Review: Death Leaves the Station, Alexander Thorpe

What do the armchair mystery genre and rural 1920s Western Australia have in common? Nothing, at least previously. That’s why this new fiction release, which takes the first and transposes it into the second, is such a genius idea from debut Perth author Alexander Thorpe – who loved this detective story style so much he decided, as he said at the launch, to steal it.

It’s a tall order to take the arch, mannered style we normally associate with English detectives and country houses, and use it to depict a grumpy Australian policeman investigating a murder in a Mid West dustbowl in the 1920s, but Thorpe has pulled it off. Officer Parkes’ “p” surname and his enormous moustache, a character within its own right are elements, might be a sly nod to Poirot. The plot is vintage to the genre, complete with “slowly cooling” corpse, mistaken identities, and conclusion in which all parties gather in a library for the solution to be revealed. The tone achieves the right combination of droll comedy, and compassion for the characters’ human frailties.

Speaking of which, I’m not certain I entirely grasped the full significance of one of these main characters being a nameless priest with a secret shame, but that could just be how sleep deprived the three-month-old has made me. I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of anyone else who reads this!

Altogether an enjoyable read from a promising young local author with a singular voice. Would make a thoughtful gift for anyone who loves Agatha Christie stories. Looking forward to the next novel from Thorpe.

Death Leaves the Station is published by Fremantle Press and is in bookstores now.

Review: 1st Case, James Patterson & Chris Tebbetts

My brain on sleep dep: relies on instant coffee and cheap thrills.

It’s been years since I read a James Patterson novel. I used to read him in the days of the Alex Cross novels that made him famous, like Along Came a Spider and Kiss the Girls. Now he’s the world’s most prolific crime author, and has taken to collaborations in recent years, like this one with Chris Tebbetts. I was curious to see how they measured up and looking forward to a good murder mystery next in my stack of “easy reading for new motherhood” titles. Ready for some nice bloody corpses.

But I ended up disappointed with this story about Angela, an MIT dropout with the IQ of a genius, who gets offered an internship with the FBI thanks to her tech and coding skills – only to get in over her head when she becomes the target of the killer they’re seeking, who both lures and tracks his victims with the use of an insidious chat app.

I can’t fault plot or pace. The tech aspect is convincing, and the story unfolds at a breakneck speed. I inhaled it like a dog with a bowl of kibble. But I am not a fan of thrillers with chapters of only a few pages each. It feels too obvious a suspense-building tactic, like the authors (or more likely publishers) assume that modern readers have zero attention spans and thus aim to capture and hold the attention of the lowest common denominator.

And while plot and pace are vital for crime they are not everything. Without characterisation there is no point, you won’t care if detectives solve crimes or victims escape. People like Val McDermid, for example, or Ian Rankin, even Lee Child who is of comparable paciness, accessibility and fame, manage to write three-dimensional characters, thrilling plots and all the while evoke a powerful sense of place, while still using the formulas of their genres.

This writing, by comparison, lacked nuance and sophistication. Plain is fine, but at (the wrong) times in later chapters it abandoned plainness in favour of wordy overstating of dramatic moments, making me cringe, though to give examples would also give spoilers. Imagine though, that it is already perfectly clear the worst night of a heroine’s life is upon her, and that the climax is there, since a killer’s hands are about her throat, and the author writes, “it was the worst night of her life and the climax was upon her! It was all about to be over within moments!” That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.

There was little humour, or atmosphere, or attention paid to psychology. The characterisation seemed token, an afterthought, in both good guys and bad, especially for a writer whose early novels built such complex, disturbing portraits. A few paragraphs in a (three-page) chapter after the climax was deemed sufficient to explain to the reader the killer’s identity and motivations. I’m forced to the unwelcome conclusion that James Patterson might not have all that much to do with his collaboration novels, or at least not much of his abilities concentrated upon them.

Overall this felt like eating a whole bag of party mix lollies. Each chapter a sugar hit, but by the end you’re feeling like you need to go and eat a proper meal. It didn’t satisfy my need for a nice fat, juicy, blood-spattered crime novel. I’ll have to try again…

Reviews: The Rosie Result and The Best of Adam Sharp, Graeme Simsion

These are the latest reads in my stack chosen for max reading ease and fun during this time of sleep deprivation and only being able to read in 10-page snatches (I didn’t envisage not being able to hold a book while breastfeeding a squirmy 9-week-old… why didn’t I create my stack on Kindle?)

First up, The Rosie Result, the final instalment in Simsion’s trilogy of general fiction comedy-romances about “on-the-spectrum” Don Tilman and the love of his life, Rosie. In this part, a decade or so after the events of the second book, Don and Rosie’s son Hunter is on the cusp of adolescence. Also considered – by his teachers at any rate – “on the spectrum”, Hunter’s struggling to fit in at school, so Don quits his professorial job to be a stay-at-home dad for Hunter and help him navigate all the social minefields Don himself faced as a misfit teen.

The first two in the series flirted only subtly with the topic of autism and instead focused mainly on Don’s misadventures in winning, then hanging on to, the beautiful and forthright Rosie. But while sticking with the sit-com plot, this final book really gets to grips with the elephant in the room and zeroes right in on this thorniest of subjects, autism and the choice to seek a diagnosis for it; both for Don and for Hunter. It’s a sensitive, topical and thought-provoking exploration of how autism and the “spectrum” is viewed in society today, as well as the school system’s treatment of kids who are just a bit different, making it relevant for every parent who’s ever shepherded a smart or sensitive child through school. Yet it never makes you feel like you’re being spoonfed or lectured to. The plot is as headlong as ever, the writing as sharp and funny, and the conclusion as satisfying and heartwarming as we’ve come to expect from Simsion. If you haven’t read the Rosie series, I would recommend it to just about anyone – men, women, even young adults. It’s just pure unalloyed reading pleasure, general fiction at its best.

The second read, The Best of Adam Sharp, tells the story of middle-aged software engineer and amateur piano player Adam. He’s a thoroughly ordinary man but he’s been given one sudden, extraordinary chance: to rekindle a decades-lost romance with the beautiful and compelling Angelina, the “one who got away” when they were in their twenties. This is a whisker closer to romance than general fiction, and is somewhat less comedic and compulsive a read than the Rosie novels, probably because of the large amounts of past-tense backstory introduced in the first half. They’re necessary, but they do slow it down a tad. But it’s still highly readable, and there are added layers of complexity and surprise to the plot, as Simsion builds to the climax, that keep you guessing right up until the end. A good holiday read, but if you haven’t tried Simsion before, start with The Rosie Project.

What Perth people want: Deocoding a city’s vibe to plan it a festival

 

“People are genuinely interested in who you are and why you’re here,” she said.
“Perth knows who we are and who we are not: not the east coast, not a big city, and not in a rush.”

Who Perth people are, what they like and what they need has been top of mind for Msimang since she was asked to curate the 2020 Literature and Ideas Festival, the writers festival taking place within Perth Festival.

And she’s noticed that while Perth might be comparatively protected from the world, even this city could not be insulated from the whirlwind that was 2019.

“We are living in a moment when people are really sped up,” she told WAtoday ahead of Thursday night’s program launch.

“If things were already fast, 2019 was really a headspin.”
There were plenty of existing pluses with the Perth festival – including a loyal, engaged audience and a vibrant central hub around the University of WA’s University Club, giving the venues a distinctive vibe.

But having attended numerous such festivals here and around the world, in recent years she had noticed common faults: overwhelming programs, no time to reflect between events, and a pressure to pack as much in as possible.

Thursday night’s program launch at the Octagon Theatre. By Jessica Wyld

Her idea was simple but radical: slow it down. Sessions lasting an hour instead of 45 minutes. Breaks lasting 30 minutes instead of 15. Panels featuring two or three writers instead of 4-5.

The idea is that each session will allow for a deeper conversation, and maybe even questions at the end won’t have to be dropped as they so often are.

Each break will accommodate not a hasty bathroom trip but also give you a chance to grab a coffee or chat to the person next to you about what you saw or are about to see.

Small panels will allow members to have their say, address questions and go down enticing rabbit holes.

The flipside, of course, of any “less is more” approach is that sacrifices are made. The event cannot be spread over more days due to financial constraints, so the overall number of writers appearing is reduced.

But the list of headliners would seem to prove a limitation can also be a strength, with Thursday night’s launch revealing a list stacked with impressive international, national and local names.

One can hardly find a bigger headliner than Neil Gaiman, whose works include The Sandman comics and novels CoralineAmerican Gods (televised by Netflix) and Good Omens (co-authored by Sir Terry Pratchett and televised by Amazon Prime), who will be telling his life stories at Perth Concert Hall.

Bruce Pascoe, whose 2014 book Dark Emu was bought by more than 115,000 Australians in 2019 alone, and is now being adapted by ABC TV, is appearing in an opening event that sold out faster than any other in the wider Perth Festival.

At the launch. By Jessica Wyld

Other names include:

  • Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap and new tome Damascus;
  • Jasper Jones author Craig Silvey;
  • Charlotte Wood, Stella Prize-winning author of The Natural Way of Things, promoting new novel The Weekend;
  • Melissa Lucashenko, Miles Franklin-winning author of Too Much Lip;
  • A.J. Betts, author of YA bestsellers Rogue, Hive and Zac & Mia;
  • The Family Law’s Benjamin Law;
  • The Accidental Feminists author Jane Caro;
  • Look What You Made Me Do author and Walkley award winner Jess Hill;
  • The Gruffalo author Julia Donaldson;
  • Holden Sheppard, whose debut Invisible Boys has won rave reviews and a slew of prizes;
  • Peter Holmes à Court on his memoir Riding With Giants;
  • Crime authors Dervla McTiernan, Sara Foster and David Whish-Wilson;
  • Bruny author Heather Rose

Each was handpicked for how their works speak to the festival’s theme of Land, Money, Power, Sex, and paired carefully with others for events that promise to push the boundaries in exploring those themes, with the result that many remarked to Msimang it was their most personalised, thoughtful festival invitation in years.

Look out for the companion story coming soon, detailing the must-see highlights of this year’s program, but don’t forget: slow down, and take it easy.

The 2020 Literature and Ideas Festival runs February 21-23.

This story originally appeared here on WAtoday

Little Women: How Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation pulls off the impossible

I was so excited about Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women that my mate Juji and I went on opening night. Anticipation ran high, yet there was so much doubt: how could you top Winona Ryder as Jo, Kirsten Dunst as Amy, Susan Sarandon as Marmee or Christian Bale as Laurie? How could you top that original and wonderful adaptation? How can you bring something new, even if you manage not to just mess it up entirely?

The immediate and obvious pluses were the visual beauty of the cinematography, lighting and costumes and stars really was just as heavy-hitting as the originals, including Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine, Laura Dern as Marmee, EMMA WATSON AS MEG (sorry can’t not yell that), and Saoirse Ronan as Jo.

The original movie stepped routinely through events spanning about seven years. It met the challenge of ageing the youngest, Amy, at first barely older than a sulky child, but who matures to a practical young woman of marriageable age, through the expedient of switching young Kirsten Dunst to an older actress who looked markedly different. Jarring, but seemed necessary and justified at the time, and both actresses played their parts well.

Gerwig made a different approach by casting four women who in reality range between 21-30, and keeping Florence Pugh (24) playing Amy throughout. This requires a different suspension of disbelief, especially since 30-year-old Watson is still very girlish, and visually they all appear around the same age – slightly jarring in itself as their differing levels of maturity are integral to the plot.

My doubts increased to alarm as Gerwig messed with the narrative structure, seesawing back and forth between past and future events in a way I initially felt was for no reason than just to be different.

Half an hour in, however, I saw what she was doing: how cleverly she was layering the narrative to pick out, mirror and magnify the parallel themes and points occurring in events separated by years.

The previously relatively minor roles of Aunt March and Amy receive a new depth and life, and realises the potential for the previously relatively minor plot line of their relationship and interactions to illuminate a feminist narrative.

And the portrayal of Jo, a wilful muse caught between longing for family, certainty, belonging and companionship, and desire for economic, intellectual and emotional independence, further strengthens this feminist aspect in its examination of whether a woman who prizes freedom above all else can still yearn to love and be loved.

This story has always had complex feminist themes. Ostensibly a domestic tale of females fending for themselves set in Civil War-time America as Dad’s off fighting, it discusses the role of marriage as a necessarily economic consideration as opposed to an expression of love and free will; the lack of options for women to make their own livings; the pressures on the one who marries for love to then face the consequence of poverty; and the pressures on the one who must consider doing the opposite, marrying for money and sacrificing love in order to support her family.

Yet Gerwig has achieved the seemingly impossible – examined all this in a way that fully satisfies a modern audience, but is never overt, preachy or belaboured. Instead the film is fun. It’s as breathless and headlong and sparkling as an episode of Gilmore Girls. It is subtle, humorous, playful and cleverly rounded off in a truly satisfying ending. It’s sumptuous, full of the radiant beauty of the all-star cast, its landscapes drenched with the golden light of all the civil War-era paintings that inspired it.

Gerwig has told this story of family and femininity, of the intimacy of sisterhood, of nostalgia for the past and longing for love and purpose, in a way better than I dreamed possible.

I basically wept like a busted tap on and off for the final hour. Go and see it at the cinema. It’ll be wasted on the small screen.

 

Further recommended reading on the artworks that inspired this treatment: How Greta Gerwig Built Her ‘Little Women’ in the New York Times

 

 

Em’s 2019 Reading Roundup: the 48 books read, plus my top recommendations for fiction and non-fiction

Fiction (36)

Literary fiction

Bridge of Clay, Markus Zusak
Road Story, Julienne Van Loon
1988, Andrew McGahan
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
City of Girls, Elizabeth Gilbert
The Death of Noah Glass, Gail Jones
The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen
The Natural Way of Things, Charlotte Wood
Red Can Origami, Madelaine Dickie*
The Testaments, Margaret Atwood
The Weekend, Charlotte Wood
Frankisstein, Jeanette Winterson
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett

Crime/Mystery

Wimmera, Mark Brandi
River of Salt, Dave Warner
March Violets, Phillip Kerr (unfinished)
Death on the Nile, Agatha Christie
Minotaur, Peter Goldsworthy
True West, David Whish-Wilson*
Blue Moon, Lee Child

Thriller

All That is Lost Between Us, Sara Foster*
I Am Pilgrim, Terry Hayes
Zero Day Code, John Birmingham

YA/Children’s 

The Wind in the Door, Madeleine L’Engle
Many Waters, Madeleine L’Engle
Emily of New Moon, L. M. Montgomery (re-read)
The Starlight Barking, Dodie Smith
Emily Climbs, L. M. Montgomery (re-read)
Emily’s Quest, L. M. Montgomery (re-read)
The Outsiders, S. E. Hinton (re-read)

Nonfiction (12)

Shallow, Selfish and Self Absorbed: 16 writers on the choice not to have children 
Nora Heysen: a biography, Anne-Louise Willoughby*
Australia Reimagined, Hugh Mackay
In Defence of Food, Michael Pollan
The Pleasures of Leisure, Robert Dessaix
Any Ordinary Day, Leigh Sales
Egyptian Mythology, Simon Goodenough
On Leopard Rock, Wilbur Smith
Egyptology, Emily Sands/Five Mile Press
Egypt, Konemann Press
On Eating Meat, Matthew Evans
The Wooleen Way, David Pollock*
*WA author

Fiction: Top 10

  1. Freedom, Jonathan Franzen – an absorbing American family saga of jawdropping ambition that had me hanging on its every word and lost inside its themes. Not a new book but perhaps even more relevant now than it was in 2010.
  2. Bridge of Clay, Markus Zusak – massive, time consuming book, not easy but had me weeping like a baby by the time it closed. Majestic. Read more by clicking here.
  3. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood – old, but I’d never read it before and by golly it’s stood the test of time. It fairly crackles with intensity. A must-read.
  4. The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion – the story of an autistic man trying to enter the dating world. I am late to the party on this 2013 bestseller but I fell into this book and didn’t look up until two days later when it was finished. Touching, engrossing and funny. I can’t really imagine someone who wouldn’t enjoy this.
  5. Invisible Boys, Holden Sheppard* – YA novel about growing up gay in Gero. Full of youthful desire, longing and suspense. Immersive, raw, defiant, intense. A must-read. Read more here. 
  6. The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead – an American novel of young men who grew up in an abusive juvenile prison for wayward boys. Has that powerful simplicity shared by the great American novels. Destined to become a classic.
  7. I Am Pilgrim, Terry Hayes – a spy thriller that bounces around the Middle East and absolutely must be made into a movie. Convincing, brutal and compulsive. A cracker of a read.
  8. The Testaments, Margaret Atwood – The long awaited sequel to A Handmaid’s Tale lacks its hypnotic pull and yet is an absolute page-turner, does not waste a single word and satisfies the longing for more from Gilead. Atwood is a master storyteller and I didn’t want it to end.
  9. The Weekend, Charlotte Wood – the story of a group of three ageing women whose friend dies. They are saddled with the grim task of cleaning out her beach house, but realise on the way that this was the friend who glued them together, and without her they struggle to get along. You wouldn’t think that a literary novel with such a ‘quiet’ subject would be a page-turner but I devoured this. Highly recommended.
  10. Frankisstein, Jeanette Winterson – two plot lines, both inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: one an imagining of Shelley’s life at the time of writing, the other a futuristic look at a world of artificial intelligence, cryonics and sexbots, in which humans’ original bodies will be only a jumping-off point to start negotiations. Classic Winterson in its sheer imagination and reach, and in the beauty of its prose, but once again she reaches an original frontier and pushes your intellectual boundaries while at the same time frequently making you laugh.  
Honorable mentions to City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert – a captivating, sweetly humorous and touching tale of exuberant young womanhood in a bygone New York. A fantastic summer read if you’re in the market for one – and The Dry by Jane Harper, crackling murder mystery (click on title in list for review).

Non-fiction: Top 5

Australia Reimagined, Hugh Mackay – click the title and read the review to see why I was so inspired by this book. Should be required reading for all Australians, yet is not preachy by inspiring. A powerful antidote to the despair that can grip any regular watcher of the news.
In Defence of Food, Michael Pollan – not a new book but a fascinating look into why diet and nutrition is a subject that continues to confuse, intimidate and utterly do a disservice to human beings, no matter how intelligent they are.
On Leopard Rock, Wilbur Smith – an autobiography of a writer in the heyday of writing, the story of Africa in the grip of apartheid, a portrait of a remarkable family and full of tales of death-defying encounters from a man who appears to have lived nine adventurous lives. Would make a great gift for a fan, but equally fascinating for me and I have never read a Wilbur Smith (though I now intend to).
On Eating Meat, Matthew Evans – by a former journalist, now farmer. Examines Australia’s intensive meat industries in a way that, far from discouraging anyone from eating meat, shows you how to wield your power as a consumer to encourage better welfare for animals. This book has shown me how to enjoy eating meat again.
The Wooleen Way, David Pollock* – the inspiring life story of a pastoralist in Western Australia’s southern rangelands, a cry for help for a vanishing resource, a rallying call for all Australians to better look after it. I found this book electrifying and I will be writing more about it this year as a drying climate makes the situation facing our rangelands more urgent than ever.

Want a personalised recommendation? 

Not all of the books could make it on to the ‘top’ lists, but the vast majority were excellent reads. Some are linked to separate reviews you can click on or leave a comment if you have a question about whether I think you’d like a particular one of these!

Annual catch-up: zombies and slashers

Besides the annual Christmas movie marathon, this short work break has allowed me to catch up on the other worthy genres that inspire my devotion.

Zombieland: Double Tap (2019)

The first Zombieland was a whole 10 years ago, in 2009, but its combination of humour, zombie goodness and star power (with Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Woody Harrelson and Bill Murray) made it a movie to remember, and this a sequel to cause great anticipation.

This had all the humour, and all the above star power returning, plus Rosario Dawson and Luke Wilson, but zombie goodness it kinda lacked.

Apart from a reasonably inventive climax, it had little large-scale tactical zombie battle scenes, and also few scenes of the opposite end of the scale, the intimate teeth-clenching hand-to-hand zombie combat scenes.

And those are why we watch zombie movies – the humour and Hollywood personality power, while they set it apart, are essentially window dressing.

Then there was the cool idea of famous settings that never realised its full potential.

The first third was set at a crumbling White House repurposed as a stronghold, with the Oval Office and a bunch of ripped-up portraits and accessories of the former first lady all put to good effect.

The middle was set at a resurrected Graceland, repurposed as a waystation. You saw all these iconic interiors of the real Graceland, like the white piano room and the jungle games room, rise up in surreal splendour in a zombie-ravaged wasteland, only to be half-destroyed and blood-spattered in some of the film’s best fight scenes.

But the makers ultimately missed an opportunity to balance these out structurally and thematically by setting the ending at a third and equally famous American location or building, transformed by the new world order.

Instead they set it in the fictional location of Babylon amongst some useless hippies, which had minimal value for either plot or atmosphere.

A reasonably enjoyable movie, but the overall effect was slightly thin and lacklustre. Nothing as memorable as the original and will not have the same re-watchability.

Halloween (2018)

Jamie Lee Curtis is now a badass grandma who’s spent the rest of her life since the events of the original movie prepping herself, her daughter and granddaughter for the inevitable return of Michael Myers. She’s gone nutty and unfit for society from this process, but she’s very cool and outfitted with many guns at her crazy-lady fortress in the woods. All ready for Michael Myers to escape and return to finish her and her loved ones off.

Bar the new premise, they keep it very much along the lines of the original Halloween, with the opening credits and the classic-slasher plot line of the middle of the movie all echoing the original, as well as fun visual homages to reward fans, including lots of coat hangers, wardrobes, and a doll’s house mirroring the original house to reward faithful fans.

They’ve kept it simple, spooky and effective and the premise delivers and builds on the original, with a bunch of useless men and policemen dispatched in one way or another, leaving what’s now three generations of Jamie Lees to band together to get the job done themselves.

It’s not quite as atmospheric and scary as the original. Most of its strength and style comes direct from Jamie Lee Curtis herself, like with Arnie in the Terminator series or Bruce Willis in the Die Hards. But it’s a nice solid, simple, satisfying movie that doesn’t mess anything up. And with any kind of iconic series, that’s pretty much all you can hope for.

 

Good news, everyone!

Good news, everyone! Me and my buddy Hamish Hastie, WAtoday’s business reporter and all round excellent dude, won Best Multimedia Report for our investigation ‘Perth’s tangled web: Property, power and the people who pull the strings’ at the WA Media Awards this month. 

Hamish Hastie, Emma Young and Nathan Hondros.

Hamish, me and and Nathan Hondros with our awards!

I view urban planning as intrinsically linked to both public health and environmental health.

So when Perth residents contact us so often in anger at the decisions of government planning boards, whose processes are often shrouded in secrecy, I view it as important.

In fact, our coverage was leading to so many fresh leads we decided to get to the bottom of that distrust

We’ll just do a little investigation, we thought…. FOOLS!

Tangled Web ended up totalling 36 eight-hour days over three months, while juggling normal duties, systematically scouring hundreds of meeting minutes. Many long afternoons closeted in an airless boardroom with our laptops and a giant spreadsheet, with me going “we probably don’t need to look at ALL these minutes”, and Hamish saying, YES WE DO, COME ON.

We mastered a visualisation software that has never been used on this level by any news outlet in the country to create the “web” showing the relationships between developers and projects.

The judges said: “Emma Young and Hamish Hastie may have used old-fashioned journalism to assemble the nuts and bolts of their Tangled Web series, which painted a convoluted picture of the connections between those who control almost every facet of Perth’s property world, but there was nothing old fashioned about the presentation.

“They made use of impressive data visualisation maps to show just how connected the players are and accompany a compelling piece of journalism on a subject that affects so many West Australians.”

If you want to read it, links are at the bottom.

Secondly, a shout-out to my other colleague, mentor and friend Nathan Hondros who won the Arthur Lovekin Prize for Excellence in Journalism 2019 – one of this state’s three most prestigious journalism awards –  for his investigation ‘Sleepers Wake: Uncovering China’s WA War of Influence’.

Nathan revealed the telco Huawei spent years building influence within WA’s political and business circles before winning a $136 million contract to construct a mobile data network for the state’s public transport system.

He also revealed how Chinese information operatives could impact WA, the Australian state of most interest to China because of its mining and business opportunities, and because of the influence it exerts over Australia’s economy.

Increasingly, the interviews he did with security and intelligence agencies and foreign affairs specialists showed him their worry over the lack of scrutiny it was getting.

His increasing frustration with parliamentarian’s responses (you could see the steam coming out of his ears in the office) made him tackle this like a dog with a bone. He wrote piece after piece (I am talking well over 30 in a year).

He almost destroyed his government media relationships, but he struck a nerve and forced the government to sharpen its focus and start providing clearer answers.

Judges said at a time when no other WA journalist was tenacious enough to probe the state’s links to one of the world’s financial and political powerhouses, Hondros took the risk and was prepared to jeopardise his reputation to publish the stories worth telling.

They called it “a detailed and tenacious examination of a complex network of people and organisations, asking at times uncomfortable questions over the relationship between state, political and corporate interests, and the need for transparency in business and diplomacy”.

The issue has only heated up since, and that is in large part due to Nathan’s tenacious and fearless reporting.

Finally, while it remained a finalist and missed out on the Health/Medical prize, my colleague Daile Cross’ investigation of the treatment meted out to an autistic man with complex needs, by the Department of Communities which was supposed to be caring for him, was an incredible example of energetic, ethical and compassionate reporting that achieved a massive improvement in the quality of this man’s life by forcing action from a department that had been ignoring the concerns of his family.

Over the past decade, the old business models of media companies have collapsed and about 3000 journalism jobs lost in Australia.

Media ownership has concentrated, we do ever more with ever less, and these days many journalists are increasingly constrained in topics they are allowed to write about and the time they can take.

They get a bad rap from people who do not understand this, who simply think all journalists are dickheads and don’t care about their duty.

It’s because I get to work for a publication that gives me time and freedom, and because I get to work with people like Hamish, Nathan and Daile, that I remain loyal to and proud of WAtoday.

Perth's tangled web: Property, power and the people who pull the strings

PART 1: Perth’s tangled web: Property, power and the people who pull the strings

Perth is growing, with apartments springing up everywhere. But in many ways – the planning approvals system, for one – it remains a very small town indeed.

WA's small property tank: Where 'big fish bump into each other'

Part 2: WA’s small property tank: Where ‘big fish bump into each other’

“[Perth] is a small enough tank that big fish bump into each other. Even if not your project, it’s your colleague’s or your industry partner’s.”

'Highly demoralising': How people get trapped in Perth's planning web

part 3: ‘Highly demoralising’: How people get trapped in Perth’s planning web

There are checks and balances in place to manage conflicts in Perth’s planning system. But the closer to the top it gets, the murkier the process becomes.

A sticky situation: Scarborough skyscrapers and the MRA's secrets

part 4: A sticky situation: Scarborough skyscrapers and the MRA’s secrets

These landmark twin towers might be stalled, but they’re still causing their fair share of trouble.

 

‘We will fight’: Writers aghast as university signals closure of UWA Publishing

Deputy vice-chancellor Tayyeb Shah issued a memo to affected staff on Tuesday proposing a progressive close-down of the press in its “current form” from the end of November with a view to replace it with an open-source digital publishing model.

The memo called this the first step in aligning the press’ output with a “strategic vision to provide open and digitised access to information and knowledge in its support of the university’s academic writing and research”.

Closing the press would allow “reinvestment” into activities that could meet this objective.

The jobs of the employees and director Terri-ann White, who has led UWA Publishing for 13 years and worked at UWA for many years prior to that, would be “surplus to requirements”, the memo said.

“We’re absolutely fighting this,” said White, who has been known in the Australian literary landscape since her days as owner of Northbridge’s Arcane Bookshop in the 1980s and 1990s.

Canberra poet and former Prime Minister’s Literary Award winner Melinda Smith put up a change.org petition overnight that had passed 1200 signatures and was being shared across writers’ social media groups on Friday morning. [Update: almost 5000 signatures by Saturday afternoon]. 

“It’s already going gangbusters,” White said.

“My inbox is going crazy as well; I am so heartened by the support we are getting for the work we do.”

UWAP has more than 320 books in its backlist and around 35 books scheduled for 2020, many of which are already in production.

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Sex, death and Ned Kelly: How love fits into the legend

One from the archives! Yes, an essay. BUT, not full of jargon or padding and I’m posting it because the love for the works shines through it even 14 years after I wrote it. These two paperbacks – first, Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, in which Ned Kelly tells his own story of the man behind the mask, in the idiom of the famous Jerilderie letter; second, Sister Kate, about the girl whose family loyalty would destroy her, have survived every Minimalism Purge since, and remain in pride of place at home. It’s books like this that opened my eyes to what literature can do. If you’ve already read one or both, enjoy this deep-dive revisit; to me, the quoted passages have lost none of their power in the years since they were published. If you haven’t, maybe you’ll be intrigued! I’ll be happy to lend you mine.

So without further ado, on to the sex and death…

In Sister Kate and The True History of the Kelly Gang, women’s experiences of love are represented as inextricably bound with the experience of death: of being part of the Kelly legend itself. Love is intense, physical and fleeting, snatched in the private moments that don’t have a place in the grand Kelly narrative. However, these moments of rare peace and joy seem inevitably overshadowed by the reality of life inside the legend – the Kelly gang, their husbands and lovers, are committed to their internal loves and ties within the family and the gang, and seem fated to a cycle of pride and revenge that causes the destruction and death of both their loves and themselves. The salvation that love represents is ultimately sacrificed.

Love in these two novels is experienced in the background of a high-drama, high-octane story. Moments of peace are snatched and never figure in the Kelly’s grand plan, as Ned says in the Kelly Gang; “I told her I had never imagined marrying anyone but now I could imagine what a peaceful life a man might have”. He can see Mary only rarely and when the police are searching for the gang must come to see her briefly, under cover of darkness and constant threat of discovery. Love becomes a thing as desperate and hunted as the Kellys themselves. “All I could think were to lay with her one last time I were mad as a dog and didnt care the traps was meanwhile humming like a hive of bees not 400yd. away”. Loving encounters are based on the first thrilling days of sexual desire, and this intense physicality also has a desperate quality. The whole tone of the book suggests that love must come in high concentration, as another chance to be close might never come.

There is a similar situation in the love of Kate Kelly and Joe Byrne in Sister Kate. Their relationship exists almost exclusively at night or under cover, over a few occasions, and physical contact has to bear all of the significance because they have neither the time nor the liberty to take things any slower. A sense of hushed urgency pervades every encounter. “He came later when the others were asleep, with his hand on his lips in case he startled me awake…before dawn he slid away…I did not look at Joe but my body sensed his near all day, as it does when you are caught up in that madness of the flesh that we call love”. One of the last times Kate is able to spend alone with him they spend in a lean-to in the bush and this experience is as high-voltage and intense as the first;

“Our bodies clung, and we kissed and kissed until it felt that we drained out of ourselves and into each other. Sometime in the night I woke and he was sitting on the bed watching me, a look of such tenderness on his face that I have never seen before or since on anyone. If I was not already melted that look would have destroyed me”.

Immediately after dawn Kate must be awakened with the news that they have to get up and ride a full day – the show must go on, so to speak, and love must be snatched in the available time. As Kate says before she goes to see the gang in the bush for the first time, “If I had not grabbed my chance at happiness then it would have been too late”. This sense that time is precious characterises all of the love experienced in both books and the moments of stolen intimacy become rarer and more dangerous as the Kelly noose gets tighter. They are offset by long periods of isolation, worry, poverty and hardship for the women when the men are absent, hiding in the bush or horse-stealing, or in prison.

In both books, the descriptions of horses and riding are visual symbols of the freedom of sex and love against an ominous backdrop. The characters feel an exhilaration, peace and joy on horseback that is also found in their rare encounters with each other, and in Sister Kate and the Kelly Gang, Kate and Mary are both associated with horses, symbols of beauty, liberty and also fragility – moments stolen with them are akin to the horse-stealing the men are constantly accused of.

As Ned describes Mary, “She were a foal…she swayed and hummed a little song about a girl who dreamt of great white horses”. They are a symbol of the hope and possibility of flight, of the escape that love represents in their otherwise grim lives. When Ned’s daughter is born, he receives a telegram, encrypted for security from the enclosing police, that simply says “DAM AND FILLY AT PASTURE IN SAN FRANCISCO FEED IS PLENTIFUL”. Ned and his friends and family celebrate with a show of exuberant riding.

“My daughter it were you. You was born…Galloping in a circle round the paddock then a figure 8 I stood astride the mare one legged my pistols in my hands and all the boys stared…Then what a show of riding they put on to welcome you and what a knees up promptly followed”.

In Sister Kate as well, horses represent the happiness, freedom and independence Kate gets from her secret visits to the gang in the bush, where most of her few memories of Joe are made. She calls riding “the only sheer pleasure any of us really ever knew”. Later, after the death of Joe and Ned and she is living at home again after her illness, she cannot face the countryside and the love it represents – “She knew she could not remain where she had ridden with Joe Byrne and her brothers almost everywhere”. The horses Kate remembers are symbols of her lost hopes of happiness. She searches the horizon every morning, “where the brothers often rode across the border with Joe Byrne; watching the first sun lightening the valleys, straining for what I knew I would never see – the growing shapes of four men on their horses”.

Even after her marriage, Kate finds horses still a comfort and associates with them this past happiness. They are still present in her life at the period she recalls where hope is still possible for a complete life without Joe.

“After Freddie was born we took over the livery stables in Rankin Street, and some of that time is still clear in my mind. How I loved that familiar smell of the horses, even our clothing was saturated with it. It was a brief space of great contentment to me, working, riding, grooming, feeding, the baby in his basket beside me, or later toddling around underfoot, him knowing the rhythms of a horse before he could walk, as we all did. But, of course, as my mother always said, the good times do not last and it is only foolishness to think that they will”.

This prediction is proved by Kate’s slow deterioration as the years go by. There is a sense of inevitability about both novels in which the lives and relationships of the Kellys and their loves move inexorably towards destruction. Shadow, once bought her by a man she thought she might be happy with after Joe and kept throughout Kate’s marriage, is sold by Kate in a final gesture of apathy and defeat – a sister and lover of members of the Kelly Gang, her life and identity is touched by them still long after they are gone. “I did not ride myself – I did not seem to have the heart for it – so they used the mare in the livery stables in return for her keep. I have sold her now. I could not bear any longer the reproachful looks she gave when I walked past”.

The legacy of the Kelly family is made clear in both novels; women experience not only love but a family and the “gang”, both of which possess internal loves and loyalties that are inextricably bound up with their men. In the Kelly Gang, Mary cannot love a Kelly without becoming one and dealing with these loyalties – she has to accept and exist alongside Ned’s commitment to both the gang and to his mother – in Ned’s words, him and his mother were “grown together like two branches of an old wisteria”.

Kate struggles to understand and respect the ties between Joe and the other gang members that seem to shut her out, and also the hold that being a Kelly has on her own identity – by name as well as by choice, to Ned and Joe together, she is tied to the legend and this tie cannot be broken by all of her name-changes and wanderings. Her attempts to live a life detached from the memories are defeated at every turn.

There is a certain blurring of the lines usually drawn between love of family, friends and lovers in these novels, and the women must cope with these altered boundaries. It is hinted in the Kelly Gang that Ned’s love for his mother goes beyond the filial – his love for her appears the highest priority, and he attempts to protect her from her wayward husbands with something akin to jealousy. His need to have her released from prison becomes, seemingly, more important than his need to be with Mary. As he is taunted by his own brother Dan, and held up mockingly in comparison to his mother’s husband;

“True said he your ma is your donah as everybody knows.

Shutup.

Hubba hubba Mamma is your girl…you got a grudge against George cause he married your girl.

“The coppers dropped about a chain behind us but that was close enough to hear my brother declare George King a better horse thief than I would ever be”.

This passage, as well as illustrating the complexity of the ties between Ned and his mother, also is another example of the many that forge a continuing connection between love, women, horses and horse-stealing.

There is a similar preoccupation in Sister Kate with the nature of relationships between family members, and also within that limitlessly significant area of love, intimacy and loyalty known as “mateship” to all Australians and embodied by the boys in the gang. It is suggested that being a Kelly means being far above and beyond what human beings are normally called to do to survive, that unusual relationships have grown out of this. Like transvestitism is continually brought up and contested in the Kelly Gang, and remains a site of unresolved conflict, Sister Kate deals with questions of incest and homosexuality, with consideration to how this is significant in terms of the wider concerns of these books – what it was that set the Kellys and their loves apart. As Kate says,

“They loved my brother. They loved him as much as men can love other men without it being the disgusting thing that Aaron Sherritt later suggested. I do not know what physical release men can find together, but I cannot believe it is the mockery Aaron made it out. Not that I think they loved like that – yet, maybe they did…now I hope there were the times when they moaned away their need and their fear in each other’s arms. Love is where you find it, and we cannot always be the ones to choose…”

The issue of choice is an important one – both novels are pervaded by a sense of fate, of the injustice which is a form of fate because they argue that persecution is brought upon them by a name and not by themselves; as Ned is put into prison for the first time, he says “I knew I were finally in that place ordained from the moment of my birth”. All of the characters are thrown into a narrative that seems greater than themselves, that they rail against, but swear to fight, and in doing so complete their own prophecies. The women are exposed to loves outside the ordinary, but there is a sense that this way of life was not chosen but forced upon them, and they have reacted by loving in newer ways, with different loyalties.

This is why Ned resents being made to choose between his mother and Mary; and why he makes the choice that we find strange, even slightly wrong; his mother over his wife. As seen in this argument between him and Mary before Mary leaves to have their baby in safety,

“Is it true do you really love her more than me?

It aint the same…

But you promised to buy our passage once the bank was robbed.

I cannot abandon my mother Mary you know that.

Then what of me?

What of you?”

The tension also shows when Mary travels to the hiding place of the men and tells them the story of Molly’s children; Ned is clearly torn between his friends and Mary as their differences of opinion are raised and Joe is rude to Mary.

A similar situation is seen in Sister Kate; Kate Byrne is forced by this conflict to leave Aaron Sheritt because he is a traitor to the gang. As Kate tells her of what is believed about Aaron, Kate realises the consequences;

“Her face closed. You may love someone more than your own family, but you may never admit it.

“My mother wants me to break with him. She says if I marry a man who betrays my brother I’ll be cast out of the family forever”…We walked back and when we came to our clearing she would not stop for tea but galloped off with her head high and her jaw clenched, straight to Aaron, I think, to tell him she did not want to associate any more with her brother’s enemy”.

 

The blurring of the boundaries between wife and mother are shown too in the confusing in both books of Mary and Ned’s mother, and in the kind of love Kate feels for Joe. In the Kelly Gang, Ned is given to descriptions of his mother, particularly on horseback, as a young and attractive woman, full of spirit, and the observation is often one that could be from any man, rather than from her son. He also mistakes the figure of Mary for his mother – “that crow black hair that white skin and in my confusion imagined that it must be my mother made free. I felt a bolt of joy the worry lifting off me. Ma I shouted…but the woman heard my cry she turned and to my shock it were Mary Hearn”.

In Sister Kate, the lines distinguishing mother and lover are also complex, and faintly disturbing as throughout the book Kate’s love for Joe is linked to her maternal instinct – it appears that when Joe dies, her ability to love her children is also impaired. This link is first made clear early on when Kate remembers her love affair in its earliest days;

“Since I have had children I recognise that urge I had then to crush his face to my breast, to protect him from everything. Why did I not act? I was in limbo myself, holding to him, waiting on his decisions, like a mother letting him come to me. Perhaps I knew, somewhere, that I could do nothing”.

The echoes of the implications formed by these feelings are seen later in the book. Kate is distant from her children. She refuses to breastfeed, in direct contrast to the feelings she describes in the above quotation, and becomes less and less competent at caring for her children. This reflects a shattering of her protective urge and ultimately her belief in love against the forces of life, or fate; unable to form this bond with her children, she chooses to leave them and rejoin her place in the Kelly legend, just as Joe once chose a life other than one with her.

Women’s experiences of love in these two novels centre around this trope of love in spite of everything. Love is what defies the hostile world that relentlessly closes in on the Kellys and everyone they care about. Yet love exists in opposition to it and so only exists in this form because of it; they know they will never lead a quiet life, that they are doomed to persecution and harassment, violence and brutality always, and so in the heart of every person in question there lies the assumption that love, although a beautiful and liberating thing, will not be what endures. Love is something to be snatched in the face of disaster, in the remaining moments before an inevitable catastrophe. This tone is preserved in both novels; from the structure of Sister Kate in which we know throughout that Joe Byrne dies and Kate will go mad with grief, and from the unmistakable, drawn-out beginning of her decline. There is a stony promise in words like;

“It should have been the death of all my hopes then, what I saw by the light of the fire and the dying sun in that clearing, but it would still take many months for the end to be complete, for the hunters to have their kill”.

In the Kelly Gang also, a great deal is made of the issue of fate, and Ned’s reminiscent tone to his daughter is used often to point out to her that a happy memory was the calm before the storm, that a certain mistake was to cost him highly and all the way through that Ned was hunted for who he was and not what he did, and that he was destined to seek revenge for the collected injustice of years. There is an increasing tone of desperation to these asides; and they are worded in powerful and uncompromising ways. He describes his mother’s selection as they ride past: “All them dead and ringbarked trees was the grave of honest hope”.

And in a particularly chilling description of his brother Dan: “Dan were sitting in front of the fire with his back to us but now he stood his bright eyes shining from his dirty face this were a boy no longer but a Kelly burnt and hardened by the fates”.

The path of revenge, not of love, is the one eventually chosen by the gang. The ties between mates and family are the ones that remain until death; love remains impossible. The women internalise the Kelly legend but it in return leaves them out. In Sister Kate Kate puts this conflict and the ultimate choice into words;

“I think they were all relieved to see me go so that they could spring back into their hard, passionate struggle against the earth. Even Joe, though he held me so tight I could not breathe when he left me in the foothills, the tears running down his haggard cheeks. I think now that he fought a battle with what he thought was the soft side of his nature, and somewhere he was happy to be able to relinquish what I offered, though he did not say this. We made and remade our vows, crossing our fingers against the inevitable, always talking of ‘When it is all over’. Well, I truly half believed that soon it might be and that we would be together somewhere. Right up until the end I tried to cling to that hope, and perhaps it would have been better if I’d let it go then, into the mist and the swirling snow, as his form became shadow and disappeared”.

A metaphor for this ultimate choice can be found in the Kelly Gang in Mary’s description of Molly’s Children, as she explains to them why Steve should not be wearing women’s clothes, as it is a mark of loyalty to an Irish group that took their revenge on a Lord they could not confront by torturing and killing his horse.

“They done to the horse what they dare not do to its master. The stick were sharpened to a point then hardened in the fire and the man with the wren mask thrust it in the horse’s belly…she heard grown men blame the horse for taking their common land they said the proof were having Ireland on his head and they demanded of the poor beast why they should not take Ireland back from him. Much horror the girl saw and heard the horse were shrieking horribly”.

As Mary tries to dissuade the gang from the path of violence in the name of an oppression they cannot confront directly the threads of a larger narrative are seen in this story. Eventually, in both novels, horses suffer. The Lord’s horse is tortured to death, Kate goes to work in a circus that pretends to cure horses of ills they have caused by tormenting them before the show. Later Kate sells her Shadow, and in the Kelly Gang the men are reduced, in the final denouement, to eating their beloved horses to survive. The descent of the Kelly gang and their loves in this way is a metaphor for the growing power of their quest for revenge and an impossible justice over all else – they make the choice to injure and leave their women, and horses, and this marks the beginning of the end. Women’s experiences of love are subject to the knowledge that they will be sacrificed in commitment to another ideal.

The writers use powerful symbols throughout to associate these twin heights of emotion, joy and pain. Kate’s wedding flowers are bought from an undertaker and her child, whom she planned to call Joseph in a final blurring of the mother-lover lines, is “born dead after so much pain and blood”.

However, not the least factor in these novels is what we bring to them as readers familiar with the Ned Kelly legend. Whatever is contested or mythologised, every version of this chameleon legend has its common factor; the irrefutable deaths of the Kelly gang. We are hyper-aware of this; death makes the Kelly legend what it is. Any exploration of a woman’s experience of love here must exist alongside the knowledge that this love will be cut short in violence. Love and death are inextricably intertwined, and this is perhaps the most crucial and meaningful part of the representation of love in both Sister Kate and the True History of the Kelly Gang.