Book Review: My Left Foot by Christy Brown

My Left Foot is the tale of Christy Brown: born in 1930s Dublin, one of 17 children, living in cramped conditions and not much to go around. Perhaps an unlikely candidate to write a successful autobiography in his early 20s. Perhaps even more so, given that Brown was born with cerebral palsy and given little hope of life outside an institution.

Yet Brown manages something truly amazing. He learns to write with his left foot, then going on to write more  sophisticated sentences and phrases, leading, finally, to his career as a poet and novelist.

The story starts, well, at the start. Brown was born in 1932, a ‘difficult birth’ requiring extra care and recuperation. At around four months, his mother notices something wrong with Brown’s muscle tone, unable to hold his head up and communicate as her other children had. These muscle and speech difficulties continues into infancy;  Brown at five years old describes himself as a ‘little bundle of crooked muscles and twisted nerves’.

Yet with much persistence and determination, as well as unwavering support from his mother, he begins to communicate via foot-writing at around age five, using chalk between his toes to spell out words.

As he grows and matures, Brown also begins to explore his local community, thus opening his world, just a little. He carefully weaves in some heart-warming tales of ‘little outings’ with his older sisters and brothers, exploring the local area (in a home-build go-cart), including going to the cinema and even swimming.

He also, so honestly, tells of the emotional pain of feeling trapped in his body, of the growing awareness of how is life was so different, and restricted, compared to other young people around him. ‘I was now ten, a boy who couldn’t walk, talk, feed or dress himself…’. (p50), and also later, of his thoughts of suicide.

It was also during this time (aged 11 onward) that he meets with some phenomenal professionals, such as Miss Delahunt who motivates and supports Brown’s development at home (including his painting and writing). He also receives regular visits from Dr Robert Collis, who established a cerebral palsy clinic in Dublin, one of the first of it’s kind (see link below for more information about the man called the ‘Irish Schindler’.


Brown’s sChristy Browntory is one of struggle and persistence
culminating in successes that Brown had never imagined – being a best selling writer, with his story known across the world, being asked to publicly appear along side the likes of Burl Ives.

But Brown’s story is also one of melancholy, of yearning for a ‘normal’ life, where he could have a ‘dream-girl’ or be able to join is brothers and sisters living life outside the confines of his crowded Dublin house.

It is this balance, combined with incredible insight into his own development as a writer, that makes this book so readable. Brown gives space in My Left Foot to examine his inspiration to write, to narrate his progress as an emerging writer with intense and unashamed honesty. As a reader, I loved hearing about which authors inspired him to write more and refine his craft  – greats such as Dickens, Caesar and Shaw, and the influence they had on his early work.


For anyone that loves a tale of triumph over adversity. Probably a good one for young adult readers – easy to follow, a introducing into some complex moral issues (disability and self-determination for example.)


My edition: Mandarin Paperbacks, 1989 ISBN: 7493 0101 5

Links: (Movie)

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Book Review: Hunting the Wild Pineapple by Thea Astley

When I was a little tacker, my grandmother went on a trip to Queensland where she visited (and indeed went inside) a building of renowned brilliance and taste – yep, she went to the Giant Pineapple. Maybe looked something like this?

The Giant Pineapple retro

Now, while you are recovering from the dazzling splendor that is  an over -sized fruit (built circa 1971), I’d like to bring your attention to something from 1970s Queensland that’s a little more literary; Hunting the Wild Pineapple by Brisbane-born Thea Astley (circa 1925 – 2004).

I have to confess, I haven’t read much Astley (and have been known to get her confused with Amy Witting) but when I saw a slim book of short stories in the local library I decided to give it a go.

Hunting the Wild Pineapple


Hunting the Wild Pineapple is a collection of short stories based loosely around the times and people populating the life of former hotel manager, Leverson, who is self-described as the child of two people who ‘were a pair of sad marital misfits bound together by the tragedy of me‘(p4).

But this is not just a book about Leverson (or his main haunt, Reeftown). His first-person tales are shared with stories from other lives and in other homes and locations. Lives such as Father Rassini and Cannon Morro, who both vying to prove their denomination of Christianity is superior to the other. Or the oddly tender story of the rotund Jesus Freak who lives in a commune, yet seeks comfort from a sexagenarian known as the Fixer, author of bad poetry and fixer of ‘things’.

Hunting the Wild Pineapple displays a society that is on the cusp of change (the end of a more conservative era, perhaps) but one that is also struggling with entrenched beliefs around religion, gender, class and power.

For all the social commentary and mysticism, Astley also uses her stories to explore complex human relationships in a unique and sophisticated way.


Astley’s writing is mesmerizing, rhythmic and well paced. She also balances vivid and sensual details with dry, black wit. For example:

‘She wasn’t conservative. She wasn’t really dull. She was simply – well, let’s put it this way – forty two.’ (Maahaha) 

The downside with all this lovely unique writing and different voices is the stories were a little confusing and just, well, took effort (I was away for the weekend when I read this, so maybe I was just in a ‘lazy-reader’ mood!)

If you haven’t read Astley, you may want to start with something more well known (The Multiple Effects of Rainshadow (1996) or Collected short-stories (1997).

Anyway, I’m of to try (again) to read A Brief History of Seven Killings. 

Happy reading!

Book Details:

Published by Penguin Australia in 1981. ISBN: 978 0 14 005843 7


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Book Review: All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld

All the birds, singing

All the Birds, Singing is an exciting and heart-wrenching tale of the fragile yet tough Jake Whyte, a sheep farmer of  a remote UK island who something sinister lurking in her past. And yep, she’s a lady in a man’s world with a man’s name.

At first, Wyld makes it hard for her readers to  place Jake, in time or in place, as the narrative moves from Jake’s present  to her past in Australia, where she was an outback shearer, among other things.

Jake is clearly an outsider in her small, UK farming village. She’s got a bad haircut and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder; the local kids think she’s a bit of a nutter. But Jake is a tough woman who doesn’t need (or maybe even want), help.

But then, something starts attaching her sheep, mauling them and leaving them for dead. Is this something she can handle on her own, or does she need outside help to solve this mystery?

And while the reader is focused on the mystery in the present (including the appearance of a strange man, Lloyd, who ends up staying with Jake and helping with the farm), there is also the emerging, and enthralling, story of her past. We know her mother liked to drink, there she had a chorus of siblings (including triplets) and that Jake started shearing to get away from something. But what? And how did this Australian sheep-farmer did she end up in remote England, with no family, partner or connections to call on?

Wyld gives her readers clues to this mystery throughout, dropping hints and cryptic clues. We know Jake has been shearing in some far-flung (and heat-smashed) locations like Kambalda and Kalgoorlie. We learn about a man called Otto, someone who took care of her (or did he?)  There is clearly so much to learn, and yet Jake (and Wyld) refuses to give it up.

As we learn more about Jake’s present and past, we begin to make sense of her life, and her relationships. And then the mystery of this strange sheep farmer, starts to resolve.

Commentary (and potential spoilers) :

Narrative Structure and Oddities:

This is a novel with clear nineteenth century Gothic – the creature lurking ready to kill, the woman alone in a hostile landscape, moments of seemingly paranormal occurrences, the isolated farm-house. But it is also a very crisp, modern tale about life and relationships, about people who are beyond traditional definitions – characters like Jake Whyte.

Not only does Jake move between two clear narratives (past and present), she also moves in and out of our ideals of what it means to be a woman. Tough yet scared. Independent, yet needing people. Uncaring of looks, fashion and domestic trivialities, yet longing for comfort.

Wyld has done a pretty good job maneuvering  the story of Jake in the present (UK based, narrative moving forward in time) and Jake in the past, the narrative moving backward in time (but it’s not always clear or easy to follow) Both frustrating and fascinating! After all, when is life a clearly linear story? When are we not all influenced by our past and choices from a younger self?

Realism and Research:

The other really well-developed aspect of this novel (apart from the strong writing) is the research and the realistic writing (situations and characters ). Take for example, Wyld’s attention to detail. It is very present it all aspects of the book,  but most striking, in my opinion, when  describing Jake’s working life – as a sex-worker, then a shearer, and finally, a sheep farmer).

First, Jake the sex worker. We learn, somewhere near middle of the novel, that Jake has been a sex worker. From my limited experience working in the health and social policy fields, I know there are many reasons why women (and some men) move into  prostitution as a means of earning income. It’s not always about drugs or as a result of sexual exploitation. Sometimes it is an economic reality (as it was for Jake. She wouldn’t go back to her family, she didn’t have the identify documents required to claim government benefits, and she was earning just enough to sleep or eat ‘but not both’). That’s what makes (for me) this part of the story so sad, but so incredibly real.

Yet Jake does transition from sex-worker (and victim) to shearer – and this incredibly powerful and beautiful.  Wyld’s attention to detail of the shearing life – the board and shearing shed, the communal dining room, the shit-stirring culture – is very skilled and painstaking. The shearing is also Jake’s symbol of transition – she has gained skilled and respect,  able to complete with an all-male shearing team and seems to find, for a short while, some semblance of peace.

The Twist:

Now, this book is no without it’s twists and turns, however  I  personally felt that it came together beautifully in the end. Some readers and reviews have suggested the novel, and it’s ending, seems abrupt (true) but I felt that it was also incredibly fitting for such an unusually structured tale, and I wouldn’t have any other way.

Quirky Quote:

On the drive back to the station, Dad feels like an orange in my sternum. I repeat the words over and over in my head, Dad’s died, Dad’s died, until they don’t mean anything.


A must-read for Australian literature lovers and someone looking for unconventional writing. Excellent use of metaphor and descriptions of landscapes. Dark. Mysterious. Confronting. However, one last thing. Watch out for the explicit sex, violence and swearing. A bit much perhaps? Or maybe it’s just a way to convey the brutality of Jake’s experience…? Nah, probably a bit too much. ;)

Book Details:

ISBN: 978 1 74275 730 8 (pkb). Published in Australia by Vintage 2013

Awards: Miles Franklin Literary Award

 Farm Panther

BONUS: A Personal Tall Tale…

And now…a little sheep farming tall tale of my own (ah, how self-indulgent, I know!).

Now, this happened to my grandfather, Ben, somewhere in pastoral Australian in the 1950s or early 1960s. Dad swears that it is ‘fair dinkum’) so here goes:

One night, Ben was out checking the sheep in one of the middle paddocks. It was still light outside; early summer. From the corner of his eye, he saw something shoot out from the corner of the paddock, run along the fence line and quickly dart away. When comparing it to the height of the fence posts, it seems like the size and height of a large dog, but moved it a different way. The dog (or other animal) was completely black and travelled off into the distance at quiet a speed. Ben said it was hard to explain, just seemingly more agile than a dog, yet seemed very much like one.

Time went on. Ben kept the usual routine, checking the sheep for fly strike, monitoring fences, feed and water supply, tending to the flock throughout a probably vicious summer.

Then, unexpectedly, he came upon the animal, drinking at one of the sheep troughs. It was crouched over at a strange angle, with its front legs on the lip of the bath, lapping.  Then it noticed him and bolted away. Ben shouted and began to run after it, scared it was going to attack his sheep.

It flew through the paddock and leapt onto a stack hay bales, covered in a tarp, clawing its way up and over, and was one. On inspection, it appeared to have left great gash marks in the tarp that could have only been made by large sharp claws.

And that’s it. He never saw it again. Our family scoffed a bit at this one, dismissing it as a feral cat, but dad swears he saw that tarp, and there was so way a domestic cat (feral or otherwise) could have done that much damage.

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Book Review: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

watch thou for the mutant


John Wyndham’s dystopian novel, The Chrysalids, was written in 1955, and there is no doubt that the narrative was shaped by the events of preceding decades: the rise of fascism,  the development and deployment of nuclear weapons, and the questioning of god, tradition and family.

The novel  focuses on young  Davis Strorm, a boy living with his family in a small, conservative farming community called Waknuk, in Labrador. David is struggling to  find his authentic identity such a constricted, monitored society, where anything different is considered an abomination to God. It doesn’t help matters that David’s father is a community leader who embodies piousness and self-control, to the determent of his own family .

David’s world is post-apocalyptic: his community has survived a nuclear disaster (known as Tribulation) that has left Earth almost uninhabitable, populated with pockets of ‘normals’ amidst vast stretches of arid land – the Fringes and the Badlands, where godless mutants lurk. As a result, communities like Waknuk have gone to extreme measures to maintain order and stability – even if it means turning on family and friends.

When David befriends a young girl, Sophie Wender, after a wrong turn in the woods, his life is changed forever. For Sophie is hiding a secret mutation, that if discovered, could mean banishment and even death. And when David discovers that he too, possesses something that could make him an ‘Abomination’, he has to choose: hide his true self forever, or escape into a life that will mean poverty and near-starvation on the Badlands.

The Chrysalids 2008 edition


To focus on only a few aspects of this very interesting and often disturbing novel is a challenge. It is the subject matter, the insight and the commentary about conformity that is most interesting. It also touches on a range of subjects: religion, genetic modification, ecological sustainability and the role of authority in modern society. That’s a lot for a novel that barley makes 200 pages.

Wyndham did well with this novel in revealing small parts of world and it’s power constructs bit by bit. For example the location of Waknuk being in Labrador was a significant plot development in the novel. It’s a region that I am only with familiar via Annie Proux’s haunting descriptions of Newfoundland  in ‘The Shipping News‘ – associated with cold, inhospitable weather and ice. Lots of ice. Yet by locating Waknuk in Labrador, Wyndam is telling his reader that this is the dire state of the world – Labrabor, post Tribulation – is prime farm land, probably all there is left in the northern hemisphere.

There were are elements of the novel where I feel that it missed the mark. Sometimes, Wyndam’s style became pondering and slow, perhaps due to spending too much time (in parts) on action descriptions or extended narrative. And that slowed the whole pace of the plot. I did fall asleep in my book during an epic battle scene near the end. Maybe that just means I’m tired though!

I also would have liked to know more about the side characters and their lives, especially Sophie and her family, but then that would change the nature of the book. Maybe a retelling by Margaret Atwood could solve that issue, but then again, we’d probably have to add 300 pages to Wyndham’s tight little novel.

All is all, I’d recommend The Chrysalids as great read and one that raises all kinds of intriguing questions about society, religion and race relations.

Fun Facts:

John Wyndham’s full name was John Wyndham Parkes Lucan Benyon Harris (or JWPLB for short? Ok, maybe not?)

Meaning of the term Chrysalids: This is an alternate term for ‘chrysalis’, and I suspect in the context of the novel, it refers to the change of life-stage that David is facing.

Book Details:

First published in 1955. My edition published in 2008 (Penguin Books, London). ISBN: 978-0-141-03297-9.

Related Review:

Chocky by John Wyndam

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Writing Mental Illness…Mental Health Week Post#2

Quick post about a recent radio National segment  Writing Mental Illness on mental illness in literature, including the views of some leading Australian commentators on the role of mental illness in fiction…worth a listen if you have the time or inclination!

I’ve been interested in the representation of mental illness (especially in female characters in Gothic and Victorian fiction) for quiet a while….so good to see this topic getting some coverage this week.


Have a great week all! Life’s a beach (sometimes!)

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Mental Health Week 2015

Source: Mental Health Week 2015

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Mental Health Week 2015

Mental Health Week is in full swing (thanks for reminding me, ABC) and as such, I couldn’t help but reflect on the lives of influential 20th century authors who are now almost synonymous with mental illness: Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway. Creating such beautiful works of influence, moving in circles of influence, and yet also living with probable mood fluctuations, self-doubt, fear and maybe much worse.

I also thought about the ground breaking work of Dr Oliver Sacks (author of many books on the brain including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), and role he has played in promoting inclusive and community based mental health treatment.

That’s all. The more we can try to understand mental illness, and realise so many in our communities are touched by it, perhaps the better. And knowing that authors and artists we respect may have also battle mental health issues may help toward a path greater acceptance.

Right…time for a coffee

  1. IMG_5182



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The Promise Seed by Cass Moriarty

‘Me? Me….yep I guess I was a seed once. Not anymore though. Now I’m just a husk.’ (p212).

So says the old man to the young boy, standing in a suburban backyard that is home to avocado, coriander, baby chickens and possibly hope.

2015-09-30 20.53.39


Cass Moriarty’s ‘The Promise Seed’ is all about the family and the familiar. Relationships, life stories, every-day settings (backyard, home, school, street). In this every-day setting is the story of two unique lives: a 10 year old boy struggling to survive in a life that has not been very kind, and an old man, in his 70s looking back across time at his own hardships and failings.

The boy and the man (never named in the text) meet first when the boy steals some flowers from the old man’s garden. Instead of using the experience to childe the boy, the old man has the wisdom to use it to develop the relationship, to show kindness.

From that point, their friendship progresses and we learn more about each character, the boy in the present and the man looking back to the past, which includes reflections on his life in a boys home and his experiences of being a young and overwhelmed father.

The boy, it is revealed, faces daily challenges to maintain some order in his chaotic life, with struggles at school and at home. His mother, a single parent, works in shifts, waking up late and unable to care properly for the boy. She is also facing her own deamons…craving love and release from responsibility, release from her own past choices.

The old man is a source of great hope that the boy’s life does have potential to be easier, to be happier. But will this really happen? With the presence of Snake, his mother’s boyfriend, always in the preiferary, the outcomes may be much worse.


Moriarty certainly has a way with her characters…making them likeable but not too much so. She skilfully deals with subject matter that is often taboo: substance use issues, abuse, parental neglect, elder care and community isolation. While the literary trope of the kindly grandparent figure (who offers an avenue out of hardship) is nothing really new, Moriartiy certainly gives it a good twist.

She also taps into the tried and true metaphor of the garden….nurture a plant and it will grow. Neglect it a watch it wither, and includes some beautiful descriptions of nature at it’s most healing.

Her narrative builds and falls, builds and falls, with unexpected twists and conflict, serving to give a real edge to a story that threatens to become predictable.

Certainly not what you’d call ‘feel good’, it is an interesting story that is well written, insightful and does not stray into sentimental territory – well worth a look.


University of Queensland Press, 2015. ISBN: 978 0 7022 5375

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An old art through new technology?

It’s funny. Even if I don’t have time (or energy) to keep my eyes open at night to read words on a page (or kindle screen), I still find comfort in being lulled to sleep by a tale, a narrative, some words that take me on a journey. I’ve been listening to a few podcasts and documentaries recently, and plan to get on board with an apparently enthralling podcast called ‘The Serial’ someone mentioned at work last week.

Somehow, the very title ‘The Serial’ reminds me of stories my Dad would tell, of his family huddled around a 700ft radio in the lounge room, listening to a 1940s murder mystery or something called ‘The Outer Limits ‘ (actually, now  I think of it, that was a 1960s TV show he’s also talk about…?) Anyway, I digress….

I’ve recently experienced the strange comfort of listening to story-telling via a YouTube channel called Lazy Masquerade, a horror-thriller channel that focuses on old fashioned terror tales, narrated by a (potentially) young person with a compelling yet comforting British accent (like I am SURE I’ve met this guy before, perhaps  at a backpackers pub in St Kilda.)

Now, Lazy Masquerade is a site probably pitched at an audience at least a decade younger than me and includes artwork/visual imagery that I refuse to look at *shudder* but it has a certain appeal – maybe it’s tapping into the thrill of the ghost story told around the campfire, the urban legend ‘friend of a friend’ tale that none of us believe but repeat anyway. It’s perhaps not as relaxing as listening to Gregorian Chants before bed…but sometimes it does the trick! So, that’s my recommendation for the week (not very literary, I know!)

Next book on the list to review for 2015….’The Promise Seed‘ published by Queensland University Press.

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Frozen Moment – Camilla Ceder

‘FroFrozen Moment Hard Copy Cover 2010zen Moment’ is Camilla Ceder’s first novel. This Swedish crime thriller seems pretty run of the mill at first. As the back cover of my edition states ‘Move over Wallander.’ Says it all, really. But I just got very hooked on this book and fast. Now, I don’t think it’s the most sophisticated book I’ve read, but it’s good for a cold winter’s night.

It opens with a grizzly murder in a remote location. A motor mechanic and sometimes photographer, Lars Waltz, is shot dead then run over. Motive – unknown. Enter jaded detective Christian Tell and his team, set to solve the case. But something doesn’t add up. The murderer is driving a hired vehicle. There’s no real motive. And there’s the strange case incident with one witness, Seja, who lies about discovering the body with her neighbor.

Then another murder occurs – in a similar mode (a man named Olof Bart), but the victims are seemingly unrelated in any way. What is the secret behind the murders of these two middle-aged men?

And then there’s the second story, threaded with the current murder case. The story of Maya, a teenager trying to find her way in the world when she herself is damaged. But what is her connect to a murder case that occur 20 years after we first meet her?

The real stand out for me with ‘Frozen Moment’ is that it delivers characters with unusual depth, and presents  complex human behaviors and relationships in a well-crafted and memorable way. Her examination of the role of toxicity and enmeshment in families is understated, but somehow almost equally chilling as the murders themselves.

This insight into the dark side of human nature is probably due, in part, to Ceder’s background in social work and psychology, but brought to light by her ability to tell a good story. Her social commentary on gender roles, racism and care for children and young people in need, also adds interest.

There’s also a bit of romance between two key characters for good measure (I guess). While it reveals interesting aspects to each personality and adds some tenderness to the story, this element was, to me, the most irritating aspect. I suspect it was designed to show that sometimes emotions can get in the way of good old fashioned policin.

Anyway…if you’re into icy thrillers, you’d probably enjoy Frozen Moment. It does deliver even if it is in a pretty familiar format. Sometimes is nice to go with what you know!

Publication Date: 2010 by Orion Publishing Group

ISBN 978 0297 859475

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