Jacqueline Kent

In 1959, David Hill, aged twelve, left England and sailed on the Strathaird to Australia with two of his three brothers. Like thousands of children before them the Hill boys were bound for a Fairbridge farm school. Like thousands of children before them, they had come from a poor background, with a struggling single mother who believed that Fairbridge would give her boys a better education and greater opportunities in life than she possibly could.

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It’s always interesting to see biographers decide to turn the spotlight upon themselves, and to ask why. Will it be another case of ‘now it’s my turn’? The need to confess, even to enter into the Land of Too Much Information?

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There’s a Judy Horacek cartoon in which a woman tells a friend that she once intended to be the perfect wife, a domestic goddess. When the friend asks, ‘So what happened?’, the woman replies, ‘They taught me to read.’

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Killing Sydney by Elizabeth Farrelly & Sydney (Second Edition) by Delia Falconer

by
March 2021, no. 429

Poor old Sydney. If it isn’t being described as crass and culturally superficial, it’s being condemned for allowing developers to obliterate whatever natural beauty it ever had. Is it doomed, will it survive, and if so, what kind of city is it likely to be?

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It would be good if editors and publishers took smarty-socks reviewers to task occasionally – probably not in public – if said reviewers go on about falling standards in proofreading or editing. Reviewers should, I think, be aware that the course of publishing never did run smooth – maybe with a difficult author, editing disasters, or horrible scheduling problems – and cut a bit of slack accordingly. I’d also like to see readers engage with reviewers, especially if they have read the book and feel the critic’s comments have been unfair.

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The cover of this book tells you pretty much what to expect. It shows the dancer Li Cunxin, evidently at rehearsal, facing the camera while over his shoulder peeps his wife, Mary. Add the subtitle, that this is the ‘untold story’ of Li Cunxin’s wife, with a foreword by the man himself, and it’s clear that this book might not have seen the light of day without the phenomenal success of Mao’s Last Dancer, published in 2003 and later made into a well-received film (Bruce Beresford, 2009). Even the title has echoes of its predecessor.

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Miles Franklin used to delight in relating an anecdote about a librarian friend who, when asked why a less competent colleague was paid more, replied succinctly: ‘He has the genital organs of the male; they’re not used in library work, but men are paid more for having them.’

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At first glance, this biography does not look especially compelling. Why should we want to know about Australia’s first woman radio pioneer? But David Dufty calmly and quietly shows why Violet McKenzie is well worth celebrating. From her earliest days, Violet, born in 1890, showed great flair for practical science. She became a high school maths teacher but was determined to study electrical engineering. She qualified, but her gender meant that she was refused admission to the university course and also to a technical college diploma. Meanwhile, her elder brother Walter had become an electrical engineer and was running his own business in Sydney. This was 1912: seduced by the new moving-picture craze, Walter had ploughed all his profits into a ‘flickergraph training school’, teaching people to operate cinema projectors.

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The confusing aspects of this book begin with the title, She I Dare Not Name. Instead, there is a whole book about this person, a self-described spinster. Then there’s the S-word itself, which has carried a heavy negative load since about the seventeenth century. (A minor irritation is the back-cover blurb, which describes this as ‘a book about being human’ – as distinct from being what?)

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Since 9/11 and all its attendant horrors, the story of the bomb that exploded outside Sydney’s Hilton Hotel early on the morning of 13 February 1978, killing three people and injuring nine others, has largely been cast aside. However, it is considered the worst terrorist act perpetrated on Australian soil. It had wide ramifications at the time, and murky issues still surround it.

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