• Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘The Invention of Wings’ by Sue Monk Kidd

    What a glorious book this is.

    Published in 2014, this beautiful, engrossing novel by American author Sue Monk Kidd (author of the best selling ‘Secret Life of Bees’) tells the story of the Grimke sisters. Sarah and Angelina were born into South Carolina’s ‘aristocracy’ – the slave owning, wealthy, pious and cultured families of Charleston in the early 1800’s. Yes, before the Civil War. But not, as I learnt from this book, before some people in both Northern and Southern states began speaking out against the evils of slavery.

    I also learned that the Grimke sisters were among the most reviled women in America during their long campaign for abolition – and also among the earliest feminists in that country.  They campaigned, not just for the abolition of slavery, but against racism in all its forms, and also for the right of women to have a voice and a vocation.

    Why had I not heard of them before now? I felt better on learning that the author herself – Southern raised and living in Charleston – had also not known about them until she went to an exhibition commemorating historical women of note. There, she read about Sarah and Angelina and a little seed of an idea she’d had for a novel (‘I want to write about sisters’) grew to encompass their extraordinary story.

    Another woman’s story is told alongside the sisters’. Monk Kidd learned that Sarah had been ‘given’ a slave named Hetty, a girl of the same age as herself – for her eleventh birthday. The real Hetty’s life was not a long one- she died young- but in the novel, she becomes the girl called ‘Handful’ by her mother Charlotte, also a slave. Handful and Sarah grow up together across a seemingly insurmountable divide – the free and the enslaved. The two women’s stories weave around each other throughout the book, with chapters alternating between the voices of Sarah and Handful.

    I listened to the audiobook version of this novel, which gave me the added pleasure of hearing it narrated by two different women – one with the cultured Charleston accents of Sarah, and the other the ‘slave voice’ of Handful.

    This book did for me what good historical fiction should do. It made me wonder, imagine – and seek out more information on the real Grimke sisters, their lives and the society in which they lived and tried to change. Monk Kidd does not shy away from the brutal realities of the laws and practices of slavery as they were then, nor does she romanticise the relationship between Sarah and Handful. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the book is ultimately about hope.

    Here’s a quote from the novel which absolutely sums up how I feel about historical fiction and, really,
    history in general:
    If you don’t know where you’re going, you should know where you came from.

    This is Handful’s mother Charlotte speaking to her daughter as she relates the stories of  ‘Granny Mama’, her African grandmother, about their history and culture before enslavement.

    If you are looking for a novel to inform, inspire, educate and entrance, I’d suggest ‘The Invention of Wings’.

     

     

  • Books and reading,  History

    Author Talk at Springwood Library: Sulari Gentill

    I spotted another terrific author talk organised by Blue Mountains Libraries and I confess, I booked myself in immediately.

    For those who haven’t come across her work yet, Sulari Gentill is the Australian author of the Rowland Sinclair series. Beginning with the first title, A Few Right Thinking Men, published in 2011, the (to date) nine books relate the adventures of Rowland Sinclair, “an artist and a gentleman…with a talent for scandal”.  (from the cover blurb)

    Along with his friends Edna (a talented sculptress and Rowland’s model for his many nude portraits as well as a possible love interest), Clyde (Communist Party of Australia member) and Milton (wannabe poet) Rowland  travels Australia and further afield, stumbling into crimes that need solving.

    The books are all set in the 1930’s, the time of the Great Depression, battles between the Far Right (The New Guard and  Antipodean Nazi sympathisers) and Communists; seances and spiritualism; stockmen, gangsters, and bitter politics. Gentill immerses the reader in the thinking, politics, places, fashions and fads of these turbulent times.

    The settings of the novels are wonderful: from the leafy Sydney suburb of Woollhara to the grimy streets of Sydney’s slums; from the new national capital of Canberra to the heart of the ‘squattocracy’ at Yass; from the opulence of the Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath ( my fellow Blue Mountains readers will know this one) to sailing on the Aquitania; Shanghai; London; even to Munich as Hitler rises to power.

    Gentill has the knack of weaving  compelling crime stories with spot- on historical detail and wry humour, all told through the eyes of her very likeable character and his chums.

    I greatly enjoyed this series and can’t wait to hear the author talk about her newest title, All the Tea in China, published January 2019.

    I might see some other Blue Mountains readers  at the Author Talk on 9th March at 2pm. Let me know in the comments below if you are planning to come.

  • Books and reading

    Book Review: ‘Cedar Valley’ by Holly Throsby

    This is Holly Throsby’s second novel, following her debut Goodwood. Like it’s predecessor, Cedar Valley is set in a small Australian country town. In an interview I heard with Throsby, she admitted that she’d not lived in rural Australia, but is drawn to small towns in her writing. She does capture the feel of small town life very well in this novel.

    The book’s plot is an interesting mix of ‘coming of age’ (the story of Benny, a young woman seeking information and connection with her lost, dead mother by returning to the town where her mother once lived) and gentle mystery/police investigation story (local cops trying to figure out the identity and story behind a man who arrives, and dies, in the town on the same day.)

    I say ‘gentle’ because this is not a crime novel. There is no blood, no murder weapon, no tense climactic scene. The stories of Benny and the mystery man gently unfold throughout the book. Seemingly unconnected, there is a ribbon of plot that ties them together in the end. The conclusion is nicely done.

    Throsby’s style is almost ‘naive’, if that’s a term that can be used in literature. The book moves slowly, as Benny absorbs the sights, sounds, and people of the town she has come to live in for a while. The mystery plays itself out in a measured, thoughtful way, never taking over from the emotion of Benny and the other characters, but somehow, in odd ways, drawing the town’s population together as they variously try to puzzle out the story of the man who died in front of the Antiques shop.

    I enjoyed this book. I read it in between Kristina Olsson’s Shell (slow moving plot but exquisite language) and Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (an important but harrowing book). It contrasted nicely with both.

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Last conversations, last greetings, last books: a strange New Year’s message

    This is a ‘Strange New Year message’ because it’s all about ‘lasts’. Usually, as a new year rolls in, we are caught up in thinking about everything new and shiny: new year plans, resolutions, a new calendar on the wall…

    And I’ve been doing all that too, of course. I’ve set my goal for 2019: to have a completed and edited manuscript of my first novel, and be well and truly on the path to approaching agents and publishers to gauge interest in the story.

    For this post, though, I want to write about ‘last’ things.

    How do we know when its the last time we do something, see something, speak to someone?

    I ask this because last night, I called to wish Happy New Year to an elderly person in my life. After I had hung up the phone, I began to wonder if this was to be the last New Year greeting I would exchange with that person, who is not in the best of health and approaching the grand age of 90.

    Would knowing that it was the last time I wished her a Happy New Year, change the way I did so? Or the way I act before or afterward? Probably. But of course I don’t know, and generally speaking, we never do. Which is, perhaps, for the best.

    That got me thinking about other ‘lasts.’

    The last time I might kiss someone hello, or goodbye.

    The last breakfast I might eat.

    The last coffee I enjoy.

    The last swim ( I’m writing this post after 20 laps at my beautiful local pool, and it’s mid summer here in Australia, so swimming is definitely on my agenda right now)

    The last piece of beautiful music I hear.

    The last book I read.

    Disappearing down that particular rabbit hole has me reflecting on what I would choose, if I knew that a book was to be my last one ever…and I truly don’t know the answer! Would I choose to re- read a well loved favourite, perhaps one I hadn’t read in a while? Or would I elect to tackle one of the many, many books on my ‘to be read’ list?

    Even thinking about that incites a little bubble of panic. I always say, only partly joking, ‘So many books, so little time’. But of course I never really think that I won’t actually have enough time to read all the books I want to. Despite being perfectly aware of the reality that we all leave this life some day, I have never truly considered the fact that there will be a last book. So, which one would I choose?

    Which book would you choose for your last book ever? Let me know in the comments.

    And, Happy New Year to you and yours.

  • Books and reading

    Book Review: ‘Lenny’s Book of Everything’ by Karen Foxlee

    I was surprised to learn that the author of this 2018 published book is Australian. It is set in a town in the US state of Ohio and Foxlee captures the atmosphere of an American town in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s  so well.

    But,to the story…

    What a lovely read this is.

    The story centres around a young girl, Lenny Spink, who lives with her struggling single mother Cindy and her younger brother Davey. The family dynamics (siblings sharing secrets from the grown ups, occasional bickering, the kids’ more or less missing father, Cindy’s wannabe suitor, financial struggles and Cindy’s constant worrying) are portrayed from the viewpoint of Lenny, resulting in warm humour, the wisdom of  children, and real sadness.

    Davey suffers from a condition (unnamed at the book’s opening) which causes him to grow and grow and grow. Lenny reports on her brother’s growth and unusual physical appearance in a matter of fact way but the reader senses her fear and confusion.

    There are moments of humour, too, in the sometimes odd, sometimes endearing, sometimes unsympathetic neighbours and others who people Lenny and Davey’s world: their babysitter Mrs Gaspar from Hungary, the revolting Mr King, ‘Great Aunt Em’, Peter Spink the absentee father, Lenny’s friends CJ and Mathew from school, the kindergarten teacher, the children’s unseen grandmother Nanny Flora…and of course Martha, from Burrell’s Publishing Company, who sends weekly issues of the Burrell’s Build-it-at-home Encyclopedia. The two children explore the world through the pages of this publishing marvel as they receive issues covering the A’s right through to ‘WXYZ’. They weave fantasies about things they are learning into their everyday lives with humorous and at times, heartbreaking effect.

    The book describes a more innocent time, when home encyclopedias were to be treasured for the knowledge they held. At the same time we, the readers, wish that the setting was a modern day one because of advances in medical science that might, just might, save Davey.

    This is a sweet, funny, sad and hopeful book.

  • Books and reading,  Writing

    Australian Women Writers Challenge

    I discovered this initiative only this year, at a writing workshop I attended: thank you Julian Leatherdale (http://www.julianleatherdale.com/) for the information.

    The AWW aims to encourage, via Twitter and Facebook, email and websites, librarians, booksellers, publishers, book bloggers, English teachers and authors were invited to examine their reading habits, and commit to reading and reviewing more books by Australian women.
    Quoted from the AWW blog, which you can find at: http://australianwomenwriters.com/

    Readers can link their reviews via the AWW website, and sign up for regular emails in which AWW volunteers give ’round ups’ of the latest batch of reviews in particular genres.

    If you are a reader who’d like to discover more of the wonderful works created by women writing in Australia, this is a terrific way to keep informed and across the latest (and not so recent) from women authors.

  • Books and reading,  History,  Writing

    Book(s) Review: ‘The Monsarrat Series’ by Tom & Meg Keneally

    The ‘Monsarrat series’ comprises three books (at time of this post):
    The Soldier’s Curse, The Unmourned, The Power Game

    No surprise that I was drawn to this series  – they are, to date, three novels of historical fiction, set  in several different locations in convict era Australia. Another draw card was the fact that they were co-written. I’ve always been a little fascinated by how the co-authoring process works, and this is an intriguing father and daughter team: well loved Australian author Tom Keneally and his daughter Meg. If I had the chance, I’d love to sit down with the authors and find out more. Who writes which bits? Which of them comes up with the initial ideas? Do they meet physically to discuss, plan and plot their stories, or is it an online or Skype process?

    The stories centre around Hugh Monsarrat, who we first meet at Port Macquarie penal colony in NSW, while he is serving out his sentence for fraud, in the early part of nineteenth century NSW. Hugh is an educated man whose intelligence and aspirations outstripped his means, tempting him to pass himself off as a lawyer in England. His deception is discovered and  he is shipped off to NSW on a convict transport.

    The books take the form of classic “whodunnits”, as for one reason or another, Hugh is tasked with solving murders that occur where he happens to be: Port Macquarie in book one, the Parramatta Female Factory in book two, and Maria Island (off Tasmania’s coast) in book three. There are plenty of opportunities for guesswork by the reader, with red herrings  planted throughout, and various characters having their own reasons to commit a murder.

    A truly delightful character who appears in each book is Mrs Mulroony, a forthright Irish woman who has already served her sentence and becomes Hugh’s offsider. Mrs Mulroony is a woman of many talents, including skillful tea making and shortbread baking, to which she adds a fierce intelligence and the ability to accurately read people and situations – usually much more astutely than Hugh himself.

    The books have a droll humorous tone, with believable characters and intriguing story lines. What I also enjoyed is their examination of the social, economic and political forces at play in colonial times, and the way in which these impact on the various characters.

    If you are looking for well written historical fiction set in early Australia, peopled by characters you can fall in love with, you won’t be disappointed in these stories.I read that the books have been optioned for a TV series and very much hope that will eventuate.

  • Books and reading

    Book Review: ‘Between a Wolf and a Dog’ by Georgia Blain

    This novel of contemporary fiction was published in the same year in which its author died – far too young. I had not read any of Georgia Blain’s work before getting hold of this book, which I did on a friend’s recommendation. Jennie had said to me that it was a work of great beauty, and she was right.

    The novel centres around one family: Ester and her two young daughters, her estranged husband Lawrence, Ester’s sister April (also estranged), and their mother Hilary. Most of the action takes place over one especially rainy Sydney day, although flashbacks help to fill in details, including the reasons for the difficulties in the relationships of Ester and her husband, and Ester and her sister.

    It’s a quiet, perceptive novel that had me thinking of the stupid things that we all do and say, especially in our younger years. Actions and words that can hurt and damage, and which often come back to haunt us when we have come to our senses. The members of this family are not bad people: they are flawed in ways many would recognise, trying to come to terms with life’s disappointments and surprises.

    I enjoyed this gentle yet thought-provoking novel very much. How sad I was to learn of Blain’s death.

     

  • Books and reading,  History

    Why I love… Historical Fiction

    For me, reading (and now writing) historical fiction is a portal into the past. Good fiction has the ability to bring a time and place alive in a way that reading history texts can’t, with some notable exceptions. I’ve always been a history tragic, though not of the ‘dates, battles and great men’ variety. I’m much more interested in the lives of people: where they lived, what they ate, wore, read; who and why they loved; how they worked, travelled…
    I’ve probably learnt more about history through my fiction reading, because I usually find myself looking up certain times and places to see ‘if that really happened then’. Of course that’s so much easier now, with the tools available on the internet.

    I love finding out the history of places I go to. Walking down a street named after a figure from the past, or visiting an historical site, is always more interesting to me if I know the background beforehand. I love the fact that we are, all of us, walking over and around our history every day – even if we are not aware of it much of the time.

     

  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘The Lace Weaver’ by Lauren Chater

    This debut novel by Sydney writer Lauren Chater is historical fiction at its best. The story plunged me into the snowy depths of winter in Russia and Estonia during WWII. Like some other novels I have read, the settings against which the drama unfolds become characters in themselves – and in this, I include the time setting along with the places.

    There are two main protagonists: two young women who at the novel’s opening live on either side of the Russia – Estonia border, but whose stories eventually entwine so that the climax and resolution of the novel involve them both. Katarina is the lace weaver of the title: a young woman determined to carry on the traditions of her Estonian language and culture, including knitting beautiful woollen lace shawls. Lydia is Russian, but her mother was Estonian and she was raised to love and respect Estonian traditions even as the country of her birth, Russia, spread its oppressive tentacles over all aspects of Estonian life. Both women suffer because of the actions and policies of Soviet Russia under Stalin’s rule until they are faced with yet another enemy: Nazi Germany.

    I love historical fiction when it spurs me to think more about the time and place in which it is set. This novel did that, opening up a chapter of European history that I’d previously not given much attention to. It also offered an insight into the dilemma of the Baltic peoples at this time: whether to embrace the Nazi invaders as liberators from Soviet rule or to resist the hateful Nazi race laws and ideology. Reading this book made me realise that for many Estonians at that time, the choice would not have been a clear-cut one, and in the end, the result was oppression and brutality whichever way they went.

    The motif of the lace shawls is woven beautifully throughout and highlights the themes of traditions, culture, family and love.

    I enjoyed this book very much and will look forward to reading this author’s future novels.