Book reviews

Archive for the ‘Australian author’ Category

The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper

The Girl in the Painting is the first book I’ve read by best-selling Australian author Tea Cooper.

The story follows a young orphan, Jane Piper, who is a mathematical genius. Jane was educated and brought up by a rich brother and sister in Maitland, NSW in the early 1900s.

When Jane’s benefactor, Miss Elizabeth Quinn, had a mental breakdown at a local exhibition, Jane began investigating the cause of her reaction to a painting in the gallery.

The story flips back and forwards in time from around 1850, when Elizabeth sailed to Sydney with her brother Michael to meet their parents who had emigrated to Australia before them, to the present day story which is in 1913. Some of the scenes are set on the goldfields and others in newly settled towns. At the time Sydney was a rough and tumble place.

I was intrigued by Elizabeth’s early romance with a Chinese man, Jing, who worked for her brother. Michael separated Elizabeth and Jing very quickly when he realised they loved each other.

The characters were strong and the story-telling is good, but I felt as if the story was too long, possibly because historical sagas aren’t my preferred style of reading. I will however pass this book on to my mother and I expect she will enjoy it enormously. Mum loves books by Kate Morton and The Girl in the Painting had a similar feel about it to Morton’s books.

My purchase of The Girl in the Painting by Tea Cooper goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (March)

The Rip by Mark Brandi

I read and enjoyed Wimmera by Australian author Mark Brandi some time ago so was happy to come across his next book, The Rip.

The Rip is set in Melbourne. It is narrated by an unnamed young woman who is a homeless drug addict. She has a bull terrier, Sunny, and not much else apart from a sleeping bag and some clothes. She usually sleeps in Princes Park and hangs around with another homeless man, Anton.

The narrator and Anton spend their days trying to get enough money to buy drugs.

When they hooked up with Steve, a friend of Anton’s, he invited them to sleep at his flat. The narrator was uneasy around Steve and recognised that he had something over Anton, but they went with him and settled into a pattern of getting money during the day and shooting up at night. Steve pressured the narrator into begging for cash, although she preferred prostitution, which in her eyes was a more honest way to make money. At the same time Anton was pressured into burgling houses with Steve.

A strange smell in Steve’s flat left the narrator anxious and curious. When Steve caught her trying to pick the lock to his bedroom door to learn what the smell was, he beat her badly. Another time he gave her drugs mixed with an unknown substance which would have killed her, had not an elderly neighbour called an ambulance for her.

I hadn’t expected this to be a story of friendships between homeless people or to learn that theirs is such a genuine community. I often walk past the Salvation Army Centre on Bourke Street which is featured in this story. It offers meals in the Lighthouse CafĂ©, showers, drug and alcohol services, assistance with accommodation and other services to people in need. There are always homeless people sleeping in nearby doorways or sitting on benches, having a chat and watching the world go by.

I also liked that a police officer in this story looked out for the narrator and that she wasn’t judged by hospital staff or people at the needle exchange.

The story doesn’t glamourise drug use, homelessness and the connected issues in any way but in some ways I felt as if the author let go of some events in the story too easily. For example, there were allusions to the narrator’s childhood and the pure misery of being in foster care, but clearly she didn’t want to dwell on these memories, and the same when she was beaten up by Steve. While it is understandable that the narrator did not to want to remember her bad times, it created the glossing over effect which I felt.

I was surprised to find that I liked the narrator. In real life, I would probably not make eye contact and would hold on to my handbag a little tighter than normal as I hurried past her, but as a character in a book I wanted to protect her from herself and from others. I was pleased to learn her name later in the story.

The Rip is not as bleak as it sounds. I think it is equally as good as Wimmera and am already looking forward to Mark Brandi’s next book.

One Life: My Mother’s Story by Kate Grenville

I’ve been travelling a lot for work lately so listened to One Life: My Mother’s Story as an audiobook narrated by Kate Grenville, the author, while driving through country Victoria. I have previously read other books by this well-known Australian author, including two of the The Secret River series.

One Life: My Mother’s Story is a biography of the author’s own mother, Nance Russell Gee, up until about the time she turned forty. The author wrote this book using bits and pieces of writing that she found amongst her mother’s things after her death, knowing that her mother had also dreamed of being a writer.

Nance was born in 1912. Nance’s mother Dolly, was a restless, unhappy woman, whose marriage did not bring out the best in her. Nance had a much-loved older brother, Frank and a younger brother, however she and her siblings were often separated as the children were sent to board in distant locations as her parents moved around NSW looking for business opportunities.

When she left school Nance was apprenticed to a pharmacist, which was most unusual for a girl at that time. Nance didn’t want this career and felt as if she was being deprived of her family, particularly after having been away at school for years, but due to the hard times the family were going through she had no choice but to take the job. At the end of her apprenticeship Nance was a fully registered pharmacist at a time when most women did not work outside of their home after marriage.

After marrying, Nance had no choice but to continue working. Her husband was a financially unsuccessful solicitor who was also a revolutionary. Nance didn’t agree with his political views and quickly realised she had made a mistake in marrying him, but stayed because she loved him. Eventually, they had three children together, the youngest being Kate, the author of this book.

Nance was clearly an extraordinary woman. Not only did she continue to work after her marriage but she eventually started two pharmacies of her own. Sadly, she had to sell both businesses as she was unable to have it all as she was also a mother who had to run the family home. Having a family and continuing to do paid work is still difficult for women now, despite the availability of childcare, flexible working arrangements and modern household equipment such as dishwashers and washing machines, and it was virtually impossible for Nance to manage then.

The story ends when Kate was born, although the author finished the book by saying her mother eventually gave up pharmacy work and did a university degree, then taught for many years. Nance learned to speak French and lived in France for a time, fulfilling lifelong dreams.

Sometimes the story ventured into territory which felt overly intimate for a daughter to know about her mother, although the author called her mother Nance throughout the story which added a degree of separation. The backdrop of the Depression and World War Two were fascinating. It was made clear that both Nance and Kate’s father were storytellers, so it is not surprising that Kate Grenville became a writer.

I enjoyed Kate Grenville’s narration very much. Her speaking style is subtle, which I think allowed me to visualise Nance and her family, friends and community better than had the story been told in a more flamboyant way.

Listening to a story turned out to be a much slower experience (six hours and thirteen minutes to be precise) than reading to myself which I believe allowed me to fully appreciate the story. The book was also perfectly suited to travelling along regional highways fringed by gum trees and looking out onto paddocks and bush.

One Life: My Mother’s Story is a lovely tribute to a brave, unconventional and extraordinary woman.

The Weekend by Charlotte Wood

The Weekend by Australian author Charlotte Wood is the story of three friends who are in danger of losing their connection after the death of another friend, Sylvie.

Jude, Wendy and Adele have always met at Sylvie’s beach holiday house near Sydney to spend Christmas together, but this year they are arriving the weekend before Christmas to clear out the house as it is to be sold.

Without Sylvie to balance out their differences, the three women’s personalities and behaviour has become more irritating and hurtful to each other than ever before.

The women’s personalities are very different. Jude is bossy and judgemental, capable and confident. She has been the mistress of a powerful married man for over forty years. As he always spends Christmas with his wife and family, Jude stays with her friends for Christmas. Wendy and Adele both hope that Jude will make her pavlova for Christmas this year, but Jude believes that this last visit is work. Withholding the pavlova is a form of control for Jude.

Wendy is a successful author, an intellectual who continues to put her career before her family and her children now see her as a burden. Wendy’s elderly dog Finn is blind, confused and in pain but Wendy refuses to see that the kindest thing would be to have him put down. The very presence of Wendy’s smelly, incontinent dog infuriates Jude. Wendy’s inability to let Finn go is because Sylvie gave Finn to Wendy as a puppy.

Adele is a taker, a has-been actress who has been out of work for some time. Her most recent love affair has just finished, leaving her homeless. Adele prides herself on her looks and her fitness, and makes a point of using the steep stairs up and down the cliff to the beach house while Jude and Wendy accept the necessity of the inclinator. Although Adele is deluded about her value to others, she is also the best-equipped of her friends to survive whatever life throws at her.

Ageing is hard. My father always said that it beats the alternative, but there comes a time when it probably doesn’t. The three women in this book are doing their best, but poor Finn (the dog) has had it. Despite, or perhaps because of Finn’s state, the dog causes each of the women to have a moment of realisation that will change their lives.

The Weekend is a fairly short book considering how full this story is. I enjoyed watching the three women renegotiate their relationships with each other without Sylvie. The story isn’t really about ageing, although it wouldn’t be the same story if the Jude, Wendy and Adele weren’t facing old age with their differing attitudes and approaches. I loved that they judged, annoyed and were cruel to each other but immediately united when an old secret came out, when a loved one died or when an outsider challenged one of their number.

Charlotte Wood is a quite well-known and well-regarded Australian author who has previously won the Stella Prize and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, although I’ve never read any of her books before this. I will certainly look out for her other books.

My purchase of The Weekend by Charlotte Wood goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020.

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko was the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award for 2019 and as such, was the obvious choice for me to begin fulfilling my New Year’s resolution of buying a book by an Australian author each month.

Not only was Too Much Lip the obvious choice, but it turned out to be a thought-provoking, unsettling and worrying look at an Australia that I know exists, but ignore. What am I ignoring? The contemporary version of Australia that many (not all) Aboriginal Australians live in. Why do I ignore this Australia? For my own peace of mind. I’m a privileged white Australian with everything I want and more. I’m automatically trusted and respected, I have choices. I have my family around me, work I enjoy and financial freedom. I have the support of the law. I was encouraged to continue my education. I’ve never been subjected to racism of any kind. I’m very grateful to be who I am, which came about just from being born. Most of the Aboriginal characters in this book don’t have and are unlikely to get what I have. Those that do are what the other characters derogatorily call ‘coconuts,’ Aboriginal people who live their life according to ‘white’ values. The question now is, can I keep ignoring these differences in real life?

Too Much Lip is set in a fictional town in Woop-Woop called Durrongo, in Bundjalung country in northern NSW. The name Durrongo amused me because it reminded me of ‘drongo,’ an Australian slang word for an idiot. I’d love to know if the author planned this. One of the characters refers to the town as the “Place of Centrelink fraud”.

The main character is Kerry Salter, who roared back to her family home on a stolen Harley Davidson motorbike with a backpack full of cash from a robbery her girlfriend had just been sent to prison for. Kerry’s Pop, who was both respected and feared throughout the Salter family and greater community, was dying and Kerry only planned on staying around long enough to say goodbye.

Kerry’s Pop grew up on a mission and did not know where his country was. As an Aboriginal, this meant that a vital part of his self was missing. As a successful boxer he earned some protection from the trouble that most Aboriginal people experienced from white Australians and later in life was able to provide his family with a home of their own and some security. Kerry’s mother, Pretty Mary, a former alcoholic, was nursing him as he lay dying.

Also living in the family home was Kerry’s brother Ken, a big, angry, former football star who had recently been released from prison. Kenny’s violent temper kept everyone around him on tenterhooks as he bullied his way through life. Kerry was horrified to realise that Kenny’s teenage son Donny was very often the brunt of his irrational rages and was suffering from anorexic.

Kerry usually bolted when the going got tough, but when her backpack full of stolen cash was stolen from her by a local politician, Jim Buckley, she stayed on in Durrongo, planning to steal it back. When she learned that Buckley was selling the land on the local river to a consortium who planned to build a jail, Kerry and the rest of the extended Salter family decided to fight the development as a land rights issue. The river and Granny Ava’s Island was more meaningful to them than I could have imagined, as the location of where Kerry’s pregnant great-grandmother Ava had been shot swimming across the river to escape white men. The river was also the home of the totem animal of the men of the family, a shark.

Kerry’s stay in town became more complicated when she met Steve, who she remembered as a dorky schoolboy but who was now a very attractive man. The only thing wrong with him is that he was white. And a man.

Kerry’s trait of ‘too much lip’ referred to her inability to keep quiet rather than voice her opinion, particularly when negotiating her way around Kenny.

While it took me a long time to stop feeling as if I were being assaulted by the constant, often vicious swearing, I accept that this also felt true to how the characters should speak. The language in this book was full of a slang that I recognised but don’t use, but also included words I don’t know, Aboriginal words such as ‘jahjams’ for children, ‘womba’ for crazy and ‘gunjies’ for police.

I was constantly shocked by the violence which the family took for granted, the crime, the poverty, the drinking, the gambling and the double standards, even those that they used themselves (for example, Kerry was furious when her cash was stolen from her, but ignored the fact that it had been stolen by her girlfriend in the first place). I was also irritated by the Salter family’s attitude towards Centrelink and government benefits, because as a worker, that’s my hard-earned tax the characters were treating as a right rather than a privilege, and their disregard for the law. Despite these moral quibbles, I was on Kerry’s side all the way through, regardless of the terrible choices she often made, as her and her family’s secrets were exposed. It was easy to recognise that their often shocking behaviours were just the symptoms of their family’s problems.

The family’s and local history continued to complicate the present for Kerry and her family. Aboriginal families were split up as children who were considered ‘white enough’ were stolen from their families. The children in the Salter family weren’t always safe from their own family members. Buckley’s grandfather had been a police officer who treated the Salter family and other Aboriginals in the area with terrible violence. The local policeman’s grandfather, who had settled the area and became a cattle baron, was even more violent than the politician’s grandfather, and had fathered a great many of the Aboriginal children in the area. Many wrong deeds continued to impact the people in this book for generations after each event.

Despite the questions racing around in my head, I found Too Much Lip to be a very funny book. There are moments of hope and joy and some inspirational characters, including Kerry’s Uncle Richard who showed Kenny a better way to live, by promoting traditional Aboriginal values instead of expressing himself violently. Kerry’s other brother, Black Superman, is another wonderful man who fosters emotionally and physically-damaged children. I loved reading about the character’s connections with birds and animals and of course, with the land which been built on over many generations of family stories. I also loved the glimpse of mystic connections with all of these elements which I believed in completely.

This has been a very difficult review to write. I’m not just commenting on a story, but on who Australians are. Not only that, but I’m publishing this on the Australia Day public holiday, which Kerry would hate (Invasion Day). Australia Day means something different to all of us, but we are all Australian and this year I’ll be thinking of what it means to be an Australian, thanks to this book.

Too Much Lip has left me with a lot of questions about what we have to do next, as a nation and as individuals, to be the best that we can. I feel as I’ve made a beginning by listening.

Too Much Lip came to my attention after Whispering Gums reviewed the book last year. You can read Sue’s review here:

I’ll be tracking my progress of my New Year’s Resolution to buy a book by an Australian author each month on my ‘Buying Australian’ page.

The Year of the Farmer by Rosalie Ham

The Year of the Farmer is by Australian author Rosalie Ham and will be enjoyed by readers who appreciate dark humour in a novel. Ham’s previous novels, The Dressmaker, Summer at Mount Hope and There Should Be More Dancing share this trait.

The Year of the Farmer is a contemporary story of life on the land featuring Mitch Bishop, whose drought-stricken farm somewhere up in the Riverina has been in his family for generations. Mitch is married to Mandy, who used to be the town bike (I know this is 2020, but in this small town these things still matter). No one likes Mandy, not even Mitch.

Mitch should have married his school sweetheart Neralie, but she left town to make a go of it in the city and left to his own devices, he succumbed to Mandy’s attentions. Mandy suckered Mitch into getting married by telling him that she was pregnant, but as everyone else in town knew, she couldn’t have fallen pregnant as she’d had “an infection.”

When Neralie returned to town to run the only pub in the area for 100 miles, Mitch and everyone else’s lives were turned upside-down.

Not only was Mitch’s marriage a mess, but the drought had been going on for years. Most punishing of all for him and other local farmers was their battle with the Water Authority Board to get enough water from the river to irrigate their land. To make things worse, a pack of townie’s dogs were killing sheep, rain at the wrong time was threatening to ruin the crops and Mandy’s constant need to make other people unhappy was adding considerably to the town’s woes.

There are multiple factions in the district, all with a different opinion about what was best for the river (and themselves). Corrupt politicians and townies were trying to make money from selling the water, developers wanted to siphon water into a man-made lake overlooked by a new apartment building and even the farmers had different volume requirements depending on what they were farming. The farmers weren’t in agreement with each other on other matters, either. Some were using chemicals which were detrimental to the river while others didn’t use chemicals on their crops when they should have which caused weeds to infiltrate their neighbours’ properties. I appreciated everyone’s point of view but think if I had to take a side I’d go with the Riparians, who had the health of the river at heart.

For those readers who struggle with cruelty towards animals that farmer’s consider to be vermin, be warned that a cull was required to set things right.

Not only is the humour in the Year of the Farmer dark, but it is mean. I really enjoyed it.

The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman

Robert Hillman, who wrote The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted is a new-to-me Australian author.

The story follows Tom Hope, a farmer from somewhere up in central Victoria during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The story began with Tom’s wife Trudy running away because she was bored with Tom and the farm, only returning a year later because she was pregnant with another man’s child. Trudy eventually ran away again, leaving Tom to bring up three-year old Peter.

Tom and Peter were mates. I loved reading about Peter as a young child shadowing Tom all over the farm, helping and asking Tom questions which he seriously considered before answering to the best of his ability. Their relationship reminded me of my own father and of my childhood growing up on a farm.

Both Tom and Peter’s hearts were broken when Trudy joined a religious cult and took Peter to live with her on Phillip Island, miles away from the farm.

Eventually Tom met Hannah Babel, a Hungarian immigrant who opened a bookshop in the town. Hannah was a Jew who somehow survived Auschwitz, although her young son and husband didn’t. Hannah’s back story, almost unfathomable to the people of Hometown, was woven into her and Tom’s present. They fell in love and married, but when Peter ran away from the cult to return to Tom, Hannah made it clear to Tom that she could not risk loving another child.

I loved the innocence of the time this book was set in, particularly the lack of awareness the Australian characters had regarding events in other parts of the world, all of which somehow amused Hannah, who had seen and experienced so much.

Australians, children, they know nothing.

Tom, Hannah and Peter are wonderful characters. Tom was quiet and strong, Hannah extravagant and bold, while Peter had the makings of being a man of Tom’s stature.

The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted didn’t make me feel as much as it could have, however, that is not a complaint. Some parts of each of the character’s lives were tragic, along with events within Tom and Hannah’s community, ranging from the childlessness of their friends to floods that took the homes of their neighbours, even a double-murder for a reason which on one hand seemed trivial but on the other was enormous, but the characters coped with everything that came their way in a stoical, keep-your-chin-up manner, and as a result, so did I as a reader. In fact, I felt stronger and more joyful for having read this story without wallowing in misery, taking my cue from the main characters.

The Book Shop of the Broken Hearted was a surprisingly joyful book and I will seek out more of this author’s works.

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