• Books and reading,  History

    Tragedy & survival: ‘Benevolence’ by Julie Janson

    The title of this book is a subtle reflection on its theme: the nature of dealings between Aboriginal people and white settlers in the early decades of the colonial experiment that eventually became the nation of Australia.

    The story is told from the perspective of a young woman from the Darug Nation, in part inspired by the experiences of the author’s own ancestors on and around the Hawkesbury- Nepean River, Parramatta and Sydney Town.

    We meet Muraging as a child in 1816, being taken by her father to live at the Parramatta Native Institution. This was a boarding school set up by Governor Macquarie, to educate Aboriginal children in the language and ways of the English. Muraging’s father takes her there in the hope that if his daughter can learn to understand the settlers’ ways, she may be able to help her people. He promises to return for her.

    What follows is a tangled series of events in which Muraging, now known as Mary James, experiences some kindness, but also many instances of heartlessness and misunderstanding by the people who are meant to help Mary and others like her. Mary excels in her English education but longs for her own home and her own people.

    This longing permeates the novel and it drives Mary throughout her life, through tragedy, danger, periods of freedom and happiness, horrific episodes of abuse at the hands of some English. As Mary grows and matures, so does the colony, bringing further encroachment of settler farms and towns on Darug lands and livelihood.

    The conflicts that arise from misunderstandings are illuminated:

    Through the cracks in the wall, the children look out and see a row of warriors with spears high on the hill near the town. They are silhouetted against the light. Mr Shelley is terrified. He sweats and paces, mumbling.
    ‘Why you lock us in, Mr Shelley?’ asks Mary.
    ‘Sweet innocent girl! Can’t you see that the heathen perpetrators of murder want to break down the doors and kill us and eat our hearts?’ says Mr Shelley.
    ‘They dancing, Mr Shelley. They not hurt us; don’t be frighten,’ says Mary.

    Benevolence p32

    I found the narrative spare and sometimes disjointed; however it occurred to me that the novel’s style can also represent Mary’s life: this is no ‘happy ever after’ historical fiction, but a portrayal of turbulence and upheaval as a society and culture are taken apart. Mary’s life can not have a smooth trajectory or a satisfying story arc, because the colonial and religious authorities do not allow for that.

    Muraging’s growing defiance of the people who mistreat her leads her into some perilous situations and much heartache, as she endures the agony of trying to live in two worlds. But it is also her salvation and allows her to find a way to survive and to live on her own terms.

    At the heart of this novel is the enormous injustice dealt by the colonisers, personified in one girl. As Muraging/Mary matures, the injustices grow:

    In Windsor Prison, Mary wears a grey blanket with a red stripe and the printed words ‘New South Wales Aborigine’. Just in case she forgets. Mary has many hours to ponder the injustice of being locked up for taking a few birds while the English take everything from her and her people.

    Benevolence p232

    I found it especially engrossing to read about the Darug experience in the region where I grew up and was educated, because I’d learnt nothing back then about the area’s first inhabitants. This novel also challenges the myth that the Darug and other indigenous peoples around the greater Sydney, Hawkesbury, Blue Mountains, Broken Bay and Hunter regions, largely vanished soon after colonisation.

    Muraging’s story shows the many ways in which they stayed and survived: sometimes living side by side with settlers, or working on farms or in towns, or gathered in small communities in the bush or isolated spots along rivers and creeks.

    Benevolence is a welcome and timely addition to fiction which tells a more honest version of the story of our origins as a modern nation, and shows the strength of Australia’s first people.

    Benevolence was published by Magabala Books in 2020.

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  • Books and reading,  History

    Another gem from Kate Grenville: ‘A Room Made of Leaves’

    The title of Kate Grenville’s latest and much anticipated novel put me in mind of the famous work by Virginia Woolfe – A Room of One’s Own. The message in both titles includes, I believe, the necessity for all women to have a space (whether that be an actual room, a favourite place in nature, or a corner of their imagination) where they can dream, write, plan, think, or simply be. In this and in many other ways, while A Room Made of Leaves might be a work of historical fiction, its themes are as relevant to today as to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

    Kate Grenville is well known to many Australian readers for her novels of colonial Australia, particularly The Secret River, The Lieutenant, and Sarah Thornton.

    Her new work has a most wonderful premise: that she has stumbled upon and transcribed the private writings of Elizabeth MacArthur, the wife of John MacArthur, Captain in the NSW Corps and so-called ‘father of the Australian wool industry.’ These scribblings are a ‘warts and all’ account of Elizabeth’s life, much more honest than the carefully penned letters that she wrote for public consumption.

    As always, Ms Grenville captures perfectly the voice of her protagonist, a woman of modest background but reasonable education, and convinces us that we are, in fact, hearing a first-hand account of life in colonial Sydney and Parramatta. Through Elizabeth, we meet some of the well-known figures of that time including John MacArthur himself, and Governor Phillip, Watkin Tench, Lieutenant Dawes; also Pemulwuy and other First Nations people who influenced the development of the faltering settlements.

    Of course, her real opinions and feelings about her husband, her life and her new home, as compared to the public ones, form the backbone of the narrative and serve to show Elizabeth MacArthur as a woman of much greater aptitude and empathy than the man she is tied to in marriage.

    I absolutely loved the way in which the author has used snippets of the actual letters and other writings of Elizabeth, in a way that brings her to life and also hints that she may well have had quite a different inner life than the serene and uncomplaining face she presented to the world.

    Elizabeth MacArthur, 1766-1850, from
    oil painting in State Library of NSW

    Writing about a time when women had little agency, she shows that through carefully chosen words, sly irony, and well-kept secrets, some women could and did manage to execute a certain degree of independence of thought, even if that was not always visible to others.

    A Room Made of Leaves joins the list of simply wonderful novels by Kate Grenville about early colonial Australia. If you enjoyed her earlier ones, you will love this book.

    A Room Made of Leaves was published by Text Publishing in 2020.

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  • Books and reading

    Gorgeous celebration of love: ‘Aunty’s Wedding’ by Miranda Tapsell & Joshua Tyler

    I purchased this beautiful new picture book for my granddaughter and can’t wait to give it to her for her 4th birthday! Picture books are such a joy, aren’t they?

    If you have seen the delightful romcom movie Top End Wedding, you will have had a taste of the writing duo Miranda Tapsell and Joshua Tyler, who created and co-wrote the screenplay for this movie all about love and weddings, culminating in a colourful and wonderful celebration on the Tiwi Islands, off the northern coast of Australia.

    Aunty’s Wedding is a snippet of that colour and joy, a gorgeous feel-good story for young ones. Beautifully illustrated by Samantha Fry, it captures the things that make a top-end wedding just like any wedding on the mainland – dressing up, special flowers and jewellery, family and friends – and the things that make them that little bit different – the vibrant indigenous designs, the tropical flowers, and the traditional decorations and dances.

    I just adore this book and I hope many youngsters will get to share in the joy of it’s simple text, sweetly affirming story and luscious pictures.

    Aunty’s Wedding is published by Allen & Unwin in September 2020.

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  • Books and reading

    Gothic blend of crime and small town life: ‘The Mystery Woman’ by Belinda Alexandra

    Rebecca moves to Shipwreck Bay to take up the position of postmistress in the small coastal town. She is nursing a secret after the end of her relationship with a well-known politician and she dreads being exposed as his mistress. What she finds is that Shipwreck Bay has several secrets of its own.

    Her plan to hide away from the controversy surrounding her former life turns out to be far more difficult than she imagined. To begin with, Rebecca is not the sort of women who blends in easily – her fashionable clothes, striking looks and style stand out against the blandness of the town and its inhabitants.

    Rebecca needs to tread carefully, to navigate between her need to keep on the right side of the community and her need to avoid unwanted attention.

    Her arrival sets tongues wagging. Women are suspicious of her – she is in her thirties, beautiful and not married (more unusual in 1950’s Australia than now) – and men ogle her shamelessly, including the married ones. The town and its citizens are portrayed in less than complimentary ways, with all the prejudices and small-town attitudes proving stifling to Rebecca’s creative spirit, and the hypocrisy and double standards of that era posing real threats, should her past be discovered:

    She was living two parallel lives – one as a postmistress gradually finding her place in the town, and another as a hunted animal that was about to be destroyed by the beast of the press.

    ‘Unique and different are fine for men!’ she said. ‘When you live your lives how you want to, people applaud you. It’s not like that for women. We are crucified for doing as we please.’

    The Mystery Woman p128 & 282

    The secrets beneath Shipwreck Bay’s placid surface pose other kinds of dangers: here the author touches on issues of domestic violence, sexual harassment and the abuse of vulnerable people. Environmental issues are also woven into the novel, as Shipwreck Bay’s economy is heavily dependent on the brutal whaling industry (which continued in Australia up until the 1970’s, seriously depleting whale numbers on their migratory routes.)

    I found Rebecca, and most of the characters of Shipwreck Bay, not very likeable. Having grown up in a very small country village myself, I can recognise the pettiness and love of gossip that often characterise small communities. What I remember most, though, are the many everyday kindnesses and genuine community spirit of the place.

    Of course, The Mystery Woman is at heart a crime novel, so the peculiarities of a small town and its people feel malevolent when viewed through this lens. Even the beauty of the seascape is foreboding for Rebecca.

    She is a woman who has made poor choices in the past and is left second guessing her every move. Will she make yet another mistake now, when the outcome could be so much more dangerous?

    The Mystery Woman is a novel of gothic drama: a passionate heroine, with secrets to protect and a beautiful setting with secrets of its own; danger; and redemption. It explores themes that are no less relevant today than they were in the Australia of the 1950’s.

    The Mystery Woman is published by HarperCollins in September 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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  • Books and reading

    Droll new series for babies – and parents: ‘Sleep 101’ & ‘Whine Guide’ by Beck & Matt Stanton

    I had to consider the question of whether these books (no’s 1 & 2 in the Self Help for Babies series by husband and wife team Beck and Matt Stanton) were written for babies or adults. The answer, I’m certain, is both. A bit like the Shrek movies, these are humorous messages of support for stressed-out parents, cleverly disguised as short, read-aloud stories for the very young.

    Other titles to follow in the series help to prove my point: Dummies for Suckers, One Ingredient Cookbook (for infants still breast or bottle feeding, I assume), and Baby Goes to Market. The first books explore two of the frustrations that parents of a baby will experience day to day: the challenges of getting an infant to sleep, and how to interpret your new baby’s cries.

    Illustrated with very simple line drawings that manage to capture real life scenarios every new parent will recognise, they are tongue-in-cheek reassurance to hollow-eyed, exhausted parents wondering ‘Is it just me? Am I a terrible parent? Why won’t my baby sleep? What am I doing wrong?’

    Here’s an example, from Whine Guide (Find your voice and start sweating the small stuff):

    Do you have something to say but no voice to say it?
    Do you have trouble matching the right whine to each occasion?
    This whine guide is here to help.

    The Whine Guide by Beck & Matt Stanton

    Each double page spread then analyses, in a simple sentence, the various permutations of a baby’s cry, grizzle, whine or full-throated bellow, and pairs each one with the appropriate life occasion. For example:
    ‘The bubbly. An open-mouthed, gassy whine, requiring attention.
    Best served with bicycle legs and a tummy massage.’

    You get the idea. It’s a delight; something that could be read aloud to a baby while giving a wrung-out parent a much-needed chuckle.

    These first two in the Self-Help for Babies series are published by HarperCollins and ABC Books in September 2020, with more available for pre-order.

    My thanks to HarperCollins Children’s Books for copies to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    How the heart survives: ‘The Tolstoy Estate’ by Steven Conte

    The Tolstoy Estate is described as ‘a novel for people who still believe in the saving grace of literature in dark times’ and literature – particularly the work of Leo Tolstoy – is at its heart.

    During the ill-fated German assault on Russia in the winter of 1941, military doctor Paul Bauer is assigned to a field hospital established at ‘Yasnaya Polyana’, the ancestral home of Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. We quickly realise that Bauer’s heart is not invested in the ideologies of the Nazi Reich, though he does feel loyalty to his comrades and to his mission as a doctor.

    On arrival at the estate he meets Katerina, the guardian of the property which has great cultural importance for Russians. In Katerina’s youth, she was a passionate supporter of the Revolution; this conviction has faded over the years, replaced by what could best be described as a critique of its methods and results, mixed with a deep love for her country in the face of the invader’s army. She is – understandably – hostile towards the Germans, but Paul recognises her fierce intelligence and a shared love of literature, and a friendship develops between them, despite the difficult circumstances.

    Paul’s job is to treat and repair the damage done to German soldiers on the front. He and his colleagues work under appalling conditions, made particularly hard by the brutal winter cold – with temperatures as low as minus 41 Celsius – inconceivable to someone like me, who lives on one of the warmer continents on Earth.

    The author is unflinching in describing the kinds of operations Paul and his colleagues perform, with enough authentic detail to make the scenes in the makeshift surgical theatre feel visceral. The waves of injured, sick and frostbitten soldiers keep on coming throughout the novel; the horror of the conflict always there. Even eyelids could be lost to frostbite, apparently: a prospect too awful to contemplate. The German troops were ill equipped to wage war in a Russian winter, with winter clothes late arriving, so that the soldiers were wearing summer uniforms well after the onset of cold weather.

    The theme of literature’s role in society is explored throughout, contrasting with the butchery taking place on the battlefields. Paul’s commanding officer Metz (who is experimenting with new drugs to ‘sharpen his soldierly performance’ – with awful results) boasts to Katerina that:

    ‘Deeds, not words, gnadige Frau, are the currency of greatness…with his rifle our humblest Landser shapes the world more profoundly than your Tolstoy ever did.

    To which Katerina replies:

    ‘How odd. You sound rather like him in War and Peace -the dull bits: the little man as mover of Great Events. But you’re mistaken. Lev Tolstoy’s books certainly did shape history. He’s still at it, in fact, tipping the war in our favour.’

    The Tolstoy Estate p28

    And of course, the events of War and Peace are foregrounded, as the fate of the German army replicates that of Napoleon’s, on his unsuccessful invasion of Russia a century earlier.

    This novel is a celebration of the human heart and the beauty of words and ideas, even when surrounded by the very worst of human behaviour. Paul is certain of this when he says to Katerina:

    Yes, what do is important. For the individual it’s vital. But the body is transient, we all know that. It’s stuff. You writers, you forge culture, and culture is eternal. Or as good as…I believe {literature} is beneficial…And enduring. Even the worst of it survives its author, and the best outlives the language it’s composed in. I can’t imagine what it must be like to … know that in fifty, one hundred, two hundred years there will be someone, somewhere reading your books.

    The Tolstoy Estate p175

    The Tolstoy Estate is published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishing, in September 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Sweet and colourful: ‘The Polar Bear in Sydney Harbour’ by Beck & Robin Feiner

    Kids (of all ages) enjoy incongruities and humour and this is definitely a feature of the new picture book by Sydney-based husband and wife team Beck and Robin Feiner.

    ‘When Hannah spots a polar bear in Sydney Harbour, she knows something isn’t right…But even worse, none of the adults seem to notice him at all.
    Can Hannah help her new friend find his way back home?

    The polar bear in Sydney harbour

    There is the obvious humour in the text – a polar bear in Sydney? – but the clever illustrations by Beck Feiner add another layer, as only Hannah can see the polar bear as they visit well known and beloved Sydney locations. Her parents don’t even notice the bear riding on the roof of their car!

    Kids will love pointing out the absurdities in this gentle book that, below it’s humour, is a child-friendly invitation to consider some of the possible effects of climate change on the animals most affected.

    The illustrations are stylised with gorgeous blocks of colour, portraying places like Bondi Beach, the Opera House and Sydney ferries, all very familiar to many Australian children.

    The brief friendship that develops between Hannah and the bear is heart warming and Hannah is a clever girl to work out a solution to the polar bear’s dilemma.

    The Polar Bear in Sydney Harbour is a welcome addition to picture books that introduce children to environmental themes, with humour and a child’s eye view throughout.

    The Polar Bear in Sydney Harbour is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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  • Books and reading

    Wild magic: ‘Havoc! The Untold magic of Cora Bell’ by Rebecca McRitchie & Sharon O’Connor

    Havoc! is the second book in the Jinxed! series by Rebecca McRitchie, all about the magical adventures of Cora Bell and her fairy friends Tick and Tock.

    Aimed at independent readers eight years and over, these are chapter books that will enchant and engage, with enough action to please and a focus on the themes of friendship, belonging and being brave.

    Havoc! picks up from the first book, with Cora realising that the magic within her has been ‘syphoned’ from magical beings and threatens to get out of control. If she is not able to do something soon, she runs the risk of turning into a Havoc, and no one wants to be around one of those…

    She sets off in search of other syphons, in the hope that by finding others like herself she will finally have found a family and a place to belong. On the way, she encounters dark magic, powerful enemies and danger.

    Her friends Tick and Tock add some humour into the mix. Forget about sparkly, delicately fluttering ‘Tinkerbells’ – these fairies are bald little men with rather large bellies, and plenty of gumption to help their friend.

    The black and white illustrations by Sharon O’Connor bring characters Cora, Tick, Tock and others to life.

    The world-building in this story is lovely, with riffs on familiar creatures like mermen, warlocks, trolls and vampires. Some of the scenes are a little dark so possibly not suited to very young children – though with the popularity of Harry Potter among even the youngest of tots, perhaps there is not so much cause for concern nowadays?

    Havoc! and the Jinxed! series will appeal to young readers who like their magic fast and colourful, and who enjoy stories about friends facing the odds together.

    Havoc! The Untold Magic of Cora Bell is published by Angus & Robertson (an imprint of Harper Collins Children’s Books) in September 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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  • Books and reading,  History

    Fabulous tale of derring do from Australia’s colonial past: ‘Ten Rogues’ by Peter Grose

    I am a lover of history in all it’s forms, though I have sometimes wondered how my interest in Australian history survived my school years in the 1960’s and 70’s, with the dry recitations that passed for history back then. I learnt about early European explorers and their ‘discoveries’, the names of people – usually men – of note, something about the Depression and the World Wars. But not enough – not nearly enough – of the humans who populated these past eras – their strivings, motivations and follies. Where, oh where, were the dramas, the absurdities, the outrageous injustices and outright comedies, the incredible feats of resilience and courage that peppered our past?

    In more recent years there have been some wonderful works of fiction and non-fiction that have brought this human part of history into sharper focus. From the Edge: Australia’s Lost Histories by Mark McKenna springs to mind, as do excellent podcasts such as Forgotten Australia by Michael Adams or The History Listen from ABC’s Radio National. Fled by Meg Keneally is a novel based on the astounding escape from Sydney by convict Mary Bryant; Esther by Jessica North tells the story of the woman who arguably managed and controlled one of NSW’s first large agricultural estates. And there is now, thankfully, plenty of literature to tell us the stories from indigenous Australia – non-fiction such as Archie Roach’s Tell Me Why and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu; and fiction, including this year’s Miles Franklin awarded The Yield by Tara June Winch.

    Ten Rogues is subtitled The unlikely story of convict schemers, a stolen brig and an escape from Van Diemen’s Land to Chile. As the title promises, it is both a rollicking good tale, and a well-researched true- life adventure. The convict at the centre of the tale is Jimmy Porter, a man who must surely have possessed the proverbial ‘nine lives’ to have escaped the multiple death sentences he faced over his career as a criminal and teller of tall tales. The author acknowledges that Jimmy’s penchant for exaggeration and blurring the truth made the research more difficult (the book is based, in part, on judicious selection from Jimmy Porter’s own accounts of his actions, as well as other contemporary narratives, convict records and newspapers, and some additional delving in Chile.)

    The book weaves all of these together with information on the history of convict transportation to Australia, the grim conditions in penal stations such as Tasmania’s Sarah Island, the historic links between the slave trade and transportation, and eighteenth and nineteenth century debates about crime, punishment and prison reform. It does so in a very readable way, because apart from anything else, the story of Jimmy Porter and his band of escapees is one of luck and misfortune, unwise choices, incredible feats of endurance and courage, and moments of humour and bravado, that might be seen as very unlikely, if they appeared in a work of fiction.

    These are the stories from our past – the funny, the ugly, the tragic, the astounding – that for me, make history so irresistible. Read this book for a rollicking good tale and to learn more about Australia’s colonial and convict periods. It delivers both in an entirely absorbing package.

    Ten Rogues was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020.

    Peter Grose is the author of several other books about episodes in Australian history including A Very Rude Awakening (about the raid on Sydney harbour by Japanese mini-submarines during WWII) and An Awkward Truth (about the bombing of Darwin in 1942). These promise to be just as intriguing as Ten Rogues and are now on my Want To Read list.

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  • Books and reading

    Identity, secrets, tragedy – and love: ‘The Love that Remains’ by Susan Francis

    This is such a beautiful book. Susan Francis’ debut published book, it is a memoir that tells of her lifelong search for her birth parents, her struggle to understand and accept the circumstances of her birth and adoption, her relationship with her adored husband Wayne, and her grief at his untimely and sudden death. But it is also about secrets that are kept by individuals and within families and asks one of the hardest of all questions: How well can we really know another person?

    The author weaves the two main themes of her story – identity and secrets – together in a way that makes the book un-put-down-able. Along with Susan Francis, I really wanted to know why she was adopted, who her birth parents were, as well as those aspects of Wayne’s past that he sought to keep hidden. The story goes back and forth in time and across continents, new griefs mixing with old, as we accompany the author on her quest to learn, to know, to understand. We feel her unbearable trauma and confusion as she faces some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable, challenges that would test any one of us. Challenges that she faces with humanity, humility and a gritty determination. All of this is told in beautiful, lyrical prose that touches the deepest parts of the readers’ own emotional responses and imagination.

    Never was I tempted to ignore this knowledge about my husband’s past. The only way I could be fully me in the present was to know the truth of what had gone before. If I didn’t find out…my story would not be whole. Because you can’t un-know information.

    The Love that Remains

    I won’t say more about the events described in this book because I think every reader should come to it without too many preconceptions or prior knowledge. That way it unfolds fresh for each new reading. It is enough to say that it is a compelling debut. Susan Francis is currently working on her first novel, which I understand is partly inspired by the ‘Balibo Five’ and other events surrounding the struggle for East Timorese independence from Indonesia. I look forward to reading that once published.

    If you enjoy books that touch the heart, that make you think and wonder, and that pose questions for which there are no easy answers, you should read The Love that Remains.

    Just a note: I ‘heard’ this book via the Audible audiobook version, which is why I was unable to give a page reference for the quote above.

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