Category: Reviews

What We’re Reading: July 2020

Annie  — 

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Kate — 

Swallow the Air by Tara June Winch

When May’s mother dies suddenly, she and her brother Billy are taken in by Aunty. However, their loss leaves them both searching for their place in a world that doesn’t seem to want them. While Billy takes his own destructive path, May sets off to find her father and her Aboriginal identity.

I can’t recommend this book enough. Swallow the Air is a poetic story of a young Wiradjuri woman who is trying to connect with her country and culture, while confronting the inter-generational trauma of colonisation. Her resilience and connection to country are powerful and I think important reading.

Natural Histories by Guadalupe Nettel

Siamese fighting fish, cockroaches, cats, a snake, and a strange fungus all serve here as mirrors that reflect the unconfessable aspects of human nature buried within us. The traits and fates of these animals illuminate such deeply natural, human experiences as the cruelty born of cohabitation, the desire to reproduce and the impulse not to, and the inexplicable connection that can bind, eerily, two beings together. Each Nettel tale creates, with tightly wound narrative tension, a space wherein her characters feel excruciatingly human, exploring how the wounds we incur in life manifest themselves within us, clandestinely, irrevocably, both unseen and overtly. In writing that is candid and subtle, these stories give us nuanced insights into human nature.

Charmaine — 

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

From one of America’s iconic writers, a portrait of a marriage and a life – in good times and bad – that will speak to anyone who has ever loved a husband or wife or child. A stunning book of electric honesty and passion. Several days before Christmas 2003, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion saw their only daughter, Quintana, fall ill. At first they thought it was flu, then pneumonia, then complete sceptic shock. She was put into an induced coma and placed on life support. Days later the night before New Year’s Eve the Dunnes were just sitting down to dinner after visiting the hospital when John suffered a massive and fatal coronary. The result is an exploration of an intensely personal yet universal experience: a portrait of a marriage, and a life, in good times and bad.

Carly — 

I Saw Pete and Pete Saw Me by Maggie Hutchings, illustrated by Evie Barrow

Everyone walks right past Pete – except for one little boy. He sees Pete’s big smile and bright drawings, and they make a connection. The boy can’t give Pete a home, but when Pete gets sick, he can show he cares.

A heartfelt, moving story about the importance of really seeing the world around us and the power in tiny acts of kindness.

$1 from each sale donated to The Big Issue.

Jane — 

The Overstory by Richard Powers

An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. An Air Force crewmember in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan.

This is the story of these and five other strangers, each summoned in different ways by the natural world, who are brought together in a last stand to save it from catastrophe.

What we’ve been reading to start 2020

Annie — 
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Over the summer break I read two big fat engrossing reads that couldn’t be otherwise more different (except that they’ve both won the Man Booker Prize).

Wolf Hall is the first in a captivating trilogy (soon to be complete) that follows the life of Thomas Cromwell. Mantel has clearly researched her subject deeply and one is immersed in the royal court during one of its most tumultuous periods – separation of England from Rome and Henry VIII’s succession of wives. Although it is set in the 16th century, the characters leap to life immediately and what struck me was how thoroughly relevant and modern it seemed. The political machinations, greed and personal enmity that drives many of the decisions made throughout the book seem to find a mirror in the cut-throat political landscape of today.

The depiction of Cromwell’s character, however, is what really endeared me to the book. His difficult childhood, the love he had for his wife and children, and the home he fostered for many waiflings or other rejected children stand in stark contrast to the violent and conniving portrait we are presented with in the history books. Women, too, get more credit than usual through Mantel’s lens as we see the scope of women’s influence; for example, Anne Boleyn using what subtle tools she has to rise to power. Mantel’s third book in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, has just been released and I’m so excited to dive into some more meaty historical fiction.

A much more 21st century book is the winner of this year’s Booker Prize, Girl, Woman, Other: a chorus of voices that weaves together to create a whole. We meet 12 different people over the course of the book, mostly women, mostly black, in London and its surrounds. Evaristo creates an enchanting portrait of each person as we fill in their backstory to understand where they have come from and how that dictates where they end up. Egos jostle together with understated personalities and the qualities of each person are displayed alongside their foibles and biases, even if they can’t fully recognise these traits as such. Often collections of stories struggle to form a coherent whole, but this narrative comes together pleasingly as you place each person within the ecosystem of the novel. A great book club read full of entertaining and diverse voices.

Charmaine — 
Welcoming the Unwelcome by Pema Chodron and The Reunion by Fred Uhlman

Two books from my summer reading are gems to be shared. Whilst I was struggling with the horrors of the fires and feeling anxious and concerned and quite helpless I read Pema Chodron’s latest book. Welcoming the Unwelcome not only reminded me to continue with my meditation practice but also gave me a way to keep feeling connected with others and compassionate in hard times. Her wisdom and experience is perfect for these heartbreaking times.

I also read a 1960 classic, Fred Uhlman’s The Reunion and thank you to the lovely customer who made me aware of this little book. It is somewhat autobiographical and tells the intense story of a friendship between two schoolboys, one a Jew and the other a Christian. Set in Germany just as Hitler and anti-semitism is rising, the tension between the two teenagers becomes excruciating. Hans, the Jewish boy is sent to New York by his family to keep him safe. The book is beautiful and sad and at just 74 pages, is a perfect story of friendship, loss, betrayal and growing up.

Kate — 
Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor

I was planning to write about Girl, Woman, Other but Annie beat me to it. I can’t recommend it enough, it is a fabulous book. Also a fabulous read that challenges preconceptions of gender and sexuality is Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl by Andrea Lawlor. Paul can morph into any body he likes, crossing gender and sexuality borders to fit his mood of the moment. This is an adventurous and hilarious romp through Paul’s adventures in partying, politics, making zines, leather bars, women only music festivals, travelling from New York City to Iowa to Provincetown.

Lawlor explores queer struggles and pleasure in this charming coming-of-age speculative fiction. What I found most interesting is how Paul changes in personality as his body changed. Andrea Lawlor is coming to Writers’ Week and I’m looking forward to getting more insight into where this idea came from. 

What We’re Reading: October 2019

Annie — 
Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez and A Single Thread by Tracy Chevalier

I’ve been on several weeks holiday and have divided my time between gardening, socialising and unpacking a house after a recent move. Oh, and I’ve found some time for reading.

Invisible Women is a rousing call to action that addresses a glaring blind spot in the data collection that increasingly dictates our lives: information about women. Across a whole range of issues, from transportation to work, medicine to machines, women’s experiences are not being tracked and therefore not being accounted for. As a result, half the world risks consequences that range from frustrating to fatal as we traverse a world that is not built for us. Criado Perez writes in an engaging and readable style, with appropriate sarcasm and humour balancing the rage that is induced by her comprehensive attack on the many gender gaps in our knowledge. The economic, social and medical costs of excluding such a large portion of humanity are drawn starkly and I hope that the recent awarding of the Royal Society of Science prize means that this book engenders future change.  

Speaking of invisible women, Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel, A Single Thread, kept me entertained and fascinated by a group of women often forgotten in history: the unfortunately named ‘surplus women’, who lived between the wars in the UK without men to give them substance or protection. One such woman, Violet, moves to the town of Winchester to escape her difficult mother in an attempt to strike out on her own. She becomes involved with a group of ’broderers’ at the cathedral, who are working on a large scale project to fill the pews with kneelers and cushions. Chevalier skilfully brings to life a range of characters who demonstrate the limited options available to women of the time, but who manage to make their mark in spite of the unfavourable circumstances. A deeply enjoyable holiday read that has enough meat to take to your book club. 

Charmaine — 
The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

I don’t know if this happens to you but I am having a period of not reading as much as usual. I know it will pass and meanwhile I’m listening to lots of book podcasts. But I did read Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s Stella prizewinning book, The Erratics. This is the memoir of a family that is dominated by a narcissistic personality disordered mother, although was not diagnosed until very recently. Vicki returns home to Canada following 18 years of estrangement from her parents. The visit is preceded by her mother being admitted to hospital after a fall. Vicki and her sister arrive to find their father in very poor health. Despite their mother’s charismatic and compelling personality – she tells astounding lies – they take the opportunity to ensure that their mother does not return home again. Well this is a tragic story of the devastating impact that this mother has wrought on her family, but it is told with some humour and spareness of detail.

Kate — 
Irma Voth by Miriam Toews and Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann

I stayed up all night reading Irma Voth by Miriam Toews and now I’m at work in a daze, still in the strange and wonderful and distressing world of Irma. A customer ordered in this book and then lent it to me saying she think I’d like it and I think I may honestly have found my new favourite book. Irma is nineteen and her family is part of a Mennonite community camp. She is quietly rebellious, astute and hilarious in her perception of the world. She marries an outsider Mexican man, unacceptable to her family and is moved to a house nearby. There is an empty expansiveness of the Chihuahuan desert scrublands in Mexico. Her husband soon tells her she is a bad wife and leaves. Irma is lost and aimless until a chaotic film crew arrive, with idealistic plans to make a film about Mennonites. She is drawn in to their artistic life and ideas. As her role as translator for the lead actress leads her to experiment with her view of the world as she deliberately translates incorrectly and drives her own narrative. While the book is subversive and humourous, the oppressiveness of her Mennonite family is not ignored. She literally runs for her life with her sisters to Mexico and begins to start a new life there. This book is such a unique and compelling story of finding your own way and overcoming adversity. I already miss Irma!

I’m also chipping away at Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, a contender for the Man Booker prize this year. It is 998 pages and is written in eight sentences. I didn’t know this when I started it and it took me a while to notice. An Ohio housewife who was once a teacher, but after recovering from cancer, now bakes pies at home and takes care of her family, is our company for these eight long sentences. This compelling and witty book experiments with what stream of consciousness writing can do and made me think about how sculpted narrative usually is. I enjoy the honesty and immediacy of this structure and feel like I’m in an intimate space with the narrator. I suppose it’s close to being inside someone else’s head. The narrator jumps from subjects erratically and tackles things such as cinnamon rolls, a good time to plant nasturtiums, the Black Lives Matter movement, the death of her mother and the fact that apparently teenagers check their phones 2000 times a day. Ducks, Newburyport is an original and refreshing read. I would recommend to people who are usually drawn to writing and characters over plot. I am totally hooked – will report more next month. 

What We’re Reading: September 2019

Annie — 
Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

This month I’m getting to two books that I should have read long ago and am (somewhat unsurprisingly) being blown away by these modern classics. 

Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu has been running off the shelves

 ever since it was published in 2014 and has recently been given new wings with the publication of a version for younger readers. It is an incredible investigation of Aboriginal political, social and agricultural practices pre-contact with Europeans and Pascoe draws on the diaries, letters, illustrations and photographs of early settlers to craft his argument. What he uncovers is a vastly different picture to the hunter-gatherer narrative that we have been taught in schools. Rather, the Indigenous population of this country were farming, fishing and managing the land using a wide array of sophisticated engineering techniques.

While these practices alone place First Nations people further along the evolutionary track than many people give them credit for, they were also building large, robust structures and maintaining a peaceful and democratic governance across this vast land. European settlers deliberately ignored or obscured the facts to lay better claim to a land that they wanted for their own financial gain – and have laid waste to in the successive 250 years. However, Pascoe’s account is far from bitter as he urges all Australians to accept and acknowledge the wisdom of his ancestors so that we can start to repair some of the damage done by colonisation. Full of fascinating stats, facts and anecdotes, Dark Emu is a remarkable work of scholarship and one that all Australians should read.

The other book that I’m shamefully late to the party on is Margaret Atwood’s classic, The Handmaid’s Tale. Prompted by the upcoming release of the sequel this month, I’ve finally taken the plunge. As with all books that stand the test of time, Atwood’s misogynist dystopia feels strikingly relevant as women are segregated from men (for their own good, of course) and stratified into the roles of Wives, Handmaids or Marthas – all of which are preferable to the unmentionable fate of the ‘Unwomen’. Bodily autonomy, reproductive rights, language, power and class are all skewered by Atwood in her typically nuanced fashion. Just like Orwell’s 1984, the tone is oppressive and ominous, even though we experience the day-to-day reality of the characters rather than a broader picture of society. Atwood’s dark humour, superb characterisation and masterfully painted scenes keep the book bearable, even as our heroine walks deeper into a forest full of danger. I can’t wait to get back to it and then dive straight into the sequel when it arrives! 

Carly — 
Liarbird by Laura + Philip Bunting

The white lie is a tricky skill to master, lucky for Lyrebirds they learn to lie from the day they hatch. They are the best in the bush at fibbing, faking, fabricating and fake-news creating. Laura and Philip Bunting’s newest offering, Liarbird, is their most hilarious book yet. Philips’ soft, bold illustrations and sophisticated palette combined with Laura’s witty play on words will have adults and children laughing together from page one. Familiar characters Koala and Kookaburra, join Liarbird to tell the classic tale of The Boy who Cried Wolf with a Jon Klassenesque dry humor from books like, This is not my Hat. Just when you are almost convinced that lying is a necessity in life, disaster strikes and Liarbird is left cleaning up his mess vowing to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. What could possibly go wrong? A laugh out loud book with a subtle message for the media-information age generation.

Kate — 
The Yield by Tara June Winch

I was blown away by Tara June Winch’s debut novel Swallow the Air (2006), so when The Yield was released this month I was eager to get have it in my hands. This story is told through three narratives and periods of time. August Gondiwindi is returning to Country after living overseas for over a decade when her Pop dies of cancer. There’s Pop, reflecting on his memories of growing up in a mission and learning about his culture later in life, by writing a Wiradjuri-English dictionary. These connected stories are interspersed with the letters of a nineteenth-century missionary, Reverend Greenleaf. From these three narratives we learn about the place the Gondiwindi family live; Prosperous House in the fictional town of Massacre Plains. We learn about the history and the treatment of Aboriginal people and the development of the mission. We learn about Pop’s experience of growing up in the mission and cut off from his culture. He recalls learning the old ways later in life, of being taught language, ancient farming practices, stories and dance. These parts of the story are beautiful and poetic and I was often brought to tears with the images of connection to land and spirits. When August arrives home, she quickly learns that her Nan is being evicted and a mining company are taking over the land. Similarly to Too Much Lip, childhood heartbreak and cultural loss are developed alongside environmental devastation and native land title. 

In her review of The Yield, Yugambeh author Ellen van Neerven says Winch’s use of Wiradjuri “decolonises the throat and tongue”. She asks: What does contemporary use of language look like? What can it offer us in our lives? What can it do for the overall health of our country? These questions and many more are raised in The Yield, a poetic and powerful novel that I have learnt greatly from and I urge everyone to read! 

What We’re Reading: August 2019

Annie 
Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner and The Yield by Tara June Winch

I’ve been reading lots of great forthcoming fiction at the moment, in preparation for the end of the year, but here are two that are out at the moment that I’ve particularly enjoyed. 

Fleishman is in Trouble is a highly accomplished debut novel from the New York Times staff writer, Taffy Brodesser-Akner. We follow Toby, a middle-aged doctor who is diving back into the world of dating after his protracted divorce. His phone is running hot with dates, but when his tween children get dropped at his door and his ex-wife is off the grid, he has to reassess his options. Blisteringly funny, tongue-in-cheek and surprisingly honest about the state of modern relationships, Brodesser-Akner weaves plenty of home truths into this book about marriage, responsibility and friendship. 

Closer to home, Tara June Winch’s third book The Yield is a beautifully rendered portrait of a grieving family and a changing town. August Gondiwindi is returning to her hometown after a decade in Europe for the funeral of her beloved grandfather. The place she returns to is in peril – mining corporations and greed threatening to remove the land from under their families’ feet for a second time. As she reconnects with family and old friends, August is hunting for closure. Interspersed with her story, we are given Albert Gondiwindi’s own account through a dictionary of the reclaimed Waradjuri language and the diaries of a German minister who established Prosperous Mission, where Albert grew up. This is a luminous novel about history, heritage, ownership and the power of language and story. The Yield would make a great book club pick!

Jess
Jim’s Book: The Surprising Story of Jim Penman Australia’s Backyard Millionaire by Catherine Moolenschot

Most Australians know Jim, his face graces arguably one Australia’s best known brands. But as I discovered through reading this fascinating biography, I actually knew pretty much nothing about him, in fact Jim isn’t even his real name! Jim’s book tells the story of both Jim the man and Jim the business, both tales are equally fascinating and at times astounding. Jim never set out to become one of Australia’s most successful business people, in reality his business evolved as a vehicle to enable him to continue to pursue his academic research, which focuses on the rise and fall of civilisations throughout history and Jim devotes a large part of his personal wealth to this continuing research. It’s often said that truth is stranger than fiction: although at times Jim’s Book reads like a quirky bestseller with a colourful main character, Jim Penman is one hundred percent real and he is one of the most interesting and memorable characters that I have read about for a long time.

Kate 
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

I’ve been enchanted by Lisa Taddeo’s book Three Women, a work of investigative journalism unlike anything I’ve read before. Taddeo spends eight years with three women, getting to know them and researching their sex lives and desire. We learn about their formative experiences and how they came to be where they are today. In some ways these stories are ordinary, they could be anyone, but each woman has a defining element in her sex life. Maggie had a relationship with her high school teacher, Lina has cheated on her husband with her first love and Sloane and her husband are swingers. The way Taddeo traces how early experiences informed what follows reveals interesting insights into desire and power. I’m particularly interested in how systemic control has shaped the lives of many of these women. This element is both revealing and frustrating. The balancing of frustration with seduction and delight makes for an impressive and highly enjoyable read!