• 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.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Growing empathy: ‘Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief’ by Katrina Nannestad

    Once again, Australian children’s book author Katrina Nannestad brings us a story of children at war. As with her 2020 book We Were Wolves, this one features the experiences of kids caught up in the turmoil and tragedy of WWII in Europe.

    This time, the protagonist is a small Russian boy, Sasha, who at the age of six sees his village and his family destroyed by invading German soldiers. He faces starvation and other dangers until he is adopted by a passing company of Red Army troops. The Author’s Note tells us that Sasha is based loosely on the story of a real Russian child who joined with a troop of Russian soldiers as a bid for survival. He was about six to eight years old. Apparently there were many such children for whom the dubious ‘safety’ of the front line with troops was preferable to almost certain death from hunger or exposure on their own.

    It’s a shocking concept and the author acknowledges that this is confronting territory, especially for children. What she has created, though, is a story of love and hope; of how people need each other not only to survive, but to grow.

    The opening plunges us into a Russian military hospital with Sasha, who is recovering from numerous injuries, though we don’t learn why until towards the end. Sasha is ten and has spent four years with his company of Red Army soldiers. Trauma has robbed him of his ability to speak. Each night he roams the ward, stealing an odd assortment of items from staff and other patients. He has a collection of these pilfered things under his bed.

    Over the course of the book, these items become triggers for Sasha to gradually remember all the events that led up to this point: his flight from home; finding the Red Army company; the characters and personalities of the individuals there; and the way Sasha brings joy and comfort to these battle-weary soldiers in his childish, trusting innocence. He accompanies the troop as it makes its slow way to Stalingrad, and then westward to Berlin as the tide of war turns in their favour. They are protective of Sasha and care for him, in part because he reminds them of their own loved ones back home.

    As his memories return, he finds speech and so, bit by bit, he recounts his experiences to the hospital doctors, nurses and patients.

    Sasha’s story turns full circle as the novel concludes; by which time he has learned the truth of his shared humanity with the people he has regarded as the enemy.

    There are hints of the atrocities committed on both sides in this war. They are not explicit, though an adult reading alongside a child will understand the references. They are here to point out the basic truth that people are people (good and bad) no matter which army they fight with. Sasha learns a bitter lesson in Berlin, that hatred and revenge achieve nothing. The major in charge of his unit says:

    Returning cruelty for cruelty makes the hatred and misery grow. Their misery. Our misery. Surely we have had enough sorrow to last a lifetime. To last a thousand lifetimes. We must choose a better way.

    Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief p279

    Ultimately, it is our children and grandchildren who can make our world a more peaceful one. Empathy is an essential ingredient in this quest. Books such as this one, which combine plenty of wartime drama and adventure in a context of understanding war’s futility and cruelties, can help young readers to see the world from different perspectives and experiences than their own. This is how empathy is grown.

    Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2021.
    It would be suitable for readers 10 years and older.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    An ode to family traditions: ‘What Do You Do To Celebrate?’ by Ashleigh Barton & Martina Heiduczek

    This is the third in the What do you… series of picture books (I have previously reviewed What Do You Call Your Grandma? and What Do You Call Your Grandpa? on this blog).

    Each one of these delightful picture books invites readers to think about what we all share, as well as to enjoy the colourful and creative differences that make humans so interesting.

    In What Do You Do To Celebrate? we explore some of the many ways in which families around the world mark special times of the year together: Christmas, New Year, Lunar New Year, Hanukkah, just to mention a few. We see family celebrations in Israel, New Zealand, the Phillipines, South Africa, China, and many other parts of the globe, coming together to enjoy special foods, lantern festivals, big family gatherings, festive music and parades.

    Each double page spread is devoted to one type of celebration, explained in simple and lovely rhyme by Ashleigh Barton and Martina Heiduczek’s vibrant, mixed media illustrations.

    The final page invites children to think about their own family traditions:

    So many traditions to mark the year.
    What about you – what brings you cheer?
    Presents, dancing or is it cake?
    What do you do to celebrate?

    This beautiful book is an ode to families, love, and celebratory traditions. It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2021.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Colonial women: ‘Daughter of the Hunter Valley’ by Paula J Beavan

    In my deep dive into family history during the 2021 Covid lockdown in NSW, I realised that the Hunter Valley played a big role in my paternal ancestors’ lives. Both Great-Grandparents emigrated from England in the mid nineteenth century as children and lived out their lives in the Maitland and Newcastle regions. So it was with interest that I picked up Paula J Bevan’s novel which is set in the 1830’s along the Hunter River.

    The heroine, Maddy, is newly arrived from England. Her father has established a farm there and planned to bring his wife and daughter to live in the colony with him; but Maddy’s mother died before she could embark on the voyage, and Maddy arrives alone to break the awful news. To her horror, the very next day her father drowns in the river and Maddy must decide what to do: return to England; or stay in NSW and try to make a new life for herself?

    She decides to stay and finish creating the house and farm that her father had begun; but it is a very different world for a young woman from the green gentility of country England. The house her father promised is largely still plans on a page, so Maddy must live in a rough hut with two convict women, and she has to quickly learn how to run a property with only assigned convict labourers, and Daniel Coulter, the overseer, to work the land. There is heat, dust, unfamiliar wildlife and unaccustomed threats, and plenty of hard work. To her surprise, Maddy finds that the new life agrees with her as she gradually becomes part of the local settler community.

    The original inhabitants of the region are the Worranua people; they get sidelong references in the narrative, which I found disappointing, though perhaps historically accurate; as many European settlers preferred not to think of the people whose lands they had taken. There is, however, a complicated cast of characters from properties nearby, who I found a little hard to sort out in my head. There are also convicts, bushrangers and an orphaned child.

    I enjoyed Maddy’s development from a confused, grieving daughter to a more assured young woman forging a new life for herself. The author based some of Maddy’s character on colonial women who stepped up to run estates in their men’s absence, and I always love it when I read fiction based in part on real people or events.

    Daughter of the Hunter Valley is primarily a romance, and I did find Maddy’s preoccupation with Daniel a little annoying after a while – as was her tendency to blush whenever she saw him!

    The strength of the novel is in its finely observed portrayal of early colonial life away from the Sydney township; the new environment in which the settlers found themselves, and the hardships they faced. I could picture my own ancestors in similar circumstances in similar locations. Knowing that they, too, had dispossessed Worranua in order to create this new life is uncomfortable, but it is part of my personal history and the history of this country. There are, no doubt, echoes of Maddy’s story in the lives of many of those who came as colonisers to this country.

    Daughter of the Hunter Valley is published by HarperCollins in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • 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

    Finding an ‘after’ trauma: ‘Here in the After’ by Marion Frith

    As I read this debut novel by Australian Marion Frith, TV, print and broadcast media were saturated with the shocking news of the Taliban taking over Kabul and huge swathes of territory in Afghanistan. A reminder, if I needed one, of how devastating, cruel and ultimately pointless that protracted war has been.

    The two protagonists of Here in the After are both connected to violence emanating from that part of the world and the roles played by Western nations there.

    Nat is an army veteran who served in Afghanistan. He has returned to his wife Gen a broken man, unable to take the steps needed to heal from his complex PTSD and the things he saw and did during his tour of duty.

    Anna is middle aged, a grandmother who has been grieving the death of her beloved husband. One day during her lunch break from work, she sees a brochure in the window of a travel agency and impulsively goes in to check it out, because she’d made a promise to her husband not to stop doing the things they enjoyed together, like travel. Wrong place, catastrophically wrong time for Anna.

    She ends up as the only survivor or a shocking terrorist attack in which eleven other people – including a child – are murdered in cold blood. Anna is rushed to hospital and faces a long physical recovery, all the while wondering if she will ever recover from the trauma. She is now in the ‘after’ – and it seems that she will never recover her life ‘before’ the shocking events that she somehow survived.

    Nat seeks out Anna because he suffers from crippling guilt for everything that happened in Afghanistan. He has realised that he and other soldiers were sold a lie, when they believed that they were fighting there to keep Australians at home safe. The attack on Anna and the others in the shop are proof that they failed in that mission.

    At first wary, Anna comes to see Nat as someone who understands her turmoil because he is experiencing something very similar. A friendship develops as the pair meet, talk, challenge and reassure each other.

    Told in alternating viewpoints, the novel plunges the reader into the horror of Nat and Anna’s experiences and the tormented emotional and mental loops that each are now suffering. Their confusion, rage, guilt and sorrow are well described.

    Despite the darkness of their experiences, each person offers something profound and important to the other; most especially the possibility of hope.

    It really did take one to know one as he’d joked on the beach about their battle scars that day. It was true. That was the core of their connection, but it was more complex than his having been a soldier and her a victim of the perverted ideology he had fought… Anna had said she thought he understood her, but he realised now it was she who understood him. Nat had never believed anyone would ever understand him again.

    Here in the After pp170-171

    Here in the After is a sensitively written story of appalling trauma, the slow rocky path to recovery, and a different type of friendship. As we witness the tragedy in Afghanistan, the story is a timely reflection on the scars that violence leaves on its survivors – some visible, others less so.

    Here in the After is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • 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

    ‘The Things We Cannot Say’ by Kelly Rimmer

    This best-selling novel by Australian author Kelly Rimmer is a beautiful exploration of love, loss and the sacrifices that people can make for those they love most. It’s also an interesting juxtaposition of the challenges of modern lives with those faced by people in wartime.

    If you have read a few of my posts and reviews, you will know that I love stories inspired by real events and people, and especially those drawn from the author’s family history. This is what Kelly Rimmer has done; by telling a story set in her grandmother’s hometown in Poland during the horrors of WWII.

    I found Alina and Tomasz’s story to be engrossing, tragic, and hopeful. The details of the impoverished farm which was young Alina’s world, the terrors of the Nazi occupation, and the profound losses experienced by the Polish people, are enriched by the author’s research and visits to the places she writes about.

    The story is centred firmly in this environment, but woven through it is the story of Alice, a modern day mother of two, and the challenges she faces bringing up a ten-year-old gifted daughter and a seven-year-old son who has autism.

    When Alice’s grandmother begs her (from her hospital bed) to go to Poland to find something or someone she is unable to name, it seems like an impossible task. How can Alice leave her two kids, whose routines and care she tightly manages, with her busy husband, who doesn’t really have a relationship with Eddie?

    She does, though, and that’s where the elements of Alina and Alice’s lives begin to intersect, as Alice discovers more about her grandmother’s experiences during the war. In the process, Alice discovers a lot about herself, her son and daughter, and her marriage.

    The book does a wonderful job of bringing these seemingly disparate stories together, and portrays each woman’s challenges in a compelling way.

    There are long-held secrets that Alice needs to uncover before she can truly understand her family’s past, and to allow the grandmother she adores to be, finally, at peace. In Alina’s words:

    We embraced there on the deck – witness to a vow to hold on to a secret that we thought we could simply reveal one day. We had no idea of the gravity of that lie. We didn’t realize that time has a way of racing past you – that the long hard days sometimes make for very short years.

    The Things We Cannot Say p394

    The Things We Cannot Say is beautifully realised story and readers who love historical fiction firmly rooted in real history, will enjoy it.

    The Things We Cannot Say was published by Hachette in 2019.