Books and reading
Colonial immigration scheme: ‘Single and Free’ by Elizabeth Rushen
When we think about immigration to Australia, what springs to mind is sailing ships carrying the first white immigrants: convicts and their military guards. Next, we might think of the huge post-war influx of people from war-torn Europe, followed by successive groups of refugees from other war affected regions: Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa.
Easily forgotten in this mix are the brave, resilient and (for some) desperate women who chose to be part of an early colonial scheme administered by the London Emigration Committee in the 1830’s.
Historian and author Elizabeth Rushen has written a fascinating account of the way the scheme was established, the women who volunteered, and their fates once they arrived in the colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania.)
There were fourteen ships altogether, which carried nearly 3000 single women from Britain and Ireland over a four-year period from 1833 to 1837.
Why did the colonial government invest time and money in such a scheme?
The main reason was the extreme gender imbalance in the colonies at the time. Male convicts and settlers outweighed women by over three men to each woman. This resulted in a shortage of female labour for the strictly gender-segregated jobs of domestic servant, governess, nurse, and agricultural roles such as dairy maid.
Also, the behavioural strictures and preoccupations of the period required women’s ‘moral’ influence to temper the behaviour of men. Not surprisingly, the applicants to the scheme needed to provide evidence of good behaviour and ‘respectability’.
Why would women volunteer for such an enormous, life-changing step? They left behind their homes, families, friends and communities, to face numerous perils and discomforts on a months-long voyage to an unknown place, where safety and decent employment could not be guaranteed.
Rushen’s research shows that, although the scheme initially aimed at recruiting poor women, there were in fact a mix of backgrounds of participants. Some of the women were indeed poor, desperate for an opportunity to make a living. Others were from educated middle class backgrounds. Some were simply up for a challenge, or a new life away from the constraints of their homeland.
The mismatch between the original aims and the realities of the scheme meant that the responses to the new arrivals were also mixed: ranging from welcome and support from some settlers to outright hostility from those who regarded the bounty immigrants as unfair competition for jobs, husbands, and homes.
The book is a deep dive into the scheme itself, the ships that brought the women to Australia, and especially, the women themselves. Who were they, why did they come, and what happened to them once they reached the colonies?
It’s a fascinating account of an often-overlooked episode of colonial history; and as Rushen concludes:
The vast majority of these women…made the voluntary decision to emigrate, their expatriation improving the quality of their lives…These were adventurous and courageous women who embraced the challenges of colonial life. (p176)
Single and Free: Female Migration to Australia 1833-1837
They contributed to the development of the colonies as domestic and agricultural workers, their enterprises as dressmakers, midwives and teachers, as wives and mothers of the rising generation. (back cover)
I have written before about the Good Girl Song Project and the musical production Voyage, which is based on the research and stories in this book. If you haven’t yet checked it out, do have a look at the website. It is a moving and entertaining portrayal through music and drama, of the experiences of some of the women who took part in this early colonial immigration scheme.
Single and Free: Female migration to Australia 1833-1837 was published by Anchor Books Australia, 2016
Trio of new picture books: ‘Grannysaurus’, ‘The Easter Bum Book’ & ‘Dorrie’
Three new picture books for young children celebrate family, dinosaurs, Easter fun and Australian literature.
Grannysaurus by UK best-selling David Walliams riffs on the enduring fascination of littlies for all things dinosaur, with a big dollop of Grandma love. (Whatever did youngsters get obsessed about before dinosaurs became a thing?)
Spike is on a sleepover with his Granny (who is a ‘cool’ grandma with spiky grey hair, big hoop earrings and fashionably round glasses.) He is reluctant to go to sleep but is finally in bed, when he hears the sounds of a party from downstairs. Creeping down to peek, he sees Granny turned into a big blue dinosaur, a spin-osaurus, spinning tunes on the deck, while an assortment of other dinosaurs dance all over the loungeroom. He encounters a tetchy triceratops on the loo, a plesiosaurus in the bath, and brachiosauruses bouncing on the bed. But when a huge T-Rex arrives, dapper in a bowler hat and carrying a walking cane, who flicks Spike out to the moon with his tail, he decides to take himself off to bed at last.
It’s a fun bedtime story with big, colourful illustrations and interesting vocabulary (exploded, lumbering, exclaimed, flicked, surfed, stomped…)
Grannysaurus is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2023.
The Easter Bum Book is a follow-up to Kate Mayers and Andrew Joyner’s Christmas Bum Book, published in 2022. Now, I said in my piece about the first ‘Bum Book’ that I do feel a little bit jaded by the plethora of bums in children’s books. That still stands; however as with its earlier cousin, this new book offers a playfulness about common Easter themes in its text and illustrations, with some sly references to popular culture thrown in (who remembers Tiny Tim’s ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips?) Very young children will enjoy the pictures of all things Easter, cleverly morphed into all things bums.
The Easter Bum Book is also published by HarperCollins Children’s Books and arrives just in time for Easter 2023.
The third of my trio today is another Australian offering, this one about an iconic Australian children’s book author and illustrator. Written and illustrated by Tania McCartney, Dorrie tells the story of Dorothy Wall, the creator of the classic Blinky Bill stories. Overseas readers may not know of the cuddly Australian koala, whose mischievous nature takes him on all sorts of adventures. He has been a much-loved character of Australian children’s literature since he first appeared in the 1930’s; in the 1990’s he starred in a movie and TV series.
Dorothy Wall is one of those well-known Australians claimed by both New Zealand and Australia – a bit like the pavlova! In Dorrie we read about her childhood in New Zealand where she wrote stories, created all sorts of lovely things on her sewing machine, played music and danced.
Her creativity came with her to Australia, which is where she first met Blinky and the stories about him took shape.
Dorrie is a gentle and imaginative telling of the story of Blinky and his creator, beautifully illustrated by the author in soft colours that capture the tints of the Australian landscape in which Blinky lives.
It’s published by HarperCollins in February 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for copies of these books to review.
Delightful take on 40’s noir: ‘The Woman Who Knew Too Little’ by Olivia Wearne
This is an account – with a twist – of the discovery and subsequent investigation of the ‘Somerton Man’ affair: one of the longest running unsolved mysteries in Australian history. In this re-telling of the events, it is a woman who narrates the story.
In 1948, the body of a man is found dead at Somerton, an Adelaide beach. He is dressed well in a nice suit and good shoes – with all the clothing labels removed. He has no wallet or any possessions to identify him, and he is found sitting on the sand against the sea wall.
He is first seen by Kitty Wheeler, a member of ‘Women Police’, tasked with patrolling streets and beaches in what is essentially a social welfare role. She and her partner spot the man but mistake his stillness for drunken sleep, and they decide to let the fellow sleep it off.
When the mystery of the unknown man takes over the city’s police and newspapers, Kitty regrets the missed opportunity to be part of the investigation of the year, if not the decade.
The setting of a novel about a female police constable against the backdrop of a famous mystery allows Olivia Wearne to examine the mores and values of the time. Kitty loves her work, despite the frustrating restrictions imposed on women, who are relegated to the so-called ‘soft’ issues of brothels, child welfare, domestic violence, vagrancy. Rarely allowed to be a part of an actual investigation, she still manages to inveigle herself into key aspects of the Somerton Man case, but she needs persistence and occasionally, impertinence, to be even heard by the ‘real’ police – the male detectives – handling the case.
She also has family issues to contend with, and a loyal and loving fiancé who is eager for her to tie the knot – which Kitty knows would be the end of her policing career. As the days go by, she becomes more and more obsessed with the Somerton Man investigation, consumed by the need to know who he was.
This is very much a character driven novel, with a cast of personalities who come to life in the pages. The pacing was a little slow for me at times, but this was more than compensated by the brilliant use of clever language and descriptive writing. There is witty dialogue as Kitty (at times an ascerbic, prickly sort) engages with her colleagues, members of the public and family, capturing workplace and family dynamics brilliantly. The author makes inventive use of simile and metaphor that gave me some laugh-out-loud moments:
Almost every passenger on the trolley held a newspaper up to their faces. MISSING FATHER AND SON FOUND IN MACABRE DISCOVERY. When the car pitched and swayed the commuters moved with it, like some jolly choreographed performance. Under cover of newsprint, they were feasting on the story, gorging on the Mangnosons’ misfortune.The Woman Who Knew Too Little pp220 &367
Peter let his head sink between his stooped shoulders. A forlorn droop, like a houseplant desperate for water. His torso rose and fell as he heaved in resignation. He hauled himself onto his feet, leaving his head hanging, and addressed his leather boots, whose untied laces appeared to be slithering away from him: ‘I think we need some time apart.’
The delightful cover and title advertise the book’s intent perfectly: take a well-known and long-lasting mystery from the 1940’s, marry it with tropes from classic noir novels and film, then mix it in with delicious irony and wickedly observant swipes and the hypocrisies of the time.
The Woman Who Knew Too Little is published by HQ Fiction in February 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Terrific debut: ‘The House of Now and Then’ by Jo Dixon
Australian author Jo Dixon has written a terrific debut novel about youth, longing, family – and the hurt that secrets can inflict, even decades old ones.
Set in Tasmania (one of my favourite parts of the country) it has a dual timeline structure.
In 1986, we meet Pippa, a restless and adventurous young soul, house sitting with her best friend Jeremy and his girlfriend Rebecca. On a New Year’s Eve outing in Hobart, she falls head over heels with Leo, whose controlling, conservative parents have mapped out his future at university and a law firm. Leo is not so sure, and with Pippa’s encouragement, he decides to contradict his parents and forge his own way in the world.
Before he can do so, tragedy strikes, and a secret is buried that will have consequences decades later.
In 2017, Olivia is living in the same house on Hobart’s outskirts, hiding out from the world and trying to heal from a sordid ‘revenge porn’ and blackmail affair that sent her promising life skittering out of control. One day, a young man, Tom, knocks at the door and asks for her help. Does she know anything about Pippa, the young woman who used to live in the house? He has just arrived from England with an envelope to give to Pippa, on behalf of his recently deceased father, Jeremy.
Olivia and Tom’s quest to find Pippa leads them down a twisty path of long-buried resentments, lies and hidden crimes. When they finally uncover the truth, it is beyond anything they might have guessed, and will have profound implications for everyone involved.
The characters are wonderful: totally believable, complex, yet recognisable. The Tasmanian setting is vividly drawn: if you have been to Hobart and its surrounds you will recognise it; if not, it might very well make you want to go there.
This is not a ‘crime’ novel in the usual sense of a police procedural or of gritty portrayals of serial killers. It’s actually a story about families. About the wonderful and the sometimes-terrible things that can occur in a family, and how our lives are shaped by the people who raise us. There’s a suitably surprising twist that kept me turning the pages and a gratifying, though not saccharine, ending. Not all the loose ends are neatly tied in a bow, but there is hope and a sense of realistic optimism.
I enjoyed this novel very much. I hope Jo Dixon is preparing her next manuscript; I look forward to reading it.
The House of Now and Then is published by HQ Fiction in January 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Every parent’s nightmare: ‘Taken’ by Dinuka McKenzie
The tagline of Australian author Dinuka McKenzie’s second novel, Taken, is: A parent’s worst nightmare. So, we know from the start that this will be a story about a missing or abducted child. Every parent’s nightmare, indeed.
Detective Sergeant Kate Miles has recently returned to work from maternity leave. Her first case is the disappearance of a newborn baby, Sienna.
Kate works the case while trying to walk the tightrope that all working parents must face. She must balance the heavy demands of her police job with those of her family: husband Geoff, four-year-old Archie, and her own newborn daughter, Amy.
She’s also under pressure from an unfolding public scandal related to her father, a retired police officer.
How Amy came into the world (early, due to trauma suffered by her mother in the line of duty) is the subject of McKenzie’s first novel, Torrent.
There are several things I enjoyed about this novel.
I love that it is set in the Northern Rivers’ region of NSW, a change from the arid outback settings that feature in much recent Australian crime fiction. I enjoy the outback settings too; Taken provides a change of scenery and pace that is refreshing, and (for a coastal dweller like me) more familiar.
I also love that Kate’s problems are a welcome change from the common detective-with-demons scenarios such as alcoholism or a murky past. Kate’s struggles are recognisable to many women: dealing with the physical and emotional demands of breastfeeding, for example, while doing a job that is essentially unpredictable.
She must also try to smooth things at home with Geoff, who is growing increasingly dissatisfied with the full-time dad role that financial and family circumstances have demanded.
The novel explores the tragedy of infant death, no matter the cause, and intimate partner abuse and violence. It also has something to say about the importance of communication with those we love or must work with; and how assumptions can lead us into troublesome situations.
Taken kept me turning the pages to the end and is a satisfying read. I’ll now be on the lookout for a copy of the earlier book, Torrent.
Taken is published by HarperCollins Publishers in February 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Family snapshots: ‘A Country of Eternal Light’ by Paul Dalgarno
Reading this novel felt rather like flipping through a pile of family photo albums, with a member of that family sitting beside you and explaining the snapshots as you go.
The person doing the explaining in the book is the protagonist, Margaret Byrne: estranged from her husband Harry, mother of adult twin daughters, loving grandmother to two little boys – and deceased since 2014.
Margaret takes the reader through her memories, in no particular order, encompassing her childhood and youth in Aberdeen, Scotland, her years as wife and mother, her daughters’ grown-up lives and families in Australia and Spain, her diagnosis with cancer in 2012, subsequent treatment, and her death.
She is, it seems, condemned to be an onlooker as events play out, those at which she was alive and present, and others where she is a mere observer. She is a wry, humorous commentator, all too aware of her own foibles and weaknesses and those of others. Especially after her death, when she longs to kiss or hold her grandsons, or speak to her daughters, but is obstructed by her lack of – well, a body or voice.
The narrative is like a stream of consciousness, the sort that could very well occur as photos prompt reminiscences and anecdotes. Once I grew accustomed to the style of the novel, I found it delightful.
There are reflections on family, living and dying: on children, change and growth, along with episodes that she would much rather forget:
It’s amazing how completely you can block things out when you want or need to, and how deeply people can take this to heart… I felt ambushed – not by Rachel and not in that moment, but my preconceptions of her over the years, the sense that my instincts had been held repeatedly and unknowingly to ransom by my motherly myopia. I felt guilty for not seeing Rachel for what she was, blindsided and blind by my beautiful daughter.A Country of Eternal Light p186-187
There are references to events that occurred after Margaret’s death: the Black Summer bushfires in Australia in the summer of 2019, for example, and the Covid pandemic soon after. Her bewilderment at observing people walking outside wearing face masks was a nice touch: we are so accustomed to this sight now, but what would an alien from Mars have made of Earthlings during the pandemic, I wonder?
The single thing I did not like about this novel was the profound twist at the end, which (in the interests of not being a plot spoiler, I won’t divulge.) On reflection, I think it was there to make a point about the fragility of memory, and the different ways in which humans cope with grief.
A Country of Eternal Light is essentially a book about vulnerability. I found it to be an immersive and thought-provoking novel, with vividly drawn character and settings, evocative prose, and moments of humour, sweetness and melancholy.
A Country of Eternal Light is published by Fourth Estate in February 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Holiday nightmare: ‘Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six’ by Lisa Unger
A Google search for this novel showed just how well author Lisa Unger nailed its title. I found as many listings for actual holiday rentals as ones for the book itself.
This book might make you reconsider the advantages of ‘seclusion’ and ‘luxury’ when choosing your next Airbnb rental. In a similar vein to Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers, the novel centres around three young American couples meeting up at a luxury retreat. The rental host is not quite as weird as Masha at Moriarty’s Tranquillium… though Bracken is pretty weird now I think about it.
There is Mako, uber-wealthy self-made businessman and his beautiful wife Liza; Mako’s sister Hannah and her husband Bruce; and Hannah’s best friend and Mako’s high school sweetheart, Cricket, with her new boyfriend Josh.
Each of the individuals have secrets and concerns they are hiding from the others. And each couple has its own issues needing resolution. These are gradually revealed throughout the novel by chapters with alternating points of view.
And there are two additional characters: Henry and Trina, whose role in the drama is initially unclear but who are integral to events as they play out.
This is a modern-day twisty psychological thriller which will keep you guessing as the characters, and their mistakes and problems, emerge from the pages. It is a perfect summer read.
Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six was published by HQ Fiction in November 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Jackie French magic: ‘Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom’ Book #2 in Girls Who Changed the World
Jackie French is back with another historical story mixed with a touch of speculative fiction: Book #2 in the ‘Girls Who Changed the World’ series for middle grade readers.
Book #1 introduced Ming Qong, a twelve-year-old Australian girl who wants more from her school history lessons than the stories of men who won wars or invented things. Where were all the girls and women? Didn’t they do important things too, things that changed the world? Why aren’t their stories told?
In Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom, Ming is thrown back to the time of World War I, to Belgium in 1916. This time, her brother Tuan is with her.
They meet Marie, a youngster like them. Marie’s parents were killed, and her village and home destroyed by the German army, early in the war. Gradually Ming realises that Marie is working with the resistance group called ‘La Dame Blanche’ (The White Lady.) These women, men, girls and boys work locally, observing German troop movements, counting ammunition deliveries at the local railway station, passing food and supplies to those in need, hiding Belgians or Allied soldiers wanted by the Germans. They work in great secrecy: Ming and Tuan learn to guard what they say.
Ming even learns to knit in order to create coded messages in a scarf or quilt square that communicates important information via signals in the number or type of stitches: movements of troop trains, numbers of soldiers, trains carrying ordnance, dates and times. This was a technique actually used in Belgium by women during the war – one thing you can always count on in a Jackie French novel is the accuracy of historical details she includes.
The other type of work Ming experiences is foraging for firewood and food to feed and warm the orphans cared for in an unofficial ‘home’ by local women. Keeping civilians alive during wartime is also a form of resistance, usually performed by women and girls.
The clue to how Ming’s presence helps to change the trajectory of the war is revealed at the end. But the underlying message is threaded right throughout the story: the often overlooked and hidden role that women have always played in world history.
World War I was – big. A million stories or a million million, the story of every person who was there, or was affected by it across the world, for generations after it happened. Women’s stories had been lost in its vastness…Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom p 271-272
‘Hundreds of thousands of women, possibly millions, all through that war,’ said Herstory quietly. ‘The women of World War I are remembered as nurses or mothers, sisters, wives or sweethearts waiting for the men they loved, not as resistance workers, intelligence agents, soldiers and others who fought too. So much work, and sacrifice and courage, all deleted. Tell their stories, because even now the world seems intent on forgetting.’
There are some difficult scenes, including an explosion of a trainload of mustard gas, the diabolical new German weapon to be unleashed at the front. Readers are not spared the suffering of those in the path of war.
Importantly, there is also hope for the future, and an emphasis that it can be small actions by unseen or overlooked people, that can result in big changes to make the world a better place.
Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in August 2022.
Final 2022 Reading Challenge Results
I’m happy to say that my final two reading challenges for 2022 are complete.
For the #AussieAuthor22 challenge, I aimed for the ‘Kangaroo’ level, which meant 12 books by Aussie authors, of which at least 3 had to be by female writers, 3 by male, 3 by an author new to me, and across at least 3 genres.
I showed my (usual) clear bias towards female authors by reading 24 books. 4 books were by male authors, and 16 by authors new to me (which I’m pleased about as I like to expand my choice of authors.) And finally, 12 were from various different genres, including contemporary fiction, middle grade and young adult fiction, historical fiction (of course!), history, biography, fantasy and crime. As always, being part of a book group contributes to a wider range of titles and authors than I might otherwise choose (and a big thanks to my book group members for great reading and discussions this year.)
My stand-out reads from Australian writers?
After Story by Larissa Behrendt
27 Letters to My Daughter by Ella Ward
Tongerlongeter by Henry Reynolds & Nicholas
Tiny Uncertain Miracles by Michelle Johnson
Now to the #histficreadingchallenge:
In 2022 I aimed for the ‘Mediaeval’ level, committing to reading 15 books of historical fiction, which I achieved. Just over 2/3 of those were by female authors. I guess that means that I’m more attracted to historical stories by women – perhaps because of the focus on the lives of women in the past that are so often obscured in both fiction and non-fiction?
My favourite historical fiction reads for 2022?
The Secret World of Connie Starr by Robbi Neal
The Silence of Water by Sharron Booth
The Brightest Star by Emma Harcourt
And now for 2023:
I’ll be participating in all three challenges from this year again.
For the Historical Fiction Challenge, once again I’ll be going for the ‘Mediaeval’ reader with 15 books.
In the Aussie Author Challenge, my goal will be ‘Kangaroo’ – 12 books.
And for the Non-fiction challenge I’ll again be a ‘Nibbler’ – 6 books from any of the 12 categories.
What have been your reading favourites or achievements this year? What are you aiming for in 2023?
Do let me know in the comments – I always love hearing about other people’s highlights. And happy reading!
All about empathy: ‘Waiting for the Storks’ by Katrina Nannestad
Australian author Katrina Nannestad is back with another in her series for middle-grade readers, about children in WWII Europe. This one is about Polish youngsters stolen by the Nazis to further their hideous Lebensborn program, during which children and babies who looked ‘Aryan’ were taken to be Germanised and adopted into German families.
The earlier books in this series, We Are Wolves and Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief dealt with the experiences of some German and Russian children.
All of the stories are about empathy: understanding that there are always many ‘sides’ in warfare, and that children and non-combatants are always the victims, regardless of which side they come from.
In Waiting for the Storks, Zofia is eight years old when she is kidnapped and taken away to become a ‘good German girl.’ The story accurately and sympathetically captures the ways in which brainwashing techniques such as punishment and reward, isolation and repetition are used to achieve the desired outcome – in this case, a complete obliteration of Zofia’s memories of her loving Polish family and home, and adoption of her new German identity.
There are small acts of resistance. A lovely scene is in the camp as the children are forced to learn German, where they use the meaningless phrases they are being taught in a way that expresses their defiance:
The nurse nods, satisfied. She walks away, but we keep speaking in German, because nurses have stethoscope ears and pinchy fingers and slappy hands and bad tempers.Waiting for the Storks p76
‘Hello’, says Kat, ‘I am a boy.’
‘Hello, says Jadwiga, rubbing her bald head. ‘I am a potato.’
‘Goodbye,’ says Maria. ‘I must go to the bathroom.’
We’re giggling now, sniggering into our soup. Even little Ewa. It’s brilliant, because we’re obeying the rules with our words, but not in our hearts.
A family game (‘Make a choice!) is used effectively as a motif throughout the story. So, where the choices with her parents were fun and light-hearted (Cream on your salami or gravy on your poppyseed cake? Make a choice!) they now become a survival strategy (Polish or German? Make a choice! and Orphan or beloved daughter? Make a choice!)
The descriptions of the ‘Germanisation’ process are quite realistic and troubling. This is a book for mature younger readers who can deal with themes of sadness, loss, cruelty. The rewards are many, though, including a deeper understanding of the best and worst in humans. There is light and hope at the end which I believe is important for readers of this age group.
Waiting for the Storks is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.