Category Archives: Book Review

Book Review: ‘Death by Dim Sim’ by Sarah Vincent


Every day at about 3pm Sarah Vincent would get up from her desk at work and haul her 122kg body across the car park to the food van across the way.

Every day she would order three dim sims (or four or five) and eat them.

And every day as she lumbered back to her desk she would sneer inwardly as she passed the smokers huddled outside the hospital where she worked, with their hospital gowns, and intravenous drips, and missing limbs – all desperate for their nicotine fix.

Then one momentous day, as I passed them wrapped in smug self-righteousness … I realised I was just like them. If they were doing ‘death by cigarette’, then surely I was doing ‘death by dim sim’. The only real difference between them and me was that I wasn’t wearing pyjamas … So I stopped eating dims sims and biscuits and ice-creams and all the other foods I knew were bad for me and began to eat fresh wholesome food in moderation and to exercise regularly…  Are you kidding? Of course I didn’t.

Instead Sarah did what she’d done since she first developed a weight problem at thirteen.  She went on a crash diet. Another time she bought a $500 gym membership, only to attend twice. That’s $250 per visit. She put on the fridge a photo of herself in her underwear. She joined Weight Watchers. She studied mindfulness. She attended a 6am boot run by a South African army sergeant who told her she disgusted him. Hypnotherapy. Overeaters Anonymous. Still no weight loss.  And then her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

Sarah Vincent’s memoir is alternately hilarious and poignant. Spoiler alert – her husband lives and she loses 40kgs – but the real story is in Sarah’s journey from there to here.

I read this book all in one go and enjoyed every minute of it. The memoir part is the first half, the second half is science (of weight loss), recipes, and weight loss tips. All written in Sarah’s clear-eyed, page-turning prose. Reading it is like having a cuppa with a warm and sympathetic friend, one who is always up for a laugh. The book isn’t about preaching, it’s about saying this worked for me and maybe you might like to try it.

Sarah Vincent is a friend of mine, one of my fellow Hardcopy participants. And maybe I wouldn’t have read this book if I hadn’t known Sarah, because self-help memoirs really aren’t my bag. But I’m very glad I did read it, because regardless of whether you need to lose weight or not Death by Dim Sim is an excellent, beautifully written memoir that deserves a wide audience.

Want to know more?

Here’s a copy of the blurb on the back of the book.

And here is Sarah Vincent’s website.

Book Review: Hippy Days, Arabian Nights by Katherine Boland


Have you ever sat uneasily next to a talkative stranger at a function, only to find yourself mesmerised by their life story? Amazed by the crazy things they’ve done, dubious at their poor choices, and wincing a little when they shared a little too much intimate information?

Katherine Boland’s memoir is just such a rollicking ride. And I have the feeling she’s never going to look back on her life and wonder if she should have chosen the road less travelled – she’s followed her heart rather than her head every time.

After a childhood spent in England, Spain and rural Australia, Boland and her farmer’s son boyfriend dropped out of uni and followed their hippy dreams instead. They washed up in southern New South Wales, living a frugal alternative lifestyle replete with mudbricks and mung beans. This section of the memoir was the strongest, for me.

Boland and her boyfriend (now husband – a seemingly un-hippy-like decision that the memoir remains silent about) live on their own property, in an area that is soon populated with similar peace and cannabis loving souls. Boland loves her life on the bush block near Bega but doesn’t step back from describing the difficulties: the distance from hospital; living quarters riddled with mould; and the endless backbreaking chores necessary in the absence of electricity and running water.  And those other peace-loving souls are, it seems, just as subject to the darkness of family violence and abuse as the rest of the population.

When a bushfire ends Boland’s 27-year marriage in an entirely unpredictable way, she retreats to the city and reinvents herself as an artist. She rapidly wins a number of scholarships and residencies, including one which takes her to Egypt. There she falls headlong and heedless into a loving relationship with her Egyptian translator – a handsome young man more than 25 years her junior. This second section of the memoir was weaker, for me, but perhaps only because I couldn’t help wanting to take Boland aside and shake her.  What the hell was she thinking?

Well, in the beginning at least it is abundantly clear what she was thinking (and feeling, and touching, and… you get the picture) and jolly good luck to her, I say. But to maintain a long distance relationship with a young Egyptian man in the face of fierce opposition from his family, and in the ever dawning awareness of the huge cultural gulf between them (not least about their respective attitudes about women’s rights and behaviours) was to my mind a step to far. But then what would I know?

Hippy Days, Arabian Nights was a fun read, only slightly marred by the overuse of adjectives and a the under-use of a proofreader. Boland’s gutsy, funny and headlong approach to life makes for a fascinating memoir.

Death by Dim Sim


death-by-dim-simStopped by Readings Books in Carlton today to pick up a copy of my friend’s newly released memoir: Death by Dim Sim.  So exciting to see it on the shelf.

You should buy a copy too. Here’s the blurb from the back cover.

Sarah Vincent once tipped the scales at 122 kilos. She worked at the back of a hospital making calls and answering emails, but at three o’clock every afternoon she would answer a very special call – the call of the dim sim. Running the gauntlet of smokers in the hospital car park one day for her daily dim sim fix, Sarah had an epiphany: just like those nicotine addicts, Sarah was an addict and was slowly killing herself with food.

She knew that if she didn’t act soon it would be too late, and her husband – who had only narrowly survived cancer – and their two young children would be minus a wife and mother. She also knew she had been going on crash diets since the age of thirteen and nothing had ever worked.

But then Sarah met the nutritionist who would introduce her to the low-carb, high-fat eating approach known as Banting, which leaves you feeling full and reduces your cravings. In Death by Dim Sim she details with hilarious honesty how she managed to lose 40 kilos using this method, her childhood battle with her weight and her lifelong struggle with anxiety. And because she wants you to lose weight too, she shares the recipes, tips and meal plans that helped save her life. She is now slimmer and fitter than she’s ever been and she never wants to see a dim sim again.

Melbourne writer Sarah Vincent was one of my fellow-students from the 2015 HARDCOPY program, and I can’t begin to tell you how keen the publishers and agents were to sign her up.

I’m very keen to tuck in to this one (terrible pun totally intended).

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance – Book Review


hillbilly-elegyJ.D. Vance is a young American white man who grew up poor. Hillbilly Elegy, his memoir and exploration of the US’s white working class, is probably going to be one of my best books of 2017. Yep, I’m calling it early.

Looking for work and better prospects, JD’s hillbilly grandparents moved from the mountains of Kentucky about three hours north to Ohio, where they lived in a town with a name that would be too ridiculous to use in a novel: Middletown.

In Middletown JD’s mother was born, raised, educated and then effectively lost within a cycle of drugs, men and abuse. JD was raised in the maelstrom of that cycle, saved only from repeating his mother’s mistakes by an older sister who protected him as well as she could and the tough love of his grandparents.  And I mean tough.  JD was once foolish enough to ask his gun-toting grandmother (called Mamaw) what it felt like to be punched in the face.  She socked him one.  Turned out it didn’t feel as bad as he thought it might.

Vance lovingly describes his family and his communities (he spent time in both Kentucky and Ohio) but Read the rest of this entry

Best Reads 2016


seuss-reading-in-bedHmmm. It turns out that in 2016 I only read about one book per week. 52 books; 41 of them written by women; 31 of them fiction.

Which didn’t seem like enough until I remembered that I (usually) only read in bed, at night, and that sometimes exhaustion wins out over literary merit…

Or, as seems to be the case this year, exhaustion won out over any sort of merit at all! I’m afraid my literary diet for 2016 was chock full of sweet nothings, lots of easy reading and lighter-than-air commercial fiction, with only the occasional Big Book thrown in (perhaps to stop me floating away completely).

My reading themes for 2016?

Size matters. Some of the Big Books I read this year were truly excellent:

  • Samuel Pepys by Clare Tomalin was the masterful and awe-inspiring work of a biographer at the top of her game.
  • The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore explains much about Putin (who is clearly just a Tsar by another name)
  • Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler was worth reading AND provided a useful example of how to fill a book with images sourced for free.
  • Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird is another incredibly well written biography.

Other works of non-fiction were fascinating too: Read the rest of this entry

Eat Your History by Jacqui Newling – Review and Interview


eat-your-historyHands up if you love to cook? Keep your hand up if you are interested in Australian history? Still with me?  Then do I have the perfect book for you (or for someone you know – Christmas is just around the corner and books are ever so easy to wrap…)

Eat Your History: stories and recipes from Australian kitchens is a wonderful, and very beautiful, collection of recipes, social history and historical insights.

According to the author, “This book invites you to share forgotten tastes and lost techniques, and rediscover some of the culinary treasures that have nourished many generations of Australians. Rather than being a history of food in Australia, or a history of Australian food, it offers stories about Australians and the food they ate.”

The stories have been gathered by Jacqui Newling, in her role as ‘resident gastronomer’ at Sydney Living Museums, which looks after 12 historic properties dating between 1788 and 1950. And, yes, one of those properties is Elizabeth Farm, the home of Elizabeth Macarthur. She gets quite a few mentions throughout as does the first Australian cook book (by Edward Abbot and which I blogged about in 2014).

Australian garden history is a definitely a thing, with it’s own society and followers.  Yet Australian food history still seems like unexplored territory.  Jacqui Newling seeks to fill that gap, and does it extraordinarily well.

Eat Your History is a lovely mix of historic depth and practical example, with a well-balanced mixture of prose, pictures and recipes.

Readers are provided with historical context and background and then treated to fascinating recipes – each tested by Newling, and often using the kitchens and utensils of the period!  Some are familiar, like the sea-food chowder and tomato chutney, others are less so, like oyster loaves or rosella jelly.  I’m definitely no cook but some recipes even I’m itching to try, like Mrs MacLurcan’s Wholesome Summer Barley Water or Mrs Gaffney’s Date and Nut Cake.

Eat Your History is a book for dipping into and it takes us all the way from the first fleet to the 1950s. Newling shares, for example, details about the nature of colonial kitchens, Aboriginal fishing practices, commercial ice manufacture, and dining room etiquette.

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to meet Jacqui Newling, in Sydney.  I found her friendly, intelligent and forthright. She kindly agreed to answer a few questions for me.

What was your writing process?  Lots of research, then lots of writing?  Or did you undertake the research as you went along? Read the rest of this entry

The Art of Time Travel by Tom Griffiths – Book Review


the-art-of-time-travelAustralian historian Tom Griffiths was hiking a pilgrimage route in rural France when he met three fellow walkers, all of them French – a salesman, a nurse and a counsellor. When they discovered Griffiths was a historian there was:

… a chorus of approval, even, dare I say it, a frisson of serious regard – something unexpected for scholars in Australia. And, as proud French citizens, they were ready with their next natural question: ‘Who are your favourite French historians?’

Griffiths replied; the French engaged and the heady conversation only improved from there. But over the next few weeks as he walked, Griffiths wondered if he would – or could – ever be asked this question in Australia.

In the unlikely event that the question ever be raised, The Art of Time Travel is his comprehensive and illuminating reply, where he nominates some of his favourite historians and tries to describe how they work. ‘This book,’ writes Griffiths, ‘is a quirky, serious and personal exploration of the art and craft of history in Australia since the Second World War.’

In his modesty, Griffiths fails to mention that the book is also a wonderful gift to anyone even slightly interested in the craft of writing history.

Griffiths has selected fourteen historians, and the chapter titles give a strong clue as to the ground covered and the perspective taken:

  • The Timeless Land: Eleanor Dark
  • The Journey to Monaro: Keith Hancock
  • Entering the Stone Circle: John Mulvaney
  • The Magpie: Geoffrey Blainey
  • The Cry for the Dead: Judith Wright
  • The Creative Imagination: Greg Dening
  • The Frontier Fallen: Henry Reynolds
  • Golden Disobedience: Eric Rolls
  • Voyaging South: Stephen Murray-Smith
  • History as Art: Donna Merwick
  • Walking the City: Graeme Davison
  • History and Fiction: Inga Clendinnen
  • The Feel of the Past: Grace Karskens
  • Dr Deep Time: Mike Smith

Each chapter is a lyrical, stand-alone essay written with warmth and generosity. Yes, each provides a useful introduction to the writer/historian, but each is also far more interestingly an insight into their preoccupations, their methods, their imagination and their craft. Griffiths successfully walks a fine line; often clarifying but never simplifying.

A historian’s finest insights are intuitive as well as rational, holistic as well as particular – and therefore always invitations to debate. As they write, they incite; they expect disagreement and they try to furnish their readers with grounds for offering it. Footnotes are not defensive displays of pedantry; they are honest expressions of vulnerability, generous signposts to anyone who wants to retrace the path and test the insights, acknowledgements of the collective enterprise that is history. Historians feed off the power of the past, exploiting its potency just as historical novelists do, but historians also constantly discuss the ethics of doing that.

Although I read it through and enjoyed it thoroughly, this book lends itself to dipping into, and revisiting. I’ve read the works of many of the included subjects, I’ve studied under others and a few were new to me. But regardless of what I already knew of the subject’s work, I found each chapter full of insightful little gems.

But I still can’t imagine ever being asked, by an ‘ordinary’ Australian, who my favourite historian might be!

Publisher: Black Inc, 2016