Category Archives: Australian Books

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

Heart of Brass

If you listen to my podcast, you might recall that a couple of episodes ago I interviewed local Canberra author Felicity Banks about interactive fiction and her project “Murder in the Mail“. A while ago, by coincidence, my partner bought me a copy of her book at CanCon, completely unaware that Felicity and I had already been chatting!

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“Heart of Brass” by Felicity Banks is the first book in her pre-Federation Australian steampunk series “The Antipodean Queen”. The story is about a young upper class Englishwoman called Emmeline whose family has a lot of secrets but not much money. One of those secrets is that Emmeline, a keen inventor, has a steam-powered heart made of brass. When her attempts to save her family’s financial situation through a strategic marriage go very awry, Emmeline is sent to the colonies on the last convict ship and finds herself in Victoria. In this strange new land, she realises that she has a lot more freedom and opportunities than she perhaps had at home, but also has a lot more enemies.

This is a very fast-paced book full of action and intrigue. Banks introduces a very diverse range of characters that give a really holistic sense of the kinds of people who made their way to Victoria during the gold rush. This steampunk book involves a little bit of magic, and I really enjoyed the subtlety of Banks’ magic system and the way people can interact with metal. I think that it worked really well in a steampunk setting, and particularly well in a goldrush setting. I liked the way that people tapped into the properties of metal and used them to express themselves and enhance themselves in the clothing that they wore.

Now, I absolutely have to mention something about this particular book that really made it enjoyable for me. At the end of the book is a short choose your own adventure-style story called “After the Flag Fell” about a true historical figure called Peter Lalor, but set in Banks’ own steampunk reimagining of the Eureka Stockade. This was such a fun and cleverly done little story, and I was flipping through trying to achieve all the goals and collect all the items with absolute delight.

I think maybe the only thing I found a bit challenging in this book is that there is a lot going on, and Emmeline and her two new companions Matilda and Patrick are on the run for the majority of the book. Sometimes this made it a little bit difficult to keep up with all the action, but I think for people who really enjoy adventure fiction, this isn’t going to be much of an issue.

A fun story with an especially fun choose your own adventure bonus at the end, Banks’ novel is a fresh look at Australia’s history and blows apart some of the dark areas of our past with explosions, metal and lots and lots of steam.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, interactive fiction, Signed Books

The Shepherd’s Hut

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“The Shepherd’s Hut” by Tim Winton is about a teenage boy called Jaxie on the run from the dregs of a brutal start to life in a small Western Australian town. Escaping on foot, he ends up in a salt lake wasteland with dwindling supplies. When he has almost run out of food, water and ammunition, Jaxie comes across a shepherd’s hut, occupied by a stranded and mysterious elderly Irishman called Fintan. The two are very wary of each other, but come to an uneasy truce to not ask any questions about the other’s past. Fintan’s generosity with his basic larder of food, and his uncertainty about when, or even if, replacement supplies will arrive, means that they cannot permanently hide away from their world.

Although this was quite an easy book to read, it is a difficult book to review. The book is written in a kind of stream of consciousness narrative from the perspective of Jaxie, and this is without a doubt the highlight of the novel. Jaxie is a brilliant character full of untold complexity who is both the product of his upbringing as well as a fresh and unique voice. Winton portrays a young man with a sharp mind, one already full of knowledge and understanding if not education and experience. Jaxie’s raw, untempered thoughts are arresting, and hurtle the reader through the book. Although his words may paint him as a tough and harsh kid, it quickly becomes clear that Jaxie is very sentimental and craves to be seen as worthwhile.

This is definitely a book to make you think, and I have been thinking about it quite a bit since I read it, but I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. It’s a very compelling story, but some parts of it I felt were rushed or jammed on. In fact, I think I was in maybe the last eighth of the book, and I couldn’t believe it was about to end and couldn’t possibly see how everything would be resolve (or at least finalised).

I think the tenuous and cagey friendship between Jaxie and Fintan, the centrepiece of the book, was a prime example of this. Winton spends the majority of the book setting up the characters and putting them into a kind of routine, and then just when you felt like the friendship was about to become interesting, the book rushes into a ending that to me felt so coincidental and unlikely that it was jarring. I appreciate the technique of leaving a book open-ended, but I think how you get to that open end is important, and I’m not sure the final climax was really the best choice.

Tim Winton has been writing and speaking extensively about toxic masculinity, and I think for the most part that this book absolutely explores some of the nuances of expressing masculinity and what it means to be a man. However, again, the jarring ending meant that the message felt really muddled and I wasn’t quite sure what the point was anymore.

The language Winton used also obscured the purpose of the book and left me with a lot of questions about class and audience. Jaxie is styled with a very idiosyncratic, colloquial yet thoughtful way of speaking which is very engrossing. However, it also really made me wonder who exactly the audience of this book is intended to be. Is it meant to be for more privileged, metropolitan Australians to give them a taste of wild country life, or is it meant to make it more accessible to blue collar Australians and resonate with them through shared language? Is it meant to be both? I’m just not sure.

Anyway, I can’t really write too much more about this book without giving things away, but essentially this book was a smack around the head and my ears are still ringing. If you’re looking for something to make you think, make you feel and make your jaw drop, this is it. If you’re looking for a comfortable read, you’re not going to find it here.

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The Anti-Cool Girl

Content warning: mental illness, addiction, suicide ideation. 

My experience of this book was a bit different to my usual reviews because I didn’t read it, I didn’t listen to it as an audiobook per se, but I listened to it as a podcast called “Mum Says My Memoir is a Lie“.

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“The Anti-Cool Girl” by Rosie Waterland is deeply personal memoir about Waterland’s experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family plagued by mental illness, addiction and poverty. Waterland chronicles her sometimes hilarious and sometimes deeply painful memories from birth up until just before publication. Although Waterland’s mother Lisa’s alcoholism had prevented her from reading the book when it first came out, Lisa has since sobered up and is ready to challenge Waterland on some of the things depicted in the book. On the podcast, each episode begins with Waterland narrating a chapter from the book and then Waterland and her mother Lisa spend the rest of the episode discussing the events of the chapter, especially around whether Waterland’s recollections are correct.

I think it’s difficult to separate out the book from the podcast because so much of podcast is the book, so this is going to be a kind of combined review. Waterland is a very funny writer, and has a exaggerated, self-depreciating sense of humour that balances out the more serious parts of the book. Waterland is also unflinchingly honest about her feelings and experiences, sometimes in quite shocking (and refreshing) detail. This book is overall an incredibly telling insight into Australia’s care and protection system, the public housing system and the mental health system. Rosie also shares her personal experiences with depression, suicide attempts, bullying and weight gain and then her remarkable success in her writing.

When I first started listening to this podcast, hearing Waterland read a chapter of her book, my initial judgment was that her mother Lisa was a terrible mother whose alcoholism traumatised her children. I think that if I had read the book by itself, that would have remained my judgment the entire way through. However, having Lisa participating in the podcast and responding to each chapter did lead me to think that Waterland was perhaps not always the most reliable narrator, especially in the chapters about her younger years. It also gave me a lot more empathy for Lisa and a better appreciation of her own struggles. However, where the facts aren’t completely clear or when some of the subject-matter gets a bit dark, you can count on Waterland to bring the mood back up with a joke or an embarrassing story about herself, even if it’s a bit embellished.

This is a powerful, hilarious and insightful book that is given a whole new layer of depth through this unconventional storytelling platform. I think the book is good, but the podcast is excellent and it is a very rare opportunity to listen to frank conversations between an author and her subject-matter: her mum.

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