Category Archives: Australian Books

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia

Today is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and it’s a good day to review a book like this. I bought my copy of this book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, right after I saw a panel of four of the contributors speaking about the book at an event. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to do a write up of this event (or Gay for Page and the one on toxic masculinity) so I’ll just give a bit of overview before I jump into the review, and if you want to hear more you can listen to my podcast episode on the festival.

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The panel was hosted by editor Dr Anita Heiss and also included contributors Marlee Silva, Liza-Mare Syron and Natalie Cromb. Liza-Mare said that she had been waiting for the right fit for her story, whereas Marlee and Natalie were both tagged in the call out. Marlee talked about how one day someone painted colour into here life by pointing out that her dad’s skin colour was different to her. Liza-Mare said that everyone has something to say about your identity when you’re Aboriginal. Natalie said that she was taught that she would have to fight for her place in the world, and would have to work harder than everyone else. The panelists discussed how they feel like as Aboriginal people, they always have to be on their best behaviour and there is a lot of pressure to succeed. Marlee drew on her experiences mentoring Aboriginal kids across the country and said that if you have high expectations for Aboriginal people, they exceed them. They shared so many amazing and very personal stories, many of which are in the book, but I’ll just share some insights from the contributors:

Liza-Mare: Only my community identifies me.

Marlee: We are a culture that has continued for 60,000 years, do you not think we’re sophisticated enough that it’s more than the way we look?

Natalie: Go and read a book, it’s not my job to educate you.

Anita shared that her hope for this book is that it reaches a school audience and that it starts a whole new dialogue with the next generation.

Instead of taking questions, Anita shared a poem from contributor Alice Eather. Alice was born the same year as me, but she didn’t make it to 30. Shortly after submitting her story, she committed suicide. Her family said they wanted it included, and it was a heart-wrenching end to the event. Anita finished by saying in the spirit of reconciliation, the contributors would sign books. I very happily got my books signed by all four women, and I couldn’t wait to read this story.

“Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia” edited by Anita Heiss is an anthology of short autobiographies by 52 Aboriginal people. The contributors are incredibly diverse, young and old, male and female, from the city, from the country. There are some very well-known names in there like Celeste Liddle and Adam Goodes. There are people who are at once ordinary and extraordinary.

There’s no way of going through each of the stories here, so I won’t try. However, I do want to talk about how even though each story is unique and different, there are echoes that resonate across this book of shared experiences. Of families torn apart by the Stolen Generations policies. Of blatant and subtle racism. Of mixed race children feeling neither white enough nor black enough to fit in. Of resilience. Of family. Of kindness. Of stories. Of losing and finding culture. Of connection.

I completely agree with Anita, this book should be taught in schools but I think that all Australians can learn something from this book. This book captures a collection of experiences of growing up in this country that not enough people know about or understand. Reading this book is an exercise in empathy and empathy is a muscle we should never stop exercising.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Short Stories

The Blood Within The Stone

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

“The Blood Within The Stone” by T. R. Thompson is a fantasy young adult novel, the first in the “Wraith Cycle” series. The story is about two young boys, Wilt and Higgs, who live on the streets of a grim town called Greystone. Will’s ability to seemingly guess what people will do next gets him and Higgs an invitation into the Grey Guild, the prestigious guild of thieves. However, Wilt’s plans to eke a living that way are thrown by the wayside when he and Higgs are taken against their will by a Prefect from a Redmonis, a revered institute of education. When they arrive, the situation is even more grim than the town they left behind. All the students appear to be under some kind of spell and the mysterious Nine Sisters of Redmonis seem to be behind it.

Thompson conjures a bleak world, where the only way to survive is at the expense of someone else. He keeps that tone consistently throughout the book and it definitely felt much darker than most YA I read. I think there were two particular highlights for me in this book: the magic and Higgs. Thompson’s magic system is very sophisticated and throughout the book Wilt discovers and learns to control his affinity with welds: the connections that are formed between all living beings and which allow him to perform an increasing number of extraordinary feats. Magic is a difficult thing to get right in fantasy, and Thompson has clearly put in a lot of thought into his system, the things it can be used for and the dangers it poses to those who can wield its power.

I also absolutely adored the character of Higgs. Higgs is an excellent character and I found myself actually rushing through the parts about Wilt so that I could find out more about Higgs and what he was doing. Higgs’ enthusiasm and expertise was a breath of fresh air in a book that is otherwise very serious.

I guess that’s probably also a downside about this book: I liked a lot of the other characters more than I liked Wilt. Despite his incredible power, Wilt didn’t really seem to have much in the way of either personality or agency. Higgs is in the background, doing all the heavy lifting, while Wilt just seems to be along for the ride. Given the ending (which I won’t spoil) I imagine that future books will be a bit different but for this book, Wilt wasn’t as interesting as I would have liked him to be. I would read a thousand books about Higgs’ crackling personality and sharp wits, but Wilt was kind of more brawn than brains and just wasn’t as engaging.

Another issue I had with this book was a bit less about character and plot, and a bit more to do with an overall approach to conflict resolution. As I said earlier, this is a dark book and it is quite violent with characters frequently asserting their dominance through physical assaults. My problem wasn’t with this per se, but more with Wilt as his character develops over time. Quite a few people underestimate Wilt at the beginning, but as his control over his powers develops, he uses those powers to force people into respecting him. I think this was particularly apparent when he meets soldier Daemi, and learns to use his power to make her respect him. I think it is around Daemi that we really see an uglier side to Will and again, I wonder what the author will do with his character development in later books. On balance though, I would have liked to have seen more problems solved with communication, kindness and intelligence rather than with brute strength – magical or otherwise.

This was nevertheless a compelling story with a unique approach to the genre that hints at a much more epic story to be told in future books. If we get to see more of Higgs, I will definitely be there.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Young Adult

Cassandra

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Cassandra” by Kathryn Gossow is a young adult fantasy novel about a teenager called Cassie who lives on a rural property in Queensland in the 1980s. She often has visions of the future, but they are so fragmented and unpredictable that nobody believes her. Nobody, until she makes friends with her new neighbour Athena. Isolated at school and frustrated with her family, especially her younger brother Alex whose weather predictions have led their family to prosperity, Cassie is thrilled to have a friend like Athena. Even if Athena asks her to keep their friendship a secret. However, Cassie’s visions keep telling her that things are going to go wrong and as she grows more and more disturbed by them, everything eventually does.

This is a compelling story that fuses the familiar story of an outcast teenager with the story of Cassandra, a figure in Greek mythology. While they might seem an unlikely mix, the issues that Cassie deals with like fickle friendships, first crushes, experimentation, mental illness, aging family members and tense relationships with her parents and brother are cast in relief by her inability to properly control her visions of the future. I really liked the way that Cassie’s visions are so neatly woven into the remainder of the story. I also really liked how the book darkened into a real Australian gothic story. I don’t usually like books that are quite so bleak, but I appreciated Gossow’s sense of realism, especially in the scenes where Cassie attends a party with other teenagers.

I think the part of this book that I had the most trouble with was the character of Athena. Without giving away too much of the story, I felt like I would have liked Athena to either be a little more true to her namesake when it came to her friendship with Cassie or to have simply not been named Athena at all. I felt like out of all the hardships and heartbreak that Cassie went through in this story, Athena’s gradual then ultimate betrayal was the only one I couldn’t connect with. Athena was a bit of an enigma. Highly intellectual, Cassie feels a blend of admiration and envy for her, and she is presented for the most part as being perfect. However, I couldn’t quite understand how dispassionately she treats Cassie both as a friend and as an experiment.

This is a very thought-provoking book that explores a range of issues including adolescence, agrarianism and even immigration. After I finished it, I felt almost as haunted as Cassie.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Young Adult

The Anchoress

Content warning: mental health, self-harm. 

This book had received quite a lot of attention when it first came out, and I was intrigued to read a book that not only has such a striking pearlescent cover, but is by a Canberra author as well. I picked up a copy and it sat patiently on my shelf for ages, but when I got my copy signed at the author’s event launching her newest book, I knew it was time to give this one a go.

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“The Anchoress” by Robyn Cadwallader is a historical fiction novel about a teenage girl called Sarah in medieval England. Sarah decides to become an anchoress, secluding herself in a cell attached to a church to live the rest of her life in solitude and prayer. As the story progresses, the reader comes to learn why Sarah has chosen this hard, lonely life while Sarah learns that even as an anchoress, she cannot escape the outside world.

This is an ambitious book that is excellently crafted. It’s difficult to tell an engaging story completely set within a tiny cell, but Cadwallader brings to life a rich story full of engaging characters and moral dilemmas. You can tell the research that went into this book. Cadwallader conjures a world where the opportunities for a woman to make her own life are greatly limited, especially by the risks of childbirth. The day to day detail of this story brings medieval culture to life. In such simple times, even the smallest objects have so much meaning and utility. I think that my favourite parts of this book are the characters that Sarah interacts with, and the snippets of the outside world that she ultimately can’t escape. I also really loved how the discussion of writing a prayer onto an apple played out, and Sarah’s difficulty in interpreting her faith by balancing the wishes of the villagers and the decisions of the priests.

I think the only part of the book I struggled with was the ambiguity of Sarah either being haunted by the spirit of the previous anchoress Agnes, or suffering from some serious mental health issues. I appreciate that during medieval times, the line between mental illness and mysticism was much, much more blurry than it is today. However, I think that I would have liked maybe a little more focus on the mental health part and looking a bit more sharply at the damage Sarah was doing to herself rather than leaving it ambiguous.

This is a fascinating book that really immerses the reader into a medieval phenomenon that so little is known about. Cadwallader’s passion for her subject matter radiates off the page and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

The Trauma Cleaner

Content warning: gender identity, trauma, suicide, neglect, abuse, mental illness

The author of this book came to speak at an event in Canberra earlier this year, and although I unfortunately couldn’t make it – I did manage to meet the author later on in the evening. Having heard the premise of this book, I knew it was one I was going to have to read. Then I had the absolute pleasure of seeing her speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

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“The Trauma Cleaner” by Sarah Krasnostein is a biography of transgender Melbourne woman Sandra Pankhurst. A trauma cleaner whose business is in cleaning up humanity’s worst messes from suicides to hoarding situations, Krasnostein’s book explores how Sandra went from a neglected little boy to a successful and resilient woman. Interspersed throughout Sandra’s story are the stories of her clients: sad and lonely people who are being suffocated by their traumas.

Krasnostein writes with a piercing depth that is difficult to encapsulate. She applies an academic rigour to the story, but also manages to reach multiple layers of humanity both in sharing Sandra’s story as well as the story of her clients.  This story is so thoroughly researched yet so honest about where the limits of verifiable fact lie. Sandra is a fascinating person and Krasnostein explores each of her many lives with an exacting sensitivity that demands empathy from the reader. Krasnostein maintains her sense of candour when describing Sandra’s sad upbringing, exiled to the shed by her neglectful and occasionally violent family; her brief stint as a father and husband; the shocking grief of losing her girlfriend; her years working as a sex worker; her years as the wife of a businessman; and, finally, her life as a successful businesswoman.

Having worked in the mental health sector, I thought that Krasnostein did an excellent job navigating the stories of Sandra’s clients. Hoarding is a particularly insidious mental health issue and although it is actually relatively common, it can be difficult for others to relate to. I think one of my favourite parts of the book was when Krasnostein captured Sandra’s finesse and compassion in speaking to these people and asking them to help her help them.

I think the only thing that felt a little jarring was that on a few occasions, Krasnostein goes to some lengths defend Sandra and her choices. However, I think that Sandra’s story really speaks for itself. Sandra’s kindness radiates off the page and the occasions where she made mistakes just make her feel even more relatable.

Anyway, there is absolutely no question why this book won two prizes at the Victorian Premier’s literary awards. It is excellently written and excellently researched, and it tells the story of someone whose story would otherwise never have been told.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

A Perfect Square

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

A Perfect Square - a dark mystery, literary fiction style. Where art and creativity meets the occult and conspiracy theories. When synaesthesia becomes clairvoyant. A must read for all lovers of rich and complex fiction

“A Perfect Square” by Isobel Blackthorn is an Australian novel about two mothers and two daughters. Eccentric artist Harriet has her carefully controlled bohemian-bourgeois lifestyle in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria upturned when her pianist daughter Ginny moves back home after a breakup. Tension crackles between them as Ginny tries to pry the truth about her father from her mother and they collaborate on a joint exhibition. In the UK, another artist called Judith struggles with her own daughter Madeline, and as the novel progresses the connections between the two families become more and more clear.

This is a dark and fraught story about the complexity of female relationships, and particularly mother-daughter relationships. I found Harriet a particularly fascinating character who straddles privilege and a more modest artistic lifestyle, who balances innate talent against anxiety about originality, and who wants to see her daughter flourish yet feels envy about her daughter’s success. I felt like there was some real honesty in the way that Blackthorn described an artist’s life. Harriet’s self-doubt and reliance on selling her artworks rather than just painting whatever felt very real to me. Blackthorn also explored some interesting ideas about fatherhood, being a single parent, and how much love and affection is the right amount to give to children.

The focus of the novel was definitely on Harriet and Ginny’s relationship, but the second half of the book had much more of a thriller theme. There were two families, but the majority of the story was so much about Harriet and Ginny that Judith and Madeline were effectively only support characters. I think that I would have liked to have seen either equal airtime for Judith and Madeline to better strengthen the overall sense of suspense, or to have removed them altogether and let Harriet and Ginny carry the story by themselves. I also felt a little like Ginny’s two best friends were support characters as well. It seemed like they had no lives of their own outside Ginny’s sphere of perception and I didn’t feel like Ginny had individual relationships with either of them.

A tense story with some difficult yet universal themes, this book gives an interesting perspective into the lifestyle of artists and expectations around motherhood.

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The Fish Girl

This book was shortlisted for the 2018 Stella Prize and when I got a couple of book vouchers for my birthday last month, I knew that I wanted to spend one on this. I spent some years growing up in Indonesia, and studied the region for years at university, and I was so excited to read this story.

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“The Fish Girl” by Mirandi Riwoe is a historical fiction novella based on a short story called “The Four Dutchmen” by W. Somerset Maugham. Riwoe’s story conjures a backstory for the character who is never named, but referred to as ‘the Malay trollope’. Riwoe imagines a young Indonesian girl who is hired by an Indo man to work in the kitchen of a Dutch merchant’s house. Mina is from a tiny fishing village and is very young and very naive. However, she soon settles into the routine of preparing and serving food for the master and begins to grow more confident. As time goes on, Mina is noticed by one of the master’s Dutch sailor friends as well as Ajat, a young man from her village. Despite her newfound confidence, Mina’s inexperience is taken advantage of and these men are ultimately her undoing.

This was an excellent novella. Riwoe drew on her own family knowledge as well as thorough knowledge to bring this story to life. Considering how undercooked a character she is in Maugham’s short story, this novella gives Mina a name and demands empathy from the reader when there was none originally. This book feels like a snapshot into both Indonesian culture and Dutch colonisation and it conveys so much in so little. I also loved Riwoe’s writing. I loved how she used spice and smell to bring an extra dimension to her story, and I adored her use of imagery. The similes she used were just exceptional, and completely believable as comparisons that Mina herself would use to make sense of her new life and new experiences.

I only have one criticism for this book, and it’s going to sound like a strange one, but I felt like the novella was too short. The pacing throughout the majority of the book was so perfect, but once Mina steps on the ship everything felt like it was at warp-speed. Riwoe covers all the events of “The Four Dutchmen” in only 14 pages. With all the care and detail and exactness that had been taken with the majority of the book, this part felt rushed and the situation deteriorated so quickly it was hard as a reader to keep up.

This is an excellent book and a stand-out example of the power of historical fiction to tell stories that were ignored or minimised at the time. I’m really looking forward to see more of Riwoe’s work and I am so glad that I picked this as one of my birthday books.

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