Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: A Room Full of Leaves by Kate Grenville

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Oh, what a story Kate Grenville has put together.

I’d read about Elizabeth Macarthur in the incredible non-fiction work by Michelle Scott Tucker (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/ ) where she brought Elizabeth out from behind her famous husband John Macarthur. And it was a glimpse behind the façade of a woman who perhaps should have been given more credit for Australia riding on the back of sheep instead of her notorious husband.

In this book, we are asked to imagine that Elizabeth has kept a secret memoir from her time before she comes to Australia on the second fleet. It conveys her inner most thoughts and feelings and Kate Grenville brings us a story of what might have really been going on in this famous marriage. It’s fascinating.

Grenville as always, beautifully captured the colonial settlement, the struggles and deprivations from Elizabeth’s point of view. Importantly it also gave a voice to how women had to carefully navigate their lives around who they should marry. One wrong decision meant the difference between happiness and sadness, poverty or respectability. In Elizabeth’s case she made the wrong choice in marrying a man like John yet the conclusion that she would have made the best of it is entirely believable.

It’s an easy read and beautifully written and I couldn’t get enough of it. Then the last few pages drew her story to an abrupt close and I wondered why the rest of her life couldn’t have been explored like I wanted it to. It would have made for a huge volume of pages, that’s true, but perhaps the author felt that she had explored the more important parts of her life. We don’t get to see how Elizabeth managed the farm and brought about prosperity for her and her family. After the birth of her third child, the rest of her pregnancies are summed up in barely a sentence. Perhaps had I not read the comprehensive work of Tucker I may not felt a little cheated. Or perhaps I’m just greedy for more.

Highly entertaining and if you read this book then I’d suggest following it up with Michelle Scott Tucker’s work.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney


I’ve read Normal People and had heard that Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations with Friends was even better. I wasn’t bowled over by Normal People although I like it well enough. See my earlier review. ( https://sckarakaltsas.com/2019/12/14/book-review-normal-people-by-sally-rooney/.)  But I was intrigued about this young author.

The story is about two friends who become caught up in the world of a married couple. Twenty-one-year-old student Frances is a highly intelligent aspiring writer. Together with her best friend Bobbi they perform spoken word poetry where they meet Melissa a journalist. They’re quickly drawn into Melissa’s well-to-do circle and are  invited to her home where they meet Nick, her handsome actor husband. Here Frances is faced with the dilemmas of class as well as the awkward challenges of her new and old relationships.

This is a beautifully written book, with no quotation marks, so beware. It’s not descriptive or flowery in its language and there is probably more tell than show. It seems almost simplistic in style yet is cleverly crafted.

Frances is a complex character who struggles to find her emotional self and almost appears aloof to everything that goes on around her. She is probably not the sort of person I would like yet I’d admired her intelligence and her ideals. I also felt for her in her relationship with Nick who seemed quite vacuous.

It’s not the sort of book I would normally read but I did enjoy it and thought it was better than Normal People.

Book Review: The Wife and The Widow by Christian White



If you want a page-turning mystery, this one might just be for you.

This story set on a fictitious island off the Bellarine Peninsula and those of us from Melbourne will be familiar with some of the landmarks mentioned. It is told from two points of view, There is the widow, Kate whose husband is missing. When he fails to arrive home from an international conference, and is instead discovered dead on the island, Kate tries to navigate around her grief to find out what happened and instead unravels her husband’s secrets. The other point of view is the wife, Abby, a local who lives on the island and is forced to face the possibility that her husband could be a murderer.

The blurb itself is surely already intriguing enough to capture your interest and if you’ve read The Nowhere Child, you’ll understand that not all is what it seems. Indeed, I didn’t see the twist coming and when it came, I confess to scratching my head trying to work out what happened. It is quite brilliant.

Both female characters are well developed and the reader feels for them. The author weaves in themes of family, grief, and secrets and has us wondering how well one person can know another.

Give this whodunnit  a go.

Book Review: Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas



I’d heard that this book was a difficult one to read. It’s actually easy to read but the content at times, is what is difficult.

This is the story of Saul, later known as Paul who wrote the gospels and was credited with helping to establish the Christian church we know today. As you’d imagine this is an ambitious work and the research would have been mountainous.

It opens in 35 AD with Saul, initially a non-believer of Jesus. On the road to Damascus, Saul is set upon by bandits and is severely injured. I had to read this section over as it wasn’t immediately clear what had happened.  There was no reference to meeting Jesus in this section yet it is apparent that this momentous occasion was relayed to his followers as being the catalyst for Saul’s change in faith. This was the first stumble for me and I reached for the internet to get greater clarity. Is the author indicating that it was just a knock on the head and the greatest moment of the ages could have been anything other than what the known story has hinged on? I wonder.

The book is divided into sections according to years and different characters point of view. Lydia’s story and her meeting with Paul was very interesting and the suppression and lives of women on every level was well told. I enjoyed the parts from Paul’s point of view which is given to us as a young man and then as an old one.

There’s a section about Timothy who is said to have been the scribe for Saul who was illiterate. The two are incredibly close. However, the narrative from Timothy’s point of view as an old man becomes quite repetitive and long-winded and seemed to slow down the pace of the story. Perhaps it’s just me but I found myself skipping these sections. We know that Timothy loves Paul and it’s reciprocated. Did they have a homosexual relationship? It’s insinuated and weaves its way through the book. Given that the author is gay, it makes for an interesting and believable interpretation.

What the author also does well is to put us right into the filth, the stench and violence of the times where poverty is rife and human life worth little. Some of it is hard to digest but the repetition of the images for me, became diluted as the story progressed. There is little light and shade despite the span of years covered. But Tsiolkas is a writer known for his raw and sometimes brutal portrayal of life and we’ve grown to expect that the language will be profane and the descriptions to be shocking.

Don’t be surprised if what you read isn’t what  you remember from Sunday school. I’d recommend this one with a caution. It’s probably not the best thing to read during a Covid-19 lock-down but if you’re interested in history after the death of Christ, then this is one to check out.

Book Review: Phosphorescence by Julia Baird



What a wonderful book to read during the stressful time of a stage four lock-down in Melbourne? I’m sure when the author wrote this book, she had no idea that her words would resonate so well in a world which has been turned upside down and where fear of a thing unseen could change the very way we live.

The author reminds each of us to explore what is around us. I don’t mean get into the car and travel (of course we can’t do that) but to really look with our eyes and listen, to search and find awe in the very things we take for granted.

“dive into a world where clocks don’t tick and inboxes don’t ping.” Easier said than done when there are competing demands all around us. But she argues, “open yourself up to awe, to the experience of seeing something astonishing, unfathomable or greater than yourself.”

Baird talks about immersing oneself in nature and discusses the notion of forest bathing having enormous benefits for our physical and mental being. “Studies have shown that opening ourselves up to awe can make us more patient, and less irritable, more humble, more curious and creative. 

And so, I have been doing just that. Walking amongst trees in our nearby park and thinking how lucky I am, that in a city of five million people i have access to parks and open spaces nearby. Exploring my long-forgotten garden and discovering the pleasure of plants hidden in a jungle of overgrowth, and spending time on things I’d taken for granted. Baird references what  Aboriginal people have told us and known all along about their respect for country, which has been ignored. Perhaps they’ve always had the answer.

Baird also explores a number of other ideas; the place for religious belief but not necessarily organised. That silence from human activity is shrinking and worth pursuing to allow us to appreciate what is around us. Indeed, as I sit reading this book, I tune into the traffic noise, the sound of a leaf blower outside my window and become distracted by the ding of my phone, to reach for internet news to feed my ever-growing anxiety and I realise Baird makes a heap of sense. 

There’s a lot in this book and much would be helpful to readers who maybe need a break to breath, to look what’s around them, appreciate the little things and just be. Check this one out and see what awes you.

Book Review: Larchfield by Polly Clark



This is dual story and timeline novel which is beautifully written and compelling. The author has imagined, with the help of some research,  Wystan H Auden’s life when he was twenty-four teaching at a boy’s school in Larchfield in the 1930’s. He struggles to fit into the small-town community in the west coast of Scotland, a place where he is ridiculed and alone, far from the bustling intellectualism of London. The other story is about Dora a young academic and poet, newly married and pregnant who settles with her architect husband in nearby Helensborough. Her excitement about the move soon peters out as she comes to grips with the isolation and a small baby. Walking on the beach, she finds a bottle with a telephone message from W.H. Auden which gives her a connection. Her ideas of a creative and fulfilling life come crashing down with disastrous consequences. 

I loved the atmosphere the author conveyed of being alone and an outsider. The slow reveal about Wystan’s homosexuality, and the building tension of impending war was also fascinating when he visited Berlin. The culture of the school was interesting particularly the old lady and Jessop characters. The display of prejudice was also well done.

Dora was an interesting character but I struggled to buy into the fact that her story was set in present day. Her name was very old fashioned, and her connection to technology seemed non-existent. She could have sat just as well in the early 1930’s.  Indeed, the narrative where she and Wystan share the same chapters had me puzzled at first until I realised what was happening. I fully understood the demands of her baby but the nastiness of her neighbour, Mo and the ensuring hostility seemed a bit over the top. The attitude of the health nurse seemed old fashioned until we remember that we, the reader are inside Dora’s head and that her perspective is not to be fully relied upon. Although it took me a while, the realisation was quite a revelation.

I knew  virtually nothing about W.H. Auden until  I discovered that it was his poem which was read out in the funeral scene of the film, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Remember it?

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

I warmed to both characters and the growing foreboding tension kept me reading right up to the end. It’s the sort of book that you have to think about, long after you’ve finished it. Most of the character names used in the novel were dated  and I was told by a friend that they’re a nod to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Now I’ll have to read that one and delve into the poetry of W.H. Auden. No doubt I’ll discover another intriguing layer of Larchfield.

At first read, not all is what it seems, so give it a go.

Book Review: Riptide by KirstenAlexander

Pic from Goodreads


Another wonderful Australian author writes a  pacey, well-written novel which transports us to Queensland in 1974.

 Charlie and his sister, Abby are travelling along a back road to their father’s farm where they encounter a lone vehicle who is forced off the road because Charlie, who has the wheel has drifted to sleep. The pregnant driver is killed and instead of alerting authorities, they flee leaving her beside the road. When they arrive at their father’s farm, they realise the dead woman is their father’s fiancé.

This is set in Queensland in an era of harsh corrupt policing and a right-wing government. It’s a family drama of secrets and lies never devoid of tension and twists, many of which I didn’t see coming. The guilt splits their family apart and plagues Abby and Charlie in different ways which we see because the narrative is split by their alternate point of view. My sympathy lay with Abby mostly, a woman trying to juggle three children, manage her high-flying husband, her self-absorbed brother and her grieving father. Somewhere in all that is a future she dreams of which now slips away. 

 This book is certainly a page turner and the references to the major events of the time such as Cyclone Tracey’s devastation of Darwin, were insightful and enlightening.

I’m in two minds about the ending which was abrupt and I found myself asking but what about… Nevertheless, it’s a good read and a compelling premise with lots going on, so give it a go.