Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe

Bruce Pascoe, in Dark Emu has conducted a thorough research into the evidence by a host of sources to refute what was taught to me in school and what most Australians believed. And that is, we were under the impression that Aboriginal people were nomadic hunter gatherers. Pascoe turns this on its head to explain that Aboriginal people had their own villages with well-constructed huts, dams and water traps, toiled the land, grew crops and enjoyed a fair political system. Not only that, Pascoe convincingly argues that Aboriginal history is rich and is all around us, if we only care to look for it.

 “We’ve been taught that Aboriginal peoples arrived in Australia after crossing land bridges from Indonesia. … it was assumed that this happened 10000 years before sea levels began to rise – after the Ice Age. After the introduction of carbon dating, that figure ballooned to 40000 years and, after further research using more modern dating techniques, to 60000 years.”

Each chapter produces a raft of research and evidence to challenge the colonialist way of thinking of what happened before. Of course, the argument that Aboriginals were nomadic suited the colonialists as it gave them the opportunity to acquire the land – after all, in their minds, no-one else had ties to it.

Pascoe gives us evidence of advanced aqua cultural practices from sophisticated eel traps to sustainable fisheries. A few months ago, I went with friends to the Budj Bim National Park half way between Hamilton and Port Fairy in Victoria and was awestruck by the historic significance of the eel traps. What many Australians may not know is that Budj Bim is now on the UNESCO World Heritage List and features the earliest living example of aquaculture in the world. Simply astounding. In Australia there has been very little fanfare about this significant announcement. The Roman empire ruins across Europe has nothing on aboriginal culture.

The chapter around Fire was particularly enlightening as more than one hundred and fifty fires rage across Australia at the time of writing, causing untold damage to houses, people and millions of animals and plant life. I wonder if we had listened and to our Indigenous citizens whether we could have managed to ease the current disaster in any way.

“The Aboriginal approach to fire worked on five principles. One, the majority of the agricultural lands were fired on a rotating mosaic, which controlled intensity, and allowed plants and animals to survive in refuges. Two, the time of the year when fires were lit depended on the type of country to be burnt and the condition of the bush at the time. Three, the prevailing weather was crucial to the timing of the burn. Four, neighbouring clans were advised of all fire activity. Five, the growing season of particular plants was avoided at all costs.”

In fact, this has been discussed many times over the last few years yet action and further investigation has been slow. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-11-14/traditional-owners-predicted-bushfire-disaster/11700320

It’s natural to look for a scapegoat in the current bush-fire disaster which sees little end in sight until rain begins to fall. Climate change, land mismanagement, lack of funding, lack of leadership by our paid politicians, the drought, all have a part to play. But if what we learn takes into account a respectful dialogue with our Aboriginal elders then we may actually fix up our mistakes and change our thinking for a better future.

“If we could reform our view of how Aboriginal people were managing the national economy prior to colonisation, it might lead us to inform the ways we currently use resources and care for the land. Imagine turning our focus to the exploitation of meat-producing animals indigenous to this country. Imagine freeing ourselves from the overuse of superphosphates, herbicides and drenches. Envisage freeing ourselves from the need of fences, and instead experimenting with grazing indigenous animals and growing indigenous crops.”

Yes! My imagination is wild with possibilities and ideas. And so, this book serves as a timely message to all of us and as I peer around my own garden, I’ve started to question why the hell I have a water-sucking English style garden of roses, lawn and hedges and ponder about what was here before.

Dark Emu is sobering to read yet provides a hopeful argument for each of us to change our thinking. This is an important one  for all Australians to read.

NOTE: Bush Fire Fundraiser 

I’m participating in a fundraising effort for our firefighters. It’s a twitter auction involving hundreds of Australian authors. Incredible items are being auctioned -from signed books, writing retreats, mentoring, workshops etc. If you’d like to know more head over to the webpage below and if you have a twitter account, type in#authorsforfireys and make a bid.

Get in quick. The twitter auction ends 11pm on 11 January, 2020 (Melbourne/Sydney time)

I have offered up signed copies of my three books and am throwing in a framed original drawing used for the cover of Out of Nowhere.

https://authorsforfireys.wixsite.com/website

Book Review: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

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The Island of Sea Women is a fascinating novel of sorrow and grief but more importantly it’s also a novel of friendship, spirituality and the strength of women in an unusual matriarchal society.

Set on the  Korean Island of Jeju, the friendship of two women Young-sook and Mi-ja stretches across time from the occupation by the Japanese until 2008. From different backgrounds, they join the Haenyeo, a collective of women, who traditionally for centuries dive and harvest sea creatures to not only feed themselves, but for sale. The men traditionally stay home and look after the children while the women come together and dive. The island is known for their Haenyeo traditions where women dive even in freezing conditions and worship a female god to protect them when they go out. At the age of fifty-five they retire and nuture baby dives in their teen years.

I thought the book started slowly as we learnt about how the friendship began and all about the matriarchy of the collective and the diving. I have to be honest, while I didn’t warm to the characters at first, I persisted and I’m so glad I did. The next two thirds was a dynamite of action, tragedy and heartbreak. The story flipped into and out of 2008 but not too often.

It’s a fascinating history and the author has done a mountain of work on her research, not just about the Haenyeo, the ancient practice of worshipping female Gods but of Korea’s past and lead up to the War. I’d never heard of this particular Island and when I finished the novel, I found myself reading more about it.

I’d recommend it thoroughly.

Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

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There’s a lot to admire about this novel. The writing for one is wonderful. It’s quite different although you’ll need to get used to the lack of dialogue punctuation. But I liked this touch, as if listening in on a conversation. There are lots of detail which puts you right into the world of two young people, Marianne and Connor. We’re taken into key moments in their lives identified by the chapter headings of two months later, six months etc. You might also be surprised as I was that it’s not set in America but in Ireland.

Now, for a bit of background. Marianne is friendless and alone in high school with a poor home life, despite being wealthy. She’s the odd one out and is ostracised by everyone. Connor on the other hand is one of the popular boys at school and he fits in well. The class difference is stark as Connor’s mum is Marianne’s family cleaner. At school they pretend not to know each other but a relationship between them builds. He’s desperate to keep their relationship a secret for fear of ridicule but she doesn’t care. This changes when they leave home and go to the same University where being the odd one is cool and popular while Connor struggles to fit in.

Their relationship and the power dynamics between the two, twists and turns from sexual to friendship and back again. Apart, they’re different people and struggle with their own angst about their identity and how they fit into the world. What happened in Marianne’s family is teased out slowly until we understand her more, although I failed to understand why her mother was so against her. Together, they’re better people but can’t seem to communicate clearly about what they want and this becomes a pattern in their relationship. At times this feels frustrating and I can see why it has polarised some readers. About three-quarters of the way through I was getting restless and then I was pulled in again.

There are dark themes tackled and there’s been a lot written about the ending which I enjoyed. It was as it should have been. The subject matter of young love and angst may not be to everyone’s taste but it’s one to read simply because it’s very well done. Long listed for a host of prizes including the Booker, it really is a good read, skilfully written.

Book Review: The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth

 

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It’s an ordinary day for Lucy. The kids are arguing over a television program, her husband Ollie is cooking burgers on the barbecue, and the house is a mess. When police knock on the door, Lucy knows what it will be about.

“I close my eyes because I already know what she is going to say. My mother-in-law, (Diana) is dead.”

A suicide note is found next to Diana but things don’t add up. She was an upstanding member of the community with high standards. She also happens to be very wealthy and questions begin piling up. When Ollie and his sister, Nettie both desperate for money, find out that the will was changed only weeks earlier, things really begin to get interesting.

The story is told mostly from two points of view, Lucy and Diana. We get inside the heads of both women, feeling their pain as their secrets unfold. When Lucy met Diana, she hoped for a  mother figure to replace her own long dead mother but is disappointed by her mother-in-law’s coldness.

I liked the intricacies of the relationships between every member of the family and secrets are revealed nicely so that the reader understands why they behave the way they do. Diana’s harsh upbringing and the way she treats her children makes sense when you find out what happened to her as a teenager. Her husband Tom is a saint keeping the peace between his children and his wife.

It’s an intricate story weaving back and forth between the main characters. In fact, each character is well drawn and the changing relationship particularly between Lucy and Diana is very well done.

This is another great book by a Melbourne author who also happens to be a New York Times best seller.  If you’re looking for something fantastic to read during the holiday season or a great gift, then grab this one.

Book Review: The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben McIntyre

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Move over James Bond. The Spy and the Traitor is an edge of the seat read about Oleg Gordievsky, a Russian spy working for the British intelligence during the Cold War.

Oleg was the son and brother of KGB agents and it only seemed natural that he too join the KGB. His first post as an intelligence agent in Denmark opened his eyes to the West in 1968. As he rose through the KGB ranks to become the top KGB officer in London, his disillusionment with communism intensified and became an informant for the British from 1973 until his defection in 1985.

The intimate workings of both sides of the spy game was a fascinating read and I was astounded to find out that the world was on the brink of nuclear war in 1983 when Russian paranoia was at its height. Russia mistakenly believed that the US was about to push the nuclear button. Gordievsky revealed this information which was given to Thatcher and Reagan who quickly diffused Russia’s concerns. Thank God for Gordievsky. He is also credited with not just preventing nuclear war but quite possibly the break-up of the Soviet Union.

MI6 kept a close eye on Gordievsky; the risks were high and very few people knew his identity. However, the CIA were desperate to find out the identity of the British source and the power struggles between the two intelligence machines was intense.

The spy world is filled with treachery, ego and stupidity highlighted by games of cat and mouse. I had to keep reminding myself that this actually happened and was not make-believe which served to make me feel a bit uncomfortable that the world’s peace is in the hands of these so-called intelligence gathering experts.

The way the author has pulled this book together from interviews and documented evidence  is truly remarkable. It makes for chilling and uncomfortable reading. Just try and put it down. I’ll bet you can’t.

Book Review: Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

As the girlfriend, then wife of a lead guitarist of a rock and roll band in the late seventies, I was very interested to read Daisy Jones and The Six. The book is a chronicle about a band who reaches the dizzying heights of stardom and fame before dramatically coming apart in 1979.

The band starts as The Six in the early seventies founded by Billy and his brother Graham. They gather other musicians, Eddie, Warren, Karen and Peter to form a band and have little success at first. Like any other form of art, most bands don’t make it to stardom and fame yet are content to make music for whatever reason. There are some like the Stones and the Beatles who do and this is the story of one such band. It’s said that the author was inspired by Fleetwood Mac but it isn’t their story by any stretch of the imagination.

The Six plod along playing wherever they can get gigs with Billy writing songs hoping for a hit. Their manager introduces Daisy Jones to them suggesting that with her style, looks and talent, the band will achieve the heights of greatness they’re all looking for. Daisy herself is a girl raised in California with natural talent, incredible looks and an attitude that she’ll do things her way to counter sexism in the music industry.

There is everything in this novel as you would expect; sex, drugs and rock and roll. The highs and lows of music, fame, fortune, relationships, ambition and infidelity are all covered and the struggle with addiction was thoughtfully explored.

This is not like any other book I’ve read. Each person who has a history with the band past and present is interviewed by an anonymous journalist. They have the opportunity to have their say and the writing flies directly in the face of ‘show, don’t tell.’ It is pure ‘tell’ but is done so cleverly that you almost feel as if you are watching a documentary. Each character explains their perspective and sometimes as in real life, interestingly come up with differing views of the same event. Possibly their recollections might seem repetitive yet the differing perspectives make it satisfactory. This book will have you reaching for google to find out more until you catch yourself – it’s pure fiction.

I can see why so many have raved about this one. I was totally hooked and disappointed when it ended. And did my husband’s band have any similar history? I’m afraid that’s a story for another day.

Book Review: Stone Girl by Eleni Hale

I’ve been reading some amazing books lately and here is another.

Stone Girl is Eleni Hale’s debut novel set in Melbourne, Australia during the nineties. It opens with twelve-year-old Sophie at the police station with blood on her clothes holding a backpack full of her treasures. She’s been found in a flat with her dead mother and is clearly traumatised. With her father living in Greece and no other relatives, she becomes a ward of the state shunted from one place to another, living in despair without hope and learning the ways of the world from other children who’ve been removed from parents. When she meets Gwen, Matty, and Spiral, she finally feels she belongs.

To say this is an eye-opener is an understatement. Nothing is held back as the reader is taken on a ride with Sophie. We hope that someone will care enough about her and then despair when it doesn’t. We follow her journey through her teenage years which is dictated by a system that can’t give her what she needs, let alone what she and any other child in her situation deserve.

The fact that the author knows firsthand about what it’s like to be a ward of state gives this book more of a punch. Although it’s a work of fiction, it’s not make-believe. Children in the system aren’t vote-catchers so resources aren’t a priority. They’re akin to refugees within our own society and that’s horrific. That’s not to say that youth workers, social workers and the like aren’t doing their job, they are, but in stretched circumstances. Is it really acceptable to house half a dozen broken children in one place with an adult who is on shift, without time and energy to develop relationships with those in their care? Is it any wonder that most of these children end up on the streets, on drugs with a pathway to jail or even worse a short life span? Surely there is nothing worse than to lose your home and your loved ones. Yet this happens with children who are the most vulnerable, time and time again.

I felt so much for Sophie and was annoyed at the uselessness of the adults around her who let her down, time and again. To watch her spiral out of control was heartbreaking. The climax had me reading until the end and closing the last page left me thinking about every kid who ever needed a home, love and respect and those who aren’t lucky enough to get it.

This is classified as Young Adult and has begun winning awards. The writing is authentic and rich. The characters are like no-one you probably know if you live in a middle-class world. It’s a powerful book that needs to read by adults of all walks of life especially by those who make policy as well as those who allow children to slip from their grasp.

Read this one. It’s important.

https://www.penguin.com.au/books/stone-girl-9780143785613