karen has things to say

Reading, thinking, writing …

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Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty –


Published July 20th 2016 by Macmillan Australia
ISBN 1743534914 (ISBN13: 9781743534915)


This is the second Liane Moriarty book I’ve read (The Husbands Secret was the other), and I’m left with the same impression as first time – a very competent writer with a knack for capturing the fine grain detail of life in the current culture from a woman’s POV. This time the story tackles the kinds of slippage in relationships that can lead to them failing – the mundane, everyday stuff of life that accretes to something mighty big and important. She’s fabulous at this; she lets the tension slowly build until it reaches the point where its gripping, then you can’t put the book down.

We have three couples – Clementine and Sam, Erika and Oliver, Vid and Tiffany. The politics of long, intimate relationships are the stuff of this story – the dynamics of marriage, mothering, need, and desire as lived by these three very different couples. It’s well done, I loved them all by the end of it. The cast of secondary characters – children, mothers, neighbours is just as rich and you feel their pain as things get difficult. Moriarty draws her characters with a soft nib; she likes them – otherwise, certain of them would be unbearable. As it is, their human frailties are all too familiar and I found myself feeling all sorts of identifications with their lives; so easy to understand and behaviour and concerns that are so very sharply observed. I found myself growing quite fond of them.

The story itself is deeply embedded in the lives of first-world suburbanites; problems with careers, problems with flagging marriages, problems with parental paranoias, problems with status anxiety. Moriarty builds, hints, teases about what’s coming, and the sucker punch, when it finally does come, is a doozy. Then the story becomes really interesting as the drama unfolds following the fateful barbecue where it all comes adrift.

I have one niggle – the set up part of the book is unnecessarily long and annoyingly chirpy as Moriarty fluffs about. If you’re easily dissuaded you may not persist long enough to get to the rich bits. Do persist, it’s worth it! She casts depth and power into what would otherwise be too easily dismissed as a chick-lit cosy read, but even though it may not deliver your psyche into awe and wonder, this has more spine, more guts, more punch. You might just see yourself in there.

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Between A Dog and A Wolf by Georgia Blain – Review

Paperback, 272 pages
Published March 28th 2016 by Scribe Publications
ISBN 1925321118 (ISBN13: 9781925321111)


I read this book in a day, aided by two one-hour train trips into the city and back. If I’d been at home I would have read it in a day anyway, letting everything else hang. It’s a delicious book, satisfying on every level and shot through with a finely honed intelligence. I haven’t read anything of Georgia Blain’s before, had no idea she’s Anne Deveson’s daughter, no idea that she and her mother died with days of each other, nor that Georgia Blain died of a brain tumour. Finding that out after I’d read the story of Hilary and her daughters only added an extra layer of charge to the story, since Hilary has a brain tumour too. I can’t help but wonder if the clear eyed sensitivity Hilary is written with relates to Blain’s care for her own ailing mother, and if Hilary’s earthy pragmatism, grit and kindness is Blain’s own. I wonder if Blain knew of her own tumour – and what difference, if any, it would have made to her writing.

The story is straightforward enough – a slice of life over the course of a rainy day in Sydney, the lives of Hilary and her two daughters Ester and April. The brilliance is in the depth of character achived, The richness of an ordinary life is superbly drawn as these three women live their day, freighted with all the days before it and the fractured webs between them, both binding and separating them. It’s absolutely masterfully written, beautifully written and I was sorry to reach the end because then it was over, and I had to return to my own slice of life which seemed so muted after spending a day with the brilliance of those three.

The April character is disorganised, chaotic, and saved from awful egotism by her charm. She brings to mind the Ogden Nash poem, ‘Always Marry an April Girl’.

The Esther of the bible was an outcast who became Queen and saved her people. An ester is a chemical compound used in making perfumes and solvents. Good name for a therapist, and we see quite a bit of Ester solving and saving. These passages ring absolutely true, so much so I thought Blain must be an experienced therapist, or have engaged in proper therapy; it doesn’t matter whether she did or not, but it was refreshing to read about a therapist and therapy that accurately depicts how it is for the therapist.

As is true of real therapists, Ester’s own life is a bit messy – she’s quite a bit better at thinking about it than your average Joe, and at holding herself together in it. Her ex-husband Lawrence has committed a terrible treachery that has wounded her horribly. Her relationship with her sister is broken and they have both been in a kind of withdrawal for some time. Hilary is hurt by their falling out, by their hurting. You feel like you know these people and their responses to each other, their internal realities seem like your own. The characters are drawn with an unflinching eye for human foibles, but also a loving eye since they are more than their failings, even Lawrence-the-cad.  Hilary has a brain tumour; she has to do something about the state of things between her girls while she still can. So, she does. And you understand why, exactly. She’s admirable.

By the end of the story you are left knowing what’s coming but without the tidy-up that tells you how it goes. The end is true to the characters and to how any of us might feel, so that there was no other possible ending. And you love them all, and hope they pull together. At the end, the hour between a dog and a wolf – an hour when it’s hard to see clearly – has passed. I think they’ll be able to see clearly by the end. I choose to think they will.

Recommended? Absolutely.


Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford – Review

Paperback, 294 pages
Published October 2016 by Allen & Unwin


I’ve read a lot about how this book is brave, polarising, important. I think it is all of these things. If I’d read it when I was thirty, I would have loved it. Clementine Ford’s outrage would have resonated with my own. Her use of sarcasm and humour would have been a life-saving leavening that saved my head from exploding, maybe hers too. After all, the picture she draws is breathtakingly dismaying. Still. Her extravagant use of foul language wouldn’t have blipped – its a perfectly legitimate way to manifest so much fury. And she’s funny. Anyway, I don’t require all activists to be cool-headed intellectual super-linguists like some folk seem to. Besides, that kind of iciness is the rightful reserve of the English (ok, kidding, don’t get lathered). Nor did I read this book because I wanted to be bathed in beautiful poetic language that made me sigh. I also wonder if her angry words haven’t drawn the very kind of approbation she’s refuting – it isn’t nice for a girl to be so gleefully foul-mouthed and such a girl should be shut up at once. If that’s the case, long may she offend.

However, I’m not thirty and I’ve heard it all before  – as many have pointed out, there’s not a lot of new thinking in this polemic. I don’t think that’s the point at all – I think she is bringing the SAME message – because it is sadly, sorely needed – to a new generation who probably aren’t going to read Gloria, Gertrude, Andrea, or even Naomi, unless they’re doing Women’s Studies or the like.  If that’s so, she’s bang on target – her sass, swearing and humour will reach a generation the old warriors won’t. The young things will love her savaging of Dudebros and That Guy, –  they will get it.  Especially in this regressive age of corporate patriarchy trying it’s damnedest to wipe out any and all opposition. Hers is a firebrand message, even if repeating the tenets, to light the darkness and good on her.

Clementine reveals a lot about her personal history – another point of identification  for young women in the Age of The Selfie, and her life story is sufficiently familiar to reach a LOT of women. I think this is the brave bit since it opens up every despicable charge you can imagine, from being mentally ill to being a fat loser. She’s heard it all, and whilst she may not be made of actual asbestos, she’s developed a pretty thick hide from constant exposure. That the diatribe aimed at her on a daily basis is mind-bogglingly vile pretty well proves her point.  She is brave to keep stepping up to the plate and taking it on the chin for the rest of woman kind. Even Jesus didn’t have to put up with that.

That she unapologetically points the finger at men we know – our husbands, brothers, fathers, friends – is the red rag to the dudebro-bull, but she’s right to do it. Misogyny is a problem for men to wrangle with, and they aren’t doing it enough. It’s hard to give up so much unearned privilege and power – kind of like how it’s hard for the first world to give up much of anything so the rest of the world can have enough. It doesn’t just happen, it has to be made to happen. Clemmy is a maker.

Therefore, this is an important book, and I’m going to give it to the young women I know. And if you haven’t, even if your ears burn a little, you should read it.

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The Strays by Emily Bitto – review


Paperback, 290 pages
Published August 15th 2016 by Legend Press (first published April 30th 2014)
ISBN: 1922213217 (ISBN13: 9781922213211)



Lily arrives at a new school in third grade. She instantly falls in love with Eva, who radiates a certainty of self that mesmerises Lily. As the years go by Lily and Eva become inseparable, and when Lily’s father has an accident that results in him losing his job, she gets to live with the Trenthams while her parents salvage what they can of their lives. The exquisite portrayal of the intense relationship between girls, a true love affair that marks their very souls, is the heart and strength of this fabulous novel. Lily’s longing for a ‘big’ and unconventional life is born in this rule-mocking household, one in which the 1930’s roles for women are held in contempt (sort of) and another possibility is lived. Eva’s parents are artists – bohemian and monied, anarchic and self-absorbed. Lily sees the Trentham household as some kind Elysian perfection – it contains everything she wants; sisters, interesting parents, conversations that matter.

Meanwhile, Evan Trentham’s post-modern artistic vision has spawned a kind of de facto artists colony of young artists who have moved in – the eponymous strays have agglomerated. Every room is filled with art, argument and anarchy.  The art scene of the 1930s is the second strength of the novel; it is so convincingly rendered I actually looked up a few things, certain they must be real.

At first, everything is wonderful – the shared vision of passionate young things makes the household tremendously exciting and invigorating for its inhabitants.  But of course, there is trouble in paradise; the art world of the 1930s finds the group intolerable, and denounces their joint exhibition as obscene, deranged and so on. Within the group, egos are bruised and tensions develop when Jerome outsells Evan – shades of Oedipal struggle begin to stain the brilliant purity of the vision.

Paradise doesn’t really morph into hell until the girls, largely left to do what they like, become involved; by now, they are adolescent and as adolescents will, are full of romance, hormones and in the case of the Trentham girls, a complete lack of regard for ‘proper’ behaviour. When Eva and Heloise run off with one of the men, events libertine Trentham are outraged. The Trentham family, the shared vision, the communal belief system and Lily’s view of these people as better than ordinary folk, are shaken to the point of collapse.

For Lily, the feeling of abandonment resulting from Eva’s abscondment is another defining moment in life – she knows it’s is going to happen, and for a complex web of reasons to do with jealousy, loyalty, longing and grief, does not say anything. The consequences spin out over the rest of her life, bringing us back to the present where the story starts – a letter from Eva, after years of silence, inviting Lily to Evan’s retrospective exhibition.  Lily must decide whether to go – whether to face Eva, who has led a hard, big, unconventional life and who hasn’t spoken other for decades. It means Lily has to reckon with her own choices, her own life and a sense of having failed to meet her own wish to lead an unconventional life.

But she does go. And so, along with her, we see the marks left on everyone who was involved, what all these characters have come to after that glorious, mad, defining time.

This last part of the book is it’s weakest part – it feels rushed, an explanation of the consequences. Maybe Evan was a bit mad and maybe Heloise inherited something of that, and came to the end she did.  Eva, her fathers daughter, turns out to have a good dose of Helena, her mother in her after all. The moral of the story? The grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side of the fence – grass is grass.

The point of the story might be that we are made from the past and that the past has long fingers, and still can hold your heart in a tight clutch. Or, as Lily says “What I feel is a sense of futility that emerges when the past is laid side by side with the present, like two photographs taken many years apart, when it becomes clear that there is no more time.” And then, all we can do is make peace with our decisions and choices as best we can. We carry on, perhaps wiser and try to love our beloveds better. In the end, what matters is how well you love.

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The Island Will Sink by Briohny Doyle



Published August 2016 by The Lifted Brow
Paperback, 245 pages
ISBN: 099460680X (ISBN13: 9780994606808)


This debut novel explores a whole slew of interesting ideas – set in the not too distant future, life has become a wired-in, wired-up unreal fantasy, where disaster is turned into info-tainment and sustainability is so PC it’s been marketed into nonsense. I did especially like the ironic and omnipresent Pow-Pow, the sustainability panda hologram, monitoring everyone’s every move and dispensing points like a futuristic one-size-fits-all behavioural modification programm. How very egalitarian.

The vision of future tech and it’s insidious reach/control of every conceivable aspect of regular life is brilliantly realised and the best aspect of the book. The future described feels possible, maybe even likely. Max, our confused protagonist can’t really discern between programme and reality, and feels his unplugged self to be the unreal version. In fact, he’s amnesiac and relies on ‘the archive’ to supply him with his ideas of himself. Kind of like a future version of Facebook Memories, only FB is in charge. The children are alarming – over-informed, technical hybrids of kids who ask the really good questions about life – that Max struggles to answer.

In amongst the explorations of technically-enhanced life in a post-climate change world, there is a story thread concerned with what is real, how do we experience ourselves/reality, what makes up subjective experience, how do we negotiate inner and outer experience, and how much of any given “i” is reliable anyway? Excellent questions and the story makes a reasonable pass at having Max grapple with them. The weakness of the book is Max – I found him hard to care about. By the end, I wasn’t even sure he was real – because the end is confused and confusing – or maybe I just didn’t get it on first reading.

Would I recommend this book – I think yes, because it asks some important questions about where we, the species, is headed and how.

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Once more into the trenches … I mean, bookshops!

This is my third year of participation in the AWW Challenge, having completed the Franklin challenge in 2014 and 2015 – I skipped 2016, and this year I’ve set a more modest goal (the Stella) so I have room for other reading goals as well. Reviews will appear here on the front page blog, and also on Goodreads. I have  twitter account too and one of these days  I might figure out how to use it. Happy reading!


The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood – Review

Paperback, 320 pages
Published October 1st 2015 by Allen & Unwin
ISBN13 9781760111236

We live in an age of official gender equality, and it’s true that a great deal has changed thanks to the resistance of women in our mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers times. We also live in a time when a great many young women shun the term ‘feminist’ and there is, in general, a regressive pull backwards. And some things are worse. There is a persistent backlash from the malignant masculine element (not all men, not all of the masculine). The loss of absolute power over women has manifested in a virulent hatred of the feminine (in both men and women by both men and women) in this element and these individuals. One of the manifestations of this is in the flourishing of rape culture, attack at the most fundamental and personal level of all – sexuality  – now embedded so deeply in the culture it is hardly remarked upon, and outrage is often disappointingly tepid, or plain missing. The feminine (in both men and women) is still derided and despised, in fact more deeply so by the malignant masculine. Women’s sexuality has been ‘freed’  into odious forms of subjugation – commercial currency in the market place and a truly dismaying level of degradation in the porn industry which these days is a very lucrative forum for rape culture. That old dismaying, revolting double standard is alive and well and more dangerous than ever. It’s still all a girls fault, it is her very nature that makes it so, in fact it’s The Natural Way of Things.

Charlotte Wood has raised her voice in a clear, crystalline, articulate howl of fury against such misogyny in this, her fifth novel. And what a voice it is; fluent, powerful, lyrical, visceral. The novel might fairly be called important. A dark tale, the story feels all too plausible, like it might have already happened, just recently.  It seems entirely possible, disturbingly so, that women deemed to have become inconvenient might easily be snatched out their lives in this case by an entity called Hardings (Hardy’s?), a succinct depiction of how the malignant masculine cares not one fig about morals, the law, or the individual, because it is psychotically focussed on profit and profit alone, for it’s own benefit, alone.

The girls are drugged and whisked away to disappear, possibly forever. They are imprisoned in an abandoned, broken down compound ringed by an unbreachable electric fence, in the middle of nowhere. The parallels with refugee camps and concentration camps, those depositories of other groups of people hated by the dominant powers, is pretty plain. The girls so taken have their identities and womanliness erased – their heads are shaved, they are dressed in identical rough tunics, stiff boots and Amish style bonnets. They are stripped of rights, refused basic amenities of any kind, and set to hard labour on a literal chain gang. They are told nothing, given nothing, barely spoken to except for misogynistic abuse. They are watched over by two men; ‘Boncer’, who is a stupid, violent brute with a stupid name, and Teddy, a vacuous, self-serving, boy-man who just does what he’s told and discharges himself of any further repsonsibility. Their third warden is  Nancy, a skinny, dim girl, supposedly a nurse, who sides with the men. Nancy, like any patriarchal woman who has no real agency of her own, spends her energies snivelling around after the two men, wanting only their attention and approval.

The writing is fierce and darkly sensual and often confronting. The toxic violence in the language used by the men towards the women is absolutely misogynistic, and it is a bit sickening just to read it.  Wood is unflinching in capturing the machinations of everyday hate, and writes with fluid fury on the page. We learn, via the vicious language of Boncer that they are:

“the ministers-little-travel-tramp and that Skype slut and the yuck-ugly-dog from the cruise ship; they are pig-on-a-spit and big-red-box, moll number twelve and bogan gold-digger and gang bang slut. They are what happens when you don’t keep your fucking fat slag’s mouth shut.’

I don’t know about you, but writing like that feels liking being punched in the face it’s so real, so vividly accurate. I doubt anyone will miss the reference to the ‘big red box’, and the message that no woman, no matter how prominent or powerful, is safe from the long and bloodthirsty reach of patriarchy protecting itself.

And the crimes of these ten diverse girls of every hue and stripe? Sexuality that has resulted in men being compromised. The sexual actions of the errant men is not in question, it is the women who are blamed and vilified; they deserved what they got, they asked for it.

Told from the eyes of the girls themselves, they are not these hateful things, but women – one who truly loved a man who was, for her, The One. He was also also a politician. The ‘yuck-ugly-dog’ is a person  –

‘on the cruise ship dance floor, chin tilted, glossy hair up, the black sequinned boob tube that was in all the photos. Those eyelashes thick with lust and mascara, wide sexy mouth, all teeth and laughing. Before everything that happened, when Lydia was just a pretty Maltese girl at a party, a little drunk and up for it, when even that drug-fucked lowlife in the muscle t-shirt might have called her Lydia instead of that thing, that black ugly dog.’

Not all of the women are victims or dupes, some were just too powerfully sexual to be tolerated, like Hetty:

‘The Catholic cardinal, the never published photographs of almost-underage Hetty, just sixteen and, it was said, lying like a fat, happy baby in the purple satin and gold brocade. What the cardinal had seen so close up, Verla knows now, was Hetty’s wet red mouth, the coarse,black eyebrows, potent with some ferocious carnality. He could see what Verla sees now, that Hetty was a little muscled dog that knew how to bite, and how to indiscriminately fuck. If she were a male the pink crayon of her dick would always be out.’

The two main characters, Verla, who truly loved, and Yolanda the beauty who was raped for it, then cast aside as used goods, quickly understand they have to come to a reckoning with all of this, they must pull the scales from their eyes if they are to survive. They, and the other girls, represent those of us blind to, or seduced by, the patriarchy and like them, we need to wake up and see it for the deadly, toxic thing it is; to both genders.  The hatred of the feminine isn’t restricted to men acting on women. The feminine aspects of men are hated too, and thus Boncer is quick to call Teddy a faggott as soon as he shows any signs of sympathy for the girls. In this, Teddy represents the unaggressive men, those who won’t participate in misogyny, the homosexual, those who put love first, the weak – such men also fall under the stamping boot of hatred. To synopisize hugely Carol Gilligan in ‘The Birth of Pleasure, A New Roadmap To Love’ – power and love cannot co-exist, and patriarchy is about power.

The women do not band together just because they’re all female, in fact they are often cruel and horrible to each other, their alliances shift and fall and they are ruled by fear. Their passivity, the failure of ten able women to work together to overcome their two inadequate jailers attests to the introjection of shame and blame that disempowers women/the feminine so effectively. And, of course, women also participate in it. When Hetty suggests Yolanda give herself up to the lustful yearnings of Boncer, she fully enacts a patriarchal principle – a woman can be easily be sacrificed for the benefit of others.

‘… Hetty says slyly to Yolanda, ‘Why don’t you?’

When the other girls realise what she’s talking about they stop what they’re doing, take a breath and wait for Yolanda to turn on Hetty. With her rusted steel, or maybe simply with one of her strong, filthy paws, grasping Hetty’s throat…

… Verla watches them sneaking glances at Yolanda, assessing her now as Boncer might, as Hetty does. The strong jaw, the high noble forehead. her wide, full mouth, the heavy-lidded Cleopatra eyes. The long, creamy body, somehow in her tatters of rabbit skins even more majestic. …

… Hetty hasn’t finished though, ‘You could get privileges,’ she says. ‘He’d do whatever you wanted.’

Yolanda speaks then, her voice husky from lack of use. ‘Over my dead body.’ Cleavering through bone. 

Hetty taunts, ‘He’d probably like that even more,’ and a snigger ripples around. 

Izzy leans in the doorframe and says plainly to Yolanda, ‘But it’s not like you haven’t done worse, though, is it? Nobody heard you complaining when you did it back then.’

Verla sees a cloud of terrible pain cross Yolanda’s face, then vanish. Nobody moves or speaks. Izzy looks frightened, only now realising what she has said. Yolanda behaves as if she hasn’t heard, working away at the rabbit carcass, ripping skin from flesh, breathing steadily in and out.’

Yolanda and Verla do form a tentative alliance based on the recognition of the other’s capacity to see what’s happening  as they each come to grips with what they face. The alliance is fragile, tested by the very different response of each. One goes inward, finding a ‘natural’ and elemental self that would never be possible in the civilised world they have been taken out of. She becomes more and more wild, and simultaneously, more and more herself. She is the female body. The other meets hate with hate, plotting and planning a way out. She is the female intellect. We root for both and they need each other. Both grow freer and stronger as they ‘get it’ about their own situation and the general situation – they become liberated women with a real relationship to each other, develop a real and respectful acceptance for who each other is.

The first half of the novel draws the world the girls find themselves in, the reign of absolute masculine power. Just as that starts to feel unbearable, there is a shift in the story. Yolanda and Verla start to engage their own powers. There is an actual power failure, but the electric fence stays live. They’re all still trapped behind the fence, waiting for Hardings, but now power starts to shift and things start to change. Yolanda and Verla change. The rest, less so, they are less fully drawn.

The ending is brilliant, almost mythical; I won’t say too much about it here since it might change how you read the story. I did love the ending though; it is both big enough to satisfy and small enough to be likely. And sadly, most of the women willingly, blindly unable to see the truth that stares them in the face about the situation they’re in, fail to take the chance they have. Two do. No prize for guessing which two. And the very end, there is the realisation about what it is that matters – oh, so perfect.

Wood does not give us a predictable plot nor even what we might expect; she never makes it clear whether Yolanda is free or mad, or if Verla is a murderer. We don’t get told what Harding’s role is about, nor what the point of the imprisonment might be. We have to think about it and form our own opinion. It’s fitting with the theme, and refreshing to not be told what to think.  She doesn’t take us into the interior worlds of most of the girls. She is taking the long view, shouting to the world – see this, see what is, see what it does, get off the damned bus!

In short, it’s a brilliant piece of work, and despite the heavy theme it is not grim or depressing or preachy. I think you should read it.