• Books and reading

    The mistakes of youth: ‘Love and Virtue’ by Diana Reid

    Are you a good person, or do you just look like one?

    The question of what makes a ‘good person’ is explored from the perspectives of first year university students, in this contemporary novel by Sydney based writer, Diana Reid. Readers are invited to consider the hot-potato issues of consent, power and sex – a powder-keg mix if ever there was one.

    If you can remember your late teen/early adult years, chances are there are at least a few cringe – or shame – inducing vignettes that you’d rather forget. Michaela is that age, living away from her Canberra home for the first time, and wanting to fit in somewhere. She is not an unquestioning acolyte, but rather interrogates her own experiences to the point of exhaustion. Her friendship with her college room neighbour Eve – wealthy, slender, white, and confidently opinionated – has her feeling out of depth, but she participates in the habitual, conditioned behaviours of young people in this environment – too much drinking, casual sex and drug use.

    An occurrence during the university’s ‘O-week’ acts as an underlying pull for the narrative, providing conflict and some mystery. It is a narrative device – but it’s all too recognisable, and one that allows for layers of meaning and intent to ramp up the tension.

    The novel shines a spotlight on the awful pressures on young people to conform; women endure harrowing personal humiliations but are expected to ‘take a joke’; young men are groomed for a life of adult privilege and power. Some speak out, others pretend none of it happens.

    It’s embarrassing, as a reader, to recall the self absorption of youth and the mistakes that, in retrospect, seem inevitable. At times, the characters’ behaviours reminded me of the hopeless, unhappy role playing of the characters in Sally Rooney’s Normal People.

    Similarly, this novel is definitely one for its time: the issues around what constitutes consent in sexual situations is currently being examined in ways not seen before, as are power dynamics and the role of prestigious university colleges in grooming new generations of (potentially) abusive, or at least complicit, men and women.

    The prose is beautiful, evocative and very moving at times:

    I dived down and counted twelve dolphin kicks, resurfacing close to the moored boat. My body was warmer for the movement, but the morning froze on my face. It was cold enough to remind me, in every tingling pore, that I was, first and foremost, a physical thing. Before thought or feeling or reason, I was a stretch of skin, a bag of flesh, for the ocean to cradle or drown with indifference.

    Love and Virtue p160

    The author states that she wrote this manuscript – her first novel – during the 2020 Covid lockdown in Australia. It was an excellent use of her time and whilst I have no wish for similar lockdowns to happen again, I do look forward to reading more of her work.

    Love and Virtue was published in 2021 by Ultimo Press.

  • Books and reading

    The sweetness of friendships: ‘Birds of a Feather’ by Tricia Stringer

    It’s good to branch out into a genre you don’t generally read much of, or an author not encountered before, and that’s what I’ve done with this contemporary fiction by Australian author Tricia Stringer.

    Birds of a Feather is all about family and friendships, old and new. Set in fictional Wallaby Bay on South Australia’s Spencer Gulf, the story features three very different women. There is Eve, battling to maintain her independence after a crippling shoulder injury; her goddaughter Julia, struggling with suppressed grief and the sudden loss of her scientific research job; and Lucy, trying to be the best mother she can be to her two young children, and coping with the absence of her FIFO (Fly In Fly Out) husband.

    The first part of the novel sets up the circumstances that bring these characters together: at first unwillingly, each feeling their way in a new situation, trying to overcome mistrust, hesitation and past hurts. Once the women are together, the story really gets going. Before that, there are hints and veiled references to their back stories, tensions, traumas and the circumstances that shaped each one, and it is fun to put their stories together as the novel goes along.

    There are references to the Covid pandemic and the dilemmas faced by people like Lucy, an aged care worker, who must try to deal with an emotionally and physically draining experience while also worrying about her kids. It’s a very real scenario that brings home the additional challenges the pandemic introduced to already complicated lives.

    The author captures the small town atmosphere beautifully: all the strengths of rural communities, along with the downsides that can accompany living in a place where everyone knows everybody else (and their business).

    I found it soothing to be lost in the minutia of others’ lives, and the novel’s resolution was satisfying, even though some aspects felt a bit too tidy.

    Birds of a Feather will be an enjoyable read for people who like to read character-based contemporary fiction about real-life struggles and challenges and the ways in which they can be overcome.

    Birds of a Feather is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises, in December 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • 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,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2021: my Aussie reading year

    This year I signed up to read at least 10 books by Australian women writers and review at least 6. On this score at least, I am an over-achiever! As at the beginning of September, I had read (and posted reviews for) 30 books by Aussie women. I think next year I’ll need to aim for the top level of AWW Challenge. It is not hard for me to read plenty of books by the wonderful and talented authors we have here in this country.

    My 2021 reading ranged across multiple genres, from historical fiction (always a favourite, especially Australian history and stories featuring women in WWII, which is a theme that has become very popular in recent years); memoir, history, quite a few children’s books, true crime and crime fiction.

    My standout reads by Aussie women so far for 2021?

    These four spoke to me the loudest (the links are to my reviews):

    People of the River by Grace Karskens (non-fiction, history) This one, by the way, recently won the Australian history prize as part of the NSW Premier’s History Awards.

    The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer (historical fiction)

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom

    Of the children’s books, Night Ride into Danger by the marvellous Jackie French

    Thank you to the wonderful Australian Women Writers’ Challenge for another year of fabulous reading. If you haven’t checked out the AWW website, be sure to have a look. You will find so many recommendations for new authors and books to discover.

  • Books and reading

    Light & deadly by turns: ‘Digging Up Dirt’ by Pamela Hart

    I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the strap line for this new novel by Australian author Pamela Hart, is a beauty:
    ‘Renovations are hell – and that’s before you find a body beneath the floorboards.’

    It neatly ties in two irresistible motifs for many readers: a who-done-it mystery and real estate / renovations – the last still endlessly fascinating for residents of Sydney, which is where the story is set.

    Ms Hart is the author of many novels for children and adults covering several genres, including historical fiction, fantasy and non-fiction. This is her first foray into contemporary crime and I look forward to reading more about Poppy McGowan, who is an engaging, wryly humoured heroine with an interesting job (researcher for kids’ programs with ABC TV). Digging Up Dirt the first of what promises to be a series featuring Poppy.

    She owns the house in Sydney’s inner west which is undergoing renovations at the start of the novel. To begin with she is dealing with a possible heritage order, due to the discovery of animal bones of potential historical significance, which has brought building work to a halt. Poppy’s previous job was in a museum so she is appropriately respectful of heritage issues… but she’s also worried that her renovations might be put on hold indefinitely while investigations into the bones continue.

    Those concerns are compounded the following day, though, as investigations of altogether another kind are required – a murder enquiry, after the body of the archaeologist brought in to look at the bones is discovered in the same pit where the animal bones were discovered. Poppy begins her own bit of investigating, keen to see the matter brought to a close quickly so that her little house can be lived in sooner rather than later.

    Political and religious organisations are involved because the murdered woman had been vying for pre-selection as a candidate for the Australian Family Party, a right-wing conservative organisation with strong ties to the Radiant Joy Church (possibly a thinly disguised version of an evangelical church frequented by a certain prime minister?) As Poppy digs deeper she realises that more than one person who knew the victim had a motive for wanting her gone.

    Digging Up Dirt is essentially a light read, with elements of romantic comedy in the mix, though it does touch on some serious topics such as homophobia, sexism and the theft of Indigenous cultural materials. Poppy is smart and also acerbic at times, which makes for some apt barbs in the direction of politicians, and entitled, white, conservative and prosperous men – and women.

    The great thing about sexism is that men who think women are stupider than they are truly believe it. So they are very, very reluctant to acknowledge that a woman may not be stupid. Thus far, I’d played to their expectations of a young woman who wasn’t really a reporter, and their own mindset predisposed them to believe I wasn’t a threat.

    Digging Up Dirt p147

    Sydney based readers will enjoy the strong sense of the city’s environs invoked. I enjoyed reading about Poppy and can visualise this story made into a film or TV series. I’m sure I will be meeting Poppy again in the future.

    Digging Up Dirt is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Another historical fiction gem for younger readers: ‘Night Ride into Danger’ by Jackie French

    From Australia’s amazing Jackie French comes another book that tantalises with a gripping story while immersing readers in the sights, sounds, smells and figures from Australia’s past.

    Night Ride into Danger is set in NSW’s Braidwood district in the 1870’s, the days of the iconic Cobb & Co coaches. In the first few paragraphs we are plunged into the world of young Jem and his widowed father, Paw, a skilled coach driver who takes Jem to ride beside him on the 14 hour journey from Braidwood to Goulburn.

    We get a vivid sense of the coachmen’s work, the adventurousness as well as the hardships of his life, the way the coach looked, smelt and felt for the passengers who entrusted their lives to his care on the rutted, icy or flooded roads common at that time.

    The passengers in this story – six of them – all have their reasons for choosing to take the faster but more dangerous night mail coach. Each of them has a different secret and the ways in which the secrets are gradually revealed make up the connecting spine of this story.

    When Jem’s father is injured, Jem must take over as driver – a tall order for a youngster who has never driven a team of four horses at night on such a long journey. How Jem deals with this challenge and interacts with the six other people who travel with him, makes for an engaging tale.

    The book includes many of the figures of Australian colonial legends: gold diggers, bushrangers, farmers, innkeepers and grooms. There are also women (often hidden in the annals of Australian folklore): dancers, cooks, farmers, as well as women travelling to a new country to be married, or giving birth in difficult circumstances. The author doesn’t avoid describing the racism inherent in white attitudes of the time, or the strictures of colonial society against Chinese immigrants, First Nations people, or unmarried mothers.

    The characters are all active and engaging and the reader will cheer Jem on in his quest to arrive safely in time for both the mail and his passengers to meet the Goulburn train for Sydney.

    Night Ride into Danger is guaranteed to be enjoyed by middle grade readers who like a mix of history, adventure and mystery.

    Night Ride into Danger is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A heady time: ‘Sisters of Freedom’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor

    Historical fiction and romance author Mary-Anne O’Connor has set her latest novel in the first years of the twentieth century, a heady time in Australia as Federation joined the colonies into one nation, and Australian women – if only white women – looked forward to the campaign for women’s suffrage resulting in success.

    The three Merriweather sisters in the novel have grown up in an enlightened home, with mother Harriet and father Albert supporters of rights for women and for indigenous Australians. Despite their shared convictions, they are otherwise very different: Frankie is passionate about the suffrage campaign and determined to stand for Parliament herself so that she can help make laws that give women more rights and freedoms. Aggie is happily married and longing for a baby, fearful that she and her husband will be unable to conceive a child of their own. She devotes her time to volunteer work at an orphanage, wanting in her own way to make a difference in the world. The youngest is Ivy, who loves beauty and art and hopes for nothing more than marriage to Patrick, a nice home and a family of her own.

    Their lives take a dramatic turn on Ivy’s eighteenth birthday, when an accident on the river sees her rescued by Riley, a young man who makes a living with his supply boat up and down the tiny communities along the Hawkesbury – and some smuggling on the side. While she recovers from her injuries, Ivy sees a very different life in the wild river lands with the people who inhabit its secret coves and reaches. Her time with Riley and his sister Fiona will change her life – and that of her sisters – forever.

    The water was clear at the edges but a murky olive colour further out, mysterious in its flow as it hid whatever creatures lived below the surface. It seemed appropriate that a deeply flowing, concealing river should be the main artery that pumped through this place…It held secrets, this river, and so did the people who lived along it.

    Sisters of Freedom p183

    I grew up in the Hawkesbury Valley – upstream from the locations of this novel – and one of my standout reads of 2020 was Grace Karskens’ fabulous historical work People of the River so I came to this book keen to read about the place and characters its author dreamed into existence. I very much enjoyed the descriptions of places and communities and the political and social milieu of the time; the references to significant people of the Australian suffrage movement (such as Vida Goldstein); and the way in which major national events played out in individual and family lives.

    Ivy’s gradual realisation of the inequities faced by women of all classes, and the particular hardships of the poor, echo those of women in the 1970’s during what has is known as ‘second wave’ feminism. The shocking and absurd ideas about women expressed by some men in the early twentieth century are, sadly, not completely erased from twenty-first century Australia. The struggles of individual women to balance their desire for romance, family, companionship, with their own hopes and goals, is one which never seems to go away. In this way, Sisters of Freedom is a timely novel despite being set more than a hundred years ago.

    There is a strong romance thread throughout, and I thought the resolution a little contrived (almost Shakespearian!) but actually quite fun as well. It’s nice to imagine a ‘happy ever after’ for characters, after all.

    Sisters of Freedom will be enjoyed by readers who like some romance along with strong characters and evocative descriptions of real places, in times past.

    Sisters of Freedom is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises, in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    What we ignore at our peril: ‘You Need to Know’ by Nicola Moriarty

    Jill sees an email from her son’s ex-partner with the subject line ‘You need to know’ but can’t bring herself to read it. So begins a cascading sequence of lies and secrets which come to a crescendo on Christmas Eve as Jill and her sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren are driving in convoy to their holiday house. A devastating accident with consequences no one could have foreseen.

    You Need to Know is billed as a family drama and it is certainly that. As with many if not most modern families, the Lewis clan are dealing with all the complications that life can serve up: the unexpected arrival of twins, relationship breakups and tensions, demanding work, teenagers. Everyone has a secret; something they don’t or can’t discuss with others. That’s normal, of course; but there is a much darker secret at the heart of the Lewis family’s problems.

    Told from alternating viewpoints, the novel effectively conveys each main character’s perspective on things. The three Lewis brothers – Tony, Pete and Darren – and their partners, ex-partners and children, are a believable group of people, three-dimensional characters trying to grapple with life’s challenges. Their mother, Jill, is dealing with her own sorrows and regrets.

    It’s difficult to say more about the plot without giving away spoilers. I found this novel to be a page-turner, with some twists that I didn’t see coming along with a couple that I did; they all contributed to a satisfying story that has some valuable things to say about our world. Most especially, about the secrets that can harm and how what we choose to ignore can come back to damage those we love the most. Readers who enjoy contemporary fiction with well drawn characters and themes will enjoy this new one by Nicola Moriarty.

    You Need to Know is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Whose stories can we tell? ‘The Truth About Her’ by Jacqueline Maley

    Jacqueline Maley is an award winning journalist and columnist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age whose work I have admired for some time. The Truth About Her is her debut novel and it’s a beauty. Literary, funny and sobering by turns, it takes familiar stories and situations and makes of them a wry, incisive commentary on modern life, motherhood and the nature of truth.

    The main character is Suzy, an almost-forty journalist whose professional and personal lives have both hit major snags. Her article exposing a fraudster, Tracey Doran, who claimed to have cancer which she cured by an organic diet and lifestyle, was published just before the young woman killed herself. Suzy experiences crippling guilt although friends and family reassure her that the suicide wasn’t her fault.

    At almost the same time her casual, secret sexual relationship with her (married) boss is exposed, so Suzy herself experiences the distress of public shaming and the online vitriol and abuse that goes with that. She quits her job and faces a bleak financial future as she tries to support her pre-school aged daughter, Maddy, as a single parent.

    Unexpectedly she is approached by Tracey’s grieving mother who asks her to write the story of her daughter’s life – on her terms. Suzy agrees and so begins a connection that is strange and fraught and laden with secrets and emotional burdens. Through it all, Suzy examines her own life, her beliefs about relationships, truth and the role of the journalist.

    This novel captures with devastating clarity the challenges and moments of joy in the life of a working single parent. Suzy has sudden flashes of what she calls ‘the parallel life’, in which her former partner, Maddy’s father, is still with them and they lead a ‘normal’, middle class life together, with enough money to pay the bills, and love and support for each other. Instead, Suzy’s sadness and confusion mean she has a barely-in-control lifestyle and constant worries about the future.

    The author paints with delicate and humorous brushstrokes the little details of a mother-daughter bond, the small moments of unadulterated love and joy along with the hefty dose of guilt that seems to accompany the parenting role:

    Often, when I inquired about the dolls, or the tiny bunnies, or the little mice, that Maddy was playing with, asking their names and how they were related to each other, Maddy would say ‘Dair mummy is at work.’ Even her toys were latchkey kids.

    The Truth About Her p64

    There were moments when I felt I knew Suzy – that we were friends, perhaps, catching up over a coffee and bemoaning the state of the world. Her take on so many aspects of our modern world – the ‘on demand’ nature of everything, from sex to television; the sad lack of noise-killing soft furnishings in restaurants; the carefully designed nature of corporate premises, just to name a few examples – felt so similar to my own, and many of her wry asides elicited knowing chuckles as I read. A strong theme in the novel is the nature of truth: in a world where people curate their own stories and images for public consumption yet give little away of their inner lives, it poses the question: can we ever truly know another person? And who has the right to tell their story?

    The relationships are beautifully drawn, including Suzy’s sometime lover, Tom, her critical mother Beverley, her loving and good humoured great-uncle Sam, Tracey’s mother Jan, and especially little Maddy – all become real people, alive on the page.

    As the story plays out and reaches its conclusion, Suzy has learnt some things about herself, about the other people in her life, and possibly also what life was for. I enjoyed this novel so much and I can’t wait to read Jacqueline Maley’s next offering.

    The Truth About Her is published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Beautiful prose with a dark story: ‘The Ripping Tree’ by Nikki Gemmell

    For me, this new work of fiction by best seller Nikki Gemmell (Shiver, The Bride Stripped Bare, among other titles) is a conundrum. I had been excited to read it as I enjoyed her earlier works and it is set in colonial era New South Wales – my cup of tea. It tells the story of Thomasina, raised by a free spirited father who she is mourning after his death; sent by a manipulative half brother to the colony. His plan is to marry off his vibrant, ‘untameable’ young sister to a vicar, a man she has never met.

    Fate intervenes and the ship they are travelling on goes down just off the Australian coast, with Thomasina the only survivor. She is washed up on rocks, rescued by a mysterious Aboriginal man and deposited, with care, at the doorstep of ‘Weatherbrae’, the home of the respectable Craw family.

    The family takes her in but there is no sanctuary here for Thomasina.

    She befriends Mouse, the young boy who shares her love of nature and passion for life. Mouse’s nervous, dissatisfied mother first sees the strange young castaway as a replacement for the daughter she lost to illness – and a welcome female companion. There is talk of Thomasina becoming governess for Mouse, offering her a home and refuge from an unwanted marriage and constrained life as a respectable wife.

    Very quickly, though, she realises that at the heart of the Craw family there is a dark secret. ‘Weatherbrae’ itself becomes a character, almost gothic in its claustrophobia, while the wild country outside its doors beckons to the young woman on the cusp of adulthood, who is confused and troubled by what she sees, hears and suspects. Told over the space of one week, the story becomes a tale of terrible acts committed, a family eaten away by their secrets, willing to do anything to preserve their respectability in the eyes of themselves and their community.

    As always, Nikki Gemmell’s writing is beautiful, startling in its originality and lyricism:

    ‘Isolated by the alone…’ p21
    ‘I miss my father, corrosively.’ p 9
    ‘…light slips in through a curtain gap as strong as a cat, enticing us both out.’ p11

    I loved the language, losing myself in Ms Gemmell’s beautiful prose.

    And yet…

    There were aspects of this novel that threw me out of the story, annoyingly and at times violently. I could not warm to Thomasina; while I admired her determination to remain true to herself and the way she was raised, her naivety and blindness to the risks around her irritated me. She continually acts in ways that can only increase the risk to herself and to others and while by the end of the story she realises her mistakes, it’s too late. Occasional expressions that feel wrong for the historical period also jarred: ‘I guess’ or ‘Hang on’ seem inconsistent with colonial English, even in a colony planted at the far end of the earth.

    The dark heart of the story is to do with the troubled relations between First Australians and settlers; it’s no spoiler to say that as it is obvious from the beginning that atrocities of the sort committed during the colonial era will be involved. I respect the author’s choice to write a story about difficult events like these.

    ‘Let’s just say my little tale is a history of a great colonial house that was burdened by a situation that was never resolved, and I fear all over this land will never be resolved. It is our great wound that needs suturing and it hasn’t been yet and I fear, perhaps, it never will be, for we’re not comfortable, still, with acknowledging it.’

    The Ripping Tree p339

    This quote from the end of the book speaks to the truth of the novel and the author’s purpose. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed. For me, the disappointment lies in my inability to care for the protagonist or most of the other characters.

    Others may disagree: I would be most interested to know if you have read The Ripping Tree and if so, what you thought.

    The Ripping Tree is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.