Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Australian novel’

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.

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).

Well-Behaved Women by Emily Paull

Well-Behaved Women by Australian author Emily Paull came to my attention after I read Whispering Gums’ review of this collection of short stories. You can read WG’s review here:

I didn’t think there were any weak links in this collection and can honestly say that I enjoyed and appreciated each story. They all featured contemporary Australian characters, most of whom were living in Western Australia. There was something in each story that resonated with me.

Miss Lovegrove is the story of a young, would-be actor and her relationship with the director of a play she is performing in. The director is a bitter former soap star who bullied her cast well past the point of abuse, who when challenged claimed that her actions would make the young woman the best future actor she could be.

Crying in Public tells the story of a woman whose grandmother inspired her to move on from the end of a relationship. While I felt sympathetic towards the narrator whose heart had been broken, I wanted to be the fearless grandmother who led by example.

Sister Madly Deeply is the story of a woman whose sister was dying of cancer. While this is a sad story it also allows the reader to feel hope, inspired by the character’s courage and to be reminded that mistakes can be rectified.

Dora contains the important information that “a diet can never make you as happy as a piece of blueberry cheesecake.” Now that’s a mantra I like.

A Thousand Words and Down South struck me as being particularly Western Australian, more so than any of the other stories in the collection possibly because both were set south of Perth in the Bunbury and Margaret River area.

The Woman at the Writer’s Festival and Picnic at Green’s Pool are mysteries with unreliable narrators. Both stories left me wondering what really happened.

My favourite story in the collection was The Things We Rescued. As the narrator and her husband fled a bushfire with a random assortment of possessions they stopped to collect a homeless woman, who, after being persuaded to flee with them, abandoned her own possessions because they were just junk.

The book title, Well-Behaved Women, is explained by a sentence on the book’s covering suggesting that well-behaved women rarely make history. Maybe not, but well-behaved or otherwise, women’s stories are worth telling and hearing, just the same. This book is a terrific debut from an author who I’ll be glad to read more of.

My purchase of Well-Behaved Women by Emily Paull completed my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2020 (December). I enjoyed this resolution so much that I intend to do this again throughout 2021.

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).

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson

Extinctions by Australian author Josephine Wilson won Australia’s most prestigious literary award, the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2017.

The main character, Professor Frederic Lothian is a widower in his late sixties who recently moved into a retirement village in Perth, Australia. Before retiring from work Fred was an engineer who specialised in concrete structures. When the story started Fred was living a reclusive life, swamped by the modernist furniture and clutter from his former home which he was unable to part with, dodging personal relationships and avoiding thinking about his son and daughter, both of whom he has abandoned in different ways.

I struggled with Fred’s coldness during the first half of the book. Fred had lived a lifetime of not getting emotionally involved with other people, not interfering, not going out of his way to assist or understand other people and never giving anything of himself to others when an accident which he could have prevented by interceding occurred and he met his next-door-neighbour, Jan, who forced him to understand that his behaviour was selfish, particularly towards his own family members.

Fred’s daughter Caroline lives in London where she was working to create a museum exhibition of extinct species. Caroline, who is Aboriginal, was adopted by Fred and his wife Martha. Caroline struggles with her father’s lack of accountability, particularly after her mother’s death when she was left to manage the care of her brother Callum alone. Callum had been in a care facility for many years after suffering brain-damage in an accident which Fred contributed to.

By the second half of the book, I was a lot more interested in Fred and the other character’s stories. Bit by bit, because of Jan forcing Fred to discuss and take ownership of his life, we learn why Fred is the way he is, the ins and outs of his marriage with Martha, and what Caroline makes of it all.

The timeline of the story is ridiculous, in that Fred changed from being a selfish old git to becoming the man he should always have been after 24 hours of emotionally prodding by Jan, not to mention that all of the loose ends were neatly tied up by the end of the book. I didn’t feel a strong sense of ‘Australian-ness’ with this story either, although the boo does cover some very big Australian issues. However, I did enjoy Extinctions overall and thought the writing was very good. I also like the idea that it is never to late to be a better person.

**Spoiler alert** If anyone else has read this, please let me know if you think that Ralph was Callum’s father.

Wimmera by Mark Brandi

wimmera

Wimmera is the debut novel of Australian author Mark Brandi, who won the 2016 Crime Writer’s Association Debut Dagger Award for this novel.

To begin with, for non-Australian readers, the Wimmera is a district in the north-west of Victoria. It is mostly flat, except for the Grampians mountain range, with a handful of remote small towns. Summers in the Wimmera are harsh and these days the towns are dying as they become less viable in their farming communities.

Wimmera is the story of two primary school-aged boys, Ben and Fab, who were friends growing up during the late 1980s in Stawell, one of the larger towns in the Wimmera district.

There is a strong sense of unease around the normality in this town. A girl from Ben’s street suicides by hanging herself on the clothesline in the backyard, and very soon after a creepy bloke who likes Ben a bit too much moves in to her old house. Fab is bullied at school, and although Ben is able to protect him at school, he is unable to help Fab at home when his father belts him and his mother.

I’m not all that familiar with teenage boys, and it is a long time since I was a teenage girl who thought teenage boys were great, but I found the portrayal of Ben’s growing sexuality to be sordid and confused, and the shadow over him left me feeling unhappy and disturbed.

Ben and Fab grow up and go their separate ways, but when a body is found years later their paths cross again. There are two time-lines in this story, the first of the boys as children and the second of Fab as an adult, trapped in Stawell but dreaming of a better life.

The story brought back a lot of memories for me from the 1980s, from watching The Wonder Years on television to the prestige which came from owning certain types of sneakers, although these happier memories didn’t make up for the terrible things that some of the adult characters did to the children. While the violence and cruelty is not explicit, Wimmera is not a story for those who cannot stomach cruelty done to children by evil men.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Mark Brandi’s works in the future, but would prefer him to write a more palatable class of crime.

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