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

Lisa Heidke : Five Fiction Favourites for 2011

Lisa Heidke

author of Lucy Springer Gets Even,
What Kate Did Next
, Claudia’s Big Break

and, coming in January 2012, Stella Makes Good


The 5 best novels I read this year are…

Raw Blue

by Kirsty Eagar

Lisa Heidke: Set on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and marketed as a Young Adult, Raw Blue centres around Carly, a teenage surfer trying to find her place in the world. This emotionally gripping story easily crosses over into adult fiction. I find Eagar’s writing compelling and honest and her characters real and flawed. Loved this book.

Blurb: Readers of Tim Winton’s Breath will be drawn to Kirsty Eagar’s Raw Blue, an achingly beautiful young adult novel set in Sydney’s northern beaches. Winner of the 2010 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, it is a haunting story about finding your passion in life.

Carly has dropped out of uni to spend her days surfing and her nights working as a cook in a Manly cafe. Surfing is the one thing she loves doing … and the only thing that helps her stop thinking about what happened two years ago. Then she meets Ryan and Carly has to decide. Will she let the past bury her? Or can she let go of her anger and shame, and find the courage to be happy?


Indelible Ink

by Fiona McGregor

Lisa Heidke: Set in Sydney’s lower north Shore, this is at times an uncomfortable and confronting story about Marie, an older, divorced woman who breaks free from conservative ties… sad, funny, heartfelt, I so wanted life to improve for her. Indelible Ink stayed with me long after I finished reading it.

Blurb: Marie King is a fifty-nine, recently divorced, and has lived a rather conventional life on Sydney’s affluent north shore. Now her three children have moved out, the family home is to be sold, and with it will go her beloved garden.

On a drunken whim, Marie gets a tattoo – an act that gives way to an unexpected friendship with her tattoo artist, Rhys. Before long, Rhys has introduced Marie to side of the city that clashes with her staid north-shore milieu. Her children are mortified by their mother’s transformation, but have their own challenges to deal with: workplace politics; love affairs old and new; and, of course, the real-estate market.

Written with Fiona McGregor’s incisive wit and keen eye, Indelible Ink uses one family as a microcosm for the changes operating in society at large. In its piercing examination of the way we live now, it is truly a novel of our times.


The Life

by Malcolm Knox

Lisa Heidke: The story of once champion surfer Dennis Keith is an exhilarating, quirky ride. It took me a couple of chapters to get comfortable with Knox’s writing style (for this particular novel) but once I settled into the story, I got swept along by the surf, the ambition, the obsession… the whole absorbing saga.

Blurb: Daring, dazzling, funny and heartbreaking, this is a story about fame and ambition, surfing and pine-lime Splices … a superbly written and ambitious novel by one of Australia’s rising stars. The Life will simply blow you away.

He looked into the Pacific and the Pacific looked back into him.

The Life tells the story of former-world-champion Australian surfer, Dennis Keith, from inside the very heart of the fame and madness that is ‘The Life’.

Now bloated and paranoid, former Australian surfing legend Dennis Keith is holed up in his mother’s retirement village, shuffling to the shop for a Pine-Lime Splice every day, barely existing behind his aviator sunnies and crazy OCD rules, and trying not to think about the waves he’d made his own and the breaks he once ruled like a god. Years before he’d been robbed of the world title that had his name on it – and then drugs, his brother, and the disappearance and murder of his girlfriend and had done the rest. Out of the blue, a young would-be biographer comes knocking and stirs up memories Dennis thought he’d buried. It takes Dennis a while to realise that she’s not there to write his story at all.

Daring, ambitious, dazzling, The Life is also as real as it gets – a searing, beautiful novel about fame and ambition and the price that must sometimes be paid for reaching too high.


Brother of the More Famous Jack

by Barbara Trapido

Lisa Heidke: First published in 1982, I revisited this book when I was bored and looking for something light and fun to read. Witty, funny, sad…and very clever. Highly recommended!

Blurb:  Stylish, suburban Katherine is eighteen when she is propelled into the centre of Professor Jacob Goldman’s rambling home and his large eccentric family. As his enchanting yet sharp-tongued wife Jane gives birth to her sixth child, Katherine meets the volatile, stroppy Jonathan and his older, more beautiful brother Roger, who wins her heart. First love quickly leads to heartbreak and sends her fleeing to Rome but, ten years on, she returns to find the Goldmans again. A little wiser and a lot more grown-up, Katherine faces her future.

Brother of the More Famous Jack is Barbara Trapido’s highly acclaimed and much loved debut; a book that redefined the coming-of-age novel.


The Help

by Kathryn Stockett

Lisa Heidke: I wasn’t sure about this book but was surprised and delighted. A moving, heartfelt and fascinating insight into complex female relationships, bonds and prejudices. Uplifting and powerful, I read The Help one rainy long weekend and don’t regret a single indulgent moment.

Blurb: Enter a vanished world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver . . .

There’s Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son’s tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from College, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared.

Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they’d be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in a search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell . . .


Many thanks to Lisa Heidke for sharing her
Five Fiction Favourites for 2011 with us.

Lisa’s forthcoming novel, Stella Makes Good, is already causing a bit of a stir…

From The Daily Telegraph last week:

Author Lisa Heidke’s fourth book Stella Makes Good inspired by swingers sex party in Sydney’s Turramurra

By Felicity McLean

Picture: John Fotiadis Source: The Daily Telegraph

IT’S not every day you read about a sex party in Turramurra. So when local author Lisa Heidke read just that, it was too seductive to ignore.

“I was flipping through the North Shore Times and found a small article about a police raid on a swingers’ party just up the road from my home in Pymble,” Heidke explains.

Sydney group sex parties keep neighbours awake

“I thought it was hilarious. I mean, what would you do if someone invited you to a party up the road and you turned up to a sex party! And then imagine you saw your newsagent there. Or the butcher. Or you saw your friend’s husband there!”

Such a provocative prospect provided the launch pad for Heidke’s latest novel, Stella Makes Good. The fourth book in three years for the journalist-turned-author, it continues Heidke’s tradition of exploring contemporary life, even if it is a little more risque than her usual fare.

“When I was researching online I thought, ‘Oh, God! Am I accidentally going to access some illegal site and have the police turn up and confiscate my computer?’ ” she says. “I want to make it very clear that I didn’t go to any sex parties in researching my book!” Read the full story here…

Stella Makes Good

by Lisa Heidke

Can mother-of-three, Stella forge a new life for herself after the end of her marriage? A funny and insightful novel about love, friendship and the quest for happiness.

Stella Sparks is on good terms with her ex-husband, Terry, despite the fact he left her for another woman. Stella’s philosophical – the marriage had run its course, they remain friends and the wellbeing of their kids is central to both of them.

Stella’s two closest friends, Carly and Jesse, envy her togetherness and wish they could emulate it. Jesse’s husband, Steve, is a control freak who’s driving her crazy, but she has two small children and can’t see a way out. Carly, meanwhile, suspects her husband is having an affair and isn’t sure what to do about it.

Stella’s life takes a distinctly upward turn when she meets a handsome, apparently single – no ring, anyway – father at her son’s school speech night. For Carly and Jesse, however, the search for happiness and fulfilment proves more elusive…

With a healthy dose of humour and romance Stella Makes Good is about the games we play, the secrets we keep, the unpredictable nature of life and the importance of female friendship.



Malcolm Knox, author of The Life, answers Six Sharp Questions

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Malcolm Knox

author of The Life, JamaicaSummerland and more…

Six Sharp Questions


1. Congratulations, you have a new book. What is it about and what does it mean to you?

THE LIFE is a novel, my fourth, and it’s an immersive experience both to write and (I hope) to read. It’s narrated in the voice of Dennis Keith, a 58-year-old washed-up ex-surfer living with his mother in her retirement village… and secretly plotting a comeback. It’s soaked in the idiom of Old Queensland. He hasn’t surfed for decades, during which he’s been known as a reclusive, shadowy, slightly sinister mystery. A young surf journalist, Megan, turns up claiming she wants to write his Continue reading

The Life by Malcolm Knox. A review by author Kylie Ladd

Malcolm Knox knows how to get my attention. I first became aware of him when I chanced across his 2006 book Secrets Of The Jury Room, a dramatic account of his experiences as a juror on a lengthy criminal trial. A few years earlier I had been in a similar situation as the foreperson on a month-long trial at the Supreme Court of Victoria, a case which involved rape, arson and decapitation with a bread knife. I’d always thought I must write about it, but once I read Knox’s book I knew there was no point- he had captured the legalistic wrangling of the criminal justice system, the odd alliances that develop both within a jury and between the jury and court staff, and the fickle machinations of the deliberation room perfectly.

Next came Jamaica, a novel about a group of high school friends who attempt to put aside old grievances to compete as a team in a long distance swimming race in the Caribbean. High school certainly wasn’t the best time of my life, and swimming was my sport back then… let’s just say I sympathised when it seemed that some characters would be drowned by their own teammates before the event even began. Thankfully, I had no personal connection to Continue reading


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