Category Archives: Australian Books

Capital Yarns Volumes 1 and 2

Canberra-based short stories for young and old

If you listen to my podcast Lost the Plot, you might remember me speaking to this particular author back in Episode 25 about short stories. More recently, I helped to launch his latest collection of short stories in a live podcast event. While I had read quite a few, and listened to more on his podcast, I thought it was high time that I finished reading both collections and sat down to review them.

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“Capital Yarns Volume 1” and “Capital Yarns Volume 2” by Sean Costello are two collections of shorts stories based in and around Canberra. Each story is constructed around three objects nominated by friends, family and members of the public which are highlighted in bold text. The stories range in theme, some more playful, some darker, some tackling modern social issues. In the second volume, printed in a slightly different format, the stories are arranged by age group and grow progressively more serious as the book goes on.

A Canberran born and bred, Costello’s love for the city permeates the pages of each book. Clearly a keen people-watcher, Costello brings to life stories of ordinary Canberrans in some well-known and not-so-well-known parts of Australia’s often derided but increasingly cosmopolitan capital city. Costello pokes fun at some of the stereotypes of Canberra including its politicians and its hipsters, but importantly his satire is always aimed at privilege and he never punches down. Costello makes a clear effort to showcase the diversity of Canberrans and some of my favourite stories are decoding the opposite sex and how i met your grandfather in Volume 1 and hey sister and delusions of grandeur in Volume 2.

Like many authors, I think Costello starts to hit his stride a little more in Volume 2 and I felt that the arrangement by age group lent an overall cohesiveness to the book that wasn’t quite there with Volume 1. I also felt that the stories in Volume 2 were a bit stronger overall and were perhaps a little less about issues, places and things were instead more driven by plot and characters.

Two lovely collections of heartfelt stories filled with Canberra pride that you can experience for yourself in written or audio format on Costello’s website.

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

Heart’s Blood

Historical fantasy retelling of classic fairy tale

Content warning: family violence, disability

It’s no secret that I adore Juliet Marillier and her beautiful and whimsical historical fantasy novels. I generally try to space them out, but I am getting towards the end of all the books she’s written (so far), so it has been a while since I have picked one up. Anyway, approaching the end of the year, I was in dire need for a comfort read, and I was very eager to give this standalone novel a go.

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“Heart’s Blood” by Juliet Marillier is a historical fantasy novel that reimagines the classic story of “Beauty and the Beast“. The story follows a young woman called Caitrin who is on the run from her abusive family home. Trained as a scribe, when she hears of a job vacancy at the mysterious fortress known as Whistling Tor, locals warn her against it and the disfigured chieftain called Anluan. However when Caitrin arrives, she finds that fear of the known is far worse than fear of the unknown and soon settles into the strange rhythm of the household. While she attempts a seemingly insurmountable task that others before her have failed, she discovers that ugliness is often much more than skin deep.

Marillier, as always, gently coaxes into life sensitive and well-considered characters who overcome hardship and find strength and comfort in one-another. Marillier’s book are and continue to be incredibly inclusive and tackle modern issues through a historical lens. Although this is not the first book of hers with a character with a disability, this book is the first book of hers I have read that really explores the issue of family violence. I thought that she handled Caitrin’s experiences, and the toll they took on her self-esteem and identity, very adeptly and drew out the issues of vulnerability and courage for both Caitrin and Anluan very well. I also really liked that Marillier again made a main character with a disability someone who is capable and desirable.

However, this wasn’t my favourite of Marillier’s books. The plot twist about the true nature of the evil at Whistling Tor I saw coming a mile away, and I felt like a large proportion of the book was spent waiting for the ending I knew was on its way. While I did fully respect that Marillier incorporated themes of family violence into her book, I felt that it could have been a little less distant relatives come take advantage and a little more close to home like unfortunately so many domestic violence stories are. I also felt a little that the way that part of the story is resolved got a bit Jane Eyre towards the end with a bit of deus ex machina in the form of a cart of people going by at just the right time.

Regardless, this is a sweet and enjoyable story and a unique retelling of a classic fairy tale. I read this book in no time at all, and look forward to the next Marillier book I tackle.

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

Only

Memoir about growing up as an only child in post-war Europe

The first I heard of this book was when I went to go see the author speak at the National Library of Australia. As someone from a large family, I have always been a bit curious about the dynamics of a family with only one child, and so I bought a myself a copy and got it signed by the author.

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“Only” by Caroline Baum is a memoir about growing up as an only child with two European parents in England. With Caroline’s successful businessman father an Austrian refugee from the war and her beautiful mother an orphan from tragic circumstances, her elegant yet traumatised parents raise her in an affluent home full of tension and high expectations. As a young adult, the controlled and isolated environment of her childhood becomes stifling and Caroline begins to forge her own life. However, as her relationship with her parents turns increasingly fractious as they age, Caroline finally severs ties with her parents. Resuming contact years later after a tentative olive branch, Caroline soon finds that her relationship with her parents is forever changed.

This is a beautifully written book that weaves together the many themes experienced by  this small but complex family. Baum explores the deep and lasting impact of her parents’ trauma on her family’s unique dynamic, and throughout the book struggles to reconcile with her father’s controlling behaviour against his extreme vulnerability as an older man. Baum is very cognizant of her family’s privilege and her recollections of her extraordinary upbringing are tempered with an awareness that the dinners, schools, clothes and travel were not opportunities available to many people. I also really enjoyed Baum’s recollections of her early days as a journalist, which honestly would have made a great memoir in its own right.

I think the one thing that I felt was missing was a bit more information about Baum’s life in Australia. I think that with any memoir, it’s hard to know what to include and what to exclude. This is a book about being an only child, but I would have liked to have read more about what it is like to be an only child living in another country away from your parents.

A fascinating insight into an elite and insular post-war family, I enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading more of Baum’s work.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

Dark Emu

Captivating non-fiction on Aboriginal agriculture, aquaculture and architecture 

One thing that is no secret is that I have been making an effort to read more books by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors over the past two years. I’ve read several novels such as “Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms“, “Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior” and “Terra Nullius“. I’ve also read some non-fiction, most notably “Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia“. Each of these books has had a significant impact on the way that I view this country, and has helped to shed a little more understanding to counteract the misguided or absent knowledge I learned about our first nations people when I was young and failed to take enough steps to correct as an adult. A few people recommended that I read this book, especially after having read “Guns, Germs and Steel“, and I finally bought myself a copy.

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The artwork is a magnet my friend bought for me while working in the Northern Territory. The artist is Susan Wanji Wanji, and her art is available via the Munupi Arts and Crafts Association and Alperstein Designs

“Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe is a non-fiction book that compiles records from early white settlers to the continent of Australia to extrapolate a more accurate history of Aboriginal people and their relationship with the land. The book is broken up into several chapters that cover topics including Aboriginal agriculture, aquaculture, population and housing, storage and preservation and fire. Pascoe patiently examines each of his sources going through quotes that refer to Aboriginal grain crops, cuisine, wood and stone housing, penned animals and dams.

You can read my review which is going to be quite long and heated, or you can listen to the far more eloquent speech given by the author himself at the National Library of Australia.

Anyway, to be perfectly frank, any history books currently on the curriculum teaching Aboriginal history should be thrown in the proverbial bin and replaced with “Dark Emu”. Up until this point, for the past 230 years this country has been complacent about the biggest example of collective gaslighting of all time: that Aboriginal people did not manage their land and that Aboriginal people allowed themselves to colonised. Slowly, the fiction has evolved over time. terra nullius morphed into the hunter-gatherer story. The hunter-gatherer story changed to the fire-stick farming story. However, until more recently, Aboriginal people have largely been excluded from telling their own stories and their own histories. Until more recently, people didn’t know about the frontier wars, the truth of the Stolen Generations, or the validity of Aboriginal science.

It must be acknowledged that perpetuating this story of “primitive” Aboriginal people is in the best interests of white Australia. The belief that the people who were already here were not really people, or not as sophisticated as the settlers who arrive, has helped to justify white acquisition of land. As an adult, I have heard stories from people while drinking around campfires of Aboriginal artifacts and burial sites being discovered on farmers’ land and removed and destroyed. When I first heard stories like this, I thought it was through callousness and disrespect that someone would do something like that. However, on reflection and after reading this book, I think that ever since colonisation people have actively destroyed evidence of Aboriginal occupation of land because of the threat of native title.

This book is exceptionally well-researched and Pascoe weaves through a carefully considered commentary and some of his own personal experiences alongside excerpts from diaries and letters of early settlers. The book is meticulously divided into easily accessible sections and I actually found this much, much more readable than the important but relentlessly repetitive “Guns, Germs and Steel”. This is a book that is critically relevant to this country’s past and this country’s future. People ask me from time to time, given the area that I work in but certainly not because of any special personal experience, what I think should be done to create a better future for Aboriginal people in this country. I truly believe that we cannot have a better future until we fully acknowledge the past.

I was desperately sorry that I missed Pascoe’s recent talk at the National Library of Australia, but as I said you can watch it online. I cannot recommend this book more, it is an excellent and necessary edition to Australia’s literary scene and I look forward to seeing the works that emerge from future Aboriginal authors through this newly opened door.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

A Perfect Marriage

Domestic noir novel about the aftermath of an abusive relationship

Content warning: domestic violence

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

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“A Perfect Marriage” by Alison Booth is a domestic noir novel about a woman called Sally whose secret is preventing her from moving on from her dark past. Busy with her teenage daughter Charlie and her career as a geneticist, Sally decides to attend a conference in Spain. After a chance meeting on the flight over promises something more than just a professional relationship, Sally finds herself forced to confront her previous marriage and come clean with everyone she loves about how it really ended.

This is a subtle novel that delicately and sensitively explores the issue of domestic violence. A lot of stories explore the trauma of living through domestic violence, but I feel that far fewer examine the aftermath and the impact felt many years afterwards. Sally is a relatable character who really brings the truth that anyone can be a victim of domestic violence to the forefront. As a reader, you find yourself cheering for Sally and celebrating each little win.

I think the only thing that some people may have difficulty with in reading this novel is that it is a quiet book. It’s a slow burn that doesn’t have a lot of highs and lows, but rather matches the more ordinary rhythms of real life.

A very honest interpretation of a serious and sadly all too common scenario, this is a thoughtful and easy-to-read book.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, eBooks, General Fiction, Uncategorized

The Grief Hole

Award-winning modern horror on everyday evil

Although this might not seem like a Christmas book, I first bought it from the author when she was selling her books at the Beyond Q Christmas book sale that they held a couple of years ago when they were based in Curtin. I bought a copy of this book from the author, which came with a super cute little handmade Christmas cracker and a bookmark made out of stamps, and it sat on my shelf for far too long before I finally read it. Just this year though, I interviewed the author about writing horror for a Halloween special episode of my podcast, and so it was definitely time for me to give this book a read.

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“The Grief Hole” by Kaaron Warren is a horror novel about a young woman called Theresa who works as a domestic violence social worker. Theresa has a special but macabre ability: she can tell how you will most likely die. Increasingly haunted by the spirits of future death that surround her clients, she decides to start taking fate into her own hands with disastrous consequences. Traumatised, she moves away and takes up a job offer from an estranged relative whose daughter recently committed suicide. When the talented young artist’s death begin to emerge, Theresa is determined to prevent history repeating itself. However, when she discovers who exactly she is up against, Theresa is forced to examine her own motives.

This is an eerie and disturbing story that uses a thin overlay of the supernatural to explore good and evil, selfishness and selflessness in an otherwise very realistic world. Warren turns the themes of power and control inside out to examine questions of how much we determine our own futures and how much we must passively accept. She also asks whether our intentions can ever truly be pure, and whether we can ever truly know what the impact of our actions will be. Warren has a real knack for dialogue and for taking the everyday and making it horrifying. She maintains a palpable sense of unease throughout the entire book.

However, this book won’t be for everyone. Although it’s not blood-spattered, stereotypical horror it is very disturbing in its own way. I found quite a few parts of the book confronting and uncomfortable, and this is a book that lingers after you have read it. It is intentionally ambiguous and the reader will often feel like they are walking through a heavily rainy landscape unable to clearly see where they have been or where they are going.

A unique and unsettling take on the horror genre by a local Canberra author, it is not surprising why this book won so many awards and if you’re looking for something a little darker than normal, this would be a great book to check out.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Horror

Surrogate: A Novel

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

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“Surrogate: A Novel” by Tracy Crisp is a story about a young nurse called Rachael who is asked to house-sit by a doctor from her hospital that she is loosely acquainted with. Dr Cate and her handsome husband Drum have plans to adopt a baby overseas. However when things don’t work out and they return home early, they first ask Rachael to stay and then the ask her to consider a much, much bigger proposition.

This is an evocative and unsettling story that explores the issue of surrogacy by pushing the boundaries of relationships. Crisp is a thoughtful writer who captures the day to day lives of Rachael, who is going through the confusing process of surrogacy, and her mother Mary, who went through something similar as a young woman. I thought Crisp’s real strength was exploring imperfect relationships and the reasons why people keep secrets from one another. The interplay between Cate, Rachael and Drum was particularly engaging.

I think probably the only thing I struggled with in this story was the role of Mick. Mick is Rachael’s father’s best friend, and Rachael is infatuated with him, but I just didn’t quite see how this part fit into the rest of the story. Mick seems to be a bit of a bridge between Mary’s past and Rachael’s present, but I’m not sure the foundations are quite strong enough to hold up that particular plot-line.

Anyway, this is an interesting novel that deeply explores the theme of giving up a child through the lens of ordinary people.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, General Fiction