• Books and reading

    Riveting memoir: ‘Honey Blood’ by Kirsty Everett

    As a twice-over cancer survivor, I should not have been bothered by the descriptions of chemo administered in a cancer ward, but I wasn’t prepared for being plunged into Honey Blood’s opening scenes of horrifying travails endured by young cancer patients.

    Kirsty’s story is both awful and inspirational: diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of nine, her hopes of pursuing a competitive gymnastics career are instantly dashed. She describes the treatments she underwent in enough detail to immerse the reader in the world of the sick child; but we also read about the other, more normal aspects of growing up in suburban Sydney: sibling squabbles, school, homework, parents.

    She makes very clear how important it is for the cancer patient to receive professional care that is both skilful and compassionate – and how this can vary from practitioner to practitioner – often with terrible results, which Kirsty nonetheless managed to confront with patience and dignity beyond her young years.

    It’s gobsmacking to read of the incredible insensitivity of some people with whom she came into contact, including a teacher at her school, a doctor, and some classmates. I became enraged at the outright cruelty of a mother of a child who displayed appalling behaviour towards a young, ill, vulnerable girl.

    Kristy’s story shows that the environments in which patients are treated – including the interpersonal and emotional as well as the medical – really do matter.

    Later, when she receives her second diagnosis, she’s in her mid- teens, facing all the everyday teenage concerns, joys and insecurities. As if they weren’t enough she also has to deal with traumas of heavy-duty cancer treatment and the worry that, after it all, she may not survive.

    She turned her experiences to fund raising efforts for children’s cancer research. I can only admire that determination for her troubles to make a difference in the lives of other youngsters.

    Her story is inspirational, occasionally funny, and imbued with hard-won wisdom. Her approach is beautifully summed up here:

    Ask me ‘What’s the worst thing about cancer?’, and my answer is ‘People.’ Ask me, ‘What’s the best thing about cancer?’ and my answer is ‘People.’ We have the capacity to make life better and we also have the capacity to make life worse. We have all the power – it’s up to us how we choose to use it.

    Honey Blood, p164

    Honey Blood will be published by HarperCollins Australia in February 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

    #2021ReadNonFic
    #AWW2021
    #AussieAuthor21

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books,  Life: bits and pieces

    2020: A Bumper Year of Books

    Image courtesy of Evie Schaffer

    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.

    Just some of the many wonderful books I’ve enjoyed in 2020

    My standout reads for the year?
    There are quite a few. Here are some:

    A Room of Leaves by Kate Grenville
    Benevolence by Julie Janson
    Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch
    Tell Me Why by Archie Roach
    SongSpirals by the Gay’wu Group of Women
    The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue
    The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
    The Yield by Tara June Winch
    The Love that Remains by Susan Francis
    The People of the River by Grace Karskens
    Searching for Charlotte by Kate Forsyth & Belinda Murrell
    and for a picture book…Aunty’s Wedding by Miranda Tapsell

    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.

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

    An absolute delight: ‘Searching for Charlotte’ by Kate Forsyth & Belinda Murrell

    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

  • Books and reading,  History

    An enchanting Western (no, not an oxymoron): ‘News of the World’ by Paulette Jiles

    In the same way that I am not a fan of action/adventure novels and movies, I am not a fan of the American Western. However… this novel by Texan author Paulette Giles is proof that a beautifully written story is a beautifully written story, no matter the genre. First published in 2016, Harper Collins is releasing a movie tie-in version as the film adaptation is set for release in December 2020.

    The story begins in 1870, just a few years after the end of the American Civil War. Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a veteran of that conflict in the Confederate Army, has accepted a contract to travel from Wichita Falls to a settlement near San Antonio, Texas. His task is to return a ten-year-old girl, Johanna, to an aunt and uncle there. Johanna is an orphan whose parents and sister were killed in a raid by people from the Kiowa nation. She was taken in by the tribe and raised as a Kiowa child for four years and has just been ‘rescued’ by the US Army so she can be returned to members of her birth family.

    The catch is that Johanna, as was the case for other child captives brought up in Native American communities, has little or no memory of her earlier life, no longer remembers her first language, and thinks and acts as a Kiowa girl.

    On top of this, the route to rejoin her relatives is across four hundred miles of the ‘wild west’ in which there are many threats, including from Comanche or Kiowa but also from unscrupulous whites looking for an opportunity to rob or abuse. Captain Kidd feels every one of his seventy-some years as together, he and Johanna make the long journey in a rickety wagon pulled by Pasha, his horse.

    The Captain is accustomed to a somewhat itinerant life because he makes his living travelling from town to town, where he holds ‘readings’ of the news of the day from a range of national and overseas newspapers, charging ten cents for admission. It seems an odd sort of occupation until we remember that literacy levels were lower at that time and that these were small, relatively isolated settlements where news from the wider world rarely intruded. The Captain finds that people are willing to pay a dime to hear his readings:

    The audience sat rapt, listening…all were jointly amazed by information that had come across the Atlantic to them, here in North Texas, to their town alongside the flooding Red River. They had no idea how it had got there, through what strange lands it had traveled, who had carried it.

    News of the World p60

    The news aspect is a wonderful device by which the author weaves political and economic concerns of the time and place into the story. This is the American South during post war Reconstruction and there was a lot going on; even along the isolated roads and in tiny settlements, the Captain and Johanna meet people who debate the issues of the day. The Captain has plenty of time to reflect on all of this as the journey progresses:

    Maybe life is just carrying news..Maybe we have just one message, and it is delivered to us when we are born and we are never sure what it says; it may have nothing to do with us personally but it must be carried by hand through a life, all the way, and at the end must be handed over, sealed.

    News of the World p121

    This is a slim novel that packs a lot into its 209 pages. By far the most delightful surprise is the relationship that develops between Johanna and Captain Kidd. What begins as a task the Captain has been paid to do, develops into a tender, warm and caring friendship between an unlikely pair. There are moments of danger, doubt and trouble along with humour and affection. It is truly an enchanting read and I look forward to seeing the movie adaptation (starring Tom Hanks) on its Australian release.

    News of the World (movie tie-in) will be published in Australia by Harper Collins in January 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Historic mystery plus romance: ‘The Last Truehart’ by Darry Fraser

    The novel’s prologue sets the scene for it’s storyline and the mystery at it’s heart: Alice, a young woman pregnant to her fiance, is left at a Victorian port town when he boards the Shenandoah. This is an American Confederate ship which actively pursues ‘Yankee’ ships in the Pacific during the American civil war.

    She never sees him again.

    Decades later, her daughter, Stella, is finally free of an abusive marriage when her criminal husband dies in violent circumstances. Her beloved grandparents, along with her mother, have all died and Stella is completely alone in the world.

    A private investigator, Bendigo Bartlett, is engaged by a client called Mrs Parks, to find Stella.

    The novel is full of mysteries: what happened to Stella’s father? Who has employed Bendigo to find her, and why? Who is the disreputable man who threatens them all?

    There is romance, but I would describe this novel more as an historic crime or mystery story. Set in Melbourne, Geelong, Bendigo and Sydney in the late 19th century, it gives a vivid portrayal of the two colonies during this time.

    I enjoy novels where the major events and preoccupations of the period are woven into the storyline. In The Last Truehart, this includes debate about proposals for Australian Federation, still several years off; the divisions between what were then separate colonies; women’s suffrage; gendered roles in society and the workplace; attitudes towards divorce; the drought and economic downturn being experienced as the century came to a close. This is where fiction can bring historic events alive and make them real, showing their impact on everyday lives at the time.

    The romance is lightly handled and the characters are well drawn.

    The Last Truehart will appeal to readers who enjoy a well-crafted story with an engrossing mystery at its heart.

    The Last Truehart is published by Mira (an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers) in December 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    Uncovering scandal and abuse: ‘Before We Were Yours’ by Lisa Wingate

    In my multifold years of life, I have learned that most people get along as best they can. They don’t intend to hurt anyone. It’s merely a terrible by-product of surviving.

    Before we were yours, p3

    Lisa Wingate’s dual timeline novel explores the hurt that is done by some to others in their efforts to survive – emotionally, physically, materially.

    We meet Rill Foss, who in the 1930’s is kidnapped along with her four siblings and taken to the Tennessee Children’s Home in Memphis. The home is one of many run by Georgia Tann, a real-life figure whose questionable activities were later uncovered and condemned.

    In the current day, there is Avery Stafford, a young lawyer and a member of a powerful South Carolina political family. When Avery meets May Crandall, an elderly resident of a nursing home, the encounter starts her on a quest to unravel the mysterious connection between May and Avery’s own grandmother, Judy.

    Rill’s storyline introduces us to her life before she is whisked away. She lives with her large, noisy family in a ‘shantyboat’ on the Mississippi River. Folk like her were known disparagingly as ‘river rats’ and ‘river gypsies’ – they are itinerant and poor. They don’t always have enough to eat and there are plenty of dangers on the river. But Rill’s family is loving, with music and books, and friends they meet up with on their seasonal travels up and down the river.

    The author has captured Rill’s voice perfectly and brought her river home to vivid life. But when Rill and her brother and sisters are sent to the children’s home, they are treated as if they are stock, items sold to couples desperate to adopt a child. There are sickening acts of cruelty and indifference towards children’s needs, and a wilful blindness by staff to the abuses perpetrated against their charges.

    It’s a sobering reminder, if one were needed, that there are people who will exploit the vulnerable and that, without proper oversight and regulation, abuses will occur, especially if money is involved. We may think that these sorts of situations could not arise today, but we would be mistaken.

    As Avery’s exploration of her grandmother’s past continues and deepens, she learns about the scandals surrounding the ‘baby farms’ run by Georgia Tann. As she searches for the truth, her own future (which had once seemed a charmed pathway to a life of privilege) becomes less clear to her. In her uncertainty about her family’s past, she reaches for a different, more authentic future.

    No matter how much we may love the melody of a bygone day or imagine the song of a future one, we must dance within the music of today, or we will always be out of step, stumbling around in something that doesn’t suit the moment.

    Before We Were Yours p315

    Before We Were Yours takes the reader on a journey of discovery to difficult truths, and explores the different ways people deal with tragedy. The characters and the setting in America’s South are wonderfully realised and there are moments of tenderness and hope that lead to a satisfying resolution. I enjoyed this novel and will be on the lookout for more titles by Lisa Wingate.

    Before We Were Yours is published by Harper Collins Australia in December 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Chilling glimpse into a possible future: ‘The Mother Fault’ by Kate Mildenhall

    Mim is on the run. Her husband Ben is missing from his workplace, a gold mining project on an Indonesian island. The Department assigns a ‘liaison team’ to the family and they take the passports of Mim and her two young children, Essie and Sam. The Department, she has come to realise, is not a benevolent body but the principal instrument of a controlling, all-powerful oppressive government. Mim is right to be afraid.

    So she takes the kids, goes offline and flees – first back to her family home, then to the place of her childhood seaside holidays. With high school sweetheart Nick, she and the kids embark on a long drive north; then out to sea on Nick’s boat to Indonesia, hoping to find her husband Ben. All the while trying to avoid detection by The Department. Oh, and to be a good mother to her kids.

    The Mother Fault is set in the very near future, in an Australia where Government tentacles reach everywhere, assisted by technology that feels very familiar (think Siri or Google Home), but includes microchipping babies at birth so that they are literally never ‘off line’.

    Mim’s dash towards freedom and her husband invites new dangers and risk for herself and everyone she loves. At the novel’s heart is Mim’s struggle to know if she’s doing the right thing by her family. Is she careful enough, protective enough, loving enough? An age-old anxiety, this one; surely recognisable to most mothers. As is its corresponding struggle: to return to a sense of self, of personhood, amidst the layers of responsibility and distractions that come with busy modern lives.

    She shouldn’t leave them out there on their own, but see if she fucking cares. Little shits, not listening, making fun.
    ‘Mum!’ A shriek from outside and her legs don’t even hesitate, already making deals with fate. Sorry sorry sorry stuck in her throat as she races out through the gate, sees them both out of the water and a long trickle of watery blood down Sammy’s shin, a small rupture of flesh near the knee.
    ‘It got caught on the brick climbing out,’ Essie says, glaring at her. ‘You shouldn’t have left us alone.’
    …and it doesn’t even hurt, her daughter’s admonishment, because it’s just the way it is.
    She’ll never get it right.

    The Mother Fa
    ult, ch 13 (Audiobook version)

    At the opening of the novel is a quote from The Great Hack (Netflix, 2019):

    But no one bothered to read the terms and conditions.

    Professor David Carroll, The Great Hack

    The Mother Fault certainly got me thinking about all the trade-offs we make for the conveniences and luxuries of our modern lives: connectivity, streaming services, personal entertainment devices, labour saving technologies. How often do we stop to consider what is lost amongst the gains?

    Because the novel is set in an Australia that is so familiar to our own current-day one, the dangers Mim experiences feel very real and entirely believable. There is a dramatic climax in which Mim is forced to face some very unpleasant realities and make an excruciating choice in order to keep her kids safe.

    The Mother Fault is gripping speculative fiction with the added bonus of Mildenhall’s beautiful prose. I listened to the Audible version narrated by Claudia Karvan whose flawless performance added greatly to my enjoyment of the novel.


    The Mother Fault was published by Simon & Schuster, 2020.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #Aww2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    Familiar places through the lens of the past: ‘The Cartographer’s Secret’ by Tea Cooper

    Readers of Tea Cooper’s fiction will know that she likes to write dual timeline stories set in Australia’s past. The Cartographer’s Secret is no exception.

    The protagonists are two young women: Evie in 1880, and her niece Lettie in 1911. The story connects the two: Lettie drives from Sydney to visit her Great Aunt Olivia on the family property in the Hunter Valley, to inform her that Lettie’s brother (and the heir to the property) has died. She soon gets caught up in the secrets and puzzles held within her family’s history, particularly the mysterious disappearance of her Aunt Evie, thirty years earlier.

    Evie had shared her father’s fascination with maps and exploration, and become similarly obsessed by the famous explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who had disappeared without trace in 1848. She sets out to track down evidence that she believes will prove her theory of what happened to Leichhardt and his party, but she is never seen again, leaving her Aunt Olivia heartbroken.

    Poring over the map of the Hunter region that Evie left behind, Lettie begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. She wants to solve the mystery of Evie to give Olivia, and the whole family, some peace (or closure, as we would call it today.) But things don’t go smoothly and Lettie uncovers more than she’d expected.

    Tea Cooper’s heroines are likeable and relateable: young women with gumption and interests unusual for women at the time (Evie with her maps, Lettie with her Model T motor car.)

    I found some of the details of the plot a little complicated and often needed to refer to the copy of Evie’s hand drawn map. While there is no happy conclusion for all the characters, there is a satisfying and believable resolution.

    For me the strength of Tea Cooper’s novels lie in the central role played by their settings. She takes me on a journey through time of and in doing so, shows me an earlier version of often familiar places, through the lens of history. I believe this is what historical fiction can do best: immerse readers in another time so that we can see the present in a different way.

    I also enjoy how aspects of the everyday inform that picture of the past. In The Cartographer’s Secret, this includes the beginning of rail and motor travel, the genesis of the famous Bulletin magazine, rural economies, the exploits of early European explorers, and the lives of women in both city and country.

    The Cartographer’s Secret is a satisfying addition to Tea Cooper’s historical fiction and fans of her novels won’t be disappointed.

    It is published by HarperCollins Publishers on 29 October 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AWW2020
    #AussieAuthor20

  • Books and reading

    Pocket sized book with a timely message: ‘Anti Racist Ally: An introduction to action & activism’ by Sophie Williams

    This is literally a pocket sized book. Don’t let its diminutive size fool you, though. At a time when painful truths about racism in the past and the present are being confronted world-wide, Anti Racist Ally gives some sound advice for anyone who wants to be able to do more than watch #BlackLivesMatter protests on TV news or bemoan the shocking rates of Black deaths in custody.

    Sophie Williams also explains some current terminology in the discussion of race relations and racism: intersectionality, institutional and structural racism, the race pay gap, emotional labour, racial gaslighting and others.

    And it deals with some common myths: racism is over, it’s not the right time to act, we shouldn’t talk about racism with children, I can’t be racist because my best friend / girlfriend / boss is Black, to name a few.

    Each idea is discussed in short, pithy segments, ideal for absorbing quickly so that we can apply them in our own lives.

    If the human world is to stamp out the cancer of racism, it is up to all of us to speak up, to have difficult conversations when required, to recognise racism in all its forms (both overt and subtle), to support individuals and organisations who fight racism. In other words, to be an ally. It’s not necessary to be an ‘activist’, just to act when we see or hear racism around us.

    Anti Racist Ally is a little book big on information, suggestions and inspiration for everyone to help build a better world.

    Anti Racist Ally is published by Harper Collins Publishers in October 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A microcosm of a world in turmoil: ‘The Pull of the Stars’ by Emma Donoghue

    What a marvel of a novel this is. Emma Donoghue has written a story that explores profound human issues – hope, survival, struggle – within the minutiae of three days in a tiny hospital ward, allowing glimpses of the social, religious, political and health influences swirling around the small cast of characters. I can absolutely see this story brought to life as a stage play or movie.

    The timing of The Pull of the Stars is uncanny. Published in mid 2020 during a world pandemic, it is set during another pandemic, the global influenza outbreak a century ago. Reading it now, as we struggle with Covid-19, I was struck by so many similarities between then and now.

    The story takes place over three days, in a short-staffed Dublin hospital. Julia is a nurse, working long days in the maternity/fever ward, where there are three patients about to give birth who are also suffering from influenza.

    The author pays tribute to the struggles of people from all levels of Irish society at the time. The poverty, religious conservatism and bigotry of early nineteenth century Ireland imposed added burdens for many, but middle class women were not immune to influenza or its effects on pregnant women, which could have dire consequences for mothers and babies.

    If you are squeamish about the icky parts of the body’s functioning during childbirth or illness, you might find some scenes in this book challenging. Personally, I loved the way the author honoured the crucial role of nurses during what are profound and dramatic moments: the work and risk of bringing new life into the world, and the struggle against an illness that could strike from nowhere and kill in a matter of days, even hours. The research that went into the book was evidently deep but sits lightly in the narrative.

    The characters – nurse Julia; young, poor Bridie, a volunteer helper in Julia’s ward; and the three sick, labouring women they care for – form the nucleus of the story, though the other characters are well drawn and entirely believable. We meet Dr Kathleen Lynn, rumoured to be a Rebel on the run from police, but whose calm and compassionate approach prompts Julia to question her own assumptions and beliefs. Dr Lynn is based on a real figure, a Sinn Féin rebel who later established a hospital for impoverished mothers and babies.

    The intense work of the hospital is set against the background of an Ireland at war: internally in the aftermath of the 1916 Rebellion, and externally as the Great War is still being waged throughout Europe. As Julia realises:

    It occurred to me that in the case of this flu, there could be no signing a pact with it. What we waged in hospitals was a war of attrition, a battle over each and every body.

    The Pull of the Stars.

    One aspect of the novel that I particularly enjoyed was that the business of childbirth – those giving birth and those helping labouring women – was front and centre, much as in another book I have reviewed this year, The German Midwife. Perhaps it is no coincidence that both novels juxtapose the battles of women in the process of giving life, against the battles of war, which are all about taking it.

    There is so much to love about The Pull of the Stars. I listened to the Audible audiobook version, where the narration by Emma Lowe added another layer of enjoyment. It’s a wonderful book with timeless themes and compelling characters.

    The Pull of the Stars was published by Allen & Unwin Australia in July 2020.