Category Archives: Australian Books

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

Dear Santa

I received this book as part of a work Kris Kringle. As Christmas was drawing near, I thought it was just the time to read it (even if this review is a little belated). Proceeds from sales go towards cancer research and none of the authors were paid, so it was definitely a book bought for a good cause.

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“Dear Santa” edited by Samuel Johnson OAM and illustrated by Shaun Tan is a collection of letters by many well-known Australians addressed, of course, to Santa. With the likes of Leigh Sales, Helen Garner, Deborah Mailman, Missy Higgins and Shaun Micallef, each of the 68 contributors revisits the Santa of their childhoods through the eyes of an adult. Some letters are long, some are succinct, some are cynical, some are hopeful, some are downright desperate. Many seek the basics of sleep or the simplicity of sweets. Many call for bigger gifts like world peace, a treaty and relief from the drought.

This is a lovely little book that would make a brilliant Christmas coffee table book. Although ostensibly about Santa, it takes thoughts from a broad selection of Australians on the state of the country, where we’ve come from and where we are heading. Definitely aimed at an older audience, there are plenty of witticisms and astute observations peppered throughout.

This book probably lends itself more to flicking through or picking up and reading at random than it does reading from cover to cover. I sat down one evening with a gin and tonic and dark chocolate and did exactly that, and after a while the letters start to blur together a little (it wasn’t the gin, I swear).

Nevertheless, a lovely seasonal book for an excellent cause. Keep an eye out for next Christmas.

Dear Santa

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

The Adventurous Princess and Other Feminist Fairy Tales

Collection of illustrated short stories of reimagined fairy tales

If you listen to my podcast Lost the Plot, you may recall that I spoke to this author some time ago about her plans to run a crowdfunding campaign to publish her feminist fairy tales. Very excitingly, the campaign was successful. Even more excitingly, the campaign reached almost five times the original goal which meant that the book included four more fairy tales than originally anticipated. I received my copy late last year, and I couldn’t wait to read it.

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“The Adventurous Princess and Other Feminist Fairy Tales” by Erin-Claire Barrow is a collection of illustrated short stories inspired by traditional fairy tales and reimagined from a feminist perspective. Barrow takes on some familiar stories such as CinderellaBeauty and the Beast and Snow White as well as some lesser known ones like Allerleirauh and The Goose Girl. Each story features a diverse cast and an empowering twist on the original plot of the stories.

The absolute highlight of this book is without a doubt the illustrations. Barrow’s striking and whimsical watercolours bring the stories to life and reinforce the image of diverse women at the centre of these classic tales. Barrow’s women are ethnically diverse, queer, disabled, older, larger, young and gender non-conforming. Barrow’s women have jobs, dreams and callings but most importantly, they have agency. They make their own decisions and when they ask for help, it is from a place of strength rather than weakness. The stories themselves are succinct and accessible, and girls and women of any age can enjoy them. I particularly liked the shorter stories that turn stereotypes on their heads and bring otherwise ridiculous stories to a satisfying ending.

Quite a few people have reimagined fairy tales, including, famously, Roald Dahl in his “Revolting Rhymes” and increasingly in Disney films. What is different about this book is that it is not just about empowering conventionally beautiful straight women, it is about representing women from all backgrounds. I think that the only additional woman I would have liked to have seen is a trans woman, and I look forward to seeing future illustrations and stories from Barrow.

An accessible and inclusive take on traditional fairy tales that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.

Buy a copy directly from the author’s website.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Short Stories

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow

Second book in children’s fantasy series “Nevermore”

If you haven’t read the first book, skip this review because there will be spoilers.

I read the first book in this series some time ago, and although I felt that it wasn’t so unique as to be mindblowing, it was nevertheless an enjoyable read. When the second book came out recently, I thought I’d give it a go.

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“Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow” by Jessica Townsend is a children’s fantasy novel and the second book in the “Nevermoor” series. The story picks up shortly after Morrigan has been accepted into the Wundrous Society after completing a number of trials. One of nine new members in unit 919, each is bound to keep Morrigan’s secret: that she is a wundersmith. A powerful wielder of magic feared by the citizens of Nevermoor. Unfortunately, as a result, Morrigan is excluded from all classes except for the history of catastrophes caused by other wundersmiths before her. Soon, with citizens of Nevermoor disappearing, Morrigan becoming more and more isolated and letters threatening to expose unit 919’s secret unless each member participates in a nigh impossible tasks, it is seeming less and less likely that Morrigan will every truly be a member of the Wundrous Society.

I actually enjoyed this book quite a bit more than the first one. I felt like Townsend has hit her stride and plot-wise, this book was interesting and cohesive. I enjoyed how she kept several mysteries going at once, and wove in what Morrigan was learning about the city of Nevermoor seamlessly into the solutions. I also felt that the worldbuilding was stronger in this book, and I felt that I was starting to get much more of a sense of Nevermore and how the world works. As miffed as Morrigan was about the history lessons, it was an ingenious way to round out some of the context of why the people of Nevermore are so frightened of Wundersmiths. I also enjoyed the trisky lanes and learning a bit about the geography of Nevermoor. Finally, I thought that Townsend’s exploration of good and evil was much stronger in this book with as many twists and turns as the tricksy lanes themselves.

Although I did think that this book was stronger than the previous, I did occasionally feel that sometimes this book was quirky for the sake of being quirky. I also felt that, although it wasn’t as the first book, this book does still borrow a lot of themes from other young fantasy books I have read. There were still quite a few tropes, but I do feelt that this series is starting to come into its own.

An engaging book that picks up where the first left off and lifts the story to a new level.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow: Nevermoor 2

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