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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m late to this book (published by Text Publishing in 2016) but I’m an avowed Helen Garner fan, especially her non-fiction, which Everywhere I Look is: a collection of short anecdotes, musings, essays, film and book reviews, and a catalogue of everyday incidents in the life of an author who has made observing and recording a daily habit. In the hands of someone as skilled as this, the everyday become poetic, luminous, full of beauty, humour and mystery.
These were qualities of other books I’ve read by Garner: Joe Cinque’s Consolation, This House of Grief, The Spare Room, and of course the classic Monkey Grip, among others. How does she do this – write about the ordinary and the extraordinary in ways that make both seem familiar or, at least, understandable?
The second-last piece in this book, titled ‘The Insults of Age’, should be a must-read for any woman approaching mid to later life (and their partners, family and friends.) Her warning to thoughtless (younger) folk who might presume to act towards older women as if they are invisible, stupid, deaf or helpless, is one of several paragraphs that made me chuckle.
There were, as well, moments when I gasped in recognition of the situation described and at the beauty and simplicity of the prose, such as in the piece describing her mother and their relationship. ‘Dreams of Her Real Self’ also made me weep a little. There is this:
When, in the street, I see a mother walking with her grown-up daughter, I can hardly bear to witness the mother’s pride, the softening of her face, her incredulous joy at being granted her daughter’s company; and the iron discipline she imposes on herself, to muffle and conceal this joy.Everywhere I Look, p94
And these sentences, describing a photo of Helen as a baby in her mother’s arms, which capture the other side of the parent-child relationship:
I am six months old. I am still an only child. She is carrying me in her arms. She is strong enough to bear my weight with ease. I trust her. She is my mother, and I am content to rest my head upon her breast.Everywhere I Look p105
There it is – the entirety of the complicated bond between parent and child in a handful of understated or pared-back sentences. Who could say more, or more beautifully?
A wonderful offering from a living literary treasure.
Clare Bowditch is an Australian singer-songwriter, journalist, actor and writer. She is also an ARIA award winner who has toured with Leonard Cohen and fellow Australian performer Gotye, has been on stage with the likes of Sara Storer, Katie Noonan and Ruby Hunter, acted in TV and theatre roles, and has now written a book (published by Allen & Unwin 2019). Her eighth album will be released this year (2020) Check out her lovely website for updates.
With all this behind her, may come as a surprise that Clare is someone who has suffered mental ill health and struggled with serious doubts about her own self-worth. Which is, in part, what her memoir Your Own Kind of Girl, is about.
Before you think ‘Not for me, then’, let me add that this memoir is laugh-out-loud funny in parts, incredibly honest, moving and encouraging. I listened to the audiobook format which had several bonuses—the story is told in Clare’s own voice, which felt like a warm and comfy chat over a coffee with a good friend. Also, her wonderful mum, Maria Bowditch, shares her traditional Dutch apple tart recipe at the end! What’s not to love? Each chapter is welcomed by a snippet of one of Clare’s songs, relevant to that part of her story. And most gorgeous of all, Clare’s mum also gives a ‘language warning’ at the start of the book, adding in an understated sort of way, ‘I was a bit surprised by the language.’
It is the story that Clare promised herself at age twenty-one that she ‘would one day be brave enough, and well enough, and alive enough, to write.’ from Your Own Kind of Girl Audiobook version 2019
Clare traces her life from her earliest memories of growing up in a loving family in Melbourne’s suburbs to the beginning and development of her career in the arts. Her childhood was essentially a happy one, but marred when she was still a pre-schooler by the illness and death of her sister Rowena. Clare’s memories of this time—the regular visits to the hospital, the kindness of friends and neighbours, the stoicism and enduring faith of her parents, Clare’s own thoughts and feelings—are told with sympathy but not self-pity. It was sobering to hear her description of the ongoing effects of this childhood loss on her own development through childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.
What Clare’s story shows is how children can be both resilient and fragile—that youngsters can come through all kinds of early trauma, but there will be scars. For Clare, the scars manifested as a ‘bad feeling’ that she couldn’t understand or name. Much, much later she learned that the feeling incorporated grief, and guilt, and fear. The ‘bad feeling’ was to have a profound effect on her life.
Throughout childhood and puberty she struggled with her size: being a ‘big girl’ became problematic once she was old enough to compare herself with other girls, and to realise that people treated her differently because of it. While still in primary school she lost weight by going on a strict diet. So began years of see-sawing weight, at times dangerously close to serious eating disorder, which flared and receded according to what else was happening in her life.
The ‘bad feeling’ also manifested in an inner critical voice, that told Clare she was too fat, too stupid, not worthy. This voice spoke most insistently whenever she thought of trying something new, like following her love of music and singing. Who are you kidding? the voice would tell her. As if you’d ever be good enough!
A relationship break up led to her a trip to in London while in her very early twenties, and it was here that she experienced a full blown breakdown which she later understood to be an episode of extreme anxiety. She returned home to Melbourne to try to recover. Her family and friends gave great support but most helpful was discovering a book called Self Help For Your Nerves by Dr Claire Weekes (pub 1962), who was an Australian GP and health writer, considered by many to be one of the early leaders in the field of dealing with anxiety disorders. (see Wikipedia article for more info about Dr Weekes)
This book provided a glimpse of a pathway to better health. Clare realised that what she’d experienced in London was a panic attack but also what she could do to manage her anxiety. This is where ‘FAFL-ing’ comes into the story, an acronym that stands for one of Dr Weekes’ techniques, which is, when faced with anxiety inducing situations or thoughts, to:
Face the fearful thoughts and feelings (don’t run away) Accept (don’t fight against it) Float (don’t freeze) Let time pass (let go of impatience)
Clare describes how she practiced this technique: when difficult emotions or thoughts appeared, she would ‘FAFL’ her way through. Her recovery was slow, but she persisted, establishing a meticulous self-care routine involving times to rise and sleep, healthy eating, quiet times, and FAFL-ing daily. This part of Clare’s story is poignant but as I listened to her sharing at such an intimate level, I could feel nothing but admiration for her determination in the face of frightening and confusing situations and emotions. It was a time in which mental health and illness was not discussed nearly as openly as today and she admits that she knew almost nothing apart from what she saw on TV.
So she followed the steps laid out by Dr Weekes and found that—bit by bit—she was getting better. One day she decided to give the negative, critical voice in her head a name: Frank. And so ‘FOF-ing’ eventuated—‘F#@k Off, Frank’. She realised that trying to ignore Frank’s harping attempts to undermine her confidence and self-belief was not enough. This moment, and subsequent descriptions of how she ‘FOF-ed’ whenever the voice tried to spoil things for her, gave me some laugh-out-loud moments. I still smile when I think of them and I’ve taken to trying out some (silent) FOF-ing myself when the situation requires it.
Claire describes her ongoing recovery, setbacks, first tentative steps towards a creative, fulfilling life with friendships that sustained her, travel, romance and parenthood. All of this leading towards the ‘Amazing Life’ she’d dreamt about but for such a long time did not truly believe was possible.
You want an amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You don’t have to be just one thing/ But you have to start with something/ You’ll be a little bit older in October/ You’ve been acting on your pre-birth promise/ Now you think that the story is over/ Let me encourage you to know/ You will feel it when it is over/ It feels like hell taking inside of me/ Time to be still and listen for a while/ You want this amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You think you have to be fully formed already/ Don’t you?/ You want an amazing life/ But you can’t decide/ You don’t have to be just one thing/ But you have to start with something from ‘Amazing Life’ on the album ‘The Winter I chose Happiness’ by Clare Bowditch
At the end of the book there are additional resources for readers who may wish to explore ways to overcome their own ‘bad feelings’ and move towards recovery and their own amazing lives. I loved the way Clare gives these: once again it was like receiving a gift of relevant information from a close friend.
This is an honest, funny, poignant memoir that made me wish I could sit down with Clare and have a chat about her amazing life.