10 October 2022

The Canberra Bookshelf: love, family and the beautiful world

| Barbie Robinson
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book cover with women's head

Catherine McCullagh’s Love and Retribution. Photo: Supplied.

It has been a literary few months in the capital – the Canberra Writers’ Festival presented a diverse range of author panels and activities to happy crowds of readers soaking up what the bevies of writers, local and from afar, had to offer.

ACT Writers Notable Awards also announced winners and commended folk. They included the following, previously featured on our site: Felicity Volk, Alison Booth, Craig Cormick, Dianne Lucas, Irma Gold, Dylan van den Berg, Krys Saclier, Tania McCartney, Sarah St Vincent Welch, Lizz Murphy, Omar Musa, Catherine Meatheringham, Mandy Foot and Samantha Tidy (Rutter).

August also brought Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards month along with perennial kids’ and parents’ favourite, Book Week.

Then in September, Catherine McCullagh’s Love and Retribution (Big Sky Publishing, Australia, 2022; cover design Think Productions) follows her previous works set in World War II, but the action has moved from Paris to Cornwall. As with earlier novels, this focusses on a strong female lead.

READ ALSO The Canberra bookshelf: rural crime and family stories take readers to home turf

Recently widowed Emmy Penry-Jones moves to a small coastal village in Cornwall to care for her ageing parents. The regularity of her life with its charms and irritations is disturbed when a pair of seamen wash up on the beach below her house.

She takes them in, using her nursing training to good effect to bring them back to health, but inevitably the situation becomes complicated when she discovers their secret.

While this is a romance and a domestic drama, it is also a well-researched exploration of many aspects of wartime Britain, including the role of the Women’s Institute and the effects on the population of rationing and other war efforts. The nature of war and enmity is also considered – what collaboration means, atrocities and the necessity for compromise and quick wits.

Catherine McCullagh is a skilled storyteller whose interest goes well beyond a study of the era. She concerns herself with human nature and moral questions and particularly with the lot of women – parlous as it sometimes was and is.

book cover with lace and woman's silhouette

Moira McAlister’s Izzy draws on her own family history. Photo: Supplied.

Equally well-researched and engaging is Izzy by Moira McAlister (an Indiemosh book, Moshpit Publishing, Australia, 2021; cover design Ally Mosher). The author’s interest in her main character came about through family history research.

She’s written a biography of Dr Barry Cotter, Melbourne’s first doctor and published this as a website. The doctor’s wife was Inez Seville Fitzgerald, the author’s great-great-grandmother.

This is an Australian colonial story which takes the reader from Cádiz in Spain, where Izzy is born out of wedlock, to Ireland, then the colonies which would become NSW, Victoria and Tasmania, thence to England and there’s even a French connection.

READ ALSO The Canberra Bookshelf: family themes and local stories

It’s a story of abandonment, fortitude and resilience. Izzy is buffeted by the misfortune of being abandoned several times by men (and sometimes their wives) whose care she was under. However, this remarkable character, based on someone who must have been a remarkable woman, rises above these vicissitudes to make her own way and finally find a way to her origins.

This novel is full of interesting information and insights into the lives of people of different classes in the early 1800s. The author is obviously keenly interested in many aspects of society and, with her cast of real and imagined characters, paints a fascinating picture of the times and places to which the story takes us.

leaves and city skyline

Naturopolis by Deborah Frenkel. Photo: Supplied.

A brief final word about the latest picture book from awarded Canberra publisher Storytorch Press, founded and run by author/publisher Samantha Tidy-Rutter. The company interests itself in books with positive social and environmental messages and Naturopolis by Deborah Frenkel and Ingrid Bartkowiak is a fine example. It’s an invitation to stop and notice the wonder of natural minutiae to be found even in the concrete of a city street.

Written in beautifully poetic language and illustrated in detailed style with plenty of tiny surprises, it’s a book that will delight teachers, parents and children.

Barbie Robinson is co-founder and a content creator for Living Arts Canberra, a not-for-profit media outfit supporting arts and community in the Canberra region and books worldwide through its website, podcast interviews and a 24/7 internet radio station.

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