1960s Classics

The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow

The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea (Penguin Modern Classics)

Five words from the blurb: Australia, remote, war, disillusioned, restless

I hadn’t heard of The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea until David, a regular commenter on my blog, recommended it. Further research revealed it to be an Australian classic, so I thought it would be the perfect book to read for Kim’s Australian Literature month. I’m surprised that it isn’t more well known outside Australia – it is a wonderful piece of literature!

The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea is set in Geraldton, Western Australian and shows how one family is affected by WWII. The story is narrated by Rob, who is six at the start of the book in 1941, and a teenager by the time it ends in 1949. Rob’s older cousin, Rick, is sent to fight and the whole family must deal with the changes brought on by war and the mental scars of those who return from it. 

The main joy of this book is the vivid sense of place – it contains some of the most evocative descriptions of the Australian landscape I’ve ever read:

In winter, rain flooded the gravelled verges of the street and made brown lakes where wooden and paper boats were floated. The soft mud squished up between the boy’s toes. In winter they were forced into shoes and socks, but they took them off and paddled home in the delicious mud.
The stark grey berry-bushes on the vacant land grew green and soft-looking, and put out small, mauve-tinged flowers. Then spring came, loud with bees, and the red berries formed, and in many yards were yellow flowering cassias. When the petals fell, the flowers turned into writhing green snakes full of seeds.

Rob was a fantastic narrator. He was initially too wise for his age, but I was willing to forgive this problem because of the wonderful narrative arc created. The blurb states that the story is semi-autobiographical and it is easy to see the way personal insight has added to the realistic feel of this story.

The only reason I didn’t fall in love with this book is because the plot was too slow for me. The family dynamics and emotions were flawlessly observed, but very little actually happened. It is a testament to the writing quality that I managed to enjoy a book with so little plot at all. 

Overall, I highly recommend The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea to anyone looking for a fantastic Australian book. This classic deserves a wider audience. 




For more Australian fiction reviews head over to Kim’s blog.


2012 Orange Prize

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany

Mateship with Birds Longlisted for 2013 Women’s Fiction Prize

Five words from the blurb: farmer, observes, birds, teach, sex

Mateship with Birds was one of the books on the 2013 Women’s Fiction Prize Longlist that didn’t really appeal to me. Luckily the writing quality was fantastic; it’s just a shame that the plot was so simple.

Mateship with Birds is set on an Australian farm. Harry is a lonely farmer who decides to teach his neighbour’s son about sex. Very little happens in this book, but the writing is vivid and the animals on the farm are particularly well described:

The wings of a moth opening and closing over the cape weed catch the sun in a silvery flash. One grazing cow startles forwards slightly, her hind legs make clumsy haste, almost overtaking the rest of her. She settles quickly enough but the plug of fear is transferred to her sister, and then the next cow and the next, until the whole herd has felt a diluted fraction of her fear. The herd, together in the paddock, is a sponge. Feelings run like liquid in the irregular, porous spaces between each animal.

If there were awards for the best sex in literature then this book would be a strong contender. The tenderness of the writing was beautiful and the relationship between each character felt realistic. I felt a little distanced from events, but this style worked well given the sexual nature of the text. I should warn sensitive readers that this book contains scenes of slaughter, beastiality, and lots of sexual content.

My main problem with the book was that the plot was too simple. It was so short I read it in a single sitting, but it lacked the power and insight required to make such a quick read memorable. The individual passages were fantastic, but they failed to come together to form a compelling novel.

Overall the writing quality was enough to justify a place on the WFP longlist, but I can’t see it progressing any further.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 …if writing style can be true to the Australian agricultural  landscape, this is it – sparse, brittle, obvious. Books are My Favourite and Best

…it felt as though there were the beginnings of a great novel here, but one that isn’t given space to develop. Crikey

Carrie’s writing style is unique, and incredibly readable. That Book You Like



2000 - 2007 Memoirs

Riding the Black Cockatoo by John Damalis

Riding the Black Cockatoo

Five words from the blurb: Australia, skull, Aboriginal, return, descendants

Riding the Black Cockatoo is the memoir of an Australian man whose family displayed an Aboriginal skull on their mantelpiece for 40 years. He decides to return it to its native home, discovering lots of facts about Aboriginal people along the way.

This book has recently become a set text for GCSE English and I can see why. It is fast paced and easy to read, but effectively manages to capture the author’s changing perspective of Aboriginal society.

The book begins with brutal honesty, recalling the rampant racism of his childhood. The jokes that were in regular circulation are shocking to read now and show how far things have come in just a few decades.

As an Australian of Greek descent who weathered the taunts of ‘wog boy’ throughout my childhood, I remembered the feeling of relief when the bedraggled Vietnamese boat people started washing up onto our shores in the late 1970s. Suddenly the attention shifted from wogs to the newly arrived slopes and geeks. Yet despite the ever-shifting focus of racism in this country, Indigenous Australians have continuously occupied the bottom rung of the ladder.

John Damalis explains how he became ashamed by the presence of the skull and set about researching its origin. Unfortunately, for the reader, the journey of discovery was very short and easy. Everything was over quickly and lacked the depth I’d have liked. I’ve read a few Australian books, but wouldn’t say I know a vast amount about Aboriginal society, so it was disappointing that this book failed to teach me anything of value.

The writing style also began to grate on me after a while. Explanation marks were everywhere! The chatty, informal style will appeal to some, but I’d have preferred a bit more focus as I sometimes felt that the book trivialised events.

I think this is one of those cases where the flaws can be seen as a positive. This book will provoke discussion and is a perfect introduction to cultural studies, especially for teenagers.  But next time I want to learn about the Aborigines I’ll ensure I read a book written by someone who know a bit more about them.



I read this book as part of Australian Literature Month at Reading Matters. Head over there to find more Australian fiction recommendations.


2009 Other Prizes

After the Fire, A Still Small Voice – Evie Wyld

Winner of 2009 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for best work of literature by a UK or Commonwealth writer aged 35 or under

I have heard a few people rave about this book, certain that this is going to win numerous literary awards in 2010; so I thought I should get a head start on the prize lists and read it beofre all those long lists are announced.

After the Fire, A Still Small Voice is set in Australia and is split into two different narratives. The first follows Frank who moves to an old shack previously owned by his grandparents, to escape his violent relationships.

The second focuses on Leon, the child of European immigrants who sought refuge in Australia after their lives were threatened in WWII. Their new life is shattered when his father volunteers to fight in the Korean war.

This book is beautifully written and there are some evocative descriptions of the Australian landscape, but I’m afraid the plot was too gentle for me. The style reminded me of Brooklyn in that the story and prose are very simple, but the emotion is there, bubbling under the surface.

I am sure that this book will pick up some more award nominations, but it was too quiet for me. If you love gentle stories examining relationships and the sense of belonging then you’ll love this book, but I need a bit more action in my novels.


Have you read this book?

1990s Other Prizes

Cloudstreet – Tim Winton

 Winner of the Miles Franklin Award 1992

Cloudstreet is described as an Australian classic and I was really looking forward to reading my first Tim Winton novel, but I’m afraid I was a little bit disappointed.

The book follows two working class families who are forced to live together in the same large house in a suburb of Perth. Set over a thirty year period, beginning in the 1930s, it started off well, building up each character vividly, but by about 100 pages in I was beginning to lose interest. The story was too gentle for me and although the writing was beautiful I found myself becoming bored.

The large number of characters further distanced me from the emotions of each individual. The plot was slow and rambling, focusing on minute details of their lives. I’m sure that a lot of people will love this, but I prefer a bit more action in my books.

The ending of the book was also a bit strange – it just seemed to stop, without tying up many lose ends. I felt as though my book was lacking the last few chapters. I don’t mind ambiguous endings, but this didn’t even seem to do that. It was a bit like the ending of Sea of Poppies in that respect, but at least we are expecting a sequel for that.

Another problem I had was that I found some of the Australian dialect difficult to understand and this was further hampered by the large number of Australian slang words used.

Overall, I can see why Australians adore this book, but I’m afraid it was too gentle for me.


Tim Winton is the only author to win the Miles Franklin award 4 times and I am still interested in reading his other books.

Have you read any of them?

Which is the best?

2009 Commonwealth Writer's Prize Recommended books

The Slap – Christos Tsiolkas

Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2009

I think that The Slap is the most male book I have ever read. If you want to gain an insight into the male mind, then this book is essential reading, but I warn you that it isn’t a pretty sight. It is packed with swear words, thoughts on sex and an obsession with ‘the male dangly bits!’ This book is the male version of ‘chick lit’ and gives an insight into a male’s view of society that is rarely talked about.

The book begins at a suburban barbecue, where a three-year-old child is running riot. The father of another child slaps the toddler, as the toddler tries to injure his son. Everyone is shocked, and the guests at the barbecue are divided between those who thought the three-year-old’s parents should have had more control over their son, and those who thought that no-one should ever slap a child, especially one who isn’t there own. The book switches between the views of several guests at the party, and I loved the way that my opinion was changed after hearing things from each new perspective.

…These kids, they’re unbelievable. It’s like the world owes them everything. They’ve been spoilt by their parents and by their teachers and by the fu**ing media to believe that they all have these rights but no responsibilities so they have no decency, no moral values whatsoever. They’re selfish, ignorant little s**ts. I can’t stand them.

The debate over parental responsibility and slapping has caused a big stir in Australia, where this book originates, but I think this book covers all angles of the subject well. The book is easy to read, fast paced and has a satisfying ending.

The graphic sex, abusive language and controversial subject means that this book isn’t for everyone, but it will generate debate and isn’t that a great thing for a book to do?




Have you read this book? Were you shocked and offended?

Do you think it is right for such a graphic book to win a prestigious prize?