Category Archives: Australian Books

Cicada

Another brilliant and poignant short graphic novel by leading Australian illustrator

I think that it’s fair to say that this author and illustrator was a huge driver behind my love of graphic novels. I absolutely adored “Tales from Outer Suburbia”, and he has had a few new books out this year. When I saw this one in store, I absolutely had to have it.

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“Cicada” by Shaun Tan is a very short, very touching graphic novel about a cicada who works in a big corporate office. I really can’t tell you much more than that, I’m afraid. Tan’s work really just needs to be experienced first hand.

This is really an excellent example of Tan’s excellent illustration skills and succinct and subtle storytelling. Tan is constantly shining new light on the migrant experience in Australia and is master of the allegory.

If you’re a bit new to graphic novels as a medium, or if you haven’t had the opportunity to read Tan before, this is an excellent place to start and you won’t be disappointed.

Cicada

 

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Graphic Novels

The Rain Never Came

Post-apocalyptic Australian fiction

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

“The Rain Never Came” by Lachlan Walter is post-apocalyptic fiction set in a not-too-distant future Australia plagued by drought. Bill and Tobe are best mates who live in a derelict town that has been all but abandoned. They spend their empty days drinking at the local pub. However, when the pub’s bore runs out and they see some mysterious lights on the horizon, Bill agrees to leave town with Tobe.

Australia really lends itself to desert dystopian stories and the premise of this one was interesting. Set around Western Victoria, I enjoyed imagining the hot Victorian summers I grew up with taken to their extreme. I was intrigued by the mysterious ruling entity that decreed that everyone had to be moved to northern regions where there was still rain. This is an action-packed book and once Bill and Tobe are on the road, the action is non-stop.

There were some things that were a bit difficult about this book though. Walters writing style is very active and his characters are constantly doing things like walking, looking, smiling and laughing. Although as the story progresses, we learn a little more about Bill and Tobe’s past, what I really wanted to learn more about was the world they lived in. It wasn’t completely clear why people were being forced to leave the towns, and I would have liked to have had some more reveals about what led to this situation and what the purpose of the mass removal was.

A compelling idea, but I would have liked more world-building and character development.

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

It’s A Bright World To Feel Lost In

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

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“It’s A Bright World To Feel Lost In” by Mawson is picture book told from the perspective of teddy bears. Mawson, a poetic and thoughtful cream coloured bear, ruminates on what it means to be with someone, away from someone and by yourself.

This is a lovely little book. The language is quite child appropriate with subtleties behind the mostly simple text, though there are a few good vocabulary-building words sprinkled throughout as well. I think that stories about teddy bears are pretty universal. Given that most children like to imagine the adventures their teddies get up to without them, this book with its cheerful photography really taps into that nostalgia. The photos are very expressive, and two of my favourites are of Mawson’s friends: one light brown bear staring off into the distance below the text “you can almost hear the aching sound of being searched for” and another shorter-furred bear writing a “wurry list” considering “Did I hug enuf?”

There are some great lessons about unconditional love in this story and rescuing yourself from loneliness by filling your time with hobbies and observation. This is definitely a book that lends itself to flipping through several times. The book is marketed towards grownups 109 and under, but I think if you have a small child who asks to be read the same book over and over, this book has plenty in it that won’t be discovered on the first read through.

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

Book of Colours

A little while ago I was invited to convene a panel at Muse Bookshop with two fabulous authors, and this is the second book.

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“Book of Colours” by Robyn Cadwallader is a historical fiction novel set in London in 1321. The book follows three people linked by the creation of an illuminated book of prayers. There is Lady Mathilda, for whom the book has been commissioned. There is the talented and a little roguish limner Will, walking as far as he can from a past he wants to escape. Then there is patient yet frustrated Gemma, the limner’s wife who dreams of recognition if not for herself, for her daughter. Each character is inextricably linked by the illuminated book, and none will come away unchanged.

This is the second book I’ve read by Cadwallader, and she truly knows her subject matter. Cadwallader immerses the reader in medieval life, and invites the reader to walk with her through the muddy London streets. This book is a fantastic example of an author getting the balance of detail just perfect. Cadwallader uses enough meticulous research to breathe life into a story, but weaves it delicately into the tapestry of the novel without it overwhelming the book.

Another thing about Cadwallader’s writing that stood out to me again is her ability to create such complex characters who are relatable despite being set in a world nearly 700 years ago. Cadwallader’s characters grapple with universal themes of interpersonal conflict, guilt, love and ambition. Will is a bit of a chameleon, constantly shifting and compelling though perhaps not ever entirely likeable. Mathilda has to wear the more traditional female costume society has prepared for her, but is forced to step up when her living situation changes drastically.

I think Will and Mathilda were interesting enough, but for me it was by far Gemma who stole the show. It was her chapters I couldn’t wait for. It was her little limner’s tidbits that I scoured greedily. I loved the interplay between her warm, maternal side and her unacknowledged but fiercely capable side as a limner. Not unlike the way I felt about the suggestion of the haunting in “The Anchoress”, I wasn’t quite sure about the gargoyle in this book. However like the marginalia dancing in the borders, or perhaps even like the rose in John’s illuminations, I’m starting to think that perhaps a touch of supernatural is Cadwallader’s watermark.

A fascinating book, especially for lovers of the physical book, that conjures a long ago world and the kinds of people who lived in it.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

The Passengers

A little while I got the most exciting email ever: would I like to host a discussion with two authors about their books at Muse Bookshop? Obviously the answer was yes, and this is one of the books.

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“The Passengers” by Eleanor Limprecht is a historical fiction novel about a woman called Sarah who was an Australian war bride. After six decades of living in America, Sarah finally returns to Australia on a cruise ship with her granddaughter Hannah. On the journey across the Pacific, Sarah recounts to Hannah her story of growing up in rural New South Wales, moving to Sydney and meeting an American serviceman. Meanwhile, Hannah is going on a journey of her own and although she agreed to go on the trip to look after her elderly grandmother, Hannah comes to realise that sometimes she is the one who needs looking after.

Now, when you start reading this book, you should absolutely play this song. Just like the Waifs’ classic track, this is a beautifully whimsical book about a time of great change in Australia. Limprecht brings to life a tough country upbringing, the shifting dynamics between parents and adult children and the incredible bravery that it takes to move to another country forever. Sarah is a wonderful character who showcases the resilience and adaptability of so many young women who made that journey. When I interviewed Limprecht, I asked her to read out a passage and the passage I chose is right at the beginning of the book where Sarah is reminiscing about all the work she did with animals on the family farm. Reading about her dog Blackie, and how that upbringing directs her life later on, gave me a hitch in my breath. The conflict Sarah feels about her parents as she grows to better understand their private lives is palpable.

As a counterweight to Sarah’s story is the story of Hannah. Fiercely intelligent and about the same age as Sarah was on her voyage to the USA, Hannah’s own life is being stymied by a secret struggle. Where Sarah constantly looks outward and forward, Hannah is spiraling internally, choking on a past she’s never been able to talk about. Reading Hannah’s parts of the book was much harder than reading Sarah’s. Sarah is inherently a much more likeable character, but that could be because I found Hannah’s experience a little too close to home. Although Hannah is so much younger and has grown up in a much freer world, in a lot of ways Sarah is far more liberated and confident than her young granddaughter. However, I think that the contrast between past and present helps propel the story along and ultimately I think it was a good choice.

If you like historical fiction, this is a wonderful story filled with truths about the real women who took this incredible journey in the 1940s to a new country and a new life forever.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Force of Nature

This book was part of either a Christmas present or birthday present (I can’t quite remember) that I finally got around to reading. I hadn’t heard a lot about this particular story, but the author’s previous novel “The Dry” received a lot of acclaim so I was keen to see what all the fuss was about.

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“Force of Nature” by Jane Harper is a crime thriller about a corporate bonding activity gone wrong. Five women the same company go on a weekend hike together in a fictional Australian mountain range.  Chairwoman Jill, senior staff Alice and Lauren, Bree and her twin sister Bethany. However, when only four return at the end of the weekend, a full-scale search is launched with police, emergency services and volunteers to find missing Alice. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk arrives at the ranges to assist with the search, but he has a particular interest in Alice’s welfare. She’s a key informant in an investigation he’s conducting, and the story that she was separated from the others suddenly isn’t sounding so convincing.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is actually kind of a sequel to “The Dry” (which I didn’t realise) and although I think it is OK as a standalone novel, there are some character-building aspects to Aaron that I felt like I missed out on a bit started from this book. Nevertheless, Harper does an admirable job of immersing the reader in the wilderness, and I particularly enjoyed how she used torrential rain to set the mood throughout the book. I also liked how she connected the events in the present with Aaron’s past.

However, I found the premise of this book so unbelievable that I simply couldn’t settle into it the entire way through. First of all, no corporate team-building company would ever leave five inexperienced hikers in the wilderness without a radio or a satellite phone for a weekend. It was just completely unrealistic that any company would be insured for that kind of activity without an emergency plan. If someone fell and broke their neck, there was absolutely no mechanism for them to call for help. Basically they had to get from point A to point B, and if they didn’t after 3 days, then the company would come looking for them. The man who runs the Executive Adventures program, Ian Chase, just seems so bumbling and incompetent compared to the incredibly organised and safety-focused people I have met who run programs like Outward Bound in real life. The fact that there was simply no contingency plan really made the premise difficult for me to accept, and unfortunately this ended up tainting the rest of the story.

I can see what Harper was trying to do in exploring the intricacies of female work, family and friend relationships by putting five women in a high-stress situation. This book definitely passes the Beshdel Test. I particularly liked Alice’s backstory and discovering more about what was going on in her personal life. However, Lauren’s and the twins’ stories felt a bit more clunky, and Jill just didn’t really get a fair shake of the stick. Ultimately I was much less interested in the catty, shallow behaviour of the women and far more interested in Aaron’s story, which (not having read the preceding book) was possibly the point.

Ultimately, this book didn’t grip me in the way one wants to be gripped by a thriller. A title like “Force of Nature” is a big one to live up to, and at the end of the day, I would have liked something a bit more hard-hitting, gritty and deep. I did like Aaron quite a lot though, and I am tempted to go and give “The Dry” a crack.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Mystery/Thriller

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