Tag Archives: review

A rediscovered slice of Sydney’s history – ‘The Floating Garden’ by Emma Ashmere

29 May

the floating gardenThe Floating Garden is the debut novel by Northern Rivers local, Emma Ashmere. It is set in Sydney in the 1920s, where the arches of the Harbour Bridge are still making their way through the air towards each other. Down below in Milson’s Point, a colony of misfits are losing their homes as construction proceeds.

The Floating Garden interweaves the stories of two women. Ellis is an eccentric who runs a boarding house for women and girls while Rennie is an artistic Englishwoman in an unhappy marriage. When Rennie plucks up the courage to leave her abusive husband, she finds a temporary home in Ellis’s guesthouse, which is about to be demolished.

Both women look to each other to provide security – Ellis needs money, while Rennie needs a bolt-hole to hide out from her husband. As her Milson’s Point home disintegrates, Ellis relives her escape to Sydney at the age of sixteen. Her unlikely saviour was the charismatic, scheming theosophist, Minerva Stranks. She also hints at a troubled liaison in the past with Minerva’s protégé, the fragile Kitty.

I loved so many things about this book, but the characters were especially delightful. Ellis has many secrets, not least of which is her anonymous authorship of a controversial gardening column under the name of Scribbly Gum. The flamboyant Rennie hails from a life of privilege and has a hard time adjusting to her new circumstances in the poorer part of town. Her effort to blend in and cope with her situation provides a subtle touch of humour. I also enjoyed learning more about theosophy – a spiritual belief system which was very popular in the 1920s.

An early review has compared this book to Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and there certainly are some similarities. Both books explore the wider events in society through the lens of the people affected and both focus on a working class group of colourful individuals. Like Tim Winton, Emma Ashmere has a fine hand with exuberant Australian types.

The author has a PhD focusing on the use of marginalised histories in fiction and her novel does a superb job of bringing this fragment of our past to attention. The Floating Garden is a beautifully written, gently humorous and highly detailed slice of history. It also has an absorbing story-line which kept me turning the page.

This is my third review for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The house with a ‘poo corner’ – ‘Home Truths’ by Mandy Nolan

11 May

Home-Truths-final-cover-724x1024‘Home Truths’ is Mandy Nolan’s third comedic memoir, following hot on the heels of ‘Boyfriends We’ve All Had (But Shouldn’t Have)’ and ‘What I Would Do If I Were You.’ In ‘Home Truths’ she turns her shrewd gaze to all things domestic. And as it turns out, the home is a very funny place.

As a child, Mandy used to wander the streets at night, looking into other people’s windows. She enjoyed the surreptitious peek into their private world. This book is an extension of that early fascination, asking the question – who are we when we close the door?

Mandy introduces us to her childhood, in a small town near Kingaroy, which was of course Joh Bjelke-Petersen heartland at the time. Here in Wondai, she develops a syndrome that stays with her – Fear of Missing Out on Living Somewhere Better.

Leaving Wondai for university, she hooks up with a wild bunch of girls in a share house in Brisbane. This quickly becomes a squalid mess, with a special feature ‘poo corner.’ The girls are too lazy to train their cats to use the kitty litter. This hideous living experience is the harbinger of Mandy’s later self-confessed cleaning fetish.

Moving up in the world, we venture into the stressful territory of home building. Here Mandy meets the ‘coping guy’ who she imagines as, ‘some sort of super dude who can handle demanding, difficult and obstreperous women like me. I’m up for the challenge…’

Via homelessness and living alone we land in the fashion-challenged life of the ‘at home worker.’ Popping down for a coffee in a pair of black pyjamas Mandy is told that she looks ‘very corporate.’ It’s easy to let standards slip in a town like Mullumbimby.

Mandy delves deep into the psyche of the home – the psychology of missing socks, the optimum number of decorating cushions and the difficult art of Feng Shui. ‘Why change your behaviour when all you have to do is move the bed?’ Boarding up her daughter’s room seems the best solution to a tricky Feng Shui problem in her house.

Full of laugh out loud and uncomfortably honest moments, ‘Home Truths’ is an incisive and exuberant examination at our homemaking instincts.

This review first apppeared in the Northern Rivers Echo.

 

Mandy is launching ‘Home Truths’ in Lismore on May 14. Tickets from the Book Warehouse on 66214204.

I will be on a panel with Mandy Nolan at Bellingen Writers Festival on June 7.

This is my second review for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

An insightful look at morality – His Other House by Sarah Armstrong

29 Mar

his other house‘His Other House’ is Sarah Armstrong’s second book, coming ten years after her Miles Franklin shortlisted debut novel, ‘Salt Rain.’ Both books are set in the Northern Rivers Region and the lush environment is an intrinsic part of the story.

‘His Other House’ is a tense domestic drama focusing on a love triangle of sorts. The book was inspired, Armstrong says, by a news story she read about a man who lived a double life with two wives and two families for many years.

Quinn is a doctor whose marriage is pushed to its limits by efforts to have a much longed-for child. A succession of IVF rounds and miscarriages leave him drained and needing a break, but his wife Marianna wants to press on with another attempt. She can’t see how her life will ever be complete without a child.

While Quinn lives in Brisbane he is doing a stint as a visiting doctor in Corimbi, a town much like Mullumbimby. Here he meets Rachel, a disillusioned journalist taking a break from her job. A night-time swim in the town pool leads to an unplanned kiss and soon Quinn and Rachel are involved in a passionate affair.

Quinn’s intention to leave Marianna is tested when she unexpectedly falls naturally pregnant. It is at this stage that the tension ratchets up. Quinn decides to keep his relationship with Rachel a secret, a decision which involves him in a web of lies. ‘He was dismayed how readily he took to lying. He’d always thought of it as a decisive abandonment of the truth. Instead, he realised, it was simply a matter of one word slipping into the place of another.’ While it would be easy to judge Quinn, by now we know him so well that we can only empathise, even if we suspect that it’s going to end badly.

The time this novel has taken to come to fruition shows in its insight and many delightful turns of phrase. As in ‘Salt Rain’ Sarah’s writing is evocative and striking.  While all the characters are believable and finely drawn, it is the children who linger most strongly in my memory. ‘His Other House’ is both a page-turner and a powerful story of morality within relationships.

This review originally appeared in the Northern Rivers Echo.

This is my first review of 2015 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Better late than never!aww-badge-2015

Gripping and haunting – My review of ‘An Untamed State’

19 Feb

untamed stateRoxanne Gay’s debut novel is the story of Mireille, a woman of Haitian descent, who is kidnapped when she and her American husband return to Haiti to visit her wealthy parents. Haiti, it turns out, is the kidnapping capital of the world. Mireille is held for ransom, ‘by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin. . . .’

Mireille’s father, she knows, has always made a point of his refusal to negotiate with kidnappers. For thirteen days, while her father rejects ransom demands, she is held captive.

‘An Untamed State’ is both gripping and difficult to read. The graphic descriptions of the sexual and physical abuse Mireille suffers at the hands of her captors are haunting. As her days in captivity pass, Mireille loses sight of her own identity. Freed at last, she believes it is too late, she is already dead.

The complex characters are a strength of the novel. Flashbacks to Mireille and Michael’s courtship and to that of her parents allow us to understand better the situation they are now facing. Mireille’s father believes he has to save the whole family, not just Mireille. He tells the story of a colleague who paid out kidnapper after kidnapper until he was bankrupted. He needs to show that he will not be broken. There is a protocol to follow – a negotiator is hired.

Michael, Mireille’s husband, loves and cares for her, but is initially able to deal with the broken remains of his wife when she is finally released. Ultimately, it is Mireille’s relationship with Michael’s mother which is to prove most important to her. Gay clearly has a good understanding of the lingering effects of rape.

The novel paints a stark portrait of Haiti, a place of ‘so much beauty, so much brutality.’ One of the most shocking parts for me was the way in which bystanders watched passively as Mireille was dragged from her car in the street. Even when she escapes from her captors, she can find no help in the slum where she is held.

While the violence in the novel means that it is not for the faint-hearted, ‘An Untamed State’ is a feisty, intelligent and page-turning read.

 

I have been out and about talking about ‘Arkie’s Pilgrimage to the Next Big Thing’ and still have a few events to go on the Gold Coast, Brisbane and Byron Bay (see below) so if you’d like to come along I’d love to see you there.

Thursday 26 February 2015

10:30 AM             Event – Elanora Library, The Pines Shopping Centre Guineas Creek Road, Elanora QLD

This is a free event but bookings are recommended by phoning the library on (07) 5581 1671.

Friday 27 February 2015

10:00am                 Victoria Point Library, 7/15 Bunker Road, Victoria Point QLD 4165

This is a free event but booking are recommended on (07) 3884 4000

Thursday 12th March

6pm. Mary Ryans Bookshop, Byron Bay – I will be in conversation with Jennifer St George and Mandy Nolan. More details to come!

Optimistic and full of a sense of wonder – my review of ‘Nest’ by Inga Simpson

28 Jul

 

Inga-Simpson-Nest-230x350‘She was trying to capture the wild – the essence of leaf, flower and bird.’ Jen, the protagonist of Inga Simpson’s book, ‘Nest’ is an artist, a drawer of birds. After a relationship breakup and her mother’s death, Jen returns to the town she grew up in. There, she regenerates her patch of land and draws the many birds attracted by her birdbath.

 

Jen leads an isolated life. With the exception of her young pupil Henry, who she is teaching to draw, she has little social contact. It is through Henry that she learns a girl from the town has gone missing. The loss of Caitlin brings back memories from Jen’s past and another missing child, Michael.

 

The mystery of the missing children provides a dark undercurrent to Jen’s simple life on her property. As we get to know Jen we learn more about the hurts she is holding inside. Returning home requires her to come to terms with her own history, in particular the disappearance of her father. Revelations fall one on top of the other as the story unfolds.

 

One of the delightful things about this book is the way it immerses us in the natural world.  Inga is an accomplished nature writer and her love of wild places comes out through her character’s observations. The birds and the bush are described in warm detail – ‘The limbs of the brush-box tended to horizontal, like a reaching arm, and their leaves were large and flattish. They not only held the sunlight, but emitted a glow of their own, as if illuminated from within.’

 

Jen is a complex character whose relationship with Henry is touching and authentic.  A lover of nests and tall trees, she learned to climb into the canopy with her former partner, Craig –  ‘… once up in the mist, among salamanders and lichens and liverworts barely seen by another human being, she had found her tree legs.’

 

Like Inga’s previous novel, ‘Mr Wigg’, ‘Nest’ is a gently told book, written in simple, evocative prose. Despite the missing children, it is optimistic and full of a childlike sense of wonder at our world.  The story plays out at a steady pace with the lost children adding a page-turning backbone.  Reading ‘Nest’ left me with a hankering to curl up a tree and have the wind blow me to sleep.

 

Inga Simpson will be appearing at the Byron Bay Writers Festival this weekend. Read more about Inga here.

This is my fourth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014.

 

Innocent desire clashes with the wider world – My review of ‘Deeper Water’ by Jessie Cole

27 Jul

cov_deeperwater (1)‘They say every hero has to leave home, but what those first steps are like I’m yet to know,’ reads the first line of Jessie Cole’s second novel, ‘Deeper Water’.  Jessie draws us at once into the distinct and unusual world of her protagonist, Mema. Already we can intuit that this is a novel about awakening.

Mema lives with her mother in an isolated valley in northern New South Wales – a place of green hills and flooding creeks. Home schooled and naive for her age, Mema has an almost pagan attachment to her land, to the creek that runs through it and the animals –native, feral and domestic – which it supports.

Men are always passing through Mema’s world, only the women stay. Her four brothers and various fathers are long since gone, swallowed up by the wider world. But when she rescues a stranger whose car has been washed off a bridge, just like that everything changes. Even though the stranger, Hamish, is the most ‘passing through’ of men he captures Mema’s interest. A tentative longing builds for Hamish and what he represents – the outside world.

Despite the beauty of Mema’s creek-side home, it is no rural idyll. Their local town has an ugly side and the ‘knowns and the unknowns’ in Mema’s past form a darker undercurrent to the story. Mema’s relationship with Anja, a wild girl who grew up sleeping in a tree hollow, also adds tension. Threatened by the addition of Hamish to their tight friendship, Anja creates ripples that spread in unpredictable directions.

Like Jessie’s first book, ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’, this novel is distinctive for its careful observations that bring us into Mema’s world. Mema listens to the chickens’ ‘morning clucks’ and imagines her siblings’ fathers ‘washed up like survivors of a shipwreck, lost and beaten by the waves.’

The writing is candid about the pain of first love and longing. But this is not only a story about sexual awakening; ‘Deeper Water’ also explores environmental themes with a light-handed touch. Hamish, an environmental consultant, clashes with Mema over his views on cats and cane toads. Gender relationships are also questioned – when seeing Anja, Hamish comments on her beauty. But Anja is many things, Mema thinks, and beautiful is only one of them.

‘Deeper Water’ is a sensuous portrayal of what happens when innocent desire clashes with the hardened edges of the wider world. Mema will linger in your mind for some time after you close the pages.

 

‘Deeper Water’ will be launched at the Byron Bay Writers Festival this Friday. Read more about Jessie here. 

This is my third post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge
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Lighthouses and Shipwrecks – my review of ‘Coast’ by Ian Hoskins

20 Jun

Coast-A-History-of-the-New-South-Wales-Edge-by-Ian-Hoskins-610x734In these days of sea-change and the fight for sea views, it’s hard to imagine a time when we shunned the beaches. But our obsession with the coast is a relatively recent one, according to historian, Ian Hoskins. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, our national identity was much more closely linked to the rolling plains and mountains. The early colonists, Hoskins says, avoided living near the beach.

Hoskins has set himself quite a task – to write the first history of the entire NSW coast. Hoskins’ first book, ‘Sydney Harbour: A history’ won the history section of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards in 2010. In ‘Coast’, he now sets out to explore our relationship with this 2000 kilometre stretch of shore.

In delving into this subject Hoskins covers a broad territory. Chapters include natural and indigenous history, colonisation, convicts, fishing, lighthouses, surfing and the sea change phenomenon. He points out how as we journey along our coast, we can see traces of all the uses that have come before. Aboriginal fish traps and lighthouses have given way to coastal mansions.

The chapter on the people and politics behind the growth of harbours and shipping makes for fascinating reading. As shipping grew in the colony, so did the shipwrecks. By 1921 1300 vessels had been wrecked on the NSW coast, many disappearing without trace. These disasters led to a call for the coast to be ‘…illuminated like a street with lamps.’ The first lighthouse keeper was established at South Head in 1818 and by 1901 twenty-two lighthouses shone along the NSW coast.

Lightkeepers had to be hardy in these remote locations.  Being a lightkeeper, Hoskins says, was ‘a curious mix of the freedom that comes from inhabiting a near-empty landscape and the regimentation that follows such responsibility.’ His stories include that of the plucky lightkeeper at Cape St George, who took to shark fishing to support his eleven children.   It does seem an enviable lifestyle from the vantage of these overbusy times. But even in the late 1800s a visitor to Montague Island noted that, ‘These people are contented enough, and perhaps there are few of us in the bustling crowd, surrounded with problems that are driving the world crazy, as happy as the residents of this lonely sea-girt island.’

‘Coast’ is a beautifully laid out book with many colour and black and white photos, maps and paintings adding to its charm. Written in a readable style and researched in incredible detail through primary and secondary sources, it will satisfy even the most avid coast lover.

This review initially appeared in Inside History.

I’m looking forward to chairing a panel on lighthouses with Ian Hoskins and ML Stedman, author of ‘The Light Between Oceans’, at the Byron Bay Writers Festival in August.

Tenderness, suspense and dementia – my review of ‘The Night Guest’, Fiona McFarlane

20 Mar

the night guestThe Night Guest is the debut novel by Australian author Fiona McFarlane. This surprising and assured story has just been short-listed for this year’s Stella Prize for Australian Women Writers.

The protagonist of the novel, Ruth, is an elderly woman living on her own in a house by the sea, somewhere on the New South Wales coast. One night she wakes up, thinking she hears a tiger in the house. But she is just imagining it, she tells herself.

Next morning, a woman called Frida arrives at her door. She has been sent by the government, she says, to care for Ruth. Frida appears to Ruth to be Fijian, a characteristic which evokes her trust. Her childhood memories of Fiji press in on her more and more as she ages. But the longer Frida stays, the more reality and fantasy become confused in both Ruth’s and the reader’s mind.

Frida is a character who bursts from the page. Sometimes tender, sometimes fierce, she kept me entranced wondering what she was going to do next. A chameleon, Frida changes her hair daily and shrinks and grows almost magically, in Ruth’s eyes. Suspense grows as she gradually chips away at Ruth’s independence.

Ruth’s wandering lucidity makes her the perfect unreliable narrator. While the reader can fill in some gaps it is hard to know exactly what is going on. A scene where Frida fights the tiger filled me with dread, while doubting its reality at the same time. This element of the story adds a touch of magical realism which is left to the reader to interpret as they will.

The Night Guest was a standout read for me. Something of a psychological thriller, it also covers a wide emotional territory. Ruth’s memories of her first love Richard and her life with her husband interweave with her increasingly bizarre daily life. The story raises themes about aging, trust and dependence

McFarlane tells this story in simple but evocative prose. Inspired, she says, by both her grandmothers having dementia, it is a finely wrought picture of a mind coming undone.

This is a hard book to review without spoilers so I’m going to have to leave it there. Eerie, suspenseful and thought-provoking, I suspect that The Night Guest will be one of my top reads for this year.

My own story about dementia, which coincidentally also features a tiger and Fiji, featured in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on March 14. Read it here

This is my second post for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge

A Story within a Story: The Storyteller and his Three Daughters by Lian Hearn

14 Dec

the storytellerLian Hearn is the author of the best-selling Tales of the Otori series, which sold over four million copies worldwide. Her latest book, The Storyteller and his Three Daughters, is also set in Japan. The date is 1884 and the storyteller of the title is Sei, a master of the art.

While Sei is renowned for his storytelling, he is starting to feel that times are changing and his old way of telling stories is no longer enough. People in these modern times are craving more excitement, more drama, and more passion. Can he reinvent himself? Sei wonders.

Luckily, or unluckily for Sei, he has three daughters who bring plenty of problems into his life. Two of his daughters leave their husbands. One wants to become an author while the other thinks her husband is in love with his young male assistant.  His third daughter is married to a Kabuki theatre manager who is struggling to keep his show running in the face of rivalries and romance between his players.

The history of the time also provides an added layer of interest. Tensions between Japan and Korea escalate as Japan comes out of its period of isolation and embraces European ways. An English storyteller, Jack Green, gathers a wide audience while Sei ponders how painful those trouser things must be. Hearn’s own passion for Japan is evident as she immerses us in this fascinating culture.

The Storyteller and his Three Daughters is told as a story within a story. It is a reflection on the process of finding stories and telling them and how truth turns into fiction. Lian Hearn has talked about how she found this story. She had a number of the characters in her head – a former samurai, a female medical student, a Korean boy and a Japanese man who loves France – but it was only when Sei, the storyteller started to speak to her that she saw how they could all fit together.

This is a light hearted and in some ways whimsical book with many humorous moments. Lian Hearn is so clearly in charge of her own storytelling that she can take liberties that perhaps a lesser writer could not. Witty, romantic, suspenseful and thought provoking – what more could you ask for from a story?

This is my tenth (and probably final ) review for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2013.

Happy Christmas and I hope Santa brings you lots of books. I’m planning on tackling ‘The Luminaries’ by Eleanor Catton, which should keep me going for a while.

A traumatic coming of age story – Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’

2 Dec

Donna Tartt sprang to notice in 1992 with the bestselling ‘The Secret History’.  Her second book, ‘The Little Friend’ came out in 2002 and now, her eagerly awaited third novel, ‘The Goldfinch’ is here. That’s a long time between drinks, but it’s a novel worth waiting for.

‘The Goldfinch’ is the story of Theo, a boy whose life is ripped apart at the age of thirteen when his mother dies in an art museum bombing. Theo escapes from the building clutching his mother’s favourite painting. The Goldfinch — which is a real 17th century painting — is a priceless wthe goldfinchork of art. He also has a ring, given to him by a dying man with instructions on where to deliver it.

Despite his best intentions, Theo never quite manages to confess his theft. As time goes on — though still wracked with guilt — he becomes more and more attached to the painting. While he is initially taken in by the wealthy family of a friend, the painting goes with him to Las Vegas when his missing father arrives to claim him. His father – a professional gambler – lives in a sprawl of abandoned mansions on the edge of the desert.

In Vegas, Theo becomes close friends with Boris, a Russian immigrant, and the two neglected boys learn to fend for themselves. The habits of drugs and theft that the boys fall into are hard to escape.  Wherever Theo goes in his life, The Goldfinch casts a shadow, drawing him into the dark underbelly of the art world. This and his unrequited love for Pippa, a girl who also survived the museum bombing, creates a sadness and tension that he is unable to assuage.

‘The Goldfinch’ is a big book at almost 800 pages, but it never flags.   Tartt is a gifted author who provides that rare combination — an elegant turn of phrase and a cracking plot. Theo, Boris, Pippa and other secondary characters such as Theo’s father and his fiancée, Kitsey are all compelling and believable individuals. Tartt has cited Charles Dickens as a literary influence and her story has the same rollicking quality and deeply flawed characters.

‘The Goldfinch’ is a coming of age story, a reflection on the effects of early trauma and a wild ride. I found it deeply satisfying and hard to put down.