The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

Anchoress CadwalladerIf The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader isn’t already on your radar, it should be.

Told in exquisite prose, it’s ostensibly the story of Sarah, a medieval nun who, at the age of 17, locks herself away from the world in a tomb-like room to pray; but it’s much more than that.

It’s a tale of grief as Sarah comes to terms with the loss of both her mother and sister in childbirth. It’s a narrative of gender politics, as she negotiates her weekly interaction with her father confessor, Ranaulf; fends off the unwanted advances of the local feudal lord, Sir Thomas; and bears witness to the scars inflicted on village women who have little power in a patriarchal, church-dominated world. It’s also a story about art and its possibility of liberation and redemption, whether it’s the art of the illuminated manuscripts that Ranaulf works on, or the art of living, of attuning to the least sensory inputs, the sounds, smells and glimpses of Sarah’s rural medieval world.

This is the standout achievement of this book, for me: the novel, while beginning as a tale of deprivation and renunciation, ends up celebrating the very embodied world Sarah was determined to reject.

…I could no longer resist the demands made by my senses. I’d had no idea that sounds and smells could separate themselves; as if unravelling a piece of cloth, day by day, thread by thread, I began to recognise them. This is mill wheel, this is cartwheels, this is dragging a sack, this is throwing a bucket of water, this is digging, scything, ploughing, and even, sometimes, whispered seed scatter. (120-21)

The Anchoress has already been extensively reviewed for the Australian Women Writers challenge, making it, I’d hazard, one of the challenge’s most popular books so far for 2015. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a front-runner for this year’s Stella Prize.


This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015. You can find other participants’ reviews via these links:

Author: Robyn Cadwallader
Title: The Anchoress
Publisher: Fourth Estate (an imprint of HarperCollins)
Year: 2015
ISBN: 978 0 7322 9921 7

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

Rosie Project SimsionWhat can you say about a book that already has over 8000 reviews on Amazon?

The overview.

Odd-ball genetics professor sets out to find a wife. He has a few stipulations: she must eat meat, must not smoke, must be punctual, and must like more than one flavour of ice cream. Along the way, he finds himself entangled with a late-arriving vegan smoker who is on a quest of her own: to find her genetic father. Much mayhem ensues.

The verdict?

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion is fun. It’s quirky. Reading it reminded me of enjoyable hours spent on wet Saturday afternoons as a kid watching Cary Grant in black-and-white re-runs of zany romantic comedies. (I loved Cary Grant.) I smiled, I chuckled, I laughed out loud. My mum loved it, my sister loved it; my partner took the audio book version on long walks and came back with a smile on his face.

And I also felt a little bit uncomfortable.

Simsion has written the character of the narrator, Don Tillman, with compassion, empathy and humour. But for me – and perhaps this is a reflection of the author’s skill – sometimes Tillman’s obsessiveness, gaffes and social ineptitude struck a little too close to home. While his character is never labelled with a clinical diagnosis, there are hints that Tillman’s behaviour would register somewhere along the Autism Spectrum Disorder (Asperger’s having been excluded from the DSM 5, the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). On the other hand, there are suggestions, too, that Tillman is simply a flawed human being who has deliberately retreated from the world of social engagement into his “head”, or intellect. Why? It’s a defence mechanism, one which protects him from the tumultuous emotions engendered by such social encounters. In this reading, it’s not a lack of empathy he suffers, but an inability to regulate his emotions: he suffers from emotional overwhelm.

Many introverts, or anyone who has suffered social anxiety, might relate to such uncomfortability. The degree to which we can laugh with such a character, rather than at him, may vary with our ability to laugh at ourselves; this in turn might reflect the degree to which we still suffer the pain of social isolation and exclusion such defence mechanisms can create.

The Rosie Project is a very good book and deserves its many fans. It’ll make a very funny movie. It just may not be for everyone.


Author: Graeme Simsion
Title: The Rosie Project
Publisher: Text, Melbourne
Year: 2013
ISBN: 9781922079770

This review forms part of my Aussie Author Challenge 2015.

The Lost Swimmer by Ann Turner: a debut psychological thriller

imageAnn Turner’s debut novel, The Lost Swimmer, is prefaced with a quote from Heraclitus:

Everything flows and nothing abides, everything gives way and nothing stays fixed. (Heraclitus c. 535-475 BC)

Both the theme of “time” and the image of water pervade the novel.

The first-person narrator, Rebecca Wilding, is a professor of archaeology at the generically-named Coastal University in regional Victoria. She is passionate about ancient artefacts, and the layers of time that make up history. When Rebecca was little, her father drowned at sea, and she has since been wary of water. Despite this, she and her husband Stephen, another academic, have chosen to live close to an ocean beach. Together they travel to Greece and, from there, to Italy, soaking up the past, travelling by boat and holidaying by the sea.

With a first-person narrative, if you’re a thriller reader, you’re primed to suspect an unreliable narrator. Turner does a good job of laying seeds of doubt as we follow Rebecca’s story as she faces more than one mystery that threatens her happiness. These include financial problems that beset her in her role as a less-than-conscientious Head of her department; as well her suspicions about her one-time friend, Priscilla, the attractive Dean, who may or may not be deliberately undermining Rebecca’s job – or, worse, be after her husband. Then there are a plethora of secondary characters whose allegiance to Rebecca may be self-serving, who help and/or hinder her as she attempts to save her family from calamity and discover the truth. And there’s Stephen, the seemingly ideal husband and loving father, who appears to be keeping secrets.

The Lost Swimmer is billed as a “stunning literary thriller” on the front of my review copy. It made me wonder what the publicists think constitutes “literary”. Certainly there are eloquent descriptions and the story is intelligent in its approach, but there is very little in the way of figurative language; the narrative is straightforward linear realism; and there doesn’t appear to me to be layers of ideological or philosophical complexity.

Maybe I’m missing something?

The Lost Swimmer offers a good, solid story and it’s a fine achievement for a debut author who is also, according to the information from the publisher, “an award-winning screenwriter and director”. I can see it as a film.


This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers 2015 Challenge and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied by the publisher.

The Lost Swimmer
Ann Turner
Simon & Schuster: Cammeray, NSW, 2015

Entitlement by Jessica White

Their daughter, when she stepped onto the platform, looked to Leonora as hard and weary as a soldier. There were blue circles beneath her eyes and she was scrawny, her hair dull. Leonora embraced her. The girl’s body was like steel, but her mother didn’t care. It was Cate, and she was home. (p 2)

So Jessica White introduces the main character of Entitlement, Cate McConville, a thirty-year-old doctor who returns from her practice in Sydney to the small Queensland town of Tumbin, to face her ageing parents’ desire to sell the family farm.

It is eight years since Cate’s brother, and Leonora and Blake’s son, Eliot, went missing. As well as burying herself in work to the point of malnutrition, Cate has spent every spare moment searching for her beloved brother. She blames herself for her brother’s disappearance, for the choices she made and the company she kept; and she blames her parents, for encouraging Eliot to stay on and work the farm instead of following his passion for music; but she never gives up hope that one day she will find him: one day, he will come “home”. With this hope still alive, Cate doesn’t want to sell the farm, and, having made her and Eliot partners in the venture, her parents need her signature. Her unwillingness drags up old family tensions that come to a head as secrets about the past are revealed.

Entitlement is a moving story about grief and loss. It deals with these themes on more than one level.

Alongside the story of the McConvilles is that of Mellor and his extended, Aboriginal family who have kept almost continuous ties to their ancestral land, the land now “owned” by the McConvilles and other white families who have bought or inherited it. It’s a complex and challenging endeavour to write from the point of view of an indigenous character when you’re white, and Sue from WhisperingGums discussed this very point in her review of Entitlement published last month. Like Sue, I think White handles this sensitively.



This review forms part of my contribution to both the Australian Women Writers 2015 Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge. I own a copy of the book which I won in an AWW competition and received from the author.

Jessica White
Melbourne: Viking, 2012
ISBN: 9780670075935

Aussie Author Challenge 2015: a belated sign-up post


Aussie-Author-Challenge-2015-300x264Once again, I’ve signed up for the Aussie Author Challenge hosted by Jo at Booklover Book Reviews. I’m aiming for the Wallaroo level:

– Read and review 6 titles written by Australian authors, of which at least 2 of those authors are female, at least 2 of those authors are male, and at least 2 of those authors are new to you;
– Fiction or non-fiction, at least 2 genres.

As I’m a little(!) late with my sign-up post, I’ve already reviewed several books for the challenge:

  • The Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett: review
  • Claiming Noah by Amanda Ortlepp: review (new to me)
  • The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty: review
  • Watching You by Michael Robotham: review
  • Entitlement by Jessica White: forthcoming (new to me)

To reach the target of Wallaroo I need to read at least one other Aussie male author (and I’m guessing Damon Young’s picture book for children, My Nanna is a Ninja, probably doesn’t qualify). I know I’ll pass the target for female authors, as I’ve just finished Ann Turner’s debut psychological thriller, The Lost Swimmer, and I have Honey Brown’s new novel, Six Degrees, on my To Be Read pile, so I may end up qualifying for the Kangaroo level. To do that, I’d have to come up with three more male Aussie writers.

What recent books by Australian male authors would you recommend and why?

Watching You by Michael Robotham

robotham watching youBefore picking up a copy of Watching You with a stack of other books at the library before Christmas, the only story I’d read by Michael Robotham was Bombproof. I remember having enjoyed Bombproof as a fast-paced, witty thriller, and I have intended to read more of Robotham’s work ever since.

It’s a measure of Robotham’s skill as a storyteller that I didn’t immediately pick this story as part of a series. As it turns out it’s Book 7 in the Joe O’Loughlin series. Joe is a clinical psychologist who has a history and faces health challenges, but the story doesn’t really belong to him. It belongs to one of his patients, Marnie, a woman with a traumatic childhood and a missing husband.

Marnie’s husband Daniel wasn’t the best of husbands. An Aussie journalist living in London and a victim of newspaper downsizing, he took up gambling and disappeared leaving a trail of debts. Nevertheless, Marnie refuses to believe he abandoned her. With no joy from the police investigation and growing evidence Daniel was hiding something from her, now she is being hounded by his creditors. Unable to access his bank accounts or life insurance money, she is forced into desperate acts to pay his debts and keep from being evicted from their home. She is also desperate for help for their sick child, four-year-old Elijah.

Marnie’s behaviour doesn’t impress Zoe, her teenaged daughter from her first marriage. Troubled and resentful of her mum, Zoe misses her step-dad; she can’t understand why their TV has been hocked, and why her mother is suddenly dressing up at night and being met by a chauffeur who takes her out. Zoe seeks solace online and, unknown to her mother, sets up  a Facebook page dedicated to trying to find her missing father. That isn’t the only thing she hides from Marnie.

To the world, Marnie is the epitome of the battler struggling against immense odds. To cope, she seeks help from her clinical psychologist, Joe O’Loughlin, but she isn’t entirely truthful to Joe. She doesn’t tell him, for example, that she has had mental health problems before. Nor does she mention that people who cross her have a habit of ended up being harmed. She does hint, however, that she has a feeling she is being watched.

Watching You is an interesting page-turner from a series which features some apparently already well-loved characters. It also reads well as a stand-alone novel. There were times when I felt I was reading more to assess Robotham’s skill as a storyteller, rather than being engaged in the story, but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment. I’m looking forward to reading Robotham’s latest novel, Life or Death, which I’ve heard great things about.


So that I don’t entirely lose my focus on supporting books by Australian women this year, I’d like, when I can, to recommend books by Australian women similar to the ones I’m reviewing. My pick of a match for Michael Robotham – based on a very small sample of his work – is Jaye Ford. Ford writes fast-paced action thrillers with a psychological edge. But maybe readers who are more familiar with his work will other ideas?


Author: Michael Robotham
Title: Watching You
Publisher: Sphere/Hachette
Year: 2013

I borrowed a copy from the library.


This review is the second book I’ll count towards the 2015 Aussie Author challenge.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty’s Husbands Secret MoriartyThe Husband’s Secret is a page-turner featuring believable characters, interesting moral issues and more. I read it over the Australia Day weekend and the timing seemed fitting somehow. It could easily be subtitled, ‘A portrait of suburban Australian lives’.

The characters in this novel are ordinary, everyday people who inhabit Sydney’s north shore. They’re people like me, or my sisters, my friends, our mothers and daughters. Catholic-raised, but not observant; juggling haphazard careers and family responsibilities; coping with the ups and downs of problematic marriages, teenaged children, competitiveness, grandchildren, imperfect husbands, as well as past traumas that rise up in the present with unexpected and unpredictable consequences.

There’s Cecilia, the wife of the husband with a secret. She’s a perfectionist, a candidate for a diagnosis of OCD; impossibly organised, generous and thoughtful; quite possibly unbearable as a friend or family member, but also vulnerable and a loving mother.

There’s Rachel, an administrator at Cecilia’s son’s primary school; an aging grandmother who has never quite got over the death of her teenaged daughter, and finds it hard to show love to her adult son.

Then there’s Tess who, until a week ago, would have described her marriage as happy…

These characters’ lives intersect in a narrative that made me both laugh and cry as I identified with the experiences, thoughts, failings, fantasies and bad behaviour of normal human beings under pressure.

Books like this show me how ordinary lives can be extraordinary and interesting. Moriarty seems to write easy-to-read prose effortlessly, adding a degree of emotional truth that surprises me for popular fiction. No wonder she was recently voted Australia’s second-most popular author in a recent online bookshop poll.

This review forms part of my contribution to the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Author challenge.

Author: Liane Moriarty
Title: The Husband’s Secret
Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 2013
ISBN: 978140591665

I borrowed a copy from a friend.

Claiming Noah: debut psychological suspense by Amanda Ortlepp

Catriona and James are desperate for children, so embark on an IVF program. Four embryos are created, and by the third treatment Catriona is pregnant. They decide to adopt out the fourth embryo anonymously. (from publisher’s blurb)

Claiming Noah by Amanda OrtleppI must admit, when a copy of Amanda Ortlepp’s debut novel, Claiming Noah, arrived in the post, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it. My reluctance wasn’t due to the subject matter. I devoured both of Dawn Barker’s books, Fractured and Let Her Go, which deal with similar difficult subjects, including post-natal psychosis and issues relating to a child’s true (or legal) parentage. I just wasn’t sure I wanted to traverse similar territory in another novel.

Nevertheless, amid all the excitement of releasing my own debut novel this week,* I persisted, and I’m happy to report Claiming Noah is worth the read.

In Claiming Noah, Ortlepp creates a very Solomon-esque story in a contemporary setting, and teases it out to a tense and satisfying conclusion. Her point-of-view characters are Catriona, the donor mum, and Diana, who adopts Catriona’s embryo; both are sympathetic characters who go through a very rough time and deserve better. They have problems with husbands, newborns and adjusting to dramatic changes in their life circumstances; both suffer tragedy and deception which cause them heartache and take them to the brink.

At times when reading I found myself pulled out of the story thinking, She wouldn’t do that. Why doesn’t she…? But it’s a credit to Ortlepp that she is able to bring her characters to life so well that I began think I knew them!

Claiming Noah is billed as a thriller, but I think it’s more mainstream than that: I wouldn’t put the “thrills” at much more than you’d find in suspense (which is fine by me). There’s nothing externally life-threatening in this story; the life challenges, when they come, stem from the characters’ inner worlds, and the impact of external events on their psychological and mental health, which is only ever really severely tested for Catriona.

I read the novel over a few days and it kept me engaged – rather than “hooked” – for that time. (Considering I also had a lot going on with my own release, that’s no mean feat.) The moral dilemmas the novel presents are interesting, even if the references to the Catholic church’s influence seem a little dated. The ethical issues the story raises deserve to be explored. And what better way to explore them than in entertaining fiction?

Fans of Dawn Barker’s work won’t be disappointed.


Author: Amanda Ortlepp
Title: Claiming Noah
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date: March 2015
ISBN: 9781925030600

A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

This review forms part of my contribution to both the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge 2015.


* You can read about my debut romance, Snowy River Man, and enter a giveaway to win an ebook copy here.

Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett

golden boys hartnettThere are some books I know, if I don’t attempt to review them straightaway, I won’t end up reviewing them at all. It’s because the impact is so powerful, the language so beautiful, I grow afraid I won’t do them justice. Golden Boys by Sonya Hartnett is one of those books.

I picked up this novel not knowing what audience it was written for – the only other book by Hartnett I’ve read is a children’s picture book. But this novel is no more suitable for children than Lord of the Flies. (Though I did read that when I was twelve.)

Golden Boys isn’t nearly as graphic and violent as Lord of the Flies, but its themes – including family violence, grooming, loneliness, isolation and dislocation – are pretty adult. So is the language. It’s rich, poetic, dense. And the pace is slow. Nothing much happens – and yet, everything happens; everything that is painfully ordinary, quotidian, that conveys the angsts and traumas of growing up and learning where one fits in the world.

The protagonists of Golden Boys are a group of kids in a working-class Australian suburb in the not-so-distant past. It is a time before the internet and Facebook, when children were allowed to roam the streets unsupervised, the era of the author’s own childhood, perhaps. It is also an era, seemingly, pre-multiculturalism and pre-contraception. Several of the children, Declan, Freya and Syd, belong to one household, a working class home with a drunken father, a harried mother, and too many younger siblings. Hartnett is precise in her description of the chaos that is the Kileys’ family life, with “the mess which finds its way through the house like the ratty hem of a juvenile junkyard”. When working-class Syd Kiley meets the neighbourhood newcomer and private-school educated Bastian Jensen, Hartnett deftly conveys their differences:

Syd and Bastian look at each other, and it’s like a Jack Russell being introduced to a budgerigar: in theory they could be friends, but in practice sooner or later there will be bright feathers on the floor.

But the conflict between the two families, the Kileys and the Jensens, isn’t due to class. The Jensens have moved into the neighbourhood to escape something, as Bastian’s older brother Colt becomes dimly aware. That “something”, barely acknowledged but frightening, provides one of the core tensions of the novel, and has to do with Colt’s father, Rex, a dentist. Rex has filled their new home with toys, bikes, skateboards, racing tracks; and their backyard will soon have a pool that all the neighbourhood children are invited to use. As Colt reflects:

His father spends money not merely on making his sons envied but in making them – and the world seems to tip the floor – enticing. His father buys bait.

It is how Colt responds to this growing awareness that leads to the climax and denouement on the novel. The ending is dramatic, though not externally earth-shattering, and conveys a sense of truth about the complexity of family loyalties and the burden of carried shame.

I was wondering, as I read the novel, whether it might be useful for HSC English teachers teaching the new “discovery” module. It deals with the theme of discovery in a number of ways: a new neighbourhood, how different classes live, as well as the discovery of growing up and taking responsibility. It’s also packed with language forms and features which students could explore. I read an ebook copy and kept interrupting my reading to highlight Hartnett’s skillful use of rhetorical devices, similes and metaphors. (A whole post could be devoted to such an analysis.)

Apart from its promise as an educational text, it is a worthwhile and moving book to read.

This is my first review for both the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge.


Author: Sonya Hartnett
Title: Golden Boys
Publisher: Penguin
Date: August 2014
ISBN: 9781926428611

Review copy kindly supplied to me by the publishers via Netgalley.

Being Jade by Kate Belle – a study of grief and love

imageNote: this review contains mild spoilers.

“People argue about death” is the opening line of Kate Belle’s novel Being Jade. It might just as well have been, “People argue about love”. For, although grief over a death sets the book’s narrative in motion, many of the questions it raises are about love or, more precisely, whether love and infidelity are compatible. Does fidelity in a relationship matter? Does it make a difference if the couple is married? The woman pregnant? If they have children? The length of time they’ve been together?

Being Jade begins with the first person point of view of Banjo, husband to Jade, father of Cassy and Lissy. Banjo has just been killed in a hit-and-run on a lonely stretch of road on the north coast of New South Wales. The novel explores the mystery of why he was walking there alone, who hit him and why the driver absconded. As Banjo comes to terms with his death, we see his grief over his loss of life, and particularly of his beloved wife Jade, a temperamental artist he fell in love with as a teenager, married at eighteen and lived with for nearly thirty years. Because of Banjo’s grief, the focus of the novel is on Jade, the object of his devotion, and the source of much of his suffering and of that of his children. We learn of Jade’s troubled childhood, her affairs, her serial abandonment of her children when they were small, her drinking and drug-taking; as well as her artwork which features her lovers in outrageously erotic – if not pornographic – detail.

The point of view of the novel alternates between Banjo and his younger daughter Lissy. Through Lissy, we watch as Jade falls into catatonic depression after the funeral. Is it, as Lissy wants to believe, a sign of the depth of her mother’s love and grief at the loss of her soulmate? Or is the truth, as her older sister Cassy suggests, that the depression stems from their mother’s guilt over her own destructive behaviour, a typical narcissistic self-dramatising of a woman who always needs to be the centre of attention?

Being Jade is provocative. Among the questions it poses are, why does society continue to hold double standards for men and women? Why is it shocking when women embrace their sexuality and demand sexual freedom, when they leave their children in the care of the children’s father, when they have multiple partners? And why are representations of a vagina still so confronting?

While the figure of Jade provides the focus of the novel, the emotional and, for me, psychological core is about grief. Not only does it portray the grief experienced over a loss of life, but also the grief one feels when having to come to terms with someone’s otherness, their insistence on being themselves, no matter what harm they might cause to those they love. For this reason, I was uncertain of the ending. Towards the climax, we see deeper into Jade’s affairs, a twist enabled by Banjo’s ghostly status as he sees her memories. Here Banjo appears to accept a new “truth” of her behaviour, that – far from being monstrous – it was loving, even redeeming.

This is one of the areas where I found the novel problematic. (The other was Jade’s portrayal in terms of her Asian-ness, but that’s for another discussion.) Banjo’s – and, through him, the reader’s – revised understanding of Jade has a huge emotional payoff with the girls’ discovery of a particular painting. But it appears to reinscribe Jade in the whore/Madonna trope which the rest of the novel seems at pains to question (with the “Madonna” aspect being figurative – restorative of fallen men – rather than maternal).

Are there sufficient hints of Banjo’s fallibility as a narrator to throw this longed-for redemption of Jade into doubt? Perhaps. Enough to suggest that this view of Jade might be a wish fulfilment for Banjo and Lissy (as well as the reader and perhaps author). In this alternative reading, Banjo and Lissy could be seen as doing what they have always done: choosing to see their all-too-human wife/mother how they want her to be, not who she really might be. And who might she be? A beautiful, talented, self-absorbed and selfish bitch. And what’s wrong with that? Women can be bitches, right? We’re human. What makes this a harder version to accept is that the only points of view we see are from characters whose values are at least influenced by small-town expectations of acceptable roles and behaviour of women.

In the end, I can’t decide which view of Jade does greater justice to the story, the character and women in general. For me, Jade remains a cipher, like the Korean symbol that provides the signature mark of her artwork; a compelling character, rendered in at times beautiful prose, central to a story that kept me reading long into the night and had me wanting to talk about it afterwards. The sign of a good, thought-provoking book.


This review forms part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge and Aussie Authors Challenge. Being Jade has previously been reviewed for the AWW challenge by Monique, Shelleyrae, Sam, Carol, Rowena, Deborah and Jenn. Review copy kindly supplied by the publisher.

Author: Kate Belle
Title: Being Jade
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Date: June 2014
ISBN: 9781925030044


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