Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ochre and rust

Philip Jones is the author of Ochre and dust: artefacts and encounters on Australian frontiers, an account of how investigating the provenance of an artefact can provide information about a person, place or incident from the past.

The book investigates nine artefacts starting with Master Blackburn's whip. The whip, housed in the South Australian Museum, consists of an Aboriginal club and four knotted lashes. The article provides information about David Blackburn, Master of the Supply, a ship in the First Fleet. Letters written by David Blackburn to members of his family are now held in the Mitchell Library. Looking at information from the letters as well as journals of men such as of Tench and Dawes who recounted events of the early settlement the author surmises the use of the origin of this artefact, a combination of two culture. As well as being one of the few artefacts of the first convict settlement in Sydney it also is represents the European contact with the Aborigines. Like Dawes, Blackburn was interested in the lives and languages of the Aborigines and helped collect words of the language. Much of the article looks at the first contact between the Aborigines and the convicts, soldiers and sailors and the information is similar to that used by Kate Grenville in her novel, - The Lieutenant .

Other articles include Broken shields, The magic garb of Daisy Bates and Namatjira and the Jesus plaque. The artefacts described originated in different regions of Australia. This well researched book is well illustrated and has extensive notes and bibliography.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bones to ashes

Having watched a number of episodes of the television series Bones during the holidays I decided to read one of the books on which the television series is based. Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist, has written ten books, the most recent being Bones to ashes.

Dr Temperance Brennan, or Tempe as she prefers to be called, is a forensic anthropologist working in Montreal. On some of the cases she works closely with the police including Andrew Ryan and Hippo Gallant, a specialist in cold cases. The police are investigating the deaths or disappearance of six girls over a number of years and Tempe is asked to help. A skeleton she is asked to examine brings back memories of a childhood friendship that ended abruptly. When Tempe and her sister, Harry, decide to find out what happened to their friend, Evangeline, they find themselves in danger, but from whom?

Detailed description of procedures undertaken when examining corpses is provided as Tempe examines her various cases. The variety of cases interspersed with the action of the main plot plus glimpses into Tempe's earlier life and her relationship with Andrew Ryan make this a book difficult to put down.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Inspector Anders and the fight against crime

Inspector Anders is an expert on combating terrorism and anarchy and is called upon when a new suspected outbreak occurs. Closing down the activities of a terrorist cell in the 1980s made Anders a hero but he lost a leg in the process.

In Inspector Anders and the Wooden Leg Anders is sent to southern Italy to report on the violent deaths of local officials investigating corruption. Each death is blamed on anarchists but the groups have disbanded. Corruption abounds in the city where the Mafia rules and as the investigation continues Anders concludes that more than a report is needed to stop the corruption at all levels and the assassinations.

Inspector Anders and the Ship of Fools
sees Anders and Matucci, now members of Interpol, investigating an explosion in Frankfurt and threats against companies and individuals in a number of European countries, particularly France and Germany. With the advent of the European Union boundaries between countries have become invisible making it easier for criminals to move from one country to another without trace. The threat is against large corporations planning mergers resulting in a loss of jobs for many employees. As the investigation continues it is apparent that the perpetrator has special powers to carry out the crimes.

In Inspector Anders and the Blood Vendetta, Anders is sent to Milan to investigate the killing of two right wing politicians. Are the deaths due to terrorists or are they political killings? During the investigation he also spends time tracing the theft of a painting.

Anders is in his fifties and in the first book plans to retire after completing the case. However after taking on the Mafia his life is in constant danger and he is aware of the threat not only due to the current investigation but also from members of the Mafia who have threatened to kill him. The events in past years affect his decisions and actions, particularly when it comes to using weapons. He is also conscious of the restrictions of having an artificial limb though he endeavours not to let this interfere with his work. In each book he has relationships with one or two women, usually women who also have a troubled past. A sub theme throughout the three books is Anders' endeavours to write a book in tribute to Anton Anders, an ancestor who was a poet in the nineteenth century.

The books by Australian author, Marshall Browne, are set in Europe, particularly in Italy, and have many layers and complexities in the exploration of plot and characters. They are crime stories well worth reading.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

War of the sexes

Australian author, now living in England, Kathy Lette, entertains her predominantly female audience writing books describing the battle of the sexes within and outside marriage. Recently I have read three of her books, Dead sexy, How to kill your husband (and other handy household hints) and To love, honour and betray (till divorce do us part).

In Dead Sexy music teacher Shelley discovers that her students have entered her in reality television program where, based on computer matching, she will meet her perfect man. Substantial prize money will be provided if she and Kit Kincade decide to marry and enjoy a honeymoon on a French run African island, observed of course by a film crew for a television program. Shelley decides to take the risk but then the intrigue starts. Who really is the man she married? Why does he disappear immediately after the wedding and then insist on separate rooms on the island? With the obnoxious television crew attempting to follow her every move Shelley encounters betrayal, revolution, a cyclone and a volcanic eruption as she discovers the true story of Kit Kincade and also re-evaluates her life.

How to kill your husband follows the realtionships of three friends aged 40 + years who regularly meet to gossip and discuss their families. Cassie is a school teacher and mother and is married to a vet who does not see the need to help her with household chores. Hannah owns an art gallery and is married to a young artist who enjoys spending the money she earns. Jazz is married to a doctor well known for his medical work in Africa as well as running his practice. She does not need to work and they have a teenage son. When Jazz is accused of murdering her husband Cassie agrees to help her clear her name. The realtionships of the three women are tested in this amusing commentary men and sex and expectations in marriage.

In To love, honour and betray, Lucy, Jasper and their two daughters have moved to Australia where Jasper has a new job. Once settled at Cronulla Lucy discovers that Jasper has also brought his mistress who Lucy thought was her best friend. Lapsing into a world of self pity Lucy is determined to win Jasper back. Further complicating her life is the challenge of bringing up two daughters, one a rebellious teenager. With new friends and the attempt to win her bronze medallion she eventually regains some self respect as she attempts to sort out her life and protect her family.

Kathy Lette's are humourous chic lit providing commentary on domestic and sexual discord and concentrating on the differences between the sexes.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Peters ice cream - the healthfood of a nation

Refrigerators in the 1950s had a small freezing compartment only large enough to hold an ice-block tray or two. Ice cream was home made using Carnation Milk - hard blocks of cream coloured ice served on special occasions in small portions with hot apple pie or bread and butter custard or lemon pudding. When a new refrigerator was purchased with a larger freezer compartment Mother sometimes purchased a Peters Ice Cream Family Brick - a rectangle of vanilla ice cream, originally wrapped in paper but later packaged in a cardboard box with a zipper opening. Slices of soft white ice cream became a favourite dessert. Sometimes Neapolitan Family Bricks - layers of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream in the one box - would be purchased, especially if there was a birthday. Chocolate was always my favourite.

Ice cream in the 1950s and the early 1960s was a special treat - not something you had every day. Once a week we were allowed to go to the local Milk Bar and buy and icy pole. Milk Bars throughout Victoria were recognisable by the large Peters Ice Cream Cone attached to the roof. Sometimes we were allowed to have an ice cream in a cone. A very special treat was to be allowed to have a Choc Wedge - vanilla ice cream coated with chocolate on a stick. Other special ice creams were Two - in Ones - chocolate coated vanilla ice cream on two sticks designed so that the ice cream could be split and shared and Have - a Hearts - chocolate coated, heart shaped, creamy vanilla ice cream on a stick. For special treats for dessert we occasionally were allowed to have an Eskimo Pie - a small rectangle of chocolate coated ice cream wrapped in foil ( no stick) - or a Kreme B Tween - a slice of vanilla ice cream which you then inserted between two wafer biscuits. When we went to the Pictures or to a Pantomime there was always a Dixie at interval - a small cup of vanilla ice cream eaten using a small wooden stick. In the 1960s the big innovation in ice cream was the Drumstick.

Of a nation, written by Michael Harden, celebrates 100 years of Peters Ice Cream in Australia from 1907 to 2007. Two men in particular were responsible for the success of the company - Fred Peters and Emil Christensen. Fred Peters, an American, began making ice cream in a back yard shed in Manly. He made the ice cream in the morning and delivered it in a horse drawn vehicle in the afternoon. The book describes how from this humble beginning grew a major Australian company employing thousands of people. The book explores the development of the company, the challenges of making ice cream with primitive refrigeration available, transporting the ice cream, developing new products, publicity and promotion of the product, the family friendly conditions provided for the workers and the community involvement of the firm. In many ways there are parallels between the story of Peters Ice Cream and the story of MacRobertsons' Chocolates as told in the book by Jill Robertson, The Chocolate King.

Of a nation, is well illustrated with photographs and includes anecdotes from people long associated with the company. For those who grew up with Peters Ice Cream this book will revive many memories.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Lieutenant and The Secret River

Kate Grenville's new book, The Lieutenant, traces the life of Daniel Rooke, a lieutenant in the marines posted to New South Wales in 1788. The young Daniel was selected to study at the Portsmouth Naval Academy where he was introduced to astronomy. Not being able to afford a commission in the navy he joined the marines as a navigator and was then sent to the new colony of New South Wales as an astronomer. Isolated by choice from the main settlement he studied not only the stars but also the surrounding environment and particularly the Aborigines who visited his camp. Interested in languages he made it his project to learn to communicate with his visitors, especially a young girl, Tagaran. Always an outsider, Daniel Rooke discovered difficulties in reconciling his observations and understandings of his new environment and its people with the strict demands of discipline and obeying of orders expected of a marine.

The book is inspired by the notebooks of William Dawes where he wrote of his experiences in the new colony. This is however a work of fiction and although the novel is obviously set in New South Wales the names of the characters in the book are fictitious.

In 2005 Kate Grenville published another book set in convict times, The secret river. The novel traces the life of William Thornhill and his family. William is a waterman on the Thames but changing circumstances make him take chances to help support his family and result in his transportation to New South Wales. His wife and children are allowed to also travel on the ship and on arrival in New South Wales he was assigned to his wife, Sal. Together they established a new life in the colony facing the challenges of living in land very different from England, strange flora and fauna, making a life from nothing. William's skills on the water help him earn a living and eventually the family faces the challenge of establishing their own settlement on the river. The relationship between the Aborigines and the new settlers is interwoven throughout the story providing a variety of viewpoints as Will and his family strive to make a life in a new land. The secret river is a work of fiction but it provides insights into what life was possibly like for the settlers in New South Wales early in the nineteenth century.

Searching for the secret river examines the five years of research undertaken before writing the book. Originally the author was exploring her family history with no intention of writing a book but as the research continued she realised that she had discovered a wealth of material in which to set a novel. The end result was The secret river.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Water, water everywhere

Landscape plays an important part in many novels, especially in Australian novels, and in Australian fiction water is often a theme. The large coastline of the island continent ensures that much Australian fiction is set near beaches. As well as physical descriptions of the landscape the power of water, especially of the ocean, can be viewed as a force to be challenged, a world of freedom or as an opportunity for escape. It can also be portrayed as part of the Australian psyche.

Two authors whose books often feature water in their books are Robert Drewe and Tim Winton.

Most of the short stories in Robert Drewe's latest book, The Rip, involve water in some way. In a number of the stories water is in the background, not a dominant force, but in some of the stories water is a central character. The author examines a range of relationships in the stories and the reactions of people to situations but in many of the stories the catalyst for the events that occur is water. The analogy of a prison to an aquarium, the reactions to a possible tsunami, the escape of swimming laps in a pool, the need to impress someone by challenging the sea are a few of the scenarios in this book of Australian short stories.

In 1993 Robert Drew edited The Penguin book of the beach, a collection of 25 short stories written by authors from many countries including Australia. In the introduction Robert Drewe writes that he chose these stories "not only because I think they represent the best of contemporary shorter fiction writing about the beach - the coasts, ocean shores, bays, dunes, lagoons and rivers... They share a concern with pressing personal, social and political questions,, their satiric, humorous or fantastic sidelong glance often revealing more than direct realistic examination. ... The role of the beach in contemporary fiction may be literally gauged by the stories' subject matter. The vast majority deal with escape, often from the next most possible category - family and sexual relationships. These are followed in popularity by drowning, growing up and the mysterious voyage/journey to the Apocalypse." (p 4-5) Authors in this anthology include Graham Swift, Ian McEwan, Frank Moorhouse, Helen Garner, David Malouf and Tim Winton.

Water is a theme in much of the writing of Tim Winton. This is particularly the case in his latest novel, Breath. Set in Western Australia two young boys, Pikelet and Loonie, enjoy taking risks first in the river and then in the surf some miles from where they live. The book deals with relationships between the two boys and Sando and Eva but it also revolves around the relationship of the boys with the surf - the power of the surf, the danger of the surf, the allure of the surf. The need to conquer bigger and bigger waves. The need to take risks, to face death, to survive. The novel also explores sexual risk taking. Throughout the book there are references to breathing, the necessity for life. This is a beautifully written book.

The power of the surf to take over one's life is also observed in Di Morrissey's latest novel, The Islands. A love story set in Australia and in Hawaii, primarily in the 1970s, Catherines' life changes when she discovers the freedom brought about learning to surf and meeting challenges. The power of the ocean over the lives of many of the characters that Catherine meets when living in Hawaii is a major component of this book.

Learning to conquer fear of the ocean and learning to surf is a also a theme in Kathy Lette's new book, To love, honour and betray, a zany account of coping with a broken marriage and living with teenage daughters. Set in Sydney much of the action occurs at the local surf club where Lucy faces the challenges of gaining the Bronze Medallion as well as travelling down the hard road of self discovery.

The Maeve Binchy Writers' Club

A number of authors have written guides to writing books. The Maeve Binchy Writers' Club was published in 2008. It is based on a twenty week course held at the National College of Ireland aimed to encourage prospective writers with the skills to start and complete a book. Each week the students were provided with a letter written by Maeve Binchy covering an aspect in the process of writing and publishing a book. A guest lecturer then conducted a session providing detailed information on a specific topic. The twenty letters written by Maeve Binchy are included along with abridged notes from ten of the lectures. Topics included Getting Started, Writers' Groups, Telling a Story, Writing Short Stories, The Writers' Agent, Finding Your Voice, The Role of the Editor, Writing as a Journalist, Publishers and writing men's fiction, for the stage, for children, crime and comedy. The book also includes a short story about a writers' group written by Maeve Binchy which illustrates some of the points made in her letters. This book is a readable introduction for aspiring writers on aspects of writing a book.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Taste of Iran in Ireland

Recently I discovered two books written by Marsha Mehran - Pomegranate Soup and Rosewater and Soda Bread. Readers of Maeve Binchy books would probably enjoy these two titles.

The books are set in the Irish village of Ballinacroagh where three sisters from Iran open the Babylon Cafe much to the delight of some of the villagers who quickly succumb to the new cuisine and welcome the newcomers. However in a village where rumour and gossip reigns supreme a section of the population led by Dervla Quigley and Thomas McGuire strive to close the cafe.

Marjan, Bahar and Layla Aminpour persevere with the help of their landlady, Estelle, and the local priest, Father Mahoney. Stories of their life in Iran are revealed as the three sisters establish a new life and new relationships in Ireland.

Romance and religion are dominant themes in Rosewater and Soda Bread. Estelle finds a young woman with mystical powers washed up on a deserted beach and takes her home to care for her and protect her with the aid of Marjan. Bahar decides to study Catholicism and Layla and Malchy further develop their relationship while Marjan meets a writer who is rebuilding his family home. The wide cast of characters combined with the revelations of past events enrich the main storyline in both books providing an account of interweaving of two cultures.

In Pomegranate Soup recipes for the food described appear at the end of each chapter while in Rosewater and Soda Bread a selection of recipes appear at the end of the book.

Monday, January 5, 2009

The Melbourne Trilogy

Life in the city of Melbourne between 1888 and 1900 is the background to a series of three novels by Marshall Browne - The Gilded Cage, The Burnt City and The Trumpeting Angel.

The 1880s saw a land boom in Marvellous Melbourne. Land speculation was rife and corruption reigned supreme in many quarters. A number of banks and other financial institutions were established with the promise that investing in these institutions was an opportunity to become rich. The reality was that the only people who made money, especially after the financial crash in 1889, were the directors who either withdrew their money before the institution went into liquidation or used a provision in the Companies legislation protecting their investments. As the directors were often also members of parliament it is not surprising that there was reluctance to change the legislation. Banks crashed. The smaller investors in particular lost their money. Unemployment was high and the wages of those employed were often reduced. Many families depended on welfare provided not by the government but by charities.

In the 1890s challenges to the political status quo were mounted. Attempts were made to alter legislation to remove the possibilities for corruption and women were campaigning for the vote. Federation was another major change about to be introduced. At the end of the century the Boer War was another area of concern.

Marshall Browne interweaves the action of his novels amongst the above events. The books follow the fortunes and misfortunes of several prominent families involved in commerce, the law and parliament as they strive to cope with the rapidly changing events occurring around them. The often melodramatic plots involve treachery, murder, jealousy, love, corruption, loyalty, misunderstanding and court cases as the protagonists face extreme challenges which could result in bankruptcy and / or loss of standing in their community.