Claire G. Coleman, Night bird (#Review)

Wirlomin-Noongar woman Claire G. Coleman’s short story “Night bird” is the second First Nations Australia story in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail’s anthology Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction, the book I chose for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week. The week finished officially a week ago, but I’m hoping Bill won’t mind my still referencing it. Coleman is not new to my blog. I reviewed her debut novel, Terra nullius, the year after it came out. She has written more fiction and some non-fiction since then, with a clear focus on the devastating impact of colonisation on First Nations culture and people.

“Night bird” continues this focus. It follows Ambelin Kwaymullina’s story in the anthology, “Fifteen days on Mars” (my review), which works well, because both draw on the importance and role of Ancestors in First Nations culture. Coleman’s story is told first person by an artist who is “too afraid to sleep, too tired to be awake”, who drinks to drown her sorrows, who fears she may be “going mad again [my emph]”. She tells us

I am haunted by the ghost of my Ancestors’ Country like a phantom limb …

[…]

I have been cut off from my Country, my ancestors cut up, the land drilled and dug and eaten by machines … my wounded homeland won’t let me rest.

This is not a subtle story. The narrator (whom I think is female, so I’ll go with that) grieves for a life she “could never have” because Country has been “severed”. She has “returned to Country” but, finding it “dead”, “could feel nothing and none” of her Ancestors. She feels haunted, but by what or whom?

I can hear a voice but I can’t make it out. I can hear a song but I can’t catch the words. I can hear the wind and it’s stealing my breath. I can hear nothing and it is screaming.

Country is part of her, but she wants to be free of the haunting, the “wordless voice”, the “phantom presence” that won’t go away. There is a wind, but it is “coming from the wrong direction – away from Country”. Then,

The wind changes, it caresses my back, and suddenly it’s coming from Country.

However, at the same time, a man appears and threatens her. There are now two voices – his and the Ancestors. This is a story about a battle between disempowerment (represented by the man) and empowerment (represented by the Ancestors). Is she, and are they, strong enough to prevail?

I suspect this story was inspired by an experience Coleman describes in her article in Writing the Country (The Griffith Review 63). She describes the life-changing experience of going to Country in 2015, her family’s Country that had been taboo due to a massacre that had occurred there in the nineteenth century. She writes:

I didn’t go there until 2015, that place changed my life forever, my world, my life, even the way I breathed. I took the taboo air into my lungs and I did not die or maybe I did. The bones of my feet landed on the sand and returned to life, I was born again on Country. The story of that place made me a storyteller; story is in my veins.

She says an old man told her that “no matter where we go Country calls out to us” and she writes of the bird, the Wirlo (or curlew), that “to me and mine are family”. Its cry, its scream, “calls me home” – as does the night bird in this story. She describes how Country cares for people as they care for Country. She writes:

I wept when I realised Country had not forgotten me even when I did not know Country. My old-people, my ancestors, would care for me.

All of this is seems embedded in “Night bird”, so now, back to it. It is another example of “Indigenous futurism”. It is ground very much in the real world. The voices that our narrator hears are mysterious, sometimes coming from her phone, sometimes from the air around her, but they are not magical, not fantastical, they are the Ancestors – and the story envisions a healthy relationship with them and thus Country.

On her website, Coleman includes a link to an interview she did with VerityLa after Terra Nullius came out. Among the questions was that one we readers love, which is whether any authors or novels influenced her. The first one she named was HG Wells’ War of the worlds, because it “is great in giving an understanding of how to show an overwhelming powerful enemy destroying a less well-armed defender”.  “In fact,” she says, “War of the Worlds is a powerful text for the examination of invasion and colonisation”. You can certainly see its influence in Terra Nullius, and it is evident here too.

Claire G. Coleman
“Night bird”
in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail (ed.), Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction
North Fremantle: Fremantle Press in association with Djed Press, 2022
pp. 66-73
ISBN: 9781760991463 (eBook)

Ambelin Kwaymullina, Fifteen days on Mars (#Review)

In 2014, Ambelin Kwaymullina, whose people are the Palyku of the Pilbara region of Western Australia, described herself in a Kill Your Darlings essay as writing “speculative fiction for young adults”. Three years later, in the 2017 Twelfth Planet Press anthology, Mother of invention, she said that she was “a Palyku author of Indigenous Futurisms”, citing Grace Dillon (as did I in this week’s Monday Musings) as the term’s originator. I share this progression in her thinking because it’s indicative of the energy and intellectual engagement among First Nations people with literature and the politics of what they are doing. Kwaymullina is an example of a First Nations Australian writer who is actively engaged in First Nations culture and thinking, as well as in the craft of writing.

I first came across Kwaymullina early in my volunteer work for the original Australian Women Writers Challenge, because many reviews for her young adult novels were posted to our database. But, I had not read her because YA literature is not my thing. However, I decided to read Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail’s anthology Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction for Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week 15-22 January, and the first work in the anthology by an Australian woman was “Fifteen days on Mars” by Kwaymullina. Woo hoo… here was my chance to finally read her. I will post on more in this fascinating book, which I’ve not yet finished, later.

“Fifteen days on Mars” is an accessible short story, told chronologically from Day One to Day Fifteen. The politics is made clear in the opening paragraph, by beautifully skewering colonial settler behaviour concerning the naming of places:

It had been almost a year since we came to Mars. That was what I called this place although it had another name. It was Kensington Park or Windsor Estate or something like that but I couldn’t have said what because I could never remember it.

Our first person narrator Billie and her mum have come to Settler suburbia, where they are “the only Aboriginal people”, for some reason that is not immediately clear though we sense there’s a specific purpose. Billie hadn’t wanted to come but, as her mother’s only offspring without children, she’d drawn the short straw. The story starts with her pulling weeds from their garden, the very plants that the rest of the neighbourhood love, plants (I mean “weeds”) like roses. In this metaphorical way the colonial setting is established. This is a world we know. Very soon a new couple moves in across the road. Billie, at her Mum’s insistence, does the neighbourly thing, and makes contact. She quickly realises that their new neighbour, Sarah, is being abused by her husband, whom Billie calls The Suit. What to do?

To this point, notwithstanding the hint at the start that there’s something unusual about the situation, the story reads like a typical piece of contemporary fiction – that is, set in the known present world. But slowly, we become aware that something else is going on. Billie refers to “the rules”. Does she just mean the normal “rules” of social behaviour? Nope, our suspicion is right, there is something else. There’s reference to Sarah needing to “ask”, and to whether what or how she asks is “good enough for them upstairs”, aka “the Blue”, as Billie’s mum calls them. Billie says:

the truth was we knew very little about them, except they were some kind of intergalactic healers. But we knew why they’d come. It was because of the Fracture.

So now it’s clear we are in speculative fiction/Indigenous Futurism/Visionary Fiction/SFF territory. This is the sort of speculative fiction I can enjoy, something that doesn’t require me to learn a whole new world but that injects something new into the world I know, something that upends it a little.

The Fracture is not fully explained, but “something had smashed into the relationships that were space-time and cracks had spread out from the point of impact” resulting in, says Billie, “bubbles of the past floating across my reality”. The Blue, we are told, are trying to repair this Fracture, leaving humans “to do something about the bubbles” – but to the Blue’s rules. Billie’s mum had signed up “for the job of changing the bubble-world, or at least, of changing some of the people enough so they could exist in our reality”. Hmm, this makes them sound a bit like missionaries. An ironic twist?

Anyhow, the story continues, with a strong reference to the Stolen Generations, as Billie and her Mum, recognising these are “strange times”, try a different tack to save Sarah, and call on the ancestors. They hope the Blue won’t mind.

I will leave it there. I enjoyed the story – because it tells a First Nations story truthfully but generously; because the characters of Mum and Billie, while being somewhat stereotypical (the wise Mum and the reluctant Billie), are warm and engaging; and because the ideas and the story itself are intriguing to watch being played out.

In her 2017 piece cited above, Kwaymullina describes Indigenous Futurisms as “a form of storytelling whereby Indigenous peoples use the speculative fiction genre to challenge colonialism and imagine Indigenous futures”. This is exactly what she does in “Fifteen days on Mars”. The colonial legacy is unmistakeable, with most inhabitants of Settler suburbia remaining “unbelievably ignorant”, but she also offers glimmers of hope. I don’t eschew bleakness, but as an optimist I also appreciate it when writers can see paths to a better future. It’s energising.

Ambelin Kwaymullina
“Fifteen days on Mars”
in Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail (ed.), Unlimited futures: Speculative, visionary Blak+Black fiction
North Fremantle: Fremantle Press in association with Djed Press, 2022
pp. 42-64
ISBN: 9781760991463 (eBook)

Monday musings on Australian literature: First Nations Australia speculative fiction

This post is my first contribution to Bill’s (The Australian Legend) Australian Women Writers Gen 5 Week 15-22 January. Gen 5 encompasses women who have been writing from the 1990s to now. Bill argues that two major trends characterise this era: “the rise and rise of Indigenous Lit” and “writing which in earlier days would have clearly been SF – but which now is generally characterised as Climate Fic., Dystopian, or less frequently, Fantasy/Surreal/Postmodern.” With this in mind, Bill decided that AWW Gen 5’s focus would SFF – Science Fiction/Fantasy.

Given Bill observed that First Nations Women are writing in this genre, I have decided, for this post, to combine the two trends. It won’t be comprehensive, but more in the spirit of providing an introduction or overview. Here goes …

I have seen various terms applied to SF, or what I prefer, though Bill doesn’t, to call Speculative Fiction. Introducing their anthology, Unlimited futures, Ellen van Neerven and Rafeif Ismail speak of Visionary Fiction, which Wikipedia explains is not “science fiction” because it is driven by “new and uncanny experiences (mystical, spiritual and paranormal) in the neural web”. Wikipedia quotes Michael Gurian, who was one of the first to promote the genre on the web. He defines visionary fiction as “fiction in which the expansion of the human mind drives the plot. Where science fiction is characterized by storytelling based in expanded use of science to drive narrative, visionary fiction is characterized by storytelling based in expanded use of mental ability to drive narrative.” So, it may not be traditional SF, but I believe it can be encompassed under the speculative fiction umbrella, particularly as First Nations people see it.

Claire G Coleman, Terra nullius

The other main term I want to share, I found in BookRiot, in their 2020 article, “Explore Indigenous Futurisms with these SFF books by Indigenous authors”, by Danika Ellis. Ellis, who also uses the umbrella term, Speculative Fiction, writes that “Indigenous Futurisms” was coined by Dr. Grace Dillon, professor in the Indigenous Nations Studies Program at Portland State University. It was inspired by Afrofuturisms, which explores speculative fiction through an African diaspora lens. Ellis explains that “depictions of Indigenous people in mainstream media has often placed them in a historical context, not recognizing the Indigenous cultures and individuals of today, never mind the future. Indigenous Futurisms imagine Indigenous people into every context: space travel, fantasy worlds, alien invasions, and more.” BookRiot’s list includes Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius (my review) and Ambelin Kwaymullina’s young adult novel The interrogation of Ashala Wolf. Ellis makes the point that:

Indigenous Futurisms brings a much-needed perspective to a genre that is often uncritically colonial, whether it’s fantasy rooted in Medieval England, or space travel that celebrates conquering new worlds.

Good one. Not being a reader in this genre, I hadn’t clocked this.

Meanwhile, closer to home, last June The Conversation ran a review by Yasmine Musharbash of This all come back now: An anthology of First Nations speculative fiction, which was edited by Mykaela Saunders. This anthology, you will have noticed, uses the term Speculative Fiction, and Musharbash accepts this, offering her understanding of the genre:

In my view, speculative fiction – the narrative exploration of “what-ifs”, the creative probing into latent possibilities, the imaginary voyaging into potential futures – is the genre of our times. We are on the brink of … something. Environmentally, for sure. But also socially, politically, economically. 

What this something is, when it will happen, how it will shape the future: these are the questions at stake. 

This all come back now, she says, is the “first Australian anthology of First Nations speculative fiction”. This might be so, but of course First Nations Australians have been writing speculative fiction for some time. Musharbash discusses what characterises this anthology as “First Nations”, and says the first thing is “Country with a capital C, in that very First Nations sense of something utterly fundamental and intimately related to the self, is centrally present across these pages. Many of these stories are fully immersed in Country.” This is not surprising, nor, really is the other recurring element she identifies, humour. I have mentioned before First Nations humour and its particular flavour. Musharbash describes the humour as being cheeky, and often “bitter-funny”.

First Nations Australia SFF

I wrote above that First Nations Australians have been writing speculative fiction (SFF) for some time, and I’ve reviewed a little here on my blog, including Coleman’s Terra nullius, and Ellen van Neerven’s “Water” (my post), which is included in This all come back now. Coleman, in fact, is making this space a bit of her own, with two more novels, The old lie (Bill’s review) and Enclave (Bill’s review), published

Book cover

Before them was Alexis Wright with Carpentaria (my review) and, more obviously, The Swan book (Lisa and Bill). Bill describes this latter as being set “some time in the future after the countries of Europe have been lost in the Climate Wars”. It is still on my TBR.

However, there are several other writers whom I’ve not read or reviewed (yet) on my blog, like Karen Wyld and Alison Whittaker. Another is Ambelin Kwaymullina, who is best known for her YA speculative fiction series, The Tribe. Six years ago, she wrote a post, titled “Reflecting on Indigenous superheroes, Indigenous Futurisms and the future of diversity in literature on the loveozya blog. She starts with a strong argument about how Indigenous writing has been measured, against Western concepts, and addresses that colonisation aspect I mentioned above. She also addresses the point I have heard Alexis Wright make about “magic”, and takes it further:

In Australia and elsewhere, Indigenous peoples have also long been able to interact with the world in ways that the West might label as ‘magic’, but this is because the West often defines the real (and hence the possible) differently to the Indigenous cultures of the earth. There are many aspects of Indigenous realities that might be called ‘speculative’ by the West (such as communicating with animals and time travel). There is also much in Western literature that Indigenous peoples regard as fantasy even though it is labeled as fact, including the numerous negative stereotypes and denigrations of Indigenous peoples and culture contained within settler literature. 

Another good challenge to our worldview. She too references Dillon’s “Indigenous futurisms”, explaining that it describes “a form of storytelling whereby Indigenous peoples use the speculative fiction genre to challenge colonialism and envision Indigenous futures”.

Kwaymullina argues that there’s a growing Indigenous presence in speculative fiction, including in YA and Children’s fiction, and names some writers – Teagan Chilcott, Tristan Michael Savage, graphic novelist Brenton McKenna, and the young Aboriginal people responsible for NEOMAD (my post).

So, an exciting time for the genre and for literature in general, but I’ll close here …

Have you have read any First Nations (anywhere) speculative fiction? If so, care to share?

Six degrees of separation, FROM Beach read TO …

A new year, and here we are again with our Six Degrees meme. Before I get stuck in, though, I would like to wish you all the best for the New Year, and hope that 2023 proves to be a healthy and peaceful one for us all. We could all do with it, particularly those in troubled and disaster-affected parts of the world. Meanwhile, on with this post’s business. If you don’t know how it works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book. In January it is another book I haven’t read, Emily Henry’s Beach read, but, what’s new! It sounds somewhat intriguing. According to GoodReads “A romance writer who no longer believes in love and a literary writer stuck in a rut engage in a summer-long challenge that may just upend everything they believe about happily ever afters.” It is of course a perfect title for a down under January book …

Mary Grant Bruce, Early Tales

So, it would be easy to go with what my choice of a beach read, but that’s not where I’m going. Instead, I’m looking at author’s name. Emily Henry’s last name can also be a man’s first name. This is also the case with Mary Grant Bruce, so it is to her juvenilia, The early tales (my review), that I’m linking to first.

From linking on author’s name, I’m next going to title, and another Australian oldie, Price Warung’s Tales of the early days (my review). This title is so similar to that given to Bruce’s juvenilia, but the work is very different. Bruce’s juvenilia are family stories, though not without socio-historical interest, while Warung’s are about convict days and lives, and have clear political intent.

Next, we are going back to author’s name for the link. Price Warung is a pseudonym used by William Astley (1854-1911). Another Australian writer, pretty much a peer in fact, is Jessie Catherine Couvreur (1848-1897). She wrote under the name Tasma, so it is to her satirical Uncle Piper of Piper’s Hill (my review) that I am linking to next.

Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

And now, enough of names and titles! My next link will likely push your credulity a bit, but, you know, all’s fair in six degrees linking, so here goes. As I recorded above, Tasma died in 1897. That year Kate Chopin’s short story “A pair of silk stockings” (my review) was published. It’s a powerful short story, and I want to leave Australia, so that’s where we are going.

Now, since I’ve pushed things a bit, I’m going to push it again. If you’ve read any of Chopin’s stories, you won’t be surprised to hear that she was inspired by Guy de Maupassant. In my review of the story above, I shared some of Chopin’s thoughts about de Maupassant, which included that, in him she saw, “Here was life, not fiction”. Another writer who admired de Maupassant, albeit with some reservations about the man I understand, was Henry James. However, he did say that his story “Paste” (my review) was inspired by Maupassant’s famous short story, “The necklace”.

William James
William James (Public domain, via Wikipedia)

For my last link, I am taking the easy path, and linking to Henry James’ brother, the philosopher William James and his essay “On some mental effect of the earthquake” (my review).

So, a bit of an unusual chain this month. Despite the fact that several of my links are straightforwardly on authors and titles, all of the works I’ve linked to are nowhere near contemporary, and the last three are short works rather than books. Some of you, though, may have read Chopin’s or James’ stories, at least? I’ll be interested to hear. Meanwhile, it does seem that this month we’ve not roamed far … staying essentially with “New World” authors.

Now, the usual: Have you read Beach Read? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Blogging highlights for 2022

As is my tradition, I have separated out my annual Reading highlights from my Blogging highlights, mainly because combining them would result in one very long post.

Top posts for 2022

In recent years my top posts gradually shifted to contain more posts on current Australian books. However, this year’s list has reverted to the “old look”, with one exception, which is that, unusually, two posts that were published during the year have made the Top Ten. This is rare because, mostly, they have not had the time to build up a following. It’s also a bit curious, because on those occasions that a this-year post has reached the Top Ten, the reason has been obvious – it’s been a runaway hit of a book, like Trent Dalton’s Boy swallows universe. That’s not the case here, as you can see.

Merlinda Bobis Fish-hair woman

Here is my 2022 Top Ten, in popularity order:

Observations:

  • Four of these (London, Ordering food in a restaurant, Twain and Bobis) were Top Tens last year. These, along with Barbara Baynton, who just missed out last year, are now serial Top Tenners (with some occasionally dropping into the Top Twenty, only to reappear again in the Ten.) All are related, I think, to assignments.
  • Five of this year’s Top Tens are debuts, including, curiously, my post on epiphany in Elizabeth Harrower’s “The fun of the fair” from Belinda Castles’ book. Perhaps the word “epiphany” has been the drawcard here?
  • Last year, six of the Top Ten posts were for full-length books, but that was clearly an aberration, as this year we returned to my more usual motley mix of mainly short stories/essays.
  • Five, versus last year’s seven, of the Top Ten posts were published over 5 years ago, which tells us that blog posts have staying power!

Just three Australian posts appear in the next ten: Barbara Baynton’s “Squeaker’s mate” (16), my post on the Canberra Writers Festival’s session with Germaine Greer (17), and Red Dog (19). Only Red Dog featured in this group last year, but a different Baynton did also. Red Dog was a Top Ten regular for years until 2020 when it moved to the Top Twenty, where it still remains.

Regarding posts actually written in 2022, this year saw two appearing in the Top Ten, whereas last year the first one appeared at no. 32.

Here are the Top Ten 2022-published posts (excluding Monday Musings and meme posts), with their ranking, month published, and relevant nationality:

One of last year’s 2021-published Top Ten, Shirley Jackson’s “The lottery”, jumped to this year’s “actual” Top Ten. Will any of the above achieve that this year? What surprises me most here is Wallace’s essay on Tracy Austin. Que?

My most popular Monday Musings posts were:

Random blogging stats

The searches

Help Books Clker.com
(Courtesy OCAL, via clker.com)

I love sharing some of the search terms used to reach my blog, although search term visibility is no longer what it used to be, which spoils my fun. However, some still get through.

  • this year there were a couple of very long searches … “i mean there is this guy who aparently is using me as his muse to do some form of story telling and writing and pass it off as satire… hmmm… i wonder who the person in the satire could be?…” (this found my Satire tag I think)
  • and this one that seems to have been copied from an assignment question, “dialogue about you at the restaurent you place an order but everything goes wrong the service is poor the food when it comes isnt what you order its poorly prepared even plates and cutlery were not good write your responsetothewaiter andthewaitercomplain” (no prizes for which post this one found)
  • there are always some that mystify me, like “virtuallightexperiments” and ‘“ashfield tamil” wardrobe‘, though repeating the search does reveal what they found (though not whether it was what they were looking for!)
  • as always, several searches seemed to be for assignments, like “writing a war story irony” (which found Wharton, presumably) and “everything good will come. settings” (which found who knows what?)

Other stats

Overall, 2022 was a challenging year for me blog-wise and it shows in the stats. I only wrote 138 posts, which is well under my long term average of 155. However, I wrote significantly more words per post this year, and my overall hits for the year increased by 8% on last year. Clearly my posts weren’t too long!

The top countries visiting my blog are the same as last year: Australia, the USA, Britain, India, the Philippines, Canada, Germany, France, Mexico and China, in that order.

Challenges, memes and other things

I only do one regular meme, Kate’s (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) #sixdegreesofseparation, and occasionally do others, which you can find on my “memes” category link. And, of course, as mentioned in a recent post I continue to be part of the Australian Women Writers blog.

As last year, I also took part, to different degrees, in Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) First Nations Reading Week, Bill’s (The Australian Legend) AWW Gen 4, Nonfiction November, Novellas in November (Cathy of 746 books and Rebecca of Bookish Beck), the #YEAR Club (by Kaggsy’s Bookish Rambling and Simon’s Stuck in a Book), and Brona’s Aus Reading Month.

All of these align with my reading practice, with some providing a welcome opportunity to explore outside my blog’s main focus.

And so, 2023 …

As always, thank you to all of you who commented on my blog this year – the regulars who have hung in with me year in year out, and the newbies who have taken the time to visit and comment. I hope you have enjoyed the community here enough to stay. A sadness this year was the death in December of longterm friend Neil who had become a semi-regular commenter here and on other blogs. It is a testament to his lively personality and to the community feeling that blogging creates that his loss was commented on with genuine feeling (it seemed to me) by many. Thank you too to the lurkers. I may not know who you are but I know you are there and appreciate your interest and support too.

I also want to thank all the wonderful bloggers out there. I have done a poor job of keeping up this year, but I do appreciate you and enjoy reading your posts when I can. I wish you all good reading and great book talk in 2023.

Finally, huge thanks to the authors, publishers and booksellers who make it all possible – and who prove again and again that the book is far from dead. Roll on 2023 …

Reading highlights for 2022

Regular readers of my blog will know two things about my end of year reading highlights post, but I’ll reiterate them here: I always do my list right at the end of the year when I have read (even if not reviewed) all the books I’m going to; and I do not do a list of “best” or even, really, “favourite” books. Instead, I do a sort of overview of the year through highlights which I think reflect my reading year. I also like to include literary highlights, that is, reading related activities which enhance my reading interests and knowledge. All being well, tomorrow I will share my blogging highlights.

Literary highlights

My literary highlights, aka literary events, saw a return to more live events this year, though the pandemic has taught us that there are opportunities to be had by also continuing online experiences – so this year like last I enjoyed a bit of both

Reading highlights

I don’t have specific reading goals, just some “rules of thumb” which include reducing the TBR pile, increasing my reading of First Nations authors, and reading some non-anglo literature. While I didn’t make great inroads into these, I did make some, and, regardless, I had many reading highlights. Last year, I framed this post around my reading preferences, but this year I’m returning to my practice of pulling out random observations that epitomise my year’s reading.

  • Re-find of the year: Elizabeth von Arnim was an author I loved back in the 1990s, and I managed to finally revisit her again this year, via not one but two novels – Vera and Expiation – which reminded me why I enjoy her so much. She is sharply observant about men and women but also witty. I also read this year one of the three biographies recently published about her, Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here.
  • Retelling of the year: Retellings can be hit or miss for me but I was greatly moved by Tom Gauld’s graphic novel, Goliath.
  • Topic of the year (1): Mothers and daughters featured heavily in this year’s reading, through Jane Sinclair’s memoir Shy love smiles and acid drops, Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, Lucy Neave’s Believe in me, Nell Pierce’s A place near Eden, Jessica Au’s Cold enough for snow not to mention that absolute classic, and a reread for me, Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility.
  • Topic of the year (2): Colonialism and racism are issues that many of us read about in order to educate ourselves, and this year I read some magnificent explorations, from Damon Galgut’s The promise and Audrey Magee’s The colony to several works by people of colour, including Nella Larsen’s classic 1929 novel Passing, Julie Koh’s astonishing Portable curiosities, Evelyn Araluen’s Stella winner Dropbear, and Anita Heiss’s historical novel Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray.
  • New nationality (for me): I love to add new nationalities to my reading diet, and this year it was Uruguayan, via Ida Vitale’s intriguing Byobu.
  • New genre: Bibliomemoirs are not new, but the term for them is relatively so! Besides Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here (mentioned above), I read Carmel Bird’s thoughtful and engaging Telltale.
  • Totemic critters: Every year something interesting pops out from my reading. An odd narrator, perhaps – like a skeleton. This year, it was totemic critters with a few books featuring a lurking critter, such as Nigel Featherstone’s quoll (My heart is a little wild thing) and Lucy Neave’s fox (Believe in me).
  • The locals have it: I like to support local authors, and this year I have read more than usual – Nigel Featherstone’s My heart is a little wild thing, Shelley Burr’s debut rural noir Wake, Lucy Neave’s Believe in me, Nell Pierce’s A place near Eden, and (then resident) Margaret Barbalet’s Blood in the rain, plus two nonfiction works, Mark McKenna’s Return to Uluru and Biff Ward’s memoir-of-sorts, The third chopstick. I also read, but didn’t review several books by local picture book creators. For a little region, we achieve a lot!

These are just some of 2022’s highlights…

Some stats …

I don’t read to achieve specific stats, but I do have some reading preferences which I like to track to keep me honest to myself! This year I was closer to my preferred ratios in most of the categories than I have been for years – without specifically trying. It just happened:

My preferences are …

  • to read mostly fiction: 74% of my reading was fiction (meaning, everything not non-fiction, so novels, short stories, and poetry). This is close to my plucked-out-of-the-air 75% rule of thumb, and I’m pleased with that.
  • to give precedence to women: 64% of this year’s reading was by women writers, which is similar to last year’s 65%, and around my preferred two-thirds proportion.
  • to read non-Australian as well as Australian writers: 32% of this year’s reading was by non-Australian writers, which is close to my goal of around one-third non-Australian, two-thirds Australian.
  • to read older books: 34% of the works I read were published before 2000, which is more than in recent years. I did say last year that I wanted to increase this, because I love checking out older works.
  • to support new releases: 19% of this year’s reads were published in 2022, which is rather less than last year’s 25% for that year’s releases, but I’m fine with that – even if my to-be-reviewed pile isn’t.
  • to tackle the TBR, which for me means books I’ve had for over 12 months: This year I read just 5, which is similar to the last few years. I’d really love to lift this number because I have so many good (older) books there waiting to be read!

Overall, it was a perfectly fine reading year but I didn’t read as much as I was hoping, mainly because Mr Gums and I are travelling more often to Melbourne to visit family. This is a good thing so I’m not complaining, but still, I’d like to have read more. 2023 is going to be a challenging year with a downsizing move in the offing, as well as our trips to Melbourne. Watch this space!

Meanwhile, a huge thanks to all of you who read my posts, engage in discussion, recommend more books and, generally, be thoughtful and fun people. Our little community is special, to me!

I wish you all an excellent 2023, and thank you once again for hanging in this year.

What were your 2022 reading or literary highlights?

Six degrees of separation, FROM The snow child TO …

Not the weather this month, except to say that Summer has started well. Instead, I’ll just say that I hope you all have a beautiful December, sharing meaningful, nurturing times with the people who matter most to you. It’s not always possible for us all, I know, with families and friends spread far and wide, but that is my wish for you dear readers. And now, I’ll get to our Six Degrees meme. As always, if you don’t know how it works, please check meme host Kate’s blog – booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The first rule is that Kate sets our starting book. In December it is another book I haven’t read, Eowyn Ivey’s The snow child, which is partly based on a Russian fairytale about a childless couple who build a little girl out of snow. Next day, the snow girl is gone, but they glimpse a little girl in the woods …

Danielle Wood, Mothers Grimm, book cover

Many writers have taken fairytales and riffed on them to explore an issue they see as relevant or important. I tend not to gravitate to these sorts of books, but one I did and loved is Danielle Wood’s short story collection, Mothers Grimm (my review) which re-visions some Grimm Brothers’ fairytales – “Rapunzel”, “Hansel and Gretel”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and “The Goose Girl” – to reflect on contemporary motherhood.

Book cover

It’s not hard to find links for novels about contemporary motherhood, but I’m going to link to a memoir, Australian filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Unconditional love: A memoir of filmmaking and motherhood (my review) because it’s about a mother with a successful profession who had to make some very hard decisions about balancing mothering and career. It is great to see that with her children now grown up, she is picking up her career more actively – and, yes, successfully.

Book cover

You all know that while I read nonfiction, fiction is my first love, so for my next link I’m returning to fiction and an historical novel about the early years of filmmaking, Dominic Smith’s The electric hotel (my review). It chronicles the life and career of fictional silent filmmaker Claude Ballard. He is sent into bankruptcy through the actions of the nonfictional film inventor Thomas Edison who did his best to exert control over the early film industry.

Peter Carey Chemistry of tears bookcover

Dominic Smith is Australian-born but now lives in Seattle, Washington, USA. Another Australian-born writer who has taken up residence in the USA – albeit on the opposite coast – is Peter Carey. I’ve reviewed a few of his books here but the one I’m linking to is another work of historical fiction, The chemistry of tears (my review).

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

The chemistry of tears is set in England and Europe at that time of great industrialisation, but it’s not form or content on which I am linking next. Peter Carey is one of six writers who have won the Booker Prize twice, and I have reviewed books by three of the other five here, JM Coetzee (now Aussie-based), Margaret Atwood, and the one I’m going to link to Hilary Mantel. She won it for Wolf Hall and its sequel Bring up the bodies, but Wolf Hall (my review) is my chosen link, because …

EM Forster, Howards End

Wolf Hall is the name of a place, a building, a residence in fact, relevant to the novel. It conveys something about the protagonist’s wolfish actions and presages the novel’s sequel (being the home of Henry VIII’s next wife). EM Forster’s Howards End (my review) is also titled for the name of a place, a building, a residence. This place too has a political resonance in the novel, albeit not embedded in the name itself. It stands for traditional culture and values at a time of significant social change, and is where two opposing ideas come together.

This month, I have a rare 50:50 gender split in my selections. We’ve not travelled so far, sticking primarily to Australia, the USA and England – though Dominic Smith does have us scampering a bit around the world and Peter Carey takes us to Germany.

Vale Neil: This morning, Bill (The Australian Legend) emailed me to let me know that one of our commenters, Neil@Kallaroo, had died this week. This was desperately sad news for us. Mr Gums and I attended Neil’s wedding in 1978, and he and his wife ours that same year. Neil frequently commented on my Six Degrees posts in particular, offering his own links. Most recently, though, in late October, he engaged in a discussion about reading eBooks and note-taking on my Telltale post. Neil had been chronically ill for many years, and Mr Gums and I had long been keen to visit him. We finally managed to go to Perth and visit him in hospital in September this year. How great that we did. Neil was his same, lovely, engaged-in-life self. Frustrated by his weakness, he was just getting on with living the best life he could – reading, playing games (online with friends and family), doing puzzles. Vale Neil, you were a good person to know. We will miss your annual Gneillian News!

Now, the usual: Have you read The snow child? And, regardless, what would you link to?

Nonfiction November 2022: New to my TBR

Week 5 on Nonfiction (November 28-Dec 2) is all about what’s New to My TBR, and is hosted by Jaymi (The OC Bookgirl). To be honest, I wasn’t going to play along for this week in which we are supposed to list the books that have made it onto our TBRs from those bloggers have been shared over the month. This is because Last year, for example, I listed EIGHT books in my “New to my TBR” post, and have so far read just one, Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here (my review). I rest my case …. However …

Newly found on my TBR

In Week 1, two books were recommended to me on my post, that I knew I would want to read. Indeed, they sounded a bit familiar, one in particular. Funny that, because when I returned home from Melbourne in the middle of the month, and looked at the TBR next to my bed – you know, those books that you hope you’ll read soon – there these two were.

The one I was fairly confident I had was recommended by Australian novelist and feminist Sara Dowse, who has herself appeared several times on my blog. The book she recommended was Susan Varga’s Hard joy: Life and writing. I have reviewed a couple of Susan Varga’s books too – her memoir Heddy and me, and her poetry collection, Rupture – so I am confident that with Sara Dowse’s recommendation and my past enjoyment of Varga’s work, that I will also like this.

The other I was less sure about, but had started to suspect I might have it too. It was recommended by another Australian writer who has appeared several times on my blog, Carmel Bird. She recommended an author I’d never read before, but the topic of his book sounded right up my alley, as Carmel Bird knew – books, nature and words. The book is Gregory Day’s Words are eagles: Selected writings on the nature & language of place. Nature, language and place … this book of essays looks perfect for me.

The reason I have both books is that I advanced ordered them from the relatively new publishing company Upswell. Their inventory is so appealing and I’ve ordered/subscribed to several over the two years of their existence, but have not managed to read them because of the backlog of review copies I have. So, here I’m going to say that I’ve decided that I am going to find a better balance in my reading between the review pile – albeit there are many there I want to read – and those books I have bought because I have specifically chosen them. My next twelve months is going to be very busy as I prepare to downsize and sell our family home of the last 25 or so years and move into something smaller, but, after that, I am very hopeful of having MORE time to read. Yay that!

Eyes bigger than …

Otherwise, I must admit that I’ve jotted down very few other bloggers’ nonfiction reads – not because I wasn’t interested but because I knew I could not justify adding them to my list. However …

Melanie (Grab the Lapels) made these recommendations, with comments, on my Stranger than fiction post:

  • Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman’sSounds like Titanic: this one is a hoot
  • Lee Israel’s Can you ever forgive me?: this one made me hang my mouth open
  • Bruce Goldfarb’s 18 tiny deaths: The untold story of Frances Glessner Lee and the invention of modern forensics: this one surprising because I thought there were more forensic pathologists
  • Janice Erlbaum’s Have you found her?: this one I would love to tell you about but do not want to spoil it.

There were several books in the Worldchangers week, in particular, that also grabbed my reluctant attention, but I’ll just bring a couple to your attention:

Symeon Brown’s Get rich or lie trying, which Liz Dexter described as “an exposé of the world of internet influencers, or rather those who try desperately to monetise their lives for various reasons, including hauling themselves out of poverty, and who are used and abused by companies who know their desperation”.

Alone in the kitchen with an eggplant: Confessions of cooking for one and dining alone, a collection of essays edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler, which Lou said “helped me to see cooking and eating alone as a privilege and a mark of independence, not a lonely activity”. Many of us either live alone or could very well one day find ourselves alone … this is a great thing to appreciate.

If you are doing Nonfiction November, I‘ll probably see your recommendations. But, if you’re not, do share if any books recommended by bloggers have grabbed your attention this month.

Nonfiction November 2022: Worldview changers

Week 4 of Nonfiction November(November 21-25) is themed Worldview Changers, which is a new one I think for the month. I like this, as it is always good to have a new challenge. It is hosted by Rebekah @ She Seeks Nonfiction and is described as follows:

One of the greatest things about reading nonfiction is learning all kinds of things about our world which you never would have known without it. There’s the intriguing, the beautiful, the appalling, and the profound. What nonfiction book or books has impacted the way you see the world in a powerful way? Do you think there is one book that everyone needs to read for a better understanding of the world we live in?

Jess Hill See What You Made Me Do

Second question, first. The book I think that everyone should read for a better understanding of the world we live in is …

Jess Hill’s See what you made me do: Power, control and sexual abuse (my review). This was a powerful read that I took many, many months to read, after it won the 2020 Stella Prize. It wasn’t so much a worldview changer, for me, because I knew (who doesn’t?) that domestic abuse was going on, but it was certainly eye-opening. While I knew, for example, a lot of it in theory, and had seen many news reports of abuse and violence, the actual stories were gut-wrenching – particularly in the discussion of coercive control, in the levels of abuse of First Nations women, and in the way children are used. The most eye-opening thing was the court system and how the courts too often focus more on the parents’s needs than the children’s and on how men (mostly) can manipulate the system to make it look like the already-controlled wife is incapable of being parenting. This book needs to be read – I thought I knew all this but I didn’t appreciate just how deeply into our systems the problem goes.

As for books that had a strong impact on me, I’m going to name three. They didn’t necessarily change how I view the world, but they certainly enhanced my understanding of it and/or of myself. They are, in the order I read them:

  • Mark McKenna’s Return to Uluru (my review) for its no-holds-barred investigation into some challenging and hidden stories of Australia’s past. Every new correction to Australia’s history, as we learnt it, has value.
  • Carmel Bird’s Telltale (my review) for its intelligent and revealing insights into how her reading affected her, which in turn contributed to my thinking about my own reading and its impact on my intellectual, emotional and social development.
  • Biff Ward’s The third chopstick (my review) for its portrayal of an activist who fearlessly confronted those most affected by that activism and/or the war they were protesting.

While all these books made an impact on me, I also need to say that, overall, the books that most impact me are, really, fiction. That is where the real punches mostly are!

For those of you doing Nonfiction November, I’ll see your Worldview Changers I’m sure, but, if you’re not, would you like to share any or some of yours?

Elizabeth von Arnim, Expiation (#BookReview #1929Club)

I cannot remember when I last laughed out loud – a lot – when reading a book. The book that broke the drought is Elizabeth von Arnim’s Expiation. Even in her darkest, grimmest novel, Vera (my review), Von Arnim managed to make me splutter several times, albeit ruefully. Expatiation, though, caused no such qualms.

I have loved Elizabeth von Arnim since I read Elizabeth and her German Garden in the early 1990s when Virago started publishing her. I went on to read several more of her books over the next few years, but then had a big gap until this year, when I read Vera. It reminded me how much I enjoy her. So, when I saw she had one published in 1929, I selected it for Karen and Simon’s 1929 Club. I finished it more or less on time, but the last couple of weeks have been so busy that I didn’t get to post it until now.

The edition I found was published by Persephone. They describe publishing it as first for them, because “it’s a novel by a well-known writer that has been entirely overlooked”. While most of Von Arnim’s books are in print with other publishers, Expiation, which they were now publishing ninety years after its first appearance, had been ignored. Why, they ask? Good question. I admit that, not having seen it around, I did fear it might be lesser.

Persephone offers some reasons. Firstly, the title “is not very catchy”. True, it’s not. They also suggest that its adultery theme would have been “faintly shocking” in 1929, and further that, although we now read it as a satire, at the time “the characters and their milieu may have seemed rather tame”. Would the satire have been missed? Anyhow, they quote from the novel’s opening chapter, which describes the novel’s central family and the London suburb they live in:

That important south London suburb appreciated the Botts, so financially sound, so continuously increasing in prosperity. They were its backbone. They subscribed, presided, spoke, opened.

This last sentence, Persephone says, “was what deliciously and instantly convinced us that this was a book for us”. I am so glad they did because from the first few pages I could tell it was a book for me too. It truly is delicious.

So now, the book. As you’ve gathered, the plot centres around adultery, which is made clear in the opening chapter. Milly has just been widowed, and her wealthy husband, Ernest Bott, has only left her £1,000 of his £100,000. The rest he has left to a charity for fallen women, with the cryptic note that “My wife will know why”. She does, of course, but thought she had got away with it. What is remarkable about this book, which chronicles how both Milly and the Botts react to the situation, is that we remain sympathetic to Milly. She’s a sinner, she knows she’s a sinner, but she wants to expiate. How, is the question?

The Botts, meanwhile, don’t know what to do. They do not want scandal to ruin their good name, and, anyhow, the male Botts in general rather like round, plump Milly versus their “bony” wives. Moreover, they are not known for meanness: “The family had always behaved well and generously in regard to money, and it would never do for Titford to suspect them of meanness.” Hmmm, a bit of appearance-versus-reality going on here. So, having decided, Jane-Austen-Sense-and-sensibility-style, not to give Milly some of their money, they agree to take her into their homes, in turn, until it all dies down, after which she can go live with Old Mrs Bott, who is perfectly happy to have her. Old Mrs Bott is the voice of reason in the novel. Experience has taught her

that in the end it all wouldn’t have mattered a bit what Ernest had meant or what Milly had done, and that they might just as well have been kind and happy together on this particular afternoon, as indeed on all their few afternoons, and together comfortably eaten the nice soup and sandwiches.

However, a spanner is thrown in their works when the shocked and mortified Milly disappears the day after the funeral. To say more about the plot would give too much away – even though the plot is not the main thing about this book.

What Von Arnim does through this plot is take us on a journey through humanity. Milly’s attempts at expiation often fall flat, either because she doesn’t manage to do what she plans or because others don’t behave towards her as she expects, even wants, them to do. For example, on one occasion, she has “no doubt at all that here at last she was in the very arms of expiation” and yet it comes “to her so disconcertingly, with a smile on its face”. Can this really be expiation? Milly’s not sure. One of the book’s ironies – and points – is, in fact, that the greatest sinner, technically, is among the kindest in reality.

The thing I like about Von Arnim is her generosity. It is on display throughout this novel as Milly, seeking expiation (but also to survive) moves between people she knows, from her previously sinning sister and her obliviously self-centred lover to the various Botts who range from the puritanical and pompous to the warm and lively. Most of these characters, like Austen’s, may come from a narrow realm of society but they represent a much wider spectrum of human behaviour. Like Austen, too, Von Arnim’s targets are not just the personal – greed, selfishness, narrow-mindedness, silliness, pride, self-importance, ignorance, and so on – but the societal, particularly gender, marriage and money. “Too much worldly prosperity”, she writes for example, “deadens people’s souls”.

So, in Expiation, Von Arnim skewers human nature and her society much like Jane Austen does. Sometimes the situations may be a little dated as they can also be in Austen, but human nature itself doesn’t change much – and this is so knowingly, so inclusively, and so generously, on display. There are some less than stellar people here, of course, but as in Austen, they are treated with respect for their humanness by the author, while also being exposed for exactly who they are. I’m going to – with difficulty – choose just a couple for you, one touching on the theme of sinning and morality, and the other on money.

Here is the eldest Bott, Alec, trying to avoid hosting Milly first, because of his wife’s puritanical approach to life:

He stopped, an undefined idea possessing his mind that Milly might be purer after having passed through the sieve of other visits, and more fit to stay with his wife …

Von Arnim’s language – so fresh and funny. And here is another Bott, Fred, telling his sons they will be helping Milly:

“Do you mean financially?” inquired Percy, his eyes still on his paper.
“Kindness,” said Fred.
“Kindness! Well, that’s cheap, anyhow,” said Dick.
“And easy,” said Percy, turning the pages. “I always liked Aunt Milly.”

Finally, I will leave you with one more bon mot from Old Mrs Bott who reflects, at one point during the novel:

It seemed as if these poor children had no sense whatever of proportion. They wasted their short time in making much of what was little, and little of what was much.

With a wit and a sense of humanity that is a joy to read, Expiation encourages us to think about what is important to living both a good life, and a kind and fair one.

Elizabeth von Arnim
Expiation
London: Persephone Books, 2019 (orig. pub. 1929)
314pp.
ISBN: 9781906462536