Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy

This is another beautiful story following McConaghy’s first novel, Migration.  Along similar lines, this book explores climate change and the deteriorating world environment.

Inti Flynn and her twin sister Aggie arrive in Scotland. Inti leads a team of people who are tasked with introducing a group of wolves into the wilderness, commonly known as rewilding.  Inti and her team must deal with antagonism and suspicion from the locals some of whom still retain centuries old superstition about wolves. Despite that, she leads her team with grit and determination. When a sheep and then a man dies, the wolves are blamed and Inti makes an ill-fated decision which creates disastrous consequences to protect the animals.

The wolves are indeed the central characters. The rewilding process is a fascinating idea and has actually been introduced in Scotland in 2021. Land has been overrun by deer and farming. By introducing wolves as predators, the deer move on allowing the ecosystem to rebuild.

“if we can extend woodland cover by a hundred thousand hectares by 2026 then we could dramatically reduce CO2 emissions that contribute to climate change and we could provide habitats for native species.”

I really enjoyed the author’s exploration of this idea and it made me read further. It was successfully done in Yellowstone National Park and rewilding has begun to take shape in many countries across the world providing new hope.

But this story is much more than about wolves. The backstory of the sisters is emotional. Where Inti is ferocious and passionate, Aggie is silent and the trauma behind that is quite shocking. We learn also that Inti has the rare condition known as mirror-touch synthesia where she feels the pain of others.

The writing as always is beautiful and the descriptions of place so vivid, I could feel the bleakness and the cold. The sub-plots covered a lot of territory from domestic violence, to twin behaviour, animal bonding, community ignorance, trauma and mental illness. Without giving away spoilers, some of this could have been pared back as there was a lot to deal with as a reader. Was Duncan’s backstory just a bit too much?  It became quite complex yet wrapped up very neatly at the end, just a little too conveniently.  And while I appreciated what the author tried to do, there were some things that seemed to move towards the edge of implausibility.

But despite all that I really did enjoy it and the messages still remain important. Give this one a go.

Book Review: Denizen by James McKenzie Watson

Nothing is as it seems in this thriller debut by Australian author James McKenzie Watson.

Nine-year-old Parker grows up on a farm in outback New South Wales. His mother kills herself and his father is distant and Parker blames himself, knowing that something is wrong with him. An incident at a creek solidifies his growing terror and guilt about what happened. As an adult, the birth of his baby son brings back disturbing memories and doubts via flashbacks and when he returns to the creek on a camping trip with friends, he’s forced to face his past with drastic consequences.  

The first two parts of this novel was a slow reveal of Parker’s past and some of his present, his friends and his foes. The tension grows as does the disquiet drawn not just from Parker but from the very bleakness of the landscape, the town and its desolation and hopelessness. The relationship between mother and son is as disturbing as it is ferocious.

When I finished part two, my head was swimming trying to work out what the hell just happened, as everything I thought I’d known about this character tumbled away. Had I been sucked in by an unreliable narrator? It certainly seemed so. It took a couple of days to get back into the book as I needed that time to process the shock.

This story burrows into your mind as you try to make sense of the unfolding event, all the while compelling you to turn each heart-thumping page. It’s beautifully written, evocative of language and place.

At the core of this novel is mental health issues in rural Australia, the lack of resources for people and the consequences of what it can do. It’s not a happy or even hopeful story and may be very confronting for some, but nevertheless it’s a powerful and important read.

Book Review: Penny Wong by Margaret Simons

Interestingly this book was published in 2019 before the world spun into total unpredictability. But it’s taken that long for me to pick this one up despite being a fan of Penny Wong.

Nevertheless, I knew little about her until she was recently appointed as our Foreign Minister. After the election in May, she hit the ground running, impressing me even more.  

This biography reveals a lot about her background, her mother, Australian with ancestors dating back to the 1800’s and her father of Chinese descent. The history of her childhood is fascinating and her battle with racism heartbreaking. Yet this is where her passion and her ethics were created making her into the person she is today.

I was fascinated to learn the machinations of the party and her role in it and reminded of the disgusting behaviour by the Liberal Party under John Howard (who could forget his role in dividing the country on race by the pictures of the children overboard scandal).

I don’t often read biographies let alone ones on politicians but I’m glad I read about this inspiring woman.  I’ve seen her interrogating politicians on the Senate’s committee asking the questions I wanted answered.  No wonder she is seen as formidable. Because she is and a whole lot more.

This biography goes beyond the personal as it delves into Australian politics forcing the reader to confront the past, the good, the bad and the ugly, particularly when it comes to the slow and painful machinations of change such as marriage equality, climate change and our indigenous voices. At times it is dry, plodding and insightful, sometimes all at once.

I will certainly be taking a lot more notice of what Penny Wong does, now that I understand her just that little bit more. If you like your politics then this one is for you.

Book Review: The Mother by Jane Caro

A fictional debut by Jane Caro, this story about coercive control sheds a light on an ugly and little-known side of domestic violence. 

Newly-widowed, Miriam is grappling with her husband’s sudden death when her younger daughter, Ally marries a man she doesn’t know. Her relationship with Ally hasn’t always been steady made all the more difficult by her distance of a few hours where she lives in a country town. Ally’s new husband, Nick seems to say and do all the right things. Yet when he calls her to discuss Ally’s mental health issues after her son is born, Miriam is concerned enough to visit her daughter to help.  After much cover up, the truth emerges of what has been going on behind closed doors when Ally eventually leaves Nick to seek refuge with Miriam. And so, this sets off a reign of terror unleashing a painful dilemma for Miriam about the right course of action.

The first half of the novel was understandably slow as we meet and understand the characters, in particular Miriam.  You can’t help but feel sorry for her as she grapples with something she’s doesn’t understand. Her internalising for me was a little repetitive taking me out of the story at times.

Nevertheless, the author does a great job showing us what the subtlety of coercive control looks like. Is her Ally overreacting, believing she is the problem? Is Miriam really listening and questioning? Is anyone picking up the many red flags like surveillance, constant phone calls, and withholding money?   The second half however really comes into its own as the tension and suspense rachets up. I was unable to put this one down until the end.

There was a struggle in my head as I put myself into Miriam’s place wondering what on earth I would do in the same situation. How far would you go to protect your children? Surprisingly, I think many of us would want to go as far as we could. But whether we have the capacity is another matter.

This story, while topical is nevertheless an important one highlighting the gaps in our collective understanding of coercive control and the law’s inability to do much about it. As I write, there is debate by our politicians to change the law as well as educate everyone about what it looks likes and its consequences. Until there are serious consequence for this type of control, then it will only continue.

This one is  thought provoking and one to read.

Book Review: Band-aid for a Broken Leg by Damien Brown

This is a Melbourne doctor’s remarkable story of his experience working for Médecins Sans Frontières in Africa. It was published in 2012 so it’s not a recent experience but passing time has not changed the needs of the poor in Africa

The author at twenty-nine decides to volunteer to run a small hospital in the town of Mavinga in Angola. He’s wholly unprepared for what he must do as he faces health problems that is almost never encountered in a large Australian city hospital.  Illnesses such as malaria and malnutrition are just two of the top ten standard ailments in a place like this. His medical training is severely tested without the state-of-the-art medical equipment, fully trained staff and latest blood testing capabilities as it would be for anyone. In the place where he finds himself, the staff are barely trained, administering their own idea of drugs, where the harshness of the climate and the underlying fear of gunfire are never far away.

His quinine infusion hangs from a nail on an improvised wooden stand, and there will be electricity for lighting for just four hours… there is little else.’

Brown battles his own insecurities to fit in as a square peg in a round hole not of his making. Staff are not always happy and he has his own health issues to contend with in the outside latrine, battling plate-sized spiders and numerous other insects. But for all that, he has the strength to persevere, to make a difference which is the sole reason he volunteers for such a post. He gives us a picture of the history, the wars and the battle that people in Angola as well as South Sudan have had to deal with, of survival despite the warring by patriarchal societies, where mostly woman and children wear the human toll.

When Brown heads into South Sudan for another stint the toll is set even higher as political tensions escalate and he wonders if any of the aid workers are making any difference. But they are. They make a hell of a difference for each of the women and children they come into contact with and yes it might be a band-aid solution while a political one awaits.

I was totally engrossed by this doctor’s experience; his own self-reflection and discovery was not only enlightening but inspiring. This is beautifully written book and one to definitely read. Give it a go.

Book Review: Still Life by Sarah Winman

Still Life is a highly regarded and acclaimed novel and after reading it, I can see why.

Beginning in the dying moments of the second world war in Italy, Ulysses Temper, a young British soldier meets Evelyn Skinner a middle-aged art historian on the hunt to salvage paintings from the ruins of the war. This establishes the story of mostly, Ulysses his life after the war and the influence on him by this chance meeting.

There is no real plot but the story is full and rich as we navigate the decades. Ulysses is the pivotal star whose gentle and calm nature holds the crew of other characters together. More importantly it is through his eyes that the reader is seduced to fall for him and his life as we voyeuristically involve ourselves in the everyday detail. The supporting characters are terrific with a full kaleidoscope of humour, sadness, good will and genuine friendship. Who could not love the parrot, Claude? Even the writer, E. M. Skinner turns up. But Peggy and her daughter Alys, were difficult characters and for me Alys belied her years so much that it edged on disbelief.

The other main character is of course, the city of Florence. Who could resist a book about a group of friends living in such a place? I was surprised also to learn of the great flood.  It took me back to my own visit there many years ago when the river, far from a raging torrent was a mere trickle when the city was in severe drought. This book made me wonder what it is that makes a city have heart and soul. Is it the food, the people or the art? I think it’s all of that and Winman showcases it beautifully.

Art by some of the masters portrayed women in a less than favourable light and Winman gave us a lesson about the sexism providing a valuable insight for the reader.

Apart from amazing characters, the book is humorous with elements of fantasy, talking trees no less, with themes of homosexuality, single motherhood and war trauma which serves to make the reader more empathic.

The only down side for me was the last section about Evelyn which seemed out of place, repetitive and serving little purpose. I did want to know more about her, what she had done after the war for example but we got very little. I know this chapter has created some controversy and as you can tell, I wasn’t for it.

Apart from that, the writing is sublime, descriptive and evocative of place; the narrative conversational.  Check this one out if you can.

Book Review: French Braid by Anne Tyler

It’s been a very long time since I read one of Anne Tylers books and writing about family is one of the  things she does best.

Mercy and Robin marry in 1940 and while Robin works long hours in the father’s plumbing business, Mercy raises the couples three children, Alice, Lily and David.  They manage to go away on their one and only holiday in 1957 with the three children. The novel provides snippets of their lives until 2020 and this is one of the rare novels, I’ve read which talks about living with the pandemic, familiar to so many of us.

Mercy is also an artist and there are no prizes for her style of mothering, as it is at best basic.  Alice picks up where her mother has left off by being the cook and carer of the younger two. The parents fail to see anything wrong with letting Lily, only fifteen, go out with a twenty-one-year-old man and Alice worries for her younger sister. 

The novel skips time after the holiday, spanning such a lot of time that I failed to truly engage with any of the characters. Mercy was self-absorbed in her need for peace and quite as she slowly moved away from Robin to live in a loft above a garage, ostensibly to paint. Robin is left bewildered, isolated, alone and sad. No-one confronts Mercy and the family just seems to know she’s left despite the appearances. But that is how the family operates – nonconfrontational.

There’s a sadness throughout as Robin tries valiantly to hold onto a non-existent marriage too weak to do anything about it. Alice helicopters over her sister, Lily, sitting in judgement about her behaviour while David their brother is so remote that he may as well have been on another planet.

They are more a set of individuals living in their own worlds than a cohesive family unit and I wondered what was the point of it all. While there is no plot, it is a pure character study yet the characters weren’t particularly interesting enough to spend time with and Tyler doesn’t allow us to anyway.  The reader never really gets close enough to anyone other than Mercy yet we still don’t understand her – I didn’t anyway.

The idea that family patterns can repeat is joyfully at odds with David who as an old man, a grandpa himself, gives rise to hope that he has out of them all, created a family whom he loves and is deeply connected to. And, he was surprisingly the one who shone through with hope for the future.

I’m glad I read this one.