• Books and reading,  History

    Why I am thankful for feminism: ‘Restless Dolly Maunder’ by Kate Grenville

    Kate Grenville’s latest offering is a novel woven from family stories of her grandmother, who was born into rural poverty towards the end of the nineteenth century.

    Readers of The Secret River will recognise Dolly as the granddaughter of Sarah Wiseman, the daughter of that earlier book’s fictionalised protagonist based on Solomon Wiseman. Solomon, the author’s ancestor, was an emancipated convict who settled in the upper reaches of the Hawkesbury River in a spot later named for him – Wiseman’s Ferry.

    The novel describes in painful detail the restrictions on women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially (but not exclusively) for poor women.

    The small worlds they inhabited, the never-ending chores it was assumed they’d be responsible for simply because they were born female; the limited options for their futures – marriage, or spinsterhood while working as a nurse or teacher.

    Girls were of no account, you learned that early on. Good enough to make the bread and milk the cow, and later on you’d look after the children. But no woman was ever going to be part of the real business of the world.

    Restless Dolly Maunder eBook location 14 of 293

    Dolly is born wanting more, wanting movement in her life when the world tells her she must be still, be satisfied with her lot. Whip smart yet denied an education past 14 years, and lucky to get that, being young enough to benefit from new government laws that required all children under 14 to regularly attend school.

    As always with this author, the prose is uncannily evocative: Grenville has the ability to climb right inside her characters’ heads and make the reader feel they are there as well. Simple language but always the exact right word chosen for the right moment in the story.

    Dolly is a prickly character, not particularly likeable at any point in the story. But the author’s skill is to make us care about her anyway. There is an especially poignant moment in her author’s note, describing a childhood encounter between the young Kate and her grandmother, where she looks back with empathy and wishes in retrospect that she had responded differently. I am sure we have all experienced such moments, haven’t we?

    Dolly experiences the ups and downs of economy, drought, commodity prices, war, Depression; all of which impact on her and her family.These are factors beyond her control but she brings to bear her characteristic decisiveness (and restlessness) as she tries to respond to these big picture challenges.

    All you could say was, you were born into a world that made it easy for you or made it hard for you, and all you could do was stumble along under the weight of whatever you’d been given to carry. No wonder at the end of it you were tired, and sad. But glad to have done it all, even the mistakes.

    Restless Dolly Maunder loc 281-282

    This book made me feel, once again, deeply thankful for the achievements of feminism that have allowed women in the western world, at least, to move beyond the small worlds prescribed for them.

    She thought of all the women she’d ever known, and all their mothers before them, and the mothers before those mothers, locked into a place where they couldn’t move. My generation was like the hinge, she thought. The door had been shut tight, and when it started to swing open, my generation was the hinge that it had to be forced around on, one surface grinding over another. No wonder it was painful.

    Restless Dolly Maunder loc 281

    We have a long way to travel yet, and so many women around the world still experience difficulties and disadvantages because they are female. Restless Dolly Maunder shows us why that is not acceptable.

    Restless Dolly Maunder was published by Text Publishing in July 2023

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Australian stories: three new picture books

    Three very different picture books here, all by Australian authors.

    Giinagay Gaagal (Hello Ocean) by Gumbayngirr artist Melissa Greenwood (who also created My Little Barlaagany (Sunshine) among others.) It’s a celebration of the ocean and its pleasures: swimming, fishing, running on the sand, collecting pipis and shells. In the story the aunties share cultural knowledge and wisdom as well as fun:

    But first, before walking on Country, we talk to the land
    and let her know that we are here to play.
    We are grateful for what she has to offer,
    we promise to take care of her during our stay.

    Giinagay Gaagal (Hello Ocean)

    I’m always delighted to see new books incorporating First Nations languages. It’s a gentle way to introduce young readers to the multiplicity of cultures and languages that flourished in Australia before colonisation, some of which are still in use or are being revived.

    The illustrations are gorgeous, incorporating the colours of sea and sand.


    Fans of Jackie French will welcome her latest picture book, The Turtle and the Flood, a companion to the wonderful The Fire Wombat. Fire and flood are the bookends of natural disaster events in this country, and our children experience them all too often.

    Learning about how native animals have evolved to survive these events is one way of coming to understand the natural cycles of our land.

    We are introduced to Myrtle the long necked turtle, who can sense a coming flood (even before the rains begin) and makes her long slow climb uphill to a safe spot, out of the reach of the water.

    She is joined by others (snakes, wombats, water dragons, wallabies.) The animals are guided by Myrtle’s wisdom and understanding of her environment.

    There are lovely soft illustrations by Danny Snell which bring Myrtle’s journey to colourful life.


    The third book in my selection is a change of pace. The first in a new series featuring Bunny and Bird, How to Hatch a Dragon is a sweetly hilarious story about the importance of observation and paying attention. The two friends are so engrossed in the instruction booklet that came with their dragon egg that they completely miss most of the action!

    Little ones will get the humour, as they can see in the pictures what’s going on behind Bunny and Bird’s backs.

    Three new books to delight: Giinagay Gaagal, The Turtle and the Flood, and How to Hatch a Dragon are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September and October, 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for review copies.

  • Books and reading

    Behind the scenes: ‘The Mystery Writer’ by Sulari Gentill

    I first fell in love with the work of Australian best-selling author Sulari Gentill with her historical crime fiction Roland Sinclair series, which combine my love of the two genres of historical and crime fiction in a brilliant and somewhat addictive way.

    Since the last book about Roland and his friends, Ms Gentill has written several stand-alone novels, set in contemporary America. A theme that unites these disparate stories is the ‘behind the scenes’ glimpses of the worlds of writing and publishing, with twisty tales of dark deeds threaded throughout.

    The Mystery Writer is set in middle America, a town called Lawrence in Kansas. This is where Australian student Theodosia arrives unexpectedly on her older brother Gus’ doorstep. She has left behind a partly completed law degree and brings with her a burning desire to become a writer.

    She meets a best-selling author Dan and a friendship starts to form, but to her horror, Theo discovers Dan dead on the floor of his apartment, his throat cut.

    The murders begin to mount up and Theo is suddenly the prime suspect. What can she do to protect herself, her brother and his friend Mac? She has to make a difficult choice which leads to devastating consequences.

    Gradually she understands that Dan’s life and death have a connection to a dark web network of conspiracy theorist fantasists and ‘preppers’. The online posts of key members of this group preface each chapter of the novel, and are by turns hilarious and chilling.

    In the midst of all the dramatic events, Theo receives an offer of representation by the literary agency connected with Dan. A condition is that Theo turns over total control of her social media and online presence to the agency for management by them. She is assured that this is standard procedure. We are left to wonder if this is true…

    The novel explores how fictional narratives can be used to vicariously wield political and business influence. While this is in a context of a piece of fiction, it is worth thinking about in the broader sense, given the events that we’ve seen in US, British and Australian politics, economies and societies over past years.

    Theo, Gus and Mac are all sympathetic and relatable characters,; the tension is nicely calibrated throughout the novel. It’s a book that will please crime and mystery readers and which also provokes some thought about the online worlds we now inhabit.

    The Mystery Writer is published by Poisoned Pen Press, an imprint of Sourcebooks, in March 2024.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for an ebook copy to review.

  • Books and reading

    ‘Original sin’: ‘The Seven’ by Chris Hammer

    I read Chris Hammer’s first, best-selling novel Scrublands soon after its publication in 2018 and was taken by its visceral descriptions of an outback Australian community and landscape. Crime fiction must always be about more than the ‘whodunit?’: I like stories that transport me to a place and time, with characters that I come to care about, and Hammer’s stories fit the bill.

    ‘The Seven’ takes place in the western part of NSW, the region known as the Riverina. This was country made fertile by an ambitious and extensive irrigation scheme, the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, and Hammer has set his story in a similar, though smaller, fictional region, with the town of Yuwonderie at its centre.

    It was here that one hundred years earlier, seven founding families established the scheme, creating a network of companies and trading arrangements that fueled their wealth, prestige and power in the district.

    The story is told across various time-frames and points of view. There are letters from Bessie, an indigenous woman employed by one of the Seven households, just before, and during, WWI. In the 1990’s we follow Davis, a young man from one of the Seven families, on the edge of making a decision about his future. And in the present time there is Detective Sergeant Ivan Lucic, brought to the town with his detective colleague, Nell, to investigate the murder of Athol Hasluck, from another of the Seven.

    Ivan and Nell feature in two earlier books, but there is no need to have read those to enjoy this one. They are terrific characters: with strengths that complement each others, and their own weaknesses too, which seem to be a must-have in crime fiction!

    As I read this novel, I thought about the many country towns I have visited or driven through, and found myself wondering about their foundation stories and people. Certainly this is a solid thread running through The Seven: how the establishment of a town or farming community frames its future.

    The author makes the case here:

    He flipped to the first chapter, ‘Foundation.’ The text was heroic…no mention of any Indigenous people, no mention of how the Europeans had come to the district, no mention of any pre-existing ecosystem. But that in itself might prove useful: the document reflecting bygone attitudes, still alive, maybe even more so, by the 1970’s.

    The Seven ebook page 76 of 375

    In the case of Yuwonderie, its origins are mired in misdeeds that carry down to the present, where criminal activity, corruption and deceit lie at the heart of the current murder, and also an unsolved double-murder from decades before. We are indeed looking at ‘original sins.’

    The part of the book that didn’t work so well for me was the series of letters written in the early twentieth century by Bessie to her mother. The events and relationships related in these letters prove crucial to later events and I usually enjoy novels set over different time periods. It was something about the voice used in the letters that somehow jarred a little, drew me out of the story for a bit.

    Overall, however, I enjoyed this novel and the light it shines on essential resources and the role they play in communities: in this case, water, without which none of the Seven founding families would have been able to create or maintain their wealth and influence.

    See that line of trees, that grey-green line? That’s the river. The Murrumbidgee. That’s where the water comes from. And the money. Everything, really.

    The Seven loc 119 of 375

    Readers who like gritty crime fiction set in recognisable Australian landscapes will enjoy this one.

    The Seven is published by Allen & Unwin in October 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Picture book bounty

    One of the nicest ways to welcome a new baby into the world is to gift the start of a children’s book library. The four books mentioned in this post would all earn their place there.

    Board books are perfect for babies and very young toddlers. Robust, able to stand up to chewing, throwing, and dribbling, they offer hours of tactile fun, colourful pictures and simple repetitive text.

    That’s not my kitten, by Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells, is the newest addition to the That’s not my… series, and includes all of these features. Babies can see the five different kittens, touch a furry tongue, a smooth kitten nose, a shiny bell, rough paws, and a fluffy tummy, while learning to turn pages and recite the repetitive text along with whoever is reading aloud.

    Moving along in age, for older toddlers and pre-schoolers there is another in the Playschool series by Jan Stradling and Jenna Robaard, called Beginnings and Endings. The series helps littlies to explore feelings: in this case, sadness.

    Little Ted’s friends want to help him feel better when his pet goldfish dies. A special scrapbook of Swish memories, a picnic in the garden, spotting baby birds in a nest and flowers blooming all help, as do a hug and talking about Swish and his memories. The soft illustrations reinforce the gentle theme of the story, that life challenges are best tackled with friends by your side.

    One Little Duck by Katrina Germein brings memories of the children’s rhyme ‘Five Little Ducks’ but it’s a story with a twist. Instead of losing a duckling with each verse, in this story Mother Duck has forgotten how to quack, so each time she calls her duckling to her, she gains a new animal, until she has a menagerie following along. The rhyming verses invite youngsters to join in:

    One little duck went out one day,
    over the hills and far away.
    Mother Duck said…
    Moo moo
    moo moo,
    and Cow said,
    Wait! Now I’m coming too

    One Little Duck

    Danny Snell’s illustrations are sweetly humorous and children will enjoy Mother Duck’s dilemma as she finds new friends, and at the end is reunited with her baby.

    Two Sides to Every Story by Robin Feiner explores the many choices and dilemmas that life can present. Boiled or fried eggs? Meat or vegetables? Is a dog or a cat the best pet? History or science? Country or city? Jacket and tie or lucky T-shirt?

    Oscar has to decide on these and other choices in his day to day life, and deals with each one with his skill of ‘mental gymnastics’.

    Oscar had a special way of looking at things.
    He took his subject, he twisted it this way
    and that. He tumbled it all around…
    inside out, and outside in, exploring it
    every which way.

    Two sides to every story

    The illustrations by Beck Feiner are in bold, block colours and bring to life Oscar’s tumbling, turning way of looking at his world.

    If you are building a children’s library, these four books would make perfect additions.

    They are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in July and August 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for copies to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Perfect: ‘The Bookbinder of Jericho’ by Pip Williams

    Do you know the feeling when you treat yourself to a new book purchase and, because you have several other books to read first, it sits on your bookshelf or bedside table for a while? Every time you pass it, you have a warm feeling inside. I will get to you soon, you promise. There is often great pleasure to be had in the anticipation of pleasure.

    That was me with The Bookbinder of Jericho. I had (like so many others around the world) fallen in love with Pip William’s 2020 novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, and so I was very pleased when I learned she was writing a second novel set in Oxford in the World War I era. Having at last been able to read it, I can say with certainty that it will be one of my standout reads for 2023.

    Pip Williams writes the best kind of historical fiction: stories about real places and events, with characters to care deeply about. Fiction that tells us something about who we are today and how we got here. The past is the recipe for the present, whether we know it or not. These types of novels illuminate how and why.

    The Bookbinder of Jericho stands on its own as a perfect story; there is no need to have read the earlier book. It is not a prequel or a sequel, but a companion novel. Having said that, I did have little thrills of recognition as characters or references from the first book made brief but profound appearances in this new story.

    The narrative centers around the people in the ‘bindery’ of Oxford University Press: almost all women, they were the workers who gathered, folded and stitched the printed pages into books. This work is imbued with a grace and dignity; though never glamorised. In the early twentieth century, there was a steep price to be paid for being working class and a woman. Even as Britain moved towards women’s suffrage, this initially only applied for women who owned property or wealth.

    Peggy is one of the ‘bindery girls’ but she longs to be able to have the words in her mind as well as the papers in her hands. She is told more times than she can remember, Your job is to bind the books, not read them. Her twin sister, Maud, is special: a ‘one of a kind’, loved by her family and neighbours, though Peggy has moments of wondering what life would be like without the responsibility of caring for her sister.

    The sisters live on a narrowboat moored on the river, which sounds romantic but is also cold in winter, hot in summer, and very cramped.

    Their tiny home is filled with bookshelves installed when their mother was alive, containing bound and loose leaf printings of books or parts of books, collected by Peggy and her mother when rejected as ‘waste’ at the printer or bindery. The girls’ mother introduced them to classics and works of antiquity, such as Homer’s Odysseus. Peggy dreams of entering the women’s college of Oxford university, just across the road from the bindery where she goes to work every day.

    ‘I’m from Jericho, Bastiaan, not Oxford. I left school at twelve, and Homer was not in the curriculum at St Barnabas – not in English and certainly not in Ancient Greek.’
    ‘But why not in English?’
    ‘There was no point. Our destinies were too ordinary to bother the gods, and our journeys would take us no further than the Press.’
    ‘The same Press that prints Homer in English and Ancient Greek?’
    I raised my eyebrows and did my best impression of Mrs Hogg.
    ‘Your job, Miss Jones, is to bind the books, not read them.

    The Bookbinder of Jericho p258

    Then WWI breaks out and life changes for everyone.

    This is the story of women’s work and their challenges; the prison that social class and gender expectations create for everyone; the way war both damages and destroys, yet can open new opportunities for some.

    Especially it is the story of people and relationships: how they can hurt and heal; how friendship and love can embrace and nurture even in the darkest of circumstances; how some injuries cannot be healed.

    For me, it is a perfect piece of historical fiction. I loved this book.

    The Bookbinder of Jericho was published by Affirm Press in 2023.

    Here is a little video showing the author folding, stitching, and binding her own printed book – just as the bindery girls did in the novel.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Digging up the past: ‘Missing Pieces’ by Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar

    This evocative novel by Australian author Jennifer Mackenzie Dunbar is a lively combination of historical fiction, multiple timelines, and a dash of magical realism, centered around the story of the Lewis Chessmen collection.

    The tiny chess pieces were discovered in 1831 on the remote Scottish island of Lewis. They have been dated to the second half of the twelfth century and were carved from walrus ivory and whale tooth.

    Images of some of the pieces can be found on the British Museum’s website here. If you have a look you’ll see how intricately carved they are, with quirky, individual expressions and postures. Some pieces were included in the exhibition History of the World in 100 Objects which traveled from the Museum a number of years ago; I remember seeing these little characters in Canberra and was quite taken with them. Some pieces are in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland in Edinburgh.

    There is much about the chessmen that is still shrouded in mystery and history, such as exactly where they were made and by whom, why they were buried, and if there are missing pieces and if so, why?

    The author has made good use of the historical known facts and the remote location of the find, to weave an engaging story across three timelines and settings: Iceland in the twelfth century, Lewis Island in the nineteenth century and in 2010, and London.

    The main character is Marianne, a lab assistant at the British Museum, whose master’s thesis was on cultural and national issues around the repatriation of museum artifacts to their places of origin. She is being undermined at every turn by a toxic manager; also facing a restructure of the museum’s staff, the recent trauma of her father’s death, a complicated relationship with her mother, a sad secret from her own past, and a crushing lack of confidence in her own worth and abilities.

    She is sent (reluctantly) to Lewis Island to accompany twelve of the pieces from the BM, for an exhibition on the island on which they were found nearly a hundred and eighty years earlier. Here she meets several locals who give her a refreshing new way of seeing history, including her own.

    Marianne sank into a warm fog, letting the music wash over her. With it came a twinge of envy for the way the locals all seemed connected to each other and to the music, joined by their history and stories of their past. An ache inside her grew.

    Missing Pieces loc. 1187 of 3824 (eBook)

    The story caught my attention from the start, because of the chessmen at its centre, but also its focus on issues of return of cultural artifacts. It’s a topic which has been in the news of late, including here in Australia, as many Aboriginal objects of spiritual and cultural significance have been kept in museums overseas, including the BM.

    Also, I share Marianne’s mother, Shona’s, passion for family history research and was amused at the eye rolls it sometimes induces in Marianne – I am pretty sure my own interest elicits a similar response in all but fellow family historians. The time slip quality of parts of the novel appealed to the side of me that dreams of time travel (in a safe and totally reversible manner, of course!)

    Most of all I enjoyed witnessing the development of Marianne from an uncertain, often prickly young woman who often feels out of her depth, to someone with more confidence in her knowledge and views and the ability to decide on her own future.

    The characters are believable and relatable and the various settings of time and place brought vividly to life.

    Missing Pieces is a terrific read, one I thoroughly enjoyed. It renewed my interest in the Lewis chessmen and spurred me to read more about them, and the island where they were re-discovered.

    Missing Pieces was published by Midnight Sun in June 2023.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Bravery at all ages: ‘How Brave Can I Be?’ by Byll & Beth Stephen

    I wonder if any parent out there can read this picture book by the Stephen sisters, (aka the Teeny Tiny Stevies) and not feel a little wistful?

    As each double page spread charts a child’s growth and passage through their world, readers also catch glimpses of the emotions of mum and dad as they witness their daughter’s growing independence.

    There’s love, and pride, and satisfaction, of course – with a little nostalgia in the mix:

    Darling, I’ve been feeling wistful lately.
    I’m so proud of you, but I feel sad
    that you don’t need me.
    Can you stay where I can watch from the side?
    I won’t get in the way,
    I’ll just be thinking ’bout how time flies…

    …One day soon I’ll take the leap
    and let go of that
    tight grasp I keep.
    I’ll move away and say,
    ‘I’m OK, I’ve got this, I’ll show you how brave I can be.’
    Cause I had you to teach me.

    How Brave Can I Be

    The lovely thing about the illustrations by Simon Howe is that readers always know which character’s thoughts we are hearing, (mum, dad, or daughter) because the individual is highlighted in the picture. It’s a clever technique which underlines the contextual understanding of the words and pictures together.

    A lovely, lovely book, How Brave Can I Be? was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books with ABC Books in May 2023.
    My thanks for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Writing girls and women back into history: ‘Ming & Hilde Lead a Revolution’ by Jackie French

    Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution is book no 3 in Jackie French’s superb series of middle-grade historical fiction, ‘Girls Who Changed the World’. These stories are all about putting women and girls back into the historical record.

    In this book, Ming is sent by Herstory back to the 1800’s, on a sailing ship heading from Europe to Australia. Her companion, Hilde, is one of several girls looking after royal Saxon sheep that are being imported, to add to the flocks of Merino sheep made famous by the Macarthurs, amongst others.

    I love that Ming has to guess at the specific timeframe she is in, judging it by the various historical facts she knows. And as always, she needs to work out which girl she meets will change the world, and how.

    This particular setting and scenario were new to me: I knew nothing of this particular breed of sheep and how it contributed to the success of the Australian wool industry in the nineteenth century. Which is odd, seeing as how in my primary school classes we learnt all about how Australia ‘rode on the sheep’s back’ – until mineral resources overtook wool as a major export a century or so later.

    Not so odd, though, when you think about it. Because according to this story, it was the young women shepherds from the part of Europe that later became Germany, who went on to demonstrate a radical new way of taking the fleece from the sheep – ushering in the technique that we now recognise as ‘shearing’. And yet, the quintessential image of Australian shearing is a Tom Roberts painting, featuring muscled bronze men grappling with woolly sheep in a colonial shearing shed.

    Another example of girls and women being written out of history.

    Young readers can learn these gems of history from this book, along with an understanding of earlier attitudes to Asian and First Nations Australians, the sexism taken for granted in colonial society, and attitudes to crime and punishment. The daily life on a wealthy rural estate is portrayed beautifully, especially the contrast between conditions for the rich and poor.

    And as always in a Jackie French novel, the past and present are both shown in a balanced way, neither wholly bad nor wholly good. The actions that bring about change often have unforeseen and unintended consequences – the environmental consequences of colonialism and the introduction of animals such as sheep, being one example in this book.

    The poor bare hills, the animals killed or driven off, and the people of this land too. The country had seemed so beautiful as they passed through it, not wild at all, but tended enough to keep its natural beauty. But we’re in the past, she reminded herself. This is the beginning of the Australia I live with today: most of its forests cleared, its rivers shrinking, its wetlands drained, so many animals extinct of in danger of it.
    This was how it began.

    Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution p150-151

    Ming is a delightful, thoughtful character, learning more about herself, her country and its past each time she is sent on another adventure by Herstory. I can’t wait to see where and when she lands next time.

    Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution is published by HarperCollins Children’s Publishing in June 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Picture book classic: “Edward the Emu” turns 35

    Sheena Knowles and Rod Clement’s Australian classic Edward the Emu turns 35 this year. It was first published in 1988 – the year my son was born (which, I admit, makes me feel a teensy bit old!)

    Luckily, books age much slower than their readers and this one is as fresh today as it was then.

    It tells the story of Edward, an emu who has become bored with his life at the zoo.
    He decides to join some of the other animals for a while, to sample what seems to be a much more exciting existence.

    The rhyming verses invite youngsters to join in or read aloud.

    Edward the Emu was sick of the zoo.
    There was nowhere to go, there was nothing to do.
    And compared to the seals that lived right next door,
    Well being an emu was frankly a bore.

    Edward the Emu

    Firstly he is in with the seals, then the lions, the snakes…until things turn around full-circle, and he realises that the emus are the best animals in the zoo after all.

    The little twist at the end is a laugh-out-loud moment, as are the comical expressions on Edward’s face.

    It’s a sweet story about falling for the ‘grass is greener’ phenomenon and about living and loving your own life.

    Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins, re-releases this timeless picture book in 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.