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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Hello Beautiful! : Scenes from a life by Hannie Rayson

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This charming book had been on my “To read” list for quite some time – it has been a Bookclub favourite for many of my friends. After Hannie Rayson came and spoke to students at the school where I work, I knew that I had to read it! She is a warm, generous and funny speaker, and her book reads exactly the same way. It is as if you are sitting down with her for a cup of tea and just having a chat.

Told as a series of reminisces, Hannie describes times from her childhood, her first marriage, her second marriage, having her son, her friendships and her life as a writer. I live in Melbourne, like Hannie, so I particularly enjoyed reading about her times in the various suburbs of Melbourne and she writes about their particular characteristics in a very entertaining way. This is very much a Melbourne book and many readers will identify with some of Hannie’s  experiences.

This collection of writings is one that a reader can simply dip in and out of, or simply read cover to cover, which is probably the way most will do once they start reading! It provides so many good chuckles that it is very hard to stop reading once you have begun.

This is a book that is perfect for the summer holiday reading list, so it is a guaranteed good book for anyone’s christmas present or even a  bookclub kris kringle. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

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Nest by Inga Simpson

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This book tells a quiet, contemplative story of a woman, Jen, who has moved back to a property near the small town where she grew up. Living on her own, she works on the land of her property, observing the surrounding wildlife. The descriptions of her work around the house, and the different birds that she sees, are particularly peaceful and painterly, and as a reader I felt soothed by these relaxed portraits of country life.

Jen also gives drawing lessons to a young boy called Henry, and the descriptions of these lessons, of how she instructs Henry to draw and how to use colours and paints and pencils, is told in the same gentle way as the descriptions of her home keeping.

Over the duration of the story, the reader discovers that a girl in Henry’s class at school has gone missing. It is also revealed that when Jen was Henry’s age, both her father and close friend, Michael, went missing at the same time, and there is some implication that her father may have been involved with Michael’s disappearance. The tension of wondering what has happened to this missing girl, and Jen remembering back to the disappaerance of her father and friend, Michael, is a strong contrast to the parallel story of Jen making her new home, back in her home town.

The resolution of the story is sad, but brings peace to Jen in the same quiet way that the rest of the story has been told. I loved reading this book and so enjoyed the gentle writing style that I just wanted it to keep going. Of course it had to end, so I will just have to read it again!

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Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall

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Before I even knew the story told in this book, I knew that I wanted to read it, just by looking at the cover! Yes, I regularly judge (and choose) books by their covers.

The gentle colours and sparkling starlight is exactly how this delightful story is written by first-time Australian author, Kate Mildenhall. It is a tender story, and so beautifully written, about two young girls, Kate and Harriet who are lighthouse keepers’ daughters and are growing up in the 1880s on an isolated Australian coast. What is particularly intriguing is that Kate Mildenhall has imagined this story based on a true event that happened.The girls’ close friendship is explored and their simple, happy lives, that involved some schooling and a lot of adventures, are described, the story being told mostly through Kate’s eyes. As readers, we also get a very good concept of how it is to live in isolation, waiting for regular supplies and mail to be delivered by boat, and supplementing supplies with a vegetable garden and livestock.

Inveitably, this idyllic life cannot last and the first hints appear as the girls approach young adulthood and meet a lone fisherman called McPhail. It is apparent that there is an attraction between Harriet and McPhail, and this, along with Harriet’s journey away from the coast to Melbourne, is what leads to the change in their girlhood relationship.

There is a warning on the back cover of the book, that a tragedy will occur, and while reading the story, there is the suspense of what is going to happen and when. While immersed in the book, and coming very close to the end, I began to believe that nothing too drastic was about to occur, so was completly shocked by the tragic event. It is a sad, but very believable end to a beautiful story.

 

 

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Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

thE0Q2FFZGHope Farm is the devestating story about 2 generations of women whose lives have been torn part by neglectful parents. Those two women are Ishtar and Silver – mother and daughter – and it is Ishtar’s story of an unplanned pregnancy, with Silver, that sets their lives on the unconventional paths that they are to follow.

Ishtar, a name she takes on once she joins a commune, is a girl at the beginning of this story, who has discovered that she has accidentally become pregnant. She is living with her Catholic family in the Australia of the early 1980s. They are an average middle class family for whom “doing the right thing” in society’s eyes is the most important outcome, rather than supporting their teenage daughter through the emotional journey of unplanned pregnancy. Ishtar is sent to have the baby at an umarried mothers’ home, but after realising that she is determined to keep her child, she escapes and stumbles into a commune group. It is here that she adopts the name Ishtar, and with their support, gives birth to Silver. This part of the story is interspersed through the later story of Ishtar and Silver, and it is particularly important because, although Ishtar is also a neglectful parent, as readers we know how much she loves and wanted her child.

The rest of the story is that of Silver’s unconventional upbringing, moving from one commune to the next, and is mostly told through her eyes. Her relationship with her mother is her whole world, but the attention that she is given from Ishtar depends on whether Ishtar is in a romantic relationship or not. When Ishtar and Silver arrive at Hope Farm, Silver begins to believe that she has a secure, settled life and as she grows older, she is able to make friendships of her own.

What this novel highlights most of all is the power that adults have over the lives of their children. Adult choices, good and bad, reliable and unreliable, all affect the type of life that a child must be part of, and the most frustrating part of this is that many parents are just people who want life to work out for themselves, but are not necessarily thinking of the consequences for their children. Silver eventually achieves the “normal” life she has been seeking, and with sad irony, it is Ishtar’s original family who provides it for her.

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