Reviewer: FL

By this author

Books July 21, 2018

The Re-Origin of Species

Anyone familiar with the Jurassic Park franchise knows something about de-extinction, including its potential to breed not just beasts but hubris. Swedish science journalist Torill Kornfeldt set out to explore the science, excited at the prospect …

Books May 12, 2018


I debated over whether to address these books’ genesis at the outset, or to treat them on their own terms. Does it undersell them to point out that they started out as elements of a larger whole? But don’t their covers and format signal a link, and …

Books April 14, 2018

The Wasp and the Orchid

The subtitle promises “the remarkable life” of Edith Coleman, but remarkable how? As Danielle Clode tells it, it comes across as remarkable in the sense of noteworthy, rather than extraordinary. Which is fine – by all means, let’s take note – …

Books March 03, 2018

Skin in the Game

The centrepiece of Skin in the Game is an account of an interview with Helen Garner almost 40 years ago. Sonya Voumard, then an 18-year-old cadet journalist, chose Garner as her subject for a university assignment. The interview was convivial …

Books February 10, 2018

The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The story of Lale Sokolov’s three years in Auschwitz-Birkenau was recounted by him to Heather Morris, in Melbourne, as he neared the age of 90. Gita, his wife of almost 60 years, had recently died and Lale was eager, before he joined her, to tell his …

Books January 27, 2018

The Water Will Come

Reading – or even writing – a book about climate change isn’t the same as doing something about it. But surely we can take heart from the fact that books on the subject continue to be published. That must mean it’s a lucrative genre, indicative …

Books December 23, 2017

Best Books of 2017 #1

In Mirror Sydney, inspired by psychogeography, Vanessa Berry embarks on “drifts” through inauspicious Sydney – hollowed-out factory districts, heedless highways and all-but-forgotten suburban arcades. She anatomises the …

Books December 09, 2017

How to Think

Alan Jacobs barely mentions the T-word. But How to Think, a short book written in short order after the 2016 United States election, is unmistakeably a response to the Trump ascendancy and, specifically, to the bad thinking habits that helped …

Books November 04, 2017

The Book of Thistles

Noëlle Janaczewska tells us up front that she’s “interested in unaccompanied language. In collage. In reveries and writings which switch register and jump-cut across genres.” She’s not alone. Didn’t George Saunders just get Man Bookered for …

Books October 28, 2017

The Smell of Fresh Rain

Barney Shaw, as well as being a first-time author, is a retired senior civil servant. And my initial impression was that he writes like one, with lots of equivocal constructions (“some blah, while others bleh”) and a liking for lists. What won me …

Books October 21, 2017

Why Time Flies

“Where does the time go?” my mother implores. At 84, she’s certain that time gathers speed as she gets older. In Why Time Flies, Alan Burdick looks at the evidence for the widespread impression that inspired his title. It turns out that …

Books August 19, 2017

The Enigmatic Mr Deakin

When he was 22 and a mint-new member of the Victorian parliament, Alfred Deakin won wild applause with a maiden speech in which he tendered his resignation. In a political career spanning almost 40 years, Deakin would nearly always be on the verge of …

Books July 22, 2017

The Last Man in Europe

Eric Blair died for want of a typist. Self-exiled to a remote Scottish island and hollowed out by tuberculosis, he quailed at the prospect of typing a clean manuscript copy of his just-completed novel. Despite an SOS to his publishers, no typist eventuated. …

Books May 27, 2017


Even to its practitioners, there are things about anaesthesia that remain a mystery – such as, where exactly it fits on the spectrum of consciousness. A state of general anaesthesia is rendered not by a single drug, but by a lights-out cocktail comprising …

Books February 11, 2017

Old Growth

One of Australia’s leading poets, as well as professor of sustainability and literature at Curtin University, John Kinsella has stated that the “purpose” of his poetry is “to draw attention to the damage being done and to show that we are all …

Books December 24, 2016

Books 2016 #2

Reviewers' picks from the year in print.

Books November 19, 2016

The Woman on the Stairs

You’d be forgiven for thinking, from its cover – sepia-soaked, rough wooden stairs ascending to darkness – that this must be a ghost story. What’s missing from the picture is the woman: beautiful, spirited, naked Irene. In the mid-1970s, a …

Books October 29, 2016

Victoria: The Queen

For many readers of The Saturday Paper, the Victorian age has never really ended. In her namesake state and the city christened after her first and favourite prime minister, there are traces everywhere of Victoria Regina, Victoria the Queen. She …

Books September 03, 2016

Stroke of Genius

You know the photograph. Even if you don’t know you know it, almost certainly you do. An old-time cricketer captured side-on, in full stride, his bat raised high behind him. The exquisite geometry of the image imprints itself even on an eye unused …

Books August 13, 2016

Hands: What We Do with Them – and Why

There are truckloads of books that purport to reveal the one essential thing that makes us human. The brain is the biggie, with language, consciousness, religion and art among the chief subcontenders and the Brazilian wax and pigeon fancying some way …

Books July 23, 2016

The Hate Race

Sure, I’ve heard of unconscious racism. And my guess is that, being human, I harbour my share of it. Acknowledging that deep-running streak in oneself, a reader of The Hate Race is watchful of one’s reactions. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s account …

Books June 25, 2016

A Burglar’s Guide to the City

For a burglar to be a burglar – and not just a thief or spy or saboteur – they must unlawfully enter a structure. As Geoff Manaugh puts it, “burglary requires architecture”. Manaugh, a New York-based architect and blogger, regards burglars …

Books May 28, 2016

The Voices Within

Popular psychology seems to be in thrall, just now, to mindfulness, as a kind of psychic Aerogard against the mosquito swarm of our thoughts. Before that, the premier cure for bad thinking was cognitive behaviour therapy, which aims to modify our self-talk, …

Books May 14, 2016

The Memory Artist

The child of dissidents, Pasha finds his life stalled in the new Russia. It’s 1998, his mother has just died, and Pasha remembers the heady days of glasnost, a decade ago. Remembering, or straining to remember, is all Pasha does: even times and events …

Books April 30, 2016

Beyond Belief

While other writing from social researcher Hugh Mackay has touched on the themes of belief and meaning, he has had this book in mind a long time, you can tell. “Over the past twenty-five years,” he writes, “our yearning for ‘something to believe …

Books February 20, 2016

Private Lives, Public History

Don’t know much about history… That’s not just a line from an old song, but a common refrain among those who lament Australians’ lack of engagement with their nation’s past. Historian Anna Clark has devoted her career to exploring …

Books February 06, 2016

A Murder without Motive

I wanted to begin this review with an observation regarding Martin McKenzie-Murray’s journalism for The Saturday Paper, to the effect that it displays an uncommon acuity of feeling. But such a remark, I realised, was akin to describing a …

Books January 30, 2016

The North Water

A whaling novel that begins with a three-word sentence, The North Water gives us the story of Patrick Sumner, a hapless Irish medic with a nose for hellish postings. As an army surgeon, he survived the 1857 Siege of Delhi with a bullet-shattered …

Books December 19, 2015

Books 2015 #2

Reviewers' picks from the year in print. Best New Talent, Guilty Pleasure, Most Overrated, Most Disappointing.

Books September 26, 2015

Faction Man: Bill Shorten’s Path to Power

When pollsters ask us who we would like to lead the government and the Opposition, we answer Malcolm Turnbull and someone else. That’s a grim verdict, but Shorten has Abbott on his side. Not anymore, he doesn’t. The events of September …

Books September 12, 2015


Takeover traces an arc from the colonial era, when “protectionist” and “free-trader” were the primary political hues, to a credible near-future of investment made stateless by bitcoin. Federation had to overcome the protectionist–free …

Books August 29, 2015

Atmosphere of Hope

Ten years after The Weather Makers, Tim Flannery recalibrates the message on climate change. The goals and deadlines keep getting pushed back, while the predicted magnitude of global warming keeps climbing. A worldwide temperature rise this …

Books August 01, 2015

Catch and Kill

I’d always thought of Steve Bracks as an accidental premier – a sweet, goofy guy who, as nightwatchman opposition leader in 1999, toppled Jeff Kennett by sheer fluke. Joel Deane’s Catch and Kill set me straight. Bracks, it turns out, …

Books June 20, 2015

Across the Seas

The passage of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 was one of the Australian federal parliament’s first legislative achievements and would form the basis of the White Australia Policy for the next 70 years. Klaus Neumann’s Across the Seas

Books May 23, 2015

Charlie Anderson’s General Theory of Lying

In the Mad Men era, he’d have been valorised by his peers as “Lucky Charlie”. Married to the beautiful and brilliant Anna, father to three (ditto) daughters, blessed with a roster of energetic and obliging lovers, a “fuck-off house” …

Books May 16, 2015

The Challenge of Things

The great hope of the Enlightenment – that human rationality would enable us to transcend our evolutionary limitations – has taken a beating from wars and genocides, but only now, on the problem of climate change, has it foundered altogether. Could …

Books May 09, 2015

Lion Attack!

Lion Attack! is a tender and exasperating quasi-memoir by a first-time writer. New to Melbourne, racked by self-consciousness and enabled by social media, Oliver seeks love and validation. I’m twenty-five and I barely feel like an adult. Something …

Books April 04, 2015

One Life: My Mother’s Story

“My mother wasn’t the sort of person biographies are usually written about.” Kate Grenville’s recounting of her mother’s life makes a beautifully muted counterpoint to the whimsical grandiosity of Grenville’s 1988 novel Joan Makes History. …

Books February 14, 2015

Becoming Westerly

“How do I look?” “You look great.” The exchange serves as a kind of refrain, a call-and-response between subject and biographer. “Ah, Jamie,” comes the invariable rejoinder, “say it like you mean it.” US-based Jamie Brisick interviewed …

Books February 07, 2015

The Brain’s Way of Healing

Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself was a snowballing, word-of-mouth bestseller. Its big news was that our brains, far from being “ever-fixed”, are adaptive, changeable. In a word, neuroplastic. Picture a phrenological bust, …

Books December 20, 2014

Books 2014 #2

Selections from a year in print. Best New Talent, Guilty Pleasure, Most Overrated, Most Unwelcome.

Books November 29, 2014

Great White

Natural science writer James Woodford kicks off his “Great White journey” by cage-diving with shark scientists among the reefs and islands off South Australia’s Port Lincoln, a known hot spot for great white sharks. Suspended in a cage just below …

Books November 08, 2014


“Tell me there are no ghosts.” Frances, the brittle mainstay of Michelle de Kretser’s novella, subtitled “A Ghost Story”, seems like the sort of person who needs a good deal of reassuring. Serious and thin-skinned, she is easily spooked – …

Books November 01, 2014

The Tunnel

“I feel like I get fucked over every day…” That, as a kōan, encapsulates Dennis McIntosh’s seven years on the construction crew of Melbourne’s Western Trunk sewer project. A driven sort of bloke by his own telling, McIntosh worked in the …

Books June 28, 2014

Where Song Began

That mob of magpies warbling at your back gate? They’re assassins. The honeyeaters darting from bottlebrush to grevillea? Terrorists. Bellbirds ting-ing high in the misty mountain ash? Bullies. Corellas ranged along a verandah rail? Vandals. …