Prayers of a Secular World, edited by Jordie Albiston and Kevin Brophy: Book Review.

Sometimes, a poem can strike so deeply as to leave you speechless. It is often personal: the subject matter unearths a buried chord or a voice speaks like one you have heard before, calling memories out to play. It may be – variously – rhyme, rhythm, length, word choice. It might also depend on where one is, literally or metaphorically, at the time of reading. This is a wordy introduction to my favourite piece from Prayers of a Secular World because, frankly, Daniela Giorgi’s ‘Sea Fox’ has left me as close to speechless (and almost breathless) as I can get. It sings to me on every level in six succinct stanzas. My partner rarely reads poems (not even those written by me) but this is a poem I knew would resonate. When he agreed (with a sigh of resignation) to listen to a ‘Sea Fox’ reading, it took him a moment to find his voice. When he finally spoke it was to ask me to read it again. I hope you can hear my applause, Daniela Giorgi. Bravo.

I was initially daunted by what seemed a rather earnest and high-brow title. Prayers of a Secular World. But the poems and meditations are all accessible and inclusive. What a surprise to receive this beautifully designed (Sandy Cull, gogoGingko) compact book with a forward by Inkerman and Blunt publisher Donna Ward and an introduction by author and intellectual powerhouse David Tacey who reminds us that sacredness is a ‘dimension of the everyday’ rather than something to be celebrated at special times in holy buildings.

Aboriginal culture has never separated the sacred from the ordinary but finds it embedded in the everyday. (10)

Tacey tells us that we can bring a greater awareness into our own lives by thinking like poets.

The poems and contemplations in this volume are separated into six sections. There is something here for everyone but, in keeping with my opening remarks about the personal call of a poem, I’m going to tell you a little something about my favourites in each section.

See the Dreaming Claim You
Maya Ward’s ‘Powerful Owl’ gets its claws into the subterranean layer of my soul. It is dark and potent, the stuff of dreams.

My mind was forged in the crucible of you
And my spine is a tree
Where you have perched
For thousands of years (14)

 A Mantra That Will Keep Us
Every word in ‘The Sadhu’ by David Francis seems perfectly chosen, mulled over, repositioned perhaps. The effort put into the writing makes the reading effortless so that I was transported into the world of this journeyman of landscapes. I felt as though I was standing before a perfect portrait in a quiet gallery, seeing the sacred mountains. And then I felt myself breathing the thin mountain air. Now I can taste the rice and hear the bells. If I close my eyes, is it possible that I might see the mysteries and grace beyond the narrow path of the present? Maybe.

‘The Sea Fox’, as already mentioned, is my favourite. Giorgi’s metaphoric transportation of expressions between the pain-racked body, the surroundings (You pace the raw metres of our flat, it’s three a.m) and the thoughts of the partner (My brain is dry, red, sore, scratched by empathy) (42) is brilliant.

Domestic Interiors
It was very hard to narrow down my favourites in this section. ‘Don’t’ by Matt Hetherington is clever and poignant; a diamond. Ali Alizadeh brings perfect rhythm to a yearning for love in ‘Venus’. As a mother, I am transfixed by ‘First Night’. Anna Ryan-Punch captures the deftness of the midwives and nurses, the mystery of babies and the re-arrangement of a mother.

Midwives relieve me of your squalling
head. I am as glad and guilty as Catholic steak
on Good Friday. Soon they will bring back your limbs
that I made … (54)

 The Delicate Formation of Faults
As I indicated in my opening, sometimes the connection with a poem might have something to do with where the reader is reading and so I don’t doubt that ‘No End to Images’ by Sarah Holland-Batt has a particularly literal connection for me. I read it on a boat on the Danube so no surprise that lines like no end to iron shoes along he Danube and no end to the gardens of Europe/with their murderous symmetry (78) hit their mark. For the same reason ‘Folding Down Corners’ (Anna Ryan-Punch) and ‘Photographs of Jews’ (Lisa Jacobson) spoke to me clearly.

The Shadow of the World
Catherine Bateson’s ‘Imperfection’ brought to mind Leonard Cohen’s ‘Anthem’. Cohen reminds us that the cracks let the light in. Bateson draws our eye to the beauty of a hand-embroidered orange nasturtium that … here, in the left hand corner/can never match its yellow twin (95).

Believe There’s a Road to El Paso
Judy Johnson’s ‘Swans’ is a stand-out for me, mainly because it made me laugh. Her beautiful poetic descriptions of the majesty of swans morphs into the comedy of the momentary glitches of the propellers of their feet failing to launch like the frenzied paddles of a waterwheel and their absurd cries half bugle, half air brake. Toward the end, the poem is deeply philosophical: The soul we do not believe in, suddenly/believes in us, and flutters in terror (138-139). And her final stanza, which I won’t quote here, is divine. You need to read the whole poem to fully appreciate its depth and beauty.

I have a weird habit. Whenever I finish reviewing a collection of poems or short stories, I go back through to see a) what my favourite pieces have in common, b) what I know about the authors, c) if there are any themes I seem to be leaning toward. I usually find that my choices are eclectic, unbiased and fun to analyse. And this time it’s no different. Many of the writers are unknown to me, the subject matters are vastly different and yet – on some level – linked.

There’s something for everyone in this beautiful gold-embossed collection. For more information, head to the Inkerman and Blunt website

Albiston, J and Brophy E, eds.
Prayers of a Secular World
Inkerman and Blunt, Carlton South.
ISBN: 978 0 9875401 9 5


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Lost Boy & Other Stories, edited by Estelle Tang: Book Review

If, like Sylvia Plath, you have feared “the death of the imagination”, rest easy: it is thriving and flashing itself in the latest collection of shorts released by Margaret River Press.

One of my annual highlights is to receive the Margaret River Short Story Competition anthology. I have had the pleasure of reviewing the collections since the inaugural 2011 competition and this year I am, once again, not disappointed.

lost boy

In the imagination stakes, the winning story Lost Boy is a tour de force.  Who conjures this boy who speaks in a language of stick figure sketches? What acute observational eye brings to life the kind hearted cop who …

 … felt an almost talismanic attachment to the boy, not only because he’d picked him up, like a lucky coin, but also because he’d been the first to extract conversation, of a sort, from him. (15)

or the foster parents …

 … Lorraine – dumpling of a woman, with a shrewd, weathered gaze – and Doug – big, silent and marked as an old tree. (16)

Who is this writer brave enough – assured enough – to leave the reader with …

 … the empty sound of a case file slid into a drawer among a hundred other finished or unfinished stories. (25)

so that we may savour our own creative juices? Who is this story-teller confident to resist the temptation to settle every piece of the puzzle into place?

It’s Melanie Napthine. The Melbourne-based writer’s ‘Tear along the dotted line’ was featured in the 2014 anthology The trouble with Flying where it glittered amongst the many gems for its clever simile and metaphor. Her winning entry this year (Lost Boy) is, I am delighted to say, completely different in style but no less impressive and, in my humble opinion, a worthy winner. The angles and slants of my literary leanings are mine alone so it is thrilling when a judge’s favourite resonates with me as a fellow writer, reader and reviewer.

There is great diversity in this year’s collection (titled, as always, by the winning story); from Susan McCreery’s frightening scenario of intrusion which becomes something altogether different (‘The Uninvited’) and the ultra-short, surreal ‘The Ginkgo Tree’ (Paige Townsend)  to the gritty reality and subversive menace of Eva Lomski’s ‘The Trapper’ (which was awarded second place).

The gripping horror of Lomski’s story is cleverly emphasised by the structure and cadence of its sentences.

Clamped around her right boot, a steel-jawed trap. No pain yet. Numb. Think systematic. (28)

and this:

Metal snap of a trap. Cried out. He was there, standing over her, springy as a jockey, lifting a shovel to waist-height. Black. (30)

The Southwest prize was awarded to Carol McDowall for ‘Bringing Home the Ashes’, celebrating the love between grandfather and granddaughter with humour.

Two highly commended stories are ‘Ash Miss’ and ‘Mojitos in Tehran’.

Claire Aman’s cleverly titled ‘Ash Miss’ is a tale of a disenfranchised boy (“Something is careful in him.” (113)), a grey budgerigar and a damaged and understanding woman (“Neila, droopy cardigan and slippers, one hand missing” (116)).

In ‘Mojitos in Tehran’, Magdalena McGuire tackles a difficult subject, far removed from everyday life for most of us, with great delicacy and depth of understanding. It is a multi-layered story that tackles some rather large themes with understated – yet intense – brevity.  A remarkable feat in just eleven pages.  An old woman and a baby:

They seem to recognise something in one another, making me think that the end of life and the beginning are closely linked. This is true in more ways than one. A pregnancy is an end of sorts though everyone calls it a beginning. (229)

The narrator finds the blazing supermarket lights “optimistic. They are not afraid to go all the way” (233) and the battles she struggles with as she teeters on the precipice of a new life are both ordinary and extraordinary.

There it is: the old life. Too close to ignore, too appealing not to touch, and yet clearly slipping away. (238)

The juxtaposition of the subdued art of crossword completion with the exhilaration and exuberance of hang gliding works as a clever contrast in ‘Glory Season’ (Cassie Hamer). Wind (“a Westerly, soft as a baby’s breath” (73)/”obliterated by a tsunami of aerial turbulence” (79)) is woven throughout this rather uplifting story about grief.

Beverley Lello shows originality and cleverness with her fragmented set-piece ‘Scenes from a Disappearance’, opening with A possible prologue and ending with the cryptic A possible ending but for only one part of the story. (Lello penned the delightful ‘Things that are found in trees’ which won the first Margaret River Short Story Competition).

Erin Courtney Kelly’s ‘Hot and Cold’ is a luminous lingering allegory, featuring rhubarb, no less! I.N. Murray, with a deft hand, carves out a coming-of-age scenario in ‘Skeleton Creek’ and Michelle Wright’s labels in ‘To call things by their right name’ are clever. There’s always a story that can sidle up beside me and give me a punch I didn’t see coming. Jane Downing delivers the blow in ‘An Undelivered Letter to the Future.’ Knocked the stuffing out of me.

Louise Hodge had me laughing out loud with:

Mum has got a new friend called Dawn who is a bit of a feminist and I am sure she is giving Mum some bad tips. Mum used to dye her hair with tropical Copper Glow, but Dawn said Mum should be true to herself, which happens to be a pretty unattractive shade of grey. (‘Lagoon Dreamer’, p. 197)

Twenty-four stories…too many to comment on every one, but every one with merit.  Laurie Steed and Richard Rossiter had the job of forming a longlist from the 323 entries, with Estelle Tang making the final judgement and editing the collection. With a forward by Director Caroline Wood and a succinct introduction by Estelle Tang who resisted (thank you!) that age-old temptation to tell us all about the stories before we read them, it’s a varied collection, an imagined universe of beguilement, grief and humour. Much like the universe we know. If, like me, you love the short form, then you will not be disappointed. Lost Boy & other stories is available from Margaret River Press.






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Solly’s Girl: a memoir by Ros Collins: book review

In the opening lines of Solly’s Girl: a memoir, the author is wearing a Pierre Balmain copy wedding dress as she rides pillion on a Lambretta named La Cigale (the cicada) behind her “skinny Australian” through the icy streets of London. Straight away, we know this is no ordinary girl. Her name is Ros Collins and she is someone destined for an extraordinary life of bucking trends and taking adventurous paths.

I first heard from Ros, in response to a review I wrote of a collection of short stories by her late husband Alan Collins. I wrote at the time that I could easily have imagined myself sharing a glass of wine and a few tall stories with Alan, a writer described by Arnold Zable as a classic Australian yarn spinner. My disappointment at never having met Alan was assuaged by my first meeting with Ros when, joined by Lisa Hill of ANZ Litlovers who brought along a very fine bottle of bubbly, we clinked our glasses in a joyous toast to the forthcoming release of Solly’s Girl.

The title is suggestive of Alan’s memoir Alva’s Boy (review at ANZ Litlovers) and, despite the gulf between the respective childhoods of the authors, the books make fine companions.

In the closing pages of her memoir, Ros ponders the readers for whom she wrote:

At the beginning I thought I was writing for my children and grandchildren. Then it seemed I might be completing what Alan started in Alva’s Boy – albeit not in the same style. It’s hard to tell. (288-289)

As a reader who was not on the author’s radar when she first put pen to paper, I can tell you that this is a memoir for us all. Jewish-Australians, ten pound poms, home-grown Aussies, wives, husbands, lovers. Despite being a personal account of a life, Solly’s Girl is universal in its themes of love and loss, duty and freedom, joy and despair. It unfolds like a conversation. “Let me entertain you”, opens the chat and, in less than 300 pages, we are indeed entertained.

There is some delightful humour on show early in the piece. When her new husband Alan told her how much she would love living in Victoria, mentioning picnics and visits to the Dandenongs, the author, being unaware of the Dandenong mountains, instead imagines meeting “some Mr and Mrs Dandenong”.  And the suburb of Caulfield sounded – to an English girl of a certain class – like the name of a property “rather like Tara in Gone with the Wind” (13).

The Lambretta, La Cigale, is like a character itself in the opening chapters, having been shipped out to Australia by the newlyweds. She was a beacon to the local cops who were keen to check her out and when, as new parents, Ros and Alan reluctantly sold her, they kept her brass cicada mascot. A Lambretta just like La Cigale will form part of the décor for the Melbourne launch of Solly’s Girl. How fitting.

Parts of Solly’s Girl read like a missive of thanks from a daughter to her parents, an atonement perhaps for a perceived lack of communication years ago. The deep love that cemented her parents’ life together is enchanting. When Sadie died aged ninety-seven, Ros’s father Solly visited Australia twice more from London, each time bringing a silver framed picture of his beloved wife.

He slept with it under his pillow, together with the little red woollen mittens she wore to keep her hands warm. (62)

But back in Ros’s youth when a daring sense of adventure battled with her love and respect for her parents, adventure won the day. Despite the fact that “nice Jewish girls didn’t leave home unmarried” back in the fifties (89), Ros moved out to bunk with a school friend in a boarding house in Hampstead. What an interesting bunch they met there, living in the home of a Holocaust refugee composer and his family. Amongst the boarders: the photographer of Edmund Hilary’s Everest expedition; the first black actor to appear regularly on British television and his German girlfriend; and a man who allegedly doped horses.  Ros writes that the house “had a kind of raffish aura about it” and the exposure to the “intellectual European refugees and émigrés, artists and actors” (92) must have been terribly exhilarating.

The author also gives an insightful study of the lives that went before her parents – the grandparents and aunts and uncles who forged ahead, in some way shaping the lives that were to follow. Ros writes of her need to acknowledge a debt to grandparents she hardly knew:

Their worldly achievements were quite minimal, their material wealth very slight. … The fortunate made it to America, the goldene medine; the brave and hopeful young idealists went to Palestine; my ancestors chose England. One hundred years later, here in Australia, I am grateful. (53-54)

She writes freely about the challenges of married life and the exhausting and exacting tasks of a mother and wife in that era:

I hung on hopefully to a deepening sense of love for a man I hardly understood, whilst in his mind Alan created a fantasy goddess out of a confused and rather lonely young woman.  (32)

It is clear that the her suburban days spent in Box Hill mothering three small children, caring for a foster child and playing “straight guy” to her charmingly “offbeat” husband (120-121) didn’t amount to her ideal life, but she made the best of it and emerged, as the children went off to school, just as you would expect of a freedom-loving adventurous individual; by snagging a job, obtaining teaching qualifications, joining protest marches and offering her services to the technical teachers’ union. When the Collins family eventually returned to Ros’s beloved Elwood, there was no backward glance.

Amongst her many professional achievements, Ros became director of the Makor Jewish Community Library, received an award for outstanding services from the Zionist Council of Victoria and was awarded the Woman Achiever of the Year in 1999 by the National Council of Jewish Women. Between the lines, it is clear that Ros has a deep connectedness to her Jewish roots, a respect she has passed on to her children, but she is obviously not one to drown in dogma and tradition:

I am writing these sentences on Yom Kippur, a day on which I should be fasting and praying for forgiveness. But I don’t fast, and repentance is something I deal with as soon as I realise I have made a mistake. (175)

 Wise words.

There’s a description in the book of a wonderfully Aussie celebration of Jewish New Year. After a failed fishing expedition on the Alligator River in the Northern Territory, barra is purchased from the local fish shop and an apple pie concocted in a hot caravan oven.  Rosh Hashanah was celebrated “sitting around a deserted swimming pool in a caravan park”. The accompanying photograph shows three generations sitting at an outdoor plastic table, their beaming faces testament to the occasion which would become a precious memory.  The candles were “like little mirrors of the stars in a vast mysterious sky” and there were “cans of beer and bottles of lemonade to wash down the pie” (236-37). What a celebration!

Solly’s Girl is a beautifully produced memoir with quality photo inclusions and, above all, it is superbly written.

You can find details of the launch and where to purchase Solly’s Girl here.


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The Tasmanian Writers’ Prize

Delighted to discover that my short story ‘Dear Ethan’ has been Highly Commended in the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize. A real thrill.

Congratulations to the winner

Rachel Leary (VIC) A Concrete Aborigine.

The winning entry will appear in the June edition of Tasmania 40° South

The other selected entries will appear in the Forty South Short Story Anthology 2015 – to be published in August/September. They are, as listed:-


Karenlee Thompson (Qld) Dear Ethan 

Melanie Cheng (VIC) The Honeymoon

FINALISTS (alphabetical order)

Jamieson Allom  (TAS) In Two Minds

Verity Croker (TAS) Grasskiller 

Keren Heenan (VIC) The Island

Carmel Lillis (VIC) Island seeks Island

Andrea McMahon (TAS) Penal Colony

Andrew Stiggers (NZ) Island of Flowers

Simon Stuart (VIC) True North


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A Couple of Shorts

Despite the lack of online posts while studying these past months, I have been writing (I don’t know how to ‘not write’) and I’m pleased to report that a couple of my babies have found a home. The Education department has accepted two of my short stories for youngsters: Cars in a Bucket and The bewildering case of the beeping at dawn. The School Magazine has a long lead time – usually over six months but I’m looking forward to seeing them in print.


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Wittgenstein Jnr: a novel by Lars Iyer. Book Review

It has been a while between posts due to current study commitments but I am compelled to comment on Wittgenstein Jr, a novel by Lars Iyer. My literary taste-buds fairly tingled upon reading Lisa Hill’s review at ANZ Litlovers in which she alerts us to Iyer’s laugh-out-loud humour and clever satire. Unlike Lisa, I am unfamiliar with the real Wittgenstein and his work but that didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this romp of a read.

Wittgenstein Jr is the nickname given to a philosophy lecturer by his students. Our narrator, Peters, is of the group, yet slightly distant, partly because of his northern non-elitist background and partly – I suspect – because of the depth of his own philosophical bent. In fact, when I wasn’t laughing, I worried between lines about the fate of both Wittgenstein Jr and Peters (the other characters seem far more urbane and centred).

In addition to the humour and delightful insights into the world of the undergraduate and the university dons, Wittgenstein Jr has moments of great poignancy and, in places, I found the underlying sentiments to be deeply, darkly sad.

Peters tells us that Wittgenstein says he has experienced every kind of mental illness:-

He’s heard hostile voices. He’s felt that his mind is being read. He’s felt persecuted. Tormented, by alien forces. He’s experienced great highs, manias. He’s felt grandiosity. He’s felt chosen. He’s felt that only he could save the world.

And he’s experienced terrible despairs, he says. Abysmal depression. He’s had to keep away from sharp knives. From exposed pipework. From bottles of bleach. From high places… (p146)

But I’ll leave this mini-review of what is a fabulous novel with a lighter quote.

Notes passed in class. Mulberry to Doyle: You’re a whiny little bitch. Doyle to Mulberry: You have a micro-penis. Mulberry to Doyle: You have a nano-penis. Doyle to Mulberry: You have a quantum penis. It’s both there and not there. (p21)



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Too Many Homes of Eileen Skuse: an autobiography. Book Review.

Eileen Skuse has lived in 53 homes … and counting (it was 53 at time of publication but I think that number is still increasing) so it is fitting that she has titled her autobiography Too Many Homes of Eileen Skuse. Having now read the self-published book, I think she could equally have called it too many jobs or too many courses. Eileen is obviously not one to sit complacently upon her laurels.

Let me tell you something about this feisty eighty-four-year-old first and why I have her book for review. Eileen was one of the original members of the Stanthorpe Writers Group which had its first meeting in 2012. I warmed to her straight away, as did many of the other writers in the group.  We soon found ourselves presented with beautiful name tags to wear at our meetings and she always brought along something interesting to share with us. Her sense of humour was immediately evident, as was her desire to help and her ‘can do’ attitude.  She has a non-conformity about her, a quirkiness. These are the things, together with her age and her knowledge, that shine through in her autobiography.

A tomboy who preferred her ‘train set and wooden building bricks’ (29) to dolls, the author was fascinated by numbers and maps from an early age. As an adult, she was not shy about sex and took lovers when it suited. Dating agencies, nudism and swinging were explored and are mentioned in the book.  Eileen didn’t seem overly phased by her husband’s sudden urge to visit a prostitute.  Of all the jobs that she has held throughout her life, the enduring image for me will probably be her as a ‘sworn in, kitted out’ member of the Women’s Royal Air Force. Somehow that seems a good fit.

Somewhat of a hoarder and, by her own admission, a lousy housekeeper, Eileen has instead spent her life learning and travelling and doing interesting things. Never afraid to get in and give things a go, she’s successfully installed ceiling insulation, driven taxis and travelled alone extensively. She has undertaken a multitude of courses, including SCUBA lessons, library organisation, compost-making, defensive driving instruction (to name just a few). She’s attended a Nanny school, private music lessons and a weekend Reiki workshop. And that’s just a tiny sample. I was exhausted simply reading about it all.

A good editor would have eliminated the overuse of exclamation marks and the unnecessary use of ‘apparently’ and ‘I believe’. An editor may also have cautioned against the inclusion of the prologue ‘1851-1930’. There are some fascinating historical facts in this section but they don’t often serve the purpose of complimenting the autobiography. Those few snippets that are particularly relevant to the author’s life could have been incorporated into the later text (in the same way that she has done with other historical fact in a more entertaining and readable fashion).

Once we move into Part 1 which covers from 1930 (the year of the Eileen’s birth) until 1978, the author hits her straps. She tells us her birth was ‘less than four months after the Planet Pluto was discovered photographically and two months after the poet and novelist D.H. Lawrence died’ (3), giving the reader a clear picture of her milieu.

It was certainly no picnic being a child of the 30s and 40s growing up in London. She writes of sheets cut in half and the sides sewn to form the middle (unheard of in today’s throw-away society). She vividly recalls the war-time days and nights of air raids, bombings, damage and relocations. We read about days spent grinding through the traditional spring clean (something my mother used to do here in Australia). She tells us of the tedious task of rehanging cleaned curtains and ruffles, leading to her later avoidance of pelmets in any of her homes. ‘Also,’ she writes ‘I don’t spring clean – I move!’ (14).

The author doesn’t sentimentalise or overstate her obvious loneliness (or should I say alone-ness) but it saddened me to read that her parents always referred to her as ‘The Kid’. Occasionally she ruminates on her lot in life and her place in the world: … ‘I’ve always seen myself as the child on the outside trying desperately to get into the group’ (27). So many activities were undertaken alone: swimming, ice-skating, jumping onto buses and planes and trains and, of course, moving house.

If you read Eileen’s autobiography, I am sure you will come to the conclusion that she would be a handy woman to have around. If you were lost, she’d no doubt pull a map from her back pocket and guide you on your way. Or she’d calculate distances and directions by examining the night-sky. She’d roll up her sleeves and pull you out of quicksand or toss off her clothes and dive into the freezing ocean to save you. If your pilot lost consciousness, she could safely land the plane.  I imagine she could quote Shakespeare to soothe your broken heart or sit by your bedside reading the classics in her strong confident voice. One thing is for sure, she won’t be the one sitting quietly in a corner doing nothing.  Having met her, I can attest to those values she has, that idea that one just gets in and does.

The author uses the last few pages to share some advice, conundrums and ‘random thoughts’ such as ‘One advantage of constantly moving – nobody knows how old my clothes are!’(506). She also shares some regrets – just six of them – and, although it might be too late to learn to ride a skateboard (although never say never), there’s still plenty of time for her to find that perfect ballroom dancing partner.  Last time Eileen moved it was to Warwick in Queensland. If you know of a good ballroom dancer out that way, be sure to tell them to look up Eileen Skuse. I’m sure they won’t be disappointed.

To purchase Too Many Homes, contact the author:
T: (07) 4661 1705.


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