I discovered Kate Morton a little over a year ago, when I read and reviewed her new book The Secret Keeper for Lip Magazine. I instantly fell in love with the author, and was determined to read her back list. For Christmas last year, I got given The Shifting Fog, and have been yet to read it. So it seems only fitting that I begin my 100 Homegrown Reads Challenge with the book.
I haven’t read much of the book yet, but already I’m captivated. A film maker is making a film about a mysterious suicide which occurred in an old English mansion in 1924. In 1999, 98 year-old Grace Bradley is the only person still living who can shed any light on what occurred that night at Riverton Manor. The film maker contacts Grace to ask if she would review the sets to make sure the details are correct, and Grace’s memory sends her back to 1924.
Morton begins the novel with a scene written as though it is part of the film maker’s movie script, and I must admit, it is quite off-putting to open the first page and be confronted by a movie script. I wanted to be immediately drawn into the story, and Morton’s beautiful prose, and starting with the script removed my interest immediately. But once I found the courage to actually start the novel, I didn’t want to put it down. I am especially eager to find out how the mystery of the suicide is resolved, given the brilliant twist Morton injected into the end of The Secret Keeper.
Morton is another Australian writer who chooses to write stories set in other countries, but her inclusion on the list of favourite home grown reads shows that it is not the locality of a novel which necessarily makes a novel Australian, but the nationality of the author who writes the story. And when the writer is as good as Kate Morton is, why would we claim her books are anything but Australian? Looking forward to all the twists and turns I’ll undoubtedly discover in The Shifting Fog!
Deborah O’Brien’s The Jade Widow caught my attention for two reasons: one, it is set in Australian society in the 1880s, and two, O’Brien’s two protagonists are women. I have read very little, fiction or otherwise, set in Australia in that time period, particularly with a narrative revolving around the role of women at the time.
The Jade Widow is the sequel to Mr Chen’s Emporium, and continues the story of Eliza Miller, who is attempting to forge a career as one of Australia’s first female doctors, and Amy Chen, who is still mourning the death of her husband twelve years after the event, and has big plans for establishing a grand hotel in Millbrooke in country New South Wales.
Although I hadn’t read the prequel, I found it easy to slip into the world of The Jade Widow. O’Brien’s characters are full of life, and her writing sucks the reader into the time period and holds them there as her two strong female protagonists each try to carve a place for themselves in a man’s world. Several prominent figures from Australia’s history make appearances in the book, and O’Brien’s writing wonderfully captures what life was like in ‘the colony’ before federation.
Even so, at times the dialogue in the book feels clumsy, as though O’Brien is trying to offload as much information about the era as possible through her characters’ interactions, and that pulled me out of the story and made me feel like I was reading a history textbook. Despite this, the overall charm of the book is enough to overcome these moments.
The biggest disappointment for me with this book was the ending. It felt very abrupt, and many of the issues discussed in the novel, such as whether a woman can have a career and a family, were left unfinished and undealt with. I can accept that these issues were very new ideas for the era, and that even now women do not have all the answers and are still trying to balance family and career, yet I wished for there to be more resolution in both Eliza and Amy’s narratives, offering more closure to this particular chapter of their lives.
Still, it was refreshing to read a novel about Australian women and their place in Australian society in the 1880s, and O’Brien does a wonderful job of portraying the expectations of women and the obstacles they faced at the time. This novel made me thankful for those women who lived in the years before me, who pioneered the women’s movement and feminism, and made it ordinary, not extraordinary, for women to have careers in whichever field they choose.
Published by Random House, 2013
After all the attention Romy Ash’s debut Floundering has received this year, and all the praise I’d heard about the novel, it sounded like a book I would enjoy, and one which I had to read. Somehow, despite everything I’d read and heard about the novel before I started reading it, when I delved into the pages I found myself lost in something completely different to what I had expected, and I wonder if this surprise was part of the reason I loved this novel so much.
Brothers Tom and Jordy get left on their grandparents’ doorstep by their mother, Loretta. Then out of the blue, she returns, and takes the boys back. Told through the eyes of nine-year old Tom, I found this novel heart-breaking. Ash’s prose is both stark and mellow, as she pulls the reader into Tom’s world, where even the most unusual situations don’t seem out of the ordinary to the young boy. I fought back tears for much of the novel, and alternated between anger and sadness for Loretta, who clearly tries her best but doesn’t have much idea. I admired the boys and their resilience, as the book serves as a reminder that while kids are resilient people, who knows what long-lasting effects certain events may have on the rest of their lives?
Books I love I can usually read again and again, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to read Floundering again. The writing is raw, the emotion real and I convinced myself that what I was reading was real. Ash brought the vast Australian landscape to life, where it’s not difficult to feel like you’re the last person on earth, together with characters who could be those people who live just down the road, or those kids you knew from school. Floundering is a novel which isn’t easy to forget, and, despite evoking so much emotion, is very enjoyable to read. But maybe only once.
Floundering, Romy Ash. Text Publishing, 2012
I wish I’d read this book when I was a teenager, although at the same time I’m glad I haven’t encountered this book until now. I’m not sure I would have gotten as much out of the book when I was a teenager as I did reading it now. Walk in My Shoes is told through the eyes of 14-year old Gulnessa, who escapes Afghanistan with her family and arrives illegally in Australia on a boat. They are subsequently put in a detention centre for processing, which they can’t understand- why is this country locking them up when the criminals are the ones terrorising their country, not the ones who try to escape? Why do the Australians think they would risk their lives to get here unless they had no other choice?
This is a book which so desperately needed to be written, and, while it was published back in 2004, I feel it is especially relevant now. News reports and politicians refuse to put a face to asylum seekers and “boat people” and to detention centres, making it difficult to understand and think about what these people go through on their journey to be accepted into Australia. Walk in My Shoes puts faces to this collective group, and it is heart-wrenching. I was so close to crying on so many occasions while reading this book, for all of the challenges these asylum seekers endure: the painful decision to flee their country for the sake of their lives, the difficult journey out of their country, the hope keeping them afloat on the treacherous boat ride to Australia and how their hope keeps getting dashed the longer they are kept in the detention centre, locked-up in overcrowded conditions behind barbed wire.
Evans’ writing is so vivid and so detailed, that it is hard to remember that this particular family is fictional, although their experiences are based on the experiences of actual asylum seekers. The majority of Australians have no idea how much we have to be thankful for; that we live in a country where we don’t wake up every morning fearing for our lives. Walk in My Shoes is a book which everyone should read. It will, at the very least, remind you that asylum seekers are real people, simply looking for a safe place to live, something which should be, but isn’t, a basic right for everyone.
Walk in My Shoes, published by Penguin, 2004
This month, we’ll be reading ‘Boy Overboard’ by Morris Gleitzman.
I knew that not all magazine editors would be like Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, or the famous Anna Wintour. But when I started reading The Vogue Factor, I did also have in the back of my mind that Kirstie Clements had worked for Vogue for over two decades, and that Vogue is a high-end fashion magazine. So I certainly didn’t expect the book to be about such a down-to-earth, realistic, genuinely grateful for her opportunities Vogue editor.
Kirstie Clements’ The Vogue Factor is written about Clements’ years working for the magazine. She worked her way up from humble beginnings working on reception to become the editor-in-chief. And how easily even that opportunity could have passed her by: she convinced her interviewer to put her on trial first, before another girl also in consideration for the job, and that if they liked her, they wouldn’t have to bother replacing her. As they say, the rest is history.
It is impossible not to like Clements and the way she writes about the amazing career she forged for herself. She never takes any of it for granted. It is clear that she’s always worked hard, and been grateful and gracious about all the opportunities which have come her way. She also offers a stern lesson for all her readers: if you want something, and you’re willing to work hard enough to get it, it just might come your way. This is how she ends up as the editor of Vogue, and how she finds herself interviewing Crown Princess Mary in Denmark, one of many amazing experiences Clements has had. Unfortunately, Clements’ story is also a reminder that you can be doing everything right and still it’s not quite good enough, as she discovered when she was sacked out of the blue from the magazine in 2012.
What I truly loved about this story is the complete Aussie-ness of it. Vogue Australia is small fish compared to the other Vogue editions around the world, and must make do with its smaller budget, distance from the rest of the world and being considered not as important as the other Vogue titles. But that is also what makes the Australian edition great, as the magazine constantly features up and coming and established Australian models, celebrities and designers. The plight of the magazine is the plight of the Aussie battler on the international fashion scene, as is the plight of Clements as she works her way up to become editor-in-chief.
I have a whole new appreciation for Vogue and the tireless hours spent creating such a magazine. It is a high-end fashion magazine, and not everyone can afford to spend thousands on Prada. But everyone can appreciate the creative pursuits of the magazine and of those featured in it, and be proud of the fact we had Kirstie Clements at the head of the magazine for so long.
Published Melbourne University Press, 2013
Review copy thanks to Net Galley
This year, I’ve decided to join the Australian Women Writers Challenge. The challenge began when it became apparent that women writers were not as reviewed as male writers, and therefore their books were not as well-known and thus less-read than male writers. The challenge encourages readers and book bloggers to set themselves the challenge of committing to reading and reviewing, or just reading, a set number of books by Australian women writers this year.
You may be wondering if this is really necessary, especially in the twenty-first century. And I was asking myself that very same question. Do I discriminately read male writers over female writers? And, for that matter, do I discriminately read female writers who are not Australian over Australian women writers? One of my reasons for starting this blog a year ago was to explore Australian writing, as I felt I didn’t know enough about the literary and writing scene of my own country. I knew my reading of Australian books wasn’t very deep, and that must have included my reading of books by Australian women writers.
Therefore, I have decided to join the challenge, to motivate myself to continue reading even more Australian books this year, and to ensure I read a fair share of books by Australian’s women writers! I’ve chosen the Miles level, which means reading six books and reviewing at least four of those books throughout the year. Because from my experiences over the past year of reminiscing about old favourite Australian books and discovering new ones, there are a plethora of wonderful Australian women’s voices waiting to be discovered and shared, and that’s something I definitely want to be a part of.