Archive for the ‘book reviews’ Category


Time’s Long Ruin
by Stephen Orr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How can you make a story “gripping” when the outcome is well known? Somehow Stephen Orr manages to achieve this. Many Australians, especially Adelaideans, know about the Beaumont children. This book is loosely based on their story, with some significant changes, the most obvious being names and exact locations. Nevertheless, the incident on which the story is based is unmistakable to most Australians over the age of 40.

Orr recasts the story, from the point of view of the next door neighbour and best friend of the children, who is now adult, looking back on his childhood. The boy’s father also happens to be a police detective, which allows Orr to provide a full picture of the police investigation.

The book beautifully re-creates a suburban community in the 1960s. This is its strength really, and you learn as much about life in that small part of Adelaide as you do about the children themselves.

There are parallel threads running through the book: the family lives of the boy, of his neighbours, of the railway crossing operator, of the local chiropractor. Orr paints their lives with great warmth and insight.

It’s a very good book indeed: both as a gripping page turner, but also as a historical perspective on what may have been a turning point in Australian society – the point at which trust and community began to disappear.

My only criticism is that perhaps the book is a bit long. Then again, I was never tempted to skip over sections.

Highly recommended

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Not the Same Sky

Not the Same Sky by Evelyn Conlon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third Wakefield Press book I’ve read within the last month. The first two ‘flowed’ – there was something about the writing style that made me want to carry on reading, something about the stories that drew me in. I did not quite have the same experience with “Not the Same Sky”. Although the story eventually captivated me, it felt somewhat disjointed.

This is maybe partly due to Conlon’s writing style and perhaps because the plot is unnecessarily layered. For me the story is about the girls who were shipped from Ireland to Australia. I wanted to know more about them, to go into their characters more deeply. Just as I thought this was happening, Conlon veered off into the life of the ship’s surgeon who cared for them on their trip. Whilst he is an interesting character, I felt deprived of information about the girls. And then wrapped around these stories is a thinner story about the current day Irish stonemason who travels to Sydney to consider a memorial for the girls. This seemed superfluous to me.

It’s an epic tale, and almost succeeds, but left me dissatisfied and feeling that the books was more of an effort than it could have been; that the story was not given full justice.

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Underground RoadUnderground Road by Sharon Kernot
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an impressive first novel. The characters are well drawn. There is a mood of impending doom from early on, and Kernot builds tension right through the book. It is a gripping read, but also takes time to incorporate significant social commentary, without being ‘preachy’. The lives of the inhabitants of one street are intertwined, each facing different challenges: bullying, domestic violence, gambling, mental illness, adjustment to retirement. The characters are engaging and the reader is drawn into their world from page one.

Whilst it is set in contemporary Australia and has specific Australian references (Centrelink, Commodores, ‘pokies’ etc.), it might almost be any western country where people face similar challenges.

Highly recommended.

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The ClearingThe Clearing by Tim Gautreaux

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quite a gripping read. A mix of almost ‘wild west’ (though set in the deep south), environmental and anti-war novel. An original take on early 20th century America, seeing it from the point of view of two brothers whose business it is to despoil the cypress forests of Louisiana – awareness of the destruction they are inflicting is only on the edge of their consciousness. The setting is a lawless isolated logging town. One brother is crippled by what we now know as PTSD, from his war experiences. The other is trying to come out from the shadow of his older brother, and from the control of his father.

There a few clichés here – the younger brother being saved from drowning under ice by his older brother; the violent climax which could be from almost any western film.

But Gautreux writes well, and the story is absorbing.

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BAP 2011

Poems are Dreams – Or Not?

He says that poems are dreams

manifest on paper

that poems are from

your deep subconscious

they float up to the surface

of your brain then flit down

the neural pathways

into your fingertips and onto

the tip of your pen.

But what if he’s wrong?

what if they are an expression

of frustration with everyday life?

what if they are anger

at the foolishness of politicians?

what if they are observations

of simple events?

what if they are cracks in the edifice

through which we shine a torch?

what if they are a reaction

to life’s tragedies and triumphs?

what if they are rampant emotions?

what if they are jokes

played on or with the reader?

what if they are all of these

and only some are dreams ?

 © Mike Hopkins 2011

I was given a copy of The Best Australian Poems 2011 (editor John Tranter), as a departing gift from some very nice work colleagues on finishing my contract with Country Health SA last week.  Today, I cycled up to Brownhill Creek, sat under a river redgum with a thermos of rooibos, and started to read it.

I read about a quarter of it, and then dipped into other parts of the book at random.  I was almost immediately hit by the impenetrability of many of the poems (not all of them e.g Jude Aquilina and Melinda Smith are two exceptions  in what I’ve read so far). So then I did what I don’t usually do.  I read the editor’s introduction.  In it, John Tranter proposes that poems can be read as dreams.  He says of his selection of Australian poems:

“I suspect that these baroque and potent imaginings can only have come into existence as fragments of dreams or nightmares”


“enjoy this fragment of dream-work”


“of course if you don’t agree with my line of thinking, you can always ask for a second opinion”.

Well, my opinion, partly expressed above, is that if he has used this filter (i.e. looking for poems which resemble the result of dreams), then he has excluded all sorts of equally valid types of poems. I’ve always found dreams (mine and anyone else’s) difficult to interprete (other than the obvious Freudian interpretations).   Maybe this is why I don’t understand many of the poems in The Best Australian Poems 2011.

Am I the only one who has this difficulty? I’ve had it with previous editions of the book, but I don’t have it, for instance, with Best of American Poetry anthologies. Nor do I have it with most of the poetry I hear around Adelaide.  Are these “dream poets” writing for the general populace, or just for each other?  Am I being harsh, or is it just that I don’t “get it”?  Have Australian poetry anthologies been ‘captured’ by a sub-set of Australian poets who all write in the same style, for the same small audience?

Perhaps Darryl Kerrigan should edit Best Australian Poems 2012?: