24 November 2021

Guest Review: Echoes of War by Tania Blanchard

Echoes of War by Tania Blanchard book cover
* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

Intro

Guest reviewer Neil Béchervaise is back to share his review of Echoes of War by Australian author Tania Blanchard.

Neil's Review

Having focused her earlier novels on events deriving from her father’s German family (see review of Letters from Berlin), Blanchard’s latest work introduces her mother’s Italian heritage.

Pre-WWII Calabria is a complex rural setting; a farming community sitting on the edge of a tectonic plate at the toe of Italy, it is severely affected by earthquakes and tsunamis. Its politics are confused between the demands of the local mafia and those of corrupt government officials. More immediately, conflicted memories of WWI and the rising influence of Mussolini’s fascist ideal of a revived Roman empire have been sparked by Italy’s brutal north-African conquest of Abyssinia in 1935.

Echoes of War is a powerful novel about powerful women; women emerging from the archaic traditions of mindless male domination to challenge their assigned status and strive towards more independent futures. Their paths, need it be said, are not easy. Teenaged Giulia enrages her father by insisting on being allowed to study herbal medicine which, despite its trailing connections with witchcraft, is still widely accepted across their community. Younger sister, Paola has a strong sense of purpose in improving the performance of the family farm while their brother and his two best friends join the army and are quickly disenchanted with the brutality of war.

Prevented from running away to join the Red Cross, Giulia is persuaded to spend time in a convent where, it transpires, she can indulge her passion for learning herbal medicine from a highly respected monk. Returning with strong recommendations of her suitability as a healer, and with the support of her mother, aunt and sister, Giulia once more infuriates her father with what he sees as her wilfulness. In a rage he determines that she will be tamed in an arranged marriage to a widowed fisherman, Massimo. Fortunately, Massimo is both amazingly solicitous and patient. He supports her passion for healing and encourages her practice across the community.

As Mussolini joins with Hitler and the war becomes ever more brutal, a massive earthquake and its ensuing tsunami wipe out the coastal fishing town and wartime conditions further impact the community. When their father is recalled into active service, Paola’s business and farming acumen support the family. Giulia’s friendship with her brother’s friend, Stefano, develops with their shared interest in healing. As Stefano, now with the army medical corps and studying medicine, observes:
“…the potential of combining … the ancient and the modern, the knowledge with the practical. Surely that’s best for the patient.” Page 209
Prior to the introduction of penicillin and in the absence of formal psychological practice, Giulia and Stefano work together, when they can, to provide meaningful medical assistance in both war damaged towns and in the battle zones of both partisan and military forces.

The role of the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian mafia, as both a criminal organisation and as an anti-fascist political influence suggests a level of stability for a corruption-dogged society which, otherwise, might develop into a modern democracy. As it is presented, however, Blanchard’s apparently loving and supportive Don is shown to be as much a victim of his inheritance as he is a perpetrator of its continuance. Both a powerful humanitarian force and an increasingly influential criminal, his role remains conflicted and his impact on the community remains ambiguous as the population migrates, to America, to Canada, to Australia.

Blanchard’s latest novel is far more recognisable as a history of family than some of her previous works. Its connections between family, religion, and medicine/healing are both engaging and, at times, challenging. Her connection of the region with its ancient Greek and Byzantine roots provides an interesting insight into Mussolini’s obsession with reclaiming ‘lost empire’. More importantly perhaps, it helps to explain the determination of those who remain to restore the stability they have sought since the region, once called Magna Graecia, was settled in the 8th Century BC.

Echoes of War is a powerful evocation of a time, a place and a cultural vision which provided a significant boost to Australia’s population and its development as a multi-cultural destination of choice for refugees – both voluntary and choiceless. In closing, this novel reminds its readers that almost all of us are ‘boat people’.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.


Neil's Rating:


19 November 2021

Review: The Housemate by Sarah Bailey

The Housemate by Sarah Bailey book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *


Successful Australian crime writer Sarah Bailey is back with a standalone thriller, The Housemate. Olive Groves is a journalist in Melbourne and worked on the housemate homicide case nine years earlier. Elements of the case remain in question when new evidence comes to light that will shake things up.
"Secrets tend to come out eventually, whether they are forced into the light kicking and screaming, or simply float to the surface. The pulsing momentum of unfinished business can be strong." Page 45
Oli has a few annoying habits (like stubbing out her cigarettes wherever she pleases) but is a compelling character and I enjoyed her relationship with younger colleague Cooper, who is at the forefront of developing a true crime podcast. The dynamic between hardened and experienced Gen Y journalist Oli when paired with enthusiastic millennial Cooper was entertaining, and mirrored the struggle and contrast between traditional media and the rise of the podcast.

Taking place between Melbourne and the Dandenong Ranges, I was caught up in the pressure cooker environment of being the first to break a story or publish a new lead and the consequences for inaccurate copy in this high pressure journalistic setting.

Sarah Bailey is the author of the bestselling Gemma Woodstock trilogy The Dark Lake, Into the Night and Where the Dead Go and I have no hesitation recommending The Housemate for those looking for a way into this author's work and those seeking a break from the standard police procedural.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.


My Rating:



17 November 2021

Review: Everything I Know about Life I Learned from PowerPoint by Russell Davies

Everything I Know about Life I Learned from PowerPoint by Russell Davies book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *

I'm a self-taught PowerPoint user and have been using it for years to create presentations for everything from a new client pitch, product launch, life in review (funeral), community event or family trivia night.

Russell Davies has created PowerPoint presentations for the likes of Nike, Microsoft and Apple and has become the go-to guru for all things PowerPoint. In this book, Everything I Know about Life I Learned from PowerPoint, Davies shares his tips for creating and delivering an engaging presentation.

This isn't a book for those wanting to learn how to use the program and doesn't contain any specific instructions. Instead, it provides a lot of well-rounded guidance around how to put together an effective presentation. What should you consider when starting work on a presentation? How do you engage your audience and hold their attention?

True to his word, not only is Davies able to present well, he's also highly engaging as a writer as well. In fact, I had to keep stopping to look things up mentioned in the book. Highlights include the PowerPoint slide outlining the situation in Afghanistan that was so confusing, US military General Stanley McChrystal declared "When we understand that slide, we'll have won the war."

I also enjoyed the insight into the preparation process Steve Jobs employed in order to achieve his now famous presentations. Summary? He practised every day for 3 months. In fact, Davies says you should:
"Spend one hour preparing for every minute you'll be presenting." Page 213
As an aside, I loved learning about tricolons (a rhetorical term that consists of a series of three parallel words, phrases, or clauses) such as the Olympic motto of Faster, Higher, Stronger or the byline for Rice Bubbles Snap, Crackle, Pop. A molossus contains three short words, like: Yes We Can and an epizeuxis is the repetition of words, like location, location, location. Fascinating right?

With quotes from business people and examples from a range of industries, there's something in here for everyone, from small business owners to aspiring leaders, speech makers, executives and office workers around the world.

Delivered with a great sense of humour and a light and breezy approach, Everything I Know about Life I Learned from PowerPoint by Russell Davies is an endlessly interesting and entertaining book and I highly recommend it.

Next slide please!

You can seize this book at Booktopia.


My Rating:


14 November 2021

Review: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris audiobook cover
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris is a witty collection of essays, primarily focusing on the author's time in France. I listened to the audiobook and enjoyed the content focus on speech and language that this collection had to offer.

In one of the essays, Sedaris shares what it was like to have a lisp when he was younger and the experience of speech therapy. Later in life, Sedaris moves to Normandy in France with his partner Hugh, despite not knowing the language. Taking French lessons, Sedaris made me laugh out loud every time he shared his meagre knowledge of French and the reactions from locals.

My absolute favourite quote from the collection came when he called a plumber to come and fix their toilet. In trying to describe the problem, and struggling with the gendered nature of many items in the French language, he says:
"My toilet, she cry much of the time." (Chapter 22)
Sedaris goes on to describe his experience at the dentist and compares the health systems of France and the USA. Much of the content here is chuckle-worthy and entertaining and the satirical humour is again on show.

For more, you can check out my review of Calypso and Naked. In the meantime, I'm already listening to Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, but suspect I'll be slowing down on my Sedaris streak soon.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.


My Rating:


10 November 2021

Review: All Through the Night by Polly Faber & Harriet Hobday

All Through the Night by Polly Faber & Harriet Hobday book cover
* Copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin *


I'm a night owl by nature, and I couldn't resist a picture book for children about those who work the night shift while most people are asleep. All Through the Night - People Who Work While We Sleep is written by Polly Faber and illustrated by Harriet Hobday.

In the beginning of the book, our unnamed narrator is getting ready for bed as she farewells her Mum who is heading off to work.

Each page showcases characters working through the night in a variety of jobs, including: cleaner, security guard, reporter, baker, midwife and more! Our narrator reveals her Mum's job at the end of the book which was a very nice touch.

This is a gorgeously illustrated book with an attractive colour palette that does a great job of conveying the night time setting. The location is an unnamed city, increasing the appeal of the book to young readers. Some of the character names will be difficult for young kids to sound out, but I'm assuming this is in the name of diversity.

All Through the Night by Polly Faber and Harriet Hobday is recommended for children aged 3-5, but I think kids a little older will still enjoy this gem of a book.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.


My Rating:


08 November 2021

Review: Christmas in Suburbia by Warren Kirk

Christmas in Suburbia by Warren Kirk book cover
* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

After enjoying the photographs in Northside by Melbourne photographer Warren Kirk, I was excited to see a new collection coming out in November this year. Christmas in Suburbia is a collection of festive photographs taken across Melbourne. As in Northside, Christmas in Suburbia raises feelings of nostalgia and is a unique celebration of urban Melbourne at Christmas time.

In this collection, suburban brick houses are festooned with well worn Christmas decorations slowly fading in the unforgivable heat of a Melbourne summer. The festive cheer of the residents and home owners is clear and I was excited to recognise a few of the Christmas decorations on display.

The appeal of these somewhat average Christmas decoration displays is hard to explain and reminds me of a page on social media dedicated to Shit Brick Fences of Melbourne. There's something endearing in the simplicity and the effort of proud homeowners to beautify their home for themselves and the enjoyment of those passing by. But there's also something riveting about witnessing the ravages of time on a property or a space.

These photographs are presented in this book as a series of postcards and I'm torn about whether I have the heart to pull out the postcards and send them in the mail. Recipients won't be able to appreciate the artwork as a whole and on their own, each individual postcard feels a little sad and satirical. The overall impression of the collection is lost. What would you do? Keep or post?

You can seize this book at Booktopia.


My Rating:


05 November 2021

Review: Devotion by Hannah Kent

Devotion by Hannah Kent book cover
* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia *

Devotion by Australian author Hannah Kent tells the story of a Lutheran family in Prussia who flee religious persecution in the early 1800s and set sail for the colony of South Australia. Our narrator Hanne is a nature lover and different from other girls her age. She's an oddball in her village who doesn't really fit in, until she meets Thea.

Several families from the town leave Prussia together and a large portion of the novel takes place on their hazardous and trying journey by sea to Australia. The writing is sublime and the conditions on board the ship felt so real that I began to feel a little claustrophobic just reading about their cramped living quarters and harsh conditions.

The foreign beauty of the landscape when they arrive in South Australia is powerful and moving, and I enjoyed reading this fictionalised settlement of what we now recognise as Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills. The treatment of the original custodians of this land was respectful and well handled and the author provides more information in her Author's Note at the end.

Devotion is a slow moving character study about love and grief and I saw many parallels with Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell. The writing is incredibly evocative and I often had to pause to enjoy the prose on the page. The title of this historical fiction novel is apt, as it's about an individual's right to worship, pray and embrace their own beliefs free from judgement and harm. But it's also about Hanne's devotion to nature, her twin brother and her friend Thea.

I adored Burial Rites and thoroughly enjoyed The Good People, but here in Devotion, Hannah Kent does something a little different. While The Good People contained Gaelic superstitions and folklore, Devotion dips more than a toe into the supernatural realm around halfway through the book. This unexpected shift will be met with surprise by many readers and I suspect some won't enjoy the change in direction. I willingly went with it, however my favourite part of the novel by far was the beginning, prior to the journey to Australia. The daily lives of those in the village of Kay put me in mind of several novels I've enjoyed recently.

Beautifully written, Devotion is about love and yearning, the uncertainty of youth and the hardships of the period. Overall, it was an emotionally heavy book to read, but so intricately lyrical at times I felt as though I was intruding on Hanne's private and inner most thoughts. It also made me wonder whether Kent drew on her own love story in order to create this fictional relationship so convincingly and so heartbreakingly.

Devotion is the third novel by Hannah Kent and this talented Australian writer has now become an 'auto read' author for me, which is rare. Highly recommended for historical fiction readers who have the time and patience to slow down and enjoy a character study about love and devotion.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.


My Rating: