Book lists

Books that Made Us: Episode Two

Picture credit: ABC / The Books that Made Us

The second episode in the three-part TV series ‘Books that Made Us’ was screened on ABC TV tonight. (If you live in Australia and missed it, you can catch up on iView. You can also read my thoughts on Episode One here.)

This episode, called ‘Place’, was themed around cities and landscapes that have featured so strongly in Australian fiction, but it could easily have been called ‘History’ because it covered Aboriginal dispossession and our convict past, among other changes in Australian society over the years.

There were lots of wonderful interviews with most of the authors name-checked below, including footage of the late Patrick White, after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature (the first and only Australian to achieve that honour).

The books covered in episode two

Here is a list of the books mentioned in this episode. They have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. As ever, hyperlinks take you to my reviews.

The next episode, entitled ‘Power’, will be screened next Tuesday at 8.30pm.

20 books of summer (2017)

20 Books of Summer

20 books logoIn a bid to read more books from my always-growing TBR, I’ve decided to join in this year’s “20 Books of Summer” challenge, which Cathy runs at 746 Books.

The idea is to read 20 books already in your possession between 1 June and 3 September. I’m bending the rules slightly and won’t start until next weekend (I’ve got a couple of other books on the go at the moment that need to be finished first), so plan to finish on or around 11 September.

I’ve had a fun time going through my shelves to select the books I want to read*. They’re all ones I’ve purchased (in other words, they’re not copies sent to me for review) and some have been sitting here for years. They’re all literary fiction and I’ve tried to go for a mix of male and female writers, including some Miles Franklin prize-winners and a couple that feature in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

The books I hope to read are as follows and have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname:

  • ‘Mr Bridge’ by Evan S. Connell
  • ‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway
  • ‘Lilian’s Story’ by Kate Grenville
  • ‘Provocation’ by Charlotte Grimshaw
  • ‘Hangover Square’ by Patrick Hamilton
  • ‘Power Without Glory’ by Frank Hardy
  • ‘The Long Prospect’ by Elizabeth Harrower
  • ‘Our Souls at Night’ by Kent Haruf
  • ‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov
  • ‘Grace and Truth’ by Jennifer Johnston
  • ‘Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
  • The Other Side of the Bridge’ by Mary Lawson
  • ‘If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things’ by Jon McGregor
  • ‘The Glorious Heresies’ by Lisa McInerney
  • ‘Journey to the Stone Country’ by Alex Miller
  • ‘Ancient Tillage’ by Raduan Nassar
  • ‘The Essex Serpent’ by Sarah Perry
  • ‘The Hungry Grass’ by Richard Power
  • ‘Stoner’ by John Williams
  • ‘Shallows’ by Tim Winton

20 books of summer pile

You can find out more about 20 Books of Summer at Cathy’s blog and see who else is participating on this linky page.

Have you read any of the books I’ve chosen? Any suggestions on which one to start with first?

* Note, I reserve the right to swap out any of these books with my existing TBR pile if I find any of these ones don’t work for me or don’t suit my mood at the time.

Australia, Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, historical fiction, Kate Grenville, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Sarah Thornhill’ by Kate Grenville


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 307 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sarah Thornhill is the third title in a loose trilogy of ‘colonial’ novels by the Australian author Kate Grenville. The other two are The Secret River (2006) and The Lieutenant (2009), but each novel can be taken as a standalone read — what binds them together is not so much character but setting and time period.

The Thornhill family

That said, if you have read The Secret River you will already have met the Thornhill family and followed their exploits settling on the Hawkesbury River. In this new novel, the author focuses on Sarah, the youngest daughter of William Thornhill, a convict-turned-landowner, who is about to uncover a dark family secret. (Readers of The Secret River will already know the secret, but that does not make it any less shocking — or distressing.)

The story is told through Sarah’s eyes in an old fashioned but quite endearing vernacular.

They called us the Colony of New South Wales. I never liked that. We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves.

Born in 1816, Sarah has five older siblings — one sister and four brothers, one of whom is an outcast — who call her Dolly, a name that she detests (“never wanted to be a doll”). Her mother, of whom she has only the vaguest recollection is dead, and a second Ma is in her place. Life is relatively good — her father has made something of himself and he employs several staff, including a “native boy for the wood”. Although the family is well off they are not gentry and none of them are educated — or as Sarah puts it, “none of us Thornhills had our letters” — but they are forthright, confident and hard working.

More than a romance

At its most basic level, the story could be described as a romance, because the narrative charts Sarah’s love affair with Jack Langland, who is half Aboriginal. But on a deeper level, the book explores notions of class and race in a fledgling society that had no past and was, essentially, British — as opposed to Australian.

There are references to the Stolen Generations in the form of Rachel, a half Maori girl whom Sarah’s older brother fathered during a sealing trip to New Zealand. Rachel is brought to the Thornhill home against her mother’s wishes in an attempt to “get her civilised”. It’s a heartbreaking episode, because the girl, who is five or six years old, cannot speak English, she’s never slept alone before, cannot use cutlery and does not wear shoes on her feet. Yet Sarah’s stepmother “wouldn’t be bested”.

Something in the girl broke. By the end of he first week she let herself be washed, let her hair be brushed and tied up with red ribbon, sat at the meal table and used the spoon. Ate, but no appetite or pleasure in it.

The novel, which is richly evocative of the Australian landscape, also explores the concept of being connected to the land. All around her Sarah sees the natives living in the bush, but has no appreciation of their spiritual connection to it. It is only when she hears an Irishwoman sing a lament, accompanied by a fiddle player, that she understands…

…what it was to belong to a place. To be brought undone by the music of the land where you’d been born. The loss as sharp a pain as mourning a lover. Us currency lads and lasses had no feeling like that about the land we called ours. It had no voice that we could hear, no song we could sing. Nothing but a blank where the past was. Emptiness, like a closed room, at our backs.

Storytelling that zips along

I loved reading this book and got completely immersed in the storytelling, which zips along at a steady pace. It isn’t a perfect novel — the New Zealand bit felt slightly tacked on, for instance, and sometimes I thought that the 21st century pro-Aboriginal stance didn’t sit naturally in a 19th century setting.

But I think Sarah is such a wonderful character — feisty, outspoken and believable — that it more than makes up for these slight failings. I could feel her heartbreak, her rage, her sheer incomprehension and her desire to make things better as palpable emotions throughout the book. Her voice is the heart and soul of this richly layered novel about tangled histories and family secrets.

Australia, Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, historical fiction, Kate Grenville, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Lieutenant’ by Kate Grenville


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 309 pages; 2009.

It seems fitting to review Kate Grenville‘s novel The Lieutenant on the eve of Australia Day, because the book focuses on an officer of the First Fleet.

First Fleet astronomer

Lieutenant Daniel Rooke is a young astronomer who sails to Australia, from Portsmouth, England, to set up an observatory — “a small room surmounted by a cone of wood and canvas, something like an Indian teepee” — to chart the stars, specifically the expected path of a comet once seen in 1532 and 1661 and due to be seen in the Southern Hemisphere in 1788.

In his little hut, on a remote headland away from the main settlement at Sydney Cove, the 26-year-old relishes the solitude and dark night sky. But as a red coat, he continually gets dragged back into the colony’s ongoing struggles with food supplies, convict labour and the need to find pasture land further afield. He also finds himself part of the new settlement’s attempts to communicate with the native inhabitants — dark, naked and armed with spears — which are not always successful.

But away from the prying eyes of his superiors, Rooke soon befriends the aboriginal people near his isolated observatory and makes a study of their language. He is particularly drawn to a young girl, Tagaran, who reminds him of his younger sister, and together they begin to teach each other words and phrases, which Rooke records in a book.

He got down an unused notebook from the shelf, felt the girl watching as he sat at the table, dipped the pen in the ink and opened the book. On the first page, in his neatest astronomer’s hand, he wrote: Tagaran, the name of a girl. Marray, wet. Paye wallan ill la be — he hesitated — concerning heavy rain.

But when tensions between the colony and the natives begin to rise, Rooke’s friendship with Tagaran puts him in a difficult position — where, exactly, does his loyalty lay? With Tagaran and her people, or the British crown?

A deeply reflective novel

I found The Lieutenant a rather lovely and deeply reflective novel. It gripped me for several days and plunged me right into the world of Rooke, a highly intelligent man, whose grasp of mathematics, navigation and astronomy are only matched by his perception of the world around him and his hankering for new and meaningful experiences. When he finds himself caught up in a moral quandary, you really feel for his dilemma — the wrong decision could cost him his life.

And, as ever, Grenville’s prose is poetic and I love the way she is able to touch on the complexity of history in just a handful of thoughtfully composed sentences. There’s a real truth to her writing and an uncanny ability to evoke atmosphere so that you almost feel as if you, too, are standing on that headland with Rooke, watching the waves roll in, with the vast heavens overhead and the untamed wilderness at your back.

Finally, in an afterward to this novel, Grenville explains that Rooke’s story is based on William Dawes, a young lieutenant and scholar who sailed with the First Fleet and made a study of the language of the indigenous people of the Sydney area. But she is also quick to point out that The Lieutenant is a novel and “should not be mistaken for history”.

Australia, Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, historical fiction, Kate Grenville, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Secret River’ by Kate Grenville


Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 349 pages; 2006.

You generally know that a book has had an impact when you dream about it — or when you wake and it’s the first thing on your mind. This is what happened to me with the Booker short-listed and much acclaimed The Secret River by Kate Grenville.

I had not expected to like this book. This is because I think there are too many Australian novels about the country’s convict past and one more wasn’t really going to add anything to the sum of human knowledge. But I was wrong about this one.

On the face of it The Secret River is a good old-fashioned tale about a poor Thames waterman who, having been found guilty of stealing some precious timber, is sent to the other side of the world — New South Wales — for the term of his natural life. Here, accompanied by his wife and children, he is eventually pardoned and then tries to make a new life for himself as a waterman on the Hawkesbury River. He secures a 100-acre plot in the forest, where he builds a hut and plants a cornfield, and contends with the native population and their intimidating ways…

But delve a little deeper and this novel explores all kinds of moralistic issues: what constitutes crime and how should criminals be punished?; at what point should a man fight for what he believes in?; when does land ownership become a right and not a privilege?; do you have a right to defend your property by force?; and how should one handle cultures in collision?

More importantly it also uncovers Australia’s secret past in which the country’s Aboriginals were slaughtered or forced out of their territory because they were perceived as a threat that had to be eradicated, something which still resonates today.

Grenville handles this issue with intelligence and wisdom. Not only does she put a human face on this dark past, she makes you wonder what would you do if you were put in the same situation, living in a strange land where all the rules have been thrown out the window and the only way you can convince your wife that this slice of paradise is worth holding onto is to make her world safe by any means possible.

The dilemma faced by the main character, William Thornhill, is all to real — even if, tempered by hindsight and 200 years of supposed civilisation, you may not agree with his decisions or actions.

I found this book imminently readable, with its straightforward narrative and well-paced plot broken up into easily digestible sections. Some of the characters are slightly stereotyped — the strong, dependable feisty wife; the nutty loner hellbent on killing Blacks — but for the most part it’s an entertaining read that conveys the origins of modern Australia and the evils of colonialism with understated empathy.

Whether it is Booker Prize-winning material remains to be seen.