• 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

    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

    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

    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.