Books and reading
A meander through love: ‘My Year of Living Vulnerably’ by Rick Morton
A follow up of sorts to Rick Morton’s earlier work One Hundred Years of Dirt, this book is a purposeful meander through life and what happened when he decided to allow love – in all its forms – into his life: to feel it, express it, talk about it. It’s not just about ‘romantic love’; the book touches on many things about the world, about living and being human, that he marvels at, has been touched by, or considers essential to life.
It’s a very personal book. Childhood trauma that changed him and his family forever are a constant backdrop, and he explores how the effects of this has lingered and how he set about to get better (not cured or fixed, just better.)
The topics traversed include touch, forgiveness, wonder, beauty, toxic gender norms, aloneness and loneliness, kindness and doubt. I was reminded, at times, of Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence, which similarly discusses some of the things that make life worth living and give meaning.
There is great beauty in the prose, verging on poetic at times, and also laughter-inducing moments, such as the hilarious description of cephalopods.
If you enjoy a book that invites you to think, and that remains with you long after you have read the final page, this would be a good one to add to your ‘TBR’ list. I’m now going to search out a copy of One Hundred Years of Dirt, wanting more of the Morton brand of philosophy, observation and wry humour.
My Year of Living Vulnerably was published by Fourth Estate in 2021.
Charm and crime: ‘A Deadly Covenant’ by Michael Stanley
Michael Stanley is the pen name for writing duo Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. They were both born in South African and bring their considerable familiarity with the neighbouring country of Botswana to their series of crime novels. Featuring Botswana CID Detective Bengu (nicknamed ‘Kubu’ – the word for hippopotamus – because of his girth), A Deadly Covenant portrays Kubu as a rookie detective, still learning the art and craft of solving crime.
Author’s synopsis: While digging a trench for a new water project, a backhoe operator unearths the skeleton of a long dead Bushman. Kubu and Scottish pathologist, Ian MacGregor, are sent to sort out the formalities, but the situation rapidly gets out of hand. MacGregor discovers eight more skeletons—a massacre of Bushmen including women and children. However, the locals deny any knowledge of the event.
Several more murders in the district convince the pair that there is a link between that historic crime and current events nearby. Things get more complicated by the day, as what began as a simple pathology and administrative task becomes a dangerous venture into local politics, personalities and history.
There is much to like about this book. The setting is full of interest and complex characters. The protagonist Kubu and his other police colleagues work well together, with the expected tensions and hiccups along the way. Kubu himself is a delight: still with his ‘Learner’ plates on, I enjoyed seeing his uncertainty and self-doubt morph into something closer to confidence in his growing abilities and knowledge. So much of crime fiction features a detective at the top of his or her game: we rarely glimpse their early years on the job with all the mistakes and doubts that can appear.
I found the plot quite a complicated one and the pacing a little slow in parts. But – and this is a good test of crime fiction – I suspected, but was not certain, who the culprit was until towards the end.
A Deadly Covenant will be enjoyed by Australian readers who like crime fiction with interesting characters and different settings, and a dollop of charm mixed in with the crime.
A Deadly Covenant is published by White Sun Books in 2022.
My thanks to the author for an eBook version to review.
‘Becoming Mrs Mulberry’ by Jackie French
Jackie French writes marvelous commercial historical fiction, with protagonists who are active participants in their lives and the world around them. Her stories always feature intriguing snippets from history:
The incidents in my books are based on actual people, historical events and attitudes that are often not widely known. That is why I write about them…Sometimes fiction is a gentler way of presenting those harder times of history, as well as celebrating the good.Author’s note, Becoming Mrs Mulberry
Becoming Mrs Mulberry is an example of the many reasons why Ms French is an Australian best-selling author. She has a way of imparting historical information in a way that illuminates rather than bogs down the story.
It’s a big book, with several big themes: Australia’s mixed record on dealing with issues such as gender equality, treatment of people with disabilities, and the sad fate of so many soldiers returning from WWI. It is also a plea for us to become more attuned to our natural environment, which is under such severe threat today.
The main protagonist, Agnes, is in the midst of medical studies at Edinburgh University, when the war and its aftermath requires her to put her dreams of becoming a doctor on hold. She experiences eye-watering levels of abuse and discrimination both during her studies (much of it meted out by male fellow students) and after it. Any so-called ‘post feminists’ should read this book.
Despairing of her ability to make a difference for the endless line of soldiers with horrifying injuries that she nurses during the war in Europe, she is given a sage piece of advice by her Matron:
Just do the next right thing, and then the next. Put a thousand crumbs together and you make a cake.Becoming Mrs Mulberry pp225-226
Straight after the war, her ‘next right thing’ sees her marrying the severely shell-shocked brother of her close friend, in order to rescue him from being declared mentally incompetent and being confined to an asylum. This is how she becomes the Mrs Mulberry of the novel’s title.
Her new husband is very wealthy and she uses this money to provide respite, care and refuge from some of society’s outcasts, suffering war injuries or disabilities from accidents or illnesses. Coincidentally, the place where she does this is on her husband’s Blue Mountains property, in a fictional location that the author placed not too far from my home.
Then she comes across a young child in a situation of terrible abuse and vulnerability – and her life develops an unexpected trajectory.
Through it all, there is a tender shoot of love and care which grows as the story progresses:
Her sense of loss seeped away under the hush of trees. Trees had patience and so must she, as their roots wound deep into the ground and their leaves slowly burgeoned to the sky. Here, on a highland ridge, she could see trees shaped by wind and snow, none of which was within their control, and yet they managed beauty nonetheless: even greater loveliness from fate’s twisting of their trunks and branches.Becoming Mrs Mulberry pp124-125
This is a sweeping, heartfelt story that will appeal to readers who love their historical fiction to actually mean something.
Becoming Mrs Mulberry is published by HQ Fiction in March 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Picture book love
Three new picture books from Harper Collins Children’s Books have hit the shelves in March, 2023. Two are perfect for reading around Mother’s Day (May, in Australia) and the third – well, it’s just perfect.
Amazing Mum by UK author and illustrator Alison Brown is a lovely celebration of mums, in all their beautiful diversity. There are applauding mums, never-let-you-down mums, double mums, bubble mums, sharing mums, repairing mums, and mums who drive a bus. And quite a few more.
The softly toned illustrations feature entirely cute animal mums and kids: mice, foxes, rabbits, even a dinosaur family. The pictures bring to life the message of the book: mums are amazing!
Well-known Aussie kid’s author and presenter, Andrew Daddo, has teamed up with illustrator Stephen Michael King to produce a sweet book all about the relationship between grandmas and kids. The grandma in the book is whimsical, arty, adventurous and fun. She and her grandchild share activities like dress ups, knitting, yoga, kite flying, painting…all the ‘old fashioned’ ways to have fun.
Whatever we do together, my grandma’s just happy.Grandma’s Guide to Happiness
Grandma says that even with all the new things, old-fashioned happy still feels pretty fantastic.
It’s a bit like a hot choccie.
It warms you from the inside out.
A.B. (Banjo) Paterson’s classic poem Mulga Bill’s Bicycle was first published as a children’s picture book in 1973. To celebrate its 50th year, Harper Collins have published a new version, illustrated by Deborah Niland along with original illustrations by Kilmeny Niland.
I remember this poem from my childhood; along with Paterson’s Clancy of the Overflow and The Man from Snowy River, and Henry Lawson’s The Loaded Dog, it’s an Australian classic that is timeless, and brings to life the language, sights and sounds from a past era.
Mulga Bill’s Bicycle pokes fun at a self-assured, pompous man with ambition greater than his skill – and don’t we all know people just like that? His antics as he attempts to ride a ‘new-fangled’ penny-farthing bicycle for the first time (while assuring everyone that he is an expert) are hilarious.
There’s a lot going on in each double-page spread as the bicycle gallops away, passing scenes from a bush and small-town landscape of yesteryear. The image of Bill himself, quite the dandy with his impressive handlebar moustaches, is perfect.
I’d recommend this one for all kids’ bookshelves and libraries.
Magic with a message: ‘The Hats of Marvello’ by Amanda Graham
Opening this book for younger readers conjured memories of the way a new book from the school or public library (or better yet, under the Christmas tree!) made me feel when I was a child. Something about the cover illustration and the first few pages brought back the pleasure of anticipating a new story. I’m pretty sure this book would have appealed to an eight-year-old me.
Olive is a schoolgirl in country South Australia. She longs for a pet rabbit, but rabbits have been a feral pest in Australian farms and bushland since they were first introduced during British colonisation. Her beloved grandpa has just bought ‘Bunny Rid’ poison to clear their farm of the wild creatures, so she knows that a pet bunny must remain a dream.
Then one day, one hundred fluffy white bunnies arrive at her house, accompanied by a talking black rabbit called Robbit.
She has to work out how to hide the rabbits until she and Robbit can get them back to where they came from: a small town in England. Also, how is the velvet top hat she bought from a local op-shop connected to the mystery of how the rabbits got to Australia in the first place?
I loved the character of Olive: she is smart, adventurous, and compassionate; all qualities that allow her (with help from her friends) to outwit a villain and rescue Robbit and his bunny buddies. Through it all Olive learns that expressing her opinion is okay, and to have faith in her ability to problem solve.
I also enjoyed the setting: a very contemporary Aussie farm, Massey-Ferguson tractor and all, with a contemporary farming family (and a FIFO dad who works at a mine) coping with the ups and downs of rural life – including a potential rabbit plague.
There is a gentle environmentally themed message which underlies both Olive’s dilemma with the rabbits and the theme of her class play (the reason she bought the Marvello top hat from the op-shop, to become part of her costume.)
This story allows children to imagine the wonder and absurdities inherent in fluffy bunnies, magic and an enchanted hat. It’s a fun read that will be enjoyed by younger middle-grade readers. The lovely black and white illustrations by Lavanya Naidu draw the reader further into the story and Olive’s world.
The Hats of Marvello is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Yearning for equality: ‘Pastel Pink’ by Nikki Minty
A new fantasy series for teen readers by Australian Nikki Minty introduces a remarkable new world, while incorporating the everyday preoccupations of teenagers everywhere.
The first in the Zadok series, Pastel Pink is set on one of the four worlds on the Zadok planet. Each of the four races occupies their own part of the planet, speaks a different language, and has wildly different skin, hair and eye colouring. ‘Winter’ is the land of the Zeeks, where colour is like a strict caste system, from the upper level of the Purples, through Magenta, and to the lowest strata, the Pastel pinks.
Harlow is a Pastel, trying to get through life with all the disadvantages of her colour in a society that regards her kind as weak and useful only for the most mundane of work.
She has an added distraction: she moves between her Zeek home and persona, and her knowledge that she was once a human girl on Earth called Ruby. She is tormented by memories of having been murdered by Lucas, and her visions that show Lucas befriending her Earth twin sister – and there is nothing she can do to warn her or to stop him.
In between all of this, she is injured by a ferocious Zadok creature, befriended by Jax, the son of the Purple Commander, ignored by her opportunistic Zadok father, and detested by her Zadok twin sister. Life is complicated – on both worlds.
I enjoyed the world building in this novel, with its recognizable yet different environments, animals, customs and behaviours.
The cast of characters is numerous and complex, and because the action and point of view switches between Harlow and Ruby, and sometimes other characters as well, it did take me a while to get my head around them all.
At its core, this story is a plea for equality. The disdain and outright abuse that Pastels suffer because of their so-called inferior colour makes human discrimination based on skin colour appear as ridiculous as Zadok’s. There are echoes of human far-right fascist beliefs echoed in the Zadok caste system:
Being born a Pastel from two Magenta parents was unheard of until I came along. Lucky me. Purples produce Purples, Magentas produce Magentas, and Pastels produce Pastels. To date a Zeek outside of your colour status is a punishable offence, enforced by Purples. They want their superior bloodlines to remain pure.Pastel Pink, eBook location 25
Pastel Pink will be enjoyed by teenage readers who enjoy fantasy with recognisable and relatable themes and characters. This is the first in the series, so fans can look forward to reading about the other worlds on Zadok.
Pastel Pink was published in 2021; my thanks to the author for an eBook version.
What connects us: ‘One Illumined Thread’ by Sally Colin-James
A triumph of a debut novel, Australian author Sally Colin-James has created a beautiful story that travels between three different time periods, celebrating the things that connect us across centuries.
The beautiful lyrical prose had me captivated from the first chapters, where there are hints of psychological trauma and great loss, but also plunged me into the past with the scents and tastes of the modern-day protagonist combined with those of the past.
We travel back and forth in time and place, from ancient Judea to Renaissance Florence, to Adelaide in the current period.
This is a novel for anyone who is enchanted by the spell that can be cast by an item, work of art, or moment from the past.
The author’s note explains how a Renaissance painting she viewed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence sparked the idea that later became this book. She has woven a story connecting that painting with a black glass artefact from the ancient world and to an embroidery being restored by a textile conservator.
It’s a complex novel, perhaps slightly on the slow side for those who like their fiction fast paced, but well worth persevering with. There is fascinating detail about the different worlds and times the characters inhabit, and the processes used to create things of beauty and meaning.
Ultimately the novel is a hymn of praise to the act of creation in all its forms:
How can I dare say that this work too is sacred, like grinding grain or baking? This is tsar. The act of creating. Of transforming one thing into another with simple breath. An act that might be called sinful should I express the elation it brings, how it makes my heart dance like the flickering fire that transforms grit into glass.One Illumined Thread p96
Through the three main characters’ lives, we see how women’s existence is so often defined by service to others and by their fertility – or lack of – even in the present day. And the author shows how consolation and joy may be found in creative acts, no matter how small or large, fleeting or enduring. Beauty from the past continues to bring us pleasure and wonder, centuries later. This is why creativity matters to humankind as well as to the person who expresses their essential self through it:
The line twists and coils and catches the light. I trace around it with my finger. Not a rope to hold onto, but a single bright stitch holding pieces together. Fragments of the past held in place by the present. Connected by one illumined thread.One Illumined Thread p321
One Illumined Thread is a complex, beautiful novel about connections between women and between the past and the present.
It is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Practical advice: ‘Before Dementia’ by Dr Kate Gregorevic
Dementia hit the headlines this week, having achieved the dubious honour of becoming the biggest cause of death in Australia, surpassing heart disease. This guide to what we can do to prevent, prepare, cope and understand the illness is very timely.
Dr Kate Gregorevic is a geriatrician who works at a Melbourne hospital, and the book is peppered with real life anecdotes from her research and practice.
Twenty questions frame the book’s structure and content, including:
What is dementia and are you at risk?
What are the symptoms?
What causes Alzheimer’s?
What is life like for a person living with dementia?
Do people with dementia have the capacity to make decisions?
Can improving diet help to avoid dementia?
How do we live well with dementia?
Most people have been touched by dementia in some way: we have a loved one who lives with the disease, or we know a workmate, neighbour or friend who has been diagnosed, or who cares for someone who has been. So, these very practical questions and the wealth of information included are welcome and useful guides to the illness and what we can expect as it progresses.
There were sections that resonated strongly with me after watching my mother’s decline with the condition. For example, the insidious way it often begins, creeping up slowly at first, often confused with ‘normal’ age-related memory loss:
The onset of dementia is so insidious that it often takes something really obvious, an example of memory loss that is so stark, so unforgiving, that it is impossible to look away. This is often when the reframing begins, when all the little things that were so small in themselves start to coalesce.Before Dementia pp23-24
Other points that especially resonated with me because of my own experience included the nature and role of delirium, the phenomena known as ‘sundowning’, the creation of false memories, and the sometimes-catastrophic effect of hospital admissions,
There is a fair bit of technical information in the chapters to do with the causes and types of dementia. I admit I glazed over a little here. However, I appreciated the author’s desire to translate the latest thinking and discoveries in what is still a contested field, into language that can be read by a non-medical person.
Ethical challenges are presented openly, and it is up to each reader to decide where they stand on issues such as the capacity of a person with dementia to make decisions about their future care and living arrangements, consent for sexual activity, the right to autonomy and independence. A point that strikes me as a tricky but interesting one, is what Dr Kate terms the ‘dignity of risk’:
Living well with dementia means accepting the dignity of risk. Many people with dementia will be able to live independent lives, but they may not be perfectly safe.Before Dementia p295
I appreciated the plea made in this book for adequate funding for aged care services, for recognition of the disadvantages faced in all areas of life by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, and for the value of putting into place as many protective measures as possible as early as possible: improved diet, regular exercise, giving up smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, social and cognitive activity.
If I were a patient or a family member, and lucky enough to be a patient of Dr Kate, I am sure that I would value her humanist and person-centred approach to living well with dementia.
While I’m certain that most of us would much prefer NOT to have to think about this disease, and just hope that we or our loved ones won’t ever have to deal with it, I can highly recommend this book. It tackles a difficult subject in a helpful, practical way that removes the ‘overwhelm’ and allows the reader to learn from the experts.
Before Dementia is published by HarperCollins in February 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Timeslip: ‘Running with Ivan’ by Suzanne Leal
How do you explain to youngsters an event as unimaginable as the Holocaust in a way that elicits empathy and understanding rather than trauma?
Australian author Suzanne Leal has chosen a timeslip novel that allows readers to imagine themselves in the midst of such horror, while relating it to modern-day concerns of children and teens. In the author’s words:
The enormity of the Holocaust makes it almost impossible to comprehend. Mindful of this, I wanted to bring an immediacy to wartime Europe when writing Running with Ivan. That is why Leo – a boy from the twenty-first century with little understanding of the war and its impact – needed to find himself dropped right in the middle of it. Only then could he begin to understand what actually happened.Author’s Note, Running with Ivan p 308
Leo is thirteen, unhappy at having to share a bedroom in his new home with his detestable stepbrother Cooper. He still misses his mum who died two years ago. Now his dad has remarried: to a nice woman with horrible sons. There is nowhere Leo can go to get away from Cooper and his older brother Troy. Until he discovers a corner of the unused garage, and his mother’s old wind-up music box.
The music box proves to be a portal into the past, and Leo is transported to various times and places before, during and after World War II. He meets Ivan, who grows from a small child to a teenager as Leo appears and disappears. Ivan is Czech, and Jewish, and on each of Leo’s visits to his world, things are getting darker and more dangerous for Ivan and his family.
On a later visit, Leo finds himself in Theresienstadt, a walled ghetto used by the Nazis as a concentration camp, from where they transported trainloads of people to Auschwitz. He takes a terrible risk to save his friends, Ivan and Olinda, from being put on a transport.
The motif of running is used throughout the novel, as Leo discovers he has a talent for speed and finds that it soothes and distracts him from his problems at home and his worries about his Czech friends. There is a lovely link between his elderly coach, Mr Livingstone, and Leo’s wartime experiences, which is revealed at the end of the story.
Throughout the novel, Leo learns more about the experiences of people during WWII; the grim realities of life in Europe at that time; and his own struggles with his family. He also learns that he can overcome difficulties:
“Take it from me, Leo, at thirteen, you can do almost anything. Never forget this. Difficult things, courageous things: they are all possible, even at thirteen. No, especially at thirteen.”Running with Ivan, p39
Running with Ivan is a terrific example of how timeslip stories can immerse a reader in the past (or future) while remaining connected to their own present. I was especially moved to read that the idea for the story came from the author’s friendship with a Czech man who had himself experienced the horrors of Theresienstadt.
The book is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
After the gold rushes: ‘The Homecoming’ by Alison Stuart
In her new book, Aussie author Alison Stuart once again demonstrates her deep knowledge and love for the parts of Victoria that were the scene of frenzied gold rushes in the mid 1800’s.
The Homecoming is the third novel set in fictional Maiden’s Creek. The first two were The Postmistress and The Goldminer’s Sister.
This new story is set two decades after the last in the 1890’s, when the gold seams around the township are mostly exhausted. Residents needed to find new ways of making a living. The protagonists are two characters from the earlier novels: Charlotte (Charlie) O’Reilly and Danny Hunt. No longer children, they are brought back to Maiden’s Creek after years spent developing careers elsewhere: Charlie as a nurse and Danny a lawyer.
Both are dealing with the legacies of difficult circumstances from their childhoods and have returned to the town for different reasons.
While working as Matron of the small cottage hospital, Charlie is embroiled in a series of events that bring escalating danger to her and to others. Danny is dodging an enemy from his past who is intent on doing him harm. Then the town is engulfed by a dangerous flood which threatens everyone.
In the midst of all this, the pair find themselves increasingly pulled towards each other.
I took a while to get fully involved in this novel, perhaps because I had read The Goldminer’s Sister in 2020 and my memory had to work hard to recall the characters and events from that story. Having said that, The Homecoming would also make a satisfying stand-alone read without reference to the earlier books. There is mystery, romance and some terrific characters; all of which add up to a great addition to Australian historical fiction shelves.
The Homecoming is published by HQ Fiction in January 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.