‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry

A magnificent, heartfelt left-of-centre novel by one of Ireland’s best, Days Without End is a compassionate narrative set in mid-19th century US where two best friends, signing up for the army, find themselves in the midst of the Indian Wars and, just a few years later, the Civil War.

Impoverished teenage drifter Thomas McNulty, survivor of the Irish Famine, the horrors of the Atlantic crossing to Canada and the aimless wanderings of survival (from Quebec to Missouri) meets an equally destitute John Cole, three years his senior. They join forces, two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world – and from an early age, become lovers.

A slight and pretty young thing, McNulty secures the two work as prairie fairies, adolescent boys dressed as girls to dance with clients in the rough, men-only mining town of Daggsville. For three years, the two survive surprisingly unmolested – there was never a moment of unwelcome movementsBut nature will have his way and bit by bit the bloom wore off us, and we was more like boys than girls, more like men than women, and soon we were going to be just memories of diamonds in Daggsville.

And so to the US Army the two enlist and a horseback journey from Missouri to California. It’s an exhausting journey of deprivation, hunger, fever and death as well as fear. This is Indian country. And it soon becomes clear they are being sent west to protect the new European settlers of northern California.

Both epic and intimate, Days Without End is as grand and harrowing as the landscapes they cross. Left awestruck by the natural beauty of their surrounds, the unit is also laid low by the violence and conflicts that leave men making the noises of ill-butchered cattle as both indigenous Oglala Sioux and European settlers look to retain/stake a claim on the land. Hunger drives both ‘sides’ to extremes as the natural environmental balance is upset by migrants flocking from the east. It’s a brutal period – mirrored only a few years later by the horrors of the civil war.

Yet, Days Without End is not purely western or a civil war tale. Its lyrical beauty and poetic prose is a narrative of truth and understanding in amongst the brutality and deprivation of war. McNulty and Cole’s love for each other blooms – in the northern Californian plains, the notorious Confederate prison, Andersonville, or treading the boards in Grand Rapids ‘between wars’. Where there’s life, there’s hope seems to be Barry’s message. It’s a captivating, remarkable novel that any attempt to describe in detail is bound in failure. Inexplicably, having been long listed for the 2017 Booker Prize, Days Without End failed to make the shortlist of six and which saw George Saunders and Lincoln in the Bardo win the award.


It’s all about that voice as director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind) continues his fascination with real life events and people.

One of the opera world’s greatest names, Luciano Pavarotti transcended the narrow enclaves of that elite to appeal to the masses with his love of life, rockstar popularity and friendship with royalty (Princess Di). Howard explores the man’s life, interviewing wives, daughters, managers, promoters, other singers (including Carreras, Domingo, Angela Gheorghiu, Bono).

Yet Pavarotti simply sits back, a hagiographic exploration of the surface of the man. But when the man himself is on screen, this particular documentary is pure magic – the authenticity and sheer magnetism both on and off stage exudes. And that voice….

Rating: 61%


Addicted to drugs and alcohol, in an attempt to win custody of her teenage children, Judy Garland accepts a well-paid season of concerts at London’s famed Talk of the Town.

A deep sadness pervades director Rupert Goold’s (True Story) feature as the star struggles with expectations from herself and her adoring audiences. A remarkable Renee Zellweger (Cold Mountain, Chicago) inhabits the final months of the legendary Garland’s tragically short life (she was just 47 when she died).

It’s Zellweger’s heartbreaking star turn that injects life into an engaging yet by-the-book biopic.

Nominated for 2 Oscars in 2020 (best actress, make up) and won 1 for Rene Zellweger.

Rating: 77%

‘Gould’s Book of Fish’ by Richard Flanagan

A visionary re-imagining of Tasmanian convict history, Gould’s Book of Fish is simultaneously odd, overblown, funny, violent, immersive, engaging, overlong, brilliant, plain stupid – and so much more!

William Gould Buelow, convict, forger, artist, lover, murderer, liar – survivor. Perchance, he is commissioned to paint a book of fish. But do not expect a straightforward chronological narrative. With the grit of a remote and harsh early 19th century Tasmania, Richard Flanagan delivers a world populated with crazed despots, violent gaolers, canny convicts, lead-poisoned commandants, abused natives, glutinous pigs. It’s a world crammed with gargantuan ideas as the Commandant of the even more remote Sarah Island off the west coast looks to the felling of Huon pines, the building of a pan-island railway or a giant Mah Jong Hall to attract tourists (….). Meanwhile, the Surgeon is collecting fish, shells, skulls – anything that will help him find his way into membership of the Royal Society. And whilst he must put up with the convict deprivations and a cell that floods at high tide, Buelow benefits from these obsessions.

This is a damp, subdued, claustrophobic environment, harsh, murderous and loveless.
But even before alighting, even before we saw anything up close, our noses were assailed by the effluvium of death. Death was in that heightened smell of raddled bodies & chancre-encrusted souls. Death arose in a miasma from gangrenous limbs & bloody rags of consumptive lungs. Death hid in the rancorous odour of beatings, in the new buildings already falling apart with the insidious damp that invaded everything, was seeping out of sphincters rotting from repeated rapes.

But beyond these grim realties, Flanagan introduces renaissance man and magical realism, Tasmanian-style, into the proceedings. The Commandant may be off his face, but he believes that the answer for progress is engineering – hence the constant plans to improve, to reinvent European civilisation on the other side of the globe. Buelow begins to identify a little too closely with his subjects: fish morph into people and people morph into fish. 

The problem with Gould’s Book of Fish is knowing ultimately how to describe it! The richness and complexity of Flanagan’s writings defy categorisation and classification. It’s an intense and serious read – a rollicking, adventurous one at times; a sociopolitical commentary or a gritty magical realism, part Ned Kelly, part Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And it’s not for everyone. I admittedly struggled at times , desperate for it to end. But then came another stunning reveal and Flanagan had me hooked – again.

Shortlisted for the 2002 Miles Franklin Award, Flanagan lost out to Tim Winton and Dirt Music (although he was awarded both The Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and Victorian Premier’s Award for Literature).

‘The King’

A magisterial telling of Henry V, The King is loosely based on Shakepeare’s history plays and rewritten (David Michod, Joel Edgerton – Animal Kingdom, The Rover) for today’s audience.

An exploration of power and responsibility, a magnificent Timothee Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird) reluctantly ascends to the early 1400s English throne on the death of his tyrannical father. Navigating the court and politics of the day tests the idealism of the young king as the manipulative William (Sean Harris – Mission Impossible Fallout, ’71) guides him to war with the French.

Muted tones and sombre music (Nicholas Britell – Moonlight, If Beale St Could Talk) add to the intimacy of an epic story, a historical period piece that is perfectly paced and, unlike the players on screen, never gets stuck in the mud of the Agincourt battle field. Stirring and commanding, it’s one of the best films of the year.

Rating: 87%


Loosely based on a true story, a group of upmarket strippers (led by a very impressive Jennifer Lopez – Second Act, Out of Sight) decides to turn the tables on their Wall St clients.

Engaging if over long, director Lorene Scafaria (The Meddler, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) sets the pace at that of a well-plotted heist movie and, like the recent Widows and Ocean’s 8, with its ensemble cast talks to female empowerment. It’s all top-end of town stuff: clients lose sight of their platinum credit cards as Lopez and rookie Constance Wu (Crazy Rich Asians) balance six-inch stilettos and revealing rhinestone bodysuits with motherhood.

Rating: 63%

‘The Life to Come’ by Michelle de Kretser

Traversing the globe from Sydney to Paris to Sri Lanka (although set predominantly in various Sydney locations), Michelle de Kretser’s latest offering is the story of stories as an ambitious Pippa yearns to find success as a writer.

Fractured in its chronology, a set of loosely connected narratives present diverse characters and certain aspects of their lives. The common, somewhat vague, link in each is Pippa. Which is unfortunate as the wannabe writer, superficial and somewhat unlikeable with more drive than talent, is wholly unengaging.

That de Kretser is a fine writer there is no question. Deft characterisation, occasional wry humour abounds as a lonely, 50 something Celeste sits in her cramped Paris apartment intent on her latest translation, convincing herself her married lover, Sabine, felt the same way within their relationship. Pippa, on an Art Council bursary, flits through the periphery of the Parisian literary scene and temporarily befriends the older woman. Or, in the final, most effective and moving of the narratives, Christabel, told in a series of vignettes, navigates her life in Sri Lanka and unexpected offer of a house share in Sydney with former schoolfriend, Bunty. Over time and the uneventful years pass, she becomes friends with neighbour and fledgling writer, Pippa. But with success finally achieved as a published novelist, Pippa soon moves on and the ties that bind are no more.

Transitory and impermanence are constant themes in de Kretser’s writings (reflective of her own personal life – born in Sri Lanka, emigrated to Australia with her family at 14, educated in Melbourne and Paris, employed by Lonely Planet, where she worked for a decade on the company’s guidebooks). As with her earlier Questions of Travel, de Kretser looks at the emotional impact of migration and human movement (temporary or more permanent) with its subsequent displacement and loneliness. But, like that earlier novel, all too often it slips into self-indulgent rambling by characters we care little about. With the sad exception of Christabel, a woman with few breaks in life who is ultimately chewed up and spat out by her flighty, shallow neighbour.

As with Questions of Time, de Kretser has produced a novel that polarised opinion. As with Questions of Time, de Kretser has produced a novel that was awarded the Miles Franklin Award (in this instance, 2018).

‘The Souvenir’

Set in 1980s London, The Souvenir, Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical tale of a doomed and toxic relationship, is both indulgent and dull.

Film student Honor Swinton Byrne (I Am Love) becomes involved with privileged Tom Burke (Cheri, Only God Forgives) only to discover over time (and many missing items of personal value) that he is a heroin addict.

Fractured and purposefully incoherent in its telling, Hogg (Unrelated, Archipelago) ostensibly explores the creative process as much the relationship itself, resulting in a turgidly slow and screamingly boring arthouse film. And the bad news in Part II is in post-production!

Rating: 36%

‘The Broken Shore’ by Peter Temple

Set in the fictional coastal town of Port Monro in western Victoria, The Broken Shore is, as expected from Peter Temple, a grim but involving multilayered crime story of murder, corruption, racism and sexual abuse.

Following a near death experience during a stakeout in Melbourne, detective Joe Cashin is posted to his hometown for professional recuperation: a small population heading up a team of four is seen as the ideal way to ease Cashin back into the game. But the murder of a local wealthy philanthropist in his home changes all that.

Put in charge of the case by the Head of Victorian Homicide, Inspector Stephen Villani (who becomes the central character in Temple’s later, Miles Franklin-winning Truth), Cashin soon finds himself clashing with the Cromarty police (the largest town in the region) and detective Hopgood in particular. The methods of the two men are polar opposites and it leads to the death of three young male indigenous suspects in a roadside shooting. All hell breaks out, particularly as one of the victims is the nephew of a local rising politician.

Cashin navigates the public and professional furore as his investigations lead him to the endemic racism within Cromarty and the local constabulary along with much more sinister events in Melbourne itself involving child pornography and sexual abuse of young boys over many decades. He needs to pull in all the favours he can from family, colleagues and friends as corruption and a code of silence blankets his search for truth.

From a slow beginning, The Broken Shore evolves into a measured and intricate thriller as more and more of the past in revealed. Plot and pace are pitch perfect, mingled as they are with subtle commentary on small town racism and corruption of contemporary Australia. 

‘Birds of Passage’

Tradition clashes with western commerce as the indigenous Wayuu peoples of northern Colombia cash in on lucrative drug trafficking with American dealers. 

A chance encounter results in Rapayet (a fine debut from José Acosta) identifying the growing and supply of marijuana as a profitable business. It’s pre-Cartel Colombia of the early 1980s. The tradition of the Wayuu is to look to the interpretation of dreams and listen to the spirits: but the younger generation want more than tradition.

As the tension between the old and new worlds increases and Rapayet looks for dominance over his more traditional mother-in-law (an indomitable Carmiña Martínez), so family struggles to control the business lead to the inevitable destruction of culture and lives.

Directors Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra (Embrace of the Serpent, The Wind Journeys) assuredly capture a narrative that is both meaningful and accessible.

Rating: 76%