Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Australian fiction’

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).

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 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.

Honeybee by Craig Silvey

Honeybee is the latest novel by Australian author Craig Silvery, who is known for the fantastic Jasper Jones.

Jasper Jones was likened by many readers to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird in that it is an important coming of age story, albeit for Australians. Like Jasper Jones, Honeybee also featured a young main character going through very difficult times. I believe it is best suited to the Young Adult market, although think adults will also appreciate the story.

The story begins with fourteen-year old Sam Watson about to throw himself off an overpass in Perth when he noticed an elderly man at the other end of the bridge who was seemingly also about to jump. Instead of jumping, Vic drove Sam back into the city. A few days later Sam returned to the bridge, hoping Vic would come along again and he did.

The pair formed an unlikely friendship. Sam had had a much harder life than most. His mother was an alcoholic who was disowned by her family when she fell pregnant at a young age. Sam and his mother moved frequently and were often homeless and from a very young age, Sam had assisted his mother in a variety of scams to steal food, money and other items. More recently Sam and his mother had been living with her latest boyfriend Steve, a violent and abusive criminal.

Vic was a widower who was in pain, physically and emotionally. He desperately missed his wife, Edie and had only carried on living after her death because he had promised her he would look after her dog. By the time the dog eventually died Vic was very ill himself and in enormous physical pain.

For a variety of sordid and unhappy reasons Sam was unable to return to his mother and Steve’s home, so he ended up staying with Vic, cooking Vic fabulous meals that he had learned from watching Julia Childs on television and making friends with a girl who lived down the road. Most importantly, Vic encouraged Sam to be himself, which led to him wearing Edie’s clothes and eventually attending a drag show with Vic, where he met and befriended the fabulous Fella Bitzgerald, who would play an important role in helping Sam to understand what it was to be transgender and that she, Sam, wasn’t alone, or the only person in the world who felt that she had been born in the wrong body.

Reading back over what I’ve written, I noticed that I’ve started by calling Sam a boy then changed to calling her a girl as she realised who she wanted to be. I dithered over the pronoun (political correctness can be a minefield) but have gone with my initial choice as I felt the change in Sam’s pronoun as the story developed reflected her decision to be the person who she wanted to be.

Unfortunately some of the plot devices were both predictable and unlikely, such as Sam becoming an extraordinarily capable chef simply by watching Julia Childs’ videos and some characters are ridiculously over the top, such as Sam’s friend Aggie who is a particularly enthusiastic conversationalist and Steve’s depiction as a violent crim, but I still sat up late over two nights to finish reading Honeybee. I was left feeling hopeful for Sam’s future and will be happy to read Craig Silvey’s next book, whenever that might be.

My purchase of Honeybee by Craig Silvey begins my New Year’s resolution for 2021 to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2021 (January).

The Lost Girls by Jennifer Spence

The Lost Girls by Australian author Jennifer Spence’s main character Stella dozed off on a bus on her way home from a day shopping in Sydney and woke up twenty years in the past.

Dazed, Stella returned to her old home where confusingly, she met her younger self, her husband, son and daughter. On the spur of the moment Stella told her family that she was their Aunt Linda who had gone missing years ago so she would have somewhere to stay. Stella/Linda slotted uneasily back into her family home and eventually began meddling in family events to try and change her and her family’s futures.

Stella/Linda began by encouraging her son Julian to break up with his girlfriend. She also encouraged her daughter Claire not to get involved with particular friends as she knew they would later introduce her daughter to drugs with tragic results. After these changes occurred Stella/Linda’s ‘memory’ of the future also changed, but unfortunately the future did not always turn out to be better.

When Stella/Linda visited her mother, who in her future had since died, her mother knew the woman in front of her was not her long-lost sister Linda but she could not believe either that she was a future version of Stella. To convince her mother she was telling the truth Stella/Linda ‘predicted’ the death of Princess Diana and a series of other world events.

As well as meddling in the events of the past, Stella/Linda also tried to find out what actually happened to her mother’s sister Linda, who had mysteriously disappeared many years ago while still a teenager.

I liked the story and the setting. I also liked that Stella/Linda wasn’t able to create a perfect ending for herself or her family and that for every action she took, there was a reaction. I think a Sydney reader would enjoy the present-day and 1997 Sydney settings of The Lost Girls.

You Belong Here by Laurie Steed

You Belong Here is by Australian author Laurie Steed. The story begins in 1972 with Jen and Steven at the beginning of their married life. As the years passed everyday life overwhelmed them and their family fell apart.

Jen and Steven married young. Full of hope for the future, they moved from Melbourne to Perth when Jen was pregnant with their first child. The lack of family support for the young couple in Perth wasn’t touched on in the story but in real life, that would probably have been a reason why several years later when they had three children, Steven and Jen were feeling emotionally distant from both each other and their children and she was having an affair.

Soon after Jen’s affair became known to Steven he moved out of the family home and returned to the east coast of Australia for work. Like many children whose parents separated, Alex, Emily and Jay suffered terribly from the disintegration of their family.

Alex was a gorgeous boy whose heart was broken when his best friend suicided as a teenager. As an adult Alex struggled to remain emotionally connected to his family and other people in his life.

Emily seemly coped better with the loss of her father and her mother’s emotional distance, but as the story progressed she continually made poor choices in her relationships with family and boyfriends.

Jay, the baby of the family, needed professional help for his mental health by the time he was a teenager, something that at that time brought with it an enormous stigma, an aspect which was not considered in the story telling.

The story moved quickly through the years and passed from one family member to another.

I think a reader who knows and loves Perth would feel at home in this book. I liked that the story ended with hope for the characters and that despite their individual and family disfunction, they still recognised they were a family.

My purchase of You Belong Here by Laurie Steed went towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (September).

I ordered this book from Margaret River Press.

The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta

I loved The Place on Dalhousie by Australian author Melina Marchetta and was happy to re-meet some of the characters from her other novels, Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son. For those who haven’t read either, don’t be put off as The Place on Dalhousie also stands alone.

Rosie was assisting elderly people sheltering at the local hall during a flood crisis in a rural Queensland town when she met Jimmy, who was working with the State Emergency Service to rescue trapped people. Jimmy had only been in town for a week, stuck there after his beloved Monaro was stolen while he was at a service station. Rosie had been in town a little longer, abandoned by her no-good boyfriend who had taken all of her money when he left.

After the flood crisis ended Rosie returned to her home in Sydney. When she learned she was pregnant she phoned Jimmy and left a message telling him the news, but he lost his phone and didn’t get the message. Although he often thought about Rosie he didn’t have her contact details and didn’t try to contact her again.

The story restarted again a year or so after the flood, but this time it followed Martha, Rosie’s stepmother. Martha and Seb, Rosie’s father, had married less than a year after Rosie’s mother died of breast cancer and Rosie had been unable to forgive either of them so left home as a teenager, travelling to Italy to be with her grandmother then back to Australia where she lived with one loser boyfriend after another. Before Rosie and her father could reconcile, he died in a terrible accident.

When Martha’s section of the story began she was living downstairs while Rosie and the baby lived in the upstairs rooms of the house that Seb built. Neither woman was prepared to budge on the question of whose home it was.

Jimmy returned to Sydney after finding his phone and hearing Rosie’s message, a year too late, but although he wanted to see Rosie again he wasn’t convinced that he was the baby’s father. Jimmy was a good bloke, even though he had been brought up in a family who struggled with domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse. His friends worried that he might disappear from his son’s life if things became too difficult for him.

When Jimmy arrived he found Rosie to be suffering from post-natal depression and feeling isolated. The hostility between Rosie and Martha made their home a miserable place.

There was a cast of thousands in this book and sometimes I had trouble remembering where everyone fitted in with the story. At the beginning of Martha’s section, she had just reconnected with her High School friends with whom she formed a netball team (nothing has changed since I used to play, everyone wants to be a goal shooter or centre). Jimmy also had a large group of friends, many of whom were characters from Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son, and Rosie eventually made some friends too, from a mother’s group. Rosie and Martha’s Italian neighbours on Dalhousie Street also played a part in creating a story about what it means to be part of a family, a friendship groups and a community.

Breast cancer is another theme that ran through this story. Martha and Seb got to know each other in hospital as Martha’ mother, who also died from breast cancer, had become friends with Rosie’s mother while being treated for the disease. Martha and Rosie had in common the fear of what their own future with the disease held for them.

At times the character’s lives were so complicated and difficult that I didn’t know how they would resolve their issues, or even get their problems to a manageable level.

Jimmy and the baby and funnily enough, Jimmy’s stolen Monaro are the threads that eventually tied the family together.

I loved The Place on Dalhousie as much as I did Looking for Alibrandi and I’m sure that other Melina Marchetta fans will too.

My purchase of The Place on Dalhousie by Melina Marchetta went towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (September).

Bruny by Heather Rose

Bruny is a cracking read by Australian author Heather Rose. I wasn’t very far into this political thriller before I felt as if I couldn’t put the book down. Being kept exceptionally busy by my work when I wanted to read it was a torment.

The story is set in the near-future on Bruny Island off the coast of Hobart in Tasmania. When a six-lane bridge that the Tasmanian government was building from the mainland to Bruny Island with Chinese funding was bombed by an unknown perpetrator, the Tasmanian Premier, JC Coleman asked his twin sister Astrid, a mediator for the UN, to come home from New York to negotiate a truce between the various factions who were either for or against the bridge. To further complicate the Coleman family’s dynamics, Astrid and JC’s half-sister Maxine was the leader of the Opposition party.

Astrid’s first question was to learn why JC’s government were building a bridge to Bruny Island at all. Although the island’s population swelled during holiday times, the island only had around 600 permanent residents and was already well served by a ferry. Astrid met with various groups on and off the island, from birdwatchers to Friends of Bruny, business owners, as well as sea-changers and climate-changers who had more recently moved to the island from the Australian mainland. She also met with politicians from all sides of state and federal politics and with the bridge builders. Everyone had a different opinion about the bridge and the future of the island.

After the bridge was bombed JC brought in a contingent of Chinese workers to work on it with the aim of having the bridge completed in time for the next State Election, despite the use of Chinese labour being unpopular with his voters. Astrid was convinced by this time that there was a much bigger picture that she was missing although she continued to work to keep all parties calm while carrying out her investigations.

The use of Chinese capital to build this fictitious bridge was topical with so much current scrutiny on Australian states partnering with China in belt and road initiatives.

I liked the family dynamics in the story. Despite being on opposite sides of politics the Coleman family were generally loving and were genuinely trying to do their best for Tasmania in their political roles. The sibling’s father, who had also been a successful Tasmanian politician until his retirement, had recently had a stroke when the story began and was only able to communicate using Shakespearean quotes, while their mother, a deeply unpleasant woman, was undergoing cancer treatment. There were also a younger generation of the family who were uninvolved in the political side of the plot although they added to the personal story.

Astrid was a terrific lead character. She was middle aged with grown-up children, divorced, extremely successful in her career and very, very clever. There was a hint of romance for her with one of the more down-to-earth characters which I liked too. This was a very full story with political intrigue, family drama, conspiracies and huge problems for Tasmania, Australia and the rest of the world, with climate change driving everything. When I finally got to the plot’s reveal, I was genuinely shocked.

Bruny has a very strong sense of place. The story made it clear that Tasmanians see themselves as Tasmanians first and Australians second. The story also raised questions about how Australians from the mainland see Tasmania.

I enjoyed Bruny enormously and am very keen to read further novels by this author.

My purchase of Bruny by Heather Rose goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (August).

The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell

The Drover’s Wife by Australian author Leah Purcell is an interesting spin on the classic Australia short story of the same name by Henry Lawson. I believe Leah Purcell originally created this story as a play which was very well regarded.

Henry Lawson’s version tells the story of a resilient woman alone with her young children as she waits to kill a snake which has disappeared under their outback hut.

In Leah Purcell’s version the heroine is named Molly Johnson. Molly, her four children and their dog, Alligator, live in a remote bush hut near the Snowy Mountains in the 1890s. Molly’s husband Joe is a drover and at the time of the story has been away droving cattle for several months. When the story begins Molly is heavily pregnant with her sixth child, although only four are living.

Molly’s lot in life is hard. Her mother died when she was born and although she was brought up by a loving father, when he was dying he arranged for her to marry Joe Johnson, who turned out to be a drunken bully and a philanderer. Life was easier for Molly when Joe was away droving for months at a time, even though she still had to deal with floods, snakes, threatening swaggies and starvation while suffering extreme poverty. Despite this, Molly’s love for her children and theirs for her made her hardships bearable.

Things become complicated for Molly when the new Sergeant from the nearest town unexpectedly visited and took the children to town with him so they could get supplies. While Molly was alone an Aboriginal man who has escaped custody for an alleged murder arrived just as she went into labour. Despite his kindness in helping her to deliver her stillborn baby Molly was frightened and wary of Yadaka, however she used an axe to remove the iron collar from his neck and allowed him to stay on the property until the full moon.

When Molly’s eldest son, Danny returned from town without the younger children Yadaka taught him about what it meant to be a man. At the same time, the new Sergeant had become worried about Molly and the whereabouts of her husband Joe.

The story covers some big topics, including what it meant to be an Aboriginal person at this time with no rights, no voice and no respect. Other issues included the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, domestic violence, rape and extreme poverty.

My enjoyment of the story was regularly interrupted by what I felt was the¬†wrong words and phrases being used. Early in the story Molly talked about her hormones, but I’m fairly sure that Australian bush¬†women in 1913 would not have even heard the word hormone, although how Molly was feeling as a result of them is timeless. Another example of a word choice that felt wrong to me was a reference to country to describe Yadaka’s connection to his family and his own area which felt too contemporary for this story. The character’s conversations didn’t always ring true either, for the same reasons.

I also didn’t like the idea of Molly and Yadaka’s sexual attraction to each other as I felt the timing was wrong. I don’t believe that a woman who has just given birth for the sixth time, let alone to a still-born child would feel anything like lust for any man, no matter how wonderful he might seem to her at another time.

So, while I thought the actual story was good and would love to see The Drover’s Wife performed as a play or even as a movie, the book wasn’t as good as it should have been. The author’s note at the end of the book says that she failed English at school and while this makes her achievements all the more remarkable, a harder edit would have improved the book.

Leah Purcell is a Goa, Gunggari, Wakka Wakka Murri woman from Queensland.

My purchase of The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (July).

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