• Books and reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Murder Rule p164

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

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

  • Books and reading,  History

    Duty and trauma: ‘The Nurses’ War’ by Victoria Purman

    Acclaimed Australian author Victoria Purman’s new historical fiction novel is a fat book, just the thing for reading by the fireside during a prolonged wet spell – which is how I enjoyed it. It’s an easy read – though not a light one – as it deals with real historical events that proved distressing, often tragic, for those who lived through them.

    The setting is the real-life ‘Harefield House’, a grand mansion owned by wealthy expatriate Australians in the little village of Harefield, in Middlesex, England. In 1915 it was converted into a hospital for Australian troops recuperating from injurie inflicted at some of the many battlefields in Europe – especially at Gallipoli, France and Belgium.

    The hospital was staffed by Australian doctors and nurses and it must have been wonderful for the ill and injured Diggers to hear the familiar accents from home as they were cared for.

    If you, like me, are interested in the history behind the novel, the author has a piece on HarperCollins’ website with more detail, along with lovely photographs of the place, the nurses and some of the soldiers who went to Harefield. You can find it here.

    The story concerns four nurses, among those who sailed from Australian homes to help establish the hospital and stayed to care for the injured. There is also a local woman, Jessie, who volunteers to help care for the patients. We witness their anxiety as they await the first influx of soldiers, followed by their increasing horror as the hospital, established to cater for up to one hundred and fifty men, is flooded by thousands, stretching their resources, both physical and human. We are not spared the sights, sounds and smells that engulf the nurses as the brutality of war on human bodies and minds becomes clear.

    Cora had been well-trained, had more than a decade’s experience behind her and had believed she had seen almost everything, but nothing in Adelaide, nor the extra army training she’d undergone, could have prepared her for this sight.

    The Nurse’s War p79

    The novel also touches on other, perhaps unexpected, results of the war: profound change as the fundamentals of society shift, with women stepping into what were previously ‘men’s jobs’, becoming agriculture or postal workers, tram conductors, ambulance drivers; new trends in clothing allowing women more freedoms and comfort; and of course the suffrage movement. The threat of instant death and loss also changed many people’s long-held beliefs and attitudes, about marriage, love, or religion, for example.

    Friendships forged in wartime can be intense and profound, as can romances, but the novel does not pretend that these led to a ‘happy ever after’ ending for everyone. Rather, it illustrates the essentially random nature of an individual’s fate in times of war: an apparent throw of the dice can take a life or crush a person’s future. In such circumstances, is it surprising that people behave differently, re-think future plans or even their faith? World War I left behind a legacy of vast numbers of missing or profoundly wounded young men, multiple generations of grief, and a new social order in many parts of the then British Empire.

    Some aspects of Australian life, however, continue throughout – including racial discrimination, where indigenous men had to have written permission from the Protector of Aborigines to enlist, and yet still faced racism on the battlefield, in hospitals, and also at home at war’s end.

    This is a beautifully researched novel with characters that I quickly came to care about and a storyline that took me from the naivety of young Australians embarking on an adventure at the other side of the world, through the horrors of their war, to a profoundly moving conclusion.

    At the end of The Nurses’ War, the influenza pandemic is sweeping through the world, inflicting a terrible toll on those who’d managed to survive years of war. Again, the random hand of fate is at play. And given the global pandemic of 2020 to the current time (2022) I could not help but compare the experiences of then, with now. I found myself wondering: could modern-day Australians or British cope with prolonged, seemingly never-ending trauma and stress of a convulsive war, followed so closely by a deadly pandemic, in quite the same way as our forebears had to do?

    Coincidentally, this post is published on ANZAC Day, an annual commemoration of Australians who have died or suffered in war time. As I write this, a brutal war is being waged in Europe, as Russian troops attempt to take over the democratic nation of Ukraine. As always, I hope ANZAC Day will allow people to think about the futility and barbarity of war and redouble global efforts to put an end to using violence as a way to deal with disputes.

    The Nurses’ War is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publisher 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,  History

    Stories and silences: ‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt

    Amongst loss, you need to hold onto what you still have.’

    After Story p260

    What do Australian First Nation’s cultural stories and history have to do with the writings and times of Dickens, Shakespeare, Woolfe, Keats or Austen? The surprising answers to this question are to be found in the pages of After Story, by First Nations lawyer, academic, author, speaker and film-maker Larissa Behrendt.

    A tragic loss opens the story, one that forever scars Della and her family. All the other events of the novel hang off that one devastating event and its consequences.

    Years later, Della accompanies her now adult daughter Jasmine on a literary tour of England, taking in the places where many of the ‘greats’ of British literature were born, or lived, or worked.

    Jasmine sees books as her escape from the claustrophobia, racism and limited opportunities of the small town in which she grew up. She has read widely, graduated from university, and now works in a legal career. She invites Della on the tour with her as a way of bridging the gap that has arisen between them over the years. Alternating viewpoints allow us to experience both women’s perspectives on the tour. Della’s viewpoint is less sophisticated than her daughter’s, especially as she knows little about the writers and their works, but no less heartfelt or insightful for that.

    At every significant place visited, the characters in the group chat, argue and reflect on the particular writer, their historical context and achievements. The author has skillfully linked all of these with commentary and reflections on Aboriginal experiences. An example: when told of the plague that struck England during Shakespeare’s time, followed by London’s Great Fire in 1666, Della relates these catastrophic events to the smallpox outbreak and land dispossession that decimated First Nations communities in the earliest years of English settlement:

    I thought about what it must have been like for those Aboriginal people who watched the world around them change hard and fast when the colony was set up, who had to watch the destruction of the life they knew.

    After Story p43

    Della’s deceased Aunty Eileen is an important, if unseen, character. It is through Della’s and Jasmine’s remembered conversations with her, that key features of Aboriginal culture, history and beliefs are shared and further linked to European lives and histories. Gazing at a copy of the Magna Carta in the British Library, Jasmine reflects that:

    If Dickens reminded us that the system is not fair, here was the hope, the ancient promise, that it might be. Aunty Elaine’s generation had advocated for changes that made opportunities in my life different from those for Mum and Dad. It’s not just the words on the page but the people who push the ideas at the heart of them who really alter the world.

    After Story p82

    The characters are all three dimensional and fresh, their struggles real, and at times there are uncomfortable moments, as the author invites us to consider our own culture’s role in the theft, forgetting or dismissal of cultures other than our own. But for anyone who loves literature and/or stories and their long histories, this is a book to relish, made all the more special by the weaving together of old and contemporary, indigenous and non-indigenous traditions, tragedy and loss with hope and love.

    After Story was published by Queensland University Press in 2021.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Hardship, hope and glamour: ‘Dressed by Iris’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor

    If you’ve read a few of my reviews, you will know how much I love – adore – fiction inspired by real people and events, especially when they are people from the author’s own family. This is exactly what Australian novelist Mary-Anne O’Connor has delivered in her latest historical fiction, Dressed by Iris.

    Firstly, the glamour. The cover design is gorgeous; a beautiful young woman dressed in the lush fashions of the 1930’s. It’s lovely, and the story does centre around Iris, a young woman with a dream to design and make beautiful clothes.

    But as in real life, glamour can hide a multitude of sins and less-than-beautiful realities. The novel opens with Iris and her large, Catholic family, living in a tiny shanty house on the outskirts of Newcastle. Times are hard, with the Depression biting deep. The family barely scrape by and to add insult to injury, they experience the ugly prejudice of some better-off townsfolk against ‘Micks.’ Iris is courted by, and in love with, John, a young man from a Protestant family; but fears that the division between their families can never be bridged. It’s very Romeo-and-Juliet.

    Speaking of bridges, the story moves to Sydney, where Iris’s father and brother have found work, helping to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge. That bridge takes on a powerful role as a symbol of hope, modernity and better times ahead.

    Meanwhile, Iris finds work for a well-known Sydney designer of fashionable women’s clothing, and her dream of designing clothes seems a step closer. There are new threats and obstacles to overcome, and the story takes many twists and turns before its resolution.

    The author has given us a vivid picture of Sydney in the 30’s: the glamour of some parts, certainly; but also the rising desperation of the poor and a rising crime rate; entrenched sexism and religious intolerance; evictions of families unable to meet their rent; political turmoil with Fascists, Communists and unionists fighting pitched battles in the suburbs; the drama around the sacking of Jack Lang, the left-leaning Premier of NSW at the time. There are small details of domestic life that help bring the era alive: the careful coin counting and hard choices while shopping for a family’s dinner, just one example of this.

    I found unexpected personal connections with some aspects of the story. The suburb the family settle in is Hurstville – near my mother’s own childhood stamping ground in southwest Sydney. And one of Mum’s vivid memories from her childhood is the day she, her parents and her two younger siblings were evicted from their flat, finding a new home in the then ‘charity estate’ at Hammondville.

    Along with the ups and downs of the story and Iris’ journey from poverty to a career in fashion, Dressed by Iris is a love letter to family and to the lessons we learn from childhood. It’s also a song of praise for the virtues of hope, resilience, counting your blessings and making the best of things.

    I was moved to read in the author’s note that the two ‘leading ladies’ of this story, Iris and her mother Agnes, were modelled closely on the author’s own aunt and grandmother, and so many of the snippets of life included in the novel did, in fact, occur. I confess I shed a tear or two, reading that.

    They endured both tragedy and hardship, these two women, and faced great poverty during their lives, but they did it resiliently, cheerfully, generously and always with love. For me, that makes them two of the richest women that I will ever know.

    Dressed by Iris Author Note, p501

    Dressed by Iris is published by HQ Fiction in February 2022.
    My thank to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    2022 Reading Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Books and reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Books and reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Burnt Out p132

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

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

  • Books and reading,  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.