What I did in 2016


Well, here we are! The year is drawing to a close. Thank goodness! There has been a lot of sad news, hasn’t there? I couldn’t believe it when my man and I walked in the door this morning after our morning walk and the girl told us that George Michael had died. I went to see them in concert with two of my school friends when they came to Melbourne. So ace! We sang, we danced, we screamed! And Fast Love was playing on the radio when my man and I were driving to hospital when I went into labour with my boy. Vale, George. Thank you for your music and your gorgeous looks.

But whilst many big things have been going on in the world this year, it is the small things that make up our days that build a picture of our own life. These are a selection of the happenings that have made my 2016.

  1. Renewed my fondness for a G&T
  2. Watched my girl in her last school musical
  3. Achieved my Goodreads reading challenge goal
  4. Read a lot about US politics
  5. Supervised hours of driving practice with my girl
  6. Scored my first night time babysitting gig!
  7. Used a sewing machine for the first time in years
  8. Ate eggs for lunch A LOT! New year’s resolution – expand the lunch menu repertoire!
  9. Applauded the writing in season 4 of Please Like Me. I don’t have anyone like the characters in the show in my circle and yet they are all so relatable and authentic to me. And how good is Debra Lawrence?
  10. Made my last school lunch
  11. Enjoyed weekend coffee with my man and stealing bites of his lemon crepe!
  12. Despaired about Brexit, the US election result, and the general disregard for expert knowledge
  13. Helped out at a crafty day for refugee women
  14. Knitted a monkey for Softies for Mirabel
  15. Knitted scarves and cowls for a wintry holiday
  16. Started the year enthusiastically but ran out of puff towards the end
  17. Pulled lots of weeds out of my garden
  18. Had lovely real life catch ups with online buddies
  19. had a facial
  20. Looked forward optimistically to 2017!

I hope your year has formed happy memories for you. Maybe you have reacquainted yourself with some old pleasures? Maybe you have had some new adventures? Perhaps you have waved goodbye to a stage of life? I look forward to us sharing our 2017 experiences with each other!




Have you read…? The Course of Love by Alain de Botton


The Course of Love by Alain de Botton follows the lives of Kirsten and Rabih Khan. We journey with them from the time of their meeting as work associates, through their courtship, early years of marriage and then as the parents of babes who grow into teens. It explores the way we communicate in a marriage, how this can enhance – or harm – our relationship. It is about the changing nature of the relationship between spouses throughout the course of their marriage. It is about love – how it shapes us and what it demands of us. De Botton intersperses the narrative of Kirsten and Rabih’s lives with philosophical insights which at times explain their behaviour towards each other; at other times, they provide insight into how they could improve their communication. As I was reading the novel, I was constantly asking myself if it was a dissection of a marriage, an instruction manual, an explanation. In then end, it doesn’t matter what it is; what matters is that it is, at least for those of us who are married – or in a long term relationship – a thoroughly relatable, and salutary, story.

De Botton writes with the candour that has made him so successful at bringing philosophy to the wider population. He makes us think about what is happening in our relationship, in effect using Kirsten and Rabih as a case study. What is it that causes the little niggles between us? What is the best response to coping with any barbs that may spring from our partner’s mouth? Is it true that we should be honest with each other at all times? Is keeping secrets consistent with love? Is our perception of what makes a ‘happy marriage’ out of step with how marriage plays out in real life? This is articulately explained, towards the end of the novel, when he writes

By the standards of most love stories, our own, real relationships are almost all damaged and unsatisfactory…we should be careful not to judge our relationships by the expectations imposed on us by a frequently misleading aesthetic medium. The fault lies with art, not life…we may need to tell ourselves more accurate stories – stories that don’t dwell so much on the beginning, that don’t promise us complete understanding, that strive to normalise our troubles and show us a melancholy yet hopeful path through the course of love.

The novel, and de Botton’s insights, provide a realistic portrayal of marriage. There are times of joy, drudgery, uncertainty of feelings but the marriage endures. I found it to be a novel of encouragement and hope – that if we accept ourselves and our partner as flawed, and that our relationship is not always going to be perfect, that we can make our marriage endure. A highly recommended read.


Have you read…? Any of these!


Oh dear! I do have some catch up to do! It is a LONG time since a book review popped up here but I promise you, I HAVE been reading! Just haven’t got to WRITING about what I’ve been reading. So. Here we go. A quick run down of what’s been sitting next to my bed and beside my couch!

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

For any non-Australian readers, Magda Szubanksi is one of our most beloved comic actors and has been a fairly constant presence on our TV screens since the late 1980s. Maybe think of Dawn French or Melissa McCarthy. Her autobiography, Reckoning, is a beautifully written, fascinating, illuminating, touching insight into her life and the life of her family.  Born in Liverpool to a Scottish mother and Polish father, her story of her identity spans the globe and reaches back into history as she tells of her father’s life as an assassin with the Polish resistance during World War 2. As I was reading, I couldn’t stop thinking about how difficult it must be to fit together the picture of the father who is now part of suburban Melbourne with the Polish youth living half a world away, in another time, killing Germans in cold blood. As she says in the first line of the book

If you had met my father you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.

Alongside this aspect of her life, she also details the struggle she went through in being able to be open about her sexuality (she was very young when she realised she was gay); how it affected her sense of where she belonged and how it led to battles with food, weight and depression. And, of course, she details her life in theatre, television and film. A wonderful book about an incredibly complex life.

The Paper House by Anna Spargo-Ryan

My heart fell out on a spring morning – the kind that rose coolly in the east and set brightly in the west.

How can you not be captured by this opening line? And such lyrical writing continues throughout the novel. The Paper House tells the story of Heather and Dave as they face the unbearable sadness of a stillbirth, how they each negotiate their grief and the support they receive from Heather’s sister and distant father. For Heather, the loss of her child triggers, understandably, a deterioration in her mental health. As we witness this, we are also introduced, through flashback, to the tragic mental health battles of Heather’s own mother and how this affected their family as Heather was growing up. Spargo-Ryan also introduces us to Heather and Dave’s neighbours, Sylvia, and Ashok. As the three households interact, our eyes are opened to Sylvia’s own grief over the loss of her husband and how she and Ashok fill a hole in each other’s lives.

I loved the writing in this book. It was truly beautiful. My only niggle came from the nature of the mental health conditions suffered by Heather and her mother. I think this is more my own fault rather than Spargo-Ryan’s. Before I started reading, my preconception about the nature of Heather’s mental health battle was that it would be in the nature of depression and/or anxiety which I was interested in seeing explored but, whilst Spargo-Ryan deliberately chose not to name the condition, it seemed to be more a type of psychsosis. Heather’s mother’s condition, by contrast, appeared to me to be bipolar in nature. Related, yes, in that they are both mental illnesses but I think I would have preferred it if they had been the same; a genetic link. I’m trying to let go of this little niggle, because it is such a beautifully written book, but it’s still there, just below the surface!

The Strays by Emily Bitto

The Strays won the Stella Prize in 2015 for first time novelist Emily Bitto. Set in Melbourne in the 1930s, it is narrated by the adult Lily and is a recollection of the time she spent living with famed artist, Evan Trentham, his wife, Helena, their daughters and the various others artists (‘the strays’) who came to live with them. As a young girl on her first day at a new school Lily becomes friends with middle daughter, Eva. After school plays become sleepovers, weekends and then, when Lily’s father suffers a workplace injury, she lives, for a time, with the Trenthams permanently. Lily adores the free spirit of the home which is in sharp contrast to her own conservative home life. The dark side to the free spirit is an undeniable amount of self absorption by the Trentham parents and the artists. There is the desire for fame, acknowledgement, satiation of lust, and along the way, it is Eva and her sisters, and Lily, who get caught up and spat out by the behaviours of the adults in their lives.

This is yet another excellent novel by a female Australian writer. I have read so many recently! The characters and the setting are well realised, and Bitto has clearly been inspired by the lives of Sunday and John Reed in creating the Trenthams. We observe that whilst, in their art making, the artists may be great observers of their physical world, their own feelings and desires, in life, they do not observe the feelings of others or the damage that their actions are creating.

The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna

Another prize winner. This time, The Miles Franklin Award for 2015. Wow! I adored this book but I’m hesitant to say too much because I don’t want to give away spoilers. The story revolves around a young boy, Jimmy Flick. Jimmy’s condition is not named but I think it is reasonable to assume that he is autistic. He is obsessed with machinery and how things work and this is the way he attempts to make sense of the way people are behaving, including himself. Jimmy lives with his mum and dad and older brother, Robby.  Jimmy’s mum is the only person who is able to cope with his behaviour. His father finds it an enormous strain, and when combined with the work pressures and a fondness for drink, the home environment, despite the affection Jimmy’ parents have for one another, becomes a dangerous one. When tragedy comes to the home, Jimmy needs to learn how to navigate the world on his own.

The writing of Jimmy’s voice is stunning. I loved him and he tugged at all my maternal heartstrings. I loved his politeness and enthusiasm

Yes, Mr Ashworth. Yes, yes, I will. It’s ham, Mr Ashworth. It’s ham and pickle.

and his observations of his behaviour and others

I did what he said. I sucked oxygen through my mouth and down into my air passage until every cell got a portion. Oxygen was the glue, binding me together.

Like gravy and chips, my Dad had magnetic powers.  Mum had no defences for him.  He got in underneath. He was like a slice; she couldn’t give him up.

Really, I could pretty much quote the whole book! A highly recommended read.


Have you read…? Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson


Last year, I sat in my car in the supermarket car park listening to a radio interview with Bryan Stevenson, who was in Australia to speak at the Perth Writers Festival. His story of his work as a civil rights lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) was distressing, infuriating and inspiring. His excellent book, Just Mercy, fleshes out the stories he touched on the interview but also serves to illuminate a raft of issues in the American criminal justice and social welfare systems.

As a young law student in 1983, Stevenson undertook an internship with the Southern Prisoners Defence Committee (SPDC) in Atlanta. As executions began to take place again in the Deep South after years of delay, the SPDC worked to provide proper legal representation to condemned prisoners who had been convicted without proper or no legal representation. A visit to a prisoner on death row brought home to Stevenson the grave injustices of the legal system towards indigent and coloured prisoners. As he explains

Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.

In the late 1980s, he established the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to assist prisoners facing execution and, over time, this has expanded to tackling issues of mass incarceration, juvenile imprisonment, programs to assist those re-entering society after imprisonment, and the provision of policy advice on issues related to race, poverty and crime.

He explores a number of cases he has been involved in, with that of Walter McMillian being the thread that runs through the book. Walter, an African American, was wrongly convicted of the murder of a white woman and sentenced to death. For me, this case exposed enormous issues with the criminal justice system: racial bias, the ability of judges to overturn sentences imposed by a jury, the dangers of having elected judges/sheriffs/district attorneys, the corrupting effect of deals with witnesses, and the sheer incompetence and bias of some of those working in the legal profession. The appalling result in this case was even worse than the apparent injustice in Making a Murderer. Spoiler alert – after six years on death row, and thanks to the tireless work of Stevenson and his team, Walter was exonerated. Whilst this was great cause for celebration, the sobering thought, as Stevenson points out, is that Walter’s case only came to his attention because he was on death row. If the judge had not overturned the jury’s sentence of 30 years and imposed the death penalty, Walter would have spent his life in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Stevenson exposes the treatment of juveniles in the justice system. How is it that children as young as 13 can be sentenced to life imprisonment? How can children be imprisoned in adult prisons with all the risks that that entails? For Ian Manuel, a 13 year old when convicted, this meant spending 18 years in solitary confinement as this was the only way to keep him safe from other prisoners. The work of the EJI has seen the courts, over time, prohibit life in prison sentences for children.

Harsh sentencing laws for drug and minor offences has seen an explosion in the prison population with the consequence that the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country in the world. This has created massive overcrowding in prisons but also has led to social disadvantage becoming entrenched. Parents are removed from their children, those convicted of drug offences are not entitled to welfare or public housing, felons are disenfranchised. How are people able to rise above social disadvantage when society is not assisting them in any way?

As an outsider to the US, I have read about police shootings of black men, the college riots and the Black Lives Matter Movement. I understood that racism remains an issue in the country. Reading this book showed just how entrenched this racism  – hatred – is in some parts of the country and the devastating consequences this has for many African Americans. It made me think about how the proliferation of guns in the US has enabled so many people to become murderers where, without such access, they may have committed less serious crimes, or no crime at all. It made me appreciate the social welfare, health and justice systems we have in Australia (although there have been some devastating failures in our parole system) but it also made me think about how these systems are treating, or not treating, our indigenous people. It is a book that made me want to learn.

I am in awe of the work carried out by Bryan Stevenson and his team of lawyers. In the absence of societal support, it is essential to have people prepared to fight for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised; to provide them with a voice and to give them the opportunity to live life to their fullest potential. A highly recommended read for those interested in social justice and social policy.


If you are interested in issues of race and/or the failings of the US justice system, you may like to have a listen to the first part of My Damn Mind and Anatomy of Doubt. Indigenous incarceration and disadvantage is explored in this excellent article by Sarah Gill

Have you read…?All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr



All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2015. The book is an epic. It spans an 80 year period but the vast majority of the story takes place during World War 2. It follows the lives of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, an orphaned German boy with a talent for radio engineering and mathematics. When the Nazis occupy Paris, Marie-Laure and her father, the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History, flee Paris and take refuge with Marie-Laure’s great uncle, Etienne, in St Malo. Marie-Laure’s father is a skilled craftsman and constructs models of the neighbourhoods where she lives so that she may learn to navigate the outside world alone.  Werner’s skills see him recruited by the Nazis to detect and monitor the activities of partisans.  The story is told in story parallel – Marie-Laure’s life alongside Werner’s and, obvious from the outset, is that Marie-Laure and Werner’s lives are going to intersect, and that some event will occur that will rip Marie-Laure’s father away from her.  A further dimension to the story is that Marie-Laure’s father has been entrusted by the Museum with the supposedly cursed diamond, the Sea of Flames. This is being sought by the cancer stricken Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel, who is charged with collecting art and valuables for the Nazi regime.

I had this book on my ‘to read’ list so was very happy to borrow it from Isabel when she offered it to me. My mum was reading, and raving, about it, as were the other members of her book club. Isabel said it was ‘okay’ but not her favourite. Which way would I fall? I’m siding with Isabel. I didn’t not enjoy the book, but I didn’t find it a stellar read. It was quite nicely written, but I found the structure fragmented the story, and there was an imbalance in the strength of the multiple storylines running throughout the novel.

Whilst I do not have an objection to parallel storylines, the constant alternating between these two characters hindered my ability to immerse myself in either character’s story. The chapters are very short – one to five pages – so there is very little opportunity to become absorbed by one character’s story before we are shifted to the other character. For me, the Marie-Laure storyline had much greater potential to be engaging than Werner’s. I liked seeing the way her father, and then her uncle, built a world for her that she could touch, feel and imagine. Werner’s storyline I found quite bland. I feel that perhaps Werner’s storyline was to enlighten the reader about military life during the war, in contrast to Marie-Laure’s individual, daily life experiences with the war as a backdrop. Maybe I have read too many war novels and seen too many films and documentaries (I live with some serious war history students) but there was nothing in Werner’s story that I found to be particularly enlightening or engaging. The von Rumpel storyline brought in another aspect of the Nazi regime and its desire to amass a collection of art and artefacts but the characterisation of the infirm von Rumpel was, for me, a little too broadly drawn so that he became a slavering, grotesque monster that was bordering on caricature. One positive aspect to the brevity of the chapters was that it did keep me reading! I found myself thinking ‘okay, one page of Werner (or von Rumpel) then I can get back to Marie-Laure’.

In addition, the book is not linear in its time frame. We start out at day one of the siege of St Malo in 1944, then go back to 1934, forward to day two of the siege, back to 1940, forward to day three, and so it goes on. As with the parallel storylines, I don’t have a problem with non-linear structure in itself but I found in the context of this novel, it continued to further fragment the story and drag out the time it took to reach the real action I was waiting for – how would Marie-Laure and Werner meet? What would be the nature of their relationship upon this meeting?

So… would I recommend this novel? It didn’t engage me but loads of people have loved it so perhaps you should give it a go so you can make up your own mind. Yes, at 530 pages it is long, but it is not a difficult read. I’d love to know what you think if you do read it. Or perhaps you already have? Am I being too harsh? It does always feel a little awkward being critical of a prize-winning novel!



Have you read…? Hope Farm by Peggy Frew


Stella-nominated Hope Farm is the second novel by Peggy Frew. Narrated, for the most part by the mature aged Silver, it is a reflection upon the time she lived with her mother, Ishtar, in a commune, the eponymous Hope Farm, in country Victoria. At various points throughout the novel, we also hear Ishtar’s story in her own words.

In the early 1970s, Ishtar (her adopted name) falls pregnant to her predatory, married neighbour. Her deeply conservative and religious mother sends her away for her confinement to a home for unmarried mothers with the intention that the baby will be given up for adoption. Ishtar desperately wants to keep her child and one day, when she is out walking in the gardens near the home, she encounters a group of people from an ashram. Drawn in by their colour and compassion, she seeks their assistance to shelter her and her baby upon its birth. Thus begins her life, and Silver’s, of moving from ashram to commune as her relationships wax and wain. As Silver describes it

Men were usually involved, in both the endings and the beginnings. Boyfriends, lovers, partners – whatever they were in the varied and loose lexicon of the circles in which she moved…I have no memory of any actual break-ups…She simply withdrew and allowed things to collapse.

When Ishtar meets the charismatic, but unhinged, Miller, Silver is uprooted again as she and Ishtar depart their native Queensland to live with him on the commune at Hope Farm. Silver grows resentful of Miller and the way in which he occupies Ishtar’s life – they have been mother-daughter at one moment, about to embark on world adventures, but then, at the next, Silver is left in the wake of Ishtar’s new love interest. In this home life of fluctuating emotions and affections, Silver’s resentment towards Ishtar also grows. As Silver describes it, at one point:

Why didn’t we just leave, Ishtar and me? Why did she always treat me like this, never protecting me from anything and then when I tried to enter her world, to ask about things like I just had, slamming down a shutter?

Against the backdrop of this triangular relationship, it is at Hope Farm that Silver encounters characters who live on the fringes of society: those who want to drop out from the world or those who feel they need to prove something to themselves or others in adopting a self-sufficient lifestyle. She meets her sensitive, creative, gay friend, Ian, who must contend with constant bullying from schoolmates. And all the while, she is contending with her own maturing, her need for friendship and love and stability, her need for a parent’s guidance, as she navigates adolescence. She develops her first crush on the kind and considerate Dan, who provides her with some of the affection she craves, only to come to understand that he is romantically drawn to her mother.

This is a book that has lingered with me. It has made me think about what it is to be an outsider, either due to rejection or not being comfortable with societal expectations or norms. It has made me think about the sometimes brittle nature of parental bonds and the damage that a parent’s rejection can do to a child. It has made me think about the frustration of not being able to understand a person’s behaviour and how the shutting down of communication deadens relationships. Hope Farm is a beautifully written novel. Highly recommended.

Have you read Hope Farm? Or Peggy Frew’s debut novel House of Sticks? What did you think?


Have you read…? Mothers Grimm by Danielle Wood


This one was a goody! Danielle Wood’s Mothers Grimm is an inventively clever take on four fairytales by the Brothers Grimm: Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty and The Goose Girl. Do not pick up the book and expect a retelling of the tales.  Instead, each story echoes the premise of the original tale. They challenge our perception of what it is to be a ‘bad mother’. Could it ever be understandable that you would give up your child for leafy greens, leave them in the woods, shut her away, attempt to mould her life? They are an exploration of the real life world of modern mothering -expectations versus reality, financial pressures, adolescent rebellion.

I am hesitant to say anything further because I wouldn’t wish to spoil how each story unfolds. After reading them, you may reconsider the old fairytales and wonder who were the ‘good mothers’ and were the ‘bad mothers’ really so evil?  And where do we fit on the ‘good mother/bad mother spectrum’?

Have your read this book? Did you enjoy it too?