Whole Notes by Ed Ayres

‘This is the moment, before the music begins.’

About twelve years ago, I started listening to ABC Classic in the mornings. A presenter called Emma Ayres introduced me to a world of beautiful music and accompanied me as I gradually started walking my way from ill health to fitness. And over the past twelve years, I have followed Emma through her adventures and books. I missed Emma when she left ABC Classic and then, reading ‘Danger Music’ understood why. Emma’s transition to Eddie has enabled him to find happiness in the gender he belongs to. And now, I can hear Ed on ABC Classic (on Weekend Breakfast).

‘This book is an ode to music, and a celebration of humanity’s greatest creation.’

This is a wonderful book, about life, about finding yourself, and about the role of music in that journey — for Ed — and for others. I particularly enjoyed the passages about teaching music to others, about working out what works best for student and teacher. And then there’s Ed’s journey as a student, as he learns to play the horn.

There’s mention of a period when Ed wasn’t playing music and I can imagine what a loss that must have been for him: missing that particularly beautiful part of life.

There is also Ed’s honest, open account of his transition from female to male. He had waited a long time, thinking it would be too difficult. And, yes, it is a difficult process but a necessary one for Ed. I finished the book overjoyed that Ed has found himself. It is never too late, is it?

At the end of the book is a list of music tied to each section of the book I know some of this music (thanks, ABC Classic) and will be exploring the rest.

Bravo, Ed, on having the courage to take this journey and thank you for sharing it with us.

‘There is no such thing as talent, there is only love. Love for what you are learning, and therefore a desire to know it more deeply, more comprehensively, to have that knowledge become part of you, and you of it.’

 Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Publishers Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. I have now bought my own copy.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2021

Sincerely, Ethel Malley by Stephen Orr

‘So that’s what I’ve decided to do: be honest.’

Who is Ethel Malley? She was Ern Malley’s sister, the one who sent the poems she discovered after Ern’s death to Max Harris, co-editor of the Angry Penguins. And in this novel, Ethel strides out of the shadows into an area bordered by history and imagination. The Ern Malley affair is one of Australia’s most infamous literary hoaxes, but Mr Orr’s Ethel is having none of that.

The novel itself opens in 1981 with Ethel’s death, takes us back to 1943 and 1944 and into the lives of Max Harris, his girlfriend (later wife) Von. Once he reads the poems Ethel sends him, Max is convinced that Ern is an undiscovered genius. He dedicates an entire issue of Angry Penguins to Ern’s poems. Ethel travels from Sydney to Adelaide, moves in with Max and helps him. Sort of helps him when she’s not hindering him or trying to take over completely. Ethel says she just wants Ern’s poems published but Max isn’t quite sure. Then two poets come forward, claiming that they wrote the poems.

The more Max, or his friend Mary Martin, dig into the Malley story the more uncertain it becomes. Stories change, facts become fluid, Ethel becomes more demanding. Max is charged with publishing Ern’s ‘pornographic’ poems, and the action moves to the court room.

What is truth? What constitutes freedom of speech? Where does fact end, and fiction begin? What constitutes art, and what is the role of censorship?

Reading this novel reminds me that it is not that long ago that many books were banned in Australia, and many Australians were suspicious of any whiff of modernity. Ethel Malley, championing Ern’s work, tries to control what is shared about Ern and fails. But does she fail because she—and he—are fictional, or because the audience is not worthy? And the poems? Does it matter how they were written and who wrote them? Max Harris considered them extraordinary.

Ethel becomes part of Max Harris’s world for a while, acquiring an understanding of modernism and determined to stand up for Ern and his work.

This is such a clever novel: so many possibilities to explore; so many aspects to consider. I especially liked the washed-up soccer ball with the Spanish word ’farsa’ (meaning farce) on it. A very neat touch.  Ethel Malley may (or may not) be real but in this novel Mr Orr brings the mid-1940s in Australia to life.

 ‘All of these lives had become threadbare, and put in the bin. Maybe that’s how it is with people. We just live and die?’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2021

Devotion by Hannah Kent

‘It is time, I think, to tell my story.’

Prussia, 1836. Johanne (Hanne) Nussbaum is almost 15 years old, living with her family in the village of Kay. Her family are part of a community of Old Lutherans, which the King wants to reform. Bound by their interpretation of God’s law, the community seeks to move to a place where they will not be further persecuted. Hanne is different. She does not fit easily into the community because she does not conform to their expectations. She is close to her twin brother Matthias but has no close friends until Dorothea (Thea) Eichenwald and her family arrive. Hanne and Thea become close.

The families of Kay are finally granted permission to leave Prussia, their voyage to South Australia is arranged, and in 1838 they board a ship. All aboard are looking forward to new beginnings. Hanne and Thea are inseparable. They love each other. But the ship is overcrowded, and the six-month journey will take its toll. Illness and poor food in cramped unhygienic conditions means that not all will survive the journey.

There are some magical moments on this horrific journey: Hanne is in touch with nature wherever she is. One of the most memorable scenes is when Hanne, on the deck of the ship, sees a whale breach. She hears the songs in nature and appreciates them.

And now I will stop telling you about the story because to fully appreciate Ms Kent’s magic, you need to read it unspoiled. The historical setting for this novel is based on the real-life settlement of Old Lutherans at Hahndorf in South Australia’s Barossa Valley. This provides the framework for a beautifully imagined story of transcendent love and devotion.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

Here in the After by Marion Frith

‘It was so quiet, so very, very quiet.’

Anna, aged 62, is the sole survivor of a terrorist attack in Sydney. Eleven others were murdered.  Nat, aged 35, is an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan. Both are suffering because of their experiences; both have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Once Anna is well enough to leave hospital, she retreats into herself, into her home as a fortress. Anna is widowed with adult children and while they try to help her, the only comfort she can find is with her young grandson. Nat’s wife Gen is worried about him. He has outbursts of anger which he cannot explain. Why can’t he tell her what is worrying him?

Nat’s initial approach to Anna is rebuffed: she thinks he is just another person who does not understand what she has been though. But a chance meeting on the beach leads to a tentative friendship. And as their friendship builds, Nat takes what he believes is a terrible risk: he tells Anna his story. There is more to the story than this as you will find if you read it for yourself.

‘They told us we were going over to stamp out terrorism and keep Australia safe … and … well, we didn’t.’

Reading this novel barely weeks after the US and its allies have withdrawn from Afghanistan, leaving the country once again in the hands of the Taliban makes this an even more uncomfortable read. Ms Frith’s novel takes us beyond the impact of terrorist acts on the individuals concerned into an appreciation of the concomitant impact on their loved ones. Anna’s family feel helpless, as does Nat’s wife. Anna and Nat (eventually) can talk to each other because their shared experience gives them understanding. Words are sometimes not enough.

There is no happy ever after ending here but there is hope that with the right support the future will be more comfortable for both Anna and Nat and their families.

I was deeply moved by this story and after finishing my review copy, bought a copy for myself. This is Ms Frith’s first novel, and I recommend it highly.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

When Things are Alive They Hum by Hannah Bent

This is Ms Bent’s debut novel, and will be published on 28/7/2021. I am certain that this will be one of my most memorable reads for 2021.

‘This is the sound of my heart talking to me.’

I picked up this book and was taken into a world of both heartache and wonder. Sisters Marlowe and Harper share a deep connection. Marlowe has left their home in Hong Kong to pursue studies in the UK. She is poised on the edge of winning a prestigious award: the Royal Zoological Award when she receives news from home. Harper, born with a congenital heart defect, lives with their father and ‘stepmonster’. Marlowe returns home when she receives the news that Harper’s heart is failing. She will do anything, everything she can to save Harper. Harper is ruled ineligible for a heart transplant because of her disability, but Marlowe cannot accept this.

Marlowe and Harper tell their story in alternate chapters. Marlowe’s distress is heightened by Harper’s quite different perspective and her wonder about the world. Harper has a story to tell, of life with what she calls ‘Up Syndrome’. She and boyfriend Louis have their own special place in the world, a place which not everyone accepts or supports.

This is Ms Bent’s debut novel, a beautifully written story, which demonstrates both the power of love and the need for acceptance.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

Scales of Gold (The House of Niccolò #4) by Dorothy Dunnett

‘To those who remembered him, it was typical that Nicholas should sail into Venice just as the latest news reached the Rialto, causing the ducat to fall below fifty groats and dip against the écu.’

In 1464, Nicholas vander Poele returns from Cyprus to Venice. His stay is brief: he has financial concerns and is under threat by several powerful business rivals. He sets sail for Africa:

‘The country where there is gold in such abundance that men prefer to barter in shells.’

 Nicholas is intent on trade and exploration, and Africa offers possibilities. Africa: the legendary home of the Fountain of Youth, the myth of Prester John, descendant of Sheba and Solomon. It will prove to be an arduous journey, full of danger and hardship for Nicholas and his companions. They will make it (some of them) to Timbuktu, a great Muslim centre of learning and trading. Not all aspects of the mission will be successful, suffering will accompany discovery for some.

This, the fourth instalment of the House of Niccolò, will end in Europe with a cliff-hanger which had me tearing my hair and gnashing my teeth. And so, I moved straight onto book five, ‘The Unicorn Hunt’.

I loved this book, with its journey of self-discovery (for some) and exploration. Nicholas continues to develop, as do the intrigues around him. Another complex, intricately plotted novel in a series which is best read in order. I have read this series at least three times, and each time I discover new possibilities.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Caste: The Lies That Divide Us by Isabel Wilkerson

‘Few problems have ever been solved by ignoring them.’

In this book, Ms Wilkerson frames the treatment of African American people in the USA as being part of the same caste system which still governs India, and which infected Nazi Germany. So, racism is less about what a person looks like and more about where they are seen as belonging in the hierarchy.

I was drawn into this book from the first page, considering the ramifications of caste, about the assumptions we make and the consequences.

‘As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theatre, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance.’

Ms Wilkerson draws on history, on the stories of others and on personal experience in writing this book. It is an uncomfortable and at times confronting read. I had to read it slowly.

‘While all countries in the New World created hierarchies with Europeans on top, the United States alone created a system based on racial absolutism, the idea that a single drop of African blood, or varying percentages of Asian or Native American blood, could taint the purity of someone who might otherwise be presumed to be European, a stain that would thus disqualify the person from admittance to the dominant caste.’

And there is this. In 1944, the public school district in Columbus, Ohio, decided to hold an essay contest challenging students to consider the question ‘What to do with Hitler after the War?’

‘It was the spring of 1944, the same year that a black boy was forced to jump to his death, in front of his stricken father, over the Christmas card the boy had sent to a white girl at work. In that atmosphere, a sixteen-year-old African-American girl thought about what should befall Hitler. She won the student essay contest with a single sentence: ‘Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.’’

By including stories about people, some well-known and others unknown, Ms Wilkerson illustrates the challenges and double standards applied in a world where caste assumes a bottom rung of humanity. These assumptions have costs in health and economic productivity and clearly influence politics. But how does any country move beyond such entrenched divisions?

‘Caste is more than rank, it is a state of mind that holds everyone captive, the dominant imprisoned in an illusion of their own entitlement, the subordinate trapped in the purgatory of someone else’s definition of who they are and who they should be.’

I read a review of this books somewhere recently and wanted to read it for myself. I am still thinking about caste and its ramifications. Ms Wilkerson writes from an American perspective, but I think that much of what she writes applies in other countries as well.

Because of the content this is not an easy read but it is a book I would definitely recommend to others.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Songspirals: Sharing women’s wisdom of Country through songlines by Gay’wu Group of Women, Laklak Burarrwanga, Ritjilili Ganambarr, Merrkiyawuy Ganambarr-Stubbs, Banbapuy Ganambarr, Djawundil Maymuru, Sarah Wright, Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Kate Lloyd

Welcome to a very different journey.

The Gay’wu Group of Women (or the ‘dilly bag women’s group) are a group of Yolŋu women from north-east Arnhem Land in Australia’s far north. In this book, they invite us to join them on a journey:

‘We want you to come with us on our journey, our journey of songspirals. Songspirals are the essence of people in this land, the essence of every clan. We belong to the land and it belongs to us. We sing to the land, sing about the land. We are that land. It sings to us.’

This is an incredibly generous book, full of cultural concepts that I find challenging, but which begin to make sense when I step back from the words to appreciate the context. A vibrant oral culture, with some similarities to the storytelling tradition which once prevailed in parts of my heritage. But the Yolŋu songspirals are more vibrant, more connected to place, to Aboriginal concepts of Country which many of us struggle to appreciate or try to understand.

The women share particular songspirals in the book as a way of welcoming us, of giving us a glimpse into their culture and enabling us to explore and to try to understand their importance.

Songspirals are profoundly different ways of explaining the relationship the Yolŋu women have with Country. In order to understand more, I will need to reread this book.  But right now, while I may not understand fully, I begin to understand and appreciate the complexity and vibrance of this oral culture. Thank you to the Gay’wu Group of Women for their generous gift.

I recommend this book to anyone who seeks a better understanding of Aboriginal concepts of Country.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2021

#AussieAuthor2021

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

‘No day ever started well with six dozen raw chickens, and today of all days it was stealing the sweetness out of his daydreams.’

Glasgow, 1992. We meet Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain working at a supermarket. He has just turned sixteen and is trying to combine schooling with a part-time job. He does not receive adult wages and struggles to keep his things neat in the boarding house where he lives. But Shuggie has dreams.

‘Tomorrow was something to look forward to.’

But what about the past? The story shifts back to 1981, to public housing in Sighthill, Glasgow, to Agnes Bain, Shuggie’s mother:

‘To be thirty-nine and have her husband and her three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure.’

Unemployment is rife, housing is scarce. Agnes is used to getting what she wants, but it is never enough for her. She craves different, excitement, more. She left her first husband for Shug Bain (‘Big Shug’) a philandering taxi-driver and dreams of having her own house. Agnes is bored, and when she is bored, she drinks.

Things become worse when Shug moves her to Pithead in 1982. She is away from family and friends. Living in a house in an area mostly occupied by unemployed miners and their families. After her older children leave, Shuggie tries to look after her. He feels, as so many children in his situation feel, responsible. He is sure that he can make her better if only he tries harder. He knows how to help her:

 ‘Shuggie arranged three tea mugs: one with tap water to dry the cracks in her throat, one with milk to line her sour stomach, and the third with a mixture of the flat leftovers of Special Brew and stout that he had gathered from around the house and frothed together with a fork. He knew that this was the one she would reach for first, the one that would stop the crying in her bones.’

If Shuggie is 16 in 1992, then he can only be 6 in 1982. He is carrying the weight of responsibility for his mother and of being different from the other boys. Agnes makes a sad attempt to get one of her male neighbours to be a role model for Shuggie, trading in the only currency she has. To no avail.

This is a heartbreaking story of addiction and love. Agnes is not unaware of the impact of her drinking, but she is in the grips of an addiction. She manages to stay sober for a period, which makes her eventual relapse even harder to bear.

The best advice given to Shuggie is from his brother ‘Leek’ (Alexander):

‘Don’t make the same mistake as me. She’s never going to get better.  When the time is right you have to leave.  The only thing you can save is yourself.’

What does the future hold for Shuggie? I’d like to think that his story continues on, he acquires the education he wants and finds a place for himself.  He did his best for Agnes, but she was beyond help. Addiction is a devastating, destructive, sneaky condition. Especially alcoholism, where some vulnerable people can slide from acceptable social drinking into the abyss of dependency.

This is such a powerful novel with origins in Mr Stuart’s own experience. It’s a novel based in a sad, gritty reality.  It’s a novel that will stay with me.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith