Category Archives: Australian Books

The Blue Rose

Historical fiction about botany and the French Revolution

Quite some time ago, when I was doing the ACT Literary Bloggers of the Future program (now renamed New Territory), I went along to see Kate Forsyth speak at the National Library of Australia. Afterwards, as I wrote in my blog post, Forsyth kindly did some book signings and when I showed her my name on a scrap of paper, she liked it enough that she wrote it down. She said that she was working on a book about a Welsh gardner, who perhaps might have a sister. She asked me what I liked, and I hurriedly said books and bunnies, and I left fervently hoping that this time I might have a character named after me. She did not disappoint.

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“The Blue Rose” by Kate Forsyth is a historical fiction novel about Viviane, the daughter of a Marquis who lives in a chateau in Brittany, France. Viviane grows up isolated, with no friends but the servants she is told not to socialise with, while her father lives at the court of Louis XVI. That is, until her father hires a gardener from Wales called David to rebuild the chateau’s gardens. David and Viviane immediately connect, but when Viviane’s father returns, David is chased away and Viviane believes he is gone forever. She is soon married off and sent to be a maid-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette, but with unrest increasing in Paris, Viviane’s survival is far from guaranteed.

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I saw Forsyth speak again at Harry Hartog last year, and it was fascinating to listen to her discuss how research into her family’s history and a lifelong love of roses led her to research the first scarlet rose imported into France at the beginning of the French Revolution. Unsurprisingly, this line of inquiry led to a well-researched novel that covers a very well documented time in French history, but from a lesser-known perspective. Although Viviane is part of the French nobility, instead of great loss the Revolution ultimately brings freedom from the absolute patriarchy she lives under. For all her naiveté, she is sweet, resourceful and believable. Meanwhile David, a self-made man from a humble background, must learn temperance and patience if he is going to find success.

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Pulling back the curtain for a second, these are the conditions in Canberra right now

Although a medium size novel, it is one of significant geographic scale. Forsyth takes the reader from rural to urban France, and then from France to China – the home of the ancestor to most of today’s roses. Forsyth is also well-known for her fairy tales and fantasy, and draws upon a story about an impossible rose as a loose framework as well as a parable told within the novel. While David’s time in China is brief, Forsyth’s own travels and studies into the ill-fated British trading trip give fascinating insight into how diplomatic encounters unfolded in the 1700s.

This is a very ambitious book that covers a lot of ground during a tumultuous period of history, and at times I felt that the romance aspect of the novel got a little lost.  Viviane and David are in fact separated for the majority of the book. While it does feel like it is mostly Viviane’s story anyway, and I understand the narrative significance of David going off to seek his fortune while Viviane’s is all but taken from her, there wasn’t a lot of space left for relationship development. It is a complex and sophisticated book that I felt needed a tiny bit more of a central theme to tie everything together.

An important piece of historical fiction that brings together two key pieces of history. Having a character named after me was just a bonus.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Beautiful

Audiobook retelling of Nordic fairy tale 

I am a Juliet Marillier tragic, and I was so excited to hear that she had a new audiobook coming out, and was even more thrilled when I won a copy on Audible in a contest! To win, I had to share which fairy tale I would most like to see retold from a unique perspective, and I said Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Red Shoes” because (like many of his fairy tales) I always felt the punishment was disproportionate to the crime. Anyway, I had recently joined the gym and I decided to waste no time and start listening during my next workout. I had listened for about 5 minutes while I was on the stair-climber (or something equally painful), when I laughed aloud because I realised that I had just read this story very, very recently.

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“Beautiful” by Juliet Marillier and narrated by Gemma Dawson is a retelling of the Nordic fairy tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” about Hulde, a princess who lives in a palace at the top of a glass mountain. Her mother, the queen, rules over Hulde and the palace servants with an iron fist. Hulde is told from a young age that her destiny is to marry the most beautiful man in the world. The only friend Hulde has is a white bear called Rune who comes to visit, and who shows her kindness and takes the time to teach her about the world. However, when he leaves, Hulde is left with more questions than answers about her future. When her wedding day arrives, her life is turned upside down and she finally has the opportunity to make her own destiny.

This book was an absolute delight. I have never been so motivated to go to the gym as I was to hear the next part of this story. There are so many wonderful parts to this book that I kind of don’t want to tell you about for fear of spoiling the joy of discovering them for yourself. Hulde is a brilliant, complex protagonist whose physical, emotional and perhaps even magical strength helps her to overcome the many challenges she is faced with. Marillier does a wonderful job showing Hulde’s journey from naive, innocent girl to fully-realised woman. In this story, problems aren’t solved by violence or trickery, but rather with patience, kindness and courage. I’m still smiling about the companions Hulde meets along the way, and the thrill of finding out the romantic direction the book took. I would also like to mention that I quite enjoyed Dawson’s narration, and felt that she captured Hulde’s innocence and strength really well while also creating distinct voices for the different characters.

I think the only thing that people may find frustrating about this story is that quite a lot of the book is about her learning things that the reader likely takes for granted and making mistakes that the reader likely feels are easily avoidable. Hulde is very young in spirit, and while this means that she has a lot of character development, there is a fair amount of time taken up by people explaining things to her. However, I do think that this is a necessary part of the story as Hulde navigates issues like power, independence, kindness and love.

I simply adored this story and if anything was going to get me to the gym, it was the prospect of listening to this.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy

Bodies of Men

Queer military fiction set during World War II

Content warning: war

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog, but I would have bought a copy anyway because I know the author through his work with the ACT Writers’ Centre. Although not ordinarily a genre I would choose, I was willing to put my own feelings about war aside to give this book a chance.

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“Bodies of Men” by Nigel Featherstone is a war novel set in Egypt about two Australian men. William is a young corporal who, almost immediately after arriving in Alexandria, is caught in a skirmish with some Italian soldiers and is saved by another young man called James. Recognising him as his long lost childhood friend, the opportunity to reunite properly is lost when James is suddenly absent without leave and William is unceremoniously sent out into the desert to supervise training at an army depot. When William does find James recovering from injuries in a mysterious family’s house, the connection is undeniable. However, with constant patrols through Alexandria, rumours flying about what happened to the Italians taken prisoner, differences in class and the Hillens keeping their own secrets, William and James will have to decide how much they are willing to risk for a forbidden love.

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I accidentally visited the Australian War Memorial during the Last Post ceremony

As I intimated earlier, I don’t generally like war novels but I really liked this one. Featherstone has seamlessly blended in-depth research and knowledge with a thorough understanding of human connection and chemistry. One of the things that my friend and I keep records of every year on our book list is how many books we read include queer content. However, while I make an effort to read books by LGBTIQA+ authors and including queer content, it is rare that I find a book that depicts intimacy like this. Featherstone has a knack for finding the beauty in something that is rarely conceived of as beautiful or valuable outside its usefulness: the male body.

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I think that the only part of this book that I had difficulty with was the role of the Hillen family. On one hand, the secretive European family brought an extra dimension to the war and the context in which William and James were fighting. Their house was like an oasis in the heat. On the other hand, the refuge they provided to William and James did at times feel a bit like a deus ex machina and did not always seem, from an outsider’s perspective, like a fair exchange.

Nevertheless, this is a fresh and poignant story that builds on the tradition of military fiction and reinterprets it with a historical perspective that certainly existed but has rarely been told.

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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Say Hello

Memoir about living with a disability and facial difference

Content warning: discrimination

I had heard about this book long before it was published because I have followed the author online for some time. When I heard she was coming to Canberra to speak about her book, I not only went along to watch but scored myself a signed copy.

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“Say Hello” by Carly Findlay is a memoir about growing up and living with a skin condition called ichthyosis. Arranged as a series of essays covering various topics, this book is a candid account living with a disability and a facial difference, but living with society’s insensitive and often cruel reactions to her appearance and barriers to accessibility.

Findlay is a clear and frank writer whose book combines her personal experience, the stories of her friends and fellow activists and her significant knowledge of disability activism. I consider her courageous not for living her life (as so many people tell her), but for discussing deeply personal issues in such a public way and for building a platform to advocate for disabled people and raise awareness about the barriers that they experience throughout both Australia and the world. Some of the most powerful chapters in this book address the often well-meaning but ill-considered comments she constantly receives from people she meets and the diverse and sometimes diverging perspectives within the disability community. However, I think my favourite chapter was the chapter on fandom. Findlay’s experiences struggling to make friends throughout school, the difference to her life that getting a job at Kmart with a supportive manager and team made, and her discussion of how friendship as a skill we must learn and practice really stuck with me.

Memoir is a genre that I believe is very important to ensuring diverse stories and perspectives are heard, that I read quite a lot of, but that ultimately I struggle with. One criticism that you may have made me make is that I often feel like the author hasn’t given enough information or detail. However, how much to share with the reader is a question of balance, and I think Findlay may have tipped a little far towards too much detail. One thing that I hadn’t realised until I googled something I was reading in the book is that Findlay has adapted many essays she has written in the past as chapters for her book (something that I understand a lot of writers do). This means that quite a few of the chapters are overlapping, and because Findlay’s writing has improved a lot since she first started blogging, there is a bit of a range in quality. I think it also meant that this book didn’t always have a clear thread or audience, and I felt that it would have benefited from some more robust editing.

This is a very important book that highlights the impact that unsolicited comments have and the nuance and diversity within the disability activism space. Regardless of my own struggles with the genre, there is no doubt that memoir is critical to building empathy and this is a book that definitely builds empathy.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Uncategorized

The Place on Dalhousie

Coming of age drama about family, relationships and place

One thing my sister and I share is a love of Melina Marchetta’s books. Some time ago, I saw Marchetta speak about a previous book, and afterwards I felt so guilty that I didn’t think to get one signed for my sister. So this time when I saw her speak, I made sure to get a signed copy for my sister as an early birthday present. However, I may have sneakily read it before I gave it to her.

“The Place on Dalhousie” by Melina Marchetta is a novel about a young girl called Rosie who finds herself in a remote country town caring for an elderly woman when a flood hits. She meets an emergency volunteer called Jimmy, and in the chaos and the excitement, they form a fleeting connection. Two years later, Rosie returns to her childhood home in Sydney to face her stepmother Martha and the house her father built and left them after he died. Hurt, angry and in desperate need of help, Rosie doesn’t have a lot of options, but when Martha begins to look at selling the house, Rosie will have to reconsider her ideas about what family is.

This is a lovely book that is a loose sequel to Marchetta’s earlier books “Saving Francesca” and “The Piper’s Son” (though you absolutely don’t have to have read the first two to enjoy this one). Marchetta explores a plethora of themes in this book ranging from grief to motherhood to family to different Italian migrant experiences to relationships to aged care. It is exquisitely written and as a reader, you cannot help but fall in love with the abrasive but genuine and fierce Rosie. Marchetta gently explores her characters’ strengths and weaknesses, and brings them together with everyday things.

The only criticism anyone could possibly make about this book is that the ending is tied very neatly in a bow. But you know what? Sometimes you really need a book like that. If you’re looking something to warm you up this winter, this is the perfect book to curl up with.

 

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction

Wanting

Historical fiction linking colonial Tasmania with Dickens’ London

Content warning: racism, colonisation

This book wasn’t my first choice and it didn’t have a particularly auspicious beginning. In my one and only attempt at a blind date with a book, at a bookstore with the punny name Hooked on Books which has long since closed in the coastal town Batemans Bay, I found myself unhappily with a book that was fourth in a series that had not read. Now, I appreciate that the point of a blind date with a book is that you get a book wrapped in brown paper and have no idea what might be inside. However, I didn’t really think it was in the spirit of the exercise to wrap a book that you needed to have read the first three in the series to appreciate. Anyway, I reluctantly asked to swap, and they reluctantly agreed, and I walked away with this book. It sat on my bookshelf half unwrapped for three years, and when I found myself with a second Flanagan book on my to-read pile, I thought it was about time I read the first.

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“Wanting” by Richard Flanagan is a historical fiction novel about the explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane Franklin, his stint as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land and the cultural impact of his disappearance while on an arctic expedition. The book mostly splits between the story of Mathinna, an Aboriginal girl adopted then soon after abandoned by the Franklins, and Charles Dickens’ involvement in a play inspired by Sir Franklin’s disappearance. The two stories are connected not only by the Franklins, but by the theme of desire.

I really liked the beginning of this novel. The Protector is a fantastic character in his abhorrence and Flanagan’s sense of dramatic irony is second to none. I felt like it was a strong start and Flanagan captured the brutality, the indifference and the arbitrariness of colonisation and the devastating impact it had on the Aboriginal people of Tasmania. Flanagan is a strong writer and brings to life the terrible contrast between the increasing affluence of the white settlers, and the increasing desolation of the indigenous population.

The beginning was good, but there were so many things that irked me about this book. The juxtaposition between Dickens’ chapters and Mathinna’s chapters was jarring. I can see what Flanagan was trying to do, but I just don’t think it got there. Neither Dickens nor Franklin were compelling enough characters and I honestly eye-rolled my entire way through each of Dickens’ chapters. Mathinna was much more compelling, but I was very unhappy with the way that she was handled. Her story was told as a tragedy, and instead of giving her any agency at all, Flanagan depicts her as a victim subjected to horrific (and, in my opinion, largely unnecessary) violence.

This actually isn’t the first book I have read about the Franklins and Mathinna, and a lot of the criticisms I had about that book, I am going to echo again here. I just don’t think that the story of what happened to the original people of Tasmania needs to be bolstered by shoehorning in figures from the British literary scene of the 1800s. I wish that Flanagan had just excised the entire Dickens story and had stuck with Tasmania. The Franklins weren’t that interesting, and I wasn’t sure that cutting Franklin’s daughter Eleanor out was particularly strategic either because that was a missed opportunity for exploring the family’s interaction with Mathinna.

Anyway, I think that Mathinna’s story needs to be told and that someone, probably one of the incredible Aboriginal writers being published at the moment, needs to do it justice.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized

The Magic Pudding: The Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum

Classic Australian illustrated children’s book

Last year was the 100 year anniversary of this book, and although I was fond of a lot of Australian classics as a child, this one was admittedly one that I had never read. I have quite a few beautiful hardcover editions of these classics with beautiful slipcovers and I was hoping to find a matching edition of this book. I couldn’t find one in exactly the same style, but I did have this copy on my shelf, so I figured it would do for now.

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My home-made take on the Old English Apple Hat pudding

“The Magic Pudding: The Adventures of Bunyip Bluegum” written and illustrated by Norman Lindsay is a classic Australian children’s book. The story is about a koala called Bunyip Bluegum who, after getting annoyed by his uncle’s personal grooming habits, decides to venture out into the world on his own. He soon makes the acquaintance of a sailor called Bill Barnacle and a penguin called Sam Sawnoff who are in possession of a magical, infinite and talking pudding known as Albert. Bunyip, Bill and Sam become fast friends however when Albert is stolen, they must use their wits and their fists to get them back.

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I love funny animal stories, and my absolute favourite part of this book is without a doubt the illustrations. The black and white pencil illustrations at first glance seem very simple, but they are actually unbelievably expressive and effective. Lindsay’s experience as a cartoonist clearly served him well and his characters are all so cheeky and memorable. The characters really make this story and I loved turning the page and not knowing what or who to expect next. The character designs were second to none, be it a rooster, an echidna, a parrot, some policemen, a dog. I also enjoyed how Lindsay divided his book into four ‘slices’ and how the main characters had a song or a ditty for every occasion.

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Unfortunately, there were a lot of things about this story that had not aged well. The three women mentioned in this entire book did not actually say any words themselves. One had no lines at all (she was instead hanging out washing while her husband chatted to passers by), one was quoted by the penguin and another was kissed (whether she wanted it or not) by a bosun. Then there is the racism. The book is peppered with disparaging remarks about African people, Arabic people and Jewish people. Even though it is primarily set in the bush and was written in 1918, there is absolutely no mention of Aboriginal people whatsoever.

I won’t go into the legal issues with this story (despite how some of them grated against my law background) because I appreciate that it is meant to be entertaining. I also appreciate that the men in this story are quite diverse, and Bunyip in particular solves problems through his wits and his eloquence. However, I did feel that Bill took larrikinism a little too far, and there was quite a lot of hypocritical violence and double-standards in this book which frustrated me a lot.

One of the downfalls of classic literature is that it frequently contains things that no longer gel with social standards of today. I haven’t quite made up my mind yet about the trend of editing out ‘problematic’ things from older stories, but I do think it is important to acknowledge that things that people used to write aren’t OK anymore. I think that you can appreciate the art of a book, but critique the messages. I think that this is a beautifully illustrated, fun book that nevertheless has its fair share of cringeworthy moments.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Classics