See What I Have Done: book review


Reading Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done is like continually pressing down on a blossoming bruise. It is compelling, uncomfortable and somehow irresistible. Schmidt skilfully reimagines the true crime tale of Lizzie Borden who was accused of the brutal axe murders of her father and step-mother in 1892 as a work of fiction. While Borden was acquitted of the murders and no-one else was ever convicted, Schmidt does not leave any room for doubt over whodunnit.

Schmidt weighs this murderous tale with decay. The novel is thick with decomposing bodies, putrid fruit, rancid mutton soup, rotten teeth, congealed blood, and stinking breath. The Borden family is a chilling study in violence, rage and seething sexuality. Lizzie and her supporting cast are cut-through with psychological wounds that eventually manifest as a brutal blood-letting. The undercurrents of the story run deep and dark. Schmidt steers them artfully just far enough below the surface. All the while, the clock on the mantel tick ticks in the background menacingly.  

Schmidt’s writing style is distinctive and this is a confident debut novel. Her writing is full of brillant and off-kilter images “her mouth lion-wide”, “his long, bony jaw moved like a grip broiler” and “voices were pin pricks in the ear”. This imagery reinforces the unsettling and claustrophobic mood of the novel. The universe created by Schmidt is defective. Her characters are deranged.

There are obvious parallels to draw between Schmidt’s novel and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights. Both are 19th century true crime tales of women accused of murder and both were much hyped. But unlike Kent’s novel where the reader is invited to have empathy for the central character, there is nothing redeeming about Schmidt’s portrait of Lizzie Borden. 

See What I Have Done has been touted as the next The Girl on The Train and the book carries a cover blurb by Paula Hawkins. I haven’t read Hawkins so I can’t comment whether this comparison is merely clever marketing or something more substantial.

However, two other recent novels which sit comfortably alongside Schmidt’s are the bloody and brutal 19th century exploits in The North Water by Ian McGuire and His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. And for another brilliant study of the mind of a murderer, MJ Hyland’s This is How is a cracker.

Schmidt is now working on her second novel. According to an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, it is about a woman with a decomposing baby in the backseat of her car. It seems the decay that set in during her debut will be with us for some time yet.

Postscript: It would be remiss of me not to also mention that Schmidt is a librarian from Melbourne. Librarians are awesome, and Schmidt clearly is no exception.

The Museum of Modern Love: book review

What is art? It is a question as inexplicable as asking what is life? But in The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose asks both questions. The lens for examining these questions is a fictionalised account of Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, a 75-day performance art piece staged in New York’s MoMA. In the novel we meet a cast of characters intersecting with Abramovic’s performance, all at a cross-roads in their lives. This is a clever, well-executed novel and beautifully written. Rose weaves the intertwined lives and narratives of major and minor characters convincingly, though I did wonder if the novel could have worked better if it had been written from fewer perspectives. I wanted something more from the voice of the ghost, but then this wasn’t meant to be a ghost story. This novel ponders the artistic life and ultimately Rose is making a statement, which is that making art is an act of courage. There is something of a manifesto in this novel. I think Rose is saying that we live one life and she is challenging us to live it singularly, to create art. And she has done that with this novel.

From the Wreck: book review


Genre-bending, ambitious, wild and magical. I loved this novel. In From the Wreck Rawson challenges the boundaries of historical fiction with a shape-shifting alien character. She takes us on a journey from dusty and dry 19th century Adelaide, drags us down into the deepest oceans, flings us out past the stars and into space and then reels us back to earth again. This tale of loneliness, trauma and grief is equal measures tender, dark and playful. This novel is original and deeply human. Rawson is masterful at stretching plausibility just enough, balancing a tricky line of believably that never tips too far over the edge and without ever becoming tricksy. I’m not sure if I would use the label scifi, fantasy or magical realism for the novel. It did remind me a little of Jeanette Winterson in books like The Passion, but then I also thought it was completely unique.

Wimmera: book review


A proof copy of a Mark Brandi’s debut novel, Wimmera, landed on my desk a few ago. What a gorgeous cover. If you like a bit of Australian rural noir, check it out. It’s out in June through Hachette.

Here’s my review from Goodreads:

There seems to be a recent surge of excellent Australian debut novels. Wimmera by Mark Brandi is no exception. This coming of age/murder mystery fusion is set in Stawell, a country town in the Wimmera region of Victoria. The Grampians loom large as a backdrop to the relationship of Ben and Fab. We follow them as they tread their path from young boys yabbying in the local dam, discovering their sexuality and negotiating life at home and school onto an adolescence marked by an experience that will haunt their troubled adulthood. From the outset of the novel we know there is a brutal discovery waiting to unfold but this sits lurking quietly behind the scenes, never dominating the narrative. It is not your typical whodunnit, the story instead centering around the relationship of the boys. I enjoyed the nostalgic thread of pop culture references and the playful vernacular language in Brandi’s novel. This is a ripping yarn, quietly menacing, and neatly resolved. I’m looking forward to Brandi’s next novel. This one will appeal to fans of Jane Harper’s The Dry.

Author in conversation: Kirsty Murray


I spoke to author Kirsty Murray about her award-winning YA novel, India Dark, at M Pavillion on 2 December 2016.

In our conversation, Kirsty shares the scandalous story of Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Company, 29 Australian child performers that worked the Empire circuit from Melbourne to India in 1909, on which her novel India Dark is based. 

We also talk about India, colonialism, writing and Kirsty’s involvement in projects such as Bookwallah

The recording includes a short reading from India dark and Q&A with the audience. 

Listen to our conversation here.

An Isolated Incident: review

Although in style Emily Maguire’s novel, An Isolated Incident might fit into the psychological thriller genre neatly alongside Jane Harper’s The Dry, I think that is a short sell for this complex novel. Maguire’s book grapples with a broad range of social and cultural issues including misogyny, violence against women and the portrayal of women in the media. It is more akin in substance to Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things if I was searching for a contemporary stable mate.

When 25-year-old Bella Michaels is brutally murdered in the truck-stop town of Strathdee, half way between Sydney and Melbourne, she leaves behind her sister, Chris. The novel is party told in the first person from Chris’s perspective. Chris is one of the most compelling and finely drawn characters I have met in a novel for some time. Maguire completely nails her voice. I loved her vernacular and sassy turns of phrase. We discover that Chris is equally tough and scared, independent and needy, street-wise and shielded. Her sister’s death sends her into a spiral of grief as she grasps onto the threads of her life, not knowing who to trust. I was hooked by Chris immediately. I was propelled along on her narrative at the speed of the road trains thundering along the highway into Strathdee.

The balance of the novel is told in the third person from the perspective of May, a journalist from Sydney who arrives in Strathdee to cover Bella’s murder story and to escape her miserable love life. At first I found the shift in perspective from Chris to May jarring, but came to appreciate the relief of stepping off the juggernaut of Chris and her terrifying crash through life. May is a secondary character, and honestly it would be difficult to compete with Chris, who was such a perfectly realised protagonist. May’s character did serve to expand the plot and gave Maguire the opportunity to explore some themes that otherwise would not have had breath in the novel.

What makes this novel captivating and unique is Maguire’s choice not to shine all of the focus on discovering the perpetrator of the crime. This thread runs quietly in the background. However, the main focus is squarely on the aftermath of Bella’s death and how it affects her loved-ones and her community, and how the murder fits into a broader social context. At its core this novel asks questions about how women are treated in their personal relationships and by society. There is anger in these pages.

I read this novel in two sittings and I adored it.

This review is part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017

The Australian Women Writers Challenge encourages participants to read and review books by Australian women. In 2017 the challenge also focuses on classics and diversity. 

This year, I have signed up for the first time. I kicked off my reading year with Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race

Last year I read 13 books by Australian women, all new releases. I didn’t review any. Now I have signed up for the challenge, I plan to read more books by Australian women in 2017, dip into some classics, and write some reviews too.

The challenge, along with the Stella Prize, are fantastic ways to promote Australian Women Writers and their books. Reading more Australian women writers increases books sales and supports authors, bookstores and the local publishing industry.

Your local library also has a strong selection of books by Australian women writers. And here is an insiders tip – if they don’t have the one you want, you can always ask for it to be purchased for their collection.

Happy reading!

The books I loved in 2016 published in other years

I shared my favourite newly released books of 2016 in an earlier post. This year, I also read some crackers published in other years. I had a little excursion into Canadian Literature thanks to a visit to Canadian public libraries and the excellent recommendations of their librarians. I also met a super helpful sales assistant at the John Fleuvog store in Gastown, Vancouver. You have to love a city where you can get good shoes and great CanLit recommendations in one place.

As a result, three of the six books I have chosen are by Canadian authors. Two others are memoir, and one is an Australian crime fiction classic.


A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews

I adored A Complicated Kindness. This CanLit classic came up as a recommendation from everyone I asked in Canadian libraries, as well as being a winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award. It is a coming of age story set in a cloistered Mennonite community in the US. Funny, dark and heart-breaking. Do yourself a favour and read this one.


February, Lisa Moore

Another CanLit recommendation, February, is a story of grief and loss set on the Newfoundland coast in the wake of a catastrophe. Playing with time and switching between the present day and flashbacks, chronology in this novel is less important than the emotional trajectory. It is beautiful and poetic. 


Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese

I asked for some First Nations CanLit recommendations and Indian Horse was suggested by several people. This story of cultural alienation, separation from traditional land, and the reality of life as a First Nations aspiring hockey player is full of sorrow and hope. Beautifully set against the the Canadian wilderness, it draws on myth and magic. A great introduction to First Nations literature.


Wild, Cheryl Strayed

I read Wild while travelling through Canada. Some of my journey took me close to the Pacific Crest Trail where Strayed heals her grief through an onerous and sometimes joyful thousand-mile solo trek. I spotted the mountain tops of the Cascades as I traveled by train through British Columbia. Seeing the landscape while reading the novel made me appreciate the scale of the task she had set herself without any training or support. I enjoyed Strayed’s humour and self-deprecating writing. A great travel read.


Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson is one of my all-time favourite writers. I don’t love all of her books equally. I have my favourite children, so to speak, but this one is an absolute stand-out. This memoir is the auto-biographical version of her novel Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and is the story of her growing up in a strictly religious family with a domineering and clearly mad mother. It is the story of her searching for her biological mother. Most importantly, it is the story of her finding a way to love herself and others. Every sentence in this book is perfect and devastating. The best memoir I have read? Possibly.


The Broken Shore, Peter Temple

2016, the year I finally got around to reading The Broken Shore. I don’t read a lot of crime fiction so I can’t claim much knowledge about the genre beyond a dedicated love of Raymond Chandler, however, I think I can say this would have to be the quintessential Australian crime fiction novel. I loved the men of few words, the Australian landscapes, both rural and urban, and Temple’s writing style. There’s even a scene in the State Library Victoria! I have Jane Harper’s The Dry on my summer reading list so I can expand my adventures into Australian crime writing.

My favourite books of 2016

This year I tried to carve out more time to read. I abandoned television. I limited my time on social media.  I traded movies on long-haul flights for novels. I snuck to my bedroom when the inlaws were visiting to read (okay that isn’t a new strategy). 

In 2016 I also started tracking my reading on Goodreads. I set myself a target of 100 books, which I failed to reach, but I definitely read more this year than the past few years. Hoorah!

These are my top picks for 2016, followed by my favourite 2016 ‘best books’ listicles, and a quick look at my TBR (to be read) pile for summer.


Autumn by Ali Smith

Easily my favourite author at the moment. Autumn is Smith’s post-Brexit novel and the first in her planned quartet of novels, each named for a season of the year. Smith’s writing is electric, and this reads like one long poem. Whenever I finish a Smith novel I immediately want to start re-reading it again. Her books are so richly layered I feel like I have only scratched the surface.


Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look is a collection of essays, observations and diary entries by one of the greatest non-fiction writers. Sharp, honest, precise. When I read Garner I wonder why anyone else even bothers writing. If I could rub a magic lamp and have any wish granted it would be to write like Helen Garner.


The North Water by Ian McGuire

A rollicking, brutal and rancid tale of life on a 19th century whaling ship headed for the Arctic. Murder, violence and extreme weather create the perfect setting for a heady thriller. It’s hard to beat the 1800’s for savagery. I loved being cast into the rank world of The North Water.


My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton was my first dip into reading Strout and now I’m wondering why I haven’t read anything of hers before. This was a quiet book that crept up on me. I read it straight after Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, which may have been an overdose of back-to-back dysfunctional mother-daughter relationships, but I enjoyed this more than Levy. I know that will get me into trouble with everyone who loved Hot Milk, but there, I said it!


The Many by Wyl Menmuir

I would not have discovered this gem of a novel had it not been on the Booker long list. I reserved a bunch of long list titles from my local library and this was one of the first that was available. A beautiful and subtle story set in a parochial English coastal village. The village is haunted and the protagonist who arrives from out of town is haunted. At only 143 pages, The Many can be inhaled in one sitting.


His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

More 19th century murder and mayhem. His Bloody Project was another Booker long list discovery. The narrative is crafted through a set of (fictional) primary source documents including court transcripts and medical reports and presented as if it is a true crime tale. I consumed this book and carried the story around in my head for some time afterwards.


Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers

A woman runs off to Alaska with her two kids in a campervan without telling anyone where she is headed. Not your typical road trip story. I read this while travelling through Canada so the landscape resonated with me. Some reviews have called Heroes of the Frontier a dark comedy, but I don’t think that label is quite right. It is dark, and it is funny, but it is also tender. The small family moving through the vast landscape captured me from the outset. I was cheering them on all the way.


Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy 

Serious Sweet is a day in the life of two anti-heroes negotiating through their lives in London. I have been a fan of A.L. Kennedy since I first read her short stories. Reviewers call her tricksy and her novels do take some work, but I think they pay back the effort. The narrative switches in and out of the characters’ rambling inner voices but once you get into the rhythm you really feel like you are inhabiting the minds of Jon and Meg. Whether you want to be caught there is another question.


The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

The Wonder was a final trip back to the 19th century, which seemed to be familiar territory for me to visit in my reading this year. I wasn’t immediately sold on this novel, but before I knew it, it had carried me away. I won’t give away any spoilers with the story line but I was captivated by this tale of life in a small Irish village where everything isn’t quite what it first seems on the surface.

Those are my picks for 2016, keeping in mind I still have a huge TBR pile of 2016 books to catch up on over summer.

Here are my favourite books I read in 2016 that were not new releases.

If you would like to check out other people’s 2016 favourites, here is my master list of listicles. You can also catch me on Radio National talking about some of these.

And my summer reading plans? Here are the 2016 books currently on my TBR pile. I’m sure I will add to it once I have another look through the listicles over the summer break.

Reflections of a NaNoWriMo newbie

nanowrimo_2016_webbanner_participant

November is NaNoWriMo time. That’s National Novel Writing Month for the uninitiated. The annual event challenges established, emerging and aspiring writers to put down 50,000 words over 30 days. The idea is to have a first draft of a novel completed by the end of the month with a daily target of 1667 words.

Every year I have an excuse not to do NaNoWriMo. This year is no different but I decided to give it a go anyway. Yesterday was day 4 and so far I’m on target (just) with 6,670 words on the page.

So far I have some sketchy, vaguely painted characters, some skeletal scenes, a bit of dialogue and no apparent plot. I have killed off a few characters, including an unborn child and a couple of chickens, and there is a lot of driving around in cars and some impressive weather.

Still, that’s 6,670 more words of fiction than I have written all year. I’m hoping a plot will emerge at some point and that my characters grow and become more complex portraits.

I have fallen down a few rabbit holes by Googling topics as riveting and diverse as: different types of air conditioning systems, Australian race horse names, bushfire warnings, the smell of amniotic fluid, and Elgar’s cello concertos.

So far I have successfully resisted all urges to edit or re-read what I have written.

Knowing there is a cohort of people around the world all doing the challenge at the same time is kind of comforting and I have been dipping in and out of the #NaNoWriMo Twitter conversation for fortification. Though judging from the hashtag, I am one of the few people not writing fanfic, romance, or scifi.

And I’m keeping in mind all of the writing advice I’ve ever been given: you can edit a bad draft but not a blank page, a first draft is always crap, just get the words down on the page, write every day, trust yourself, etc etc. I have paraphrased the advice here because I don’t have time to Google the actual quotes. I need to get back to writing NaNoWriMo!