Table For Eight by Tricia Stringer

After reading a series of intense and utterly marvellous works of historical fiction and then following these with a stunning but heavy eschatological story about a Coronavirus being unleashed on the world (seriously – see my other reviews), I thought it was time for something a little lighter. Enter, Table For Eight by Tricia Stringer which was the perfect antidote in so many ways.

Set on a cruise ship (felt strange to be reading this in the shocking aftermath of the Ruby Princess and Covid-19), heading from Sydney for the South Pacific for ten days of sightseeing and indulgence, the book centres on sixty-four-year old Ketty, a fashionista and designer as well as an experienced cruiser, whose business is flailing. Determined to celebrate her sixty-fifth birthday in style, Ketty embarks on what she suspects may be her last cruise. Familiar with the ship’s regime and many of the crew, she anticipates who she’ll be seated with for the evening’s dinner. Surprised to find she’s sat a table for eight, it’s the other passengers, their interactions and reasons for being aboard that then form the crux of the story.

They’re a mish-mash of people from different parts of Australia, all motivated to set sail (or not). There’s a family group of three, an old flame and his sister, a grieving widower, a bitter divorcee and her friend. As the days pass, the reader (along with Ketty, who is like a very kind mother-hen/oracle figure) learn more and more about these passengers and share the way being on the ship, the intensity of relationships and closeness of ship-life and the forced intimacy, alters them. Some characters are delightful, others not so much.

What I particularly liked about this book is that it’s not often people in their sixties and older – and even those in their forties – get to shine. Here, they take centre stage and I found this refreshing even though sometimes I wanted to bang heads together as what the novel also demonstrates is with age one doesn’t necessarily gain wisdom.

If you’re looking for pure escapism and a quick read, this is perfect!

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The End of October by Lawrence Wright

OK. I’ll admit it. Not only do I love eschatological narratives (I think Stephen King had it right when he spoke of people enjoying the horror genre because it connects them with their own sense of mortality and revivifies them – something like that. End of world narratives while sometimes classified speculative, share many characteristics with horror – I think revivifying the reader is certainly one of them), but at a time when we’re in lockdown because of Covid-19, a Twenty-First Century plague, this book seemed to be the perfect companion – but gird your loins. 

Pulitzer prize winning author, Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower – a non-fiction book about the battle of information between the CIA and FBI in the lead up to 9/11, also an amazing and confrontational series on Amazon Prime), who finished this book – which is about a modern-day novel Coronavirus that sweeps the globe – a year ago, has been described as “prescient”. Wright, in typical humble fashion, claims Ridley Scott gave him the idea to write an apocalyptic narrative and that all he did, was “listen to the experts.” Something I suspect many wish their leaders also did. 

This is the story of a virus called Kongali that appears to start in a refugee camp in Indonesia. Deadly and highly contagious, when an Indonesian man on a pilgrimage to Mecca takes the disease with him – a place where over three million Muslims worship – the ground is set for a pandemic the experts saw coming, but no-one is prepared for. Virologist, the clever Henry Parsons, with a dark past of his own, determines to find not only the source of the outbreak but a cure, before it’s too late. But with global geo-politics on the brink of war, and leaders falling and societies collapsing as the death toll enters the millions, will there be anything left to cure?

A fast-paced, fascinating insight into the world of the virologist, epidemiologists and those who work for organizations like the CDC, WHO and Medicine sans Frontieres, etc. Huge in scope and unapologetic in its politics (which completely mirror what we understand), the book is also relatable, mainly due to Parsons and his family who personalize the big picture events and their shocking impact. We understand their confusion, their fears, their desperation and wish that when people are faced with such overwhelming catastrophe, they’d just be kinder. But the novel describes so many things to which we’ve all borne witness: the hoarding, selfishness, xenophobia, rise of the right, scapegoating, violence, breakdown of civility etc. as well as extraordinary acts of generosity and humanity. 

Prescient is one word to describe this book, shocking is another for, as you read the novel, then turn to the news, there are terrible parallels, giving the experience a frisson you don’t always get with books. What it also reminds you is how frail our systems are, how vulnerable humanity is for all that we appear to have and to have achieved. Wright also makes the reader aware of the natural world and the way in which humans have plundered it for their own ends, for greed and personal power, something that when a global pandemic erupts, seem inconsequential and fruitless. 

I learned a great deal reading this book – the science is excellent, the premise all too real and the plot thrilling. Truth in this instance isn’t stranger than fiction, but echoes it in eerie ways. Don’t read if you fear it might trigger you, but I found it reassuring in some ways and always, always a page-turner. 

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The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams

The origins of the Oxford English Dictionary have been explored by a number of authors over the years – The Surgeon of Crowthorne, by Simon Winchester (a fabulous read) a non-fiction book and recently a film, possibly being the most famous. Yet, Pip Williams‘s, The Dictionary of Lost Words, though a work of fiction (using an accurate historic setting) could well topple Winchester from this throne.

Lost Words takes the creation of the OED as its raison d’être, but instead of focusing on the primary male actors in the development of the dictionary, it concentrates on the women and the female-centric words that were excised from the original work – for no other reason than they weren’t regarded as having enough significance. 

Weaving the fictional story of Esme, the daughter of one of the lexicologists working on the dictionary project, we follow her from early childhood where she finds the word “bondmaid”, a word that refers exclusively to a subordinate female position, discarded on the floor of the “Scriptorium”. This is the place where her father and his colleagues work tirelessly to collect and collate words under the supervision of the real historical figure, Sir James Murray. Esme’s discovery and the word’s exclusion sparks a life-long quest in Esme, to understand the power of words, why and how they shape us and why some words are selected for inclusion in such an important work and others aren’t. I don’t want to say too much more and risk spoiling what unfolds. Needless to say, with a backdrop that includes the rise of the Suffragette movement and World War I, Esme’s professional and personal journey, which have words at their very heart, is riveting, deeply moving, as well as beautifully and lyrically written. On top of that, it’s an erudite exposition on the power of language, how it evolves (or not), and why the (male) gate-keepers are so reluctant to give ground. It’s about power, its imbalance and who is regarded as having a legitimate voice and why and how others are silenced. It’s also about women’s struggles for recognition and agency in a world that was keen to deny them both – even when they were intrinsic to the very project that enabled their exclusion. 

I couldn’t stop reading this book, not only is it exquisitely written, but it’s also completely engrossing. Esme’s life and the wonderful characters who enrich it, and the events that become significant and heart-breaking yardsticks are captivating, but so was the story of the English language. While on the one hand, I was turning pages rapidly, I also didn’t want the book to end. 

I cannot recommend this glorious book highly enough. It will go down as one of my all-time favourites and that is a big call. 
Honestly, I am so proud of Australian women writers. Seriously, I’ve just read about eight magnificent books by them in a row – all completely different and yet all telling wonderful stories in rich, creative and intelligent ways. Thank you. Thank you. 

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Gulliver’s Wife by Lauren Chater

The moment I read the first few sentences of this glorious book, I knew I was going to love it – and I did. The writing is lyrical and lovely, the story fascinating and clever, and the history that weaves through its pages brought to life in simply stunning ways. But what really makes this utterly engrossing novel so captivating is the premise that underpins the entire narrative. 

While most of us either grew up with Jonathan Swift’s satirical travelogue/novel, Gulliver’s Travels, or know of the extraordinary adventures its protagonist, ship‘s surgeon, Lemuel Gulliver underwent through various popular culture retellings (eg. the movie starring Ted Danson as Gulliver) not much thought at all is given to his wife or family who were left behind. Well, Chater changes that. This is the story of Mary Gulliver and her two children and how they survived in Lemuel’s absence on upon his unexpected return. 

The book is set during a time when women were completely subordinated to their husbands and society was patriarchal in every sense. When Lemuel is believed dead after three years missing at sea, Mary Gulliver not only provides for her family through her formidable skills as a healer and midwife, but excels. Imagine then, after attaining liberty, repaying her selfish husband’s debts and raising her children, her husband returns, expecting his household to revert back to the way it was – with him at its head and his every need and whim met. Furthermore, though he’s ill, he won’t be shifted from telling incredible tales of what happened to him while he was away, stories that threaten to undermine and even destroy the reputation Mary has, through hard graft and determination, restored. 

This is the story Chater gives us – from the point of view of Mary and her daughter (who grew up adoring her fantasist father and his wild stories and even wilder promises to her) with all its psychological and emotional twists and pain. In this tale, Gulliver is not the heroic survivor of ship-wreck and centre of a wondrous tale, but a narcissist who is unable to see the damage his return, and inability to understand the changes that have been wrought while he was away, is causing. Recruiting whoever he can to take his part, Gulliver reverts back to his old ways undermining not only the livelihood Mary has striven to build, but his very family. 

It is a beautifully, heat-achingly told tale – realistic and raw. I was completely swept into this story and didn’t want to part with it. I adored Mary, her daughter, Bess, too. The battles within the Gulliver family are echoed in the professional one that Mary is flung into as well, as midwives struggle for their independence and right to practice without the interference of male physicians and their shocking new technologies. 

I couldn’t put this book down and, as soon as I finished, downloaded Chater’s other novel, The Lace Weaver, chastising myself that I have only discovered this gem of a writer now. I cannot wait to read what else springs from her marvellous imagination, what else she grounds in such well-researched history. Magnificent. 

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The End of Cuthbert Close by Cassie Hamer

This fabulous, delightful read by Cassie Hamer, tells the story of three women who live in the same neighbourhood and share a remarkable friendship, that is, until a newcomer arrives and threatens to disrupt everything that made living in Cuthbert Close special.

Corporate lawyer and mother, Alex, widow, food-stylist and single-mother, Cara, and the oldest of the trio, stay-at-home mother and talented cook Beth, live busy but satisfying lives in a terrific cul-de-sac in an upmarket part of town. Their lives are spent caring for their families, working, socialising, and feeling gratitude for what they have, including each other.

But when one summer’s evening, at the annual street party, a removalist van gate-crashes the event, bringing new neighbours – the svelte and glamourous wife and teen daughter of the lifestyle guru, the Instafamous, Primal Guy, their small world is turned topsy-turvy.

Suddenly, marriages, plans, domestic arrangements and even dreams go awry. Is it just time for things to change, even for the worse, or is something closer to home causing trouble in this suburban paradise?

This is a clever, really entertaining book that not only captures the suburban life of some people, but portrays the complications and joys of motherhood, female friendship, neighbours, relationships, kids and marriages so very well.

The dialogue snaps and is often laugh-out-loud funny but at the same time can deliver depth and be incredibly moving. The women are so relatable with their triumphs, self-doubt, foibles and flaws and you genuinely come to care about them. Likewise, the men and children are familiar types that you can identify with easily.

I so enjoyed this book – found it hard to put down – and even though I saw the twist, it didn’t spoil a thing as I loved how it came together and resolved. A wonderful, charming and yet surprisingly poignant novel, that’s so well written and will linger in your head and heart long after the last page is turned

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No Small Shame by Christine Bell

This historical fiction by Christine Bell is a bleak and often harrowing read that nonetheless, tugs the heart strings and tells an unputdownable story of familial bonds, religion, war, love, sacrifice, courage, and heartache, all against the backdrop of Scotland and Australia during and in pre and post-war times.

Young Catholic, Mary O’Donnell, follows her family to Australia in the hope of a better life, one that offers more than their little mining village in Scotland ever could. Landing in Australia and moving to the small Victorian township of Wonthaggi, Mary’s dreams for herself and those she loves are soon shattered.

Following a series of terrible decisions and exiled from her family, Mary flees to Melbourne to start what she hopes will be a better life. There, she finally finds what’s she’s been looking for – purpose, friendship, and burgeoning love.

But when her past comes back to not just haunt her, but alter everything she thought to be true, Mary is faced with a terrible choice: ignore duty and what her faith and family tell her she must do, or follow her heart?

This is an utterly gripping book that I found so hard to put down. Swept up in Mary’s story, I read until 4.30 in the morning because I simply had to know what happened. The story told isn’t a “nice” one, after all, it’s about the impact of poverty, war, and racial and religious discrimination on individuals, families, and culture. The way Scottish and Australian history is represented in the novel is so well done – it doesn’t dominate, but serves the story as it always should in this type of fiction, allowing it to colour and, to a degree, drive the narrative forward, but never, ever overshadow it. The characters are so very rounded and real, even the minor ones. But it’s Mary that we root for and love, whose compassion and desire to break free of the shackles that she sees and feels holding herself and others back, that make you ache for her. Her – and even the less sympathetic characters who are also bound by social and other ties and cannot see their way free.

Be prepared to be transported into the past, to be caught up in a slice of Aussie history but, mostly, swept away in a completely relatable and beautifully told tale that will move and, in the end, fill you. Outstanding.

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