• Books and reading,  History

    Thought-provoking: ‘Land’ by Simon Winchester

    The new book by prolific non fiction author Simon Winchester takes a sweeping look at the topic of land in a broad sense. Subtitled How the hunger for ownership shaped the modern world, the book’s opening introduces the author’s personal take on his ownership of a piece of land in northeastern USA, and in the process introduces the sorry history of the dispossession of the First Nations people in that corner of America.

    Coming back to fundamentals, the author then tells the story of how the Earth was first measured; a tale of mathematics and precise instruments put to the task in the nineteenth century.

    Then came the astonishing proposal to create a common map of the world – ‘a common map for a common humanity’ – put forward by Professor Albrecht Penck, an Austrian geographer. It was not surprising to learn that this project, embarked upon with such lofty idealism, was a fraught endeavour that eventually foundered on the rocks of divisions, rancour, rivalry and ineptitude after nearly a century of effort.

    Winchester examines what makes borders; how human-created borders have resulted in absurdities and bloodshed; how in more recent times and with huge effort, the Dutch created land to live on and farm from the North Sea; the link between land and national identity and ways of doing things.

    He returns to America to recount the brutal disgrace of settler land grabs and broken treaties in the westward movement of the nineteenth century; then explains the legacies of enclosure laws and clearances in England and Scotland; the effects of colonialism in various parts of the world including Australia, New Zealand, the African continent, India and Pakistan and the Middle East.

    The book is full of startling snippets of information like this:

    A quarter of the world’s population lives on land in which, though individual citizens may not know it, they exist in a notionally feudal relationship with the British Crown.

    Land p195

    That quote alone should fire up the passions of supporters of the idea of Australia becoming a republic!

    Almost every part of the world is included in the embrace of this book: from the Ukraine (Stalin’s disastrous and murderous ‘collectivisation’ of farms in the 1930’s), to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII; the contradictions and confusions of the Treaty of Waitangi, struck with New Zealand’s Maoris; and the destruction caused by industrialisation and exploitation of the Earth’s resources across the globe.

    Winchester argues that the once firmly held belief that ‘land is the only thing that lasts’ is no longer true, due to rising sea levels and encroachment on low lying regions and islands. He offers examples of changing attitudes and methods of managing and conserving land, including from my own part of the world, Australia: widespread catastrophic bushfires in the summer of 2019-20 have led to a re-think of fire management and a growing respect for traditional ‘cool burning’ methods practised here for thousands of years by First Nations people.

    Land is an engrossing and thought provoking read. Readers who enjoy learning about history, geography, maps, as well as the contradictions of human behaviour, will enjoy the mix of anecdote and analysis with which Winchester packs a lot of information into a very readable package.

    Land is published by William Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in January 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Welcome 2021: New reading challenges

    As noted in an earlier post, 2020 was (apart from everything else that was so very wrong about it) a bumper reading year for me. I embark on the new year in a spirit of optimism that I’ll be able to keep up my reading to similar levels, and to that end I am once again signing up for several reading challenges.

    First, the 2021 Non Fiction Reader Challenge. I’ll opt for the Non Fiction Nibbler category, in which I’ll aim to read 6 non fiction books from any of the Challenge’s 12 categories.

    The Australian Women’s Writers Challenge is one I have participated in for several years now, and as the majority of books I read do tend to be by Australian women, I’m confident of meeting the target of the Franklin challenge, which is to read 10 books (and review at least 6 of them)

    The Aussie Author Challenge overlaps with the AWW Challenge, except books can be by male and female authors. In 2021 my goal is to reach the Kangaroo level, where I’ll have read 12 books (4 by male, 4 by female, 4 by authors new to me, and across at least 3 different genres).

    I’m adding a new challenge for 2021: the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, which I’m pretty sure will be a shoo-in as I adore historical fiction. I’ll read at least two books set in the 20th Century and five set in Victorian times for this one.

    A personal challenge of mine, begun a few years ago, is to read as many books by First Nations authors as I can. It’s a delight to see so many wonderful works being published nowadays so this one is indeed a pleasure.

    Whatever else 2021 might bring, I do hope it’s a year of entering new worlds, different times and places, adventure, mystery, love and warfare, faith and hope – all through the pages of some great books.

    Happy New Year everyone.

    Image by Magda Ehlers at pexels

    #2021ReadNonFic
    #AWW2021
    #AussieAuthor21
    #histficchallenge

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books,  Life: bits and pieces

    2020: A Bumper Year of Books

    Image courtesy of Evie Schaffer

    When I searched for an image to use for this ‘2020 retrospective’ post I was amazed (and amused) by the number of pictures of vaccination syringes, masks, and other Covid-19 references. I did not want this post to be about Covid-19 – or at least, not the devastating effects of the pandemic, with which we are all too familiar.

    What I wanted to write about was the silver lining in the Covid cloud, for me anyway (and I suspect, many others around the world.) 2020 turned out to be a bumper year of reading!

    I have read at least 74 books this year. This includes hard copy, e-book and audiobook formats, adults and children’s books, fiction and non-fiction. I had signed up to three reading challenges, all of which I completed with ease: Aussie Author Challenge, Non-Fiction Challenge, and Australian Women Writers Challenge.

    I read books from my local library (in e-book format while lockdown restrictions were in place); books gifted to me; books I reviewed for publishers; and books chosen for the book group I belong to.

    Just some of the many wonderful books I’ve enjoyed in 2020

    My standout reads for the year?
    There are quite a few. Here are some:

    A Room of Leaves by Kate Grenville
    Benevolence by Julie Janson
    Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch
    Tell Me Why by Archie Roach
    SongSpirals by the Gay’wu Group of Women
    The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
    The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
    The Yield by Tara June Winch
    The Love that Remains by Susan Francis
    The People of the River by Grace Karskens
    Searching for Charlotte by Kate Forsyth & Belinda Murrell
    and for a picture book…Aunty’s Wedding by Miranda Tapsell

    My congratulations and thanks to the wonderful, talented authors, editors, publishers, illustrators, book designers, and booksellers who managed to keep the writing and reading show on the road during a tumultuous year. All of which brought great joy and solace to readers such as myself.

    Let’s all look forward to more fabulous literary treats (and I hope, I better year in every respect) in 2021.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    An absolute delight: ‘Searching for Charlotte’ by Kate Forsyth & Belinda Murrell

    It was fitting that my final book review in 2020 is for a book whose publication I’ve anticipated for over a year, since I heard Kate Forsyth speak about her 4x Great-Grandmother Charlotte at a women’s literary festival in 2019. A little later, I was lucky enough to see a copy of Charlotte’s book at a Rare Book Week event at the State Library of NSW.

    I was so keen I pre-ordered a copy and it was sitting on my shelf for a bit, while I got through some other books on my to-be-read pile.

    The story of Charlotte Waring Atkinson had attracted me for several reasons. Firstly, there was a literary mystery: who was the author of the very first children’s book published in Australia? – until 1981 when Charlotte was identified as the author.

    Secondly, and perhaps more importantly to me personally, I related to the story of this woman who arrived in New South Wales in the 1820’s, and to the search by the authors (sisters Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell) for information about her origins and her life.

    Her arrival in Australia occurred at around the same time as that of several of my ancestors, some of whom I have been researching and writing about. Charlotte’s first husband originally hailed from the English county of Kent, from where my great-grandfather (many times over) originated.

    Later in life, Charlotte and her daughter lived for a time at Kurrajong, very close to where I grew up in the tiny hamlet of Bilpin, just a few kilometres along the Bells Line of Road in the Blue Mountains.

    Also, Charlotte lived so many of the experiences of women in the nineteenth century: an extraordinary and dangerous journey across the seas to an unknown land; pregnancy and childbirth at a time when both of these meant death for so many women; violence at the hands of men; great love and happiness, at least for a time; love for and dedication to her children; horrifying inequities under the law including in financial and family matters.

    In tracing Charlotte’s story, the authors bring to life these aspects of women’s lives – some of which have, thankfully, changed; while others appear remarkably similar today.

    This book is more than a biography of an accomplished colonial writer, artist, naturalist. It is also a memoir of the authors’ own journeys of discovery – about themselves, their families, their connections to the past. Here is a beautiful quote which perfectly expresses how I feel about the links between the past and present:

    On her wrist, my mother wears the charm bracelet that has been handed down to the women of my family for six generations. The golden links of its chain, hung with tiny tinkling charms, seems to me like a metaphor for the miraculous spiral of our DNA, the coiling ladder that connects us all, both to our far-distant ancestors and to our unborn descendants.

    Searching for Charlotte p274

    I appreciated that the authors did not shrink from acknowledging some of the more difficult aspects of their ancestors’ lives, including the fact that by settling on NSW land, they participated in the dispossession of the First Nations peoples who lived there. I, too, have to accept that about my own ancestors, many of whom were recipients of ‘land grants’ made to them by a colonial system that had no right to do so.

    Charlotte Waring Atkinson was an extraordinary woman, although she was probably not regarded as such by her contemporaries. And here again I resonate with her story, because my exploration of my forebears comes from the impulse to uncover the extraordinary aspects of ordinary lives:

    Charlotte Waring Atkinson was just an ordinary woman. She loved a man and gave birth to children, then tried her best to raise them and care for them, even though she was ground down by grief and harmed in both body and spirit by cruelty and violence. She fought for her children, she found her voice, and she stood up and spoke out at a time when many women were kept mute.

    Searching for Charlotte p275

    This is a delightful book, proof indeed that the descendents of one of Australia’s first female authors have ‘writing in their blood.’ If you are interested in colonial Australian history, women’s history, literary, legal, scientific and educational history….get your hands on a copy! I promise you will not be disappointed.

    Searching for Charlotte was published by NLA Publishing in 2020

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Fun with words: ‘Poo! And Other Words that Make Me Laugh’ by Felice Arena & Tom Jellett

    It is a truth universally acknowledged… that children of a certain age love so-called ‘toilet humour’: jokes, books and almost anything else to do with bodily functions involving the toilet and loud noises. Poo! And Other Words That Make Me Laugh incorporates plenty of these words that are irresistibly funny to youngsters, but (and here I say, thank goodness) offers up plenty of other words that are somehow innately humorous to chuckle over.

    This genre of children’s book is not my favourite but I do acknowledge that young readers love to giggle over the absurdities of life, and there are plenty of words in the English language that when said aloud, do sound ridiculous, so this is a good book for adults to share with children. Words such as brouhaha, bumfuzzle, caboodle, collywobbles, persnickety, and scuttlebutt all get a look-in.

    There is a glossary in the back so children can learn the meaning of the words, once they have stopped their giggles, that is.

    Once you step past the toilet humour, this could be a good introduction to some of the more amusing words in English, and for younger readers to enjoy the shapes and sounds of words. The illustrations by Tom Jellett are simple with bold primary colours and there is a playfulness in the book design, too.

    Poo! And Other Words That Make Me Laugh will be published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in January 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    An enchanting Western (no, not an oxymoron): ‘News of the World’ by Paulette Jiles

    In the same way that I am not a fan of action/adventure novels and movies, I am not a fan of the American Western. However… this novel by Texan author Paulette Giles is proof that a beautifully written story is a beautifully written story, no matter the genre. First published in 2016, Harper Collins is releasing a movie tie-in version as the film adaptation is set for release in December 2020.

    The story begins in 1870, just a few years after the end of the American Civil War. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of that conflict in the Confederate Army, has accepted a contract to travel from Wichita Falls to a settlement near San Antonio, Texas. His task is to return a ten-year-old girl, Johanna, to an aunt and uncle there. Johanna is an orphan whose parents and sister were killed in a raid by people from the Kiowa nation. She was taken in by the tribe and raised as a Kiowa child for four years and has just been ‘rescued’ by the US Army so she can be returned to members of her birth family.

    The catch is that Johanna, as was the case for other child captives brought up in Native American communities, has little or no memory of her earlier life, no longer remembers her first language, and thinks and acts as a Kiowa girl.

    On top of this, the route to rejoin her relatives is across four hundred miles of the ‘wild west’ in which there are many threats, including from Comanche or Kiowa but also from unscrupulous whites looking for an opportunity to rob or abuse. Captain Kidd feels every one of his seventy-some years as together, he and Johanna make the long journey in a rickety wagon pulled by Pasha, his horse.

    The Captain is accustomed to a somewhat itinerant life because he makes his living travelling from town to town, where he holds ‘readings’ of the news of the day from a range of national and overseas newspapers, charging ten cents for admission. It seems an odd sort of occupation until we remember that literacy levels were lower at that time and that these were small, relatively isolated settlements where news from the wider world rarely intruded. The Captain finds that people are willing to pay a dime to hear his readings:

    The audience sat rapt, listening…all were jointly amazed by information that had come across the Atlantic to them, here in North Texas, to their town alongside the flooding Red River. They had no idea how it had got there, through what strange lands it had traveled, who had carried it.

    News of the World p60

    The news aspect is a wonderful device by which the author weaves political and economic concerns of the time and place into the story. This is the American South during post war Reconstruction and there was a lot going on; even along the isolated roads and in tiny settlements, the Captain and Johanna meet people who debate the issues of the day. The Captain has plenty of time to reflect on all of this as the journey progresses:

    Maybe life is just carrying news..Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end must be handed over, sealed.

    News of the World p121

    This is a slim novel that packs a lot into its 209 pages. By far the most delightful surprise is the relationship that develops between Johanna and Captain Kidd. What begins as a task the Captain has been paid to do, develops into a tender, warm and caring friendship between an unlikely pair. There are moments of danger, doubt and trouble along with humour and affection. It is truly an enchanting read and I look forward to seeing the movie adaptation (starring Tom Hanks) on its Australian release.

    News of the World (movie tie-in) will be published in Australia by Harper Collins in January 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Historic mystery plus romance: ‘The Last Truehart’ by Darry Fraser

    The novel’s prologue sets the scene for it’s storyline and the mystery at it’s heart: Alice, a young woman pregnant to her fiance, is left at a Victorian port town when he boards the Shenandoah. This is an American Confederate ship which actively pursues ‘Yankee’ ships in the Pacific during the American civil war.

    She never sees him again.

    Decades later, her daughter, Stella, is finally free of an abusive marriage when her criminal husband dies in violent circumstances. Her beloved grandparents, along with her mother, have all died and Stella is completely alone in the world.

    A private investigator, Bendigo Bartlett, is engaged by a client called Mrs Parks, to find Stella.

    The novel is full of mysteries: what happened to Stella’s father? Who has employed Bendigo to find her, and why? Who is the disreputable man who threatens them all?

    There is romance, but I would describe this novel more as an historic crime or mystery story. Set in Melbourne, Geelong, Bendigo and Sydney in the late 19th century, it gives a vivid portrayal of the two colonies during this time.

    I enjoy novels where the major events and preoccupations of the period are woven into the storyline. In The Last Truehart, this includes debate about proposals for Australian Federation, still several years off; the divisions between what were then separate colonies; women’s suffrage; gendered roles in society and the workplace; attitudes towards divorce; the drought and economic downturn being experienced as the century came to a close. This is where fiction can bring historic events alive and make them real, showing their impact on everyday lives at the time.

    The romance is lightly handled and the characters are well drawn.

    The Last Truehart will appeal to readers who enjoy a well-crafted story with an engrossing mystery at its heart.

    The Last Truehart is published by Mira (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers) in December 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    An unusual take on bodies and our world: ‘The Octopus and I’ by Erin Hortle

    I was drawn to this book by one of its themes – breast cancer and the effects of this disease on a person’s body and mind. Having myself had double mastectomy, chemotherapy and breast reconstruction, and read a lot of memoir and other non-fiction about breast cancer, it struck me as unusual to find a work of contemporary fiction about these experiences. I was right about this being an unusual novel, in more ways than I’d expected.

    The first pages plunge readers straight into the sea, where the narrator is an octopus, and the lyrical prose conjures the movements of water, seaweed, moonlight, air currents:

    I feel the surface sink and I feel I see moonlight with my skin and it is caught up in the eddies that bubble and swirl about my arms that curl and unfurl and the moonlight envelopes me caressing my arms as they caress the kelpy floor the kelpy shore.

    The Octopus and I p21 (ebook version)

    In this opening we learn that the octopus meets a human woman in the sea. From here the author introduces us to that woman, the protagonist Lucy, who is knitting… breasts.

    So, a unusual opening.

    The breasts, we discover, are prosthetic ones, because Lucy has had her natural breasts removed in surgery for breast cancer. Her psychologist suggests this knitting exercise to help Lucy work through her feelings about her new body and lack of breasts. And the link with the octopus? Well, that soon becomes clear as well.

    I can’t begin to describe the plot of this novel because it would be a spoiler for anyone who has not read it. I will say that it maintains its unusual style throughout, varying straight narrative about human characters with a more stream of consciousness style, when the author is describing experiences as they might be felt by animal characters: the octopuses, of course, but also seals and birds.

    Through these sections, she explores the impact of humans on the environment, at a micro level as well as bigger picture issues. We inhabit the bodies of animals and birds for just a moment and ‘see’ their world as they perhaps do.

    For me, the sections focussing on the human characters worked best, perhaps because of my own interest in the exploration of how people respond to cancer. This includes both the person with cancer but also, acquaintances and people close to her. Ms Hortle does this well:

    It was all avoidance and eggshells before, when all I had were scars and a bald head. And clearer still was the fact that it wasn’t so much the word remission but the fake breasts that relaxed everyone in my presence. That flick of the eyes, from my face to my chest, and I could see – almost feel – their shoulders soften, their exhale. It was if when my breasts entered the room, the elephant that was my cancer exited via the other door.

    The Octopus and I pp73-74 (ebook version)

    The novel is set in the coastal region of south-east Tasmania and I also enjoyed how the setting becomes a big part of the story.

    This novel will be of interest to people who enjoy a challenge in their reading, those who like a book to explore individual dilemmas and losses, and those who like fiction that asks questions about environmental issues we face today. The Octopus and I weaves all three into an unashamedly Australian story that will leave you thinking.

    The Octopus and I was published by Allen and Unwin in 2020.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Uncovering scandal and abuse: ‘Before We Were Yours’ by Lisa Wingate

    In my multifold years of life, I have learned that most people get along as best they can. They don’t intend to hurt anyone. It’s merely a terrible by-product of surviving.

    Before we were yours, p3

    Lisa Wingate’s dual timeline novel explores the hurt that is done by some to others in their efforts to survive – emotionally, physically, materially.

    We meet Rill Foss, who in the 1930’s is kidnapped along with her four siblings and taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home in Memphis. The home is one of many run by Georgia Tann, a real-life figure whose questionable activities were later uncovered and condemned.

    In the current day, there is Avery Stafford, a young lawyer and a member of a powerful South Carolina political family. When Avery meets May Crandall, an elderly resident of a nursing home, the encounter starts her on a quest to unravel the mysterious connection between May and Avery’s own grandmother, Judy.

    Rill’s storyline introduces us to her life before she is whisked away. She lives with her large, noisy family in a ‘shantyboat’ on the Mississippi River. Folk like her were known disparagingly as ‘river rats’ and ‘river gypsies’ – they are itinerant and poor. They don’t always have enough to eat and there are plenty of dangers on the river. But Rill’s family is loving, with music and books, and friends they meet up with on their seasonal travels up and down the river.

    The author has captured Rill’s voice perfectly and brought her river home to vivid life. But when Rill and her brother and sisters are sent to the children’s home, they are treated as if they are stock, items sold to couples desperate to adopt a child. There are sickening acts of cruelty and indifference towards children’s needs, and a wilful blindness by staff to the abuses perpetrated against their charges.

    It’s a sobering reminder, if one were needed, that there are people who will exploit the vulnerable and that, without proper oversight and regulation, abuses will occur, especially if money is involved. We may think that these sorts of situations could not arise today, but we would be mistaken.

    As Avery’s exploration of her grandmother’s past continues and deepens, she learns about the scandals surrounding the ‘baby farms’ run by Georgia Tann. As she searches for the truth, her own future (which had once seemed a charmed pathway to a life of privilege) becomes less clear to her. In her uncertainty about her family’s past, she reaches for a different, more authentic future.

    No matter how much we may love the melody of a bygone day or imagine the song of a future one, we must dance within the music of today, or we will always be out of step, stumbling around in something that doesn’t suit the moment.

    Before We Were Yours p315

    Before We Were Yours takes the reader on a journey of discovery to difficult truths, and explores the different ways people deal with tragedy. The characters and the setting in America’s South are wonderfully realised and there are moments of tenderness and hope that lead to a satisfying resolution. I enjoyed this novel and will be on the lookout for more titles by Lisa Wingate.

    Before We Were Yours is published by Harper Collins Australia in December 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Close to home: ‘The Valley of Lost Stories’ by Vanessa McCausland

    I’m always intrigued by what prompts readers to pick up a particular book. I was initially drawn to this new novel by Australian writer Vanessa McCausland because it is set in a location not too far from where I live in the Blue Mountains of NSW: the Capertee Valley.

    It’s a dual timeline story: one thread traces the disappearance in 1948 of a young woman from the valley’s iconic Art Deco hotel. The other, present day thread, also centres around the hotel, and another missing woman.

    If you have read Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (or seen the TV series adaptation) you will recognise the technique of multiple viewpoint story-telling. When done well, it is an effective way of capturing the inner thoughts and feelings of different characters, drawing us into their worlds. In The Valley of Lost Stories there are four main characters: all young mothers whose children attend the same Sydney seaside suburban primary school, who decide to enjoy a week away together in the Capertee Valley.

    The author skilfully shows how the women are all hiding some aspects of their true selves and their lives, which are not as picture-perfect as they seem. Each woman has her problems or disappointments, which begin to impact on the relationships within the group as the holiday progresses. Tensions rise as their insecurities spill over, which coupled with the eerie atmosphere of the old hotel and its starkly beautiful surroundings, culminate in a gripping tale of mystery and danger.

    Woven throughout are the events of 1948, and hints of other dark episodes in the valley’s history, including the dispossession and murder by white settlers of the Wiradjuri people, and exploitative behaviour by mine owners and managers when the valley was a major producer of shale oil. This history provides a telling backdrop juxtaposed against the modern-day problems of the four women:

    What would it have been like to live back then? Emmie thought. History was so easy to ignore, gloss over. But really, it was everything. It was perspective. It was all that made up where we are now. It was the progression of time that we chose so often to conveniently ignore.

    The Valley Of Lost Stories p242

    The Valley of Lost Stories is peopled by very relatable characters, both past and present, and explores the deep wounds that we can inflict on each other, as well as a little known aspect of Australian history. It’s inspired me to want take a trip to the Capertee Valley and see its renowned ancient beauty for myself.

    The Valley of Lost Stories is published by HarperCollins Publishers in December 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020