The Glass Canoe, David Ireland

Feature Author 2019: David Ireland

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The Glass Canoe (1976) was David Ireland’s fifth novel and his second (of three) Miles Franklin Award winners. It’s a blokey book, everything I’ve read of Ireland’s including, as I’ve already argued A Woman of the Future (1979), is blokey, reflecting his age, his generation. The Glass Canoe is set, although it’s nowhere stated, in the 1950s, in the years after the War when Ireland was in his young manhood, but before the white Australian working class was swamped by waves of southern European immigration.

The writing however is of its time, post-60s and the sexual revolution, one of the reasons that Ireland’s age – he was born in 1927 (here) – sometimes comes as a surprise. If he were younger this would almost be ‘grunge’.

This is the story of a young man, Lance, the Meat Man, ‘Meat’, in Sydney’s west, out Parramatta way, he calls it ‘the Mead’ – Westmead? (map) – working as a groundsman at the local golf club, a serious drinker at his local, the Southern Cross, and secretly recording the stories of his ‘tribe’, the men who gather daily to drink in this dilapidated, yellow-tiled, suburban blood house.

On hot days we jumped fully clothed into our bottomless beer glasses and pushed off from shore without a backward look. Heading for the deep, where it was calm and cool.

The Mead was our territory, the Southern Cross our waterhole. The next tribe west drank at the Bull, and on the other side the nearest tribe holed up at the Exchange. While your tribe’s waterhole flowed, you never went walkabout to another tribe’s waterhole.

Unless there was trouble, some little matter to be settled.

The novel consists of short chapters of half, one or two pages each, sketches from his life, his past, his work, his darling, sketches of his mates and their lives as members of the tribe. A style reminiscent in both the writing and the layout (as I remember them) of Richard Brautigan’s The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966 (1971).

In many ways this is what the Australian Legend had come to – from bushmen cutting out their cheques at the nearest pub in the 1890s after months shearing or droving, to working men in the endless suburbs gathering daily to drink and fight. There are women, as there always are, to serve the beer, to wait at home and cook the dinner and shout at the kids, to have down the creek or up against a wall or in the back of the car, there are even some, as big and tough as the men, drinking at the bar, and then there is his darling, petite, beautiful, endlessly pleased to see him.

To the extent there is a plot it concerns Sibley, the boy who chose to escape from the Mead but who returns to study drinkers, whom he sees as outside of and beneath society, for his PhD; Meat’s ongoing and probably failing relationship with his darling; and the decline and eventual redevelopment of the Southern Cross, foreshadowing the decline of the Tribe.

Ireland uses Meat, who was good at school but chose not to do anything with it and instead muses whimsically about how things work, from record players to the universe, without ever wishing to know, to tell the story, but uses another character, Alky Jack whom Meat admires, to present Ireland’s own libertarian views.

‘The population must be kept passive,’ I heard him say. ‘This is done by myth. These myths are put in your cornflakes every morning …’

‘… that it’s a free society … human rights are respected … we’re all equal, the elite is generous and just and the best people to be in charge … that our bosses work like buggery and the mob is lazy, they’re honest and we’re dishonest, they’re superior and we’re inferior. That’s the myth.’

The Glass Canoe is a contradiction, and I think this is true of much of Ireland’s work, brilliantly written and politically, hopelessly old-fashioned, though he’s pretty modern, gross even, about fucking and fighting. The following year, 1977, Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip came out, another novel of inner suburban substance abuse in which the characters are clearly a generation younger than Meat’s ‘tribe’ (though the MF judges went with another old fashioned work, Ruth Park’s Swords and Crowns and Rings). Ireland is old fashioned to the point of being reactionary about male bonding, about the subservience of women, and about the irrelevance of Aborigines and the appropriation of their stories

Being forced to drink at another pub was cruel. Like black men forced to leave their sacred places and water holes and become strangers in another tribe.

In the 1970s and 80s I devoured Ireland. I still think he is one of our great writers. But it is obvious too that I had absorbed the myths of Australian manhood and hadn’t – despite a decade’s immersion in socialist, anarchist and anti-war philosophy – begun to even remotely understand the problems race and gender identity.

Do I think you should read The Glass Canoe, yes I do. It’s an accurate portrait of working men, of working men who drank, of our fathers’ generation. If you’re a baby boomer who spent endless afternoons and evenings in the backseat, in the car park of the local hotel, then you will know Meat, you will know King and Mick and Serge and Alky Jack and Darkfella. David Ireland is worth reading, but read him (read everyone!) critically.

Above all, read David Ireland and post a review so I can share it and link it to my page (it’s coming!).

 

David Ireland, The Glass Canoe, Penguin, Melbourne, 1976

see also:
Lisa’s review at ANZLitLovers (here)
David Ireland (here)

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The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami

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I know I came to Murakami late, but now I’m coming to know him I enjoy his work, a blend of literature, grunge, and SF bordering on (dreaded!) magic realism. Murakami’s first three works make up the Trilogy of the Rat. I reviewed the first two, Wind/Pinball (here) some time ago and gave teacher son the third, A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) this Christmas, expecting him to have it finished on Boxing Day as usual. Inconsiderately, he took it with him to Morocco from whence he wrote –

I thought you despised magical realism. I liked most of it. The psychic girlfriend, and the historic davinci-code of a mystery, and the banality of everyday life- I expected him to stop by Nighthawks, or find a flatmate dead with a falafel on any given page. The symbolic sheep was exposed in a way that made it a genuine wonder. Not sure about meeting the Rat, though. I felt cheated when even the almost explicable mystical became brazenly magical.

Not all of this makes sense so, in the library for audiobooks this week, I thought to borrow a copy for myself but there wasn’t one and I borrowed The Strange Library (2005) instead. The Strange Library is a strange and beautiful book, seemingly a novella for children/YAs. I think I would read it to Mr 8 and Ms 7, my younger grandkids, and yet I enjoyed it well enough myself. It’s in that rarefied territory occupied by Lewis Carroll, The Magic Pudding and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and there are the most wonderful illustrations throughout taken “from old books in the London Library”.

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The protagonist, a schoolboy, enters his local library and is ushered downstairs to a strange basement area he never knew existed nor thought the local council could afford.

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A little old man asks him “the manner of books that he seeks” and the boy is flustered into answering ‘tax collection in the Ottoman Empire’ which has just popped into his head. The old man ducks through a heavy steel door and returns with three terribly old books, The Ottoman Tax System, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector and Tax Revolts and Their Suppression in the Ottoman-Turkish Empire. I might have to explain to the grandkids what an ottoman is (when it’s not being a couch).

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The boy is fearful of being late home to his mother, who has been in a state of nerves since he was attacked by a big black dog with green eyes and a jewel-encrusted collar, and anyway she may, she will forget to feed his pet starling, but the old man is insistent the books must be read on site and straight away.

Are you planning to read this for yourself, then Spoiler Alert. The boy is led away through a maze of corridors, to a prison cell. A warder clad only in a sheepskin attaches a ball and chain to his ankle and warns him that when he is finished reading the old man will remove the top of his head and eat his knowledge-rich brains.

Despite this, The Diary of an Ottoman Tax Collector comes alive as he reads it.

The old man came to check on me that evening. He was delighted to find me lost in my book. Seeing how happy he was made me feel a little happier. No matter what the situation may be, I still take pleasure in witnessing the joy of others.

A pretty girl brings him meals. The sheep man bakes him doughnuts. In the darkness of the night of a new moon they escape together only to find their last exit barred by the old man. And the big black hound.

The starling, or it might be the girl, comes to their rescue. The boy goes home where his mother seems not to have noticed that he has been gone.

To be honest, I was worried before writing this review that I might have missed the point, so I have since been making my way through the reviews I could find on the net. This from the Independent:

It is an odd and beautiful thing – a thing more than a book, whose design doesn’t just adorn but penetrates the story, melting into it with its dainty, surreal and haunting images that almost, at times, seem to finish Murakami’s sentences.

It had me enthralled, a pretty artefact that was a story of childhood, death and reading, drawn in both words and pictures, like a fairytale, yet there was nothing childish about it. (Arifa Akbar, 27 Nov. 2014. here)

So I guess I got it right.

 

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library, Harville Secker, London, 2008. First pub. in Japanese, 2005. Translated by Ted Goossen.

 

The Butcherbird Stories, A.S. Patrić

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As a writer I wonder about those of us who have been removed from our places of birth, who leave language, history and ancestry to begin anew somewhere else. We become proud owners of words inherited from parents that are not our own. Our first sentences are composed within a literary history that has given us so few pages we barely exist. (Punctuated Air).

Alex Patrić is an astonishingly good writer. I loved Black Rock White City (2015), his debut, and yet (illogically!) felt betrayed by his next, Atlantic Black (2017), read the reviews but wouldn’t read the book, wanted him back here, back in Australia, Melbourne, dissecting us, himself, Anglos and reffos, with his precis, ‘removed’ prose. And now we have him, in this collection, published by Transit Lounge in hardback. I bought a copy at Christmas, but was unable to give it away, have been reading one story each night I was sufficiently awake.

The collection consists of 11 stories, unrelated (to continue a discussion I’ve been having elsewhere), from a few pages long to sixty, that reflect in different ways Patrić’s heritage as an eastern European (Bosnian Serb) man in Australia. The longest story, Among the Ruins reads as a European fairy tale, of a street-vendor of roasted nuts, bankrupted when his nut wholesaling business burnt down, now supporting himself as a subcontractor employed to play terrifying tricks on others.

Bruna Kramzer had a wife and two children, and in-laws who lived in house, for the most part harmoniously. He lied to them every day when he told them he still ran his business selling nuts … His family came to know he was moonlighting as a professional rogue. They needed Bruno’s earnings so they didn’t speak about it openly.

So you can see the writing is simple, but deceptively simple. With each step forward we learn also a little about the past, as the tricks and tricksters circle round on each other.

In another story the protagonist attempts to stop an old widower from committing suicide. I don’t agree with him. It’s not your business. Walk away. Milly argued with me, each individual has a ‘line’ beyond which some acts, by others, are immoral. Me, I have enough trouble being moral myself without forcing it on others. I divide acts by others into the categories ‘useful’ and ‘harmful’.

Patrić resumes his love affair with his adopted home city, with the bayside suburbs he obviously knows and loves. A taxi driver and his passenger –

… had reached the car park overlooking the bay. The beach ran south for two or three kilometres. Red Bluff was barely visible in the overcast haze. The steep cliffs rose thirty metres into the air all the way out to Black Rock. The bay roiled with shallow surf below them. Hundreds of boats and ships bobbled at their berths …

What are the other stories? And more to the point what do I remember of the earlier ones? Taking notes interferes with the process of reading. Taking notes is studying, not reading. And much as I would love to, I cannot bring myself to underline, let alone to desecrate with marginalia. Ah, Avulsion. I’d forgotten the swimming story. A guy doing laps spots a small shape on the bottom:

I swim up the lane, come back. I really don’t want to see it again. I’d rather it was a hallucination… The lane ropes guide me over and past the finger …

Training is addictive, once you’re in you don’t want to stop. Just follow the line, tumble, follow the line, counting laps. But be careful, especially if you’re sharing the lane, not to drift to the side, not to catch your fingers in the hard, coloured circles that make the lane ropes float.

Dead Sun, a man is in hiding, in the attic room of an old couple’s house, in seemingly the room of their dead son, a longer story, placeless, strange.

Punctuated Air, a boy grows up in working class St Albans:

I was born in Belgrade, Serbia, in a part of the city called Zemun – right at the confluence of the rivers Danube and Sava. There was one small room for the three of us to sleep in… My parents were still driven by new love and talked for months about a long journey that would take us far from our two rivers… Australia was one of the first words I heard, whispered in the darkness of that cold bedroom. A word … filled with the warmth of their love for me and their hopes for the future.

In Black Rock, White City the protagonist comes to Australia as an adult, in Punctuated Air as a child, in The Flood he’s born in Mildura (Australia). The novel, these stories, are informed by his lived experience, I don’t expect, or wish, them to be biographical.

And the title story, Butcherbird. A Melbourne man, on a resort holiday with his family, wonders if butcherbird song is no more than a ringtone, mourns a dead lover, swims late at night with a flirtatious fourteen year old, a few pages, a fragment of a life.

The best story, well my favourite, and they’re all good, is Memories of Jane Doe, the last days of a young woman, told backwards.

I’m not sure how old Patrić is, fortyish I suppose. A bio (here) lists his earlier work. I look forward to reading him well into the future.

 

A.S. Patrić, The Butcherbird Stories, Transit Lounge, Melbourne, 2018

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) review (here)

 

River of Salt, Dave Warner

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When I left Western Australia in 1983 the big pub bands were The Dugites and Dave Warner’s From the Suburbs. Not that I ever got to see them, three kids under six and all that. But after I returned in 2002 I chanced to see a sign outside the Leopold, in Dave Warner’s old stomping ground of Bicton, working class suburb down Freo way, announcing a gig. An opportunity too good to miss and I didn’t. A couple of singers came on and I idly wondered which one was Warner, but when he did appear his booming voice was unmistakable.

I’ve seen him once or twice since, he is a marvellous singer (here’s Just a Suburban Boy – turn it up!) and I don’t know why he never really made it over East or overseas – though he has been named a WA ‘State Living Treasure’. However, as a writer of detective fiction he is just so-so. I thought this may be the second book of his that I have read, and after diligent searching, I find that I read eXXXpresso (2000), from memory a murder mystery based around WA’s first espresso machine, which ex-Mrs Legend and I both enjoyed.

River of Salt (2019) – yes, I requested a review copy – Warner’s tenth, is not set in WA, Warner lives in Sydney now “with his wife and three children”, but on the NSW north coast in the early 1960s. The setting is fictional, a smallish town about an hour south of the Queensland border. Not an area I know at all well so I can’t say what towns it’s based on. The period is not crucial to the story, except that of course it avoids mobile phones and modern forensics. Warner is only a few years younger than me so he lived through the 60s but still his research shows. In fact his writing in general is a bit clunky, though the story itself is good enough.

The ‘hero’ is Blake, a contract killer for the ‘mob’ in Philadelphia (USA). We see him commit two or three cold blooded murders then his older brother and mentor Jimmy, gets himself into trouble, Blake abandons him, and flees to Australia.

Where he becomes a likeable, laid-back, guitar playing, bar-owning, surfer dude. As you do. The real problem with the book is that though we mostly stick with Blake, parts of the story are also written through the POVs of Doreen, Blake’s attractive twenty-something bar manager; Nalder, the local sergeant of police; and least convincingly, Kitty, a local, cute, fifteen year old schoolgirl who attaches herself to Doreen when Doreen runs a dance competition in the bar. Did they really have bars back then? I’m a Victorian – we had hotels and a few licensed restaurants; and girls, and certainly not unaccompanied schoolgirls, weren’t allowed within a mile of them.

Warner uses his considerable rock n’ roll pedigree to construct a background of great 60s music and has Blake learn the guitar and form a band playing ‘surf’ instrumentals, heading for the big time until the Beatles release Love Me Do, and the world changes. Kate W would by this stage of the review have already put up a play list. I am content to link to an absolutely fabulous live version of Australian surf rock band The Atlantics playing Bombora (and yes, turn that right up too!)

The plot is satisfyingly complex. Blake fears the Mob will track him down from Philly; as it happens, local hoods are first on the scene seeking payments for ‘protection’; he is already paying Nalder, who nevertheless hauls him in to find out what he knows about the brutal rape and murder of an out-of-town woman in a shack in the hills (and I know how you all feel about that scenario); Blake decides to find the murderer before he is implicated any further, though Doreen does much of the work; the first serious suspect is Blake’s beach bum/poet friend, Crane; the hoods bash Andy, Blake’s yardman, causing serious head injuries; Andy probably witnessed the victim’s first contact with her murderer but is unable to remember.

It made sense to Blake that if anybody could figure out the killer, it would be him. After all, the one thing he knew a lot about was killing people. He wasn’t proud of this but it was a fact that very few killers had his degree of professionalism: they got sloppy, they made mistakes.

The homicide guys from Sydney arrest Crane; Blake proves it’s someone else; that guy is arrested and Crane released; then Blake comes up with a yet more likely suspect; and then another. Meanwhile his girlfriend/sex buddy goes missing. Is she the next victim?

Kitty wins the dance contest, wins the guy she’s been chasing, they go to the drives and he goes from kissing to heavy petting, to … , she escapes, that guy becomes one of the chain of suspects. Kitty turns to Edith Wharton, learns body language, discovers that her mother knows that her father is having an affair. With someone she knows, as it happens.

Blake runs into an old flame from the US. He’ll have to kill her before she has a chance to let anyone back home know where he is …

It all comes together at the end of course. Blake wins the a girl, a bright future beckons. The murderer is satisfyingly surprising. A fun holiday read, if you overlook that it’s premised on yet another bloody, sexually active, female victim, and at least half a dozen other gratuitous killings.

 

Dave Warner, River of Salt, Fremantle Press, Fremantle WA, 2019

 

I have a 24 hour break coming up, which will give me time to put up a list of contributions to Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019 which means you still have 2 or 3 days to be on it.

 

 

Sister Sorrow, Rosa Praed

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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Jessica White, whose Hearing Maud about Rosa Praed’s deaf and abandoned daughter Maud will be published by UWAP in July (I may get to go to my second book launch party) has chosen a late Rosa Praed novel for AWW Gen 2 Week. A few paras down she refers to Praed’s “bestselling feminist novel” The Bond Of Wedlock, which I reviewed (here). Thank you Jess.


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Praed’s oeuvre stretches from 1880 to 1931, so she slots easily into Gen2. In the late 80s and early 90s she was at the height of her fame, but I’ve chosen her penultimate novel to review, because I need to revisit her works ahead of the edits for my book. This has turned into a minor essay full of spoilers, so if you plan to read the novel, you might want to shelve this until afterwards. Read on …

 

Girls Together, Louise Mack

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

 

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Sue (Whispering Gums) has posted a review of Louise Mack’s follow up to Teens which I reviewed yesterday (here). Between them they provide a fascinating insight into 1880s and 1890s Sydney, when university was a real possibility for the first time, at least for those young women whose parents could afford it.


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Well, that was, surprisingly, genuinely enjoyable. Louise Mack’s Girls together is a sequel to her novel Teens [], and features protagonist Lennie (Elinor) Leighton. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given I know something about Mack, through my Monday Musings on her and my review of her debut novel The world is round, but it was, because … Read on …

Teens, Louise Mack

Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week 13-19 Jan. 2019

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Louise Mack (1870-1935) was the oldest of thirteen children of a Wesleyan minister who, after various positions around South Australia and NSW settled in Sydney in 1882. Louise, who had up to then had been schooled by her mother and a governess, began attending Sydney Girls’ High School, probably from the following year when she would have turned 13.

Ethel Turner, author of Seven Little Australians, was the same age and attended the same school. Ethel and her 3 years older sister Lillian were well known for starting a school newspaper, as did Louise Mack. I mistakenly wrote in an earlier post – which I will now have to go off and find – that it was unlikely the two newspapers were in competition as Mack was 9 years younger. I was wrong. Sorry. I’d recorded Mack’s year of birth as 1879 when it was actually 1870 (ADB).

Teens begins with 13 year old Lennie sitting and passing the entrance exam to the School

A large, brown, two-storey building, with a wide, wooden staircase, a verandah all round, and an asphalted playground, shaded with two huge Moreton Bay fig trees. This was the School.

After a lonely first few days she makes friend with 15 year old Mabel and this is the story of their year in ‘B’. The big girls studying to matriculate and get into university – only possible since 1881 (More Educating Women) – were in ‘A’.

To get things out of order a little, one of the things the two girls do is start a school newspaper. There is great demand for the initial hand-written version so they scrimp and save to get it printed, and the poor old printer will only get paid from the sales the girls make at 6d a copy, only for the girls in ‘A’ to trump them with a much more impressive newspaper printed by one of their fathers. As Lillian Turner was most likely in ‘A’ when Mack was in ‘B’ this is no doubt a little bit of setting-the-record-straight.

As a guy, old, and without sisters, I have no experience to fall back to evaluate this book. It’s a long time since I last read Seven Little Australians and I’ve never read Little Women for instance or the equivalent books that girls read when I was reading ‘Boys Own’ books. Jane Austen’s young women are mostly older and definitely more mature. Picnic at Hanging Rock also has a more mature feel, despite the setting and period being similar, and probably reflects that it was written in the 1960’s (though Ethel Anderson’s At Paramatta (here) written in the 1950s does not). Another that should be similar but is not is The Getting of Wisdom. TGoW is an adult novel about schoolgirls whereas Teens is a novel for schoolgirls, and not very mature ones at that. The writing it most resembles is that of Enid Blyton.

For all that, it was a fun read. The girls, who at 13 and 15 still play with dolls (not that some of my own stuffed animals haven’t survived these past 60-something years) get into the usual school day scrapes, fall in love with their (lady) teacher, sleep over, play tricks on Lennie’s older brother, and contrary to Melanie’s opinion of recent YA fiction (at Grab the Lapels) – and yes this is only middle school in American terms – agonize over their school-work, fail to pay attention in Mathematics and ‘Euclid’, but finally come top in English, French and History.

Would I give Teens to a granddaughter? Maybe, at around age 11 or 12. For an adult, the only real reason to read it would be for its lively account of middle-class life in 1880s Sydney, and on holidays in the Blue Mountains, by someone who was there.

It was on the third storey that Lennie had her new bedroom. There was a little, irregular-shaped room up there, very narrow, but as long as the house was deep, that looked over other people’s yards at one end, and at the other, opened upon a stretch of suburb, ending in the sands of Botany Bay. From that window Lennie had one golden glimpse of the lazy, fair Pacific, and the calm blue waters of Botany Bay and its white sands; and nearer, the fresh, bright green of Chinamen’s gardens…
The younger girls had wonderful games of hookey .. The game was played in this way:—One girl was on one side, and any number on the other. The one girl chased the opposite side about the ground until she had caught one; then she and the caught one joined hands and chased again until they had caught another. Then these three joined hands and rushed to catch a fourth: and so on. And the fun was very high when there were forty girls all holding hands and chasing one about the playground…
“I’ve got the whole History of England to learn in three weeks, Mother, from William the Conqueror to Victoria; and the whole of the French Grammar, and the whole of the English Grammar; and two books of Euclid, and half of Peter the Great, and all the Physical Geography, and all the Arithmetic, and all the Geography of the whole world, to learn in three weeks.”
“But you’ve had six months to learn them in.”
“I know, Mother; but you see——”

I was going to post this at the end of the week, but I’ve returned to work earlier than I originally planned, and am as you read en route to Melbourne and Sydney. So I’m putting it up tonight and will do another end-of-week summary on Tues or Weds.

 

Louise Mack, Teens: A Story of Australian School Girls, first pub. 1897.  Angus & Robertson (paperback) 2016. I used pdf version (here) from University of Sydney Library.


Thankyou to everyone who participated in Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week. There are links to all your reviews from the AWW Gen 2 page, as of course will be any reviews that you do in the future.

Posts/Reviews for Australian Women Writers Gen 2 Week

Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers, ANZLitLovers

Mary Grant Bruce, Billabong series, Michelle Scott Tucker

Monday Musings on Australian Literature: Capel Boake, Whispering Gums

Ethel Turner, In the Mist of the Mountains, Brona’s Books

Louise Mack, A Woman’s Experiences in the Great War, Nancy Elin

Louise Mack, Teens, wadh

Louise Mack, Girls Together, Whispering Gums (coming!)

Miles Franklin, Joseph Furphy, wadh

Background –

Louisa Lawson v Kaye Schaffer, wadh

Vance Palmer, The Legend of the Nineties, wadh

Frank Moorhouse ed., The Drover’s Wife, wadh