Bridget Crack, by Rachel Leary

There is a lot to like in this debut novel from the Australian writer. It feels like a realistic, if very bleak, view of what women faced when transported to Australia.

Van Diemen’s Land in 1826 is even worse than Bridget Crack imagined.

Transported for seven years, she is placed in indentured service. She rebels against the rules and the attitudes of her masters, and finds herself resassigned.

But that’s an even worse situation, and this time when it fails she finds herself condemned to a place in the interior.

Isolated, angry, under threat, she decides to take her chances on the run in a wilderness that is both beautiful and brutal. When bushrangers find her, she has no choices left.

One, Matt, has his eye on her, and he makes sure she stays close. In Hobart Town, the bushrangers are notorious, and there is big price on their heads.

Soon enough, there are rumours they have been joined by a woman – one known to be rebellious – and she joins them on the Wanted posters.

Leary’s debut novel is a powerful, bleak telling of the terrible conditions that faced female convicts in Van Diemen’s Land, and she pulls no punches in detailing the degradation and despair they faced.

But the story jumps around at times and many of the minor characters seem interchangeable.

This book was published in July 2017. This review first appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. 

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City of Crows, by Chris Womersley

Wonderful, dark work from the Australian writer.

The “city of crows” is Paris in 1673, a chaotic city where sorceresses and thieves rule alongside the king.

In the plague-ridden countryside is Charlotte, who has buried three children, and now lost her husband to plague.

She takes her remaining child, Nicolas, out of her village – the only place she’s ever known – in the hope she can keep him safe.

But in the forest she is attacked and nearly killed, her son taken by thieves with the darkest of intent. Near death, she encounters the Forest Queen, a witch who has lived there, in one form or another, for centuries.

Charlotte has a choice, but she will do whatever she must to get back her son. On her quest she collects Lesage, recently released from a galley hell-hole with a mission of his own, and together they head into the maelstrom of Paris.

Womersley’s book is dark and sometimes brutal, hovering between the magical and real worlds.

The tale – born of real people and real events – is quite a change of pace for Melbourne-based Womersley, who has deservedly won a swag of awards for his writing.

This book was published in August 2017. This review was first published in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. 

Young Jane Young, by Gabrielle Zevin

Zevin’s work always has loads of zing. 

Young intern Aviva Grossman determines her fate when she starts blogging – anonymously – about the affair she’s having with the married congressman she’s working for.

When the story gets out, the blog becomes very public property, and in no time she’s Florida’s answer to Monica Lewinsky, and at the centre of a major national scandal.

Aviva takes the entirely sensible decision to disappear to the other end of the country, with a blank past, a new name, a new career – and a daughter. More than a decade passes, and she hopes everyone’s forgotten.

But when she decides to stand in a local election, she discovers her past simply won’t go away.

Told from the points of view of Aviva, her mother, her daughter and the congressman’s wife, the novel also uses a variety of techniques in its storytelling, with one section as a series of letters and another done as a create-your-own-story that shows how the whole mess unfolded.

It’s a delight to read a book with such unapologetic and interesting women, and I would happily have spent more time with all of them. A perfect beach read. Zevin has also written some excellent YA literature.

Taboo, by Kim Scott

Fabulous book from the great Australian writer. Haunting and memorable. Should find itself on all the lists of best books of 2017.

The massacre was a long time ago.

An Aboriginal girl raped by a farmer brought payback, and that sparked a massive retaliation against the local population. There weren’t many left after that.

But now a descendant of those farmers, Dan, wants to bring healing to what became a haunted, taboo place.

He’s planned a peace plaque and a ceremony to bring back the descendants of those who once lived in the area, the Wirlomin and Noongar people.

It also brings Tilly, a deeply troubled girl who has connections to both sides – fostered with Dan and his wife as a child, and descended on her father’s side from the Wirlomin mob, and still learning what that means.

As elders and family walk the property, visiting the old sites and planning the ceremony, they evoke the spirits of the past.

Tilly becomes the centrepoint – of present and past, of what happened long ago and what continues to happen.

Scott’s book is stunning – haunted and powerful, giving shadowy presence to those ghosts as they watch and shape unfolding events.

Scott, one of the Noongar people, has won the Miles Franklin Literary Award twice, in 2000 and 2011, along with a host of other prizes.

This book was first published in July 2017. This review first appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine. 

On The Java Ridge, by Jock Serong

Top-notch political thriller from the Australian writer. One of the best things I’ve read this year.

In Indonesian waters northwest of Australia, the paths of two wooden boats are about to cross.

In the one are dozens of asylum seekers of all ages. In the other, a bunch of pleasure-seeking Australian surfers, their captain and two Indonesian crew.

In Australia, the Minister for Border Protection, Cassius Calvert, is heading into an election making a strong statement about keeping Australia’s borders secure.

He announces the recruitment of an outside organisation, Core Resolve, to take over the “remote” control of any attempted breaches of Australia’s sea borders.

It was a move orchestrated by the PM, who is determined that absolutely nothing should disrupt the Government’s message on this issue in the days before re-election. But when circumstances bring these two boats together, the situation spirals out of control.

It’s a political thriller crossed with dystopian horror, except that the savage political situation feels disturbingly close to reality.

Wearing his heart very firmly on his sleeve, Serong mixes a brutal abuse of power with a heart-stopping, tragic story of asylum seekers suffering a major emergency at sea. Fabulous writing, and also seriously disturbing.

This book was published in July 2017. This review first appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine.  

Selfie: how we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us, by Will Story

Will Storr is always worth reading. Fascinating stuff. 

Just a few pages into to this provocative book, British journalist Will Storr presents a horrifying statistic: according to the WHO, more people died from self-harm than from all interpersonal violence (war, terrorism, murders, execution) in 2012.

It predicts this is only getting worse. So why? Where does all this self-hatred come from?

In answering, Storr goes on a journey through Western notions of the self, starting with Aristotle and ending in the bowels of social media. He centres much of his modern discussion on the US – through neoliberalism, Ayn Rand, self-esteem and cultural notions of human perfection.

He explores the suicide in 2015 of visionary Silicon Valley DNA entrepreneur Austen Heinz after a savage media and social media campaign, and selfie-queen CJ’s narcissistic obsession with posting perfect pictures of herself.

And he doesn’t spare himself, enduring a six-day retreat in the Big Yurt in search of his “authentic self”at Esalen Institute in California, and examining himself unflinchingly as each new insight is revealed.

It’s a fascinating journey, with a lot to say about our notions of success and happiness in this modern world.

The Last Garden, by Eva Hornung

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Eva Hornung writes unusual and powerful books, with an amazing affinity for animals.

Benedict Orion comes home from boarding school – excited to get away from books and into the everyday work of the family farm – to find his parents dead in a murder-suicide.

In deep shock, he retreats, unable anymore to step foot into the home he loved.

He finds refuge in the barn, in close quarters with the old mare Melba, and the young feisty stallion Fell.

His neighbours in Wahrheit, a close-knit Germanic religious farming community in South Australia, are patiently waiting for the second coming of the Messiah.

Benedict – now living in the barn, never leaving the farm – remains withdrawn from the horrors of the past or thoughts of the future, existing solely through the horses and the needs of the farm and the passing seasons.

Wahrheit’s pastor keeps watch, visiting and bringing food from the community, seeing the gawky teenager slowly rediscover himself. But there are other pressures building in Wahrheit, and the pastor has to find his own way through doubts and trauma.

Hornung won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for her last book, Dog Boy, which explored some similar territory in the close bonds between boy and animal.

Full of symbolism but not overpowered by it, this is a powerful and wonderful book, and the writing is mesmerising.

This book was published in may 2017. The review was printed in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine.

Hello Goodbye, by Emily Brewin

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Welcome exploration of what feels like an underexplored part of Melbourne’s past.

May Callaghan is a good Catholic girl who is barely surviving the boredom of the small Victorian country town where she is finishing high school in 1968.

In the background, the Vietnam War and conscription is a constant threat to the young men she knows, and talk of it rattles her father, who has terrible war memories of his own.

May falls for Sam, who has an itch to get out of town that’s even bigger than her own; her cousin Lucy has her own ways of stretching the town’s moral strait-jacket.

Sam heads to Melbourne, landing in a share house in Carlton. When May follows, she’s confronted by a different world, one with draft dodgers and anti-war activists, and plenty of confrontations and excitement.

Her new circumstances transform her life, bringing condemnation from family and authorities, but she has Sam and her new housemates – indigenous student Clancy and bohemian Ruby – and that has to be enough.

Brewin’s debut is an engaging coming-of-age novel that explores a volatile and colourful part of Melbourne’s history.

She has received an Australian Society of Authors Emerging Writers and Illustrators mentorship.

This book was published in June 2017. The review appeared in the Herald Sun’s Weekend magazine, 

Dear Reflection: I never meant to be a Rebel, by Jessica Bell

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Small stories are sometimes the most powerful.

Jessica Bell was brought up in a fairly chaotic household that included her mother and her partner Demetri – a  “semi-famous” indie duo who played Melbourne pubs – and her younger brother.

Her mother, Erika Bach, was also a heavy user of pills and alcohol, and was increasingly anxious, making the confusion of growing up even more difficult and isolated.

By her mid teens, Jessica was becoming a rebel herself – drinking and playing hard, finding herself in frightening situations – as depression took hold of her thinking.

But she found her way through, via some searching self-reflection and considerable help from music, particularly writing her own songs and playing with her band, spAnk.

The life she has now made for herself is powerfully crafted from that chaotic upbringing.

She co-founded the small publisher Vine Leaves Press, is a singer with the band Keep Shelly in Athens, has written extensively and lives in Greece.

It’s a story of a troubled upbringing – full of the kind of pain and hard choices young people face every day – that will resonate strongly with teenagers trying to find their own way to a creative and authentic life.

Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession, by Alison Weir

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Interesting instalment in the series on the wives of Henry VIII by the respected historian.

I thought there wasn’t much more you could say about the most notorious and most written about of Henry VIII’s six wives, Anne Boleyn.

At least 24 books plus a couple of plays and TV series have featured her just in the past decade, ranging from the serious to the slightly silly (the vampire version).

But I was wrong. Historian Alison Weir here turns her extensive academic research into a popular novel, tracing Anne’s life from her earliest years – an area often ignored by writers in favour of her dramatic and tragic later years.

It makes a good companion piece to the serious history Weir wrote some years ago about Anne, The Lady in the Tower, which focuses on the final stages of her life. In making the switch from history to popular writing, Weir has modernised the language, sometimes going too far into the jarringly modern (“Orders is orders,” Sir Edmund barked).

This is the second in Weir’s comprehensive series The Six Tudor Queens, each installment told with a fair degree of sympathy from that queen’s point of view.

The result is a portrait of a doomed queen that feels both accurate and very human, in a book that is enjoyably engrossing.

My review of book 1 in this series: Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen, by Alison Weir

https://corinna1blog.wordpress.com/2016/05/23/six-tudor-queens-katherine-of-aragon-the-true-queen-by-alison-weir/

My (brief) published review of the precursor to this book: The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn

Popular British historian Alison Weir concentrates on Tudor queen Anne Boleyn’s downfall, from the time she first suspects she’s in trouble to her death on the scaffold – just four months – and the aftermath. Weir sets the record straight on a number of myths in this awesomely thorough account, with the rare (for a history) result that these feel like real people caught in a real tragedy. However, that incredible depth on a narrow subject can feel like too much detail. A must for fans of Tudor history.