Book lists

8 uplifting reads

If you are looking for something cheering to read, then let me help. While my preference tends towards the darker side of fiction, I also like to read books that are more upbeat. A few years back I put together a list entitled 5 uplifting reads, but here’s some more that you might like to try.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my full review.

‘Fair Stood the Wind for France’ by H.E. Bates (1944)
A lovely heart-warming World War Two romance about a Royal Airforce pilot who crash-lands in Occupied France and falls in love with the French woman who nurses him during his convalescence.

‘Room for a Stranger’ by Melanie Cheng (2019)
A beautiful, bittersweet story about an elderly woman finding friendship in the most unexpected of places when she rents out her spare room to a foreign student.

‘That They May Face The Rising Sun’ by John McGahern (2003)
This beautiful, slow-moving book follows the year in the life of two Londoners who set up home in rural Ireland and charts the changing seasons, the farming calendar and the human interactions that make up life in a rural community.

Lillian Boxfish takes a walk

‘Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk’ by Kathleen Rooney (2017)
A rather sweet novel about an 84-year-old lady, once America’s highest-paid female advertising copywriter, taking a walk around Manhattan on New Year’s Eve in 1984.

‘The Women in Black’ by Madeleine St John (1993)
Delicious black comedy is set in (the fictional) F. G. Goode’s, a Sydney department store, during the 1950s and follows a group of women from various backgrounds who work in Ladies’ Frocks.

‘George’s Grand Tour’ by Caroline Vermalle (2015)
A mischievous and fun-filled story about an octogenarian who runs away from his overprotective family to follow the route of the Tour de France — in a car, not a bike — taking in 21 stages, 49 villages and covering 3,500km over two months.

‘Enchanted April’ by Elizabeth Von Arnim (1922)
Enchanting tale about four very different English women who rent a “small medieval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean” for the month of April.

‘The Submerged Cathedral’ by Charlotte Wood (2004)
Gently told tale of a woman nursing a broken heart who builds an elaborate garden of wild Australian plants in the country home she inherits from her parents.

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend other happy and uplifting reads?

Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.





Reading Australia 2016


35 books by women: completing the 2016 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 badgeWhen I challenged myself to spend the year reading Australian literature, it seemed logical to also sign up to the 2016 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge — to kill two birds with one stone, as it were.

I thought I should give myself a serious target and aimed to read 30 books by Australian women.

Now that the year is drawing to a close, I’m happy to report I exceeded that self-imposed target: I read 35 books by women — and I loved (almost, but not quite) every one of them.

As well as reading all the titles on the 2016 Stella Prize shortlist, I read a wonderful mix of newly released books and old ones that had been lingering in my TBR for years. These included non-fiction and fiction — mainly literary fiction, with a side order of short stories (I read four collections) and a couple of crime novels.

I really loved taking part in this challenge. It introduced me to some wonderful writers — hello Romy Ash, Jen Craig and Lucy Treloar — and reacquainted me with “old familiars” such as Thea Astley, Marion Halligan and Charlotte Wood.

Here is my comprehensive list. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name (click the title to see my full review):

Floundering by Romy Ash

‘Floundering’ by Romy Ash
Heartbreaking novel about two brothers “kidnapped” by their cash-strapped mother one hot summer.

Drylands by Thea Astley

‘Drylands’ by Thea Astley
This Miles Franklin winner looks at the humdrum nature of small town life and what happens when its inhabitants stop reading.

It's raining in mango by Thea Astley

‘It’s Raining in Mango’ by Thea Astley
A no holds-barred fictional story of one Australian family from the 1860s to the 1980s.

Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight

 ‘Six Bedrooms’ by Tegan Bennett Daylight
Collection of short stories about teenage girls growing up in the 1980s.

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop
A deeply melancholy novel about emigration, marriage and motherhood set in Perth, Australia in the early 1960s.

Pathers and the museum of fire by Jen Craig

‘Panthers & The Museum of Fire’ by Jen Craig
A bold experimental novel set on a summer’s afternoon as the narrator walks across Sydney to deliver a manuscript to a bereaved family.

Elemental by Amanda Curtin

‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin
Gripping historical novel about a Scottish fisherwoman who escapes her circumstances to start a new life on the other side of the world.

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton

‘Aunts Up the Cross’ by Robin Dalton
An outrageously funny memoir about Dalton’s childhood in the 1920s and 1930s in Sydney’s Kings Cross.

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

‘Viral’ by Helen FitzGerald
A confronting revenge thriller about sexual shaming online.

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

‘Hope Farm’ by Peggy Frew
Fictional tale of a 13-year-old girl and her single mother living in a hippy commune in the 1980s.

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look’ by Helen Garner
Collection of essays spanning 15 years of Garner’s journalistic career.

What came before by Anna George

‘What Came Before’ by Anna George
Disturbing psychological thriller about a woman murdered by her husband.

Goodbye Sweetheart by Marion Halligan

‘Goodbye Sweetheart’ by Marion Halligan
Unexpectedly charming tale about one man’s untimely death and the effect it has on his loved ones.

The Dry

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper
Compelling crime story set in rural Australia during the height of the worst drought in living memory.

A few days in the country and other stories by Elizabeth Harrower

‘A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories’ by Elizabeth Harrower
Collection of exquisitely written short stories mostly about women trying to find their place in the world.

Snake by Kate Jennings

‘Snake’ by Kate Jennings
Deeply affecting portrait of a marriage between two incompatible people in postwar Australia.

The Landing

‘The Landing’ by Susan Johnson
Delightfully funny and poignant story about a newly divorced man trying to recalibrate his life.

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones

‘A Guide to Berlin’ by Gail Jones
Unusual tale about six Vladimir Nabokov fans from around the world who gather in Berlin to share stories about themselves.

The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones

‘The Family’ by Chris Johnson and Rosie Jones
An eye-opening work of investigative journalism looking at a cult led by a woman who believed she was the female reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Leap by Myfanwy Jones

‘Leap’ by Myfanwy Jones
A story about grief, marriage and parkour set in Melbourne’s inner suburbs.

The world without us by Mireille Juchau

 ‘The World Without Us’ by Mireille Juchau
Beautifully constructed novel about family secrets, love, loss, parenthood and community set in rural NSW.

The Golden Age by Joan London

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London
Story set in a children’s convalescent home during a polio outbreak in the mid-1950s.

The Mint Lawn by Gillian Mears

‘The Mint Lawn’ by Gillian Mears
Award-winning novel about a young woman trapped in a small town with a husband she no longer loves.

The Latte Years by Phil Moore

‘The Latte Years’ by Philippa Moore
Frank and engaging memoir about Moore’s struggle to lose weight, build self-confidence and live what she calls an “authentic life”.

When the night comes

‘When the Night Comes’ by Favel Parrett
Two intertwined stories about grief, kindness and life on an Antarctic supply ship.

Wild Man by Alecia Simmonds

‘Wild Man’ by Alecia Simmonds
A compelling true crime story that follows the coronial inquest into the death of a mentally unstable man shot dead by police on a remote farm.

A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St John

A Pure Clear Light’ by Madeleine St John
A domestic black comedy about middle-class life in 1990s London.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanski
Extraordinary memoir about Szubanksi’s life lived in the shadows of her father’s war-time activities in Poland.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor

‘Dying: A Memoir’ by Cory Taylor
Heartfelt and brutally frank memoir by a leading Australian author diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Salt Creek

‘Salt Creek’ by Lucy Treloar
Superb historical novel about one family’s attempt to settle a remote area on the South Australian coast and the dreadful, heartbreaking repercussions that follow.

Hush Little Bird by Nicole Trope

‘Hush, Little Bird’ by Nicole Trope
Deliciously suspense-filled tale about two women sent to prison for two separate but shocking crimes.

Hot Little Hands

‘Hot Little Hands’ by Abigail Ulman
Effortlessly readable collection of short stories about teenage girls or young women trying to find their way in the world.

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard

‘The Media and the Massacre’ by Sonya Voumard
A hard-hitting look at the relationship between journalists and their subjects in the context of Tasmania’s Port Arthur massacre.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood
Award-winning dystopian novel set in a remote prison for women who have been sexually shamed.

Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright

‘Small Acts of Disappearance’ by Fiona Wright
Surprisingly gripping collection of 10 essays about the author’s struggle with an eating disorder.

Have you read any of these books? Or care to share a great read by an Australian woman writer? Or any woman writer, regardless of nationality?

By the way, I plan on signing up for the 2017 Australian Womens’ Writers Challenge in the New Year. If you want to join me, you can sign up via the official website.

Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Fourth Estate, literary fiction, London, Madeleine St John, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘A Pure Clear Light’ by Madeleine St John

A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St John

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 224 pages; 2009.

The late Australian writer Madeleine St John (1941-2006) first came to my attention when I read her debut novel —a rather delicious black comedy called The Women in Black — several years ago.

A Pure Clear Light, which was first published in 1996, was her second novel. This one is set in London — Hammersmith and Notting Hill, to be precise — where the author, herself, resided, having emigrated to the UK in 1966 (she was a contemporary of Bruce Beresford, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes — how’s that for a star-studded line up?) It could be best described as a domestic comedy, but its humour is tempered by pathos and an exploration of all the complications and chaos of modern life, which makes for a fiercely intelligent read.

Middle-class London life in the 1990s

Set over the course of around six months, it focuses on Simon and Flora Beaufort, a middle-class couple with three children — Janey, 13, Nell, nine, and Thomas, five. Their lives are comfortable but hectic — David, who directs and writes TV plays, is on the constant look-out for the next big thing, and Flora is busy running her own business with a friend importing and selling third-world textiles.

Right from the very start, we find out that Simon is having an affair with an accountant called Gillian Selkirk and they’ve been spotted having a romantic meal in a French brasserie by one of Flora’s friends. The story then rewinds to show how the affair began — and how Simon carries on his subterfuge right under his wife’s nose without her ever realising.

On the face of it — and indeed going by the blurb alone — you would think this was a story about a marriage falling apart through Simon’s betrayal, but it’s much more than that. The over-riding theme is the transitory nature of life and the need to “live in the moment”. This is brought home to Simon very early on when he wanders the streets of his neighbourhood while Flora is away on holiday with the children:

You could hardly live in Hammersmith without being all but overwhelmed with the realisation of life’s essential transience; the place was a monument to transience; and if there was a paradox, so much the better. Simon, in his family’s absence, had taken to walking in the long summer evenings: one walked for a few miles, and then one came to a pub; one had a few pints and walked home again, and went to bed. One walked down impossible blighted streets, past lovely, blighted houses, the motorway roaring overhead, the river coming into view, every transient item supporting a stream of transient life: their only absolute reality was their passing.

Flora, too, is ever aware of the passing of time and looks for solace in religion and spiritual growth. A lapsed Catholic — Simon, a non-believer, talked her out of it when they had first got together — she begins attending the Anglian church even though “she didn’t sufficiently believe in God”. She’s not quite sure what she’s looking for, only that something is missing.

Simon, too, thinks something is missing but can never put his finger on it. When Thomas takes up ballet and dances for him, he feels momentarily delighted:

‘That’s the stuff,’ said Simon. And he felt as happy as a person can ever be. Why isn’t this enough? he wondered. Why do we always want something more? How can this be?

A quick, light read 

If I’m making the book sound heavy, I don’t mean to, because there’s a lightness of touch — dare I say a transience to the writing? — which makes it a quick and light read. The chapters are exceedingly short — there’s 81 of them, and some are only two or three pages long — and most of the story is told through dialogue, which is short and snappy and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

For instance, there’s a terrific (or should that be ‘triffic’? see below) set piece at the opening of an art exhibition that takes the mickey out of Australians in London, which had me guffawing over my Kindle. It relies very much on stereotypes, so it’s not really in keeping with the rest of the book, and because the author is Australian herself I think she gets away with it, but anyone else and I’d be feeling slightly insulted!

‘Gidday,’ said the antipodean amiably, ‘likewise.’
‘Well –’ said Lydia, ‘they’ve certainly got a crowd in tonight. Everyone’s here.’
‘Yeah, it’s beaut!’
‘I’m afraid I haven’t had a chance yet to see the paintings properly – so many people in the way.’
‘No worries; they’ll be up for two more weeks.’
‘Yes, I must come back during the day.’
‘You do that.’
‘Yes. Anyway, I do hope you’re enjoying London – but then I dare say you’ve been here before.’
‘Oh yeah, I have; it’s bonzer.’
‘Oh good.’
‘Yeah, I’ve been havin’ a beaut time.’
‘Oh, beaut. Oh, sorry – I mean –’
‘No worries!’
‘Oh good. Anyway – where are you staying exactly?’
‘Oh, I’ve got a loan of a triffic flat in Notting Hill.’
‘Oh yes, Notting Hill.’
‘Yeah that’s right – beaut place.’
‘So you know lots of people here, do you?’
‘Oh, well, I know a few. I’ve met some more here. They’re bonzer people.’
‘Oh, are they?’
‘Yeah, right; triffic!’

The story is also populated by a vast cast of the Beaufort’s friends and colleagues, many of whom only have brief appearances in the novel, but this helps create the very real feeling that both Simon and Flora lead chaotic, always busy lives.

A Pure Clear Light feels like something Muriel Spark might have cooked up with Nina Bawden or Penelope Fitzgerald. It’s a fast-paced read, with a healthy dose of flippancy and humour to balance out the deeper themes — love, marriage, family, religion and the temporary nature of life itself.

This is my second book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my second for #AWW2016.

The author is widely published in the UK, but US and Canadian readers may have to search online for secondhand copies.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, general, Hachette Digital, historical fiction, literary fiction, Madeleine St John, Publisher, Setting

‘The Women in Black’ by Madeleine St John


Fiction – Kindle edition; Hachette Digital; 208 pages; 2011.

What do you do if you’ve just finished a hard-hitting, quite brutal and confronting, and overtly male book? You choose something completely different — in theme, tone and style — to read. So, hot on the tails of David Ireland’s The Glass Canoe I picked up Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black — first published in 1993 — and what an utter delight it proved to be.

Delicious black comedy

This rather delicious black comedy is set in F. G. Goode’s, a Sydney department store — rumoured to be based on David Jones — during the 1950s and follows a group of women from various backgrounds who work in Ladies’ Frocks.

There is Patty Williams, fretting away because after several years of marriage, she remains childless and she fears that she may have chosen the wrong man in Frank, who prefers to spend all his spare time in the pub. There is Fay Baines, fast approaching 30 and imminent lifelong spinsterhood, who is growing sick and tired of all the hapless men she dates. There is Miss Jacobs — “whose Christian name remained a secret” — a stout and elderly woman, who has never missed a day’s work, but keeps herself to herself. There is Lesley “Lisa” Miles, the temporary sales assistant who has just finished her Leaving Certificate and wants to go to university — although her father doesn’t approve.

And finally there is Magda — “no one could even try to pronounce her frightful Continental surname” — a Displaced Person from Slovenia, who runs the Model Gowns department in super-efficient and glamorous style.

Magda, the luscious, the svelte and full-bosomed, the beautifully tailored and manicured and coiffed, was the most overwhelming, scented, gleaming, god-awful and ghastly snake woman that Mrs Williams, Miss Baines and even, probably, Miss Jacobs herself had ever seen, or even imagined.

Written in a style reminiscent of the delightful Muriel Spark, The Women in Black charts the ups and downs of these women as they struggle to find their place in a rather male-dominated world. And while there’s no real solid plot, there’s a decidedly fairy-tale element to it in which Lisa is taken under Magda’s wing and transformed from a shy, bookish and naive young schoolgirl into a confident young woman intent on following her dreams.

Fun and frothy, but never simple

And while the story is good-natured and fun and perhaps just a tad “frothy”, there’s some important issues underpinning it, not least the way in which women are treated by the men around them. I  don’t think it is any coincidence that all the Australian men in this book are depicted as rather insensitive or chauvinistic — or both (which, funnily enough, ties up nicely with my previous read, even though that was set a decade or so later). And it is only the “Continental” men — specifically Magda’s husband Stefan and his Hungarian friend Rudi — who are cultured and sophisticated and who treat women with respect and courtesy.

Indeed, St John writes these refugees — or “reffos” as they were pejoratively called at the time — who settled in Australia after the Second World War with acute sensitivity and insight, presenting them as well educated and “cultivated” — everything that an ordinary Australian at the time was not. This is nicely summed up by Magda when she denounces Rudi’s plan to find a nice Australian girl to marry as “madness” because all the cultivated girls have gone abroad. “You will hardly ever find one here; if you do she is saving her fare to London, I can guarantee it,” she says.

Although The Women in Black — the title refers to the uniform the ladies wear at work — is slight and can easily be read in a couple of sittings, it is hugely intelligent and acutely perceptive about human relationships and the way in which “Continentals” began to transform Australian society — for the better. It’s an utterly delicious read — heartwarming, life affirming, funny and sad, all at the same time. I found it rather joyful and fun, as did Victoria Best who reviewed it so beautifully on Tales from the Reading Room last year. Whispering Gums also has a lovely review on her blog.

The good news for British and North American readers is that you don’t have to order it from Australia to read it — there are two editions (one by Abacus and one by Text Classics) readily available.