Category Archives: Book reviews

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.

Book Review: The Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende

This book is a fascinating look at history spanning fifty years of Victor Dalmau’s life. He was a young doctor in the Spanish Civil War who fled to a concentration camp in France. Together with Roser his brother’s pregnant wife, they take a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda and sail to Chile where they settle.

Although fiction, it is written in a non-fictional style and is rich in true historical events surrounding the main characters of Victor and Roser. The horror of the Spanish Civil War is played out from Victor’s point of view from the brutal conditions of the war zone to the struggle for survival and escape. I knew little of this war and was fascinated to learn more.

‘Hundreds of thousands of terrified refugees were escaping to France, where a campaign of fear and hatred awaited them. Nobody wanted these foreigners – Reds, filthy, deserters, delinquents, as the French press labeled them… No-one imagined that within a few days there would be almost half a million Spaniards, in the last stages of confusion, terror and misery, clamouring for the border.”

The skill of Allende is that she is able to transport us through history, teaching and enlightening us about Spain, Chile and also Venezuela, putting us into the lives of the characters so that we know their fear, their pain and their anxiety. Yet despite the tragedies, there is love. And the love which grows between Victor and Roser is beautifully done.

Other characters such as the Del Solar family reflect the class divide between rich and poor in Chile, a legacy still felt today in this troubled country. Characters such as Ofelia Del Solar who tries to escape her domineering father, Victor’s friend Aitor who helps Roser, Victor’s mother Carme, Juana the nanny; each have their own stories weaved throughout the narrative of Victor and Roser’s life.

Some might be put off by the expositional style of writing but it didn’t bother me in the slightest. It’s easy to read, highly enlightening and sweeps you along. Give it a go.

Book Review: The Silent Listener by Lyn Yeowart

I turned the last page a few days ago and this book hasn’t left me alone to think about anything else other than the characters and the page turning story.

The first line “the moment he dies, the room explodes with life”, pulls you in and propels you through three time zones, 1940’s, 1960’s and 1983. Each chapter highlights which character it’s about and when, so it’s not difficult to follow.

The main character Joy returns after a long absence in 1983 to nurse her dying father, George, a highly respected and upstanding citizen of the rural community of Blackhunt. Alex Shepard, the local policeman, suspects foul play when George is found with a belt pulled tight around his neck and we’re left wondering if Joy has done it.

We’re then propelled back in time to George’s marriage to Joy’s mother Gwen, their whirlwind courtship, the run-down dairy farm she lives in and how she survives her new life.  It’s through eleven-year-old Joy’s eyes in December 1960 that we learn about her fixation with words, about her religious father and his abusive consequences on Joy and her siblings. In particular, Joy’s special relationship with her older sister Ruth is fascinating as it is revealing.

“Joy knew she should feel sorry for Ruth, but the truth was she felt a familiar white tremor of jealousy.”

Beyond that we get a strong sense of the community and the era particularly when nine-year-old friend, Wendy who lives on a neighbouring farm disappears and is never found which haunts the same investigating policeman, Alex Shepard twenty years later.

The novel is divided into four parts and the first half slowly but intricately unveils the many secrets of Joy’s family sucking the reader into a web of intrigue. A few twists and turns threw me into an unexpected direction culminating in an ending I had no idea was coming.

“His room smells like the orange blankets have licked up the dying odours from his body and are slowly releasing them into the air, and the semi-darkness reminds me of the day I hid in here and saw a snake on the bed, about to attack me.”

There are so many elements to this story and to say too much would be to give away spoilers however, it should be noted that there is a strong theme of domestic violence and child abuse. And although not explicit, it is nerve-wracking and somewhat harrowing. Nevertheless, Ms. Yeowart holds nothing back, taking us on a journey where nothing is as it might seem, where neighbours turn a blind eye and where families hide what really goes on behind closed doors.

It’s disturbing and tense, gripping and complex yet beautifully crafted by debut novelist, Lyn Yeowart. Definitely worth checking out.

Book Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips.

The novel opens with two young sisters enticed into a car by a man from the beach on the Kamchatka Peninsula on the north eastern part of Russia.  That first chapter was incredibly difficult to read as I implored the girls over and over in my head, not to get into the car.

Subsequent chapters thereafter, take the reader into the lives of various characters who have each been affected in some way by the disappearance and have some small connection with each other. Like a series of short stories, the central characters are women of various ages, ethnicity, wealth and background. They each have their own struggles, hope and dreams.

Each chapter moves along in the subsequent month since the disappearance through a harsh winter to emerge at the end a year later with no leads by the police. It’s very cleverly structured so that the reader immerses themselves in each character’s story revealing the cultural divide between white and native Russians, the Kamchatka Peninsula and its isolation from mainland Russia. More fascinating was the glimpse of the new Russia compared to the old and the yearning from some of the older generations for a time where there was no crime and children didn’t disappear. And where attitudes can still be provincial filled with conservatism, racism and misogyny.

The unwed mother fleeing from her boyfriend only to live with her disapproving parents. The twice widowed woman left in a state of grief, and the new mother suffocating at home. The college student with a controlling boyfriend, the young girl who is rejected by her best friend, the mother of another missing girl who disappearance was never taken seriously.

And then there’s the young woman who tells her friend that she’s broken up with her girlfriend. She didn’t understand what happened these days to girls as innocent as she and Lada had been. They were destroyed for it. Any girl would be. The Golosovskaysa sisters, who, walking alone made themselves vulnerable – that one mistake cost them their lives.

If you aren’t doing what you’re supposed to, if you let your guard down, they will come for you.

And the mother of the girls, Marina, “tallied the results of this last year; her girls abducted. Her home empty. Her simple job, chosen for the ease with which she could care for her family around it, now pointless, and her top desk drawer stocked with tranquilising tablets.

Disappearing Earth is structured like a puzzle where the reader works to tie the characters together, remembering where and how they fit in. Fortunately, there is a page outlining all the principal characters, although I forgot to refer to it until the end but it’s useful although not essential. What ties all the characters together is the disappearance of the world they live in.

And then there is the last two chapters which propel the reader, heart racing to a climactic ending. This is quite a remarkable book beautifully written and entirely atmospheric, cast in a backdrop of a thrilling mystery.

Book Review: The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy


The Last Migration is an incredibly moving novel.

The world’s animal species have plummeted dramatically and Franny, a young woman is intent on tracking the last of the Artic Terns from the Arctic to the Antarctica, possibly the last of the birds’ harrowing migration. Along the way, Franny convinces a gnarly fishing Captain with promises of fish if he takes her along to follow the bird. Fishing has all but died and fishermen will do anything to keep their livelihood going despite the fact that most of the sea has been fished out. The journey is tough and Franny’s own search for a missing mother and the unfolding story of her life is emotional and touching.

The journey of the Artic tern said to be the longest migration of any species in the world was made the more fascinating when I took a trip myself. Imagine my surprise when I visited a wildlife reserve on Phillip Island, an hour and half south of Melbourne and saw a sign telling me about the breeding grounds of Artic Terns. There were none there when I visited so I guess, they’re still on the homeward stretch although there were plenty of other birds. And somehow this book seemed extra special to me after seeing where their journey will end.



I’m not sure when I first started dreaming of the passage, or when it became as much a part of me as the instinct for breath. I haven’t cultivated it myself; it swallowed me whole. At first an impossible, foolish fantasy: the notion of securing a place on a fishing vessel and having its captain carry me as far south as he is able; the idea of following the migration of a bird, the longest natural migration of any living creature. But a will is a powerful thing, and mine has been called terrible.

And while the bird’s migration and the world which the author has foreseen is fascinating, the story of Franny, her mother, her loss, her husband and how she dealt with trauma was so incredibly well done. The water, the cold, the desolation was beautifully depicted. Each character, including each crew member of the boat was well drawn but Franny a complex character was the one who I was with the whole way.

I asked Niall once what he thought happened to us after we die, and he said nothing, only decomposition, only evaporation. I asked him what he thought it meant for our lives, for how we spend them, for what they mean. He said our lives mean nothing except as a cycle of regeneration, that we are incomprehensively brief sparks, just as the animals are, that we are no more important that they are, no more worthy of life than any living creature. That in our self-importance, in our search for meaning, we have forgotten how to share the planet that gave us life.

Themes of love, loss, survival and hope are compelling and bit by bit a moving yet gripping story slowly emerges to climax with an incredible ending.

Yes! This one I really, really loved. I think you might too.