• Books and reading

    Friendships and memory: ‘True Friends’ by Patti Miller

    Upon opening Australian author Patti Miller’s latest book, I immediately began thinking about my own friends, past and present. I have been fortunate to have experienced sustained, deep, nurturing friendships throughout my life, but of course there have been some that have fallen away as the years went on – mostly gradually through changed life circumstances, but one or two abruptly and somewhat painfully.

    True Friends is an exploration of friendship but also of memory: when considering the people and events in our past, what Patti Miller calls the ‘questionable vault of memory’ will inevitably get things wrong, or in a muddled order. Tightly linked with memories are sounds, smells, tastes, places, feelings; even if we get some facts wrong, these things bind the event or moment to the memory and help to bring it alive once again.

    First there is the original experience, but even at that stage, before interpretation or memory, so much is unobserved, unrecorded. A few moments of colour and sound are partially registered and then all that is left are the neurotransmitters floating from axon to dendrite, hopefully creating a neural pathway. The lovely, faulty, biochemical science of friendship.

    True Friends p167

    She describes the epic poem Gilgamesh, written on clay tablets up to two thousand years before Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey were written, as the first story – and it is, essentially, all about friendship. The need for connection, contact and understanding with another is a fundamental trait from the deep past of humanity right through to modern times. Thinking about this, I wondered why there have not been many more non-fiction books on the topic of friends.

    This book is about friendships generally, and the author’s friendships specifically, but it is told through the framing device of one friendship in particular which did not last, and which ended in a way that left her feeling bewildered and hurt. She describes the period of time during which she struggled to recognise the end of the relationship as ‘the long bewilderment.’

    I’m certain that many reading this book will recognise the pain of this.

    Overall, though, the book is a hymn to friends and the richness they add to our lives, in all their complexities and challenges:

    For me, loving friendship is not a fusion with another, but it is a rickety swing bridge to a separate being, and even though I know it can fall away in to the abyss, the urge to step onto it is always there…when I am with a friend, I am woven into the human mystery.

    True Friends p279

    I have enjoyed every book by Patti Miller that I have read, and this one is no exception. It is a book to savour, one that made me laugh and sigh in recognition, and that I continued to think about long after I’d closed the cover.

    True Friends is published by University of Queensland Press in 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A gripping true tale: ‘Three Sheets to the Wind’ by Adam Courtenay

    Three Sheets to the Wind is a re-telling of the amazing true story of shipwrecked sailors who, in 1796, walked 600 miles through uncharted territory from the far southeast coast of Australia, almost to Sydney Town, before being rescued.

    Adam Courtenay has placed this event in the historical and social contexts of its time: a new (and struggling) colony on the edge of the known world, run by a succession of English governors who tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to weaken the firm hold over its economy by the group of military officers known as the ‘Rum Corps.’

    Alternating chapters allow the reader to follow the voyage of the ship Sydney Cove from its origins in Calcutta, to its wreck just off Tasmania. Its cargo was purely commercial: goods to be sold at a profit to the settlers in New South Wales – and most prized of all was the alcohol loaded into the ship’s hold, especially the 7,000 gallons of rum. This liquor had become an unofficial currency in the colony, to the detriment of all aspects of daily life, and its trade was monopolised by the Rum Corps, despite official efforts to discourage and/or control its import and sale.

    You may have read Rum by Matt Murphy, published in 2021. If so, you will know the network of corruption and cronyism that the control and sale of this liquor encouraged and enabled.

    Into this heady environment, Campbell & Clark, the Scottish owners of the Sydney Cove sent their cargo, hoping for a tidy profit and to establish a trading presence in the colony. The monetary value of the alcohol helps to explain why the ship’s master, Hamilton, and the ‘supercargo’ (responsible for its safe delivery) William Clark, went to such lengths to preserve the cargo when the ship foundered.

    Courtenay gives us gripping account of the shipwrecks – plural, because after escaping the sinking ship in the longboat, the crew endured a second wreck while crossing Bass Strait, the often turbulent stretch of water that divides mainland Australia with the smaller island of Tasmania. (Keep in mind that at this point in time, Europeans did not know for sure if Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then called, was an island or if it was joined to the mainland. They were literally in uncharted waters, because even the renowned English explorer and cartographer James Cook had not thoroughly investigated this area on his earlier voyage.

    Seventeen survivors set out on the trek north to Sydney. They were a mix of European and Indian-born sailors, known as ‘lascars’. (The treatment of the lascars by the Europeans is a story in itself.) The journey was recorded by Clark in a pocket notebook he carried with him. Gradually the seventeen became seven, then reduced further until only three were finally rescued just south of Sydney.

    What is most notable about this story, I think, is the account by Clark of the group’s interactions with the First Nations people they encountered along the way. They passed through the country of at least six Indigenous clans and experienced both generous assistance and firm warnings from them. If it had not been for the local people, the travelers would have died from starvation or exposure many times. They were given food, shown shortcuts, and sometimes helped across rivers on canoes. On other occasions, though:

    Clark soon realised their actions were a warning to keep off certain tracts of land – they were not there to kill the foreigners but rather to protect their country. Clark and his men weren’t being guided through these lands: they were being forcibly marched through them.

    Three Sheets to the Wind p184

    There is much to both admire and deplore about this story. The party of sailors demonstrated enormous personal courage and strength to endure the trials they were subjected to. Clark’s account appears to hint at his changing view of the First Australians he met: from ‘barbarous hordes’ to generous and kind individuals. The observations by Clark and others of numerous seal colonies and plentiful seams of coal instigated the environmental disasters of the sealing, whaling and coal mining industries. And the voyage and subsequent trek north inspired more exploration, by George Bass and Mathew Flinders, among others – which both opened up more territory for the settlers and spelt the end of the sovereignty and sustainable lifestyles of First Australians.

    Three Sheets to the Wind is a detailed and thought provoking account of an amazing story from our history. And I love the clever title: three sheets to the wind being a nautical term that also alludes to drunkenness.

    It is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Extraordinary true story: ‘Rose’ by Suzanne Falkiner


    In the early 1800’s, a time when well-bred young ladies were raised to do embroidery and look after their households and husbands, Rose de Freycinet dressed as a man and stowed away on her husband’s ship, sailing across vast oceans on a voyage of scientific exploration.

    In so doing, she did support her husband’s venture (and occasionally sewed whilst on board) but she also became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe and to leave a record of her adventures. Her resolution from the start was:

    Never, through my fears or my own wishes, to part my husband from his duty.

    Rose p348

    It was a dangerous adventure for many reasons. To begin with, there was a strict prohibition on women aboard French ships. There were political considerations: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had changed the geo-political scene irrevocably, and the Commander and crew of the ship Uranie had to tread carefully at their various ports of call. There were the common dangers of a voyage in the smallish ships of the time, with none of today’s comforts and navigational technology: the ever present possibility of shipwreck, disease, storms, being blown off course, running out of supplies and fresh water. Added to that was Rose’s unique position as a lone woman on a ship full of men, with whom she travelled for several years.

    This is a thoroughly researched book and readers get a fascinating insight into how such a voyage was planned and prepared for; maritime traditions and practices in the nineteenth century; questionable (but common) medical practices; the drive to add to scientific and navigational knowledge; the intriguing customs and manners of the people encountered in places such as Brazil, French colonies, ‘New Holland’ (now Australia), the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Guam and the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), for example.

    Looking at the map of the Uranie’s voyage, it is amazing to think of people setting sail into what were at times, literally uncharted waters. From our modern perspective, when many people don’t venture to a new town or country without checking on-line maps and reviews, these people were taking enormous risks! They were creating and correcting the maps as they went and recording what they found.

    Rose recorded her experiences via a journal and in frequent letters to her mother back in France. After her death these were edited (the author suggests they were also ‘sanitised’ in some instances) and later published. I am grateful for that, because they give a very different perspective on the voyages of this period than do the formal ones written by her husband and other men.

    For example, the Uranie was indeed shipwrecked, running aground at a bleak and deserted island in the Falklands. For Rose, the dreadful experience of terror followed by hunger and cold as they waited for rescue, was compounded by the fact that her husband became seriously ill. What would her fate be if he died, leaving her to the mercies of men without a commander?

    I have always loved the Freycinet Peninsula in Tasmania’s northeast, named for Louis de Freycinet. When I travel there in future, I shall also think of Rose, a person of equal courage and adventurousness as her husband.

    Rose is published by HarperCollins in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    A book to love: ’27 Letters to My Daughter’ by Ella Ward

    I fell in love with this book while reading its opening pages. It ticks so many boxes for me: family history, family stories, personal challenges and insights, humour…I know it will be one of my ‘stand-out-reads’ of 2022.

    When Australian writer and mother Ella Ward was undergoing treatment for a rare cancer at the age of thirty-six, she began a series of letters to her young daughter, in case she would not be around as her daughter grew into adulthood

    In the process, she documented a lively and fascinating family history, encompassing her own stories but also those of her great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents: their lives, loves and adventures. Woven throughout are 188 ‘Lessons’ for her daughter. The final one sums up her purpose: ‘Lesson #188: Tell your stories.

    A family is only as strong as the stories that are told. And, I’m afraid to say, the stories can’t just be told – they need to be kept.

    27 Letter to My Daughter, p4

    When my mother, the keeper of our family history and stories, began losing those memories due to encroaching dementia, I promised that I would hold, remember – and tell – the stories for her. This is what Ella has done for her daughter and all who follow her.

    The Lessons serve as mother-to-daughter tips for a fulfilling life, and each one appears after family anecdotes that illustrate the points. Some of my favourites are:
    Lesson #1: If you have a family, you have a story
    Lesson #18: ‘The End’ does not mean ‘THE END’
    Lesson #30: If you’re young, forgive yourself. If you’re not, stop (This one appears in the chapter called ‘For when you’re a jerk.’
    Lesson #45: Try and do your stupid things with kind people
    Lesson # 63: Your heartbreak will last exactly as long as it’s
    meant to
    Lesson #71: Shock will tear you apart. You will come back together. Differently, but together
    Lesson # 110: Menopause is a feminist issue. Followed by Lesson # 112: Bleed loudly
    Lesson #179: It’s okay to stay up past your bedtime when a book is to blame

    The family stories include Ella’s great-grandfather’s experiences in the trenches of WWI, her grandparent’s globe-trotting lives, her mother’s single parenthood, her own experiences of travel, first jobs, love, motherhood and trauma. So yes: sadness, distress, hard work, blood and tears. But also: joy, fun, mischief, music, scents and sights. And magic and dreams.

    27 Letters to My Daughter is a magical book that will have a place on my bookshelf for many years to come.

    27 Letters to My Daughter is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.



  • 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

    ‘Australia Remembers: Len Waters, Boundless and Born to Fly’ by Catherine Baver

    Len Waters was born behind the gates of an Aboriginal reserve, but his big imagination and even bigger dreams took him soaring beyond the reach of those who tried to confine him.

    Len Waters: Boundless and Born to Fly

    Len Waters was a Kamilaroi man who became a trailblazer: probably only the second man of Aboriginal descent to be accepted into RAAF pilot training in the 1940’s, receiving his pilot’s wings in 1944 and graduating in the top four of his class – at just 19 years old.

    Len went on to serve in the RAAF in the southwestern Pacific, flying bombing missions in his Kittyhawk aircraft Black Magic. Promoted to the rank of Flight Sergeant, he continued service in the Pacific until the war ended, when he’d been promoted to warrant officer.

    Despite his bravery and skillful service, Len (and other First Nations servicemen and women) discovered that their service didn’t seem to matter once they returned to civilian life, and they faced the daily discrimination and disadvantage meted out to Aboriginal people in Australia.

    This lovely book weaves Len’s childhood and early life experiences, the teachings of his parents and cultural knowledge, with his hard work, dreams and dedication, to create a picture of a truly remarkable Australian.

    It is aimed at primary aged children and includes many illustrations and side boxes that pose questions for readers to consider as they learn more about Len and the Australia he grew up in and returned to.

    It includes accessibly presented information on many key aspects of Australian First Nations culture and history: language, kinship, totems and respect for culture and knowledge holders, the British Empire and its consequences for First Nations people across the world, missions and reserves, Stolen Generations, Aboriginal servicemen in WWI, their experiences after that war and the Second World War.

    I purchased the book for my 8-year old grandson who is interested in aircraft from this period, and also in stories about Indigenous Australians. I think it will well and truly tick both boxes.

    Australia Remembers: Len Waters, Boundless and Born to Fly is published by Big Sky Publishing 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,  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

    Fractured lives: ‘Ten Thousand Aftershocks’ by Michelle Tom

    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.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Rebellious women: ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ by Clare Wright

    One part of Australia that I especially love is the goldfields region of Victoria. Rich in history, with picturesque villages like Maldon and bustling towns like Ballarat, it has heritage and physical beauty aplenty. The legendary Eureka Stockade understandably has pride of place in the folklore of the region. So it was with interest that I began The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which won the 2014 Stella Prize and was short- and long-listed for a swag of others.

    Of course I expected it to be about the role that women played in the famous rebellion that occurred in December, 1854; to my pleasure it was about much more as well. The books paints a vivid picture of the phenomena that were the Victorian gold rushes of the mid nineteenth century, and what drew a diverse community from all over the world and all walks of life to try their luck in the chaos, hope and heartache of the goldfields.

    Unlike many other works examining this period, in this book, the women take centre stage – those who accompanied their menfolk, those who came independently, those who had children or bore babies in the mining camps, those who ran businesses, those who prospered and those who suffered.

    Also included is some of the story of the contact between gold seekers and the Wathaurung, the original inhabitants of the country around Ballarat, which was rapidly changed from ancestral homelands to pastoral land and then, almost overnight, to a frontier town.

    In this account we can clearly see the social, political, environmental, economic and emotional factors that contributed to the tinder-dry circumstances on the diggings, that needed only a spark to ignite the all-out conflict between the mining community and the colonial authorities.

    The addictive nature of gold mining, the disparity in results (creating both great wealth but also terrible poverty), the inequitable impositions of the government and police on the diggers, the brutality of life on the diggings, all built towards the sickening violence that occurred at dawn on that fateful day.

    And present and active through it all, were women. The author highlights a number who were to play key roles, but also emphasises the many other, nameless women who were there – ‘right beside {the men}, inside the Stockade, when the bullets started to fly.’

    It’s fascinating stuff, made poignant by an epilogue in which the eventual fates of the ‘main characters’ of the story are outlined – some who went on to live happy or successful lives, others dogged by tragedy or hardship.

    This book certainly made me think about the Eureka Stockade, one of Australia’s ‘foundation legends’, differently, and to see the connections between the experiences of women there and on the goldfields more generally, with later political and suffrage rights campaigns.

    {The} nuggets of evidence that women’s political citizenship was being advocated in Australia as early as 1856 are significant. They place the genesis of women’s rights activism in that gold rush community of adventurers, risk-takers, speculators and freedom fighters who struggled for the more famous civic liberties often said to be at the heart of Australia’s democratic tradition.

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka p453

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka was published by Text Publishing in 2013