This memoir by New Zealand born- now Melbourne resident – Michelle Tom is already one of my standout reads of 2021. It cleverly, poetically, blends her story of family violence, love, and bitterness with the devastation of the earthquake that hit Christchurch in 2011. She uses geology and seismology as metaphors to drill down into the strata of her family; its patterns of behaviour and unrest over generations.
I had some initial confusion in the opening chapters, with their leaps across multiple timeframes, before I realised this is also a metaphor: for memory, and the way past events and feelings come to us in a mélange of seemingly unconnected scraps and layers.
The book is divided into five sections, each one reflecting the different stages of an earthquake, the final one being the aftershocks of the title. And for each of these stages, she identifies a corresponding period or event in her family’s life. It is such a powerful way of looking at family and individual trauma.
As children, she and her siblings were burdened with adult secrets they should never have had to hear. Regarding her sister Meredith, she says, in a passage reminiscent of the Victorian idea of dying from a broken heart:
Some days the weight of daylight was too much, as she hid away in her darkened flat. She fought to carry the secret of her beginning from each day into the next, and several years before she died I realised that she was not really living. Her spirit was fractured, and she possessed no energy for anything other than mere existence.Ten Thousand Aftershocks pp56-57
The legacy left for successive generations by parents and grandparents who are emotionally immature, manipulative and volatile is laid clear.
The descriptions of the earthquake itself and its aftermath are visceral and horrifying. My husband and I visited Christchurch in 2012 and saw evidence of the destruction it had caused, including mounds of strange mud that were left after the liquefaction that can happen during a major earthquake. Even this becomes part of the family metaphor:
What becomes of liquefaction after it has issued forth from the darkness beneath, into the light of the world? Like shame, it cannot survive being seen. In the heat of the sun it dries to a grey powder as fine as talc and disperses on whatever current of air may find it, gentle zephyrs and howling gales alike, leaving only a scar in the earth where it emerged.Ten Thousand Aftershocks p278
Ten Thousand Aftershocks is a profound and beautiful memoir, one I cannot recommend highly enough.
Ten Thousand Aftershocks is published by Fourth Estate in September 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Where to begin to discuss Naomi Hunter’s debut adult novel? There is so much to unpack in this book. A published children’s picture book author, Naomi is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and a seriously problematic early family life. One Little Life is her story, in fictional form.
I can completely understand her decision to come at the telling of her experiences as fiction. This book describes unspeakable horrors inflicted on a very small child from both family members and a neighbour. And it is detailed. Very detailed. There is no way that anyone with a brain could read this story and not feel visceral revulsion, heartbreak, and anger at what happened to her. Re-telling the events from a third-person narrator about a different little girl would be one way to cope with the remembering and telling of these events.
I would go so far as to suggest that anyone working in the arenas of policy, funding decisions or the justice system in relation to child sexual abuse, should absolutely read this book. It is an extremely uncomfortable read. Perhaps that is what is needed to bring home the seriousness of the problem. We need to experience the vulnerability of a child who is abused by the very people she should be able to trust. We need to bear witness to the pain, both emotional and physical, that children in this situation endure. We need to care about the child at the centre of this story because she stands in for all the other children that we never hear about.
My first reaction on beginning this book was dismayed disbelief at the level of immaturity, self absorption and incompetence exhibited by so many people in ‘Lily’s’ little life. The author makes crystal clear how the process of ‘grooming’ works – the insidious, planned way in which a trusted other sets up a child for abuse and the ways in which it is explained away and perpetuated.
Readers will also see the damage inflicted by uncaring, ignorant or insensitive others – health care providers, family or friends – and the incredibly important contribution by those who get their response right. Believing the victims, allowing awful truths be told in their own time and their own words, offering unconditional love and constant unwavering support. This stuff matters, whether you are a therapist, a GP, or a friend.
I am glad that the police and justice systems did work for ‘Lily’ in her time of incredible vulnerability.
Touching on the style of the book, I found the narrative a little overdone. I think the events and emotions are themselves so powerful that they could be described in sparser, simpler language and pack an even greater punch. In stories such as this, I do think that less is more.
I have nothing but enormous admiration for the author: for choosing to tell her story in such an honest way, for surviving, for her resolution not to be brought low by the things done to her. And her husband, who stood by her every step of the way.
One Little Life is not an easy read. But perhaps it is a necessary one.
One Little Life is published by Empowering Resources in 2021.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy to review.
Imagine being not quite sixteen, alone in the world and pregnant. Now imagine being faced with two intolerable alternatives: give up your baby for adoption or choose a life of violence, terror and misery.
This is what happened to the author of this memoir – not a hundred years ago, but in the mid twentieth century. Brought up in a white Australian family in the 1950’s, Dianne experienced unwavering love from her mother, but abuse at the hands of her father. She did not know she was adopted until later and was confused about many things, including why she always felt different from others around her.
Daughter of the River Country paints a vivid picture of suburban Australia in the latter half of the last century: the casual racism, bullying and violence meted out to those who least deserved it; the White Australia Policy that was still firmly in place; the neglect, jaw-dropping abuse and cruelty by those in charge of institutions meant to care for girls with no safe home to live in. For these reasons the memoir is hard to read at times but no less important for that. It tells of parts of our country’s history that many would prefer to forget, but which must be remembered so that we don’t keep repeating into the future. And as the author reminds us, some things haven’t changed as yet – the shameful gaps in life expectancy between indigenous and other Australians is one example, as is the shocking rate of incarceration and deaths in custody of indigenous people.
Dianne discovered that she was one of the Stolen Generations, taken from her birth mother when a baby. Her people were Yorta Yorta, from the river country of Victoria. Her adoptive mother had very much wanted her and Dianne had a relatively happy childhood, though with edges of danger from her adoptive father that were fully expressed in cruelty after her mother died. From there, everything fell apart for the young girl: she experienced multiple violent relationships, incarceration in both a girls’ home and gaol; alcohol addiction and indifference or outright abuse from some who should have helped her.
Discovering her birth family, her Aboriginal heritage and her people, brought about an incredible turn of events and her life took an upward turn, though not without tragedy along the way. It is the true measure of the woman that she was able to rise above the awfulness of her earlier life and work towards a better future for herself and her own children and grandchildren, and for her community.
I have nothing but admiration for Dianne O’Brien and her memoir sheds further light on what has often been a hidden part of Australia’s past. It is one of the growing number of books that allow Australians to learn, reflect and hopefully understand more about the experiences of First Nations communities.
Daughter of the River Country is published by Echo Publishing in July 2021.
My thanks to Better Reading for an advance reading copy to review.
Hands up if you sometimes think “We are rules by fools and knaves!” Or if you fret about the unhealthy role that alcohol seems to play in our Australian society. Me, too. It may be reassuring (or not) to know that this is not a new thing. In fact, according to this history by Matt Murphy, Australia’s very beginning as a British colony in the eighteenth century was inextricably linked to and shaped by alcohol, and the idiocy and corruption that so often accompanies it. One type of alcohol (rum) played a greater role than others, and this book deftly fills in a history of the beverage itself, how it first arrived on the shores of New South Wales, and what happened after.
Startling snippets of information are revealed: did you know, for example, that the First Fleet brought sufficient rum for seven years for each marine on board – but only enough food for two years. Rum was packed into the holds of those tall ships at the expense of tools, clothing and food supplies that the penal settlement would need in its early years.
Alcohol had an immediate, detrimental impact on Aboriginal people around Sydney and further afield; one that is still being felt today. Very quickly rum became a measure of currency and exploited by those in charge of the settlement – the NSW Marine Corps – which earned them the epitaph of ‘Rum Corps’.
We are introduced to some well-known historical figures: First Nations figures such as Bennelong; colonial Governors; convicts; emancipists and free settlers; those responsible for guiding the settlement all the way from England. Some of these characters are more notorious than others: John Macarthur, for example, is given a lot of attention due to his incessant meddling and blatantly corrupt activities, many of which involved the importation, sale and use of rum to further his own interests.
Murphy highlights the huge amount of energy expended on dispatches, petitions, orders about rum to and from authorities in NSW and London, canvassing the advantages and pitfalls of importing, distilling, trading, controlling and drinking the stuff. Well meaning but unsuccessful edicts regarding the control of alcohol consumption have echoes in our own times:
A further law proclaimed in June 1825 was aimed at publicans who condoned disorderly conduct on their premises or permitted patrons to become drunk. While the law pertaining to convicts was somewhat easy to maintain, the second one only meant that boozed-up barflies were being turfed out of hotels to drink in the street…Now there were more drunks on the street than ever before.Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia p229
Is it just me, or could these attempts to curb the negative effects of alcohol consumption be the Georgian equivalents of Sydney’s lock-out laws and today’s ‘responsible service of alcohol’ guidelines?
Matt Murphy writes with humour and a fast pace, so this is an entertaining read as well as a sobering (no pun intended) look at our modern relationship with alcohol, and it is refreshing to re-visit some well-known people and events from history through the prism of one substance or object – in this case, the bottom of a rum bottle.
Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
A genre that I enjoy (but for some reason tend to regard as a guilty pleasure) is true crime, particularly the police procedural type of non-fiction. I enjoy the ‘behind the scenes’ feeling when learning of the ins and outs of a major crime investigation. Stalking Claremont is just such a book. The author, Bret Christian, worked as a newspaper journalist and publisher in the areas of Perth in which the Claremont serial killer operated, so the events of 1996-1997, and the subsequent drawn out investigation, would have been of great interest to him.
In 1996 eighteen year old Sarah Spiers disappeared outside a Claremont nightclub and was never seen again. Four months later, Jane Rimmer disappeared from the same area. Her body was later found in bushland. In 1997 a third young woman, Ciara Glennon, was murdered. A manhunt ensued and the district went from being Perth’s party-central to living in fear that the killer would strike again.
Christian describes the ups and downs of what became Australia’s longest and most expensive investigation. Police failed to make an arrest, until forensic evidence pointed to Bradley Edwards and linked him with at least two of several other attacks that had occurred in the Claremont area. He was found guilty of two of the murders in September 2020 – more than two decades after Sarah’s disappearance.
The book outlines the missteps that were made: valuable clues overlooked; a tunnel-vision focus on three men as ‘persons of interest’ in spite of no physical evidence linking any of them to the crimes, resulting in great distress and trauma to the men and their families; a failure to link earlier attacks on other young women with the later murders; and careless record keeping which resulted in earlier mistakes being copied over and thus distorting information for later investigative teams to work with.
Once they discovered the ongoing errors, a startling notion hit the two men, What if these mistakes meant a vital piece of forensic evidence had been missed? One that cracked the case?Stalking Claremont p224-225
That brought excitement, but also trepidation. Big police forces are no different from any other political beast, bureaucracies where reputations are jealously protected and promotions coveted.
However, Christian does give credit where it’s due. His admiration for the work of specialist forensic and cold case review investigators is clear, as is his regard for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Hall, who presided over the judge-only trial, parts of which were held during Covid-imposed restrictions. The killer was found because of the incredibly detailed work of the forensic experts and long hours, days, months and years of grunt work by detectives assigned to the case. Edwards may well have thought, after a decade or so had passed, that he had ‘got away with’ his crimes, so I confess I had a thrill to think of how he must have felt when he was finally arrested.
Several things stood out for me in this book. In two of the cases under investigation, people admitted hearing a woman’s blood-curdling and distressed screams in the middle of the night – and did nothing! I’m amazed and horrified that anyone could hear unexplained screams and not, at the very least, pick up the phone to report their concerns to police.
Also of note is the role that local businesses, local and state governments can play in improving safety and security for residents and patrons. For example, if improvements in public transport, taxi services, CCTV cameras and street lighting had been made earlier, some of the young women may still be alive. Such prosaic measures don’t hold the same allure as forensics or crime scene investigators – but surely it’s better to prevent terrible crimes being committed in the first place?
Stalking Claremont is an engrossing examination of a high profile and complex campaign to catch and convict a serial killer. Readers who enjoy true crime and police stories will find it is a detailed examination of a case that absorbed so much police time, resources, public attention and of course, caused enormous grief and trauma for all involved.
Stalking Claremont is published by HarperCollins Australia in January 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
This book is subtitled ‘Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are better Than You Think’. I must admit, it was a welcome breath of fresh air after a year in which it’s been hard to feel anything except pessimism about global and national issues – climate change, searing bushfires, floods, warfare, reports of poverty, child abuse, and the rise of populist, authoritarian regimes. Add a global pandemic into the mix and it’s little wonder that most people, if asked whether the world is getting safer, healthier, fairer, would answer a resounding ‘No!’
Rosling, who sadly died of cancer in 2017, was a respected physician, epidemiologist, teacher and author. Rosling realised that even highly educated people and experts in particular fields, could not correctly answer a number of simple fact based questions about global levels of poverty and income, child mortality, education, life expectancy and so on. Indeed, on some measures, he found that the more educated a person was, the more likely they were to give an incorrect answer. He also noticed that the incorrect answers given tended to be on the more pessimistic or gloomy end of the scale.
Rosling was troubled by this, because these misconceptions are also held by people in charge of policy setting and decision making across national and international bodies. He decided that what was needed was to better communicate the available data to people at all levels and in all walks of life. His general approach is that the world is making progress, and that policy decisions should be grounded in data; not ideology, outdated information, or misconceptions.
Together with his son and daughter-in-law, he wrote Factfulness, which addresses these worldwide misconceptions and ignorance about human progress. The book presents data, available from reputable sources such as the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and the World Bank, but it does more than that.
Rosling explores some of the reasons why people so often think the world is getting worse. He explains these as ten basic instincts that stop us from thinking clearly about a subject: among them are the fear instinct, the negativity instinct and the blame instinct. For each one of these natural and common instincts, he offers insights and ways in which we can train ourselves to think more ‘factfully’.
If all this sounds a bit dry or tedious, let me assure you it’s anything but. The data is presented in a compelling and even entertaining way, in part due to his liberal use of personal anecdotes from his own experiences and career. The ‘bubble graphs’ employed throughout help turn a series of hard-to-grasp numbers into colourful and simple visuals that explain everything from the link between income levels and family size, and the surprising distributions of wealth within and between the richest and the poorest countries on Earth.
Each chapter has a short, intriguing preface, such as:
How more survivors means fewer people, how traffic accidents are like cavities, and why my grandson is like the population of the world. Factfulness p75
Rosling argues that there are five global risks we should worry about: a global pandemic; financial collapse; world war; climate change; extreme poverty. Given our recent experiences of Covid-19, the global financial crisis, the two devastating world wars of the twentieth century, the changes occurring now due to climate change, and the persistence of extreme poverty despite all the gains made in the past fifty years or so, it’s hard to argue with Rosling’s summation here.
Rosling describes himself not as an ‘optimist’ or a ‘pessimist’, but as a ‘possibilist’. He believes that the world can be both bad and getting better. He advocates an approach of curiosity about new information, that ideas should be tested, and that we should all listen to opposing ideas or arguments.
To find out more about the work and ideas of Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnland, visit the website of Gapminder, a not- for- profit educational foundation that continues and progresses their work in addressing global misconceptions.
Dollar Street is a tool on the Gapminder site which allows you to explore how people at different income levels across the world live, by using photos and videos, illustrating how basic human needs (such as shelter, food, sanitation, transport) are provided for. We can see that everyday life for people on similar income levels looks surprisingly similar across different places and cultures. The viewer can ‘meet’ a family, learn about their home, their work, children, hopes and dreams; giving a more realistic picture of human experience across the globe and showing that income affects daily life as much as do culture and nationality. I imagine that Dollar Street would be a very useful addition to teachers’ resources in schools and colleges.
Hans Rosling gave many lectures and talks across the world, including this TED Talk in 2006.
Factfulness was published in 2018 by Sceptre.
I was born and grew up in the Hawkesbury region and returned to live there and in the nearby Blue Mountains in my thirties. I have at least four ancestors who arrived in the Hawkesbury and Nepean region after serving their sentences, to take up land as settlers. Despite this, and despite attending high school in Richmond, not far from the river itself, I had learnt little of the early history of the region – which is rather sad, when you consider that it was an area rich in stories of the people who lived here before and after British colonisation.
In People of the River, historian and author Grace Karskens brings those stories to life, digging down into layers of history, back to what she calls ‘deep time’, tracing the ways in which the First People of the river and its surrounds lived before the English arrived, and the subsequent interactions between and among Aboriginal and settler communities.
This is no lightweight or dry history text. It’s an incredibly comprehensive account, though the impeccable research is always conveyed with a deft touch. The book includes chapters about the Hawkesbury-Nepean’s ancient geology, geography, earliest human habitation, the cultural and spiritual lives of its people (both Dharug and settler), the economic, political and social contexts of the colonial era, as well as the tragedies endured by the First Peoples, such as disease, family and community dislocation, child stealing, and violence.
However, we also learn of the many ways in which the First Nations communities adapted to and survived British colonisation and the many, sometimes surprising, ways in which they interacted with settlers. Referring to artefacts discovered, some held in museum collections, she writes:
These are the poignant ‘small things forgotten’, the scattered, silent, yet insistent record of a vast and extraordinary human experience: the enforced creation of new worlds and lives, woven from the old. Despite the terror and violence, the determined campaigns, the loss of so many of their kin, the disruption to their food sources and their social and sacred places, the people of Dyarubbin survived, and remained in their Country.People of the River p175
Ms Karskens is a gifted writer and her histories are engaging, lyrical and deeply moving – if you have read her earlier work, The Colony, about the history of the Sydney region, I am sure you will agree.
Along with her research for this book, the author has also been involved in a project with Dharug knowledge holders and fellow historians, that aims at re-discovering and reinstating the Dharug place names of the region. I am so glad to learn that the town I lived in for ten years, Richmond, has a much older name: Marrengorra.
I struggle to keep this post about People of the River brief – there is so much to enthuse about and so many amazing stories here. If you, like me, enjoy learning more about the real history of our country, this is a must-read. I lingered over it for several months – it’s a hefty book at 525 pages (not including appendices) but such a joy. I finished it with a satisfying sense that I now have a better understanding of the corner of Australia that has been so personally meaningful to me.
People of the River was published by Allen & Unwin in 2020.
The new book by prolific non fiction author Simon Winchester takes a sweeping look at the topic of land in a broad sense. Subtitled How the hunger for ownership shaped the modern world, the book’s opening introduces the author’s personal take on his ownership of a piece of land in northeastern USA, and in the process introduces the sorry history of the dispossession of the First Nations people in that corner of America.
Coming back to fundamentals, the author then tells the story of how the Earth was first measured; a tale of mathematics and precise instruments put to the task in the nineteenth century.
Then came the astonishing proposal to create a common map of the world – ‘a common map for a common humanity’ – put forward by Professor Albrecht Penck, an Austrian geographer. It was not surprising to learn that this project, embarked upon with such lofty idealism, was a fraught endeavour that eventually foundered on the rocks of divisions, rancour, rivalry and ineptitude after nearly a century of effort.
Winchester examines what makes borders; how human-created borders have resulted in absurdities and bloodshed; how in more recent times and with huge effort, the Dutch created land to live on and farm from the North Sea; the link between land and national identity and ways of doing things.
He returns to America to recount the brutal disgrace of settler land grabs and broken treaties in the westward movement of the nineteenth century; then explains the legacies of enclosure laws and clearances in England and Scotland; the effects of colonialism in various parts of the world including Australia, New Zealand, the African continent, India and Pakistan and the Middle East.
The book is full of startling snippets of information like this:
A quarter of the world’s population lives on land in which, though individual citizens may not know it, they exist in a notionally feudal relationship with the British Crown.Land p195
That quote alone should fire up the passions of supporters of the idea of Australia becoming a republic!
Almost every part of the world is included in the embrace of this book: from the Ukraine (Stalin’s disastrous and murderous ‘collectivisation’ of farms in the 1930’s), to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII; the contradictions and confusions of the Treaty of Waitangi, struck with New Zealand’s Maoris; and the destruction caused by industrialisation and exploitation of the Earth’s resources across the globe.
Winchester argues that the once firmly held belief that ‘land is the only thing that lasts’ is no longer true, due to rising sea levels and encroachment on low lying regions and islands. He offers examples of changing attitudes and methods of managing and conserving land, including from my own part of the world, Australia: widespread catastrophic bushfires in the summer of 2019-20 have led to a re-think of fire management and a growing respect for traditional ‘cool burning’ methods practised here for thousands of years by First Nations people.
Land is an engrossing and thought provoking read. Readers who enjoy learning about history, geography, maps, as well as the contradictions of human behaviour, will enjoy the mix of anecdote and analysis with which Winchester packs a lot of information into a very readable package.
Land is published by William Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in January 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
As noted in an earlier post, 2020 was (apart from everything else that was so very wrong about it) a bumper reading year for me. I embark on the new year in a spirit of optimism that I’ll be able to keep up my reading to similar levels, and to that end I am once again signing up for several reading challenges.
First, the 2021 Non Fiction Reader Challenge. I’ll opt for the Non Fiction Nibbler category, in which I’ll aim to read 6 non fiction books from any of the Challenge’s 12 categories.
The Australian Women’s Writers Challenge is one I have participated in for several years now, and as the majority of books I read do tend to be by Australian women, I’m confident of meeting the target of the Franklin challenge, which is to read 10 books (and review at least 6 of them)
The Aussie Author Challenge overlaps with the AWW Challenge, except books can be by male and female authors. In 2021 my goal is to reach the Kangaroo level, where I’ll have read 12 books (4 by male, 4 by female, 4 by authors new to me, and across at least 3 different genres).
I’m adding a new challenge for 2021: the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, which I’m pretty sure will be a shoo-in as I adore historical fiction. I’ll read at least two books set in the 20th Century and five set in Victorian times for this one.
A personal challenge of mine, begun a few years ago, is to read as many books by First Nations authors as I can. It’s a delight to see so many wonderful works being published nowadays so this one is indeed a pleasure.
Whatever else 2021 might bring, I do hope it’s a year of entering new worlds, different times and places, adventure, mystery, love and warfare, faith and hope – all through the pages of some great books.
Happy New Year everyone.