6 Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation: From ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret’ to ‘The Tie That Binds’

Six degrees of separation logo for memeIt’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time to participate in Six Degrees of Separation!

This book meme is hosted by Kate from booksaremyfavouriteandbest. Every month Kate chooses a particular book as a starting point. The idea is to create a chain by linking to six other books using common themes.

This month the starting point is…

‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret’ by Judy Blume (1970)
I have fond memories of reading this as a teenager (so obviously not reviewed here). The story of a late developer who is concerned about boys and periods and fitting in and going to a new school, it’s one of my favourite novels from childhood. Another favourite book from childhood is…

Watership Down

‘Watership Down’ by Richard Adams (1972)
This is an anthropomorphised take on the rabbit world. It charts what happens to a community of rabbits when their warrens are destroyed. The rabbits have a language all their own; it is that language that fascinated me most when I read this book aged 13. Another book about animals and language is…

‘The Animals in that Country’ by Laura Jean McKay (2020)
This wholly original story is about a virus raging throughout the community which allows infected humans to understand what animals are saying. It’s not exactly a pleasant experience. Another book set during a pandemic is…

‘Nemesis’ by Philip Roth (2011)
Set in Newark, New Jersey during the summer of 1944, this is a gripping account of the polio epidemic as seen through the eyes of one man. This incurable infectious disease, which caused paralysis in infants and children, wreaked much fear and heartache around the world until a vaccine was developed in the mid-1950s. Another book about polio is…

The Golden Age by Joan London (Europa edition)
‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London (2015)
This gently nuanced novel is set in 1954 and follows a cast of characters with links to a children’s convalescent home for polio patients in Perth, Western Australia. It’s based on a real-life outbreak that was so bad that an impending visit by The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh had to be seriously curtailed. Another book set in Western Australia during the post-war period is…

‘Finding Jasper’ by Lynne Leonhardt (2012)
This debut novel highlights the immediate and long-term impact of the death of a World War Two Australian fighter pilot — the Jasper of the title — on three women (his wife, sister and daughter) left behind. His sister, Attie, is a strong, self-reliant, independent woman who just gets on with things, running a farm in harsh terrain and a difficult climate, without any male help. Another book about a woman running a farm is…

‘The Tie That Binds’ by Kent Haruf (1984)
In Haruf’s debut novel we met Edith, a woman who is born on a farm in the high plains of Colorado, and spends her entire life on it, never having had the opportunity to marry or even leave home. It’s a beautifully rendered tale that shows how circumstances “fixed” her and her brother, Lyman, to live quiet, some might say dull, lives under the thumb of a cruel man from whom they could not escape.

So that’s this month’s #6Degrees: from a story about teen angst to a story about agricultural angst, via talking animals, pandemics, life in Western Australia and farming. Have you read any of these books? 

Please note, you can see all my other Six Degrees of Separation contributions here.

Book lists, Focus on WA writers, Reading Projects

A Western Australian reading list: introducing a focus on Western Australian writers

As many of you will know, I have recently relocated to Western Australia (WA) after almost 21 years of living in the UK. I am originally from Victoria, on the other side of the country, so even though I am back “home”, as it were, I have never lived in WA before, so it is all very new and exciting — and a little bit strange.

For those who don’t know, WA is Australia’s biggest state — it makes up almost a third of the entire landmass, most of which is desert (or what you might call the Outback). The state’s population of around 2.6 million people (in 2014) live largely in the fertile south-west (home to the Margaret River wine region) and the capital city of Perth.

Until 2015, I had never stepped foot in WA. But when I did so, on an all-too-brief holiday, I immediately fell in love with the laidback lifestyle, the open spaces and the weather. I have returned for longer holidays several times since, and in June 2019 made the leap to move here permanently, choosing to settle in Fremantle, a historic port town just a 30-minute train journey south of Perth.

Living here for only a short time it strikes me how little I know about WA culture — its music, art, theatre and literature, in particular — because when you grow up on the south-east coast of the country it’s all very Melbourne and Sydney-centric. (Something I also noticed when I lived in Queensland for a few years in the mid-1990s.)

But what I have learned is that WA has a very strong literary tradition, with numerous successful writers, past and present, and a handful of independent presses, including Fremantle Press, the University of Western Australia Press and Margaret River Press, being based here.

I thought I would use my blog over the next few months to celebrate WA writers and review books written by the people who live here (or come from here). I’m regarding it as a bit of a journey of discovery and hope you might come along for the ride.

I’m not a complete ignoramus though. In the past, I have read many WA writers and I can see from my archives that I have already reviewed some, including (in alphabetical order by author’s surname):

Alan Carter

Claire G. Coleman

Amanda Curtin

Brooke Davis

Robert Drewe

Ron Elliott

Elizabeth Jolley

Gail Jones

Lynne Leonhardt

Joan London

Kim Scott

Craig Silvey

Randolph Stow

David Whish-Wilson

Tim Winton

My TBR includes novels by Josephine Wilson, Geraldine Wooller, Annabel Smith, Michelle Johnston, Marcella Polain, Madelaine Dickie, Steve Hawke and Dave Warner — just to name a few!

Have you read any of these books? Can you recommend a good read by a WA author?

Reading Australia 2016

And then we came to the end of Reading Australia 2016

Reading Australia 2016

“How’s your Australian reading year going?”

“Are you sick of reading Australian books yet?”

“Don’t you miss reading books from other places?”

During 2016 these questions hounded me every time I caught up with friends and bloggers who knew I had challenged myself to read Australian literature all year.

My response was always the same. I was enjoying the project so much that even I was surprised at how easy and fun it was proving to be. I did not feel like I was missing out. If anything, I was overwhelmed by the sheer scope and range of books available to me.

Now, looking back on an entire year’s worth of reading, I can chalk it up as one of the best reading years of my life.

Depth and breadth

I read such a diverse range of books, from psychological thrillers to personal essays about eating disorders, that I never once became bored. I was discovering some great new-to-me writers and reacquainting myself with ones I knew from long ago. It made me reassess my opinion that Australian writing was dull and obsessed with its colonial past — an opinion I formed more than 20 years ago when I worked in a book store and shunned the “convict fiction”, as I’d dubbed it, to spend all my money on a steady diet of (predictable) US fiction instead.

Back then I didn’t realise there were Australian writers pumping out edgy crime novels, mind-bending experimental fiction and glorious literary fiction set in contemporary times, or that essay writing could be so intriguing and readable, or that memoirs could be so thoroughly engaging and, occasionally, jaw dropping.

Perhaps in the early 1990s, the publishing industry wasn’t publishing those kinds of books (in 1991 I can safely say that I read just two Australian books that year — Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and Ben Hills’ Blue Murder), or maybe I was too young and naive to realise there was more to the homegrown literary scene than I imagined.

Whatever the case, this past year of “reading Australia” has reignited a passion for reading books from my homeland. By year’s end I had read a total of 53 Australian books (I also read six British titles and six Canadian titles) and know that I will continue to read many more in the year to come.

Some highlights

  • I read a surprising number of memoirs (eight in total) and a surprising number of short story collections (four).
  • I read a diverse range of true crime, all of it fascinating, well researched and written in an engaging novelistic fashion.
  • I discovered Stephen Orr and now want to read everything he’s ever written.

Some lowlights

  • I did not make a very big dent in my TBR. At the beginning of 2016, the number of Australian titles in that pile was 128. It soon swelled thanks to a few review copies coming my way and the very many purchases I made (well, I had to buy the shortlisted titles for the Stella and Miles Franklin, didn’t I). By year’s end it stood at 116. Oops.
  • I did not read any pre-mid-20th century classics (I had to abandon Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children in the summer when I changed jobs and no longer had the bandwidth to cope with it).
  • I did not read any books by Kate Grenville, Alex Miller or Randolph Stow,  all Australian writers listed on my favourite authors page.

All up it was a brilliant year of reading, and I hope you had as much fun following along as I did in reading and reviewing so many fabulous books. I thought it might be useful to provide a list of everything I read, so here it is. The books marked * made my top 10 favourite reads of the year.

FICTION

PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER
CRIME
LITERARY FICTION
HISTORICAL FICTION
DYSTOPIAN FICTION
EXPERIMENTAL FICTION
SHORT STORIES

NON-FICTION

TRUE CRIME
ESSAYS
MEMOIR

Reading Australia 2016

AWW2016

35 books by women: completing the 2016 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 badgeWhen I challenged myself to spend the year reading Australian literature, it seemed logical to also sign up to the 2016 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge — to kill two birds with one stone, as it were.

I thought I should give myself a serious target and aimed to read 30 books by Australian women.

Now that the year is drawing to a close, I’m happy to report I exceeded that self-imposed target: I read 35 books by women — and I loved (almost, but not quite) every one of them.

As well as reading all the titles on the 2016 Stella Prize shortlist, I read a wonderful mix of newly released books and old ones that had been lingering in my TBR for years. These included non-fiction and fiction — mainly literary fiction, with a side order of short stories (I read four collections) and a couple of crime novels.

I really loved taking part in this challenge. It introduced me to some wonderful writers — hello Romy Ash, Jen Craig and Lucy Treloar — and reacquainted me with “old familiars” such as Thea Astley, Marion Halligan and Charlotte Wood.

Here is my comprehensive list. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name (click the title to see my full review):

Floundering by Romy Ash

‘Floundering’ by Romy Ash
Heartbreaking novel about two brothers “kidnapped” by their cash-strapped mother one hot summer.

Drylands by Thea Astley

‘Drylands’ by Thea Astley
This Miles Franklin winner looks at the humdrum nature of small town life and what happens when its inhabitants stop reading.

It's raining in mango by Thea Astley

‘It’s Raining in Mango’ by Thea Astley
A no holds-barred fictional story of one Australian family from the 1860s to the 1980s.

Six Bedrooms by Tegan Bennett Daylight

 ‘Six Bedrooms’ by Tegan Bennett Daylight
Collection of short stories about teenage girls growing up in the 1980s.

The Other Side of the World by Stephanie Bishop

‘The Other Side of the World’ by Stephanie Bishop
A deeply melancholy novel about emigration, marriage and motherhood set in Perth, Australia in the early 1960s.

Pathers and the museum of fire by Jen Craig

‘Panthers & The Museum of Fire’ by Jen Craig
A bold experimental novel set on a summer’s afternoon as the narrator walks across Sydney to deliver a manuscript to a bereaved family.

Elemental by Amanda Curtin

‘Elemental’ by Amanda Curtin
Gripping historical novel about a Scottish fisherwoman who escapes her circumstances to start a new life on the other side of the world.

Aunts up the cross by Robin Dalton

‘Aunts Up the Cross’ by Robin Dalton
An outrageously funny memoir about Dalton’s childhood in the 1920s and 1930s in Sydney’s Kings Cross.

Viral by Helen Fitzgerald

‘Viral’ by Helen FitzGerald
A confronting revenge thriller about sexual shaming online.

Hope Farm by Peggy Frew

‘Hope Farm’ by Peggy Frew
Fictional tale of a 13-year-old girl and her single mother living in a hippy commune in the 1980s.

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

Everywhere I Look’ by Helen Garner
Collection of essays spanning 15 years of Garner’s journalistic career.

What came before by Anna George

‘What Came Before’ by Anna George
Disturbing psychological thriller about a woman murdered by her husband.

Goodbye Sweetheart by Marion Halligan

‘Goodbye Sweetheart’ by Marion Halligan
Unexpectedly charming tale about one man’s untimely death and the effect it has on his loved ones.

The Dry

‘The Dry’ by Jane Harper
Compelling crime story set in rural Australia during the height of the worst drought in living memory.

A few days in the country and other stories by Elizabeth Harrower

‘A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories’ by Elizabeth Harrower
Collection of exquisitely written short stories mostly about women trying to find their place in the world.

Snake by Kate Jennings

‘Snake’ by Kate Jennings
Deeply affecting portrait of a marriage between two incompatible people in postwar Australia.

The Landing

‘The Landing’ by Susan Johnson
Delightfully funny and poignant story about a newly divorced man trying to recalibrate his life.

A Guide to Berlin by Gail Jones

‘A Guide to Berlin’ by Gail Jones
Unusual tale about six Vladimir Nabokov fans from around the world who gather in Berlin to share stories about themselves.

The Family by Chris Johnston and Rosie Jones

‘The Family’ by Chris Johnson and Rosie Jones
An eye-opening work of investigative journalism looking at a cult led by a woman who believed she was the female reincarnation of Jesus Christ.

Leap by Myfanwy Jones

‘Leap’ by Myfanwy Jones
A story about grief, marriage and parkour set in Melbourne’s inner suburbs.

The world without us by Mireille Juchau

 ‘The World Without Us’ by Mireille Juchau
Beautifully constructed novel about family secrets, love, loss, parenthood and community set in rural NSW.

The Golden Age by Joan London

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London
Story set in a children’s convalescent home during a polio outbreak in the mid-1950s.

The Mint Lawn by Gillian Mears

‘The Mint Lawn’ by Gillian Mears
Award-winning novel about a young woman trapped in a small town with a husband she no longer loves.

The Latte Years by Phil Moore

‘The Latte Years’ by Philippa Moore
Frank and engaging memoir about Moore’s struggle to lose weight, build self-confidence and live what she calls an “authentic life”.

When the night comes

‘When the Night Comes’ by Favel Parrett
Two intertwined stories about grief, kindness and life on an Antarctic supply ship.

Wild Man by Alecia Simmonds

‘Wild Man’ by Alecia Simmonds
A compelling true crime story that follows the coronial inquest into the death of a mentally unstable man shot dead by police on a remote farm.

A Pure Clear Light by Madeleine St John

A Pure Clear Light’ by Madeleine St John
A domestic black comedy about middle-class life in 1990s London.

Reckoning by Magda Szubanski

‘Reckoning’ by Magda Szubanski
Extraordinary memoir about Szubanksi’s life lived in the shadows of her father’s war-time activities in Poland.

Dying A Memoir by Cory Taylor

‘Dying: A Memoir’ by Cory Taylor
Heartfelt and brutally frank memoir by a leading Australian author diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Salt Creek

‘Salt Creek’ by Lucy Treloar
Superb historical novel about one family’s attempt to settle a remote area on the South Australian coast and the dreadful, heartbreaking repercussions that follow.

Hush Little Bird by Nicole Trope

‘Hush, Little Bird’ by Nicole Trope
Deliciously suspense-filled tale about two women sent to prison for two separate but shocking crimes.

Hot Little Hands

‘Hot Little Hands’ by Abigail Ulman
Effortlessly readable collection of short stories about teenage girls or young women trying to find their way in the world.

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard

‘The Media and the Massacre’ by Sonya Voumard
A hard-hitting look at the relationship between journalists and their subjects in the context of Tasmania’s Port Arthur massacre.

The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood

The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood
Award-winning dystopian novel set in a remote prison for women who have been sexually shamed.

Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright

‘Small Acts of Disappearance’ by Fiona Wright
Surprisingly gripping collection of 10 essays about the author’s struggle with an eating disorder.

Have you read any of these books? Or care to share a great read by an Australian woman writer? Or any woman writer, regardless of nationality?

By the way, I plan on signing up for the 2017 Australian Womens’ Writers Challenge in the New Year. If you want to join me, you can sign up via the official website.

Australia, Author, AWW2016, Book review, Fiction, Joan London, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Vintage Australia

‘The Golden Age’ by Joan London

The Golden Age by Joan London

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Australia; 256 pages; 2015.

It seems remarkable that poliomyelitis (otherwise known as polio or infantile paralysis), which has almost been eradicated from the world thanks to the development of a vaccine in the 1950s, was so prevalent just a few generations ago. In the 20th century there were major outbreaks of this incurable infectious disease, which caused paralysis in infants and children, in Europe, the USA and Australia.

One of those outbreaks was in Perth, Western Australia, in the early 1950s. The outbreak was so bad — one newspaper report from 6 March 1954 claims “there were 15 cases in January, 80 in February and 40 for the first five days of March” — that an impending visit by The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh had to be seriously curtailed.

That outbreak — and the Royal Tour of Western Australia — feature in Joan Londons most recent novel, The Golden Age, which takes its name from an actual children’s convalescent home, which existed in Leederville, a suburb of Perth, from 1949-1959.

In this home we meet a varied cast of characters including Frank Gold, a 13-year-old Jewish refugee from wartime Hungary, and his parents Ida and Meyer; Elsa, a 13-year-old patient, and her anxious guilt-ridden mother Margaret; and Sister Olive Penny, a nurse and war widow with a teenage daughter of her own.

Stigma of the disease

There’s not much of a plot; the book works as a series of vignettes, which provide a glimpse of what it was like to contract polio and to live and work in The Golden Age, including how the home and its patients were viewed by the outside world. London taps into a rich vein of parental guilt associated with the disease and the stigma that was attached to it:

It had been hot like this nine months ago, when she’d come home at midday one Saturday from shopping in the city and seen the ambulance in their driveway. From that time on, her body had been in the grip of something, heavy as a stone in her belly, pulling down her mouth and neck and shoulders. Sometimes the garden was the only place where she could breathe. Night after night when Elsa was in Isolation, she paced up and down the little stretch of grass.
Nance had driven over with a casserole and questioned Margaret about hygiene. Did she let her girls use public conveniences? Did she check if they washed their hands? Margaret opened her mouth and screamed.

It also builds up a picture of a certain period in Australia’s post-war history, including what it was like to be a refugee in a far-flung corner of the world, remote from your own culture and family connections — even though those connections might have perished in the war. Indeed, through the Gold family, London encapsulates that dichotomy of wanting to be free and to live in safety, yet finding out the hard way that other hidden dangers — such as illness — still lurk.

She and Meyer had wanted to go to America. They waited for months in Vienna to hear from a cousin of Meyer’s father who’d migrated to New York in his youth. Finally, at the end of ’46, a sponsorship was offered from Western Australia. In Vienna they were living in a dormitory with only a curtain between them and fifty other people. So they accepted. When at last they landed in Fremantle, Ida wanted to get straight back onto the ship.
Every day, Ida found something that proved their voyage had been ill-fated. If she missed a bus, it was because they should never have come here. […] But here they were in a free, democratic country, and they were gutted, feeble, shellshocked. Frank had been a resilient little fellow, he’d survived cellars, ceilings, bombing, near starvation. Then they came here.

Admittedly, as much as I enjoyed this book — the beautiful, languid prose, not dissimilar to that of London’s compatriot Gail Jones, the well-drawn characters behaving in all-too human ways, and the melancholy atmosphere the story evokes — but I never fully engaged with the narrative. The blurb suggests the book hinges on a love story between Frank and Elsa, and while that is part of the story, it’s not the heart and soul of it; it’s merely an interlude to show the passing of time and the patients’ need for companionship and love.

If anything, the book is an extremely good snapshot of a certain time and place peopled by characters from all walks of life who are brought down by a terrible disease. It’s wonderfully evocative and often moving, but felt lacking in some subtle way I can’t quite put my finger on (though, I suspect it’s because the story flits backwards and forwards between too many characters so that you never really get caught up in their lives enough to care about what happens to them).

Yet, for all that, The Golden Age has been showered with award nominations and prizes. It won the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction, the 2015 Queensland Literary Award for Fiction, the 2015 NSW Premier’s People’s Choice Award (joint winner) and the 2015 Kibble Literary Award. It was shortlisted for the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Stella Prize, ALS Gold Medal, the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, the Asher Literary Award and the Australian Book Industry Awards Literary Fiction Book of the Year.

The author, who has just three novels to her name (I’ve only reviewed The Good Parents), also won the 2015 Patrick White Award for a lifetime of outstanding contribution to Australian literature and last October was named a State Living Treasure by the WA government.

For other takes on this novel, please see Lisa from ANZLitLovers review and the review on Orange Pekoe Reviews.

The Golden Age by Joan London (Europa edition)

The Golden Age is published in Australia by Vintage Australia. It will be published in the UK and USA by Europa in August 2016.

This is my 11th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my seventh for #AWW2016.