Category Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: The Seven Skins of Esther Wilding by Holly Ringland

I have mixed feelings about this book which is about love, sisters, daughters, sorrow and grief mixed with fairytales and women’s voices.

Sound like a lot? It is and it’s quite a long read.

The story opens with Esther. A swan crashes into her ute from above and she thinks it’s her missing sisters spirit. Her sister Aura last seen walking along the beach disappeared twelve months earlier and Esther has been called home for a memorial service. She has a fractious relationship with her tattooist mother Freya but together with her therapist father, Esther is asked to go to Denmark. Why? Because her sister had lived there for three years before returning home  broken and deeply sad and they believe Esther should go and find out what happened.

The plot slowly unfolds as we discover stories surrounding tattooing and how women’s stories can be told on their skin. We discover that Aura has a childhood diary where her teenage ramblings stop when she’s about to turn sixteen. It picks up again when she’s in Denmark when her studies into folklore and fairy tales brings her to write about the seven skins, lines and passages she also has tattooed on her body the meaning of which remains a mystery.

I enjoyed the imagery and the arc of Esther’s character even though she wasn’t a particularly likeable character but that wasn’t the point. Her grief and the trauma of losing her older sister, the relationships around her and her self-discovery was touching and quite moving. The other characters weren’t terribly engaging either serving little purpose than to tiptoe around Esther.

Mostly the novel centres on Esther’s point of view with occasional drifts to others and this I found to be unfulfilling because it failed to move the story along. I also found long chunks of information about each skin, her flashbacks about her sister and the fairy tale reference to be quite repetitive. Even her one night stand with Tom was repeated a few times. There was a lot of detail and description which was nice when it deserved a place but many times, I found it merely slowed the story down. Perhaps that was the intention for this slow boil of a novel but it didn’t suit me.

A minor plot issue, but given that Freya came from Denmark herself, why she as a mother would not hop on a plane to find out what happened to her own daughter did lose me a bit. I didn’t really buy her reasons but took the leap of faith and accepted it.

Having said that, there was lots about this novel I did enjoy. The idea that grief can paralyse a person, the bonds of sisters, especially an older sister’s impact on her younger sister ( I must remember that, as I am an older sister). It is beautifully written and quite lyrical but overall it didn’t quite work for me.

Book Review: The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell

This story is loosely based on Henry Lawson’s 1892 poem, The Drovers Wife. The author, Leah Purcell has reimagined it and focused on the bleak harshness for women and indigenous people during that time.

Molly Johnson lives in the high country in a shanty with her four children. The oldest, Danny is only twelve. Her husband, Joe never appears in the story as he is away droving. It’s just as well because when he is home, he’s drunk and violent. Molly is pregnant and isolated having only her children around her. Her life although harsh and unforgiving is challenged by the people who visit. The new policeman arrives with his wife and child having survived drowning in a flooded river. Next is Yakuda, an aboriginal man, in shackles who is wanted for allegedly killing a family.

The story plunges the reader into anxiety for Molly, her children and her survival as well as for Yakuda. But you can’t help but admire their gutsy determination for a better life as their relationship grows.

But this is not a story with a happy ending, so prepare yourself. The switch on occasion from third person to first person can be off putting but the story is a powerful one giving the reader a very unromanticised version of early Australia, a place of violence where women and the indigenous are little more than indentured slaves with few rights or voice or place.

The story has been made into a play where it first was brought to life and is now also a movie released in 2021 starring Purcell herself. I must now find it and watch it. And if you can check this one out.

Book Review: Not Now, Not Ever edited by Julia Gillard

For those of you who aren’t Australian, Julia Gillard was our first female Prime Minister. She took on the role with gusto and purpose batting away every critical and nasty comment about her physical appearance to her personal relationship as an unmarried childless woman. Hurtful and devastating to any women let alone the leader of our country. Yet Julia carried on until she didn’t. That day in 2012 when she finally stood up to the Opposition Leader and his party and called him out for his sexist behaviour not just to her but to all Australian women, was a momentous one inspiring a shift if just a little that day, but which has grown and inspired many since. Indeed, it as pertinent now as it was then reminding women everywhere around the world that enough is enough.

This book is about that speech but is so much more. Julia has brought together a collection of essays from other women some of whom admitted that the speech was a wake-up call for action. Jess Hill, a young journalist was asked to investigate domestic violence and once she began digging was horrified at what she found in homes and families around the country. In Barak Obama’s administration having to deal with constant racism, the speech was used to galvanise and inspire.  In homes around Australia, it made people sit up and think and commence action.

I was in a leadership role myself at the time, working in a mainly male team having had to battle sexism which was never apparent on the surface. There were policies in place. But I do remember that year, our organisation had all male leaders undergo an intensive course on changing their attitudes and behaviours around sexism in the workplace. It was a truly incredible thing for a corporate organisation to do.

“Sexism experienced is a societal problem impacting on people’s perceptions of safety, confidence, health and wellbeing.”  More importantly sexism reinforces women’s individual and social disadvantages and if we want a fairer happier society, then the move to gender equality is urgent. Unfortunately, for most countries and in Australia this is not forecast to be reached for at least 150 years. Too late for me or my daughters.

This book is an important one to read and it is easy to follow and understand, inspiring and educating us about how sexism and misogyny affect each and every one of us. So go and get this one, learn and act. It’ll help you to understand so that we all move our society in a better, fairer direction.

Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

Oh, what a read this one was. I could not put it down.

Set in the late 1950’s, this novel is a delightful and empowering story exploring the world of science, love, and motherhood. The main character, Elizabeth Zott, is a brilliant and ambitious young chemist who is determined to make a name for herself in the male-dominated field of science. But when she meets and falls in love with her soulmate, Calvin Evans a brilliant, Nobel Prize nominated chemist, she finds herself torn between her career goals and her heart.

The novel highlights the challenges that women faced in the scientific, television and rowing communities, and the struggle to balance personal and professional aspirations when social mores forced women into conformity. When Elizabeth finds herself a single mother, she fails to see the problems that others see and her character is so engaging that I felt for her the whole way, cheering her along as she inspired others on her journey.

And it is an inspiring story of a woman facing calamitous obstacles but who pushes through regardless.

The characters are endearing from her daughter Madeline to the feisty Harriet who builds up the courage to leave her husband. And of course, who could forget the dog, Six-thirty through whose eyes we were given the privilege of seeing a different world.

The author’s writing style is engaging and fluid, making it easy to get lost in the story and the characters.

The chemistry between Elizabeth and Calvin is endearing and heartfelt as they ignore the social mores of the time.  It’s a perfect blend of science and fiction, providing a unique and captivating reading experience.

There are a few twists, many of which I did not see coming. But this one is also full of hope that the world is changing for women now and into the future. Sigh, if only it was that simple.

Book Review: Wildflowers by Peggy Frew

I have really loved Frew’s last two books, Hope Farm and Islands so I knew I just had to get Wildflowers.

Like the others, Wildflowers is  a story of family and in this case, the relationship and challenges of three sisters. Meg is the oldest, followed a year later by Nina and then four years after is Amber.

The story is largely centred around Nina and the affect on her by Amber, with her addiction and Meg who has an overwhelming need to fix and nurture Amber. When Meg decides that she and Nina need to perform an intervention on Amber, they whisk her younger sister away to a remote far north Queensland house. It’s here that good intentions slide and their relationship is tested.

Told from Nina’s point of view, its her gaze at her sisters and her largely ineffectual parents that gives us perspective.  From the opening, it’s clear that Nina who has packed up her belongings in boxes, not showering, or eating properly, is in the one who is really in trouble.

Nina reflects on her own life, her sexual life of disappointments, her inability to voice her thoughts  or even her ability to function. As her state of mind deteriorates before and after the intervention she slides into a space where no-one notices her crisis.

The sisters all perform and live in their assigned roles from childhood. “Meg, ten, is the Good One, and Nina, nine is the Forgetful One, and Amber, little Bam, only five is the Wild One, a puppy, a seal cub.” Often labelling children with their designated role means they wear it for life. Frew explores the roles of the sisters each fractured within the family.

Nina is a dislocated observer trying to make some meaning of her life as well as of her her family and her sisters as she reflects on what happened in QLD five years earlier. She is struck with an inertia and apathy yet unable to vocalise and stop Meg who is hellbent on fixing Amber. Nina struggles with the morals of what is going on but her weakness paralyses her from taking any action. She comes face to face with understanding who her sisters actually are. As is so often the case, Frew explores the question of how well we really know our siblings and our actions dependant on our designated role. It’s an interesting idea and one that is explored well.

Beyond the family, Nina reflects on her list of sexual partners, none of whom create a meaningful relationship. Tarnished by her experiences she slowly realises that it is not what she wants and without any real action she drifts away from these men.

But we never truly get a deep understanding of Nina and her motivations, nor do we learn much more about Amber or Meg. Yet the relationships between them change and evolve as they weave in and out of each other’s lives as siblings do.

It’s not a happy novel and reminds me a little of Sorrow and Bliss without the wit. But the writing is descriptive, the rainforest, the party house and the landmarks in Melbourne to name a few. It’s also emotive and confronting and in the end hopeful.

Wildflowers is unsettling and at times, confronting. From the first few pages, I was invested but this may not be a novel for everyone.

Book Review: The Good Wife of Bath by Karen Brooks

Geoffrey Chaucer is famous for the collection of stories he wrote known as The Canterbury Tales. One of the stories, The Wife of Bath inspired author Karen Brooks to gleefully and expertly give the character, Eleanor the opportunity to give her side of the story.

Set in 1364, Eleanor is married off to the first of five husbands at the age of twelve. By eighteen she is a widow. The book takes us on a journey through her life, in and out of poverty and love and injustice. Geoffrey Chaucer himself is introduced as a character who plays a major role throughout her life as a distant cousin. She is not a woman who bows to social norms and with the support of her closest friend and ally Alison, she fights to protect her loved ones from the brutalities of those medieval times.

Life for women was particularly difficult. They were considered inferior, health care was scant and a woman’s success was tied to the wealth of the man she married. Even then it didn’t guarantee her a happy and fulfilled life. Indeed men’s attitude towards their wives was at best tolerant and at worst, they were treated like slaves and blamed for everything because of their sex. The author immerses us into a world of a plague uncanny in its comparison to our present day pandemic.

I simply adored this novel. I loved the character of Eleanor and was on her side the entire time, wanting a better life for her and dismayed at the injustices that she faced as a woman. And I wondered what she would think in 2023. Would she be amazed or disgusted that there hasn’t been the progress she might have expected?

The theme running throughout the novel is injustice for women and the following sums it up nicely.

“The older of the men, a Master le Brune, looked me up and down, a sneer forming. “Women weren’t put on this earth to conduct business, madam,’ he said haughtily, ‘but to help men with their work. As the good books say, ‘suffer not a woman to teach, nor to use authority over the man: but to be in silence.”

Eleanor railed against a culture where a woman was not permitted to conduct a business by herself, where her only respectability was as a married woman and her role defined as wife and mother.

I cheered for her successes, mourned her losses and there was a lot, was horrified on one page and laughed at the next of this page-turning novel.

It is a long book so be prepared to invest a lot of time to read it. You’ll be rewarded by not wanting it to ever finish. It’s a meticulously researched book vivid in description, humour, and tragedy with powerful characters. Get this one. You won’t be sorry.

Book Review: Limberlost by Robbie Arnott

Arnott is a Tasmanian author and certainly one to watch. Limberlost is his third novel and the first I’ve read of his work.

This is a coming-of-age novel about fifteen-year-old Ned who lives with his father and sister on their apple orchard in the Tamar Valley. It’s 1943 and his two older brothers away at war, leave a pall of anxiety over the household. Ned keeps himself busy during the summer school holidays with chores and trapping rabbits to sell as skins for hats for the soldiers. Ned is anxious about killing the animals but has a dream to use the money to buy a boat. It’s wartime so he questions his motives and wonders about his selfish dream. With his friend Jackbird, he finds time to fish and swim in the nearby river and lose himself to the imagination of a legendary whale at the mouth of the river. The narrative flips intermittently to Ned as a man who is forever reminded of what happened that summer of ’43.

Firstly, the writing is sublime, and although it’s not a long book (226 pages) each sentence is carefully considered, evoking beauty and feeling for the characters and the landscape. ‘The wind warmed, then died. The sun bit and clawed. Mud hardened into dirt, before falling apart as dust. Sweat crusted onto skin as soon as it leaked free. With no freshness to feed on, the rabbits disappeared.’

Ned is a boy and then a man of few words, lacking confidence to voice what is truly bothering him, always trying to do the right thing hoping for approval from his father, his sister and eventually his absent brothers. ‘He avoided thinking about anything that brought on the sting. The war. The school year that awaited him. The mare. His father. How his father, after he’d read Toby’s letter, had asked Ned if anything had come from Bill. The blank fissure in the old man’s face when Ned had shaken his head.’

Ned is also deeply conflicted by his obsessions and secrets, as his dreams collide with the reality of the failing farm and the absence of his brothers. But it is so beautifully juxtaposed with Ned as an adult bringing joy as he matures to be a caring, loving family man.

This truly is a magical story, beautifully written digging Ned into you, making you care and want the best for him. I predict this one will win a few awards, so go out and buy this new release.