The Makioka Sisters

Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) was, up until his death, regarded as Japan’s greatest contemporary author. The Makioka Sisters is his most famous novel translated into 14 languages. The English language translation by Edward Seidensticker was published in 1957.

The Makioka Sisters (published in Japan as A Light Snowfall – 1943-48) covers five years in the lives of four sisters in pre-second world war Osaka. What struck me most about the book is its leisurely style. Although it was written in the early forties there is definitely something of the late Victorian era about it.

The story is mostly told through the point of view of Sachiko, the happily married second sister and her responses to the predicaments of her other sisters, in particular, Taeko, the youngest and most modern of the sisters and the enigmatic Yukiko.

The drama of the story resides in the ongoing attempts to find Yukiko a husband – arranged marriages still occur for well-to-do families – and in the attempts by Taeko to be independent from her family, and to choose her own husband and have control of her own life.

The trials and tribulations take place in a tightly controlled society where “the main house”, that is, the house of Sachiko’s eldest sister and her husband (who has married in to the family and is now its head) has precedence over the sisters’ lives, and who they must defer to.

The beauty of the book is the minutiae of Japanese life at a fascinating period. In some ways Japan was westernised at the time, especially in the main cities. People travelled overseas and foreigners working for Japanese firms were common.

The Makiokas’ houses have Japanese rooms and Western rooms and the women wear both kimono and Western clothes. I was under the misapprehension that Japan was a very traditional society until being westernised after the war.

I also loved the aspects of Japanese life which haven’t changed for centuries- (just read the eleventh-century The Tale of Genji – which incidentally Tanizaki translated into modern Japanese) – the love of music, dance, kabuki and poetry. A scene I particularly loved was when Sachiko, her husband, and her daughter, sit down to write haiku poetry after viewing the autumn moon from the garden. Yukiko is away and homesick in Tokyo so they roll up the poems and tie them with sheaves of autumn grass to send off to her.

The family tensions and drama are given added poignancy because we know (as the characters do not and neither did the author at the time he began to write the novel) that very soon the war will bring utter devastation to Japan that will irrevocably change their way of life.

The novel was serialised beginning in 1943, at the height of war, and it fell foul of the Japanese censors and publication was halted. The full novel, in three parts, was published after the war.

After going so far with the Makiokas, through floods, sickness, miscarriages, I found the ending abrupt and somehow unsatisfying. The fates of the sisters were not bright enough nor dramatic enough, but perhaps that’s my cultural expectation, especially as the novel takes the Victorian family saga form in which we’re used to seeing our heroines richly rewarded for their trials.

Two women, two bags, two books

I spotted theses two new-release books in a bookshop. Do great minds think alike, or is there just so much you can do with the “woman’s torso” school of bookcover design? It’s not as if the subject matter of the novels is similar either, except that they are focused on women. One is contemporary and the other set in 1948.


Under the Influence
Jacqueline Lunn
Random House Australia

Eve, now 34 and a concert cellist living in London, returns to an Australian country town for the funeral of her old school friend, Meg. As Eve and Sarah, also a school friend, face their friend Meg’s death, they must also face the past and the secret the three women shared.


The Sparrows of Edward Street
Elizabeth Stead

It’s 1948 and Hanora Sparrow and her teenage daughters, Aria and Rosy, have fallen on tough times.  With little more than the suitcases they carry and a few pounds between them, they must move to a housing commission camp on the outskirts of Sydney.

Analysis of wings

I borrowed a copy of Karen Foxlee’s Anatomy of Wings from the library a while ago and enjoyed this coming of age story a lot. I scanned the cover of the trade paperback as part of a number of books whose covers featured parts of women and girls’ bodies (see under ‘covers’ category).

As A of W was published in 2007, I thought I’d check whether, the author had published a follow up book to her debut. As far as I can tell she hasn’t published anything new, but I did notice some new covers for her book.

It’s always heartening when an Australian novel, especially a debut one, has a shelf life and I was pleased to note University of Queensland Press has reissued A of W. It is also interesting to note that they have put out teachers’ notes for it for senior students so the novel must be on a curriculum somewhere.

My research (such as it is) has also revealed that the novel is also published in the UK and the US.

What a great thing for Karen Foxlee, especially as A of W is set in small town Australia (Mt Isa) and, despite being beautifully written and a bit mysterious in a Lovely Bones kind of way, is also pretty hard-hitting re sex and violence.

Foxlee’s talent has certainly been recognised. She won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Emerging Author and used this award to work on her manuscript for A of W. She also won the 2008 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Best First Book South East Asia and Pacific Region) and the Dobbie Award.

It’s quite interesting to work out what the designers are doing with the covers. Obviously the new UQP cover (top) is aimed at that high school/YA market but I think it misrepresents the book somewhat. For some reason, it looks to me like the cover to something by Isabel Allende. On the other hand, the ‘this is serious’ literature vibe, suits a school text.

The old UQP cover (second from top) appealed to an older female readership. It’s quite evocative – I like the feel of dry grass in a summer backyard and going around in bare feet but it suggests the narrator, who’s ten, is much younger.

On the whole I think UK book designers (third) are much closer to the Australian sensibility than the US ones. Here the UK design goes for a prairie-like look (don’t think Mt Isa has wheat fields but I could be wrong). However, they’ve got the age right of the girl and the idea that she’s on the cusp between childhood and adolescence. Plus they’ve got two suggestions of ‘wings’. The kite and the strange feathery sky suggestive of angel’s wings.

The US cover (bottom) is in the ‘body parts’ style and the ‘realism’ of the photography would be more in keeping with a non-fiction book here. They also have the female figure as much older – she probably represents the narrator’s older, troubled, sister, Beth. The clouds below her feet remind me of the film version of Lovely Bones. I’m sure that’s not accidental given the immense success of that book in the US.

Hint of freshness about Miles Franklin this year

I think the Miles Franklin Award long-list looks interesting this year. Absent are the mega names that turn up year after year. No Peter Carey, no David Malouf, no Alex Miller, no Helen Garner, Louis Nowra, Kate Grenville, Tim Winton etc. With the dinosaurs away, the small, furry mammals can peep out of their burrows. Okay, Kim Scott won the Miles Franklin back in 2000 with Benang but he’s hardly a household name and Roger McDonald won if for The Ballad of Desmond Kale a few years ago but, on the whole, the list is of newish or low-key writers.

John Bauer and Kirsten Tranter are debut authors and the nominations for Chris Womersley, Honey Brown and Patrick Holland are for their second books. It’s surprising to see Melina Marchetta there – not because she’s not a good writer, she’s a great writer – but because she’s known as a YA author (The Piper’s Son is short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Award under YA).

The long-list

  • Rocks in the Belly, Jon Bauer, Scribe Publications
  • The Good Daughter, Honey Brown, Viking (Penguin)
  • The Mary Smokes Boys, Patrick Holland, Transit Lounge Publishing
  • The Piper’s Son, Melina Marchetta, Viking (Penguin)
  • When Colts Ran, Roger McDonald, Vintage (Random House)
  • Time’s Long Ruin, Stephen Orr, Wakefield Press
  • That Deadman Dance, Dance, Kim Scott, Picador
  • The Legacy, Kirsten Tranter, 4th Estate
  • Bereft, Chris Womersley, Scribe Publications

Google Books get your hands off our tax payer-funded tomes

Hands off!

The behemoth Google Books is impacting on your local NSW government agency. Who might be interested in erosion in the Upper Lachlan catchment, or vector maps from the Plague Locust Board? Never mind, they’re not going to be able to rip off the NSW taxpayers and get away with it.

In Circular C2011-10 Google Books Settlement – Whole of Government Policy, the Department of Premier and Cabinet, advises its agencies to “carefully consider whether their commercially published books should be “removed” from the Google Books databases or ‘excluded’ from one or more of the uses proposed in the Amended Settlement”.

As, under the settlement, Google can upload a “wide range of material including all material published in hard copy in NSW prior to 5 January 2009”, the government had to decide whether to “make a comprehensive claim” for all Crown copyright publications.

In the end, they left it up to individual agencies to decide whether to get their books removed by 5 April, and, if they did so, to make a compensation claim.

“NSW Government agencies should not enter a ‘revenue sharing’ agreement with Google under the terms of the Amended Settlement,” the circular said.

Aurealis Awards finalists


  • Merrow, Ananda Braxton-Smith, black dog books
  • Guardian of the Dead, Karen Healey, Allen & Unwin
  • The Midnight Zoo, Sonya Hartnett, Penguin
  • The Life of a Teenage BodySnatcher, Doug MacLeod, Penguin
  • Behemoth (Leviathan Trilogy Book Two), Scott Westerfeld, Penguin 


  • The Silence of Medair, Andrea K Höst, self-published
  • Death Most Definite, Trent Jamieson, Orbit (Hachette)
  • Stormlord Rising, Glenda Larke, HarperVoyager (HarperCollins)
  • Heart’s Blood, Juliet Marillier, Pan Macmillan
  • Power and Majesty, Tansy Rayner Roberts, HarperVoyager (HarperCollins)



  • Song of Scarabaeous, Sara Creasy, EOS Books
  • Mirror Space, Marianne de Pierres, Orbit (Hachette)
  • Transformation Space, Marianne de Pierres, Orbit (Hachette)

You can see the full list in all categories here. It’s interesting to look through the categories and the publishers. One finalist, Andrea K Höst’s, novel was self-published. It seems that in the world of speculative fiction, the mainstream publishers – Penguin and HarperVoyager, mostly, stick to YA and to fantasy. The horror and science fiction publishing goes mostly to niche publishers.

Indie book award winners

Indie Book of the Year 2011 is The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do (chosen by independent booksellers).

 Other category winners are:

  • Bereft Chris Womersley – Best Fiction,
  • Rocks in the Belly Jon Bauer – Best Debut Fiction
  • Mirror Jeannie Baker – Best Children’s Book.

Mirror is a picture book is made up of two parts designed to be read simultaneously – one on the left, the other on the right. It’s the story of a day in the lives of two boys – one from inner-city Sydney and the other from a village in Morocco.

Who pays for the editing?

I was interested to note some comments in a review of S J Finn’s new novel This Too Shall Pass in the Australian’s Review section by Sue Green. The reviewer thought the novel had great potential but that it was let down by insufficient editing by the publishers.

The reviewer’s comments that “how better for [the author] had she been given mentoring, tough editing and closely supervised rewriting” show a pie-in-the-sky notion of Australian fiction publishing.

I believe the average print run for a work of Australian fiction by a new writer is 2,000 and (I read recently) the average sales for said work is around 1,000.

A writer nets 10% of the cover price of their book – so, that means, a writer would receive around $3,000 for something they have probably worked on for several years.

This shows the tight, tight margins for fiction publishing. It is just plain uneconomic for a publisher to spend very much at all on a new work, whether this be in editing or in marketing.

Don’t get me wrong. I think this situation is bad and short-sighted, but it’s a reality.

When you look at the cost for editing, you see how expensive it is. If an editor charges a modest $60 per hour, on the tiny margins of a first novel, 10 hours or 20 hours would eat into any profits, and that amount of editing on a manuscript of 80,000 words is miniscule (the editor needs the time to read the ms for a start!).

The fact is, these costs fall back on the author. I know authors who pay for an editor go over their work before submitting it to a publisher. After all, this compares favourably with the cost of a manuscript appraisal ($500 and upwards), mentoring ($1,500) or a university creative writing course ($8,000 – $10,000).

Mentoring and the uni course are the only places you are going to get “closely supervised rewriting”.

I can see where Sue Green is coming from – often you read a book – even from a well-known author, and think it could have been a much better, even brilliant, book, if only…

But whatever happened to the notion that an author’s works and career build over time? I know I’m being utopian here – the brutal reality is that an emerging author usually only gets one shot at it, when everything is stacked against them. This can only be terribly detrimental to the maturity and diversity of our literary world.

Bordering on the abyss?

The big news in February was Borders and Angus & Robertson going into voluntary administration. The predictable cries that it was all due to online shopping and ebooks were heard. These bookshops now, more inevitably to follow, the argument went. It’s true book selling is down but so is most retailing. More level heads came in later to say that REDgroup (owned by Pacific Equity Partners) had a bad business model plus the modus operandi of equity companies is to use debt financing to buy up companies cheap, strip them down, then sell them off for a big profit. When outside factors impinged on the book business, this model floundered. Sad for the staff who will lose their jobs – bookshop staff, even in the chains, always seem intelligent, nice and obliging to me.

I’m not of the camp that says Borders was a flawed model in Australia (See Mark Rubbo from Readings article). The Borders I frequented – the one in Parramatta and the one in Pitt Street Mall – always had plenty of customers and a good range of books. Sure they brought in the 3 for 2 discounts but this was quickly copied by other outlets like Dymocks, and they are still trading.  I also notice today in the Sydney Morning Herald it says the administrators are looking for buyers for 103 Borders and Angus & Robertson stores. This obviously means they think the businesses are sound.

SE Asia and Pacific shortlist for Commonwealth Writer’s prize

It’s good to see a collection of short stories on the shortlist for SE Asia and Pacific Best Book – Amanda Lohrey’s Reading Madame Bovary.

Other books I recognise are That Deadman Dance by Kim Scott and of course Lloyd Jones’s Hand Me Down World. Other Australian finalists were Stephen Orr for Time’s Long Ruin and Notorious by Roberta Lowing

Three Australians made it onto the Best First Book shortlist – The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay, Traitor by Stephen Daisley and A Few Right Thinking Men by Sulari Gentill.

Last year Glenda Guest won the regional Best First Book and the overall Best First Book for Siddon Rock.