‘Big Little Lies’ (Season 2)

The aftershock of events at the school fundraising event in season one continues to reverberate throughout the privilege of Monterey. (SPOILER ALERT for season one)

The Monterey five (as they have now become) band together in the aftermath of Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) falling to his death. We know, in order to protect Celeste (Nicole Kidman) from a severe beating, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) pushed Perry, resulting in him falling down the concrete steps. But a too quick ‘white lie’ from Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) to protect them all that he slipped and fell has repercussions.

Season two explores the psychological fallout from Perry’s death, the cover up to the police of full details – and Jane (Shailene Woodley) dealing with having identified, to her horror, the identity of her rapist and the father of son Ziggy (Iain Armitage).

Interspersed with the more ‘mundane’ narratives of Madeline dealing with Ed (Adam Scott) knowing about her affair with theatre director Joseph (Santiago Cabrera) and Renata Klein (Laura Dern) forced into bankruptcy by her profligate investor of a husband (Jeffrey Nordling), season two’s focus is Celeste, struggling without Perry, reliant on prescription drugs to get through the day/night. So much so mother-in-law Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) travels up from San Francisco to help look after her grandchildren. But Mary Louise is one unpleasant and mighty suspicious woman, refusing to believe any official accounts on the death of her saintly son.

It gets nasty and Mary Louise smells a rat. And not just in the luxurious home of Celeste. With so many truths out (except that elephant in the room of the white lie), each of the women are forced to deal with their demons, either together or alone. Like a caged animal, Dern stalks her huge, now empty, home awaiting its sale, the stunning view meaningless. Woodley looks to her son fearful he will turn out like his dad. And Celeste must now battle drug dependency and a crusading mother-in-law or face losing her children.

Big Little Lies (Season 2) expertly picks up where the first seven episodes left off. It may not have that sense of dread of the mood swings of Skarsgård (although there’s a few flashbacks to remind us) and, in some ways, initially at least, it’s hard to imagine the need for a follow up to the excellent first season. The fear there is an unneccesary fill-in melodrama cashing in on its success. But, fear not. Full of self contradictions, there’s plenty to the second set of seven episodes and that sense of sisterhood between the five. Once more, dialogue shines, Streep and, this time around, the more prominent Zoe Kravitz add a new depth to the storylines – and that cast simply excel.

Rating: 81%

Miles Franklin Award Shortlist: 2016

Having completed reading all the books on the shortlist for 2016 my question is did the judges, in my opinion, get it right in presenting the 2016 Miles Franklin Award to Black Rock, White City by A S Patric. The year was far from classic but it did have two stand out novels – neither, sadly, being the winner.

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew
Leap by Myfanwy Jones
Black Rock, White City by A S Patric
Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The weakest on the list was none other than Black Rock, White City by A S Patric. Loss, loneliness and dislocation are prevalent throughout the Melbourne writer’s debut novel. It’s bleak, challenging and deeply impressive – in part. Yet I did not like it – whilst the exploration of the relationship between Jovan and Suzanna is beautifully realised and life in Sarajevo and Belgrade (White City) stunningly portrayed in its inhumanity and incomprehension, the main focus of the narrative with its denouement is a seemingly clumsy and abrupt afterthought. (50%)

A slow-burn of a tale, Hope Farm sees thirteen year-old Silver come of age as, thrust into an adult world, she watches her mother disintegrate at the very time she needs solidity. Peggy Frew perfectly captures the sense of place in her writings – the stale dope smoke and damp, rotting weatherboard farm buildings pervade her narrative. And in Silver, she has created a lost but determined adolescent. But Hope Farm, like the smoke, drifts and wafts, like Ishtar, without any engaging foundation. Silver may need solidity from her mother, but so does the mother. It is lifestyle without structure, it is a narrative without structure. (54%)

Two lives grieving, two lives struggling to move on from events three years earlier. In her second novel, Myfanwy Jones teases out the character of her two leads both of whom are fairly ordinary Melbournians, united in principle in ther grief for the loss of Jen – although, in Leap, their paths never cross. It’s an engaging enough dual narrative as the two come to terms with their grief but it lacks grit. Events wash over with a sense of distance that never draws the reader into the unfolding storylines. (58%)

The Natural Way of Things is a dystopian narrative of the future (or possibly the present), an imaginative story of misogyny and internment – the haunting novel by Charlotte Wood is an Australian answer to Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Deeply unsettling yet poetic, a group of 10 young women find themselves imprisoned in a remote, ruinous deserted sheep station somewhere in the Australian outback. With its underlying menace, The Natural Way of Things is bleak. Its starkness, like its landscape, is threatening – in spite of that beautifully poetic prose. Wood won the 2016 Stella Prize and was the joint-winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literature. At 74%, it would have bettered most winning novels over the last decade or so. But, by a whisker, in my opinion, it was bettered by another novel in the shortlist.

Lucy Treloar’s debut novel is something of a grower. What starts out seemingly as another Australian novel dealing with European settlement in the mid 1800s and the impact it has on the indigenous population becomes something more – much more.

Seen through the eyes of Hester Finch, a privileged 15 year-old at the onset of Salt Creek, we experience the fall from grace of the Finch family due to her father’s overbearing pride and poor business acumen. After another failed enterprise, he forces the family to leave their comfortable Adelaide existence and head to the beautiful yet harsh coastal landscape of the remote Coroong, a few days ride to the south.

As the family settle, so Hester’s brothers follow the standard European belief of ownership of the land and reject the rights of access to the local indigenous communities. It the relationships within the family, the limited contact with European settlers further down the coast along with the inevitable clashes with indigenous culture that form the basis of Treloar’s superb novel. But what sets it apart is the book’s exploration of European Christian hypocrisy and the position of women in 19th century Australia as written and experienced by a woman. It’s a world where the female voice is so rarely heard. (78%)

Based on the above, in my opinion the judges of the 2016 Miles Franklin Award got it very, very wrong.

‘The Black Phone’

Unexpectedly engaging, The Black Phone works by weaving psychological fears with the supernatural as 13 year old Finney finds himself imprisoned in the basement of a child killer.

Director Scott Derrickson (Doctor Strange, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) sets the scene of a slight, bullied Finney (Mason Thames – TV’s For All Mankind, Walker) struggling at home with an alcoholic father and a tough, younger sister, Gwen (Madeleine McGraw – American Sniper, Ant-Man and the Wasp) who has visions. Young teenagers are disappearing from the delapidated neighbourhood. Eventually, The Grabber takes Finney. Alone in the basement, a disconnected black telephone provides a connection with previous victims.

It’s a chilling narrative as Finney must find a way (quickly) to survive whilst his sister tries to tap into her visions to find him. More insight into The Grabber and the duality of personality would have helped provide depth but The Black Phone is ultimately about the relationship between the two siblings and the boy’s confinement along with more than a passing social commentary.

Rating: 61%


Honest if singularly paced, Cake sees a personal tragedy having left the sardonic Claire Bennett suffering from chronic pain. Through her support group, she becomes obsessed with the reasons behind the suicide of a younger woman in her group.

Scared physically and psychologically, addicted to painkillers, Bennett (Jennifer Aniston – Dumplin‘, We’re the Millers) is hard work for those around her, particularly for devoted if taken-for-granted housekeeper, Silvana (Adriana Barraza – Babel, Thor). But an obsession with the death of Nina Collins (Anna Kendrick – Up in the Air, Pitch Perfect) leads Bennett on a path of acceptance to her grief.

Directed by Daniel Barnz (Won’t Back Down, Beastly), a disarming sense of humour underlies this congenial if overly controlled tale with the sparky relationship between Claire and Silvana a highlight.

Rating: 59%

‘Mrs Miniver’

A flagwaving celebration from Hollywood of British stoicism during World War II, Mrs Miniver is a treacle-thick melodrama as the comfortable Minivers adjust to wartime life in the Home Counties.

A naive lack of awareness of the politics of the day sees Mrs Miniver (Greer Garson – Random Harvest, Goodbye Mr Chips) shopping for expensive hats and Mr Miniver (Walter Pidgeon – Funny Girl, Executive Suite) purchasing a sports car just as war is declared. Their son Vin (Richard Ney – The Fan, Joan of Arc) returns from Oxford to join the locally stationed RAF – which is all just dandy for the budding romance with Carol Beldon (Teresa Wright – Shadow of a Doubt, The Actress), granddaughter of the formidable Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty – Gaslight, The Lady Vanishes).

Flower shows, escaped POWs, air raids and Dunkirk all feature as war impacts on a ‘dress-for-dinner’ way of life that is deftly captured by director William Wyler (Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur) but which, by today’s viewing, is cloyingly over-sentimalised.

Nominated for 12 Oscars in 1943 including best actor, supporting actor (Henry Travers), supporting actress (May Whitty) – won 6 for best film, director, actress, supporting actress, screenplay and b&w cinematography.

Rating: 54%

‘Case Study’ by Graeme Macrae Burnet

As audacious as the superb Booker Prize shortlisted His Bloody Project, Burnet is once again in playful mood as he ebbs between fiction and documentary, history and imagination. Therapy is Burnet’s focus in Case Study as the controversial opinions of 1960s psychotherapist A. Collins Braithwaite come into question. But then, this being a Burnet novel, Collins Braithwaite himself should come into question. Did he even exist?

I am convinced, you see, that Dr Braithwaite killed my sister, Veronica. I do not mean that he murdered her in the normal sense of the word, but that he is, nonetheless, as responsible for her death as if he had strangled her with his bare hands. 

So states our narrator, Veronica. She’s out to prove Braithwaite is a fraud – and, dour and frumpy that she is, adapts a different personality in her appointments with the analyst. Based on the character of her dead sister, ‘Rebecca’ is confident and outgoing. A believer in a norm of multiple personalities within the same individual, Braithwaite is controversial – and has courted controversy throughout his career – including the publication of his book Kill Your Self. Yet there’s little question as to ‘Rebecca’ and the resulting change in the character of Veronica. Interwoven is the back story of the arrogant northern English Braithwaite and his rise from a working class lad and the daily life of the narrator living at home with her father.

Burnet’s novel is wry and enjoyable if lightweight, a muddying of fact and fiction, of the psychoanalysis in the mould of the views of RD Laing taken a great deal further. Accessible, the psychological drama has been long listed for the 2022 Booker Prize.

‘Leave the World Behind’ by Rumaan Alam’

A provactive, thoughtful novel as two families, strangers to each other, are forced to take refuge together when an unexplained event results in a breakdown of communication on the American East Coast.

A much needed break from New York has seen Amanda and Clay hire a remote, semi-luxurious home in the north of Long Island to spend quality time with their two early-teenage children. A few lazy days follow – beach, swimming pool, barbecues. But the reverie is broken one night by the arrival of two strangers – George and Ruth Washington. Not only do they claim to be the owners of the house, but announce that an unexplained power outtage has resulted in the whole of the East Coast shutting down (unbeknownst, it has affected far more). Hence their arrival. With TV, phones and internet down, Amanda and Clay are unsure what to believe.

What unspools within the confines of the household (and a foray into the outside – desserted – world by Clay) is the ebb and flow of uncertainty and distrust. Isolated, with no neighbours close by, it’s impossible to know what has happened. Fear seeps in as the claustrophobia of the house and power games (Ruth may own the house but Amanda has an exclusive use contract) covertly unfold.

Leave the World Behind is an engrossing novel as issues of wealth, race (the Washingtons are an older black couple), and parenthood are subtly explored in a slow burn uncertainty of a narrative. Dread and unease are the mainstay rather than any dystopian disaster tale as the two couples (and children) evaluate their position – and what to do about it.

‘In a Free State’ by V.S.Naipaul

Published with four related but separate short stories, In a Free State is Naipaul’s Booker prize-winning cross-cultural journey of regret and disappointment, of dislocation and fear.

In an unnamed African country (although references abound to a post-colonial Uganda), Bobby, a young, gay, white British civil servant, is driving home from the capital following a conference. Uncertainty is in the air as power struggles and civil unrest undermine the country. Looking forward to time alone, Bobby reluctantly agrees to provide Linda, a colleague’s flighty, gossipy wife, with a lift.

As each manouvres between politeness and privacy, conversation and personal wants, so the vastness of the open landscape changes around them. Emptied villages and military convoys create underlying threat, roadblocks and curfews further add to the unease. The king, favoured by white Europeans, and his supporters are becoming less and less effective as the president looks to self-determination for the unnamed country. Forced to stay overnight at an almost empty, decaying lakeside hotel for Europeans, the reality of change and shift of power becomes only too obvious.

Beautifully written in a slightly old-fashioned tight, formal prose, Naipaul looks to post-colonial times through the convention of a road trip and the slow reveal of the seriousness of the situation for Bobby and Linda and the country itself. Villages they pass through are destroyed, the fires still burning: the threat of violence hovers constantly: Bobby himself is beaten up by military guards.

As with the the accompanying short stories (personal favourite – One Out of Many, the tale of an Indian cook taken by his employer from Bombay to a diplomatic posting in Washington), Naipaul looks to characters struggling with a sense of dislocation and alienation as they come to terms with their disappointments and unexpected changes in circumstance.

In a Free State won the 1971 Booker Prize.

‘The OA’ (Season 2)

Certainly weirder than the first season, The OA continues to equally puzzle and captivate. But with its cancellation after two of the proposed five seasons, there’s an inevitable dissatisfaction amidst its inconclusivity.

At the end of the first season, Prairie (Brit Marling) was shot – with season 2 seeing Russian businesswoman Nina Azarova suddenly collapsing. In an alternative reality, Nina is Prairie, but who was never blind, did not drown in the school bus accident or lose her father. It is a confused Prairie who wakes up in Nina’s body. And just to complicate things, with her erratic and delusional behaviour, she is packed off to a psychiatric hospital where the facility’s director is Hap (Jason Isaacs). As with the first season, the two are locked in a cat and mouse, captive and captor battle with Hap fully aware of Prairie’s new manifestation. Homer (Emory Cohen), however, a resident psychiatrist, has no memory of the previous alternative.

Running concurrently are two narratives that will seemingly never connect. The kids plus teacher BBA (Phyllis Smith) from season one are, in the original dimension, desperately trying to find the whereabouts of Prairie – and crossing state lines to do so. But it is the completely new storyline that adds a sense of unease with an increase in fantasy and the supernatural. Private detective Karim Washington (Kingsley Ben-Adir) agrees to help an elderly Vietnamese woman find her missing granddaughter. But what appears to be a straightforward if challenging case proves to be anything but. As realities change, Washington finds himself being drawn into an online game with increasingly high stakes seemingly centred around an abandoned house in the middle of San Francisco – owned by Nina Azarova.

Season Two sees a quantum leap in its multiverse as we move between different realities and dimensions. Odd though The OA is, season one was strangely grounded and relatable in its telling. Season two pushes the boat out further, making it a more exiting and exotic narrative. But it loses its grounding.  Whilst remaining a transformation narrative of time, place, spirit and character, it’s all a little too odd, a little too off-kilter to be fully satisfying.

Rating: 63%


Three season drama centred around hi-tech in and around Miami and, in seasons one and two, the emergence of GenCoin and controversial digital currency. It’s fast, it’s snappy and, whilst it outstays its welcome by the end of season three, StartUp is an immersive thrill as uncertainty and risk remain the name of the game.

As a hacker with a written code that looks to change the very notion of finance and movement of money, Izzy Morales (Otmara Marrero) finds herself on the margins of legitimate business (think in terms of the suspicions around the early days of Bitcoin). But when banker Nick Talman (Adam Brody) finds himself in desperate need to launder money stolen by his father, legitimate does not seem quite so important. With the arrival of Haitian-American gang lord Ronnie Dacey (Edi Gathegi) looking for his money, answers need to be found – and quickly. And just to complicate things, crooked FBI agent Phil Rask (Martin Freeman) was looking to a little blackmail of Talman Senior. And that’s all in the first episode!

What unravels over the first 20 episodes is a drama that flits between hi-tech wealth and struggling Cuban-migrant homelife, from street gangs claiming territories to Russian mafia controlling movement of drugs as well as legitimate business. It’s about lives spiralling out of control as the true value of digital currency is recognised, evolving (in season three) into the dark web and Araknet, where the target of 100 million users worldwide becomes the target. Suddenly, Ronnie, Nick and eventually Izzy (no spoilers) find themselves in a very different corporate world to the earlier seasons – even if events in the ‘hood still come to haunt Ronnie and Nick still carries bagage from his now-dead father’s actions. Business entrepreneur Ron Perlman and his shady background now calls the shots.

It’s fast, it’s furious peppered with violence and sex: Gathegi in particular a standout throughout (Martin Freeman, playing totally against type, is memorable in the first two seasons) but, as Izzy, Otmara Marrero is too one-dimensional with her ever-present frown. Nick Talman is a classic superficial poseur, a complete ‘dick’ who carries no weight. Yet the dialogue is sharp, the narrative immersive as the American Dream is played out.

Rating: 67%