagement with both story and the characters. The book is a hard one to forget.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche

Ballarat Writers Book Review Group, Sept 2022

Review copy provided by the publisher  

Book review – So You Want to Live Younger Longer?, by Dr Norman Swan

Title: So You Want to Live Younger Longer?

Author: Dr Norman Swan

Publisher: Hachette, July 2022; RRP: $34.99

Dr Norman Swan has become well known in Australia over the past three years as a prominent Covid advisor and commentator. He is the host of Radio National’s Health Report and co-host of the acclaimed Coronacast. Dr Swan’s an award-winning broadcaster, investigative journalist and producer.

So You Want to Live Younger Longer is a book that covers a wide range of topics about health as we, as a community and culture, age. He not only focuses on older people but looks in detail at what people of all ages can do to maximise living healthier and feeling younger into their older age. This is not necessarily a book about finding the perfect recipe for beating the clock; it’s a book that looks at all aspects of longevity and health over generations. It’s a body of work that balances the broad aspects of health, genetics, lifestyles, age, and culture.

The book is presented in 10 parts which makes it easy to read. Statistics and research are used engagingly to broaden and reinforce what is known and what is still being suspected or worked on. The author explores a range of general health aspects: diet and its relationship to cultural and family background, poverty and postcodes most likely to have good and poor nutritional outcomes, family genetics, mental health, and the broader healthcare system issues.

Dr Norman Swan on knowing what’s good for you

@ the hawke centre, 2021

Food, and the many different diets and approaches, are explored in a refreshing and extensive manner backed up by recent studies and research. The section on medication and pills is fascinating and well substantiated. Exercise and its benefits and relationship to staying younger as we age is enlightening and an eye opener for those of us who are less than active.  As expected, ‘Bugs, Bowels and Hormones’ in part five provides fascinating reading. There is also a small section on plastic surgery which talks briefly about the stigma of ageing, particularly for women.

There is a substantial part of the book that provides information, some detailed, on general health issues, from high blood pressure to ‘fatness’ measures, alcohol, and sex. Mental health is addressed under the label of ‘Does the Mind Matter?’ Mental wellness and its relationship to living younger longer is explored, whilst the issues of sleep and its often-overlooked importance produces surprising findings.

On a practical level there is a wonderful guide called ‘Here’s what to do in your twenties’,  Also included is what to do in your thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties. These parts are instructive and encouraging. The book focuses on prevention and avoiding pitfalls in relation to general health. Norman Swan says it’s hard to live younger longer if you die of a preventable disease first’.

The end note is a short nod to current environmental changes and the abuse of medicine. Swan is quick to point out the threats to our planet and the consequence of not doing enough to address environmental issues. He says, ‘So you want to live younger longer? We know how. Just gotta do it.

This non-fiction book is professionally written with humour and wit as well as a down-to-earth approach from a practitioner who understands the difficulties surrounding remaining healthy and ensuring we live as young as we can for as long as we can. Reading this account was reassuring and educative. For those inclined to want more reading on the topics raised in the book, the notes and the index at the back of the book span 50 pages.

Dr Norman Swan writes as entertainingly as he broadcasts. His voice is confident and trustworthy, especially when he deals with tough health messages many of us would prefer not to know about.

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche

Ballarat Writers Book Review Group July 2022

Review copy provided by the publisher        

Book review – Hovering, by Rhett Davis

Author: Rhett Davis

Title: Hovering

Publisher: Hachette; RRP: $32.99

In 2015 Rhett Davis completed an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Hovering was written as part of a PhD at Deakin University and won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2020. Rhett currently lives in Geelong, Wadawurrung country. Hovering is an interesting and ambitious first novel.

From a writing perspective Hovering is a progressive work, exploring techniques for story telling in the social media age. It delves into several current societal issues reflecting on the current wave of uncertainty and changing values. It also explores traditional themes of family relationships.

There are three main characters in Hovering: Alice, her sister Lydia and Lydia’s son, George. The relationship between these three characters provides the main framework for the story. A fourth character, the city of Fraser, permeates the story line with its distinct persona and surreal habit of reconfiguring streets and landscapes. This touch of the absurd is an interesting metaphor, perhaps for the uncertainty in life. A clever example of showing rather than telling?

Within the story, Davis suggests the reconfiguring nature of the cityscape is a manifestation of guilt. Fraser does not belong in this landscape; it is an infringement on indigenous relationships with country, the natural order of things.

The urban upheavals of Fraser are also a useful backdrop to the stresses within the relationship between the two sisters, though the absurdity of a reconfiguring city may be challenging for some readers.

Hear Rhett Davis talk about Hovering with Maria Takolander

@ geelong regional libraries

At the heart of this story is the family/sibling relationships, tension between the sister who left home to seek her destiny and the sister who remained at home, local versus worldly views.  Alice the artist with a loathing of small town and small-minded thinking, juxtaposed with her analytical sister who has stayed behind, got a job. had a child and who analyses data in search of subtle consumer behavioural insights.

The reader is also treated to an exploration of an artist’s role in reflecting societal values.

Certainly, Davis is not the first author to spend time telling their readers what is wrong with society and yet not offer a lot in the way of remedies. However, in the final stages of the story Davis does offer a little remedial wisdom, and – spoiler alert – it has a lot to do with honest acknowledgment of one’s past mistakes and shortcomings along with a willingness to be better in the future.

Davis ticks a lot of boxes with this novel. Some of the obvious themes include Lydia being a successful single parent. Alice and Lydia are products of baby boomer parents who are living it up on manmade tropical islands – in other words, the selfishness of baby boomers. George represents the new generation, smarter and more emotionally stable than his mother and/or aunt, despite still being at school.  Land rights with accompanying white person guilt. And an insensitive irresponsible mainstream media.

If there is a legitimate criticism of this book it is that Davis has highlighted too many issues/themes, skims too shallow, but perhaps that is just a reflection of complex modern society, a society driven by hashtags, soundbites, and abbreviated comment.

I did not find this book an easy read and in parts mildly disagreeable. The use of text messaging and social media-style language complete with hash tags was challenging, though I applaud the experimentation and thought the effort to read it was worthwhile. I am glad to have read it. Hovering is well deserving of the awards it has been given.

Reviewed by: Frank Thompson

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

Book review – Words Are Eagles, by Gregory Day

Title: Words Are Eagles: Selected Writings on the Nature and Language of Place

Author: Gregory Day

Publisher: Upswell Publishing, July 2022; RRP: $29.99

As we slide deeper into the Anthropocene, our relationship with the non-human world becomes ever more critical. Nowhere more so than in Australia, a land particularly vulnerable to climate change, and where that relationship between human and non-human is exacerbated for a nation of migrants that carries the baggage of generations rooted elsewhere, still struggling to come to terms with the Antipodean environment and the legacy of brutal colonisation.

Helping us navigate this terrain are the likes of Gregory Day, an accomplished nature writer, poet and musician who lives in the Otways region on Wadawurrung country. Day’s first novel, The Patron Saint of Eels, came out in 2005, and alongside a string of publications since he has produced essays and a strong body of reviews.

It is the latter non-fiction that is the focus of Words Are Eagles, a recent addition to the list at boutique WA-based publisher Upswell.

Words Are Eagles is broken into three sections, the most clearly divergent being the third, a collection of 14 reviews published by the likes of the Weekend Australian and Australian Book Review. These range from a few pages dealing with the publication at hand to longer works with greater scope for contextualisation and commentary. These longer works feel a more suitable fit here, tapping the themes raised in the proceeding sections, which largely focus on Day’s attempts to come to terms with his, and our, place in the land. A notable example is a review of Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks (2015).

Macfarlane is a clear influence on Day’s works, one of many noted in the author’s introduction, for both share a focus on the ability of words to forge a relationship with the natural world. Part of Macfarlane’s practice is the collection of local descriptors for natural phenomena; Day has spent decades embracing Wadawurrung terminology, trying to adapt his European frame of reference to the indigenous.

Gregory Day talks writing with Jennifer Kloester

@ in the book cave

Day deftly uses the natural world as a mirror for aspects of the human condition. For instance, he draws parallels in ‘Whoo-hoo Thinking’ between the tree hollows of powerful owls and the hollow of grief, and how those voids are part of the respective life cycle.

The owl is a motif that recurs, alongside the ocean, the river and others, reflecting the landscape where Day has made his home.

Day’s family history features in several essays as he digs down into the how and why of the ocean’s importance to him. He tells a moth about his beachside experience with his sons, even as the moth is also an indicator for the change of seasons; he swims with a friend from childhood through a familiar stretch of river, noting the elements changed and unchanged and how the simple, quiet interaction with the natural world, sans Instagram, can bond and enrich.

Another theme running through the essays is Day’s creative process – he notes that the imaginative world is reliant on our senses, mood and feeling; he exhorts writers to ‘stay put’ rather than feel compelled to travel to distant shores to tap not only inspiration but a legacy of inspiration; and he tells of his struggle to find an access point as an artist of European heritage in this Australian landscape affected by colonisation. That friction of colonisation is illustrated by the experience of William Buckley, the escapee’s life with the Wadawurrung being a repeated reference point.

Production wise, I had some niggles. The original publication details for each piece appear at the bottom of the first page of each, not only jarring the reader but making it difficult to get a simple feel of Day’s bibliography. The essays are presented in web format – this works for some, where the composition includes discrete concepts, but overall encourages a stop-start-skip reading process. And I would have liked the title of each essay to appear in the header or footer, to allow easier navigation, especially with the longer pieces.

Such personal preferences should not detract from the sense of worth of Words Are Eagles. It’s a credit to Upswell to have gathered these evocative, effective works in the one volume to highlight Day’s contribution to the cannon.

Reviewed by: Jason Nahrung

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

ARC provided by the publisher

Book review – The Secret World of Connie Starr, by Robbi Neal

Title: The Secret World of Connie Starr

Author: Robbi Neal

Publisher: HQ Fiction, June 2022; RRP: $32.99

Robbi Neal is no stranger to the world of writing and the visual arts. Her first book, Sunday Best, a memoir, was released in 2004, and in 2016 Robbi produced a book of Indigenous stories, After Before Time. Robbi’s third book, The Art of Preserving Love, written under the pen name of Ada Langton, was published in 2018. A trained artist and painter, Robbi has an exhibition of her paintings planned for later in 2022. Robbi lives in regional Victoria.

The Secret World of Connie Starr is a story that encapsulates the trauma of pre and post WWII when the lives of families and individuals changed forever. Sons and husbands joined up to fight for the nation and left abruptly for war. Women, children, and men who were outside eligibility to join, were left behind to continue family and community life in often reduced circumstances.  

Set in the regional town of Ballarat, the characteristics of the landscape are subtly interwoven, creating a setting and atmosphere that effortlessly allow the reader to be transported into the era of the thirties, forties, and fifties

The characters are enchanting and so very real, depicting the lived experience of the time.  Connie, quirky, different, and engaging, is the central protagonist in this story — she is unusual but those close to her accept, if not reluctantly, her odd demeanour. Finding solace in her lemon tree, she has an uncanny and outspoken manner of speaking the truth at the most inappropriate times. But Connie can also keep a secret and does so to her own detriment.

The novel is strongly connected to the Baptist Church, its mantras, beliefs, and failings at the time. Connie’s father, Joseph, is the Baptist pastor and her mother, Flora, twenty years younger than her husband, is a dutiful housewife, mother, and pastor’s wife. Flora provides a caring role to those less fortunate, needy or in distress who arrive on the family’s doorstep. Everyone is welcome and is offered a safe haven.

The Secret World of Connie Starr follows the lives of four main families: the Starrs, the Mabbetts, the Mitchells and the Findlays. These four families form the basis for the ongoing story, and whilst each family demonstrates different situations, not all are necessarily related to the consequences of the war. With the families the reader rides the waves of sadness, loss, humour, and strength. Childhood death, family violence and unexpected pregnancy are some of the issues facing them. The Starrs are no exception, and the four Starr children all respond differently to their life challenges and at times threaten to bring shame on the pastor and his wife.      

Robbi Neal has a unique style and voice that is capable of weaving boundaries between reality and the imagined — it’s this ability that allows the story to shine, and shine it does. Bravely written with confidence and honesty, this novel is rich in spirit and thoroughly engaging from start to end.   

Reviewed by: Heather Whitford Roche

Ballarat Writers Book Review Group, June 2022

Book review – The Luminous Solution, by Charlotte Wood

Title: The Luminous Solution: creativity, resilience and the inner life

Author: Charlotte Wood

Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2021; RRP: $32.99

Charlotte Wood is an established Australian writer of fiction and non-fiction who counts the Stella Prize and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction amongst her accolades.

The author had earlier conducted a series of in-depth interviews with writers exploring the creative process, which she later published in her highly successful book The Writer’s Room. She also explores the writing process in her podcast The Writers’ Room. Much of what she discovers from these conversations and her own practice is contained and developed further in The Luminous Solution.

The phrase ‘luminous solution’ is how the author describes that experience when a writer hits a wall with a new work and, despite all their efforts, is unable to progress, but then, inexplicably, a resolution presents itself, often involving a radical rethink of the entire work.

She gives as an example her own struggle with The Weekend, which she  ‘initially envisaged (as) a wry celebration of domestic realism’ based on the friendship of three old friends, but hit a  creative dead end, putting it aside in despair for several months.

A ‘decrepit, geriatric dog’ belonging to one of the three friends, however, kept haunting her and one day, months later, she suddenly realised its dereliction and confusion represented less comfortable, hidden aspects of the women themselves and their relationship. This was Charlotte Wood’s own ‘luminous solution’.

In the process of pinning down how this sudden illumination worked and how it could arise,  the author found other creatives – not just writers – experienced this sudden resolution and also discovered that the experience and the nurturing of it could be found in certain patterns of behaviour and background that creative people shared. 

Throughout the book she constantly references the work and practices disclosed in comments by other creatives, both Australian and international. In the process she discovers practices that were repeated, including some she realised she did herself but had not really thought about. These practices formed the foundation for and fed these sudden, inexplicable breakthroughs that often broke the practitioners’ previous approaches and/or the norms of what they were trying to achieve.

Listen to Charlotte Wood on her writing practice

at the garrett, 2019

The Luminous Solution is a freewheeling ride through a wide range of topics – writing tribes, the use of anger, humour, nature, teachers, dreams, identifying what was missing, sharing work, art,  therapeutic reading, feral writing, spirituality and religion, writing the un-writable and more – synthesising all parts into a coherent whole.

Each creative practice is developed in separate chapters. They are disparate: some internal states, some a particular environment, some ordered and routine, some involving spontaneity and letting go. But combined they lay the groundwork, fertilising the creative mind and making it possible for the sudden leaps that carry both creator and creation forward, whether it be a painting or a piece of writing.

The writing style is very close and immediate and captures a sense of a mind probing deep inside to voice something that by its very nature cannot be pinned down or reduced to a series of steps.  Capturing – naming – the ineffable. The writing voice is reflective and what could easily have been something fuzzy and disconnected comes together with a precision and immediacy that brings all separate, sometimes opposing, elements together into a coherent whole.

The Luminous Solution will appeal to those who create as well as those who simply love reading and literature and who wonder sometimes how writers come up with the scenarios, characters and outcomes that they do. Serious students of literature and those who study the practice of writing also would benefit. There is also a psychological aspect to it in her references to dreams, creativity and the subconscious that would appeal to those who are interested in a more  scientific or academic approach to the workings of the human imagination.

Reviewed by: Rhonda Cotsell

Ballarat Writers Inc. Book Review Group

Review copy provided by the publisher

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