Author Archives: S.C. Karakaltsas

About S.C. Karakaltsas

I am a published author of historical fiction and short stories.

Book Review: Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

I’ve been on a bit of a Elizabeth Macarthur odyssey ever since I read Michelle Scott Tucker’s book Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world. (See my earlier review https://sckarakaltsas.com/2020/05/22/book-review-elizabeth-macarthur-a-life-at-the-edge-of-the-world-by-michelle-scott-tucker/ ). When I heard about Elizabeth & Elizabeth, a fictional story about Elizabeth’s friendship with Elizabeth Macquarie, I had to buy the book.

Too many Elizabeth’s can be a bit confusing so I’ll use surnames. A young Mrs Macquarie was married to Lachlan Macquarie who came to Australia as the Governor of the new colony. He was a man of vision, providing the name of Australia and introducing social reforms to emancipate convicts despite strong opposition from the elite including Mr Macarthur. Williams imagines Mrs Macquarie to be a strong and assertive influence on Lachlan and credits her with imaginative ideas of architecture, garden landscaping as well as social welfare for young women.

Meanwhile Mrs Macarthur married to the troublesome, duel challenging at the drop of a hat, Mr Macarthur is much older and wiser not given to airs and graces while she’s grappling with a couple of sheep on the farm she’s managing because Mr Macarthur is in England sorting out the scraps he’s had with the previous Governor.

When she first arrives, Mrs Macquarie is portrayed as a wide-eyed and naïve young woman and I wondered if it might have been further from the truth given that she was thirty-one not twenty-one. But her character grows as she quickly adapts to the realities of the harshness of colonial life. She holds the much older Mrs Macarthur in high esteem. The relationship while brittle at first grows over the years as the challenges to the Macquarie’s post grows more difficult.

Of course, Mr Macarthur is as troublesome as history has portrayed. I’d always imagined that the relationship between Mr and Mrs Macarthur to be a difficult one with little love. Yet the author paints a loving and caring relationship between them. From what I’d read so far, I really doubted the woman could have done anything other than be relieved when he went to London for several years leaving her to make her mark on the colony with her sheep breeding ideas.

In reality, history being written by men provides us with little knowledge of the relationship between the two women but Williams reads between the lines to give us a delicious account of what these strong and intelligent women brought to society and to the foundations of the colony giving them credit when there’d been little before. No doubt there would have been few women from their class and they would have little choice than to fraternise despite their husbands opposing views of each other. I really liked the idea that women could come together to support each other enough to make the colony a better place. I can’t imagine how horrific it must have been to be a woman where childbirth and child raising was fraught with disease and death.   

The other great insight is just how entrenched the class system was adopted and continued on from England. It’s hardly surprising that the governing bodies, serving their own self-interests were mean-spirited about the people in the colony. But wait, what’s changed today with our present government? Perhaps not a lot when you consider the refugees who came here by boat.

This novel is rich in history, well-written and researched. If you’re after a bit of history about upper-class women of influence then check this one out.

Book Review: A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu

I bought this book because of the hype around it. If I’d bothered to read the reviews, both supportive and divisive, I probably wouldn’t have read it. But this is a debut novel by a young Australian woman and I wanted to give it a go.

Jena Lin is a twenty-three-year-old classical violinist who as a child prodigy, toured the world. Something happened when she was fourteen and she stopped playing and embarked on a ‘normal’ life. Her relationship with her mother and mentor is fractured.  When she resumes her career, she is caught up in a world of rehearsals, performances and practice. In her spare time, she hooks up with just about anyone she meets using sex as a crutch to fill her loneliness.  When she is awarded an internship with the New York Philharmonic orchestra she begins to take control of her life and her comeback on her terms.

The book is essentially the blurb, reading almost like a diary of rotating daily activities of rehearsal, performance and sex, which in my opinion is overly graphic and gratuitous. There’s not much of a plot here and the sex scenes, and there was a lot, detracted from what was really going on with Jena.  There was little depth in her relationships and there was only just enough interest for me to find out about what had happened at fourteen. The world of the classical music lifestyle also held me to a point but I found that this too became repetitive.

The problem I had with the book was that while it was detailed in some aspects it was frustratingly short on depth in characters and Jena’s relationships. The characters almost seemed like cardboard cut-outs wheeled out at periodic times. As a reader we knew more about Jena’s day to day life than we did about much else.

On the day of the audition, I wake early to take a long shower, scrubbing off the residual sweat of sleep, washing my hair, shaving my underarms and legs. In the bathroom mirror, I squint at my own reflection.”

Trying to understand Jena, her motivations and the people around her was at times, quite bewildering. In particular, I would have liked to have known more about her relationship with her mother, and her father who is rarely mentioned. Half way through, I almost gave up but I slogged on hoping to get more than a superficial insight, even just a glimmer of emotion from just about anyone.  

Yet, I appreciated the themes the author was trying to explore, racism, sexism, female sexual desire, and loneliness. I’d never given a thought to classical music and in particular how most of it is written by men.

“I wonder why none of the music I play has been created by a woman and whether that exclusion was deliberate. What is the point of being any kind of artist if your skin colour or gender excludes you from the choices of old white men, just because you don’t look like them or they don’t see themselves in you?”

I didn’t mind the writing style and it’s slightly reminiscent of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. However, the characters are largely unlikeable and although there was some limited sympathy for Jena, the book left me frustrated and disillusioned. I know others liked it and but I don’t think it was for me. I guess I just wanted more depth.

Book Review: The Yield by Tara June Winch

This highly awarded book is an evocative and eye-opening read from Australian (Wiradjuri) author Tara June Winch.

There are actually three stories all cleverly constructed to relate to each other:

Pop (Albert Goondiwindi) composes a dictionary of Wiradjuri words. He peppers the meanings with stories of his family, his past and his culture in the hope that none of it will be lost. He passes away before completing it.

The second story is from his granddaughter’s point of view. August flies home from England for Pop’s funeral and faces the family she ran from many years earlier.  She’s embraced by her grandmother and aunties and must confront the reasons for running away.

The third is a series of letters from Reverend Greenleaf of German background who set up a Mission for Aborigines in the late 1800’s.

This is a remarkably clever reconstruction of a history largely forgotten and untold in Australia. The dictionary was genius giving us a real sense of the Wiradjuri language including pronunciation. The focus on intergenerational trauma as well as the strength of connection to land and culture was inspiring.

Look at it this way – when people travel overseas the first thing, they do is learn a handful of words, learn the local language – please and thank you and hello and goodbye, maybe even where is the supermarket? People do it because it makes life easier but they also do it out of respect…

And then we’re all migrants here, even those first-fleet descendants, we forget we’re all in someone else’s country.”

Reading The Yield gave me all sorts of feelings. The anguish and anger of what happened to our indigenous people was detailed in the letters written by the Reverend. His seemingly good intentions to set up a mission under the guise of removing a long-established culture to impose another was incredibly misguided. But this is what he and most missionaries around the world have done. Even so, his so-called protection was never enough.

Then there was the sorrow about the loss and trauma experienced by August: her missing sister, not knowing what happened and the affect it had on her for years afterward, her emptiness and lack of belonging to the land or to her people.

The disgust about how we treat the fifty-thousand-year-old indigenous history. If we dug up a Roman building, we’d revere it yet that history is new in comparison to what exists in Australia. Who can forget Rio Tinto blowing up a 46-thousand-year-old sacred site only last year? And the novel’s story parallels this when the land that Pop had lived on and loved was sold off for a tin mine.

This is another great novel for all Australians to read. These stories help us to understand. Please check this one out.

Book Review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

This is a heart-thumping, gripping story about a woman and her son running for their lives from a murderous drug lord.

Lydia Perez, a book shop owner in Acapulco lives with her journalist husband and eight-year-old son, Luca. After her husband writes a story about the leader of a drug cartel who had unknowingly formed a friendship with Lydia, revenge is sought and he murders all of her family. Lydia and Luca, the only survivors flee for their lives and commence the hazardous and tortuous journey to the USA.

This is ultimately a story of survival as refugees. The UN Refugee Agency estimates as at 30 June 2020 that the number of people forcibly displaced is now at 80 million with over 26 million refugees.

Cummins shines a light on one part of the world where the flow of refugees is not just from Mexico but from countries to the south, where drug lords’ rule and government corruption is rife. It’s an incredibly moving, yet gripping account of Lydia’s and Luca’s survival and the refugees they meet along the way. It also highlights the problems of ‘that wall’ so controversial in the USA.

‘None of it is funny to Lydia. She hadn’t been naive enough to think they were in the clear yet, but she did think the nature of the most pressing threat would’ve changed by now. She thought that … she’d have to worry more about Border Patrol, about the possibility of Luca being taken from her, and less about random men with guns enforcing their own decrees … She knows that anyone they encounter here, in this wild, desolate place, would mean the end.’

The story although fictional, forces the reader to relate to refugees as human beings. What compels a person to leave everything behind to take such a hazardous and arduous journey? It’s quite simple: desperation. The mean-spiritedness of some governments around the world is deplorable yet the plight of refugees continues without solution.

This is an unputdownable, nerve-wracking, tension-packed novel, yet it provides hope and inspiration. The character of Luca, in particular is very well drawn and the courage and bravery of the child is truly breath taking. The other characters, Lydia, Rebeca and Soledad are more than characters. They are people we care about, wanting them to be saved and to have a better life.

Do Lydia and Luca actually make it across the border? You’ll have to read it for yourself.

Book Review: The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste

Short listed for the Booker Prize in 2020, this is a fascinating and insightful epic about the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

It opens with Hirut, an older Ethiopian woman travelling on a bus in 1974 through a troubled Addis Ababa. She’s on her way to take a box of photos to Ettore, a man who’d once been her jailer after her capture by Mussolini’s army.

The story takes us back to just before the Italian invasion when as an orphan, Hirut is taken in as a reluctant servant to Kidane and his wife Aster. When Kidane, an officer in the army mobilises troupes to fight, strong-willed Aster galvanises all the women in the district to help and Hirut transforms from servant to fierce warrior.

 The Emperor, Haile Selassie flees the country and when all hope appears lost, Hirut suggests disguising a peasant as the emperor to fool the Italians and inspire the Ethiopian army to continue the fight. Hirut is eventually captured and embroiled in her own personal war against her captors, one of which is Ettore.

It’s an incredibly written and lyrical novel on a brutal and horrific subject. Mengiste’s descriptions are poetic and I’d suggest you ignore the absence of some punctuation and enjoy the writing.

“She is close enough to see him racing across the spine of the mountain, his heels flying, that chest a swell of bony ribs and heavy air. In the ebbing night, he comes first as sound: the snap of a branch, a scrape of foot on stone. A hiss curving against the soft orange light. He is a fleeting mirage speeding over rough hills, shallow gasps stalling in thick breeze.”

The history is rich giving us insight into both sides of this little-known war of which I was totally ignorant. The author explores the bravery and sheer persistence by the Ethiopians in particular the power of their female soldiers. Mostly told from Hirut’s point of view, we are also given insight into other characters such as Ettore and Selassie who are rich and complex. The themes are numerous: trauma, survival, forced marriage, and colonisation to name some. Interestingly, Mengiste’s own great-grandmother had been a soldier and presumably provided her inspiration.

It’s a wonderfully enlightening and moving account of war fought by strong courageous women. Check it out.

Book Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

Intricately researched, this novel explores the making of the Oxford Dictionary. It’s an epic story taking in the years between 1886 and 1928 which is how long it took Professor John Murray and his team of editors, lexicographers and assistants to laboriously put it together via the help of thousands of people around the world who sent in words for inclusion.

The story revolves around Esme Owen who as a five-year-old, sits under the desk while her father and others work on the dictionary compiling, collating and making decisions about words on slips of paper and their definitions. One day, a slip with the word bondmaid, falls to the floor and little Esme scrambles to collect it and instead of giving it up, she stores it away like treasure. From that point, she observes the workers, collecting discarded slips with words which were deemed not to be worthy of inclusion. As she grows up, her secret collection of words grows and she begins to question and wonder why so many discarded words happened to be used by women.

“there is no capacity for the Dictionary to contain words that have no textural source. Every word must have been written down, and you are right to assume they largely come from books written by men.”

Esme is passionate about words and begins her research at local markets searching for words used by everyday women. Her best friend is Lizzie, a maid for the Murray family and she harbours Esme’s secret treasure supporting her friends’ quest but also questions some of her actions.

 The writer skilfully weaves in key historical events such as the women’s movement for the right to vote, class distinction, and World War One. Esme’s life is fictional yet some of the supporting characters are real and reimagined by the author to give us a sympathetic taste of what they might have been like.

I love the idea of language shifting and changing and the recognition that a dictionary can never be static as new words are constantly evolving every day. And what a challenge that must be to keep up to date.

“I spend my days trying to understand how words were used by men long dead, in order to draft a meaning that will suffice not just for our times but for the future.”

It’s a long, slow read at first and action is driven by Esme’s love for words and her observations and at times I wondered if my interest could be retained. It’s as a grown woman that things take a turn with Esme and not always for the better. It was easy to be swept up by the events some scandalous and other deeply moving.  I did find myself wanting to know more about Esme’s hopes and wishes for herself but it moved little beyond her work on the dictionary. I also loved Lizzie and her down to earth nature yet I earned to learn more of her hopes and dreams. However, the real main character must surely be the dictionary itself with a glimpse into the lives of the characters it affected.

I enjoyed this book perhaps even more so because I’d seen the movie entitled The Professor and the Madman based on the book The Surgeon of Crowthorne and I was already in awe of how the dictionary came about. The Dictionary of Lost Words took on a whole new perspective which I appreciated enormously. The research was meticulous, the writing beautiful, and methodical. Check this one out.

Book Review: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams is ideal for a book club as there’s so much in it to discuss.

Thoughtful, as it is thought provoking, Flanagan challenges the reader to think, to feel and to pay attention. What about? Death not just our own, but others, of the planet and our way of life. And the themes are wrapped around aging, displacement, child and elder abuse, trauma and environmental destruction. It’s not a happy book nor is it meant to be.

Flanagan cleverly uses the slow and excruciating demise of Francie, the mother of Anna, Terzi and Tommy. Terzi in particular, and Anna decide that it’s not time for their mother to die and do everything they can to keep her alive, against the wishes of Tommy her carer, as well as Francie. Their brutal decisions have a background story for their motivation.

‘They saved her from death, but only, thought Anna, by infinitely prolonging her dying. ‘

Many of us are facing the dilemma of aging parents and what might be best for them. At the core of this, is listening and respecting our parents’ wishes and not impaling them with our own controlling ideas. Flanagan explores the family dynamics beautifully to bring about a strong emotional and sometimes, uncomfortable response for the reader.

Anna finds parts of herself vanishing starting with her finger and nobody notices. Perhaps a metaphor for the fact that no-one notices the disappearance of animal species and habitat across our planet?  Told from Anna’s point of view we feel her dismay, her displacement and her own disappearing. I wondered whether like so many middle-aged women she also felt ignored, irrelevant and dismissed as if her voice no longer matters.

And there’s the issue of what social media is doing to us. When Anna is confronted by difficulties, she escapes into an alternative life of social media, to ignore and hide from herself, her family and what’s happening around her.

 “Instagram, blessed Novocaine of the soul! Foodholidayssmilinggroupsshopping. She had to get off. She knew it. She had to get off.”

Alongside this story is a commentary of what’s happening in the world from the extinction of the orange- bellied parrot to the destruction of swathes of habitat. Fires raged in Australia destroying more than a million animals. I well recall the devastation, the smoke, the fear last year, and Flanagan brought it all back, making us pay attention to our uncertain future and the fact that we are sitting atop a climate emergency yet no-one is truly taking notice.  

Flanagan has got a lot to say in this book and certainly his words pack a punch in an interesting way. The ending was profound, moving and powerful with a glimmer of hope and goodness inspiring us all to each do our bit. It’s not an easy read but it’s an important one leaving its mark on you.