Content warning: sexual assault, gender violence, family violence
I must have picked up a copy of this book from the Lifeline Book Fair some time back. I love to look at the different books in the literature section and see if I can find books from other countries, and this one clearly caught my eye because of the vibrant cover. I picked it out to read for my Short Stack Reading Challenge in December.
“Buxton Spice” by Oonya Kempadoo is a bildungsroman about Lula, a young girl who lives in a fictional town called Tamarind Grove in Guyana. She and her friends play innocently among the trees, along the river and in the rooms in her family’s sprawling house. However, on the cusp of puberty they are becoming more aware of their sexuality and, at the same time, more aware of the political tensions in their racially diverse town and the types of violence women face in Tamarind Grove.
This was a very readable book and I loved how Kempadoo wove through Guyanese Creole in such a fluid and evocative way. Lula and her friends were a clever lens through with to observe Guyana’s post-independence era in the 1970s. As the book progresses, Lula becomes more and more aware of the ethnic differences between her family and others and Tamarind Grove and her father’s leftist leanings and progressive, vegetarian lifestyle become more and more dangerous. I also thought that Kempadoo explored class in a really interesting way and how it intersected with race and religion. There were some very provocative scenes in this book, and the author finds a captivating balance between illuminating violence and maintaining the Lula’s inherent playfulness.
A lively and spirited story that was as educational as it was enjoyable to read.
Dramatic reimagining of Henry Lawson’s short story
Content warning: sexual assault, graphic violence, child removal, racism, family violence
I have been doing quite a lot of running recently, so I am getting through audiobooks a little faster than usual. This has definitely been on my list. We all know the iconic Henry Lawson story about the drover’s wife up against a snake, but I was very interested to try out this gritty retelling.
“The Drover’s Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson” written by and narrated by Leah Purcell is a historical fiction novel that retells Lawson’s famous short story about a drover’s wife left alone with her four children for months at a time in the outback. Molly is pregnant and almost due to give birth, and all she has to protect her and the children is her gun and her dog Alligator. Vulnerable to intruders, natural disasters and poverty, when Aboriginal man Yadaka arrives at her property on the run from the law, she is reluctant to trust him. However, they gradually form a careful bond and Yadaka spends time telling stories to her eldest son Danny who craves a father figure. Meanwhile, Louisa Clintoff has moved from London to the alpine town of Everton with her husband Nate who is to be the new lawman. While they settle in to a completely different lifestyle, Nate’s big task is to solve some local murders. However, what he uncovers is even more shocking than he could ever have expected.
This is a tense, gritty novel that pulls absolutely no punches while re-examining 1800s colonial Australia. While there are plenty of nods to its inspiration, this novel is absolutely its own story and Molly has a voice and a history that shines through more loudly and clearly than ever did in Lawson’s book. Yadaka was a fascinating character as well, with a colourful, complex and painful backstory, he travelled the world while still maintaining a very strong connection with family, country and culture. Purcell’s world is a dangerous one, and in this story snakes are the least of Molly’s problems. The fear and the heartache Molly has for her children’s safety is visceral, and the horrors she encounters as an isolated woman in the bush are all too realistic.
Purcell clearly lives and breathes her story, and she was the perfect choice to narrate it. A seasoned actor herself, she does an excellent job of giving each character a voice and I particularly loved how she portrayed young Danny. While listening to this book, I found myself thinking that it felt like it could have been written for a film. Little did I know that Purcell originally wrote the story for stage and that it has in fact been adapted into a film slated for release next year. This book tackles head-on the treatment of Aboriginal people, and instead of being dismissed as convenient assistants to the white colonial project as Lawson did in his story, Purcell closely examines the many attempts to sever Aboriginal identity and connection to land by settlers. At the end of the audiobook, Purcell shares a bit about the creation of her story and her creative practice as an artist including the consultation with local Aboriginal communities from alpine country in New South Wales as well as her own heritage as a Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri woman.
One thing I did find a bit challenging was the number of narrative perspectives that were in this book. The prose shifts from first person to third person, and there are several characters who take turns in the spotlight. I did find that listening to the audiobook occasionally made it a bit difficult to keep track of who was whom. It is an action-packed book and full of some truly horrifying scenes, a couple of which I missed (with some relief) while out running.
An excellently research story laden with insight, emotion and commentary, I cannot wait to see the film adaptation with Purcell herself in the leading role.
A Christmas-themed novella from the Irish Country series
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. It has been a couple of years since I reviewed a Christmas-themed book, and I thought I would save this review for the first day of December and, incidentally, my inaugural Short Stack Reading Challenge. While I read this a little too early to count for my stack, this might be some festive inspiration for yours.
“An Irish Country Yuletide” by Patrick Taylor is a novella set in the “Irish Country” series about Dr Fingal Flahertie O’Reilly who has a general practice in the small Irish village of Ballybucklebo. Everyone in the village is getting ready for Christmas, and settling in to enjoy the traditions of the season. However, illnesses take no holidays, and between all the festivities, it is up to O’Reilly to make sure his patients and their families can celebrate as well.
This is an easy, cosy read that transports you to an idyllic Irish world in the mid-1960s. I had never read any of the other books in the series, but there was plenty of light exposition from Taylor to make sure any reader could slide into this book and quickly get up to speed. It is also an easy book from an emotional standpoint. Usually I don’t go for books that are overly saccharine but I think, during these difficult times, it is relaxing to read a book where things just work out, and no problem goes unsolved. O’Reilly is a sentimental old fellow, and between fulfilling his Christmas responsibilities, he takes the time to reflect on how far he has come with the people he loves. Then there was the huge bonus of Taylor including recipes! I have mentioned on here many, many times how much I love recipes in fiction. Unfortunately I didn’t get around to trying any out, but I very much appreciated that they were there.
Although perhaps all the loose ends are tied up a little too neatly in a bow, this book is nevertheless brimming with Christmas cheer and if you are looking to immerse yourself in a picturesque winter setting, then this is a lovely, low investment book to try.
Historical fiction about being stranded in a lifeboat
Content warning: suicide
I picked up this book some time ago from the Lifeline Book Fair for an obvious reason: the beautiful tinted edges. They are such a deep turquoise colour and the cover design itself is really striking. The endsheets have a map showing shipping routes across the Atlantic Ocean. I’m still chugging away at my to-read shelf, and it has been a little while since I have read one of my books with tinted edges, so I chose this one.
“The Lifeboat” by Charlotte Rogan is a historical fiction novel about a young woman called Grace who is on trial with two other women. Weeks earlier, she finds herself on a lifeboat as the ocean liner she and her husband were sailing on is sinking. Before long it becomes clear that the lifeboat is overcrowded and is riding too low in the water. Despite taking turns to bail out the water, the passengers realise that to survive, some will have to be sacrificed. As Grace presents her testimony to the court, the reader is left wondering what truly happened on that boat?
Shipwrecks and being stranded at sea are almost always interesting stories because they place an often large number of people within a very limited amount of space and put them under the enormous pressure of surviving in extreme conditions until they are either rescued or die waiting. The absolute highlight of this book was the perspective. Grace is a deeply enigmatic character who initially seems very innocent but who later lets slips moment of ambition and manipulation that leave the reader questioning exactly how reliable her recollection of the events was. Rogan is a strong writer and the juxtaposition between the crowdedness of the boat and the emptiness of the sky and sea around them was truly unsettling. I felt that Rogan really captured the discomfort and pain that comes along with exposure and starvation and the book felt really realistic and well-researched.
While I thought it was well-written, I’m not quite sure the ending was landed. While I appreciate that Grace was the main character we were concerned with, I didn’t feel connected to any of the other characters except perhaps Mr Hardie. Grace, in true narcissistic form, talked about her interactions with them but not really much about their natures. I would have liked to have known a lot more about Hannah. While I understood that Rogan was angling for subtlety when suggesting what was truly happening on the ocean liner before it sank and how Grace came to be on the boat on the first place, I think a bit more depth or a few more moments of leaning into Grace’s unreliability would have made the ending more hard-hitting.
A well-written and easy book to read that left me with plenty to think about but wishing for a little more punch.
This is the third book in the series, so if you haven’t started it yet check out my reviews of the first and second books. It hasn’t been an easy winter, and I have been a bit distracted from reviewing what with lockdowns etc, but I was so excited for this book pre-ordered this book when it came out at the beginning of August and harangued the poor staff at Dymocks Canberra on release day and they had to open the box for me! I definitely needed a little winter pick-me-up.
Image is of “A Song of Flight” by Juliet Marillier. The paperback book is resting on a timber table next to grey and black feathers and a silver belt buckle. The cover is of a woman in profile in the foreground holding a large knife, gazing across water at a stone tower in the background.
“A Song of Flight” by Juliet Marillier is the third book in the historical fantasy series “The Warrior Bards”. The book begins a short while after the events of the second book, back on Swan Island. Experienced after several successful if challenging missions, Liobhan has been given the new responsibility of helping to train new recruits. Her comrade and lover Dau spends most of his time training recruits on the mainland, and they take what few moments together they can. However, when news arrives that a prince is missing and his bodyguard Galen, Liobhan’s brother, is seriously injured, Liobhan and Dau are dispatched on separate but complementary missions to discover what happened. Meanwhile, Liobhan’s adopted brother Brocc, who is now a father, is having serious difficulties with his wife and queen Eirne in the Otherworld about the increasing presence of the mysterious and dangerous Crow Folk. When he is exiled with a precious burden, Brocc must use all his training and powers to ensure the Crow Folk are not used for evil.
This book had a different tempo than the other two books, and one of the overarching themes in this book is overcoming adversity without violence. Introduced in the earlier books, the Crow Folk make a much bigger appearance in this story and the main characters must untangle myth and culture to get to the heart of why the Crow Folk have come to their land. Whereas the previous book was Liobhan and Dau’s, this time I felt that Brocc’s story really became centre-stage. As I have often said, Marillier is a master of romance so it was really interesting to read her take on a relationship breakdown. Although Brocc has always been accepted completely by his adopted family, Marillier hints tantalisingly at who his biological family may be and what the implications of that may be. Brocc is pushed to his limits in this book and asked how far he would go for the ones he loves.
I enjoyed finally getting to meet the third child of Blackthorn and Grim, Galen, and seeing another side of their family. Blackthorn and Grim make an extended cameo in this book and it was nice to see them in a happy home, regardless of the circumstances. Although not as prominent as the previous book, Liobhan and Dau’s relationship (limited as it is by time, distance and their commitment to Swan Island) is tested in this book. Will they be able to put Swan Island missions before all else, including their love? Although many threads of this story were tied up very tidily, Marillier left enough questions unanswered and doors unclosed to make me wonder whether this truly is the last book, or whether we shall be seeing more of Brocc, Liobhan and Dau in future.
An excellent example of Marillier’s work and a satisfying ending to the trilogy without completely extinguishing the hope that perhaps there may be more to come.
Historical fiction about briefly independent African nation Biafra
Content warning: civil war, starvation, sexual violence
When you have a to-read pile as large as mine, it can be very challenging choosing the next book and I am always looking for inspiration, in any form, to help me make that decision. I had definitely heard of this author and have had one of her books (which I picked up from the Lifeline Book Fair) on my shelf for a really long time. When the author last month posted an essay on her website about virtue signalling on social media, there was some backlash about some views the author had posted previously about transwomen. I am absolutely the last person qualified to weigh into Nigerian LGBTQIA+ discourse, but seeing the author’s name made me realise that her book had been waiting its turn far too long.
“Half of a Yellow Sun” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a historical fiction novel set in 1960s Nigeria. A teenager called Ugwu moves from his small village to work as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a charismatic lecturer who regularly hosts friends and colleagues for academic debates in his home. Allowed to attend school again, Ugwu soaks up the atmosphere and the political rhetoric. Odenigbo’s partner, Olanna, has given up her privileged upbringing to live with him. When the Igbo nation of Biafra secedes from Nigeria, the reality of their idealism is a far cry from the life Olanna is used to. Meanwhile, Olanna’s quiet twin sister Kainene is dating Englishman and aspiring writer Richard. Learning fluent Igbo and becoming swept up in the nationalism of this new nation, Richard is forced to examine the role of white people in African nation-building and how even during an African civil war, an Englishman’s word is worth more than a Biafran.
This is a compelling and challenging novel that uses three diverse, intersecting perspectives to tell the story of the rise and fall of Biafra the nation. Through the eyes of a poor young man, a wealthy woman and a white man, Adichie examines the leadup to and fallout from the civil war and the ensuing food scarcity. Ugwu in particular was a really powerful character who undergoes a lot of character development and who as a young man with the opportunity for significant social mobility finds a lot of opportunity through this historical period. I also thought that it was really interesting to see the sacrifices, financial and social, that Olanna and Odenigbo had to make and how the more doggedly they clung to the idealism of Biafra, the worse their individual circumstances became. Adichie writes unflinchingly about starvation and it was really hard reading about children suffering. I thought it was a courageous narrative choice for Adichie to explore the issue of sexual violence during war from the side of both the victim and the perpetrator. It was also surprisingly hard going reading about roads and borders being closed and not being able to check on family during these times when borders closures are becoming more and more commonplace.
An emotionally and politically complex novel that brings microhistory to microfiction.
Historical fiction inspired by “Gulliver’s Travels” from the perspective of his wife
2020 was a tough year for authors with new releases and unfortunately this was another book that missed out on its due publicity. I first heard about this author through her amazing cookie art. She is also a really lovely person and sent me a gorgeous note and gift when my wedding was postponed last year. It’s a beautifully designed book with bronze foil and I was really excited to read it.
“Gulliver’s Wife” by Lauren Chater is a historical fiction novel that asks the question: while Lemuel Gulliver sailed around exploring previously uncontacted lands as depicted in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels“, what did his family do without him? Moreover, it asks what did his family do when he comes home after years of being missing, presumed dead, telling stories of tiny people? Set in London, UK, in 1702, this book follows his wife Mary and his daughter Bess as they navigate the change his return brings to their home’s dynamic, the financial impact his presence has on their lives and their increasingly strained relationship with each other.
This is a meticulously researched book about life as a woman in 1700s England. Using the tension between Mary’s lack of individual rights as an apparent widow and the family’s increasing economic needs as a framework, Chater explores what options are available for a woman of Mary’s background and station, and how they are further limited when her husband resumes his position as head of the household. Choosing midwifery as Mary’s career was a really clever choice: one of the few roles for women with minimal male influence. I thought that the interaction between midwives, surgeons and the church was really interesting as well as the lenses through which decisions are made about who was best placed to handle the work of delivering babies. Mary is a fully rounded character with hobbies (gardening), a love interest (not her husband) and
One of the most powerful elements of this book was the mother-daughter relationship. With utmost sensitivity, Chater teases out the complexities of the way Mary and Bess relate to each other, and how they are at once too close and too distant. Bess idolises her father, and I thought that there were some interesting questions posed about whose responsibility it was to disabuse her of reverence. Should Mary have been more frank with her and risk further teenage derision, or should Bess have been more realistic and let go of her childish ideas about her father’s promises? I really liked the way their relationship evolved over time and how space was made for a new type of respect. Alice, the family’s sole domestic worker, is a great counterbalance to the tension between the two as well as having her own complex family background.
One ever-present challenge for historical fiction is being as true as possible to the era while while still writing for a modern audience. I think that for the most part, Mary’s tolerance for others and openness in relation to social issues is done really well. A career as a midwife creates more room for Mary to be exposed to a variety of different circumstances and creates a bit of distance from an otherwise very religious, patriarchal society. However, there were a couple of situations in which I thought Mary was perhaps a little too understanding for a person of her time.
A creative take on a classic novel. Unlike other works of historical fiction that have used classics as inspiration, I think that this novel has a very clear purpose and prompts the reader to consider what life may have been like for the people literary heroes left behind.
Historical fantasy about industrial action in America
Content warning: slavery
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“The Factory Witches of Lowell” by C. S. Malerich is a historical fantasy novella set in Massachussets, USA in the 19th century and is a fictionalised account of the Lowell Mill Girls. When management increases the rent of the women who work in textile factories without increasing their wages, the women organise themselves and agree to go on strike. With the help of Mrs Hanson, who runs one of the boardinghouses, and the guidance of ailing Hannah Pickering who has a gift for seeing, the women cast a spell to ensure they all stick to the strike until their demands are met. However, when management counter their action, the women realise they are going to have to take more drastic measures.
This is a light-hearted story that transforms a historical event into a subtle fantasy novella just one step shy of magic realism. The magic is sparse yet effective. Although dealing with serious issues including women’s rights and workers’ rights, Malerich has a humorous and gentle style that makes this book very quick and readable. Judith Whittier is a strong character and a strong leader, and I really enjoyed the banter between her and Hannah. I thought the romance in this book was done well, and was a good counterbalance to the industrial action afoot in the town. There is a point in the book where Mrs Hanson’s loyalties come into question, and I had my heart in my mouth wondering what was going to happen next.
I think that the only issue I had was that this book does at times border on an irreverent tone. The reader is thrown headlong into a very limited point in time, and I felt that the terrible working conditions of the women were downplayed somewhat, and the resolution seemed too simple, given the historical context. Malerich, I think in an effort to acknowledge that slavery was still in place during this time, refers to Hannah’s ability to see a physical embodiment of being enslaved. This was handled in an unfortunately dehumanising way, and became more about furthering Hannah’s story rather than a comment on slavery itself.
A light, enjoyable read that perhaps occasionally made too light of some things.
Magic realism historical fiction novel set in WWII Hiroshima
Content warning: war
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“In the Realm of Ash and Sorrow” by Kenneth W. Harmon is a historical fiction novel about an American bombadier called Micah whose plane is shot down over Hiroshima, Japan during WWII. Although Micah dies, his spirit remains in Hiroshima. He becomes attached to a young Japanese woman called Kiyomi and follows her to her workplace and to her home with her in-laws and daughter. As he slowly learns about his new existence from other ghosts, he grows more and more attached to Kiyomi. With the knowledge that Hiroshima will soon be under attack, Micah must try to find a way to communicate with Kiyomi and warn her before it is too late.
Despite some very graphic scenes, this is for the most part a gentle novel about love and overcoming differences. Remaining in Japan after his death gives Micah a new perspective on the country and people he previously believed were his enemies. Harmon uses dream-like states as a way for his living and dead characters to communicate, and explores ideas about what the afterlife may be like. Kiyomi is an interesting character who is trapped by traditional family obligations, and I thought that her daughter Ai was characterised well too. I thought that the parts of the book set in Hiroshima were the strongest, and I particularly enjoyed Micah’s conversations with an American-Japanese man.
While for the most part I enjoyed the beginning of the story, there were a few elements that I found frustrating. Even death doesn’t appear to prevent Micah from following a woman around (including in the bathroom) who has made it clear that the attention is unwanted. I also think it’s important to note that most of the book is about Kiyomi and her own life and experiences, but that this is not an #OwnVoices book. While Harmon clearly did a significant amount of research for this novel, I actually would have liked to have read more about this process in an afterword. I did feel that the way he sprinkled Japanese language through the book was a little jarring. I also felt that the second half of the novel, which was much more ethereal than the first half, felt muddied and unclear. It was hard to understand how much was inspired by Japanese culture and how much was Harmon’s imagination.
An experimental novel that had some interesting ideas and research but did feel confused at times.
This novel won the 2020 Miles Franklin Literary Award, so it was already on my radar. I bought it a couple of months ago, but was inspired to make it my next book by the recent IndigenousX #BlakBookChallenge.
“The Yield” by Tara June Winch is a literary novel about a fictional place called Massacre Plains. The story is told from three point of view characters: Aboriginal man Albert Gondiwindi, his granddaughter August Gondiwindi and Reverend Ferdinand Greenleaf. Albert has found out that he does not have long to live, and spends his last living days recording the language of his ancestors in a dictionary that uses vignettes from his life to explain the words and their meaning. Shortly afterwards, August finds out her Poppy has died and returns home from the UK for his funeral after many years of estrangement. Things in Massacre Plains are both exactly the same and completely different as she reconnects with her Nana, cousin, aunties and an old flame. In 1915, Reverend Greenleaf pens a letter to the British Society of Ethnography to tell the truth about what happened in the Mission he established in Massacre Plains.
This is a brilliantly crafted novel that combines three narrative techniques to create a compelling and multifaceted story. Albert’s dictionary in particular was such a unique way of storytelling. Albert, who was taken from his family as a child and placed in a Boys’ Home, is visited by his ancestors who lead him through time to gently and patiently teach him the language and culture that would have otherwise been lost to him. His chapters are all the more poignant because they cast into relief how much was stolen from Aboriginal people through colonial violence and racism, making the knowledge bestowed by his ancestors critical. Greenleaf’s chapters are also interesting because they provide the dramatic irony of someone who genuinely believes that they are doing the best for the people in their care, but who is ultimately contributing to their loss of culture and who is powerless to protect them, especially the women, from slavery and sexual violence perpetrated by settlers.
Although less avant-garde in structure than the other chapters, August’s story is no less compelling. When she returns to the home her grandparents raised her in, she struggles to make sense of Prosperous House’s painful memories and the plans for it to be repossessed by a mining company. August’s chapters are in some ways the most heartrending. August has to confront the old trauma of losing her sister Jedda, who went missing when they were young, and face the new trauma of being displaced from her home. These traumas take their toll on August, who throughout her life has struggled with disordered eating. Her journey to the city with her aunty to visit the museum and see her people’s artefacts showed how painful it is that so much Aboriginal history is not even accessible to the people whose heritage it is. Through this experience Winch touches on the idea of repatriation, consistent with the strong theme of returning home that underpins this novel.
Finally, I also really enjoyed reading the Author’s Note and Acknowledgements which provide plenty of recommendations for further reading, some historical context for the compilation of Wiradjuri language and a little bit of insight into Winch’s own research, writing process and family. Winch is a fantastic writer and this is an excellent and original novel committed to truth-telling and full of heart.