Review of The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

The FarmThe Farm by Tom Rob Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have had a copy of The Farm sitting on my bookshelf, bought in 2015 at a Perth Writers Festival, and that was before Covid-19, when we had the privilege of talented, international guests. I sailed through this book, a good page turner, not knowing what the outcome or who was telling the truth in this family, Tilde or her husband Chris. I’m so grateful to the author for publishing this book, I haven’t read any of his others, but I think it’s a very delicate, suspenseful story, another #MeToo narrative about hidden abuse. The author slowly unravels the story of Tilde as a mother, wife and stoic, expat from Sweden. I won’t reveal a spoiler as the novel is what’s known as “open ended.” The reader has to guess or make up their mind about what happens next to a woman who is mentally unstable. In hindsight looking back from 2021 we realise it’s because of trauma. If I had read this book back in 2015, I might have reviewed it differently, ie spruking unreliable narrator, little action, and basically a one-sided, one character point-of-view. However, since we have now come to realise that mental and physical abuse, inflicted by many perpetrators, has been rife in our society, we can no longer look at a woman and call her ‘mad, insane, off the raiis, or living a different reality’. We know in our society there has been a terrible injustice to victims of abuse, we know there has been little inaction in relation to mental health as a medical priority. When we get to the end of The Farm , we know why this story was written.

View all my reviews


Against Certain CaptureAgainst Certain Capture by Miriam Wei Wei Lo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I once had the privilege of hearing Miriam Wei Wei Lo read her poetry at the State Library of Western Australia and also on the ABC’s Poetica. That seemed so long ago, in fact it was 2004 when her first edition of Against Certain Capture was published by Five Islands Press, in the New Poets 10. The good news is that her book has resurfaced, it’s an identical second edition published by an imprint called the Apothecary Archive. In the meantime, it seems, Lo has been raising children, holds a Phd from the University of Queensland, has published a chapbook No Pretty Words with Picaro Press (2010) and currently teaches creative writing at the Sheridan Institute, Perth. I managed to get a copy from the author in an exchange for my debut novel, however, I drew the shorter straw and read through Lo’s poetry in no time, with much interest.
Against Certain Capture opens as a generous homage to family and the various struggles of two women, namely Lo’s grandmothers. Liang Yue-Xian and Eva Sounness make up Lo’s heritage: her father being Chinese-Malaysian and her mother Anglo-Australian.
Approaching this poetry, I must admit that I have only ever read some of Li Po’s work, but that doesn’t exclude me liking the serious reverence in this collection, especially the biographical nature of the text that highlights a time when higher education was rare in China, when women had little agency over their bodies & minds in a patriarchal dominance. Yue-Xian loses a sweetheart, enters into a loveless marriage or in Eva’s case, she is tethered to dependency and years of multiple pregnancies.

Part 1 opens with the young Yue-Xian trapped/ in the machinations/ of family and wealth/she loses the man she loves/to her cousin. The poem ends with a deep longing.

she will write
to deliver herself
from the snares of her feminine body,
from all forms of dependence,
she will write
until she can walk
through the gates of Canton University,
crack the egg
and sign
her name on the pavement
in glistening yolken gold.

In the poem No Pretty Words we encounter the deprivation of food and living at the onset of World War 11. Much has changed in Yue-Xian’s life now married to a gambler.

There are no pretty words for hunger
Only what thuds from the mouth,
flat and ugly,
like rice, fish,
sweet potato –
words to roll around in her stomach
or burn in her throat
when her husband comes home
with nothing. 

In Part 2, we continue with the dramatic narrative. Eva Sounness is the poet’s Australian grandmother. Born in Boulder WA, she also has an ambition for university, but this is thwarted by her father’s heart condition and no funds.

Eva has seen the results
all fifteen letters of her name
stamped in black type on the bursary list.
she has seen her father
white from exertion
stumble up steps
the word that hangs
in the air
and knows
that hope
is a thing to be swallowed,
to hold in the belly
until it turns sour.

And as with Yue-Xian’s life, “Here, the war is a headache that lasts six years.”  p.24

When the war begins
Eva is feeding her first daughter, Robin, oat porridge
boiled soft for her infant mouth which drops to an O
at the sight of the spoon, the small pink tongue expectant.
Kim, her son, is running around in the yard
rounding up chooks and shouting at sleepy dogs,
pretending to be a farmer.

Somewhere faraway
a place called Austria is annexed, Poland collapses,
Jews are garrotted and pinioned in ghettos.
With the usual burst of wattle and birdsong
spring arrives in the South-West corner
of Western Australia, which is, Robert Menzies declares,
also at war.

While there is evidence of a repressed society for women in the early twentieth century, disrupted by the onset of war, with all its deprivations, one wonders which grandmother may have lived life the hardest. The parallels of these two women’s lives are connected pre-feminist liberation. This was a generation that had little say over their bodies, tertiary education was rare, and conformity was dependency to a man, and/or childbearing.
I have not touched on many poems in this collection. The poetry is dense, lyrical and poetic lines such as “starlight touching the first dew of morning” are peppered throughout. The stories are a little bleak at times, and forms such as the pantoum and headline poems do not give an accessible narrative in a biographical sense. I would have liked some lighter moments, perhaps from Eva’s life, being Australian, but this is only a minor criticism. One poem that does touch on her character is revealed in Don’t call me Grandma p.30, but this is a fleeting image of her in later years. Perhaps in the future, Lo has plans for more lightweight incidents about family.
Helen Hagemann

View all my reviews

Kirkus reviews The Last Asbestos Town

In Hagemann’s novel, a feckless young couple trust in supernatural powers to save their dream home from demolition in a small town in Western Australia.

May and Isaac Lyons have just bought a dilapidated former Girl Guide Hall in the idyllic country town of Farmbridge, hoping to renovate it into a combined home, dress shop, and painting studio without obtaining the necessary construction permits to do so. It turns out that the hall is haunted by the ghost of a murdered teenage goth girl who had a creepy obsession with the occult and who now moves objects around at night. It’s also threatened with imminent demolition by the government’s Asbestos Task Force, known as the “Grey Shirts,” even though the couple firmly believes that the building doesn’t contain any asbestos. Practical May sells her handmade fashion creations online and finds solace in nature; however, spontaneous, childlike painter Isaac is in debt to a violent drug dealer. On the first day of his dismal new day job at a bauxite refinery, he befriends a young Indigenous man named Steve,whose grandfather Kal is a respected elder; together, they hatch a scheme to scare off both the dealer and the A.T.F. The author packs a lot of ideas and action into fewer than 200 pages in this debut novel, and the juxtaposition of realistic and supernatural elements is intriguing and unsettling, by turns. However, although the characters are original and well-drawn, their actions don’t always make sense; May and Isaac are surprisingly manipulative and secretive toward each other for a couple that’s also shown to be so passionately in love, for example. Hagemann’s prose can be lyrical and evocative, as in detailed descriptions of the town’s river and its wildlife. Other times, though, it can be awkward: “Joe had a stout body, a fat stomach including his neck.”

An often entertaining, if unevenly executed, tale of the extraordinary lengths that people can go in pursuit of their dreams.   Read full review here….  “KIRKUS REVIEWS’

Pub Date: May 1, 2020

I have posted this review verbatim as I think it’s a very honest take on the novel. More positive also, than I expected considering I follow (a not-so-good) review of John Grisham’s latest novel “Sooley”.


From Emerging to Established Author!


For over two decades I’ve been an emerging writer. Once you tip the scales and have several books, ie poetry (2) and novels (2) you’re an established author (it seems). I’ve recently applied for a residency in this category and now realise I have competition with the very best. It’s quite daunting when you think about your peers in your own state, those who have high profiles, get invited to writers’ festivals, attend public and community talks, etc. Suddenly you find yourself in a different category and wonder does this bring kudos?

MAYBE? I have noticed of late, that I am now being invited to submit my poetry to Australian online & print poetry journals. Sure, my publisher Adelaide Books in New York (I’m a listed writer) invites us all to submit to their Anthology Award every year. There are short stories, poetry and essays, all neatly packaged in a bound book for each genre. I haven’t been a winner, but I feel assured each time that my work is being supported and my prose poetry gets published. I’m now in their 2019 & 2020 Adelaide Poetry Anthology.

While I have moved over to fiction, my poetry has really taken a back seat. I do, however, write prose poetry from time to time, and I find that it’s fun posting to my Instagram @evangelynewriter with graphics to match. Getting back to the subject, twice now and probably it’s a “mutual friendly society” but I have been initially invited to Phillip Hall’s poetry journal “Burrow” – the first poem in the September 2020 issue and more recently another poem forthcoming in September, 2021. The latest invitation is from one of the Editors of a forthcoming publication – the Australian Poetry Journal, APJ 11.1. Fingers crossed, and a giant blog post to follow, if successful!

I thought I had left poetry behind, to move forward and fully concentrate on novels, but the old genre keeps pulling me back with plenty of surprises. I am also soon to write a poetry review for Miriam Wei Wei Lo on her 2nd Edition of Against Certain Capture. I used to write poetry reviews for Plumwood Mountain eco-journal which suddenly stopped. (I don’t think they liked me steering away from the ecological side and not all collections supplied had that theme). Still, I may have luck getting Miriam’s review published in the Rochford Street Journal.

I can hear my dad with his old fatherly saying, “Wonders never cease.”

2nd Writing Retreat @ KSP


One of the things that I like to do while in rereat is to discover the terrain around the place that I’m staying in. I’m spending another week at the KSP Greenmount and, of course, you can’t write 24/7. There is a need to get out into the landscape, stretch that curved-writing spine and exercise. For the last two days, I chose to walk in the John Forest National Park. It’s quite an extensive area, although a little hilly for my taste. Closer to the Ranger’s House, café and store is a smaller and more level paved-walk. As you can see from the photos, it is a pleasant meander around a lake cum water feature with ducks, bridges across to the other side and wooden resting huts. Or perhaps they are picnic huts for weekenders? An added feature, I’m sure are here for the tourists, are the kangaroos. One day, I counted twenty, all hanging out at the local store. It appeared that they were waiting to be fed. Not much grass around this picnic area.


The John Forest National Park is also historical. There are plates showing the early pioneers, especially Lord Forest and Lady Forest. A nice surprise was to read one about Katharine Susannah Pritchard who is quite revered in this area. It doesn’t matter who you talk to, and I also visited a friend up here for coffee, most locals know about the Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writers Centre and the lady herself. It’s good to see that some history is preserved, especially here where I am. Her original writing cabin is next to my cabin. Back to the manuscript!

Review of Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks

Lost Memory of SkinLost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Russell Banks is one of my favourite authors. Since reading his novel “The Sweet Hereafter” I have searched for more of his books. [The Sweet Hereafter was an excellent 1997 film by Atom Egoyan]. I also have “Cloudsplitter” waiting on my bookshelves. I’m now up to Page 140 in “The Lost Memory of Skin” and liking the novel so far. How does he do it, he mixes tenses seamlessly?
Now finished, it was a great read with so many twists and turns and definitely not predictable. I sympathized with the character Kid (main protagonist). Banks highlights how some people are victimized not through any fault of their own, but through a serious of life’s circumstances. The Kid, although an adult, is a convicted paedophile, wears an ankle bracelet which has to stay on for 10 years. However, you begin to realize that he is not really a criminal, that he’s been convicted through being young, uneducated both morally and socially. He is also a little naive and I liked him. I also understood the parallels with Banks’ other character the Professor. It makes you wonder about people in life, just who is the baddie?
I’ve now moved on to Cloudsplitter.

View all my reviews

Review Copy: The Last Asbestos Town

Review Copy – available here


The book publishing industry is syndicated. Being published in the US, I have discovered is no different to self-publishing when it comes to the big publishing houses in Australia who corner every square-inch of the market. They have exclusivity: to bookshops, to promotion, to writing festivals, to national book reviewers such as the Australian Book Review and the Sydney Review of Books, and also, I have recently discovered, to the Australian Library System. Anything else, and you’re an outsider going it alone. No matter, ‘the game is afoot!’ as Shakespeare wrote. There are now marketing strategies to get your little masterpiece out there into the world. Book Bub Partners for instance, have a long list of ways to promote your book. Today, I am trying one of their suggested tactics and that is to offer a free review copy to all my “instagrammers” who review books.

This is not only a tactic because of slow sales, but a necessary employment to circulate any reviews that I (fingers crossed) might receive. My local library has told me that if I want to promote the book, reviews help! We’ll see. Anyone review books/readers?

Radio Interview for 2nd Novel

My hometown radio station heard about me writing my noveI The Ozone Cafe. What luck! As a follow up program by Lance Godwin who does maritime history aka his interest in Phil Jeffs (a notorious gangster) who build the cafe back in the thirties. He interviewed me on Saturday,17th April 2021. The Coast FM 96.3 Interview will air on Tuesday 20th April on 8.40am Perth time & 10.40am EST, Sydney.  The following was my preparation for his questions which did not turn out the same, so I will post the actual interview at a later date,

Introduction and very briefly tell us about your previous book The Last Asbestos Town.

It’s actually the second book that I’ve written. It’s about a young married couple May & Isaac who move to a mining town in the South West, where they purchase an old Girl Guide hall that they plan to renovate. The setting is a time in the near future when the government is forcibly eradicating the last of the nation’s asbestos structures. When they receive their fateful letter, and believing the hall is not asbestos they set out on a quest to save their home from destruction.

You grew up in Ettalong and visited the Ozone Cafe built by notorious gangster Phil Jeffs. What was it like? (I will prompt you if I want more detail)

The Ozone was well known for its great milkshakes. I used to visit the café with my friend usually after a swim at Ettalong Beach. We would play the jukebox or one of the pinball machines and of course have a milkshake. We were in our early teens, and the bodgies and widgies who were there were quite intimidating. They were there for hours playing pool. Somehow the café had a bad reputation and I’m not sure why. No one spoke about Phil Jeffs in my family even though my grandparents were there in the forties. I guess it was all hush-hush about its notorious owner.

Your new book is a fictitious account of a cafe which you called the Ozone. Without giving too much away, what inspired you to write this book?

I had many trips back home to Ettalong over the years to visit family etc. On a later visit to my younger brother in Kariong, he told me that the Ozone had disappeared from the landscape. So this sparked the idea to write a novel about the memories I had of the café’s life. I didn’t want to just let it go and there be no record of it ever existing. On another trip I met up with Kay Williams from the Pearl Beach Historical Society (I wrote a poem about Pearl Beach and it was exhibited in the previous year). She told me about major changes that were going to be made in the area (which she objected to) and this is when I knew I had the plot for the novel.

When can our listeners get to read the book?

It’s going to be published in the US in October, and hopefully, will be available as an ebook (Kindle copy) on Amazon Australia. It may take 6-8 weeks after that when I receive my stock of books (the hard copies). Depending on the response I get for the book, I would like to visit Ettalong and perhaps give a short reading in the Gosford or Woy Woy Libraries.  Below are some images of Ettalong (from one of my home visits). Broken Bay with Lion Island, a view of the bay from Blackwall Mountain and my childhood general store called Mannings, very much changed.


Helen’s Highights @ KSP


Here are pictures of my time at the Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writers Retreat. Some of the highlights are, in all probability, that work has progressed to Chapter 38 (2nd novel). I have also written a new scene. This is thanks to Neil Gaiman (re masterclass advice) who reminded me that if I write about corrupt/criminal characters I should fully write them in and keep that thread consistent/going. I also think that while this novel is historical fiction, it is also a crime novel, white or blue collar crime? I’m not sure what these terms mean exactly, but I aim to find out. I will be attending a session by David Whish-Wilson at the Margaret River Writers Festival in May, so I may just ask this at question time. Other highlights were swimming at the local pool while on retreat and given some avocadoes by the Pool Manager. I also sat in on the poetry group run by Mardi May. A very enlightened group as they critique their work each session with the aim of a later publication or an anthology. I met the Administrator, Shannon, the gardener, Fern, and Sheree and her husband – maintenance/cleaners. The best thing was that the KSP was a quick & straight run along Reid/Roe Highways which only took me roughly 30 minutes from home. I have booked another week at the end of April for a re-edit of all my 44 Chapters +Afterword, gadoink!


Helen Hagemann @ KSP Writers Centre


Currently, I’m spending time at the Katharine Susannah Pritchard Writers Centre. I’m in retreat for seven days (actually 6.5) working on my second novel The Ozone Café. Why working away from home and getting on with the work seems successful beats me? Perhaps it’s the different environment, the time and space to spend solely on a current project or possibly the amount of time is not interrupted. After all, there is no television, no rushing around shopping or cleaning, watering the garden, looking after grandkids or fussing over the cat which is not yours. I seem to have a system and here it is as follows;-

  • I have completed the novel and it is going to be published in October, however it needs editing. The way I edit is having my word document open and at the same time have the novel saved in .pdf. I expand the .pdf pages to two and as large as possible to view. This appears easier for me to spot a missed comma, fullstop, space, two words joined together or a question mark, etc. I systematically travel through the .pdf and at the moment, I am up to page 150.
  • I attend a critique group and have 4-5 copies of my fellow writers critiques depending on which chapter I am up to. Currently, it’s Chapter 38. I place these pages together. 5 lots of page 1, 5 lots of page 2, 5 lots of page 3, you get the idea. Then I go through with different coloured highlighters, cross out the crit I do not agree with in green highlighter and with pink edit their suggestion giving it a big tick. I have a whole lever arch file filled with these pages. I find that I will work hard and possibly re-write paragraphs that all my fellow writers have pointed out problems. Working with other writers is essential. They see what you do not see.
  • I also save the .pdf file to my mobile phone. Using Adobe Reader I go through some of the re-edited work and this is an excellent way of spotting any mistakes made during the editing (this certainly happens!). Adobe Reader has this excellent little “comment” tool where you can place a litte comment balloon/icon (not sure what it’s called), type in the edit you want to make and you can (even late at night), go through your mobile phone, read the work over again and don’t forget to save. Later, you can go through any future saved .pdfs and add spunkier verbs and nouns and if you’re into them figurative language.
  • Difficult chapters! Yes there are many and I have found that if I record (again on my mobile phone), I can ‘HEAR’ the mistakes, I can hear when a sentence is clunky, out of rhythm, or in other words over-written. It is time consuming, but the evidence is there to listen to at any time, esp. while you’re driving, in bed late at night, even while you are multi-tasking at home like cooking, watering, eating lunch, walking or sweeping the backyard. No leafblower for you!
  • Filler words! Oh my, I am guilty of using these. When I see one, I delete it. Some filler words that are unnecessary in the narrative are:- just, always, then, now, quite, rather, however, maybe, perhaps, etc. There are online articles about these.
  • You need to break from work when you’re on retreat. I like swimming, so I research the Shire’s local pool and attend. This helps with the writer’s slouch and if you’re like me, sometimes I get a backache from too much sitting. Also treat yourself to a latte in the area, chat with the ladies in dress shops and basically enjoy being in a different place – for a change!

Happy writing!