Category Archives: Australian Books

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

Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, resilience and what happens after the worst day of your life

Non-fiction about how to deal with the worst day of your life

Content warning: death, trauma

I first read this author after I started listening to her podcast “Chat 10 Looks 3“. There had been quite a lot of talk about her new non-fiction work coming out, and I was very lucky to get a copy courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, resilience and what happens after the worst day of your life” by Leigh Sales is a non-fiction book about life-changing events. After experiencing a close-call herself, Sales decides to investigate the likelihood of experiencing a terrorist attack, a natural disaster or even cancer, how we survive them and how we cope with the grief to move on with our lives.

Sales has a methodical style of writing and systematically applies logic to the problem of unexpected disasters to determine how likely it is something like that could happen to you. Although Sales is very cautious about applying research and reason to everything in her book, she writes with warmth and sensitivity. Sales interviews many people about the extremely personal topic of grief and the things that helped them through, including a survivor of the Lindt Cafe Siege. I think my favourite part of the book was towards the end where Sales explores the types of worldviews and personality traits that make someone more resilient to coping with trauma and grief. I also really liked Sales’ exploration of the importance of having someone accompany you when you go to see the body of a loved one, to guide you through the process of understanding death.

Although there were lots of things about this book that I found really interesting, I think there was something about the approach of this book that I fundamentally disagreed with. I think it is to do with the beginning of the book, where Sales walks the reader through an ordinary day, and asks them to imagine a blindside, an unexpected tragic event that they never expected to happen to them. Sales interviews a woman who suffered the double-whammy of being a survivor of the Lindt Cafe Siege as well as being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I felt like a lot of the beginning of the book was spent trying to understand why people are ‘victims of misfortune’, especially multiple misfortunes. How it is that extraordinarily bad things can happen to good people?

I found it surprising that Sales, who is otherwise such a rationalist, had such an anthropocentric view of these ‘events’. That somehow there must be a connection between cancer and a natural disaster and a violent gun attack. Sales tries to apply a number of different academic approaches to understand the connection, and I really felt like that it was an act of futility trying to calculate the odds that someone would be involved in a hostage situation and would also be diagnosed with an incurable disease. I felt that at the beginning of the book, there was a lot of why, why, why? To me, however, it seemed clear that the common denominator of all of these things has nothing to do with the cause, and everything to do with the impact.

There are so many kinds of illnesses and natural disasters and accidents, why wouldn’t someone experience an event or a diagnosis or a loss that results in grief? Even the religious people that Sales interviewed had a great deal of pragmatism about this. They hadn’t been singled out by the universe, it was just something that happened. Why not them? When Sales starts to explore what it is that makes people more resilient to traumatic events, it definitely seems like the people who are asking questions like “what if” and “why me” find traumatic events far more difficult to deal with than those who accepted that grief is a part of the human condition. Anyway, I realise I’ve gone on about this for a while now, but I felt that maybe some of the solution could have influenced the beginning of the book a little better. Plus, I would have liked Sales to go into far more depth about black swan events, uncertainty and the idea that hindsight has 20-20 vision.

The truth is, although we can’t predict what kind of grief we will experience, it is almost a certainty that we will experience grief of some kind and I think that overall, this is an important and useful book that unpacks what it takes to make it through trauma and grief. While I found the beginning of the book felt like it was asking the wrong questions, by the end of the book I felt like it was providing the right answers.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, Resilience and What Happens After the Worst Day of Your Life – Amazon Australia

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

Too Much Lip

Aboriginal family comedy-drama about love, land and luck

A new book club has started up at my work so of course I’m in the thick of it. We put together a list of critically-acclaimed and diverse books and encouraged people to choose whichever books piqued their interest from the list. Although this author’s work has been published extensively, I hadn’t heard of her before. I have been making a real effort to read more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, so I thought I would start with this one.

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“Too Much Lip” by Melissa Lucashenko is a family drama about a woman called Kerry, on the run from police, who drops in to see her dying grandfather before fleeing across the border. When she arrives, her brother Ken is on edge, her mother Pretty Mary is a mess, and her nephew Donny won’t speak to anyone. Her girlfriend is in jail and she’s just met a dugai man who is very keen on her. The family’s beloved river is in danger, her backpack is missing and to top it off Kerry can’t keep her bloody mouth shut.

This is a necessary book that brings to life a dysfunctional but completely relatable family. Lucashenko has a real talent for realism and the small town of Durrongo and the Salter family are effortless to imagine. Piece by piece, she unpacks the family’s dynamics to uncover not only past traumas but to uncover a way forward. Kerry is a great point of view character through which Lucashenko explores the themes of power, racism and morality. Morally ambiguous herself, Kerry dances a fine line in almost every action she takes, seemingly pulled in several directions by respect for family, culture, money and doing what’s right. I thought Lucashenko did a really brilliant job of building empathy for the family while still being critical of their less-than-savoury actions.

Although I really enjoyed Lucashenko’s writing, characterisation and exploration of themes, I think the one thing I struggled with a bit was the plot. I completely get that part of the comedy was the outrageous actions and coincidences and everything being a bit extra, but there were a couple of parts in the story, particularly towards the end, that I would have liked a little more subtlety. I felt that Lucashenko already engaged the reader enough with the way she tackled real-life issues and wrote her characters, and some of the mayhem at the end of the book felt a bit superfluous.

Whichever way you look at it, this book is definitely a reality check. If you’re looking for an Aussie family drama about the kind of family that doesn’t get written about so often, this is a great book to try.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

Too Much Lip – Amazon Australia

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction