The ABC RN Bookshelf podcast episode looked interesting: “What does it mean to read like a writer? Twenty-five Australian writers give their thoughts.” And then I recognised two of the contributors, Belinda Castles and Nicholas Jose, whose books I’d read and reviewed for Writing NSW. So I clicked play.
In 2015, I answered a tweet from Writing NSW seeking interest from potential book reviewers. And I soon found I enjoyed the review writing process because it made me think about books from different angles:
- Firstly, there’s me as the reader. What did I get from the book, and would I recommend it to others?
- Then, there are my review readers. What can I write about the book to entice others to read it without giving spoilers?
- And finally, there’s the writer. What was their goal in writing the book, and how did they set about achieving it?
From 2015 to 2020, I wrote seventeen book reviews for Writing NSW. Nicholas Jose’s collection of short stories, Bapo, was my first. And Belinda Castles’ Bluebottle set on Sydney’s northern beaches was one of my favourites, about which I wrote:
Some books are page-turners — I found Bluebottle to be more than that. I would beat my alarm each morning and reach for the book for the joy of chapter before getting up to start t
Writing NSW Book Reviews
I’ve shared extracts from my reviews below in the order they were published by Writing NSW. There are also links to the full-length copies on the Tall And True website:
June 2015: Bapo by Nicholas Jose
The cover of Nicholas Jose’s Bapo, a 19th-century hand-fan decorated with Chinese characters and a collage of contrasting patterns, catches the eye. It invites the reader to open the book, learn about its author and title, and delve into the writing.
November 2015: To the Islands by Randolph Stow
Patrick White won the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1957 for Voss. A year later, Randolph Stow won the award for To the Islands. He was 22-years-old and had already published two novels, A Haunted Land (1956) and The Bystander (1957) and a collection of award-winning poems.
February 2016: Visitants by Randolph Stow
As his work on an Aboriginal mission informed the award-winning To the Islands, Papua New Guinea left an indelible mark on Randolph Stow and was the basis for Visitants. However, the novel was not published until twenty years after his return to Australia.
April 2016: Jerome and His Women by Joan O’Hagan
Joan O’Hagan was born in Australia but studied Latin, Greek and Ancient History in New Zealand. O’Hagan lived and worked overseas for most of her life – including 30 years in Rome, where she worked at the Australian Department of Immigration. And drew upon her education and experience to write internationally acclaimed contemporary and historical crime fiction.
June 2016: Dragonfish by Vu Tran
Vu Tran’s debut novel, Dragonfish, opens with a letter from a mother to her daughter with whom she has lost contact. She recounts the first night of their escape from communist Vietnam, in a small, overcrowded boat, soon to be wracked by ‘thirst and hunger, sickness [and] death’.
September 2016: Seeing the Elephant by Portland Jones
Portland Jones’ debut novel is set in 1962. A contingent of Australian soldiers, the Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV), is sent to Vietnam under the leadership of the CIA. Their mission is to train South Vietnamese soldiers and villagers to fight the North Vietnamese Communists and Viet Cong insurgents.
September 2016: The Mechanic by Alan Gold
Chasca Broderick has rushed home from her work with the War Crimes Tribunal in Sarajevo in 1998 to attend her grandfather’s funeral. Theodore Broderick had been a lawyer, an eminent legal academic, an adviser to presidents, a Supreme Court Justice, and a defence attorney at the Nuremberg Trials.
January 2017: The Better Son by Katherine Johnson
In the summer of 1952, Kip and his older brother, Tommy, find the entrance to a cave hidden in the hills above the family farm in the central north of Tasmania. It is now 2002, and middle-aged Kip has returned to the Mole Creek cave, from where 50 years ago he ran back to the farm without Tommy.
February 2017: The Waterfowl Are Drunk by Kate Liston-Mills
Kate Liston-Mills sets her slim volume of short stories in her hometown of Pambula, on the south coast of NSW. The metaphor in the opening story, Bound, about a fox raid on waterfowl nests, is threaded through the volume. There is a “twine” that ties the waterfowl (and humans) to each other and Pambula.
May 2017: Sweeties by Leon Silver
One ordinary morning, an image invades 67-year-old Abel Marvin’s thoughts as he swims his laps: the “twisted, burned-out hulk of a wheelchair with two welded, gaping red and black skeletons”. It’s a scene that’s haunted him for most of his adult life, and he buries his face in the water to drown it.
September 2017: Loopholes by Susan McCreery
Loopholes by Thirroul based author, Susan McCreery, is a collection of microfiction, or very short stories. Wiktionary.org defines the genre as “Fiction that has a significantly shorter than average length”. Synonyms include drabble, flash fiction, flashfic, short-short story, sudden fiction and even twitterature.
March 2018: A Roman Death by Joan O’Hagan
This ancient-world whodunnit, A Roman Death, is set in 45 BC. Julius Caesar is at the height of his power, yet disquiet grows under his dictatorship. The Ides of March looms, and Rome will soon descend into turmoil. And yet Caesar’s is not the only Roman death!
May 2018: Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills
Jennifer Mills sets Dyschronia in the run-down coastal town of Clapstone. Sam is twenty-five years old. The town views Sam as an oracle and depends upon her visions for their survival. And yet, a great catastrophe has occurred: the sea has disappeared, and with it, seemingly taking Clapstone’s last hope.
August 2018: Bluebottle by Belinda Castles
It’s Christmas Day 1994 at Bilgoa Beach on Sydney’s northern beaches. A “pink shouldered” Charlie Bright is pacing up and down on the sand at the water’s edge. He’s “like a coach on the touchline”, calling out to his children, mastering their sleek new Christmas present surfboards on the waves.
October 2018: On the Blue Train by Kristel Thornell
Kristel Thornell’s On the Blue Train is a novelisation of the eleven days in 1926 when — in a mystery worthy of Poirot — Agatha Christie disappeared. The novel opens with Agatha outside Harrods. She is confused and cannot enter the store, unable to “even recall what she needed to purchase”.
April 2019: Beneath the Willow by Michael J Murphy
Beneath the Willow opens with a prologue set in rural NSW in 1953. It is a dark scene of fear and domestic violence. The novel then steps back in time and place to the working-class suburb of Balmain in 1915. Australia is at war in foreign lands, and sons of families have answered her call to arms.
June 2020: A Couple of Things Before the End by Sean O’Beirne
“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” A quote by Neil Gaiman and a perfect description of A Couple of Things Before the End: Stories by Sean O’Beirne.
Reading Like an Australian Writer
On average, from 2015 to 2018, I wrote a book review every three months. But, in 2019, Writing NSW changed the reviewer submission rules, and I only wrote one for them that year and one in 2020. And then everything changed with COVID-19.
I still love reading books, but I miss doing it as a reviewer. And, along with recognising Belinda Castles and Nicholas Jose, that may be what spiked my intrigue with the Bookshelf episode: thinking about what it means to “read as a writer”?
After listening to the episode, I bought the featured book, Reading Like an Australian Writer (Amazon affiliate link), edited by Belinda, with contributions from twenty-five writers. And the opening lines of her Introduction encapsulate my thoughts as a reviewer:
All writers being as readers… Reading takes on a particular attentiveness as we develop an interest, a stake: in method and effect. How, we ask the writing, are you making me think the things I am thinking; feel the things I am feeling?
I think it’s time for me to read like a writer again and write more book reviews!
© 2021 Robert Fairhead
N.B. You might like to read another of my book reviews on the Tall And True writers’ website, Dog On It by Spencer Quinn.
Note: This post originally appeared on Tall And True.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of Robert Fairhead. A writer and editor at the Tall And True writers' website, Robert also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media, and he's published several collections of short stories. Please see Robert's profile for further details.