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Review: Alone In Antarctica by Felicity Aston

Alone In Antarctica: The First Woman To Ski Solo Across The Southern Ice
Felicity Aston
Counterpoint
2014, 320p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

In the whirling noise of our advancing technological age, we are seemingly never alone, never out-of-touch with the barrage of electronic data and information.

Felicity Aston, physicist and meteorologist, took two months off from all human contact as she became the first woman — and only the third person in history – to ski across the entire continent of Antarctica alone. She did it, too, with the simple apparatus of cross-country, without the aids used by her prededecessors – two Norwegian men – each of whom employed either parasails or kites.

Aston’s journey across the ice at the bottom of the world asked of her the extremes in terms of mental and physical bravery, as she faced the risks of unseen cracks buried in the snow so large they might engulf her and hypothermia due to brutalizing weather. She had to deal, too, with her emotional vulnerability in face of the constant bombardment of hallucinations brought on by the vast sea of whiteness, the lack of stimulation to her senses as she faced what is tantamount to a form of solitary confinement.

Like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Felicity Aston’s Alone in Antarctica becomes an inspirational saga of one woman’s battle through fear and loneliness as she honestly confronts both the physical challenges of her adventure, as well as her own human vulnerabilities.

For quite a few of the prompts in my Reading Women Podcast Challenge, I’ve been eternally grateful for the Goodreads group and the members who have suggested a number of options for even the most difficult sounding of prompts. One of them is a book about/by a woman athlete and nothing was really grabbing me interest wise until I saw a post for this, about the first women to ski solo across the southern ice. Regular readers would know I have a serious fascination for Antarctica and also the Arctic Circle. Antarctica is, relatively speaking, quite close to where I live but it could not be more different. I will watch any documentary, read any book set in either location and so when I saw the recommendation for this, I knew I had my book for the prompt.

Felicity Aston, some years before, put together a team of women from different parts of the globe who had very little skiing or trekking experience and did a similar trip as a team. However to challenge herself she decided that one thing left was to try it solo with no aids. Others had done the same journey with parasails or kites, both men. Unlike the early explorers Scott and Armundsen, Felicity would have the opportunity to drop supply packs at strategic points in her journey before beginning so she could limit the amount of stuff she had to carry at any given time. She also had quite a tight timing schedule in which to complete this trek as the weather is only forgiving for a portion of time and as her start is delayed by weather that doesn’t allow the plane to fly her to her start point, she’s already stressed she won’t make it before she even begins.

Although this does talk about the physical journey – the amount of distance she can cover in a day, the terrain, the landscape, the fitness levels and how her body changes on the way, it’s really very much about the mental journey. Felicity is mostly completely alone for the entire 70-something day trip. She does briefly stop at the South Pole to restock supplies and she also encounters 1-2 other parties on their own treks but apart from that, she’s alone. She makes a call each night with a satellite phone to reassure of her continued survival but that’s it. She can tweet from the satellite phone as well but it’s a one way thing. She cannot see replies or interaction with the tweets or respond to them.

The mental toll on Felicity was very interesting to read about. It’s situational, which is to say the way that the brain reacts to being in such a location, as well as the actual isolation itself. For example, I didn’t realise that given a complete lack of stimulus (like a white landscape for weeks on end) the brain will create its own, with vivid hallucinations. Aston was aware of the possibility or likelihood of this and she saw a psychologist before undertaking the journey (probably for various reasons) but one of the things they discussed was how to cope with hallucinations and recognise that they were in fact, hallucinations and not real. And as she gets deeper into the trip, you can actually see her grip on reality beginning to slip in a way. She starts off talking to herself, saying out loud what she needs to do, what her tasks are, what she has to complete, what she sees, what is next. But as the isolation settles in, she stops doing that and can go days without speaking a word except on her check in, which she comes to resent as intruding into her silence. She also begins to talk to the sun as though it is a sentient entity, able to understand her and even read her thoughts about it. A lot of her progress relies on the sun’s appearance and this is a large part I think, of why she comes to view it in such a way, almost feeling she has to bargain with it or appease it in order for it to make an appearance each day.

I enjoyed this because it’s really focused on someone setting themselves a really difficult challenge and then doing whatever it takes to complete it through some pretty tough conditions. However, for me, I was looking for more about Antarctica itself, about the physical journey, more about her surroundings and what it was actually like to be there. I know she’s been there before both working as a researcher at a station and also doing the team trek (which she also wrote a book about, but I haven’t read that one) so perhaps she feels as though that’s been covered. It’s what I’m interested in regarding Antarctica but the mental aspect is a very important part of it. It’s definitely not a place many people could cope with, especially under those conditions. And Aston is very honest I think, it felt very genuine. It’s a no holds barred kind of thing with the mental aspect, it didn’t particularly feel as though the physical aspect of it was much of a challenge.

6/10

Book #125 of 2019

Alone In Antarctica was read as part of my participation in the Reading Women Podcast Challenge for 2019. It’s the 15th book read for the challenge.

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Top 10 Tuesday 20th August

Hi and welcome back to another instalment of Top 10 Tuesday! Originally created by The Broke & the Bookish, Top 10 Tuesday now resides with Jana @ That Artsy Reader Girl. There’s a different bookish theme each week and this week we are talking:

Top 10 Favourite Tropes

  1. Enemies To Lovers: Oooh I love some of that! It can be with or without them knowing all along that the hate isn’t real and is just covering up the love.
  2. Forced Proximity in romance: I like it when 2 characters with chemistry are thrown together in ways they cannot escape. This can be snowed in, on transport, the ‘only one room’ left in a hotel for the night, etc. I don’t mind so long as they’re in a situation where they cannot escape and must be forced to interact. Bonus points of it also includes the enemies to lovers trope.
  3. The band of misfits: I enjoy (particularly in a fantasy novel but it can be any genre) when a main character believes they will start out doing something alone but along the way they attract a band of followers who all play a role and help in the situation. Bonus points if they’re all really different and don’t really get along at first but eventually the mutual admiration wins out as well as the bond that develops from doing something together.
  4. Making your own family: I feel as though Melina Marchetta books like Saving Francesca, The Piper’s Son and The Place On Dalhousie really exemplify this but her fantasy trilogy does as well. The whole idea of creating a core group with the people that life gives you really speaks to me.
  5. The villain who isn’t: That character that kind of seems really heinous at first, like they might be doing really bad things but then you find out that behind the scenes they’re actually doing the opposite, working hard to make things right or get good things to happen.
  6. Male/female friendships: That don’t result in romance.
  7. Road trips: I love a road trip! By car, train, bus, camper, etc I don’t care. I like the experience of the characters being on the road, taking different routes to where they want to go. Sometimes characters are on the run whilst doing this, so it’s about avoiding being seen, blending in, etc. But it can also just be for fun, like 2 people heading cross country in their gap year or summer break. I’m not picky. I love a good road trip. {this can also tie into #2}
  8. Reluctant allies: people that don’t necessarily like each other or get along but have to team up for a common objective.
  9. Strong sibling relationships: I find bickering adult siblings quite annoying. I also really dislike when siblings try to ‘one up’ each other to curry favour with (generally wealthy) parents. I have a really good relationship with my sibling and I enjoy seeing siblings that get along, support each other and if necessary, defend each other or stonewall nosy parents.
  10. Telepathy: this is a weird one because generally I am not about the ‘woo-woo’ at all. But I’ve read a couple of really good telepathy books where it formed a bond for the couple and I absolutely loved them. I’m always on the lookout for a bit more of that although it’s not super common.

That was quite fun, although it did require some thought to round out my 10. I hope one day we get to do least favourite tropes because I remembered quite a few of those when I was writing this list!

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Review: The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

The Family Upstairs
Lisa Jewell
Century
2019, 464p
Copy courtesy of Penguin Random House AUS

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

You thought they were just staying for the weekend. They looked harmless enough – with only two suitcases and a cat in a wicker box. But soon things turn very, very dark. It happens slowly, yet so extraordinarily quickly. Now you and your sister must find a way to survive…

Okay, brief blurb.

Lisa Jewell is one of those authors that I’ve seen around a lot and I always assume I must’ve read some of her books in the past but this is apparently not true and this is the first book of hers I’ve actually read. It’s a dual timeline mystery with a bit of a sinister edge.

Libby has always known she was adopted and when she turns 25, she receives a letter from a solicitor that informs her that she’s now ‘of age’ and will inherit a Chelsea property from her birth parents, who died when she was just a baby. With all that comes some information and Libby spends a lot of time googling her birth parents and the tragic circumstances of their death and how she fit into the story. When Libby explores her new home, she finds evidence that someone may be there and so she enlists the help of a journalist who covered the story to help her find some of the answers she craves.

The story also delves back some 25-30 years into the past, to showcase what happened to Libby’s parents and how it all came about. There are three main narrators – Libby, Lucy (who is in hiding in France and now that ‘the baby’ is 25, is desperate to return to England) and Henry. Not everyone is who you think they are and the way in which they all fit together changes and evolves as the story moves on.

This was really, really engaging. It starts with Libby getting her surprise inheritance, which is a hugely valuable house in a very prestigious area of London. For Libby, who grew up not at all wealthy, this is a shock. She could sell this house and even in its slightly run down state, it would fetch more than enough money that she would never need to worry about money ever again. She’s scrimped and saved to buy her small one bedroom flat and now all of a sudden, everything has changed. And the story of her origin you couldn’t even make up – her parents were once incredibly wealthy socialites who died in tragic and mysterious circumstances, the true story of which has never really been known. There’s been much speculation and guessing in the media but there are still so many unanswered questions, such as what happened to her two siblings? Who cared for baby Libby between the death of her parents and the discovery of their bodies? What happened to her parent’s money?

For the answers to that, you have to go back. Back to the downfall of Libby’s parents, so to speak, which we see through the eyes of a child. He watches as strange people move in ‘temporarily’ into their big, sprawling house and then never leave. The changing relationships, the strangeness of the evolving rules until it’s truly a terrifying situation. The desperation increases, the level of neglect and the slow slide into a completely different and dangerous lifestyle. I felt like everything was covered really well in here, the bewilderment of children as these people came to live with them, the slow realisation that the money was running out, the insidious way in which power shifted within the household and who came to hold it all. There were so many twists and turns and each time I felt like I had it figured out there would be something else that happened to change it and I’d be left wondering again. It was so well planned out and I really felt like it was the sort of book that I could not put down once I got into the meat of the story.

I’ve kept this quite brief because I feel as though it is the sort of story where you should go in not knowing that much about it and just discovering the different elements of the story, the twists and turns as well as trying to decipher the different parts of the mystery. And I am definitely going to have to read more Lisa Jewell books! This book has definitely put her on my radar and she has quite a few backlist books to enjoy as well as keeping an eye out for her future releases.

8/10

Book #124 of 2019

 

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Review: Meet Me In Venice by Barbara Hannay

Meet Me In Venice
Barbara Hannay
Penguin Random House AUS
2019, 400p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A year after her husband Leo’s death, widow Daisy invites her three adult children to join her for a holiday in beautiful Venice. It will be wonderful, her chicks under one roof again in their father’s birthplace. But is it possible to recapture the past?

Marc’s marriage is in jeopardy, but for his mother’s sake, he convinces his wife to keep up appearances. Anna’s trying to hide the truth about the dismal state of her London acting career; and Ellie, enjoying a gap year and uncertain about her future choices, wants to avoid family pressure to conform.

Despite the magic of Venice, family ties are tested to the limit, especially when a shocking secret from Leo’s past is revealed. Now everything they value about love, family, commitment and trust must be re-examined.

How can one family holiday require so much courage? Will Daisy’s sentimental journey make or break them?

Barbara Hannay is one of my favourite Australian authors and a new novel from her is always a cause for celebration. In this one we mostly leave Australian shores for Venice. Widow Daisy has decided to undertake the trip that she and her late husband Leo would’ve taken in his retirement and shout her three kids a trip to Venice, the place of Leo’s birth. Given that her family are spread quite far and wide – son Marc in Silicon Valley, middle daughter Anna in London, it gives them a chance not to just catch up but to spend some real quality time together as well. She doesn’t really know that Marc has separated from his wife Bronte and that Anna’s career in London has stalled and neither of the two offspring want to tell her. Daisy has struggled since Leo’s death and they both can tell that this Venice trip is something that excites her enormously, gives her back her spark. Youngest child Ellie has just finished year 12 and doesn’t know what she wants out of life, unlike both her ambitious siblings, which often leaves her feeling a bit the odd one out.

I really enjoyed this book on a lot of levels. I actually connected to more of the characters than I thought I would, surprisingly I found myself being able to identify quite strongly with Ellie, who is half my age but I’ve talked before about how I’ve never really felt like I knew what I wanted to ‘do’ in life. That I’ve never had that drawing towards a career like others have, who immediately know what they want and go after it. Or fall into something they’re excellent at. It’s probably especially harder when there’s siblings who went before you and managed to make successes of themselves, which is what Ellie feels. She is younger by a decent amount than her older siblings and I think sometimes it more feels like they’re distant relatives rather than her brother and sister. After all both live overseas and probably have done for most of her high school years. There’s definitely a little bit of distance and Ellie seems reluctant to talk to them about her lack of ideas, her need to take a break to figure things out.

I found myself really invested in the story of Marc, the oldest child who was pushed to always do his best. He ended up in Silicon Valley working crippling days trying to keep up with everyone else there and it’s about to cost him everything, including his marriage. Marc and Bronte met at university and she moved to America with him although her Visa prevents her from working so she’s been left on her own for long hours day and night while Marc works. Even when he’s there, he’s not really present as he’s checking his emails and squeezing in more work. Bronte has basically had enough and only her fondness for Marc’s mother has her agreeing to go on the trip and pretend everything is still fine so that they can find a way to gently break the news to her in person. The forced proximity is extremely difficult for them both and it makes them really think about what they want, what is important and how much should you be willing to sacrifice for a job. I really liked this because a lot of the time I do read about people just getting together but there’s less about marriages that are going through difficulties and how you make it work when things change, say from the more laid back days of uni to juggling jobs, especially very demanding jobs.

There’s a bit of a mystery running through this book as well – Daisy discovers something puzzling before they arrive in Venice, and then once there, they visit some remaining family of Leo’s who also drop a bit of a bombshell that rocks them all. I really enjoyed the way this played out and how it took an unexpected turn, which I appreciated. I also got a chance to enjoy Venice as a setting…..funnily enough I’ve not read a whole lot set in Venice and a lot of what I’ve read is more historical fiction, so it was good to visit it in a modern way. There was a little about the issue of tourism in Venice as well, which I feel most self-aware tourists and would be tourists should be thinking about.

This was incredibly engaging and a lovely look at family relationships and how grief can also serve as a catalyst to bring people together, to take control of what is left and use it as an opportunity to reshape your life. I loved this! Well I love all of Barbara Hannay’s books so really this is no surprise.

8/10

Book #123 of 2019

Meet Me In Venice is book #56 of the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. Feeling well on my way to my 80 book total for the year!

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Review: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year Of Food Life 
Barbara Kingsolver w/ Steven L Hopp & Camille Kingsolver
Harper Perennial
2008 (originally 2007), 370p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Author Barbara Kingsolver and her family abandoned the industrial-food pipeline to live a rural life—vowing that, for one year, they’d only buy food raised in their own neighborhood, grow it themselves, or learn to live without it. Part memoir, part journalistic investigation, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is an enthralling narrative that will open your eyes in a hundred new ways to an old truth: You are what you eat.

One of the more difficult prompts for me in the Reading Women Podcast Challenge was a book about Appalachia. Firstly, I didn’t know what or where Appalachia was. Turns out it’s a cultural region stretching from parts of New York (the state) to Alabama/Georgia in the south. It’s recognised as a distinctive region (thanks Wikipedia!) and it seems that the inhabitants and general culture of the area are kind of maligned and stereotyped. A lot of the focus on the recommendations in the Goodreads group was about finding a book that didn’t do that. And was sensitive to the region and its people and often the issues of poverty etc that the region is sometimes known for.

I was limited in my choices through the library but this suggestion caught my eye for a few reasons. Firstly, it is a non-fiction book and I wanted to spread my reading a bit so this seemed a good prompt to try that and secondly, it’s by Barbara Kingsolver, a novelist I’ve talked about many times before on my blog. She’s incredibly well known – author of The Poisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, Lacuna, Flight Behaviour, etc. All books that I own. All books that I have not read. So yeah this gave me an opportunity to learn something about the region of Appalachia and also finally, finally pop that Kingsolver cherry.

So Animal, Vegetable Miracle is about Kingsolver, her husband and two daughters moving from Tucson Arizona back to the farm her husband Steven had purchased years earlier in Virginia. The family had rented it out and also spent summers there in a cabin on the property away from the main house. But this time they were going to live there permanently and they were going to grow as much as their food as they could and purchase whatever they couldn’t as locally as they could. Living in Tuscon, they realised just how far a lot of the food they consumed had to travel to reach them – often thousands and thousands of kilometres and how much that would cost in fuel. They wanted to eat seasonally – and only seasonally. If it wasn’t the growing season then they wouldn’t consume it. This book is a diary really on that first year and the learning curve of growing your own food, buying local produce and sourcing ethically and sustainably. It’s about the history and challenges of the property, which had quite little flat growing area for the amount of land they owned as well as including recipes they used when certain produce was in abundance.

This book certainly made me think differently about food. I have to admit, I actually think only a little about seasons and what’s grown locally at certain times. I know the Australian asparagus season and I’m always super excited when that starts, because I absolutely love asparagus and I don’t find the stuff flown in from Peru to be the same. I also like the Aussie avocados and I only eat stone fruit in the summer – I never buy stone fruit flown in at different times in the year. But other stuff? Like vegetables and whatever? If it’s there or if I want it, I buy it. I don’t know the broccoli or cauliflower growing season. I don’t know when snow peas are grown or even where. I toss it in the trolley without thinking too much about it, just crossing items off my list.

I know I could eat better, it’s something that has been on my mind a little bit in recent times. I’m 37 and I can’t eat what I ate when I was 17 or even 25. I don’t eat fast food anymore, haven’t for years. I can’t tolerate McDonalds or Hungry Jacks or KFC. I know I still eat too much processed food and probably not enough servings of vegetables. I’ve been looking for some meat free meals to add to the rotation of things we eat regularly. I was a super fussy eater as a kid, didn’t eat vegetables except the mashed potato and peas my parents forced me to eat every night. Left to my own devices at university when I moved out, I became less afraid to try things and now I’ll eat quite a lot of food, quite a lot of vegetables. However the two I don’t really like? Mashed potato and peas. I like stir fries with a lot of colourful veggies, I like baked vegetables and occasionally I’ll eat salads in summer. But I’m guilty of buying stuff and then taking the easy route and having pasta again while the fresh stuff languishes in the vegetable crisper. There are many reasons for food fatigue I think – firstly, I don’t really enjoy cooking. Never have. My husband does, thankfully and he does 99% of the cooking in our household. But he also works a couple nights a week and I’m in charge. Secondly, our kids are super damn fussy. They don’t eat anything. It’s exhausting trying to feed them. I just get sick of it. And people keep saying ‘oh they’ll eat when they’re hungry, just serve them up what you’re having’ – yeah I can tell you, they won’t. My hope is that my kids will be like me and as they get older and experience more things, they’ll try more foods and find the things they like. As they say, pick your battles. And I’m tired of fighting this one!

In some ways, this seems so idyllic. A patch of land, growing your own food, fresh eggs etc. But it’s damn hard work as well and Kingsolver doesn’t shy away from that. They’re lucky in some ways in that this isn’t either of their ‘incomes’ as such – it’s something they can do because they also earn money elsewhere. It’s a full time job it seems, at least part of the year anyway, during the summer growing season. Where they are snows in winter and they have to have enough food to last them until they’re planting again, so there’s lessons in canning and freezing and preserving. My in-laws have always had an extensive vegetable garden (Italians!) and they grow kilos and kilos of tomatoes a year that they turn into their own pasta sauce. There’s also a glut of some crops (silverbeet, tomatoes, zucchini) and the fatigue that comes from trying to consume them all, especially when you can’t really give large amounts away as everyone tends to have the same problem. There’s a long period without fresh fruit because of their rules but each family member did get to pick something they couldn’t sacrifice – such as coffee, which isn’t grown locally.

As well as their diary of food growing, this book also includes a lot of information on the decline of farming in America and the ways in which it has changed in recent years, such as the domination by big companies who push out smaller, family run operations as well as the modification of products that have severely reduced the number of things such as tomatoes available. There used to be hundreds, or thousands of different types of tomatoes and this has been greatly reduced because the big companies also control the seed industry. Heirlooms are cultivated privately and seeds exchanged between growers. I found a lot of that stuff quite dense, but also very interesting because I’m sure it’s mirrored in places like here in Australia. We were a very fertile country and we grow a lot of food. But drought and urban sprawl etc has forced many people off the land. A lot of the large farms are now owned by foreign companies and they’re buying up more. Australia exports 60% of the food it produces – there’s those fuel consumptions, because we’re isolated so whatever we’re exporting, it’s probably going pretty far away. There’s also a huge amount of food wastage – supermarkets are notoriously picky about only choosing perfect looking fresh produce. Changing climate is also a concern in a place like Australia, which already has vast amounts of desert. There’s also things like the dairy industry, basically controlled by overseas companies and I have read more than once about farmers simply dumping huge amounts of milk because they money they were being paid was actually less than what it cost to produce per litre – Murray Goulburn were paying farmers about 35c per litre. I think it has changed now, after a huge amount of publicity and media attention but a couple of years ago in 2016, that’s what farmers were being paid. A lot of the framing of stories about farmers is often negative too – whinging for government handouts, never satisfied, etc. What about X people who do Y? What do they get? These are the people that produce your food. What are you going to do without them?

This was a fantastic and insightful read…..about food. I’m not sure it provided much information for me on Appalachia itself but I did enjoy the setting and the local flavour that Kingsolver included. It certainly made me think about my own buying and eating habits concerning food and how I could do more to support local industry. We do fruit pick locally in summer – we have a number of beautiful orchards about 30min away but I could definitely do more in sourcing local farmers markets etc, to buy more locally and not rely so much on the convenience of supermarkets.

For a book I thought I would struggle to review, I didn’t seem to have any trouble finding things to say in the end!

8/10

Book #122 of 2019

This book ticks off prompt #4 in the Reading Women Podcast Challenge – About or set in Appalachia. It’s the 14th book completed!

 

 

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Review: Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal

Unmarriageable
Soniah Kamal
Allison & Busby
2019, 354p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a girl can go from pauper to princess or princess to pauper in the mere seconds it takes for her to accept a proposal. But Alys Binat is resolute she will not marry.

This warm and witty tug-of-love between mothers, daughters and rich, eligible bachelors is a fresh take on Jane Austen’s original.

This was so much fun! One of the best adaptations of Pride & Prejudice that I’ve read. It’s faithful to the book but with a fresh, modern spin that really encompasses Pakistan and I thought it was amazing.

Alys Binat comes from a wealthy, well regarded family and for a good portion of her life, they wanted for nothing. But then her father was betrayed by his own brother and now they are practically penniless. Alys and her sister Jena work as teachers at a prestigious girls finishing school. They also have three younger sisters Mari, Qitty and Lady. Mrs Binat longs for her daughters to be married but both Alys and Jena are of an age now where it seems unlikely that they will make excellent matches, especially given there’s no money left for a dowry. Alys is also incredibly adamant that she will not marry as a social contract to better her situation, nor will she stoop to trying to catch a man. She’s a successful independent woman who can earn a wage and pay her way and as she tries to tell her own students, there’s more to life than immediately falling into marriage and babies when you’re still only a teenager.

Despite their misfortune, the Binats are still lucky enough to warrant invitations to important social events and it’s here that lovely Jena catches the eye of a wealthy bachelor, who is amiable and lovely – shame about his snobby friend Valentine Darsee who insults Alys within her hearing and also his two sisters (hilariously named Hammy and Sammy, short for Humeria and Sumeria) who look down their noses at everything. Mrs Binat is so hopeful that her Jena might not only marry finally but marry well.

The book tracks very closely to the original, with all the major players included although some take on a bit of a twist, especially Sherry Looclus, the Charlotte Lucas of this version. She’s in her 40s, willing to sacrifice for any marriage, especially one that will make her financially secure. I felt quite interested in Sherry’s story, because it does appear to be one of the few places where the author does go in a new direction and adjust the story a little to suit a more modern timeframe. The other is what happens to Darsee’s young sister, which remains the same but with more modern consequences.

The social whirl of Pakistan is a huge portion of this book, with extravagant wedding celebrations that last for days and have multiple ceremonies and the food and entertainment portion that go with it. The food is quite lovingly described as are the outfits and jewellery. The struggle of being a family who has had it all and now has little takes its toll on the often overwrought Mrs Binat, who is every bit as frivolous and overbearing as the original. I quite enjoyed the role of Mr Binat and his shameful realisation of how his own inadequacies and inaction has an impact on everything that happens, including allowing the young and silly Lady to go away on holiday against Alys’ wishes and the ruin she almost brings down upon them all. Lady herself is a thoroughly modern day selfish and self-absorbed teenager who cares little how she gets something as long as she ends up getting it. I found myself wanting to slap her more than once. Mari is an overzealous Muslim determined to bring back propriety and burqas and Qitty is beautiful but often maligned about her weight by Lady and even her mother. The way in which Qitty turns this into a positive and embraces her own true self is rather delightful.

For me, there’s a strength in the relationship between Alys and Darsee, which starts off very badly when she overhears him class her as neither attractive not intelligent enough for him. Darsee and Alys butt heads quite often and her reaction when he proposes the first time is so much fun to read. And so are the small moments, such as when he takes his leave abruptly after Alys learns of Lady’s disappearance and you know why he’s doing it, because he blames himself and is sure she will blame him too after all, he knew about Wickhaam and kept it quiet. And Alys thinks he’s departing abruptly because of the scandal that will engulf their family, how it will prove everything he ever said correct. I enjoyed the way they found common ground in literature too. It made me feel as if the two of them would have an actual meaningful relationship with things in common that they could discuss and enjoy, because relationships in 2019 are much different to how they were when Pride & Prejudice was being written and set. Couples were tied together by other things.

I found this to be clever and funny. It sticks to the core storyline quite admirably but isn’t afraid to deviate a bit either where it needs to for the sake of its modern setting or the culture of Pakistan. I loved Alys and her independence, her questioning of her students, her push for them to seek more for themselves and to step outside a box, even though it often meant she was called in and reprimanded. This was familiar but yet different and I thought it was fabulous.

9/10

Book #121 of 2019

I’m also counting this read towards my Reading Women Podcast Challenge for 2019. I’m using it to tick off prompt #18 – Romance or love story. It’s the 13th book read for the challenge. Halfway there!

 

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Review: The Signature Of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature Of All Things
Elizabeth Gilbert
Bloomsbury ANZ
2013, 501p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

5th January 1800. Alma Whittaker is born into a perfect Philadelphia winter. Her father, Henry Whittaker, is a bold and charismatic botanical explorer whose vast fortune belies his lowly beginnings as a vagrant in Sir Joseph Banks’ Kew Gardens and as a deck hand on Captain Cook’s HMS Resolution. Alma’s mother, a strict woman from an esteemed Dutch family, is conversant in five living languages (and two dead ones). An independent girl with a thirst for knowledge, it is not long before Alma comes into her own within the world of botany. But as Alma’s careful studies of moss take her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, the man she comes to love draws her in the opposite direction.

The Signature of All Things is a big novel, about a big century. It soars across the globe from London to Tasmania, to Philadelphia, to Tahiti, to Amsterdam. Peopled with extraordinary characters – missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses and the quite mad – most of all it has an unforgettable heroine in Alma Whittaker, a woman of the Enlightened Age who stands defiantly on the cusp of the modern.

This is another book that has been on my TBR shelf for years now. I received a copy in the mail from the publisher waaayyyy back in 2013 and I never got around to reading it. I haven’t read Elizabeth Gilbert before although she is well known for things like Eat Pray Love and other self-help style memoirs which are just not really my thing. This had some good reviews from people I trust but I just didn’t get around to it. However it seemed perfect for a number of prompts for the Reading Women Podcast Challenge and it was something that was easily accessible as it was on my shelf.

This was a great introduction to Gilbert for me, because this is such an engaging book from the very first page. It details the life of Alma Whittaker, daughter of a very wealthy man and his pragmatic and intelligent Dutch wife. It details how her father made his fortune and then how he and his wife raised their daughter, in a most unusual way. Alma was incredibly well educated and encouraged from a very early age to display her intelligence in fact, she was expected to. She was allowed sit at the dinner table when her parents entertained and was expected to be able to make scientific opinions and also argue them with conviction and accuracy. Alma’s thirst for knowledge is almost insatiable and she’s intrigued by the world of botany, which is how her father made his fortune and how it continues to flourish. Despite her intelligence and her father’s wealth and perhaps because of her unusual upbringing, she receives no interest from men and seems destined to live out her days in the family home, conducting her research and aiding her father as he grows more dependent in his older years. It details her strange and troubled relationship with her adopted sister and how that complicates as they grow older, rather than simplifying. And when she falls in love and believes that happiness might finally be within her grasp, she’ll go to the other side of the world to find the answers she needs for peace.

This was such a great book. It’s pretty hefty, about 500p and but it’s the sort of book where you don’t notice its length because the story it’s telling is so rich and engaging and Alma becomes such a strong and wonderful character that her life is a source of fascination, especially for the time. The Whittaker family have money when they establish themselves in Philadelphia, but their eccentricities mean that they are never quite accepted by the elite of society, which probably suits them anyway as they prefer their social occasions full of intelligent and engaging debate, scientific breakthroughs and theories. Alma’s mother is rigorous in her criticism and faint with her praise and Alma and her adopted sister seem to be always looking to avoid her critical eye.

The book is rich with biological detail, from Alma’s father Henry’s early days exploring to his development of his new home, to her own travels and scientific research. It comes at a time where exploration of the world was very popular, as was recording scientific and biological finds and for the most part, taking samples back to places like Britain in order to cultivate them. Or to make money from them. A bit of the book is devoted to Henry’s perceived rivalry with Sir Joseph Banks a noted explorer and in latter parts, Alma’s own scientific observations and study of mosses lead her to theories on evolution and change. She has the opportunity to travel to a place completely the opposite of where she has been brought up, a place that’s under attempt from missionaries to convert the indigenous population to Christianity. The book doesn’t address the moral implications of these actions or look at them as right or wrong, given the time of the book but it does give the reader a chance to reflect on the commonality of this sort of thing at the time, in all parts of the world, the zeal with which some people sought to undertake this task.

This book spans about a century of really interesting exploration and story telling. There’s such a lot of research that must’ve gone into writing it, the sorts of plants and flowers in different parts of the world that were being noticed and harvested and transported around the world, the ways in which this must be done. I felt really connected to Alma as a character even though we have little in common. There’s something about the way in which her upbringing gave her all the opportunities in the world to excel academically and to satisfy that part of her that wanted to know things but didn’t provide particularly much in the way of personal growth – and what it did provide, Alma wasn’t really in the position to recognise it and embrace it. Her journey is such an interesting one and even though she was born wealthy and privileged with a family that valued education more than anything, she still suffers disappointments. It’s what she does with these I think, that made me so fond of her.

I really loved this, it was just such a wonderful read. And if Elizabeth Gilbert were to write some more fiction, especially historical, I will definitely read it.

8/10

Book #120 of 2019

I’m counting this towards my Reading Women Podcast Challenge for 2019 ticking off prompt #19 – About nature. I think this book definitely qualifies. It’s the 12th book I’ve completed for the challenge and I feel like I’m starting to pick up some momentum now.

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Mini Review: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The Penelopiad 
Margaret Atwood
Canongate Books
2018 (originally 2005), 199p
Read from my local libary

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Now that all the others have run out of air, it’s my turn to do a little story-making.

In Homer’s account in The Odyssey, Penelope—wife of Odysseus and cousin of the beautiful Helen of Troy—is portrayed as the quintessential faithful wife, her story a salutary lesson through the ages. Left alone for twenty years when Odysseus goes off to fight in the Trojan War after the abduction of Helen, Penelope manages, in the face of scandalous rumors, to maintain the kingdom of Ithaca, bring up her wayward son, and keep over a hundred suitors at bay, simultaneously. When Odysseus finally comes home after enduring hardships, overcoming monsters, and sleeping with goddesses, he kills her suitors and—curiously—twelve of her maids.

In a splendid contemporary twist to the ancient story, Margaret Atwood has chosen to give the telling of it to Penelope and to her twelve hanged maids, asking: “What led to the hanging of the maids, and what was Penelope really up to?” In Atwood’s dazzling, playful retelling, the story becomes as wise and compassionate as it is haunting, and as wildly entertaining as it is disturbing. With wit and verve, drawing on the story-telling and poetic talent for which she herself is renowned, she gives Penelope new life and reality—and sets out to provide an answer to an ancient mystery.

What feels like a lifetime ago now, in my year 12 advanced English course, we did a little bit of The Iliad by Homer. I found it quite hard going, probably because we were also studying The Canterbury Tales, a comedy of Shakespeare and also, W.B. Yeats. This is also almost 20 years ago now and I haven’t revisited Homer since. The Iliad more tells the tale of the siege of Troy, which I think most people have vague knowledge of, whether you’ve read any Homer or not. And The Odyssey is what happened after, Odysseus’ journey home to his faithful wife Penelope, who waited over 20 years for him to come back, holding off suitors in great numbers.

When I was looking for a novella for my Reading Women Podcast, a lot of the suggestions in the Goodreads group threw up this one by Margaret Atwood, which is kind of The Odyssey but told from the view of Penelope, his wife. Penelope is depicted as a plain cousin to the famed Helen of Troy, who was the entire reason for the battle of Troy. Ironically, it was Odysseus as a failed suitor for Helen that bound the rejected together with the premise that if ever Helen or her husband was threatened, the rest would answer a call to arms to defend them. So when Helen disappeared (either abducted or as a willing party with the handsome Paris), her husband Menelaus enacted that treaty, summoning the failed suitors and their armies to aid him in battle. This I’ve read about before from a different perspective in Madeleine Miller’s Song Of Achilles.

But this isn’t about that battle. Penelope is depicted as plain, definitely not beautiful like Helen but quietly very intelligent and Odysseus won a tournament for her hand by cheating. She is somewhat isolated in her new home, an unfriendly rocky terrain with disinterested in-laws and only her maids and Odysseus’ overbearing childhood nurse for company, who strips Penelope of most of her agency by doing everything for Odysseus and also the son Penelope bears him. When Odysseus has to leave, Penelope is left mostly to rule alone, her in-laws losing hope after a while that their son will ever return. Her father-in-law retreats to another property. Her mother-in-law dies before Odysseus returns. Soon Penelope is overrun with men vying for her hand (and the Kingdom). Most are much younger than her and have no interest in her other than what they will gain by marrying her. Penelope is forced to employ her maids in a game of trickery, weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, telling the suitors she cannot possibly consider any offers until she completes her pious task. Unbeknownst to them, Penelope painstakingly unpicks her work at night to reweave the next day so that her task may never be complete.

I think the thing that worked so much for me is that Atwood reworked this in modern language although kept a lot of the traditional aspects of the story. Penelope is given a very strong voice and it’s also interspersed with a chorus in the form of the maids, who meet a gruesome end upon Odysseus’ return. Part of Atwood’s working of this story is to examine the why of the downfall of the maids, the possible reasoning for it and whether or not Penelope was privy to the reasoning and what her thoughts on it might’ve been. It’s an exploration of the life of people who weren’t Kings and Queens, or descendants of Gods etc of this time. Simple maids who relied upon others for protection and what they often had to endure in these positions. Often they were raped (sometimes even with their ‘owners’ permission) and used as entertainment by guests. The chorus of the maids provides a voice to previously unheard minor characters in these sorts of stories, with something that is still relevant and easy to connect to in these modern times – the treatment of women, especially women who are without power of their own and subject to someone else’s. It might not be so easy to sympathise with Helen, daughter of Zeus and Leda (allegedly) who was so beautiful thousands were slaughtered in the quest for her but it’s much easier to see the plight of the maids, who are given a chance to shine here.

At 199p, this is a brief read but Atwood packs a surprising amount into it. It’s kind of like……a comfortable way to be pushed outside of my comfort zone, if that makes sense. I enjoyed the style of writing and the storytelling but then again, it’s Margaret Atwood, so that’s no real surprise.

8/10

Book #119 of 2019

This is yet another book counting towards my Reading Women Podcast Challenge! I’m really trying hard to lift my game here. So this checks off prompt #9 – A novella. And it’s the 11th book read for the challenge. Progress!

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Review: The Postmistress by Alison Stuart

The Postmistress
Alison Stuart
Harlequin AUS
2019, 395p
Uncorrected proof copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

A stunning historical tale of loss, desire and courage that is full of the terror and the beauty of the Australian bush, for readers of The Thorn Birds, The Naturalist’s Daughter and The Widow of Ballarat. 

To forge a new life she must first deal with her past…

1871. Adelaide Greaves and her young son have found sanctuary in the Australian town of Maiden’s Creek, where she works as a postmistress. The rough Victorian goldmining settlement is a hard place for a woman – especially as the other women in town don’t know what to make of her – but through force of will and sheer necessity, Adelaide carves out a role.

But her past is coming to find her, and the embittered and scarred Confederate soldier Caleb Hunt, in town in search of gold and not without a dark past of his own, might be the only one who can help. Can Adelaide trust him? Can she trust anyone?

When death and danger threaten – some from her past, some borne of the Australian bush – she must swallow her pride and turn to Caleb to join her in the fight, a fight she is determined to win…

A devastating incident leaves Adelaide, the daughter of a wealthy Englishman, with a bit of a consequence. Rather than face her stern father’s wrath, Adelaide flees England and books passage to Australia where she eventually ends up the postmistress of Maiden’s Creek, a small mining town east of Melbourne. There she raises her young son Danny along with her former maid, who assists her in all manner of work. Adelaide doesn’t fit the role of refined woman of the upper class – she is kind to everyone and will often assist the less than fortunate in learning to read and write. She enjoys her role, she enjoys the small town, feeling at peace on the other side of the world.

Caleb Hunt is an American who ended up in Australia by chance. With scars of his own from the US Civil War, Caleb has left a lot of his former life behind, vowing never again to ply his craft. By chance he wins a claim of land in a gamble and decides it’s as good an option as any, deciding to try his luck. After he’s betrayed, he’s forced to reassess, not able to start work on his claim just yet. In Maiden’s Creek his quick thinking act to save someone’s life leaves him injured and he finds himself being cared for by Adelaide, who believes she owes him a debt.

I read quite a bit of historical fiction but surprisingly, I actually don’t read a lot of Australian historical fiction. This makes me wonder why because this book was fantastic and I enjoyed it from the first page to the last. It opens in England, with Adelaide as a young woman having breakfast with her father where he tells her he’s annoyed one of his ships has been lost. Adelaide isn’t annoyed though – what she’s experiencing is much more powerful than that. Then it skips forward to her in Australia, the postmistress of a small town close to a gold mining area. Adelaide is a very strong woman, a devoted mother to her son and the kind of person who treats everyone the same, from the wives of bank managers to the ‘dancers’ in a local establishment. She’s built herself an impeccable reputation in the small town, well aware that the one lie she’s told could bring it all crashing down.

Caleb has no one left. He’s as far away from ‘home’ as he can possibly get. When accident and design strand him in Maiden’s Creek, he and Adelaide get off to somewhat of a rocky start with Caleb reluctant to play patient. He really just wants to get out to his claim as quickly as possible and assess what he can do there. However he’s not in any condition to be able to do that, which gives them the perfect excuse to get to know each other.

This was a really well paced story with wonderful characters and a setting that really highlighted how isolated parts of Australia are and how arduous travelling around it was. The part of country that Maiden’s Creek is in has both mountains and is  also heavily forested which makes it a very challenging trek by horse and cart. Caleb’s reaction to staring over the edge of a cliff is great. There’s a lot of what I feel would be 19th century Australian issues addressed here, such as working at the local mine and the dangers and troubles that can bring, especially in the face of a manager who cuts corners in safety for production, effective medical treatment and policing in isolated areas, the weather, the wildlife and dangers like bushfires. A lot of these are still relevant today but with more technology to combat them.

The tension in the novel built nicely alongside the burgeoning attraction between Caleb and Adelaide, with the author doing a great job placing the characters in peril in a really believable way. The story had some interesting twists and turns, some of which I saw coming and some that I didn’t, so that kept me guessing and turning the pages. I really enjoyed the way the minor characters were included to – the romance between Netty and her beau, the ‘dancers’, the doctor with his troubles, the man who offers Adelaide medicines. It’s a nice little community, although not without its issues.

Very enjoyable.

8/10

Book #118 of 2019

The Postmistress is book #55 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

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Review: Too Much Lip by Melissa Lucashenko

Too Much Lip
Melissa Lucashenko
UQP
2018, 318p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Too much lip, her old problem from way back. And the older she got, the harder it seemed to get to swallow her opinions. The avalanche of bullshit in the world would drown her if she let it; the least she could do was raise her voice in anger.

Wise-cracking Kerry Salter has spent a lifetime avoiding two things – her hometown and prison. But now her Pop is dying and she’s an inch away from the lockup, so she heads south on a stolen Harley.

Kerry plans to spend twenty-four hours, tops, over the border. She quickly discovers, though, that Bundjalung country has a funny way of grabbing on to people. Old family wounds open as the Salters fight to stop the development of their beloved river. And the unexpected arrival on the scene of a good-looking dugai fella intent on loving her up only adds more trouble – but then trouble is Kerry’s middle name.

Gritty and darkly hilarious, Too Much Lip offers redemption and forgiveness where none seems possible.

I always have more books a month than I can read and there are some I just don’t get to, even when I really want to. They go on a bookcase in my bedroom for those times when I feel like dipping back into the pile. This book was in that pile…..I decided it would be perfect for my Reading Women Challenge, for the book by an indigenous woman prompt. Melissa Lucashenko is a Goorie author from the Bundjalung people. And the day I finished this, it was later announced as the winner of the 2019 Miles Franklin Literary Award. I had read only one of the longlist, during my attempts to read the Stella Prize Longlist. Quite often I’ll read as much of a longlist or shortlist as I can, only for the winner to be one of the few texts (or the only) I’ve yet to read. So I was pretty thrilled with my timing reading this!

Kerry Salter has avoided her childhood home for a while now. Deep in the bush in northern NSW, she’s returning because the family patriarch, her Pop, is dying. And it’s probably a good time for Kerry to get away from QLD anyway. With her girlfriend just banged up for a bank robbery gone wrong, Kerry has avoided jail but there’s warrants out. It’s a good time to lie low. But when she gets home, it’s a reminder of all the reasons why she spends so much time away. There’s Ken, her older brother. Bitter and with anger management issues, Kerry judges the distance to keep from Ken and what remarks she can get away with by what he’s had to drink and how many. There’s Pretty Mary, her mother who supplements a government income telling fortunes at local markets and reading tarot cards. There’s Ken’s teenage son, a shadow of his former self hiding out in his room playing video games and avoiding his father’s rage. Black Superman is Kerry’s younger brother, who escaped as well but made good with his public sector job and city apartment he’s paying a mortgage on. And then there’s various other family members including Richard, Pretty Mary’s brother and the local family elder who arrives in and out to dispense advice and keep the struggling crew together. Everything is overshadowed by the disappearance of Kerry’s sister Donna as a teenager a couple of decades ago.

This is a raw story of a family in all its dysfunction. It’s dark and quite brutal in parts, balanced out by humour and astute observations in other parts. Kerry is a snappy narrator, told from the time she was young that she’s always had ‘too much lip – that’s her problem’. Even now as a woman in her 30s she finds it hard to keep quiet, even when she should avoid provoking Ken, her brother who is liable to break her face in retaliation. Kerry and her family have different struggles and problems but they all share a strong connection to their local area. And when they discover that the local mayor and property developer extraordinaire wants to hock a piece of land along their beloved river, the siblings and extended family are swung into action. The river belongs to them, it’s connected to their family and has been for generations, a powerful part of their history and way of life.

It’s easy to want them to succeed in their quest. They’re a family that’s had their troubles and those troubles continue throughout the book as there are several surprising and very painful reveals that rock the family on its foundations. But their pride in the culture is strong, their knowledge of their history and their connection to each other and the land. Kerry has some unusual methods in the fight….but once again, it’s hard not to cheer her on! They’re up against someone who doesn’t play by the rules either and there’s been generations of injustices done to their family and this is almost like revenge on everything and everyone all at once. Although fictional, Lucashenko does state in an acknowledgement at the back of the book that almost all of the incidents or violence she included happened to people in real life within her extended family. The others she drew from Aboriginal history or oral record. It’s confronting and very traumatic in places, the reader is exposed to the grief and horror of the characters as they are, struggling to reshape a narrative and fit new pieces together of a story that changes everything about their family.

Lucashenko weaves a troubled family history, land rights and Indigenous connection to their ancestral homes and strength of family, forgiveness and acceptance of past wrongs in this highly engaging story rich with detail and Indigenous language. I enjoyed the family coming together in times of need and that even though there was great pain, they were able to still get through it and connect in new ways. I haven’t read any of the other books listed as I mentioned earlier but this one does feel a worthy winner of a literary award.

8/10

Book #117 of 2019

Too Much Lip is book #54 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2019

Too Much Lip was read as part of my participation in the Reading Women Podcast Challenge for 2019. It counts towards prompt #16 – by an Indigenous woman. It’s the 10th book read for the challenge out of (hopefully) 26.

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