When I searched for an image to use for this ‘2020 retrospective’ post I was amazed (and amused) by the number of pictures of vaccination syringes, masks, and other Covid-19 references. I did not want this post to be about Covid-19 – or at least, not the devastating effects of the pandemic, with which we are all too familiar.
What I wanted to write about was the silver lining in the Covid cloud, for me anyway (and I suspect, many others around the world.) 2020 turned out to be a bumper year of reading!
I have read at least 74 books this year. This includes hard copy, e-book and audiobook formats, adults and children’s books, fiction and non-fiction. I had signed up to three reading challenges, all of which I completed with ease: Aussie Author Challenge, Non-Fiction Challenge, and Australian Women Writers Challenge.
I read books from my local library (in e-book format while lockdown restrictions were in place); books gifted to me; books I reviewed for publishers; and books chosen for the book group I belong to.
My congratulations and thanks to the wonderful, talented authors, editors, publishers, illustrators, book designers, and booksellers who managed to keep the writing and reading show on the road during a tumultuous year. All of which brought great joy and solace to readers such as myself.
Let’s all look forward to more fabulous literary treats (and I hope, I better year in every respect) in 2021.
It was fitting that my final book review in 2020 is for a book whose publication I’ve anticipated for over a year, since I heard Kate Forsyth speak about her 4x Great-Grandmother Charlotte at a women’s literary festival in 2019. A little later, I was lucky enough to see a copy of Charlotte’s book at a Rare Book Week event at the State Library of NSW.
I was so keen I pre-ordered a copy and it was sitting on my shelf for a bit, while I got through some other books on my to-be-read pile.
The story of Charlotte Waring Atkinson had attracted me for several reasons. Firstly, there was a literary mystery: who was the author of the very first children’s book published in Australia? – until 1981 when Charlotte was identified as the author.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly to me personally, I related to the story of this woman who arrived in New South Wales in the 1820’s, and to the search by the authors (sisters Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell) for information about her origins and her life.
Her arrival in Australia occurred at around the same time as that of several of my ancestors, some of whom I have been researching and writing about. Charlotte’s first husband originally hailed from the English county of Kent, from where my great-grandfather (many times over) originated.
Later in life, Charlotte and her daughter lived for a time at Kurrajong, very close to where I grew up in the tiny hamlet of Bilpin, just a few kilometres along the Bells Line of Road in the Blue Mountains.
Also, Charlotte lived so many of the experiences of women in the nineteenth century: an extraordinary and dangerous journey across the seas to an unknown land; pregnancy and childbirth at a time when both of these meant death for so many women; violence at the hands of men; great love and happiness, at least for a time; love for and dedication to her children; horrifying inequities under the law including in financial and family matters.
In tracing Charlotte’s story, the authors bring to life these aspects of women’s lives – some of which have, thankfully, changed; while others appear remarkably similar today.
This book is more than a biography of an accomplished colonial writer, artist, naturalist. It is also a memoir of the authors’ own journeys of discovery – about themselves, their families, their connections to the past. Here is a beautiful quote which perfectly expresses how I feel about the links between the past and present:
On her wrist, my mother wears the charm bracelet that has been handed down to the women of my family for six generations. The golden links of its chain, hung with tiny tinkling charms, seems to me like a metaphor for the miraculous spiral of our DNA, the coiling ladder that connects us all, both to our far-distant ancestors and to our unborn descendants.Searching for Charlotte p274
I appreciated that the authors did not shrink from acknowledging some of the more difficult aspects of their ancestors’ lives, including the fact that by settling on NSW land, they participated in the dispossession of the First Nations peoples who lived there. I, too, have to accept that about my own ancestors, many of whom were recipients of ‘land grants’ made to them by a colonial system that had no right to do so.
Charlotte Waring Atkinson was an extraordinary woman, although she was probably not regarded as such by her contemporaries. And here again I resonate with her story, because my exploration of my forebears comes from the impulse to uncover the extraordinary aspects of ordinary lives:
Charlotte Waring Atkinson was just an ordinary woman. She loved a man and gave birth to children, then tried her best to raise them and care for them, even though she was ground down by grief and harmed in both body and spirit by cruelty and violence. She fought for her children, she found her voice, and she stood up and spoke out at a time when many women were kept mute.Searching for Charlotte p275
This is a delightful book, proof indeed that the descendents of one of Australia’s first female authors have ‘writing in their blood.’ If you are interested in colonial Australian history, women’s history, literary, legal, scientific and educational history….get your hands on a copy! I promise you will not be disappointed.
Searching for Charlotte was published by NLA Publishing in 2020
I was drawn to this book by one of its themes – breast cancer and the effects of this disease on a person’s body and mind. Having myself had double mastectomy, chemotherapy and breast reconstruction, and read a lot of memoir and other non-fiction about breast cancer, it struck me as unusual to find a work of contemporary fiction about these experiences. I was right about this being an unusual novel, in more ways than I’d expected.
The first pages plunge readers straight into the sea, where the narrator is an octopus, and the lyrical prose conjures the movements of water, seaweed, moonlight, air currents:
I feel the surface sink and I feel I see moonlight with my skin and it is caught up in the eddies that bubble and swirl about my arms that curl and unfurl and the moonlight envelopes me caressing my arms as they caress the kelpy floor the kelpy shore.The Octopus and I p21 (ebook version)
In this opening we learn that the octopus meets a human woman in the sea. From here the author introduces us to that woman, the protagonist Lucy, who is knitting… breasts.
So, a unusual opening.
The breasts, we discover, are prosthetic ones, because Lucy has had her natural breasts removed in surgery for breast cancer. Her psychologist suggests this knitting exercise to help Lucy work through her feelings about her new body and lack of breasts. And the link with the octopus? Well, that soon becomes clear as well.
I can’t begin to describe the plot of this novel because it would be a spoiler for anyone who has not read it. I will say that it maintains its unusual style throughout, varying straight narrative about human characters with a more stream of consciousness style, when the author is describing experiences as they might be felt by animal characters: the octopuses, of course, but also seals and birds.
Through these sections, she explores the impact of humans on the environment, at a micro level as well as bigger picture issues. We inhabit the bodies of animals and birds for just a moment and ‘see’ their world as they perhaps do.
For me, the sections focussing on the human characters worked best, perhaps because of my own interest in the exploration of how people respond to cancer. This includes both the person with cancer but also, acquaintances and people close to her. Ms Hortle does this well:
It was all avoidance and eggshells before, when all I had were scars and a bald head. And clearer still was the fact that it wasn’t so much the word remission but the fake breasts that relaxed everyone in my presence. That flick of the eyes, from my face to my chest, and I could see – almost feel – their shoulders soften, their exhale. It was if when my breasts entered the room, the elephant that was my cancer exited via the other door.The Octopus and I pp73-74 (ebook version)
The novel is set in the coastal region of south-east Tasmania and I also enjoyed how the setting becomes a big part of the story.
This novel will be of interest to people who enjoy a challenge in their reading, those who like a book to explore individual dilemmas and losses, and those who like fiction that asks questions about environmental issues we face today. The Octopus and I weaves all three into an unashamedly Australian story that will leave you thinking.
The Octopus and I was published by Allen and Unwin in 2020.
Rebecca moves to Shipwreck Bay to take up the position of postmistress in the small coastal town. She is nursing a secret after the end of her relationship with a well-known politician and she dreads being exposed as his mistress. What she finds is that Shipwreck Bay has several secrets of its own.
Her plan to hide away from the controversy surrounding her former life turns out to be far more difficult than she imagined. To begin with, Rebecca is not the sort of women who blends in easily – her fashionable clothes, striking looks and style stand out against the blandness of the town and its inhabitants.
Rebecca needs to tread carefully, to navigate between her need to keep on the right side of the community and her need to avoid unwanted attention.
Her arrival sets tongues wagging. Women are suspicious of her – she is in her thirties, beautiful and not married (more unusual in 1950’s Australia than now) – and men ogle her shamelessly, including the married ones. The town and its citizens are portrayed in less than complimentary ways, with all the prejudices and small-town attitudes proving stifling to Rebecca’s creative spirit, and the hypocrisy and double standards of that era posing real threats, should her past be discovered:
She was living two parallel lives – one as a postmistress gradually finding her place in the town, and another as a hunted animal that was about to be destroyed by the beast of the press.
‘Unique and different are fine for men!’ she said. ‘When you live your lives how you want to, people applaud you. It’s not like that for women. We are crucified for doing as we please.’The Mystery Woman p128 & 282
The secrets beneath Shipwreck Bay’s placid surface pose other kinds of dangers: here the author touches on issues of domestic violence, sexual harassment and the abuse of vulnerable people. Environmental issues are also woven into the novel, as Shipwreck Bay’s economy is heavily dependent on the brutal whaling industry (which continued in Australia up until the 1970’s, seriously depleting whale numbers on their migratory routes.)
I found Rebecca, and most of the characters of Shipwreck Bay, not very likeable. Having grown up in a very small country village myself, I can recognise the pettiness and love of gossip that often characterise small communities. What I remember most, though, are the many everyday kindnesses and genuine community spirit of the place.
Of course, The Mystery Woman is at heart a crime novel, so the peculiarities of a small town and its people feel malevolent when viewed through this lens. Even the beauty of the seascape is foreboding for Rebecca.
She is a woman who has made poor choices in the past and is left second guessing her every move. Will she make yet another mistake now, when the outcome could be so much more dangerous?
The Mystery Woman is a novel of gothic drama: a passionate heroine, with secrets to protect and a beautiful setting with secrets of its own; danger; and redemption. It explores themes that are no less relevant today than they were in the Australia of the 1950’s.
The Mystery Woman is published by HarperCollins in September 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
I had to consider the question of whether these books (no’s 1 & 2 in the Self Help for Babies series by husband and wife team Beck and Matt Stanton) were written for babies or adults. The answer, I’m certain, is both. A bit like the Shrek movies, these are humorous messages of support for stressed-out parents, cleverly disguised as short, read-aloud stories for the very young.
Other titles to follow in the series help to prove my point: Dummies for Suckers, One Ingredient Cookbook (for infants still breast or bottle feeding, I assume), and Baby Goes to Market. The first books explore two of the frustrations that parents of a baby will experience day to day: the challenges of getting an infant to sleep, and how to interpret your new baby’s cries.
Illustrated with very simple line drawings that manage to capture real life scenarios every new parent will recognise, they are tongue-in-cheek reassurance to hollow-eyed, exhausted parents wondering ‘Is it just me? Am I a terrible parent? Why won’t my baby sleep? What am I doing wrong?’
Here’s an example, from Whine Guide (Find your voice and start sweating the small stuff):
Each double page spread then analyses, in a simple sentence, the various permutations of a baby’s cry, grizzle, whine or full-throated bellow, and pairs each one with the appropriate life occasion. For example:
‘The bubbly. An open-mouthed, gassy whine, requiring attention.
Best served with bicycle legs and a tummy massage.’
You get the idea. It’s a delight; something that could be read aloud to a baby while giving a wrung-out parent a much-needed chuckle.
These first two in the Self-Help for Babies series are published by HarperCollins and ABC Books in September 2020, with more available for pre-order.
My thanks to HarperCollins Children’s Books for copies to review.
I may have only two things in common with the author of this memoir: we are both women, and have both experienced grief and trauma in our lives. I can think of a long list of ways in which we are different: family background, political views, life experiences. So it’s perhaps not too surprising that for much of the time while reading A Particular Woman I felt a certain alienation from its author – or at least, from her representation of herself. Having said that, the book is an interesting read, partly because it’s a journey through Australian life in the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s and up to the present time.
I’ll start with the blurb on the back cover:
Embracing the excitement and turbulence of sixties Sydney, Ashley is set to make her mark amid uni classes filled with ambitious young males. She imagines her future with a successful career, husband, and a house full of children.
But life is never quite that easy.
As a university graduate with a degree in economics (unusual for a woman at that time) Ashley travels to London and Canada, marries, and lives with her new husband as an expat in the Philippines, Singapore, Nigeria and Argentina. Later, as a single parent, she supports her young children through work as a model; eventually find love and security and a country lifestyle, before venturing into a role in the arts world as a member of various boards. Throughout the years she comes up against tragedy, hardship and profound grief.
I admit to a certain amount of distaste for aspects of her life, or at least for the way she describes them. She recounts jobs with a large tobacco company with no apparent reflection on the evils of this industry. Similarly, her descriptions of her life as an expat in countries with high levels of poverty hint at a limited awareness of the position of relative privilege held by monied, white youngsters in countries previously colonised and often pillaged by the West. Several interactions between various friends and some local people struck me as shameful, but are recounted by the author with no apology or reflection.
Dawson-Damer seemed to move through the world as a young, blonde, beautiful woman with an apparent line up of men ogling her and wanting to take her to bed. I found this uncomfortable reading.
However, I decided to regard this memoir as a first hand account of the times in which she lived. Australia, as with much of the world, was undergoing a period of great change; upheavals as economies and societies transitioned from the post-war era to a modern day understanding of issues like imperialism, racism, and sexism. As an example: while completing her economics degree, it was still the custom to hold a ‘Miss Economics’ competition in the faculty! And as the author puts it:
Work was opening up for me, and yet women in the workplace had to be careful. We knew not to catch lifts alone with certain men; there’s no denying it, in those days we were fair game.A Particular Woman p36
Dawson-Damer’s life did not play out as expected. She was to endure loss and hardship and several transformations of her own life before reaching a place of acceptance and stability. I warmed to her more as she recounted these difficult times and the way she dealt with them. I could admire her hard work, tenacity and commitment to whatever challenges she set herself. Her philosophy is best summed up in these words:
We must celebrate life. Not just our own, but the life we have with others. Most of us are going to have difficult times dished up to us. The awful times are balanced out by the good times. If we are lucky, we will survive the tragedies that might occur and go on to be stronger…Suffering mellows us. It makes us humbler and wiser. It adds steel melded with compassion to our strength.A Particular Woman p235
The book is illustrated with a collection of photographs from different times in her life. I would have enjoyed knowing more about the people and places in some of these, but they were a welcome addition, helping to bring her story alive.
A Particular Woman is a story of resilience against a backdrop of a changing Australia, and would hold plenty to interest readers who enjoy first-hand accounts of interesting lives such as
A Particular Woman will be published in July 2020 by Ventura Press.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.