Portable curiosities by Julie Koh

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This is a collection of quite bizarre short stories, some of which are darkly amusing, by Sydney writer Julie Koh.

Short stories are a fantastic format for experimental writing that is capable of taking the readers far out of their comfort zone. This collection is no exception, and the stories, some being uncomfortably funny, mostly left me with a feeling of distinct discomfort.

The stories cover a range of issues that highlight the malaise of modern western culture generally, but these stories focus particularly on the Australian society. Tales are told of racism, affluenza and the particularly modern plight of parents who push their children to overachieve.

Some of the stories that stood out for me included, “The Fantastic Breasts” – the title says it all, and leaves the reader with a strong sense of the author’s anger. This is about a particular man’s relationship with some fantastic breasts, his love for them and how well he treats them. However, he states, towards the end, that “…once the Fantastic Breasts begin to slouch and sag…I’ll need to begin keeping an eye out for a more youthful, more fantastic set of breasts…” Another very uncomfortable story is, “The Fat Girl in History”, which examines both female body image issues and the racist sterotype of Asian female body image. In the story, the character says, ” The problem everyone has with my body is not really that I am heavy-boned for a woman in general, but that I am heavy-boned for an Asian woman.” The character goes on to say,” I sit and think about all the white guys I’ve met lately who have yellow fever. Even they reject me now. I’m not petite and Asian enough”. Not all stories are quite so confronting. “Slow Death in Cat Cafe” is the ridiculously funny story about a group of patrons stranded in a cat cafe when the owner decides to secede from Australia and create his own micronation called the Republic of Cat Cafe.

All stories in this collection are very cleverly written, and leave the reader with many thoughts and reactions. For this reason, this book would be an ideal title for any bookclub and any reader looking for a very different style of writing.

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Half Wild by Pip Smith

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This incredible story, which begins in Wellington 1885, is a fictionalised account of the life of Eugenia Falleni. Her life story is a fascinating account of a determined and brave transgender person, at the beginning of the 20th century, who after being born a female, goes on to construct a completely male life, which includes two marriages.

Eugenia’s story begins with the account of her childhood and of her being brought up by a traditional Italian family. It is a vivid description of what is typically expected of female children, and descibes Eugenia’s loathing of the help she is expected to provide her mother in the household, and her desperate preference for the outside labour that her father undertakes. It is obvious that there is no way that her wishes can be accomodated, and she eventually runs away from home and manages to obtain employment – posing as a man!

Eugenia’s story continues in Sydney with her new identity being Harry Crawford. Harry is a hard worker and eventually marries Annie, who already has a son. Their life together is not easy, and it is not obvious whether Annie knows Harry’s true identity. Annie disappears, and Harry, who is still looking after Annie’s son, eventually marries again.

However, Harry’s past does catch up with him, he is convicted of the murder of Annie and he is forced to resume life as a woman.

This story has been structured in quite an unusal way, and is told from the perspective of a semi-conscious Jean Ford, (Eugenia), who has been hit by a car and is remembering her life. It is a compelling story that is interesting from an historical perspective, looking at a lower middle class life in early 20th century Australia. However, the most astounding aspect of the story for me was to see how determinedly this person, who identified as male, was able to live a life as a male at a time when it must have been close to impossible.

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Leap by Myfanwy Jones

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Leap is a moving story about Joe, a young person who finished school just a few years ago. The book perfectly captures that awkward in-between stage of people’s early twenties, where having finished school, their whole life is now in front of them, but as not-quite-full adults, there still seems to be so many hurdles to jump.

Joe is living in a share house in the inner suburbs of Melbourne and is working at a job that passes the time while he tries to come to terms with the tragedy that happened during his final year of school. Throughout their senior years at high school, Joe and his girlfriend were the perfect couple, and had plans for University and their lives beyond school. However, at a party that gets out of control, a tragic accident occurs, and Joe’s girlfriend is killed.

The book also explores the story of Elise, a middle aged graphic designer, whose marriage is unravelling and who is also wondering about moving forward with life. I did not feel quite as involved in Elise’s story and wondered at times what it was about. However, the conclusion of the novel draws all the threads together with an ending I found as quite a revelation and full of hope.

This novel is truly a thought provoking story that sensitively shows the journey of our lives, and how our lives and our relationships are not static, but always evolving.

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Between a wolf and a dog by Georgia Blain

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Georgia Blain’s novel, which is currently shortlisted for the 2017 Stella Prize, is the story of a family told over the course of one day. The family is widowed mother, Hilary, her adult daughters April and Ester, along with Ester’s estranged husband, Lawrence and their two daughters. Hilary is a documentary film maker who is finding that her life as a widow is challenging, and April is the daughter who cannot quite pull her life together. Ester is the busy professional who practises as a psychologist, but is frantically trying to navigate her life, separated from her husband and sharing the parenting of their daughters. Lawrence’s life just does not seem to be working out at all how he might have imagined it doing so.

The many aspects of this family are revealed over the events of the day and are shown at different times from the perspective of each of the main characters. It is from each of their perspectives that the reader learns of their backgrounds and of the family relations between them. It is important to be able to see the events told from the different characters point of view because, just as in real life, the stories of each of the characters evolve as a result of their own particular set of circumstances.

The title of this book is what first attracted me to reading this book and is taken from the French expression, “l’heure entre chien et loup” which refers to the in-between time of twilight when it is hard to see if an animal is a dog or a wolf. This is a wonderful description for this novel because it presents the family’s story as the series of daily incidents and interactions, the times that seem to be in-between major events, as those that tell the real story.

Blain’s writing is beautiful to read, and many readers will recognise the description of the wet humid Sydney day that is described. Although, this is just one family’s story, many readers will also recognise the aspects of family life that are part of us all – that is what makes this such a thoughtful story – most will see a part of themselves in it. I am so glad that the book is now shortlisted of this year’s Stella Prize, as I believe that as many readers as possible should make sure that they do read it.

 

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The Birdman’s Wife by Melissa Ashley

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This delightful and very interesting book tells the story of Elizabeth Gould, the artist wife of the famous ornithologist, John Gould. I first heard Melissa Ashley interviewed on a radio program and she spoke so passionately about Elizabeth as such a talented artist, that I was very enthusiastic to read her story.

Melissa Ashley has written this story, as fictionalised account of Elizabeth Gould’s life after very detailed research and it is a very convincing story. I am not usually attracted to historic fiction, but looking over my reading list quite recently, I noticed quite a bit more making it onto my list – all books being well researched, but fictionalised accounts of real women’s lives. Such books as the titles by Hannah Kent and “The Anchoress” by Robyn Cadwallader.

The story of Elizabeth Gould proved to be a fascinating read, and was so much more than just about her as an artist. As a woman in the 1800’s she led a very similar, but also very different life to other women in the same upper middle class situation as her. It was quite an eye opener to read about how Elizabeth was able to continue with her painting of bird specimens after her marriage to John Gould, and also manage the responsibility of her household and family. The descriptions of Elizabeth and John’s shared passion of studying the birds was particularly interesting, as it highlighted their equal relationship as husband and wife working towards the same intellectual pursuit, at a time when this would have been very uncommon. One of the most incredible parts of the story is when Elizabeth agrees to travel with her husband, by boat, to Australia and leave behind most of her young family in London. This journey takes two years and provides a great picture of life in the early colonies of Australia.

Although this is a fictionalised account of a real woman’s life, it is a truly fascinating story that is very beautifully written and also gives the reader such insight into the life of a very remarkable and brave woman.

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2016 Australian Women Writers Challenge completed!

Once again, looking over my list of books that I read for AWW challenge this year, I have been delighted by the wonderful talent that our local women writers have. I read 11 books and reviewed 6 of them to complete the challenge, and I am now going to sign up for 2017!

  1. The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader (Reviewed)
  2. Thursday’s Child by Sonya Hartnett
  3. Our Tiny, Useless Hearts by Toni Jordan
  4. Hope Farm by Peggy Frew (Reviewed)
  5. Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall (Reviewed)
  6. Fine by Michelle Wright
  7. Nest by Inga Simpson (Reviewed)
  8. The Dry by Jane Harper
  9. Fight like a Girl by Clementine Ford
  10. The Good People by Hannah Kent (Reviewed)
  11. Hello Beautiful: Scenes from a life by Hannie Kent (Reviewed)

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The Good People by Hannah Kent

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After reading Hannah Kent’s first novel “Burial Rites”, and absolutely loving it, I was very excited to find out that her second novel was to be released. I have now read “The Good People” and was just as impressed with it.

Her first book was so beautifully written that I was entirely confident that this new book would not disappoint. It is written in the same exquisite style, with gorgeous sentences composed with wonderful words that you want to linger over. I’m sure that it would be a wonderful story to listen to as an audio book, just because her writing is so lovely! However, as I became more engrossed in the actual story, I found myself rushing over some the writing, unfortunately, because I just had to find out what was going to happen next.

Like “Burial Rites”, this story has a rural setting and is based on a true story. Set in 19th century Ireland, this story describes the desperately hard life of survival in the very poor villages. People scavenged a meagre living from the land and had very little contact with the outside world. In this book the story is about a woman, Nora, who after the death of her daughter, is given the duty of looking after her grandson. Although it is not specified, it is obvious that the child has a very serious developmental problem, so Nora keeps him hidden in her home away from the rest of the villagers. Not long after, her husband also dies and so now she must try to manage the almost impossible care of her grandson on her own.

Nora hires a young girl to help her, but the task becomes increasingly desperate. With the local doctor not able to provide any cure and the local priest refusing to give any support, Nora must turn to the village’s wise woman for hope of some sort of cure. As the desperation of the situation escalates, the series of events leads to an inevitable tragedy. This story is a very sad, but accurate description of the ignorance and poverty that the people of this time endured. However, despite the grimness of the tale, it ends on a surprisingly positive note which took me completely by surprise.

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