Completed - 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge

I am pleased to say that I have completed the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge, with a couple of hours to go before the end.  Not ideal that I was finalising reviews on New Year's Eve, but I was determined to honour my commitment.

My commitment was to read four books and review three - the "Stella" level.

The four books I read for this challenge were:

Behold, New Holland! by Rix Weaver (Review)
The Dark Mountain by Catherine Jinks (Review)
A Cargo of Women: The Novel by Babette Smith (Review)
Beneath the Southern Cross by Judy Nunn (No review)

I am looking forward to signing up for the 2015 challenge. Hopefully, I will be better organized and post my reviews earlier.

Book Review: A Cargo of Women: The Novel by Babette Smith

From the back cover:

England, 1828. Susannah Watson is forced to steal to feed her starving children. Ann Kinsman steals because her man tells her to. Sarah Bryant steals to bring a little colour into her drab and miserable existence. Sentenced to transportation, they become part of the cargo of women convicts aboard the "Princess Royal", bound for Botany Bay.

In New South Wales they find a community which offers them opportunities beyond their dreams - or degradation to match the worst they left behind. As they struggle to come to terms with their lives as prisoners and learn to endure their servitude, they draw comfort and support from each other. Working as assigned servants, incarcerated in the notorious Female Factory, fighting to protect their children, caught up in the passion and heartache of love, the women's lives continue to overlap and interweave.

Babette Smith's original non-fiction work A Cargo of Women: Susannah Watson and the Convicts of the Princess Royal,  was inspired by her discovery of a convict ancestor. This history of convict women and their lives as prisoners received great reviews, but Babette Smith's decision to turn Susannah Watson's story into a novel received mixed reactions. I, for one, am glad she did.

Susannah Watson, mother of four children, the youngest still a baby, is  sentenced to "fourteen years transportation beyond the seas". She is one of a hundred women transported on the Princess Royal, some of whom have been transported for life. However, regardless of the length of their sentences, all know they will never return to England. Many of the women are philosophical about their plight and others rail against the cruel injustice of it all. Some see it as a chance for a better life, others carry on their lives of crime where they left off.

Babette Smith's research on the lives of the women convicts show that they were mostly from the lower classes of society, the young and not so young, repeat and first time offenders. Unlikely friendships were formed in gaol and on board ship.

Conditions en route to Australia were not ideal, though the surgeon did his best to prevent sickness by ensuring the convicts were allowed on deck regularly and urged them to keep themselves and their living quarters clean.  Not only did the women have to survive the poor food and cramped conditions, they also had to be wary of the different factions below decks. Prostitution was still a bartering tool for some to gain extra rations, privileges or their all important supply of alcohol.

The novel is an insight into the social conditions of the time. England, still recovering from  the Napoleonic Wars, is in the grip of the industrial revolution where traditional cottage industries are being replaced by machines in factories. The population is growing, poverty and sickness, prostitution, alcoholism and crime still rife. In Australia, conditions are much the same for the lower classes.

The Female Factory at Parramatta offered a slight improvement in the women's living conditions, as that it provided food and shelter, but life was still harsh, and convicts once assigned were reluctant to return here. It is interesting how the system worked and how it could be manipulated by the convicts themselves.

Once started I couldn't put this novel down. Susannah Watson's  story is one of many, but she had the strength of character and determination to make the most of her situation, despite being separated from her husband and other children, and suffering more tragedy and loss in Australia.

This was an engrossing story of a subject largely ignored until recent times. Babette Smith dispels many of the myths regarding women convicts with this excellent work. I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it for those interested in Australian history.

 A Cargo of Women: The Novel  is Book #3 of my commitment to the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge

Book Review: The Dark Mountain by Catherine Jinks


The story of two fiercely strong women, mother and daughter, one determined never to explain her choice and the other equally as determined to dig deeply and unrelentingly for the truth.

Born into a life of privilege, Charlotte Atkinson is raised by her widowed mother on a vast and wealthy estate near Sutton Forest, New South Wales, enjoying an idyllic early childhood in the great stone house still known today as Oldbury.

But in the summer of 1836, a violent incident in the Belanglo wilderness sets off a chain of events that transforms Charlotte’s existence. Inexplicably, her mother is prompted to marry again, thereby surrendering her property, fortune and offspring to Charlotte’s vicious and degenerate new stepfather, George Barton. His presence turns Oldbury into a place of madness and terror, casting a shadow so long that it continues to haunt Charlotte for years after his mysterious death.

My Thoughts

Charlotte, the eldest of the Atkinson children, is the narrator of the story and through her eyes and thoughts are seen the consequences of her mother marrying her overseer, George Barton. Oldbury, once happy and prosperous, slides into ruin by Barton's mismanagement. He is a drunkard  and violent, feared not only by the family, but also by the convict work force.

This marriage brings so much misery to the Atkinson family that like Charlotte I asked what was the reason for it. Unfortunately there is never a clear answer given to this question and I was still left wondering at the end of the novel, though a mature age Charlotte  appears to gain an insight into her mother’s actions.

Throughout the novel Charlotte’s mother is forever battling  the trustees of Oldbury for money and guardianship of the children. As Charlotte grows older she is constantly at odds with her mother and cannot forgive, what she sees as the ultimate betrayal, her mother’s marriage to Barton. Desperate to understand, Charlotte is forever defying her mother, in an attempt to force an explanation.

The atmosphere of the novel is at times menacing, Oldbury  is built in the shadow of  Gingenbullen Mountain. It borders the Belanglo forest, where bushrangers roamed, and is still a notorious place today.  John Lynch, Australia’s first serial killer, also has a link to Oldbury, and  the evil presence of George  Barton adds further to the menace.  All these things have an effect on the impressionable young Charlotte and it is no wonder that she comes to dislike the home she once loved and, at times, her mother whom Charlotte blamed for her estrangement from the family.

I was totally engrossed in this story and sympathized with Charlotte. How her life would have been easier had her mother taken the time to explain, but for some reason her mother did not wish to do so. Society was quick to condemn those that stepped out of its boundaries and Charlotte and her mother, so much alike, shared this fate.

I was disappointed that no reason was ever given for the marriage of Charlotte's mother and George Barton, but this added to the suspense and kept me reading with the hope that all would be revealed at the end. However, even without a neat ending, the story was still powerful and I have no qualms in recommending this novel, a tale of one of Australia's colonial families, as a great read.

The Dark Mountain is Book #2 of my commitment to the 2014 Australian Women Challenge.

Book Review: Behold, New Holland! by Rix Weaver

I stumbled across this novel by accident. It was advertised in the back of a book I had just finished reading and I was surprised that I had not heard of this author before.

First published in September 1940, Behold, New Holland! tells the story of one family’s arrival in Western Australia and their first nine years  in the colony. This was Rix Weaver's debut novel.

Henry Mabie, an ex-British Army Officer, disenchanted with the Government of a post Napoleonic War England, wishes to protect his wealth and is convinced that to do so his family would be better off in Australia.  His brother, Jep Mabie, a soldier, recently returned from an expedition to Australia on board HMS Success, is also excited about the potential and opportunities available in the new colony and encourages his brother to emigrate.

Henry becomes part of a scheme by Thomas Peel to colonize Western Australia and in 1830, accompanied by his pregnant wife, Susan, his four sons, two daughters, his sister, Jane, and "Nanny", sails on the Rockingham, for the Swan River settlement.

The novel describes the hardships of the early settlers and the trials the Mabie family face: being shipwrecked on arrival in the new colony, desertion by their contracted labour, near starvation from loss of stock and crop failures, and personal tragedy. A further series of set backs sees their money disappear so that returning to England is not an option. 

Henry Mabie is a typical 19th century gentleman, who as head of the household sees his word as law and expects to be obeyed. Susan is a typical 19th century wife, deferring to her husband in all things.

And then we have Jane Mabie. A most delightful character, who is “ ... decidedly versatile in feminine coquetry, was neither shy nor demure. She didn’t fit in with the general rule. Rather than droop modest eyes she opened them with wide interest in the world about her and accepted pretty compliments with very apparent satisfaction.”

Rix Weaver in an interview expressed her opinion that women should have a role outside motherhood and this view is reflected in the character of Jane Mabie, who is not content to take a lesser role in colonizing and has no reluctance in voicing her opinions on political, family and personal matters, completely at odds with how a young woman was expected to conduct herself in the early 19th century.

Jane often antagonizes and exasperates Henry because of her outspokeness and also her refusal to marry, despite having received some very favourable offers. Her arrival in the colony causes a stir among the single men, especially the soldiers, who vie for her attention. At times she seems empty headed and at others possessed of a mind well beyond her years. This is not surprising as the span of the novel sees Jane mature from a girl of 16 to a young woman of 25. Her enthusiasm and determination to see the colony succeed forms an integral part of this novel. 

The descriptive passages of the land evoke images of an unspoiled landscape and one so different to that of England. Through Jane’s eyes we see its strangeness and its beauty.

While being a first class history of Western Australia, woven through this novel is also the romance between Jane Mabie and military officer, Captain Gratton Hird, who meets Jane and her family while on Government business. Both are stubborn, which makes for an interesting relationship.

Rix Weaver’s research into the history of the Swan River colony cannot be faulted, though she has taken liberties with some facts as she acknowledges in the Author’s Note. Her love of her home state and the recognition she gives to the early settlers is evident in her writing.  

I found this novel to be well written in a style that gives it an authentic 19th century feel. This added to its charm, along with the flowing narrative and a great cast of characters: a very enjoyable read.

The story of the Mabie family continues in the sequel, New Holland Heritage. I borrowed both books from my local library, though I did discover that  Behold, New Holland! and New Holland Heritage were combined and released in 1979 by Angus and Robertson under the title of Theirs to Bestow.

Behold, New Holland! is Book#1 of my commitment to the  2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

2014 Australian Women Writers Reading Challenge - Only 5 Days to Go!

I have just realized that this reading challenge is drawing to a close and though my commitment of four books has been read my reviews are still in the draft stage. Lots of quiet time to make use of today, so I will endeavour to catch up before the deadline.

Book Review: Rebels and Traitors by Lindsey Davis

This is a lengthy novel, an epic of 742 pages and was not the fictional work with the English Civil War as its background that I expected. The novel started promisingly with an intriguing prologue, which introduced two of the main characters, but a few chapters in, I realized my error, when the fiction began to be dominated by swathes of social, political and military detail. It is much later in the novel that the focus remains on the main characters. 

Too many characters left me overwhelmed and a little confused. Not only was there a large cast of historical figures, but also the extended families of the other characters to follow, necessitating in some back tracking. I thought the way the characters crossed paths throughout the novel interesting and it was one of these chance meetings that leads to the dramatic ending.

As mentioned, the novel opens with a prologue. It is 1649 and the day of King Charles I’s execution. Among the spectators are a Roundhead Captain and a wife of an exiled Royalist.

The story then jumps back to 1634 when the Roundhead Captain, Gideon Jukes, is a rebellious thirteen year old about to be apprenticed to a printer. Seven years later, his apprenticeship served, Jukes joins one of the London Trained Bands and eventually rises to the rank of Captain in the New Model Army.  

Juliana Lovell, the wife of the exiled Royalist, Orlando Lovell, is abandoned by her husband for years at a time, and copes alone with being destitute and raising children. At times she is aided by friends, including the steadfast Edmund Treves, another Royalist.

Orlando Lovell is an enigma. He explains his absences as being on the King's business, but this is open to interpretation. He flits in and out of the story like the proverbial bad penny. Forever plotting and scheming, preying on the weak, selfish, indifferent to the plight of his wife and children, he is definitely the villain of the piece.

Kinchin Tews, a young girl from a family of scavengers, thieves and opportunists, who is neither for King nor Parliament, witnesses first-hand the atrocities committed by the Royalists in Birmingham. She flees the city for London where she hopes her life will be better. Kinchin is a survivor. 

These four characters form the nucleus of the novel, representing the common folk and the affect the war had on them. It is refreshing to have the view point from this angle rather than from the upper classes of society.

The action takes place mainly in London, Oxford and Birmingham. At times jumping from one city to another describing events taking place at the same point in time. This added vast tracts to the novel when perhaps a paragraph or two linking the events would have been all that was needed.

There is no doubt that Lindsey Davis researched this time period thoroughly by the amount of historical detail included, plus other facts and figures thrown in as if this was her one and only chance to write about this period in history. It was too much for me at times and I skimmed quite a few pages. At one stage I was tempted to give up, but after putting the book aside for a while I picked it up once more, admitting that I was interested in the characters and needed to know their fates.

It took me a long time to write this review as I wanted to be fair to Lindsey Davis and the huge effort she undertook to produce this work. There were aspects of this novel that I really liked, but for me, it would have been a great read without so much historical detail. It is definitely not one for the fainthearted: a very challenging read.