• Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘Heart of the Grass Tree’ by Molly Murn

    Heart of the Grass Tree by Molly Murn (2019, Vintage Australia) is a novel which tells several stories over multiple timelines. All of them are interlinked by place: Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia. The island today is known for its wildlife, pristine beaches, beautiful scenery, a thriving arts scene and tourism. In the time of the earliest story told by Molly Murn in the book, the1820’s, it was a place with a darker, bloodier purpose—sealing.

    We learn about the white men, who gravitated to the island to hunt seals for the lucrative skin trade, and the Aboriginal women from the mainland and Tasmania who lived with them. The author wrote that she wanted to tell the story of the women in particular because their history is in large part, lost to time. Most, if not all of those indigenous women were taken against their will and lived as slaves. They were stolen for the obvious reasons—white women being in short supply in the colony at the time, especially in such remote locations—but also because of their skills in hunting and skinning the seals which gathered around the waters and beaches of the island. Murn’s narrative allows the reader to imagine the brutalities to which these women were subjected, but we also get glimpses of their strength and the skills they possessed.

    Another plotline in the novel is set in the present-day and involves a family of two sisters, Pearl and Lucy, who with their mother Diana, their husbands and children, come together on the island to mourn the death of their grandmother, Nell. We learn of their personal struggles, and the role played by Kangaroo Island in their lives.

    It was Nell who had shown Pearl the quiet private things of her childhood island. Not the ‘grand swathes’,as Diana mockingly called Nell’s constant imparting of local history, but the small gleaming things.

    p.133

    And we learn of Nell’s own history. Nell was born and raised on the island, and her first love was Sol, a boy from the farm next to Nell’s family. Sol is Aboriginal. When Nell falls pregnant she is sent away to Adelaide to have the baby—and her son is taken away for adoption. Her parents insist on this not just because of Nell’s youth, but also because they cannot live with the shame of their daughter bearing a mixed race child. Such were the attitudes of the time. This loss haunts Nell for the rest of her life. Its effects are felt by the children she has later, her daughters who mourn her death in their different ways.

    I love fiction with dual or multiple timelines. Novels like this allow me to look at a place, familiar in our own time, through a different lens. I can get a deeper sense of the way in which ‘history’ is never just in the past—it’s tendrils can be seen and felt in our own time, if we are open to that.

    Molly Murn’s novel is beautifully written, imbued with a deep sense of place and poetry.

    I’ve not yet been to Kangaroo Island. This novel makes me want to visit. And while I’m there, to watch out for the small gleaming things.

    Have you been prompted to visit a place because of a novel you have read about it? Let me know in the comments.

  • Books and reading

    Book Review & Reflections: ‘Teacher’ by Gabbie Stroud

    A copy of this book should be handed to anyone who expresses the view that “Teachers get so many holidays”, or “Teaching must be an easy job – look at the hours they work – 9 to 3 Mon to Fri and no weekend work.”

    For much of my working life, I was a teacher. Mostly in adult education, but a couple of years as a casual primary teacher, working across ages from kindergarten to year six. So I read Gabbie Stroud’s memoir of teaching in primary schools with interest. It might surprise you to know that much of what she describes about her experiences in working in primary education in Australia and the UK, is increasingly relevant to the vocational education and training situation as it currently stands, here in Australia.

    The tag line on the front cover of ‘Teacher’ reads: One woman’s struggle to keep the heart in teaching. The author’s heart shines out through her portrayal of her childhood years, her decision  to train to become a teacher, her first job in an East London school, teaching in Australian schools, including in socioeconomically disadvantaged regions and in a brand new school. Her approach to teaching was all about relationship – with her students of course, and also with parents, colleagues, and her schools’  communities.

    She describes her experience of burnout – an overwhelming workload, juggling time with too many things on the “to do” list, and the “stealthy encroachment of more and more demands for accountability, “evidence”, assessment grids and rubrics…A teacher could literally spend their working week creating the documentation required to teach.

    You might be thinking: Other occupations have these sorts of pressures. And you’d be right. Many people – nurses, social and community workers, doctors, aged care workers, people who work in childcare, would nod in recognition of the issues discussed in this book.

    For me, the fact that these workplace issues are so widespread, makes the arguments  put forward in this book more important, not less. Ms Stroud describes struggling with unsympathetic systems imposed from above, usually by people with no experience or understanding of education or teaching, and very little knowledge of what teachers, schools and students need to excel. The  introduction in Australian schools of  “NAPLAN” testing (standardised testing in literacy and numeracy), and a National Curriculum, are two examples examined here.

    One of my favourite lines in the book is a quote from one of the author’s colleagues: “All this collecting of evidence. Evidence for everything. I feel like I work for a crime squad.” (p.221)

    Sadly, this reliance on standardisation of teaching and assessment practices and “evidence” (a belated effort to stem the rise of less than reputable training organisations) has crept into the vocational education and training sector in Australia. It’s a lucrative market nowadays.

    What is often lost, is the importance of relationship and heart in the teaching and learning process. Teachers and students can get so focused on their grades and on completing assessment tasks that they have little time to think about actually teaching and learning. They lose sight of what they have achieved and what they can do. As the author states, it becomes a deficit approach to teaching and learning.

    I’ll leave the final word to Gabbie Stroud:
    We need to contemplate not only what we should teach our children, but also how we should teach them. And we must start valuing our teachers.” (p334)

    Postscript: Over the first weekend in March, my husband and I went to the Cobargo Folk Festival. It’s a lovely little festival in a beautiful part of the south coast of NSW. I was pleased and surprised to see in the program, a discussion panel called “What’s Happened to our Education System?” The three speakers were all enthusiastic, creative, professional teachers – who had all left teaching. (Though one of them, Nick Thornton, is about to return to the classroom, to focus on the educational needs of children who have experienced trauma.  And the second, Kate Liston-Mills, has completed a Librarian Studies course.) The third speaker was none other than Gabbie Stroud. It was a delight to meet her and hear her speak about her experiences and what prompted her to write the book.

    If you are interested in finding out more about her work, check out her website (I love the retro illustrations! Classic 1950’s twee) https://gabbiestroud.com/

  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘Terra Nullius’ by Claire Coleman

    This is the debut novel from Claire Coleman, a Noongar woman from southern Western Australia. The book was published in 2018 by Hachette Australia and it won the black&write! Fellowship in 2016, from the State Library of Queensland.

    It’s a hard book to describe, being one of those books that bend or fuse genres. The first half reads as historical fiction, based on all-too-real stories of the invasion and colonisation of Australia by Europeans, the bloody frontier wars, the massacres, the church run Missions and the Stolen Generations. It’s hard going, difficult and uncomfortable reading, but important reading for all Australians.

    Given that these awful events in our nation’s history have been told through story and in non-fiction works,  in films and songs, it is astounding to me that so many non-indigenous Australians can still plead ignorance, or worse, disinterest, in these darker parts of our history. While many of us are now proud to acknowledge our connections to other challenging periods of the Australian story, for example, our convict heritage, it does seem strange to me that some remain unable or unwilling to acknowledge the reality of what happened to indigenous people in this country. Let alone to respect the resilience and tenacity that enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to survive.

    Halfway through the book, we realise that what we are reading is, in fact, speculative fiction. It switches our viewpoint in a way that feels quite disconcerting, at least to begin with. It is cleverly done.

    The writing is at times clunky, with some repetition and  laboured sentences. But the overall effect of this book is to leave you thinking and wondering. What if? What would that be like? How would that feel?

    Which is, I believe, one of the best things that good fiction can bring: an increase in empathy.

    Have you read other fictional works that do this?
    Let me know in the comments below.

  • 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.