At the risk of sounding ancient, there’s something pretty special about the anticipation of waiting for a new episode to drop in a series, rather than spending hour after hour bingeing an entire season on Netflix. I look back on my teen years and remember the excitement of the next instalment of the latest Australian miniseries (or the stress of ensuring the VCR was set to record if I wasn’t going to be home). My favourites included A Town Like Alice, For the Term of his Natural Life, Against the Wind and The Timeless Land to name a few.
Not surprisingly, my reading habits echoed my growing love for Australian historical fiction. While friends were obsessed with Flowers in the Attic, I was reading Sara Dane, My Brilliant Career and We of the Never Never.
Kate Grenville has long been one of my favourite authors, and A Room Made of Leaves did not disappoint. Breathing new life into familiar names from Sydney’s geography and landmarks, Grenville steps into the inner world of Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John Macarthur who is widely credited with establishing Australia’s wool industry.
Grenville perfectly captures the challenges and hardships of Elizabeth Macarthur’s early life, the voyage to an unknown land and the establishment of a new home. Throughout the book, Elizabeth’s gentle humour, depth of character and wisdom are revealed in her interactions with her narcissistic and high-maintenance husband and her new friends. While the authentic letters of Macarthur appear formulaic and overly positive, Grenville imbues them with a more likely, harsh reality. In many respects, the letters are the original Facebook posts – showcasing only the best of life, and hiding, or at least disguising, the mundane, the frustration, and the heartbreak of real life. Grenville gives Elizabeth credit for her resilience and her shrewd dealings with her husband and the farm, credit that is often overlooked in a history written by men.
As with The Secret River, Grenville does not shirk from the ugly parts of Australia’s history, particularly as it relates to the Europeans’ interactions with Indigenous people, the treatment of women and alcohol-fuelled violence. Rather, she holds a mirror to the very issues that still affect us today.
As with every great work of historical fiction, the more I read, the more I want to learn. A Room Made of Leaves has rekindled my curiosity regarding central figures in Sydney’s colonial history – not only John and Elizabeth Macarthur, Dawes, Nepean and Tench, but also Pemulwuy, Patyegarang and other first Australians.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz - It’s only a short book, but it took me forever to read. Even though I am a HUGE fan of historical fiction, there was something about this book that stopped me from devouring it in one sitting. In fact, I could only seem to read a few pages before I had to put it down, walk away and take some deep breaths.
This book was a fictionalised true story, and perhaps it was this uneasy marriage between two genres that unsettled me. I was so overcome by the horrors of Auschwitz – the sights, the sounds, the smells – that I could not fully appreciate the beautiful love story between Lale and Gita. I would have liked to know more about them, to uncover their full stories, and not just skim the surface of their romance. I’m not convinced that a fictionalised account was the best vehicle for such remarkable people.
Despite this, it was a powerful book, and one which provided an insight into the daily life-and-death struggles of the prisoners, and the random (and sometimes evil) nature of privilege and punishment.
Relatively recently, I read Before the coffee goes cold (see thought bubble here). It was a classic ‘what if’ magical realism tale set in Japan. The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig, is in the same genre, and was voted Goodreads Fiction Book of the Year for 2020. Instead of being set in a cafe, however, the magic happened in a library somewhere between life and death, where every book represented an alternative future depending on choices made.
This book was Sliding Doors on steroids. Nora Seed couldn’t see a way out of her depression, and decided to end it all, which is how she ended up in the extraordinary Midnight Library. I have to confess, having spent eons of my own life in a library as a reader, student, teacher and teacher-librarian, the concept of a Midnight Library was simply delicious!
Jorge Louis Borges wrote, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” However, Nora’s experiences of the Midnight Library were not all heavenly. As Nora lurched from alternative reality to alternative reality, she did not experience heavenly peace. Rather, she lived multiple lives, experiencing joy and pain in each. Ultimately, she understood herself and those around her more clearly, and discovered that not all choices needed to be tinged with regret.
Nora’s potential pathways were many and varied, and I wondered how many people would actually be so accomplished in so many different fields. Ultimately, even though it wasn’t my favourite book of 2020, it was an enjoyable, quick read. (And it showcased a library, which makes it a winner for me.)
Many, many years ago, I confessed to my book group that I’d never read Anna Karenina. Oh, the shame!! That Christmas, I dutifully bought myself a copy and devoured it. Similarly, I recently confessed to some book tragic friends that I’d never read an Ann Patchett book, so I borrowed my Mum’s copy of The Dutch House, and now want to read ALL her books.
The Dutch House was an absolute treat. The flawed characters, the piecing together of key events and relationships through the multiple timelines, the gender roles and expectations, and, of course, the house, are all woven together to create a rich story, replete with thought-provoking themes such as the nature of home, family, forgiveness and future.
The Dutch House, with the furnishings and portraits of its previous owners, was influential in the district as well as in the lives of those who inhabited it. Yet, for Danny and Maeve, it represented the hope, but ultimate failure, of a happy home and childhood, and the unshakeable anguish of what might have been.
Patchett’s use of Danny as narrator ensured that only his perspective was provided, so while there were unanswered questions, particularly about the ‘evil stepmother’ Andrea, his insights and reflections were profound and the reader was intimately acquainted with each member of the family.
And so, my to-be-read pile continues to grow with other acclaimed Ann Patchett novels I need to devour.
Many years ago, my niece announced that Jasper Jones was her all-time favourite book, and so I quickly set about getting hold of a copy. Like her, I found it to be a compelling, touching and thought-provoking book.
Ten years later, another compelling, touching and heart-warming book by Craig Silvey emerged – Honeybee. The mullet and garish colours which adorn the cover made me think twice about picking it up, but I needn’t have worried. Silvey’s trademark skill in storytelling did not disappoint.
The opening chapter’s title is The End. In reality, this probably would have been the end for Sam Watson, the trans teen who had given up on life. At 14, Sam was already defined by disillusionment and heartbreak, and these feelings of isolation, loneliness and abandonment rang true. Thankfully, the chance encounter with Vic steered Sam’s life in a completely different direction.
Through the roller-coaster that followed, Sam’s longing for approval and acceptance placed them in situations that ranged from embarrassing to dangerous. Kindness appeared in unexpected places, but fear was constant, resulting in a gripping read with carefully placed moments of levity.
While often referred to as a coming-of-age story, Honeybee is more a reflection of the coming-of-age-of-society. It is unusual for trans characters to take centre stage in a mainstream book, and it is only in recent years that broader society has begun the long journey of acceptance. In the meantime, there are countless Sam Watsons trying to make sense of their place in the world, even if not always in quite as a dramatic fashion.
I found this to be an incredibly moving book, and adored the character of Sam Watson who had such a big heart cloaked beneath shame and vulnerability. Despite the overwhelming sadness I felt by their predicament, I also found this to be a life-affirming novel, a reminder that small acts of kindness can change a person’s world.
The world of Odie and his fellow travellers could not be more different to my world. The Gilead River bears zero resemblance to the northern fringes of Sydney and my childhood was spent with a loving family who provided me with emotional security as well as the essentials of food, shelter, clothing, and access to quality education and health care. And yet, William Kent Krueger tapped into universal themes of journeys, resilience, family and home to craft a novel that was accessible and poignant, even when readers like me are miles, decades, experiences and worlds apart.
Following unspeakable cruelty at the Lincoln School for orphaned and abandoned Native American children, four children escape and canoe down the Gilead River in search of safety, family and home. It is a perilous journey of survival, both physically and emotionally, with high stakes at every turn.
No stone was left unturned in the creation of this epic story. Complex characters were woven in seamlessly throughout the adventure, each with their own back-story determining their actions and relationships with others. Reflecting on the story made me appreciate the author’s skill in not succumbing to two-dimensional characters, regardless of how large or small their role. Each character had a unique and authentic voice, and there was no lapse into either preachy or prosaic narration. The characters told their own stories in their own ways, from detailed descriptions of sharing morsels of food to grappling with the big issues of life and the nature of God.
The setting was almost a character itself. The hardships of the Depression cast an understandable gloominess over the story as Odie and his friends struggled to survive. While the Gilead River was a powerful metaphor for the trials and tribulations of life - calm waters and strong currents - the exquisite storytelling protected it from cliche. Similarly, the depiction of Native Americans was respectful and confronting.
Some of my favourite books examine consequences from a single moment, a single decision. This Tender Land was littered with hugely consequential moments for all of the characters, and resulted in a page-turning, yet very tender, book.
I have been involved in book groups on and off for a few decades now. (Gosh I’m old!) This year, I joined one through my local bookshop which had moved their meetings to Zoom.
Book groups are great; book tragics sit around and discuss books, often there is wine and cheese involved, and inevitably you read books that you’d never dream of picking up. Before the coffee gets cold is one such book. Is it the best book I’ve ever read? Probably not. Am I glad I read it? Absolutely.
Written by Japanese author Toshikazu Kawaguchi, Before the coffee gets cold explores the age-old question, “What if…?”. In a tiny café in a back alley of Tokyo, answers are possible through time travel when certain conditions are met, including sitting in a particular seat and not leaving the café.
Four stories are gently told, and the structure reminds me of Neil Simon’s plays, Plaza Suite and California Suite, where the setting is the cohesive thread linking the self-contained stories. Unlike these plays, however, there is also a small, eclectic mix of characters that provide an overall narrative arc.
Time travel is always thought-provoking, and Before the coffee gets cold is a personal encounter with the past, rather than a random time in history. I couldn’t help but ponder my own life – which part would I like to revisit? Who would I like to say goodbye to, or hello to, or reconnect with? But the biggest question that kept recurring was – would I really want to go back in time? The limitations imposed in the book would probably be a deal-breaker for me, as I think I’d prefer to visit someone else’s history rather than my own. (Perhaps that explains my passion for historical fiction, and post-modern TV series such as Lost in Austen…)
The human experience has moments of irrepressible joy, unspeakable loss and gnawing regret. Exploring these through the eyes of different characters in Before the coffee gets cold was heartwarming, heartbreaking, and satisfying, enjoyed best with a good, hot cup of tea. (Not a coffee drinker, so couldn’t make an honest coffee reference…)
Below Deck was not what I’d expected.
I was fortunate to receive a copy from Allen & Unwin through Suzanne Leal’s Book Group (which I must get back to!) earlier in the year, and it promptly went on my ‘to be read’ pile. Rave reviews had focused on the absorbing nature of the story, and how it was a ‘book for our times.’ I had read so many comments of ‘I couldn’t put it down’, that I had expected it to be a light read, a ‘chick lit’ book about Olivia (Oli) that touched on the ‘me too’ movement somehow.
Below Deck was beautifully written, but you wouldn’t call it a light read. It was thought-provoking, and ultimately rang with hope, but the middle section was hard. Painful. Personal. I can’t recall ever reading a book that so truthfully portrayed the mental anguish and physical ordeal of the most intimate trauma imaginable. Like Oli, I felt completely adrift, and I needed time before I could check in with the vulnerable protagonist to see if she was OK.
This was a book of fiction, but it felt very honest, very raw. Sometimes I think that the ‘me too’ movement is portrayed as an army of women who experienced sexual assault, often at the hands of powerful and prominent men. Empowering for those women, undoubtedly. But in reality, the ‘me too’ movement extends far beyond the gossipy and salacious details of inexcusable behaviour by famous men.
Below Deck peeled away the layers of the ‘me too’ movement, and really grasped Oli’s full experience of trauma. The event was only the beginning. The self-doubt, self-blame, confusion, issues of trust, grief, fear – these are part-and-parcel of the ‘me-too’ movement, yet rarely seen in the tabloids. Importantly, this trauma was balanced by Hardcastle’s gentle humour, particularly in interactions with a diverse set of characters. The inspired references to synaesthesia, seeing in colour, also added an expressive and poetic dimension to the writing, and the imagery of the water provided the perfect metaphor.
This book was not what I expected, but not in a bad way. It was a profoundly moving and important book. It has prompted me to have even more conversations with my daughters (nearly all in their early 20s, like Oli at the start of the book) and to applaud the brave women who have come forward publicly, as well as those who must privately navigate their way through the rough waters.
Writing a thought bubble about Maggie O’Farrell’s writing is like a preschooler trying out a calligraphy pen. O’Farrell’s writing is sublime. While Shakespeare’s work comes alive on the stage, his home life comes alive in Hamnet.
I’m a big fan of historical fiction. I love how it transforms static images into living, breathing, squabbling, tired, real people. In Hamnet, cultural norms and expectations, gender roles, even the nature of housework seem foreign to me. However, contrasting personalities, especially in family settings, are all too familiar, as are the emotions arising from disappointment, love, prejudice, frustration, impatience, anger and grief.
However, it’s the writing that sets this apart from other historical novels. With only scant records of the family, O’Farrell acknowledges that this is an imagined account based on her own speculation. And yet, there is exquisite historical detail peppered throughout, and a sequence of imagined events articulated so magnificently that it took my breath away.
This isn’t really a book about Hamnet; it is a book about his mother – a woman defined by being different, gifted, and a devoted mother. The tension builds and builds through the dual narrative, a flawless construction of characters and events leading to That Moment, foreshadowed in the historical note at the start. Grief is explored with an intense compassion and tenderness, and yet with impeccable restraint.
Hamnet is simply exceptional storytelling.
Have you read Hamnet or any of Maggie O'Farrell's work? Please share below and let me know your thoughts.
On my Instagram posts, I love highlighting particular quotes from books which resonate with me, or provide me with ‘aha’ moments. Phosphorescence made this task near impossible. I lingered over every page, soaking in the exquisite imagery, profound perceptions, and personal insights which were articulated in lyrical, yet extensively researched, prose. Quite simply, I did not want this book to end. I read it slowly, deliberately. And I insisted my 3 daughters read the chapter I wish I’d written for them.
While reading, I kept thinking ‘same, same, but different.’ Julia Baird and I are of a similar age and attended similar schools and churches. We have similar-sounding mothers (she could have been describing mine – “whenever Mum enters a room … everything seems easier, calmer, cheerier”) and we both belong to loving, prominent families. We delight in our children, and have friends of unspeakable loyalty and goodness. We love the written word, particularly poetry, and have even unexpectedly become the owner of a puppy in the past year (although mine is a teensy tiny black ball of fluff).
But that’s where the similarity ends. I am the antithesis of a thrill-seeker, and cannot think of anything worse than swimming in the ocean past where I can stand, or trekking in Nepal. I do not rub shoulders with the likes of Helen Garner (if only!) or Magda Szubanski, and living overseas consisted of 18 months in Wellington NZ while teaching. And although I have ongoing struggles with chronic illness, I have never grappled mentally or physically with a life-threatening cancer.
And yet, and yet...
I feel complete when I sit on my deck and gaze at the trees, or see mist in the valley like a thick white (not rainbow) serpent, or when I’m visited by impossibly bright king parrots, screeching white cockatoos or cackling kookaburras. When the sky turns pink, purple or orange, I am in awe. It centres me. It puts my pride, my anxiety, my dreams in perspective. It isn’t exactly phosphorescence, a light from within, but it provides a calmness within me. Peace. A sense of God’s presence.
Julia Baird’s book has been a timely reminder to open our eyes and see everyday beauty which inspires awe and wonder, and to cherish the grace and love that surrounds us. Particularly in these times of uncertainty and change, both globally and personally, this book is a balm for the soul.
I would love to hear your thoughts of this book, or your encounters with awe, wonder or grace. Please comment below.
Please find here an assorted mix of what I tend to read - new books, old books, birthday gifts, gifts to myself, books from my to-be-read pile, fiction, non-fiction, memoirs - basically a weird assortment of goodies! My comments here are simply thought-bubbles, rather than formal book reviews. Stream of consciousness. Please share your comments and connect. I love a reading community!