Ours is the Storm by D Thourson Palmer
Boyle & Dalton 2014
In our (predominantely) white, Western, ex-British world, we are still hung up on our colonial roots and a deep sense of shame and guilt – no one really talks of it in that way but it’s there, nevertheless. Whether you’re Canadian, Australian, American, Kiwi or from any of the other ex-British Empire colonies (with perhaps the exception of India; slightly different scenario), we weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms, and we’ve yet to really apologise or make amends (because that would mean, as far as we’re concerned, returning land, and we are very resistant to this). This post-colonial, anxiety-riddled, ideological hang-up comes out in our fiction, of course, and never more so than in Fantasy Fiction. Which is just one of the reasons why I love the genre.
While some authors take the Big Guns approach, in which the heroes of their fantasy worlds bring ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘capitalism’ to the ‘oppressed’, the ‘enemy’ or the ‘savages’ (a la The Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind), or forcibly unite the countries in order to defeat a greater enemy (American colonial history in a nutshell a la the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan) – and both push into the ‘frontier’ – others take the perspective of the ‘indigenous’ population being invaded, conquered and oppressed by another, arrogant force. Stories like Eric van Lustbaader’s excellent Pearl Saga (which he’s never finished and I fear, now, never will), for example, or any other Fantasy tale in which we side with the invaded rather than the invader, tells an interesting story of its own as we seek to empathise with our own indigenous populations, who we have and continue to oppress and denigrate.
Palmer’s Ours is the Storm is a worthy entry into this body of ideologically-driven fantasy fiction, and unique enough to stand proud amongst them. It sets up fairly conventional expectations: the underdog hero with an epic purpose; the discovery of magic and a belief in its might and power; the Native-American-like plains people (Huumphar) who fight guerrilla style; the female hero of the Huumphar who, you think, will play the role of a great interracial love affair with the male hero; a great, perverted evil that corrupts and erodes those who wield it (always fun to pick what this trope is an analogy of: capitalism? colonialism? Depends what your views are…); and of course a might big showdown of power and ego in which our underdog hero much be triumphant. Like any genre, Fantasy has a formula – or several – but it is what authors inventively do with that formula that keeps us reading.
The boy has lived so long in complete darkness, in a stone cell somewhere, nowhere; he hasn’t spoken to anyone in he doesn’t know long, he has now lost his memories. He doesn’t know who he is, who his parents are, what they looked like or how their voices sounded. He doesn’t know where he’s from or where he is now. This has become his life, his present, past and future.
Until, one day, an opening appears in the ceiling: a hatch has been opened, and a voice reaches down to him. The voice, the man, promises to release him, sounds outraged at his condition, and passes him a knife: the first of many tests. The boy, freed, learns that he is Revik Lasivar, son of a great man, a powerful leader in uniting Feriven, this land, under one strong leader: Halkoriv, the man who has freed him.
Halkoriv styles himself a king, and has lived for far longer than a normal human life span. He wields a magical force, a power that dominates and turns his servants into obedient mindless drones. Halkoriv is cunning, but at first seems merely fatherly to Revik. Revik, a poor starved boy driven nearly mad by being held captive in the dark of Cunabrel’s fortress for so long. With no memories of his parents he latches onto Halkoriv and strives to please him – and to honour his father’s legacy. Established as Halkoriv’s heir, after years of training Revik is sent out on his final test: to lead an army to Cunabrel’s door and defeat this nobleman who dares to separate himself from Halkoriv, and destroy the dream of a united Feriven in the process.
To get to Cunabrel’s lands, Revik must pass through the plains: Huumphar land. He comes up with a brilliant strategy that changes the balance of power in the grasslands, and in the process of defeating Cunabrel, Revik comes into his own power. Seemingly invincible, he rides down a party of Huumphar on his own, but meets his match in the seeress Ahi’rea, who, with her Sight, can See that it is not a real magic Revik wields, but that he is being ridden by a monster that will devour him. The clash of swords and magic will have a devastating result for Revik, as he learns that everything he believed in was a lie. So who is Revik Lasivar?
This is just the beginning, really, and the deceptions and lies are handled with a magician’s sleight-of-hand, a dexterity and skill that will surely surprise you. You think you’ve got it worked out, you think you understand more than poor Revik: that Halkoriv arranged for him to spend tortuous years in a dungeon cell so that he could pretend to save him; that Halkoriv set Cunabrel up to take the blame for it; that Revik is an ally to the Huumphar, by birthright, but this knowledge has been stolen from him; and so on. Who is Revik is a question that runs through the whole novel, and this theme of identity is pivotal to the plot. The turns in the plot are delicious, and one of the book’s greatest strengths.
Ours is the Storm is well-written, visually arresting and fast-paced; the Huumphar are easily established, building upon our contextual knowledge of indigenous populations, specifically Native Americans. As an analogy for American colonialism and frontier-expansion, Ours is the Storm isn’t particularly subtle, and by extension does seem to say the British Empire was rotten to the core, amongst other things. The one thing I would have liked more of was characterisation. Revik was well drawn, believable and oddly charismatic. In contrast, I never quite understood the key Huumphar characters, who are pivotal, such as Ahi’rea (not sure how to pronounce that either!). She was never fully fleshed out, so, while she was a strong character with whom you could place great faith, a believable character, I didn’t get to know her as a woman or a Huumphar.
Alongside this theme of colonial invasion is the one of peace versus war, and the idea that the Feriven army is almost possessed by a hatred of the Huumphar – whom they dehumanise and fear – and an unnatural drive to fight. What it brings to mind, of course, is that our natural state of co-existence is one of harmony and peace, not bloodshed, and that, given a real choice, people would rather live peacefully and cooperatively than in terror. Thus, the thirst for blood, for whatever ideological reason, is largely manufactured. I can’t help but think of the bloodlust and push for revenge that occurred in the mainstream media after 9/11, the repercussions of which are still being felt by many. Peace begins to seem like a fanciful dream, and Ours is the Storm posits the idea that you have to tackle the rotten core at the heart of it to finally find rest from the hatred and endless fighting. And, hopefully, to be happy with what you’ve got, appreciate differences rather than fear them, and respect others’ right to live freely.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book.
“By far the best part of this book is the author’s skillful use of withholding information. The suspense is palpable when the reader doesn’t know something, tantalizing when a character doesn’t know something, and unbearable when neither know a thing. Masterfully done!” Th.Ink Stains
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The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Ambelin Kwaymullina
The Tribe #1
Walker Books 2012
YA Fantasy; Dystopian Fiction; Speculative Fiction
If, like me, you have a childhood steeped in fantasy and folklore; a love of the natural world and a soul-deep recognition of its greater importance in the scheme of things; a deep fascination with ‘misfit abilities’ (as in The Obernewtyn Chronicles and The X-Men); and a love for adventure stories involving youngsters outwitting malicious adults, you will, hopefully, love The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf as much as I did. This didn’t just hit all my storytelling ‘wants’, to borrow the analogy; it barrelled into them, knocked them flat, then pulled them up and charged off into the next exciting chapter with me grinning inanely the whole time (except for the times when the tension and anticipation got to me, of course).
Not so very far in our future, the apocalypse wipes out pretty much everything we know. Driven by climate change, what emerges in its aftermath is not only a drastically changed world, but a new mindset too. The new world’s ideology follows the doctrine of the revered yet mysterious Alexander Hoffman, a historical figure who guided civilisation back onto the path of survival. The ideology bestowed on this new world revolves around a Balance in nature rather than Gods: the idea that harmony must be maintained or another disaster will occur, and next time it might really be the end of everything. To prevent this, the surviving society implemented the Accords, a set of laws that everyone lives by. One of these Accords, the Citizenship Accords, has in turn created an underclass of exiled Illegals: mostly children and teenagers who fled before they could be detained due to their mutant abilities, which are seen as a threat to this new world order.
One of those Illegals is Ashala Wolf, who fled Gull City with her friend Georgie, also an Illegal, four years ago. Making their way through the grasslands – inhabited by man-eating giant Saurs, the first new creature of this new world – to the Firstwood, a forest of towering Tuart trees, Ashala makes a pact with the land and its creatures. In exchange for making a home in the Firstwood, they vow not to eat any meat. Living a sustainable existence amongst the trees and within the extensive cave networks, Ashala and Georgie are soon joined by other Illegals escaping detention, and the families that would betray them. Together they form the Tribe, of which Ashala is the leader, but they never stop watching and listening to what’s happening in any of the eight remaining cities in the land.
Now, everything that Ashala has built seems about to be destroyed. A prisoner at Detention Centre 3 in Gull City, Ashala knows the man in charge, Neville Rose, will use everything he has to get information from her concerning the Tribe, and their rebellious movements. And by ‘everything’, Ashala knows it means facing the machine. It’s just a ghastly rumour, but Ashala, Georgie and Ember know that Neville Rose and Miriam Grey have built an interrogation device that goes against the Benign Technology Accords – an accord designed to prevent the kind of technology-driven disaster that befell the world before.
Betrayed by someone she had welcomed into the Tribe, Ashala is now her betrayer’s captive. Justin Connor is an Enforcer, and a Citizen. With this enemy by her side, she now faces the next: an elderly, kindly man, the Chief Administrator of Detention Centre 3, who seems incredibly insane but who is no less dangerous to the Tribe for that – or anyone else for that matter. Determined to extract information from her, can Ashala Wolf beat the machine and survive the interrogation? Or will Neville Rose get his way and arrest them all simply for having abilities that some believe could be a threat?
Ambelin Kwaymullina’s debut novel is a powerhouse fantasy-adventure story that has invigorated my enthusiasm – previously waning at a dreadful rate – in Young Adult speculative fiction. This is the kind of story I want to read, and want more of. Thankfully, it’s the start of a series (and because I’m late getting this review up, I’ve already read the sequel, which I loved just as much, if not more). Kwaymullina has created a strong heroine in Ashala Wolf, who provides a new and engaging voice in the post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasy sub-genre, and an exciting new world.
Ashala is the leader of the Tribe, and her ability is Sleepwalking: when she sleepwalks, she can do pretty much anything. To make her ability do her bidding, she gives herself three very simple instructions in the half-asleep stage, because once she’s Sleepwalking she can only hold onto three things. When she Sleepwalks, she can travel vast distances in a single bound, move through objects, fight with superhuman strength and so on. But it has its limits, and Ashala doesn’t always feel that it’s an ability she can control. Other Illegals can run so fast they’re almost invisible, or control the clouds, or control fire, and so on. Some of the abilities really do have the potential to be dangerous, but so far the only Illegals Ashala has ever met have been frightened children, fleeing persecution and a lifetime of detention (something that really resonates in our world today, with our ‘detention centres’ for ‘boat people, many of whom are frightened children – and adults – fleeing persecution in their own lands).
Georgie’s ability is to see the possible futures, while Ember – a girl with different coloured eyes and a Citizenship tattoo whom they find in the Firstwood not long after they first arrive – has an ability to do with memories. While these two central characters are mostly on the periphery in this first volume, they come into their own in subsequent books.
One of the pivotal characters in the story is, and must be, the land itself, especially the Firstwood, which has its own tangible presence and almost a personality. The Saurs, too, prove to be more than they seem at first, and a love and appreciation of the natural world is a strongly embedded current throughout the story and this world. It is one of the things I love about it, along with the Australian Indigenous Dreaming mythology woven in (Ashala’s grandfather is the rainbow serpent, a spirit being that even I have come across in my readings). It is this lovely balance between an exciting and fresh-sounding take on the classic misfit-fantasy-post-apocalyptic storyline (I hark back again to The Obernewtyn Chronicles – so glad there is another series out now to satisfy Carmody’s hungry fans!), and a story with a conscience.
It is this element that really connected with me, and I think would with many readers: after all, it seems to me that we are constantly searching for a spiritual connection with the world, and while I’m not religious nor into chakras and crystals, I strongly believe that it is a disconnect with the natural world – privileging a life lived in boxes, amongst concrete, in cars, in front of computers and screens – that has contributed to the high levels of stress and anxiety (not to mention obesity and other health problems) that we see today. Sounds simplistic perhaps but why should it be complicated? I know I always feel more at peace/less stressed after an afternoon in the garden, getting my hands dirty, growing my own food. Adults tend to rigidly adhere to – and expect – the lifestyle with which they’re most familiar, but children are less moulded and in many ways, more adaptable. Children’s and Young Adult stories are great vehicles for exploring new worlds and new ways of being, as well as engaging with classic and mythological storylines, the kind of age-old stories with which we continue to explore our understanding of the world around us.
Kwaymullina’s style is smooth and flowing, engaging and gripping and full of surprises. The romance aspect of the storyline is touching and genuine, to the point that I was biting my knuckles at the end. Race is irrelevant in this new, 300-year-old world, which is also refreshing. The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf reads like a standalone novel, and having finished the second book, I can say that that’s a continuing pattern. But there is an over-arching storyline at work here, and some Big Picture issues at play: not least of which revolves around discrimination, persecution and dehumanisation of the ‘Other’. Beautifully written and absorbing, The Tribe is one series that I whole-heartedly recommend to as wide an audience as I can.
“This book is an intriguing mix of dystopian society and fantasy with a Dreamtime twist. Sounds complicated, and it is, especially with the way that the plot twists and turns it way to the conclusion. It is ultimately a fascinating and enjoyable read, both complex and nuanced.” The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader
“Ambelin Kwaymullina’s gripping writing introduced me to a fascinating world of people with different abilities and the tribe. With strong and solid characters, a enchanting mix of the elements of nature and animals, Kwaymullina’s debut novel is absolutely not to be missed!” Forget-Me-Not
“The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is a breath of fresh air in YA dystopia land. Instead of the usual white-girl-vs-the-government, The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf is casually populated with people of all skin tones. The mentions of nature, such as the Tuart forests, and the Saurs, add dimension to the setting. And the worldbuilding is strong and believable, with just the right hint of the ancient and supernatural to get things going.” Rich in Color
“It was fast paced and exciting, filled with action and adventure. I liked the way the author revealed the information even though I must confess to being a bit tired by the 4th memory flash back. … The story was intricate and fascinating.” The Narrative Causality
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This is my first SAG post since January, and while I haven’t been buying books nearly frequently as I used to, I do still have quite a few new titles for my shelves. Actually, the list is a lot longer than I realised …!
Worldshaker by Richard Harland – YA Speculative Fiction: Fantasy; Steampunk; Dystopian.
First book in the Worldshaker series. I started reading this as soon as I got it and was really enjoying it, but I had to put it down due to other commitments. “Col lives on the Upper Decks of the juggernaut Worldshaker, a mobile city as big as a mountain. He has been chosen as next Supreme Commander—but then a girl, Filthy, escaped from Below and appeared in his cabin. ‘Don’t let ’em take me!’ she begs. Will he hand her over, or will he break all the rules? Col’s safe, elite world is about to fall apart.”
Fairytales for Wilde Girls by Allyse Near – YA Fantasy.
I finally got around to getting a copy of this, which I’ve heard so much about! “A deliciously dark bubblegum-gothic fairytale from a stunning new Australian talent. ‘He’s gone the same way as those little birds that bothered me with their awful songs! And you will too, you and your horrible heart-music, because you won’t stay out of my woods!’ There’s a dead girl in a birdcage in the woods. That’s not unusual. Isola Wilde sees a lot of things other people don’t. But when the girl appears at Isola’s window, her every word a threat, Isola needs help. Her real-life friends – Grape, James and new boy Edgar – make her forget for a while. And her brother-princes – magical creatures seemingly lifted from the pages of the French fairytales Isola idolises – will protect her with all the fierce love they possess. It may not be enough. Isola needs to uncover the truth behind the dead girl’s demise …before the ghost steals Isola’s last breath.”
The Disappearance of Ember Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina – YA Fantasy (Post-apocalyptic).
Book 2 in The Tribe series; I’ve already read this and absolutely loved it. Review coming soon! “However this ends, you’re probably going to find out some things about me, and they’re not nice things. But, Ash, even after you know, do you think you could remember the good? And whatever you end up discovering – try to think of me kindly. If you can. Ember Crow is missing. To find her friend, Ashala Wolf must control her increasingly erratic and dangerous Sleepwalking ability and leave the Firstwood. But Ashala doesn’t realise that Ember is harbouring terrible secrets and is trying to shield the Tribe and all Illegals from a devastating new threat – her own past.”
Lord of the Flies by William Golding – Children’s Classics.
An oldie but a goodie; I wanted to get a nice new edition with a lovely cover, as I only have a rough old second-hand copy, which is somewhere in storage. “A plane crashes on a desert island and the only survivors, a group of schoolboys, assemble on the beach and wait to be rescued. By day they inhabit a land of bright fantastic birds and dark blues seas, but at night their dreams are haunted by the image of a terrifying beast. As the boys’ delicate sense of order fades, so their childish dreams are transformed into something more primitive, and their behaviour starts to take on a murderous, savage significance.”
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank – Classics; Memoir.
Another classic book that I only had a shoddy old second-hand copy of; I wanted to get a newer edition, one that had an introduction etc., especially as I’ve still never read this. “Since its publication in 1947, Anne Frank’s diary has been read by tens of millions of people. This Definitive Edition restores substantial material omitted from the original edition, giving us a deeper insight into Anne Frank’s world. Her curiosity about her emerging sexuality, the conflicts with her mother, her passion for PEter, a boy whose family hid with hers, and her acute portraits of her fellow prisoners reveal Anne as more human, more vulnerable and more vital than ever.”
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson – Children’s Classics; Fiction.
I saw the movie of this when it came out and found it to be unbearably sad – and that was before I had a baby and became a watering-pot! Came across this lovely edition in an op-shop and finally decided to get it and read it. “Jess Aarons wants to be the fastest boy in the class. He’s been practising all summer and he’s sure he’s going to win. But when a girl named Leslie Burke moves into the neighbouring farm his life changes forever. Not only does Leslie not look or act like any of the girls in school, she also turns out to be the fastest runner in the year. After getting over the humiliation of being beaten by a girl, Jess begins to think Leslie might be okay – she’s clever and funny and not a bit soppy. It is Leslie who invents Terabithia, the secret country on an island across the creek. Here Jess could forget his large, quarrelsome family, his father who thought it was ummanly to love drawing, and his little sister May Belle, who was always tagging after him. Here he could be strong and unafraid. The only way to reach Terabithia is by rope-swing where Jess and Leslie become King and Queen, defeating giants, sharing stories and dreams, and plotting against their enemies. They are invincible – until tragedy strikes. It is more dreadful than anything Jess had ever dreamed of, but as he struggles to cope with his grief and anger, he finds that his family value him more than he’d thought and that, still King, he could even save Terabithia for the future.”
The Min-Min by Mavis Thorpe Clark – Children’s Classics.
I have only a vague recollection of this book – I don’t think I’ve ever read it, but when I saw a review for it on the Australian Women Writers blog, it seemed a little familiar. I’ve certainly heard of Mavis Thorpe Clark before! It’s out of print, so I had to hunt down a second-hand copy and now I can’t remember where I got it from! “The goods train snaked across the vast southern desert of Australia. Sylvie stood waiting for it to bring the weekly provisions to the tiny settlement. But this Saturday she had a feeling of terrible apprehension. Sylvie’s brother, Reg and his gang had just wrecked Mr Scott’s school – only he didn’t know it yet – and smashed Sylvie’s hopes for her future. Now everything looked so bleak – the siding with its ramshackle buildings, the flat, empty desert and Sylvie’s own dreams – until she saw, dancing towards her, a small, swaying light. A min-min! All Sylvie’s hopes were symbolised by the min-min, that elusive light which beckoned her and retreated, then beckoned again… Perhaps things could be worked out after all, even though it meant running away.”
Unbearable! by Paul Jennings – YA/Children’s Short Stories.
Another sweet op-shop find – Paul Jennings is such a fantastic writer for children and young teens, and his stories are especially good for getting boys interested in reading. “It’s unbearable …The bird’s perch is swinging to and fro and hitting me on the nose. I can see my eye in its little mirror. Unbearably weird …You have the foulest feet ever. There are flies for lunch. A goat swallows your opal. And you have lived before.”
Eventual Poppy Day by Libby Hathorn – YA Historical Fiction; Fiction.
One of my all-time favourite books from my childhood is Libby Hathorn’s Thunderwith, yet I’ve never read any of her other books. I came across this, her newest novel, while looking for something else online, and thought it was time to fix that! “Painstakingly researched and extremely well written, this is a novel that moves deftly and easily from one time period to another and yet still allows the novel to retain an overall sense of cohesion. Respected YA author Libby Hathorn has drawn on family history and done extensive research to write a fascinating book that profiles two young protagonists, both seventeen years of age, who are related: Maurice, who went to Gallipoli and the Western Front and his great-great nephew, Oliver, who is trying to deal with difficult family circumstances but whose discovery of Maurice’s WW1 diary changes the way he sees the world. The balance of the historical and contemporary points of view makes this title perfect for use in the classroom, but also appealing to the YA reader.”
Dead of Winter by Kresley Cole – YA Fantasy.
The third book in the Arcana Chronicles, of which I’m currently a bit behind (I’ve only read the first book), so while I’m copying in the summary here, I’m not going to read it myself! It’ll spoil book 2! “Heartbreaking decisions Evie was almost seduced by the life of comfort that Death offered her—until Jack was threatened by two of the most horrific Arcana, the Lovers. She will do anything to save him, even escape Death’s uncanny prison, full of beautiful objects, material comforts … and stolen glances from a former love. Uncertain victory Despite leaving a part of her heart behind with Death, Evie sets out into a perilous post-apocalyptic wasteland to meet up with her allies and launch an attack on the Lovers. Such formidable enemies require a battle plan, and the only way to kill them may mean Evie, Jack, and Death allying. Evie doesn’t know what will prove more impossible: surviving slavers, plague, Bagmen and other Arcana—or convincing Jack and Death to work together. Two heroes returned There’s a thin line between love and hate, and Evie just doesn’t know where she stands with either Jack or Death. Will this unlikely trio be able to defeat The Lovers without killing one another first…?”
A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty – YA Speculative Fiction.
I’ve been wanting to get this for ages; I do love the Moriarty sisters! “Madeleine Tully lives in Cambridge, England, the World – a city of spires, Isaac Newton and Auntie’s Tea Shop. Elliot Baranski lives in Bonfire, the Farms, the Kingdom of Cello – where seasons roam, the Butterfly Child sleeps in a glass jar, and bells warn of attacks from dangerous Colours. They are worlds apart – until a crack opens up between them; a corner of white – the slim seam of a letter. Elliot begins to write to Madeleine, the Girl-in-the-World – a most dangerous thing to do for suspected cracks must be reported and closed. But Elliot’s father has disappeared and Madeleine’s mother is sick. Can a stranger from another world help to unravel the mysteries in your own? Can Madeleine and Elliot find the missing pieces of themselves before it is too late? A mesmerising story of two worlds; the cracks between them, the science that binds them and the colours that infuse them.”
The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty – YA Speculative Fiction.
The sequel to A Corner of White. “It’s not easy being Princess Ko. Her family is missing, taken to the World through cracks in the Kingdom, which were then sealed tightly behind them. Now Princess Ko is running the Kingdom, and war is looming. To help her find her family, she gathers a special group of teens, including Elliot Baranski of the Farms. He’s been writing secret letters to a Girl-in-the World named Madeleine Tully – and now the Kingdom needs her help. Madeleine and Elliot must locate the missing royals, convince them of their true identities, and figure out how to unlock the dangerous cracks between the Kingdom and the World. All before their enemies can stop them.”
First Light by Samantha Summers – YA Thriller.
E-book from Amazon. The first book in the Project Five Fifteen series. Someone recommended this to me and now I can’t remember who! “What do you do when you’ve always dreamed of a hero; your knight in shining armour, only to find when he arrives he isn’t a hero at all? … He’s a killer. Ronnie Rose is trying to cope with the loss of her father; now it looks like she might lose everything else that’s dear to her too. Huge debts threaten to destroy her family, her childhood home and her future. Only one person cuts through her pain. Kalen Smith has just moved to town. He’s trouble and everyone knows it. He and his mysterious friends keep to themselves and the town likes it that way. But when Kalen mourns at her dad’s funeral, Ronnie wants to know why and her investigation plunges her into a dangerous world of murky government secrets, with deadly consequences. Ronnie knows she should walk away from Kalen before it’s too late. Problem is, she’s falling for him… Can we choose who we fall in love with?”
Shadow Study by Maria V Snyder – Fantasy.
Oh I do love the Canadian edition of this book, which I’ve linked to above. So nice and elegant! I’m not a big fan of the Australian edition (pictured). Oh well. This is the third trilogy Synder has set in the same world, which began with Poison Study (the trilogy I haven’t read yet) and continued with the Glass trilogy (which I loved). “Once, only her own life hung in the balance… Oddly enough, when Yelena was a poison taster, her life was simpler. But she’d survived to become a vital part of the balance of power between rival countries Ixia and Sitia. Now she uses her magic to keep the peace in both lands – and protect her relationship with Valek. Suddenly, though, they are beset on all sides by those vying for power through politics and intrigue. Valek’s job and his life are in danger. As Yelena tries to uncover the scope of these plots, she faces a new challenge: her magic is blocked. She must keep that a secret – or her enemies will discover just how vulnerable she really is–while searching for who or what is responsible for neutralizing her powers. Yes, the days of tasting poisons were much simpler. And certainly not as dangerous…”
Ours is the Storm by D Thourson Palmer – Fantasy.
Received for review from the author. I finished reading this at the start of April, so expect a review soon. “Revik Lasivar knows he is a savior. He knows he will never be defeated. He knows he is fighting for good. Everything Revik Lasivar knows is a lie.”
The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon – Fantasy/Science-Fiction.
I didn’t race out to get this when it came out a couple of years ago, but I kept my eye on what people were saying and finally, gradually, it did succeed in intriguing me. Plus, I got a $5 copy, which didn’t hurt. “The year is 2059. Nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney is working in the criminal underworld of Scion London, based at Seven Dials, employed by a man named Jaxon Hall. Her job: to scout for information by breaking into people’s minds. For Paige is a dreamwalker, a clairvoyant and, in the world of Scion, she commits treason simply by breathing. It is raining the day her life changes for ever. Attacked, drugged and kidnapped, Paige is transported to Oxford – a city kept secret for two hundred years, controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. Paige is assigned to Warden, a Rephaite with mysterious motives. He is her master. Her trainer. Her natural enemy. But if Paige wants to regain her freedom she must allow herself to be nurtured in this prison where she is meant to die.”
The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss – Fantasy; Novella.
This is a spin-off novella from the Kingkiller Chronicle, which falls between books 2 and 3. I absolutely loved the first book, so even though I haven’t got around to reading book 2 yet, I knew I had to get this. “The University, a renowned bastion of knowledge, attracts the brightest minds to unravel the mysteries of enlightened sciences like artificing and alchemy. Yet deep below its bustling halls lies a complex and cavernous maze of abandoned rooms and ancient passageways – and in the heart of it all lives Auri. Formerly a student at the University, now Auri spends her days tending the world around her. She has learned that some mysteries are best left settled and safe. No longer fooled by the sharp rationality so treasured by the University, Auri sees beyond the surface of things, into subtle dangers and hidden names. At once joyous and haunting, The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a rich, atmospheric and lyrical tale, featuring one of the most beloved characters from Rothfuss’ acclaimed fantasy series.”
Dark Skye by Kresley Cole – Fantasy; Paranormal Romance.
I never grow tired of Kresley Cole, and as soon as a new title comes out I grab it. This one is from the Immortals After Dark series (#14). “Though centuries have passed since Thronos, Lord of Skye Hall, lost the one woman meant for him, nothing can cool his never-ending need for Melanthe. She was the girl he loved and lost as a boy, the girl who nearly destroyed him. Lanthe, a once-powerful sorceress struggling to reclaim her gifts, searches for love and acceptance with all the wrong immortal men. But she’s never forgotten Thronos, the fallen angel who protected her until she was ripped from the shelter of his arms. With their families at war and the world burning around them, will they succumb to the brutal chaos that threatens everything they cherish? Or can the two rekindle their childhood love in time to save both their worlds?”
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro – Speculative Fiction; Fable.
I won an ARC (advanced reader’s copy) of Ishiguro’s new book from the Australian publisher via Goodreads. I was so excited and wanted to drop everything and read it straight away, but unfortunately I have an abundance (way too much) of common sense and my job etc. took priority. So I still haven’t read this. “‘You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know. But it’s time now to think on it anew. There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…’ The Buried Giant begins as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years. Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge and war.”
Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey – Short Stories.
I heard so much positive buzz about this book last year that I’ve been itching to read it and discover the magic for myself; this is the second edition, more affordable but with a less interesting cover. “Perhaps only the animals can tell us what it is to be human.The souls of ten animals caught up in human conflicts over the last century tell their astonishing stories of life and death. In a trench on the Western Front a cat recalls her owner Colette’s theatrical antics in Paris. In Nazi Germany a dog seeks enlightenment. A Russian tortoise once owned by the Tolstoys drifts in space during the Cold War. In the siege of Sarajevo a bear starving to death tells a fairytale. And a dolphin sent to Iraq by the US Navy writes a letter to Sylvia Plath . . . An animal’s-eye view of humans at our brutal worst and our creative best, Only the Animals asks us to believe again in the redemptive power of reading and writing fiction.”
A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn – Crime Fiction.
I’ve seen this book reviewed several times for the Australian Women Writers challenge and have been wanting to read it; I actually came across it, rather randomly, in the little IGA supermarket in the small town near where my parents live over the Easter long weekend. Always pays to keep your eyes open when books are around! “When an Afrikaans police captain is murdered in a small South African country town, Detective Emmanuel Cooper must navigate his way through the labyrinthine racial and social divisions that split the community. And as the National Party introduces the laws to support the system of apartheid, Emmanuel struggles – much like Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko – to remain a good man in the face of astonishing power. In a considered but very commercial novel, Malla Nunn combines a compelling plot with a thoughtful and complex portrayal of a fascinating period of history, illustrating the human desires that drive us all, regardless of race, colour or creed. A Beautiful Place To Die is the first of a planned series of novels featuring Detective Emmanuel Cooper.”
The Heroes’ Welcome by Louisa Young – Historical Fiction.
Received for review via TLC Book Tours. I reviewed this recently so I’ll direct you to that post rather than write about it again, here.
Hotelles and Elle by Emma Mars – Erotica.
Received for review from TLC Book Tours. I really wish the American editions of these translated French novels used the same covers as the French, they’re so nice and I love the idea of each being a piece of a greater whole, and I really, really don’t like these ones. Boring and blah. Summary for Hotelles: “Paris, a hotel room, the middle of the afternoon… So begins the story of Annabelle, a young escort in Paris who has accepted her final proposition before marrying the powerful and generous man of her dreams, media mogul David Barlet. But the mysterious handwritten notes she has been receiving – notes that detail personal fantasies no one could possibly know – don’t prepare her for the fact that her new client is her fiance’s brother, Louie. Through visits to the Hotel des Charmes, where each chamber is dedicated to one of French history’s great seductresses, Louie awakens Annabelle’s body and her psyche, delivering her to heights of ecstasy and fits of passion. He pushes her beyond her limitations to tap into her deep seductive power – and she discovers that true freedom comes only when you fully surrender to desire. Funny, sensual, candid, and revealing, Hotelles is a titillating novel of mysteries and surprises by a radiant new voice.”
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn – Crime Fiction; Mystery.
In one of the English subjects I teach at the senior secondary level, I have to teach a module on Crime Fiction (I say “have to” but my other choices were Sports Reporting and Documentary Films – not a hard choice to make!). Anyone who follows my blog knows that crime fiction is one genre that doesn’t get much coverage here; I read a bit, literary detective stuff mostly, but I’m really looking forward to doing this module – we’re covering Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock, the TV show (a new favourite of mine!), this book and Animal Kingdom, an Australian movie. So I really need to read the book, eh! “When two girls are abducted and killed in Missouri, journalist Camille Preaker is sent back to her home town to report on the crimes. Long-haunted by a childhood tragedy and estranged from her mother for years, Camille suddenly finds herself installed once again in her family’s mansion, reacquainting herself with her distant mother and the half-sister she barely knows – a precocious 13-year-old who holds a disquieting grip on the town. As Camille works to uncover the truth about these violent crimes, she finds herself identifying with the young victims – a bit too strongly. Clues keep leading to dead ends, forcing Camille to unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past to get at the story. Dogged by her own demons, Camille will have to confront what happened to her years before if she wants to survive this homecoming.”
A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle – Classics; Detective Fiction; Short Stories.
#1 in the Sherlock Holmes series. I’ve started getting into the Sherlock stories thanks to the TV show – I know, how gauche, but at least I’m honest! (And at least something did, finally!) I love this Penguin series, with its pulp covers – no additional material like an introduction or notes etc., just the stories. I already had the third book, which I bought on a impulse back in Toronto years ago, and thought I really better get the others too. “When Dr John Watson takes rooms in Baker Street with amateur detective Sherlock Holmes, he has no idea that he is about to enter a shadowy world of criminality and violence. Accompanying Holmes to an ill-omened house in south London, Watson is startled to find a dead man whose face is contorted in a rictus of horror. There is no mark of violence on the body yet a single word is written on the wall in blood. Dr Watson is as baffled as the police, but Holmes’ brilliant analytical skills soon uncover a trail of murder, revenge and lost love.”
The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle – Classics; Detective Fiction.
#2 in the series. “A dense yellow miasma swirls in the streets of London as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson accompany a beautiful young woman to a sinister assignation. For Mary Marston has received several large pearls – one a year for the last six years – and now a mystery letter telling her she is a wronged woman. If she would seek justice she is to meet her unknown benefactor, bringing with her two companions. But unbeknownst to them all, others stalk London’s fog-enshrouded streets: a one-legged ruffian with revenge on his mind – and his companion, who places no value on human life…”
The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle – Classics; Detective Fiction; Short Stories.
#4 in the series (I got a copy of #3 a few years ago). “Sherlock Holmes’ fame has also brought him notoriety and there are those in the criminal underworld who must move against him or find their schemes in ruins… While Holmes and Dr Watson solve what will become some of their most famous cases – ‘Silver Blaze’, ‘The Greek Interpreter’ and ‘The Musgrave Ritual’ among them – the forces of international crime plot their revenge against the detective. And it is in ‘The Final Problem’ that Dr Watson has the sad task of telling the grisly, fatal and shocking tale that saw Holmes finally meet his match – in the guise of the diabolical Professor Moriarty and a terrible struggle at the Reichenbach Falls…”
The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle – Classics; Detective Fiction.
#5 in the series. “Some blame the sudden death of Sir Charles Baskerville on the legend of a fearsome and ghostly hound that is said to have haunted his Devonshire family for generations. So when the services of famed detective Sherlock Holmes are engaged to ensure the safety of Baskerville heir Sir Henry – recently arrived from America – Dr Watson is surprised to find his friend dismissive of the matter. In fact, Watson is dispatched alone to accompany Sir Henry to Baskerville Hall in Devon while Holmes deals with another case. Yet Watson finds the wild moors are a far cry from the orderly streets of London, and in the cold night a savage and bestial howl may be heard …”
The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle – Classics; Detective Fiction; Short Stories.
#6 in the series, according to the publisher – though considering it picks up after “The Final Problem” (in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holms) you’d think this would be volume 5. “Three years have passed since Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty vanished into the abyss of the Reichenbach falls. In that time the criminals of London have been able to sleep safe in their beds. But with the appearance of a dangerous individual with an air gun, the capital has never been in greater need of its protector. And so it is that Dr Watson meets a mysterious deformed man who reveals the truth behind the fateful final conflict between Holmes and Moriarty, and paves the way for the extraordinary return of the world’s greatest sleuth in thirteen new tales of mystery and deduction …”
The Lightkeeper’s Wife by Karen Viggers – Fiction.
I came across this in K-Mart, of all places – every time I have to go there, I swing by the meagre little books section, y’know, just in case – and when I saw that it was set in Hobart, Bruny Island and Antarctica I knew I would have to get it. The blurb is sparse: “A woman at the end of her life. A man unable to restart his. A history of guilty secrets and things left unsaid. A powerful, moving novel that will steal your heart.”
The Farmer’s Wife by Rachael Treasure – Fiction.
I got this also from K-Mart, but I need to get the first book, Jillaroo before I can read this and I’m having trouble finding a copy. “The Deniliquin Ute Muster had always been on Rebecca’s wish list, but with the farm and babies, she’d never managed to make it. Tonight, she decided to reclaim herself. After ten years being married to larrikin Charlie Lewis and living on her beloved property, Waters Meeting, Rebecca is confronted by a wife’s biggest fear, a mother’s worst nightmare and a farm business that’s bleeding to death. Can Rebecca find the inner strength she once had as a young jillaroo, to save everything she cherishes? Or is life about to teach her the hardest lesson: that sometimes you simply have to let go. This uplifting and insightful tale deals with the truth about love that the Cinderella stories never tell us. Rebecca’s journey is every woman’s journey, and a resonant tale for our times.”
Zelda’s Cut by Philippa Gregory – Fiction.
This story of an author’s pseudonym taking on a life of her own sounded intriguing. “Isobel Latimer is trapped: by her need to be a good woman, by massive secret debt, and by the burden of impeccable literary reputation. Everyone wants a cut of her talent, her time or her money, but only she knows there’s nothing left to give. In desperation, Isobel and her agent, Troy, conspire to create a shameless blockbuster with an author to match. Zelda is born. Zelda can do everything that Isobel cannot: the unspeakable is said, taboos are broken and desires are unleashed. Troy revels in the wildness, but Isobel senses menace behind the beautiful mask, and she longs for the safety of her husband and home. But when she returns, the familiar has changed…”
Saltwater Cowboys by Dayle Furlong – Fiction.
E-book from Netgalley. I had forgotten all about this, whoops! “After generations of prosperity in the mining town of Brighton, Newfoundland, Jack and Angela McCarthy find themselves jobless. In order to keep his family together, Jack accepts a job in a gold mine in the wilds of northern Alberta. Arriving in Foxville, the McCarthys find themselves resented, bullied, and cast as outsiders. When Jack’s best friend, Peter, is swindled out of his savings and resorts to stealing from the mine, his attempts at reversing their fortunes thrust both families into even deeper torment. A powerful, poetic novel dealing with the effects of poverty, the harshness and beauty of Canada’s north, the perils of theft, and the timeless value of community and family among displaced Newfoundlanders, Saltwater Cowboys is a classic cautionary tale that presents a stark glimpse into the lives of families struggling to survive in unfamiliar terrain.”
Wrong Way Round: One Country, One Camper Trailer, One Family, One Amazing Adventure by Lorna Hendry – Memoir.
I came upon this rather randomly and was instantly curious – I’ve never done a big road trip on the mainland (and I can’t say I’ve really done one in Tassie, either, not like this) but we’ve considered doing something like it. I’ve nearly finished reading this and it’s quite good. “‘Mate, I reckon you’re going about this all wrong. For the first month, you’re only going to be a day’s drive from Melbourne. If it was me, I’d get her across the Nullarbor quick smart so she can’t nick off home.’ When Lorna Hendry, her husband James and young kids left Melbourne on a one-year trip around Australia in a 4WD with a camper trailer (having only been camping once before they left), they ignored all advice and drove across the Nullarbor and up the west coast of Australia. They may have been travelling the wrong way around Australia, but it was the best decision they ever made. Lorna returned to Melbourne three years later, having crossed deserts and rivers, taken ill-advised short cuts in the most remote areas of the country, stood on the western edge and the northern tip of the country, stumbled onto its geographic centre, and lived in remote communities in Western Australia. Wrong Way Round is a story about four people who had to get out of the city to become a family. It’s about this beautiful and harsh country. And it’s about the adventures that you can have if you step outside of your door and turn left instead of right.”
Marion: Recipes and Stories From a Hungry Cook by Marion Grasby – Cookbook.
I could only find an e-book edition to link to, I’m sorry – feeling glad I bought a copy when I did, if it’s no longer readily available! I’ve tried a few things from this already, and really like her spring roll filling (I had no luck making the spring roll wrappers, though, which she makes sound SO easy! I looked up videos on YouTube and it’s all very complicated and there’s a real skill involved, so I’m back to buying them from the supermarket!). This is a real eclectic mix of food, including Thai, French and Aussie, so there’s probably something for everyone here! Not much in the sweets/desserts/baking section, though.
Antigone, Oedipus the King and Electra by Sophocles – Classics; Plays.
“Love and loyalty, hatred and revenge, fear, deprivation, and political ambition: these are the motives which thrust the characters portrayed in these three Sophoclean masterpieces on to their collision course with catastrophe. Recognized in his own day as perhaps the greatest of the Greek tragedians, Sophocles’ reputation has remained undimmed for two and a half thousand years. His greatest innovation in the tragic medium was his development of a central tragic figure, faced with a test of will and character, risking obloquy and death rather than compromise his or her principles: it is striking that Antigone and Electra both have a woman as their intransigent ‘hero’. Antigone dies rather neglect her duty to her family, Oedipus’ determination to save his city results in the horrific discovery that he has committed both incest and parricide, and Electra’s unremitting anger at her mother and her lover keeps her in servitude and despair. These vivid translations combine elegance and modernity, and are remarkable for their lucidity and accuracy. Their sonorous diction, economy, and sensitivity to the varied metres and modes of the original musical delivery make them equally suitable for reading or theatrical performance.”
Othello by William Shakespeare – Classics; Plays.
This is the fourth copy of Othello I’ve purchased, which may sound a bit excessive but I have justification for each and every one (and this may not be my last, either!). I don’t think this one needs to be explained, though – I mean, just look at that wonderful pulp cover!! Mr T!!!! It’s so perfect!
The Antigone Poems by Marie Slaight and Terrence Tasker – Poetry.
Received for review from the publisher via TLC Book Tours. I decided that, before I read this, I should read Antigone – which I probably read at uni but I honestly can’t remember anything about it! “The Antigone Poems, featuring poetry by Marie Slaight and drawings by Terrence Tasker, was created in the 1970s, while the artists were living between Montreal and Toronto. A powerful retelling of the ancient Greek tale of defiance and justice, the book is starkly illustrated, and its poetry captures the anguish and despair of the original tale in an unembellished modernized rendition. The Antigone Poems will be a print-only book, with a specialty paper (Spicer’s Swiss White from the Australian-made Stevens Collection), Section-sewn binding, and jacket flaps.”
The Wife Drought: Why Women Need Wives and Men Need Lives by Annabel Crabb – Non-fiction: Sociology, Culture, History.
Another title that I’ve been hearing good things about through the Australian Women Writers challenge. “‘I need a wife.’ It’s a common joke among women juggling work and family. But it’s not actually a joke. Having a spouse who takes care of things at home is a Godsend on the domestic front. It’s a potent economic asset on the work front. And it’s an advantage enjoyed – even in our modern society – by vastly more men than women. Working women are in an advanced, sustained, and chronically under-reported state of wife drought, and there is no sign of rain. But why is the work-and-family debate always about women? Why don’t men get the same flexibility that women do? In our fixation on the barriers that face women on the way into the workplace, do we forget about the barriers that – for men – still block the exits? The Wife Drought is about women, men, family and work. Written in Annabel Crabb’s inimitable style, it’s full of candid and funny stories from the author’s work in and around politics and the media, historical nuggets about the role of ‘The Wife’ in Australia, and intriguing research about the attitudes that pulse beneath the surface of egalitarian Australia. Crabb’s call is for a ceasefire in the gender wars. Rather than a shout of rage, The Wife Drought is the thoughtful, engaging catalyst for a conversation that’s long overdue.”
Guantanamo: ‘Honor Bound to Defend Freedom’ by Victoria Brittain – Plays.
“‘I don’t know what crime I am supposed to have committed for which not only I but my wife and children should continually suffer.’ – British detainee Moazzam Begg. This verbatim play, drawn from letters and interviews from Guantanamo Bay prisoners, their lawyers and relatives, weaves together personal stories, legal opinion and political debate. Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom looks at the questions surrounding the detentions in Guantanamo Bay, and asks how much damage is being done to Western democratic values during the ‘war on terror’.”
Murder in Mississippi: The True Story of How I Met a White Supremacist, Befriended His Black Killer and Wrote This Book by John Safran – Non-fiction: True Crime.
“In 2009 John Safran, a controversial Australian journalist, spent an uneasy few days interviewing one of Mississippi’s most notorious white supremacists. A year later, he hears that the man has been murdered by a young black man. But this is far from a straightforward race killing. Safran flies back to Mississippi in a bid to discover what really happened, immersing himself in a world of clashing white separatists, black lawyers, police investigators, oddball neighbours and the killer himself. In the end, he discovers just how profoundly complex the truth about someone’s life – and death – can be. A brilliantly innovative true-crime story. Safran paints an engrossing and revealing portrait of race, money, sex and power in the modern American South. ‘John Safran’s captivating inquiry into a murder in darkest Mississippi is by turns informative, frightening and hilarious’ – John Berendt, author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”
Tell Me No Lies: Investigative Journalism and its Triumphs edited by John Pilger – Non-fiction: Essays/Articles; History; Sociology; Politics.
“Tell Me No Lies is a celebration of the very best investigative journalism, and includes writing by some of the greatest practitioners of the craft: Seymour Hersh on the My Lai massacre; Paul Foot on the Lockerbie cover-up; Wilfred Burchett, the first Westerner to enter Hiroshima following the atomic bombing; Israeli journalist Amira Hass, reporting from the Gaza Strip in the 1990s; Gunter Wallraff, the great German undercover reporter; Jessica Mitford on ‘The American Way of Death'; Martha Gelhorn on the liberation of the death camp at Dachau. The book – a selection of articles, broadcasts and books extracts that revealed important and disturbing truths – ranges from across many of the critical events, scandals and struggles of the past fifty years. Along the way it bears witness to epic injustices committed against the peoples of Vietnam, Cambodia, East Timor and Palestine. John Pilger sets each piece of reporting in its context and introduces the collection with a passionate essay arguing that the kind of journalism he celebrates here is being subverted by the very forces that ought to be its enemy. Taken as a whole, the book tells an extraordinary ‘secret history’ of the modern era. It is also a call to arms to journalists everywhere – before it is too late.”
The Rise and Fall of Gunns Ltd. by Quentin Beresford – Non-fiction.
This book might not find much traction outside Tasmania, or perhaps Australia, which could be a real shame. I left Tassie in May 2002, just as Gunns took off, and I returned to live in 2013, after the corporation had collapsed, so it’s a big missing chapter in my understanding of my home state (and forestry is a Big Deal here). I picked up this new book in Dymocks one day and read the intro, which really sets the scene. Beresford has a really engaging, easy style, very readable. “At its peak, Gunns Ltd had a market value of $1 billion, was listed on the ASX 200, was the largest employer in the state of Tasmania and its largest private landowner. Most of its profits came from woodchipping, mainly from clear-felled old-growth forests. A pulp mill was central to its expansion plans. Its collapse in 2012 was a major national news story, as was the arrest of its CEO for insider trading. Quentin Beresford illuminates for the first time the dark corners of the Gunns empire. He shows it was built on close relationships with state and federal governments, political donations and use of the law to intimidate and silence its critics. Gunns may have been single-minded in its pursuit of a pulp mill in Tasmania’s Tamar Valley, but it was embedded in an anti-democratic and corrupt system of power supported by both main parties, business and unions. Simmering opposition to Gunns and all it stood for ramped up into an environmental campaign not seen since the Franklin Dam protests. Fearless and forensic in its analysis, the book shows that Tasmania’s decades-long quest to industrialise nature fails every time. But the collapse of Gunns is the most telling of them all.”
Van Diemen’s Land by James Boyce – Non-fiction: History.
I’ve been eyeing this and Born Bad for some time now, and finally treated myself to copies which I bought directly from the author at his stall at Salamanca Market a few weeks ago. I’ve been reading up on Australia’s white colonial history but I’m a bit behind in the Tasmanian chapter. “Almost half of the convicts who came to Australia came to Van Diemen’s Land. There they found a land of bounty and a penal society, a kangaroo economy and a new way of life. In this book, James Boyce shows how the convicts were changed by the natural world they encountered. Escaping authority, they soon settled away from the towns, dressing in kangaroo skin and living off the land. Behind the official attempt to create a Little England was another story of adaptation, in which the poor, the exiled and the criminal made a new home in a strange land. This is their story, the story of Van Diemen’s Land”
Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World by James Boyce – Non-fiction: History, Religion, Culture.
I love learning about this kind of cultural history, and while it might not present a ‘new’ argument for me, I know I’ll gain some good insights. “Born Bad is the latest book from James Boyce, acclaimed author and historian. Boyce traces a history of original sin from Adam and Eve, St Augustine and Martin Luther to Adam Smith, Sigmund Freud and Richard Dawkins. According to original sin, humans are ‘born bad’ and only God’s grace can bring salvation. Although Christianity is on the wane, Boyce explores how these religious ideas of morality still underpin our modern secular society, though we are often not aware of their origins. If today the specific doctrine has all but disappeared (even from the churches), what remains is the distinctive discontent of Western people – the feelings of guilt and inadequacy associated not with doing wrong, but with being wrong. As well as an innovative history of Christianity, Boyce offers new insights into the making of the West.”
FOR HUGH’S SHELVES:
The Heroes’ Welcome by Louisa Young
Sequel to My Dear I Wanted to Tell You
Harper Perennial 2015 (2014)
1919. The Great War may be over, but those who survived are left to put the shattered pieces of themselves and their families back together, alone and unacknowledged. Twenty-three year old Riley Purefoy lost half his jaw in the war; the artificial replacement helps hold his face together and is healing well, but he can’t chew food or speak clearly. Still, Riley considers himself one of the lucky ones, and not just because all his limbs are in working order and his brain isn’t muddled. He’s just got married to Nadine, his fiancée from before the war, who served as a nurse on the front. While Riley comes from a working-class background, Nadine’s parents are upper class, and as much as they’ve always liked Riley, they don’t much care for the idea of their only child marrying a disabled veteran with no work skills or prospects.
Riley tries to find work, but he’s just one of many unemployed young man missing body parts. Yet his determination not to live off Nadine’s parents drives him to persevere, and make his own path.
In contrast, his commanding officer from the war, Peter Locke, returns from the war haunted by the overwhelming loss of life, all the men under his command who didn’t make it. The list of names feels immense, and Peter soon turns to alcohol in order to endure. His wife is no help: Julia was raised by a domineering monster of a woman who made her understand that her only value was in her looks, so in order to be what she thought Peter wanted, she underwent a facial treatment that’s left her face looking like a mask: white, immobile, false. Julia is ill-equipped to live with this new version of Peter, or their three-year-old son, Tom, who was whisked away by Julia’s mother after his birth. Not knowing how to be a mother to Tom, or a wife or even friend to Peter, her plaintive, melodramatic behaviour quickly drives them both away. And now that Nadine and Riley are married and off on their honeymoon, the household only has Peter’s cousin Rose to keep it sane.
Rose, however, has the opportunity to train as a doctor, an opportunity she wants with heart and soul. Never married and now never likely to be, medicine is the one thing she cares about – aside from her cousin and his family. Now she must make a decision, to put her own life ahead of someone else’s and sacrifice her dream, or to stay and help.
From March to December, 1919, The Heroes’ Welcome follows the paths of these five men and women as they struggle to build a life and a future while they mourn for all that’s been lost.
There is always a “right” time to read a book, when your mind and emotions are aligned with a book’s mood and tone and content, when your own mind is receptive and open to the story that wants to be heard. As interested as I am in World War One stories – stories about the first half of the twentieth-century interest me greatly – this was not, unfortunately, as it turned out, the right time for me to read this book. I kept picking it up, telling myself, Now, now, now I will start it; reading the first few paragraphs that describe Riley’s injury, his face and what he’s had to adapt to, I had to keep putting it down. The trouble way, I’d just finished reading Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man – a heavy non-fiction expository book – and was reading another about a man with mental health problems who abducts a girl, plus I’d just watched Sophie Scholl, a World War II story that made me cry buckets, and I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed and in need of something light and fun. The Heroes’ Welcome felt like the last nail in the coffin of my emotional well-being (that sounds incredibly dramatic, but there are other things going on at the time that were making me feel this way).
All of that aside, I did find this to be a very readable novel, and certainly a very memorable one. Not enough stories get written about life after the war – we tend to skip a few years and go straight to the heady, exciting, liberating Twenties. No one received counselling or support after the First World War; likewise, no one seemed to want to hear about the struggles of the survivors through fiction. This story felt raw and true and honest, just one story among many possibles that could have been told but no less real for that. It is a sequel to a novel I haven’t read, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You, but it didn’t make a difference: anything you need to know in order to understand these characters and their stories is provided. And aside from the sense that they have considerable shared history that I wasn’t privy to, it didn’t really feel like I was missing out for not having read the first book.
This is a depressing tale, though: the story of Julia affected me deeply and on top of all the sad stories I’d been reading and watching at the time, it felt like one sad story too many. Perhaps its that element of realism, but this didn’t read like a story of hope to me, but one of struggle. Riley’s industry, pro-activeness and pragmatic outlook help considerably in balancing out Peter’s self-indulgent (yet still understandable) melancholy, depression, and general stubbornness to move on with his life. The two are opposite ends of a pendulum with a narrow swing. Their wives – and Rose – also present drastically different perspectives. Julia is the wife who stayed behind, who has no idea how to do anything let alone look after a small child and a mentally ill husband who shuns her. Yet of all of them, Julia goes through the most in terms of metamorphosis, which is why what happens is all the more heartbreaking. You come to care for her, shifting from scornful pity to sympathy and then to empathy. Of them all, Nadine was the least well-developed, and a little too perfect, but it was Tom, the child, who, while being thinly sketched, hit the hardest: my own son is three, nearly four, as I write this, and the neglect that Tom experiences was painful to read.
At times, the prose style felt too static, too constrained. The omniscient narrator describes almost endlessly, and left too little for me to but endure. The writing flowed, the story flowed, and you certainly get swept along – almost, slightly, with that ‘train wreck’ sensation, that fascination with the macabre that continues to appeal to us – but at the same time it never relaxes into the telling, never relinquishes control or trusts the reader to understand these characters on their own.
This was an emotional read, an intense and often upsetting story that I can’t imagine myself ever forgetting. That’s something I always want from fiction, that evidence of a connection and a good story told well. These people felt real, their stories like true reflections of real ones. For all that, though, it lacked that organic touch: the third-person omniscient narrator was just too intrusive for me. That’s an element of the story that I don’t think I would have reacted to any differently, had I read this at a different time.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours
Other stops on the tour:
Tuesday, March 10th: Tina Says …
Thursday, March 12th: Open Book Society
Monday, March 16th: Peppermint PhD
Tuesday, March 17th: Read Her Like an Open Book
Wednesday, March 18th: A Book Geek
Thursday, March 19th: Helen’s Book Blog
Monday, March 23rd: Staircase Wit
Tuesday, March 24th: Ageless Pages Reviews
Wednesday, March 25th: Mom in Love With Fiction
Monday, March 30th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Tuesday, March 31st: Giraffe Days
Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas
Allen & Unwin 2014
Large Format Paperback
As I read Tsiolkas’ first published collection of short stories, I couldn’t help but think that here, here, is a true artiste of human nature in all its glorious and tawdry flaws. He strips away the veneers we use so constantly – veneers of civilisation and humanity and tolerance – and puts our real selves up on display. You don’t have to identify with any of his characters to connect with them, or recognise them. It’s not about you, the reader, in a narcissistic way; it’s about humanity and all its bullshit. Ironically, once stripped of the façade of gentility, what’s left is yet another layer of bullshit.
Take Vince in the title story, “Merciless Gods”. This is a story about stories, as a group of friends share anecdotes of when they took revenge. Vince’s story leaves the others shocked and sickened, and it’s hard to tell whether he’s even telling the truth or not. If he is, he’s a bastard. If he isn’t, he’s still a bastard. In “Petals”, we are deep within the twisted consciousness of a prison inmate, homesick for Greece, who brings us right into his hell of a life with authentically bad grammar. He is a character who is instantly believable, deeply flawed, full of ‘greys’ and ultimately more than a bit scary. There’s the story of a young man with a girlfriend who lets himself get pulled into a relationship with another man who uses him for sex, money and to enable his drinking habit, who is violent and a rapist, in “Jessica Lange in Frances“.
Life is a journey, the old cliché says, but what’s missing are the adjectives: violent, brutal, dirty, rich, textured, unpleasant, joyous, disgusting, frightening, paralysing. Merciless Gods has its high moments, but mostly it descends into the underbelly of humanity, laying it all bare without shame, apology or censorship. A few stories touch upon Indigenous issues, like “Civil War” which, scarily, tells us that there are people in Australia stockpiling weapons for some fantastical war against the Aborigines (who are, of course, simply living off welfare etc. etc.), in which they will be wiped out, once and for all.
“There’s gonna have to be a war soon in this country.”
I look up at him and he’s glancing over at me.
“People are getting ready,” he continues, “arming themselves. And who can blame them? The fucking government is in cahoots with the niggers, giving them all this land, paying them money so they can get drunk and piss it all away.” He snorts angrily and accelerates. I offer neither resistance to nor approval of what he is saying. “Do you know those bastards get money to send their kids to school? And what do the parents do with all that money? Drink it or spend it on drugs. The pricks up in Canberra keep giving them our money, buying them houses and cars.” He is animated now, anger and passion softening the hard surfaces of his skin, making him seem younger. “It’s our money that pays for all those gifts to the bloody blackfella while he sits on his lazy arse and sells his kids and wife for extra cash. They’re cunning bastards. No natural intelligence at all, just animal cunning.” He spits out this last insult. “They know how to use the system. But the bastards are making use of my taxes to live the good life.” [pp.232-3]
What’s especially frightening about this is just how prevalent this attitude is in Australian society. In certain parts of the country – Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Western Australia especially, where “Civil War” is set – this is the common, mainstream attitude and perspective. You’ll find it in other places, too, including my own state, Tasmania. We live in a deeply racist land and have done little about it. Most people don’t even bother to hide it.
It would be a shame to be turned off by the strong language, the gruesome scenes of rape, pornography and other sexual acts, as well as the subject matter explored here. Personally, I like confronting stories: I like to have my world shaken up by fiction and non-fiction, along with documentaries, though in order to live my life I have to read the fun stuff too. It’s important not to shy away from the truths of our world, or the realistic flaws of human nature. It’s also important to, in a way, ‘bear witness’, to hear and listen and think about and feel, because while Merciless Gods may be fiction, it carries that stamp of ‘gritty realism’ and the bone-deep knowledge that people have lived this, and more, all the time. These are stories that can deliver a punch to the gut, have you chewing your fingernails in suspense, and even bring out a tissue or two.
Tsiolkas isn’t shy of bringing you into this world, far from a cozy middle-class existence. His ability to create scenes, characters and explore, with subtlety, hard-hitting contemporary issues is his greatest strength. I saw that in Barracuda and I see it even more here, in these stories. What saves it from being downright depressing is that sense of his character’s fragile, vulnerable quest for beauty in this grim world, that even a wart on a toad can be loveable because it’s your toad – like the mother in “The Hair of the Dog”, or the father-son relationship in “Genetic Material”. Not all the stories are in-your-face or contain vulgarity, or are about homosexuality, violence, pornography. The married couple in “Tourists” feel so familiar because they are so vividly, realistically drawn, and the tense mother-son relationship in “Sticks, Stones” makes me wonder what my own little boy will put me through when he’s a teenager – and how I’ll react. (On a side note, my son, three years old, found the cover of this book quite scary.)
You never know what one of these stories will bring you, or where it will take you. Each is a surprise, and each is subtle, full of nuance and shades of grey. Tsiolkas’ raw and insightful examination of our flawed psyches and troubled relationships is, strangely, a joy to read, not least because of the skill and craftsmanship he brings to each tale. Truly Tsiolkas has become one of Australia’s truly great writers for the 21st century.
“Not everyone will appreciate, nor stomach, Merciless Gods, it is a collection that seems designed to challenge and shock, but for those readers willing to approach the stories with an open mind, there are rewards to be had.” Book’d Out
“Merciless Gods is hard-hitting and not for the faint of heart, he is pushing the boundaries but he does this really well.” Literary Explorations
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A Waltz for Matilda by Jackie French
The Matilda Saga #1
Angus & Robertson 2010
YA Historical Fiction
1894. Matilda is just twelve, pretending to be fourteen so she can work in the nearby jam factory while her mother is ill and bedridden. She continues to write to the father she’s never met, who is building a home for them in the country and getting established before they move – or so her mother has always told her, and she’s never doubted it.
When her mother dies, leaving her alone in the world, Matilda is left with few choices. Their landlady, Mrs Dawkins, is willing to let her stay if she works for her board, but Matilda has no intention of becoming a maid. Instead, she takes her few meagre possessions, learns which train to catch from her friend Tommy, a young boy with a knack for machinery and inventing, and heads off to find her father.
All she really knows is the name of her father’s farm – Moura – and the nearest town, Gibber’s Creek. When the train stops for Gibber’s Creek, she finds no station or town, but the faint demarcation of a road which she might not have spotted if a wagon wasn’t stopped at it. Three men are there to pick up a union speaker who rode the train with her; also waiting to be picked up are a well-dressed woman and her daughter, who’s about Matilda’s age. Matilda throws in her lot with the working men, who give her a lift into town where her father will be – it’s a big night for the union, and her dad is the man who began it in Gibber’s Creek.
When she does finally meet her father, it’s a happy reunion. Her dad is full of plans, and Matilda learns a new version of the truth as to why she’d never met him before. But all too soon, a shocking and tragic event unfolds and Matilda must once again turn to her own abilities to survive in this harsh, drought-afflicted land. With the assistance of a local Aboriginal woman called Auntie Love and Auntie’s nephew, Mr Sampson, and her dog, Hey You, Matilda turns her energy and willingness to learn to making her dad’s dream for Moura come true. But it’s not only the land she has to struggle against: her neighbour, the wealthy and powerful squatter Mr Drinkwater, presents a challenge of his own.
Jackie French is a prolific writer and the Australian Children’s Laureate; she was also, this year (2015), declared the “Senior Australian of the Year”. Both are well deserved, and I hope she receives even more recognition. I was first introduced to French through her priceless picture book, Diary of a Wombat. But I had to wait till I’d moved back to Australia, in late 2013, before I could start reading her novels. The Road to Gundagai, the third book in the Matilda Saga, was one of my favourite novels of 2013 – it reads as a standalone, but I knew I had to go back to the beginning with this volume, A Waltz for Matilda.
A Waltz for Matilda deserves to be better known and more widely read than it currently is. It’s a Young Adult historical fiction novel that is accessible to children and just as satisfying and wonderful a read for adults – it’s not many authors who have such breadth in their style. French effortlessly captures the tone and feel of the era, both through period details and characterisation as well as through the way she writes. It’s not that it’s written in a faux “olde worlde” style – that would be naff to the highest degree – but that the articulate, intelligent, smoothly-flowing prose instantly grounds the reader in another era. French manages to incorporate the information her readers need to picture scenes and understand events, without the usual clunky exposition or conversations that sound manufactured and contrived. For instance, Matilda – a polite, considerate, well-mannered girl who knows how to write a letter and say ‘thank you’ – begins a correspondence with the lady she met at the Gibber’s Creek ‘station’, Mrs Ellsmore, after Mrs Ellsmore discovers a shared tie with Matilda through her now-deceased Aunt Ann. Aunt Ann, a spinster of small income (especially compared to Mrs Ellsmore, who’s upper class), is a member of the Women’s Temperance League. Through these letters we get a sense of what’s happening in Australia over the course of the next few decades, as Australia heads to Federation and then women get the vote.
This is a novel in which a lot is happening within a very simple, straight-forward narrative structure. It’s a coming-of-age novel for Matilda, who grows into adulthood over the course of the book, from 1894 to 1915. It’s also a treasure trove of insight into the history of the period, the dynamics of small rural towns, conflicts between class, gender and race, the rise of unions in Australia, the conditions of Aborigines, and of course the land. The land is one of French’s main themes, throughout all her work – I recognised many details, beautifully rendered and incorporated into this story from 2010, from her 2013 nonfiction work, Let the Land Speak. This novel is educational while at the same time entertaining and engrossing.
A key scene towards the beginning of the novel is used as the fictional inspiration of the famous song, “Waltzing Matilda” (in real life, this was written by Banjo Patterson in 1895. There is a note at the beginning of the book that outlines the origins – both known and dodgy – of the song, but I did love the way it was woven into the story. It fitted perfectly. Needless to say, this is a book that made me cry as much as it made me smile. It connected with me from the opening lines, effortlessly, like that moment at the birth of your child when you hold in your arms a being that is a part of you, yet separate. (You know you’re struggling to articulate a sense when you have to resort to such an intense, mind-blowing yet traumatic and over-represented event!) Perhaps it is better to say, simply, that whenever you find an author whose writing just fits perfectly with you, that you’re so comfortable with and that ticks all your boxes (personally, I want stories that engage, entertain, challenge and confront me and make me feel), you know you’ll never be disappointed.
One of the things I really loved about this story (and there were many) was the juxtaposition of Matilda actively listening and learning from Auntie Love, who taught her women’s business, including how to find food where white people see dirt and dust, with that of Mr Drinkwater, whose character, early on at least, represents your typical white squatter. An authoritarian figure, like a local lord, who owns great swathes of land and controls pretty much everything, he too loves the land, but he also is too stubborn to learn a non-white way of farming it. The character arc for Mr Drinkwater was wonderful, and really enriches the story. Matilda is, of course, a real heroine. I can’t imagine any twelve year old today doing what she did, none of it – this is another aspect of the story that makes you feel grounded in the 1890s, when children worked and often died on factory floors.
The Australian landscape is brought vividly to life, and whether you’re Australian or not, it is both familiar and new. Familiar because it is the dry, drought-afflicted land so often talked about and photographed, and new because there’s more to it than that. I loved that moment, early on, when Matilda puts aside her pre-conceived idea of beautiful, based on pictures in books – the pretty, neat English green fields and fluffy white sheep – for the glorious gold of her new land. It is, almost literally, a transfiguring moment, when she steps away from the English ideal into the Australian reality, and learns to appreciate it and see it. This helps to enable her to learn how to care for it, rather than mould it to fit an inappropriate ideal (something people still try and do today – if you’re interested in learning more about that, I recommend you read Let the Land Speak).
I could go, but I’d rather let you read it for yourself and discover the joy within its pages. As for me, I’ve got books 2 and 4 ready to go, and I can’t wait to visit the next generations of The Matilda Saga.
The Matilda Saga:
A Waltz for Matilda
The Girl from Snowy River
The Road to Gundagai
To Love a Sunburnt Country
“Jackie French’s novels […] embrace the history, they revel in the history, the roll around in the mud like pigs in love with history…but she does it so well. And it’s not just HIStory – Jackie rights the imbalances of most historical records by making this book HERstory. […] This is a wonderful ramble through Federation Australia. Easy to read & enjoyable from start to finish.” Brona’s Books
“There are also some very serious issues that get touched on in this book such as immigration, racism, sexism, class differences, and technological advancement. I found it very interesting that the very thing that immigrants get accused of now in this modern day and age, such as stealing jobs; was the exact same stuff that was being said in the late 1800’s. It made me wonder just a little if we really had progressed as a society as much as we like to think.” The Narrative Causality
“A Waltz for Matilda is a rollicking good read, with an enthralling storyline that takes in many aspects of Australian history, both positive and negative, as well as larger themes such as the treatment of women and the native peoples, the difficulties and joys of attempting to tame the Australian landscape, the treatment of Australian soldiers by the British in the Boer War, and more personal stories of love and friendship and forgiveness.” Bookie Monster
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The Alphabet of Light and Dark by Danielle Wood
Allen & Unwin 2003
According to Wikipedia, there is a category of fiction labelled Tasmanian Gothic, and The Alphabet of Light and Dark falls squarely within it. The sub-genre is described thus: “Although it deals with the themes of horror, mystery and the uncanny, Tasmanian Gothic literature and art differs from traditional European Gothic Literature, which is rooted in medieval imagery, crumbling Gothic architecture and religious ritual. Instead, the Tasmanian gothic tradition centres on the natural landscape of Tasmania and its colonial architecture and history.” This is the first time I’ve heard the term ‘Tasmanian Gothic’ but it clicked instantly – it’s the perfect way to neatly capture the atmosphere and essence of Danielle Wood‘s haunting and beautiful first novel.
The present-day portions of the novel are set largely on Bruny Island, in the south of Tasmania, in 1999. Essie Lewis, only child of a university professor who’s gone ‘walkabout’ on a global scale, and a mother who died of cancer when Essie was young, was brought up between her father, an environmentalist, and her grandfather, a successful businessman in hydro-electricity who began life in poverty. From her grandfather, Charlie, she learns stories from the past, pieces of her ancestors and others. When Charlie dies, in 1999, Essie puts her life as a marine scientist in Perth on hold, takes Charlie’s ute and drives to Bruny Island, where she rents one of the shacks by the lighthouse where her great-great-grandfather was superintendent in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
She has a key to the lighthouse, now disused in favour of a more modern version nearby, and during the next several cold months, she spends a lot of time up by the light, with the postcard photo of a young Alva, a girl – her great-great-grandparents’ daughter – who was born here. Alva looks just like Essie, and ever since Essie saw the picture when she was a child, she’s been drawn to her long-dead relative. Now, using the bits and pieces of stories from her grandfather, her great-great-grandfather’s log books, and some random things bequeathed to her by Charlie – among them a carved coconut; a tiny coin; a stone seamed in bright quartz and mica and bits of garnet; and a coiled plait of pale hair – Essie writes Alva’s story, a story that Essie starts to recognise is really her own.
Also on the island is Pete Shelverton, a man also trying to find a measure of peace within himself. A chance meeting between Pete and Essie rekindles an old friendship that goes back to when they were children, but some history seems too hard to surmount, or escape.
At its heart, this is a story about belonging, and place, and time. As such, it’s a deeply moving, beautiful, haunting book, a story that artfully, even subtly, bridges the gaps of time. Essie is uprooted, aimless, un-anchored. While she has an apartment in Perth, she has recently broken up with her boyfriend, David, and has no real attachment to the city. She likes things clean, sterile almost, and minimalist. She likes things to match, and colours to complement. She’s organised, and introspective, and hard to reach, emotionally. She misses her mother, but it’s as if her father doesn’t like to share his grief over her passing; for several years after her mother died, Essie didn’t speak. At the lighthouse on Bruny Island, she becomes hermit-like and absorbed in the past, and the act of creation, of bringing Alva to life. In the process, she feels close to truths her grandfather wouldn’t have told her.
Likewise, Peter is a loner, a man who is content in his own company and solitude, who has spent months at a time on Macquarie Island, south of Tasmania, hunting the feral cats that live there and decimate the wildlife. After one such stint, he came home to discover his girlfriend couldn’t, and didn’t, wait for him. He waits eagerly, impatiently and with a sense of anxiety for word to come from the department, to hear he will be going back in September. Once he encounters Essie, though, things slowly start to shift inside him. Both Essie and Pete subconsciously recognise that it is through our relationships with others, especially real, deep and intimate relationships, that we find our sense of place and belonging.
The Cape Bruny lighthouse is one I’ve visited, incidentally, many many years ago: it’s not something you’re likely to forget any time, because it’s at the edge of a promontory, perched above jagged, black, precipitous cliffs against which the sea violently hurls itself. I remember looking down at those thundering waves and feeling so incredibly insignificant, so incredibly mortal and fragile. It wasn’t a particularly cold or overcast day, but this spot seemed to hold its own, stormier weather. This is my memory, at least, but aside from a mention of cliffs, this image doesn’t feature in The Alphabet of Light and Dark. (I actually started to wonder whether I’d confused it with some other lighthouse, somewhere else in the state, but after a quick search online I found this picture that somewhat confirmed it, though it’s probably that my memory has bridged gaps and isn’t wholly accurate. That in itself is quite fascinating, though, and ties into the concept of the Gothic nicely: that I would associate such turbulent waters and cliffs with a colonial lighthouse.)
The lighthouse itself acts like a touchstone, a solid colonial object of mystery and romance, of light and dark (the ‘alphabet of light and dark’ is, literally, explained as the spaces between flashes – each lighthouse is different, so you can identify, at night, which lighthouse you’re near [p.128]). I ‘waxed lyrical’ on lighthouses and what they symbolise in my recent review of The Light Between Oceans, so I’ll point you in that direction rather than repeat myself here – suffice it to say, that the lighthouse serves much the same purpose here. Now with the added perspective of the ‘Tasmanian gothic’, the lighthouse takes on another layer – or really, everything about lighthouses can be summed up by the term. For Essie, it’s a place of comfort, too. A true anchor in her mourning and sense of floating. Pete is the one who keeps it clean, coming every couple of weeks to keep the dust away; for him, too, it’s an emblem of stability, routine, predictability. A lighthouse is a sign of civilisation, both literally and symbolically.
The novel touches upon the original Aboriginal inhabitants, and the idea that ‘they walk no more upon this isle’. Now and again Pete – a descendent himself – hears typical racist comments, usually along the lines of Aboriginals getting government handouts once they claim ancestry. It isn’t a central topic, more of a complimentary theme: the Aboriginals too, like Essie, have been displaced, dispossessed, no longer – often – have a place they can properly ‘belong’ to. Here in Tasmania, we have been taught for so long that all the Tasmanian Aboriginals were wiped out, that Truganini was the last Aboriginal, full stop. And so, when we started rewriting that ‘fact’, acknowledging all the descendants, many people refused to shift their thinking and view these people with great suspicion. We’re no less racist here in Tassie than on the mainland, when it comes to the Indigenous population. It was a soft, complementary touch on the part of Wood, a lecturer in English at the University of Tasmania, to include them – part of me wanted it to be more prominent, to matter more, because I love stories about Indigenous issues etc. and learning from them – but I have to also acknowledge that having it as a shadow (again, that ‘light and dark’ theme) worked quite beautifully. After all, it is Essie’s story, a colonial story, first and foremost. The Aboriginal story is part of it, a dark part, but not the whole of it.
The theme of place, and belonging, was strong here. When Essie goes to Scotland with David, prior to the ‘present day’ events of the novel, she has a moment I could completely identify with:
Essie is separated from [Alva] by time, but in space, she is intimately close, patrolling her walls, stepping through them like a ghost. It makes her feel giddy. She has to sit down on the cold stone, drop her head between her knees to stop herself from fainting.
This is my own, my native land.
She had felt it another time, too. In Scotland. She had gone with David to a conference in Glasgow. On the way, they had stopped in the city of Edinburgh and walked the steep streets up out of the cavity of the railway station into the city, dense and blackened with age. She looked down and there, carved squarely into the paving stone beneath her feet, was the inscription:
Essie had needed to reach out to David to stop herself from falling in the Alice-hole that opened up there in the pavement, a core cut through centuries of Picts, Celts, Angles, Norsemen, all the way to infinity. Imagine that kind of belonging, she had said to David, breathless. He had not understood. [p.72]
I have felt that, and you have to love it when some surprising little detail in a novel leaps out at you like that and instantly connects you to a character. I tried to articulate it in a post I wrote late last year, on Tassie’s colonial past and our persevering connection to it – why we love our old heritage buildings, etc. I think Essie captured it well. It’s based around a shared culture, which is also why there’s a disconnect between us (speaking as a white descendent of British settlers etc.), and the Aboriginals. I have lately been looking at prominent landmarks (since so much else has been changed, disfigured or removed altogether), like mountains and rivers, and trying to imagine Aboriginals there, back before we arrived. It is hard, though. It is so much easier to feel connected – to feel the absence of time within a place – when visiting a colonial heritage site, for instance.
The one thing I disliked, or that irked me, with The Alphabet…, was the use of present tense in the Essie and Pete chapters. It didn’t seem like a good fit, it felt a bit stilted and awkward, even when the actual phrases, imagery and language was beautiful, and resonated. But then, the use of present tense has become a real fad in the last, oh, five or so years? and I’m completely and thoroughly sick of it. It’s also not a very good tense to use – it’s limiting, it’s tricky to get right, and it often has the opposite effect from the intended one (it’s primary use in fiction is to remove a sense of time, to make the story feel present and the ending unpredictable – for example, theoretically, if you have a first-person narrator and you use present tense, you could kill the character off, something that is illogical when using past tense). Past tense is a stronger, more versatile tense to use, and can achieve the same effect of timelessness and being ‘in the now’ that present tense should. This book pre-dates the fad, and uses it in a literary sense, but it’s an ambitious tense for a first novel. It altered the tone, kept me at a distance I didn’t feel was necessary, and, to me anyway, didn’t achieve the desired effect.
That is my only real complaint. Otherwise, this is a truly beautiful book, full of rich description, a vivid sense of the past, and characters who felt alive. The atmosphere is imbued with this sense of a Tasmanian Gothic – a sense I’m grateful to have a name for, now. It is a story in which characters ‘find themselves’ by facing the past: a classic formula, because there’s so much truth in it. As Charlie, Essie’s grandfather, insists, ‘the way things are now rested on the way things were.’ [p.55] In order to understand what is, you have to understand what was. Essie’s obsession with Alva provides her with a way to handle her own feelings about her parents and grandparents, the animosity between her father and Charlie, her mother’s death. And Pete.
As I write this, I’m almost overcome with an urge to re-read the novel, right now. That doesn’t happen very often. This is a story about stories, a story about connections across place and time, a story about finding your place in the world – and how you never really stop looking for it. A wonderful glimpse into the colonial past within the natural beauty of the Tasmanian coast, I highly recommend The Alphabet of Light and Dark.
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