• Books and reading,  History

    Rollicking re-telling: ‘The Good Wife of Bath’ by Karen Brooks

    In her re-telling of Geoffrey Chaucer’s well-known story within The Canterbury Tales, Australian author Karen Brooks has brought us the dry tone of a mediaeval English woman whose rags-to-riches-back-to-rags life is full of passion, love, misfortune and plain bad luck.

    The author’s extensive and meticulous research into the period makes for a warts-and-all glimpse of England in the fourteenth century, including the awfulness of life for so many women. There is the Wife’s first marriage at twelve years old to a man more than twice her age. There is poverty, plague, domestic violence and abuse. There is also humour, bawdiness and plain speaking, making for plenty of laugh-out-loud moments for the reader.

    The disrespect in which women were generally held at the time is not airbrushed out of Brook’s version, and her Good Wife demonstrates the struggle that women had to gain and retain any agency over their lives.

    Eleanor/Alyson lives out her eventful life against a backdrop of tumultuous times in England and Europe. Death of a king, battling popes, resurgences of the plague, changes in industry and the economy, are all woven skillfully into the fabric of the story, much as the Good Wife herself learns to spin and weave beautiful thread and fabric. Reflecting on her life and the family and community she has created around her, Eleanor/Alyson thinks:

    How did this happen? This marvellous workshop of colour and quality – of bonds tighter than the weave itself. I couldn’t take all the credit. It had been a combined effort… every household, every husband, had added its own ingredient – coin, wool, skills, but above all, people.

    The Good Wife of Bath p313

    Brooks explores the long-standing debate over Chaucer’s intent in writing a story that ostensibly mocked women who wish to be in control over their own lives, opting for the interpretation that it was meant as a satire. Whatever his motives, The Good Wife of Bath offers a modern-day take on his original story.

    It’s an engrossing and rollicking re-interpretation of a classical English story that will please lovers of historical fiction, especially those set in the mediaeval period.

    The Good Wife of Bath is published by HQ Fiction in July 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading

    Heartbreaking truths: ‘One Little Life’ by Naomi Hunter

    Where to begin to discuss Naomi Hunter’s debut adult novel? There is so much to unpack in this book. A published children’s picture book author, Naomi is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and a seriously problematic early family life. One Little Life is her story, in fictional form.

    I can completely understand her decision to come at the telling of her experiences as fiction. This book describes unspeakable horrors inflicted on a very small child from both family members and a neighbour. And it is detailed. Very detailed. There is no way that anyone with a brain could read this story and not feel visceral revulsion, heartbreak, and anger at what happened to her. Re-telling the events from a third-person narrator about a different little girl would be one way to cope with the remembering and telling of these events.

    I would go so far as to suggest that anyone working in the arenas of policy, funding decisions or the justice system in relation to child sexual abuse, should absolutely read this book. It is an extremely uncomfortable read. Perhaps that is what is needed to bring home the seriousness of the problem. We need to experience the vulnerability of a child who is abused by the very people she should be able to trust. We need to bear witness to the pain, both emotional and physical, that children in this situation endure. We need to care about the child at the centre of this story because she stands in for all the other children that we never hear about.

    My first reaction on beginning this book was dismayed disbelief at the level of immaturity, self absorption and incompetence exhibited by so many people in ‘Lily’s’ little life. The author makes crystal clear how the process of ‘grooming’ works – the insidious, planned way in which a trusted other sets up a child for abuse and the ways in which it is explained away and perpetuated.

    Readers will also see the damage inflicted by uncaring, ignorant or insensitive others – health care providers, family or friends – and the incredibly important contribution by those who get their response right. Believing the victims, allowing awful truths be told in their own time and their own words, offering unconditional love and constant unwavering support. This stuff matters, whether you are a therapist, a GP, or a friend.

    I am glad that the police and justice systems did work for ‘Lily’ in her time of incredible vulnerability.

    Touching on the style of the book, I found the narrative a little overdone. I think the events and emotions are themselves so powerful that they could be described in sparser, simpler language and pack an even greater punch. In stories such as this, I do think that less is more.

    I have nothing but enormous admiration for the author: for choosing to tell her story in such an honest way, for surviving, for her resolution not to be brought low by the things done to her. And her husband, who stood by her every step of the way.

    One Little Life is not an easy read. But perhaps it is a necessary one.

    One Little Life is published by Empowering Resources in 2021.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Rebellious women: ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ by Clare Wright

    One part of Australia that I especially love is the goldfields region of Victoria. Rich in history, with picturesque villages like Maldon and bustling towns like Ballarat, it has heritage and physical beauty aplenty. The legendary Eureka Stockade understandably has pride of place in the folklore of the region. So it was with interest that I began The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which won the 2014 Stella Prize and was short- and long-listed for a swag of others.

    Of course I expected it to be about the role that women played in the famous rebellion that occurred in December, 1854; to my pleasure it was about much more as well. The books paints a vivid picture of the phenomena that were the Victorian gold rushes of the mid nineteenth century, and what drew a diverse community from all over the world and all walks of life to try their luck in the chaos, hope and heartache of the goldfields.

    Unlike many other works examining this period, in this book, the women take centre stage – those who accompanied their menfolk, those who came independently, those who had children or bore babies in the mining camps, those who ran businesses, those who prospered and those who suffered.

    Also included is some of the story of the contact between gold seekers and the Wathaurung, the original inhabitants of the country around Ballarat, which was rapidly changed from ancestral homelands to pastoral land and then, almost overnight, to a frontier town.

    In this account we can clearly see the social, political, environmental, economic and emotional factors that contributed to the tinder-dry circumstances on the diggings, that needed only a spark to ignite the all-out conflict between the mining community and the colonial authorities.

    The addictive nature of gold mining, the disparity in results (creating both great wealth but also terrible poverty), the inequitable impositions of the government and police on the diggers, the brutality of life on the diggings, all built towards the sickening violence that occurred at dawn on that fateful day.

    And present and active through it all, were women. The author highlights a number who were to play key roles, but also emphasises the many other, nameless women who were there – ‘right beside {the men}, inside the Stockade, when the bullets started to fly.’

    It’s fascinating stuff, made poignant by an epilogue in which the eventual fates of the ‘main characters’ of the story are outlined – some who went on to live happy or successful lives, others dogged by tragedy or hardship.

    This book certainly made me think about the Eureka Stockade, one of Australia’s ‘foundation legends’, differently, and to see the connections between the experiences of women there and on the goldfields more generally, with later political and suffrage rights campaigns.

    {The} nuggets of evidence that women’s political citizenship was being advocated in Australia as early as 1856 are significant. They place the genesis of women’s rights activism in that gold rush community of adventurers, risk-takers, speculators and freedom fighters who struggled for the more famous civic liberties often said to be at the heart of Australia’s democratic tradition.

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka p453

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka was published by Text Publishing in 2013

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Fun new graphic novel: ‘Lightfall: The Girl and the Galdurian’ by Tim Probert

    The first in a new series of graphic novels for younger readers, Lightfall is all about Bea, who lives with her adoptive grandpa, the wise (but forgetful) Pig Wizard. On a day when Bea is in the forest collecting ingredients for Gramps’ next batch of potions, she meets Cad, a Galdurian, a race of frog-like people thought to have been extinct.

    The two strike up an unlikely friendship and Cad accompanies Bea home as he wants to ask Gramps for advice about how to find his missing people. But when they arrive at Bea’s home, Gramps is missing. He’s left a note to say that he is off an important magical errand, and Bea is not to follow him.

    What Gramps has not told Bea is that the light in the jar he has given her, along with warnings NOT to lose it, is the last light of the sun. The light of their world has been fading and an ancient force is set on extinguishing the light forever. Bea and Cad must save the jar with its precious magic flame at all costs. And they need to find Gramps.

    The story follows the setbacks and dangers they face along the way. What I enjoyed most is the friendship of two opposites: Cad is big, adventurous, optimistic and outgoing, where Bea is small and often anxious about doing the right thing or letting people down. The characters balance each other nicely and Bea must step out of her comfort zone many times on their journey.

    Graphic novels are terrific for reluctant or early readers as the text load is lighter and readers can absorb a good chunk of the story through the artwork. I can see the Lightfall series becoming a popular addition to children’s bookshelves.

    Lightfall: The Girl and the Galdurian was published by HarperAlley, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Time slip: ‘The Alchemy Thief’ by R.A. Denny

    The Alchemy Thief can best be described as a sweeping saga in which the two main characters are transported through time from 2019 to 1657. It’s Book One in the ‘Pirates and Puritans’ series. The U.S. author draws upon characters from her own family history as inspiration (something I always enjoy). The action also moves between Morocco and New England. It encompasses themes of religious faith, fanaticism and forgiveness.

    It is part modern thriller, taking in the machinations of the Islamic State as they use humans as pawns in deadly international terrorist actions; part love story; and part examination of the beginnings of the American experiment in Pilgrim communities in New England. The novel brings together two characters who under normal circumstances are unlikely to meet. Ayoub is born into the world of Islamic State, while Peri is a young woman at the beginning of her Harvard university studies.

    Their worlds and belief systems clash when the effects of a lightning storm transport them both back to the seventeenth century. They must each decide where their loyalties lie. And they must work out how to survive a strange world in which a belief in magic is widespread and pirates roam the seas.

    As the trajectories of the two characters begin to head towards each other, the danger one poses to the other is clear. The plot moves forward at a satisfying pace and there is plenty of action, as you’d expect in a novel set in what was a fairly brutal time. However, the author deftly draws parallels between the cruelties and hardships of the earlier era with the contempt for human life demonstrated by some in our own times.

    One jarring note for me was the character of Liam. I thought his motivations could have been made clearer and I was left wondering what was at the root of his seeming hatred of his parents and disregard for his fellow Americans.

    The Alchemy Thief is an interesting and energetic glimpse into American colonial history and the people who risked everything to establish those early settlements. It is also a chilling ‘what if?’ story about our modern times.

    The Alchemy Thief is published by the author in July 2021 and available on Amazon.
    My thanks to R.A. Denny for an advanced reading copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Joyous, beautiful read: ‘Still Life’ by Sarah Winman

    Have you been to Italy? I haven’t, although I did come close early on in 2020 when preliminary plans were afoot for a trip. A loved one’s uncertain health, and then of course Covid, put a stop to that.

    If you are anything like me, a book set in a place you’ve not been, can often make you long to go there. This happened when I read Heather’ Rose’s Bruny: on a recent trip to Tasmania, I made sure to include Bruny Island in the itinerary, as I’d never had the opportunity to visit before.

    Still Life is set in both Italy and England – Florence and the east end of London, to be precise. It’s a big joyous hymn to love, passion, art, beauty and family (both birth families and the families we create for ourselves). In some ways, it reminded me a little of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet: like that much loved Australian classic, Still Life sprawls across decades and follows a disparate group of people as they travel through life. And, one of the shining strengths of the novel is the way those characters are captured with apt description, humour and wonderful dialogue. Here’s a couple of examples, about Peg:

    She’d have done anything to have had a mum like Nora. Nora was all soft angles and kindness. Peg could be kind, but there wasn’t enough of it to be a regular thing with her. It was like her wage. Always ran out by Thursday.

    and:

    Peg slunk out bare legs and heels first followed by a belted midi short-sleeve dress in emerald green. Sunglasses hid the ten years older and the sun high-lighted the ten years blonder.

    Still Life pp98 & 311

    Ulysses (a young British soldier in Italy in the last years of the war) and Evelyn (an art historian in her sixties) meet by chance in Italy and talk through one night about truth, beauty and Florence. We follow both of these main characters through the decades after the war, from the wreckage and hardship of London to the great flood of 1966 in Florence and into the 1970’s, years of tumult and dissent. Ulysses has moved to live in Florence, that city at the centre of Renaissance art, and has gathered around him a close group of friends – family, really – both Italian and English. Evelyn continues her stellar career as an art historian and teacher, always remembering a maid in Florence with whom she had her first love affair at the age of twenty-one.

    I fell a little in love with these two main characters, though the novel is peopled by many others: complex, funny, three dimensional humans whose convivial dinners in a Florentine piazza had me longing to join them. And there are touches of magical realism, as well, including a Shakespeare-quoting parrot and trees that commune with humans.

    This passage encapsulates the themes of this book:

    This song’s called Angeli del fango, he said. Mud Angels.
    It was a ballad. About the young men and women who’d come to the city. About good rising out of need, about love in all its forms, about kindness and looking out for one another, and only the third verse was about art, but even that was about the paradox of meaning…

    Still Life p355

    I feel certain that Still Life will be one of my standout reads for 2021. It’s such a joyous book; rich with love of life, art, beauty and what makes humans, human.

    Still Life is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Amusing, troubling, insightful, and occasionally annoying: ‘Should We Stay or Should We Go’ by Lionel Shriver

    Lionel Shriver (US born, now based in the UK) is a controversial author. She picks up on contemporary social themes and preoccupations and interrogates them with razor sharp wit, in the process holding up a mirror that reflects modern society back to itself, mostly with less than flattering results.

    Kay Wilkinson and her husband Cyril are middle class Londoners with respected careers in the NHS – she as a nurse and he a doctor. When in their fifties, she and her husband are both appalled at the possibility that they will suffer from dementia (as both Kay’s parents did before they died), or become disabled by a stroke or another debilitating health condition. So they make a pact that when they have both turned eighty they will suicide together. In the discussion leading to this decision, Kay says:

    Everyone thinks they’re the exception. Everyone looks at what happens to old people and vows that it will never happen to them… They value quality of life. Somehow they’ll do something so their ageing will proceed with dignity... Then it turns out that, lo and behold, they’re exactly like everyone else! And they fall apart like everyone else, and finish out the miserable end of their lives like everyone else…

    Should we stay or should we go p12-13

    Okay, so some of these arguments touch on tender points for me just now. My mother is 92 and suffers from dementia and several other long term illnesses, and there have been plenty of times when my best wish for her is to close her eyes peacefully in bed and not wake again. Also, I have had discussions with friends and family about voluntary assisted dying which sounded very like another of the arguments put forward in the novel, this one by Cyril:

    You said everyone imagines they’re exceptions and they’ll surely arrange an early and merciful exit before submitting to the intolerable, And then they do submit to the intolerable. That’s because, in order to retain agency over your own end of life, you have to be willing to give up some small portion of it that’s not particularly rubbish. Otherwise, you go downhill, doctors and relatives take over, and you’re apt to lose the very part of yourself that makes judgements and takes action. We have a very narrow window in which to exercise control.

    Should we stay or should we go p30

    So, the couple seem united and sure of their decision. And then, as the book cover blurb says: they turn eighty.

    What follows is a twisting, circular, whirlwind of a time travel novel which explores and expounds on multiple final outcomes for Kay and Cyril, and indeed the whole nation and humanity more generally. The scenarios played out are by turns horrific, fanciful, eccentric, far-fetched, almost believable, idealistic or depressing. Scenes, sentences, characters appear and re-appear in different guises and surroundings as ‘sliding door moments’ take the characters one way and then another. It’s almost a grown-up ‘choose your own adventure’ story. I admit to feeling breathless a few times as I was carried away on the author’s imaginative tide of possible outcomes.

    There are plenty of darkly funny moments, and it’s hard not to admire the wicked ways in which the author has made national and global preoccupations at the time of writing – Brexit, climate change, ageing populations, the Covid19 pandemic – symbolic of so much that Kay and Cyril are grappling with.

    Should We Stay or Should We Go is a clever novel that skewers and taunts as much as it poses serious questions. There are laugh-out-loud moments but a word of warning: if you are already by nature or mood pessimistic, worried about your own future and old age, or dealing with themes of death and illness in your own life: be careful. This novel could either shake you up with a good belly laugh at its audacity, or leave you deeper in the gloom.

    Should We Stay or Should We Go is published by The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Light & deadly by turns: ‘Digging Up Dirt’ by Pamela Hart

    I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the strap line for this new novel by Australian author Pamela Hart, is a beauty:
    ‘Renovations are hell – and that’s before you find a body beneath the floorboards.’

    It neatly ties in two irresistible motifs for many readers: a who-done-it mystery and real estate / renovations – the last still endlessly fascinating for residents of Sydney, which is where the story is set.

    Ms Hart is the author of many novels for children and adults covering several genres, including historical fiction, fantasy and non-fiction. This is her first foray into contemporary crime and I look forward to reading more about Poppy McGowan, who is an engaging, wryly humoured heroine with an interesting job (researcher for kids’ programs with ABC TV). Digging Up Dirt the first of what promises to be a series featuring Poppy.

    She owns the house in Sydney’s inner west which is undergoing renovations at the start of the novel. To begin with she is dealing with a possible heritage order, due to the discovery of animal bones of potential historical significance, which has brought building work to a halt. Poppy’s previous job was in a museum so she is appropriately respectful of heritage issues… but she’s also worried that her renovations might be put on hold indefinitely while investigations into the bones continue.

    Those concerns are compounded the following day, though, as investigations of altogether another kind are required – a murder enquiry, after the body of the archaeologist brought in to look at the bones is discovered in the same pit where the animal bones were discovered. Poppy begins her own bit of investigating, keen to see the matter brought to a close quickly so that her little house can be lived in sooner rather than later.

    Political and religious organisations are involved because the murdered woman had been vying for pre-selection as a candidate for the Australian Family Party, a right-wing conservative organisation with strong ties to the Radiant Joy Church (possibly a thinly disguised version of an evangelical church frequented by a certain prime minister?) As Poppy digs deeper she realises that more than one person who knew the victim had a motive for wanting her gone.

    Digging Up Dirt is essentially a light read, with elements of romantic comedy in the mix, though it does touch on some serious topics such as homophobia, sexism and the theft of Indigenous cultural materials. Poppy is smart and also acerbic at times, which makes for some apt barbs in the direction of politicians, and entitled, white, conservative and prosperous men – and women.

    The great thing about sexism is that men who think women are stupider than they are truly believe it. So they are very, very reluctant to acknowledge that a woman may not be stupid. Thus far, I’d played to their expectations of a young woman who wasn’t really a reporter, and their own mindset predisposed them to believe I wasn’t a threat.

    Digging Up Dirt p147

    Sydney based readers will enjoy the strong sense of the city’s environs invoked. I enjoyed reading about Poppy and can visualise this story made into a film or TV series. I’m sure I will be meeting Poppy again in the future.

    Digging Up Dirt is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A story of survival: ‘The Woman With the Blue Star’ by Pam Jenoff

    I had not known that Jews in Poland wore a blue star, rather than yellow, under the Nazi regime. Nor did I know the horrifying fact that some Jews survived detection by living underground – in the city sewer tunnels, along with the filth, the damp and the rats. These were two new things I learnt as a result of reading Pam Jenoff’s The Woman with the Blue Star.

    Set in Krakow in 1942, the novel tells the story of two young women – Sadie, an eighteen year old Jewish girl who escapes the Nazis and Polish police during their ‘liquidation’ of the Ghetto, and Ella, who is from an affluent Polish family. Ella lives with her hated stepmother in relative comfort (in large part due to her stepmother’s consorting with German men.) Ella spots Sadie’s face one morning through a sewer grate and comes to realise that Sadie (and others) are in hiding down there.

    Ella sets out to help in whatever ways she can – bringing food to begin with – but the stakes for them both get much higher as the war progresses and the level of danger increases.

    The author set the story in Krakow, though it was the sewers in the Polish city of Lvov in which Jewish people actually lived and survived the war. It’s almost beyond belief that anyone could survive a day or a week in such an unhealthy and putrid environment. Then again, much of what happened in European cities, towns, and Nazi concentration camps during WWII is beyond belief.

    I found that I didn’t warm to the characters in The Woman With the Blue Star as much as I might have wished; however the novel’s drama swept me along with it and I am always fascinated by stories that reveal things about this period of history.

    The Woman With the Blue Star is published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Teenagers’ dreams and parents’ worries: ‘Can’t Say it Went to Plan’ by Gabrielle Tozer

    At the risk of giving away my age, I can safely say that when I finished high school, the end-of-school phenomena known in Australia as ‘schoolies week’ did not exist. My cohorts and I celebrated the completion of our formal school years by outings to the local public pool and a restaurant dinner. Not with youth hostel (or five star) accommodation at a resort, youth oriented all night parties, dances and concerts, and all the other accoutrements that make up many a young Australian’s schoolies week.

    A cross between a let-your-hair-down relief from the pressures of final school studies and exams, and a first step into the adult world without parental supervision, schoolies week is something that many young people dream of (and their parents have nightmares about).

    Can’t Say it Went to Plan is a new young adult (YA) novel which follows the schoolies experience of three very different young people and their friends and family. Zoe, Samira and Dahlia have each planned the perfect schoolies week, but of course they also bring with them their individual concerns and preoccupations: anxiety and grief, parental expectations and sibling rivalry, boyfriend troubles, worries about their next steps in life. With alternating viewpoints, the author captures these perfectly along with the language and internal dialogue of this age group.

    I cringed a lot reading this novel in recognition of the all-consuming self centredness of many youngsters and also, winced at the inevitable mistakes made by each of the three protagonists as they navigate their way through the ups and downs of a week in which plans are turned upside down. Parents may well turn green reading some of what they get up to, but in the end, the mistakes are not too disastrous and each character learns from their experiences.

    Ultimately the novel is about what is really important: friendships and family, courage, perseverance and hope. By the novel’s end, the three girls’ trajectories meet, if only briefly, and they are able to reflect on what they’ve learned from their schoolies weeks.

    Can’t Say it Went to Plan is published in May 2021 by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.