• Books and reading

    2023: My reading year

    In 2023, my total number of books came to 45 this year, a few more than the previous one. (And I may have missed a title or two in my count.)

    Of these, 11 were non fiction titles, meaning I exceeded my #ReadNonFicChal goal of 6 books, which I am pleased about. Five of these were history (of course!); three biographies (though to be fair, they were all biographies of historical figures, so could count in both categories); two memoirs and one on a medical/health topic.

    Standout non fiction reads? David Marr’s Killing for Country for its truth-telling, and Grantlee Kieza’s The Remarkable Mrs Reiby for its story of a truly remarkable woman who quite possibly rubbed shoulders with an ancestress of mine in early colonial Sydney.

    My historical fiction reads this year numbered 18: no surprise there as it is a favourite genre of mine. My goal for the #histficreadingchallenge for 2023 was 15, so I easily met that one.

    And a personal challenge of mine is to read books by First Nations authors. I have read 4 this year: The Visitors by Jane Harrison, Reaching Through Time by Sheila Bostock, We Come With This Place by Debra Dank, and Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko. All great reads in different ways; I highly recommend them. It’s wonderful that there is now so much First Nations writing being published; it is hard to choose just one to recommend as my annual ‘pick’ for the book group I am part of.

    I plan to participate in reading challenges both online and of my own making again in 2024. It’s a fun way to be a little more conscious of my reading choices and to incorporate some new authors or topics in my reading diet.

    I wish you all a happy reading year ahead, good health and a happy 2024.

    Photo by Abhinav Sharma at Pexels
  • Life: bits and pieces

    Paul Kelly says it all: here’s to Christmas

    I can’t think of a better way to sum up all the things that make Christmas, Christmas than Paul Kelly’s How to Make Gravy: family, friends, food, silliness, loss, laughter and the bittersweetness of thinking of those we miss.

    Go on, treat yourself to this gorgeous video of Aussie Christmases and beyond while listening to Kelly’s timeless song.
    (have some tissues handy)

    And may you and your beautiful ones enjoy a festive day and much love at Christmas 2023.

  • Books and reading

    Australian thriller: ‘Deadly Secrets’ by H.R. Kemp

    It’s refreshing to find a complex, character- and- plot focused novel set in an Australian city, featuring characters not usually encountered in a typical thriller or crime novel.

    H.R. Kemp’s Deadly Secrets is just such a read.

    The setting is Adelaide, regarded by many Australians as a quiet and tame city. This novel digs deep into another side of the city – one that travel companies and city authorities would rather keep out of sight.

    The strapline for Deadly Secrets reads: ‘What unspeakable truths lurk beneath the lies?’

    Shelley, the main character, is about to find out. Initially she is protective of her safe, quiet and ordinary life in Adelaide and her public service career in the Department of Immigration and she can’t imagine stepping outside the boundaries of the expected and accepted.

    When a former client, a refugee who Shelley helped to resettle in Australia, dies suddenly, Shelley is unhappy with the official explanations for the death. When she digs a little deeper, a chain of events is unleashed that changes her life forever.

    In the process she encounters corruption at high levels in politics and corporations, cynical use of misinformation to promote and protect the powerful, but also people determined to shine a light on the murkiness at the heart of power. The novel canvasses modern issues such as asylum seeker policy and the treatment of refugees, the practices of mining companies, and the insidious changes that have weakened Australia’s political, public service and law enforcement sectors. Family, relationships and domestic violence are also part of the story.

    These are all entirely recognisable and believable to anyone who has been following Australia’s political, social and corporate landscapes over the past few decades.

    Shelley is a relatable character: she has a desire to live a more adventurous life but is uncertain of herself and her future. She struggles with the need to hold onto her government job, even when the policies she must implement sit uneasily with her. Her involvement in the action at the heart of the story is not immediate, but we see her gradual transformation as she begins to embrace her own agency and recognise the need to change.

    Place is important: the novel opens in Paris as Shelley experiences her first solo travel experience and is unwittingly caught up in a major protect action on the city’s streets. Much of the novel is set in Adelaide and readers who know that city will enjoy moving vicariously around there as the action develops.

    I ‘read’ this novel via the Audiobook version, narrated by Lisa Armytage, who competently handles the various accents and voices of the cast of characters.

    Deadly Secrets tells a tightly woven tale of crime and abuse of power without the usual car chase scenes (yawn!) bombings, gunfights and male machismo (double yawn!) I appreciated the fact that the ‘heroes’ at the heart of the novel are otherwise very ordinary people, doing their best to make things better. Even better, it’s a team effort – no glorious heroes off on their own. Everybody who counts in the story has moments of bravery, but they must work together to achieve real change.

    Deadly Secrets is independently published by the author and you can read about H.R Kemp and check out her other projects here.

    My thanks to the author for a copy of the audiobook to review.

  • Books and reading

    Luminous: ‘Day’ by Michael Cunningham

    Recently my book group read and discussed Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea as a good example of what we might call a ‘Covid novel’ – set during the worst of the 2020 pandemic and examining its effects. Michael Cunningham’s Day is another.

    Well, it is and it isn’t. Yes, it opens on April 5, 2019, and the two subsequent sections describe the same day in 2020 and 2021. So of course, Covid features: the effect of lockdown on a family in Brooklyn, a reminder of the near-paranoia of beliefs and worries because of the virus, the way the pandemic prompted existential musings from unlikely sources.

    But this novel is much more than that.

    It’s a beautiful, sometimes funny, always tender examination of a small group of people who make up one family. In the longest section, set in 2019, we meet Dan and Isabel who, with their two children (ten-year-old Nathan and Violet, five) live in a house which is quickly moving from ‘cosy’ to ‘crowded’.

    Violet’s younger brother Robbie occupies the attic, recovering from a recent breakup with his boyfriend. Violet and Dan have their own preoccupations and the walls of their marriage are starting to crumble. Nathan has the challenges of impending puberty to deal with and Violet escapes into her own world of imagination.

    All is not well for all this family’s members all of the time.

    Then 2020 arrives and they are in lockdown together – except for Robbie, who went to Iceland for a short holiday and is now stranded there in an isolated cabin, writing letters to his family which he cannot post because there is no post office nearby. Despite his absence, he remains a central figure in the family and the novel.

    In 2021 lockdown has lifted and the family has emerged from their cocoon to discover that everything has changed.

    It’s a gentle story with wry reflections on family life, on children, teens, and middle age. I especially enjoyed the dialogue, during which the characters come to vivid life, especially between Robbie and his sister Violet, and also between Robbie and Dan. We hear the inner thoughts of different characters in turn, understanding that the world can appear in many various ways to different people.

    How has Isabel learned to be this person, even if it’s only for the sake of the kids? How did Dan master that voice? They’ve always been improvising, all three of the adults, and as Nathan and Violet have grown older they seem to have willingly accepted the fact that they are neither more nor less than the youngest members of a haphazardly formed crew that goes by the name “family” for obscure legal reasons.

    Day p49

    The pandemic plays a big role but is always referred to obliquely, which is as it should be. This novel is about so much more. If you enjoy character-focused fiction and beautiful prose you will love Day.

    Day is published by 4th Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins, in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    School fun: two picture books for littlies

    School – big school – is a Big Thing in a little one’s life. For their parents, too. So picture books that help prepare and excite very young children about the prospect of starting or returning to school are always welcome.

    From the ABC Books ‘Mindfully Me’ series comes Ready, Set, Big School, (Jan Stradling and Jedda Robaard) featuring the beloved characters from ABC’s ‘Play School’ TV shows. Humpty, Jemima, Little Ted, Kiya and friends practice putting on their school uniform, packing their lunchbox, and making new friends, all ready for the big day.

    When the first day arrives, Big Ted is surprised to find that he also has a funny feeling in his tummy.
    (Parents will relate to that bit.)

    The Crayons Go Back to School (Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers) allows youngsters who are old hands at the school thing to recognise that the end of the holidays means back-to-school. The colourful crayons throw themselves into the routine of school: deciding what to wear, greeting old friends, drawing, writing, doing maths.

    Two books to share and read aloud, perfect to soothe Big School nerves.

    Ready, Set, Big School and The Crayons Go Back to School are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publisher for review copies.

  • Books and reading

    Questioning truth: ‘Reckless’ by Marele Day

    I fell into this book, in the sense of immediately feeling comfortable and keen to read on. The opening pages are like an invitation to come into the author’s lounge room, have a cup of tea and hear her stories.

    This memoir is a collection of stories from author Marele Day’s life, from a childhood of treatments and operations for wandering eye; first romantic relationship and crippling grief when her love is killed in a car accident; to spur-of-the-moment (reckless?) decisions made, which lead her in very unexpected and sometimes unwelcome situations.

    We can probably all look back to our youth and wonder at some of the choices we made then. In this book, the author shares her own What was I thinking? moments. Prominent among them is a voyage by catamaran from Darwin to Sri Lanka, with a skipper and crew mates she had only just met. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as the route covers territory known for pirates, and with few places to safely refuel and replenish supplies, they end up in danger on more than one occasion.

    Why did she do it? There was the sense of invincibility that comes with young adulthood. There was a need to do something very different, to break out from the grief that threatened to imprison her after her lover’s shocking death.  And there was a need to be Elsewhere, to Go with the flow.

    The trip, in spite (or because of) its dangers and hardships, resulted in a friendship with Jean Kay, the catamaran’s owner; a connection which lasted thirty years and crossed continents and oceans. On that fateful voyage together in the 1980s, she realises that there is a lot about Jean that is mysterious, contradictory, or hidden from view.

    Later, she decides to dig deeper into his life, in particular one episode in his chequered career: a heist that saw Jean and three accomplices steal millions from an account owned by one of France’s richest businessmen.

    After that, Jean spent years on the run from authorities, living and travelling under an assumed name. In tracing the events surrounding the robbery, Marele begins to doubt what she thinks she knows about her friend and his past.

    In the process she must interrogate her own experiences, beliefs and values.

    The pages of this book held many moments of recognition for me. The foolishness of our younger selves; moments of quiet rebellion (Jean’s school photo conjured a memory of myself aged 17, annoyed by the photographer’s instructions to students to fold hands the same way, deliberately crossing my hands the ‘wrong’ way in my lap.) The need for regular doses of solitude and quiet. A shared appreciation of words and their power:

    Some words were so potent they could only be whispered, matchsticks that ignited fires. I had no idea what a divorce was, but if Aunty Marjorie was getting one it must have been something special. When I whispered the word to the hydrangea bushes near my grandmother’s front steps, it conjured up a mighty wind. I felt the way God must have felt creating the world. All God had to do was say the word and it was so.

    Reckless p86

    My beliefs about an afterlife are also similar:

    The only certainty I feel on these long walks is this: that our bodies, our ashes, are returned to the earth, to nurture new life. All of us, every living creature, becomes part of the ongoing whole. This is enough.

    Reckless p307

    Reckless is a very readable mix of true-crime investigative writing, personal memoir, and philosophy. It’s like an afternoon spent in the company of an engaging friend who has lived an interesting life and met some memorable people, and is a gifted storyteller into the bargain.

    Reckless was published by Ultimo Press in May 2023.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    A modern Christmas story: ‘Juniper’s Christmas’ by Eoin Colfer

    A fun modern take on the story of Santa Claus, Juniper’s Christmas for middle grade readers takes us to London, where we meet Juniper, an eleven-year-old who lives with her mum Jennifer on the edge of a London park.

    Her dad has died and the pair are trying to continue his legacy of the annual Santa Vigil in the park, where local residents gather to celebrate Christmas and donate goods and gifts for those in need.

    Then Jennifer goes missing and Juniper, desperate to find her mum, tries to track down the mysterious Niko, who she believes is Santa Claus – though Santa has not been performing his duties for ten years.

    Juniper is off on an adventure involving a magical reindeer calf, a corrupt local official, an Irish crime queen, and a reluctant Santa.

    It’s a rollicking story with a very modern twist: a team of elves who try to explain the scientific reasons for the magic of Christmas (flying reindeer, a time bubble on Christmas Eve, a Santa sack that can hold innumerable gifts…) a disgraced scientist and skeptical locals.

    At the heart of the story is – well, heart – a belief that Christmas can be a time when people can come together in goodwill, and that gifts can be talismans, ‘parcels of human kindness tied up in a bow, a reminder that there were who cared and who would help.’

    A perfect book for the more worldly readers of today, Juniper’s Christmas will delight with its adventure and humour.

    Juniper’s Christmas is published by HarperCollins in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Unlikely connections: ‘The Star on the Grave’ by Linda Margolin Royal

    Did you know that six thousand Jewish refugees were saved from murder at the hands of Nazis during WWII by escaping Europe via Japan? And that they were able to do so by the actions of a brave and committed Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who in defiance of his government’s express orders, wrote transit visas for desperate people trying to flee from Lithuania.

    He was helped in this by an official from the Netherlands, who supplied documents allowing refugees to travel through the Dutch colony of Curacao, and from there to Japan. From Japan, individuals and families found refuge in countries such as the USA and Australia.

    I had never heard of either of these individuals, whose courageous and compassionate actions have been lost in the stories of that terrible war. And the connection between Japan, Poland, Lithuania and Australia seems unlikely, doesn’t it?

    The Jews whose lives they saved included the author’s own family: her father and grandparents fled Poland to Lithuania, and were amongst those who owed their lives to Sugihara and the Dutch man Jan Zwartendijk. Rachael wrote this book, her first novel, to tell their story and that of the men who saved them.

    In the novel, the main character Rachel is a young nurse who lives with her widowed father and has a close relationship with her Polish grandmother, Felka, whom she adores. It is Sydney in 1968. Rachel has been brought up as a Christian, attended a Catholic school, and is engaged to marry Yanni, a doctor at the hospital where she works.

    When she tells Felka that she must convert to Yanni’s religion of Greek Orthodoxy on their marriage, her grandmother’s reaction is bewildering and confusing. Then Felka announces her plan to attend a reunion of friends in Japan, and asks Rachel to accompany her. She is puzzled. What is this ‘reunion’, and why Japan?

    When she is told the truth of her family, she is incredulous. Her father and grandparents were among those able to get out of Europe because of Mr Sugihara. And they are Jewish. The trip to Japan is for survivors to meet with Mr Sugihara, to thank him for their lives.

    Rachel’s shock and sense of betrayal at having been lied to her entire life are profound. Slowly, she begins to understand the reasons why her father and Felka did what they did: to protect her, so that she would never know the hatred and anti-Semitism that they had experienced.

    She travels to Japan with Felka and there, hearing the stories of the other people saved by Sugihara, she grapples with the questions of who she is and what the revelation of being Jewish means: does it bring a heritage of suffering and loss, or of family, tradition and deep connection? Or all of those things?

    And how has the trauma experienced by her surviving family members manifested in their personalities, their relationships and approaches to life?

    These are all deep, deep questions she must face, and all at once. It is difficult and painful. Through travelling to Japan with Felka, listening to the people she meets there, and reappraising her own beliefs, Rachel finds some acceptance and a strong desire to learn more.

    Initially, I thought Rachel’s ignorance of the events of WWII, the Nazi persecutions and concentration camps, the murders and unspeakable cruelties, was somewhat disingenuous. But I reminded myself that Rachel had come to adulthood barely twenty years after the war. She was taught the minimum details of the conflict at school, and not knowing of her personal connection to those events, did not seek to learn more. And many, many survivors, refugees and veterans, were reluctant to talk about their experiences, preferring to try to forget, to move on with life.

    The Star on the Grave is a moving story of one family, fictionalised but inspired by her own, in a surprising and little-known chapter of that global conflict. I found it absorbing, and I hope to read future works by Ms Margolin Royal.

    The Star on the Grave is published by Affirm Press in January 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Friendship for littlies: ‘How to be a Friend’ by Sarah Ayoub & Mimi Purcell

    A sweet book with simple rhyming text and softly colourful illustrations, How to be a Friend is all about friendships and being a good friend.

    Friends always clap for us the loudest
    to let us know that they’re the proudest.
    They make us feel all kinds of clever,
    are up for fun, no matter the weather.

    Friends help us feel safe and cosy and warm,
    they carry us through all sorts of storms.
    They love the things that make us unique,
    like the way we look and how we speak.

    How to be a Friend

    Both the words and pictures allow recognition of children in all their shapes, sizes and colours, with various family and living situations and interests.

    As children begin to explore the world outside of their immediate family and home, friends begin to take on more importance. This is a good book to share at that time, reinforcing aspects of positive friendships.

    How to be a Friend is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2023.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    A book with heart: ‘In the Hands of Women’ by Jane Loeb Rubin

    This novel opens in Baltimore, USA, in 1900. Hannah Isaacson is one of a small group of women admitted to Johns Hopkins Medical School, in the face of doubt and opposition from the men who dominate and control everything about healthcare and medical education, including for women. She is determined to achieve her goal of working as a qualified doctor in obstetrics.

    To do so, she has to study and work hard and find a way around the demands and questionable practices from some doctors who don’t put the interests of patients first.

    She becomes increasingly concerned about the rising number of women she has to deal with who are the victims of botched abortions. The stark reality of women’s lives at this time led some to choose this way of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy: middle-class and ‘society’ women to avoid shame for themselves and their families; poor women because they cannot afford another mouth to feed.

    Contraceptive devices were illegal under Federal US laws at the time – women left with very few choices regarding family planning and their own health needs.

    Hannah wants to work to change all this.

    After she is qualified, she moves back to her home town of New York City to work in a major Jewish hospital there, and meets other women with similar aims, including the real-life Margaret Sanger, a pioneer in areas of women’s birth control and suffrage.

    When Hannah tries to save the life of a woman dying after a botched abortion, she is arrested and incarcerated at the notorious Blackwell’s Workhouse, where she is horrified at appalling neglect and abuse of inmates. Her experiences here add to her determination to address the devastating effects of poverty on women, especially among the communities of immigrants pouring into New York from Europe and Ireland.

    When she is finally released, she has to claw back her reputation and career, and while doing so, develops a plan to create women’s health services in the poorest parts of the city.

    This is a carefully researched novel, with a mix of real-life and imagined characters. I love that part of the inspiration for one of its central women, was the author’s great-grandmother. And I enjoyed learning about the beginnings of modern hospital care and obstetric services in an important US centre and its immigrant populations, especially Jewish people from Europe escaping anti-semitism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

    Hannah is a believable character. She is determined, but not without anxieties and insecurities. Her experiences with men add complications and leave her questioning her own instincts. Many readers will relate to that side of Hannah. However, despite all the challenges confronting her, she does not lose sight of her goals to better the lives of others. She is smart, sensitive and empathic. Her dealings with the men in charge of institutional funds and regulations allow her to develop some wily negotiation skills!

    I enjoyed In the Hands of Women: an engrossing novel with themes and characters I could care about. There is a prequel on the way by Jane Loeb Rubin which I look forward to reading on its release.

    In the Hands of Women was published by Level Best Books in May 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.