• Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Five months of reading: 2020 Reading Challenges done and dusted

    OK, so perhaps COVID-19 isolation rules had something to do with it. I’ve been reading a whole lot more in the first five months of this year. As a result, my 2020 Reading Challenges are done and it’s not quite halfway through the year yet.

    So, here’s what I’ve achieved between the pages (you can find my reviews for each of the books in the links to my earlier posts):

    And the books I read? Here they are along with links to my thoughts on each in case you missed them the first time. (There are a few additional books read but not listed here because I did not post a review.)
    Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee
    Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
    The Mind of a Thief by Patti Miller
    Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch
    Bruny by Heather Rose
    The Yield by Tara June Winch
    Songspirals by Gay’wu Group of Women
    The White Girl by Tony Birch
    The Lioness Wakes by Blanche D’Alpuget
    No Small Shame by Christine Bell
    I Want You to Know We’re Still Here by Esther Safran Foer
    Tell Me Why by Archie Roach
    The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman
    Inheritance of Secrets by Sonya Bates
    The Schoolmaster’s Daughter by Jackie French
    Evie and Pog by Tania McCartney
    Starfell: Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale by Dominique Valente
    When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard
    The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
    Taboo by Kim Scott
    Invisible Boys by Holden Shepard
    Cutting the Cord by Natasha Molt
    When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard


    Have you set yourself any reading challenges this year? Maybe a new author? Or trying out a genre you don’t normally gravitate to? Perhaps, like me, you’ve also been searching out more titles by indigenous Australian authors.

    Now, on to the next half of 2020 and more reading.
    We’re into winter here in Australia and of course that’s the perfect time to settle in a sunny spot or in front of the fire with a good book or three.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #readthestella
    #2020StellaPrize
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    Poverty, society and religion conspire: ‘No Small Shame’ by Christine Bell

    No Small Shame takes the reader into the world of emigrants to Australia at the beginning of the twentieth century: specifically a young woman, Mary O’Donnell, from Irish Catholic roots who travels across the world to Australia in 1914. Her father and that of her childhood friend Liam are miners from Ireland who emigrated to Scotland in the hope of finding work. Now, they are uprooting once again to work ‘down the pits’ in Wonthaggi, a coal mining region of Victoria.

    The author immerses us in the appalling poverty of these families and communities: the cold, cramped row houses in Scotland, the deaths of babies and children from diseases like diphtheria and pneumonia, the grinding work in the pits, the smell of chamber pots and unwashed underarms. It is not a romantic picture of the past which is just as well, because there is precious little romance to be had in the lives of people like the O’Donnells and the Merrilees, nor in the life of Mary’s friend Winnie, married off in her teens to a surly, uncaring man who takes her to live on a farm outside of town – if ‘live’ is the right word here. ‘Survive’ is probably more accurate.

    Despite their unpromising start in life, Mary and Liam both dream of better things. Mary nurtures her secret love for the boy she grew up with, but her feelings don’t seem to be reciprocated. All Liam cares about is getting away from his family and the seemingly inevitable work in the mine with his father. he wants to buy a good house and have money to spend. To ‘be his own man.’ And his growing frustration leads him into a life of drink.

    Mary tries to muster dignity and defiance against everything that is ranged against her: her poverty, her employer, the religious and social strictures of the day, the unbending anger and resentment of her mother, her misplaced love and loyalty to an undeserving man. She finds herself in a situation all too common at that time, with a lack of agency a reality for so many women. It is a stark portrayal of the transactional nature of a loveless marriage:

    But life for them was never meant to be more than what it was. Even marriage didn’t mean you had to be happy every bloody minute of every bloody day.

    No Small Shame p337

    The author vividly illustrates how religious and social hypocrisies impacted unfairly on women, who were expected to uphold standards of virtue and responsibility that some men seemed to avoid. The edicts of church and community left no room for mistakes, or allowance for people to change.

    On top of all of this, the world is plunged into war which further strains families and communities to breaking point. Once the survivors return home, we see the cruel negligence of all who’d suffered in the fight for ‘King and Country.’ (As an aside, this is one of the reasons why I struggle with ANZAC Day commemorations each year – knowing that while our leaders mouth platitudes about ‘Lest We Forget’, the physical and mental health, and the family and financial well-being of returned service people, is still shockingly neglected.)

    Then the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic hits – which to a reader in 2020, echoes the panic and fear about the latest virus now sweeping the world.

    This might sound like No Small Shame is a litany of misery. There is sadness, despair and anger, yes. But the author shows us Mary’s growing internal defiance and her arguments with herself. The narrative is close third person, so the reader is able to hear Mary’s thoughts as well as watch her actions. Her voice in the novel is lovely – full of idioms of the day, especially of the working class Irish Catholic community in which she is placed. Mary develops a stronger sense of independence, a realisation that she must stand on her own two feet. She also has an ironic, humorous bent which helps to soften some of the more difficult aspects of life:

    With thousands of men gone to the front, she’d not reckoned on the Government decreeing it not proper for women to take over the jobs of men. What was the big call for women in Australia? Socks! Socks and pyjamas, thank you. Don’t trouble yourself to fill a real job, just sew and knit a bit! It made her wonder if women struggling in the bush to keep sheep alive in the drought, and bringing in a harvest with their menfolk away, knew they ought not to be doing ‘men’s’ work.

    No Small Shame, p197

    By the novel’s end, Mary has come to an acceptance of who she is and what she deserves in life, and is taking steps to change her situation for the better:

    Placid, good, gentle Julia. The type of wife and mother she could never be. She’d always be one to question the justice, or the lack.

    No Small Shame, p338

    This is Christine Bell’s debut novel for adults, though she has published many works of short fiction for both adults and children, and has also written a Young Adult manuscript. I hope she continues to write stories like this one, which brings history to life and also tells us important things about our own times.

    No Small Shame will be published by Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press) on 1 April 2020. My thanks to Holly for an advance reader copy.

  • Books and reading

    No ordinary book – a gift from the heart of Yolŋu culture: ‘Songspirals’ by the Gay’wu Group of Women

    My heart was full as I read this unusual and generous book. When I had finished, I felt two things: humility and gratitude. Along the way there were many ‘light bulb’ moments, when aspects of Yolŋu culture that had been confusing or which I had previously misunderstood, became a bit clearer.

    Songspirals (published 2019 by Allen & Unwin) was written by the Gay’wu Group of Women (or ‘dilly bag women’s group’), consisting of Yolŋu women from north-east Arnhem Land in Australia’s far north, and non-Aboriginal women. Four sisters and a daughter, and three non-Aboriginal researchers from Macquarie University and the University of Newcastle, have collaborated on cultural and research projects over a decade and also co-authored three other books. Songspirals is an invitation to come on a journey of exploration and understanding.

    The women describe songspirals (sometimes called songlines or song cycles) as:

    … the essence of people in this land…We belong to the land and it belongs to us. We sing to the land, sing about the land. We are that land. It sings to us.

    Songspirals p xvi

    The book was written to share something of Yolŋu culture, language, song and law, that have guided and protected people for thousands of years. The women write of milkarri:

    We Yolŋu women from North East Arnhem Land … we cry the songcycles, we keen the songcycles – this is what we call milkarri. Only women keen milkarri. Milkarri is an ancient song, an ancient poem, a map, a ceremony and a guide, but it is more than all this too. Milkarri is a very powerful thing in Yolŋu life.

    Songspirals p.xvi

    They share particular songspirals in the book, describing the deep knowledge and deep names of places, animals, clans, things. They also give the clearest explanation I have read of ‘Country’, of what it means within Yolŋu culture and spirituality:

    Country is home, it sings to us and nourishes us. It is the feeling of home, the feeling of the seasons that communicate with us. It is all the beings of home. It is everything that we can touch or feel or sense, and it is everything beyond that too. It is everything that belongs in Country, with Country and as Country, including us. And it is the relationships between all those beings too. We come into being together…

    Yolŋu keep Country alive with language…the land grew a tongue and that tongue is the Yolŋu people…

    Everything communicates and comes through the songspirals.
    This communication between animals, between land, animals and people, between the tide, the sun and the moon, is about giving and receiving messages, about the seasons, about the weather, about people’s and Country’s safety and well-being.

    Songspirals pp.23, 40, 41

    I felt humble because of the breathtaking generosity of the women in sharing so much about their culture and their lives. Woven through the narrative are stories from their families, illustrating the resilience, pride and energy of Yolŋu in the face of appalling arrogance and dismissal on the part of non-indigenous people, from the very earliest contact to the present day. The depth and complexity of culture and languages that have been kept alive and vibrant through difficult times, shine from this book. All the authors ask in return is that: ‘...you respect this knowledge, to be respectful and be aware of the limits of what we are sharing.’ Songspirals p 258

    Issues such as land rights, the destruction that mining inflicts on the land, bilingual or ‘two-way’ education, the dangers that come with losing language, and the ‘homelands’ or ‘outstations’ movement, (where indigenous people moved away from missions and towns, back to care for Country) are discussed in the book. It is clear that living on homelands is about health – the physical and mental health of people and of the land – NOT a ‘lifestyle choice’ as once dismissively described by a former Australian Prime Minister. Non-linear concepts of history, of time and of relationships, are also touched on.

    These are hefty topics and the book is not an ‘easy’ read, partly because of the depth of the issues and partly because of its unusual narrative style, which cycles and repeats as do the songspirals it describes. But I was grateful for the opportunity to read about these important issues, not from commentators or political figures, but from Yolŋu women themselves. And the language – Yolŋu matha words are used liberally throughout (there is a glossary to help) and it’s a wonderful way to be introduced to the complexities and richness of one of Australia’s First Languages.

    There is so much more I could say about this book and about the authors: sisters Laklak Burarrwanga, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs and Banbapuy Ganambarr, their daughter Djawundil Maymura, and Kate Lloyd, Sandie Suchet-Pearson and Sarah Wright.

    I would encourage readers to visit the website of the Bawaka Collective to find out more about their work and research.
    Also check out the music of other family members in the band East Journey. These musicians write and sing songs which are closely linked to much of the content and meaning of Songspirals.
    Siena Stubbs, another of the younger Yolŋu generation, wrote and self published a book (since published by Magabala Books) called Our Birds: Ŋilimurruŋgu Wäyin Malanynha when she was just 16 years old.
    Another member of this talented clan, Maminydjama Maymuru, has a successful modelling career as Magnolia. For this young woman,

    …living in both worlds has given her a deeper understanding of both worlds and of life. In the Yolŋu way, she talks through the songspirals and that is where her message comes from.

    Songspirals p 133

    For the authors of Songspirals, it is crucial that the next generations keep the language and culture strong while they negotiate living in two worlds. This is for the young people, their well being, health and connection to the things that will keep them strong. But it is also for the wider community, the land, the nation.

    There is so much wisdom in this book, so much to absorb, to try to understand and to think about. I thank the Gay’wu Group of Women for their teaching and their generosity.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Intrigue and murder in the time of the Plantagenets: ‘The Lioness Wakes’ by Blanche d’Alpuget

    I’m a bit of a medieval and Tudor history tragic so the opportunity to delve into twelfth-century English and French goings-on (courtesy of Holly at Ventura Press) was most welcome. The Lioness Wakes (published March 2020 by Ventura Press) is the fourth in a series by Blanche d’Alpuget called ‘The Birth of the Plantagenets’. They were a dynasty that ruled England for over three centuries, had fourteen kings of England among their ranks and included the inter-family conflict known as The Wars of the Roses.

    The book opens with the bloody drama of the murder of Thomas Becket, one-time friend but now a thorn in the side of King Henry II. Henry may or may not have ordered this murder, but its consequences were to dog him, leading to rebellion and revolt throughout his kingdom and into lands controlled by him in what is now modern day France. With such a graphic start, the reader is plunged into the complexities and brutalities of twelfth-century European courts, monarchs and their families – especially the Plantagenets, riven by suspicion, plots and intrigue. A Netflix crime series has nothing on the drama of this period.

    Eleanor, wife of King Henry II, is a particularly compelling character. Known for her beauty, daring and intelligence, and the former wife of the French King Louis VII, Eleanor is behind a revolt against Henry, pitting their three sons against their father in the process. I recalled the character of Eleanor as portrayed by Katherine Hepburn in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter and it was with pleasure that I was introduced to her again in this novel. She was certainly a formidable woman and foe.

    Remembering stories of her son Richard, who succeeded Henry and became known as ‘Richard the Lionheart’ it was surprising to read d’Alpuget’s rather more unflattering picture of him as a young man – cruel, capricious and arrogant. Although they band together to oppose their father, there is no love lost between the three eldest Plantagenet sons – Henry the Younger, Richard, and Geoffrey. John (‘Baby’ in this book) later becomes the notorious Prince John in the Robin Hood legends and then King John of Magna Carta fame, but in this book he is a toddler, already spoiled by his adoring father.

    There are vivid pictures of the places peopled by the novel’s characters. In Scotland, for example:

    As the cold of an ill-tempered autumn laid thick sheets of ice on the surface of lakes, one morning of muted light he heard the screams of gulls and saw a dark outline rear through the fog. Edinburgh Castle was perched at the top of that monster of nature, Black Rock.

    The Lioness Wakes, p 143

    I wanted to draw a cloak around myself to keep out the chill air as I was reading.

    A few times I found the narrative a bit disjointed, but that may have been due to my lack of knowledge of events and some characters from the first three books of this series, which I have not yet had the opportunity to read. The story deals with complex (and at times for me confusing) negotiations and power plays between members of the European royalties and aristocracy. If we are ever tempted to think that self-serving and ambition are peculiar to modern-day politics, this novel swiftly puts that belief to rest:

    …centuries deep in their blood runs ambition, pride and aggression, generation after generation, back to the mists of the north wind.

    The Lioness Wakes p 148

    d’Alpuget shows how the Church, no less political, wielded huge power at a time when people of all stations in life were as likely to believe in dreams and magic as in miracles of the kind purportedly brought about by Thomas Becket after his death, and goddesses shared in the affection of villagers and nobles alike, along with the Virgin Mary.

    This novel is a vivid portrayal of events and people from a turbulent time in European history. I’ll be on the lookout for the first three books in the series, and the fifth and final book when published.

    #AussieAuthor20

  • Books and reading,  History,  Uncategorized

    One woman’s experiences of wartime incarceration: ‘Cilka’s Journey’ by Heather Morris

    I was introduced to the character of Cilka Klein in Heather Morris’ first, best selling book The Tattooist of Auschwitz.

    Morris, New Zealand born but now living in Australia, met Lale Sokolov and told his story of surviving the Auschwitz concentration camp in WWII. Cilka appears in Lake’s story because in 1942 she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was 16 and beautiful and chosen by one of the camp’s Nazi commandants to perform a role that was essentially to be his sex slave. She survived Auschwitz- Birkenau and Cilka’s Journey opens with the liberation of the camp in 1945.

    Now 19, Cilka can scarcely believe her ordeal is over and as it turns out, fate deals her a cruel hand. Instead of being given her freedom, she is charged by the Russians for the crime of ‘collaborating with the enemy.’ Once more she is herded onto a railroad truck along with women of all ages and many nationalities, to endure an arduous journey north – to the prison camp of Vorkuta, inside Siberia’s Arctic Circle.

    The conditions she faces there are appalling. Prisoners, men and women alike, are forced to labour in the freezing conditions of the coal mine there. They sleep at night in huts with only one blanket each for warmth and a single bucket for a toilet. Meals are a thin watery gruel. Much of this is a repeat of Cilka’s experiences at Auschwitz- Birkenau.

    To add to their degradation, the women are subjected to brutal attacks by male prisoners, who regularly force their way into the huts and assault and rape who they please.

    The theme of rape – as a weapon of war, as a tool to pacify male prisoners, as a threat to ensure compliance by women – is starkly presented. A horrifying fact of a horrifying life. Cilka, after all, is in this second prison camp because the repeated tapes she endured at the hands of a Nazi officer are seen by Russian authorities as evidence of ‘fraternisation’ and collaboration with an enemy. She is Czech, not Russian, but subject to the laws of the then USSR. And so on top of the three years in a Nazi camp she spends another eight long years of a fifteen year sentence in Vorkuta until her early release after Stalin’s death.

    Morris has received some criticism for her telling of Lale’s and now Cilka’s stories. However she maintains that she was not trying to tell the Holocaust story or the Russian gulag story: rather the stories of two individuals. Also, Cilka’s Journey is fiction, though fiction inspired by the story as told to her by Lale Sokolov, recollections of female prisoners of Russian camps of this era, and by research in Germany, Slovakia and Russia. A lengthy author’s note makes clear the line between historical fact and fiction and an additional information section gives more detail about the Russian prison camp system.

    The story is beautifully told. It is tragic, frequently harrowing, but also a compassionate and sensitive examination of the depths and heights that humans can reach, and the varying ways in which people respond to circumstances which are to modern minds, unimaginable. It’s also a story of friendship, strength and survival.

    After reading this book I will never hear the quip ‘Sent to Siberia’ in quite the same way again.

    Cilka’s Journey was published in October 2019. I heard the Audio version which was narrated by Louise Brealey and published by Macmillan Audio.