• 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.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    World Between Blinks #2: ‘Rebellion of the Lost’ by Amie Kaufman & Ryan Graudin

    Yes! Another instalment in the World Between Blinks, what I hope will become a long series for middle-grade readers. I loved Book 1 (here’s my review) so this sequel was very welcome.

    Book 2 continues the magical, sometimes chaotic, occasionally scary but always fun world of the Lost. Every item, person, geographical feature and building in the world that has been ‘lost’ to history, ends up in this world. The problem is that the Administrator, in charge of the team of Curators who log and document all the comings and goings of things, has decided it is all way too chaotic for his liking.

    So, he implements strict new controls designed to restore order. The unintended consequences of these rules are separated families, bored inhabitants, and a sterile, humourless World. Enter the rebels: all those who want to see their World returned to the creative, beautiful place it had been.

    Cousins Marisol and Jake, along with Marisol’s older, teenaged brother Victor, are drawn back to try to assist the rebels. What follows is a rollicking adventure with some fearful moments, new friendships and old ones rediscovered.

    On the way, Marisol and Victor learn some new things about each other and get to see their sibling in a new light. This insight stretches to others in the World: a beautiful metaphor for how, if we only stop to look, we can realise that people are not all ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – even individuals like the Administrator has an inner life that guides what he does, even if somewhat misguidedly.

    ‘That’s the thing the Administrator doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to understand. Put everyone back in their zones, and they’ll be exactly the same forever. But everything changes. I’m not the same person I was back home. I used to think some things, say some things that – well, I’ve learned a lot. That’s what happens when you’re always exploring. You learn new lessons.’

    Rebellion of the Lost p139

    The Administrator has the power to ‘flip’ the hourglasses of every person in the World, thus erasing their memories. The process and its result is rather like an accelerated version of what happens to a person who suffers from a dementia illness such as Alzheimer’s. This could be a good analogy to explain what that disease is, for youngsters who have a family member diagnosed with it.

    On a personal note, I was intrigued that the ‘lost mountain tops’ in the World includes Mt St Helens, the volcano in America’s Washington State that literally blew off its peak in 1980. I’d spent a year in Washington State in 1979 and was very familiar with how that particular mountain top had looked before it became ‘lost.’

    I’m looking forward to Book 3 in the World Between Blinks series!

    The World Between Blinks: Rebellion of the Lost is published by Harper Collins in February 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Colonial women: ‘No Hearts of Gold’ by Jackie French

    Some girls are born to be loved,
    Some are born to be useful,
    And some are born to be bad…

    No Hearts of Gold

    The strapline of Jackie French’s new historical fiction sums it up: not all colonial women in Australia were wives, mothers, convicts, or servants.

    No Hearts of Gold is about three very different women: one from aristocratic English society; one of a sturdy business-minded nature; and one from a self-made-gone-bust family. They are brought together on a voyage from England to the colony in the 1850’s; the beginning of a complex but staunch friendship against all odds.

    What they find in the booming, bustling, troubled colony defies their own expectations.

    The three women embark on lives very different from the ones they may have envisaged for themselves, back in England.

    Kat, daughter of a fond father whose fortune disappeared with the bust of railway shares that had created it in the first place, makes the quick marriage arranged for her by an aunt. While such a fast marriage seems improbable, they were surprisingly common at all levels of society then, especially in far-flung outposts like Sydney. Marriage offered protection, financial support and a chance to leave the past behind.

    Titania launches a business provisioning the ships leaving the wharves, profiting from her acumen and hard work, but dispensing kindness and help to others where she can.

    Wealthy, loving Viola lives with her guardian, Cousin Lionel, in the lavish house funded by her own inheritance.

    It’s difficult to say much more about the plot while avoiding spoilers. So I will instead focus on the issues and themes canvassed in the novel.

    The Gold Rushes play a major role in the plot line and set the scene for some of the drama. But the focus is also on the destructive nature of these crazy events: on families, on homes and businesses that overnight lost fathers, husbands, workers. And especially, on the fragile environment of this land.

    … the vegetable gardens, the fruit crop, the supplies in their storeroom were a treasure now – a treasure that could keep you alive, when specks of gold could not, and envied by men who had forgotten laws and rules, even if they had once obeyed them. There was no one they could ask for help…

    No Hearts of Gold p177

    Women’s lack of ownership over their wealth, possessions, future and even their children, and the control wielded by men, is another important current running through the novel. As is the ways in which many women, including our three protagonists, defied the systems and conventions that kept these inequities in place.

    An unexpected twist turns the story into a mystery involving a possible murder, a bushranger and a police detective.

    The novel packs in all this and more: but I think, at its heart is the precious nature of enduring friendships between women.

    Viola closed her eyes in sudden, deep pleasure. A friend one could say anything to. A friend who took you seriously, and not as a child, or one who must live up to the concept of ‘lady’.

    No Hearts of Gold p171

    No Hearts of Gold is another beauty of a Jackie French novel: a gripping mystery, a rollicking yarn, and an elegy to women’s strength and courage in a society that discouraged both.

    No Hearts of Gold is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of Harper Collins Punishers, in December 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Words & numbers for sharp-eyed youngsters: ‘Mrs Koala’s Beauty Parlour’ by Catherine Jinks and Tania McCartney

    Mrs Koala’s beauty parlour is so busy, with a succession of alliterative critters lining up to receive the feel-good ministrations of a skilled beauty therapist.

    Each double page spread features different services offered by Mrs Koala, with fun for little ones who can join in the countdown, alliterative text and searching for the beauty parlour key, cleverly hidden in each scene.

    There are 10 fancy frogs getting facials, 9 pampered porcupines getting perms, 8 trendy tigers getting trims, and so on, right down to 1 ‘kaput koala’ on the final page – Mrs Koala is tired after all that work!

    The attractive colour illustrations by Tania McCartney invite close examination of each busy scene – and of course little ones will love to find the key on each page.

    This is a sweet book that simply begs to be read aloud and I’m sure will be a favourite at story time.

    Mrs Koala’s Beauty Parlour is published by Working Title Press (an imprint of Harper Collins Children’s Books in February 2022.

    My thanks to the publishers 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.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Balm for the soul ‘A Hundred Thousand Welcomes’ by Mary Lee Donovan and Lian Cho

    This gorgeous, gorgeous book is balm for the soul. The author says that This particular river of ink is my love song to our shared humanity and it is my protest against intolerance, injustice, and inhumanity. The creator of the beautiful, colourful illustrations says We fear what we do not know, and I hope that through these pages, readers will learn more about cultures and families and rituals different from their own.

    These comments sum up what the book does: by presenting some of the many ways in which humans can express welcome and care for others, it shows us the things we have in common: food, families, friends, fun and language.

    There are thirteen languages featured (along with helpful pronunciation guides) including Mandarin, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu, and Lakota Sioux.

    The double page spread at the end completes the book with a Gaelic blessing:

    May you never know hunger
    May peace fill your nights
    May your children’s children grow strong in the light.
    May the road rise to meet you,
    and walls fall away.
    A hundred thousand welcomes
    I sing,
    I sign,
    I pray.

    A Hundred Thousand Welcomes

    A Hundred Thousand Blessings is truly balm for the soul and belongs in every public and school library!
    It is published by GreenWillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books, in 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Dust bowl and Depression: ‘The Four Winds’ by Kristin Hannah

    I was in my twenties when I read John Steinbeck’s classic novel about the experiences of ‘Okies’, the derogatory name given to migrants from the US Great Plains states who, in their thousands, went west to California during the 1930’s. They did so in an attempt to escape the shocking dust storms, drought and poverty that ruined so many farms and livelihoods, hoping to find work picking Californian cotton and fruit. After reading The Four Winds, I am moved to want to re-read Steinbeck’s book, because there is so much human drama, endurance and tragedy in these stories.

    The Four Winds begins in the Texas Panhandle, where Elsa Martinelli is an unloved and isolated young woman in a well-to-do business family. Her longing for love leads her to an encounter with Rafe Martinelli, son of Italian immigrants who have made Texas their home. Pregnancy follows, resulting in expulsion from her family, and Elsa marries Rafe and goes to live with the Martinelli family on their farm. She earns a place in the family and fully adopts the life of a farmer, wife and mother; she has finally found a home.

    Then come the effects of years of drought: dead crops, heat and shocking dust storms that blight the land. Combined with the Depression, the result is that thousands of farmers and local businesses lose their ability to make a living and feed their families. After Rafe deserts them, and her son becomes seriously ill, Elsa makes the hard decision to join the throngs of desperate people travelling to California, lured by the promise of work in a ‘milk and honey’ land.

    Of course, the reality is very different and if anything, the hardships and injustices faced by Elsa and her two young children are even worse than those they left behind.

    The story takes in the efforts of unions and Communist party members fighting for workers’ rights, especially for the ‘Okies’ who face discrimination and abuse by big farming concerns. Elsa is a woman with little agency over her own life, but for the sake of her children’s future, she puts herself in the path of danger, great risk and tragedy.

    The descriptions of the dust storms are truly terrifying, and the despair felt by those affected leaps from the pages. So does the independence and self-reliance of the American farmer at that time: proud to work the land and reluctant to accept government help of any kind. There is irony, too: the methods used by those farmers led to the degradation of the land which, when combined with drought, resulted in an ecological disaster that even then was seen as such by the federal government.

    Elsa now knew how Tony had felt when his land had died. There was a deep and abiding shame that came with asking for handouts.
    Poverty was a soul-crushing thing. A cave that tightened around you, its pinprick of light closing a little more at the end of each desperate, unchanged day.

    The Four Winds p280

    The romance in the latter part of the novel did not work so well for me; overall though, The Four Winds brings to life a tragic period in American history and highlights the resilience and courage of the many people affected by the environmental and economic tragedies that played out in the 1930’s.

    The Four Winds was published by MacMillan in 2021.

  • 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.