Apple Island Wife by Fiona Stocker : Book Review

Published in 2018 I’ve had my eye on this book for the past couple of months having holidayed in Tasmania, our Island state at the southern end of the mainland, on numerous occasions. The Apple Isle, as she was affectionately known a generation ago when that fruit was its prime produce, was the destination for my honeymoon, and a couple of Wedding Anniversaries. (Yes, we know how well that ended, don’t we…..just don’t lump any blame onto Tassie).

Twenty years down the track I came upon a Tasmanian whose eccentricities matched my own and we’ve been making the annual pilgrimage to the farm on the East Coast of Tassie ever since. I share all this as I feel it to be relevant to my feelings about this memoir.

The author, Fiona Stocker, is Australian by birth but grew up in the UK where she met her partner and they later immigrated to Brisbane, Queensland, in search of a lifestyle with more “space”. Seven years in Brisvegas and the couple realise they’ve merely swapped one city for another, and partner, Oliver, has never adjusted to Qld’s summer humidity. Ollie, mate, you are not on your own – feeling your pain.

They sell up and buy a five acre bush block out of Launceston, northern Tasmania, moving into a house which requires renovations and with septic tank issues. With two toddlers they embark on a totally different way of life, attempting to become self sufficient of sorts, as hobby farmers do.

Fiona shares the trials encountered in their first years on their property : scorpions, snakes, wallabies eating the vegetable patch, chickens that won’t lay, guinea fowl, and neighbours who are three or fourth generation Taswegian farmers – their own special breed, let me tell you. There are mistakes to learn from and celebrations to share, such as mastering the art of lighting a wood fire, cooking wallaby patties, stocking a wood pile, the formation of lasting friendships, and playing midwife to an alpaca.

Fiona admits that her mindset slowly changed to that of a country woman, bartering and swapping produce, considering bush regeneration, growing and cooking the bulk of family meals, and attending stock and farm machinery clearance sales for pleasure.

There are a lot of gentle laughs in this book and I feel those readers unfamiliar with life in rural Tasmania would really enjoy and gain from Fiona’s stories. A Must Read for City Slickers to appreciate their country cousins…..

One of my Tasmanian sisters-in-law butchers her Alpacas when they become recalcitrant and swears by Alpaca chops. The brother-in-law does not serve Turkey at Christmas, but rather Roasted Peacock which are in abundance on his property.

My limited artistic efforts include this plate I painted for the alpaca butcher in the family. My attempt at sarcasm as I was appalled. The alpacas had names for God’s sake.

Ten years ago I would have jumped at the opportunity to hobby farm in beautiful Tassie. These days I need the reassurance that I can get a pizza delivered and it’s a cheap taxi ride to visit Uncle Dan, (as in Murphy, the wine cellar).

This book most certainly resonates and I envy the Stocker’s their move and the realignment of their dreams.

I look forward to Fiona’s next book in which she shares how they become Pig Farmers. Personally, I’de love the author to include some recipes as these country women seem to have mastered the art of creating a meal out of absolutely nothing and turning it into something magnificent. Wallaby Patties anyone?

Book Review :Diving Into Glass by Caro Llewellyn

This memoir opens with a quote from John Wayne which sets the tone appropriately: – “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway”.

Caro Llewellyn is a successful author of several non fiction books, and Director of numerous Literary Festivals, both at home in Australia and abroad. Jogging through New York’s Central Park, she loses feelings in her legs. Forty eight hours later she is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) a chronic, neurodegenerative condition that affects the central nervous system.

What makes this so traumatic is that Caro has survived a childhood marred by having a father confined to life in a wheelchair. At twenty years of age, Richard Llewellyn contracted Polio, though remaining positive and determined, he flirts with his nurse whilst in an Iron Lung and ends up marrying her.

This disability doesn’t prevent Richard from working and the Llewellyn’s open a successful art gallery, whilst bringing up two young children. Taking its toll on Caro’s mother, this leads to the disintegration of the family unit. Ultimately, this leads to a successful life for each of the parents with the father receiving an Order of Australia for his Disability Advocacy work, and mother finding herself as a mature age student and becoming the renowned Poet and Author, Kate Llewelyn. 

Courtesy of author

Caro spends several years trying to find herself, and it is in New York, where she has finally found her niche and is relatively settled, that her life is shattered by her medical diagnosis. It is by looking back at her father’s example over the years that she finally comes to terms with the shortcomings of her body, overcoming them to the best of her ability

I found this book bordering the depressing side whilst at the same time totally compelling. To make such worthwhile lives out of such grim circumstances is amazing, though it does come at an emotional cost for Caro.

The voyeur in me was also fascinated in Caro’s relationships with men and her career choices. No tradies or public servants on her horizon: she mixed it with political activists, music entrepreneurs, and writers including American, Phillip Roth. With her writing and job role presenting Literary events around the world, is this the true legacy of strong, audacious parents, I wondered?

* Published by Penguin Random House Australia Pty Ltd in 2019

Bridge Of Clay : Book Review

Book Review : Bridge Of Clay

Author: Markus Zusak

Published: 2018

Zusak’s previous publication was the much lauded The Book Thief. Couldn’t finish it. At this stage of the game there are just “too many books and too little time”.

Picking up the 580 plus pages of paperback Bridge Of Clay was always going to be dicey. I needed to give this Australian author another go, and in spite of its bulk found it an easy read. I’de rate this a four-cups-of-tea-and two-mint-slice-biscuits book. Finished it in a single sitting.

This is the story of five brothers, the Dunbar boys, with Matthew the eldest, summing up the storyline with :

Me, Rory, Henry, Clayton, Thomas.
We would never be the same.
Many considered us tearaways.
Mostly they were right.
Our mother was dead.
Our father had fled.
We swore like bastards, fought like contenders, and punished each other at pool, at table tennis, at Monopoly, darts, football, cards, at everything we could get our hands on.
We had a piano no-one played”.

The Dunbar brothers are all very different characters and yet are close, and they are all hurting. Matt at 18 taking on the bulk of family responsibilities. There is lots of brotherly love mixed with the shenanigans of “boys” .(said by the mother of daughters who threatened to send any male baby back along with any redheads). The nostalgic feel warms the ol’ heart. ( reminiscent of the beginning of the 1944 movie, The Fighting Sullivans.)

These boys have been shaped by stories from their parents. It is through stories that we learn what moulded their parents. Young Tom even names his pets after characters in The Odyssey and The Illiad because of stories shared by his parents. Even their pet mule, Archilles, is a source of stories.

Clay has lost more than his brothers, and despite the crushing heartache and loneliness, he metaphorically and literally builds the bridge that finally brings the family to a place of healing.

The book does jump around a bit from present, to past and present again. The movies the boys watch are valuable reference points. This may or may not have assisted the Millenials any.

Millenials might not also get the references made by the crucial female apprentice jockey character. More nostalgia on my part : I have strong memories of attending a race meeting to see that very same horse race on Anzac Day 1986. Looking and feeling swish in red high heels and a green and red dress, the image was shattered when I fainted, legs in the air, down by the winning post. Last time I ever wore high heels.(No, not the bubbles – I was to discover later that I was with child!)

Bridge Of Clay is a series of stories within stories that complete a jigsaw puzzle and is totally engaging. The mother’s death is sad, though a bit like watching the movie Titanic; we know how it’s going to end, we know it’s going to be catastrophic, though as it lingers on and on and on we just wish it would get on with it and sink. Penelope took a very long time to die.

The storytelling is languid and comforting, like a breeze on a hot summer day.

Bridge of Clay totally resonates. It has a very familiar feel and I’m not convinced that I’m not the Dunbar boys’ long lost sister and we didn’t share a history at Lime Kiln Road, Lugarno.

A terrific read in the Coming of Age genre and has been nominated for several awards.


Seven Deadly Sins by Mikey Robins : Book Review

Retirement means that I’m doing much less reading thanks to not travelling two hours a day. Will less reading mean the crows feet around my eyes will fade?

I’ve just finished Mikey Robins’ Seven Deadly Sins And One Very Naughty Fruit. You may remember Mikey from the satirical Australian television program, Good News Week in the late 90’s. Most people admired Paul McDermott, the one with the beautiful singing voice. I was always a “Mikey” girl. These days he still has a media presence and is on the corporate speaking circuit. He is also an author and this book combines his love of food with his interest in history in a tour of some truly strange food related stories dating back to the Ancient Egyptians.

From Goodreads:

On the topic of GLUTTONY, Mikey exposes our obsession with outlandish overconsumption and the thrill of competitive eating. PRIDE reveals some of the most arrogant dinner hosts in history, and how the once humble chef has now achieved rock-god status. LUST sheds light on our aphrodisiac fixations and the most desired foods through time. SLOTH charts the curious evolution of the fork and the etiquette of flatulence. WRATH tells of sausage duels and poisonous spite, while GREED will make you blush at the indulgences of the rich and famous. And who hasn’t experienced ENVY when your dining companion’s plate sings while yours sputters?

There are some absolutely fascinating tidbits in this book, including some real eye openers, ( or maybe I’m just too genteel). Without getting too personal, are you a splosher? Someone who gets sexually aroused by either sitting, or watching someone else sitting, naked and grinding their “ bits “ into a Blackforest Cake or Pavlova. Baked Beans are apparently popular too…..

Who knew??? I’m never taking a humble pav to a Saturday night barbecue again.

Did you know that Cary Grant, actor, the epitome of urbane, witty gent about town, was so tight fisted with his money that he would use a pencil line to mark the milk level in the bottle so that he could ensure that none of his staff were using his dairy products?

The history of the fork is a fun read as is the origins of America’s National Donut Day, which celebrates two women who whipped up donuts for the troops in combat helmets during WW1.

I’m not going to retain any of the information that I’ve read, and that’s okay. Well, maybe I will remember the sploshing…

Kokoda by Peter Fitzsimons

Peter Fitzsimons’ original claim to fame was as a Wallaby, a representative Rugby Union player, who got sent off the field during a game against the All Blacks. He went on to sports journalism which led to writing numerous books, including biographies about Australian icons such as Nancy Wake, Les Darcy and Charles Kingsford-Smith. 

Yeah, he wears a bandana seven days a week.

Fitzsimons has since become a bestselling non fiction writer with his military history books, Tobruk, Victory At Villers-Bretonneux, and my personal favourite, Kokoda.

Kokoda details the Japanese invasion of Papua New Guinea, just north of the Australian coastline, during World War 2, and the Australians’ efforts at turning the tide of that war. 

Are the Events of Almost Eighty Years Ago Still Relevant?

A friend of fifty years standing recently shared that her father, whom I used to wave too as a child whenever he drove past, took to swinging a Japanese sword at the neighbours as he aged. He had taken it from a dead soldier at Kokoda. I never knew Old Billy was a soldier, only as the father of my friend who drove the blue car.

I nearly lost another friend recently. I had known previously that her Dad returned from serving at Kokoda with half the sole of his army boot still imbedded in his foot. I had no idea that when she was born some years later that she was quarantined in a hospital ward for the first three months of her life because his Equatorial disease had passed to her, thereby weakening her heart.

A younger friend, with two beautiful round, brown babies, recently shared that her grandfather, a native of PNG, used to share food with Australian Soldiers on the Kokoda Track.

My daughter’s friend, a military lad, recently related how a program to assist young men with behavioural issues included trekking the Kokoda Track where they learnt life skills such as team work, persistence, and personal strength.

Best Things About Fitzsimons’ Kokoda?

  • Written in a language that is easy to read for those who don’t usually read military history, particularly the female demographic. Military objectives are clearly explained as are outcomes, and personality and power conflicts between world leaders, as well as military leaders, are not swept under the carpet
  • The characters have been personalised which emotionally connects the reader. For example, we follow the Bissett brothers as youngsters, to playing football at the local club in their teens, to their enlistment, to service in North Africa, and then at Kokoda. I even retained the Obituary Notice for Stan Bissett when I spotted it in the local paper in recent years . Another farm boy, meets his sweetheart before the war, marries her once demobbed and we learn what maintained the couple for the next forty years.
  •  Perspective. World War 2 began less than 170 years after Australia was settled by Europeans. She was a young country still learning her way. I was fascinated by the political decision making processes. In WW1 Australia followed the orders of the British Empire. When the Japanese invaded the Pacific in WW2 the Australian Prime Minister fought tooth and nail for leadership of the Australian Army in order to better protect our own nation. Fitzsimons also provides the perspective of boys on the front, Padres, nurses, medics, families waiting at home for news, and the individual leaders.
  •  There are so many fascinating tidbits of information within these pages. Did you know that acclaimed Kokoda War Photographer, Damien Parer, was apprenticed to Charles Chauvel, the Australian film maker who made Wake of the Bounty with a very young Errol Flynn in 1933? Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s visits to Oz, especially with his family, are a good read and will raise a smile or two, as well as provide insight as to the reasoning behind certain haunts around Brisbane still bearing his name. War Correspondent, Chester Wilmott’s dismissal when he savagely reported on the preparedness, or lack thereof, for battles on the island is also interesting stuff.

“ In the Kokoda battle their qualities of adaptability and individual initiative enabled them to show tremendous ability as fighting men in the jungle. They were superb.” Lieutenant-General Tsutomu Yoshihara, chief of staff of Japan’s South Seas army.

This book so beats little old gentlemen in suits writing dates on a blackboard with chalk. One of my all time favourite books…..

With special thanks to my beautiful friends who shared their stories. Our Dad’s kept their daughters in the dark, didn’t they….

An Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales – Book Review

Australian Author and journalist, Leigh Sales, is the host of the ABC’s 7:30 Report. She has a Masters in International Relations and it has been great watching her over the years sticking it to both our leaders of commerce and our bureaucrats. Ms Sales is not one to back away from the good fight as our previous Prime Minister could testify.

So her 2018 released book, Any Ordinary Day, was an eye opener. In this, Sales interviews several high profile Australians from the past 20 years who have survived great tragedy, and have indeed moved on, despite unbelievable depths of sorrow, to become the best versions of themselves that they can be. Names like Stuart Diver, Walter Mikac, and survivors from the more recent Lindt Cafe (Claytons terrorist) attack. Interviews are conversational in tone and although the author has no answers as to where individuals find their strength, it is a positive read, with a reminder of the power of resilience, hope, and all that is good.

Yes, there is sadness as victims recount their tales, though there is also much joy and humour. Did you know Diver’s second wife recently died of ovarian cancer and that jokes abound as to what could possibly take wife Number 3? ( Aussies are renowned for their black humour. It’s how we get by).

There are the expected conversations about religion and faith, though not everyone canvassed is religious per se.

This is one of those “ conversation starters around the dinner table “ books. My lot had fun with this….