My Thoughts on David Malouf’s A First Place

This poor blog has been neglected and ignored. It’s not that I’ve ceased to be Bewitched by Books over the past months, rather that I’ve probably bitten off more than I can chew. I’ve kept reading away but not managed to write reviews or comments.

I’ve been bewitched by a short story, though and felt inspired to write My Thoughts on David Malouf’s A First Place. I decided to write it on my family history blog because it’s a reflection on somewhere I’ve spent many years of my life.

The Tin Ticket by Deborah Swiss

I’m cheating a little here as I first published this post on my family history blog, but I thought perhaps a different audience might also find it relevant.

The Tin Ticket[i] was one of my purchases from Gould Genealogy at a Qld Genealogy Expo last year. I selected it because while I have no convicts in my own tree I thought it would be an interesting read.

In essence the book aims to illustrate the life experiences of three female convicts who were sentenced to transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) for seven to ten years in the 1830s. Two were Scottish teenagers who’d been living on the streets for some time, Agnes McMillan and Janet Houston. The other was Ludlow Tedder, a literate housekeeper who’d been sentenced for pawning her employer’s silverware. Ludlow’s young daughter Arabella was also sent out with her.

All three were confined to the Cascades Female Factory for part of their sentence and were there for some overlapping periods.

Pros

I found the book interesting for what I learned about the horrors of Newgate Prison in London and the conditions at the Cascades. It is appalling to think how little clothing and food these women were given, the shockingly unsanitary conditions under which they lived, and the double standards of the time. The story of Elizabeth Fry’s work to improve their conditions at Newgate was also interesting. I’d liked to have had more information on life as a female convict towards the end of transportation era to see what conditions had changed: the nod to Irish convict Bridget Mulligan was to my mind cursory and subject to stereotyping.

From our family’s perspective, the references to Oatlands in central Tasmania were also informative as My husband’s Irish convict ancestor, Denis Collins, was there for part of his sentence.

Cons

As a reader I found this book difficult and “stumbling” to read. The writing style was excessively florid with superfluous adjectives at every turn, and some phrases repeated ad infinitum, in a way which worked against the story as a whole.  I didn’t need to be told more than once or twice that Agnes was a “grey-eyed girl” or that she came from Glasgow, nor did I need the words “convict maids” to be always conjoined. The hyperbole made me sceptical about the accuracy of the content and would have benefited from a severe editing. I also found it irritating to read Americanisms in a book written about Australia and the UK. It does highlight how important it is to have a local reader do at least one edit, especially when the author is from another country.

These convict women were strong and resilient, whatever their faults and convictions, and I’d have liked to have known even more detail about their lives after gaining their Tickets of Leave as this is when they contributed to the development of Australia. No doubt this was partly due to the lack of documentary evidence for this period of their lives, in marked contrast to the detail from their convict period.

Summary: Worth the read to learn about life as a female convict in the early-mid 19thcentury, and of special interest to anyone with ancestors who may have been at Newgate or the Cascades Female Factory in Hobart.  A more balanced, edited writing style would have been more convincing rather than leaving me wondering about the validity of some of the statements.

You may also be interested in an article by the author in from The Huffington Post about Cascades and its female convicts.

Deborah Swiss is an American author.

[i] Swiss, Deborah J. The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women. New York, Berkley, 2010.

Books with an historical bent

Over the years of writing my family history blog I’ve commented on a number of books with historical themes. I thought I’d include the links here should anyone have an interest in this type of writing.

The Last Blue Sea (David Forrest)

Titanic Lives, (Richard Davenport-Hines) and Home with Alice (Steve Fallon)

The Tin Ticket (Deborah J Swiss)

Foreign Correspondence (Geraldine Brooks) and Why you are Australian (Nikki Gemmel)

A selection of history references including Oceans of Consolation (David Fitzpatrick) and The End of Hidden Ireland (Robert James Scally)

Farewell my children (Dr Richard Reid)

Insights into Australia: a book list (the comments are both pertinent and interesting)

St Mary’s: the Luckie Parish (John R Kane)

Alice Springs by Eleanor Hogan

awwbadge_2013Synopsis: this is a book about life in Alice Springs, and the joys and challenges of living there. It is not a paeon to the glories of the desert and the openness of space in Australia’s red centre. Rather it is more of a social commentary and a reflection on the human challenges that Alice Springs provides in abundance and in-your-face.

Hogan states “Alice Springs is a place of extremes –of climate, of distance, of attitudes, of social privilege, of racial and gender divides –that are often highly conflicted.” Her goal is “to throw light on the texture of its everyday life through describing a typical year in the life of the town[i].”

Review

Alice Springs HoganHogan is not a “blow-in[ii]” two-year tourist writing about her experiences then heading back to the big smoke. Nor is she a FIFO, fly-in fly-out adviser. She and her friends reflect a dilemma perhaps more typical of Alice than Darwin: will they “serve a two-year, three-year, five-year, eight-year sentence[iii]”? The use of a word more typically referenced in the judicial system perhaps provides an unintentional insight. The fact that they even question how long they’ll stay separates them from long-term residents, but perhaps gives them a comparative insight into life in a different place.

She also queries when one becomes a Centralian, or indeed a Territorian. Officialdom apparently requires that you reside in the Centre for 25 years before being invited to attend the Annual Centralian Dinner in “Territory rig” (the local dress code). Popular myth has it that if you see the Todd (River) flow three times you’ll be in Alice for life. Perhaps that only applies if you live there when it flows, for which I’m grateful as I’ve seen it under water twice during work visits.

It’s only in writing about the book that I’ve come to realise a particular omission. Although sights and places are referred to, there’s no description that I recall to bring to life why people love the town and its region: its beauty, starkness and the sheer grandeur of some of its places and flora. The book is not intended as a tourist guide but it does mean that we miss out on some of the wonders of the place.

I was much amused by the familiarity of her description of those who work and travel to the Aboriginal communities (or indeed many places in the Territory) “it was difficult to tell apart a tradie returning from a maintenance job or a lesbian coming home from a social justice mission to an Aboriginal mob out bush[iv]”. Why does she single out lesbians in this way? Because Alice has the country’s highest proportion of lesbian women.

A further omission from the book is the level of animosity and distrust between central Australia and the powers-that-be in Darwin. It’s an undercurrent that is evident in most workplace dealings across the regions. Australians would best understand this in the sense of how Canberra’s bureaucrats and politicians are perceived in the rest of the country.

One story Hogan tells is of her Sydney friends arguing that women over 30 shouldn’t wear shorts. She says that wearing shorts came to mean “a shift to being in another, quite unmetropolitan place[v]. I confess I found this whole Sydney attitude downright bizarre, but then I’ve lived my whole life in tropical and sub-tropical regions….and I spend my non-working life in shorts.

The book focuses on, and emphasises, the vast social challenges of Alice Springs and the region, of which the Indigenous issues are paramount. One can live in urban Australia and rarely see an Aboriginal person, or one who is noticeable as “other”. Life in the Territory, and in Alice in particular, presents a vastly different experience, one that grey nomads and other urban tourists will likely find confronting and perhaps reinforce their racial stereotyping.

A key focus throughout the book is the vast dichotomy between Indigenous lives and that of their whitefella counterparts, in terms of violence, health and education[vi]. Hogan’s stories will be both shocking and enlightening to those who’ve had little exposure to the level of the problem. She quotes a social worker, Dale Wakefield: “you prepare for the worst in Melbourne, but the worst happens in Central Australia[vii]”. Long-term residents of the Territory and the Centre tend to become inured to the sights and problems they see around them, frequently becoming judgmental and critical.  Hogan frequently quotes social justice experts that it will take a generation or more to turn things around. I suspect this is a generous estimate and it may well take another two generations at least, despite the good will and efforts of many people.

Over time Hogan comments “even a simple trip up the street to buy groceries might involve seeing an ugly incident[viii]”. It was the on-going impact of the social dichotomy that seems to have led to Hogan’s departure back to the big smoke, remaining forever changed no doubt by her life experience in Alice.

A further consideration in Hogan’s decision to leave was the turnover of people with the loss of friendships: by calling them expats she essentially marks them out as different from the long-term residents.  The caution of old-timers in accepting short-term incomers is one of the hallmarks of the Territory and a mark of the regular flow in and out of expats: it takes time to earn your local stripes.  On arriving in the Territory 16 years ago we found this strange and unexpected. We had been accustomed to the expat situation in Papua New Guinea, where even though there was a regular turnover in any given town, you expected to maintain the friendship over time and place by visits during leave or by further postings.

I thought this was a great book which provided excellent insights into the daily challenges of life in Alice Springs. Hogan has teased out many of the issues, especially those of social justice, which confront residents daily and is both sympathetic and empathetic. I recommend this book to those who want to learn more about the day-to-day complexities of Indigenous issues.

Quoting Dale Wakefield again “in Alice you walk down the street and see beaten women….You see kids wandering around by themselves and you know there’s nowhere for them to go. It’s very, very confronting[ix]”.

How pertinent, then, to read this weekend’s in-depth commentary by journalist Paul Toohey in the NT News.

For an alternative view on this book, you might find this review interesting http://www.alicespringsnews.com.au/2012/09/04/bleak-tunnel-vision-in-new-book-on-alice-springs/

[i] Page 38.

[ii] See page 139

[iii] Page 140

[iv] Page 150

[v] Page 137

[vi] She includes some statistics starting at page 174 but stories are revealed throughout the book.

[vii] Page 181

[viii] Page 267

[ix] Page 274

Library Loot: the Anne Perry novels

Library LootMy friends know that I’m a crime novel “tragic”. Once I find an author I like reading and whose plots I find interesting and believable, I will read everything they write, and am most miffed if they stop writing or have the temerity to die, leaving me with no upcoming novels.

Imagine my surprise then, on a recent marauding of my favourite lending library, to discover a new author. Actually she’s not a new author as she has many books to her credit, it’s just that somehow she’d passed me by previously.

So like a glutton at a buffet I’ve been devouring book after book by her, either from the library or on Kindle. Luckily also my Brisbane friend had a collection on her shelves when I visited recently so I powered through as many as I could.

Anne Perry writes mainly four series of novels, all so far with a crime theme, or at least an element thereof. Three are situated in the Victorian era and with an interest in history and family history I’ve found this particularly interesting. Her words have really brought home just how horrendous and difficult were the lives of London’s poor in those days. It reminds me of a book I read by Jack London called People of the Abyss.

Not all of her plots are believable, and as with the TV series, Midsomer Murders, I do sometimes wonder how one family (even with a policeman included) can get itself into so much bother. Still I find it all too easy to jump on the magic carpet and suspend belief for a few hours.

P1190494Each of her series has key protagonists and in each case strong women play pivotal roles.

The Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series

Thomas Pitt is a detective with the Police and later Special Branch. His wife Charlotte, bred to Society, has taken a significant step downwards socially to marry him. This is believable because of her strong character and forthright views, so when she involves herself in some (many!) of his cases it’s sort of credible. Charlotte, along with sister Emily and great aunt-in-law Vespasia, become Pitt’s eyes and ears in a social strata he is not familiar with.

I do find it somewhat incredible that he would share the full details of his cases with Charlotte and that rather than the events is what stretches my belief the most. The lack of general confidentiality pushes the boundaries but doesn’t stop my engagement with the stories. Occasionally the plots get somewhat confusing but as yet this hasn’t spoiled my enjoyment of the books.

The William Monk series

In her other series about William Monk, a former policeman and private investigator, now member of London’s Water Police, he is also assisted by his wife Hester who runs a charity clinic for prostitutes. This series is darker with more harsh realities unrelieved by excursions into London Society and in many ways I enjoy this series more for this very reason.

World War I series

There are also five books set in World War I, with members of the Reavley family as the main characters. I think the author manages to reveal the sheer harshness of life in the trenches and the mental and physical dangers the men faced.  A thread between the books is a story of treason and an alternate approach to the resolution of the conflict but one which leaves the ordinary man with no choices.  She also manages to make it very clear how the war would impact life in England afterwards. All of these books have been very interesting and I found it easy to care about the characters.

Christmas novels

Anne Perry also has a series of Christmas novels and as yet I’ve only read one of them.  It too has a crime theme but of a lighter note.

In my view the author’s strengths are her characterisations and her ability to help us really understand or know the Victorian era, as well as WWI. Very occasionally there are lapses where she “tells” rather than “shows”, but they are minor down-points. I have gained a new respect and understanding for the poor of London (and no doubt other major cities): their lives really were marginal and infinitely difficult.

Recommendation: If you like crime or mystery, and you haven’t tried this author it would be well worth reading a few to see if you like them.

Magic Carpet factor: An average 3 ½ to 4 stars from me, for taking me back in time and really engaging with the characters.

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

Thoughts of Maria by Gregory Heath

thoughts_of_maria_coverA few weeks ago I received a copy of the e-book Thoughts of Maria by Gregory Heath. Thanks to a computer glitch it’s taken me a while to get to the review.

Synopsis: There are four main protagonists in the story who tell interleaving stories about a phase in their lives. Gerry was divorced by his wife Rachel; Maria, a young Filipina living on Manila’s dumps with her family; and Gerry and Rachel’s son Callum. The story focuses on Gerry’s decision to find a mail-order bride from Asia and the impact that has on each of the characters.

Review: The approach of revealing each character’s thoughts and aims by telling their story in interweaving chapters is interesting. The strength of this strategy is that is shows how little each of the characters really know of each other and their motivations.

I found Gerry and Maria engaging and though each had their own aspirations for the relationship, there were hidden undercurrents especially Maria not revealing her family’s dire straits. While understandable given the family’s absolute poverty, this has potential for undermining the couple’s relationship but time may have made it possible for Maria to reveal the truth. Both Gerry and Maria seem committed to making the relationship work. Gerry and Maria convinced me of their belief in family and the willingness to commit, but the behaviour of the other characters left me with the expectation that their new-found happiness might be destroyed.

Gerry’s son Callum on the other hand is a nasty piece of work….weak, conniving and generally unstable. His self-destructive behaviour leaves a potential bombshell for Gerry and Maria.

Rachel is equally flawed, dissatisfied with her life and envious of Gerry’s new relationship. Her bitterness and viciousness combined with Callum’s bombshell have the potential to completely destroy Gerry and Maria’s marriage despite their best efforts.

Gerry’s father, Arthur, makes a brief appearance which reveals where Gerry has learned his family values.

library thingI prefer a longer novel and this one was quite short, but honestly, by the end, I didn’t really want to know of might become the car-crash of their lives. The characters were certainly believable but the weakness and nastiness of Callum and Rachel meant that it wasn’t a book I enjoyed. The open ending left the reader with their own options for what would happen next.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Magic carpet factor: I gave this book three stars because of the believability of the characters. Without that it would probably have been 2½.

Because I’m Small Now and You Love Me by Gina London

Last week I read an e-Because I'm smallbook called Because I’m Small Now and You Love Me: The World According to my Four Year Old by CNN reporter Gina London.

Synopsis: This is the story of a small girl, her funny sayings and the family’s life in Paris France, USA and Arezzo, Italy.

 Review: They say never to compete with children and animals and the author wisely avoided this dilemma. Instead she has turned it on its head, using her daughter’s humorous comments and world-view to tell a delightful tale of life in three countries. Her professional skills  leavened with some maternal cynicism as well as pride, make it an enjoyable and amusing read, though perhaps not one which would appeal to those with an aversion to children. Personally I found it enchanting.

Lulu is a bright child who knows her mind and leads her parents something of a merry dance..challenging but rewarding and adaptable! Parents and grandparents may well find themselves thinking “why didn’t I write something like that?”…probably because, unlike the author, many of us simply think it’s cute on the day, and don’t record the saying or the context. There are elements of familiarity here and it could easily have turned saccharine but for the spicy dollop of cultural differences quite unlike other versions of “my life in Tuscany/Paris”.

library thingThis is a fairly light book which is easily read but it reminds us just how adaptable children can be…Halloween visits at midnight anyone? And as someone who can’t manage to roll their “r’s” I can empathise with Gina’s dilemma.

 Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Library Thing on the understanding that I would write an honest review.

Magic Carpet Factor: 3.5