“Fourteen” by Shannon Molloy, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

I would like to begin my response to this memoir by referring to the story of a boy of similar age that ended tragically – Tyrone Unsworth, the Aspley High School student who was misunderstood and bullied to the point of suicide at age 13 in 2016. I invite you to read his story at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-03/bullied-to-death-the-short-life-of-tyrone-unsworth/8236156.  ‘Fourteen’ is the story of another youngster growing up in the seaside town of Yeppoon, on the coast from Rockhampton, and his eventual escape from similar pressures, eventually finding himself and a career and a husband (see above photo).

As a credit, Rick Morton, author of One Hundred Years of Dirt, wrote of this book ‘Teenagers should read this book, parents should read this book. Human beings, above all, should read this book.’ – and I have to agree though I did find ‘Invisible Boys’ a better read. This book focusses, as a memoir, on one person’s life and largely one year with references to earlier times and an epilogue. It is written by a man who has made his way in life with a mixture of emerging strong self-analysis expressed through his zest for survival and living and an evident skill as a story-teller and journalist. This is my sole reservation about the book in that while the writing is clear journeyman journalist in style and is capable of engrossing description of happenings and his feelings and responses, it does at times fall into compartmentalisation rather than having a narrative sweep.

Describing a fellow student at his hellish Catholic boys High School who often experienced the same treatment and much worse, Molloy writes ..

“I had always been amazed at how little he seemed to care about what the other kids thought of him. Like me, he was relentlessly taunted as he made his way through the school grounds from class to class. I would hear others share tales, choking back tears of laughter, about other boarders in his dorm holding him down while his eyebrows were shaved off, hiding human faeces in his sheets, throwing a cup of urine on him while he slept, stealing his clothes while he was in a cubicle in the shower block.”

A word about Shannon’s place of torment – St Brendan’s College, Yeppoon is yet another all male Christian Brothers school doubtless set up with the best motives especially for the sons of inland bush dwellers. It doesn’t take much imagination to predict the kind of atmosphere generated over time in this rugby league mad environment when combined with traditional religious views and a total lack of understanding and acceptance – even the counselling offered largely tainted by the dominant atmosphere. It was bound to be Shannon Molloy’s private hell, and especially so as he was obliged to hide so much of his torment and was fearful of its exposure.   

Read the book to hear the details of the range of humiliations and beatings and attempted rape to which he was subject in school and out to the point where physical avoidance was his dominant concern along with the contemplation of suicide. What brightens this book is the unquestioning love and care of his single parent mother and his three siblings who also supported him in different ways. Shannon reads as someone with a considerable inner strength which led him in different directions including once trying to be a more butch (and acceptable) person but also toward recognising his strengths and working tenaciously toward their realisation.

There is a deal of description of the teen environment centring on pop music, fashion and stolen good times when partying. Shannon had a few good male friends but his strongest supporters were a few girls who understood him and were rewarded with stardom in a fashion show he organised with the backing of an understanding local youth worker who seems to have recognised his talents and drive.

Typical of his emerging goal-centredness is the story of his drive to obtain a one year  international school exchange to the US which broadened his experiences and understanding of what was possible for him on return with more writing experience, climbing the journalism ladder, university qualifications and currently as a Senior Reporter for news.com.au. It is so sad that young Tyrone was not able to work his way out of the space in which he found himself. Who knows what talent we lost?

One final point, I have a long term great friend who hails from Rockhampton who tells me, as a teen, he lusted after the St Brendan’s Athletics team stars. He obviously was lucky that it was all in his imagination.

(BCC library has 5 copies)

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“Penny Wong: Passion and Principle” by Margaret Simons, 2019.

A review by John Cook.

Many long years ago, my first boyfriend and I had a standing joke to the effect that God was a black, left-handed lesbian. It all seemed so unlikely as ‘The Female Eunuch” was only published in 1970 and we hadn’t even considered the possibility of an Asian despite my tiny genetic trait in that respect. How it has all changed and so often for the better!

As I became aware of Penny Wong, I swiftly fell under her spell coming as she did from a background that combined a solid secondary and tertiary education in Law working for unions I could respect (important difference, that). She was also a fruit of the early Colombo Plan which, whatever its cold war credential, was a tentative step away from a glaringly white Australia. Her father (Francis Wong) clearly benefited academically while also matching with a well-educated Adelaide girl of impeccable colonial origins (Jane Chapman). As required, Francis returned to Kota Kinabalu while the marriage eventually foundered though not with acrimony ensuring that Penny retained a close and loving bond with her Malaysian family and their cultural and mixed religious background. It is intriguing that while accessing this background, she remains a Christian churchgoer today (Adelaide?)

As an eight-year old, Penny came to live permanently in Adelaide with the sadly usual scarifying experiences of childish (and adult) racial discrimination. A scholarship took her to the top-drawer Scotch College where she flourished out of a combination of natural ability and a toughness and determination that continues today as her most noted characteristic despite the clear evidence that this is tempered by a deep understanding of all kinds of disadvantage, empathy and an enduring determination to work toward overcoming such conditions. She does this not on a reactive basis but with a clearly worked-out social, political and cultural standpoint.

These developments were tempered by the realpolitik of involvement in student and then party politics where you have to be tough to survive and many lose their feeling for others. She took these acknowledged skills into the Union movement where she encountered similar realities especially the impact of factional deals and the hide-bound patriarchal nature of some unions often with a religious agenda always bubbling below the surface. She proved to be an excellent advocate in Industrial cases always well prepared and passionate yet deliberate in her arguments.

She eventually made it into parliamentary representation as a SA Senator in 2002 after trying out for other opportunities and working as a campaign organiser. There she has remained despite attempts to unseat her and in various Ministries both in government and opposition. She is remarkable to have retained support from so many different Labor leaders in her time. She has had crucial experience with Climate Change, Water, Finance, Foreign Affairs and as Government and Opposition leader in the Senate. These ministries have seen turbulent times, to say the least over the last 13 years and Wong has had successes and lost other battles. In Foreign Affairs, her Hakka Chinese ancestry has been used to accuse her of mixed and sometimes ‘soft’ responses to China’s current outward thrust – nothing changes much.

Almost certainly, most people have in their mind the often reported inquisitorial eyebrow used in Senate hearings which usually presages an attack that goes to the heart of misinformation and waffle. She is a substantial performer in that respect and often gets results. Simons’ book, however, goes to considerable lengths to dig deeper into Penny Wong’s life and feelings. She reports that Penny was not a wildly cooperative subject initially though more so as time went on. This would seem to be typical of a life-long tendency to protect what she holds most dear from the slings and outrages of an ever-hungry press.

This tendency can be seen in her relationship with her brother Toby, his addiction problem and his eventual death. It can also be seen in her relationships including one with a man – Jay Wetherill, later a Premier of SA. She has had two lesbian relationships which have all been amicable and now has two children with Sophie Alllouache. She remains fiercely protective.

I am sure she will continue in her current roles if there is no change of government relatively soon though, as my personal preference, I would like to see a change that would give her a new opportunity to make and implement policy. It could be a kind of dream to see her go back and try to create something ordered and useful for the short and long term concerning Australia’s great river basins or to create some calm in our relations with China. Onyer, Penny.

(BCC library has 20 copies, 1 ebook)

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“Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love” by Jonathan Van Ness, 2019.

A review by John Cook.

Once again, I experienced this book in audio form which was probably a mixed blessing. I say that because some have found the read experience wearing and lengthy which I can imagine. The audio form was made enjoyable because it is narrated by JVN himself. Again, this is a mixed blessing because he doesn’t compare with a skilled, trained reader and the tone presents as someone reading aloud. On the other hand, his passion and personality come through mostly loud and clear. This also can be problematic as some people (gay and straight) might find him overpoweringly floridly gay in so many ways and tune out. For those who can stay the distance in written or audio form, there is a lot here to enjoy and be of interest.

I must declare my hand in that I only ever saw the first series of ‘Queer Eye’ which I enjoyed mildly but found it flawed by the tired old assumption that gay men (only?) have some innate sense of good taste. You only have to see my wardrobe to experience that fallacy. Thus, JVN was a new experience for me and may be a good example of how media representations of gay life have broadened away from the flimsy and gaudy toward greater depth whatever the immediate presentation and this would seem to be the flavour of the new and continuing series.

JVN is certainly an interesting individual. Anyone who has a long-term love affair with his rescue cat is a winner for me. He comes from an historic Michigan newspaper family and might have been expected to find a niche in that aspect of the media though that might have turned out not to be so secure in the contemporary environment. Instead, from a very early age he was very aware of his difference and flamboyance came to him naturally though not always easily in the eyes of others. Nevertheless, from the start, he was determined to express himself through his dress (literally), music choice, speech and his activity choices which ranged from imagined ice skating prowess to being a trailblazer cheerleader. So much so, he has retained a hero worshipper of ice skaters throughout his life, paralleling his attempts to grow and develop with mastering difficult routines on the ice.

He developed a close pack of friends who supported him as well as a fondness for most teen conventional recreation drugs which has dogged a lot of his life as a means of mood change and escape when needed. He managed to fall into heavy drug use, sex work (he tells of escaping a client equipped with a gun by leaping through a window ) and later HIV+ status. Throughout it all, there is a high degree of chaotic behaviour that never overcame the support that he got from his stepfather and mother which was always reasoned and loving – also some of his partners. The book gives a detailed description of his loss of both parents which highlights his attempts to find his path especially through hairdressing and related activities related to skin and body care which was perhaps understandable considering his battle with psoriasis.

While I might quibble with the ‘reading aloud’ tone of the piece, I do have to admit that there were regular chuckles along the way – the man has a great sense of humour about all sorts of situations. It is all a bit shambolic which probably reflects accurately how he has forged forward in his life and has chosen to present publicly his struggles in finding and directing his real inner self. Of course, he has to share this though the mood is not offensively didactic. This is a man who has been through the wringer and has something to say about understanding self and others. For that reason alone, the book is a worthwhile journey. I give it a qualified recommendation.

“There’s a rhyme and reason behind my effervescent spirit, and no, I did not wake up like this. It took a lot of trauma and tears to become the person you see today.”

(BCC library has 12 copies, 3 ebooks, 1 audiobook)

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“Dark Secrets” by Robert Hadler, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

It is late afternoon on Thursday March 12, 1942 on board HMAS Australia in the Coral Sea. Young Stoker John ‘Jack’ Joseph Riley born 12 Nov, 1922 tells his shipboard surgeon Lieutenant Malcolm Stening who is inserting 58 stitches in 14 knife wounds in his body ..

“I have been stabbed … (by) Leading Stoker Gordon … because I found out he was a poufter (sic.)”

Unfortunately young Jack did not survive the attack and died late the following night from internal blood poisoning. He was briefly able to respond to questioning from Commander John Armstrong..

Armstrong cut straight to the chase: ‘Who attacked you?’

Riley replied: ‘Leading Stoker Gordon and Stoker Elias.’

Armstrong: ‘I want you to think carefully, as these two men have been arrested.’

Riley: ‘They did it.’

Armstrong: ‘Can you tell me exactly what happened?’

Riley: ‘We were standing on the deck talking and the G (bugle alert for night stations) went for the First Watch. I turned to walk away and copped it in the back.’

Armstrong: ‘Had you been quarrelling?’

Riley: ‘No, Sir.’

Armstrong: ‘Did you accuse them of being bugger boys?’

Riley: ‘Yes.’

Armstrong: ‘Are you certain of this?’

Riley: ‘Yes.’

The accused shipmates Stoker second class Ron Gordon and Leading Stoker Ted Elias were both in their early twenties at this time

This book focuses on that historic murder which must almost certainly have been gay-related. The background, time and location were critical and worthy of understanding while the outcomes were seismic in terms international politics and relations yet sadly did not advance the cause of gay liberation one bit but probably reinforced existing prejudice and misunderstanding.

Gordon and Elias were charged after an on-board investigation and a court martial in Noumea. They were found guilty and technically the only available punishment was death by hanging from the yardarm (actually slow strangulation).This was because the Australian fleet was at the command of the British Admiralty at this time with senior officers moving back and forth between the two services.

A problem quickly emerged over both the sentence at a time when there was considerable pressure against the death penalty though the execution of US soldier Leonski in Melbourne was relatively untroubled. The controlling influence of the Admiralty meant that all Australian institutions were virtually powerless to intervene. A second problem emerged in that the conduct of the court martial may have been flawed in that Captain Harold Farncomb may have prejudiced the process by his stated opinion of guilt. This was taken up by the defence in the form of Paymaster Lieutenant Rapke (a criminal lawyer in civil life) who continued to attack the verdict and subsequent actions to debate both the verdict and any recommendations for remission.

This all takes place in an Australia under severe wartime stress with backgrounds in local and international politics and especially a drive for independent decision making fuelled by disappointment over the fall of Singapore, the use and return of Australian troops from the Middle East and the growing relationship between PM Curtin and the scheming Gen Macarthur.

There follows a long and twisted path through the corridors of power with a cast that includes King George VI, Pres Roosevelt, Australian politics from Menzies to Curtin and John Lang and a range of supporters, church leaders and bureaucrats. One key individual involved was the brilliant Doc Evatt (love or loathe him). The way is long and is superbly covered in fine detail by the author. The key turning point occurs when the Australian parliament finally passes the Statute of Westminster ending 120 years of British dominance though only after debate that reminds this reader of the influences that continue to argue against a republic for Australia.

The saga doesn’t end until 1950 from a legal point of view though the two men had subsequent lives that are sketched out for readers. Hadler reports that gossip and rumour about homosexual activity among the stokers swept the engine room and mess decks:

‘Many of their shipmates believed the three (Gordon, Elias and Riley) were homosexual with perhaps a handful of others.’

A key question for gay readers is ‘who was gay’ and ‘was blackmail involved’? A key  problem in this tale lies with the then attitude towards homosexuality whether situational or otherwise. Recent research has made its obvious that it was occurring. It is all unclear as amazingly homosexuality was never mentioned at the trial and later actions because of morale considerations and popular opprobrium

‘In Australia, there was outright disbelief when reports of homosexual activity confronted military leaders after millions of men were drafted to fight for years in isolated camps or overseas. The reports confronted the dominant mythology of mate-ship among Aussie diggers. The official history of the Australian Army Medical Corps in the First World War, published in 1943, flatly denied the presence of ‘moral perversion’.

In 1943, the US Army alerted senior Australian military command about wild sex parties in the jungles of New Guinea and at ports across the Pacific, including Noumea, where Australia and other RAN warships were based in the early years of the war. The US reports led to a 1944 study of homosexual behaviour in the Australian Army in New Guinea, which revealed the full extent of homosexual sex in the military. Australian ‘girls’ frequently had sex with US soldiers. US Navy nicknames such as ‘sea biscuit’ and ‘canteen Mary’ was commonly used for Australian sailors seeking homosexual sex in Noumea.’

‘Evidence was given by the dying man in the presence of the Commander and the Surgeon Commander (i) that these two men committed the murder (ii) that the motive was because they knew that the dying man knew something about them which they particularly wished should not be brought to light. (He knew that they were men with particularly unpleasant habits).’ Royle said that the ship’s crew knew what was going on and the two stokers would have been killed if they had not been charged with murder and sentenced to death: ‘What is more, the ship’s company knew–and if these men had been found “not guilty” it is highly probable that they would have been pushed over the side (of Australia).’ Diary entries of individual sailors support the claim that the ship’s crew was aware of the incident and the motive for the murder, but there is no sign from the diaries that the crew would have taken justice into their own hands.’(my italics)

This is a very detailed, carefully researched book written by a man who understands the workings of bureaucracy and has an eye for significant events and their causation.

‘He is a former award-winning economics journalist who has worked in the Commonwealth Public Service, as a political adviser, a lobbyist for industry groups and senior executive roles in multinational companies. Since he retired in 2015, he has been a Director on Government, corporate and not-for-profit boards. However, his passion is writing about Australian history, and in particular controversial events that sparked military, legal and political challenges and triggered reforms that changed the future direction of the nation.’

One small caveat relates to the detail of the presentation and tortuous and  sometimes  arcane pathway created by this saga. That detail might be off-putting for some. I found it fascinating to see the mixture of influences, beliefs, fears and personal interest at work. It was highly instructional and interesting. I apologise for the length of this note but there is more I could say about this sorry story.

(BCC library has 4 copies)

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“On Our Doorstep: When Australia Faced the Threat of Invasion by the Japanese” by Craig Collie, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

As a response to Australia’s woefully inadequate provision of history teaching in our schools, this book provides a very readable ‘catch-up’ for both old and young who may have some inkling of our situation at the outbreak of the Pacific WWII. It also serves as a refresher for those who were there or at least have some childhood memories. As a war baby (1941), I count myself among the latter.

My father served as a fortress engineer along the Queensland coast and Thursday Island (Green Hill fort)  hence our family love affair with Bribie Island and Caloundra. There were two uncles in the Middle East then in the northern islands. One other uncle stevedored for the US on Brisbane wharves and later at Manus Island.

I spent my early years in retreat on a family orchard at Applethorpe (see pic above) where I developed blood poisoning from a barbed wire scratch while waving to passing troop trains (first warning sign!) and was saved by an early use of penicillin which had been developed for those very soldiers. I started school after the war ended but can remember seeing filled-in slit trenches on the school oval and grew into a world that was peppered with the built remains of conflict and in a society in change and recovery mode. I read my sister the Collie paragraph about the precautions taken for children that included a dilly bay with such items as a clothes peg to be clenched when shock waves occurred. She remembered it well. My brother, born in 1931 was a teen throughout and had lots of stories about the US soldiers and their impacts on Brisbane.

With an eye to history, I have already read biographies of John Curtin, Field Marshall Sir Thomas Blamey and that refugee from reality TV, five star General of the Army Douglas Macarthur. Frankly, I think the greatest hero of all was the one with the fewest titles and who paid the highest price, our terminally anxious yet brave and foresighted PM (can’t say that for many of them).

‘I can’t understand the mentality of the Australian people,’ said John Curtin. ‘One day they are in a panic about the war and the next they want more race meetings.’

Collie points out correctly that Australia has a long history of a fortress mentality with occasional bursts of defensive buildings, armaments and local militias (Fort Lytton here in Brisbane) but had transferred this belief to fortress Singapore in the pre-war years. Its fall described by Collie signalled the need for Australia to reduce its blind dependence on the ‘mother country’ that persisted commercially even after the lesson provided by the Pacific war. The fall also highlighted Australia’s weaknesses and the nature of what warfare with Japan in all its gruesome aspects was going to be like.

The progress of the invasion threat (and whether there ever was one) is well covered both at the international political level, warfare and impact on daily lives. This is not a profoundly deep history but has been very carefully researched and includes a mixture of commentary and responses from the time of the events and memories and reflections from those who were there.

Such stories often strike home more clearly about the concerns and responses of so many. I lost a good friend a bit older than me in recent years who grew up on the Atherton tablelands. While he was too young to enlist, his father sent him bush with some pals to improve their survival skills as they would be the generation who might have to live a guerrilla experience in the event of any actual invasion – and no, there were no TV crews and sound recorders on hand to film their ‘survivor’ experience.

I think I can recommend this as an eminently readable book for those who want to gather their already received thoughts and ideas on this topic as well as more recent generations who are often bombarded by internet-based rubbish and rumour that only obfuscates.

(BCC library has 10 copies)

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‘Girl, Woman, Other’ by Bernadine Evaristo, 2019.

A Review by John Cook.

What a kaleidoscope of a book! It is that in so many senses – skin colour (mainly black and white) – gender and sexuality – ages – physical locations – politics – economic, occupational. social and educational variations. Like a shaken kaleidoscope, there are so many pieces there is a danger of any sense of wholeness and completion escaping. However, Evaristo’s skills as a story-teller are such that so often apparently unrelated themes and linkages will suddenly gell and link. I occasionally despaired of this happening, yet I was constantly surprised. The main linkage is, of course, women, femininity and aspects of feminism while a lot of what is presented concerns the role of African-ancestry people in England for over two hundred years. That could take a lot of writing but the author’s skill in presenting easy to read chapters from lives suffices to create the opportunity for linkages and themes all of which concludes gloriously as Penelope’s epilogue rushed to a delightful conclusion per kind favour of Ancestry.com! I found myself musing over the Penelope the weaver of the Odyssey. Yes, men, we are there also in our variations but something of shadows in our relationships with women, being more primarily driven.

Of the twelve characters, I particularly enjoyed Amma with her gritty background and gradual compromises beautifully evoked along with her. This is probably no surprise as Evaristo’s life has many parallels in the theatre world. Her daughter Yazz by her unconventional partner moves in a different  direction that definitely does not mirror her lesbian feminist outlook. In fact, she describes herself as “part ’90s Goth, part post-hip hop, part slutty ho, part alien.” There is a lot of change to be recorded here.

Winsome, the arrival from Barbados provided a great opportunity for backgrounding and the clever deposition of the struggles of early Caribbean immigrants in England along with experiences of acute racism that stretched to the tip of Land’s End. Carole is chasing after material success in the world of finance, banking and Thatcherism.

One of the key elements is Hattie, at 93 easily the oldest character but with a very long and deep background living on a farm almost on the Scots border. Her background story is fascinating as was her relationship with her husband and his relationship with family and land – stormy, difficult but with satisfaction earned.

This rich tapestry plays out against a background that has plenty of references to feminism as it has evolved and been discussed (leading up to the ferociously current issues of trans and gender references) but also plays out against the broader political, economic and socials issues of the past post-WWII years.

As my copy was in small print, I swapped it for the spoken version which threatened a 10-hour listening (a long time for me to concentrate). It was, however, very sensitively done except for some odd pronunciations and I truly enjoyed the experience as I think it helped to link the many disparate elements. I have been made aware the written format was a different experience with the contemporary fondness for lack of capitalisation and punctuation, though some point to the author’s poetry background in ‘Lara’ just one of her 8 books and her vast bibliography of articles, essays and other forms. The Booker prize in 2019 could not have come as any surprise though some might see is as delayed.

The last words in the book are about relationships that were lost and now found – togetherness is a key concept throughout with a constant drive to seek and satisfy this need even against backgrounds that are often unpromising and overshadowed by so much that has been negative in contemporary life.

The written format may put some readers off, so I recommend listening to it. The twisting evolving storyline likewise may put some off. I found it a fascinating and enjoyable read.

BCC library has 69 copies 1 audiobook, 1 ebook)

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‘You’ve Got to Be Kidding’ by Todd Alexander, 2021.

A review by John Cook.

I wrote to this blog in March 2016 about Todd Alexander’s first book concerning him and his partner’s tree- and animal-change. It struck a chord for many and did good business supplementing the couples’ endeavours with wine, olives and upmarket villa accommodation. As I commented then, his experiences reminded me of ‘The Egg and I’ and Sandra Dee amongst others, while encounters with animal carcasses and water supplies evoked memories of Henry Lawson’s ‘The Parson and the Scone’. This time around, the author features more variations on the same with more animals, but especially snake stories, goat love, financial problems and dealing with drought and bushfires, though Covid 19 wasn’t quite the disaster that might have been expected.

On a personal note, I am not a prospective vegan and have heard the propositions advanced by Todd and Jeff for their choice and I don’t need to hear them again. My experiences with goats were limited to a pet kept in a house yard in Cloncurry many years ago (see picture). Hopelessly misnamed ‘baby goat’,  my landlady’s pet covered everything with a carpet of poo pellets and delighted in head-butting me as I tried to dry my clothes away from its greedy reach. The following year, in Kynuna, when weather prevented any other meat supply, I joined in the slaughter and preparation of a goat from the local herd and enjoyed milk puddings from the same source. Concerning pigs, The same source fattened the progeny of a wild pig which I also enjoyed though without any involvement on my part. Call it necessity or revenge, I had no qualms. I do, however,  also enjoy an occasional vegan meal possibly because the recipes call for extra enjoyable flavourings.

There are lots more animal stories this time around with some emphasis on the grimmer and grimier aspects of maintaining a menagerie along with incursions from kangaroos and snakes. While they manage a few animal dispersals, the pair are still managing a range of animals with matching food, maintenance and vet bills. I am a fan of Leroy, the killer cat from Annandale, who seems to be much more of a lap cat these days. I know so many couples, straight and gay, where there is a similar division of jobs between the two especially when it comes to difficult chores and dealing with pests and especially spiders and snakes.

This book covers up to almost the present day and sees ‘the boys’ beginning to consider a new chapter in their lives – not a return to the city, but a relocation to a new and bigger site with even more adventures with their menagerie. One moment I enjoyed arose from the description of impending doom and destruction by bushfire was Todd’s plan to pack his Mercedes Benz bus (another story) with his animals – a bit like Noah’s shipping manifest!

There is a tone to Alexander’s writing that rings instantly ‘gay’ to the ear. It is a kind of often dryly witty self-deprecation that also includes relations with his significant other. It is very handy when things go wrong and prevent the writer from being overly self-indulgent. He does it well. There are no wedding bells in prospect for them, a decision I have heard in others and totally respect.  It is no way a refusal of a hard-won equal right.

One could be forgiven thinking that this latest offering was purely written to find some income, when it was otherwise shrinking, especially that from wine and olives as a result of weather, complicated by changes in their means of marketing their wine and their accommodation niche. As someone who had a past visiting the Hunter region to buy wine beginning a very long time ago (50 years) and visit a family site (Wollombi), I am saddened at the reported changes wrought through popularity and easy access. However, as the author concludes, change is inevitable and must be met with adaptation.

There is still a lot of charm and outright fun in this book and certainly no whingeing. Troubles may abound but so also are the moments of pleasure in accomplishment, enjoyment of their animals’ capers (sometimes responses) and that sheer reflective pleasure of being about to rest and enjoy their environment and their wine (sheer jealousy here).

This episode was definitely enjoyable despite my reservations and I have no doubt there will be a third in the fullness of time as their property sales have dictated. I would like to be looking over their shoulders as a move to a new location is accomplished perhaps in that bus!.

Recommended for those who want to continue this rural saga.

My copy was supplied for review purposes to Queerreaders.

BCC library has 10 copies and 16 holds to date.

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‘The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donoghue, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

The Pull of the Stars

Emma Donohue is an amazingly prolific writer (of all kinds) with a strong academic background. Her reach and range are quite amazing. Typically, she presents as bisexual…

‘When I think about how embarrassed and sheepish so many gay people felt around 1990, it’s unrecognizable. I’ve ended up having a family [Donoghue has two children with her partner Chris] as well as being a lesbian – when I was younger I really thought it would be one or the other.’

Emma Donoghue says she developed an interest in the Great Influenza in 2018 as the 100th anniversary approached. That is the kind of prescience shared by ‘The End of October’ but without the sci-fi drama and bedded in total realism that pulls in so many issues of that time that continue to be working today.  She has produced something eminently readable though with substantial challenges for some. For me, the book generated a lot of introspection about time and place. My parents were born in 1906 and 1909 in rural locations and I had never given much thought about their birthing. I am a family historian and am aware of a grouping of deaths of older family members in 1919. Dealing with the detailed treatment of childbirth took me back to my Mother’s copy of ‘The Home Physician’ (1930) which was big on so much of the treatments Donoghue presents especially those poultices and my childhood memories of chloroform. It makes this reader think about the advances every twenty years of my life have brought – some lifesaving for me. The reference to the difficulty of defeating the combination of viral flu and bacterial pneumonia is stark against the imminent Covid 19 vaccination program and its speedy development.

The focus of this three day (and night) story is Nurse Julia Porter. She is young (twenties) as well trained as the time permitted, a mixture of traditional Irish culture (religion), a respect for learning and science, and aware of her thoughtful position in a country torn by political strife and now a plague. Donoghue skilfully draws in a series of characters that represent different experiences and backgrounds and crams then largely into a narrow frame of time and place – an inner-city hospital dealing with its usual business plus the often interacting effects of the Spanish Flu.

The other two main characters are Dr. Lynn, a real life Sinn Fein rebel doctor who devoted her life to mother and infant care. She represents a modern, changing, scientific view on life and medical practice and highlights the problems of dealing with a somewhat rigid medical world dominated by men, strict hierarchies, and religious encrustation.  The other is Bridie Sweeny who appears at the door as a volunteer from a nearby Catholic home (she has been institutionalised all her life). She rapidly learns from Julia how to be a help both in menial tasks and some medical procedures, even anticipating them. She represents an almost innocent goodness that soon creates a bond with Julia against the background of the heaving life and death incidents that occur on their tiny stage. There is another character, Julia’s returned soldier brother Tim who has been rendered mute. He has little to do with the story detail and mainly stands as a symbol for the damage done in Irish society by all kinds of conflict.

This tiny space in which Julia works can only accommodate three women who simultaneously are birthing and dealing with the flu. Each come from different backgrounds that represent marital and social problems but most clearly the dead hand of ‘the pipe’, the system of public care dominated by the Catholic church which delivered services for which it was paid but also a range of behaviours and outcomes that it is now known were marked by insufferably harsh behaviours. The author is careful to balance this care and with good and thoughtful actions that come to a final crisis in the last pages dealing with young Barnabas.

This is a somewhat extreme book in some respects that may be off-putting. Readers are present at all aspects of three births and in great detail. I, like most men, have only the sketchiest knowledge of what happens and probably squeamish to boot. However, I am grateful for what I learned from this book about the process in general and what can go horribly wrong as well as the endurance of mothers and their carers.

There may be some who might argue that the plot and speed of development are extreme which might be a little true of Julia’s decision making but not of what happens in that tiny ‘ward’. Donoghue appears to have had lesbian experiences but is married with two children and this appears to seep into this story. As Dr. Lynn pretty clearly is unabashedly so with her determinedly masculine clothing while Julia finds herself finding emotional satisfaction, at least, in her speedy relationship with young Bridie. Most of the relationship material concerns future possibilities after the flu recedes. The only question is who will be there to take their part in the momentous events that have since shaken Irish society.

Not great but very good indeed, easy to read, compelling, and fulfilling.

BCC Library has 50 copies,  audio book, eBook, mp3

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‘Jazz Moon’ by Joe Okonkwo, 2016.

A review by John Cook.

Pardon a touch of obscurantism, but my personal view of this book has been overshadowed by my love of  French baroque opera specifically Les Indes Galantes by Jean-Philippe Rameau in the aria ‘The Flowers’. This was very much a dance and musical response to contact with the American Indians and the Rousseau concept of the noble savage. There is also the life of the remarkable Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, son of a slave on Guadeloupe who captivated Paris before and after the revolution, felt the bite of racism and threw in his hat (and sword) with the revolution. This book focusses strongly on racism (especially blacks) homosexual discrimination and miscegenation. Paris, France is seen by those distant as a safe harbour away from racism and acceptance of black artistry. But is it always so?

The book gives a clear and sometimes startling view of the 1920’s Jim Crow life of the Southern US states (you won’t forget the lynching in a hurry), the traditional escape to the Northern States (New York), and a new pattern of restrictions in employment and housing with the only release being the nightlife and jazz of the alcohol and drug-soaked speakeasies of Harlem.

Ben Charles fits neatly into this pattern except he has acquired literary desires (poetry) and a growing awareness of a ‘thing’ that is driving him toward feelings and desires for men. He has a wife who escaped with him at 15 from the South, work (obsequious table-waiting for him, beauty parlour for Evangeline), and a family life with occasional excursions into the Harlem jazz life. However, the ‘thing’ won’t let him go and keeps on pushing into his awareness which is quite skillfully presented by Okonkwo with glimpses of clothing, manners, etc that make the reader very aware of power relationships. This is seen in the rich white man he regularly serves at the hotel and his ‘partners’ and in more sexually based situations especially with the trumpet virtuoso Baby Back. This meshing opens the door for long detailed descriptions of jazz music which may not be to the taste of all readers.

Baby Back also has a backstory – an uncle who made it to Paris but returned to South Carolina, ultimate indignity and death passing on the fairy tale view of the wonders of life in Paris where blacks were accepted and often honoured. BB has the musical talent much valued and wanted in the jazz joints of the day and is open to suggestion by someone who can offer him a gig in Paris. Ben, who is enamoured by BB’s large physical and sexual persona is severely tempted but has to determine his relationship with Evangeline. Without spoiling, the reader gets a clear picture of Ben’s weakness at this point which doesn’t mend until the conclusion.

The author paints some good pictures of physical and social life in Harlem, on an ocean liner to Paris and later in and around that city. I found the tone of the writing a little odd. I understand the author was writing of the past and wanted to include the mood and feeling of the time as Ben experiences it. However, there is a clumsiness that was present mostly early, less so later. As Ben is a poet, there are frequent quotes from him illustrating his feelings and responses. I only occasionally found this of much interest or illumination. The other thing I found a little odd was the speed with which Ben acquired vernacular French. He must have had quite an aptitude for it. At least he reminded me of the French for ‘kitten’.

Inevitably, Paris is a very mixed situation with BB doing very well while his relationship with Ben comes under increasing strain as his literary output fails to be recognized. A range of Parisian characters are introduced and time spent on Ben’s favoured locations around Montmartre and Pigalle, with the steps of the Sacre Coeur as his ‘thinking spot’. We are treated to descriptions of the ‘life Boheme’ of the time with exciting hysterical highs and the depths of despair including an opium den.

This is, of course, basically a love story, finding it, losing it, feeling it, all kinds of pleasure, sentiment and pain though things to rather peter out at the conclusion with at least one linkage left very much up in the air.

I really did find the racial issue the main interest for me, enlightening in its being experienced, used as a power play, and as a social phenomenon that creates fears, hopes, disillusion, and sometimes self-realization. The famous black dancer Josephine Baker comes up for regular mention as does the interpretation of Jazz as being ‘primitive’ (whatever that may be taken to mean).

Not a great read but one that offers some valuable insights.

BCC Library has 4 copies.

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‘The Death of Vivek Oji’ by Akwaeke Emezi, 2019, 2020.

A review by John Cook.

I say wonderful simplicity. Simplicity because the prose is so easy to read and absorb – even when the occasional local word or expression is employed. Wonderful because this was one of the most enjoyable books I have had in my hands for some time. It has so much to offer in its interest, emotional engagement, and moral questions. I enjoy a book that takes me out of my comfort zone and this one set in small-town modern Nigeria highlights differences in understanding between age groups, cultures, class and social settings, gender and, of course, change.

The title character, Vivek Oji, is found dead with head injuries wrapped in cloth on his home doorstep.

‘the length of his body stretched out on their front veranda … the back of his skull … broken and seeping into their welcome mat’,

We are promptly plunged into an extended family and friends dynamic that centres around Vivek’s parents, Chika (father), and Kavita (his Indian mother). His Aunt Mary, her husband, and son Ostia. They are descended from a common grandmother who lived and died in a more traditional farmland setting.  Vivek is very close to her and has a physical link in the form of an identical ‘soft starfish’ scar under his foot.

The family has moved into a more Westernised business-oriented way of life but the threads of traditional ways of thinking and acting are mixed with social-political pressures (Northern Nigeria and Muslim terrorists) and their local consequences in mob activity and ‘necklacing’. One further element that intrudes is the impact of Christianity and especially fundamentalism. The amount of multi-culturalism in this location was surprising, especially in the form of a group of immigrant wives who move and respond almost like a chorus – the Nigerwives. It is fair to say that the female elements in this story are largely stronger and more effective than the men which is not surprising when considering the traditional role of Nigerian women as marketers and businesswomen.

Three elements from this book will remain with me for a long time. One was the treatment of blood in associations with Vivek’s death and funeral, the descriptions of his interment alongside his grandmother, and the jewel-like tale of Ebenezer and Chisom which had the feel of Chaucer and Boccacio.

The book is organised with a continuing narration with occasional inputs from the now-dead Vivek and his cousin Ostia. This worked remarkably well especially toward the end as a lot of the incidental clues are orchestrated into a final revelation. Keep an eye out for Vivek’s change in naming and gender pronouns (he (Oji) and she (Nnemdi)). There are a number of images that are cleverly interwoven with events that are signaled quietly without any indication of their future significance such as his silver chain necklace ..

‘placing one of the necklaces against his sternum, over his silver chain, clipping his ears with the earrings … so beautiful he made the air around him dull’

The main interest in the story is who Vivek was, how he lived his life and the apparent mystery of his death and deposition on his parents’ doorstep. He was born unpropitiously at the time of his grandmother’s death and his behaviours as he grows are seen by others as increasingly strange. This is initially explicable as he is subject to fitting (petit mal). However,  his increasing withdrawal and changes signalled by growing his hair very long (dangerously non-masculine) and his association with his female cousins lead to more and more isolation and deepening concerns from his mother who only wants a conventional life and successes for her son. This is not happening and she is constantly searching for ways to change things but, until too late, lacks the capacity to truly understand him.

Given that he kept so much of himself internal and hidden, it is not surprising that other voices do not see and feel the real Vivek which helps to maintain the tension about how others react to him (exorcism through to assault with bottles) until the truth begins to gradually seep through. I feel most readers will gradually sense a greater identification with him and understanding of his life and manner of death. Vivek is not always a totally sympathetic character and could be irritating to know with sudden bursts of behaviour such as the one that led to his demise.

This is a clever, sensitive beautifully written book that was a joy to read, to try to incorporate its message, and to absorb its emotional load.

BCC Library has 10 copies, 1 ebook

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