Certain Admissions

I love Gideon Haigh's writing, though I've mostly read his cricket writing rather than his books on crime or business. Certain Admissions popped up as I was browsing Brotherhood Books and I checked if it was available at the library, and it was! 

I'd never heard of this notorious 1949 Melbourne murder case, but when I picked up the book from the library, my mum immediately said, 'I remember this,' and started flicking through it. She would have been a young teen at the time of the crime, but since it sprawled over three trials and the convicted man continued to attract media attention long into his sentence, she would have been aware of him for a long time.

Beth Williams was brutally killed on a beach one summer's night and suspicion immediately fell on John Bryan Kerr, with whom she had spent the previous evening. He vehemently protested his innocence, the police were heavy-handed, and two juries were unable to reach a verdict; he was finally convicted, but released after a decade in jail. He was known as the 'Prince of Pentridge' -- a debating star and radio personality. The fact that he was young, handsome, and well-educated no doubt swayed public opinion; but the notoriety he so carefully cultivated followed him around long after his release from prison. But did Kerr do it?

It's always a bit of a thrill to read a book set in your own hometown and I'm very familiar with the streets and suburbs featured in Certain Admissions. (One letter of protest was sent from a street metres from where I live.) I also visit Pentridge pretty often -- it's my local shopping centre and cinema these days, though when this book was written, it hadn't yet been redeveloped and Haigh was able to wander through the cells occupied by men like Kerr. I must admit I don't think I could live in a house built inside the grounds of Pentridge -- too many ghosts! Certain Admissions was a fascinating story in its own right, grippingly written by Haigh, but the fact that it's set in Melbourne did add an extra frisson.



 I'm not sure why Sybille Bedford's Jigsaw caught my eye when it appeared on Brotherhood Books, though the subtitle, An Unsentimental Education: A Biographical Novel, definitely piqued my interest. An author's (fictionalised?) memoir of her youth in the South of France in the 1920s? Right up my alley. I noted it down on my wish list.

And then, a day later, I was browsing real life books in our local op shop, and there was this same bright blue cover peering up at me, and only $2! It was obviously meant to be, and I brought Sybille Bedford home with me.

Well -- wow. I enjoyed this book as much as anything I've read for ages. What a story! Young 'Billi,' shunted across Europe between her stiff, sad German father and her beautiful, feckless, vivacious, mother, winds up in a small seaside French town with her mother and her mother's much younger, besotted husband Alessandro. They befriend the local characters and exotic visitors and enjoy various delightful and comic misadventures, until the last third of the book takes a darkly gripping turn, and I could barely put it down from then on till the final page.

This is so much my kind of book, I couldn't believe that I've never come across Sybille Bedford before. I immediately ordered two of her books online and if any more of them wink at me from a box in the op shop, I will dive on them with joy.


First Knowledges: Law

As an outspoken supporter of the Yes case for the upcoming Voice referendum, Marcia Langton has copped a heap of abuse. At recent appearances, she looks exhausted, and fed up, as well she might. You get the impression that Marcia Langton doesn't suffer fools gladly, and that she comes across a lot of fools.

The latest installment of the First Knowledges series, Law: The Way of the Ancestors, is co-written by Langton and Aaron Corn, and it lays out in basic, approachable terms the foundations of traditional (and continuing) First Nations law. Obviously in a slim volume like this, the reader can be given only a simple understanding of an extremely complex body of knowledge, but Langton and Corn succeed in explaining some simple concepts and illustrating them clearly, often with the use of graphics and traditional design. Their explanation of Michael Nelson Jagamarra's beautiful mosaic in the forecourt of Parliament House, Possum and Wallaby Dreaming, is a particular delight.

The tracks of Possum and Wallaby slowly and humbly approach the meeting place, a great white-hot fire, around which radiate the ceremonial colours, each of which is associated with a different Warlpiri group, each of whom in turn is responsible for a particular group of ceremonies and ritual, all interdependent on the others. There are more layers of meaning and relationship which are too complex to repeat here and which leave me breathless with wonder and awe at the intricate web of story and tradition which bind communities together. 

The emphasis throughout is on the maintenance of balance and stability, never allowing one individual or group to become more powerful or dominant over the rest. Patterns of familial responsibility and marriage ties ensure that everyone has a deep stake in the preservation of land and lore. It's a system that worked brilliantly for over 60,000 years, yet was flexible enough to allow for adaptation and innovation -- until the catastrophe of invasion.

The First Knowledges series is such a fantastic introduction to First Nations ideas and practices, and I'm thrilled to see that the series, originally intended to comprise six volumes, has been extended to include further titles on Innovation, Medicine and Seasons. I can't wait to read them.


The Lamb Enters the Dreaming

I have taken a long time over reading Robert Kenny's award-winning The Lamb Enters the Dreaming, partly because the complexity of the subject matter required careful concentration, and partly because I wanted to savour it and let it sink in.

Kenny examines the story of Nathanael Pepper, one of the first Aboriginal converts to Christianity in the Western District of Victoria; but as well as thinking about the point of view of the missionaries and their joy at recruiting a local Australian (who seemed largely impervious to the message of Jesus), Kenny also looks at what might have been gained for Pepper himself, and how he might have found sense and meaning in integrating the Christian story with his own traditional culture and also the catastrophic impact of invasion.

One really interesting point that Kenny makes is that it was probably the animals that the invaders brought with them, rather than the humans, that were the most shocking intrusion into the Aboriginal cosmology. First Nations people were used to large two-legged beasts -- emus, kangaroos -- and suddenly these big, alien four-legged animals appeared from nowhere: cows, sheep, and most alarmingly, horses. How were they to make sense of these shocking new life-forms? Men on horseback must have seemed like some bizarre hybrid species. As Kenny says, it must have seemed as if the Martians had landed. And were the white humans there to serve the animals, or the other way round?

The Lamb Enters the Dreaming is deeply thought-provoking and fascinating stuff. Not light reading, but very rewarding.


Singing For Mrs Pettigrew

I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't read much by Michael Morpurgo, except Private Peaceful and I think one other, whose name escapes me. He is much beloved by members of my book group -- indeed Singing For Mrs Pettigrew is a loan from Suzanne -- and they know what they're talking about. As a former UK Children's Laureate, he is well qualified to talk about writing, and this collection of stories and essays is lovely to look at and lovely to read.

Some of these stories are drawn from Morpurgo's own childhood, while others were inspired by war or nature. The stories are very moving and often sad, illuminated by the essays which speak simply and tenderly about the craft of story-telling, and poetry and belonging, about childhood and war and a sense of home.

Though this book is ostensibly for young readers, I think it might appeal more to people like me, who I have called elsewhere Adults Who Like Kids' Books. There is a beautiful sincerity and straightforwardness in Morpurgo's style which makes for meditative, surprisingly profound reading.


Strangers at the Farm School

Josephine Elder's Strangers at the Farm School was an op shop find, only two dollars! It was my first introduction to Josephine Elder (though Girls Gone By have published some titles of hers) and to the Farm School series, of which this is the third and final volume.

Published in 1940 but set in 1938, I found this book so interesting on a number of levels. Published in the middle of the war, there are a few pointed references to Hitler, but the focus is on a pair of young Jewish refugees who have been sent to England to escape growing persecution in Germany. The oppression is nicely judged -- not too horrific for young readers, but menacing nonetheless. Johanna and Hans have experienced bullying and exclusion at school, and their father has been imprisoned in a concentration camp. Though the siblings are described in the text as having dark colouring, the illustrator (or publisher?) has chosen to make them rather fair on the cover (probably not for any sinister reason, but maybe to provide a contrast with the better established characters also pictured).

The Farm School is an unconventional school but so successful that it's experiencing an influx of new students, some of whom have trouble adjusting to a school with few rules and lots of hard work on the farm. Annis, the newly elected School President, has to deal with some 'rowdy' boys as well as the traumatised refugees, and this leads to some interesting philosophical ruminations:

"... The bees are too unselfish. They've squashed themselves so much that they're just machines, they can never get any better or cleverer than they are...I don't want us to be selfish, but I do want us to be happy -- and if we're doing things we like doing as well as ever we can, we shall be happy and the school will be good... a state -- like I said -- would be -- almost heaven, I should think -- "

So the ideal is not Fascism, with all its rules imposed from above, nor Communism, with everyone equal but 'squashed,' but a self-regulated liberal society where everyone puts in necessary labour but also works hard to excel at their own particular gift. Heaven, indeed! The point is not laboured, but it's pretty clear.

Disappointingly, in an otherwise quite subtle book, though the Jewish refugees are treated with nothing but sympathy and understanding, the same is not true of the 'gippos' -- while it's admitted that gypsies 'don't kidnap children anymore,' (my emphasis) contact with them still demands a disinfectant bath afterwards. And there is a gratuitous reference to someone behaving like a 'black slave.' So while Elder was probably progressive for her time, it's a shame she didn't think it through just a shade further. Still, Strangers at the Farm School is definitely a cut above your average school story and I'm interested to read Elder's other works.


A Hunger of Thorns

Is there anything Lili Wilkinson can't do? A Hunger of Thorns is her 18th novel and it's quite a swerve from her recent, realistic books. A Hunger of Thorns is full-on fantasy, set in the world of Anglyon, which seems to combine elements of Australia (tea trees, onion weed) with a traditional Anglo-European landscape. And of course, this world contains magic -- a power that used to flow freely, controlled by witches, but which has now been taken over and regulated by big corporations and the state.

This world is broad and complex, and it took me a while to settle into the details, but once I did, the ride gathered pace and swept me effortlessly along. Lili can really write, and she combines fairy tales, traditional witch lore, botany (I know she is a keen gardener), adventure, a dark family backstory, same-sex romance and magic -- all with a wonderful feminist twist. The invention of 'mettle' which is the source of magic and a kind of vital life force, is a powerful and elegant device which retains some lovely mystery. There are elements of horror here, too, with the ragged, terrifying beast, the Tatterdemalion, and the cycle of ghastly death and choking rebirth forced on Ginger and Winnie. 

A Hunger of Thorns reads like the first book in a series -- a trilogy at least -- there are plenty of loose ends for our heroine Maude to pursue, not least the sinister magic corporation, Ilium. I have a feeling we are going to see a lot more of Ilium in the future. A Hunger of Thorns is a strong and satisfying fantasy, and I suspect the answer to my initial question is a resounding NO!


The Camelot Betrayal and The Excalibur Curse

The story that began in The Guinevere Deception continues in The Camelot Betrayal and concludes in The Excalibur Curse. Kiersten White is an experienced young adult author, and she hits every beat with precision. There is mystery, magic, stolen kisses, the old cuddling-in-a-cave-to-warm-up-after-almost-drowning scene, hair-raising escapes, and primarily a struggle for Guinevere to discover her true self. Is she really Merlin's daughter, as we were told in Book 1, or something far more complicated?

I did sometimes find myself reeling slightly between the Dark Queen, the various Ladies of the Lake, and Morgana -- it could be hard to separate them at times, though the focus on female power is welcome. Guinevere magically 'possessing' her nearest and dearest also became a little bewildering! It's refreshing to read a version of the Camelot story where Merlin is an out and out villain, and Guinevere is the centre of the story. Guinevere's sense of herself being in the wrong body will also surely resonate with some readers. I appreciated the way Mordred arranged for the magical women of Camelot to find a new home on an island, though it's not named as Avalon until the final volume. 

The story spanks along and there is plenty to reward readers familiar with the Arthur legends, though I think young readers who don't already know the myths will appreciate it as a female-centred fantasy tale. The ending was nicely optimistic, though perhaps a little ambiguous for those who do know how the three cornered relationship between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere traditionally ends! My one quibble is that, to me, the love between Lancelot and Guinevere felt 'told' rather than 'shown.' But maybe that's just me. This trilogy was a really enjoyable excursion on my Camelot adventures.


The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels

The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels is another twisty page-turner from Janice Hallett, the author of The Twyford Code. This time the story is told in emails, WhatsApp messages, and interview transcriptions as we follow Amanda, a true crime author who is researching her next book, on the so-called 'Alperton Angels' case from eighteen years before. Now 'the baby' at the centre of the case is about to become an adult and can tell their own story for the first time, there is a rush to track them down and secure exclusive access. But there is another writer on the trail, an old colleague of Amanda's, and there is a dark history between them...

I do enjoy Hallett's style. The trick of telling the story via emails and dialogue transcriptions might seem gimmicky at first, but it does push the story along at a tremendous pace and keeps it feeling fresh. There are lovely bits of humour, too, as when Amanda assures each of two documentary makers that their film was definitely the superior version. I did manage to pick some elements of the mystery in advance but the ending was a genuine shock. And there are some pertinent reflections here about belief, conspiracy theories, blind faith and superstition that feel very relevant in a world teeming with mis- and disinformation.

I suppose now I will have to seek out Hallett's first novel, The Appeal, and report back on that one, too.


The Queen Is Dead

Former journalist Stan Grant found himself at the centre of a storm of outrage exactly a year ago, when his panel on ABC discussing the future of the monarchy, colonisation and empire, which aired on the day of the Queen's funeral, stirred complaints from viewers who would have preferred to gossip about the frocks at the Abbey than think about any issues of substance. Full disclosure: I didn't watch the panel, but I'm also aware that every single commercial channel was also offering coverage of the funeral, so it's not as if affronted viewers had no choice but to tune in. Apparently the most common complaint was the timing of the discussion; many felt that the day of the funeral itself was not an appropriate time for airing such topics. Again, I disagree -- it could be argued that the death of one monarch and the accession of another is exactly the appropriate time to talk about what role the monarchy has played in Australia's past, and what role it should play in the future.

ANYWAY, The Queen Is Dead was written in the aftermath of this controversy, and it shows. Stan Grant is filled with rage and frustration. In the voice of an orator or a preacher, he expresses a burning energy of deep sadness and anger. He stresses that he is not talking about Queen Elizabeth as a person, as a beloved mother and grandmother -- he speaks of the White Queen, the symbolic role of head of state, the Crown, in whose name so much wrong was inflicted on the First Nations peoples of what became the Commonwealth of Australia.

The pages of The Queen Is Dead drip with pain and fury, but I couldn't stop turning the pages. Grant's story sweeps across the history of Whiteness, the crushing damage wreaked on Aboriginal people, and the personal story of his own family and his own life. Particularly in the context of the approaching referendum, this is such an urgent plea, a cry from the heart. I feel incredibly frustrated myself at the evident lack of understanding of Australia's history that I see and hear around me at the moment; I can only imagine how someone like Stan Grant must feel.




I can't quite remember how Rosamund Lupton's Afterwards came into the house -- I know that my mum read it, and she hasn't read a novel for ages, so it's been lurking at the bottom of my wardrobe for literally years. Maybe I picked it up from a street library? It was published in 2012, and it has an interesting premise, featuring two spirits hovering between life and death -- a mother and daughter, both victims of a horrific fire at a school. They hang around the hospital, eavesdropping on police interviews and bedside conversations, both determined to solve the mystery of who actually started the fire (their eight year old son/brother has been accused of arson). It creates a weird vibe as they talk back to their husband/father and other relatives, but of course they can't be heard... and time is running out to save their lives.

In some ways this is a fairly standard procedural mystery, mostly consisting of people talking in rooms, and disconnected memories of the fateful day. Gradually more backstory is revealed, initial impressions are overturned, prejudices are refuted and there are a few twists along the way. It's not exactly a happy ending, but it is a conclusive one. 

One detail which put me off was the fact that there were two middle-aged mothers called Grace and Maisie, and two teenage daughters named Rowena and Jenny! To me, those names were the wrong way round generationally -- I went to school with Rowenas and Jennys (so many Jennys), while Maisie and Grace were both popular names for my daughters' cohort. A tiny quibble but an annoying one.



I heard about this novel on Radio National's Book Shelf when the author, Paul Daley, was a guest talking about someone else's book. But he was able to briefly mention Jesustown at the end of the show and I was immediately intrigued. Anything that explores the history of First Nations and white interaction on the Australian frontier is instantly interesting to me.

Jesustown is a fictionalised version of a part of Australian history. It's set in 'Arcadia,' which Daley has suggested could be anywhere 'above the Brisbane line.' Problematic Nathaniel Renmark, Renny, self-educated anthropologist, was the grandfather of popular historian Patrick, whose own life has spectacularly imploded. (I could certainly see shades of Patrick in a couple of broad-brush, 'story-ist' historians, but he is more extreme than any of them. I did find it hard to believe that any Australian historian, even one who's relocated to the UK, could find such a degree of popularity and notoriety that the tabloids would be obsessed with chasing him.) The story is mostly told by miserable, self-pitying Patrick, but we also hear Renny's voice through some audio cassettes, and it's via Renny's confessions that we learn the truth behind the legends of Jesustown.

Though the history of Jesustown is fictional, it draws on real events, like the Caledon Bay murders in the Northern Territory in the 1930s -- a story I'd never heard of before. Jesustown is also about generational trauma, not only in the First Nations community, but within Patrick's family, with military horror, trauma, brutality and parental neglect passing down through four generations. Hopefully Patrick has acquired enough insight by the end of the book to halt the process, but there is no easy redemption in this novel.


Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne: EDITED

I wish the word 'queer' would come back into fashion. It was such a handy, inclusive umbrella for all manner of sexualities and identities, without having to march through the seemingly endless parade of initials (which now admits defeat anyway, with a + tacked on the end to cover anyone who might have been forgotten). And it carried in its bones an implicit challenge, a bent agenda, to subvert whatever might be considered 'normal' or 'conventional.' Queer made room for everyone who felt themselves to be, for whatever reason, not quite straight.

I borrowed Secret Histories of Queer Melbourne for research purposes, but I found plenty of memories and some familiar faces as well as fascinating unknown stories inside. Secret Histories proceeds chronologically, offering stories from early Melbourne of cross-dressers, exclusive clubs, shadowy corners of parks and riverbanks, often only revealed in court records or tabloid newspaper stories. As the timeline moves into my own lifetime, I was reminded of particular nightclubs and bars, university societies, and advertising campaigns that featured in the landscape of my youth. 

I'm so happy that the archive material for a collection like this, for many years stashed in Graham Willett's garage, has found a proper home in the Victorian Pride Centre in St Kilda. The queer folk who
 stalk, sashay and march through these pages would be astonished at how far we've come, though however much territory is gained, it seems there is always a fresh battle to be fought.

EDIT to add: I was reading this book at exactly the time that the Four Corners program came out, questioning why not one AFL footballer has come out as gay in the whole recorded history of the game (except in AFLW, where it's not an issue at all). One of the final chapters was about the Pink Magpies, a Collingwood supporters' group which was mentioned during the show. It's so sad and disappointing that while the code as a whole and, it appears, individual clubs and players, are welcoming and accepting, it's the game's 'supporters' that seem to form the biggest obstacle to openess -- the internet trolls who don't need any more ammunition to make the players' lives a misery.)


The Joy of the Snow

I've been waiting ages for Girls Gone By to re-issue Elizabeth Goudge's autobiographical memoir, The Joy of the Snow, but it's taken so long, I got fed up and ordered it from World of Books. I knew that I'd read this book before, a long time ago -- maybe in high school? -- because I always remembered one section when Goudge singles out The Valley of Song as one of only three of her own books that she actually loves, even though as she admits it's a rather muddled and peculiar book. But the bit that stuck with me was when she says it was liked by a few children '(and how I adored those children).' I remember feeling so proud and special for being one of those select few, even though Goudge didn't know of my existence!

This is a quiet but lovely book which will mean a lot to Goudge fans but not much to anyone else, I fear. She writes beautifully about her childhood and youth, her parents, and particularly of the places she has lived, each of which has its own atmosphere and beauty and each of which she has used as settings for her novels. The power of Goudge's love of place and nature is deep and spiritual, and it's this that I most respond to as a reader, I think. She also writes very amusingly of how Green Dolphin Country unexpectedly won a major American prize (though she only received a small percentage of the money) and how this good fortune changed her life forever, much to the bemusement of her friends and neighbours. 

Goudge suffered all her life with anxiety and at times depression, and a modern reader wonders whether, with her extreme sensitivity and hatred of change, she may have been neuro-diverse? It was also interesting to read a chapter about ghosts and what Goudge calls 'ESP,' the very day after I'd been to see the play 2.22 A Ghost Story


Naked Ambition

Robert Gott's new novel, Naked Ambition, was just published this year, so I was quite surprised to find it in an op shop already -- maybe a book reviewer doing a clean-out? Their loss was my gain. Naked Ambition is a short novel with an entertainingly simple concept: Gregory is a young(ish) politician who has, against all common sense, commissioned a full frontal nude portrait of himself, to be entered in the Archibald Prize. All the women in his life -- his wife, his mother, his mother-in-law, his sister, his boss the Premier -- all think this is a terrible idea, for various different reasons, but Gregory insists on sticking to his plan. And then the portrait is stolen...

Naked Ambition unfolds almost like a play, with most of the characters assembled in one room and exchanging their views. There are really only a handful of scenes, so it wouldn't even be a very long play. I've enjoyed Robert Gott's previous work, his historical murder mysteries, also featuring self-centred, self-deluding men, and also his long-running cartoon series, The Adventures of Naked Man (what else!) It is funny to reflect on the disruptive effect of that simple thing, human nudity, and Naked Ambition neatly explores a variety of responses to Gregory's portrait. As usual with Gott's work, the women are far more intelligent and insightful than the men; but that doesn't necessarily mean that they'll come out on top. Which is also like real life, unfortunately.