Book Review: “Fallen: The inside story of the secret trial and conviction of Cardinal George Pell” by Lucie Morris-Marr

I read this book in three days, which, by my standards is very, very fast. That’s because it is a gripping story, even though, like just about everybody in Australia, I knew the outcome.

This is a scorching condemnation of the Catholic Church hierarchy but also of contemporary Australia where vested interests seek to determine who and what is given publicity, which convicted criminals deserve empathy, and when the law should be respected or undermined.

The most striking aspects of the whole saga, captured well by Lucie Morris-Marr, are:

  1. The way that powerful interests worked to initially suppress the news of the accusations against Pell, and then to discredit those involved, and finally and bizarrely to still sing the praises of the convicted paedophile. Pell was known for his right-wing social attitudes on a range of issues. I doubt the likes of Howard and Abbott would have been supportive of a priest such as Father Rod Bower (Gosford Anglican) if he had been convicted of the same offences.
  2. That News Corporation is a vindictive, biased organisation only interested in stories that support its worldview (but you knew that already, didn’t you).
  3. That the Catholic Church has a long, dark history of sexual abuse and of doing everything in its power to hide the abuse, putting its own reputation above the welfare of children.

Morris-Marr starts at almost the end – the day when the jury’s verdicts on the four charges against Cardinal George Pell, are to be announced.

She then goes back three years to the start of her involvement in the story, when she was working as a freelance reporter for News Corporation. She finds out that there is police task force investigating accusations of sexual assault of minors by Pell, and then that Pell is to be charged with the offences. Initially News Corp are delighted to have such a scoop, and splash it on the front page of the Courier-Mail. However, things quickly turn sour when Pell’s powerful connections, including Andrew Bolt, move to have the story squashed. Morris-Marr finds herself without a job and, by the sound of it, having a nervous breakdown.

However, she finds support from CNN and The New Daily, and is back on the trail of Pell. Despite a suppression order preventing publicity of the trials, she doggedly attends every day of the initial trial, which ended without a verdict, and the retrial. She takes us through Pell’s life from young sporting hero, to seminarian, to his meteoric rise to become the third most powerful person in the Catholic Church. At one stage he was even spoken of as a possible Pope.

Her account of his time in Ballarat, where he shared a residence with notorious paedophile Gerard Ridsdale is most revealing. It seems inconceivable that Pell was unaware of the horrendous activities going on in the same building where he lived. One victim says that while she was being raped by Ridsdale, a man, most likely Pell, walked past the open doorway and did nothing to intervene. There are also accounts of Pell fondling boys at the swimming pool, and of being warned off by a man who witnessed him standing naked in front of small boys.

She also recounts his handling of historical clerical sexual abuse for the Church, establishing the so-called Melbourne Response. Many victims of abuse were deeply dissatisfied with, even traumatised, by the way in which they were treated by the Church under Pell’s management.

But Pell was not on trial for turning a blind eye to abuse, nor for his alleged involvement with boys at a swimming pool. He was on trial for assaulting two choir boys in the priests’ sacristy at Melbourne Cathedral. One of the boys committed suicide as an adult, before the assault came to trial. It is the evidence of the second boy, whose name has been closely guarded, which formed the main case against Pell. This evidence was presented only to the jury and no transcripts were released. There is thus an unavoidable gap in the story.

The picture of Pell presented here is of an ambitious, determined, conservative man with very powerful friends. The book also presents a picture of a legal system within which the wheels of justice grind slowly but relentlessly towards a resolution.

Pedant alert. The book was rushed out in the wake of the guilty verdict. Inevitably there are typos and other grammatical errors (in my ebook edition at least) which hopefully will be fixed in later editions . e.g. “Tony Abbot”, “in other incidences”, “juggling an eggshell”, “the cardinal just put his dead down”, the quotation from Howard’s letter not put in quotation marks.


Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Book Review: “No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison” by Behrouz Boochani

No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus PrisonNo Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amongst the many shocking and astonishing things about this book, is that Boochani wrote it secretly in Farsi on a mobile phone which he had to keep hidden from the prison guards. He sent thousands of PDF files using Whatsapp to his translator Dr Omid Tofighian.

Perhaps even Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton would have to agree that it is miraculous that the end-result is such a cohesive, detailed, persuasive, poetic narrative. But then again, if Morrison and Dutton ever read books, this one would be bottom of their list, because it is a damning indictment of their immigration policies and their inhumanity.

Boochani is a Kurd. He was a member of the Kurdish Democratic party which is outlawed in Iran, and of the National Union of Kurdish Students. As a result he was watched closely by the Iranian authorities. The first part of the book describes Boochani’s time in Indonesia and then two attempts to come to Australia by boat, almost dying in the process. Boochani then gives a detailed, sickening description of what he calls the Kyriarchal system imposed on the asylum seekers in Manus – a system built around domination, oppression, and submission. Everything that might give the asylum seekers any sense of humanity, dignity or self-respect is denied them. The system requires detainees to queue for hours or days for everything – food, cigarettes, telephones, medical attention, anti-malarials. The queues pit man against man. Generators are turned off in the intense heat to keep the men exhausted. The toilets and showers are like open sewers. Self-harm is prevalent. Fights break out regularly over minor issues. Huge mosquitoes feast on their exposed flesh. Any attempt to buck the system is met with brutality from the Australian security guards and even the locals, the ‘Papus’. In short, Manus is a living-hell.

There can be no justification for the way Australia treats asylum-seekers. To drive men mad in these conditions, with the supposed justification that it will prevent others from risking their lives at sea is a thin cover. In reality, ever since John Howard, the Australian Government has exploited racism in Australia for electoral advantage. Asylum seekers are a convenient distraction from the corruption and nepotism that the Government gets away with on a daily basis. The Australian media, even the ABC, is mostly a cheerleader for these policies.

The words “important book” have been bandied around a lot recently, but this really does deserve that nomenclature. Surely nobody who reads it can ever again support Australia’s asylum seeker policies.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Book Review: “How Late it Was, How Late” by James Kelman

How Late it Was, How LateHow Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sammy’s wisdom: “Folk take a battering but, they do; they get born and they get brought up and they get fuckt. That’s the story; the cot to the fucking funeral pyre.”

James Kelman won the Booker Prize for this novel, in 1994. It was, apparently, a controversial winner, mainly because of objections to the profane language. The book is in Scots dialect, from the point of view of Sammy. We first meet Sammy waking from a monster hangover, the cause of which he cannot remember. He soon picks a fight with some “sodjas” (policemen), and ends up in a police cell, waking again to find that he has lost his sight as a result of the beating he received. The rest of the book is his stream of consciousness as he comes to terms with this disaster, which it seems is just one of many, many disasters which have befallen him. He is estranged from his wife and son, his current girlfriend has disappeared, he has had spells in prison, there are suggestions of politically motivated violence, he has no money and, it seems, no friends he can rely on.

“Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words; there’s something wrong; there’s something far far wrong; ye’re no a good man, ye’re just no a good man.”

I found Sammy a surprisingly sympathetic character. His outlook on life is philosophical, almost Buddhist at times. He holds no animosity towards the police who beat him. Towards the end, when his estranged son appears, their relationship is quite touching. Also evident is the kindness towards him of neighbours and Glasgow locals.

This is not an easy read. I’m not familiar with Scots, but perhaps my Irish / English origins made it fairly easy for me to understand. Others might find it hard going. But it is a tremendous achievement to hold the reader’s attention, as it did mine, by describing the inner thoughts of a newly blind man who exists on the margins of society, who utterly distrusts authority and has little hope of redemption.

“Waiting rooms. Ye go into this room where ye wait. Hoping’s the same. One of these days the cunts’ll build entire fucking buildings just for that. Official hoping rooms, where ye just go in and hope for whatever the fuck ye feel like hoping for.”

© Mike Hopkins 2019 (other than quotes from book)


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Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineEleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A novel about …. loneliness, trauma, friendship, community, recovery, office politics, mother-daughter relationships. At times very moving, at times hilarious, at times the characters make you cringe in embarrassment. This is a wonderful book which I found grabbed me from the start. It’s Honeyman’s first novel and therefore an incredibly impressive feat to pull off such a polished book.

Eleanor Oliphant is a lonely young woman whose life consists of an office job during the week, and a weekend consuming vodka and pasta, and talking to nobody. She possesses zero social skills and is the brunt of jokes amongst her work colleagues. Once a week she is the subject of a conversation with her mother, in which she is put down, mocked and humiliated.

Early on in the story she becomes infatuated, from a distance, with a pub singer. She is convinced that their futures lie together and formulates a plan which she expects will lead to them becoming life partners. Where this book then becomes more interesting and insightful is in depicting the way in which, against her will almost, Eleanor is exposed to the warmer side of the Glasgow community in which she lives, a warmth that she has never before experienced. It also takes us into her mental state, the dark story behind her childhood, and the route to her salvation.

We have probably all met an Eleanor Oliphant in our lives, and probably been unkind towards her or at best ignored her. This book gives us pause to think about why people are the way they are, and how a kind word or invitation can make a huge difference to people who have rarely experienced them. If it has a weakness it is that perhaps the characters are a bit too black and white – either totally evil, or wonderfully warm and kind. But this does not detract from the power of the story. Highly recommended.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019


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Book Review: What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and ResistanceWhat You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance by Carolyn Forché

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This brilliant book is Carolyn Forché’s memoir, concentrating on the time she spent in war-torn El Salvador in the late 1970s, and how, incredibly, she became involved with that country. Most people who have heard of Forché will have read her brilliant poem “The Colonel”, (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem…). This is not a book of poetry, it is the story of how a poet becomes active in the fight against a brutal military dictatorship, how she became a “poet of witness”.

I was pretty much unaware of the civil war in El Salvador until seeing the moving film Romero thirty years ago – it depicts the life and death of the charismatic Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8G27j…)

Forché was at home in her apartment in southern California, when a complete stranger, accompanied by his two daughters, knocks on her door, having driven from El Salvador specifically to meet her. At the time, Forché was “a one-book poet in her 20s”. The stranger, Leonel Gómez, turns out to be a cousin of a friend of Forché. He proceeds, over three days, to educate her on the history of central America, drawing stick figures and pencil maps on butchers paper on her dining table. Gómez tells her that a war as big as Vietnam is about to erupt in El Salvador, and that he wants her, as a poet, to witness and record the events. Amazingly, Forché agrees to go to El Salvador. This book is the story of what she witnessed.

Even at the end of the book, it is not 100% clear who Leonel Gómez is. He appears to have a foot in both the military and the guerrilla camps, whilst both sides suspect him of being a CIA agent. He deliberately cultivates uncertainty by being seen to spend time with ambassadors, politicians, churchmen, nuns, campesinos (the poor farmers struggling to survive under near starvation conditions) and members of the resistance. In turn, he encourages Forché to cultivate the same air of mystery as a means of discouraging attacks on her by the right wing death squads that roam El Salvador. What she does know is that Gómez is a coffee farmer, and a man determined to open her eyes to what is going on in front of her. Through Gómez she is able to meet officers in the highest levels of the military, to visit sites of massacres, to narrowly avoid being shot on several occasions, to spend time with the nuns, priests and hierarchy in the Catholic Church who are speaking up against the repression of the campesinos. As usual, the role of the U.S.A. in propping up the brutal right wing military regime as a bulwark against supposed communism, is central to the chaotic situation.

This is a gripping and moving memoir for anyone interested in the history of Central America, the terrible disruption caused by U.S.A. foreign policy and the role that poetry can play in bearing witness to awful events.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019

Book Review: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Mark Haddon

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Published in 2004, this has been on my “to read” list for some time and is well worth the wait. I know little about autism, but the author appears to provide a very credible insight into the mind of an autistic boy. The boy in question, Christopher, narrates the tale. The story opens with him finding a dog skewered by a garden fork. He decides to play detective in order to discover the murderer. So the story is part “who dunnit” but then develops into a vivid depiction of marriage breakdown, single parenthood, the challenges for parents and schools of interacting with autistic children, the challenges of being autistic and of being, at times, overwhelmed by the modern world. This sounds very dark, but there is a lot of wry humour here. Christopher is both lovable and infuriating. The story moves at a good pace, keeping the reader engaged right to the end. There are surprising twists and the occasional illustrations provide a further glimpse into the autistic mind. Recommended.

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Book Review: “Ordinary People” by Diana Evans

Ordinary PeopleOrdinary People by Diana Evans

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“Selected by the New Yorker, Financial Times and New Statesman as a Book of the Year’. Well this book annoyed me and I ploughed through nine of its fifteen chapters before saying “Oh sod it, I can’t be bothered”.

The book revolves around the relationship issues of two couples living in or near London at the time Obama became U.S.A President. The couples are African / American / West Indian, so the issue of race is a major one in the book. But mostly it’s about their deteriorating marriages. At first I was quite interested in the author’s insights into the things that can cause a long-term relationship to go cold. But my interest was not maintained.

For me the book fails on two levels. One is the excess of detail. Detail is good, detail is fine, but there are parts of this book where the detail adds zero to the story, zero to what you know about the characters and their situation, and just becomes tedious. The extended description of the perfume department in a store, the long sequence around the children’s play gym come to mind. The second is that there is just plain bad writing: excessively long sentences and bad grammar. Some of the descriptions seem like attempts to show off a wide vocabulary, but are just irritating:

“he always felt overly conspicuous yet circumferential in their multitudinous presence”.

“he would accentuate the smallness of her breastplate by laying his head against it” – she uses “breastplate” quite a bit. I kept thinking of Boadicea.

“… her shining teeth, her cream-coloured neck. She was virtually off the hizzle.” WTF is a hizzle? I googled it and the urban dictionary says it means ‘a house’ as in “Fo shizzle, get up out dis hizzle”. Makes sense? Not to me

“I want to make your zoom zoom go boom boom”. That’s one of Michael’s thoughts apparently.

I could go on. There are mixed metaphors aplenty e.g. “along a mental washing line leading towards a final eclipse”.

I’d expect a “book of the year” to be moderately well written. This is not. Very disappointing.

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Book Review: “Milkman” by Anna Burns

MilkmanMilkman by Anna Burns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Milkman” was a Christmas present from my sister, who lives in Northern Ireland. It’s a perhaps contentious winner of the 2018 Booker Prize. It’s drawn a mixed critical reception and at least one friend has told me it’s “terrible”. Well, in one sense it is “terrible” in that it ingeniously gets inside the head of a young woman living through terrible times: The Troubles. I think I’m right in saying that no place names, and only one character name (Peggy) are used in the whole the book. We never learn the name of the main character. She is referred to as “third sister”. Other family members are Ma, Da, Wee Sisters, Eldest sister, third brother-in-law, Somebody McSomebody, maybe-boyfriend etc. Her persecutor, “Milkman” is not a real milkman, but there is another character called “real milkman”, also referred to under other names such as “the man who didn’t love anybody”. Belfast is not mentioned, but I’m assuming the action takes place in that city, where Anna Burns’ grew up. Places are referred to obtusely: top-end reservoir, the ten-minute area, most-popular-drinking club, the hutment.

What Burns does brilliantly is to capture the insularity, the suspicion, the distrust, the incestuousness of that city at that time. She shows how people shut down, conform, deny and are prepared to believe the worst of other people. In particular she shows how a woman can be intimidated by a stalker with little effort by the stalker himself. The menacing figure of the Milkman appears only a handful of times in the book, and yet looms over her as an ever-present threat, reinforced by the gossip and mean-spiritedness of the community. A woman who reads a book in public, a man who is interested in cooking, another man who collects pieces of British cars are all regarded with suspicion, as “beyond the pale”. Intimidation by armed men, whether Army or paramilitaries also pervades the community. Violent deaths and suicides are everyday events. Men believe they can bully women into submission. Women are drawn to violent men.

This is not necessarily an easy read, although there is a great deal of humour throughout. Perhaps it requires some knowledge of The Troubles to appreciate the achievement of portraying those times. But I think she has done it brilliantly.

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2019




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Book Review: “The Rules of Backyard Cricket” by Jock Serong

The Rules of Backyard CricketThe Rules of Backyard Cricket by Jock Serong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a terrific read, gripping from start to finish. It describes the rise and fall of brothers who become two of the leading Australian cricketers. Serong says that the characters are not based on real cricketers, but he writes with an insider’s authority. The events are almost completely believable apart from some unlikely twists that stretch credulity.

The main characters, Darren and Walley Keefe, could almost parallel the Waugh twins – one dour and professional, the other a maverick. Serong extends the differences in personalities for the Keefe brothers, one becoming more of a Shane Warne character and the other a seemingly dour Bradman.

The book takes us inside the cosseted world of the elite sportsmen – the hangers-on, the corruption, the drugs, the media circus, the betting – as well as the excitement of the brothers progress from child prodigies to national figures.

The writing is of a high standard. Each chapter commences with a short update of Darren’s current predicament and then goes chronologically through the series of events which led the brothers to their current impasse. There are well delineated supporting characters, which add colour and credibility to the story.

Recommended, especially if you are or were into cricket and like a rollicking thriller.

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Book Review: “Meet My Mother” by Louise Nicholas

Meet My MotherMeet My Mother by Louise Nicholas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Louise Nicholas is a much-loved and admired Adelaide based poet. This book, about her mother Dorothy, builds on the writing of her mother, and supplements it with Louise’s recollections of her relationship with her mother. There are poems by Louise about her mother, poetic letters which her mother wrote to her in Louise’s adult travelling years, and sections of prose providing a timeline through her mother’s life.

Louise describes her mother’s life, in a non-pejorative way, as ‘a little life’. Most of us indeed lead little lives, without achieving or experiencing anything world shattering, getting through life as best we can. This book shows that a little life can still be an incredibly rich life, where the day-to-day challenges of childhood, family and ageing are wrestled with. It is written with the gentle humour and accessibility which characterises Louise’s poetry. And in Dorothy’s poetic letters to Louise, one can detect the seeds of Louise’s poetic style – just one of the many gifts that her mother left her.

A lovely book.

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