Category Archives: Writers

Peter Twohig wins Ned Kelly Award

Huge congrats to Peter Twohig, whose delectable novel The Cartographer won the Best First Fiction category in this year’s Ned Kelly Awards for Australian Crime Fiction last night.

I loved this book. I will be reading it again at some point, as I always re-read those that I enjoy first time round.

Peter has written a second novel, the first draft of which he is reviewing at the moment. I can only imagine it will be equal to or even better than his first. ūüôā

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Australian Women Writers Book Challenge 2012

I’ve been taking part in the subject challenge, and here’s a list of the books I’ve read so far this year (I have linked to my reviews of some of these books):

There are probably more as I’m a voracious reader, but I wasn’t aware of the Challenge until a couple of months ago so didn’t keep a list earlier in the year. ¬†Undoubtedly I’ll be reading more books by Australian Women Writers as the year goes on, and will be posting reviews up here.

But for now, I’ll be marking my card in the Challenge as complete and Franklin-fantastic :-).

Update: 15 September 2012. Have now read and posted reviews of

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The Sun Also Rises – Hemingway’s paean to alcohol

The Sun Also RisesI like a glass of wine with dinner, often two. At dinner parties I’ve often somehow managed to drink a bottle of the stuff. But heading into the booze-fuelled world of France and Spain in 1926 leaves me reeling at Ernest Hemingway’s characters: it seems that none of them is ever truly sober. With prohibition in full force in the USA, Hemingway gives his characters ready access to wine and spirits, and boy, do they lap it up.¬†

I’ll backtrack here and admit I haven’t read any Hemingway since high school, when The Old Man and The Sea was on the reading list for year 9 or 10. I enjoyed the book; I liked his easy style of writing which while economical still managed to paint memorable pictures. A sentence beautifully crafted, emotive, expressive and descriptive, would jump off the page at me and I’d sigh in admiration. Why didn’t I read any Hemingway after that? I suspect I wasn’t interested in golden age fiction at the time.

Fast forward to now and I picked up The Sun Also Rises with mixed feelings. I knew there would be bull fighting in the book and that concept makes me, an animal lover, rather edgy if not squeamish. 

But from page one I was hooked. Here were wealthy expats from the US and UK, drinking their way across Europe with even more vigour than my fellow travellers on a Contiki 18-35s bus tour of the continent in 1985 (and that’s saying something). Hedonistic, uncaring of their impact on the locals, they are rude to the point of being obnoxious. You want to hate them but you find yourself intrigued by them, being drawn to them instead.

What a splash this book made when it was originally published! It polarised critics and readers. Having finally read it, and imagining the staid middle-class readers who might buy it or get it from their library in 1926, I can understand why  it had the impact it did. 

It’s not just the constant drinking and freedom these idle young rich people enjoy (or even disdain). Brett’s actions in particular must have horrified the matronly. Brett, Lady Ashley, is divorced and engaged, but not above having affairs with other men: Robert Kohn, whose heart she breaks, and Pedro Romero, a young bullfighter – a ravishingly pretty boy, barely twenty – with whom she runs away.¬†

Central character Jake is also in love with Brett but wisely hides it better than Kohn or Brett’s fianc√© Mike.¬†

Hemingway’s writing is brilliant. His Paris is so real you can hear and smell it, likewise his Pamplona with the fiesta in full swing is a hymn to Spain – in fact it’s more like a love letter. The car journey across the Basque country into Spain, the bus journeys within Spain itself, you can almost smell the dust – er, and the peasants. There’s a peaceful time in the middle of the frenetic journeying, drinking and arguing when Jake and his friend Bill head off trout fishing, and the sense of serenity is palpable in contrast.

The characters converse in a languid style which was probably fairly typical of their class at the time. Jake notes that the upper class British seem to have a limited vocabulary!

There’s freedom in this book. Brett lets lust rule her, the boys drink until they are senseless, Mike, estranged from Brett at the end of the book, bankrupt and penniless, assures Jake optimistically he’ll wander across the south of France and find some credit. (Actually Mike is a bit of a sad bastard… I think Brett could do better.)

I have no doubt professional critics will find a lot more in the book than I did; symbolism and themes and so on. I read for pleasure; I either like a book or I don’t. I don’t read to find hidden meanings nor do I belong to a book club where books and their characters are dissected into minute particles. For me The Sun Also Rises was about free spirits (no, not the kind in a glass, the characters paid for those), and it details beautifully an exciting time in exciting places. It is so engagingly written that I didn’t skip the bull fights but admired Hemingway’s choreographical descriptions of them.¬†

While it’s very much a product of its time in terms of attitude and language (the word n*gg*r is used but not as an insult, as an everyday noun) this book is a worthy time capsule and very much worth reading, for Hemingway’s prose as much as the tale itself.

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Cobbler’s Dream by Monica Dickens – book review


Anyone who starts reading Cobbler’s Dream expecting to find themselves in the world of tv’s Follyfoot (the 1970s YTV show was inspired by the book) is going to face a harsh reality. Yes, it’s about a rest home for horses and the dysfunctional group of people who work there, but this book wasn’t written for children, unlike Dickens’ later works based on the tv show (Follyfoot, Dora at Follyfoot, The Horses at Follyfoot, Stranger at Follyfoot). Familiar names are there though: Dora (a much chunkier, horsier girl than the tv version), The Captain (the Colonel for television), Slugger and Ron Stryker.

Dickens had strong humanitarian involvements and at the time of writing her 1963 book Cobbler’s Dream she was an active supporter of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Cobbler’s Dream explores cruelty and sadism; images in the book are intended to shock the reader and raise awareness of the plight of mistreated animals.

For example in the first chapter a man and girl visiting the Farm meet “a farmer’s horse stolen out of a field, ridden all night by a gang of boys with a piece of wire in his mouth for a bridle, and left torn and bleeding in a gravel pit with half his tongue gone.” ¬†The girl looks sick when she learns this. The man is merely keen to move on and get to the pub for dinner. Dickens is pointing out the way society conveniently ignores that which is unpleasant to it.

The title of the book refers to a champion show jumping pony, Cobbler’s Dream, who is rescued in Chapter 2 by his groom Paul. The pony’s twelve-year-old owner has beaten the horse severely, enough to cause blindness in one eye. The family who own the horse intend to sell him to the knackers; Paul steals him and finds his way to the Farm. (In Cobbler’s Dream, the home of rest for horses is simply ‘the Farm’; the name Follyfoot was coined for the tv show and subsequent books.)

If there is cruelty, there is also sentimentality. This book uses plenty of hooks to engage the reader’s emotions, not least a scene where Paul finds a horse locked in a narrow shed, standing on a solid pile of manure with its head sticking out the roof: “‘Oh God.’ His heart was flooded with a surge of rage and pity so intense that he clenched his fists and stood there for a moment trembling, his eyes closed against tears. When he opened them, the hollow, suffering eye looked into his, and he knew that the horse was his child, his treasure, his dearest care.”

This can be an uncomfortable novel to read for animal lovers; man’s inhumanity to animals is described in more detail than in the successive books in the Follyfoot series. Despite one of the main characters being twelve years old (Callie), Cobbler’s Dream could give a twelve year old reader nightmares. As adolescent and young adult fiction, however, it ticks idealistic boxes and is a powerful reminder that we as a species are responsible for the welfare of others. Almost fifty years after initial publication, it provides a view of Britain that has long gone: pit ponies, circus horses, horses who work for a living pulling carts and vans. For the mobile phone generation, or readers graduating from The Saddle Club, this could prove to be a hard novel to get into, but it’s worth persevering. The characters are well-drawn and where there is darkness there is also light just a little further on.

Cobbler’s Dream is an episodic novel; there is no galloping towards a big climax, instead there are a series of peaks and troughs, of struggles and successes, of horses lost and horses saved, the final episode involving the title horse himself.

The Farm is also the saviour of unwanted people who, like the horses, end up calling it home: Paul, Callie and her mother Anna. All Dickens’ characters develop over the course of the book as we learn more of their back stories; there is no long description when we first meet them, their stories are woven effortlessly into the narrative.¬†They have no compunction about breaking the law to save an animal, either. Both Paul and Callie steal horses to give them a better life at the Farm.¬†The human story lines work around the animal ones and resolve by the end of the book.

Uncomfortable it can sometimes be, but Cobbler’s Dream is compelling reading. Dickens writes beautifully; at times economical, at times with that wry touch that makes you smile and admire her craft as a storyteller. ¬†Her love of animals and her knowledge of horses makes this an authentic book with a lot more depth than her¬†Follyfoot series which followed.

Cobbler’s Dream is currently out of print but you may find it online on eBay or second-hand booksellers – or even your local church fete or jumble sale. Other titles in the Follyfoot series are being progressively reprinted; it remains to be seen if Cobbler’s Dream is considered too ‘adult’ to be reprinted as a children’s book.


For more information on the Follyfoot books and TV series visit The Follyfoot Forum or fan tribute site.  This book review first appeared on The Follyfoot Forum in January 2012.

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Felix Francis and the Dick Francis brand

Buying Dick Francis booksI remember buying my first Dick Francis paperback. I was in Swane’s bookshop in downtown Sydney, an Aladdin’s Cave long since gone. I was twelve years old, in school uniform and feeling guilty and embarrassed about looking for books in the mainstream, grownup section of the shop.

I was a horsy girl, and until then had been satisfied with the efforts of the Pullein-Thompson sisters, Mary Gervaise, Patricia Leitch and other books aimed at horsy teens. I was also a kid who read well beyond her age, and was a keen follower of the racing world, aided and abetted by my grandfather who’d put on bets for me at the Saturday races.

Pulling down Dead Cert (because the name sounded as if it were in the horse-racing genre), my eyes lit up. I all but salivated. This was just what I had been looking for!

I bought the book and promptly hid it. I read it only in private, worried that my mother would see me reading something aimed strictly at adults. I devoured it despite it not being the strongest murder mystery plot in the universe. It had been written by an ex-jockey (and I, being me, had a crush on one or two apprentice jockeys at the time, pretty boys they were too before age and wasting diets ravaged them) and I was delighted to think that a jockey could be so literate as to write a thriller novel like this one.

Dead Cert was Dick Francis’ first book, published in 1962, a few years after he had retired as a jockey. A week or two later, pocket money topped up and coins foraged from behind the sofa cushions, I headed back to Swane’s for more and bought Enquiry. The artwork on the cover was risqu√© so I had to cover it with clear plastic and put a sticker over the topless woman!

By the time I bought his most recent, High Stakes, a month later I’d told Mum what I was reading and she too got stuck into Dead Cert. From then on I happily and publicly collected all the Dick Francis books and to this day have the entire collection, in hardback and paperback. (See this resource here by a fellow Francis fan for a full list of novels and a synopsis of each.)

I was even lucky enough to meet Dick Francis years later at a book signing and have a brief conversation about writing while he scrawled on the flyleaf of his latest hardback for me. In the interim years Dick Francis had been a big influence on my own writing style – I spent my teen years writing truly awful horse racing novels that thankfully never saw the light of day. Not that the awfulness was Dick’s influence, that was entirely my own work.

Graham Lord in his unauthorised biography of Dick Francis (Dick Francis A Racing Life) asserts that the books were actually written by Dick’s wife, Mary, who was always recognised by Dick as doing much of the research on the books and ‘contributing to the writing process’. Dick left school at 15; Mary had degrees in French and English and worked for a publisher in her younger days. While this rumour was denied heartily by Dick’s publishers when the bio was released (and it’s since been confirmed by Dick’s son Felix that his parents co-authored the books), I suggest you make up your own mind. In fact, get yourself a copy of Lord’s book as it makes fascinating reading and his dissection of some of the prose and phrases familiar to Francis fans (i.e., “He sketched a farewell”) is priceless. You’ll find the book on eBay, Amazon, etc as it’s out of print.

Whether the author was Dick himself, Mary herself, or Mary putting into prose Dick’s plots and characters, the books have a consistent style and turn of phrase until Mary’s death and the first book released five years after that, Under Orders.¬†For me, the character development is stronger too in the earlier books – that could be coloured by my teenage delight at reading grown-up thrillers!

Under Orders was¬†eagerly snapped up by fans who thought that Dick, devastated at the loss of his beloved wife, had stopped writing for good. It features characters familiar to Dick Francis fans – private investigator Sid Halley and his family, who had featured in previous Francis novels. However, supporting character Rear Admiral Charles Rowland behaves very much out of character, dropping the f-bomb in front of a woman; in the first Halley book (Odds Against, 1965) the very proper Admiral would not even say ‘damn’. The writing style itself is slightly different to earlier Francis books too. It’s subtle, but if you know your Francis well you are aware of it. Dick’s younger son Felix Francis is thanked for his contribution on the dedication page, and for this longtime Francis fan it’s clear he had a strong hand in writing the book.

Since then Dick and Felix, a former school teacher and Dick’s manager, have¬†co-authored four books: Dead Heat, Silks, Even Money and Crossfire. By the time Crossfire was published the writing style of the duo was more akin to classic Dick Francis books but the books for me weren’t in the league of the Francis classics from the early days. Dead Heat¬†is the one I most enjoyed from these four, with a chef as the lead character, followed by Even Money (the first time I’d empathised with a bookmaker!). ¬†They are still enjoyable, but my test of a book is how soon I re-read it, and I haven’t re-read any of these four yet. The voice is slightly different, too. As with Under Orders, it’s subtle, but it’s there; some sentences appear beleaguered if not stilted.

Dick Francis died at the age of 89 two years ago today at the time of writing this post, leaving a legacy of fast-paced novels, villains with improbable names and plots both strong and on the weak side; well-researched thrillers that were set not only deeply in the racing world but on the fringes, with horses in the foreground or sometimes well hidden in the background.

What would happen now? Was Crossfire the last Dick Francis ever?

No. Felix has stepped up to the plate, releasing his first solo “Dick Francis novel” last year, Gamble.

Gamble doesn’t enjoy the tightest plot in the world, and the character development is a little on the thin side, conversation between the characters stilted on occasion. I’d figured out the hero’s girlfriend was ill long before he did. When Our Hero Nicholas misses a vital clue near the end of the book I felt an urge to shout out a pantomime-ish “He’s behind you!”. Or words to that effect. I was disappointed, overall.

Reading Felix’s first solo effort, I’m made aware that any “Dick Francis” book of the past certainly included the man himself in plot development to say the least, if not character development. Dick as a jockey with little education may have heavily relied on his wife or son to turn his ideas and rough drafts into readable reality; every Dick Francis novel a true collaboration. There’s something a little lacking in Gamble, but I’m curious to see if the next Felix Francis is an improvement. One would expect Felix to put his own stamp and voice on the brand; hopefully the confidence gained from acceptance of his first solo effort will see the next novel rollicking along like the 3.30 at Newmarket.

According to the official website the next novel features a tv racing presenter as the lead character and will be published later this year.  Expect a review of it here.

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Remember Me by Derek Hansen – coming of age gracefully written

Remember MeYou’re at a trivia night. You’re asked to name a writer who’s known as an Aussie but wasn’t born in Australia, and who worked in advertising before becoming a full-time author. You confidently write Bryce Courtenay and feel very smug but are devastated when the answer is revealed as Derek Hansen.

Derek WHO?

If you haven’t read any of Derek Hansen’s books, start now. I was given the superb collection of short stories, Psycho Cat, in 1997, and I was hooked on Hansen’s humorous and elegant prose. The man is a true storyteller (which is probably why he was a very successful ad man), and Psycho Cat was the inspiration for my own psycho cat story, The Million Dollar Cat. If you are very, very lucky you’ll find Psycho Cat at a church fete or second hand book shop. Fight for it if you have to.

In 2007 Hansen wrote a coming-of-age novel set in New Zealand in the 1950s – Remember Me. I sense it’s a fictionalised semi-autobiography. The hero, like Hansen himself, was born in the UK and moved to New Zealand at a very early age. The sense of time and place is very real, the twelve-year-old hero’s voice totally believable. What happens to the boy is fiction, but it’s so well-written, with irony and humour, that you believe it’s true.

Kids are kids: the hero and his friends refer to local nun Sister Gloria as Sister Glorious and dream about what she wears under her habit – that delicious Hansen sense of humour again. The dialogue between the gang of boys is a delight; the schemes they get up to and scrapes they get into are a reminder of my own 1960s early childhood, when parents weren’t helicopter parents, and you could get into all kinds of mischief and if you were careful, not get found out.

This is an enchanting book, written through the eyes of an observant child who discovers a wartime secret, writes about it in an essay and polarises the local community, making enemies, turning friends against each other and destroying the fabric of friendships and relationships.

During World War II a local fisherman, Mack, has an encounter with a U-boat which has drifted off course. The captain of the U-boat gives Mack freedom in return for a tank of diesel and total silence. Mack must never mention it, and he is true to his word. Until one night he lets his guard down and tells our hero the story, and the boy tries to find a happy ending for Mack, who has lived with being a traitor since that terrifying wartime day. With memories of the war still fresh in adult minds, let’s say things don’t go smoothly when the story gets out and a stranger lands in town. Not smoothly at all. Is there a happy ending though? You’ll have to read it to find out?

I love this book. I’ve read it twice so far and will undoubtedly read it again. Discover Derek Hansen – you’ll be glad you did.

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Captivating. Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears

Foal's BreadI’m a fanatical reader. A fast reader. A reader who gobbles books, burps and looks for more. I am an insult to authors because they spend months if not years writing a book and I whizz through it with unseemly haste.

Last Christmas, however, I received a book I salivated over, took my time with, savoured. I made the glorious pleasure of reading it last for a week. Foal’s Bread by Gillian Mears totally captivated me.

Mears is an Australian author; she hasn’t been hugely prolific but what she has published is magical and Foal’s Bread is probably her best to date.¬†Heartbreakingly Mears suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, and writing this novel, her first in sixteen years, has taken her a long and laborious time.

Foal’s Bread, as the name suggest, is about horses. Specifically, it’s set in the years before, during and after World War II in northern NSW, on the high-jumping show circuit. High-jumping was banned in the 1950s but before then it wasn’t uncommon for riders to set their horses at obstacles seven feet high or even more. It was a spectacle, and part of carnival folklore now consigned to history along with the freak tent.

The heroine is equestrienne Noah Childs, who marries fellow high-jumper Roley Nancarrow. Noah is looked down on by Roley’s family but she’s tough mentally and physically. She has to be… for Roley gradually loses the use of his legs, and the dynamics of family and love change as a result, as do the dreams Noah and Roley have chased for years.

Mears has done her research extraordinarily well. She has caught the authentic language of the era, the slang, the drawl, the cadence, the very fabric of people living in the bush and in country towns in the mid twentieth century. You can smell the dust and grass, the sweat on the horses’ necks , the stench of beer at the bar at the local pub, the parched earth soaking in a thunderstorm. Her writing soars like a horse heading for an eight-foot jump – it has the freedom that she physically doesn’t.

This isn’t a sweet love story; it’s a harsh love story, a tough love story, with occasionally cruel images. It’s enthralling. Read it. You’ll have an exhilarating ride.

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