• Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: The French Photographer by Natasha Lester

    The French Photographer by Natasha Lester. Hachette, published 2019.

    The French Photographer is this Perth-based author’s fourth work of historical fiction. Her books have been published in fairly quick succession from 2016-2019. I do marvel at such an output, as Lester’s novels are meaty with historical detail which would involve much research (although, as she pointed out at an author talk at Newtown’s ‘Better Read than Dead’ bookstore recently, research involving travel to Paris and a French chateau isn’t all hard slog.)

    Her historical fiction works are also lush with settings like New York, Paris, and the French countryside, handsome heroes and beautiful protagonists. Now, if that sounds like a recipe for your classic ‘romance’, perhaps think again. Yes, her novels have a strong romance element with love and heartbreak often sharing the stage. The covers are lusciously beautiful, something I greatly enjoy. What I most enjoy about books like The French Photographer, though, is that they pay homage to those women from the past, who chose a path not normally available to women in their time.

    In the case of The French Photographer, the heroine is Jessica May, fashion model turned war photographer and correspondent for Vogue magazine during the Second World War. Inspired by and based on the life of real-life model turned war correspondent Lee Miller, Jessica’s path takes her from posing for photographs to taking them, and from New York’s high life at the beginning of World War Two, to the blood, filth, butchery and despair of the war fronts in Italy, Belgium, France and Germany. On the way she meets and eventually falls in love with Dan Hallworth, the requisite handsome hero who becomes her loyal and honourable friend, then lover.

    Amidst the political nonsense and misogynistic attitudes of the US Army, and concerted efforts to prevent women correspondents from getting anywhere near the war action in order to write about it, Jess has to fight her own battles, just to be allowed to do her job. The author has researched this aspect of the story particularly well and readers can trust that the more outlandish sounding reasons why women were not allowed the freedom to do this work properly, were actually trotted out at the time. Some of it is jaw dropping stuff.

    Like her previous novel The Paris Seamstress (2018), this one has a dual timeline and involves complicated relationships between a modern day granddaughter, D’Arcy, her mother Victorine, and her grandmother. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who has not yet read the novel by saying more about that. But I will mention that the character Victorine is based on a little girl that the author saw, in a newsreel about the exodus from Paris as the German army approached.

    Natasha Lester’s admiration for Miller, the woman who inspired this story, shines from every page. Miller did not have an easy life and after the war, her ground-breaking work, photographing and writing about what she saw and experienced in Europe, was virtually forgotten. Jessica May, similarly, faces heartbreak and loss. There is no ‘happy ever after’ ending in this story – perhaps another feature which distinguishes it from the conventional romance story arc.

    As with all good historical fiction, while reading this book I was inspired to look up Miller, to learn more about her and to see examples of her astounding photographic work, as well as her pre-war work as a model.

    So thank you, Natasha Lester, for opening another door in the hidden history of women.


  • Books and reading,  History

    Book Review: ‘Fled’ by Meg Keneally

    Published by Echo Publishing 2019

    What a rip-roaring tale this is! Based on the adventurous and tragic life of Mary Bryant, a convict in the First Fleet, this historical novel tells the story of Jenny Trelawney, a Cornish woman transported for ‘highway robbery’ on the First Fleet ship Charlotte.

    Author Meg Keneally says in her author’s note that she chose to fictionalise her protagonist because it felt better to have a fictional character who could fully own her ‘thoughts, emotions and beliefs’. This speaks to how rare it is to find first person accounts by convict women. We have written records (journals, letters and so on) by privileged women, such as Governor Macquarie’s wife Elizabeth amongst others, but very few accounts by the less fortunate women who made the trip from England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland in the hold of a convict ship, rather than as free emigrants. I assume this is, in part, because many convict women could not read or write. Perhaps the expense of paper and ink was another barrier to recording their experiences. And I can also guess that the crowded, often damp convict quarters below decks would not have been kind to paper, had they been able to afford it.

    Meg Keneally has done a sterling job of working with the historical records as they stand, and imagining the rest. She has changed some historical events and timelines to better fit her narrative.

    We meet Jenny in her home town in Cornwall, coping with the death of her father and then of her baby brother, and her mother’s subsequent descent into depression, poverty and self neglect. Jenny begins thieving to support herself and provide food for her mother. And then she is caught, arrested, tried and sentenced. Off to the new colony of New South Wales, the great social and judicial experiment embarked on by England to rid itself of its ‘criminal class.’

    Jenny is a not entirely sympathetic character, but we quickly begin to empathise with her and her situation. She falls pregnant to a man on the hulk she is imprisoned on before her transportation and so bears a daughter on the voyage to Australia, a girl named for the ship on which she is born. Jenny survives the horrors of the voyage and on arrival at Sydney Cove, almost immediately marries a convict. This was a choice made by many convict women – marriage offered some protection in an environment in which there was almost no duty of care shown by guards and officials towards the convicts.

    Jenny and her husband Dan have a son, but little Emanuel is born into a colony facing starvation. Watching her children become thinner and weaker by the day, Jenny makes a decision – she and her husband must take the two little ones and escape. As they are both from Cornwall, skilled at fishing and boats, the logical escape route seems to be by the sea itself.

    And that’s what they do – steal the government cutter and some supplies, and in the dark of night they sail out of Sydney Heads and set their course north. And here their adventures begin…as if they had not already had enough adventures for one lifetime!

    I won’t give away any more of the plot, although if you know the original Mary Bryant’s story you can guess at much of the rest, with a few differences. It’s a tale of heroism, determination, tragedy and love, with some stupidity and cruelty thrown in. Another reminder of the dramas of our history – crammed full as it is with ordinary people facing the sorts of dangers and hardships that most of today’s Australians could only try to imagine.

    Meg Keneally has done a wonderful service to this incredible, larger- than- life story. Her Jenny Trelawney is an Australian literary heroine to be proud of.

  • Books and reading

    Book Review: ‘Nevermoor’ by Jessica Townsend

    ‘Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow’ by Jessica Townsend

    LothianBooks 2017

    This is the first in the Nevermoor series of YA/children’s author, Australian Jessica Townsend. It has won many awards and commendations, including: Winner, Dymocks Book of the Year 2018, QBD Children’s Book of the Year 2018, Book of the Year for Younger Children, ABIA 2018, Indie Books Awards 2018, Aurealis Awards 2017, Waterstones Children’s Book Prize (UK) 2018, a CBCA Notable Book.

    I don’t read a lot in the fantasy genre nowadays, but this book was recommended to me by a friend. It is a rollicking tale of magic, centred around the adventures of young Morrigan Crow, who lives an unloved life in a drab and predictable town. Marked at birth as a ‘cursed child’ along with others born on Eventide, held to be an unlucky day, Morrigan is blamed for all the misfortunes of others, and doomed to die on Eventide when she turns eleven.

    Enter Jupiter North, her mysterious rescuer, who whisks Morrigan away from the threat of the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow and brings her to the magical city of Nevermoor. Here Morrigan is ensconced in the Hotel Deucalion, which magically changes the shapes of its rooms and fittings, and she learns that she must pass a series of trials if she is to be allowed to remain…

    I liked several things about this book. One is the humour that imbues every chapter. Despite some scenes that are a bit scary, even younger readers will appreciate the insouciance of Jupiter, the mild cynicism of his nephew Jack, the daredevil nature of Morrigan’s new friend Hawthorn, and especially, the sarcasm and bossiness of Fenestra, the giant Magnificat in charge of hotel housekeeping.

    Another is of course, the magic. Occasionally reminiscent of the brilliant world building to be found in the Harry Potter novels by JK Rowling, Nevermoor’s magic is nonetheless unique, surprising and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny.

    Morrigan is an endearing protagonist. Smart and brave but full of self- doubt and uncertainty, she yearns for friendship and belonging, both of which she finds in Nevermoor. There are plenty of heart-warming moments, along with the magic and quirky humour.

    And speaking of heart, a real theme of the novel is exactly that. There is a strong element of exploration of what it means to belong. Because Morrigan has not yet successfully completed the trials which will allow her to remain in Nevermoor, she is dogged by the City’s police force for being a ‘filthy illegal’. Inspector Flintlock berates Jupiter North for not handing Morrigan over for immediate deportation: reminders of the decidedly unmagical and unsympathetic scenes being played out in real life, all over our globe. So, while Nevermoor is a fantasy novel, it manages to hold within it messages to us all about caring, humanity and belonging.

  • 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

    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,  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

    What I’m listening to… Audio book version of ‘Nine Perfect Strangers’ by Liane Moriarty

    I’ve just finished  the audio book version of Liane Moriarty’s new release, Nine Perfect Strangers. I’ve ‘read’
    (listened to) several books by this best selling author. The audio versions are terrific as the narrator captures the very Australian voice and tone of the books. I admire Liane Moriarty’s characters and dialogue; they are very believable, contemporary and often funny to boot. I always recognise one or two people I ‘know’ in her cast of characters.

    Having also listened to the audio book and watched the TV adaptation of Big Little Lies, I was a bit sorry that the producers chose to change the setting from beach side Sydney to beach side California. Though of course, there are plenty of similarities. I heard an interview with Liane in which she said she was fine with it. She regarded the book and the series as two separate entities. Probably a very sensible approach: otherwise I’m sure it would be hard as an author to let go of your ‘baby’.

    Moriarty’s fiction could be regarded as ‘Chick Lit’ (a term I dislike, by the way, because to me it implies frivolity, ‘escapism’ and shallow themes.)  The novels I have read by Liane Moriarty have been anything but shallow. Her characters are flawed, complex, likeable and understandable. Her books deal with many of the big themes in contemporary life. Nine Perfect Strangers touches on teen suicide and family grief, divorce, mid life crises (the male and female variety), mental illness, illicit drugs, celebrity worship, money, the fast pace of the modern world, addictions (to drugs, exercise, social media…)
    It’s a cornucopia of  issues, stories and personalities in a big, satisfying novel.