Perhaps YA (Young Adult) fiction should come with a trigger warning for any older adult reader. It can prompt memories of steering one’s own teens through that fraught period and offer a glimpse of what young people get up to when the adults are not watching. At its best, YA fiction can also invoke empathy in the reader, since most of us can remember some things about our youthful lives that we might prefer to keep quiet about.
With Amra Pajalić’s Sabiha’s Dilemma and Alma’s Loyalty, readers get an added bonus. She draws on her Bosnian cultural heritage to write ‘own voices’ stories that will resonate with young people navigating the spaces between culture, religion, tradition, family and friends.
Sabiah and Alma’s stories are narrated in first person, so we experience events and people through their eyes, while also seeing the interconnections between the characters. They are both teenagers from Bosnian Muslim families, and the novels allow readers to learn more about their cultural and political backgrounds.
For example, when members of the adult Bosnian community get together, they talk about the war in the Balkans, and their expectations as to how their children should behave. Sabiha is sent to weekend Islamic classes to learn about proper behaviour for a Bosnian Muslim girl. She also learns about Bosnia’s past from her grandfather. Alma’s parents cannot accept her friendship with a gay boy, a fellow student at her new school. And they would certainly not condone her sneaking out to attend parties or be with her secret boyfriend.
Layered in with these teen troubles is the fact that Sabiha and Alma are half-sisters, and Alma has only just learnt of Sabiha’s existence. The shock news threatens to tear her close family apart. Sabiha’s mother struggles with mental illness and wants desperately to be accepted back into the Bosnian community – with implications for her daughter’s freedom.
Both girls experience the awfulness of broken friendships and betrayal, which can be devastating at a time of life when friendships and peers are so important.
And of course, there is the age-old tension between boys and girls, who are trying to work out how to behave as the young men and women they are rapidly becoming.
The novels explore the ways in which teens find and use ways to avoid, erase, or deal with the challenges of growing up:
I wanted to be someone else and forget about all the things that were bringing me down, and Alex did that. He made me feel good… He’d become my port in the storm, the one place I didn’t have to worry about secret subtexts or hidden agendas.Alma’s Loyalty p186
If the novels were movies, there would certainly be moments where I’d want to cover my eyes as potential disasters loom. Thankfully, both Sabiha and Alma are characters with grit, determination and agency mixed in with the teenage angst and confusion. The love and support of important people in their lives certainly helps, too.
These are Books 1 and 2 in the Sassy Saints Series, which together will explore the experiences of six young people in Sabiah and Alma’s world. YA readers will find much to recognise in their stories.
Sabiha’s Dilemma and Alma’s Loyalty are published by Pishukin Press in 2022.
My thanks to the author and publisher for review copies.
For 2021, I nominated the ‘Victorian Reader’ and ’20th century Reader’ levels of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge (hosted this year by The Intrepid Reader), which meant I committed to reading at least 5 books set in Victorian times and at least 2 set in the twentieth century.
Here are the books I read for this challenge: (links are to my reviews)
The Ripping Tree by Nicki Gemmell
The Burning Island by Jock Serong
Daughter of the Hunter Valley by Paula J Beavan
Night Ride into Danger by Jackie French (children’s book)
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray by Anita Heiss
Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief by Katrina Nannestad
The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
Death at Greenway by Lori Radar-Day
The Codebreakers by Alli Sinclair
The Rose Code by Kate Quinn
Sisters of the Resistance by Christine Wells
The Woman with the Blue Star by Pam Jenoff
The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle by Jackie French (children’s book)
The Things We Cannot Say by Kelly Rimmer
Our Woman in Moscow by Beatriz Williams
Heroes of the Secret Underground by Susanne Gervay (children’s book)
Sisters of Freedom by Mary-Anne O’Connor
Legends of the Lost Lilies by Jackie French
The Royal Correspondent by Alexandra Joel
Still Life by Sarah Winman
David Walliams, best-selling UK based children’s author, has written another action packed story for readers seven years and older. Full of nonsensical moments and humour, Code Name Bananas takes place during World War II, at the height of The Blitz.
Eric is an 11 year old orphan who is teased by other kids at school because of his sticky-out ears and glasses. Eric’s favourite place in the world is the London Zoo, where his Great Uncle Sid works, and Eric’s favourite animal there is Gertrude the gorilla. Gertrude and Eric share a special connection, so when he learns that Gertrude is no longer safe at the zoo, Eric and Uncle Sid hatch a wild plan to rescue her.
The adventure leads them to uncover a Nazi plot and they must do everything they can to escape the clutches of elderly spies, twin sisters Helene and Bertha Braun, and raise the alarm. In between, they float over the River Thames under a barrage balloon, evade capture by London police, survive a Luftwaffe bombing attack, disguise Gertrude as a bride, and are imprisoned in a German U-boat.
The main characters are endearing; I especially liked that Eric is a kind boy, and his Uncle Sid equally so – his tiny house stuffed with injured animals he has ‘adopted’ from the Zoo is testament to that.
Amongst all the mayhem, younger readers will be gently introduced to some of the features of the war that impacted the most on Britain – the bombing raids, loss and destruction that could strike at any time, the uncertainty of life during wartime. Of course, Code Name Bananas is first and foremost an action packed and fun read and youngsters will be sure to welcome it.
Code Name Bananas was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2020.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
This is a sweet book, perfect for reading aloud or for children beginning independent reading. It is number three in a series, early chapter books, all about six -year-old Evie and her best friend, Pog, who is a dog. They live in a tree house right near Granny Gladys and their friends Noah and Mr Pooch, and Miss Footlights, Evie’s teacher.
Written and illustrated by Tania McCartney, who lives in Australia’s capital, Canberra, the three stories in Party Perfect are about the various escapades of Evie and Pog, well suited for children of those early school years: such as the school Book Parade, creating a work for the village art show, and a special party. The text is simple yet satisfying, with plenty of repetition to allow familiarity, and important or new words highlighted to help children learn. The illustrations are witty and engaging.
This is a lovely little book to absorb youngster and encourage reading while being absorbed in the safe and loving environment of Evie and Pog’s world.
Evie and Pog: Party Perfect was published by Harper Collins in April 2020.
Starfell: Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale by Dominique Valente, is for older readers, perhaps 8 and older (‘middle school’ ages). The second in a series all about the young witch Willow, her family and friends, and her adventures in the world of Starfell, where magic exists but sometimes (as with Willow in this book) goes awry. Willow’s special magic is supposed to be about finding lost things. Instead, she inadvertently makes things disappear – with perplexing and sometimes humorous results.
When Willow’s friend Nolin Sometimes is kidnapped, he writes an urgent letter to Willow pleading for her help. Willow sets off with her trusty companion kobold (a cat-like and cantakerous ‘monster’ called Oswin who spends most of his time in a carpetbag) to find and rescue Sometimes. They recruit more helpers along the way, including a strange and mysterious part boy -part raven called Sprig and a ‘cloud dragon’ called Feathering, while travelling across Starfell and finally into the dark land of Netherfell.
Willow is an entertaining protagonist, full of life and very well-meaning, but sometimes unsure of herself and her magic. The youngest in a family of accomplished witches, she nevertheless faces danger, dark magic and betrayal to find her own magical abilities and help her friend. She doesn’t always get things right, which makes her very relatable for young readers who are also working out their place in the world.
The world building is terrific, full of vivid descriptions and a fast pace. Emotions (such as grief and fear) are dealt with sensitively. The characters are a delightful collection and there is a great deal of playful use of language, especially Oswin’s utterances from within his carpetbag. The illustrations by Sarah Warburton add the perfect amount of whimsy and context.
Starfell is perfect for readers who love books such as Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor series, and who are perhaps not ready for the somewhat darker themes of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter books. It is evidence, if that were needed, of the unfailing delight that can be had from stories of witches, wizards and magic.
Starfell: Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale was published by Harper Collins in April 2020.
Thanks to Harper Collins Australia for a copy of both these books to read and review.
I was introduced to the character of Cilka Klein in Heather Morris’ first, best selling book The Tattooist of Auschwitz.
Morris, New Zealand born but now living in Australia, met Lale Sokolov and told his story of surviving the Auschwitz concentration camp in WWII. Cilka appears in Lake’s story because in 1942 she was sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She was 16 and beautiful and chosen by one of the camp’s Nazi commandants to perform a role that was essentially to be his sex slave. She survived Auschwitz- Birkenau and Cilka’s Journey opens with the liberation of the camp in 1945.
Now 19, Cilka can scarcely believe her ordeal is over and as it turns out, fate deals her a cruel hand. Instead of being given her freedom, she is charged by the Russians for the crime of ‘collaborating with the enemy.’ Once more she is herded onto a railroad truck along with women of all ages and many nationalities, to endure an arduous journey north – to the prison camp of Vorkuta, inside Siberia’s Arctic Circle.
The conditions she faces there are appalling. Prisoners, men and women alike, are forced to labour in the freezing conditions of the coal mine there. They sleep at night in huts with only one blanket each for warmth and a single bucket for a toilet. Meals are a thin watery gruel. Much of this is a repeat of Cilka’s experiences at Auschwitz- Birkenau.
To add to their degradation, the women are subjected to brutal attacks by male prisoners, who regularly force their way into the huts and assault and rape who they please.
The theme of rape – as a weapon of war, as a tool to pacify male prisoners, as a threat to ensure compliance by women – is starkly presented. A horrifying fact of a horrifying life. Cilka, after all, is in this second prison camp because the repeated tapes she endured at the hands of a Nazi officer are seen by Russian authorities as evidence of ‘fraternisation’ and collaboration with an enemy. She is Czech, not Russian, but subject to the laws of the then USSR. And so on top of the three years in a Nazi camp she spends another eight long years of a fifteen year sentence in Vorkuta until her early release after Stalin’s death.
Morris has received some criticism for her telling of Lale’s and now Cilka’s stories. However she maintains that she was not trying to tell the Holocaust story or the Russian gulag story: rather the stories of two individuals. Also, Cilka’s Journey is fiction, though fiction inspired by the story as told to her by Lale Sokolov, recollections of female prisoners of Russian camps of this era, and by research in Germany, Slovakia and Russia. A lengthy author’s note makes clear the line between historical fact and fiction and an additional information section gives more detail about the Russian prison camp system.
The story is beautifully told. It is tragic, frequently harrowing, but also a compassionate and sensitive examination of the depths and heights that humans can reach, and the varying ways in which people respond to circumstances which are to modern minds, unimaginable. It’s also a story of friendship, strength and survival.
After reading this book I will never hear the quip ‘Sent to Siberia’ in quite the same way again.
Cilka’s Journey was published in October 2019. I heard the Audio version which was narrated by Louise Brealey and published by Macmillan Audio.
A whole day to listen to women’s stories. Told by women about women. That’s what the Heroines Festival promised, and it delivered. A day to nurture the creative in all who attended, to be part of the community of women and men who gathered to listen to speakers tell tales of grandmothers, daughters, dancers, teachers, brewers, religious hermits, refugees, immigrants, explorers and lace weavers. And many, many more.
Tea Cooper, pictured here signing her books, spoke about giving voice to women whose history has not been recorded. And Karen Brooks assured us that women have always been there: as crafts women, running businesses, performing skilled trades work- even if they were not named or acknowledged.
Little rebellions are the lovely truths we search for…women were always, always there…
Karen Brooks in the ‘Herstories’ session
Both Shankari Chandran and Monica Tan write to explore what it means to be Australian, to be part of a minority but not indigenous…what it means to live on colonised land and make a home there. They discussed their experiences and insights in the ‘Home – Lost and Found’ session.
Shankari, of Sri Lankan Tamil heritage, wrote her novels Song of the Sun God and Barriers ‘to write my way home’ and to say thank you to those that came before her for their courage and resilience. Monica (of Chinese heritage) travelled around Australia on ‘a great big road trip’ in a quest to better understand this country and to represent marginalised stories that the gatekeepers try to keep out. The result was her book Stranger Country.
Both women explored the crucial role language plays in our identity and connectedness. Language is used to express power, relationship, history and it’s no coincidence, said Shankari, that the erasure of language is a key tool and feature of colonisation.
Chloe Higgins’ debut book, The Girls, was published just two weeks prior to the festival. It’s a ‘memoir of family, grief and sexuality’ and Chloe discussed how it felt to tell her story with all its intimacies, not knowing how it would be received. I was happy to hear her say that she’s been overwhelmed by the messages of support and understanding she’s received so far.
Melissa Fagan has also published a memoir, What will be worn, in which she explores the gaps and secrets within her own family story, woven in with an account of an iconic Brisbane department store owned by members of her family for many years.
It was interesting to hear both Chloe and Melissa speak of the ‘emotional inheritances’ bequeathed within families, often over generations.
Jesse Blackadder’s session centred around the motivations prompting her to write her two historical fiction works, The Raven’s Heart (set in sixteenth century Scotland) and Chasing the Light (about the first women to go to Antarctica in the 1930’s.) Jesse said that apart from the pull of travelling to the icy continent to research that story, the thing that made her want to write about these women was learning that women had been barred from going there. Jesse said:
How can a whole continent be closed to half the human race?
Jesse Blackadder, in ‘The Explorers’ session
She applied for and won an Antarctic Arts Fellowship and embarked on a six week round trip voyage (exactly as those women had done eighty years earlier)
Other fascinating sessions included Lauren Chater (The Lace Weaver) and Robyn Cadwallader (The Anchoress) as they discussed women barely mentioned in the historical record: Estonian women caught between the competing horrors of Nazi and Soviet oppression, and the medieval religious hermits known as ‘anchoresses.’ In answering the question ‘What makes a strong woman?’ they agreed that:
Sometimes they are the women quietly working away, making change in the background, trying to survive, remaining true to their own beliefs and experiences.
Lauren Chater, in ‘Hearing our Grandmothers’ Voices’
It was a day filled with riches of thought, conversation and intriguing ideas. I hope I can get there again next year. If you’d like to find out more, or purchase a copy of the terrific anthology Heroines: An Anthology of Short Fiction and Poetry (ed Sarah Nicholson and Caitlan White), launched on the day, go to the website:
#Heroinesfestival #heroinesfest19 #AusLit #AustralianWomenWritersChallenge
This is a short story I submitted in the ‘Furious Fiction’ at the Australian Writers Centre in August 2018.
The prompts for that month were:
The story had to be 500 words (or less)
The sentences “The door was locked” and “It felt familiar” and “She laughed” had to be included.
To find out more about Furious Fiction, go here: https://www.writerscentre.com.au/furious-fiction/
It’s free, fast and fun.
Here’s my story.
I didn’t know what to do. The door was locked. I rattled the handle, twisted it hard. Emma, behind me on the step, jostled my elbow. I turned to her, scowling.
“We can’t get in,” I muttered.
She laughed. “What’s it matter?” she called as she bounced back down the stairs, landing on the pavement with a “Ta da!”
Emma always found the laughter. It’s what most people love about my sister. She is slow, and a bit chubby, and her face has that flattened look. And she knows how to be happy.
“Emma, it’s not funny.” I tried to scold, and failed as usual. Emma never allows words to penetrate when she is in her happy place.
She said “Let’s go to the park!”
“We promised Dad we’d clean up this afternoon,” I reminded her.
“We can do that later!” She was off, running down the street towards the park; one of her favourite places.
Sometimes, Emma can be very tiring.
Mum’s house was too far to walk to, and she wouldn’t be back to pick us up for another two hours – which would’ve been plenty of time to clean up the mess in Dad’s kitchen that we – or really, Emma – had made yesterday. He’d been angry when he got home. I could understand why. It couldn’t have been great, getting home after work to find Emma, dusted head to foot with flour, looking like a walking snow cone, with egg shells, vanilla essence, mixing bowls and dirty spoons scattered all over the bench tops. The look on his face… poor Dad.
Mum had arrived then, and the tension between them was a razor blade, invisible but deadly. It felt familiar. I’d said, quickly “We’ll come tomorrow after school, Dad, we’ll clean it up, promise!”
And now, here we were: locked out.
I heard the low throb of Dad’s car and spun around, grabbing Emma’s elbow to steer her back to the house. She beamed at Dad and rushed to him, her little arms hugging his legs as he tried to get out of the driver’s seat.
“Hey, Daddy!” He put his hand out to smooth her hair, his eyes meeting mine above her head.
“Hey, baby,” he said softly. I could tell he had forgiven her. That felt familiar, too.
Here is another of the short stories I entered in the Australian Writers Centre ‘Furious Fiction’ short story competition. For this one, the guidelines were: 500 words or less, the topic was “The Lost Hour”, and the story had to include one sentence with three colours mentioned, plus the phrase “It is lighter.”
As always with this competition, it was great practice for thinking imaginatively about a prompt and writing to some guidelines – and good fun. Here is my story:
The Lost Hour by Denise Newton
Splinters of light stab at my eyes. I try to open them. The right eye opens. Can’t see much, but it must be nearly morning. Darkness lifting: it is lighter. My left eye stays closed. I try again, concentrating. Jesus, it’s stuck. What the freaking hell? My mouth is stuck – I can’t open it, either. My tongue feels huge, like a thick furry lizard inside my mouth. I try to lift my head. Someone groans nearby. So close to me. Who is that? I try to lift my head again. Shit, it hurts. I hurt. That dude groans some more. Carefully, I roll my head to the right and open that eye a crack. I can’t see properly. Pieces of something green and shiny scattered about. Glass? Roll my head back to the left. Another moan. There’s no one there. Is it me making those noises? What the hell?
OK, try to sit up, Luke. Slowly, slowly, like an old man, I roll to one side and push myself up to sit, hunched over like a turtle. My left eye is screaming now, throbbing. God, my head. There’s a piece of broken green glass embedded in my left palm. Blood oozes around the sides of the wound. Looks deep – but what do I know? I can hardly see properly. I try to focus my one good eye on the wound, staring hard. It’s all blurry: a pink, green and red palm. I can feel it now. Maybe because I’m looking at it. Stinging, where the blood is leaking. I turn my hand over. The knuckles look grazed and swollen. Like something hard has hit them. Or… like they’ve hit something hard.
Jesus. I’m scared now. What happened here? I search my mushy brain, trying to remember. Flashes of the night before: Jason’s big party, his buck’s night at The Royal. All the guys there, I remember that. A big night. Huge. Then nothing. Jump to now. Sitting here with a triangle of green glass in my palm, a swollen eye and knuckles that have seen some action. The rest of the night lost to me.
I try to stand up. Sit down again, in a hurry as the concrete under my feet rises, threatens to slam into me. My head drops between my knees. I’m trying to think the nausea down; I want to look up but the bile rises. So I lean one ear on my knee and send my gaze out. To my right, on the other side of the broken glass, something lies crumpled on the pavement. Oh. Jesus. A body, lying there, very still. Concentrating, commanding my right eye to focus, I make out a pale green t shirt and jeans, a bearded face turned to me, eyes closed. The top of the shirt is splotched with stains. A dark red trail of liquid oozes from the ear above.In the distance I hear a siren.
This is the printout of my first draft…it’s probably 10,000 words too long and needs a great deal of tender nurturing and care (also known as word whittling, re-writing, re-drafting) to become a second draft, then a third…and so on. Still it is comforting and reassuring to see the pages in front of me. Proof that I didn’t just imagine all those words!