Tag Archives: Book reviews

Book Review: Elizabeth & Elizabeth by Sue Williams

I’ve been on a bit of a Elizabeth Macarthur odyssey ever since I read Michelle Scott Tucker’s book Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world. (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/ ). When I heard about Elizabeth & Elizabeth, a fictional story about Elizabeth’s friendship with Elizabeth Macquarie, I had to buy the book.

Too many Elizabeth’s can be a bit confusing so I’ll use surnames. A young Mrs Macquarie was married to Lachlan Macquarie who came to Australia as the Governor of the new colony. He was a man of vision, providing the name of Australia and introducing social reforms to emancipate convicts despite strong opposition from the elite including Mr Macarthur. Williams imagines Mrs Macquarie to be a strong and assertive influence on Lachlan and credits her with imaginative ideas of architecture, garden landscaping as well as social welfare for young women.

Meanwhile Mrs Macarthur married to the troublesome, duel challenging at the drop of a hat, Mr Macarthur is much older and wiser not given to airs and graces while she’s grappling with a couple of sheep on the farm she’s managing because Mr Macarthur is in England sorting out the scraps he’s had with the previous Governor.

When she first arrives, Mrs Macquarie is portrayed as a wide-eyed and naïve young woman and I wondered if it might have been further from the truth given that she was thirty-one not twenty-one. But her character grows as she quickly adapts to the realities of the harshness of colonial life. She holds the much older Mrs Macarthur in high esteem. The relationship while brittle at first grows over the years as the challenges to the Macquarie’s post grows more difficult.

Of course, Mr Macarthur is as troublesome as history has portrayed. I’d always imagined that the relationship between Mr and Mrs Macarthur to be a difficult one with little love. Yet the author paints a loving and caring relationship between them. From what I’d read so far, I really doubted the woman could have done anything other than be relieved when he went to London for several years leaving her to make her mark on the colony with her sheep breeding ideas.

In reality, history being written by men provides us with little knowledge of the relationship between the two women but Williams reads between the lines to give us a delicious account of what these strong and intelligent women brought to society and to the foundations of the colony giving them credit when there’d been little before. No doubt there would have been few women from their class and they would have little choice than to fraternise despite their husbands opposing views of each other. I really liked the idea that women could come together to support each other enough to make the colony a better place. I can’t imagine how horrific it must have been to be a woman where childbirth and child raising was fraught with disease and death.   

The other great insight is just how entrenched the class system was adopted and continued on from England. It’s hardly surprising that the governing bodies, serving their own self-interests were mean-spirited about the people in the colony. But wait, what’s changed today with our present government? Perhaps not a lot when you consider the refugees who came here by boat.

This novel is rich in history, well-written and researched. If you’re after a bit of history about upper-class women of influence then check this one out.

Book Review: A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu

I bought this book because of the hype around it. If I’d bothered to read the reviews, both supportive and divisive, I probably wouldn’t have read it. But this is a debut novel by a young Australian woman and I wanted to give it a go.

Jena Lin is a twenty-three-year-old classical violinist who as a child prodigy, toured the world. Something happened when she was fourteen and she stopped playing and embarked on a ‘normal’ life. Her relationship with her mother and mentor is fractured.  When she resumes her career, she is caught up in a world of rehearsals, performances and practice. In her spare time, she hooks up with just about anyone she meets using sex as a crutch to fill her loneliness.  When she is awarded an internship with the New York Philharmonic orchestra she begins to take control of her life and her comeback on her terms.

The book is essentially the blurb, reading almost like a diary of rotating daily activities of rehearsal, performance and sex, which in my opinion is overly graphic and gratuitous. There’s not much of a plot here and the sex scenes, and there was a lot, detracted from what was really going on with Jena.  There was little depth in her relationships and there was only just enough interest for me to find out about what had happened at fourteen. The world of the classical music lifestyle also held me to a point but I found that this too became repetitive.

The problem I had with the book was that while it was detailed in some aspects it was frustratingly short on depth in characters and Jena’s relationships. The characters almost seemed like cardboard cut-outs wheeled out at periodic times. As a reader we knew more about Jena’s day to day life than we did about much else.

On the day of the audition, I wake early to take a long shower, scrubbing off the residual sweat of sleep, washing my hair, shaving my underarms and legs. In the bathroom mirror, I squint at my own reflection.”

Trying to understand Jena, her motivations and the people around her was at times, quite bewildering. In particular, I would have liked to have known more about her relationship with her mother, and her father who is rarely mentioned. Half way through, I almost gave up but I slogged on hoping to get more than a superficial insight, even just a glimmer of emotion from just about anyone.  

Yet, I appreciated the themes the author was trying to explore, racism, sexism, female sexual desire, and loneliness. I’d never given a thought to classical music and in particular how most of it is written by men.

“I wonder why none of the music I play has been created by a woman and whether that exclusion was deliberate. What is the point of being any kind of artist if your skin colour or gender excludes you from the choices of old white men, just because you don’t look like them or they don’t see themselves in you?”

I didn’t mind the writing style and it’s slightly reminiscent of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. However, the characters are largely unlikeable and although there was some limited sympathy for Jena, the book left me frustrated and disillusioned. I know others liked it and but I don’t think it was for me. I guess I just wanted more depth.

Book Review: The Yield by Tara June Winch

This highly awarded book is an evocative and eye-opening read from Australian (Wiradjuri) author Tara June Winch.

There are actually three stories all cleverly constructed to relate to each other:

Pop (Albert Goondiwindi) composes a dictionary of Wiradjuri words. He peppers the meanings with stories of his family, his past and his culture in the hope that none of it will be lost. He passes away before completing it.

The second story is from his granddaughter’s point of view. August flies home from England for Pop’s funeral and faces the family she ran from many years earlier.  She’s embraced by her grandmother and aunties and must confront the reasons for running away.

The third is a series of letters from Reverend Greenleaf of German background who set up a Mission for Aborigines in the late 1800’s.

This is a remarkably clever reconstruction of a history largely forgotten and untold in Australia. The dictionary was genius giving us a real sense of the Wiradjuri language including pronunciation. The focus on intergenerational trauma as well as the strength of connection to land and culture was inspiring.

Look at it this way – when people travel overseas the first thing, they do is learn a handful of words, learn the local language – please and thank you and hello and goodbye, maybe even where is the supermarket? People do it because it makes life easier but they also do it out of respect…

And then we’re all migrants here, even those first-fleet descendants, we forget we’re all in someone else’s country.”

Reading The Yield gave me all sorts of feelings. The anguish and anger of what happened to our indigenous people was detailed in the letters written by the Reverend. His seemingly good intentions to set up a mission under the guise of removing a long-established culture to impose another was incredibly misguided. But this is what he and most missionaries around the world have done. Even so, his so-called protection was never enough.

Then there was the sorrow about the loss and trauma experienced by August: her missing sister, not knowing what happened and the affect it had on her for years afterward, her emptiness and lack of belonging to the land or to her people.

The disgust about how we treat the fifty-thousand-year-old indigenous history. If we dug up a Roman building, we’d revere it yet that history is new in comparison to what exists in Australia. Who can forget Rio Tinto blowing up a 46-thousand-year-old sacred site only last year? And the novel’s story parallels this when the land that Pop had lived on and loved was sold off for a tin mine.

This is another great novel for all Australians to read. These stories help us to understand. Please check this one out.

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 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: 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.