Book Review: The Daughters of Mars by Tom Keneally

The Daughters of Mars by Tom Keneally book coverTom Keneally has drawn an epic tribute to the enormous and often less-acknowledged contributions of women during World War I. In this, his latest novel, seen from the point of view of the nurses who coped with the resulting horrors of battle; no graphic detail is spared in the suffering endured, as well as witnessed, by them.

We are swept from rural Victoria to Melbourne, Cairo, Sydney, London, Paris and Lemnos to the Dardanelles and the killing fields of France in the course of this compelling novel.

Two sisters, Naomi and Sally, begin as sisters only in name. They share little in common and have, up to this time, lived entirely separate existences. Their mother’s terminal illness and unbearable suffering creates a reluctant bond between them with a dark and heavy secret they are forced to share. An escape from the past is offered them by the opportunity to enlist as nurses and they join the war effort. Both are sent to the war zones, first to the Mediterranean, where they are thrown into the thick of the slaughter at Gallipoli and then to the Somme and the even more brutal conflict in France. They survive extreme traumatic events together and come to greatly appreciate, respect and even love, each other. As sisters, in foreign countries, they eventually attain a level of friendship that eluded them at home in Australia.

This book provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the realities of war faced by the nurses who tended to the maimed, dying and damaged. It is a testament to the endurance of women who nurse and the harrowing consequences of sending men to war. It is the story of two sisters who find that it is not too late to be real sisters other than in name only.

Tom Keneally has given a real insight into the medical and nursing side of the Great War, and the problems women faced in so many facets of life then. What strikes the modern reader perhaps, is that, even though Australian women had the vote at that time and much earlier than their English counterparts, suffrage made little difference in reality to how they were treated, often as insignificant, when working in a man’s world.

Recommended as an interesting read that shows WW1 from a woman’s point of view and a very human tale of two sisters seeking love and fulfilment in a most turbulent period of world events.

Book Review: Mary Bennet by Jennifer Paynter

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Poor plain bookish Mary Bennet, caught halfway between pretty Jane, clever Lizzy and silly Lydia and her shadow Kitty. She is a dim presence in Pride and Prejudice, a foil for the brightness of the others. Mary Bennet is her story and, as such, it is a fascinating alternative look at a much-loved tale. But it goes well beyond the boundaries of Austen’s work with an ending that offers an unexpected surprise for Australian readers.

The ins-and-outs of the tight social circle of the Bennets and their family and friends are recounted in minute detail. The cadences of Austen are captured without sounding either archaic or anachronistic — which is in welcome contrast to many of the numerous modern day sequels to her body of work.

While Mary Bennet does read as an independent work, the first half is reliant on the reader having at least a passing knowledge of Pride and Prejudice — even if just to understand what this retelling is being contrasted against. Mary does not really share the humour of her family, although she certainly understands its agonies. Austen wrote of the delicate balance of social niceties and the iniquitous position of women in a society where they had little power or standing outside of their marriage prospects. Jennifer Paynter recounts this with a slightly more twenty-first century sensibility, but one that is so well couched that it does not feel out of place. Mary and her friends are strong and they might be considered rebels; but they are also believable as Regency rebels.

This is billed as ‘pride, prejudice and the forgotten sister’, although it is not the first attempt at retelling Mary’s story — Colleen McCullough’s 2008 work, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennetreceived a lukewarm reception and was heavily criticised by diehard Austen fans. In contrast, Jennifer Paynter has not sought to deconstruct, but rather to illuminate.

Jennifer Paynter is the author of two stage plays, When are We Going to Manly? and Balancing Act, along with several short stories. She lives in Sydney and Mary Bennet is her first novel.

Book Review: Honeycomb Kids: Big Picture Parenting for a Changing World

Rating: ★★★★½

Many is the time I look at my digital babies (aged 11 and 9) and marvel at the completely different planet they live on. I marvel at the complete divergence between their childhood and my own, despite, like many parents, spending considerable time ensuring they have as much of a ‘real life’ existence as possible (as opposed to the virtual one they are living via laptops, iPads, and various game platforms).

Yes, digital babies have untold benefits. They also have untold disadvantage – the consequences of which we may not realise for many decades to come.

As my children sit poised on the launching pad to adulthood, my eyes are wide open to the future we are leaving them to take in hand. Learning more about this new book – Honeycomb Kids – was of enormous interest to me because that handing-over-to-our-kids thing – I must admit, fills me with a little bit of worry. Not only for the fact that our kids are increasingly losing touch with reality, but that they are also facing a world that has achieved the most incredible amount of change in the smallest amount of time in the history of our existence.

Why honeycomb? Author Campbell explains there are two types. The sweet, sugary, fragile type found inside chocolate bars, and the strong, nutritious, healing type made my honeybees, renowned for its longevity, utility and life-giving sweetness. As the author says –

‘. . . one cell of honeycomb won’t keep even a single bee alive, but when the cells are joined together and filled with nectar and pollen, they provide individual bees and the colony with a strong, resilient, bounteous framework in which they can thrive’.

Sounds a little like community spirit to me – something (God only knows) we are sorely lacking as our Western world becomes even more internalised and virtualised.

Campbell’s book is strongly centered in a parenting shift – a shift that is currently palpable in the family zeitgeist, if not literally then at least the notion of that shift is impregnating the consciousness or subconciousness of many a parent. Campbell espouses some changes within her own family unit in the past five years – namely:

  • committing to spend more time communicating than commuting
  • focusing attention on community rather than consumption
  • striving to generate less waste while making room for more wisdom
  • accepting less income but better outcomes
  • achieving more self-reliance and less dependency

I have to say that a very similar shift has also been happening in our house, and in the houses of many families I know. The shift is essentially shunning the hype and getting back to real living, to real basics – to our centre, our biology, our fundamental needs. Gone is more more more and in its place is live live live.

Campbell’s beautiful book uses a warm, articulate and intelligent voice to guide the reader through mega ‘aha!’ moments in living a more dedicated, more balanced and happier life. In Part 1 of the book, she covers The Big Issues – topics that cover the bigger picture of our future, and the future of our children. Population growth, climate change, food and water shortages, energy supply, health issues, globalisation, communications and everyday hazards (such as advertising, marketing and instant gratification).

In Part 2, Campbell covers ways to rise ‘honeycomb’ kids. Chapters include community, building strength and resilience, smart thinking, healthy life choices, meaningful work, nature, money, laughter, compassion, time-usage, unconditional love and home truths. Her topics are eye-opening, shocking, enlightening, empowering and brilliant in their scope. They are topics that every modern parent and child can relate to, but most of all – they are important, if not vital, to our future.

Honeycomb Kids is an important book. It will not only have you punching the air with your fist and gasping in recognition – it will also quite possibly change your children’s future. And if you’re anything like me – consistently overwhelmed at the pace we’re having to keep abreast of and terrified our children will soon enter warp speed – it might even make you worry less. And feel happier more.

Whatever the case, it’s very clear we need to make some changes – and where better to start than the family unit? To quote one of those all-pervading ad campaigns that have rewired and screwed with our very organic human brains – we’re worth it.

Book Review: Am I Black Enough for You? by Anita Heiss

Rating: ★★★★☆

Having watched the irrepressible Anita Heiss navigate the social media arena with pomp, opinion and savvy this past 18 months, I grew increasingly intrigued over her (at the time) upcoming memoir release, with its though-provoking title – Am I Black Enough for You? Absolutely admire a woman of her convictions, me, and also admire a woman who is gutsy enough to tell it like it is, especially when that woman is informed, educated and feeling it.

And boy, is Anita Heiss feeling it.

Born to an Austrian father, Joe, and Aboriginal mother (of Wiradjuri blood), Elsie, who grew up in Cowra under the Aborigines Protection Act (and whose mother was one of the Stolen Generation), Heiss was educated and raised a Catholic, spending much of her life in Sydney, most specifically on Dharawal land (Matraville). I love how she describes herself as an ‘urban, beachside Blackfella, a concrete Koori with Westfield Dreaming’. I love even more that she apologises to no one for this self-imposed identity.

This entire book is essentially about identity. It’s about a woman who has dedicated her life to both studying, sharing and imparting the sometimes convoluted notion of First People identity (to Second People, anyway) . . . their pain, their loss, their desire to hold dear an ancient culture that has already lost so much, and their right to assert who they are and where they’re going.

It’s about stripping stereotypes and refraining from pigeon-holeing and expectation. It’s about celebrating the diversity and richness of our blended cultures and demanding a far greater balance when it comes to recognising and honouring these cultures.

It’s also about the Aboriginal people’s incredible emotional connection to the land, to belonging, to sharing their culture and voicing it – demanding its recognition and importance in this country, and indeed around the world. This book is also about how vital it is to give that identity voice – and Heiss has done this unabashedly and with honesty and great heart.

Although much of this book contains interesting and very personal biographical content, Heiss also discusses the rise and rise of her activist nature, fuelled in part by the continued appalling conditions suffered by many Aboriginal people, the stereotypical misgivings by the general populace, and most recently her frustrations over the media’s insistence that some Aborigines are too ‘fair-skinned ‘to be true First People. Her much-publicised involvement in the Racial Discrimination court case against journalist Andrew Bolt stemmed from this false assumption. Bolt lost the case.

In Am I Black Enough for You?, Heiss has written an account of a life well-lived but also a life deeply endeared to two very different parts of the world, on polar opposite sides of the planet. Regarding her Aboriginal roots and the future of her people, she speaks with passion, conviction and . . . balls. Yes, to the general populace, Anita Heiss may appear ballsy and highly opinionated, but there’s no denying the fact that this is a woman whose chest contains an enormous heart. The greatest social and political changes ever made have been by the voices of the outwardly strong but open of heart.

There is no doubt Heiss will continue on her campaign to enlighten all Australians on the continued imbalance suffered by First People in Australia. She will continue to campaign to alter our appalling Aboriginal literacy rates and to educate other Australians on the notion of First People identity. But most of all, I hope Anita continues to stand strong and uphold her right to Be, no matter her particular shade of black.

Book Review: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Rating: ★★★★★

When I first took Bitter Greens in hand, I immediately assigned this brick-like tome to the ‘too long to read’ review pile. Before doing so, however, I briefly flipped open the first pages for a peek, as I am almost always tempted to do.

Fast forward two weeks later, I was agonisingly eking out each and every word in the final pages of this beautiful book, wishing it was thrice the size.

I’m not kidding. I want more. (Kate, are you listening?)

1666. Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force has always been a talker. A storyteller. She may not be the grandest beauty, but her striking presence, wit, intelligence and savoir faire (also heaving breast, long dark curls and exquisite fashion sense) make her an engaging and desirable ‘troubador’ in the court of Louis XIV – the Sun King.

A distant-second cousin to the King, Charlotte-Rose finds herself struggling to secure a husband at court. Her irreverence, Huguenot status (at a time when the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church, and indeed against the Crown, took a horrifying death toll) and attraction to beauty and magic, sees her become a target of social scandal, and eventually – a suspect in the period’s infamous hunt for witches.

Eventually, after much relatively harmless scandal, Charlotte-Rose is banished, at the ripe old age of 47, to a nunnery where she befriends a warm, golden-eyed nun who regales her with an astonishing tale – the tale of Rapunzel – or Petrosinella (meaning Little Parsley) – whose parents sold her to a witch for a handful of bitter greens.

Of course, there is much more to this story than meets the eye. There was no sale. There was no sell-out. Just a witch bewitched by the lure of everlasting youth – and a young girl in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This book, which follows three women – Charlotte-Rose, the witch or La Strega, and young Margherita, the girl who is imprisoned in a tower on the Rock of Manerba – is astonishing in its richness and detail. Interwoven with history, fantasy, breathtaking romance and magic, I became as bewitched as Petrosinella at the raw beauty of Bitter Greens.

Kate Forsyth travelled to Paris, Gascony, Venice and the Italian Lakes in search of inspiration for this novel, and she found it. The depth and scope of the research she undertook to pen this tome is quite mind-boggling and it’s clear this author – who is currently completing a doctorate in fairytale retellings – has an abiding passion for history and magic – a delicious and palpable combination.

Set over 200 years, this is a story of love at its outer reaches. It is a story of the power within – of woeful failure and glorious achievement. It is resplendent with human frailty, cruelty and beauty. If books were the notes of a violin, Bitter Greens would be the highest soaring note – the one that brings goosebumps to the skin and swells the heart with passion.

Forsyth’s language and skill for visual and emotional evocation is truly divine – and her cast of characters – both real and imagined – is like manna from heaven. It is an indulgent pleasure to read her beautifully-crafted words, and to be swept into another time and place – so willingly.

From the descriptions of flopping lace at the cuff of a French dandy to the fervent love scenes . . . from the exquisite visuals of the Italian mountains and dim canals of Venice to the debauched happenings of the Court of the Sun King. . . from heart-snagging romance to mouth-clutching deaths . . . from mesmerising musical meanderings to clandestine potions – this beautifully-balanced, immensely-satisfying novel has a plot as tightly woven and luscious as a 12th Century magic carpet.

And now, I shall clutch my silk handkerchief to my heaving bosom of woe at the sordid finality I feel upon finishing this book. And I shall throw down my hair and patiently await the next instalment. With the stunning creative license Forsyth has taken in the creation of this book – I can only begin to imagine the fairytale worlds that lie in wait of her fervently-scratching quill.

Book Review: Food Myths by Nicole Senior

Rating: ★★★★☆

It’s all out there. The fads and opinion, the facts and myth relating to food. We’ve all been party and privy to it. And many of us have been both intrigued and confused by it. Conflicting media reports, misconceptions, scares and other hoo-ha have no doubt prompted author and nutritionist Nicole Senior to set the record straight. And indeed she does in Food Myths.

Do you need to be a vegetarian for optimum health?

Is thin better than fat?

Do adults need to drink milk?

Is sugar really our enemy?

Is chocolate really addictive?

What about butter v margarine, sea salt v table salt, sugar v artificial sweeteners?

It’s all here in Food Myths – fact laid out bare and myths busted. Don’t you just love a bit of straight-talk? Particularly when it comes to the very stuff you’re putting in your mouth (all of which subsequently land on your thighs). [Read more…]

Book Review: Ultimate Fashionista: The Young Hollywood Style Guide by Alana Wulff

Rating: ★★★½☆

I may have left the ‘young’ version of the fashionista world a few years ago now, but that sure as Prada doesn’t stop me from appreciating the young chicky babes doing the fashion scene so well. The recent movie and television awards season was a sheer bonanza in stylish eye candy for me. I may not be able to carry off an Hervé Léger bandage dress any more (not that I ever could) but I can absolutely stand in rapt appreciation at the be-wrapped bombshells rocking such skintight frocks – amongst other droolworthy ensembles.

It’s also age-revealing that whilst flicking through Ultimate Fashionista, I didn’t recognise half of the starlets featured. Shenae Grimes what? Lucy Hale who? Amanda Seyfriend when? Nevertheless. Fashion may be ageist in wearability, but an appreciation for it makes one feel young – and these [soon-to-be-A-List-I’m-sure] sapling poppets sure know how to fash-up. It’s a pleasure to be taken back on a journey through time to my own wannabe young fashionista days. It’s always nice to dream, non? [Read more…]

Book Review: The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

Rating: ★★★★★

Lush in setting, restrained but ultimately satisfying in emotion, this book takes readers from the hunger and poverty of 1930s Madrid to the whitewashed streets of Morocco, then on to the opulence of fashionable life during World War Two Spain and Portugal.

First published in Spain as El Tiempo entre Costuras (The Time Between Seams) in 2009, and now translated into English, this book has been widely praised, sold bucket-loads, and is in production as a Spanish TV series.

It tells the story of Sira Quiroga of Madrid, an apprentice seamstress who falls in love with a con man and is abandoned, penniless and accused of crime, in Tangier in 1935. Sira’s design and sewing skills allow her to build a new life, and she rises further through friendship with one of her wealthy clients — Rosalinda Powell Fox, a real-life (and larger than life) character, later to be suspected by Franco of spying for the British.

This introduction of ‘real characters’, all vital to the storyline, is a masterstroke by author Maria Duenas, a Spanish academic. She places Sira among men who were major power-players of the period: Juan Luis Beigbeder (Powell Fox’s lover and briefly Foreign Minister under Franco), Ramon Serrano Suner (Franco’s brother-in-law) and Alan Hillgarth (British intelligence services). These relationships sweep her into a new and dangerous life as a spy, keeping tabs on Franco’s government and the Spanish and Portuguese capitalists who colluded with and profited from the Nazi war effort.

Sira’s story touches on the immense suffering of the Spanish people during and after the civil war, but her own life moves between the hotels, casinos and cocktail parties of her wealthy clients, gathering information that her sewing skills allow her to transmit in a unique fashion.

Every stage of Sira’s story involves struggle, but when she moves deeper into danger the tension tightens, and we know that although Sira never existed, the dangers that Duenas writes of did — real lives, real courage, lived not so long ago but now largely forgotten. For me, that is the potency of the story: Sira may never have existed, but her equivalents did. And I take off my hat to them.

Intelligent, successful women seduced by Aussie 'love rat'

Kay Schubach is a brave woman. It can’t be easy to publicly admit that you were in love with a man the media has labeled a ‘play boy’ and a ‘love rat’. But Kay is in very good company. In addition to a long list of intelligent professional women, Sydney playboy Simon Lowe (aka. Monteiro) has also dated Hollywood actress Barbara Hershey – a part of her life I’m sure Ms Hershey would rather forget.

In a recent telephone interview with the author, Kay Schubach told me that she has received a lot of criticism for ‘allowing herself’ to be fooled by Simon Lowe. But as someone who has been dating for twenty years, I can understand perfectly how it could happen to the best and brightest of women.

As detailed in Kay’s memoir, Perfect Stranger: A true story, Simon Lowe was skilled in the art of lies and seduction. He was charming, good looking, spontaneous and exciting.

You know the type. The kind of man who makes you feel like you’re the luckiest woman on Earth just to be with him. He could have any woman in the world, but ‘he chooses’ to be with you. And who among us can honestly say they wouldn’t be seduced, or at the very least, tempted?

But Kay was more than just tempted, she was completely taken in by Simon Lowe.

When they met, Kay Schubach was in a de facto relationship with another man. Although her relationship with Rob was relatively stable, there was one major point of difference. At 40 years of age Kay’s biological clock was ticking but Rob, who is 9 years her junior, wasn’t ready to be a father.

As Kay Schubach explained, “I’m an educated, well travelled, successful woman and [Simon] got under my guard so very quickly. So obviously there was something else working on me at the time. And part of that was that I was quite vulnerable because I wanted to have a baby and I was in a relationship with a man who was doing nothing about that and I was at my wit’s end with him. So Simon quickly picked up on that.”

“Simon was very skilled at seeing where women’s vulnerabilities and their wants and desires were and then feeding the information that he was going to be the white knight who would come in and be the answer to all your dreams.”

The one thing a writer has to be concerned about when publishing a book that portrays a real person in a negative light, is the possibility of legal action against the author for defamation. It struck me whilst reading Kay’s book that Simon Lowe is the kind of person who might file a law suit, even from prison, where he is currently serving a long sentence for the rape of another woman.

Kay Schubach told Australian Women Online, “My family, my friends, everyone’s very concerned about this. But I’ve got a very strong defamation clearance for the book from [the publisher] Penguin. So I feel very well armed…and there’s something about his personality type. He’s a narcissist, so he’s always moving onward to the next thing.”

Although the threat of a law suit doesn’t concern her, Kay understandably still harbor’s a fear that she hasn’t seen the last of Simon Lowe.

“He might come back out of vindictiveness and the Police have suggested I be very careful about being alone at night,” she said.

I was deeply saddened to read at the end of the book that after disentangling herself from the violent Simon Lowe, Kay Schubach then had to battle an aggressive type of cancer.

“It’s been 3 years since I finished my treatment and I just recently had a round of tests. I have to have them every 3 months and they’re actually better then they’ve ever been,” said Kay.

“The doctors have said I’m out of the danger zone now. But it’s still pretty anxiety making [because] it’s five years until you’re declared free of cancer. I’m technically in remission. But I must say I feel fabulous!”

Despite the heavy subject matter and with all due respect to women who find themselves in violent relationships, I found Kay’s book to be a very enjoyable read. It’s a real page turner and I devoured most of it in one night – a testimony to the author’s tremendous talent as a writer. Books like these pop up all the time, but often they are self-published and written by people who have lived through a horrific experience but have no real talent for writing. This is not the case with Kay Schubach’s Perfect Stranger.

Book Review: Minxy Vintage by Kelly Doust

Rating: ★★★★☆

That crafty minx is back, this time with a fashionista theme, following hot on the coat tails of her memoir A Life in Frocks. A self-confessed flea market and charity shop-scourer, it’s no surprise Kelly’s latest book has a belts, baubles and a chic ensemble feel – her adoration for fashion is palpable, and coupled with her enormously successful crafting expertise, customising fabulous vintage finds is a more than logical step in the Doust publications line-up.

Minxy Vintage is a beautiful, cloth-bound hard cover book with 256 pages of creative charm inside. Opening it is like opening your great aunt’s wardrobe and finding a heart-rush of vintage treasure inside. You know those finds – that exquisite lined jacket, that incredible pair of button-up shoes, that breathtaking 50s frock with flowers the size of dinner plates, or that striped yellow A-line skirt – crammed indelicately into a musty rack . . . and hauled out to the sound of a thousand angels on high. And all for a measly sum.

But. Then you get it home.

[Read more…]