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  1. Kate Grenville has a winning formula and she’s jolly well going to stick with it. That formula is to set a story around the early years of the penal colony that has now grown into Sydney; to focus on particular early settlers; their journey to the colony; their work in claiming a life for themselves; and the impact that had on the Indigenous population. Kate Grenville does this very well; her writing is evocative; she creates both the place and the atmosphere of the time. She poses the same difficult questions about the human instinct for survival even at the cost of others – whether that i
  2. Silver is the follow up to Chris Hammer's Scrublands - one of the best books I read last year. Silver takes place not long after the events in Riversend in Scrublands. Martin Scarsden has been holed up in Sydney writing a book about what happened while Mandy has moved to Silver Bay, a town on the NSW coast, where she is about to inherit a house. Martin, book finished, comes to join her, walks into her rental, fnds a freshly stabbed body on the floor and Mandy sitting in shock, hands covered in blood. Naturally she's the obvious supect, Martin is determined to prove her innosence b
  3. I've come to this quite late, but better late than never. Boy Swallows Universe is a heavily stylised bildungsroman set in Brisbane in the 1980s - by all accounts quite a sketchy place run by sketchy people. Eli Bell, our hero, has a life that is sketchy with the colour turned full on. He lives with his silent brother August in a house that was home made, room by room, with an depressive mother and a heroin dealing stepfather; his absent biological father is an alcoholic; his only friend is an elderly convicted murderer; and he aspires to work for Bich Dang and her drug cartel.
  4. There Was Still Love is a fantastic novel about a Czech family broken apart by the Second World War and the subsequent division of Europe by the Iron Curtain. Mostly set in 1980, the novel revolves around two sisters: Mana who lives in Melbourne and Eva who lives in Prague. Mana and her family are able to save up to visit Prague every three or four years, but these visits are frustratingly short and far enough apart that Mana cannot really be part of her sister's world. And Eva has an opportunity to travel to Melbourne with her theatre company, but if she doesn't return her family
  5. The Dry is set somewhere in South East Australia during a long, hot summer. The exact location is never specified, but I took it to be somewhere in the South Australia/Victoria borderlands. The basic plot is that Aaron Falk, a detective with the Australian Federal Police, has shown up in his home town of Kiewarra to attend the funeral of his childhood friend Luke Hadler. Luke, it seems shot his wife and son before fleeing the scene and turning the gun on himself. Aaron had expected to go back home to Melbourne the next day but he receives a note from Luke’s father that holds his attention.
  6. The Bridge is a heartbreaking novel about tragedy and survival; about guilt and forgiveness. The opening chapter depicts the construction disaster in 1970 when a slab of Melbourne's Westgate Bridge collapsed, killing 35 workers and injuring 18 others. Antonello, an Italian migrant from Footscray was a survivor. Many of his friends, new Australians mostly, were not so lucky. We see the families that were destroyed; the hopes that were dashed. As Antonello attends a succession of funerals over a few days, they blur into one. But some of the dead, now just names on a plaque, were rea
  7. Scrublands is first rate crime fiction set out in the scrublands north of the Murray river on the NSW/Victoria border. Martin Scarsden is a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, sent out to Riversend to cover the first anniversary of a mass shooting (pun intended) where the priest had shot five parishioners on a Sunday before being shot himself by the local policeman. Scarsden finds a town with a dwindling population, the pub/hotel shut six months ago, the motel barely surviving and the only coffee in town is served at the second hand book shop. Dust and tumbleweed blow through the to
  8. I've never read Tim Winton before and didn't quite know what to expect. I'd heard he was a literary surfer (yes, literally, a surfer), and did great description, but also that his material was not particularly plot driven. Perhaps a Western Australian John Banville. And The Shepherd's Hut was a pretty astonishing surprise. Yes, there's plenty of description, but no surf. Jaxie Clackton is a teenage boy on the run from the authorities, somewhere in mid WA. His brutal father is dead and Jaxie is worried that he'll cop the blame, so he heads out into the bush with a vague plan of mee
  9. Some Tests is a pretty weird book that defies definition. Beth Own is a 37 year old mother, wife and aged-care worker who feels a little under the weather. So her husband persuades her to see the doctor. Beth’s regular doctor is not there, and the locum doctor decides to send Beth off for some tests just to conform that there’s nothing wrong. But Dr Yi decides to refer Beth off for more tests, which in turn lead to more tests. Initially this is a fairly conventional journey around Melbourne’s northern suburbs. Box Hill, to Heidelberg, via Greensborough to Epping… The medical mystery tour
  10. One of the paradoxes in Australia is that this nation of migrants has developed such strong anti-immigration sentiment. This is exploited by politicians - especially, but not exclusively, by those from the far-right Liberal Party - who will simply mention immigration and expect their followers to bay for blood. No More Boats shows us a hard working Italian-Australian, Antonio, who has retired from the building game after an accident claimed his mobility an the life of his Greek friend Nico. Both had come to Australia on boats, part of the post-war wave of migration from southern E
  11. From The Wreck is the story of a 19th century shipwreck and a shape-shifting alien. Normally I like 19th century shipwreck books, but I can't recall enjoying terribly many books about shape shifting aliens. I have never come across them in between the same covers and, in truth, I don't think I ever will again. And I have very little idea how to review it. The premise in From The Wreck is that a ship, the Admella, goes down off the coast of South Australia. George Hills and a handful of other survivors cling to the wreckage for days, starved of food and water, waiting
  12. It’s a little known fact that during the Communist era, a small cohort of western migrants lived in the USSR. Not all were former spies; some were trade unionists and socialist activists who believed in the project and felt alienated in their homelands. And, of course, their families… What the Light Reveals tells the story of one such family. It is the 1950s. Conrad Murphy is an Australian socialist whose name features in a Soviet document that was passed to ASIO by a Soviet double agent. He is then summoned to give evidence to the Inquiry into Soviet Espionage, at which point his life in A
  13. If First Person were a first novel, the rejection letters would say the publishers did not know how to position the text. Because this is part novel, part memoir. Part psychological thriller, part dissection of the writing and publishing industry. For the most part, it is a highly readable and intriguing work. Basically, the story is that in 1992 an aspiring (and unpublished) Tasmanian writer, Kif Kehlmann, is offered a contract to ghost write an autobiography of a fraudster, Ziggy Heidl, who is going to jail in six weeks. The lure is a $10,000 contract – enough to persuade Kif away from hi
  14. NB: Although this volume was published in 2017, the stories contained in it were first published in the 20th Century in different collections. Hence the categorisation of this topic in BGO. Stories is the short companion volume to the much longer True Stories, the compendium of Helen Garner's short non-fiction work.Unsurprisingly, then, Stories are the short fiction. Except that Helen Garner's work is notoriously hard to categorise. These are not really stories, they are essays written from the point of view of someone who just happens not to exist. The quality is apparent in that
  15. The Restorer is a fantastic story of a family living under psychological terror. Roy and Maryanne have relocated to Newcastle, an unfashionable coastal town in New South Wales, from the bright lights of Sydney. Roy has bought a derelict old cottage near the seafront that was last occupied by druggy squatters who burnt through the floor of the main room into the creepy basement. Their children, Freya - an awkward teenager - and Daniel - still in primary school - are terrified of what might lurk in the dark depths...Although the move was claimed to be for Roy's work, it seems that they are runni
  16. Caspar Gray, secondary school teacher, lives in a bland suburb of Sydney, happily married to Jane but kids haven't happened. Caspar and Jane are approaching their seventh wedding anniversary, about to add the seventh annual photo to mark the occasion.But Caspar knocks Jane's handbag over and a condom falls out. Since Caspar and Jane are trying for a baby, this is a bit of a surprise. So over the period of a week, Caspar goes from denial, to paranoia, to free fall. Watched by his students, his colleagues, his neighbours and his dog Wallace, his life unravels.At first, the writing feels a little
  17. Strathdee – a truck stop half way between Sydney and Melbourne – population 3,000. Bella, a young care worker at the local residential care facility, has disappeared and turned up brutally murdered in a nearby field. The police have no leads. Bella’s sister Chris is struggling with her grief. May Norman, a relatively new crime reporter for an online newspaper has been sent to Strathdee to report on events as they unfold. So An Isolated Incident sets out like a thousand other police procedurals: two different POV narratives (Chris and May) plus news clippings of May’s articles. All neatly arran
  18. Melbourne’s rooming houses are a step up from homelessness, but sometimes only just. Big and Little have seen the worst of them: violence, drugs, theft, danger. But their current rooming house in North Melbourne has a better vibe; some of the residents are a bit odd; there’s one who sits in silence in the common room; another who has set himself up as the gatekeeper. And there’s Big, a large transvestite on the cusp of reaching senior years; and his companion Little, a small, mousey woman with lupus. Little has been waiting to inherit her mother’s house in Adelaide for a long time and has drea
  19. Inga Simpson is not an Aboriginal writer, but Where The Trees Went is a novel that engages very much with Aboriginal culture and heritage. This is a risky path to follow; it is easy to draw accusations of cultural appropriation or insensitivity. But it is important that some white Australian writers are willing to take this risk. It is important that white Australian readers be exposed not just to authentic Aboriginal voices telling stories of their own culture, but also get to hear perspectives on how Australians of European or other non-indigenous heritage should relate to the Traditional Ow
  20. Their Brilliant Careers is a work of absolute genius. Right from the author’s previous publications, through the dedication, contents age, text, acknowledgements and index it never lets up. This is a pastiche of a serious study of influential Australian writers. Ryan O’Neill has creates a seamless world where these fictional writers rub shoulders with one another and with real writers and historical figures. They interact across biographies; some characters are ever-present: the luckless Sydney Steele is a constant fixture; Vivian Darkbloom’s parties are attended by the great and the good; all
  21. Ava Langdon is a writer, elderly, living in a hut in the forests outside Katoomba in the NSW Blue Mountains. We spend a day in Ava’s company – through morning, elevenses, afternoon, evening and night. We meet her in her hut, living an existence that is not much above camping. Her provisions are low; she has makeshift furniture and makeshift cooking equipment. Is this some kind of post-apocalyptic world? Has Ava, alone, managed to carry on the torch of humanity? The answer is no. It is 1974 and Ava seems merely to be eccentric. She is the weird old lady our parents used to warn us about. Today,
  22. Hold is a spooky little book. Shelley Muir is putting her life back together after the tragic drowning of her partner Conrad. Shelley has moved away from the coast and is now living with David, an older academic, and his 15 year old daughter. Shelley has a contract to write textbooks, giving her freedom to work from home, popping out to cafes and antique shops as she pleases.But despite appearances, Shelley is not happy. David’s minimalist furnishing has obliterated Shelley completely, she is never going to feel maternal towards Julia and her only friend Tess is a restaurant reviewer providing
  23. Ghost River is a story of one summer in the life of a young boy, Ren, growing up in Melbourne’s inner-East in the 1960s. The catalyst for the story is the arrival next door of another young boy, Sonny, with whom Ren strikes up a friendship. Over the course of the summer, the boys fall in love with the river. It offers recreation (swimming, diving, bird-watching); it offers mystery in the form of an itinerant group of alcoholics with their bohemian lifestyle and story-telling; and it offers beauty in the form of waterfalls, cliffs, bridges and abandoned buildings. It also offers a taste of
  24. Barking Dogs is a rather superior collection of short stories set in what I had thought to be a remote (fictional) town of Mt Barker, South Australia - but it turns out to be a real and growing town only 30 or so kilometres from Adelaide. For those who don't know, South Australia is age serial killer capital of Australia and Mt Barker has its own chapter in this canon with the disappearance and presumed murder of a schoolgirl. These stories intersect. Characters from one story will star in another; incidents central to one story will be referred to in another. It's about small town life wh
  25. Between a Wolf and a Dog is getting many plaudits and prizes. I can see that it is a good quality example of a family drama, but basically I struggle to find family dramas interesting. In this Sydney-based novel, we have Hilary, a matriarch, terminally ill with a brain tumour. Her two daughters April and Ester have a feud dating back three years, and Lawrence, Ester's ex, is having some work related problems. We explore how the characters got there, and over the course of a day, get some thoughts about how they might move forward if they can only find the courage. Of the various character
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