Historical fiction retelling of the Labyrinth set in Crete in World War II
Content warning: war, sexual assault, family violence, torture, sexual harassment, disability discrimination
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The Crimson Thread” by Kate Forsyth is a historical fiction novel and retelling of the story of the Labyrinth from Greek mythology. The book is about a young woman called Alenka who lives in Crete with her mother and younger brother. During the Nazi occupation of World War II, she is part of the local resistance. When German paratroopers land on the island in 1941, Alenka saves the lives of two young Australian men: childhood friends Jack and Teddy. However, the war is far from over and as the fighting intensifies on land and off, it becomes harder and harder to know who to trust.
This was an excellently researched book that seamlessly wove together two Cretes: the one of classic mythology and the modern one of the mid-20th century. The pacing in this book was superb. There was a lot of really challenging themes, and Forsyth knew exactly when to allow moments of tension and moments of tenderness. Some of the scenes were so poignant or full of perfect timing that they brought me to tears. The parts of the book that are hardest to read are those that are true either to the Nazi occupation of Crete or the events following Ariadne helping Theseus to navigate the Labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur in Greek mythology. Forsyth’s writing is so vivid in these moments, using motifs and metaphors that span millennia, and appealing to the universal human experience.
Alenka was such a relatable character, trying to do her best in extremely dangerous and ever-changing circumstances, including in her own home. My heart broke for her over and over. Conversely, the friendship and rivalry between Jack and Teddy was a fascinating exploration of class, disability and entitlement in Australian culture. All of the characters felt incredibly well-rounded with histories, motivations and unique personalities propelling them towards the final conflict. Forsyth has written about her experiences growing up with a stutter and writes with power, authenticity and flexibility about Jack’s stutter and how it waxes and wanes depending on the situation and his state of mind. This topic also has a particular significance to my family. During World War II, my grandfather’s twin brother’s aeroplane was shot down over Crete and never recovered. I understand the inspiration for Forsyth’s book came from her own family connection to Crete.
I have reviewed quite a few books by Forsyth on this blog, and I think this is her best yet.
Fictional podcast about a death at a mysterious girl’s school
Content warning: bullying, suicide
The time had come to choose my next running audiobook. I was flicking through the options and came across this: a fictional podcast. I really enjoy fictional podcasts and I’ve listened to more over the years than I have reviewed on this blog because I’m never quite sure if they count as books. I actually find fictional podcasts (or radio plays) easier to listen to than audiobooks: I think the extra sound editing and production makes the story more immersive, and the voice actors make the characters more distinct. Anyway, maybe I should review more fictional podcasts but in the meantime, let’s start with this one.
“The Orchard” by Mike Jones and Mike Cowap is a fictional podcast about a detective and single dad called Adam Durwood who is about to resign from the force. His last case is to investigate the unusual death of a teenage boy by the orchard of an exclusive all girls’ school. His superiors are eager to write it off as a suicide but Detective Durwood is not convinced. He questions students and staff but their responses are confounding; hinting at the school’s secret history. As impartial as Detective Durwood thinks he is, something about the case is pulling him in and while he is distracted, something is pulling his daughter away from him.
This was a really eerie, well-scripted story with exceptional voice acting. There was a surprisingly stellar cast of characters, with Eric Bana as Adam Durwood, Magda Szubanski as Barbara and Gary Sweet as DI Simes. Bana in particular was a standout and captured the nuance of dogged detective and struggling dad perfectly. Each episode was only about 20 minutes or so, which was a pretty ideal length for a short run. There was quite a sinister vibe and I found this podcast really quite creepy to listen to when I was running by myself at night after work. The story covered a range of issues, and I thought one of the most compelling elements was the impact something like a catastrophic car crash can have on a family, the way we process grief and what you would do to get your family back.
As enjoyable as the podcast was, the closer I got to the ending the less convinced I was with the plot direction. I thought that there had been some really strong groundwork around the school, secret societies and the way alumni connections can be used to propel students towards success. However, the final reveal in the story took a completely different path that I found less interesting and much less convincing.
An enjoyable story with a great cast that didn’t quite land the ending.
Modern fairy tale novella inspired by rural Australia
It has been a bit of a topsy turvy year, and I’ve noticed that one thing that hasn’t been as regular lately as in years gone past is book clubs. However, after the second half of last year grinding to a halt due to new and emerging COVID-19 variants, my fantasy book club finally managed to meet to discuss a book in February.
“Flyaway” by Kathleen Jennings is a modern fairy tale novella set in rural district in Australia called Inglewell. There are several plotlines interwoven together with interludes of different background stories and tales about the region, but the main story is about a young woman called Bettina who lives with her mother in a town called Runagate. Bettina’s mother is very concerned about keeping up appearances, and Bettina does as she is told: looking after the garden, dressing appropriately and avoiding undesirable neighbours. However, when a young man called Gary accuses her of being a coward, and she receives a mysterious note, Bettina decides to disobey her mother and try to find her missing brothers and learn what happened to their father.
For a short book, this is a surprisingly complex and intricate story with many layers. Jennings is a writer of considerable subtlety, and many seemingly innocuous events or characters become incredibly significant later on in the story. I really loved some of the little side stories, and my favourites were Linda’s Story: Turncoat and Gwenda’s Story: The School in the Wilderness. They really added to the overall plot while giving the reader interesting background information, and while getting the balance right can be challenging, I think Jennings struck a good balance. Jennings also did something that I haven’t seen many white fantasy authors in Australia do: she did an acknowledgement of country in the acknowledgements section of the book and recommended some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors that readers may also wish to read. I think settlers writing fantasy based in Australia will always be a bit fraught, but acknowledging traditional stories and knowledge in some way seems like a really good step.
However, there were points at which where I thought the stories did get a little tangled. We spent a long time at book club discussing this book not because of how much we liked it or the themes that it engaged, but because we all found it challenging to determine exactly what happened in the book. I felt like the two scenes that were the most obfuscating were when ‘Jack’ goes to help Uncle Davy retrieve some bottles, and the final showdown at the end. I have gone back several times to puzzle out what happened and while I think that Jennings should be commended for her cleverness, you don’t want to be so clever as to be confusing.
A short book with surprising depth and enjoyable worldbuilding; Inglewell definitely leaves the reader with a lingering sense of unease.
Spiritual historical fiction novel about multiple generations of an Aboriginal family
Content warning: racism, segregation, sexual assault
I heard about this book when it was first published in 2020, and it was longlisted for the Stella Prize and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (Indigenous Writing) and the Indie Book Awards (Debut Fiction). I picked up a copy some time back from the National Library of Australia and I’ve been looking forward to reading it for a while.
“Song of the Crocodile” by Nardi Simpson is a historical fiction novel interwoven with spirituality. The story opens with Margaret, an Aboriginal woman who works at a hospital in a country town called Darmoor laundry for pay and caring for otherwise neglected Aboriginal patients for free. When she loses her job through injustice, it is but one of a long series of injustices that are inflicted upon her family directly and indirectly by the white settlers of Darnmoor including her daughter Celie, her granddaughter Mili and her great-grandsons Paddy and Yarrie. Meanwhile, a sinister and ancient force lurks beneath the town, emboldened by plans to change the course of one of the town’s rivers. It is up to Jakybird, a songman created from a piece of his mother’s hair, to gather together spirits and ancestors to sing the monster Garriya back to where it came from.
This is a beautiful and complex novel that explores the bonds of family, and the violence of colonialism, from every angle. Simpson’s strength is character development and she excels at depicting the irreparable and cumulative damage inflicted upon each generation of the family by white supremacy. The characters themselves were very interesting, and I enjoyed the earthiness of Celie, the otherworldliness of Mili with her reflective eyes and the pain and self-hatred of Paddy counterbalanced by the love of his brother Yarrie. Simpson honours traditional storytelling and it is through Jakybird and the duty he is charged with that we try to make sense of the ongoing and evolving harm perpetuated by colonialism.
A challenging book full of heart and truth-telling and one that stayed with me for quite some time after I finished it.
The Black Saturday bushfires were a horrific collection of disasters with an enormous cost that still reverberates across Australia today. Although I wasn’t in Victoria at the time, the most destructive of the fires was right next to where I grew up and right next to the town where several members of my family live. After the fires, when lots of locals who had lost their homes were trying to rebuild, my family’s book charity opened its doors to help replace the books people had lost as well. I have to admit, I didn’t follow a huge amount of the news at the time, I think to be honest it was a little too close to home. However, when I heard about this book and that it covered the trial and conviction of a man found to be responsible for one of the fires, I thought that now, more than a decade later and after the 2019-2020 bushfires, I was ready to listen.
“The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire” by Chloe Hooper and narrated by Sibylla Budd is a non-fiction true crime book about the Black Saturday bushfires. The book opens with a harrowing account of the experiences of many Victorians in the fatal Churchill fire complex, including those who lost their loved ones and the detective who begins investigating the case. As the story unfolds, it appears that the fires may have been lit deliberately by someone, and one too many coincidences suggests one major suspect.
This is a thoughtful, considered book that carefully steps through the events of the bushfire with a strong focus on the stories of the people involved. I think the strongest parts of the book were the stories Hooper told about the people most directly affected by the fires. I don’t think I will ever forget the story of the man who lost his wife before his eyes, or the teenager who texted his father goodbye. I think Hooper did try to take a balanced approach to the book by providing a lot of background about the life of prime suspect Brendan Sokaluk and how he spent his days, and acknowledged the uncertainty around intent, capacity and guilt.
However, in some ways this book reminded of “Joe Cinque’s Consolation” and while I think Hooper was more sympathetic to Sokaluk’s background, disabilities and mental health issues than Helen Garner was, I similarly found her coverage of the investigation and trial a bit uncomfortable. One of the things that Hooper talked about at length was Sokaluk’s diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Although she did focus on the ways that ASD may have impacted Sokaluk’s ability to understand police interviews, court proceedings and engage with his peers socially, I really felt like she speculated far too much about how his ASD diagnosis led him to set the fire due a particular theory that people with autism who set fires are “mesmerised” by the flames.
I listened to the audiobook so I wasn’t able to tell whether there was a bibliography or not, but Hooper was critical of a psychologist who was a court witness for not telling the court “that psychologists often [emphasis added] separate autistic fire-setters from others who deliberately light fires because some neuro-atypical people find the flames not just mesmerising, but soothing”. In somewhat of a contrasting view, a 2019 paper titled Firesetting and arson in individuals with autism spectrum disorder: a systematic PRISMA review noted that relatively little research has been conducted to date exploring firesetting or arson in individuals with ASD. While the paper did conclude that there may be some ASD symptomology that may contribute to arson, the paper did stress that there is no empirical support for an association between ASD and criminality, and that studies have found that people with developmental disabilities may be more likely to be victims of crime.
After listening to this book, I went back and checked the publication date (2018) because of my surprise at some of the language used. Several times Hooper refers to “Aborigines”. I note that IndigenousX states that this term “has largely disappeared in favour of Aboriginal people/s (except for a few older people who haven’t kept up with the times and a few racist commentators trying to make the point that *checks notes* they are cartoonishly racist)” and that the Australian Government Style Guide acknowledges this term can be offensive and discriminatory. Hooper also several times repeats the slur r*tard as it had been used against Sokaluk. These are words that editors and publishers should really be checking for prior to publication.
I know this review is getting a bit long, but I did want to make a quick mention of the narrator, whose familiar and rather comforting voice initially reminded me of SeaChange actor Kate Atkinson, but was familiar because she is the actor who played Gabby in the Aussie drama The Secret Life of Us. Budd has a very clear, empathetic way of speaking but occasionally I wondered if it was her tone or the text of the book that occasionally felt a little too simplistic.
An important book that provides a lot of insight into one of the multiple factors behind the Black Saturday bushfires and that eloquently and with empathy tells the stories of those whose lives were lost. However, a book that I felt went too far in some of its conclusions and that could have used more rigorous editing for respectful language by the editors.
Contemporary fiction about bushfires and unexpected fame
I received a copy of this courtesy of the publisher.
“Burnt Out” by Victoria Brookman is a novel about a young woman called Cali who is on the brink. She is on the brink of losing her marriage, losing her publisher, losing her cat and losing her home to bushfires. When disaster strikes, Cali’s impassioned plea to the government to take action against climate change goes viral and she finds herself offered the chance of a lifetime: a writer’s retreat at a billionaire’s pool house right on Sydney Harbour. Her patron Arlo is as handsome as he is wealthy, and with a brand new book idea, it seems as though Cali has landed on her feet. However, soon her situation begins to feel like a gilded cage and Cali begins to second-guess her creative decisions and long for for the peace and friendship she left behind in the Blue Mountains.
I obviously did not read the description of this book closely enough because when I first started reading it, I thought it was a non-fiction book about burnout, chronic work-related stress that I can definitely relate to. I was, therefore, a bit surprised to find that it was a general fiction novel with a touch of romance. I went to the Blue Mountains last year to support my husband run an ultramarathon, and the year before to stay with a friend, and I thought that Brookman wrote beautifully and convincingly about the terror of having a bushfire at your doorstep. When I went to visit in winter 2020, it was pretty shocking seeing how close the fires got to my friend’s house and the slightly monstrous sight of gumtrees furred with new leaf growth all over their trunks and branches. I felt that Brookman really captured the altitude and the culture of the Blue Mountains and the juxtaposition between the alpine region and the city of Sydney so nearby.
However, this book didn’t have the hot romance of “The Dangers of Truffle Hunting” with its equally unrealistic creative opportunities or or the deep contemplation of “Hare’s Fur” also set in the Blue Mountains. While there were moments in the book that were powerful, I found myself frustrated with Cali’s character. I felt that she made some ethical decisions that I was just not on board with, and her slight guilt wasn’t enough to dissuade her and there ultimately were no consequences for her actions. My favourite character in the book was Cali’s neighbour Spike, but he really got the short end of the stick in my opinion and was way too cool about it. In fact, several of the people within Cali’s orbit got the short end of the stick except for Cali’s whose main talent appeared to be ranting about climate change (without any qualifications whatsoever) after being plied with a couple of glasses of champagne.
An easy to read novel centred on the hard-hitting topic of bushfires and climate change, but that was lacking the kind of morality and characters that I was hoping for.
Queer historical fiction about Prussian immigrants to South Australia
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“Devotion” by Hannah Kent is a historical fiction novel set initially in Prussia in 1836. Hanne, her twin brother and her parents live in an Old Lutheran community. Hanne has always struggled to fit in with the other teenaged girls and the expectations of her mother, and prefers instead to spend time in nature. However when Hanne meets Thea, the daughter of a new family who joined the community, her whole world changes and suddenly she doesn’t feel so alone. When the community flees religious persecution for the colony of South Australia, Hanne and Thea’s bond is put to the ultimate test.
Kent is a beautiful writer and this book shows off her prowess bringing the diverse and untold stories of women in history to life. I found this to be a really relatable story, and Kent expertly captured the mutual love and frustration of mother-daughter relationships and how faith is interwoven in the community’s daily life. The connection between Hanne and Thea was both gentle and electric, and watching their friendship and relationship bloom was the highlight of the book. There were some elements of magic realism and spirituality that were interesting as well, with Hanne’s affinity for listening to nature underpinning and enriching a lot of the events that unfold.
It is a little hard to review this book because something incredibly significant and life-changing happens in the middle of the book which I can’t really mention without spoiling the story. Suffice to say that while it was creatively courageous, I’m not sure it added to the overall plot and I think I might have preferred it if Kent had taken another direction.
A unique story with plenty of depth, plenty of emotion and plenty of heart.
Young adult novel about teenagers who liberate baboons
I’m a bit behind with reviews (how is it already February?!) but this was on my Short Stack Reading Challenge list. This looks like it was another find from the Canberra Lifeline Book Fair (which is on this weekend for its 50th birthday and given the circumstances really needs everyone’s support). Anyway, my friend has been telling me I really need to read this author, so I was ready to give it a try.
“Papio” by Victor Kelleher is a young adult novel about David, a white Australian teenager, and Jem, an African-American teenager, who both live in Central Africa. David develops an affinity for the baboons kept at a nearby experimental research station, especially a large male called Papio and a female called Upi. When it becomes clear that the baboons are not going to leave the facility alive, David convinces Jem to help him break the baboons out and release them to the wild. However, the baboons struggle to survive in the wild and have not yet found a troop to join. When David and Jem stay longer and longer, it becomes clear that there is more at stake than Papio and Upi’s survival in the wild. Soon, all their lives are at stake.
This was an intense and realistic book that explores the limits of what it takes to survive in the wilderness. Kelleher doesn’t shy from the grittier details like hunger and illness, and the gradual acceptance of the group with a troop of baboons was one of the most interesting parts of the book. I really enjoyed the exploration of baboon behaviour. Certainly I had always had this idea that they are quite an aggressive species, but this book really showed me another side to baboons and the different ways they interact with humans and the encroachment on their habitat.
I think the part I had difficulty with was the thought processes of David and Jem. I couldn’t quite understand why Jem so easily went along with David’s plans, especially when it became clear he had concealed a lot from her. I also couldn’t quite understand how they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) see the anger they had brought upon the baboons, and that especially towards the end, their actions were leading everyone to disaster.
I like the consistency in the cover design, with variations on an optical illusion theme.
“New Australian Fiction 2020” and “New Australian Fiction 2021” are collections of short stories by Australian authors. As with my previous review of “Going Down Swinging No. 30“, I won’t go through all the stories but I’ll highlight some of my favourites. I will say though that while there were some stories I liked much better than others, I did think that the overall curation of both issues was very strong. The editors put a lot of thought into arranging these stories and they had a really nice thematic flow.
New Australian Fiction 2020
So Many Ways by Mirandi Riwoe was a slice-of-life story about diaspora, job insecurity and unlikely friendships. It wasn’t exactly enjoyable, but Madeline Watts’ story Floodwaters was an uncomfortable and all-too-relatable consideration of being stuck in a relationship and how much of a disaster it takes to leave. After the Stampede by Jack Vening was another challenging story, one of those ones where you go over it again and again because the pieces don’t quite fit until you realise that there is something very wrong with the narrator. I really liked Self-Portrait After Panic by Laura McPhee-Browne, an intimate story about art, friendship and anxiety. I also really liked the vibrancy and sex positivity of Maame Blue’s Howl. Holy Water by Jack Kirne was delightfully dark and ambiguous. Long Road: Becoming by Mykaela Saunders was a excellent story about ritual and family and trying to make a new life following incarceration.
New Australian Fiction 2021
I really liked Flash and Glow by Ben Walter, a dark intersection between tourism and pollution with subheadings of metal contaminants. The semi-autobiographical Tunnels by Bryant Apolonio was a compelling story about the legacies our parents leave us. Resource Management, another one by Mykaela Saunders, used original and creative form to show how cultural misunderstanding has played out in Aboriginal communities in the past as well as in the present. James Noonan’s story Morningside hit very close to home about living overseas while bushfires rage back in Australia. I was disturbed by yet hooked on Flaring Out by Scott Limbrick, a conceptual story about a peculiar and inexplicable phenomenon wiping out humanity one by one. I absolutely loved Takatāpui by Daley Rangi, a beautifully written, real-life, first person narrative about queer and Māori identity and everyday violence. Georgia White’s story Ceasefire brought to life the reality of when a family member does the unthinkable.
There were plenty of cutting edge, relevant pieces in this collection and I look forward to seeing the results of this upcoming year.
Collection of poetry and essays about food, love and identity
I have been following this author and poet on social media for quite some time. I am a big fan of books with recipes in them and I was thrilled to find out she has a collection filled with recipes and ordered a copy immediately. I knew it was an ideal choice for my Short Stack Reading Challenge.
“Uncommon Feast: Essays, poems, and recipes” by Eileen Chong is, as described, a collection of essays, poems and recipes. At the heart of this book is Chong’s upbringing in Singapore, and the rich culinary culture that underpins her family and her identity.
This is a beautiful book with a comforting, nurturing tone. Using the same care with which we prepare food for our loved ones, Chong carefully prepares her writing for the reader. I particularly enjoyed reading the recipes. Recipes are often a rather dry format, but Chong invokes her inner aunty to make her recipes feel warm, eminently readable and achievable. Unfortunately I’m mostly vegetarian these days, but the multi-part recipe in Diana’s Hainanese Chicken Rice had me salivating. I found that Chong’s poetry had a slightly different tone: nostalgic with a sense of longing for family and times past. Burning Rice was especially evocative and juxtaposes the labour of generations past with the small errors of the present. In her poems, food is shared memories and shared language with family. However, it is in the essays that Chong is more frank about her experiences living as a migrant in Australia and how through food, family and words she navigates her way through the world.