A meander through love: ‘My Year of Living Vulnerably’ by Rick Morton
A follow up of sorts to Rick Morton’s earlier work One Hundred Years of Dirt, this book is a purposeful meander through life and what happened when he decided to allow love – in all its forms – into his life: to feel it, express it, talk about it. It’s not just about ‘romantic love’; the book touches on many things about the world, about living and being human, that he marvels at, has been touched by, or considers essential to life.
It’s a very personal book. Childhood trauma that changed him and his family forever are a constant backdrop, and he explores how the effects of this has lingered and how he set about to get better (not cured or fixed, just better.)
The topics traversed include touch, forgiveness, wonder, beauty, toxic gender norms, aloneness and loneliness, kindness and doubt. I was reminded, at times, of Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence, which similarly discusses some of the things that make life worth living and give meaning.
There is great beauty in the prose, verging on poetic at times, and also laughter-inducing moments, such as the hilarious description of cephalopods.
If you enjoy a book that invites you to think, and that remains with you long after you have read the final page, this would be a good one to add to your ‘TBR’ list. I’m now going to search out a copy of One Hundred Years of Dirt, wanting more of the Morton brand of philosophy, observation and wry humour.
My Year of Living Vulnerably was published by Fourth Estate in 2021.
Yearning for equality: ‘Pastel Pink’ by Nikki Minty
A new fantasy series for teen readers by Australian Nikki Minty introduces a remarkable new world, while incorporating the everyday preoccupations of teenagers everywhere.
The first in the Zadok series, Pastel Pink is set on one of the four worlds on the Zadok planet. Each of the four races occupies their own part of the planet, speaks a different language, and has wildly different skin, hair and eye colouring. ‘Winter’ is the land of the Zeeks, where colour is like a strict caste system, from the upper level of the Purples, through Magenta, and to the lowest strata, the Pastel pinks.
Harlow is a Pastel, trying to get through life with all the disadvantages of her colour in a society that regards her kind as weak and useful only for the most mundane of work.
She has an added distraction: she moves between her Zeek home and persona, and her knowledge that she was once a human girl on Earth called Ruby. She is tormented by memories of having been murdered by Lucas, and her visions that show Lucas befriending her Earth twin sister – and there is nothing she can do to warn her or to stop him.
In between all of this, she is injured by a ferocious Zadok creature, befriended by Jax, the son of the Purple Commander, ignored by her opportunistic Zadok father, and detested by her Zadok twin sister. Life is complicated – on both worlds.
I enjoyed the world building in this novel, with its recognizable yet different environments, animals, customs and behaviours.
The cast of characters is numerous and complex, and because the action and point of view switches between Harlow and Ruby, and sometimes other characters as well, it did take me a while to get my head around them all.
At its core, this story is a plea for equality. The disdain and outright abuse that Pastels suffer because of their so-called inferior colour makes human discrimination based on skin colour appear as ridiculous as Zadok’s. There are echoes of human far-right fascist beliefs echoed in the Zadok caste system:
Being born a Pastel from two Magenta parents was unheard of until I came along. Lucky me. Purples produce Purples, Magentas produce Magentas, and Pastels produce Pastels. To date a Zeek outside of your colour status is a punishable offence, enforced by Purples. They want their superior bloodlines to remain pure.Pastel Pink, eBook location 25
Pastel Pink will be enjoyed by teenage readers who enjoy fantasy with recognisable and relatable themes and characters. This is the first in the series, so fans can look forward to reading about the other worlds on Zadok.
Pastel Pink was published in 2021; my thanks to the author for an eBook version.
What connects us: ‘One Illumined Thread’ by Sally Colin-James
A triumph of a debut novel, Australian author Sally Colin-James has created a beautiful story that travels between three different time periods, celebrating the things that connect us across centuries.
The beautiful lyrical prose had me captivated from the first chapters, where there are hints of psychological trauma and great loss, but also plunged me into the past with the scents and tastes of the modern-day protagonist combined with those of the past.
We travel back and forth in time and place, from ancient Judea to Renaissance Florence, to Adelaide in the current period.
This is a novel for anyone who is enchanted by the spell that can be cast by an item, work of art, or moment from the past.
The author’s note explains how a Renaissance painting she viewed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence sparked the idea that later became this book. She has woven a story connecting that painting with a black glass artefact from the ancient world and to an embroidery being restored by a textile conservator.
It’s a complex novel, perhaps slightly on the slow side for those who like their fiction fast paced, but well worth persevering with. There is fascinating detail about the different worlds and times the characters inhabit, and the processes used to create things of beauty and meaning.
Ultimately the novel is a hymn of praise to the act of creation in all its forms:
How can I dare say that this work too is sacred, like grinding grain or baking? This is tsar. The act of creating. Of transforming one thing into another with simple breath. An act that might be called sinful should I express the elation it brings, how it makes my heart dance like the flickering fire that transforms grit into glass.One Illumined Thread p96
Through the three main characters’ lives, we see how women’s existence is so often defined by service to others and by their fertility – or lack of – even in the present day. And the author shows how consolation and joy may be found in creative acts, no matter how small or large, fleeting or enduring. Beauty from the past continues to bring us pleasure and wonder, centuries later. This is why creativity matters to humankind as well as to the person who expresses their essential self through it:
The line twists and coils and catches the light. I trace around it with my finger. Not a rope to hold onto, but a single bright stitch holding pieces together. Fragments of the past held in place by the present. Connected by one illumined thread.One Illumined Thread p321
One Illumined Thread is a complex, beautiful novel about connections between women and between the past and the present.
It is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Practical advice: ‘Before Dementia’ by Dr Kate Gregorevic
Dementia hit the headlines this week, having achieved the dubious honour of becoming the biggest cause of death in Australia, surpassing heart disease. This guide to what we can do to prevent, prepare, cope and understand the illness is very timely.
Dr Kate Gregorevic is a geriatrician who works at a Melbourne hospital, and the book is peppered with real life anecdotes from her research and practice.
Twenty questions frame the book’s structure and content, including:
What is dementia and are you at risk?
What are the symptoms?
What causes Alzheimer’s?
What is life like for a person living with dementia?
Do people with dementia have the capacity to make decisions?
Can improving diet help to avoid dementia?
How do we live well with dementia?
Most people have been touched by dementia in some way: we have a loved one who lives with the disease, or we know a workmate, neighbour or friend who has been diagnosed, or who cares for someone who has been. So, these very practical questions and the wealth of information included are welcome and useful guides to the illness and what we can expect as it progresses.
There were sections that resonated strongly with me after watching my mother’s decline with the condition. For example, the insidious way it often begins, creeping up slowly at first, often confused with ‘normal’ age-related memory loss:
The onset of dementia is so insidious that it often takes something really obvious, an example of memory loss that is so stark, so unforgiving, that it is impossible to look away. This is often when the reframing begins, when all the little things that were so small in themselves start to coalesce.Before Dementia pp23-24
Other points that especially resonated with me because of my own experience included the nature and role of delirium, the phenomena known as ‘sundowning’, the creation of false memories, and the sometimes-catastrophic effect of hospital admissions,
There is a fair bit of technical information in the chapters to do with the causes and types of dementia. I admit I glazed over a little here. However, I appreciated the author’s desire to translate the latest thinking and discoveries in what is still a contested field, into language that can be read by a non-medical person.
Ethical challenges are presented openly, and it is up to each reader to decide where they stand on issues such as the capacity of a person with dementia to make decisions about their future care and living arrangements, consent for sexual activity, the right to autonomy and independence. A point that strikes me as a tricky but interesting one, is what Dr Kate terms the ‘dignity of risk’:
Living well with dementia means accepting the dignity of risk. Many people with dementia will be able to live independent lives, but they may not be perfectly safe.Before Dementia p295
I appreciated the plea made in this book for adequate funding for aged care services, for recognition of the disadvantages faced in all areas of life by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, and for the value of putting into place as many protective measures as possible as early as possible: improved diet, regular exercise, giving up smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, social and cognitive activity.
If I were a patient or a family member, and lucky enough to be a patient of Dr Kate, I am sure that I would value her humanist and person-centred approach to living well with dementia.
While I’m certain that most of us would much prefer NOT to have to think about this disease, and just hope that we or our loved ones won’t ever have to deal with it, I can highly recommend this book. It tackles a difficult subject in a helpful, practical way that removes the ‘overwhelm’ and allows the reader to learn from the experts.
Before Dementia is published by HarperCollins in February 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
After the gold rushes: ‘The Homecoming’ by Alison Stuart
In her new book, Aussie author Alison Stuart once again demonstrates her deep knowledge and love for the parts of Victoria that were the scene of frenzied gold rushes in the mid 1800’s.
The Homecoming is the third novel set in fictional Maiden’s Creek. The first two were The Postmistress and The Goldminer’s Sister.
This new story is set two decades after the last in the 1890’s, when the gold seams around the township are mostly exhausted. Residents needed to find new ways of making a living. The protagonists are two characters from the earlier novels: Charlotte (Charlie) O’Reilly and Danny Hunt. No longer children, they are brought back to Maiden’s Creek after years spent developing careers elsewhere: Charlie as a nurse and Danny a lawyer.
Both are dealing with the legacies of difficult circumstances from their childhoods and have returned to the town for different reasons.
While working as Matron of the small cottage hospital, Charlie is embroiled in a series of events that bring escalating danger to her and to others. Danny is dodging an enemy from his past who is intent on doing him harm. Then the town is engulfed by a dangerous flood which threatens everyone.
In the midst of all this, the pair find themselves increasingly pulled towards each other.
I took a while to get fully involved in this novel, perhaps because I had read The Goldminer’s Sister in 2020 and my memory had to work hard to recall the characters and events from that story. Having said that, The Homecoming would also make a satisfying stand-alone read without reference to the earlier books. There is mystery, romance and some terrific characters; all of which add up to a great addition to Australian historical fiction shelves.
The Homecoming is published by HQ Fiction in January 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Delightful take on 40’s noir: ‘The Woman Who Knew Too Little’ by Olivia Wearne
This is an account – with a twist – of the discovery and subsequent investigation of the ‘Somerton Man’ affair: one of the longest running unsolved mysteries in Australian history. In this re-telling of the events, it is a woman who narrates the story.
In 1948, the body of a man is found dead at Somerton, an Adelaide beach. He is dressed well in a nice suit and good shoes – with all the clothing labels removed. He has no wallet or any possessions to identify him, and he is found sitting on the sand against the sea wall.
He is first seen by Kitty Wheeler, a member of ‘Women Police’, tasked with patrolling streets and beaches in what is essentially a social welfare role. She and her partner spot the man but mistake his stillness for drunken sleep, and they decide to let the fellow sleep it off.
When the mystery of the unknown man takes over the city’s police and newspapers, Kitty regrets the missed opportunity to be part of the investigation of the year, if not the decade.
The setting of a novel about a female police constable against the backdrop of a famous mystery allows Olivia Wearne to examine the mores and values of the time. Kitty loves her work, despite the frustrating restrictions imposed on women, who are relegated to the so-called ‘soft’ issues of brothels, child welfare, domestic violence, vagrancy. Rarely allowed to be a part of an actual investigation, she still manages to inveigle herself into key aspects of the Somerton Man case, but she needs persistence and occasionally, impertinence, to be even heard by the ‘real’ police – the male detectives – handling the case.
She also has family issues to contend with, and a loyal and loving fiancé who is eager for her to tie the knot – which Kitty knows would be the end of her policing career. As the days go by, she becomes more and more obsessed with the Somerton Man investigation, consumed by the need to know who he was.
This is very much a character driven novel, with a cast of personalities who come to life in the pages. The pacing was a little slow for me at times, but this was more than compensated by the brilliant use of clever language and descriptive writing. There is witty dialogue as Kitty (at times an ascerbic, prickly sort) engages with her colleagues, members of the public and family, capturing workplace and family dynamics brilliantly. The author makes inventive use of simile and metaphor that gave me some laugh-out-loud moments:
Almost every passenger on the trolley held a newspaper up to their faces. MISSING FATHER AND SON FOUND IN MACABRE DISCOVERY. When the car pitched and swayed the commuters moved with it, like some jolly choreographed performance. Under cover of newsprint, they were feasting on the story, gorging on the Mangnosons’ misfortune.The Woman Who Knew Too Little pp220 &367
Peter let his head sink between his stooped shoulders. A forlorn droop, like a houseplant desperate for water. His torso rose and fell as he heaved in resignation. He hauled himself onto his feet, leaving his head hanging, and addressed his leather boots, whose untied laces appeared to be slithering away from him: ‘I think we need some time apart.’
The delightful cover and title advertise the book’s intent perfectly: take a well-known and long-lasting mystery from the 1940’s, marry it with tropes from classic noir novels and film, then mix it in with delicious irony and wickedly observant swipes and the hypocrisies of the time.
The Woman Who Knew Too Little is published by HQ Fiction in February 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Holiday nightmare: ‘Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six’ by Lisa Unger
A Google search for this novel showed just how well author Lisa Unger nailed its title. I found as many listings for actual holiday rentals as ones for the book itself.
This book might make you reconsider the advantages of ‘seclusion’ and ‘luxury’ when choosing your next Airbnb rental. In a similar vein to Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers, the novel centres around three young American couples meeting up at a luxury retreat. The rental host is not quite as weird as Masha at Moriarty’s Tranquillium… though Bracken is pretty weird now I think about it.
There is Mako, uber-wealthy self-made businessman and his beautiful wife Liza; Mako’s sister Hannah and her husband Bruce; and Hannah’s best friend and Mako’s high school sweetheart, Cricket, with her new boyfriend Josh.
Each of the individuals have secrets and concerns they are hiding from the others. And each couple has its own issues needing resolution. These are gradually revealed throughout the novel by chapters with alternating points of view.
And there are two additional characters: Henry and Trina, whose role in the drama is initially unclear but who are integral to events as they play out.
This is a modern-day twisty psychological thriller which will keep you guessing as the characters, and their mistakes and problems, emerge from the pages. It is a perfect summer read.
Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six was published by HQ Fiction in November 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Evocative: ‘The Butterfly Collector’ by Tea Cooper
On the same day in 1922 when Verity Binks loses her job at a Sydney newspaper (to make way for struggling WWI veterans), she receives a mysterious parcel in the mail. Inside is an invitation to attend the Sydney Masquerade Ball, along with a mask and costume designed to transform her into the guise of a beautiful orange and black butterfly.
She decides to accept the invitation and attend the ball when her former boss, the Editor at the Sydney Arrow, suggests that she write a profile story about the Treadwell Foundation, a charity for ‘young women in trouble’ (that is, women pregnant outside of marriage.) She hopes to meet Mr Treadwell at the Ball – and also to find out the source of her mysterious invitation and costume.
Not satisfied with the result, she travels to the little river town of Morpeth, in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, on a quest to find out more about the origins of the Treadwells and the Foundation. This is also where her beloved grandparents, Sid and Clarrie, lived in their younger days and where her father, Charlie, was born. Gradually, Verity learns that there is much more to the Treadwell story than first meets the eye. Together with Arlo, who has lived all his life in the town, she uncovers dark secrets about some of Morpeth’s past residents.
The Butterfly Collector is another of Tea Cooper’s successful dual-timeline historical mysteries. Woven in with Verity’s story is an earlier thread which relates the events of 1868 in the town of Morpeth, featuring Sid, Clarrie, Charlie and Arlo’s parents. Arlo’s mother, Theodora, is the butterfly collector of the novel’s title; a young woman fascinated by a spectacular new species of butterfly she encounters: the same orange and black of Verity’s costume.
Theodora’s and Verity’s stories are intertwined with the Treadwell’s and Verity’s investigations gradually uncover why. It’s cleverly plotted and well-paced, bringing the reader along with Verity and Theodora as they deal with the challenges and questions of their explorations.
A strength of Tea Cooper’s novels is the historical authenticity which comes from thorough research, but which never intrudes. Rather, we learn about the real-life places in past times incidentally, through vivid and evocative descriptions. I was especially drawn to this story because of its Hunter Valley setting: my father was born and grew up in West Maitland and one side of his family were early settlers around Morpeth.
Another aspect I enjoyed is that the protagonists are women with intelligence, agency and courage, not content to comply with social expectations for women at the time in which they live. They are not ‘damsels in distress’ waiting to be rescued by their hero. There is romance, but it is never the main point of Cooper’s stories.
The Butterfly Collector will be enjoyed by those who like well-researched historical fiction with a mystery to solve.
The Butterfly Collector is published by HQ Fiction in November 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Non-fiction challenge 2022: Completed – now for the 2023 Challenge!
This year my Non-fiction reading challenge goal was ‘Nipper’: I undertook to read six non-fiction books from six different listed categories.
The challenge is hosted at Book’d Out (https://bookdout.wordpress.com/2022-nonfiction-reader-challenge/)
I exceeded my goal for number of books read (ten) though fell short in the number of categories. I read four biographies, three memoir, two books on Australian history. This year I hadn’t planned my challenge reading, rather ‘nibbling’ on books of interest or ones that were part of my book group reading.
Regardless, I was pleased to incorporate non-fiction titles into my reading during the year. With reading, as with diet and exercise (and, indeed, life!) balance is a good thing.
There was one big standout book in my list this year: Tongerlongeter by Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements. If you are interested in Australian history, this one is must-read. I guarantee you will learn things about this country, and the small island of Tasmania, that you didn’t know.
Thank you to Shelleyrae for the challenge. I am signing up for the 2023 Challenge, again as a ‘Nibbler’, and I’ll try to cover a few more categories next year.
Raw honesty: ‘Cells’ by Gavin McCrea
The cells in Irish author Gavin McCrea’s memoir are the spaces in which major scenes of his life played out. There are the rooms of his childhood home, in which he grew up with his clinically depressed father, mentally ill older brother, complicated mother, and other siblings. Other spaces play their part: his schools; single rooms or shared apartments with friends or lovers in the UK, Ireland, or abroad; university campuses where he studied and worked.
The book begins in the tiny flat where Gavin moved to live with his eighty-year-old mother who was exhibiting signs of encroaching dementia. His plan was to continue his writing while providing care for his mother. Then Covid struck and Dublin, as with much of the world, was in lockdown. Living with an elderly relative with whom he had experienced a complicated relationship, closed in by four walls and dealing with the inevitable repetitious interruptions of someone with dementia: it is easy to see how the description ‘cell’ fits this space.
Then we move back in time, to a childhood dominated by the emotional distance of his exhausted father, the mental illness and drug addiction of his brother, and by the bullying Gavin experienced at school, primary and secondary. Gavin had, in early childhood, regarded himself as his mother’s favourite, her prince, but she did not protect him from the torment of his school experiences.
He explores his growing awareness of his difference, later identified as homosexuality, and the reactions of others – dismissive, abusive, or violent – to this difference. Woven through the narrative is his excavation of the complexity of the primary relationship of any child – that with their mother. He draws on Freudian and Jungian theories of dreams, relationships, emotions, and examines his own role in the events of his life with excoriating honesty.
By this point, I was already making my concrete plans to leave Ireland. I did not deny to myself or others that my planned leave-taking was anything other than the rage of rejection taken out on my surrounding environment: the place I was born, its culture and its people, especially my family, most of all my mother. My rejection, my rage, when it was not spewing over all of this, was aimed at her, or rather at the idea that this particular mother was the only one I would or could ever have.Cells p214-215
This is not a book for the faint-hearted. We, the readers, understand that the author is writing about parents, family, and lovers, as a way of revealing something about himself. He does not hold back: the rawness is at times, almost too much, leading to a sensation of voyeurism. There is the universal difficulty of choosing what to put in and what to leave out of a memoir which references people who are still living.
The writing is also infused with love, and humour, and beautiful prose about often difficult subjects. I finished this book with a greater understanding of the range of human experiences and the ways in which family relationships contribute to an individual’s life trajectory.
Cells is published in Australia by Scribe in October 2022.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.