Review- Steal my Sunshine


Emily Gale’s novel Steal my Sunshine is a coming of age tale set in St Kilda, aimed at young adult readers.

Hannah’s life starts to fragment during a Melbourne heatwave. Her parents separate, and Hannah feels the only  strong people to whom she can turn are her grandmother Essie and her best friend Chloe. However as she soon discovers, these stalwarts have issues and secrets of their own.

Hannah’s teenage social awkwardness feels so realistic, and I so related to Hannah’s experiences with her friends, especially her devotion to Chloe. Her blossoming relationship with Chloe’s older brother Evan is told with excruciatingly honesty. The family dynamics which were wrought by the separation are explored, Hannah’s brother siding with her mother, and Hannah siding with her father.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this book is the revelations from Essie. As a single and pregnant young woman, Essie’s journey to one of the infamous Magdalene laundries attached to convents is told in detail. Reading this in conjunction with Maureen McCarthy’s The Convent, you get yet another perspective of the life behind the walls of a convent were less of a sanctuary and more of a prison.

A beautifully written tale of teenage angst, Steal my Sunshine is definitely worth a read.

Review- High Sobriety: My Year without Booze

In 2011, Jill Stark, a health  journalist from The Sunday Age, embarked upon a 12 month period abstaining from alcohol. Initially for 12 weeks as part of the Hello Sunday Morning programme, Jill extended her teetotal journey to over a year. On the basis of an article on the Age depicting her initial 12 weeks, Jill was offered a chance to write this memoir.

The chapters  correspond to the months of the year, with each month focusing on a different aspect. You get to read about her family history and her introduction to alcohol in her teens, and travelling to Scotland to explore her relationship with alcohol. You see how her friendships are reevaluated as her abstinence continues, and how her search for a relationship is challenged when her prospective partners can’t quite grasp her not drinking.

An avid music lover and Hawthorn supporter, Jill also looks at how alcohol permeates our own recreational pursuits. What’s of great concern is the impact this has upon impressionable children, and how from an early age alcohol is perceived as an acceptable drug.

Her book also covers the history of alcohol in Australia and the origins of wowserism, a label which is quickly attached to those concerned with limiting the impact of alcohol in society.

I really enjoyed Jill’s personal journey and for that alone it is worth the read. Even the creative process of writing this memoir is entertaining as she discusses with John Birmingham how to write without resprting to the lubrication of a drink to aid her writing!

Like a good health journalist, she has also researched the impact of alcoholism on one’s health, speaking to health professionals about cancer and addiction to alcohol. She also raises personal questions about her own possible addiction to alcohol and agonises about her return to drinking.

After reading High Sobriety, it is so hard not to see the impact of advertising, and the casual acceptance of alcohol in people’s lives. It certainly makes you rethink that drink.

Review- The Convent

the conventThe Convent is a novel by one of my favourite authors, Maureen McCarthy, which deals with the usual themes of love, loss and friendship in her own inimitable way.

Peach is 19, and is looking after her sister while her parents are overseas, is nursing a broken heart and has just started a summer job at a cafe at the Abbotsford Convent.

As the summer progresses, Peach (short for Perpetua) learns more about who she is, and uncovers secrets about her birth mother and her family. The stories of four generations are told, all of which are centred around the Abbotsford Convent. It is a place of sanctuary, a home for wards of the state and a jail for fallen girls forced to work in terrible conditions while pregnant.

It’s a book aimed at young adults, but its setting and its story spanning generation offers something for people of all ages. It’s what makes Maureen McCarthy such a good writer.

Review- Taking a Chance

taking a chance

Taking a Chance by Deborah Burrows, is an historical romance, cum murder mystery set in Perth in 1943.

Eleanor “Nell” Fitzgerald, a fashion reporter for a local newspaper, is dragged into a murder mystery by Johnny Horvath, an American war correspondent convalescing in wartime Perth. Johnny is convinced that Lena, a former lover, is innocent of murder  is determined to find the truth. Despite being engaged, Nell, can’t help but be attracted to the dashing journalist, as she joins forces with him to rescue lost girls, uncover a prostitution ring, and find the real murderer.

Nell is essentially a good girl, feisty, yet vulnerable and the central romance is quite tame in comparison to what else in happening in the book, with the novel depicting the seedier side of wartime,  of girls running away from home, romances and illicit liaisons with soldiers.

The book has been extensively researched to get the feel of life in World War Two, but the research doesn’t get in the way of the narrative. It’s a pleasant read, and can be enjoyed for the setting (Perth doesn’t seem to be the setting of popular books, more’s the pity), the mystery and for the bubbling romantic tensions between Nell and Johnny.

Review- In The Pleasure Groove: Love, Death and Duran Duran


My workmates know me well for my 80’s tragic status and my fandom to all things Duran Duran. They alerted me to this book which was published last year, which is the autobiography of John Taylor, bass player of Duran Duran.

Yes, there are the obligatory photos, but it is much more of a wordy book than I imagined. I had heaps of books about Duran Duran in the 80’s which were really just merchandise/photo albums designed for teenage tastes, so it was a great to hear his voice in the book, albeit a ghost written voice.

The childhood and teenage photos were quite revealing, showing a little boy, growing up into an awkward bespectacled teenager who looked to older cousins and friends,  and of someone who was more comfortable just to the left of the spotlight.

In many ways his story jogged so many half-forgotten memories, of interviews in Smash Hits that I had read over 30 years ago. He changed his name to John from Nigel (Nick Rhodes, was originally Nick Bates), his love of cars (inherited from his father) and the beautiful models/actresses with whom he shared his life.

In other ways, reading the book makes you realise how filtered the message was about your favourite band in the 80s, without the full on glare that is now present with the Internet and social media. Seen through the pages of a magazine, all you saw a bunch of guys living a hectic, hedonistic lifestyle, surrounded by models and driving fast cars.

What you didn’t see was the effects from a jump from unemployed would-be muso still living at home to world famous pop star,  combined with the stress of touring constantly, and recording with a chronic lack of sleep. Taylor’s prodigious consumption of drugs and alcohol and his sex addiction (to deal with loneliness on the road) is documented extensively in this book, as well as his entry into rehab in the United States.

It is an autobiography, but it not a warts and all exposé of his relationship with the other band members. He speaks of them with love and respect, and alludes to periods of strife, but doesn’t go into detail. His marriage with Amanda de Cadenet is dealt with respectfully, yet frankly acknowledging the breakdown of the marriage to a series of factors, including age difference, and his substance abuse.

It’s an enjoyable read, and with its short chapters, you seem to power through it quite easily. Am now off to put Rio on…

Being Speechless

I wanted to write a review about James Button’s book Speechless: A year in my father’s business. James Button, a journalist, was approached to be the speechwriter for Kevin Rudd  in 2010 and to help provide him with a ‘voice’, with what eventuating is a year in which speeches are written and left unspoken, policies drafted and rewritten in lanugage that doesn’t really say or promise anything, and families that are left behind while the game of politics is played.

I wanted to write about how James, as the son of John Button, a man that has loomed large in Labor politics (and the Geelong Football club) had the enviable position of having been entrenched in politics from an early age, and being able to report as a member of the press. However as a public servant there is the tradition of remaining silent, and impartial, which is somewhat at odds with the journalist’s impetus to report and expose.

However every time I sat down to write the review, I started reflecting on my own experience of being a public servant. The public servant to many is a faceless individual and a cog in the unwieldy machine that is government. And while that is the case for many public servants inhabiting big buildings in central business districts of Melbourne, Sydney and in regional centres, there are also teachers, nurses, social workers, doctors, police officers who are also far more visible to the public.

As a librarian, I have worked in local government-operated libraries, within the State Library of Victoria, and for the last 10 years at the Victorian Parliamentary Library. My roles as a librarian have ranged from being frontline staff, to working behind the scenes, to serving the staff and members of an institution/organisation.

Working where I work, I am bound by a Code of Conduct which form part of my conditions of employment, contravention of which constitutes misconduct. The Code emphasises Responsiveness, Integrity, Impartiality, Accountability, Respect and Leadership.

As a librarian, reference/information requests remain confidential, and the identity of an individual requesting information is never disclosed to a third party. If I were to leave Parliament, I am still bound by confidentiality provisions. We have to be apolitical in our dealings with our users, and not let our own opinions affect the level of service we provide. We are not permitted to make public comment unless authorised to do so, and when making comments in a private capacity, we have to ensure that these comments are not perceived to be official and are our personal views only.

It is often extremely hard to discern what I can and cannot say about work. My friends know where I work, and the general nature of my job. If I am peeved by internal rumblings at work, or with particular individuals, I grumble to Mr BG, and to my work colleagues. Online, I tend to err on the side of caution, and talk about the generalities of my day, libraries in general, books, the kids and nerdy stuff.

Initially I picked up James’ book for the details surrounding his tenure as speechwriter to Kevin Rudd, but what I found more interesting was his experiences in Canberra as a public servant, wrestling with bureaucratese/waffle, and his discussion of the impact of the public service upon Australian society. I appreciated it all the more because he was a single voice amongst the ranks of the speechless.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012- Completed!

At the start of the year, I heard through the fountain of all knowledge (Twitter) of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. My original post had me aspiring to be a Franklin Fantastic which was to read at least 10 and to review at least 4, dabbling in a variety of genres.

The books I read  and reviewed were

  1. The Freudian Slip– Fiction
  2. The art of being Melbourne– Non-fiction (Art History)
  3. Paris- a guide to the city’s creative heart– Non-fiction (travel)
  4. No sex in the city– Fiction
  5. Melbourne– Non-fiction (History/memoir)
  6. The harp in the south– Fiction
  7. Unnatural habits– Fiction Crime

Along the way I also discovered Kate Morton (The forgotten garden, The House at Riverton ) Caroline Overington (Ghost Child) and Kate Forsyth (Bitter Greens).

With the exception of The Harp in the South and Paris- a guide to the city’s creative heart, all my books were sourced from my local public library, or the library in which I work. The method in which I chose the titles was largely serendipitous- if it came across my path and if the book met the criteria of having been written by an Australian woman writer, then I usually read it with the purpose of reviewing. I am so glad that the collection management policies of my library and my local library were able to help me :).

What have I learned from this challenge?

During the year, I also read more newspaper reviews of titles, taking note of the gender of the author, the author’s nationality, as well as the gender of the reviewer (would a female reviewer be more likely to review books by women writers, or use more favorable language? These are questions which need further exploration). It really heightened my awareness of the number of female authors who are reviewed, and how they are reviewed.

I rediscovered that women’s writing is eclectic, exciting, and wonderful to read, given the chance to be exposed. If this challenge has enabled people to discover new authors, new voices and new perspectives then that’s a wonderful achievement.

Finally I also realised that you cannot be complacent about gender equality. Even if equality may have been achieved legally, indirect and unconscious discrimination  still exists, and you have to be vigilant in fighting the good fight.


Review- Unnatural Habits

Unnatural Habits is the 19th in the Phryne Fisher series by Melbourne writer Kerry Greenwood. Set in Melbourne in 1929, it is a riveting tale of missing journalists, unfortunate girls, sadistic sisters (of the religious kind) and white slave traders.

The Hon. Phryne Fisher is on the trail of Polly Kettle, a journalist with no sense of self-preservation who has gone missing after investigating a spate of missing girls. Following in her footsteps, Phryne and her companion Dot delve into Melbourne’s demi-monde, the Abbotsford convent and end up on a boat bound for the East.

It is the type of book that has me sitting up until midnight to finish it, Mr BG already tucked up in bed :).

One of the things I love about Kerry Greenwood, is her devotion to historical research. She provides a bibliography at the end of the book, with brief notes. The historical accuracy brings a sense of realism to the books, particularly when describing the conditions of laundries operated by religious orders as a means of employing young women whose only crime was that they were single and pregnant.

Above all it is a rollicking read and another page turner from one of the doyennes of Australian crime fiction.

Review- The Harp in the South

the harp in the south

It is a different experience reading a work of literature or fiction for study, or school and reading it for pleasure or recreation. The impetus of the first is to elicit as much meaning and analysis as possible out of the text, and your copy can become well worn and heavily underlined with notes in the margins. The second can be much more of a luxuriating experience, where words can be savoured, and the important criteria is more subjective- did I like it or not?

I had grown up with Ruth Park, reading The Muddle-headed Wombat, Callie’s Castle and Playing Beattie Bow (which remains my favourite of all her books). I studied The Harp in the South for Year 10 English in 1986 and enjoyed it, gave my copy to my sister, and returned by my other books.

It was only after reading Razor by Larry Writer, that my thoughts returned to 12 1/2 Plymouth Street, Surry Hills , the Darcy family and Delie Stock, the brothel madam and sly grog shop owner, who was based upon Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine.

The Harp in the South has never been out of print- a rare achievement for an Australian (well Kiwi, but she had lived most of her life in Australia) woman writer. The passing of Ruth Park has had me revisiting some of my favourite books of hers.

Reading it again, I was struck by its realism and candour. Its description  of the poverty that existed in the slums in inner-city Sydney at the time would have been quite controversial. The story is centred on members of the Darcy family, an Irish-Catholic family living in a terraced house in Surry Hills. Through their eyes, you get to experience the sly grog shops, the backyard abortionists, prostitutes and grime that was the backdrop of everyday life.

Yet it is more than an expose of the squalor that characterised inner-city Sydney. It is also a series of stories about family love, romance and humour that can make you smile- Roie’s first romance, Dolour’s trip to the beach, courtesy of Delie Stock, and Mumma’s search for her boy Thady. It’s a story that has endured because the themes present are familiar to people of today.

Review: Melbourne

How can a place shape a person? Inner-city Melbourne is closely intertwined with the personal history of author Sophie Cunningham who explores her Melbourne in the book of the same name.

Part memoir, part social history, the book covers the course of the year 2009, a year marked at the beginning by Black Saturday bushfires, and towards the end by Geelong winning the AFL Grand Final (huzzah!).

Roads, transport, natural history and planning are highlighted along the way, as is the legacy of Melbourne’s original inhabitants.

An interesting chapter was the exploration of Melbourne underground, starting in Hawthorn. What was funny was to read of Sophie’s somewhat panicked reaction to being back in the suburb in which she had grown up, and her sharing her fear with her companion, Jeff Sparrow, also an inner-city individual who originally hailed from another middle-class suburb.

The book is part of a series in which authors were invited to write about the Australian state capitals,

It is not my history of Melbourne, not having grown up in Melbourne, but rather commuted in, or lived in the suburbs. The inner city and CBD, though has been part of my student and working life, and there are many aspects of the book which strike a key with me.

I recently had dinner with some friends in Carlton and had to dash for the train back to Ballarat. I headed up Elgin to Swanston Street, where I could grab a tram at the terminus outside Melbourne Uni. The facades of the buildings may have significantly altered since I was there nearly 20 years ago, but in that the tram ride, surrounded by students, I felt I was home again. Melbourne is a place that will always be part of you.