• Books and reading

    Amusing, troubling, insightful, and occasionally annoying: ‘Should We Stay or Should We Go’ by Lionel Shriver

    Lionel Shriver (US born, now based in the UK) is a controversial author. She picks up on contemporary social themes and preoccupations and interrogates them with razor sharp wit, in the process holding up a mirror that reflects modern society back to itself, mostly with less than flattering results.

    Kay Wilkinson and her husband Cyril are middle class Londoners with respected careers in the NHS – she as a nurse and he a doctor. When in their fifties, she and her husband are both appalled at the possibility that they will suffer from dementia (as both Kay’s parents did before they died), or become disabled by a stroke or another debilitating health condition. So they make a pact that when they have both turned eighty they will suicide together. In the discussion leading to this decision, Kay says:

    Everyone thinks they’re the exception. Everyone looks at what happens to old people and vows that it will never happen to them… They value quality of life. Somehow they’ll do something so their ageing will proceed with dignity... Then it turns out that, lo and behold, they’re exactly like everyone else! And they fall apart like everyone else, and finish out the miserable end of their lives like everyone else…

    Should we stay or should we go p12-13

    Okay, so some of these arguments touch on tender points for me just now. My mother is 92 and suffers from dementia and several other long term illnesses, and there have been plenty of times when my best wish for her is to close her eyes peacefully in bed and not wake again. Also, I have had discussions with friends and family about voluntary assisted dying which sounded very like another of the arguments put forward in the novel, this one by Cyril:

    You said everyone imagines they’re exceptions and they’ll surely arrange an early and merciful exit before submitting to the intolerable, And then they do submit to the intolerable. That’s because, in order to retain agency over your own end of life, you have to be willing to give up some small portion of it that’s not particularly rubbish. Otherwise, you go downhill, doctors and relatives take over, and you’re apt to lose the very part of yourself that makes judgements and takes action. We have a very narrow window in which to exercise control.

    Should we stay or should we go p30

    So, the couple seem united and sure of their decision. And then, as the book cover blurb says: they turn eighty.

    What follows is a twisting, circular, whirlwind of a time travel novel which explores and expounds on multiple final outcomes for Kay and Cyril, and indeed the whole nation and humanity more generally. The scenarios played out are by turns horrific, fanciful, eccentric, far-fetched, almost believable, idealistic or depressing. Scenes, sentences, characters appear and re-appear in different guises and surroundings as ‘sliding door moments’ take the characters one way and then another. It’s almost a grown-up ‘choose your own adventure’ story. I admit to feeling breathless a few times as I was carried away on the author’s imaginative tide of possible outcomes.

    There are plenty of darkly funny moments, and it’s hard not to admire the wicked ways in which the author has made national and global preoccupations at the time of writing – Brexit, climate change, ageing populations, the Covid19 pandemic – symbolic of so much that Kay and Cyril are grappling with.

    Should We Stay or Should We Go is a clever novel that skewers and taunts as much as it poses serious questions. There are laugh-out-loud moments but a word of warning: if you are already by nature or mood pessimistic, worried about your own future and old age, or dealing with themes of death and illness in your own life: be careful. This novel could either shake you up with a good belly laugh at its audacity, or leave you deeper in the gloom.

    Should We Stay or Should We Go is published by The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Some things change (and some definitely remain the same!) ‘Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia’ by Matt Murphy

    Hands up if you sometimes think “We are rules by fools and knaves!” Or if you fret about the unhealthy role that alcohol seems to play in our Australian society. Me, too. It may be reassuring (or not) to know that this is not a new thing. In fact, according to this history by Matt Murphy, Australia’s very beginning as a British colony in the eighteenth century was inextricably linked to and shaped by alcohol, and the idiocy and corruption that so often accompanies it. One type of alcohol (rum) played a greater role than others, and this book deftly fills in a history of the beverage itself, how it first arrived on the shores of New South Wales, and what happened after.

    Startling snippets of information are revealed: did you know, for example, that the First Fleet brought sufficient rum for seven years for each marine on board – but only enough food for two years. Rum was packed into the holds of those tall ships at the expense of tools, clothing and food supplies that the penal settlement would need in its early years.

    Alcohol had an immediate, detrimental impact on Aboriginal people around Sydney and further afield; one that is still being felt today. Very quickly rum became a measure of currency and exploited by those in charge of the settlement – the NSW Marine Corps – which earned them the epitaph of ‘Rum Corps’.

    We are introduced to some well-known historical figures: First Nations figures such as Bennelong; colonial Governors; convicts; emancipists and free settlers; those responsible for guiding the settlement all the way from England. Some of these characters are more notorious than others: John Macarthur, for example, is given a lot of attention due to his incessant meddling and blatantly corrupt activities, many of which involved the importation, sale and use of rum to further his own interests.

    Murphy highlights the huge amount of energy expended on dispatches, petitions, orders about rum to and from authorities in NSW and London, canvassing the advantages and pitfalls of importing, distilling, trading, controlling and drinking the stuff. Well meaning but unsuccessful edicts regarding the control of alcohol consumption have echoes in our own times:

    A further law proclaimed in June 1825 was aimed at publicans who condoned disorderly conduct on their premises or permitted patrons to become drunk. While the law pertaining to convicts was somewhat easy to maintain, the second one only meant that boozed-up barflies were being turfed out of hotels to drink in the street…Now there were more drunks on the street than ever before.

    Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia p229

    Is it just me, or could these attempts to curb the negative effects of alcohol consumption be the Georgian equivalents of Sydney’s lock-out laws and today’s ‘responsible service of alcohol’ guidelines?

    Matt Murphy writes with humour and a fast pace, so this is an entertaining read as well as a sobering (no pun intended) look at our modern relationship with alcohol, and it is refreshing to re-visit some well-known people and events from history through the prism of one substance or object – in this case, the bottom of a rum bottle.

    Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Light & deadly by turns: ‘Digging Up Dirt’ by Pamela Hart

    I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the strap line for this new novel by Australian author Pamela Hart, is a beauty:
    ‘Renovations are hell – and that’s before you find a body beneath the floorboards.’

    It neatly ties in two irresistible motifs for many readers: a who-done-it mystery and real estate / renovations – the last still endlessly fascinating for residents of Sydney, which is where the story is set.

    Ms Hart is the author of many novels for children and adults covering several genres, including historical fiction, fantasy and non-fiction. This is her first foray into contemporary crime and I look forward to reading more about Poppy McGowan, who is an engaging, wryly humoured heroine with an interesting job (researcher for kids’ programs with ABC TV). Digging Up Dirt the first of what promises to be a series featuring Poppy.

    She owns the house in Sydney’s inner west which is undergoing renovations at the start of the novel. To begin with she is dealing with a possible heritage order, due to the discovery of animal bones of potential historical significance, which has brought building work to a halt. Poppy’s previous job was in a museum so she is appropriately respectful of heritage issues… but she’s also worried that her renovations might be put on hold indefinitely while investigations into the bones continue.

    Those concerns are compounded the following day, though, as investigations of altogether another kind are required – a murder enquiry, after the body of the archaeologist brought in to look at the bones is discovered in the same pit where the animal bones were discovered. Poppy begins her own bit of investigating, keen to see the matter brought to a close quickly so that her little house can be lived in sooner rather than later.

    Political and religious organisations are involved because the murdered woman had been vying for pre-selection as a candidate for the Australian Family Party, a right-wing conservative organisation with strong ties to the Radiant Joy Church (possibly a thinly disguised version of an evangelical church frequented by a certain prime minister?) As Poppy digs deeper she realises that more than one person who knew the victim had a motive for wanting her gone.

    Digging Up Dirt is essentially a light read, with elements of romantic comedy in the mix, though it does touch on some serious topics such as homophobia, sexism and the theft of Indigenous cultural materials. Poppy is smart and also acerbic at times, which makes for some apt barbs in the direction of politicians, and entitled, white, conservative and prosperous men – and women.

    The great thing about sexism is that men who think women are stupider than they are truly believe it. So they are very, very reluctant to acknowledge that a woman may not be stupid. Thus far, I’d played to their expectations of a young woman who wasn’t really a reporter, and their own mindset predisposed them to believe I wasn’t a threat.

    Digging Up Dirt p147

    Sydney based readers will enjoy the strong sense of the city’s environs invoked. I enjoyed reading about Poppy and can visualise this story made into a film or TV series. I’m sure I will be meeting Poppy again in the future.

    Digging Up Dirt is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    ‘100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze’ by Clayton Zane Comber

    Xander is 15, a student at a Sydney high school. He lives with his Mum and his Nanna, who is sick with cancer. Xander’s Dad died of cancer and he wants to do whatever he can to save Nanna, and making lists helps him with anxiety and coping with difficult situations, so he decides to write a list of 100 Remarkable Feats and then achieve them all.

    Xander experiences and sees the world and other people differently than some, and the author has skilfully and sympathetically given readers a ‘Xander view’ of events, allowing us to understand that being neurodiverse is only a problem because it’s thought of as such. Little snippets of his learning pop up as well, such as how to make small talk, how to tell the difference between people being rude and being reserved, how to ‘read between the lines’ of interpersonal communication, and what an idiom such as ‘read between the lines’ actually means.

    The narrative is peppered with lists that Xander makes to help him cope with new or challenging situations. He accesses his memories and emotions via lists as well: #1 Most Trusted Person; Worst Life Moments; Memory Lists; Top Ten Life Moments.

    As he sets out to achieve his Remarkable Feats, he pushes his comfort zone out further than ever before; makes new friends; and tackles some very challenging scenarios. And he learns a great deal about life, family and friends on the way.

    In a letter to actor Emma Watson (#2 Prettiest Girl in the World), Xander writes:

    I also reckon it must have been incredibly hard for you being so famous so young, like you had to learn to be Hermoine Granger before learning to be yourself. That’s how I feel about being a teenager, like I’m always trying to be someone I’m expected to be rather than myself. I think that’s why I’ve had such a hard time fitting in.

    100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze p103

    As well as Xander’s experiences, the story touches on challenges that affect others: eating disorders, childhood illness, agoraphobia, bullying, among others. Yet it’s a quirky and uplifting tale in which the reader will cheers for Xander as he progresses through his Remarkable Feats. This novel will help teens and young adult readers to understand a little more about neurodiversity, and that can only be a positive thing.

    100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A story of survival: ‘The Woman With the Blue Star’ by Pam Jenoff

    I had not known that Jews in Poland wore a blue star, rather than yellow, under the Nazi regime. Nor did I know the horrifying fact that some Jews survived detection by living underground – in the city sewer tunnels, along with the filth, the damp and the rats. These were two new things I learnt as a result of reading Pam Jenoff’s The Woman with the Blue Star.

    Set in Krakow in 1942, the novel tells the story of two young women – Sadie, an eighteen year old Jewish girl who escapes the Nazis and Polish police during their ‘liquidation’ of the Ghetto, and Ella, who is from an affluent Polish family. Ella lives with her hated stepmother in relative comfort (in large part due to her stepmother’s consorting with German men.) Ella spots Sadie’s face one morning through a sewer grate and comes to realise that Sadie (and others) are in hiding down there.

    Ella sets out to help in whatever ways she can – bringing food to begin with – but the stakes for them both get much higher as the war progresses and the level of danger increases.

    The author set the story in Krakow, though it was the sewers in the Polish city of Lvov in which Jewish people actually lived and survived the war. It’s almost beyond belief that anyone could survive a day or a week in such an unhealthy and putrid environment. Then again, much of what happened in European cities, towns, and Nazi concentration camps during WWII is beyond belief.

    I found that I didn’t warm to the characters in The Woman With the Blue Star as much as I might have wished; however the novel’s drama swept me along with it and I am always fascinated by stories that reveal things about this period of history.

    The Woman With the Blue Star is published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Teenagers’ dreams and parents’ worries: ‘Can’t Say it Went to Plan’ by Gabrielle Tozer

    At the risk of giving away my age, I can safely say that when I finished high school, the end-of-school phenomena known in Australia as ‘schoolies week’ did not exist. My cohorts and I celebrated the completion of our formal school years by outings to the local public pool and a restaurant dinner. Not with youth hostel (or five star) accommodation at a resort, youth oriented all night parties, dances and concerts, and all the other accoutrements that make up many a young Australian’s schoolies week.

    A cross between a let-your-hair-down relief from the pressures of final school studies and exams, and a first step into the adult world without parental supervision, schoolies week is something that many young people dream of (and their parents have nightmares about).

    Can’t Say it Went to Plan is a new young adult (YA) novel which follows the schoolies experience of three very different young people and their friends and family. Zoe, Samira and Dahlia have each planned the perfect schoolies week, but of course they also bring with them their individual concerns and preoccupations: anxiety and grief, parental expectations and sibling rivalry, boyfriend troubles, worries about their next steps in life. With alternating viewpoints, the author captures these perfectly along with the language and internal dialogue of this age group.

    I cringed a lot reading this novel in recognition of the all-consuming self centredness of many youngsters and also, winced at the inevitable mistakes made by each of the three protagonists as they navigate their way through the ups and downs of a week in which plans are turned upside down. Parents may well turn green reading some of what they get up to, but in the end, the mistakes are not too disastrous and each character learns from their experiences.

    Ultimately the novel is about what is really important: friendships and family, courage, perseverance and hope. By the novel’s end, the three girls’ trajectories meet, if only briefly, and they are able to reflect on what they’ve learned from their schoolies weeks.

    Can’t Say it Went to Plan is published in May 2021 by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  Children's & Young Adult Books

    Magic of buttons: ‘Eliza Vanda’s Button Box’ by Emily Rodda

    When I was a little girl, I loved looking through my Nanna’s button collection. At one point she began to give my mother assorted buttons each time we visited; much later on I realised that Nanna knew she was dying of cancer and had begun divesting herself of objects. Perhaps they were special buttons, treasured for some memory they evoked of happier times. I’ll never know. Now I have my own modest button collection and I sometimes think of Nanna when I search through them to replace a missing shirt button.

    The new story from award-winning Australian author Emily Rodda is all about buttons and the mysterious but kind woman who appears in Milly Dynes’ small village with her magical button collection.

    Milly is in the midst of a spate of difficulties in her life, and meeting Eliza Vanda (or EV as she is known) and her companion Victor, takes her into a magical world in which she encounters witches, black jellybeans, a princess, a bewitched frog and a beautiful wedding dress.

    It’s a gentle story with humour and compassion in equal parts, and allows younger readers to explore emotions such as sadness or anger in a safe context. Milly is a sweet and clever girl and EV and Victor quite complex characters; Milly quickly realises that things (and people) are not always entirely as they appear.

    Eliza Vanda’s Button Box endows the humble button with a significance which I think is fully deserved, as I recall the pleasure I had in sorting through my Nanna’s button box all those years ago.

    Eliza Vanda’s Button Box is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Another historical fiction gem for younger readers: ‘Night Ride into Danger’ by Jackie French

    From Australia’s amazing Jackie French comes another book that tantalises with a gripping story while immersing readers in the sights, sounds, smells and figures from Australia’s past.

    Night Ride into Danger is set in NSW’s Braidwood district in the 1870’s, the days of the iconic Cobb & Co coaches. In the first few paragraphs we are plunged into the world of young Jem and his widowed father, Paw, a skilled coach driver who takes Jem to ride beside him on the 14 hour journey from Braidwood to Goulburn.

    We get a vivid sense of the coachmen’s work, the adventurousness as well as the hardships of his life, the way the coach looked, smelt and felt for the passengers who entrusted their lives to his care on the rutted, icy or flooded roads common at that time.

    The passengers in this story – six of them – all have their reasons for choosing to take the faster but more dangerous night mail coach. Each of them has a different secret and the ways in which the secrets are gradually revealed make up the connecting spine of this story.

    When Jem’s father is injured, Jem must take over as driver – a tall order for a youngster who has never driven a team of four horses at night on such a long journey. How Jem deals with this challenge and interacts with the six other people who travel with him, makes for an engaging tale.

    The book includes many of the figures of Australian colonial legends: gold diggers, bushrangers, farmers, innkeepers and grooms. There are also women (often hidden in the annals of Australian folklore): dancers, cooks, farmers, as well as women travelling to a new country to be married, or giving birth in difficult circumstances. The author doesn’t avoid describing the racism inherent in white attitudes of the time, or the strictures of colonial society against Chinese immigrants, First Nations people, or unmarried mothers.

    The characters are all active and engaging and the reader will cheer Jem on in his quest to arrive safely in time for both the mail and his passengers to meet the Goulburn train for Sydney.

    Night Ride into Danger is guaranteed to be enjoyed by middle grade readers who like a mix of history, adventure and mystery.

    Night Ride into Danger is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A romp through colonial Sydney: ‘Flash Jim’ by Kel Richards

    Did you know that Australian expressions such as yarn, snitch, swag or cove originated from Flash cant, the jargon and coded language spoken by criminals in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and transported along with convicts to the Australian colonies? And that the very first dictionary written in Australia was written by a convict in an effort to curry favour with authorities – a vocabulary of the Flash language written by an Englishman by the name of James Hardy Vaux.

    Kel Richards’ biography of Vaux is based in part on the convict’s own memoirs, though as Richards points out, Vaux’s account of his actions needs to be treated with caution. He was a nineteenth century version of Peter Foster, an complete fraudster and convincing con-man, who skipped his way through English and Australian society with a fast and slick turn of the tongue and an apparent inability to stick at an honest job for more than a few weeks.

    Born into a respectable middle class family, Vaux declined opportunities available to him that were not offered to people from less comfortable beginnings, preferring instead to swindle, rob, steal, pickpocket and scam his way to an income. He seems to have been a clever man with very little judgement and a breathtaking level of recklessness, and it must be said, very good luck that frequently enabled him to avoid capture or, when he was arrested, got him acquitted on some legal technicality or other.

    I thoroughly disapproved of his criminal activities but I admit to being amused that the methods Vaux employed to hoodwink people in authority (employers, magistrates, etc) were the very aspects of ‘respectable society’ so sacred to those authorities: letters of recommendation from one acquaintance to another, for example; or the ability to present himself well and speak in a cultured and respectful manner. It was also ironic that at times, he got taken in by the very same sorts of scams he himself loved to perform on others.

    Good luck eventually runs out and so Vaux was finally found guilty of one of his many crimes and transported to NSW on a convict ship. Here his education again served him well; being one of a small group of convicts who could read and write enabled him to wheedle his way into easier jobs such as clerical or transcription work – much preferable to assignment as a farm labourer or on the iron gangs, especially for someone who seemed to have an allergic reaction to anything looking like physical work.

    I was astonished that he served not one, but two sentences of transportation – after arriving back in England after his first sentence expired, (in itself an unusual achievement) he returned straight away to his life of crime, resulting in a second period of transportation to the colony. This was clearly a man who did not learn from past mistakes!

    His example also serves to show that the horrific sentencing laws of Georgian and Victorian England were no deterrent to crime: people either stole because of extreme poverty and desperation, or because they preferred it to legal employment. Either way, the threat of a death sentence or of transportation to the far side of the world, did not stop the rising tide of crime in England.

    It was on his second stint in Australia that Vaux began work on his dictionary of Flash slang. Serving time in the convict settlement of Newcastle (reserved for re-offenders like Vaux) he recorded the huge array of words and expressions used by criminals, that so bewildered and frustrated magistrates and colonial authorities. Vaux planned to present his helpful guide to the Commandant of the Newcastle convict station. It was eventually published in London in 1819.

    Richards has included the dictionary as an appendix in his account of it’s author’s life, and it makes for terrific reading. There are many words recognisable today; though some have expanded or changed in meaning or use, many are used exactly as they were in Vaux’s world. If, for example, I said ‘He looks like he’s about to croak’, I suspect you’d know what I meant. ‘Can I cadge $10 from you?’ means just the same as it did in 1800, except with different currency.

    There are some expressions that have faded into the past and are as inexplicable to me as they must have been to a magistrate in Vaux’s time. What, for example, would ‘I’ll get the vardo and you can tow the titter out so she can be unthimbled’ mean?

    Some of the entries are hilarious, some quite grim, but they all give the feeling of the world in which they were created and used. It was a hard, unforgiving time for many and their language is imbued with sly humour and an anti-authoritarian slant that arguably still underpins aspects of modern day Australian culture.

    Flash Jim is a romp through the world of nineteenth century crime, criminals and their culture. Readers who enjoy language and it’s origins, and history brought to life, will find it an engrossing read.

    Flash Jim is published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Delightful celebration of babies: ‘Before You Were Born’ by Katrina Germein & Hélène Magisson

    A wonderful trend in children’s books is the move towards more inclusive story-telling, with protagonists and other characters from diverse backgrounds. Before You Were Born, by Australian author-illustrator duo Katrina Germein and Hélène Magisson, is no exception.

    A celebration of new babies, this picture book depicts the preparations by different families for their babies’ arrival. We see the backyard barbecue, the special afternoon tea and lunch, the baby shower, a beach excursion and the first peek inside baby’s room. No matter what type of celebration, it’s clear that every baby’s birth is anticipated with love and excitement by each family.

    The story is told in gentle rhyming couplets, illustrated on each double page spread by Hélène Magisson’s beautiful watercolour and pastel drawings:

    We tumbled and played,
    we cuddled and kissed.
    A special occasion
    Not to be missed.

    But all I could think of
    for all of that time
    was when I would hold you,
    oh, baby of mine.

    Before You Were Born

    Before You Were Born is a joyous affirmation of love and families of all kinds and a beautiful way to share that with a very young child.

    Before You Were Born is published in May 2021 by Working Title Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.