• Books and reading,  History

    New historical fiction from Jackie French: ‘The Angel of Waterloo’

    The first thing I noticed about The Angel of Waterloo is the cover image – one of the most haunting book covers I’ve seen for a while, designed by Mark Campbell using artwork by Mary Jane Ansell. You can see more of her beautiful work here.

    The novel opens on the carnage and chaos of the battlefield at Waterloo, arguably the most famous of all the battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The protagonist, Henrietta (or ‘Hen’) is just fifteen and, along with her army surgeon father, desperately trying to save as many injured soldiers as she can.

    Already more accomplished in medical matters than many physicians (who in this era were all male), Hen manages to save the arm and the life of a young lieutenant, Max Bartlett. When he regains consciousness he makes a rash proposal of marriage to his saviour and Hen accepts. They are married by a local priest, right there on the battlefield, witnessed only by Hen’s father and Max’s friend.

    I’m still uncertain if this battlefield marriage worked for me, though I do understand that in war, normal behavioural norms and expectations are often jettisoned. The device also works to move the plot to Australia, when Hen embarks on a hopeful voyage several years later. In the colony, she finds that the stakes for her happiness, safety and fulfilment are even higher than before.

    I’d describe this novel as a saga: so much happens and it’s an emotional roller coaster as we follow the fluctuating fortunes of the various characters.

    As always, Jackie French’s historical detail is impeccable and layered through the narrative seamlessly, so readers can learn a great deal while being immersed in the story. We become aware, for example, of how the colony’s politics and economics affected all who lived there: the indigenous people who were quickly dispossessed of their lands, the poor, the convicts and the free settlers who followed in their wake. The violence and injustice imported along with the settlers are clear to see.

    As Sergeant Drivers says to Hen:

    ‘Miss Hen, ain’t you realised yet that this is a land of felons? We walk around with no chains because the wild about us is prison-walls enough, but none of us is innocent, no matter what we claim. Nor was we caught the first time we broke the law, neither. Most of us are damned good at it.’

    The Angel of Waterloo p 212

    So, the realities of colonial life are laid bare as Hen immerses herself in this new world and faces difficult decisions about her future there.

    At the novel’s heart is the theme of warfare, violence and colonisation:

    ‘You were simply swallowed up by Waterloo.’
    She saw by his expression Max did not understand. ‘I mean the whole mindset that led to it, those long years of war with France. The colony is built on a world that sees nothing odd in killing thirty thousand soldiers in a day, leaving ten thousand orphan children starving and countless eyeless beggars craving for a crust. It’s the right of any gentleman to take whatever he can win.’

    The Angel of Waterloo p327

    This novel also made me think about how authors of today portray historical events and people in fiction. There is a tension between wanting to give as accurate a picture as possible, while also allowing at least some characters to express views on matters such as race-relations, for example, that would be more in line with modern-day values.

    I wonder how many non-indigenous people in nineteenth century NSW would have been sympathetic to the First Australians and why their views and experiences were not recorded prominently in their own time. The work of historians such as Paul Irish and Grace Karskens does help to show that not all settlers were blind to the humanity of the indigenous people they encountered. But I think that they were likely in a minority. Jackie French shows how racist attitudes had their roots in the long standing divisions and violence of British society.

    The Angel of Waterloo has plenty of unexpected moments that kept me eager to read on. I warmed to Hen and truly wished her happiness in her adopted country. Lovers of Jackie French’s historical novels will find this an engrossing read.

    The Angel of Waterloo is published by Harper Collins Publishers on 2 December 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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  • Books and reading

    ‘Top End Girl’ by Miranda Tapsell

    I adored The Sapphires from the moment I saw the stage play and fell in love with it again when the movie came out. The four women in the film’s lead roles – Jessica Mauboy, Deborah Mailmain, Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell – brought the amazing story to life and added so much to the joyous nature of the experience. Ditto with Miranda Tapsell’s film, Top End Wedding, which she co-wrote and starred in. Both were productions with a lot of heart and soul, with serious things to say, that nevertheless left me with a big smile and a full heart.

    Reading Top End Girl was a similar experience. It’s Miranda Tapsell’s memoir taking in her childhood in Darwin and Arnhem land, her time at NIDA learning about the industry she had set her heart on, her early career (including the making of The Sapphires), and then conceiving, developing, writing and filming Top End Wedding. Oh, and her real-life romance and wedding in between all of that.

    Miranda’s chatty style makes for an engaging read, though this does not mean she pulls back from addressing issues of importance, including a tough call-out of racist stereotypes in media and popular culture, and the limited opportunities from people of colour and other minorities in film and television – both of which she is endeavouring to do something about in her own career.

    What I’m asking is to celebrate modern Aboriginal culture, to subvert the stereotypes that have been pitted against Aboriginal people – that we don’t believe in hard work, that we’re negligent with our children, that we’re all criminals or that we all have alcohol problems. To instead show the complexity and commonplace that we all share while also acknowledging the uniqueness of our story.

    Top End Girl p82

    Miranda’s account of what she calls her ‘charmed life’ does not bely her own hard work, risk-taking and commitment to seizing opportunities when they appeared, learning to believe in herself and sticking to her principles. Nor does she gloss over the challenges still facing First Nations people in Australia and around the world today. She uses her art, creativity and drive to make a difference in these areas.

    There are plenty of talented Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists who have blazed the trail for passionate and ambitious people like me, and we shouldn’t all have to agree to tell the same story to be made to feel appreciated. Our lived experiences are just as vast and nuanced as the non-Indigenous people who have squatted here. I want my community to have a say in what I’m making because I’m reflecting them.

    Top End Girl p291

    She describes how this worked for her in the making of her film: the consulting, yarning, including and respecting Traditional Owners at every step of the process, from script development, decisions about locations and cast, ensuring the team organised appropriate Welcomes to Country during the production. I enjoyed learning about how this respect and inclusiveness could be woven into a fast-paced production journey.

    Top End Girl is a heartfelt story from a talented young woman in Australian cultural life. I loved reading about Miranda’s views and experiences and look forward to seeing what new projects her creative self will develop.

    Top End Girl was published by Hachette in April 2020.

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  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    A beautiful book for the dark times: ‘Phosphorescence’ by Julia Baird

    …how do we endure when suffering becomes unbearable and our obstacles seem monstrous? How do we continue to glow when the lights turn out?…We must love. And we must look outwards and upwards at all times, caring for others, seeking wonder and stalking awe, every day, to find the magic that will sustain us and fuel the light within – our own phosphorescence.

    Phosphorescence p281

    This lovely book was a recent birthday gift from a dear friend (thank you Jennie!) and so timely after a year of tragedy and hardship at both the international and local levels. So many people I know have had a difficult year- economic worries, personal health challenges, suffering and death of loved ones, separation from people and places that they care about.

    So reading Julia Baird’s book was like applying a balm to raw damaged skin: soothing, calming, but also an invitation to think deeply about life and what really matters. In it, she talks a little about her own personal trials, especially her very serious health challenges, but the book is about much more than one person or one set of difficulties.

    It’s a broad ranging exploration of what gives joy, wonder, passion, hope, purpose; especially what keeps people going during the hard times. She includes themes such as the power of nature, connection and community, working to a purpose larger than ourselves, the role of beauty and silence, paying attention.

    Each theme is illustrated by examples from the author’s own life but also the lives of others from past and present times. I particularly enjoyed reading about her activism and that of others on issues like feminism, climate change, indigenous, Black or LGBTQI rights, and the environment. Comments on the need to maintain effort over the long term resonated for me, as someone who has at times despaired at the slow rate of change and the feeling that achieving social justice goals is a matter of ‘one step forward, several leaps back.’ As Baird says:

    You don’t walk away until the work is done.

    Phosphorescence p 101

    Most moving to me, however, were the two chapters she addresses to her daughter (Letter to a young woman) and son (Thoughts for my son: the art of savouring.) Such beautiful, wry, humorous and hopeful reflections from a mother to her children.

    Phosphorescence is a book to be savoured, enjoyed, mulled over and returned to again and again.

    It was published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in March 2020.

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  • Books and reading,  History

    Well seasoned historical fiction: ‘The Wreck’ by Meg Keneally

    With The Wreck, Meg Keneally has written another novel bristling with vividly drawn characters and adventure, with a good dollop of the kind of real-life historical stories that make her work so compelling. If you have read Fled, which was a fictionalised version of the incredible true story of the convict Mary Bryant, you’ll know how well this can work in the skilled hands of an assured writer.

    In The Wreck, we meet Sarah, traumatised by the murder of her parents in what was meant to be a peaceful demonstration by some of England’s working poor (loosely based on the real Peterloo massacre) and the treatment of her brother in its aftermath. Sarah joins a group which plans the violent overthrow of the British government.

    Betrayed and frightened for her life, she escapes aboard a sailing ship headed to NSW. The convicts and crew on board are drowned in a terrible shipwreck just off Sydney Harbour. Sarah is the sole survivor: alone and penniless in a strange land, though still burning for justice for her family and for other oppressed and mistreated people.

    So begins her life in the colony, where she tries to create a new identity and a new beginning. But Sarah finds that inequity, poverty and brutality have been brought to NSW along with the convicts and soldiers and that she must choose her friends and allies carefully, as she is still a wanted woman. She struggles to reconcile her desire to work towards a better world and her fear of British justice – or injustice.

    She, too, was part of a faceless mass, toiling down in the basements of grand houses or begging on the streets. Yes, those on the upper levels knew people like her existed, but they didn’t have to see or speak to her, they could conveniently ignore her humanity, as they were doing with the original inhabitants of this place.

    The Wreck, p195

    The novel is peopled with some wonderful characters: Sarah herself, and others such as Nell and her baby Amelia, who Sarah befriends. Mrs Thistle, who Sarah and Nell go to work for, is loosely based on the real life character of Mary Reibey, a remarkable woman who went from being a convict to an astute businesswoman and one of the wealthiest people in the early colony.

    Sarah herself develops from the frightened and bewildered young woman who washed up from a shipwreck on the shores of the colony, to someone who has learnt that there is more than one way to change her part of the world.

    The Wreck will appeal to readers who enjoy their historical fiction well seasoned with convincing detail and believable characters, and themes that are as relevant today as to the period in which the novel is set.

    The Wreck was published by Echo Publishing in 2020.

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  • Books and reading

    Chilling glimpse into a possible future: ‘The Mother Fault’ by Kate Mildenhall

    Mim is on the run. Her husband Ben is missing from his workplace, a gold mining project on an Indonesian island. The Department assigns a ‘liaison team’ to the family and they take the passports of Mim and her two young children, Essie and Sam. The Department, she has come to realise, is not a benevolent body but the principal instrument of a controlling, all-powerful oppressive government. Mim is right to be afraid.

    So she takes the kids, goes offline and flees – first back to her family home, then to the place of her childhood seaside holidays. With high school sweetheart Nick, she and the kids embark on a long drive north; then out to sea on Nick’s boat to Indonesia, hoping to find her husband Ben. All the while trying to avoid detection by The Department. Oh, and to be a good mother to her kids.

    The Mother Fault is set in the very near future, in an Australia where Government tentacles reach everywhere, assisted by technology that feels very familiar (think Siri or Google Home), but includes microchipping babies at birth so that they are literally never ‘off line’.

    Mim’s dash towards freedom and her husband invites new dangers and risk for herself and everyone she loves. At the novel’s heart is Mim’s struggle to know if she’s doing the right thing by her family. Is she careful enough, protective enough, loving enough? An age-old anxiety, this one; surely recognisable to most mothers. As is its corresponding struggle: to return to a sense of self, of personhood, amidst the layers of responsibility and distractions that come with busy modern lives.

    She shouldn’t leave them out there on their own, but see if she fucking cares. Little shits, not listening, making fun.
    ‘Mum!’ A shriek from outside and her legs don’t even hesitate, already making deals with fate. Sorry sorry sorry stuck in her throat as she races out through the gate, sees them both out of the water and a long trickle of watery blood down Sammy’s shin, a small rupture of flesh near the knee.
    ‘It got caught on the brick climbing out,’ Essie says, glaring at her. ‘You shouldn’t have left us alone.’
    …and it doesn’t even hurt, her daughter’s admonishment, because it’s just the way it is.
    She’ll never get it right.

    The Mother Fa
    ult, ch 13 (Audiobook version)

    At the opening of the novel is a quote from The Great Hack (Netflix, 2019):

    But no one bothered to read the terms and conditions.

    Professor David Carroll, The Great Hack

    The Mother Fault certainly got me thinking about all the trade-offs we make for the conveniences and luxuries of our modern lives: connectivity, streaming services, personal entertainment devices, labour saving technologies. How often do we stop to consider what is lost amongst the gains?

    Because the novel is set in an Australia that is so familiar to our own current-day one, the dangers Mim experiences feel very real and entirely believable. There is a dramatic climax in which Mim is forced to face some very unpleasant realities and make an excruciating choice in order to keep her kids safe.

    The Mother Fault is gripping speculative fiction with the added bonus of Mildenhall’s beautiful prose. I listened to the Audible version narrated by Claudia Karvan whose flawless performance added greatly to my enjoyment of the novel.


    The Mother Fault was published by Simon & Schuster, 2020.

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  • Books and reading,  History

    Familiar places through the lens of the past: ‘The Cartographer’s Secret’ by Tea Cooper

    Readers of Tea Cooper’s fiction will know that she likes to write dual timeline stories set in Australia’s past. The Cartographer’s Secret is no exception.

    The protagonists are two young women: Evie in 1880, and her niece Lettie in 1911. The story connects the two: Lettie drives from Sydney to visit her Great Aunt Olivia on the family property in the Hunter Valley, to inform her that Lettie’s brother (and the heir to the property) has died. She soon gets caught up in the secrets and puzzles held within her family’s history, particularly the mysterious disappearance of her Aunt Evie, thirty years earlier.

    Evie had shared her father’s fascination with maps and exploration, and become similarly obsessed by the famous explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who had disappeared without trace in 1848. She sets out to track down evidence that she believes will prove her theory of what happened to Leichhardt and his party, but she is never seen again, leaving her Aunt Olivia heartbroken.

    Poring over the map of the Hunter region that Evie left behind, Lettie begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. She wants to solve the mystery of Evie to give Olivia, and the whole family, some peace (or closure, as we would call it today.) But things don’t go smoothly and Lettie uncovers more than she’d expected.

    Tea Cooper’s heroines are likeable and relateable: young women with gumption and interests unusual for women at the time (Evie with her maps, Lettie with her Model T motor car.)

    I found some of the details of the plot a little complicated and often needed to refer to the copy of Evie’s hand drawn map. While there is no happy conclusion for all the characters, there is a satisfying and believable resolution.

    For me the strength of Tea Cooper’s novels lie in the central role played by their settings. She takes me on a journey through time of and in doing so, shows me an earlier version of often familiar places, through the lens of history. I believe this is what historical fiction can do best: immerse readers in another time so that we can see the present in a different way.

    I also enjoy how aspects of the everyday inform that picture of the past. In The Cartographer’s Secret, this includes the beginning of rail and motor travel, the genesis of the famous Bulletin magazine, rural economies, the exploits of early European explorers, and the lives of women in both city and country.

    The Cartographer’s Secret is a satisfying addition to Tea Cooper’s historical fiction and fans of her novels won’t be disappointed.

    It is published by HarperCollins Publishers on 29 October 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Recovery & resilience: ‘The Fire Wombat’ by Jackie French

    The wonderful Jackie French is back with another picture book, this one illustrated by Danny Snell.

    The Fire Wombat takes the trauma and devastation of the 2019/2020 summer bushfires across eastern Australia and crafts a gentle fable about how even the smallest of beings can survive with the support of others.

    Jackie lives in the Araluen Valley near Braidwood in southeastern NSW, an area that experienced those appalling fires during that summer. She is passionate and vocal about the wildlife that shares her land, and has published many books about these animals, including her well loved Wombat series.

    In The Fire Wombat, the terrifying fires drive many animals from their homes, some to shelter in a wombat burrow deep in the earth. When the fires have passed, they face starvation and thirst. That is, until human intervention delivers life saving food and water to the devastated fire grounds. And gradually, the land begins to heal:

    Others flourished, though trees drooped:
    Goannas feasted, eagles swooped.
    Grass trees blossomed, feeding bees.
    Native mice carried seeds.
    Kookaburras, currawongs…
    Slowly, the bush regained its songs.

    The Fire Wombat

    The little wombat at the heart of the story survives.

    The author’s note at the end of the book urges people to donate to a wildlife charity if they wish to help after disasters, or get training in how to care for wild animals.

    This lovely picture book is perfect in the way it encompasses its environmental theme and deals with a very dark and traumatic experience for so many Australian children, while also offering hope for the future.

    The Fire Wombat is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, on 29 October 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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  • Books and reading,  History

    Tragedy & survival: ‘Benevolence’ by Julie Janson

    The title of this book is a subtle reflection on its theme: the nature of dealings between Aboriginal people and white settlers in the early decades of the colonial experiment that eventually became the nation of Australia.

    The story is told from the perspective of a young woman from the Darug Nation, in part inspired by the experiences of the author’s own ancestors on and around the Hawkesbury- Nepean River, Parramatta and Sydney Town.

    We meet Muraging as a child in 1816, being taken by her father to live at the Parramatta Native Institution. This was a boarding school set up by Governor Macquarie, to educate Aboriginal children in the language and ways of the English. Muraging’s father takes her there in the hope that if his daughter can learn to understand the settlers’ ways, she may be able to help her people. He promises to return for her.

    What follows is a tangled series of events in which Muraging, now known as Mary James, experiences some kindness, but also many instances of heartlessness and misunderstanding by the people who are meant to help Mary and others like her. Mary excels in her English education but longs for her own home and her own people.

    This longing permeates the novel and it drives Mary throughout her life, through tragedy, danger, periods of freedom and happiness, horrific episodes of abuse at the hands of some English. As Mary grows and matures, so does the colony, bringing further encroachment of settler farms and towns on Darug lands and livelihood.

    The conflicts that arise from misunderstandings are illuminated:

    Through the cracks in the wall, the children look out and see a row of warriors with spears high on the hill near the town. They are silhouetted against the light. Mr Shelley is terrified. He sweats and paces, mumbling.
    ‘Why you lock us in, Mr Shelley?’ asks Mary.
    ‘Sweet innocent girl! Can’t you see that the heathen perpetrators of murder want to break down the doors and kill us and eat our hearts?’ says Mr Shelley.
    ‘They dancing, Mr Shelley. They not hurt us; don’t be frighten,’ says Mary.

    Benevolence p32

    I found the narrative spare and sometimes disjointed; however it occurred to me that the novel’s style can also represent Mary’s life: this is no ‘happy ever after’ historical fiction, but a portrayal of turbulence and upheaval as a society and culture are taken apart. Mary’s life can not have a smooth trajectory or a satisfying story arc, because the colonial and religious authorities do not allow for that.

    Muraging’s growing defiance of the people who mistreat her leads her into some perilous situations and much heartache, as she endures the agony of trying to live in two worlds. But it is also her salvation and allows her to find a way to survive and to live on her own terms.

    At the heart of this novel is the enormous injustice dealt by the colonisers, personified in one girl. As Muraging/Mary matures, the injustices grow:

    In Windsor Prison, Mary wears a grey blanket with a red stripe and the printed words ‘New South Wales Aborigine’. Just in case she forgets. Mary has many hours to ponder the injustice of being locked up for taking a few birds while the English take everything from her and her people.

    Benevolence p232

    I found it especially engrossing to read about the Darug experience in the region where I grew up and was educated, because I’d learnt nothing back then about the area’s first inhabitants. This novel also challenges the myth that the Darug and other indigenous peoples around the greater Sydney, Hawkesbury, Blue Mountains, Broken Bay and Hunter regions, largely vanished soon after colonisation.

    Muraging’s story shows the many ways in which they stayed and survived: sometimes living side by side with settlers, or working on farms or in towns, or gathered in small communities in the bush or isolated spots along rivers and creeks.

    Benevolence is a welcome and timely addition to fiction which tells a more honest version of the story of our origins as a modern nation, and shows the strength of Australia’s first people.

    Benevolence was published by Magabala Books in 2020.

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  • Books and reading,  History

    Another gem from Kate Grenville: ‘A Room Made of Leaves’

    The title of Kate Grenville’s latest and much anticipated novel put me in mind of the famous work by Virginia Woolfe – A Room of One’s Own. The message in both titles includes, I believe, the necessity for all women to have a space (whether that be an actual room, a favourite place in nature, or a corner of their imagination) where they can dream, write, plan, think, or simply be. In this and in many other ways, while A Room Made of Leaves might be a work of historical fiction, its themes are as relevant to today as to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

    Kate Grenville is well known to many Australian readers for her novels of colonial Australia, particularly The Secret River, The Lieutenant, and Sarah Thornton.

    Her new work has a most wonderful premise: that she has stumbled upon and transcribed the private writings of Elizabeth MacArthur, the wife of John MacArthur, Captain in the NSW Corps and so-called ‘father of the Australian wool industry.’ These scribblings are a ‘warts and all’ account of Elizabeth’s life, much more honest than the carefully penned letters that she wrote for public consumption.

    As always, Ms Grenville captures perfectly the voice of her protagonist, a woman of modest background but reasonable education, and convinces us that we are, in fact, hearing a first-hand account of life in colonial Sydney and Parramatta. Through Elizabeth, we meet some of the well-known figures of that time including John MacArthur himself, and Governor Phillip, Watkin Tench, Lieutenant Dawes; also Pemulwuy and other First Nations people who influenced the development of the faltering settlements.

    Of course, her real opinions and feelings about her husband, her life and her new home, as compared to the public ones, form the backbone of the narrative and serve to show Elizabeth MacArthur as a woman of much greater aptitude and empathy than the man she is tied to in marriage.

    I absolutely loved the way in which the author has used snippets of the actual letters and other writings of Elizabeth, in a way that brings her to life and also hints that she may well have had quite a different inner life than the serene and uncomplaining face she presented to the world.

    Elizabeth MacArthur, 1766-1850, from
    oil painting in State Library of NSW

    Writing about a time when women had little agency, she shows that through carefully chosen words, sly irony, and well-kept secrets, some women could and did manage to execute a certain degree of independence of thought, even if that was not always visible to others.

    A Room Made of Leaves joins the list of simply wonderful novels by Kate Grenville about early colonial Australia. If you enjoyed her earlier ones, you will love this book.

    A Room Made of Leaves was published by Text Publishing in 2020.

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  • Books and reading

    Gorgeous celebration of love: ‘Aunty’s Wedding’ by Miranda Tapsell & Joshua Tyler

    I purchased this beautiful new picture book for my granddaughter and can’t wait to give it to her for her 4th birthday! Picture books are such a joy, aren’t they?

    If you have seen the delightful romcom movie Top End Wedding, you will have had a taste of the writing duo Miranda Tapsell and Joshua Tyler, who created and co-wrote the screenplay for this movie all about love and weddings, culminating in a colourful and wonderful celebration on the Tiwi Islands, off the northern coast of Australia.

    Aunty’s Wedding is a snippet of that colour and joy, a gorgeous feel-good story for young ones. Beautifully illustrated by Samantha Fry, it captures the things that make a top-end wedding just like any wedding on the mainland – dressing up, special flowers and jewellery, family and friends – and the things that make them that little bit different – the vibrant indigenous designs, the tropical flowers, and the traditional decorations and dances.

    I just adore this book and I hope many youngsters will get to share in the joy of it’s simple text, sweetly affirming story and luscious pictures.

    Aunty’s Wedding is published by Allen & Unwin in September 2020.

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