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

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LILY AND THE OCTOPUS by Steven Rowley

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This book took me by surprise. Who knew that a story about a man and his dog could be so good? Not me, that’s for sure. It was funny, endearing, heartfelt and filled with lots of special moments that all pet owners will no doubt relate to. Lily and the Octopus was a genuinely delightful read.

Ted’s best friend is Lily, a rambunctious dachshund now in her older years. Ted and Lily do everything together – they have movie nights, eat pizza, talk about guys, play Monopoly, take walks around the neighbourhood, go for drives and eat ice-cream. After his break up with his boyfriend, Ted spends more and more time with Lily, and then one night he notices something odd: Lily has an octopus on her head. Perched over one eye, it clings to her, and refuses to leave, despite Ted’s numerous threats and pleading.

Ted’s friend, therapist and vet all join in calling the new arrival an octopus, and are duly sympathetic to the octopus’s grip on Lily and its vindictive attack on her health – she has seizures, and once the octopus inks her, she can no longer see. Ted, enraged by the the octopus and its refusal to leave, resorts to drastic measures in a bid to chase it away: he brings home another octopus and dismembers it, feeding chunks to the excited Lily. The octopus flees, but Ted isn’t satisfied. He knows in his heart that if he doesn’t track down the octopus and destroy it that it will return and take his beloved Lily from him. Ted simply won’t let that happen. He’s going to take a stand and fight for her life. And so the adventure begins, with Ted and Lily on the high seas in a fishing trawler, hunting the evil octopus. It’s an epic adventure that pushes them to the edge, and bonds them in new ways.

There is a magic to this book that slips in and surrounds you as you read. Lily is perfectly portrayed – she’s stubborn, has a big personality for a dog with short little legs, and enjoys life to the fullest. I had a dachshund when I was a kid, and he was just as excitable and cheeky as Lily. What I really enjoyed about this book was the relationship between Ted and Lily, the humanising of that bond and the depth of the emotions that tie them together. Highly recommend you put it on your reading list.

Rating:           5/5

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley (Simon & Schuster 2016)

Web link: http://books.simonandschuster.com/Lily-and-the-Octopus/Steven-Rowley/9781501126222

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

Author website: Steven Rowley – Lily and the Octopus

HAUSFRAU by Jill Alexander Essbaum

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There’s nothing like a cracking opening line to hook you into a book. Hausfrau is one of those books.

Anna was a good wife, mostly.

 There is so much contained within that one little sentence. It’s weighted with intrigue. It tells so much about the main character. I love it.

Anna married Bruno Benz because she was in a ‘version of love’ with him, and subsequently moved to Switzerland and started a family with him. After nine years of marriage and living in Dietlikon, a suburb of Zurich, she still feels isolated and estranged from everyone. She hasn’t learned the language, has very few friends and doesn’t even have a bank account. Her banker husband takes care of everything – the finances, any necessary paperwork and major life decisions.

Passive by nature, Anna struggles to make decisions for herself, instead allowing herself to go with the flow of events that she is presented with. She struggles to connect with her own emotions and deflects deep introspection when challenged by her therapist.

“A lonely woman is a dangerous woman.” Doktor Messerli spoke with a grave sincerity.

To compensate for her boredom and listlessness, Anna indulges in fleeting affairs, which are one of the few ways that she can feel anything. One of her affairs is intense, she falls in love, but her passivity prevents her from acting on her feelings, and so when he leaves she is devastated. Haunted by deep loneliness and sadness, Anna attracts more and more men, which leads to a web of deceit in which she ultimately becomes stuck and then undone by a trajectory of events that she could never have anticipated. She tries to right her wrongs, but some things cannot be undone, and she pays a terrible price for her actions.

“Love’s a sentence, Anna thought. A death sentence.”

Anna takes German classes at a language school and Jill Alexander Essbaum has woven in some wonderful parallels between the structure of learning German and Anna’s outlook on life. I admire Essbaum’s ability to apply the rules of grammar to life. It’s clever, witty and unexpected.

Hausfrau is beautifully written with a complexity that slowly unravels, just as Anna’s life unravels. Her loneliness is an ache that reaches off the page and ensnares you. Her desperation for comfort and human contact is tangible. She has a deep unfulfilled yearning for something that she can’t quite identify.

She may be a bit of an adulteress, but reserve your judgements for a moment, or until you’ve read the book. Bruno may bring home the bacon but he hasn’t bothered to set up a bank account for her. Pfft, passive or not, it doesn’t mean he can’t give her some independence. Not only that, he shuns her English-speaking friends making it clear that they are outsiders, are not and never will be a part of the local crowd. Throw in a haughty, unaccepting mother in-law and you start to get a clearer idea of Anna’s life.

Anyone who has spent an extended amount of time living in another country will be able to identify with Anna’s feelings of being adrift, not quite being able to fully connect with others, or the culture, and the chasm that exists through simply not being native to that place. How does one bridge those gaps? By the time Anna gains clarity on this and realises how much she had, she has lost everything.

I finished Hausfrau a few days ago and have moved on to another book, yet still it haunts me, fragments of it interrupt my current reading. It was such a good book that I fear it may taint my opinion of my next read!

Rating: 4.5/5

 

My kindle copy of Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum (Mantle 2015)

ISBN: 9781447280828

Author FB page: https://www.facebook.com/Jill-Alexander-Essbaum-26042908691/

THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Margaret Atwood

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Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale has been on my ‘must read’ list for some time now. I’d heard and read so many good things about this book that I was excited to finally get the chance to read it for myself.

The novel is set in a future-America, where the political extremists have created the Republic of Gilead. Radiation, chemical pollution and rampant sexual disease have resulted in widespread infertility. Under the guise of attempting to bolster birth rates, the new social regime subjugates women, removes their rights to choice or freedom of any sort, instead forcing them into roles as breeders for wealthy and high-ranking infertile couples.

We follow Offred, who remembers parts of her life before the new regime, and the rules dictating her presence in the household of the Commander and his wife. Offred’s life is sparse, nothing is left to chance, and her room is devoid of anything that could be used to harm herself – a common occurrence in handmaids. Reading is forbidden, as is making general conversation with other handmaids, and Offred and the other handmaids are monitored closely – any sign of dissent and she will find herself hanged at the wall.

Desires, however, do not follow the whims of any regime, no matter how tyrannical, and it is through the desires of other people in the household that Offred finds herself in dangerous territory. The Commander desires more from her than obligatory sex at the set hour of the Ceremony, and the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, desires a child and doesn’t care if she has to break some rules to get one. Offred’s own many desires surface as she becomes a pawn in a game of fulfilling her owners’ needs while attempting to keep hidden her actions and avoid being taken to the wall and hanged.

I haven’t read a lot of dystopian novels and so I am always fascinated by the author’s ability to create a whole new world where control of the people has reached such bleak, restrictive and soul destroying conditions. Margaret Atwood is a master at creating this bleak new world populated with the tension and agony of women being reduced to nothing but breeding machines. Every minutiae of Offred’s day is excruciating, slow, and devoid of intimate contact or acknowledgement that she exists as a human. The Ceremony, the time of copulation and attempted conception, is an act that boggles the mind and makes the feminist in me want to shout in outrage.

Actually, The Handmaid’s Tale triggered deep reactions and emotions in me, both as a woman and as a reader in general. There’s a whole kaleidoscope of emotions that swirl to the surface, retreat and come forth again in a different combination. Despair, bleakness, desperation, anger, outrage, apathy, desire, hope, joy and sadness have all been intertwined with masterful skill.

The Handmaid’s Tale is not a cheerful read, more likely if you’re a woman it will chill your blood and then set it boiling again. But don’t let that put you off. This novel reaffirms that the struggles women face and oppose every day to ensure they remain equal and free are worth it.

Rating:   4/5

 

My digital copy of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood  (Vintage, 2010)

Epub ISBN: 9781446485477

Author website: http://margaretatwood.ca/

Australian Women Writer’s Challenge 2015 – Wrap up

This is the second year that I have participated in the AWWC and not only did I exceed my nominated level, I thoroughly enjoyed every book that I read.

I committed myself to the Miles Challenge – to read 6 books and write reviews for at least 4 books.

I am happy to say that I read 9 books, and wrote reviews for all of those books. And a big thank you to everyone who read my reviews! 🙂

  1. Isabelle of the Moon and Stars by S.A Jones
  2. Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
  3. All the Birds Singing by Evie Wyld
  4. Snowy River Man by Lizzy Chandler
  5. What Came Before by Anna George
  6. Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser
  7. Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser
  8. The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham
  9. The Idea of Perfection by Kate Grenville

 

It’s always such a rewarding experience searching out new Australian women authors to read, or to add a book that’s long been on my reading list to my AWWC list. Joining the AWWC gives me a valid reason to commit to reading (and writing reviews), which isn’t easy when life is hectic and full to overflowing. It’s been a great year of reading and I look forward to participating again next year.

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