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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The first thing I noticed about The Angel of Waterloo is the cover image – one of the most haunting book covers I’ve seen for a while, designed by Mark Campbell using artwork by Mary Jane Ansell. You can see more of her beautiful work here.
The novel opens on the carnage and chaos of the battlefield at Waterloo, arguably the most famous of all the battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The protagonist, Henrietta (or ‘Hen’) is just fifteen and, along with her army surgeon father, desperately trying to save as many injured soldiers as she can.
Already more accomplished in medical matters than many physicians (who in this era were all male), Hen manages to save the arm and the life of a young lieutenant, Max Bartlett. When he regains consciousness he makes a rash proposal of marriage to his saviour and Hen accepts. They are married by a local priest, right there on the battlefield, witnessed only by Hen’s father and Max’s friend.
I’m still uncertain if this battlefield marriage worked for me, though I do understand that in war, normal behavioural norms and expectations are often jettisoned. The device also works to move the plot to Australia, when Hen embarks on a hopeful voyage several years later. In the colony, she finds that the stakes for her happiness, safety and fulfilment are even higher than before.
I’d describe this novel as a saga: so much happens and it’s an emotional roller coaster as we follow the fluctuating fortunes of the various characters.
As always, Jackie French’s historical detail is impeccable and layered through the narrative seamlessly, so readers can learn a great deal while being immersed in the story. We become aware, for example, of how the colony’s politics and economics affected all who lived there: the indigenous people who were quickly dispossessed of their lands, the poor, the convicts and the free settlers who followed in their wake. The violence and injustice imported along with the settlers are clear to see.
As Sergeant Drivers says to Hen:
‘Miss Hen, ain’t you realised yet that this is a land of felons? We walk around with no chains because the wild about us is prison-walls enough, but none of us is innocent, no matter what we claim. Nor was we caught the first time we broke the law, neither. Most of us are damned good at it.’The Angel of Waterloo p 212
So, the realities of colonial life are laid bare as Hen immerses herself in this new world and faces difficult decisions about her future there.
At the novel’s heart is the theme of warfare, violence and colonisation:
‘You were simply swallowed up by Waterloo.’The Angel of Waterloo p327
She saw by his expression Max did not understand. ‘I mean the whole mindset that led to it, those long years of war with France. The colony is built on a world that sees nothing odd in killing thirty thousand soldiers in a day, leaving ten thousand orphan children starving and countless eyeless beggars craving for a crust. It’s the right of any gentleman to take whatever he can win.’
This novel also made me think about how authors of today portray historical events and people in fiction. There is a tension between wanting to give as accurate a picture as possible, while also allowing at least some characters to express views on matters such as race-relations, for example, that would be more in line with modern-day values.
I wonder how many non-indigenous people in nineteenth century NSW would have been sympathetic to the First Australians and why their views and experiences were not recorded prominently in their own time. The work of historians such as Paul Irish and Grace Karskens does help to show that not all settlers were blind to the humanity of the indigenous people they encountered. But I think that they were likely in a minority. Jackie French shows how racist attitudes had their roots in the long standing divisions and violence of British society.
The Angel of Waterloo has plenty of unexpected moments that kept me eager to read on. I warmed to Hen and truly wished her happiness in her adopted country. Lovers of Jackie French’s historical novels will find this an engrossing read.
The Angel of Waterloo is published by Harper Collins Publishers on 2 December 2020.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
With The Wreck, Meg Keneally has written another novel bristling with vividly drawn characters and adventure, with a good dollop of the kind of real-life historical stories that make her work so compelling. If you have read Fled, which was a fictionalised version of the incredible true story of the convict Mary Bryant, you’ll know how well this can work in the skilled hands of an assured writer.
In The Wreck, we meet Sarah, traumatised by the murder of her parents in what was meant to be a peaceful demonstration by some of England’s working poor (loosely based on the real Peterloo massacre) and the treatment of her brother in its aftermath. Sarah joins a group which plans the violent overthrow of the British government.
Betrayed and frightened for her life, she escapes aboard a sailing ship headed to NSW. The convicts and crew on board are drowned in a terrible shipwreck just off Sydney Harbour. Sarah is the sole survivor: alone and penniless in a strange land, though still burning for justice for her family and for other oppressed and mistreated people.
So begins her life in the colony, where she tries to create a new identity and a new beginning. But Sarah finds that inequity, poverty and brutality have been brought to NSW along with the convicts and soldiers and that she must choose her friends and allies carefully, as she is still a wanted woman. She struggles to reconcile her desire to work towards a better world and her fear of British justice – or injustice.
She, too, was part of a faceless mass, toiling down in the basements of grand houses or begging on the streets. Yes, those on the upper levels knew people like her existed, but they didn’t have to see or speak to her, they could conveniently ignore her humanity, as they were doing with the original inhabitants of this place.The Wreck, p195
The novel is peopled with some wonderful characters: Sarah herself, and others such as Nell and her baby Amelia, who Sarah befriends. Mrs Thistle, who Sarah and Nell go to work for, is loosely based on the real life character of Mary Reibey, a remarkable woman who went from being a convict to an astute businesswoman and one of the wealthiest people in the early colony.
Sarah herself develops from the frightened and bewildered young woman who washed up from a shipwreck on the shores of the colony, to someone who has learnt that there is more than one way to change her part of the world.
The Wreck will appeal to readers who enjoy their historical fiction well seasoned with convincing detail and believable characters, and themes that are as relevant today as to the period in which the novel is set.
The Wreck was published by Echo Publishing in 2020.
Mim is on the run. Her husband Ben is missing from his workplace, a gold mining project on an Indonesian island. The Department assigns a ‘liaison team’ to the family and they take the passports of Mim and her two young children, Essie and Sam. The Department, she has come to realise, is not a benevolent body but the principal instrument of a controlling, all-powerful oppressive government. Mim is right to be afraid.
So she takes the kids, goes offline and flees – first back to her family home, then to the place of her childhood seaside holidays. With high school sweetheart Nick, she and the kids embark on a long drive north; then out to sea on Nick’s boat to Indonesia, hoping to find her husband Ben. All the while trying to avoid detection by The Department. Oh, and to be a good mother to her kids.
The Mother Fault is set in the very near future, in an Australia where Government tentacles reach everywhere, assisted by technology that feels very familiar (think Siri or Google Home), but includes microchipping babies at birth so that they are literally never ‘off line’.
Mim’s dash towards freedom and her husband invites new dangers and risk for herself and everyone she loves. At the novel’s heart is Mim’s struggle to know if she’s doing the right thing by her family. Is she careful enough, protective enough, loving enough? An age-old anxiety, this one; surely recognisable to most mothers. As is its corresponding struggle: to return to a sense of self, of personhood, amidst the layers of responsibility and distractions that come with busy modern lives.
She shouldn’t leave them out there on their own, but see if she fucking cares. Little shits, not listening, making fun.The Mother Fa
‘Mum!’ A shriek from outside and her legs don’t even hesitate, already making deals with fate. Sorry sorry sorry stuck in her throat as she races out through the gate, sees them both out of the water and a long trickle of watery blood down Sammy’s shin, a small rupture of flesh near the knee.
‘It got caught on the brick climbing out,’ Essie says, glaring at her. ‘You shouldn’t have left us alone.’
…and it doesn’t even hurt, her daughter’s admonishment, because it’s just the way it is.
She’ll never get it right.
ult, ch 13 (Audiobook version)
At the opening of the novel is a quote from The Great Hack (Netflix, 2019):
The Mother Fault certainly got me thinking about all the trade-offs we make for the conveniences and luxuries of our modern lives: connectivity, streaming services, personal entertainment devices, labour saving technologies. How often do we stop to consider what is lost amongst the gains?
Because the novel is set in an Australia that is so familiar to our own current-day one, the dangers Mim experiences feel very real and entirely believable. There is a dramatic climax in which Mim is forced to face some very unpleasant realities and make an excruciating choice in order to keep her kids safe.
The Mother Fault is gripping speculative fiction with the added bonus of Mildenhall’s beautiful prose. I listened to the Audible version narrated by Claudia Karvan whose flawless performance added greatly to my enjoyment of the novel.
The Mother Fault was published by Simon & Schuster, 2020.
Readers of Tea Cooper’s fiction will know that she likes to write dual timeline stories set in Australia’s past. The Cartographer’s Secret is no exception.
The protagonists are two young women: Evie in 1880, and her niece Lettie in 1911. The story connects the two: Lettie drives from Sydney to visit her Great Aunt Olivia on the family property in the Hunter Valley, to inform her that Lettie’s brother (and the heir to the property) has died. She soon gets caught up in the secrets and puzzles held within her family’s history, particularly the mysterious disappearance of her Aunt Evie, thirty years earlier.
Evie had shared her father’s fascination with maps and exploration, and become similarly obsessed by the famous explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who had disappeared without trace in 1848. She sets out to track down evidence that she believes will prove her theory of what happened to Leichhardt and his party, but she is never seen again, leaving her Aunt Olivia heartbroken.
Poring over the map of the Hunter region that Evie left behind, Lettie begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. She wants to solve the mystery of Evie to give Olivia, and the whole family, some peace (or closure, as we would call it today.) But things don’t go smoothly and Lettie uncovers more than she’d expected.
Tea Cooper’s heroines are likeable and relateable: young women with gumption and interests unusual for women at the time (Evie with her maps, Lettie with her Model T motor car.)
I found some of the details of the plot a little complicated and often needed to refer to the copy of Evie’s hand drawn map. While there is no happy conclusion for all the characters, there is a satisfying and believable resolution.
For me the strength of Tea Cooper’s novels lie in the central role played by their settings. She takes me on a journey through time of and in doing so, shows me an earlier version of often familiar places, through the lens of history. I believe this is what historical fiction can do best: immerse readers in another time so that we can see the present in a different way.
I also enjoy how aspects of the everyday inform that picture of the past. In The Cartographer’s Secret, this includes the beginning of rail and motor travel, the genesis of the famous Bulletin magazine, rural economies, the exploits of early European explorers, and the lives of women in both city and country.
The Cartographer’s Secret is a satisfying addition to Tea Cooper’s historical fiction and fans of her novels won’t be disappointed.
It is published by HarperCollins Publishers on 29 October 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
A follow up to the original and well-loved picture book Rudie Nudie, this book will delight little ones this Christmas.
Author and illustrator Emma Quay grew up in England but moved to Australia in the early 1990’s and now lives here with her Aussie family. So it’s not a surprise that her delightful crayon illustrations depict Christmas fun without an emphasis on the Northern Hemisphere motifs like snow and holly. Instead, her two little characters run and play, rudie nudie, through bath time, decorating the Christmas tree, wrapping gifts, making gingerbread, and waiting for Santa’s arrival.
The text is simple with repetition that allows children to ‘read along’:
Rudie Nudie gingerbreadRudie Nudie by Emma Quay
will make it twice as fun,
with two more Rudie Nudies
on a Nudie Rudie run.
This is a lovely Christmas offering for kids three years and over who love to snuggle up while mum, grandpa or big brother reads aloud; the simple text also makes it perfect for beginner readers.
Rudie Nudie Christmas is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
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.
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.