The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

Halfway through reading Charlotte Wood’s new novel, The Natural Way of Things, I felt compelled to post about it on Facebook and Twitter.

Reading The Natural Way of Things

Such is the power of this book that after I finished it, immediately I searched for someone to discuss it with. I rang a friend who had been to the book launch on Monday night, hoping she might have read it already. She was only a few chapters in, but she told me a friend of hers, after finishing it, had rolled up in a ball on the floor and wept.

I wanted to weep while reading this book. I felt like there was a lifetime of tears – behind my rage – waiting to be shed. But I didn’t cry and I think I know why.

This brilliant, beautifully written, terrible fable of our times was inspired when Wood heard about a group of girls/women who had been rounded up and drugged, and carted off to a decommissioned prison at Hay in Western New South Wales in the 1960s. Instead of setting her story back then, as Wood told Susan Wyndham in a recent interview, she decided to create a near-future dystopia. To populate her story, Wood drew from every possible sex scandal she had come across in the media, stories of women who had been depicted as in some way having “asked for it”. Among the group of ten women Wood depicts, there are figures of diverse class, ethnicities, educational backgrounds and personalities, many of whom bear similarities to actual historical figures. Some of these become fully realised characters in their own right, given life via exquisite prose.

Two such characters, Verla and Yolanda, are given points of view in the narrative. Verla is the educated former mistress of a politician who denied having “relations” with her; Yolanda is a beauty from a working-class background whose boyfriend dumped her after she was gang raped by a group of footballers. Such is Wood’s mastery of narrative that it took me a while to realise Verla’s story is told in the present tense, Yolanda’s in the past – so seamless are the transitions.

Throughout the story, Wood’s descriptive power is stunning. She describes the violence wielded by the girls’ warden, Boncer, in ironic terms as having the ease and fluidity, if not the beauty, of ballet:

[S]he didn’t see the man’s swift, balletic leap – impossibly pretty and light across the gravel – and the leather-covered baton in his hand coming whack over the side of her jaw.

A few paragraphs later, she extends the picture created with a vivid, terrible simile:

Turning his brown leather stick in his hands, its hard, lumpy stitched seams like a botched wound. Like a scar that would make worse ones. (25)

One of Wood’s techniques I particularly noted was her use of adjectives to add sound, texture, movement and atmosphere to her descriptions: “skittering footsteps”, “thickening bush”, “busy fingers” and “noisy silence” are a few examples chosen at random; while many others form powerful triplets, such as “slow, long-bodied wasps” and an ice-chest with a “hoary galvanised-metal face”.

Throughout the story Wood shows her mastery of figurative language, often drawing from domestic situations to create beautiful, fresh and deceptively simple images:

A flock of white cockatoos arrived, landing noisily down on the flat, the white line of them billowing and settling like a thrown bedsheet. (199)

A pleat of blue has opened up in the clouds. (249)

With such language, a terrible tale is wrought. The girls in the story suffer, endure, survive, collapse under pressure and revive – or not, each in their own way.

What the story didn’t do was something which from the outset I had unconsciously expected it would: depict from the inside the ultimate psychic degradation of abused women; that is, the learned helplessness and hopelessness of internalised misogyny, the self-hatred and self-abuse that leads to suicidal ideation and self-harm, that makes women believe they deserve whatever bad things happen to them. While girls with such attitudes are portrayed in the story, they remain somewhat at a distance, seen through the eyes of the point-of-view characters. Both Yolanda and Verla are far more empowered. Even the crisis Verla suffers towards the climax of the book isn’t one of self-worth or self-doubt; she and Yolanda are women whose sense of agency and ability to withstand is not seriously threatened – even as their physical survival isn’t assured. For me, there is a third, silent, untold narrative that haunts the book: the woman whose sense of self-worth doesn’t survive.

It’s that narrative, I think, that would have summoned my tears, but perhaps it’s just as well Wood didn’t write it. I might never have stopped crying.

I’d be stunned and disappointed if The Natural Way if Things isn’t shortlisted for both the Miles Franklin Award and The Stella Prize.


Author: Charlotte Wood
Title: The Natural Order of things
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Date: October 2015
ISBN: 9781760111236

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

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.

Writing the wrongs – The Intervention: an anthology

In June 2007, following the tabling of the ‘Little Children are Sacred’ report, the Australian government introduced the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act, prescribing a number of drastic measures, some contravening the Racial Discrimination Act and others revolving around land use.

A massive military and police emergency response ensued. The stated aim was to combat child abuse, though there was no reference to children in this massive bill. (read more here)

So Dr Anita Heiss and Rosie Scott introduced their article published a year ago in The Hoopla outlining the rationale behind their decision to crowdfund the publication of their anthology, The Intervention, after major publishers had turned it down.

In their essay, Heiss and Scott refer to Olga Havnen’s summary of aspects of the intervention: the arrival of the army; the dismantling of Aboriginal-run organisations; the atrophy of CDEP or the Aboriginal “work-for-the-dole” program; the implementation of mandatory and universal welfare income control; the depiction of Aboriginal men as drunks and paedophiles, and women and children as helpless victims; and the introduction of alcohol controls; measures whose impacts had yet to be assessed.

Last month, during NAIDOC week, I attended a launch of the book in Ashfield, which featured guest speakers Rosie Scott, author Nicole Watson and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda. In her launch speech, Scott spoke of her determination to have the anthology published, and the reasons why it should be of interest to all Australians:

I believe that the deliberate spin, lies and disinformation that underpins this crisis need to be countered by a language that is powerful, clear and truthful enough to enable people to understand what’s really going on; the kind of language that moves people to right these wrongs. (video of Scott’s launch speech here)

The Intervention provides just such language. A collection of fiction, essays, memoirs and poetry written by over twenty writers and commentators, both indigenous and non-indigenous, it details the varied impacts of the emergency response on remote Indigenous communities – almost all negative.

Of great interest to me is the contribution by Pat Anderson, one of the authors of the “Little Children are Sacred” report that provided the pretext for the government’s actions. In her essay, “The Intervention: Personal Reflections, June 2009”, Anderson writes that in 2006, she was a co-chair of the Northern Territory Board of Inquiry into the Protection of Aboriginal Children from Sexual Abuse. Over a period of a year, she attended meetings in dozens of remote communities with the aim of hearing the views of Aboriginal peoples. She was, she writes, heartened by the response:

What struck me most in these talks with the Aboriginal communities was their attitude. They had suffered much as a result of the historical processes in this country, and many of them had suffered violence and abuse themselves…

People were worried about kids not going to school, about girls having babies too young, about drugs and alcohol, the lack of jobs, and the presence of pornography. And while we did not uncover individual cases of child abuse, we found all the conditions present under which it happens: poverty, overcrowding, drugs and alcohol, pornography, and perhaps most disturbingly of all, a breakdown of structures of authority and meaning. We found, too, that many who came forward and spoke to us were child victims of abuse and neglect, who had never had their trauma acknowledged and dealt with. (31)

In their subsequent report, Anderson and co-author Rex Wild, QC, made almost one hundred recommendations, the very first of which, Anderson writes, “was the most significant”:

‘It is critical that both [the Northern Territory and Federal] governments commit to genuine consultation with Aboriginal people in designing initiatives for Aboriginal communities [to address child sexual abuse and neglect].’ (34)

According to Anderson, despite the prominence given to the report, far from it forming the basis for the government’s actions, its chief recommendation, that of the need for community consultation, was ignored. Moreover:

Where we emphasised the need for resources and for flexible processes of engagement with Aboriginal families and communities, the Intervention emphasised external control and blanket provisions affecting all Aboriginal people.

The “headline” elements of the Intervention, Anderson writes, were deeply problematic:

They included compulsory health checks of Aboriginal children to check for evidence of abuse, blanket quarantining of welfare payments … and the scrapping of the permit system that allowed Aboriginal people some control over access to their land.

In other words, the actions of the government were further promoting the very conditions,”the breakdown of structures of authority and meaning”, that Anderson identifies as having contributed to the problems.

Larissa Behrendt writes in her contribution:

Heavy-handed, top-down interventions such as enforced prohibition have never proven effective in the black or white community. Apart from the protocols and niceties, the research clearly shows that the most effective way to develop policies and implement programs in Indigenous communities is to have those communities integrally involved in them. It’s not just a matter of good manners; it is effective practice and policy. The top-down, paternalistic imposition of half-baked policy ideas is a recipe for failure. (65-66)

Without community consultation and involvement, is it any wonder the impacts of the Intervention, outlined and dramatised so effectively in this anthology, have been negative?

Rachel Willika, a Jaowyn elder from the remote Aboriginal community of Manyallaluk, writes of the immediate trauma created by news of the Intervention:

I was living at Barunga when I first heard about the intervention. I was told by mobile phone. It was on the news. When we found out, everyone was worried. The girls wanted to go to hide in the bush. When we saw the army on TV, I felt frightened. Some people, not just children, but adults, too, thought they might come with guns. (42)

Rosalie Kunoth-Monks, an Areente, Alyawarra elder, discusses the intervention in terms of generations of trauma:

We are all aware in Australia of the horrific journey that Aboriginal people have had to take right from the beginning. People say invasion but I say on our first encounter… Trauma, emotional and mental, a lot of us are going through – tremendous, tremendous trauma and that’s not over exaggerating.

Because we live in terror of our languages, our ceremonies and our land being taken off us right at this time in our history. (14)

Not least in this history of trauma is the after-effects of the Stolen Generations. As Brenda L Croft, whose father was taken as a child, writes:

My father wanted kardiya [non-indigenous] people to try and comprehend the impact of colonisation on our people, not only throughout their lives, but also the ongoing deleterious effect on their descendants, whether we live in remote communities or in far-flung towns and cities. (172)

It is one of the strengths of this anthology that so many diverse Aboriginal voices are represented in its pages, people who live in remote communities as well as those from cities or regional centres. Non-indigenous perspectives also make a valuable contribution: among them, P M Newton’s story, “567,000 kms Driven”, tells of the army’s arrival from a soldier’s point of view; while Arnold Zable offers the moving meditation, “Here is Where We Meet”.

For me, however, the highlights are the Indigenous voices, particularly Melissa Lucashenko’s powerfully rhetorical “What I Heard about the Intervention”:

I heard that the last officially recorded massacre of Aboriginal people occurred in the NT in 1928.

I heard that other Aboriginal people tell of massacres which followed in later years, within living memory, but that these massacres were not recorded in white history…

I heard first-hand reports of a white man from Perth expressing a wish, in early 2014, to travel to the Northern Territory to “shoot an Aboriginal”…

I heard that the suicide rate of Aboriginal people in the NT increased five-fold after the Intervention…

And I heard what the esteemed Aboriginal writer Alexis Wright, who has spent the bulk of her life living and working in Alice Springs, told me, when I asked her about the Intervention. I heard her when she said vehemently:

‘Yes. Yes, of course the government should do something about the living conditions and the violence. But not this…’ (109-111)

Wright makes her own contribution to the anthology with her short story, “Be Careful About Playing With the Path of Least Resistance”. In it she depicts a gifted boy who witnesses the panic engendered among the adults of his community by the arrival of the army, their sense of shame at the allegations of child sexual abuse, their confusion over why such drastic measures are being implemented, and their fear that their incomes may be taken away if children – like the boy – do not attend school. Wright depicts complex layers of these issues, the seeming lack of relevance of a Westernised education; the lure of nihilism that accompanies a loss of meaning, and its consequent risk of adolescent suicide; and the power and potentially redemptive qualities of traditional stories and the guidance of elders.

Yet it is the straightforward prose of the final contribution that sticks in my mind, a submission from the Yolnguw Makarr Dhuni (Yolngu Nations Assembly) in regard to Stronger Futures, the Labor government’s extension of the earlier Howard administration’s Intervention:

We want self-determination. We want democracy. We want the power of the people in Arnhem Land and in all Aboriginal communities to be recognised and our rights respected…

We have our own system of law to prevent disagreements from escalating. We keep peace and order through good governance and we have very serious and consistent ways of teaching respect and discipline to all our young peoples. We have ways of dealing with people who have broken the law that means they are not a threat to the community while they are taught responsibility and maturity. These processes are being eroded through community disempowerment and government attacks on our legitimacy as leaders and our society as a while. (245-46)

Reading The Intervention, it’s hard not to conclude that, rather than solving the problems faced by remote Indigenous communities, the government’s actions have compounded them. While clearly action still needs to be taken, surely a first step towards helping would be for non-Indigenous Australians to recognise and respect the expertise of Indigenous leaders within the communities themselves, as well as to acknowledge the part our current and former generations have played in the creation of those problems. Given the lack of such acknowledgement and respect, it’s hardly surprising that several of the contributors to this anthology see the Intervention as little more than a cynical land and power grab.



Title: The Intervention: an anthology
Eds: Rosie Scott and Anita Heiss
Publisher: ‘concerned Australians’
Year: 2015
ISBN: 978-0-646-93709-0
Facebook page: The Intervention

This book was read for NAIDOC week, inspired by the “reading for diversity” initiative of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015.

Angela Marson’s Silent Scream – book review

Angela Marson Silent ScreamThere were a few things I liked about Angela Marsons’ thriller, Silent Scream. One was its setting in the Black Country in the West Midlands in England. It’s not an area I’m familiar with, and the author’s use of dialect had me searching to hear examples of it on Youtube. (I found a video of an elderly couple talking and it was like listening to a foreign language.)

Another aspect I enjoyed was the narrator, D I Kim Stone. Stone has a complex history; she’s short on people skills; and she has an obsessive-compulsive streak that makes her a pain to work with, but gives her an advantage as a detective. She’s tenacious and, although she does her best to hide her emotions, she has a soft streak. I can see her making a good series character.

Set with the task of solving a number of murders, Stone does a pretty good job. So does the author in weaving a tale with multiple layers of childhood trauma, exploitation, self-delusion and greed. While the story kept me engaged, I found the writing in parts too reliant on dialogue; I would’ve liked to experience more of the physicality of the Black Country, through more visual descriptions and a greater appeal to the senses. The plot was reasonable, with a number of surprises, but too often the characters seemed to lack emotional depth. There was one action at the end, in particular, I found totally unlikely given the supposed nature of the character. (Risking a mild spoiler, I’ll just say it had to do with a medical device.)

Having said that, the author gives glimpses of more interesting writing:

One day the names of these three [murdered] girls would be plastered across a Wikipedia page. It would be a link from the main article depicting Black Country history. The triple murder would forever be a blemish on their heritage. Readers would skate past the article describing the achievements of the Netherton chain makers who had forged the anchors and chains for the Titanic and the twenty Shire horses that had pulled the one hundred tonne load through the town. The metalworking trade that dated back to the sixteenth century would be forgotten in the face of such a sensational headline.

Overall Silent Scream is competent, with flashes of something really interesting.


Author: Angela Marsons
Title: Silent Scream
Publisher: Bookouture
Date: 2015
Type: ebook
ISBN13: 9781909490918

I own a copy.

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

House Rules by Jodi Picoult

imageWhat happens in a family where one child is diagnosed with a disability like autism?

In primary school, I had a best friend who had two brothers and a sister, except the sister didn’t live with them any more. The term “autistic” was mentioned, but I had very little idea what that meant. All I knew was that there had been something wrong with her. She had never grown out of the “terrible twos”: her screaming and tantrums, her inability to communicate wants and needs, wore her (very kind and loving) parents down. She had been sent away to live in an institution, and my friend rarely spoke of her. I have a vague impression that the family visited her, but I can’t be sure. For the rest of us, she had ceased to exist as a person.

This was a time before the government policy of de-institutionalisation, of supporting children with disabilities to live in the community. In those days, the policy for autistic children was “out of sight, out of mind”.

But what would it have been like for my friend and her brothers if their sister had been kept at home? If the parents, in order to cope, had shaped every routine in the house around not triggering tantrums? If the “neuro-typical” – non-autistic – children had been asked to take second place – or not even asked, just relegated to that position? Would they have fantasised about what it would have been like to have grown up in a “normal” family? Maybe even been tempted to act out those fantasies?

This is the scenario explored in Jodi Picoult’s novel, House Rules. In the story, eighteen-year-old Jacob is the “boy” who has Asperger’s, a high-functioning form of autism which manifests as an inability to recognise and respond to social cues, as well as a lack of empathy and imagination. Jacob’s long-suffering and devoted mother Emma has made every sacrifice for her son, leaving Theo, Jacob’s fifteen-year-old brother, longing for a very different family. The boys’ estranged father, Henry, has long since abandoned them, and, when we finally get to meet him, he too displays some characteristic behaviour of autism.

A common feature of people with Asperger’s is a fixation on a particular area of interest, in Jacob’s case: forensic science. This fixation, in part, is the reason why the two boys find themselves embroiled in a dilemma concerning Jacob’s social skills therapist, Jess, a kind-hearted girl whom Jacob fears is being abused by her boyfriend.

In House Rules, Picoult once again weaves a compelling story, one that had me engaged from the start and wanting to stay up reading long into the night. At the same time, I found the story frustrating. From at least halfway through, I could see that the main conflict could be resolved with one good conversation. Ending the novel, I was wondering whether I’d been cheated as a reader, strung out unnecessarily by an unrealistic narrative; or whether the frustration resulted in part from Picoult’s use of irony. After all, the only reason I knew one good conversation would resolve things was because, as a reader, I was privy to Jacob’s point of view; the other characters – crucially, for the plot – were not. A feature of autism is an inability to communicate simply, just as frustration is one of the dominant emotions felt by those living with autism, as well as the people who interact with them. So maybe leaving the reader frustrated was intended? Or maybe not.

Whatever Picoult’s intention, House Rules is still a very good read.


Author: Jodi Picoult
Title: House Rules
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Date: 2010
ISBN : 978 1 74237 365 2


I borrowed a copy from the library.

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.


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