BOOK REVIEW: The Wonder Lover by Malcolm Knox (Review by Caroline Baum)

First of all the cover: this has to be one of the most stylish and eye-catching jackets of the year, signposting both the amorous subject matter but also a kind of sexily suave Mad Men Don Draper silhouette that suggests surface sleekness concealing enigmatic multiple identities.

The sophisticated packaging delivers on its promise – and then some. This is one of the big books of the year. You know that phrase that critics use about a writer at the peak of his powers? Well, this is the time to apply that to Knox, who has been one of our most significant writers mining aspects of contemporary masculinity for a while in novels like Summerland and The Life.

Here he applies his customary cool, detached and forensic tone to a story that is enigmatic, satirical and rich in layers and symbolism. It is disconcertingly strange at first, especially in its removed, rationally detached voice but don’t let that put you off. Get past the initial chill of the first fifty pages and you will find yourself increasingly seduced by the tale of John Wonder and his women.

The comparison with Don Draper goes beyond the packaging. Because the point is that both men are indeed enigmas who conceal their inner and private lives from themselves and from others, enabled by careers that allow them to move seamlessly between worlds.

Except what makes John Wonder so very different from Don Draper is that the outer casing of the man is not inherently attractive. He does not possess a handsome physique and nor is he charismatic when it comes to his personality. He is, according to one of his six collective narrator children, odourless and bland. Women feel safe around him because he is not predatory by nature. And indeed, unlike Draper’s glamorous world of advertising, Wonder’s is far more pedestrian and pedantic: he is a senior factoid who authenticates official statistics for publications of record. Hardly the sexiest of titles.

Happily married simultaneously, and able to juggle the demands of three sets of children (all called Adam and Evie, presumably to avoid confusion) he then decides to set himself a new challenge: to authenticate the world’s most beautiful woman. And that’s where he comes disastrously unstuck. When he finds her, his multiple lives unravel.

The scenario provides for plenty of comedy though it is not of the farcical ‘quick-now-hide in-the-cupboard’ kind (with the exception of a muddle involving a Hyundai car). It is more cerebral than that kind of romp. Knox hits his comic stride in his characterisation of Wife Number Two, a fiery type who can’t distinguish between the expressions ‘because’ and ‘that’s why’, (I can’t help but imagine Modern Family’s Sofia Vergara in this role).

Will Wonder’s serial infidelities see him damned, punished and abandoned? And what of the world’s most beautiful woman? What does she make of Wonder’s protracted infatuation and courtship? Can his children ever forgive his betrayal? The climax of the story has an inevitability about it, as all moral fables do, and a surprising warmth that Don Draper, whose adventures in parallel lives end later this year, might envy.

Grab a copy of The Wonder Lover here


Caroline Baum has worked as founding editor of Good Reading magazine, features editor for Vogue, presenter of ABC TV’s popular bookshow, Between the Lines, and Foxtel’s Talking Books, and as an executive producer with ABC Radio National. She is currently Booktopia’s Editorial Director.

The Wonder Lover

by Malcolm Knox

The compartments in our father’s life were not the separations he needed to build to preserve his sanity. They were his sanity. When he fell in love… when he fell to the abjection he deserved, the walls began dissolving. And once the walls came down between all three, or now four, of his lives, so did every other retaining wall – between past and present, present and future, self- and non-self, dream and wakefulness. The walls were his sanity. Love had driven him mad….

This is the story of John Wonder, a man with three families, each one kept secret from the other, each one containing two children, a boy and a girl, each called Adam and Evie. As he travels from family to family in different cities, he works as an Authenticator, verifying world records, confirming facts, setting things straight, while his own life is a teetering tower of breathtaking lies and betrayals…

About the Author

Malcolm Knox is the author of Summerland, A Private Man and Jamaica, which was shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Award last year and won the Colin Roderick Award. He is also a Walkley- Award-winning journalist and author of many non-fiction titles. He came late to surfing, but is now an obsessively enthusiastic surfer, and writes about surfing and the surf with authority and great passion.

Grab a copy of The Wonder Lover here

Women of Steel – Caroline Baum on the 2015 Newcastle Writers Festival

CaroNow in its third year, The Newcastle Writers Festival’s steely strength has little to do with this city’s industrial past and everything to do with the iron will of its founding director, Rosemarie Milsom. She wanted a writers festival and she got herself one, virtually single handed. This year, she has eighty volunteers, and a program that’s expanded from two to three days, but she’s still not being paid a salary and does the job part time, fitting it around her full time job as a journalist – oh and a mother of three. Steely indeed.

The festival venue is City Hall, a grand old building sandstone rabbit warren with a superb high ceilinged concert hall and lots of other rooms of various sizes for more intimate events. This weekend it was thronging with an estimated five thousand readers who came to hear one hundred and thirty writers on every conceivable subject. The line up included Les Murray, Don Watson, Marion Halligan, Bob Brown, Favel Parrett, Brooke Davis and PM Newton, to mention just a few.

I was lucky enough to chair the opening night panel on The Book That Changed Me, featuring Helen Garner, Michael Robotham and Jessica Rudd. It was a great way to kick off the festival, a reminder that all writers, without exception, start off as readers.

Caroline Baum talks to Helen Garner

Caroline Baum talks to Helen Garner

Helen and Michael had one book in common, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I had expected that she might talk about Janet Malcolm, who has been such a significant influence on her non fiction writing, but as always, Helen was unpredictable in the best sense; her most intriguing choice was one most of the audience, including myself, would have been unfamiliar with : an American poet called Charles Reznikoff who wrote a book called Testimony based on hundreds of hours of court evidence. The affinity with her own work seems clear.

Michael Robotham told a wonderful anecdote about writing a fan letter to his hero Ray Bradbury author of his choice, the dystopian classic Fahrenheit 451 and getting a letter back form his daughter, inviting him to lunch to meet the author. Sadly, Bradbury died just before the encounter. Michael’s other selections had several things in common: they were American, and they were men: Steinbeck and Fitzgerald.

He earned a tongue in cheek reprimand from Jessica Rudd when he admitted that he hated Jane Austen when he first read her (’ leave the stage’ she mock-chided him). Rudd recalled how reading Joe Klein’s Primary Colours set her course to write political fiction.But she was adamant that satire was not her style: while much of the genre is characterised by cynicism, she remains an idealist about what politics, and political fiction can achieve. (And yes, there’s a third Ruby book in the works).

Her other favourite book of the moment is Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, and she confessed to thinking about writing the author a fan letter. Encouraged by Michael’s positive response from Bradbury, she just might. Garner’s experience as a fan was not so glowing: she’d had the briefest of encounters with her idol, Janet Malcolm, at a smart party in New York, while Malcolm was holding someone else’s baby, but the opportunity for a meeting of minds was sabotaged by another famous writer. Malcolm’s loss, I say.


Newcastle-Writers-Festival-BannerThe next day, the juiciest revelatons to be had were from Blanche d’Alpuget in candid conversation with Meredith Jaffe, Books Editor of The Hoopla. Perhaps because it was a small audience, perhaps because Jaffe made her feel comfortable with considered questions, d’Alpuget said some intriguing things about her father, who was, among other things a boxer; ‘ He was so frightening I had no fear of other men at all’ she said.

Emboldened by her candour, I asked why if she found writing to be such a blissful pleasure, (she had described it as divine) she had given it up for over fifteen years before her recent foray into historical fiction with The Young Lion and its sequel, The Lion Rampant.’ I decided to devote myself completely to love,’ she answered.

Steel comes in all grades and strengths.


Caroline Baum is Booktopia’s Editorial Director, for which she produces The Booktopia Buzz. She also writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, Qantas in flight magazine, Slow Magazine, SBS Feast and other publications about books, food, travel, the arts, and aspects of contemporary life.

230914carolinebaumbuzzheader616+x123Check out Caroline’s Books of the Month in The Booktopia Buzz

Caroline Baum: An Adelaide Writers Week Wrap

CaroThere’s been a significant seachange this year at Adelaide Writers week. For the first time in memory, the Australian writers squarely held their own against the international guests in terms of attendances and sales. Its been the topic of a lot of buzz. A tide has definitely turned. It was if there and then, the era of the superstar novelist jetting in to grant a few hours to eager disciples, had simply evaporated.

Once upon a time, we flocked to Adelaide to sit at the feet of Rushdie and McEwan. I’m not saying we would not do so now, but the mood is different and the reverence bestowed on the internationals, conferring on them the rank of literary royalty, has vanished. We may not be a republic in any other part of life yet, but we we were at Writers Week. There was not a knight in sight.

With just one day to go, the biggest seller to beat so far is Kate Llewellyn with a Fig at the Gate. Predictable perhaps, as the audience here is older, and traditionally this is a city of keen gardeners with a strong awareness of Kate, who used to be a local.

She was followed close behind by Robert Dessaix, who drew a huge hour long and devoted signing queue for What Days are For and was tickled that not all of the crowd was the usual suspects . ‘ I got two young men with tattoos’ he told me proudly.

He even beat Julia Gillard at the bookstall, though she drew by far the largest crowd of approximately 2400 fans while refusing to be drawn into commenting on current politics and any feelings of deja vu. Later in the week David Marr gave a great talk about the question of character in political biography, and made provocative predictions about potential future leaders: Bishop, Turnbull, Bowen were all mentioned.

GillardI saw little during the week apart from the handful of sessions I chaired. Helen Castor held a crowd spellbound talking about her biography of Joan of Arc, explaining why Joan does not appear for the first 85 pages. We talked in detail about why she wore men’s clothing, one of the most fascinating aspects of her story. Her command of her subject was never less than authoritative. No wonder Hilary Mantel, no less, is a fan.

Tim Low was as shy as a rare bird at the start of our conversation about Where Song Began; at one moment I thought he might fly away, distracted by having his four year old grandson in the front row. But his feathers eventually settled and while he would not oblige when I asked for a few birdcalls, (‘my teeth are too crooked’ was his excuse) he was a captivating speaker about why our birds are such loud shriekers. He also urged us all to rethink the practice of putting out bird seed.

Dan Barber was battling severe jet lag until he drank some tea made for him by an Indigenous chef which put him out cold until 20 minutes before our session; revved up with coffee, his speech accelerated from slow eloquence to warp speed New Yorker on his urgently appealing topic of sustainable eating. The Third Plate is a truly fascinating odyssey, a quest for flavour and responsible , enlightened farming practice. Though he has iconic status as a high profile chef, Barber is not interested in celebrity, except when he can use his fame as a tool to educate his diners. After you’ve read his book ,you may think differently about what a meal is. And you’ll want to go and eat at his restaurant farm at Stone Barns in Massachussetts, where his manifesto determines the menu. This is not about fetish ingredients,which he argues the current paddock-to-plate movement encourages, it is about a much more holistic awareness of agriculture as the source of authentic and truly nutritious food. He was an inspiring evangelist, moderate rather than extreme, which made his arguments all the more persuasive.

AdelaideOn a lighter note, Hannie Rayson, author of Hello Beautiful, had audiences rolling with laughter in recognition of their own dinner party angst as she read from her memoir Hello Beautiful. She certainly knows how to write and deliver a punchline and how to gently mock middle class sensibility. I can’t wait to talk to her for Booktopia at the end of March.

Under the shade of the tent canopies and trees of the Women’s Pioneer Garden, Michel Fabre, author of the critically acclaimed The Book of Strange New Things wore his grief at the recent loss of his wife on his sleeve. In a gesture of heart pinching poignancy he had packed a pair of her shoes for his journey here, together with some of her final artworks in the last stages of terminal cancer. No one who heard him speak of his agony of loss could remain unaffected. ‘ The moment we have memory, we have loss’ he said of one of life’s most bittersweet paradoxes.

Faber was perhaps the most unsettling figure at the festival, but by no means the only one to talk about death. It hovered over many sessions, like the fascinatingly candid conversation between doctors Kooshyar Karimi, author of Leila’s Secret and Terence Holt, author of the marvelous case history collection Internal Medicine.

We may not be able to avoid dying, but the audiences in Adelaide seemed to suggest that reading is one of the greatest ways to experience the complex spectrum of being alive.

Caroline Baum is Booktopia’s Editorial Director, for which she produces The Booktopia Buzz. She also writes for the Sydney Morning Herald, Qantas in flight magazine, Slow Magazine, SBS Feast and other publications about books, food, travel, the arts, and aspects of contemporary life.

230914carolinebaumbuzzheader616+x123Check out Caroline’s Books of the Month in The Booktopia Buzz

Caroline Baum wins the 2015 Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship

Booktopia’s Editorial Director Caroline Baum has just been announced as the winner of the 2015 Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship at the Adelaide Writers Festival tonight, the announcement followed the Hazel Rowley Memorial Lecture, given by David Marr.

Caro“Caroline Baum’s proposed biography of Lucie Dreyfus is ambitious in scope, international in reach and blazingly original,” said Janine Burke, one of the judges of the Fellowship. “This is an untold tale. And what a tale!”

Baum will use the $10,000 Fellowship to write a biography of Lucie Dreyfus (1870-1945).

Lucie Dreyfus was married to Alfred Drefyus, the French artillery officer who was at the centre of one of the most divisive political scandals of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In Baum’s words, her project “seeks to restore Lucie Dreyfus to her rightful place in history”. As part of her research, Baum will translate into English the letters between Lucie and Alfred when he was imprisoned on Devil’s Island. These letters, written in French, have not previously been translated. Baum’s biography will focus on aspects of anti-semitism as well as Lucie Dreyfus’s experiences as a Jewish woman living in occupied Paris during the Second World War.

Now in its fourth year, the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship was established to encourage Australian authors to attain a high standard of biography writing and to commemorate the life, ideas and writing of Hazel Rowley. Having published four major books, Rowley established herself as one of the world’s leading literary biographers before dying suddenly in 2011.

Last year’s winner of the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship was Maxine Beneba Clarke for The Hate Race, her forthcoming memoir about growing up black in white, middle-class Australia. Stephany Steggall was the 2013 winner for her biography of Thomas Keneally and the inaugural 2012 winner was Mary Hoban for her biography of Julia Sorell.

230914carolinebaumbuzzheader616+x123Check out Caroline’s Books of the Month in The Booktopia Buzz

VIDEO: Debra Oswald on Offspring fandom and her new novel Useful

Debra Oswald is the co-creator and head writer of the TV series Offspring which recently finished its fifth season. She chats to Caroline Baum about her transition to adult fiction with her darkly funny new novel Useful.

Grab a copy of Debra Oswald’s Useful here



by Debra Oswald

Once a charming underachiever, he’s now such a loser that he can’t even commit suicide properly. Waking up in hospital after falling the wrong way on a rooftop, he comes to a decision.

He shouldn’t waste perfectly good organs just because they’re attached to his head. After a life of regrets, Sully wants to do one useful thing: he wants to donate a kidney to a stranger.

As he scrambles over the hurdles to become a donor, Sully almost accidentally forges a new life for himself. Sober and employed, he makes new friends, not least radio producer Natalie and her son Louis, and begins to patch things up with old ones, like his ex-best mate Tim. Suddenly, everyone wants a piece of him.

But altruism is not as easy as it seems. Just when he thinks he’s got himself together, Sully discovers that he’s most at risk of falling apart.

From the creator of Offspring comes a smart, moving and wry portrait of one man’s desire to give something of himself.

Grab a copy of Debra Oswald’s Useful here

Congratulations to our Useful Facebook competition winners Amie Clarke, Edel Taylor, Hanadi Nasser, Jan Hartz and Elaine Smith. You’ve all won a copy of Useful! Please email your details to and we’ll get your books out to you ASAP!

VIDEO: James Bradley on his long awaited new novel Clade

James Bradley’s past novels Wrack, The Deep Field and The Resurrectionist have won or been shortlisted for a number of major literary awards. He chats with Caroline Baum about his new novel Clade.

Grab a copy of James Bradley’s Clade here


by James Bradley

Compelling, challenging and resilient, over ten beautifully contained chapters, Clade canvasses three generations from the very near future to late this century. Central to the novel is the family of Adam, a scientist, and his wife Ellie, an artist. Clade opens with them wanting a child and Adam in a quandary about the wisdom of this.

Their daughter proves to be an elusive little girl and then a troubled teenager, and by now cracks have appeared in her parents’ marriage. Their grandson is in turn a troubled boy, but when his character reappears as an adult he’s an astronomer, one set to discover something astounding in the universe. With great skill James Bradley shifts us subtly forward through the decades, through disasters and plagues, miraculous small moments and acts of great courage. Elegant, evocative, understated and thought-provoking, it is the work of a writer in command of the major themes of our time.

Grab your copy of James Bradley’s Clade here

Caroline Baum a finalist for the 2015 Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship

Caroline-BaumBooktopia’s Editorial Director Caroline Baum has been named a finalist for the 2015 Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship, awarded annually to an Australian writer for a proposed biographical work.

The Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship was established in 2011 to encourage Australian authors to attain a high standard of biography writing and to commemorate the life, ideas and writing of Hazel Rowley, who died in 2011.

Foreign Soil author Maxine Beneba Clarke won the 2014 Fellowship for her memoir The Hate Race, to be published later this year.

The winner of the fellowship, worth $10,000, will be announced at an event at Adelaide Writers’ Week on 4 March.

Click here to see Caroline’s favourite books of 2014



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 15,341 other followers

%d bloggers like this: