Pachinko is a Japanese arcade/gambling game, and pachinko parlours sound a lot like poker machine venues; huge busineses with the games essentially rigged against the gambler. A few winners, but mostly losers. A bit like life?

Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko is an epic family saga, spanning four generations of a Korean family in Japan. My 26-year-old son recommended it to me a couple of years ago, and I’ve only just got around to reading it, but I devoured it in a couple of days. Actually, in the final third, I deliberately tried to slow my pace. I didn’t want it to end. When I spoke to my son yesterday, I thanked him for telling me about it. We agreed that not only is the book about a time and a place and a people we know little about, it’s immersive and human and so moving.

Even more moving, my son thought, because there is no sense of manipulation, of heart-strings being pulled by the writer. The style is plain and often understated. At times the result is devastatingly sad; sometimes unexpectedly dramatic.

The saga begins in 1911. The Japanese have just annexed Korea. In a small  fishing village, a marriage is arranged between 15-year-old Yangjin and the older, disabled Yoonie. The match is unexpectedly successful; the couple love each other and their surviving child, a daughter, Sunja. When Hoonie dies, Yangjin and Sunja continue to run the family boarding house. Under the Japanese regime, times are hard.
Then Sunja falls for a captivating stranger, Hansu, and becomes pregnant. But he can’t marry her, because he is already married. He is also a yakuza. It’s a disaster.
A Christian minister, Isak, who has been nursed back to health by the family, offers to marry her. He will take her to Japan with him. It’s 1933; they will start a new life there, with his brother and sister-in-law, in Osaka.

In the decades that follow, the extended family struggles with poverty, illness, imprisonment, death. There are happy family times as well, though hard work is unrelenting. The deep friendship between Sunja and her sister-in-law sustains them both. Sunja’s builds a business selling kimchi and sweets, so the family manages and even prospers. She makes sure her two sons are educated, but university for her oldest, Noa, seems out of reach – until Hansu, who has been watching over the family, steps in.
The story of the younger generation continues into the late 1980s.

The changes wrought by history – the war, the bomb – destruction and chaos and poverty – followed by the reconstruction and prosperity – form the background to the character’s lives, but it’s by no means a history lesson. However, the prejudice and social and legal barriers that affected the daily lives and aspirations of Japanese Koreans pervade the story and provoke some of the most tragic episodes. Koreans seem to have been regarded as an underclass, possibly criminal, certainly inferior to the Japanese even though so many were born in Japan and were often indistinguishable from Japanese people – except for their ‘alien’ identity papers, which they had to renew regularly.

And pachinko? It was one of the few lucrative industries where Koreans could succeed – several of the characters find employment and good fortune. And, of course, it’s a metaphor for the game of life.

I could talk about resilience and endurance but there was no hokey uplifting finale. I think survival is the best word to use.
And love.



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I have known  Alan Garner’s books since I was small. My big brothers had the Puffin paperback of The Weirdstone of Brisengamen and even before I could read, I loved the mysterious, evocative cover. As soon as I was able to read it, I was sucked in to the world of Alderley Edge, where Garner’s family had lived for centuries. History, myth, legend and folklore intersected with the present-day in a wild, swirling fantasy. I loved it.

And I loved the idea that our modern, everyday landscape has another, ancient and potent one barely hidden under the surface. The adventures of Colin and Susan seemed quite possible.

I think I stopped reading Garner after I studied The Owl Service for my degree in 1981. His later work seemed darker, not really for children. And, in its bare-bones and stripped-down style, challenging and difficult to read. I liked my fantasy a little softer and more accessible.


So Treacle Walker is my first Garner for more than 40 years; I was alerted to it by Kate Constable.  And what can I say? It’s unique.

Eccentric, mysterious, understated. No need for all that exposition, all that explaining and describing that most of us do. The elements of the story are spare. Joe Coppock, a lonely boy with a lazy eye. An old house, and Joe’s collections of comics, birds’ eggs, marbles. Treacle Walker, who arrives one day in the guise of a rag-and-bone man. A strange, fantastical, mythical struggle involving birds and eggs, comic book characters, marbles and stones and a yearning ancient spirit of place who’s been aroused from sleep, but needs to return to it.

It’s a short book (152 pages) but powerful for all that. And scary!

The passage below is a lesson for writers on ‘scary’.

The alders swung and the land lurched. Above the house, the sky cracked. And in the rack was a claw. The claw rent down, and the gap was blackness moving, mirror cold, with snow.
‘Hold fast,” said Treacle Walker. ‘This is no hurlo-thrumbo. No lomperhummock, this. This is Winter. This is night.’
Again the sky was torn. And in the gap was a bird, huge, wings spread, claws open to clench the house.
Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Cuckoo…

The blackness surged. It flowed from the sky, across the embankment into the yard. It seethed up the house, the roof, the walls, the windows and the door. It was an ivy of black climbing the pear tree. It bulged against the hedge and spilled out onto Big Meadow and down the field towards Treacle Walker and Joe.
And thunder with no pause. Joe shut his eye against the lightnings and the dark.


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In December last year, I did Sarah Sentilles’ The Word Cave.
It’s a four-day online writer’s retreat – so you have to organise the time, space and cups of tea for yourself – with Sarah running afternoon and morning Zoom meetings. There were 11 participants, all women and all but one Australian. I think all of us had published our writing in some form. An amazing writer friend, who has done 4 of these retreats now, has raved about the experience since Cave #1.

I’d been feeling stuck and blocked and daunted since the middle of the year so I thought –  why not give it a try?
But when it came to the day, I was ambivalent.
I’m not really a joiner and I don’t like to talk about my work in progress.
And I was unsure about the project I’d dragged out from the naughty corner.
And I was feeling tired and sooky in the aftermath of nasty virus.
And I was feeling even sookier because I’d just had my very nice little kid’s book knocked back.
So maybe –  with 13 books published – I should just call it a day and retire gracefully.
You get the picture…

Anyway, it was terrific. Sarah was a hoot. Open, sensitive and very, very funny. Spiritual, but sort of rollicking at the same time – which is a nice and unexpected mix. And highly skilled at the tricky business of connecting a disparate group and transforming a Zoom meeting into a warm, kind and open-hearted space. Listening to the experiences of the other writers, I realised I was not alone. That no matter how well-published, well-reviewed and accomplished we might be, many of us have doubts and fears about our work. Even full-blown impostor syndrome.

I’d entered the cave hoping to get in touch with my writing self again. I was astonished to find that that once I sat that sad, sooky, defensive, nervous and vulnerable self at the desk, with pen in hand and paper to write on…everything fell into place. And it was a beautiful place, too.
My writing self whispered, Susan, you know how to do this…

So I’m starting the new writing year with musing and dreaming. Spinning plots. Inventing characters and trying to get to know them. Not hurrying; for me, the hot weather is all wrong for clear thinking and frantic hustle. Listening. Trying to remain open to change, and to stranger things. Writing – writing a novel –  can be daunting, but that’s OK. I know how to do it, and it just takes time. I’m not making out it’s heroic work in any way, shape or form, but writing is hard. It’s unpredictable, painstaking, magical, hideous and wonderful work. Though it’s over a month since I left the cave, I still feel like my writing self (soul?) is alive and well, buzzing and humming with ideas. With sentences, phrases, words. With joy and anticipation. Another writing year (with the caveat, of course; ‘all being well’) stretches ahead of me.

Sarah Sentilles has written many articles and books, including the moving (and occasionally harrowing) Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, published by Random House in 2021. She is a scholar of religion, with a special interest in women in the ministry. She runs a variety of workshops on writing and creativity throughout the year. I would highly recommend The Word Cave.

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I’ve missed a couple of instalments, but wasn’t suprised to find that Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott are continuing their slow-burn courtship. Unresolved sexual tension! While you wouldn’t want it to go and and on and on in real life, in books and on screen, it’s delicious.

This time, they’re investigating the murder of Edie Ledwell, the co-creator of a popular online cartoon, The Ink Black Heart which has also been turned into a popular game by a couple of fans. With the cartoon set to become a movie, Edie finds herself accused of selling out, and she’s being trolled by the fandom, led by the anonymous Anomie. Uncovering Anomie’s identity is key to solving the case. With a variety of personal issues to deal with, Strike and Ellacot are at times distracted and weary. Galbraith/Rowling does a great job of conveying the tedious slog of surveillance and the high-stakes thrill when the investigators close in on their quarry.

Over a thousand pages! And I read most of them.
I find long books pretty taxing, and will admit that I sort of skip-read the last couple of hundred, especially the online chats between the gamers, which were formatted in columns and a chore to read. But this one kept me going, and the end was satisfying, violent and in hindsight, inevitable. And bravo to JK, for having a go at the keyboard warriors who, under the magic cloak of anonymity, have created such a vicious online battlefield.

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2022 was another messy and occasionally downright miserable year on Planet Earth. Russia invaded Ukraine. Covid rumbled on, and despite the end of restrictions, it still does; we just don’t seem to talk about it any more. Where it didn’t parch or burn, it rained, and rained, and rained. Angry people with conspiratorial bees in their bonnets were everywhere, and especially the internet. And on Sky News, of course. There’s more, of course (did I say totalitarian world leaders? Misogyny. Racism. And why can’t all the parties just support the Voice? Please?) but it’s too much to think about.

I lost five friends this year. There have been a couple of serious diagnoses. And although everything was minor, my own health was dodgy. Over 40 appointments with GPs, specialists, physios and other health professionals. My balance is now – for my age –  perfect, but my snoring is still perfectly piggy and the memory of 6 weeks of torture with a CPAP machine makes me shudder. The long recovery from an ordinary virus (not covid, not flu) had me feeling so much sympathy for all respiratory sufferers.

Oh, and my old editor passed on Candleshine, my latest children’s book.

But…2022 was also occasionally shot through with glints of happiness and even elation. The Federal election! Grace Tame’s side-eye! The Victorian election!

The excessive rain made my garden glorious in spring.
Still now in summer, it’s the most beautiful it’s ever been. My son is well, happy and flourishing. My girlfriends are a joy, especially when we’re away at a b&b, and there’s fish and chips and after-dinner dancing. Friends had successes and joys – literary prizes, restored health, problems solved, new jobs, houses and grandchildren. There were walks around the gardens, and into the bush. Cups of tea (always, cups of tea).

I knitted. I finished a freestyle cardigan (look Mum, no pattern!) and a blanket for my son and his partner, and after so many lock-down separations, finally had the pleasure of seeing them snuggle up underneath it. We watched Only Murders in the Building. I went to the theatre for the first time in years. By October, my husband had retired, and he’s got a new lease on life. He’s baking his own water crackers! Plus enjoying the multitude (and that is an accurate word) of hobbies, interests and passions that have been on hold for years. We’ve had our first little trip away and look forward to taking our tent and camping gear for a wander around Victoria and South Australia.

I did a fantastic 4-day online writer’s retreat, The Word Cave with Sarah Sentilles. Ideas for more books keep bubbling away in the witch’s cauldron, and I will persevere with finding a publisher for Candleshine.

And through this difficult, miserable, happy, contented, disappointing, sad, painful, demanding, frustrating year, reading was – variously, and as needed –  a pleasure, a distraction, a comfort, a revelation, a challenge, a drug, an inspiration, a neccessity.
I didn’t keep track in 2022, but I will this year, by the simple expedient of taking a shot of each cover on my phone. Is that genius or not?

I’ve already finished one book, a joyful one with a joyful title – A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman. I didn’t think I was going to like it, and I did. I resisted loving it, and I failed. What a good way to start.

I have 19 books on reserve at the library (pray they don’t all come at once!) and look forward to a year of marvellous reading.


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NOTHING BAD EVER HAPPENS HERE: A Memoir of Loss and Discovery

I’d read and enjoyed two very different books by Heather Rose – the luminous and moving Stella Prize winner The Museum of Modern Love and the gripping political thriller Bruny.
I’d never read an interview with her, and I didn’t know anything about her – apart from the fact that she’s a Tasmanian and a writer. When I saw that she’d published a memoir, I guess I imagined it was going to be about Tasmania. Or writing.
I was unprepared for Nothing Bad Ever Happens Here. I was reminded, not always pleasantly, of my own past.* I wasn’t sure if this book was for me at all. It seemed awfully...well…woo woo.

And then, more than half way through, I somehow managed to let go of my derogatory labels and simply read. It’s a wild ride at times, and not one I’d wish to join, but as with the best books, when I closed the covers I felt enlarged and humbled by access to another person’s experience.

Rose is slightly younger than me, but I recognise much about her idyllic childhood; the 1960s really were simpler times. She grew up in Tasmania, close to family and friends, close to nature.

Childhood is kelp and sand, birds and sky and boats pulled up with the tide…

Already a sensitive and spiritually attuned child, when she was 12 her world was rocked by the death by drowning of her brother and grandfather. The subsequent break-up of her parent’s marriage blew her family apart and she became a seeker. She left Australia to immerse herself in life, which turned out to be travel in South East Asia, drugs, and months at a Buddhist meditation centre in the forest of Laos. Returning to Australia, she immersed herself in a different kind of life;  wife, mother, friend, daughter, writer, businesswoman (she ran an advertising agency and employed 12 people). But there were also trips to the American south-west for gruelling Lakota rituals and later, a New Age retreat in the Australian desert that  – literally – blew her mind.

Through all of this, Rose comes across as brave, curious and at times disarmingly (or even alarmingly) naive. She tells her story without tricks of language or style; seemingly, no tricks at all. It is a beautifully clear, lucid telling of her truth. The section, near the end, where she talks about her life with chronic pain, is quietly devastating and her revelation of that ever-present struggle for me makes sense of what has gone before.  She closes the memoir with a list of suggestions – like  trust your instincts, watch the sunrise, be grateful –  which could read as Hallmark philosophy. But – it’s all hard-won. Rose has lived most of her life with loss, death and pain so that the final instruction – choose joy – seems  courageous and poignant. It may well become my advice to myself for the coming year.

* So: reminded of my past?  Like Rose, when I was younger I was often on a quest to understand my place in the world. Where do I fit, in among the magnificence of stars and trees and oceans, and the broken ugliness and mess of our human lives? This high-mindedness was mixed with a fair bit of self-absorbed drama-queen flakiness. So, in no particular order: astrology, runes, tarot, the I Ching, past-life regression, rebirthing, flotation tanks, chanting, dream workshops, a terrifying sweat lodge out in the wilds of Trentham. I’ve seen ghosts, had premonitions. A dream once saved my life.  These days, however, I am much more circumspect and conventional about spirituality. My life has taken its particular shape and into my sixth decade now, I feel my search is no longer an urgent matter. But who knows? As I age and approach death, or as dear ones die, that all might change.

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Alastair Santhouse is a consultant psychiatrist at a couple of large London hospitals, and this books draws largely on his work at the intersection of  physical and mental health, with many stories of individual patients as well as his thoughts and ideas on health and illness.
Sometimes people are referred to him when the mainstream medical model fails,when after scans, blood tests, X-rays and examinations, there is no infection, disease, injury or cancer to be found. Or when, if some disease or cause is found, the patient’s health does not improve.
Santhouse writes, “Understanding the science of an illness often tells you little about how successful the treatment of an individual will be.”
He compassionately and skillfully teases out the social and emotional factors that can exist along with chronic pain and fatigue, obesity, anorexia and non-compliance with essential treatments (for instance, diabetes) as well as the more obviously ‘psychological’ problems of depression and anxiety. He’s kind, humane, humble and endlessly curious.
He began his journey from hospital doctor to psychiatrist because he realised, after many years  of practice, that while one heart attack had come to seem like another, each overdose was an individual human drama unfolding. He continues to be fascinated with the way our personalities, beliefs and attitudes affect our lives at every stage. His approach is to try “to listen and understand ordinary people”.

I actually read this book twice, quickly and then slowly. Though not a self-help book or guide, there’s so much here that is useful or thought-provoking. Like the idea that we all have all sorts of symptoms – such as headaches or dizziness – all the time. And mostly they don’t mean anything other than we have a headache, or we feel dizzy. Going down every rabbit hole for tests, scans, screening programs, investigations and wellness checks can seem like a reassuring course of action, but according to Santhouse it can be the reverse. He quotes Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century: “Nothing is more fatal to health than an over care of it.”


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I’m feeling well again, at last. I haven’t had a cold/virus/bug this bad for many years, and it’s come as a bit of a shock. It wasn’t Covid or flu…just stay-in-bed horrible.
So lots of reading.
When I’m unwell, I get really picky – like Goldilocks – and any book has to be just right. Nothing too heavy, or too long, or too deep and meaningful. I made it through half of Meg Mason’s excellent Sorrow and Bliss (from the library) and then returned it with a note to self to try again. Likewise Maggie O’Farrell’s  The Marriage Portrait and Julian Barnes’ Elizabeth Finch. I was feeling way too languid for literature.
Crime seemed to work well. I re-read a few of the Sue Grafton ‘Alphabet’ mysteries. I have never read much by Dashiell Hammet, and Red Tide was quite a revelation; tough, violent, political.
I then moved on to a series my brother recommended. Charlie Parker novels are by Irish writer John Connolly and, like a pusher, my brother loaned me my first hit. Now I’m scouring the library shelves and searching Op Shops. Addictive is truly the right word. And perhaps they’re not terribly good for me, so I’ve had to self-impose a temporary halt. Nightmares!

Charlie Parker is a retired cop turned PI and part-time bar-tender, based in the US state of Maine. I seem to be reading the series in reverse, but the backstory is that he lost his wife and child to a serial killer. This tragedy changed his life; he’s now on a mission to hunt down and destroy evildoers. And there are so very many in the state of Maine.
The genre-bending twist to these private eye mysteries is that his job of investigating the exploits of Maine’s many evil-doers has led Parker to investigate the nature of evil itself. There’s a strong and intriguing element of the supernatural (cue dread and terror and nightmares) that co-exists with Parker’s mundane PI chores of surveillance and strong-arming.
Some of the stories have been a bit too violent for me – violence against women and children, sexual violence, explicit torture – and they’ve made me a bit queasy but Wrath of Angels was, as Goldilocks would say, just right.

Two men contact Parker with the strange tale of a wrecked plane found deep in the forest. Found in the wreckage was a bag, which contained money – and a mysterious list of names. This list is being sought by a shadowy group of powerful men and women who – Parker come to believe – are fallen angels. These beings, known in this novel as The Backers, nurse an eternal grudge. Their goal is to sow discord, hatred and cruelty; to do this, they recruit greedy, corrupt, decadent mortals from all walks of life. These people are controlled by not-quite human handlers – or are they demons? Helped by his adorable psychopath buddies, the gay couple Angel and Louis, Parker battles his way through to an equivocal triumph. I loved his suggestion that far-right shock jocks, politicians, media moguls, internet fanatics and fantasists (looking at you, Donald, Rupert, Vladimir, Proud Boys and the rest) are really just the tools of the Backers. Sounds entirely plausible.


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One day last July, feeling delighted and compelled to both wonder about and share that delight, I decided that it might feel nice, even useful, to write a daily essay on something delightful. I remember laughing to myself for how obvious it was. I could call it something like The Book of Delights.

I’m writing this, hacking and coughing, with a sore throat and headache, while I wait to see if my RAT develops the extra telltale line which will mean I’ve got covid. And I’m thinking that if I was Ross Gay, I’d be using the time to write an ‘essayette’ about delight. But having a cold, or possibly covid,  I’m a bit underpowered in the finding delight department, in spite of having RATs, two whole boxes of them, and Panadol and Strepsils and a husband who just brought me a cup of tea…

This is indeed a delightful book. Ross Gay is a poet, a Professor of English at Indiana University, an activist advoca

ting for community gardens and public spaces, an ex-college football player. Given that Gay is a passionate gardener, there are the expected pieces on the natural world, on insects and plants and seasons. There’s this kind of gorgeous close observation:

Just beyond the pear tree already wealthy with sun-blushed fruitlets is an alcove of trees, a dense black screen made of walnuts and maples that is, for these lucky weeks, pierced by the lumen-tummied bugs, one of which landed on my neck earlier today, crawling down my arm to my hand, balancing itself when I brought it closer by throwing open the bifurcated cape its wings make.

Apart from fireflies, what else? So much. He fell 50 short of a daily essay, but here are the joys of having family and friends, listening to music, plane travel, cafes, loitering, public toilets. Seeing two people carrying a shopping bag together. Kind familiarity from strangers. Public sleeping. What could have been just sweet and soothing is actually inspiring and illuminating, sometimes very funny (reading about his adventures in public-toilet challenged North America and resorting to peeing in a bottle, I laughed out loud). Occasionally these short pieces are also surprisingly tough and challenging. In essay #83, written after listening to a podcast about Whitney Houston, he writes:

…one of the objectives of popular culture, popular media, is to make blackness appear to be inextricable from suffering, and suffering from blackness.  Is to conflate blackness and suffering. Suffering and blackness. Blackness and suffering…
Which is clever as hell if your goal is obscuring the efforts, the systems, historical and ongoing, to ruin black people. Clever as hell if your goal is to make appear natural what is, in fact, by design.
And the delight? You have been reading a book of delights written by a black person. A book of black delight.
Daily as air.

I listened to an interview Ross Gay did with Christa Tippet for an American public radio series call ‘On Being’, and he seemed to be saying that joy and delight are not easy, nor are they a luxury or a privilege. For him, joy is deeply connected to mortality. Joy, he said, is his life’s question. Finding joy, celebrating joy, is part of the labour of making the life he wants to live.

My day’s delight? It’s not covid, just a cold.


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The difference between my life and a story is I don’t actually need drama and problems for it to have meaning. One of the well-kept secrets of writing is that when we’re really in The Flow, when we’re following that story and not trying to create it all by ourselves, writing isn’t hard at all. It’s the opposite of hard. And there’s also no problem. When I’m in that flow, I’m exactly where I want to be, doing exactly what I want to do, and life is just as I want it to be.


Short and sweet today. I have what seems to be a repetitive strain injury from – guess what? – too much writing. It’s that damned mouse! After a week of very little computer time or handwriting, it’s a bit better, but my mood is not great. And I have realised just how much I rely on my writing.
It’s a way I talk to myself – I vent or exult or enthuse or whinge – and that keeps me on an even keel. I explore ideas. I feel valid and professional, as if I actually know what I’m doing (I’m working, see? 1500 words this morning!). It keeps me occupied and off the streets. My writerly routines stop me from ruminating. When it goes well, I disappear to another place entirely, and I spin my own safely net from words.

So, balked of writing, I have been reading. Lots of fiction. But also this lovely book –  Everyone Has What It Takes by William Kenower. He tackles the subjects that haunt most writers; success and its Janus-face, failure. Getting published, getting rejected. Writing a best-seller, seeing your book remaindered. Being immersed in the creative flow, or sitting at your desk and feeling like you’re trying to get blood from a stone. At its core, Kenower’s message is quite radical. The key to writing success is not outlining or banning adverbs or finding the right agent. It’s love. Write the story you love, he says.

If you love it, you have what you takes to write it.



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