Book reviews

Archive for the ‘Australian author’ Category

Jane in Love by Rachel Givney

Jane in Love by Rachel Givney tells the story of what might happen if Jane Austen time-travelled from 1803 to present day Bath, then had to make a choice between true love and writing novels.

Despite watching Jane appear out of nowhere, Sofia Wentworth, who was preparing to play the role of Mrs Allen in a film adaptation of Northanger Abbey, believed that she was an actor playing Jane Austen as part of a practical joke similar to a Candid Camera scenario.

Deciding to go along with the joke, Sofia played along with the strange things Jane said and did as she reacted to modern life. For Jane, learning that six of her novels, most of which had not yet been written or conceived of in her own time, had been published and were enormously successful was overwhelming.

Realising that Jane wasn’t going to break character, Sofia took her home to stay with her at her brother Fred’s home.

Jane had already met Fred on the film set and chastised him for his lack of manners towards her when they were asked to dance together for a scene.

The story then followed both Sofia and Jane over the following months.

Sofia had recently separated from her husband who was the director of the Northanger Abbey adaptation and hoped that working together would rekindle their marriage. Sofia was also struggling emotionally with playing an older character rather than being the young, beautiful star of the film.

Although Jane and Fred found each other irritating they fell in love, however as Jane became more established in the present her novels started to disappear. Eventually Jane realised she had to choose between being a little-known writer who would only have small success in her own time and enjoying true love in the present with Fred.

Jane in Love is a story for romantics rather than for die-hard Jane Austen fans and my advice would be to read the book in the spirit of how it has been written, which is for fun.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

M.L. Stedman’s debut novel The Light Between Oceans became a New York Times bestseller and was loved by readers all over the world.

After World War One, war hero Tom Sherbourne became a lighthouse-keeper, eventually working his way up to a posting on isolated Janus Island where he managed the (fictional) lighthouse station. On a trip ashore to the south-west corner of Western Australia Tom met Isabel Graysmark, the two fell in love and eventually married, despite Tom’s misgivings about how Isabel would adapt to life on the island.

At first, Isabel thrived but after she suffered multiple miscarriages over a period of several years it seemed unlikely that she and Tom would ever have a child of their own. When a boat washed ashore carrying a baby sheltered beneath a dead man, presumably the baby’s father, Isabel convinced Tom not to report the event so they could keep the baby for their own. Almost against his will Tom agreed, buried the man and set the boat adrift again.

Although Tom’s conscience bothered him, Isabel was convinced the baby they had named Lucy was an orphan.

During a trip ashore for Lucy’s christening, Tom and Isabel learned that the baby’s heartbroken mother lived nearby.

Isabel somehow convinced Tom that Lucy was better off with them than with her mother and they returned to the island. Lucy grew up to be a happy and inquisitive child but Tom, who knew they had done the wrong thing, eventually contacted Lucy’s real mother anonymously to let her know her child was safe and well.

Eventually their secret came out, leaving everyone’s lives upended again.

While I found the plot to be slightly predictable, I loved reading about the main character’s lives on the island, the town on the mainland and the characters who lived there. I especially enjoyed the wonderful descriptions of how lighthouses work, which obviously led me to daydreaming about living on a deserted island, with or without a lighthouse.

The Light Between Oceans wasn’t really for me, but I can see why so many people loved it.

Kokomo by Victoria Hannan

I bought Kokomo by Australian author Victoria Hannan despite the cover, which I didn’t like at all. After reading the story and discovering the main themes are unfulfilled wants and desires, I realised why this image and colour scheme were chosen, though and believe they suit the story.

Kokomo was told in two halves. The first half followed Mina, a hardworking copy editor living in London who was hopeful of receiving a much-deserved promotion at work. Mina was also on the brink of starting a love affair with her colleague Jack, when her best friend Kira phoned with the news that Mina’s mother, who had not left her home since the death of Mina’s father many years ago, had unexpectedly left her house in Melbourne.

Mina dropped everything to fly home to Melbourne but when she arrived, found her mother to be uncommunicative and resentful of Mina’s presence.

Mina attempted to reconnect with her old friends but apart from Kira, struggled as most had married and settled down into family life, living very different lives to hers.

Although Mina desperately wanted to be back in London at her job and with Jack, she fell back into the lifestyle she had left ten years ago, going out, getting drunk and making stupid choices about sex with people who she didn’t really want or like.

Her friendship with Kira seemed to be the truest relationship Mina had. Kira’s family and Mina’s were neighbours and they had supported Mina and her mother Elaine after Mina’s father death when Mina was just a teenager. Valerie, Kira’s mother, had continued to look after Elaine after Mina moved to London.

The second half of Kokomo told Elaine’s story and explained the closeness of the relationship between the two families. Elaine’s and Mina’s characters were unexpectedly similar in that their longings shaped their lives.

I found much of Mina and Elaine’s personal behaviour to be incomprehensible and somewhat unlikely, but appreciated the contemporary issues the story raised. These ranged from mental health issues to sexism in the workplace and dealing with toxic relationships, as well as portraying friendships, family relationships, in particular children learning that there is more to their parents than their relationships with their children.

In a warning to my fellow prudes, the first chapter nearly put me off reading the book completely since I had far less interest in the physical description of Jack’s penis than what Mina apparently had. If this level of detail isn’t to your taste either, my suggestion is to read the back cover then skip straight to Chapter Two.

I enjoyed the contemporary Melbourne setting and recognised many of the places Mina visited.

My purchase of Kokomo by Victoria Hannan continues to satisfy my New Year’s resolution for 2021 which is to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (March).

Best Foot Forward by Adam Hills

I knew that I would be in for a fun read when I picked up Best Foot Forward by Adam Hills.

I know Hills best as the host of Spicks and Specks, an Australian music-themed television quiz show that ended some years ago. Spicks and Specks was on television for seven years and was a must-watch at the time, always funny and informative. The guest list was a ‘who’s who’ of music and comedy at the time and He Who Eats All of Our leftovers, Miss S and I still watch and enjoy the repeats.

Hills is also a very funny and successful comedian. Best Foot Forward tells the story of his family life, growing up in Sydney and enjoying The Two Ronnies, Peter Sellers and Mel Brooks, as well as other comedians from that generation. My first laugh came on the first page when Hills described the family car’s colour as ‘beige’ while his father swore it was ‘Sahara Tan’. This tickled me because our family has a car which I call ‘gold’ although the official name of the colour is ‘Koala Beige’. I also enjoyed reading about the Hills’ family trips to visit his grandparents in Tuross Head on the South Coast of NSW after spending time living nearby at around the same time Hills talked of being there.

While he was at university Hills realised he wanted to be a comedian and started doing stand-up comedy, honing his skills and landing a job hosting a radio program in Adelaide, which he eventually left after making the decision to give stand-up comedy a proper shot.

Hills spoke honestly about ‘dying’ on stage and playing to very small crowds, what he learned from each gig, and the work and constant crafting that went into making him a better performer as time went on. When Spicks and Specks came along Hills took the opportunity to host the show and when it ended, he went on the host The Last Leg, a comedy sports show which originally followed the Paralympics in 2012. Hill says he got so caught up in the thrill and emotion of the competitions that he seriously considered taking up wheelchair basketball (he has a prosthetic leg) but was put off by the idea of needing to learn to use a wheelchair. I believe The Last Leg is still on television in the UK but has morphed into a talk show.

The last time I saw Hills on Australian television was during a cross to him while he was enjoying an unexpected day at an Australian beach as a result of his plane to the UK being delayed. He joked then that no one at the beach seemed fazed by him hopping out of the water because he was missing a leg! This reminded me of a story about Miss S when she was little. We had met a friend of a friend who was on crutches after having his leg amputated and Miss S wanted to know if a shark had got him!

Being a comedian, the book is filled with stories of his encounters, gigs and friendships with other comedians from Australia and the rest of the world which makes the book read like a ‘who’s who of comedy.’ I have seen some of these comedians perform and enjoyed these stories very much. Hills also described his first and subsequent encounters with his own idol, Billy Connolly, whose generosity of spirit shone through Hill’s storytelling.

Hills also has a similar kindness and positivity about him and while I haven’t watched The Last Leg I imagine the show brings joy to viewers.

Out of Time by Steve Hawke

Out of Time by Australia author Steve Hawke was a thought-provoking, moving account of a man in his late middle-age who realised he was suffering early onset dementia and as a result, planned how he would continue to live and how he would die.

Joe was an architect, married to Anne, a high school teacher who lived in Perth. Joe and Anne felt as if they were living the best part of their lives. They had successful careers, their daughter Claire was married and beginning her own family (although they didn’t like her husband much) and they were planning dream trips for their retirement which included fishing for Joe and bird watching for Anne, when a strange loss of memory frightened Joe.

He had hurriedly parked his car in the city before attending an important work meeting but after the meeting couldn’t remember where he had left his car. Joe reported the loss to the police and his car eventually turned up after having been towed as it had been left on a clearway, but soon after this event he realised he had been suffering other memory losses.

Joe’s worries were made worse by having recently watched his Uncle George’s health and quality of life deteriorate as a result of dementia, so he was certain of his own condition long before he was actually diagnosed. He hid his worries from Anne for a long time but when he did tell her, he also provided his own solution, which was to suicide before his own quality of life worsened to the point where his and Anne’s life were impacted.

Watching Joe and Anne, their daughter and friends come to terms with his condition and his solution was difficult, but the story was also heart-warming and well told. Joe and Anne were well educated, affluent, likeable and completely relatable. The character’s voices were very Australian and they swore a lot, which might put off some readers, but in the situation they found themselves in I felt that their swearing was understandable.

I expect that readers who know Western Australia and Perth will particularly enjoy the setting, but think this book would be a very hard read for anyone who had experienced a loved one going through a similar situation.

I haven’t heard of Steve Hawke before and have not read much from Fremantle Press, but was impressed by the quality of the writing and the story.

Kitchen Sink Drama by Paul Connolly and illustrated by Jim Pavlidis

Kitchen Sink Drama by Paul Connolly and illustrated by Jim Pavlidis is one of my favourite sections in Australia’s Good Weekend magazine.

Kitchen Sink Dramas consist of a 100-word story and illustration and are based on normal people doing normal things in modern-day Australia. Some of the stories and pictures make me laugh, some cause me to nod with recognition and smile wryly, while other stories leave me teary-eyed with a lump in my throat.

The cover illustration goes with the story called The Trauma Cleaner and is about Jasmine and Omar. He cooks and while she appreciates his culinary masterpieces, he uses every pot, pan and spoon in the house to do so. Since the rule in their house is that the person who cooks doesn’t have to clean the kitchen, Jasmine would sometimes prefer beans on toast. This story is one that left me feeling empathetic towards Jasmine as He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers does most of the cooking at our house these days and while I love and appreciate him for it, I wish, just once in a while, he would cook the vegetables without them boiling over because cleaning the stove night after night gets me down.

No matter how many times I read Odd Jobs it brings a lump to my throat.

The father in this story who shows his daughters how much he loves them by bringing his tools and making repairs when he visits them reminds me of my own father, who used to do this for me. These days, HWEAoOL’s does the same for Honey-bunny and once Miss S is grown up and has left home, no doubt HWEAoOl’s will bring his tools with him when he visit her too.

I couldn’t stop laughing after I read Pillow Fights. A couple who bought a new mattress were sucked into buying $150 latex pillows but a week of no sleep later, she went back to her old pillow while he was determined to get his money’s worth out of the new pillow, “even if it meant never sleeping again.” The same thing happened to me, I bought a new mattress and in a fit of madness bought a latex pillow at the same time. When I get really tired and am desperate for a good night’s sleep, I swap the blasted thing for my old, squashy pillow.

I read Yellow Submarine aloud to Miss S who delighted me by recognising herself in the story. Yellow Submarine is about a teenage girl who was forced to go on a two-week holiday with her family. The girl told her friends she would prefer to make out with a creepy dude with bad breath than go on holidays with her family, but just thirteen kilometres later found herself humming along to Yellow Submarine playing on the car radio.

Kitchen Sink Drama would make a great gift but it is also a book that if bought for yourself, would bring joy to your life. I believe a range of Kitchen Sink Drama tea towels are also available.

The Dressmaker’s Secret by Rosalie Ham

I enjoyed reading The Dressmaker by Australian author Rosalie Ham, and adored the film starring Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Hugo Weaving and Liam Hemsworth, so was excited to learn that The Dressmaker’s Secret continued Tilly Dunnage’s story.

For women in Melbourne in 1953, wearing a beautiful dress to a ball to celebrate the queen’s coronation was the only thing that mattered. Tilly Dunnage had left Dungatar for Melbourne where she was working as a dressmaker for a would-be fashion house in the Paris-end of Collins Street.

I’m not giving anything away by saying that Tilly’s secret was that she had a baby who she named Joe after the death of Teddy (played by Liam Hemsworth in the movie). As Tilly was a single mother Joe had been taken to a children’s home where Tilly visited him every Sunday. Sergeant Farrat, who had also left Dungatar for Melbourne, gallantly offered to marry Tilly in a marriage of convenience so she could bring Joe home but on their wedding day, he fell in love with another woman. Tilly encouraged Sergeant Farrat and Julie’s romance and in an unusual twist, he spent his wedding night with Julie.

As Sergeant Farrat and Julie’s romance blossomed, Tilly continued to battle the Child Welfare Officer, her small-minded employer and most of the residents of Dungatar who hated her because she was no longer around to make them dresses (and because that she had burnt the town down when she left).

The story jumped around between Tilly, Sergeant Farrat and Julie, plus other new characters and a cast of thousands from Dungatar. Although I remembered some of the Dungatar characters from The Dressmaker, I couldn’t recall all of them and felt confused about where some of them fitted into the story.

The Dressmaker’s Secret was completely over the top but did not have as strong a sense of fun and black humour as The Dressmaker. I would have preferred the sequel to have left the characters from Dungatar behind and followed Tilly in her fight for Joe and her career, plus better conditions for her fellow workers at Salon Mystique.

I think The Dressmaker’s Secret will only appeal (and possibly make sense) to reader who have read The Dressmaker.

If this book is also made into a film, I’ll definitely see it. I can’t wait to see the dresses!

My purchase of The Dressmaker’s Secret by Rosalie Ham continues to satisfy my New Year’s resolution for 2021 which is to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of this year (February).

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is Booker Prize winning author Richard Flanagan’s latest novel.

The story is set in Tasmania and follows Anna as she and her two brothers, Tommy and Terzo, intervene to prevent their ill and elderly mother from dying. The story was set between the middle of 2019 and the end of last summer, January 2020, when Australia burned.

When 87-year old Francie had a brain bleed she was sent to a Hobart hospital from where she and her children could hear cruise ships playing The Love Boat theme as they departed Hobart. Francie felt as if she was ready to die and Tommy, who was the kindest of the siblings and who had been caring for his mother for some years supported her wishes, but Terzo and Anna, who had ganged up on Tommy since their childhood, weren’t ready to let go of their mother and pushed for her to have life-saving surgery.

Francie survived the surgery but as often happens there were no better days ahead for her, and her health continued to decline despite being propped up by dialysis and a succession of medical interventions which destroyed her quality of life.

Anna and Terzo’s continued struggle to force their mother to live was not intended to be cruel, yet it was. As Francie turned into a living skeleton, Tommy’s stutter worsened, Terzo became more aggressive and Anna’s body parts began to vanish, first a finger, then her knee and so on. Anna noticed other people’s body parts disappearing also, much like the Orange-bellied Parrots whose story of impending extinction was woven into the story along with other examples of climate changes affecting the ecology.

Looking back, I think I glossed over the disappearing body parts plot line, as did Anna and the other characters, even though it was their parts that were disappearing. Anna was concerned about her missing parts and tried to talk about the problem with other people including medical professionals, all of whom downplayed or ignored her worries when she sought their advice. The missing body parts plot line made me feel uncomfortable so I generally ignored it, just like most of us do with climate change and other issues so big and seemingly insurmountable that we don’t even know where to start.

The family story also occasionally overwhelmed me in that I connected a little too much with the plot. Over the past few years my family have had the heartache of watching parents and grandparents die after suffering similar health issues to Francie. The only difference is, we didn’t try to hold on to them, having watched a previous generation of the family do this and cause further pain and suffering for the person who was dying.

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams serves to heighten awareness of enormous issues, including family power battles, ageing, grief and drug abuse, to climate change, suicide as a result of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and the use of social media and work as a prop to hide from the reality of our personal lives. Although there was a lot going on the story allowed each point to be fully absorbed and thought about by the reader, including another level of thinking and connecting because of the magic realism (missing body parts).

I also felt a connection to the story because the Orange-bellied Parrots are known to have fed in wetlands near to where I live, although I don’t believe any have been seen locally in several years. Orange-bellied Parrots are critically endangered.

The following photo shows the old Werribee water tower, which had a mural painted on it last year which features Orange-bellied Parrots. The water tower was painted by Hayden Dewar and forms parts of the Australian Silo Art Trail.

Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder & Things that Sustain You by Julia Baird

I’m not ordinarily a self-help book reader, but found Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder & Things that Sustain You by Julia Baird in the most recent big bag of books that was given to me to read by Aunty G and gave it a crack.

Each chapter provided life advice particularly geared to those who are seeking their own light within, or ‘phosphorescence’. Readers were reminded that they will find happiness when they are kind to others, and that joy is to be found in small, daily pleasures, particularly when they switch off from the modern world and enjoy silence, or the awe that comes from being in the ocean or a forest or natural setting.

My favourite chapter was titled Ert, or a Sense of Purpose. It discussed the joy that people feel when they have ‘ert’ (the opposite to ‘inertia’). Ert is defined here as having a sense of purpose.

I also appreciated Letter to a Young Woman, written to provide the author’s daughter with specific advice to be the best person she could by demanding respect, using her brain, finding friends with good hearts and not being blinded by good looks. The ‘good looks’ example used was Stalin, who was terribly handsome when he was young but who turned out to be a bad person.

The author drew heavily on her own learnings from several serious illnesses and difficult times to discuss what she had discovered was important to her and what was not.

There was a heavy emphasis on the importance of the ocean to the author, including her daily early morning swim with a swimming group and searching for phosphorescence. The ocean was where she felt all of the emotions she needed to feel at her best and I while I could relate to this, I also wondered if her advice (and possibly the book as a whole) would therefore be frustrating and off-putting for readers who live in areas without easy access to the ocean or parks, gardens or wilderness areas that are more accessible to the author.

Apparently all living creatures glow, even people to some extent. Although Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder & Things that Sustain You wasn’t really for me, I imagine it will bring joy to many people and hope to those who are struggling with life and who can connect with this author’s life view.

488 Rules for Life: The Thankless Art of Being Correct by Kitty Flanagan

He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers and I are big fans of Australian comedian Kitty Flanagan. We’ve attended her shows at the Melbourne Comedy festival and are always delighted when she is scheduled to appear on our favourite television show, Have You Been Paying Attention? I recently snickered my way through Kitty’s most recent book, 488 Rules for Life: The Thankless Art of Being Correct and whenever HWEAoOL and Miss S (neither of whom read books) questioned what I was laughing about, I read the rule I had just been laughing at to them.

My intention was to place a sticky note on each rule I particularly agreed with or those I found funniest, but I only got a few pages in when I realised that if I proceeded with my plan I would have a sticky note against nearly every rule. From rule #14, Do not leave one square of toilet paper on the roll to rule #322, Don’t leave a voicemail if it’s important, to rule #431, Read the room, know when the party is over, I agreed with nearly every rule in the book.

Loads of rules made me laugh. Rule #188, Never propose to someone in public because, as the author rightly points out, it put too much pressure on the other person to say yes. Rule #189, If someone proposes in public, say yes even in you don’t mean it explains that if you didn’t really want to say yes you can decline the offer privately later, so the other person isn’t publicly embarrassed. Together I think these two rules are hilarious, wise and kind.

Each of the rules included an explanation. While I found the rules clear, the explanations provide rule-breakers with more encouragement and reasons why they should follow these rules while adding enormously to my enjoyment of the book. Rule 67, No stinky foods in the office should be self-explanatory, but the explanation of why tuna or hot chips should never be eaten in an office made me smile and nod.

I was particularly grateful to finally learn a rule regarding greeting people in the office for the umpteenth time that I’ve encountered the other person during a single day. Rule #63, One proper greeting per day, after that a nod will suffice. Wondering what to say during these awkward meetings has been bothering me for years. I’m slightly embarrassed to admit this, but by the third or fourth time I’ve met someone at the photocopier, staff kitchen or corridor in the past I’ve taken to commenting on what Kitty calls ‘Say what you see’, as in ‘Ooh, having a cup of tea’ or ‘Mm, chips. Good stuff’. Now that I know this rule I’ll never make this mistake again.

The book contained a section on Blogging. When I saw this I felt slightly apprehensive that I might have been unwittingly breaking some of Kitty’s rules or that heaven forbid, I might not agree with some of the rules, but I reassured myself with rule #1, If you don’t agree with a rule, forget about it, move on to the next one and continued reading.

Rule #335, Don’t assume people have hours to read your blog. Although I agree with this rule I’m not convinced I can consistently be concise. But I try.

Rule #336, Blogging won’t make you rich. Okay. I don’t monetize my blog, but will consider myself warned in case things change in future.

Rule #337, No topic, no blog. While I like reading other people’s meanderings, I’ve got a topic for each of my posts. Book reviews. Tick.

Rule #338, Give me the recipe, not the story of your life. Oh no. I finally found a rule that I disagreed with. I love the stories that go with people’s recipes. Especially family stories, or funny things that happened when the cook made the recipe for the sixteenth time and used a substitute ingredient and there was an unexpected result, or how someone’s great-uncle fell in love with their great-aunt over Apple Pie made using Grandma’s secret recipe.

Rule #339, Limit of one blog per person. Nope. Sorry, Kitty, I definitely disagree with this rule. In my opinion, fellow bloggers, fill your boots and have as many blogs as you like. Here are some new blogs I’m thinking of starting:

Rose Eats Donuts. Photos of donuts with descriptions of their flavour, size and my rating of the featured donut. You’re welcome.

Rose Discovers Mailboxes. Photos of unusual mailboxes, usually those I’ve spotted on country roads. Blog readers will be thrilled to see mail boxes made from gas bottles that have been painted up like Minions, Ned Kelly-style helmets welded out of rusty scrap metal, timber planes mounted on poles and more. There is a mailbox around the corner from me that has been painted with hotrod flames. It makes me smile. Clearly I’m not the only person who loves quirky mailboxes.

Rose Crochets Stuff. Photos of my projects and a link to the pattern of whatever I’ve just made. The special feature will be a photo of the grateful recipient wearing the item I’ve hand made especially for them. You’ll see HWEAoOL wearing his slightly oversized grey woollen beanie, Miss S modelling the rainbow-bright poncho which she swears she will never wear anywhere her friends might see her, Honey-Bunny wearing any of the many misshapen scarves and cowls I’ve made for her, and so on. Extended family and friends, watch out, because I won’t be satisfied until each of you have a beanie, scarf or poncho of your own. (Whoops. Just realised I’ve broken Rule #335 again. Be concise, Rose).

Anyway, despite finding a total of perhaps five rules that I disagreed with, I loved this book and think that everyone should read it. I found 488 Rules for Life: The Thankless Art of Being Correct to be completely relatable but if you don’t, there is a section in the back where you can write your own rules. In my opinion, Kitty and this book Rules O.K.!

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