Tag Archives: australian authors

Book Review: Witness by Louise Milligan

Witness is an important book to read as it exposes gaps in Australia’s legal system.

Louise Milligan is an incredible investigative journalist who has spent years reporting on sexual abuse crimes. Her latest book exposes the toll on victims (known by the legal system as witnesses perhaps to dehumanise them) who attempt to seek justice using that very system. Milligan knows only too well what the experience is like when she took the stand in the case of George Pell’s trial. And although she was not a victim, the process she went through to protect those who had entrusted her with their experiences took a toll. She questioned that if she with resources and skills found the whole thing traumatic, what then of the actual victims of sexual abuse. And what she finds is enough to turn off most except for those who have the strength to take on their perpetrators.

Milligan’s interviews with barristers, judges, defence counsel, and victims together with meticulous research including transcripts, reveal how the wheels of justice operate, and it’s not pretty. It’s brutal and terrifying and more so for the victims who face the system.

“A system where, even if they received what is considered to be justice, they came away from the experience worse than when they went into it.”

 Milligan gives us Saxon Mullins case, a young eighteen-year-old girl raped in an alleyway. The trial itself raised the issue of what is consent but more importantly, what Saxon went through for five years to see her rapist brought to account can only be described as horrendous. The adversarial role the defence counsel uses to discredit, nit-pick and dehumanise a rape victim is put on show with Mullin’s case.

Then the legal system itself is dissected where the pattern of male patriarchy is still strong, where although numbers of women are growing, it’s an industry of self-employed barristers whose livelihood gives little encouragement for the female barrister who has a family or wants one.

Then there’s the environment of the legal industry and the challenges women face as workers. Who could forget Dyson Heydon who sexually harassed several women whilst serving as a High Court judge?

And Peter O’Callaghan QC who was on a retainer for the Catholic Church to manage their response to the hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse by members of the catholic church. A man who received $7.8 million in remuneration from the Catholic church from 1996 to 2014 to administer and hand out compensation of a mere $9.7 m with an average of $32k for each survivor of paedophile priests. Few were recommended for police investigation.

“For victims of sexual crimes, the unquestioning decision to use O’Callaghan’s name for their gallery speaks volumes about the Victorian Bar’s attitude to victims of sexual abuse.”

Milligan paints a vivid picture of what being a witness is like even through her own eyes on the witness stand where the barrister was aggressive, demeaning and disrespectful. Or the room she explains where they put child victims who aren’t allowed to have their dolls or teddy bears in case that should remind the jury that the victim is indeed a child.

Milligan has also endured threats to her life and online twitter trolling yet without people like her, nothing would ever change. And change is happening and Mulligan give us a glimmer of hope that eventually perpetrators of sexual abuse will be brought to account and victims will be treated with care and compassion and consideration of the trauma they’ve gone through.

This book doesn’t hold back. It’s confronting, gripping, eye-opening and terrifying making you think twice about raising a complaint of sexual abuse. Which makes it even more incredible that victims who go through the court system must surely be lauded as true heroes. I thank Louise Milligan and every other investigative journalist who has ever put themselves out there. What they do is enlighten and educate us so that we can stamp our feet and yell out loud to get things changed. This is an important book for everyone to read.

Book Review: Wimmera by Mark Brandi

I was totally unprepared for this unexpected story.

The blurb, (which I rarely check before diving in) is about two young boys, Ben and Fab, who in 1989 do all the things youngsters do; play cricket, go yabbying and camping. They talk about all sorts of things except for how Fab’s dad hits him or what happened to the girl next door. When a new neighbour moves in, their imagination soars wondering if he’s a secret agent. The opening scene is the discovery of a drum in the local river.

It’s a moody book and the first half is pretty much about the boys’ everyday lives from Ben’s point of view with a slow build of tension and foreboding when they meet Ben’s far too friendly neighbour.  Half way through the novel, Ben’s voice disappears and we’re propelled into the future almost twenty years later into Fab’s point of view. Fab still lives in the same country town, lost and alone working in a supermarket and we’re left to wonder what happened to Ben.

The second half takes on a sense of urgency and the story unfolds in a very unsettling way.  I appreciated the second half far more than the first. There was much left to the readers imagination and for the reader to piece together and I liked that. The last couple of chapters was dramatic and a page turner.

The subject matter isn’t for the faint-hearted and there’s no trigger warning about child abuse. But if you can see your way through the dark subject, it’s a very decent debut.

Book Review: Honeybee by Craig Silvey

A masterful tale of what it is to be different, down and out yet surrounded with hope and the goodness of the human spirit.

Honeybee comes from the author of the much-acclaimed Jasper Jones and is not a disappointing read. It’s uncomfortable at times and heart-wrenching, yet has a soul. Its spotlight has no doubt raised incredible awareness into a little-known community who is still finding its voice.

Sam Watson the main character, is a fourteen-year-old who meets Vic, on a bridge. They’re both there for the same reason and an unlikely friendship ensues brought about by a shared bond of their individual suffering. Through Vic, Sam learns acceptance and sets him on a path toward a better life. But Sam also gives something to Vic.

It’s a coming-of-age novel full of petty thefts, extortion plots, botched bank robberies, drag shows and Julia Child’s inspired cooking. But more importantly, it’s a novel of wonderful characters.

Firstly, there’s the sensitive, naïve but heart of gold, Sam. His journey to find himself and learning to live with who he truly is, is beautifully done. Then there’s Vic, who with the help of Sam finds redemption for something he’s lived with his entire life. His love for his wife Edie is touching and the care Sam shows Vic and Edie is very moving. Next, there’s Aggie, a full of life teenager who doesn’t give a damn about what Sam looks like. She sees him for who he really is, knowing him more than Sam himself. There’s Peter, the drag queen who helps pick up the pieces, who extends a hand and role models how life could be for Sam. His mother Sarah, is a difficult character to warm to yet drawn out enough to allow us to understand her much difficult path in life and the choices she made.

It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotion, dark and light, despairing yet hopeful and a great read against the backdrop of beautiful Perth. Put this one on your list.

Book Review: Colour-Coated Identity by Bala Mudaly

What an inspirational story of one man’s journey to understand his place in the world.

This is a memoir by an older Australian who was born an Indian in South Africa. It’s a compelling, personal story of life under Apartheid. It also tells of the author’s fraught travels across Africa, Europe, Asia and, eventually, Australia to find a sense of self beyond the toxic constraints of race, colour and class.

Growing up under South Africa’s brutal regime of apartheid, Mudaly struggles to overcome the hurdles and obstacles to acquire education and employment because of the colour of his skin and his race.

He roams the world searching for answers. Along the way he embraces life as a teacher in the newly formed country of Zimbabwe, undertakes further studies obtaining his Masters and Doctorate, works in Scotland, travels across Europe and goes back to the land of his grandparents, India. His experience opens his eyes to a life of freedom, beyond the country of his birth where upon his return, he struggles to accept and fit in with the harsh conditions under which, as an Indian he is forced to live.

“I’ve journeyed long, travelled far and, in the process, faced many inconvenient truths about myself.”

 To find a voice and purpose, Mudaly throws himself into the sometimes, dangerous yet courageous path of activism joining the ANC in order to help bring about change not just for his country but for himself.

This is a remarkable memoir pulling the reader into Mudaly’s recollections while reliving with him the harsh reality of segregation in South Africa reminding us all of the constant struggles between races, past and present.

It’s as thoughtful as it is thought-provoking, full of insight, resilience and reflection. Highly recommended.

Review copy courtesy of the author

Available now on Amazon

Book Review: All Our Shimmering Skies by Trent Dalton

This is historic fiction but not as we know it.

Set in Darwin during World War Two, it opens with Molly Hook a young child, digging graves for her father and uncle who care more for moonshine and stealing items of value from graves than for her. Her life is hard having lost her mother. She lives in a cemetery with her only friend Bert her shovel, and looks to the sky for guidance. When bombs begin falling, she grabs her grandfather’s treasure map and runs with the idea that if she can locate Longcoat Bob she can convince him to lift the curse she believes he put on their family many years earlier. She meets up with Greta Maze a sharp-witted actress and Yukio, a Japanese pilot along the way and find that they too have their own need to run.

The history of the Japanese invasion of Darwin and the impact on Australia was a fascinating account both from the point of view of Yukio as well as from the various characters in the book.

What stands out with this novel is the characters who are all very well drawn. The relationship between the glamourous actress, Greta, the caring Yukio and Molly was heartfelt and beautifully portrayed. Dare I say it, the star of the show would have to be Bert, the shovel who comes in handy on many occasions throughout the odyssey.

Dalton excels in placing us right into the landscape, the rocks, the foliage, the animals and especially the crocodiles and the imagery is a vivid showcase of Australian landscape reflected also in the magnificent book cover.

The second half of the book fell into magical fantasy which was completely unexpected and jarred a little but I went with it, fantastical as it was with a craziness from a completely vivid imagination. As I read, I found it a little difficult to take the leap to believability.

Yet it’s a very well written book, grappling with themes of intergenerational trauma, loss and hope, and like a fable is a good one to read. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Book Review: Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

I’ve been on a bit of a Elizabeth Macarthur odyssey ever since I read Michelle Scott Tucker’s book Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world. (See my earlier review https://sckarakaltsas.com/2020/05/22/book-review-elizabeth-macarthur-a-life-at-the-edge-of-the-world-by-michelle-scott-tucker/ ). When I heard about Elizabeth & Elizabeth, a fictional story about Elizabeth’s friendship with Elizabeth Macquarie, I had to buy the book.

Too many Elizabeth’s can be a bit confusing so I’ll use surnames. A young Mrs Macquarie was married to Lachlan Macquarie who came to Australia as the Governor of the new colony. He was a man of vision, providing the name of Australia and introducing social reforms to emancipate convicts despite strong opposition from the elite including Mr Macarthur. Williams imagines Mrs Macquarie to be a strong and assertive influence on Lachlan and credits her with imaginative ideas of architecture, garden landscaping as well as social welfare for young women.

Meanwhile Mrs Macarthur married to the troublesome, duel challenging at the drop of a hat, Mr Macarthur is much older and wiser not given to airs and graces while she’s grappling with a couple of sheep on the farm she’s managing because Mr Macarthur is in England sorting out the scraps he’s had with the previous Governor.

When she first arrives, Mrs Macquarie is portrayed as a wide-eyed and naïve young woman and I wondered if it might have been further from the truth given that she was thirty-one not twenty-one. But her character grows as she quickly adapts to the realities of the harshness of colonial life. She holds the much older Mrs Macarthur in high esteem. The relationship while brittle at first grows over the years as the challenges to the Macquarie’s post grows more difficult.

Of course, Mr Macarthur is as troublesome as history has portrayed. I’d always imagined that the relationship between Mr and Mrs Macarthur to be a difficult one with little love. Yet the author paints a loving and caring relationship between them. From what I’d read so far, I really doubted the woman could have done anything other than be relieved when he went to London for several years leaving her to make her mark on the colony with her sheep breeding ideas.

In reality, history being written by men provides us with little knowledge of the relationship between the two women but Williams reads between the lines to give us a delicious account of what these strong and intelligent women brought to society and to the foundations of the colony giving them credit when there’d been little before. No doubt there would have been few women from their class and they would have little choice than to fraternise despite their husbands opposing views of each other. I really liked the idea that women could come together to support each other enough to make the colony a better place. I can’t imagine how horrific it must have been to be a woman where childbirth and child raising was fraught with disease and death.   

The other great insight is just how entrenched the class system was adopted and continued on from England. It’s hardly surprising that the governing bodies, serving their own self-interests were mean-spirited about the people in the colony. But wait, what’s changed today with our present government? Perhaps not a lot when you consider the refugees who came here by boat.

This novel is rich in history, well-written and researched. If you’re after a bit of history about upper-class women of influence then check this one out.

Book Review: A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu

I bought this book because of the hype around it. If I’d bothered to read the reviews, both supportive and divisive, I probably wouldn’t have read it. But this is a debut novel by a young Australian woman and I wanted to give it a go.

Jena Lin is a twenty-three-year-old classical violinist who as a child prodigy, toured the world. Something happened when she was fourteen and she stopped playing and embarked on a ‘normal’ life. Her relationship with her mother and mentor is fractured.  When she resumes her career, she is caught up in a world of rehearsals, performances and practice. In her spare time, she hooks up with just about anyone she meets using sex as a crutch to fill her loneliness.  When she is awarded an internship with the New York Philharmonic orchestra she begins to take control of her life and her comeback on her terms.

The book is essentially the blurb, reading almost like a diary of rotating daily activities of rehearsal, performance and sex, which in my opinion is overly graphic and gratuitous. There’s not much of a plot here and the sex scenes, and there was a lot, detracted from what was really going on with Jena.  There was little depth in her relationships and there was only just enough interest for me to find out about what had happened at fourteen. The world of the classical music lifestyle also held me to a point but I found that this too became repetitive.

The problem I had with the book was that while it was detailed in some aspects it was frustratingly short on depth in characters and Jena’s relationships. The characters almost seemed like cardboard cut-outs wheeled out at periodic times. As a reader we knew more about Jena’s day to day life than we did about much else.

On the day of the audition, I wake early to take a long shower, scrubbing off the residual sweat of sleep, washing my hair, shaving my underarms and legs. In the bathroom mirror, I squint at my own reflection.”

Trying to understand Jena, her motivations and the people around her was at times, quite bewildering. In particular, I would have liked to have known more about her relationship with her mother, and her father who is rarely mentioned. Half way through, I almost gave up but I slogged on hoping to get more than a superficial insight, even just a glimmer of emotion from just about anyone.  

Yet, I appreciated the themes the author was trying to explore, racism, sexism, female sexual desire, and loneliness. I’d never given a thought to classical music and in particular how most of it is written by men.

“I wonder why none of the music I play has been created by a woman and whether that exclusion was deliberate. What is the point of being any kind of artist if your skin colour or gender excludes you from the choices of old white men, just because you don’t look like them or they don’t see themselves in you?”

I didn’t mind the writing style and it’s slightly reminiscent of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. However, the characters are largely unlikeable and although there was some limited sympathy for Jena, the book left me frustrated and disillusioned. I know others liked it and but I don’t think it was for me. I guess I just wanted more depth.