READING, BOOKS & MORE

Find your next great book, connect with other readers, or explore the world of literature

READING, BOOKS & MORE

Find your next great book, connect with other readers, or explore the world of literature

In this section:

Book Reviews With Jenny Dowell

Jenny Dowell OAM

This is the home of Jenny Dowell OAM's monthly book review.

 

Jenny is an avid reader and vocal supporter of libraries. Her reviews are always thought-provoking and well constructed. A link to reserve each book appears at the end of her review. You can receive Jenny's reviews and other exciting news every month in our library eNewsletter by subscribing at the following link www.rtrl.nsw.gov.au/subscribe.


 


June 2024

Edenglassie
by Melissa Lucashenko
This latest book by Bundjalung author Melissa Lucashenko, is a novel based on historical events in and around Edenglassie or as we now know it, Brisbane. But it is also much more. It is also about undoing myths and questioning assumptions of our colonial past.
 
Set in the mid 1800s and 2024, this novel stretches from a time when more Europeans were arriving by ship from Sydney each week, to the current day when the establishment of the penal settlement by John Oxley is approaching its bicentenary. 
 
Many of the European names in this book are familiar—Petrie (Terrace and the suburb), Bribie (Island), Wickham (Terrace), and others. Sadly the Goorie names are not, including the important historic figure of Dundalli whom I only learned about through this book. Dundalli was an Aboriginal lawman and leader of the resistance against the invasive colonists for a decade. He was hanged in Brisbane in 1855 aged just 35.
 
In Lucashenko’s novel in 1855, young Yugambeh man Mulanyin (from Nerang) now living on Kurilpa land (South Brisbane) and Nita, a young woman of the northern Kabi Kabi people (Sunshine Coast area) are working unpaid for Andrew and Mary Petrie’s family in Magandjin (Brisbane).
 
No pun intended, but this is both a black and white story and a nuanced one. The Petrie family—especially son Tom, who speaks the local language—have a respectful relationship with the local Goorie people. Others do not.
 
If you’ve read David Marr’s recent book Killing for CountryEdenglassie further illustrates the brutality of the Native Police and the hatred of many pastoralists who were contemporaries of the Petries, towards the first peoples. Frontier wars were real and the death toll was enormous.
 
Yes, this work of fiction is strongly based on fact. Not only are the dagai (white settlers) names real, so are many of the Goorie names. Many events are also real although some have an altered timeline. Some of Nita’s story reflects the experiences of Lucashenko’s great grandmother.
 
Parallel to Mulanyin and Nita’s story, is the 2024 story of Winona, a corn-rowed activist from Logan who meets Dr Johnny Newman as they both care for 100-year-old Yagara woman, Granny Eddie Blanket. Grannie Eddie has ended up in hospital after falling in the street and laying there unassisted until some Malaysian students help her up.
 
Granny Eddie’s charisma attracts the attention of media and the state's Premier who makes her the poster-woman for the celebration of the bicentenary. Granny Eddie who is a little unsure of her age, soaks up the attention with humour, spinning yarns to the media, particularly to young reporter, Dartmouth, and others who flock to her.
 
Despite her swagger, young Winona is plagued by inner voices of self-loathing and scathing self-criticism. Granny Eddie’s voices come from Grandad Charlie, a ghost in her hospital room.
 
The narrative also explores a current-day point of discussion. What makes a blackfella? Who claims or confers Aboriginality? Is having a black ancestor enough? What is the difference between understanding a culture and belonging to one?
The dialogue between Granny and Winona, and Winona and Johnny, is a vehicle to explore these questions without didacticism. Granny is ready to welcome Dr Johnny as a Goorie while Winona is critical of the ‘pop up blakfella’ who has recently discovered he has an Aboriginal ancestor. As a non-Aboriginal reader, I find that debate educational and interesting.
 
It is also worth mentioning that throughout the book, local-language names are given for various objects, animals, and birds. Their meanings are clear from the context without the clunkiness of footnotes. In so many ways, this book is not only very entertaining—often funny—but richly educative too.  
 
In her essay in the Griffith Review 76: Acts of Reckoning, April 2022,  Lucashenko writes about her research and reasoning for this novel. In her efforts to undo racist myth-making about a simplistic nomadic people, she wanted to ‘subvert the trope of a dying race’ that was popular in early-colonial literature. Instead, she paints a picture of ‘governance, stability and sophistication of sovereign Aboriginal nations … viewed from the point of early colonisation’   
 
Melissa Lucashenko lives in Kyogle and is well known in our region. She is a leader in Australian literature by any measure and is a worthy dual recipient of our preeminent literature prize, the Miles Franklin. This book won the prize in 2023 as her novel Too Much Lip won in 2019. For me, this is her finest work. It’s an epic and I hope you enjoy it too.

5/5

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May 2024

Prophet Song 
by Paul Lynch
Before I write about Prophet Song, I would like to explain something.
Although I make an effort to read books shortlisted for major literary prizes, in recent years I’ve been less than impressed by many winners. It seems that sometimes ‘clever’ writing attracts the judges’ attention rather than a well-written story.
 
Readers of my regular reviews will note that invariably I give the books I write about, a full five stars. My son says they are therefore recommendations rather than reviews. He’s right. I read up to 12 books a month and I’m not going to write about a book I don’t enjoy and can’t recommend. I don’t want to waste your time by telling you, readers, ‘I didn’t like this book but you might’. Therefore these ‘reviews’ are always focused on the books I have enjoyed or appreciated the most.
 
Prophet Song is one such book, and it’s an award winner too.
 
This novel is set in Dublin in a dystopian world where the National Alliance Party has control and is increasingly limiting personal freedom. Civil war ensues as militant opposition forces mobilise. Chemist Eilish is married to teachers’ unionist Larry. They have four children Mark, Molly, Bailey, and baby Ben.  
 
One evening the gardai come for Larry and shortly afterwards, he disappears. Eilish’s world is disintegrating and she must protect her children and care for her father Simon, whose dementia is increasingly apparent.  
 
This is not a beautiful story. It is bleak and sometimes horrendous. Amid growing restrictions, Eilish struggles to get food and medical aid for her children. Under sniper fire and the rubble of a combat zone, Eilish has to muster incredible inner strength to survive. The story is disturbing, especially as we contemplate the areas of conflict around the world at this time—as more people are displaced from their homes. Watching the evening TV news from Gaza, I couldn’t help but imagine it was mirroring the Dublin of this book
 
But despite the harsh grittiness of the environment, the writing is beautiful. Lynch writes in an unusual style defying the rules of grammar and form. There are no paragraphs, even in sections of dialogue which also lack quotation marks and most ‘he said’ indicators. The lack of conventional markers in sections of dialogue, surprisingly, do not make those sections difficult to read or understand who is speaking. There is enough use of names and conventional turn-taking that there is no confusion. Occasionally a sentence runs for a whole page. Rather than making it difficult to read, this technique conveys the complexity of, for example, Eilish’s stream of consciousness and her anxiety at the shifting sands around her. Those sentences also reflect the reality of much of our own daily dialogue.  
 
Sometimes the phrasing and sentences are so beautifully poetic that they demand to be re-read. I have re-read the passage that includes ‘how happiness hides in the humdrum’ (p 43) and the beautiful reassurances that Elisha gives her daughter, Molly, about her missing father ‘he will always be here because the love we are given when we are loved as a child is stored forever inside us… it is the law of the human heart’ (p198) several times with tears welling at their beauty. Unusually, I used several bookmarks while I read Prophet Song, using one to mark where I was up to, and two more to mark parts I wanted to go back and read again.
 
Friends who’ve read Prophet Song tell me they couldn’t put it down. They read it at night and again first thing in the morning before work or tasks. While I have known that urge, Prophet Song had a different affect on me. I wanted to savour the writing and reflect on the emotions it generated so I deliberately set it aside to ensure I was able to give it my full attention, in a quiet place without distraction for the next reading.
 
This is also one of the most unusual novels I’ve read. Yes it’s ‘clever’ writing but it works. It also won the 2023 Booker Prize so others also think it works too. You will hurt inside from this story. I encourage you to give it a go. Suspend your beliefs on what writing should look and sound like. Broaden your viewpoint and let Prophet Song lead you into a new place of modern writing, while telling an all-too-familiar ageless tale of woe.
 
4/5

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April 2024

Women and Children 
by Tony Birch
Have you ever finished a novel and just sat, running your hand over the cover of the closed book, pondering what you've experienced? Women and Children is one of those rare books for me.
 
This hardback beautiful book has end papers covered in small white women's handbags with a top clasp and two short straps, the style used by women in the 1960s. On its cover is a photo of a young girl in a communion veil and a woman standing beside her holding a handbag of the same shape and style. In the author notes, we read that the photo is of the author's sister and aunt and was taken by his mother.
 
Women and Children is not autobiographical but the stories that inspired it are embedded in Birch's experiences and explorations of not accepting silence. Tony Birch is an Aboriginal Australian author, academic, and activist. He left school at 15 and went to Melbourne university aged 30 where he won the Chancellor's medal for his Arts PhD. In 2017, he became the first Indigenous writer to win the Patrick White Award. He became the Chair in Australian Literature at the University of Melbourne in December 2022. This is his fifth novel, the previous one being the highly acclaimed, The White Girl.
 
Women and Children is set in 1965 in a poor, inner suburb of Melbourne, possibly Fitzroy where Birch grew up. The main character is 11 year old Joe Cluny who lives with his older sister Ruby and their single mum, Marion. Joe has a close relationship with his retired street sweeper grandfather Charlie (Char) who collects and sells unwanted goods with his mate Rhanji. Joe's aunt Oona lives nearby with her partner Ray.
 
School life is hard for Joe who is regularly compared to his bright sister by the often cruel nuns. Home life is severely shaken when aunt Oona arrives badly beaten. Ray is a con man with close contacts with the police so justice through police channels is not available.
 
There is a subtle reference to the stolen generations as Char and Rhanji talk about their relationships with their father. Early in the story Joe finds a gun and there is a hint that it may be used to enact a different form of justice.
The closeness of the relationship between Joe and his grandfather, between Char and Rhanji, and between the sisters Marion and Oona plus the bravery of them all, are key themes in this novel.
 
Every character in this beautiful story is well imagined and tangible. Their interactions and dialogue ring true. Birch has been awarded numerous literary prizes for his perceptive stories of family life. This book is on the top of the pile and deserves to be widely read and acclaimed.
 
I hope it touches you as much as it touched me.
One of the best books I've read in years.
 
5/5

Reserve it here!

 


 

March 2024

Australia's Trail-blazing First Novelist—John Lang
by Sean Doyle
Have you heard of John Lang, Australia's first novelist? I hadn't and I assume you haven't either.
 
There is a short listing for John Lang in Wikipedia, and a little more detail in ANU's Australian Dictionary of Biography with these words describing Lang as having 'human failings, a wide intellect, remarkable memory, and sparkling wit'. It concludes 'Through narrow social sanction Australia lost one of its most brilliant sons and its first native-born novelist.'
 
Author (and local) Sean Doyle, having spent many years as an English language teacher, travel journalist, and editor—plus his extensive travels in India—is an ideal biographer of John Lang.
 
Peter FitzSimons provides this quote on the cover, 'What a life! What a story! Superbly researched and wonderfully crafted'.
 
The blurb on the back of the book summarises Lang a 'writer, journalist, barrister, larrikin', as TV news might say today, 'a colourful character'.
 
Lang was born in humble circumstances in Parramatta in 1816 and wrote the first detective novel—a convict romance—in English at the age of 19. For various reasons, the novel was published under his own name, adding to the lack of our knowledge of him. Later he wrote the first Indian travelogue. He was also the first Australian to publish a newspaper overseas (well before Rupert Murdoch) at age 28.
 
There are some explanations for the lack of knowledge about this enigmatic man, but I won't reveal them here. Suffice to say that he loved the limelight but sometimes that limelight was hot enough to burn him and his reputation.
 
It is little surprise that from time to time he took to the stage, and like many of the present day celebrity men in the law, he loved oratory, verbal jousting, and taking on powerful entities in the court room.
 
Doyle explores why we haven't heard of this man. He does so in an engaging style, combining primary sources with historical background material and a flowing style that makes the book highly readable. Clearly Doyle's experience and deep connection with India makes the complexity of Lang's years on the subcontinent during the rise and fall of the East India Company (in which he played a part) and the influence of the British Raj, richer and more satisfying reading.
 
The book also explores Lang's family life including his 'three fathers', two marriages, and his six years in London. Although he talked of returning to Sydney, he died in India at the age of 47.
 
The book is chaptered in chronological order with a clear table of contents, concluding with an epilogue, a very helpful 'timeline by age', a list of Lang's writings, endnotes, and sources. This book should be read by anyone interested in early Australian authors, but anyone who enjoys a good biography will find this a fascinating read.
 
Sean Doyle fills out the short but event-filled life of our first novelist with great skill and detail. I imagine Lang would have proudly embraced this book, despite it not always being flattering to its subject.
 
I could not agree more with Peter FitzSimons 'What a story!'
 
Highly recommended.
 
5/5

Reserve it here!

 


 

February 2024

Symphony of Secrets 
by Brendan Slocumb
This is a wonderful novel for musicians and those of us who know nothing about music except that we enjoy it. An historical novel set in New York in both the early decades of the 1900s and present day, Symphony of Secrets is a musical mystery. Like his main character, Bern Hendricks, author Brendan Slocumb is a current-day music academic.
 
In this novel, Professor Hendricks is commissioned by the Frederick Delaney Foundation to orchestrate a newly discovered work by Delaney who was a prolific composer 100 years ago. Delaney had written musical pieces related to the colours of the Olympic rings but Red is missing.
 
Rough sleeper Josephine Reed is neurodivergent, experiencing sounds as notes and transcribing what she hears in doodles. She also remembers every tune she's ever heard and can compose new pieces without having any training in musical notations. It is the early 1900s and Frederick Delaney—once known as the struggling Freddy Delaney—is suddenly the most popular composer in the country. The pair link up and Delaney convinces Reed that as a black woman, she can never be recognised and published, so he passes her work off as his own—he is a lyricist and transcribes the notations into a conventional musical score. She, meanwhile, is happy sleeping on his floor, cooking for him and listening to music.
 
In those days, music lovers bought sheet music and the pianists, such as Delaney, played in local department stores and made money from those appearances and the sale of their musical scores. A century later, Music Professor Bern Hendricks is hired by the Delaney Foundation to bring the long lost and recently discovered Delaney composition, Red Opera to the stage. Black Cybersecurity IT whiz Eboni Washington is his modern-day collaborator and mystery solver.
 
This is a novel exploring the issues of the early 1900s in USA, especially segregation and white supremacy. Musicians will more fully understand the musical references, but I can attest that having no musical knowledge is no impediment to being absorbed by this intriguing novel. The story is gripping and starts with Delaney going through his pre-performance routine of filling two champagne glasses and honouring a photo of an unnamed 'kiddo'.
 
The novel, like an opera, is in acts with alternating movements featuring Bern Hendricks and Freddy Delaney with occasional movements or chapters focusing on Josephine Reed. This story is also a plea to broaden our gaze to the people on the fringe—those who look, act, sound, or think differently. The musical term scherzo is used to represent Josephine as a sideline or interlude. Finally in Act 4, Josephine Reed is given the focus she deserves. She is no longer the scherzo, but this extraordinary woman becomes the centre of the music where she should always have been.
 
I found this book to be riveting in its evocative recreation of the era and an insight into the musical world of which I know so little.
 
I think you will enjoy it too.
 
5/5

Reserve it here!

 


 

You can download Jenny's 2023 reviews2022 reviews2021 reviews2020 reviews2019 reviews, and her 2018 reviews.

Happy reading! ♥
 


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