HOPE FARM by Peggy Frew

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Hope Farm explores the mother-daughter relationship between Ishtar and Silver in the unique setting of life spent on the fringes in Australian ashrams and communes. Thirteen-year-old Silver and her mother, Ishtar, live in a Brisbane ashram. Ishtar, prone to fits of boredom with the drudgery of everyday life and dead end partners, gives in to the thrill of having a new lover, Miller, and a new life at Hope Farm, a commune in Gippsland Victoria.

Hope Farm isn’t the vibrant, self-sustaining, wondrous life on the land that Miller promised. Instead Ishtar finds herself broke after buying Miller a car and funding the trip to Hope Farm. Silver finds herself surrounded by a group of bitter and apathetic adult hippies who aren’t living by the values they preach. She is unimpressed by her new surroundings:

‘…Hope was far and away the most uncomfortable, ugliest, and most depressing place we’d ever lived, with the most flaccid, uninspiring residents…’

Ishtar is caught up in her own search for personal happiness. Silver, left to her own devices in a life with no boundaries, resorts to attempting to look after herself.  Beautiful and sensual, Ishtar is accustomed to being the centre of men’s attention. Conflict and jealousy simmers among several of the women at the commune over Miller and Ishtar, and the sexual tension they create. Dan, a young new arrival to the commune, draws Ishtar’s attentions, further fanning the fires of tension. The arrival of Miller’s wife has explosive consequences.

Silver desperately searches for a sense of normality among the liberated attitudes and actions of the hippies. She befriends Ian, a boy who lives on a nearby farm. Ian is awkward, introverted and savagely bullied at school. He channels his energies into photography and planning revenge on his bullies. Ian and Silver form a friendship that’s strictly out of school only, and they roam the nearby countryside together after school and on weekends. As Silver struggles with life at Hope Farm, she also wrestles with the emotional turmoil of being thirteen, of her body changing, and her affections for Dan. All Silver really wants is to have a home shared with just her mother, to be a family of just the two of them. And maybe Dan. Her yearning for this one thing is tangible and heartbreaking.

We gain glimpses into Ishtar’s earlier life, how she first came to be at an Ashram in Brisbane, through flashbacks that are alternated throughout the current day story. This device adds depth to Ishtar’s character and allows us to see many of the motivations behind her actions.

Peggy Frew’s novel turns a sharp eye onto a young girl cast adrift and left to wrestle alone with becoming a woman in a world over which she has no control. An absorbing read, this beautifully written book conveys the ache and longing experienced by both mother and daughter, whilst simultaneously exploring the impact of an unconventional childhood and the devastating repercussions a parent’s actions can have on their child.

Rating:  4/5

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List of Awards

2017 International Dublin Literary Award – Longlisted

2016 Barbara Jefferis Award – Winner

2016 Miles Franklin Award – Shortlisted

2016 Stella Prize – Shortlisted

2016 Indie Book Awards – Shortlisted

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew (Scribe Publications 2015), ISBN (e-book) 9781925113778

THE GOOD PEOPLE by Hannah Kent

thegoodpeopleSimply brilliant. That’s how I’d describe this book. Evocative and touching with simmering darkness, Hannah Kent’s The Good People is a fabulous piece of historical fiction inspired by true events.

I’ve heard many good things about Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, which I haven’t yet read, and so I came to read The Good People as a first time reader of Kent’s work. I have to say, the rave reviews touting her writing style are totally justified.

The year is 1825 and in a small village near Killarney, in Ireland, Nance Roche is the village “handy women” or “keener”, a healing woman who aside from being the town midwife also works with natural remedies to heal all manner of ailments.

She was the gatekeeper at the edge of the world. The final human hymn before all fell to wind and shadow and the strange creaking of starts. She was a pagan chorus. An older song.

Nora has unexpectedly lost her husband and, after the death of her daughter a year previously, is forced to raise her four-year-old grandson alone. Only Micheal isn’t like other children; he is weak, he cannot walk, he does not speak and he cries all the time. Nora is certain that something, a changeling, has taken over her grandson’s health and that with the right remedy he can be restored to his former health. She enlists Nance’s help to heal the boy. Nance is convinced that Micheal has been taken by the fairies, and she conceives of ways to “put the fairy out of him”. The path the Nora and Nance embark upon is fraught with peril and ultimately they must pay a price for their actions.

Through this engrossing tale, Kent explores 19th century Irish fairy lore and how folk lore formed a deep part of village life belief systems as did the use of herbal medicines. Kent has the ability to draw the reader into the world that she has created and keep you there until the very last page. Her characters are well crafted and although I could sense that tragedy was coming, I still felt compassion for Nance, who believed she was doing the right thing to dispel the fairy that had taken over Micheal’s body. She has the gift of healing and her intentions are pure. Nora, consumed by grief at the loss of her husband and daughter, and afraid of village gossip, will do anything to have her grandson returned to her. Therein lies the conflict between belief and madness and how far someone will go to be with the ones they love.

A truly touching, evocative story written by a truly talented author. I highly recommend you put this book on your reading list. The Good People has been short-listed for the Indie Book Awards 2017.

Rating: 5/5

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The Good People by Hannah Kent (Pan Macmillan Australia 2016)

EPUB format: 9781925483789

To find out more about Hannah Kent’s new title, or her previous titles, visit her website.

Other ways to connect with Hannah Kent:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/HannahKentAuthor

Twitter: https://twitter.com/hannahfkent

THE ANTI-COOL GIRL by Rosie Waterland

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Intensely touching, deeply emotional, confronting and at times horrifying, Rosie Waterland recounts her troubled childhood, difficult teenage times and early adult years in The Anti-Cool Girl.

Raw, honest, brutal, her narration is conveyed with a sense of humour and self-awareness that prevents the story from becoming overwhelming. Without these touches of humour, the story would be too traumatic to read. Basically, Rosie’s life sucked; she has experienced the most shocking childhood that I’ve ever read about, and this is no novel – this is real life, so there’s no switching off to those actions, to the pain that she suffered, the harrowing events that she endured, along with her sisters. But, it’s not all pain and agony, there are moments of joy, and her humour in retelling of some events shows her strength and courage in the face of such difficult circumstances.

There are some really great lines and insights into Australian culture and dating that made me laugh, such as:

“The wedding was a stunning piece of Aussie lower-class perfection… The reception was in a brightly lit hall on the side of a busy main road, so the ambience was obviously just gorgeous…”

There’s this gem describing a bad kissing experience:

“It was like a fat slug rolled around in mucous and was now trying to mate with my tongue… I had no idea that a tongue could be soft like an oyster and hard like a tampon at the same time… This guy needed help, and if I didn’t offer it to him, he might subject some poor other girl to his oyster tampon.”

Rosie and her sisters were often shuffled from family member to friend and back again due to her parents being addicts and her mother constantly searching for love, finding it briefly with a new man and then chaos would erupt destroying the relationship. The girls never had a stable home.

“We stayed with an uncle for a while. We stayed with our birth grandma for a while… But nobody seemed to want to keep us. Whatever test you needed to pass to be a kid that adults wanted around, we were just not passing it. We were told that all three of us might be split up – that three girls together was too much of a commitment for most carers.”

At one point Rosie and her sisters are put into foster care and are molested repeatedly by their very wealthy foster father, over the course of a year. The man in question sexually molested several foster children, after Rosie left, and despite complaints being made he has never been formally charged. There are obviously serious flaws in the screening process and the system if sexual predators can be awarded foster parent status, especially if their wealth somehow plays a part in them being perceived as better than others or more charitable. Rosie’s story highlights that flaws in the public health system and the foster system make already vulnerable people even more vulnerable to abuse and neglect.

Something that really stood out for me was how the public health system and the foster system failed Rosie and her sisters, and most certainly other families like them. Her mother is bipolar but never received treatment; her father was diagnosed with schizophrenia but never received treatment. The lack of understanding of mental illness and the stigma attached to mental illness meant that Rosie’s parents lived traumatised lives themselves, and by never being treated they inadvertently went on to severely damage the lives of their children. Her parents were also addicts, which complicated and amplified their behaviour issues.

Deeply intense and dark in sections, The Anti-Cool Girl is also about hope, about having dreams, and about finding yourself and believing in yourself despite having been to the darkest of places. Rosie always wanted to make people laugh, and even as a child she would write winning Oscar speeches. Those desires, that dream stayed with her, and she found her way to a second-rate drama school, and then went on to complete a degree in creative writing, and from there, combined with her love of watching TV, she accidentally stumbled into a writing role for an online women’s website. Through all of that she not only achieved her goal of making people laugh, but also of being one of the ‘cool’ people, only to realise that she didn’t want to be cool; she wanted to just be herself.

It is Rosie’s realisations and self-reflections that make this book such a powerful autobiography. She exposes herself completely, and it takes courage, bucket loads of courage, to talk so frankly and openly about your own life like that. She could have edited sections, kept some of the darker, unpleasant bits to herself, but she didn’t – she is upfront and totally honest, and that’s admirable and makes for potent reading. She tells all about her eating disorder, her nude acting role attempt, her enjoyment at sitting at home in her underpants drinking wine and watching TV, and her weird Tinder date with the guy who wanted her to get to know his ‘little me’ more intimately.

She talks intimately about her battle with obesity:

“Gaining ninety kilos was the experience that taught me to love myself. To really love my myself.”

And about what’s most important in life:

“I realised that as soon as you stop listening to what everyone else wants from you, and start listening to what you want from you, your life will get easier.”

Ultimately, hers is a story of courage, of facing her pain so that she could then begin to heal. Profoundly touching, The Anti-Cool Girl certainly puts life into sharp perspective.

Rating:   5/5

 

The Anti-Cool Girl by Rosie Waterland (Fourth Estate 2015)

ebook ISBN: 9781460705223

Want to know more about Rosie Waterland? Then check out Rosie’s FB page.

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THE RIVER HOUSE by Janita Cunnington

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I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that struck such a deep note of nostalgia in me. The River House stirred awake in me long-forgotten teenage memories of days spent at the beach swimming in a teal blue ocean, of that same ocean turbulent with steely grey waves capped with white froth that skittered up the beach during an approaching storm, of the vibrantly alive bushland that made up the areas surrounding Maroochydore and Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast.

Perhaps I’m not looking hard enough, but I find it rare to find a book of this calibre that brings Queensland coastal areas to life in such a rich and fervent way. (Readers, if you have suggestions for other titles about Queensland that I should read, post your ideas in the comments section below).

But, it’s not just my personal nostalgia that makes this a good book. Janita Cunnington has crafted a richly evocative novel about growing up, about life spent on the river and near the ocean, about the passing of time and how just as the river’s path changes, meanders, sandbars appear and disappear, and deep channels are cut by the flow of the ocean and currents, so too life changes, there are bumps in the road, and at times all we take for granted is swept away.

The story begins in the late 1940s with four-year-old Laurie Carlyle immersed in an endless summer at the family’s river house, on the banks of the Broody River, near the small holiday town of Baroodibah. For young Laurie, the river house is a place of enjoyment, a wonderland of sights and smells, plants, animals and sea creatures.

“The wind made the tents across the river flap gaily. Sometimes it blew so strongly they all clapped their canvas sides as if they were an audience and they liked the show. Laurie liked it too: the river patched with lime and mauve; the boats bucking at their anchors; the white frill of the surf on the bar; the she-oaks sighing; the sea howling distantly; the pelicans getting up above the wind as high as small aeroplanes, up into the blue.”

But something happens at the river house that summer that changes things in the family. A crack in the family unit slowly grows longer and deeper as the years pass by. During this time the Carlyle families live in Brisbane but holiday on the Sunshine Coast, at the fictional Baroodibah, which involves long road trips from the city up through the Glasshouse Mountains, and to Nambour, past sugar cane fields and bushland. The one constant in Laurie’s life, through her teen years, young adulthood and then motherhood is the river house and all the nostalgic memories it holds for her. When her brother, Tony, deeply in debt, threatens to sell it, Laurie is devastated. She’s not ready to let go of the river house; she always imagined it would be there forever. But, nothing lasts forever, and ultimately she is faced with losing that which she loves most dearly.

The River House spans from Laurie’s early childhood through to 2005, when she is a grandmother. This timeframe is handled well, with fragments of Laurie and her family’s lives swelling to the fore and then receding again. Throughout is an underlying tension of dreams lost, of desires never quite fulfilled, which are balanced by achievements, trips back to the river house, reconnection with the river, and of love lost and renewed. The narration ebbs and flows, and meanders, much like the flow of the river or the tide of the ocean, and this makes for captivating reading.

There is one section that drags on a bit, when Laurie and Tony are in university and Tony develops strong political ideals and these ideals are discussed in detail with much fervour. But then, perhaps that’s the point? To highlight the depths of passion that politics can trigger in people, and for some it becomes their life mission. It also sets up Tony’s character for who he becomes later in life, and so while the political detail was a little much for me, it serves a valid purpose. The one area that baffled me a bit was that Laurie’s son, Vit, gets very little airtime compared to his younger sister, Cora. But then, he’s a bit of a disappointment and so perhaps his absence is purposefully constructed to this end. For me, these observations are mere trifles, and certainly do no detract from the power and beauty of the overall story.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed The River House, its charm, its vivid descriptions and the compelling story of Laurie’s life as seen through her eyes.

Rating:          4/5

The River House by Janita Cunnington (Bantam 2016)

ISBN: 9780143780182

NOTE: I received my copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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THE IDEA OF PERFECTION by Kate Grenville

The Idea of Perfection CoverKate Grenville is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. I know she’s probably already on a lot of people’s ‘fav author lists’, but it’s only recently that I’ve had the time to read her work. Her writing is captivating in its ability to convey a rich sense of place, depth of characters, and produce a realistic storyline.

The Idea of Perfection is set in the small New South Wales rural town of Karakarook; a town that is slowly dying. But some of the town residents are attempting a last desperate bid at saving their town – they want to save Bent Bridge, certain that it can become a tourist drawcard, and set up a historical museum. Douglas Cheeseman is an engineer who knows all you’d ever want to know about bridges but is socially awkward, middle-aged, divorced, and not on the right side of good looking. He’s been hired to demolish the Bent Bridge and replace it with something more modern, safe and droll in appearance. Harley Savage is an expert in folk artefacts and patchwork quilts and has been asked by the Karakarook historical society to come and appraise the their town artefacts and hopefully put them on the tourist map. She’s tall, broad shouldered, abrasive in nature, and not a what you would call good looking, yet has worked her way through three husbands. Douglas and Harley have their work cut out for them and their clear objectives in work and life soon become clouded as they are drawn into the town’s slow, country life atmosphere, and each other’s company.

There are a couple of things that I really loved about this book: the characters and the small town setting. (I seem to have a growing affection for stories set in small Australian towns that can effectively convey the sense of life in those towns.) This novel is proof that a story doesn’t have to be set in the city, amongst all the buzz and action, for it to be engaging.

What I admired in particular with this novel is that both Harley Savage and Douglas Cheeseman are plain, unattractive – physically and in temperament, people. Their personalities are flawed, in fact all of the characters are flawed. Gone are the good looking, pretty people that feature in many novels. Instead these characters are real, in some ways more real that you want them to be. I rejoiced in this change of format; it was fresh and made for stimulating reading.

The other thing I enjoyed are the descriptions of not just life in a small rural town, but the descriptions of the town itself. Kate Grenville goes to great lengths to slow the pace, to draw the reader into the town and what it’s like to view it from an outsider’s perspective, through the eyes of main characters, but also what it’s like to live there, from the point of view of the locals.

Grenville has also managed to weave in a thread of humour throughout The Idea of Perfection that is subtle but so very rewarding.

There is a wonderfully amusing scene at the local store where Harley attempts to buy a bucket but the shop keeper says he’s out of stock. Harley points to the range of buckets on display in the store window but the shop keeper shakes his head – if he sells one of those then his customers won’t know the full range of colours available. A heated conversation ensues, and despite her best attempts at logic, Harley leaves the store empty handed. Meanwhile, Douglas, out looking at the Bent Bridge, decides to go for a walk, and finds himself in a paddock with a herd of cows, or is it bulls? he’s not really sure – some of them have horns, and he tries to fend off a charging bull by waving around a piece of a tree branch.

In another scene, Douglas is reminiscing about his father, Douglas Cheeseman, the first, who was a war hero. The first Douglas Cheeseman was the pilot of a plane, the Lancaster, which caught fire while flying over France. The pin was stuck in the fire extinguisher, and no one could get it out. The first Douglas Cheeseman stayed at the controls so that the crew could parachute to safety; he died a hero. While Douglas Cheeseman, the second, admires his heroic father, and lives in his shadow, he has his own private and guilt-ridden thoughts about the event.

“It was a thought that had to be suppressed every time it tried to surface: that the men in the Lancaster had not needed courage so much as someone with a bit of mechanical expertise. Someone who understood jammed pins.

An engineer, for example.”

I could go on and on about how much I enjoyed reading this book, but I won’t. You get the picture: it’s a great book, and a jolly good read. Add it to your reading list for 2016.

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My copy of The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville (Picador 2000 edition)

ISBN: 0330362062

Awards: Winner of the 2001 Orange Prize for fiction

Author website: Kate Grenville – The Idea of Perfection

Readers Notes: http://kategrenville.com/the_idea_of_perfection_readers_notes

THE DRESSMAKER by Rosalie Ham

 

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Without a doubt, this book is one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had this year. From start to finish I was captivated by the characters, storyline and the prose.

Rosalie Ham is a writer with a cutting sense of wit and she imbues The Dressmaker with keen observations on life in the small Victorian wheat belt town of Dungatar, of what goes on behind closed doors, and the insidious nature of gossip. With caricature characters such as Mad Molly, who lives on the hill, Miss Dimm, the school teacher, Mr Almanac, the town chemist, and the Pratts, who own the only department store in town, you soon appreciate the sharpness of Rosalie Ham’s pen and imagination.

Myrtle Dunnage, now going by the name of Tilly, returns to her hometown of Dungatar after many years absence. She restores her mother, Mad Molly, to health through the brewing of herbs and concoctions, and attempts to slowly integrate herself back into the small community through her couture dressmaking and design skills. But, the people of Dungatar are an unforgiving bunch, and their scorn for Tilly goes much deeper than her heritage of being a bastard child. In their eyes, Tilly Dunnage is a murderess who should be run out of town. However, the gossiping women’s egos soon take over, dominating the small town’s social circuit, as they compete against each other for Tilly’s fashionable creations and vie to be the best dressed and the most beautiful. There are excellent descriptions of frothing, flowing and sumptuous designs that add a fairytale element (like Cinderella dressing for the ball), combined with humorous jabs at the snooty women’s poorer clothing choices or personal attributes that are as sly as an evil stepsister. Pure magic and devilish delight.

The characters in this book are loathsome, despicable and utterly delightful. Many of them behave in completely inappropriate ways – rummaging through Tilly’s mail and keeping items for themselves, for example. Some of the antics they get up to behind closed doors are outrageous, sinful, cruel, gentle and tender. These moments are a driving force in the book. Also, there is a rich theatrical element with delightful character descriptions that make The Dressmaker such a good read.

Rosalie Ham is not afraid to upset her readers, and there are events within the book that made me want to shout ‘No! You can’t do that!’ but she did, and as devastated as I was, I had no choice to keep reading to see where the she would direct the story.

A dark, sinister undertone accompanies the light, fluffy, fashion-driven moments of silk and lace in this novel. There is tragedy, and then there is retribution, dished out in deliciously satisfying ways. The final act of revenge is a scorcher! I was most impressed at the turns this book took, and confess that I can’t wait to see the movie adaptation to see how they have handled this fantastical, dark-humoured novel.

The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham (Duffy & Snellgrove 2000)

eISBN: 9780987082039

Author website: Rosalie Ham – The Dressmaker

Author FB page: Rosalie Ham Writer and Novelist

 

SPRINGTIME: A GHOST STORY by Michelle de Kretser

Springtime_coverI was really looking forward to reading Michelle de Kretser’s novella, Springtime: A ghost story. I first fell in love with de Kretser’s writing style while reading Questions of Travel, winner of the 2013 Miles Franklin Award. She has a way of creating magic on the page, her words spinning a world that comes alive, bursting with detail, that captivates me. In this sense, Springtime did not disappoint.

Frances has moved from Melbourne to Sydney with her partner, Charlie, and her dog Rod. Charlie has left his wife and young son to be with Frances and the new relationship and new location are unsettling. The transition is alienating; the Sydney weather, landscape and even the people and are strange, nothing is as it once was.

“She was still getting used to the explosive Sydney spring. It produced hip-high azaleas with blooms as big as fists. Like the shifting sun, these distortions of scale disturbed. Frances stared into a green-centred white flower, thinking, ‘I’m not young anymore.’ How had that happened? She was twenty-eight.”

Frances takes to walking Rod along the river in the mornings in an attempt to get her bearings in this foreign environment. It is during one of these morning walks that Frances feels time stop still. As she looks through the back fence of one of the houses that backs onto the riverside path, she notices a woman in a long, flowing pink dress and a wide-brimmed hat. A white bull terrier stands guard near the fence. He keeps a keen eye on Frances and Rod as they pass by. Rod, a rescue dog, is easily intimidated by other dogs, and Frances is anxious to make sure that he isn’t distressed by the bull terrier. Over the weeks, Frances comes to realise that whenever she sees the woman in the pink dress and her dog, she is always alone on the walking path.

The writing in this novella is distinctive of de Kretser’s style with delightful descriptions that bring moments and locations to the fore, placing the reader squarely in the scene.

“Sydney came to them as a series of visions held in rectangular glass. They were serious Melbourne people. They wore stylish dark coats, and Sydney could seem like an elaborate joke. T-shirts in winter! A suburb called Greystanes! On wet days, gumbooted stumps showed under the striped and sturdy domes of vast umbrellas, while subtropical rain pounded Frances and Charlie’s black foldaways into collapse.”

This novella differs from the long form novel in that the story skips over time, and not everything is clearly explained or laid out for the reader, and this makes for an interesting technique. There are jumps and gaps where I felt I had to fill in the blanks. At times I struggled with this technique – it was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle only to discover that some of the pieces were missing. I wanted to know what had happened in those missing gaps, but this desire was not to be satisfied. This may frustrate some readers, as it did me, initially, but I think it’s important to not let this put you off reading this book. The experimentation with style brings its own rewards, and I think that being challenged while reading a work is a good thing. Rather than let the story simply unfold as I read, I found myself musing on those gaps, filling them in myself with different scenarios. It made me engage with the writing, and pay close attention because I couldn’t rely on all the events being revealed piece by piece. I would have to hunt for clues in this ghost story.

Being a novella, Springtime is a quick read and I finished it easily in a day. It was like a refreshing little break in time, a sojourn to somewhere else in the midst of my day. A pleasurable read, that will delight and surprise.

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Springtime: A ghost story by Michelle de Kretser (Allen & Unwin 2014)

eISBN: 9781743439241

If you missed my review for Questions of Travel, you can read it here.