• Books and reading

    A twisty tale: ‘The Murder Rule’ by Dervla McTiernan

    Dervla McTiernan (Irish-born Australian crime writer) has published a critically acclaimed and award winning series of novels featuring Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly, set in Ireland. The Murder Rule is her latest, much-anticipated new book, this time a stand-alone and set in the United States.

    I am a big fan of the earlier novels and I especially loved the character portrayal and development, and the sense of empathy that the writer conveys within well-crafted plots.

    I have to confess that while reading The Murder Rule, I found myself missing the vivid sense of ‘Irishness’ of those earlier settings and characters. There is something about the Irish voice, and the misty (sometimes dark) landscape, that lends itself so well to crime fiction. If you are, like me, also a fan of Tana French’s ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series, I am sure you will agree.

    Having said that, The Murder Rule is, like McTiernan’s earlier novels, a well crafted story with a suitably tight plot, told with assurance and skill. The main protagonist is Hannah, a law student who applies to work at the Innocence Project. This is an organisation which works to free supposedly innocent people who have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned.

    From the opening pages, readers understand that Hannah is not all she appears and that her motivations for joining the Innocence Project are not what they appear to be. The question is: why? And what has driven Hannah to take this admittedly extreme approach to righting what she sees as a grievous wrong done years earlier?

    The answers are given as clues within chapters alternating between Hannah’s voice and diary entries made by her mother, Laura, when she was Hannah’s age.

    I found myself feeling somewhat impatient with both characters at times, however when the first plot twist came it was so unexpected I was eager to read on.

    The novel deals with the subtleties of human behaviour and ideas about right and wrong:

    I’m just saying that it’s about narrative, isn’t it? We, I mean people, all of us, we love a story. We want a hero. We want a bad guy. We want a beginning, a middle, and an end. And life is more complicated than that but we love it when we’re served up a story and sometimes if we don’t get it, we make it for ourselves. We believe only the facts that suit the story we like and we ignore everything else.

    The Murder Rule p164

    Readers who enjoyed books such as Gone Girl or The Woman in the Window will, I am sure, enjoy The Murder Rule. But I do hope to see a return of McTiernan’s native Ireland in a future story.

    The Murder Rule is published by HarperCollins in May 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading

    Powerful and insightful: ‘All Mixed Up’ by Jason Om

    Jason Om will be familiar to viewers and listeners of Australia’s ABC network, presenting for programs such as 7.30 and Four Corners. His memoir opens with an account of witnessing his 44-year-old mother die of a heart attack when he was just twelve. Such trauma would have to impact on a young life and indeed, Jason and his family were never the same afterward.

    He lived with his Cambodian-born father in Melbourne, until study and a career in journalism took him to Sydney, Adelaide and back to Sydney.

    In the background, rearing up to confound and confront, were memories of his mother: her mental illness, her own (hidden) trauma, her love and her erratic, troubling behaviours.

    His memoir has vibrant descriptions of individual and family quirks, along with the puzzling questions about his family’s past, for which it seemed impossible to get answers.

    So, Jason decided to put his journalism skills to use and approached the secrets of his family, and particularly those of his parents, as he would approach an investigative piece: uncovering records and photographs, interviewing family members, visiting the places where long-ago events occurred.

    This took him to Malaysia and Cambodia where he began to piece together the personal and national tragedies that had such profound effects on his own life. He writes beautifully and sensitively about these issues and how he slowly began to come to terms with the past and its impact on his life and those around him.

    Also of great interest are his insights into the experiences of mixed race children, migrant families in Australia’s suburbs in the 1970’s and 80’s, the courage needed to come out as a gay man within his family, community and workplace, and the development of a more ethnically diverse media landscape in this country. All fascinating to read about and described with great sensitivity and honesty.

    I loved his ‘handy trick’ of reflecting the ‘Where are you from?’ or ‘What’s your background?’ questions (often asked out of curiosity and with no ill intent) back to the questioner:

    It meant we were all talking about race, not just mine, and I found that mutually sharing our heritage would open up the conversation.
    ‘That’s my background, what’s yours?’ I would ask them.
    I could always see the strain on their faces, their eyes darting around for an answer because the question had never entered their heads.

    All Mixed Up p125

    As someone with a deep seated and passionate interest in family history and identity, I love this tip and I think I’ll use it myself to spur conversations about the fascinating array of cultural and family backgrounds to be found in this country!

    All Mixed Up is a beautiful tribute to Jason’s family, his own struggles with acceptance and understanding, and the measure of humanity. I highly recommend to anyone interested in people!

    All Mixed Up is published by ABC Books and HarperCollins Publishers in April 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Girls can change the world: ‘Ming and Flo Fight for the Future’ by Jackie French

    One of the (many) things I love about Jackie French’s historical fiction is that she effortlessly shines a light on frequently overlooked people and events from history, without veering into tokenistic territory. Her characters represent people who really were there, but who are so often hidden from view in traditional histories and stories. Her new Girls Who Changed the World series for middle grade readers is a good example.

    In Book One, Ming and Flo Fight for the Future, we meet Ming, a twelve year old schoolgirl whose family has Chinese-Vietnamese and European heritage. Ming loves learning about history, but not the way it is taught at her school. She asks a question in class one day: ‘Sir, why don’t we ever learn about girls who changed history?… Where were all the girls at all the important times in the past?’

    Good question, right? Sadly, her teacher and classmates have no answer for her. Ming is exasperated, until Herstory appears, to offer her a chance to return to the past – as an observer. Ming agrees, but in the process she manages to become a person living in the past. She is now Florence, and the year is 1898.

    She is plunged into a drought-stricken farm in the middle of nowhere, grinding poverty, and the sudden death of Flo’s mother, until Aunt McTavish arrives to take Flo to share her well-heeled life in Sydney. Aunt McTavish is a friend of Louisa Lawson, a committed Suffragist, but determinedly ‘British to the core’ – despite her obvious mixed Chinese and Scottish heritage.

    So Ming/Flo experiences some of the challenges for girls and women at a time when girls’ education was considered unimportant, women could not vote, and the White Australia policy loomed. As Herstory had warned her: ‘The past is – uncomfortable.’

    In the process, Ming learns that it is not just the big, obvious actions that can lead to profound social or political change. More often, it is the small, unnoticed actions by committed people who never give up, that set the scene for change. As Herstory tells Ming:

    Men like Henry Parkes get the credit for uniting Australia, but it would never have happened without the speeches, petitions and passion of women. When social forces come to a head, it’s usually been a man who got the credit, not the hundreds, the thousands, the millions of women who made it happen too, like Mrs Lawson.

    Ming and Flo Flight for the Future p256-257

    Book Two of Girls who Changed the World will see Ming in Belgium during WWI. I look forward to reading it! This series will be enjoyed by those who are interested in stories from Australian history told from the viewpoint of those who are usually forgotten.

    Ming and Flo Fight for the Future is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    ‘Mim and the Woeful Wedding’: The Travelling Bookshop #2

    In book two of Katrina Nannestad’s Travelling Bookshop series, we meet up with old friends Mim, her little brother Nat and their Dad, as they wander from place to place in their bookshop-in-a-caravan, guided by Flossy the horse. As in book one, Flossy takes them to where their books are most needed. This time, it’s to a small Greek island.

    Here they meet Anjelica and her husband-to-be, Stavros, whose wedding is just days away. The whole village is happy and can talk of nothing else. But Mim sees a problem: neither the bride nor the groom appear to be excited about the wedding.

    The bookshop caravan works its magic, finding the perfect book for each of its visitors – that is, the book they need, not the book they want. By the end of the story, answers to everyone’s problems have been found and the Cohen family leave behind happy villagers when Flossy leads them to their next destination.

    Did you love Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books when you were a child? One of the most entrancing features of these stories for me was the independence of the children – especially when they’d set off on a horse-drawn caravan adventure. There is a thrill for youngsters of tiny places to call home – caravans, cubby houses, tree houses.

    The Travelling Bookshop stories tap into that, and add a dash of magic, resulting in a great read for kids. They are madcap tributes to words, books, family, making new friends and exploring new places. There is also a theme of accepting and celebrating difference, and the important roles that imagination and playfulness have in our lives.

    The line drawings by Cheryl Orsini add to the text and help to bring the story alive.

    ‘I love words,’ I say. ‘I have a whole collection of them that I keep in a special box.’
    ‘What sorts of words?’ asks Xander.
    ‘Happy words. Gentle words. Scrambled, rambling words. Words that pop and fizz. Words that paint pictures and sing songs. Words stuffed with memories. Any kinds of words, as long as they make my heart soar. I’ll show you next time you visit the bookshop.’

    Mim and the Woeful Wedding p48

    Mim and the Woeful Wedding is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Words & numbers for sharp-eyed youngsters: ‘Mrs Koala’s Beauty Parlour’ by Catherine Jinks and Tania McCartney

    Mrs Koala’s beauty parlour is so busy, with a succession of alliterative critters lining up to receive the feel-good ministrations of a skilled beauty therapist.

    Each double page spread features different services offered by Mrs Koala, with fun for little ones who can join in the countdown, alliterative text and searching for the beauty parlour key, cleverly hidden in each scene.

    There are 10 fancy frogs getting facials, 9 pampered porcupines getting perms, 8 trendy tigers getting trims, and so on, right down to 1 ‘kaput koala’ on the final page – Mrs Koala is tired after all that work!

    The attractive colour illustrations by Tania McCartney invite close examination of each busy scene – and of course little ones will love to find the key on each page.

    This is a sweet book that simply begs to be read aloud and I’m sure will be a favourite at story time.

    Mrs Koala’s Beauty Parlour is published by Working Title Press (an imprint of Harper Collins Children’s Books in February 2022.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    2022 Reading Challenges

    I’ve enjoyed participating in several reading challenges over the past few years. Kind of like being in a book club, it is an added incentive to read beyond my ‘usual’ genres, and especially to explore new authors or styles of writing.

    For 2022, here’s what I am aiming for:

    The Australian Women Writers Challenge has been going for 10 years and I’ve participated in the past few years.
    In 2022 the AWW blog will focus on ’19th and 20th century writers including authors who may not have achieved prominence in their lifetimes, or whose works have been forgotten and/or overlooked.’ I will join in discussion of contemporary Australian women writers in the AWW Facebook group Love Reading Books by Aussie Women.
    (No need for me to set a goal for this as I already ‘love reading books by Aussie women’!)

    The Aussie Author Reading Challenge hosted by Jo at Book Lover Reviews is a fun one for me: I love to read books by the amazing talented authors we have in this country. This year I will go again for the ‘Kangaroo‘ level, which means I will read and review 12 books written by Australian Authors, of which at least 4 of those authors are female, at least 4 of those authors are male, and at least 4 of those authors are new to me; Fiction or non-fiction, at least 3 different genre.

    Historical fiction reading challenge hosted by the Intrepid Reader : This year I will take on the ‘Mediaeval‘ level, meaning I will tackle a goal of reading 15 books during the year.

    Non Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Shelleyrae at Book’d Out. I’ll go for the ‘Nibbler‘ level: 6 books, one from any 6 of the listed categories:

    1. Social History 2. Popular Science 3. Language 4. Medical Memoir 5. Climate/Weather 6. Celebrity 7. Reference
    8. Geography 9. Linked to a podcast 10. Wild Animals 11. Economics 12. Published in 2022

    And lastly, my own informal personal challenge: Continue to increase the number of works I read by First Nations authors and/or about First Nations cultures and histories, especially Australian. There are so many First Nations authors publishing wonderful works here just now and I always love discovering new ones.

    So that’s it for me for 2022. As always I expect to vary from my initial goals: either I read way more than I anticipate or miss out on a particular category somewhere along the line. It’s all just fun, and a way to be a little mindful of the books I choose.

    What will be your reading goals or challenges for the year ahead? Let me know in the comments.
    I hope you find yourself lost in the pages of excellent books throughout the year.

  • Books and reading

    Fires, climate change, and activism : ‘Burnt Out’ by Victoria Brookman

    From the setting and the themes of this novel, I was not surprised to read in Victoria Brookman’s bio that she ‘is an author, activist and academic. She lives with her family in the Blue Mountains, on Darug and Gundungurra country.’

    Burnt Out is not the first and certainly won’t be the last novel that deals with Australia’s catastrophic Black Summer fires of 2019-2020, when huge swathes of forest (and townships) were destroyed by out of control bushfires after years of crippling drought. It was, in many ways, a turning point for ‘mainstream Australia’ – evidence that climate change was indeed increasing the severity (and frequency) of fires and extreme ‘weather events’.

    As a fellow resident of the Blue Mountains, the opening scenes of Burnt Out conjured visceral and unpleasant memories of the fear, smoke and danger of that time. Cali, a writer whose life is already crumbling around her, shelters at the home of her neighbour, Spike, while fire consumes her house, her car, her work, and her cat.

    Cali vents her rage at government and corporate inaction on climate change while in front of a TV camera and journalist. Her emotional and angry outburst goes viral and her words become the hashtag of the moment: #Fu**ingDoSomething.

    She is homeless, cat-less, car-less, and her publisher is demanding that she produce the manuscript she is supposed to have been writing over the previous three years, an intended follow up for her first, best-selling novel. But Cali has nothing to give them – not, as she tells her agent, because it went in the fire, but because for three years her writing has dried up. On top of it all, her husband leaves her.

    Then a rich business tycoon, handsome Arlo Richardson, steps in, offering her free accommodation in his beautiful Point Piper home, space and time to ‘re-write’ her non-existent novel. Cali, bewildered, crushed, and fearing the end of her writing career, accepts. Arlo offers her the chance of a lifetime: to be the public face of a new charitable foundation which will fund action on climate change.

    What follows is a twisty tale in which do-nothing politicians, the divide between Australia’s uber-rich and the rest, greenwashing, social media, the news cycle, the publishing industry, celebrity influencers, are all examined and thoroughly skewered.

    I didn’t find Cali an endearing character: I tend to get rather frustrated in a novel where the protagonist is perpetuating their own train wreck of a life, and her helplessness and inability to make her own decisions were maddening. This fortunately changes towards the end of the novel and I was able to cheer Cali on when she finally gets her mojo back.

    To be fair, though, Cali’s inability to get her bearings is probably a very real manifestation of trauma: the transformation of familiar landscapes, an inability to get a grip on a new reality.

    As they turned down Gumnut Close, she began to doubt her own abilities. Had she directed him to take the wrong street? Everything looked wrong. There was no blue weatherboard cottage here. No bush, no wall of overgrown lilly pillies. Frantic, she looked out her window, desperate to get her bearings.

    Burnt Out p132

    Being a Blue Mountains gal, what I also enjoyed about this book were the frequent references to familiar places (and occasionally people). While fictionalised, there were enough details to spark a pleasant feeling of recognition and a smile.

    Burnt Out is published by HarperCollins Publishers in January 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for an advanced reading copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Sorrowful truths: ‘Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray’ by Anita Heiss

    The first thing I love about this new novel by Wiradjuri author Anita Heiss is the title. Translating to ‘River of Dreams’ in English, it is in the Wiradjuri language, which is also sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative. What a privilege, to be given an opportunity to understand and experience words and phrases in the language of First Nations people.

    The story starts with the drama and tragedy of the devastating 1852 Great Flood of the Marrambidya (Murrumbidgee River) in Gundagai, NSW. There are shocking losses of human and lives, property and livestock despite the heroic efforts of several men from the Aboriginal camp near the river, including Yarri, the father of the main character, Wagadhaany. She works for the Bailey family, a local White family. Yarri rescues his daughter and the two Bailey men who survived the flood, from their precarious perch on the roof of the house.

    The river is a central theme of the novel, a presence both benevolent and destructive. It gives life and just as easily takes it away. The flood is important, as a real historical event that highlights the skill and courage of the Aboriginal rescuers, and also as a metaphor:

    …as the canoe floats with effort to the shore, Yarri thinks about the two men there together; a naked White man and a barely clothed Black man are nothing but two men stuck in the middle of a devastating flood… A life is a life, he says over and over in his mind, knowing that the weather, the rain, the river don’t care what colour anyone is right now, and that in this moment they are equal. Yarri takes a deep breath and works his arms harder than he ever has, willing them both to bring both men to shore, and wishing they were both equals every day.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray p33

    Louisa is the other main character: a young Quaker woman who has been recently widowed in the flood, she meets and marries James, the eldest of the two surviving Baileys. Her Quaker beliefs lead her to wish for an equal relationship with the original people of the land, and she endeavours to achieve this with Wagadhaany.

    So much gets in the way of a genuine friendship. Louisa is a good example of how well intentioned White people can still end up using relationships with First Nations people for their own purposes, while still desiring to act in a benevolent manner. The most obvious way that Louisa does this is to insist that Wagadhaany accompany the Baileys when they move to Wagga Wagga. Wagadhaany is devastated to lose connection with her mayagan, her family and the Country on which she was born and raised.

    This allows the reader to try to understand something of the grief and loss experienced by First Nations people since colonisation:

    How can she explain to Louisa, whose family chose to live on other people’s land, that she feels her sense of identity has been robbed, that everything that makes her Wagadhaany, the dancer, has been taken from her?

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray p162

    Louisa is in many ways a sympathetic character, and in making her so, the author goes beyond the stomach-turning racism and cruelty perpetrated by Whites against First Nations people in this country, to explore some of the other ways in which racism manifests: the more subtle, systemic and insidious ways in which unequal power and racist assumptions play out.

    Wagadhaany is an intelligent young woman, trying to assert her self and make sense of a world which has changed irrevocably for her people.

    The irony is that, despite all her advantages and relative wealth, by the end of the novel Louisa is not necessarily the happier of the two women. Both characters face profound grief and loss. Wagadhaany’s connection to Country and kin help her to travel through these difficult events and by the end of the novel, there is space for hope.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is a novel that uses real historic events to paint a picture of a colonial world which many Australians would prefer to either forget or romanticise. It’s a novel that made me think – always a good thing.

    Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray was published by Simon & Schuster in 2021.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Magnificent (and flawed) men (and women) in their flying machines

    ‘Sundowner of the Skies’ : The Story of Oscar Garden, The Forgotten Aviator by Mary Garden

    In the early morning of 16 October 1930, Oscar Garden set out from Croydon Aerodrome in South London in a second-hand, open-cockpit Gipsy Moth. On his feet he wore carpet slippers, and he had half a dozen sandwiches on his lap. His plan was to fly to Australia. He was 27 years old and had just learnt to fly, with a mere 39 flying hours under his belt.

    Sundowner of the Skies p11

    This astonishing opening of Mary Garden’s biography and family memoir gives plenty of hints as to the story to come. The unlikely and dramatic adventure undertaken by her father when a young man, remains one of the great feats of early aviation, and Oscar Garden was also unusual in that he was one of the few early aviators who lived into old age.

    Equally astonishing is the admission that he was more or less forgotten in the history of aviation, until quite recently, when his daughter Mary Garden wrote articles and then, this book about her father’s career and their troubled, unsettled family life.

    The book, short-listed for the 2020 NSW Premier’s History Awards, gives readers insights into the romance and danger of those early years in aviation. We are now so accustomed to the criss-crossing of the skies by international and domestic airlines (at least until the Covid pandemic hit) that we can forget what a risky and uncomfortable business powered flight was in its early years. The exploits of those young aviators who broke records, took passengers up on joyflights, and piloted planes for the first commercial airlines, raised the public’s interest in flying and spurred the industry along.

    Oscar Garden was one such, along with more famous names such as Charles Kingsford Smith, Amy Johnson, Bert Hinkler and Charles Lindbergh. There is now a portrait of Oscar in New Zealand’s Tauranga Airport, which was installed there in 2019. Before that, few would have known of Oscar Garden or his achievement.

    According to his daughter, this was partly because, after a stint as a pilot for the forerunner of Air New Zealand, Oscar retired from the aviation industry and never flew a plane again, preferring to grow tomatoes in his adopted country, New Zealand.

    There is much of interest in this book: the descriptions of the amazing exploits of early aviators (including a delightful reference to one woman who completed a long-haul solo flight in a skirt and pearls); the forced landings in dangerous circumstances; the fact that Oscar told no-one of his flight plan because he didn’t want to be talked out of it, and completed the whole thing on a shoe-string budget; the fact that early flights were navigated by a simple compass and what was known as ‘dead reckoning’. Amazing stuff.

    For me, though, the most engrossing aspect of the story is the family history behind it. Oscar came from a wealthy Scottish merchant family, but family disputes and factions resulted in a troubled, restless, loner of a man who ended up suffering from mental ill-health and was unable to find any happiness in life. Mary’s recollections of her father and his relationships with others left her wondering ‘Who is this Oscar Garden?’ as she learnt more about his younger years.

    It’s a poignant story of an emotionally frozen parent and a young adult trying to emerge from beneath his influence. The two Oscars – the adventurous youngster and the depressive older man and father – are woven together throughout the book, allowing the reader to experience some of the author’s confusion and ambiguity about the man who happened to be her father.

    Sundowner of the Skies was published by New Holland Publishers in 2019.
    My thanks to the author for a 2021 edition to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Tenacious women: ‘Elizabeth and Elizabeth’ by Sue Williams

    Sue Williams takes the real-life women of her title, Elizabeth Macarthur and Elizabeth Macquarie, and places them in the centre of this novel about the early colonial years of Sydney and Parramatta. Told through the point of view of each woman, we meet the various characters that stride larger than life through Australian history books: ex-Governor William Bligh, Governor Lachlan Macquarie, Reverend Samuel Marsden, John Macarthur, and many other names that are familiar to us today as place names: Nepean, Evan, Bathurst, Hunter, Huskisson, for example.

    At first reading, this novel has a very different take on these women than some other works. Kate Grenville’s A Room of Leaves, for example, portrays the relationship between Elizabeth Macarthur and her husband John in a very unflattering way, with Elizabeth as the publicly supportive but privately despairing woman tied to the erratic and self-serving John.

    Reading Elizabeth and Elizabeth further, I could see that whatever Elizabeth’s true feelings about her husband, her circumstances did not allow her to do anything but be a supportive wife. Through the lens of modern understanding of mental ill-health, we might have some sympathy for John, subject to what would now likely be described as bipolar disorder or other serious mental illness.

    That does not excuse his corrupt behaviour. Nor does it excuse the many petty personal jealousies and grievances of those in authority in the fledgling colony, and the way personal ambitions undermined the just and efficient administration of affairs in NSW. Sue Williams gives a graphic portrayal of how these factors played out.

    We might also have sympathy for Elizabeth Macquarie, a new bride accompanying her husband to his post as Governor of a far flung colonial outpost of Britain. Nothing is as she expects. She and her husband face political opposition from those who see the colony as a way to make money or to rise up the ladder of their ambition. They also have to contend with apathy from the British Government, and their own personal misfortunes and ill-health.

    In the end, Elizabeth and Elizabeth is a story about the tenacity of two women who never give up on what they see as the right thing to do, and put all their considerable skills to use in support of their husband, the family, and what they regard as the colony’s best interests. It’s a very readable novel and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in colonial Australian history.

    Elizabeth and Elizabeth was published by Allen & Unwin in January 2021.