Category Archives: Australian Books

Big Little Lies

This book is generating a bit of attention lately because of the TV adaptation that was released earlier this year starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Alexander Skarsgård. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to watch the series (but I’ll keep my thoughts on Foxtel to myself), so I thought I’d give the book a go and see what the hype is about.

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“Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty is a novel set in a small coastal community in Australia. The story follows single mother Jane who has just moved to Pirriwee Peninsular and has enrolled her little boy Ziggy into kindergarten. Although she forms a friendship with fiery Madeline and beautiful Celeste, two other mums with kids in Ziggy’s class, an incident on orientation day sets her offside with another parent. Meanwhile, Madeline grapples with a teenage daughter who is spending more time with her ex-husband and his new wife, and Celeste struggles to make sense of the brittle veneer of her seemingly perfect life.

I was surprised by this book. I think I have a lot of automatic prejudice against chick-lit or books that seem a bit mumsy. This book in particular has a strong focus on the interpersonal relationships between the kindergarten mums (and dad) at Pirawee Public and I was expecting it to be a bit…well…suburban. What I found was a book of significant depth with a wry and sometimes irreverent tone that tackled some heavy issues such as domestic violence and sexual assault. Moriarty has a real talent when it comes to her characters, and in particular I enjoyed the humerous interjections at the beginning and ending of chapters of various characters giving their amusing (and often contradictory) opinions about events as they unfolded.

I think probably the only think that frustrated me about this book was that the characters, while interesting and engaging, weren’t particularly diverse. Without mentioning any spoilers, there was a particular reveal about a character late in the book that I thought wasn’t very well done and which marred the story somewhat.

Nevertheless, this is a fun read that balances flippant jokes against serious insights. I was pleasantly surprised and I think it will do a lot to break down the stigma of domestic violence.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

The Natural Way of Things

This book was already on my radar before it won the Stella Prize. It really got on my radar when I saw the author speak at the National Library in March. I was so stoked to hear what she had to say and get my book signed.

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“The Natural Way of Things” by Charlotte Wood is a book that I’m a bit reluctant to give too much background to. Two women wake up to find themselves drugged and in an unknown place. As the drugs wear off, they begin to understand the severity of their situation. Humiliated, degraded and isolated by an unlikely pair of guards, they realise that they are one of a group of ten women. As time goes on, what it is that links the women together begins to come clear and the power the guards wield over them begins to grow more tenuous.

First things first, this is the best book I’ve read so far this year. It is utterly compelling, unbelievably disturbing and uncomfortable in how close it hits to home. Wood is an extremely tactile writer and captures the full range of human experiences both physical and emotional. Although the location is fictional, the detail is so vivid and so…Australian that imagining it is effortless. Again, I don’t really want to give too much away about this book because I really believe it is an experience that you should simply let wash over you. Nevertheless, I do want to say some things about the characters. It was pretty appalling to me how familiar the characters of Teddy and Boncer were when I was reading about them. How people who consider themselves to be so unique end up being the worst kind of followers.

Reading this book, it’s impossible not to imagine yourself in the shoes of these women and wonder how you yourself would react in such a situation. I think the only criticism I could possibly have about this book is that Wood really demands a lot from her readers. She is deliberately vague about a lot of the details of the story, the “before” and “after” of the narrative. Although I think it’s largely a good thing (I think a lot of modern books suffer from bad cases of “tell” instead of “show), there are points where the lack of information can border on the frustrating.

Anyway, this is a phenomenal, visceral book that is confronting as it is engrossing. I read it a few weeks ago but I still find myself flashing back to it and thinking about it. I would highly recommend this book, and it winning the Stella Prize was no accident.

 

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil

Melina Marchetta has been the trailblazer of Australian teen fiction since the early 1990s, so I was really excited when she came to speak at Muse in Canberra not too long ago. A quietly thoughtful and articulate speaker, afterwards she kindly stayed back to sign copies of her latest novel.

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“Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil” is a modern mystery thriller set in France and the UK. Chief Inspector Bish Ortley has been temporarily relieved of his police duties after an incident with a colleague when he gets a disturbing call from an old friend. A bus has been blown up in France and his daughter, who is away on camp, was on it. Pulling himself together enough to drive over the Chunnel, Bish finds out that his daughter was not the only person of interest on that bus. Another teen, Violette LeBrac, is the daughter of the infamous Noor LeBrac who is serving a life sentence for her involvement in a bombing in London many years earlier. When Violette disappears taking another teen with her, Bish finds himself leading the hunt to find her. Along the way, he finds himself forced to face his demons, past and present.

This is an interesting, compelling and relevant story with many, many layers. Marchetta is second to none when it comes to exploring the teenage psyche and she definitely has not lost her touch with the advent of the internet and social media. After writing about the Italian immigrant experience in Australia, Marchetta does a convincing job tackling the Middle Eastern experience in Europe. Her exploration of race is multifaceted and informed, and Bish’s own complex identity is a valuable conduit between two very polarised experiences. Although there were times where I felt the characters were perhaps a little too virtuous, the rest of the story more than made up for it and I found myself staying awake way too late to finish this one.

A cracking read that couldn’t be timed better. Reading this book is like having your finger on the pulse of Europe.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller, Signed Books, Uncategorized

The Case Against Fragrance

So I’ve held off on writing this review because, strictly speaking, I didn’t buy this book for myself. It isn’t very long, so even though I got it signed for my Grandma a couple of weeks ago when I saw Kate Grenville speak at the National Library of Australia, I had a cheeky flip through before I put it in the post.

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“The Case Against Fragrance” by Kate Grenville is a non-fiction book about the pervasiveness of fragrance in products we use everyday. Although Grenville is best-known for her novels, she started this book after becoming increasingly affected by her own “fragrance sensitivity” – something that is actually not uncommon at all. In clear, accessible language, Grenville sets out what we do and what we don’t know about the chemicals included under the umbrella term “fragrance” or “parfum” and the impacts that they can have on our bodies and on our health. Her findings are shocking. Every day we apply things to our skin, clean with them and spray them into the air and due to “trade secrets”, we have no idea what is in them or the effects they have.

This is a very important book. I am no stranger to fragrance sensitivity. I’ve worked in a workplace where fragrance was banned, and I know people who cannot abide to be in the same room with someone who is wearing perfume. Personally, I can’t stand new car smell, petrol fumes or even the shower cleaner I use. Nevertheless, I am constantly surprised at the amount of products we buy and use, trusting that the big companies we buy them from have ensured that they are safe, ethical and environmentally friendly. After reading this book, I did a quick whip around my house to see how many cleaning and bath products I use on a daily basis have the mysterious ingredient “fragrance” listed in their ingredients, and it was nearly every single one I looked at. The only product I could find that was fragrance/parfum free was my bottle-free bar of Ethique shampoo which contained essential oils instead. This is including brands that I deliberately go out of my way to buy because they don’t test on animals or because they’re eco-friendly. I have to admit, I felt betrayed.

I think Grenville is really onto something here and this book may be a game changer in the increasing social awareness about what we buy, what’s in it and where it comes from. This is a real wake up call for us to constantly check what we put in, on and around our bodies. It’s a quick read and I think it’s a critical reminder that consumers cannot guarantee that companies have their interests or wellbeing at heart.

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Filed under Australian Books, Non Fiction

Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior

After talking about a number of different issues together, a friend of mine lent me this book. I had never heard of it before (and I’ll go into that further in a minute) and apart from reading “Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms” last year, I haven’t had much exposure to Australian Aboriginal historical fiction. However, I have noticed that the role of Aboriginal people in early Australian historical fiction is often either glossed over or largely absent. The book has sat on my shelf for the better part of a year and finally I got around to reading it.

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“Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior” is a historical fiction novel by Aboriginal academic, engineer and writer Eric Willmot and originally published in the 1980s. The story is set in the late 1700s around the Sydney area shortly after the arrival of the first British convicts and settlers. When a young Awabakal man called Kiraban first sees white people arrive in his homeland by ship (in the Newcastle area), he decides to adventure with them south to Sydney to gain experience and status among his people. When he arrives, he befriends and learns the languages of both the white settlers and people from the Eora nation and observes the interplay between these two peoples. Although Eora elder Bennelong advocates cooperation with the British, Kiraban comes to hear stories of mysterious Bidjigal man Pemulwuy. Pemulwuy has stopped trading kangaroo meat with the British as he once did and has instead begun to sabotage the Governor’s attempts to expand Sydney and turn Eora land into farmland. Without any way to get home to his people, and with relations deteriorating between the British and the Eora, Kiraban must decide which side to join.

This is an incredibly important book. In his short background at the beginning of the novel, Willmot writes:

This was indeed a conspiracy of silence. The same that was applied to Pemulwuy’s resistance. It was apparently not in the interests of a crookedly intent or racist establishment to promote such parts of the Australian story. If this is true, then these people have stolen from generations of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal-Australians a heritage as important, as tragic and as heroic as that of any other nation on earth.

When I was in school, we learned about Captain Cook and the First Fleet. We learned about Banjo Patterson, the Gold Rush, the Eureka Stockade, Federation and the White Australia Policy. What we didn’t learn was about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history. Even though the idea that the continent of Australia as terra nullius has since been proven false, there is a real absence of Aboriginal history within the national consciousness. I believe that this book would have been a much more valuable book to study in school than some of the other Australian texts we studied. If Australians were to understand that there were valiant warriors among the Aboriginal people who first encountered and, for years, effectively resisted settlement, perhaps there would be more mutual respect today.

This was also a really interesting book for a number of other reasons. I really liked Willmot’s treatment of women in this book. Narawe is a fascinating character who shows ferocity as a fighter on a number of occasions. Willmot also compares the role of women both among the different tribal groups of the Eora as well as between Aboriginal people and the British. Willmot also explores the ethics of both the British approach to settlement and the resistance of Pemulwuy, highlighting the many grey areas and suffering on both sides. I think probably the thing that I found most difficult about this book is that although it was only 300 pages long, it did take me a while to get through it. It is quite heavy on military and tactical writing, something that I have never been particularly interested in.

Nevertheless, Willmot is a bright and considered writer who has filled an important historical gap with an alternative narrative of the people who have lived on this land for tens of thousands of years. I would highly recommend this book for history buffs who would like a more nuanced retelling of early British colonialism and the impacts on Aboriginal Australia.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Skylarking

This book was selected as the February book for a feminist book club I go to. I hadn’t heard of it before, but it had me at the word “lighthouse”. I absolutely adore the title and the book has a beautiful cover.

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“Skylarking” is a debut historical novel by Kate Mildenhall. Based on a true story and set in late 1800s Australia, this book is about two girls who live in a small settlement at Cape St George in Jervis Bay, NSW. Kate’s father is the head lighthouse keeper while Harriet’s father is his second. Kate is younger, darker and interested in knowledge while Harriet is older, fairer and sweeter. They are inseparable friends – closer to each other than Kate is to any of her siblings. However as they grow up and start facing the realities and expectations of their time, it becomes increasingly apparent to Kate that their idyllic, isolated life together is about to change forever.

This is a beautifully written story about the infinitely complex relationship between two best friends. Mildenhall captures the intricacy, the passion, the tension and the confusion of Kate’s friendship with Harriet and the subtle changes as they both grow into teenagers. I really liked how Mildenhall dealt with Kate’s frustration at being relegated to domestic chores when she loved to read, ride horses and study maps with her father. I felt like it was a heartfelt but realistic interpretation of gender inequality at the time. I also really Mildenhall’s depiction of the anxiety, fluidity and complexity of teenage romantic and sexual awakening.

I think there were only two things that bugged me a bit about this story. The first was that I felt like the ending was a bit flat. I felt like it should have been a sharper, swifter finish to a story that had built up over many chapters. All the speculation up until the historically event (which I won’t mention because of spoilers) seemed like it was spot on, but the story sort of petered out and the speculation afterwards just didn’t seem to have the same oomph. Maybe that was the more accurate interpretation, but I’m not sure it was the more satisfying one. The second thing that bugged me was Mildenhall’s treatment of her Aboriginal characters. I thought she did a really great job of shining a light on Kate and her family’s own prejudices and complacency. However, when it came to actually engaging with the character of the Aboriginal girl, I felt like Mildenhall fell into the trap of the Noble Savage trope. The Aboriginal girl seemed to solely exist to help Kate with her spiritual dilemma and journey towards tolerance and once those purposes had been filled, the girl was discarded.

This is a compelling, thought-provoking novel that generated quite a lot of goosebumps for me while I was reading it. A really excellent debut novel that shows that truth quite often is stranger than fiction.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized

The Skeleton Diaries

If there is anything that gets me out of the house to an event, it’s books. Last year I was invited to go along to a young professionals networking event, which sounded the exact opposite of how I’d normally spend my time. However, something caught my eye on the e-invite. It was being held at Muse, one of my favourite Canberra bookstores, and there was going to be an author talk. Well, that was enough for me! I went along, and once the networking part was out of the way, Australian National University graduating student Rachael Stevens took the stage to talk about mental health, overcoming anorexia and her self-published book. After the event, she stayed back and signed copies – and of course I bought one.

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“The Skeleton Diaries” is a memoir by Rachael Stevens about when she was hospitalised in 2007 at 15 years old for anorexia. The memoir begins when her mother takes her to see a counsellor who suggests she keeps a diary. At first, Rachael’s diary entries feign confusion about what’s going on, distancing herself even further from others. However, as the book progresses and Rachael’s health reaches breaking point, she is forced to acknowledge the truth: she has anorexia and her body is shutting down. Rachael is first admitted to a paediatric ward before being transferred to a youth psychiatric ward and there is placed on an unrelenting and unsympathetic treatment regime. However, while suffering outwardly from the state of her body and the treatment by hospital staff, inside Rachael begins to cultivate the tiniest flower of hope which helps her to overcome her disordered thinking.

This book is a powerful insight into disordered thinking: the disordered thinking of a person suffering from anorexia, and the disordered thinking of society around the treatment of mental health. Some of the most striking passages in this book are about Rachael’s silent cries to be treated as a person, and not have her worth determined as simply a collection of symptoms or numbers on a scale. Although only 15 when she first wrote in her diary, I was really impressed by Stevens’ clear yet compelling writing style. It is a brave thing to do to send your story out in the world, especially when you are so young, and I did feel compared to other memoirs of this nature, Stevens was rather guarded about the details of her life and the trauma and abuse she experienced. However, the focus of this story is really on anorexia and the havoc it wreaks on your mind and body.

A really important book that is a stark reminder that this country still has a long way to go when it comes to prioritising, understanding and funding mental health issues.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Signed Books