Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: Smokehouse by Melissa Manning

Smokehouse is a book of linked stories set in southern Tasmania, more particularly, the region around Kettering and Bruny Island.

I visited this region only a few years ago and it’s a stunning landscape of rugged beauty. And Melissa Manning not only paints the landscape but she fully immerses the reader right into it.

“She walked down to the beach, sat in the sand throwing shells into the frothy swash of waves, and considered whether all of this might be a sign that it was a time to move on.”

The book begins with the title story Smokehouse Part 1 which is almost a novella about Joy, who with her husband builds a mud-brick home, a dream home away from the bustle of Hobart. Her new life begins to fracture and the consequences of her actions resonate not only on her family but within the small community around her.

“She had never expected to feel so absent, as though her identity had bled out into the fabric of their family. She longed to feel the margins of herself.”

The last story Smokehouse Part Two, set in Joy’s future, gives us a glimpse into her life as an older woman. In between are short stories whose characters link with the community or Joy’s life.

There was a lot I enjoyed. There is a tenderness in the tragedy and trauma. The reference to food brings joy and pain. “… she dished field mushrooms onto her side plate and ate them with her fingers, let the juices run own her chin and into her lap and tried not to think about the night to come. “

Each story is beautifully written and evocative. The characters are rich in detail and drawn so fully, you feel you know them, their pain, their joy and the problems they encounter. Manning treats the characters and the themes of grief, sorrow, health decline and loss with empathy and dignity.

I thoroughly enjoyed this and am not surprised it was shortlisted in 2021 for Queensland Literary Awards as well as Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. It’s a stunning debut by an extraordinary author. Highly recommend this one.

Book Review: Hello Beautiful by Hannie Rayson

I have to confess that I’d never heard of Australian playwright, Hannie Rayson. Yet I knew of her plays. When my book club chose this book I was extremely curious.

In Hello Beautiful, Hannie Rayson detours from plays to a memoir of revealing snapshots from her own life.

It’s a highly relatable book especially for those who lived in Melbourne during the eighties. Hannie grew up in East Brighton as the daughter of a real-estate agent who made and lost money. He was a ‘Melbourne bitter man. Anything else was cat’s piss.’ 

Nothing seems to be off limits in this memoir from ‘women’s problems’, and vagina moles to childbirth, together with blended families and dead bodies.

It’s a humorous collection of anecdotes as well as insights into inner suburban living, feminism, sex, being a mum, wife and friend, and becoming a writer.

‘One weekend my neighbours Suzie and Dave demolished their house. But the most significant impact on our household was that (they)… decided to move. Into our place. It seemed to me then that the nuclear family was a ludicrous idea – conceived not by nature, nor by God, but by people who wanted to sell us stuff.’

Hannie Rayson writes very well with charm and humour. If you don’t know Melbourne you might not fully appreciate the nuances but if you want an amusing insight, then give this one a go.

Book Review: Happy Hour by Jacquie Byron

A glass of bubbly in hand, a character of a certain age who does what she wants, and a couple of cute dogs. This book held a lot of promise and certainly did not fail to deliver.

Franny Calderwood keeps to herself with only her two dogs, Whisky and Soda as her companions. She likes her own company enjoying the chance to paint, walk along the beach and drink when she feels like it. When a family moves in next door, she’s wary of the single mother who juggles a grumpy teenage daughter, Dee and an exuberant eight-year-old boy, Josh. It doesn’t take long before Franny is reluctantly drawn into their lives.

Little by little we learn what’s behind Franny’s bravado and independence when we discover the loss of her beloved husband from a road accident some years earlier. The family next door draws Franny out of her self-imposed isolation little by little not without some disasters along the way.

The themes of grief and loss are beautifully handled as the story slowly unfolds taking the reader into Franny and the family’s world, one ordered and the other chaotic.

Franny is quite a character, talking to the photos of her dead husband, cooking gourmet meals, painting masterpieces and of course drinking a lot more than she should. You can’t help but love her as well as feel her loss and what she is doing to herself. The dogs are charmers as is Josh who is truly a star in his own right. The child’s innocence and energy is infectious causing the reader to love him as we watch Franny fall for this small boy.

This novel is sad, funny as well as moving. With an additional bonus that it’s set in Melbourne and the places Franny visits are almost my backyard – what more could I wish for?

Get this one and lie on the beach with a gin and tonic and you’ll be happily transported.

Book Review: The Morbids by Ewa Ramsey

The Morbids is a story about Caitlin, a young woman, convinced that she’s going to die. She joins a support group of people each of whom have their own issues about death and name themselves The Morbids. What has happened to Caitlin unravels slowly and painfully as we take the road with her towards healing and a better life.  

It’s a sad story yet an uplifting one too. Caitlin has suppressed her feelings after an accident where she blames herself for the death of someone. She copes as best as she can, throwing in her high-power job for a waitressing role, moving to a sordid neighbourhood and turning her back on her friends and family. She believes she is coping with the help of the support group but slowly she begins to unravel bit by bit.  Ever fearful, she avoids rather than confronts.

The impact of mental illness particularly trauma, anxiety and depression are important issues and the author does a superb navigating the reader through it in a very sensitive and touching way. There is no sugar coating so it is quite confronting. Not to say that it is all doom and gloom. There are shades of humour, love and joy. And then there are the moments of kindness, random and otherwise from people in Caitlin’s life. This character is very well drawn, complicated and multi-dimensional.

I also enjoyed the side characters from those in the help group to the ones in Caitlin’s work life. Along the way we meet caring Nic, her boss at the bar where she works; concerned Lina the best friend she’s avoided since the accident two years ago and the gorgeous Tom, the emergency doctor. They all played their part superbly.

The second half is quite intense and I wasn’t sure where it would go but I hoped that Caitlin would be okay. Take a look and see for yourself.

Book Review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

I’ve heard a lot about this book and I’m in two minds about it.

Identical twins, Desiree and Stella grow up in a southern black community. What’s different about this community is that everyone is light-skinned including the twins. When they turn sixteen, they run away. Soon after, Stella leaves her sister and submerges herself into a white world where she marries and lives as a white woman. She carries her secret, lying about her origins to her husband and only daughter, Kennedy. Desiree is heart-broken when Stella disappears and forges a life without her. She marries a black man and has a daughter, Jude who looks like her father. The marriage breaks down and Desiree goes back to her mother and the community with Jude.

This is a fascinating premise and the themes of race, class and identity are beautifully explored. There were other themes too such as transgender and domestic violence. There are several timelines beginning in 1968, when Desiree returns. Then it ends in 1986 when the two daughters, Kennedy and Jude cross paths with interesting consequences.

This is a big story and could have easily been made into a series. The author takes us through the twin’s childhood, and their initial estrangement from their mother. And although ten years later, Desiree returns to her mother, there’s a gap about Stella and her mother’s relationship. How could Stella disappear without a trace? What guilt did she carry and how did she live with that? By the time we get to Stella’s point of view we are given answers, yet I found I wanted more. And herein lies the dilemma of hiding deep family secrets as well as Stella’s own childhood trauma. Her white husband appears to be totally clueless yet Stella’s fear of being found out might surely have had a toll.

The relationship between Jude and her boyfriend Reece, a trans-man was tender but again, this was another book in itself as was Kennedy’s story. Well, done to the author for trying to contain all of these stories of what is essentially an epic family story.

Yet, perhaps because it is such a big story, I found it hard to engage with the characters as much as I would have liked.  I think I might have enjoyed it more if it was told in first person rather than omniscient as it felt a little removed for my taste.

Otherwise, it’s definitely a well-written story worth reading and appreciating given the themes.

Book Review: Bowl the Maidens Over by Louise Zedda-Sampson

It’s often been said by friends and family that I don’t have a sporting bone in my body. There is, however nothing wrong with my appreciation of history particularly when it comes to women’s place in it. And I was delighted to pick up a book about the first female cricketers in Australia and more specifically in my home state of Victoria.

Bowl the Maidens Over helps us understand how women came to play what was originally known as a man’s game. Yet as a man’s game there’s no physical barrier for a woman to play. I have been known to play the game with men and although I have no real talent, I can bowl, bat and throw the ball, well perhaps not terribly well. I can also appreciate the strategy and of course the thrill of being on a winning side.

In fact, whenever women have made the initial attempts to play a man’s game there has always been opposition and derision. Who can forget that not long ago— read within the last ten years —when women’s football in Australia was greeted with great uncertainty? Indeed, the first sold-out match with a crowd outside the stadium floored the male dominated organisers. The innuendo and vitriolic comments on social media platforms could only be described in the sea of positive comments as vile and nasty.

Not much has changed since a group of women in 1874 played an exhibition cricket match to raise funds for charity. Where did they play? In the town of Sandhurst, now known as Bendigo. It was a match attended by thousands and soon after the initial praise, some media whipped up a storm about how unladylike these women were, describing their attire rather than their skill. Oh goodness, what a shock it must have been when ‘they paraded their ankles to the public gaze’ or engaged in ‘an unwomanly game.’

This small delightful volume packs a punch of history giving us a brilliant snapshot of an unknown group of pioneering women who dared to take on a sport with skill and talent. Zedda-Simpson does a fantastic job of weaving the narrative around the media’s debate about the match. Although we don’t really know how the women felt about the attention, the author gives us an insight by revealing the flurry of forthright and entertaining letters to the editor.

A really good read even if it does make you feel indignant about how far we have still yet to go.

Check it out. Bowl the Maidens Over

Author interview

I was recently interviewed about my latest book, The Good Child. You can check it out below.

Historically, men have power over the lives of both nations and women. Commerce and politics are traditional realms of masculine influence in cultures worldwide. The latest Australian historical fiction by S.C. Karakaltsas (see my review here), The Good Child explores the public and private aspects of how the behaviour of some influential men affects their loved…

The Good Child: exploring how power is shaped — Clare Rhoden