Sunday, 11 April 2021

Enough is Enough

It is hard to imagine a more perfect time to publish a book by a former Member of Parliament about her time in politics than right now, when the frustrations of women about the culture of Australian politics have reached fever pitch and the spotlight is firmly on the government boys' club.  

With Sex, Lies and Question Time (2021), Kate Ellis has written a startling account of her time in Parliament, from her election at age 27 in 2004 to her departure in 2019. More than a memoir, this book features interviews with women of all political persuasions including Julia Gillard, Penny Wong, Tanya Plibersek, Sarah Hanson-Young, Pauline Hanson, Sussan Ley, Julie Bishop and Linda Burney. The commonalities that emerge paint a picture of a toxic workplace in which entitled men govern for themselves and women are sidelined, gaslighted, and worse.

Sexual innuendo and gossip are rife, as are critiques of women's bodies, clothes, appearance. Ellis' first introduction to the culture occurred shortly after her election when she was asked how many people she had to sleep with to get her job. Over her 15 years in Parliament she was intensely scrutinised and had many rumours spread about her, in an effort to undermine her.

As a young woman who rose to the Ministry in the Rudd government after only three years in Parliament, Ellis faced a lot of criticism even from within her party. But Ellis was never a light-weight. She is intelligent, strategic and was able to get things done.  I had the pleasure of meeting Ellis several times when she was the Minister for Early Childhood Education. Of all the Ministers I engaged with in this portfolio, Ellis had the most genuine interest and understanding of the importance of the early years and a commitment to ensuring quality and universal access. 

Sex, Lies and Question Time is compulsively readable - it is frank, honest and clear. Ellis has structured the chapters thematically - weaponising sexual gossip, slut shaming, the politics of motherhood - and the cumulative effect of reading is one of disappointment and rage. The chapter on the 'sisterhood' makes it clear that not all women are agreed on the changes needed to improve the culture - party-solidarity and threats from within also restrict women from speaking out. Fortunately, Ellis includes a chapter on why it's worth it - talking about public service and the transformative effect of progressive government policy decisions. Here she makes a convincing case for women entering politics.

One of the interesting segments is on whether women in Parliament should have spoken out louder and earlier against sexism, particularly during the Gillard years when our Prime Minister faced relentless criticism, which culminated in her now-legendary misogyny speech. The consensus, in hindsight, is that more should have been done by people in Parliament, the media and the broader public to speak out against this appalling behaviour.

Ellis finished her book prior to the current culture crisis facing Parliament and she did not know all the allegations that would surface in the lead up to publication. Reading this book mere weeks after the March for Justice - in the shadow of Brittney Higgins' rape allegations, the accusations against Christian Porter, the revolting desk incident, the Andrew Laming up-skirting and more - only serves to fuel the compelling need for change.
Women shouldn't have to put up with this crap anywhere.  Our Parliamentarians needs to be standard bearers, legislating to protect against sexual harassment and demanding better workplaces for all people. This disgraceful behaviour needs to be called out and swiftly dealt with. But this is not simply a 'woman's issue' - it is a matter for everyone. As Ellis writes in her introduction, 'A better parliament would mean a better Australia. That's why it should matter to all of us.' 

Saturday, 10 April 2021

No Place Like Home

When I was a kid, I absolutely loved Choose Your Own Adventure books. Through reading, I could take on a role - detective, mountain climber, spy, or another exciting profession - and embark on a thrilling expedition. I might journey under the sea, travel through time, meet an abominable snowman, go to space and, depending on the path I chose, the novels would lead me to safety or peril. I loved the idea of creating my own story and the ability to re-read these books over and over with a different adventure each time. 
Decades later I have just had an adult version of this experience, through reading Intan Paramaditha's The Wandering (2020), translated by Stephen J Epstein. Longlisted for the Stella Prize, I was intrigued by the premise of the story in which the Devil offers a twenty-something Indonesian teacher, a pair of red shoes that will allow her to travel the world. The deal with the Devil will mean that she can wander, but may never find a home. 

She accepts the deal and wakes in New York City where the adventure begins. Along the way, the reader makes choices - do you go to Zagreb or Amsterdam? Do you give someone the shoes or take them with you? Some sections have headings - cafe, market, airport, wigs, hotel - and various story paths may lead the reader to the same spot. But as with all choices, there are consequences for the decisions you make. Some choices lead to positive adventures while other paths lead you to an ill-fated ending. 
What I liked about Paramaditha's book is the risk she took in crafting such a complex tale. She has woven in to the story a number of Indonesian legends, mythology and fairytales, while exploring important themes of privilege, freedom of movement, borderlands, statelessness and colonialism. The Wizard of Oz theme runs throughout the book, sometime overtly but often in a subtle way. 

I really wanted to love this book but I found that it did not work entirely well for me. After my first adventure had me staying in New York way too long, I tried again with other paths chosen and found that some versions of the tale lacked coherence. Perhaps the missing link for me was that I could not totally immerse myself in the story because I was removed from the narrator. What pleased me most about my childhood adventure choosing was that the narrator was undefined so I could become the main character in the story. In The Wandering, the narrator is defined and I never felt entirely as though I was in her shoes. 

Ultimately, the red shoes didn't quite fit me but I am glad I tried them on and wandered around for a while. 

Saturday, 27 March 2021

Cruel Summer

Edna O'Brien's novella August is a Wicked Month (1965) is a modern classic on the 1001 books you should read before you die list. Banned in several countries, including the author's homeland of Ireland, it would have been considered provocative at the time for portraying women as having sexual desire.

Ellen Sage longs for connection. Separated from her husband, she lives alone in London with her young son whom she adores. But at 28 she is not ready to give up the possibility of finding love again. She has a passionate encounter with a handsome man who is in another relationship and not truly available to her. So when her ex takes their son on a camping holiday to Wales, Ellen decides to go on an adventure of her own.

The French Riviera is a playground for the rich and famous, and here Ellen can transform into someone other than wife/mother. After her oppressive Irish Catholic upbringing, where the threat of ending up in the Magdalen Laundries ensured her sexual repression, she has flung off her faith and is seeking sexual freedom.  From bellboys to violinists, opportunities for sex are everywhere, but when she finds them they are awkward, clumsy and unfulfilling. Plus, whenever she is propositioned or has the opportunity for sex, she suddenly thinks of her son and her maternal responsibilities. 

During her stay there is a tragedy back home that she cannot bear to face, so she stays on in France to numb her grief and drain her limited resources. When she eventually goes home, will she return to her old life or will she be someone new?

While some of the situations Ellen finds herself in feel a bit contrived, O'Brien has created an authentic character. Flawed, dull and naive, Ellen makes some terrible choices in her quest to carve out a new identity for herself. There are some lovely moments, such as when she shops for 'honeymoon' clothes and takes delight in wearing trousers - Ellen is literally reinventing herself through changing her wardrobe for this trip. Indeed, this scene reminded me of Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (1970) where Lise buys new clothes for her holiday. While the two novellas both feature women on solo holidays, the two protagonists could not be more different. 

August is a Wicked Month feels a bit dated now but one can imagine how controversial it would have been upon publication. Unfortunately sexual repression and double standards for women continue fifty years later. Reading this novel I regularly thought of Lisa Taddeo's Three Women (2019) and the unfulfilled sexual longings of the young women in that book, and how Ellen could have easily been one of the three.

My review of Edna O'Brien's Down by the River (1996) is also on this blog.

Friday, 26 March 2021

Stella Prize Shortlist 2021

Mere weeks after the Longlist was issued, the 2021 Stella Prize Shortlist has been announced! The twelve nominees have been whittled down to six finalists in the running for this important literary award.

The 2021 shortlist is as follows:
  • Rebecca Giggs - Fathoms: The World in the Whale
  • SL Lim - Revenge: Murder in Three Parts
  • Laura Jean McKay - The Animals in that Country
  • Louise Milligan - Witness
  • Miranda Riwoe - Stone Sky Gold Mountain
  • Evie Wyld - The Bass Rock

In compiling this shortlist, the chair of the judging panel, Zoya Patel, says:
“The 2021 Stella Prize shortlist truly demonstrates the immensity of talent in Australian women and non-binary authors. This shortlist is varied, diverse, and reflects on urgent themes across the gamut of human experience. These books explore grief, loss, joy, hope, and anger. They feature strong and imposing women characters and authorial voices, and as diverse as they are in style, tone and topic, they are united by their expression of the Stella criteria of original, excellent and engaging.” 
For more information and the complete judges comments, see the Stella Prize website.

When the longlist was announced, I predicted the shortlisted works would include McKay, Milligan, Riwoe, Simpson and Wyld. I got four of them right! I only wish there was more time to enjoy the longlist before the shortlist was announced. 

The winner will be announced on 22 April 2021. I have read and loved Louise Milligan's compelling Witness and I am cheering her on for the win. I have just started Evie Wyld's The Bass Rock and so far it is wonderful. 

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Broken Glass

Station Eleven (2014), the gripping story by Emily St John Mandel set in the aftermath of a deadly pandemic, was one of the best novels I read last year. Mandel has such a creative way of building an interwoven story, with fascinating characters and beautiful settings. 

Her latest novel, The Glass Hotel (2020), likewise weaves together many disparate threads in a story of a different kind of collapse. A Ponzi scheme (a la Madoff) crumbles, shattering the lives of investors, employees and families. Told in a non-linear way, we learn about many of these characters before, during and after the decline of the 'Kingdom of Money'. 

Hotel Caiette, a glittering glass structure in a secluded outpost on Vancouver Island, is the anchor to this tale. Accessible only by water, its isolation in a natural wilderness attracts wealthy patrons seeking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. 

Jonathan Alkaitis, CEO of an investment firm, is a regular.  On one of his visits, the hotel's glittering majesty is shaken by graffiti written on the window - why don't you swallow broken glass. This act of vandalism disturbs guest Leon Prevant, is missed by Alkaitis, and leads to the departure of sibling hotel staff members Paul and Vincent. Vincent lands on her feet, as Jonathan's trophy wife, spending her days shopping in Manhattan and nights by the pool in Alkaitis' Connecticut mansion. Then the Ponzi scheme fails and she must reinvent herself again.

Like Station Eleven, part of the appeal of this novel for me is the familiarity of many of the places. When Paul goes clubbing in Toronto in the 1990s, I was immediately transported to my hometown, to a place and time I have such fondness for. The scenes in Vancouver and Vancouver Island, New York and beyond, utterly transported me to a past life and strong memories of places I love and long to see again. 

I really enjoyed The Glass Hotel. There were so many moments where Mandel's brilliance shone through - Jonathan's imagining of his 'counter-life', the eerie emptiness of the hotel without guests, the final days of Alkaitis' firm - and in reading there was a sense of putting pieces together in a large puzzle. As a reader, there is so much joy in immersing yourself in the story, finding clues to storylines that pull you back and push you forward. It was delightful to be reacquainted with characters Leon and Miranda from Station Eleven, but you do not need to read that novel to enjoy this one. Ultimately, I preferred Station Eleven, perhaps because it felt more urgent and timely.  I can't wait to see what Emily St John Mandel comes up with next.

The Glass Hotel was shortlisted for the 2020 Giller Prize.

Saturday, 13 March 2021

Women's Prize Longlist 2021

The 2021 Women's Prize longlist has been announced! The annual literary award celebrating women writers has previously recognised the talents of so many gifted writers, including these past winners:

  • Maggie O'Farrell - Hamnet (2020)
  • Tayari Jones - An American Marriage (2019)
  • Lionel Smith - We Need to Talk About Kevin (2005)
  • Andrea Levy - Small Island (2004)

  • On 10 March 2021, the longlist for this year's Women's Prize was announced with 16 nominees. I have a stack of these books at hand, and a couple of others on reserve from my local library. I look forward to exploring these titles. 

    The 2021 longlist is as follows:

    Brit Bennett - The Vanishing Half (USA)
    Identical twin sisters grow up in a small southern black community. They run away at age sixteen and follow different paths. Ten years later, one sister is back in their hometown with her black daughter. The other is secretly passing as white, with her husband oblivious to her past.  What will happen when the twins' children meet? Bennett is the critically acclaimed author of The Mothers (2016). This novel is on my 'to be read' pile.

    Clare Chambers -
    Small Pleasures (UK)
    South East London, 1957, and Jean Swinney is a journalist writing for a local newspaper. She is contacted by a woman who claims to have given birth despite her virginity. Sceptical Jean investigates and becomes intwined in the lives of this family. Chambers is the author of nine novels.

    Susanna Clarke - Piranesi (UK)
    Piranesi lives alone in a house with infinite rooms and corridors.  Twice weekly he is visited by The Other, who seeks help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. A rich, fantasy novel from the author of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I bought myself this book for Christmas and am looking forward to a quiet, rainy weekend to read it.

    Amanda Craig - The Golden Rule
    A modern retelling of Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train, Hannah and Jinni agree to kill each other's husbands. But when Hannah meats the husband she is supposed to kills, she is not certain that Jinni has been truthful about why he deserves to die.  This is Craig's ninth novel. Her previous novel Hearts and Minds (2009) was long listed for the Bailey Women's Prize for Fiction.

    Naoise Dolan - Exciting Times (Ireland)
    Twenty-two year old Ava leaves Ireland for a gap year abroad. She finds herself in Hong Kong teaching English to wealthy children, moving in with a British expat banker and striking up a relationship with local lawyer Edith.  Ava ponders her identity and questions of race, class and privilege. This is Dolan's debut novel.

    Avni Doshi - Burnt Sugar
    'I would be lying if I said my mother's misery has never given me pleasure' - with that opening line, Doshi sets the scene for a novel about a fraught mother-daughter relationship. Tara was a bit of a wild child, running away from her affluent family to pursue a life in a free-love ashram. She dragged her young daughter with her, ambivalent about her role as a parent. Now the daughter is grown and the two women have to reconcile their relationship. This is Avni Doshi's debut novel, and it was published in India as Girl in White Cotton. Burnt Sugar was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize.

    Dawn French - Because of You
    Comedian Dawn French is the author of four novels and two memoirs. Her latest novel is a tearjerker about two women who give birth in a London maternity ward on 1 January 2000. While Hope leaves with her daughter Minnie, Anna's child was stillborn. Anna returns home heartbroken to her pompous MP husband. Later, the two women's lives become interwoven. 

    Claire Fuller - Unsettled Ground
    Fifty-one year old twins Jeanie and Julius, still live with their mother Dot in an isolated, rural home. When their mother dies, their lives unravel as Dot's secrets surface. This is a story of rural poverty, marginalisation and isolation, yet also a tale of resilience and perseverance.  Fuller is the author of three previous critically acclaimed novels.

    Yaa Gyasi - Transcendent Kingdom
    Gifty grew up in a Ghanian family in Alabama. She is now a medical student at Stanford, determined to understand the addiction and depression that has afflicted her mother and brother.  She struggles to reconcile her evangelical faith with her understanding of science. Gyasi's first novel, Homegoing (2016) was critically acclaimed. This is her second novel.

    Cherie Jones - How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House
    The story of three marriages set in Barbados which begins with a cautionary tale, told by a Grandmother, as a message about disobeying one's parents. Lala doesn't heed the warning of this tale and marries the wrong man. Against the backdrop of a tropical tourist paradise, this story tells of the gritty reality the tourists never see. Jones is an award winning writer, and this is her debut novel.

    Raven Leilani - Luster
    Edie is a twenty-three year old black woman working in an all-white office. She meets Eric, a man in an open marriage. When Edie finds herself unemployed, she moves in with Eric, becomes friends with his wife and bonds with Akila, the couple's adopted black daughter. Luster is Leilani's debut novel. I picked it up late last year but haven't read it yet.

    Patricia Lockwood - No One is Talking About This
    A woman famed for her social media posts travels around the world to meet her followers. She shares her insights while travelling, blurring the virtual and real worlds. Suddenly, she is summoned home by her mother due to a family tragedy and finds the real world is demanding more of her attention. American novelist, essayist and poet Patricia Lockwood is perhaps best known for her memoir Priestdaddy (2017). This is her debut novel.

    Annabel Lyon - Consent
    Twins Saskia and Jenny may look alike, but are completely different. Saskia is an academically minded grad student, while Jenny is a thrill-seeking designer. After an accident, Saskia has to care for Jenny. Elsewhere Sara has to care for her disabled sister Mattie. Through these parallel lives, the author explores themes of familial responsibility, guilt and regret. 

    Kathleen MacMahon - Nothing But Blue Sky
    David thinks his twenty year marriage to Mary Rose is perfect. When she dies David loses himself, untethered from what he knew, not certain of his identity without her. As he reflects back on their life together, he realises that their relationship may not have been as perfect as he thought. 

    Torrey Peters - Detransition, Baby (USA)
    This provocative debut novel has appeared on many recent 'must read' lists. It is the story of three women (transgender and cisgender) whose lives are upended with an unexpected pregnancy. Reese and Amy are a transgender couple who have it all. Amy then decides to detransition and becomes Ames, bringing their relationship to an end. Ames wants Reese back, but then his cisgender lover Katrina gets pregnant. Can Ames convince the three of them to form a new kind of family?

    Ali Smith - Summer
    The final novel in Smith's seasonal quartet, Summer focuses on teenage siblings Sacha and Robert, whose plans have been interrupted by COVID-19. The live with their mother Grace and their father Jeff lives next door. In this culmination of her series, Smith brings back characters from previous seasons. Ali Smith won the Women's Prize in 2015 for How to be Both.

    Well, looks like 'twins' are the key theme in this year's titles! I have not read any of these titles yet, but I have copies of The Vanishing Half, Pirenesi, Summer, and Luster on my bedside table ready to read.

    If I had to pick a shortlist, I would bet on Bennett, Leilani, Peters, Smith and Doshi. The shortlist will be announced on 28 April 2021 and the winner will be revealed on 7 July 2021. Happy reading!

    Watch Bernardine Evaristo and the 2021 judges announce the Longlist.

    Saturday, 6 March 2021

    Stella Prize Longlist 2021

    The 2021 Stella Prize longlist has been announced! The annual literary award celebrating women and non-binary writers of both fiction and non-fiction is named after Australian author Stella Miles Franklin. Past winners include:

  • Jess Hill for See What You Made Me Do (2020)
  • Vicki Laveau-Harvie for The Erratics (2019)
  • Alexis Wright for Tracker (2018)
  • Heather Rose for The Museum of Modern Love (2017)
  • Charlotte Wood for The Natural Way of Things (2016)
  • Emily Bitto for The Strays (2015)
  • Claire Wright for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2014)
  • Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds (2013)

  • I credit the Stella Prize with introducing me to many authors that I would not have otherwise read.

    On 4 March 2021, the longlist for this year's Stella Prize was announced with 12 nominees. I have already read one of the books - Louise Milligan's brilliant Witness - so far. Many of the books and authors are unknown to me so I look forward to exploring these titles. 

    The 2021 longlist is as follows:

    Rebecca Giggs - Fathoms: The World in the Whale
    Blending natural history, science and philosophy, Fathoms explores the impact of climate change on whales. The judges described this book as a 'haunting piece of narrative non-fiction that asks pertinent questions about how globalisation, consumption and our obsession with convenience is threatening the environment in connected and devastating ways.' Hailing from Perth, WA, Giggs' writings have appeared in numerous publications. Fathoms is her first book.

    SL Lim - Revenge: Murder in Three Parts
    Two siblings experience different upbringings in the same household. Yannie is smart and savvy, but her ambitions are quashed by her brother Shan, whom their parents favour. Yannie rages against the pigeonhole her family, their community and others try to place her in. As she begins to find her voice, she seeks retribution. Lim is also the author of Real Differences.

    Laura Jean McKay - The Animals in that Country
    Jean is a grandmother who prefers the company of animals to people. She works as a guide at an outback wildlife park, and has formed an attachment to a dingo named Sue. When a pandemic spreads across the country, people begin to lose their minds. Fearing for the safety of her granddaughter, Jean and Sue take off on a road trip to find her. The Animals in that Country won the 2021 Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier's Literary Award.

    Louise Milligan - Witness
    Investigative journalist Louise Milligan's brilliant book centres on the devastating impact the judicial system can have on victims of sexual abuse. She interviews victims, lawyers, social workers and judges for multiple perspectives, and makes recommendations for how the legal system can be overhauled to reduce trauma and encourage victims to come forward. I read this book earlier this year and was enthralled by the calibre of the research, quality writing and courageous challenge to an entrenched, archaic system. My review explores this incredible book in more detail.

    Cath Moore - Metal Fish, Falling Snow
    Fourteen-year-old Dylan is grieving for her mother when she embarks on a journey with her late mother's grieving boyfriend Pat across Australia. She is struggling with grief, her teenaged emotions, and a feeling that she doesn't fit in as she struggles to accept her Guyanese heritage. The Stella Prize judges call this book 'an outstanding young adult novel about family, grief and identity'. Moore is a freelance writer and teacher of creative writing at the University of Melbourne.

    Intan Paramaditha - The Wandering
    Written in a 'choose your own adventure' style, The Wandering begins with the Devil offering the narrator a pair of red shoes that will allow her to travel around the globe. Where to go? The destinations chosen will turn the traveller into a tourist, an undocumented migrant, a nomad or find a home. Paramaditha, author of Apple and Knife (short story collection), currently teaches media and film studies at Macquarie University. Intrigued, I have just ordered this at my local library. (Update - April 2021: Read Review)

    Miranda Riwoe - Stone Sky Gold Mountain
    Set in the gold-rush era, this is the story of two siblings who leave China for Australia to seek their fortune. They find work in a town near the goldfields and begin to form relationships in the community. But when a crime is committed, all outsiders are considered suspects. Riwoe was previously shortlisted for the Stella Prize for her novel The Fish Girl. Stone Sky Gold Mountain won the Queensland Literary Award for Fiction and the ARA Historical Novel Prize.
    Elena Savage - Blueberries
    The judges describe Savage's 'exquisite' work as 'a challenge to the world to discard preconceptions about the form and structure of an essay or memoir'. This is a memoir of sorts, written as a collection of essays blending form. Shortlisted for the Victorian Premier's Literary Award, this is Savage's debut collection. Another book I have reserved at the library.

    Nardi Simpson - Song of the Crocodile
    Darnmoor is the home of three generations of the Billymil family, who reside on the outskirts of a rural town. Over the years they experience the impacts of racism, violence, dispossession and colonialism and the intergenerational trauma that endures. The judges describe the Song of the Crocodile as 'a novel that contributes to a deeper understanding of Australia's history, and tells the stories of First Nations people in a voice and tone that has for so long been missing from our literary canon.' Simpson is a musician, playwright and Yuwaalaraay storyteller. This novel was shortlisted for the 2021 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards and Indie Book Awards.

    Elizabeth Tan - Smart Ovens for Lonely People
    Tan has produced a witty collection of short stories. The judges write 'food scarcity, environmental destruction, capitalist bureaucracy and misogyny are just some of the ideas explored in the collection - in tales that feature mermaids, devious cats, and mangled 90s ballads. Impressively, Tan never loses sight of the characters at the heart of these stories...' Tan's collection won the 2020 Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction.

    Jessie Tu - A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing
    Jena Lin was a child violin prodigy but at 22 she is a washed-up has-been. Struggling to reconcile her potential and reality, Jena travels to New York to take up an internship at the Philharmonic. Is this the second chance she needs? Tu is a classical violinist turned journalist. This debut novel is described by the judges as 'fresh, contemporary and bold - and has been crafted with verve...'
    Evie Wyld - The Bass Rock
    This novel weaves together the lives of three women across four centuries. The Bass Rock sits off the coast of Scotland and these three women are linked to this place and each other. Sarah is accused of being a witch in the early 1700s, Ruth moves into a new house after WWII, six decades later Viv catalogues Ruth's belongings. Evie Wyld won the Miles Franklin Award (and countless others) for her 2014 novel All The Birds, Singing. I bought this book late last year and look forward to reading it.

    In compiling this longlist, the judges have chosen books that 'span the gamut of human enterprise and experience'. For more information and the complete judges comments, see the Stella Prize website.

    The Shortlist will be announced on 25 March 2021. While I am terrible at predicting these things, my bet on for shortlisted works would include McKay, Milligan, Riwoe, Simpson and Wyld. Happy reading!

    Sunday, 28 February 2021

    Road Trip

    Patricia Highsmith published her novel The Price of Salt (1952) under the pseudonym Claire Morgan. At the time, it would have been risky for her to use her real name, as she was just becoming known as a writer of psychological suspense novels with the success of Strangers on a Train (1950). The Price of Salt, a 'novel of a love society forbids', would have been controversial and potentially damaging for the author's career.

    Therese Belivet is a young woman finding her way in New York. She wants to be a theatrical set designer, but is making ends meet by working at a department store. She has a boyfriend, Richard, but she does not share the intensity of his feelings for their relationship. In the lead up to Christmas, Therese is working in the toy section when a beautiful woman comes in to shop. Therese is instantly drawn to Carol Aird and takes the unusual step of sending her a Christmas card. 

    Carol is coming to the end of her marriage and is quite lonely. The card touches her and she reaches out to Therese. As the women begin to spend more time together, Therese falls desperately in love with Carol. To escape the bitter divorce proceedings, Carol proposes a road trip out west and the two women set off in Carol's car. Over the time of their travels they become intimate and realise the strength of their love for one another. But the 1950s are not the right time for an open relationship, and with the divorce underway, Carol cannot give her husband any ammunition he might use against her and risk losing custody of her child.

    Having read many Highsmith novels in the last few years, The Price of Salt is a significant departure. The story of forbidden love, the consequences of their relationship are different for each. Therese, a young artist, has no family to worry about and would likely be accepted by her artsy friends. Carol has so much more at stake, with a young daughter, a home and her position in society hanging in the balance. Her outing could see her lose everything. 

    Both women are mysterious and at first it is hard to understand what Carol sees in Therese. Therese is a hard character to grasp. She is an observer, constantly watching but not revealing much. On the first day of the road trip Carol says to her 'I wonder if you'll really enjoy this trip. You so prefer things reflected in a glass, don't you.'  But over the course of the novel, Therese matures, she begins to understand Carol more, and becomes more engaging.

    Todd Haynes directed a film adaptation of Carol, starring Cate Blanchett in the title role, with Rooney Mara as Therese.  The film received six Academy Award nominations and nine BAFTA nominations. 

    My reviews of other Highsmith novels are also available on this blog, including Deep Water (1957), The Talented Mr Ripley (1955), The Tremor of Forgery (1969), The Two Faces of January (1964) and This Sweet Sickness (1960).

    Sunday, 21 February 2021

    The Outsider

    Tana French's The Searcher (2020) appeared on a lot of best books lists at the end of last year, and as I was not familiar with French as an author and this is a standalone novel, I thought I had best check it out.

    Cal Hooper has retired from his role as a detective with the Chicago Police Department. He has just come out of a long marriage and is in need of reinventing himself. He packs up and moves to a small village in Ireland, buys a ramshackle house to restore, and sets about finding a new, quiet routine. 

    His peace and tranquility is disrupted when a local kid, Trey, asks for Cal's help to find a missing sibling. Reluctant at first, Cal realises that Trey won't give up on finding out what happened to Brendan. So Cal puts his detective skills to work and begins asking questions.

    The locals in town are close and everyone knows each other's business. Cal is quickly warned off pursuing these enquiries in subtle and then overt ways. But Cal knows that Trey will not give up the search, and he can't let this one go.

    The pacing in The Searcher is fascinating. Cal is working on improving his home - sanding, painting, peeling wallpaper - and these labours are slow and repetitive. Likewise, his detecting involves a lot of slow gumshoe work, navigating the bogs and hilly terrain of the rugged western landscape. Indeed we are almost a hundred pages in when we learn what Trey is searching for, making this novel a departure from others in the genre which start with a bang. I really enjoyed the pacing as it forced me to slow down my reading and savour the novel.

    French has described The Searcher to an Irish Western. The title itself gives rise to thoughts of John Wayne, as does the notion of a retired lawman combing the frontier for a missing boy. Both Cal and the lawmen in westerns abide by a strict moral code, and Cal, as a stranger in this place, has to critically evaluate all he has learned on the job and adjust to his new surrounds.

    Tana French is the author of seven other novels, including the six-part Dublin Murder Squad series. 

    Sunday, 31 January 2021

    Dead Man Switch

    Set in Sydney after the Second World War, Tara Moss' The War Widow (2019) is a gripping mystery novel featuring a compelling heroine. Billie Walker is smart, brave, loyal, resilient and determined. She has recently returned home from Europe where she was a war correspondent, and is carrying a lot of emotional baggage. Her husband Jack has gone missing, feared dead, and she has recently lost her beloved father.

    Walker has taken over her late father's Private Inquiry business. It is a tough gig, but she finds female clients often prefer to seek her out. She makes ends meet with cases she detests - finding dirt for divorcing couples.  But every now and then a case comes along that uses her talents to the fullest. 

    Mrs Brown engages Walker to find her missing son. The teenaged Adin was last seen a few days ago and so Walker and her trusty assistant Sam start their investigations. Their inquiries lead them to a night club, an auction house and beyond. Along the way, they realise that there are other forces at play which seek to derail their search for the boy. 

    Meanwhile, Walker has also promised Shyla, a young Aboriginal woman who often acts as an informant, that she will investigate some missing girls. Shyla has provided a handful of small clues, but will they be enough to go on?

    Walker faces sexism at every turn, as a woman in a 'man's job', failing to vacate her position for the men returning from war. She has to support herself and is determined to earn her way in the world. With her flare for fashion and her Fighting Red lipstick, Walker is a trailblazer ready to stand up to anyone who gets in her way. Moss addresses the issues of class, race and gender that Walker confronts, in a manner that feels natural within the setting of the novel. 

    I absolutely loved this novel and was gripped from beginning to end! It feels very much like a throwback to an earlier time, reminding me very much of noir detective fiction from the period. Moss has done her research and authentically depicts the immediate post-war period in Australia, with people still reeling from the trauma of WW2 and trying to come to terms with its aftermath. Every day people are faced with wounded returned service men. The petrol rations, restrictions on imports, and the fear of foreigners feels very real. Set in Sydney and the Blue Mountains, I found myself reminiscing about many of the places she describes and craving a high tea at the Hydro Majestic! 

    I have admired Tara Moss for her feminist non-fiction work (Fictional Woman and Speaking Out) and have heard her speak a number of times about her work in this space. I have never read any of Moss' fiction until picking up this novel so it is exciting to know she has many more novels to explore while I await the next Billie Walker mystery. 

    The War Widow has been published in some counties as Dead Man Switch.

    Saturday, 23 January 2021

    Blind Justice

    Investigative journalist Louise Milligan has spent a lot of time in court covering high profile sexual assault and child sex abuse cases. During her investigations, she became increasingly concerned about the treatment of witnesses and the retraumatising of victims of crime through the court system. In Witness (2020), Milligan explores the vexed issue of balancing the fundamental principles of criminal justice and respect for victims, and makes recommendations for reform of the judicial system.

    The book begins with a shocking rape case which lead to a protracted series of court cases. Eighteen year old Saxon Mullins, on a night out with friends, was raped by a man she had only just met. Mullins bravely reported her rape and agreed to testify against the perpetrator. Despite being the complainant, Mullins' voice in the case was diminished. 

    Later, Milligan shares the story of Paris Street, a Melbourne schoolboy groomed by his athletic coach. St Kevin's school rallied around the perpetrator, betraying their duty of care to their students. Street had to testify at age 15 and was retraumatised by his cross-examination, and let down by those entrusted with his care.

    Milligan herself was a witness in the Cardinal George Pell case, spending a day being drilled by Robert Richter QC. His needling, disrespectful, patriarchal style is designed to intimidate witnesses. Milligan describes the mental and emotional toll of this experience, and how important it was for her to have her own lawyer to advocate on her behalf. 

    In Witness, Milligan interviews barristers, judges, legal support services, victims, victims' rights advocates, and more to gain deep insight into the criminal justice system. Complainants expect justice but are often ill-prepared for the brutal realities of the system. Victims are sidelined; their role reduced to a witness to the acts against them.

    Innocence until proven guilty and the burden of proof are foundations of the criminal justice system. Can a barrister do their job of vigorously defending their client without eviscerating the alleged victim of the crime? Can they be respectful and empathetic in cross-examination and still do right by their client? What can be done to better prepare witnesses for the rigours of the process and support them after?

    Milligan makes several recommendations for change, including actively using protections that already exist within the Evidence Act requiring the court to prevent improper questioning. She challenges the legal profession to become more trauma-informed, to let go of outdated and debunked myths about victims, and to diversify their ranks by encouraging more women and minorities to have more influence in the profession.

    As I read Witness, I reflected on my own experiences with the legal system - as a law student, a juror, a witness. I also thought a lot about Bri Lee's excellent book Eggshell Skull (2018) on her experience as a lawyer and a complainant. My sincere hope is that as more voices are heard, and the dinosaurs in the legal profession become extinct, the judicial system will get the shake up in needs and bring about reform.

    I have long admired Louise Milligan for her coverage of crimes against the most vulnerable members of our community. She always treats victims and their families with the utmost respect and empathy, yet is always fair and balanced in her reporting. Through her work, Milligan proves that you can do your job thoroughly and professionally, respectfully questioning a subject to get to the truth of a matter. Some barristers could learn a lot from Louise Milligan!

    Tuesday, 19 January 2021

    The Talented Ms Highsmith

    The nineteenth of January 2021 marks the centenary of author Patricia Highsmith's birth. During her fifty year career she wrote 22 novels and numerous collections of short stories. Best known for her 'Ripliad' - the five psychological thrillers featuring her compelling protagonist Tom Ripley - and her debut novel Strangers on a Train, Highsmith's work have been adapted many times, increasing her popularity.   

    As a person, Highsmith was a miserable, depressive, alcoholic, eccentric. She hated most people, including herself. She was openly racist, misogynist and homophobic. Unwanted and abandoned as a child, Highsmith preferred animals to people, and engaged in multiple affairs with married women, often ending due to her infidelity. 

    Perhaps it was this well of darkness within her that enabled Highsmith to create such captivating noir stories about unlikable people in desperate situations. In his forward to Highsmith's short story collection Eleven, author Graham Greene writes: 

    Miss Highsmith is a poet of apprehension rather than fear. Fear after a time, as we all learned in the blitz, is narcotic, it can lull one by fatigue into sleep, but apprehension nags at the nerves gently and inescapably. We have to learn to live with it.

    Greene absolutely nails Highsmith's abilities. She lures readers in to an uncomfortable place with characters who make morally ambiguous choices. Her writing is tight and simple, yet the stories are often complex and multilayered. Her novels creep up on you and you cannot put them down. 

    To commemorate the centenary of Highsmith's birth a new collection of short stories has been published. Under a Dark Angel's Eye (2021) features an introduction by author Carmen Maria Machado in which she describes her as a 'genius, a bonafide eccentric' and 'famous for her wit and wicked sense of humour'. Machado notes that readers have to grapple with Highsmith's darkness, and asks 'what does it mean to love the work of Patricia Highsmith'? She answers:

    Perhaps they recognise that you don't come to Patricia Highsmith for goodness or light or comfort. You come to her for uncanny observations about human depravity; you come to her because you've forgotten the sour taste of fear.

    My reviews of several Highsmith books can be found on this blog, including:

    If you haven't already had the pleasure of being lured into a Highsmith novel or short story, I encourage you to explore her work. 

    Friday, 1 January 2021

    Planning for 2021

    It is the first of January 2021 and as the new year begins I spend time reflecting on my past reading habits, and forward planning for the year ahead. 

    As someone who always plans ahead, I even develop a plan for my reading. But if I learned anything from 2020 it is how agile one needs to be to respond to whatever happens on a daily basis. While I have pre-ordered some new releases from the library (like Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates), and have acquired a bunch of new books I am keen to sink my teeth in, my plan is not to plan and just see where my moods and interests take me.

    I seem to consistently be able to read 30 books each year, but given the uncertainty this pandemic brings, I do not want to increase the volume. Instead I will continue to explore new authors, genres and subject matters. To diversify my reading and to challenge myself to read more fiction, I have created a new Bingo board to add some fun to the challenge.

    I NGO
    Set during
    Retelling of 
    another story*
     Novel in 
    Women's Prize 
    Lesser known book 
    by a Famous Author
    Set in the
    Booker Prize 
    About a non-Western 
    world leader* 
    19th Century
    in 2021 
    or Memoir
    Set in Space
    or at Sea
    Short Story
    Australian Literary
    Prize Longlister
    Current Affairs
    / Politics 
    is over 50*
    Coming of 
    Age Story* 
    Pre-19th Century
    First Novel
    in a Series
    Book on the
    1001 List
    Fiction Based
    on a True Story
    Written by a 
    male author*

    Bingo rules: Books can only be used once, even if they fall into multiple categories. 
    Bingo can be achieved horizontally, vertically or diagonally.
    *New categories 2021

    My cousin Graham and I have been joking about how I only read books by women in 2020. He suggested that 2021 could be my year of reading books by men. That ain't gonna happen, but to overcome the gender bias in my reading, I have added a new category this year: Written by a male author. I do have a few books that I have put aside for 2021 so will just have to decide which one it will be - perhaps Richard Flanagan's Living Sea of Waking Dreams, Philip Pullman's The Secret Commonwealth, Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain or Barack Obama's A Promised Land

    Happy reading everyone!

    Thursday, 31 December 2020

    My Reading Year - 2020

    2020 was my year of reading women. All the books I read this year were written by women, and while my commitment to reading female authors this year meant some of the male authors I would normally have read were pushed to the sidelines, I took comfort and inspiration in the female voice during this most challenging year.

    The pandemic impacted my reading. I was not completely locked in like some of my family and friends - there were no sourdough starters and home DIY projects for me. But my work was all consuming, creating an emotional drain and perpetual anxiety that at times would prevent me from taking my usual pleasure in reading. Once I got my mojo back, I found that reading allowed me the escape I desperately needed, taking me to new worlds and new experiences.

    My reading goal for 2020 was 30 books with a focus on fiction, which I achieved by reading 31 titles this year. When planning for 2020 at the start of the year, I did not really name any specific titles, which served me well as I went wherever my interests took me.  Instead I used the reading bingo card I created to help me diversify my reading and my achievements are highlighted below. 

    19th Century
    First Novel
    in a Series
    Lesser known Book 
    by a Famous Author
    Features Strong 
    Female Protagonist
    Short Story
    Pre-19th Century
    Banned Book
    Fiction Based
    on a True Story
    Australian Literary
     Prize Longlister
    Book on the
    1001 List  
    Women's Prize 
    20th Century
    Set in the
    New York Times
    Set in Space
    or at Sea
    Mystery or
    Crime Novel
    Booker Prize
    in 2020
    Book with a 
    colour in title
    Current Affairs
    / Politics
    or Memoir
    Set during
    Adapted into a
    Film/TV Show

    So here's what I read in 2020:

    This year I was determined to read some old paperbacks that have been gathering dust on my bookshelves for a long time. Long-neglected titles I read included Muriel Spark's The Driver's Seat (1970), Edith Wharton's Bunner Sisters (1916) and Daphne Du Maurier's Jamaica Inn (1936). While I enjoyed some more than others, I was pleased to have explored these titles and finally read them.

    I continued my discovery of Patricia Highsmith's novels and read three in rapid succession. The Tremor of Forgery (1969), This Sweet Sickness (1960) and The Two Faces of January were great fun and these page-turning novels helped me to get my reading mojo back by allowing me to travel in my mind to far-flung locales. I could have easily continued on to read many more Highsmith novels from her extensive works, but decided to pursue other titles instead lest it become the Year of Reading Highsmith!

    The Stella Prize 
    Longlist provided me with many hours of reading pleasure. From this list I read two collection of short stories - Josephine Rowe's Here Until August (2019) and Joey Bui's Lucky Ticket (2019) - from authors I would never have otherwise read. I also loved Charlotte Wood's The Weekend (2019), about four older women who have been lifelong friends despite having very little in common. I am disappointed that I did not get to read Tara June Winch's The Yield (2019) but it lies on my bedside table waiting!

    Recommendations from friends introduced me to some wonderful titles. 
    I absolutely loved Madeline Miller's Circe (2019). This feminist retelling of this ancient myth from the perspective of Circe, made me long to travel to Greece and reignited my interest in classics. Curtis Sittenfeld's Rodham (2020) was a fascinating alternative history of the Clintons with Hillary dumping Bill and forging a new path on her own. Another alternative perspective on a real person, Kate Grenville's novel A Room Made of Leaves (2020) about Elizabeth Macarthur was simply wonderful. 

    I love a good crime thriller and this year I read a few that I would recommend (in addition to the Highsmith novels above).  Jane Harper is always fantastic and her latest novel The Survivors (2020) is excellent. Set in Tasmania, Harper creates an incredible sense of place which provides a backdrop to the twisty-turny crime drama. The newly released Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) novel, Troubled Blood (2020), continues the Cormoran Strike/Robin Ellacott adventures and is a gripping novel. Sarah Bailey's debut The Dark Lake (2017) is great and I look forward to getting to know Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock better in Bailey's subsequent novels. 

    I know a book has made a real impact on me when I think about it for days/weeks/months after and long to discuss it with others. This year there were a handful of incredible novels that made a lasting impact.  I read My Dark Vanessa (2020) by Kate Elizabeth Russell and immediately passed it on to two of my friends and we engaged in a lot of discussion about the way in which young people are groomed, shamed and traumatised. Emily St John Mandel's Station Eleven (2014) had me gripped from the first page with its story about the aftermath of a global pandemic. Finally, Maggie O'Farrell's masterpiece, Hamnet (2020) - winner of the Women's Prize for Fiction - is undoubtedly my favourite novel of the year and the one I have most often recommended to others. 

    Investigative journalists wrote most of the non-fiction I consumed this year.

    I began the year reading a fascinating work of non-fiction by Lisa Taddeo. Three Women explores the sexual lives of three young Americans over a decade.  My friends and I discussed this book a lot (along with My Dark Vanessa) as it was such a strangely compelling work. Another book that got me talking was 
    Michelle McNamara's I'll Be Gone in the Dark (2018) a true crime story about McNamara's quest to solve the decades-old mystery of California's Golden State Killer. 

    Julia Baird's Phosphorescence (2020) was just what I needed mid-pandemic when my resilience was wearing thin. Baird is such an excellent writer and in this book she encourages readers to slow down and pay attention to the world around us. It is a magical read and one I have recommended and/or gifted to many people this year. 
    The Stella Prize Longlist can also take credit for two non-fiction books I read this year. Mandy Ord's memoir When One Person Dies the World is Over (2019) is a remarkable year-long diary in four panel comic form. While I have read many graphic novels, this is the first graphic non-fiction work I have read. Winner of this year's Stella Prize is Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do (2019), an incredible investigation into the causes and impacts of domestic abuse. 

    Other works I really enjoyed include Amy Goldstein's Janesville - an American Story (2017) about the demise of the auto industry in Wisconsin and its impact on society, Helen Garner's diaries One Day I'll Remember This (2020) and Katherine Murphy's Quarterly Essay - The End of Certainty (2020).

    While I really enjoyed all the non-fiction I read this year, if I had to choose one favourite, without hesitation I would select 
    Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do (2019). I am so thrilled that Jess Hill has been lauded for this important work and I hope that as the book is released in the UK and America it will turn the spotlight on this issue in those countries as well. Despite the heavy subject matter, it is an essential read.

    Best of 2020

    I read so many great books this year. I loved and highly recommend:
    If I had to choose my absolute favourites, I would pick Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet (2020) and Jess Hill's See What You Made Me Do.