Sunday, February 21, 2021

Girl in the Walls by A.J. Gnuse


I received this book as part of #BRPreview. 

I am not usually a gothic novel reader so was initially apprehensive. The story ticks all the boxes when it comes to the conventions of a Gothic novel but it is not Frankenstein. This is American Southern Gothic literature; something quite different. 

The setting is in the months leading up to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

At first, I wrestled with the premise of a young girl living inside the walls of her old home while a new family lived there. As she climbed up and down inside the walls like a spider monkey, I was mentally sputtering "Preposterous!". But I have lived long enough now to know nothing is impossible. 

Once disbelief was suspended, I had a fine old time, scaring myself silly with the "monster" who inevitably shows up. 

This book is a triumph on many levels: the writing, the characters, the pacing. I loved the short little chapters. They helped ease me into the story and made me feel I could dip my toes in carefully. A big thank you to all who brought this story to life. So many important ideas to think and talk about; what is home, a monster,  fear ? Great job!

Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai


I read this book in a bit of a rush because I decided I wanted to participate in the first Avid Reader online bookclub.  (If you would like to participate, you can register for the next one on 2 March.  It will be about Labyrinth by Amanda Lohrey).  Thanks to Gold Coast Libraries I was able to find an e-version quickly.

This from Avid Reader's website:

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai was born in Việt Nam in 1973, and grew up witnessing the war's devastation of her country. She worked as a street seller and rice farmer before winning a scholarship to attend university in Australia. She is the author of eight books of poetry, short fiction and non-fiction in Vietnamese. Her writing has been translated and published in more than ten countries and has received many honors, including the Hà Nội Writers Association's Poetry of the Year 2010 Award. She currently divides her time between Indonesia and Việt Nam.

I had about five days to read The Mountains Sing.  Let me tell you, I had no trouble reading it at all.  It was very engaging from the get-go.  

As a family historian, I was delighted to see the Tran Family Tree on the first page.  And indeed, this is a family saga, told from two points of view, see-sawing between the grand-daughter's and then the grandmother's point of view.  

My bookclub read Pachinko last year which was a real eye-opener to me in terms of history and this was much the same. I was transported immediately into the Vietnam war and its terror.  

This is not a memoir, rather a fictitious story made from stories told to Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai combined with her own memories and experience.  

What I loved about the book was that it was by-and-large a compelling read.  I say by-and-large because there was one point in the book, about two-thirds of the way through, where I started to feel it getting "soapy" and I felt "outside" the story rather than being immersed in it.  I almost felt that it was written by another author in bits.  

The online bookclub discussion was very good and other readers offered insights into why I might have felt this way e.g. problems with translation; sometimes it is hard to capture subtleties in language.  But not to worry, this was only for a short while and then I became engaged in the story again.

I also loved the lyrical quality of the language.  There are some standout passages in this story.  The one that resonated or touched me deeply was the following one:

My mother was like a tree uprooted.  She would just sit there on the phan, her gaze distant and empty.  Minh, Ngoc and Dat didn't leave her alone, though.They surrounded her, becoming the soil of her life, demanding that she grow new roots. "Grandma, play with us," they said, pulling her arms, leading her out of the house, and into their childhood games.

Just beautiful, no?

I gave this 4/5 stars in the end.  It certainly stimulated me emotionally AND intellectually and  I learned heaps e.g. I grew up thinking Hanoi and Saigon were just that but no, they are Ha Noi and Sai Gon.  Just little things like that makes me realize how ignorant I am.  As if I didn't need more reminders ;)  The author describes the complexity of the Vietnam War from the families who didn't fit neatly into North and South, or indeed the soldiers.  I had no idea about the Great Hunger and the description of Land Reform was truly shocking.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai wrote this story as a plea for no more war.  She didn't need to convince me but I hope her book is widely read and disabused anyone who thinks there might be glory or salvation in war.  

If you would like to see the Avid Reader interview with Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai you can catch it on YouTube here.

Honeybee by Craig Silvey

I finished 4 books in January.  My review of Memorial Drive is the blog post before this.  Then I read Weather by Jenny Offill, Honeybee by Craig Silvey and Nobody Will Tell you this but Me by Bess Kalb.  All very different books.

Today I will review Honeybee by Craig Silvey.

Craig is an Australian writer based in Western Australia.  He is probably most famous for his novel Jasper Jones.  I confess to not having read Jasper Jones but I did see the movie.  Does that count?  I can highly recommend it.  It was directed by Rachel Perkins and has a to-die-for cast including Toni Collette, Hugo Weaving, Dan Wyllie, and Susan Prior.  

I was very slow to read Honeybee. Everybody else seemed to read it waaaay before I did.  I was lucky to borrow it from the Ipswich Library service and they had plenty of copies to borrow at their wonderful Karalee Book Pod.

The subject matter didn't feel very original to me at the beginning.  I kept thinking to myself "Oh this is a bit of Julie and Julia or Animal Kingdom.  But I persevered and slowly the characters started to grab hold of me.  More importantly, I began to worry for Sam.  There is a wide range of characters in this story from drug addicts to bullies, to drag queens and Vietnam Vets.  Craig did a great job of making them all believable.  In particular, I loved Sam's friend Aggie's character to bits; so unique and funny as well as being heartbreakingly honest and a real friend.  

Going back through the book I am surprised how quickly the story unfolds (much quicker than I remember). The best bit about the book was that you weren't told why Sam was called Honeybee until the very end.  I loved that.

I gave Honeybee 4/5 stars and mostly because Craig captured the kind of ghastly conversations someone has with a bully.  They were so gut-wrenching for me to read.  Let me give you an example:

"The fuck are you doing?"
I tried to close the door, but he blocked me.
"The fuck is this?"
"Doesn't fucking look like nothing.'
He stepped inside and I backed away.
'It's nothing. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.'
He pushed me hard. I fell back.  He closed the door behind him. Then he picked up the iPad.
'Who's this? What are you, a faggot?"
I shook my head.
Steve snapped the iPad in half and threw it aside.
"You're not a faggot?'
'Then what are you?'
"You're nothing?"
'Yes. No."

And so on.  You get the picture.  Pretty harrowing stuff to read.    

But it's not all doom and gloom.  Sam thankfully meets some wonderful people who give them just the support they need to discover who they are, grow strong and be at ease with their identity.

So in summary, the plot is compelling and I think Craig deal with the issues sympathetically but without pulling any punches.  

Yes, I would recommend this book to others but it's not for everyone and comes with a language warning and flags for issues like suicide and gender-identity.  

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey


This memoir ticked quite a few boxes for me in terms of my reading goals.  Memorial Drive was a nominee for the Goodreads Choice Award for memoir & Autobiography which is why I chose to read it. I became quite obsessed with reading memoirs last year, so this was a continuation of that.  

For 2021, I am keen to increase my empathy for those whose life experience is very different from mine.  I also wanted to read a Pulitzer Prize winner.  Whilst this book didn't win a Pulitzer Prize, Natasha Trethewey did win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007.  

It's a slim volume at 212 pages but it is by no means an easy read or a book you want to read too quickly.  It needs to be digested slowly.

This is an exploration of delayed grief. A picking away at a wound, buried for many years. The author observes:

 "The whole time I have been working to tell this story, I have done so incrementally, parsing it so that I could bear it: neat, compartmentalized segments that have allowed me to carry on these three decades without falling apart."


The book is broken into two parts.

The first part is about the author's childhood.  The second part is the author's attempt at experiential research; an attempt to reconstruct her mother's life in the final days before her second, estranged husband kills her.

Trethewey breaks up the writing from time to time with bracketed reflections.  Wikipedia tells us that square brackets or crotchets are used to insert explanatory material.  There are five of these bracketed reflections.  They are reflections on the creative process and the subconsious experience of grief.  The first reflection is an account of the author's dream three weeks after her mother dies.  The second reflection is about the dreams that began once the author announced the intention to write about the experience of her mother's death.  The final three reflections are about the writing process.

Time and Place

Trethewey was born in 1966 in Gulfport Mississippi.  On her birth certificate her mother is described as coloured and her father Canadian.  In fact her parents had to marry in Cincinatti, Ohio as it was illegal for them to marry in the south.  Her mother gave birth in the coloured ward of the hospital.  In 1966.  I am dumbstruck that segregation was still operating this late in the day.  

Trethewey's birthday was the 100th Anniversary of the Confederate Memorial Day.  That fact and having two well-educated parents who imparted a great love of writing and literature gives Trethewey a unique perspective and ability to articulate the complexity of her heritage and the challenge of straddling both worlds.  

I've included a map below for those not familiar with the locations described in the book. You can zoom in and out for context.


Themes and Issues

There are so many themes and issues in this little memoir, its difficult to know where to begin.  There is the issue of racial segregation, black and white, north and south, divorce, separation, post-traumatic stress disorder and addiction, mother-daughter relationships, blended families, domestic violence, trauma.  


As a family historian and lover of literature I found this both a visceral and deeply intellectual approach to a memoir.  

The author states:
"To survive trauma, one must be able to tell a story about it."

Her account of being "sideswiped" by grief in reading real records resonated strongly with me.  

As did the crazy happenstance or synchronicity, often in timing, of people connecting you with materials vital to your research.

As the daughter of a writer and a scholar, Trethewey is familiar with the device of metaphor to help us tell stories.  She trawls through her past examining the stories, including dreams, she has told herself, looking for reinterpretation and new meaning.   

She has suffered survivor's guilt and the challenge of acknowledging and/or coming to grips with how much our parents, and particularly our mothers, sacrifice in order to ensure not only our survival but our growth.  

Her testament to her mother's life, and the cruel robbing thereof, is powerful reading indeed and gives much food for thought.

Saturday, January 2, 2021



Every year I set myself so many reading challenges, it is just ridiculous.  I've signed up for a few already.  #AWW2021 for example and a couple of others on Goodreads - an A to Z of places and an A to Z of titles.  

Now, I've decided to sign up for #mmdchallenge which is the Modern Mrs Darcy Challenge.  I liked the sound of this one because there was a little more thought put into it.  I had to think about what my intentions were and what my reading life needed. So here we go. My goal is to read 50 books this year.


I want the following from my reading life:
  • learning
  • new experiences
  • empathy

Reading Life Needs

  • consistency in reading
  • taking notes
  • writing reviews

Mini Projects to give my reading life a boost

  • participation in a reading retreat - nup I've never done one. Nup, I've got no idea what they involve.  If you do, let me know.
  • Give away books - we have too many and there are ones that quite frankly I don't want to keep
  • Try bibliotherapy or being involved in a literacy charity

Potential categories

  • a book in translation
  • a book set somewhere I've never been but would like to visit
  • a classic I didn't read in school
  • a Pulitzer Prize winner
  • a book by an author new to me
  • A Newbery Award winner
  • three books by the same author
  • a memoir or book of creative nonfiction
  • a book by an author of a different race, ethnicity or religion than my own

My reading list

Now, this is really a combination of all the challenges I have signed up for already but also making sure that I have captured some of the potential categories above. AA stands for an Australian author. 11-29 are the books listed A-Z by title. The next lot are by place.  The remainder will probably be pulled from my TBR pile. Wish me luck!

  1. The Champagne War by Fiona McIntosh #AWW2021. This also doubles as C in A-Z of titles and E for Epernay in A-Z of places
  2. Elemental by Amanda Curtin #AWW2021.  This also doubles as E in A-Z of titles and F for Fremantle for A-Z of places
  3. Kokomo by Victoria Hannan #AWW2021.  This also doubles as K in A-Z of titles.
  4. Joan Makes History by Kate Grenville #AWW2021. This also doubles as J in A-Z of titles.
  5. The Power of Bones by Keelen Mailman  #AWW2021. This also doubles as P in A-Z of titles
  6. The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman's Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay & Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein  #AWW2021. This also doubles as T in A-Z of titles
  7. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks #AWW2021.  This also doubles as Y in A-Z of titles.
  8. M:  Loner by Georgina Young #AWW2021.  This also doubles as M for Melbounre in places A-Z
  9. T: Toronto Cherry Beachby Laura McPhee-Browne #AWW2021 and doubles as T for Toronto in A-Z of places.
  10. #AWW
  11. All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy and doubles for I for India in A-Z of places
  12. Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: the making of a mass murderer by Robert Wainwright AA
  13. The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally AA
  14. Finding Nouf by Zoë Ferraris and doubles for U in SaUdi Arabia in A-Z of places
  15. Ghost River by Tony Birch AA and doubles for Y as in Yarra River in A-Z of places
  16. Home Stretch by Graham Norton and doubles for N for New York in A-Z of places
  17. The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See and doubles for J for Jeju in A-Z of places
  18. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam and L for Long Island in A-Z of places
  19. Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir by Natasha Trethewey
  20. Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb
  21. One Bright Moon by Andrew Kwong
  22. Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
  23. Roughing It in the Bush by Susanna Moodie and doubles for Q as in Quebec for A-Z of places
  24. Snare by Lilja Sigurðardóttir and doubles for R for Reykijavik in A-Z of places
  25. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  26. The Volunteer by Salvatore Scibona
  27. Weather by Jenny Offill
  28. Max by Alex Miller AA
  29. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
  30. D: Durham The Offing by Benjamin Myers
  31. H: Hove Craven House by Patrick Hamilton
  32. K: Kenya Enidby Robert Wainwright AA
  33. O: Oxford Any Human Heart by William Boyd
  34. P: Portugal Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi
  35. S: Scotland The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
  36. V: Vietnam The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do AA
  37. W: West Bank Apeirogon by Colum McCann
  38. X: Mexico The Murmur of Bees by Sofía Segovia
  39. Z: Zanzibar The Sultan's Daughter by Jane Downing
  40. a book in translation
  41. a book set somewhere I've never been but would like to visit
  42. a classic I didn't read in school
  43. a Pulitzer Prize winner
  44. Honeybee by Craig Silvey
  45. A Newbery Award winner
  46. The Last Resort Alison Lurie
  47. Truth and Consequences Alison Lurie
  48. Foreign Affairs Alison Lurie
  49. a memoir or book of creative nonfiction
  50. a book by an author of a different race, ethnicity or religion than my own
Have you set yourself a reading challenge for the year? What are your intentions? What does your reading life need?  

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Virago: Family Money by Nina Bawden


Yes, it is my goal to read more Australian Women Writers but I have also been collecting Virago Modern Classics or Viragoes for a very long time.  I have trained my son to buy me 2nd hand copies for my birthday and Christmas.  And this year I was lucky enough to participate in the Virago Secret Santa run on Librarything.

So here's my review of the first one of the 12 books I scored this Xmas.

To the best of my knowledge/failing memory, I have not read a Nina Bawden since I was a child. On my kid's bookshelf at home, the only volume I have of Bawden's is The Witch's Daughter. I don't remember reading Carrie's War and I must have liked The Witch's Daughter or I don't think I would have kept it.

This slim volume (at 250pp) is the ideal post-Xmas read. Nothing too demanding or heavy but sufficiently interesting and thought-provoking. I knocked it off in 24 hours. Mostly because I'm under doctor's orders to rest a bit (I have an aggravated shoulder injury) and so what can one do but read?

Bawden wrote this in 1991 when I was pregnant with my first child. It is set in London. Property is the currency of the day and as you can imagine, those with property or the prospect of inheriting property in London would be rubbing their hands together with glee.

Our heroine is Fanny. Fanny has been recently widowed. Her husband was in the diplomatic service so most of their married life has been spent overseas, entertaining and living in quarters with staff.

She is now living in their London pied-a-terre - a somewhat run-down Georgian terrace which, at five storeys, could be considered rather excess to her needs and not wholly suitable for a person who might need a wheelchair or some sort of assisted living in the future.

Fanny is the younger sister to Delia. Fanny was pulled out of school early and sent to secretarial college once it was established she had no great intellect fit for further education.

But Fanny is feisty and has a strong desire to do what is "right". She goes to the aid of a young man who is being bashed in the street late at night on her way home alone from a restaurant and, for her trouble, is knocked unconscious and loses her memory of the inciting incident.

I won't tell you anymore because that would ruin the story. It is, I guess a bit of a thriller, but also a bit more than that. Maybe it's just my age but, as I head towards pensioner-land, I am acutely aware of how, like dominoes, just one accident or slip can lead to a certain vulnerability both physically and mentally. It is so annoying not being as strong or self-sufficient as I used to be. And pain makes you cranky and miserable. As my father says, "Old age ain't for sissies!"

I was particularly fascinated by Bawden's description of Fanny's increasing anxiety. Her description is spot-on; the crippling effect of not being able to go anywhere or do anything because your legs (or rather your mind) just will not take you.

Lest you think this all doom and gloom, I want to assure you that Fanny receives help from some unexpected quarters, including her own gumption and survival instinct.

I was saddened to read that Bawden and her husband were in a very serious train accident in 2002 - the Potters Bar rail crash. Her husband Austen Kark was killed. Bawden suffered a broken ankle, arm, leg, shoulder, collarbone and ribs. Can you imagine? Her testimony was instrumental in ensuring justice for the victims of the crash.

I suspect much of the material in this novel was taken from real life as Bawden's husband was a managing director at the BBC (Fanny's son works for the BBC) and Fanny lives on a canal as did Bawden and her husband at Islington.

I commend Family Money to you.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

#AWW2021 Challenge

It's time to sign up for the next Australian Women Writers Challenge.  This year I'm going for broke.  The Franklin level.  In honour of my new grandson, also called Franklin, and because I'm not working anymore, so I have no excuse not to read as many books by Australian Women Writers as I can :) That means I have to read 10 and review at least 6.

At the beginning of 2020 I went for the Stella level i.e to read 4 books and review 3.  How did I go?

So far this year I have read 42 books.  There's always room for more over the next 5 days.  I'm working on it.  But let's see if we have hit goal already, or if there is more work to be done.

Australian Women Writers read in 2020

1. Dora Birtles The Overlanders

2. Amy Witting I for Isobel

3. Amy Witting Marriages

4. Amy Witting Maria's War (can you tell I enjoyed finding Amy Witting?)

5. Melanie Myers Meet Me at Lennons

6. Betty O'Neill The Other Side of Absence

Phew, scraped it in by a whisker.

So this coming year, I really have to focus and read one book by an Australian Women Author preferably every month or every 5 weeks AND review one at least every 2 months.  

Want to join me?