Books and reading

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    All about family: ‘The Love That Grew’ by Sarah Ayoub

    The Love that Grew is a sort of picture book / pre-schooler take on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘How Do I Love Thee?’ which begins How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

    An ode to a mother’s love and to families, it explores different ways to describe the indescribable, with sweet illustrations by debut picture book illustrator Mimi Purnell.

    I thought I could not love another,
    not a sister, nor a brother.
    But just like magic, my love then grew
    when I was blessed with more of you.
    It stretched as high as the beanstalk climbed by Jack:
    impossible to measure, and hard to track.
    A feeling that was both fierce and strong
    and the-longest-noodle-you-can-think-of-long.

    The Love that Grew

    This would be perfect picture book for a little one expecting a new brother or sister. Mums and Dads find that, while time can be difficult to share around with a new baby, love is different – there is usually plenty to go around no matter how many new siblings arrive. The rhyming couplets lend themselves well to read-aloud sessions – just right for snuggling; baby, toddler, book and parent together.

    The Love that Grew is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Hopeful alternatives: ‘Into the Sideways World’ by Ross Welford

    The whole world was heading for war when Manny Weaver and I went through a ‘grey hole’ to another world.
    Till then, I didn’t believe in magic. Fairies, witches, magic spells, strange lands with talking animals, monsters with three heads and potions to turn you into a giant?
    …Then I encountered Manny, and the strange animal we called a ‘cog’, and the brother who I’d never met because he died before I was born. I rode through a lightning storm on a flying jet ski, and lived in a World Without War.
    And so now, if you ask me if I believe in magic? Let’s just say I’m not so sure.

    Into the Sideways World p3

    One of my favourite childhood books was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C S Lewis – actually, I adored the whole Narnia series. It was something about the possibility of entering another world, parallel with, but completely different to, our own.

    Into the Sideways World by British author Ross Welford offers middle grade readers that opportunity to imagine another world. In this case, though, the Sideways World is not populated by magical creatures, but by the same people in Willa and Manny’s world – their families, friends, teachers – just different versions of the same people.

    This new world is very different in all other ways from their normal one. It’s an alternative world, in that its people have figured out how to stop warfare, avoid climate change and pollution, feed and house everyone – and they love wearing bright colours.

    Manny and Willa are both delightful characters, each with their own challenges and problems, whose friendship forms the basis of the novel. Together they try to figure out how to return to their own world, but also to bring home with them the messages of hope and positivity – a different way of doing things – from the Sideways World.

    I enjoyed the little snippets of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Doctor Who, J F Kennedy, and genetic experimentation, among others. I also love that it’s set in the Tyneside area of northeast England (home of the Geordie accent). There are occasional echoes of Madeline L’Engle’s 1962 novel, A Wrinkle in Time (also a novel I loved), with its exploration of the concepts of time and space travel.

    Into the Sideways World is a story of hope and possibility – something youngsters very much need just now. It will be enjoyed by readers who like to imagine, explore, and wonder.

    Into the Sideways World is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in February 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Stories and silences: ‘After Story’ by Larissa Behrendt

    Amongst loss, you need to hold onto what you still have.’

    After Story p260

    What do Australian First Nation’s cultural stories and history have to do with the writings and times of Dickens, Shakespeare, Woolfe, Keats or Austen? The surprising answers to this question are to be found in the pages of After Story, by First Nations lawyer, academic, author, speaker and film-maker Larissa Behrendt.

    A tragic loss opens the story, one that forever scars Della and her family. All the other events of the novel hang off that one devastating event and its consequences.

    Years later, Della accompanies her now adult daughter Jasmine on a literary tour of England, taking in the places where many of the ‘greats’ of British literature were born, or lived, or worked.

    Jasmine sees books as her escape from the claustrophobia, racism and limited opportunities of the small town in which she grew up. She has read widely, graduated from university, and now works in a legal career. She invites Della on the tour with her as a way of bridging the gap that has arisen between them over the years. Alternating viewpoints allow us to experience both women’s perspectives on the tour. Della’s viewpoint is less sophisticated than her daughter’s, especially as she knows little about the writers and their works, but no less heartfelt or insightful for that.

    At every significant place visited, the characters in the group chat, argue and reflect on the particular writer, their historical context and achievements. The author has skillfully linked all of these with commentary and reflections on Aboriginal experiences. An example: when told of the plague that struck England during Shakespeare’s time, followed by London’s Great Fire in 1666, Della relates these catastrophic events to the smallpox outbreak and land dispossession that decimated First Nations communities in the earliest years of English settlement:

    I thought about what it must have been like for those Aboriginal people who watched the world around them change hard and fast when the colony was set up, who had to watch the destruction of the life they knew.

    After Story p43

    Della’s deceased Aunty Eileen is an important, if unseen, character. It is through Della’s and Jasmine’s remembered conversations with her, that key features of Aboriginal culture, history and beliefs are shared and further linked to European lives and histories. Gazing at a copy of the Magna Carta in the British Library, Jasmine reflects that:

    If Dickens reminded us that the system is not fair, here was the hope, the ancient promise, that it might be. Aunty Elaine’s generation had advocated for changes that made opportunities in my life different from those for Mum and Dad. It’s not just the words on the page but the people who push the ideas at the heart of them who really alter the world.

    After Story p82

    The characters are all three dimensional and fresh, their struggles real, and at times there are uncomfortable moments, as the author invites us to consider our own culture’s role in the theft, forgetting or dismissal of cultures other than our own. But for anyone who loves literature and/or stories and their long histories, this is a book to relish, made all the more special by the weaving together of old and contemporary, indigenous and non-indigenous traditions, tragedy and loss with hope and love.

    After Story was published by Queensland University Press in 2021.

  • Books and reading

    The mistakes of youth: ‘Love and Virtue’ by Diana Reid

    Are you a good person, or do you just look like one?

    The question of what makes a ‘good person’ is explored from the perspectives of first year university students, in this contemporary novel by Sydney based writer, Diana Reid. Readers are invited to consider the hot-potato issues of consent, power and sex – a powder-keg mix if ever there was one.

    If you can remember your late teen/early adult years, chances are there are at least a few cringe – or shame – inducing vignettes that you’d rather forget. Michaela is that age, living away from her Canberra home for the first time, and wanting to fit in somewhere. She is not an unquestioning acolyte, but rather interrogates her own experiences to the point of exhaustion. Her friendship with her college room neighbour Eve – wealthy, slender, white, and confidently opinionated – has her feeling out of depth, but she participates in the habitual, conditioned behaviours of young people in this environment – too much drinking, casual sex and drug use.

    An occurrence during the university’s ‘O-week’ acts as an underlying pull for the narrative, providing conflict and some mystery. It is a narrative device – but it’s all too recognisable, and one that allows for layers of meaning and intent to ramp up the tension.

    The novel shines a spotlight on the awful pressures on young people to conform; women endure harrowing personal humiliations but are expected to ‘take a joke’; young men are groomed for a life of adult privilege and power. Some speak out, others pretend none of it happens.

    It’s embarrassing, as a reader, to recall the self absorption of youth and the mistakes that, in retrospect, seem inevitable. At times, the characters’ behaviours reminded me of the hopeless, unhappy role playing of the characters in Sally Rooney’s Normal People.

    Similarly, this novel is definitely one for its time: the issues around what constitutes consent in sexual situations is currently being examined in ways not seen before, as are power dynamics and the role of prestigious university colleges in grooming new generations of (potentially) abusive, or at least complicit, men and women.

    The prose is beautiful, evocative and very moving at times:

    I dived down and counted twelve dolphin kicks, resurfacing close to the moored boat. My body was warmer for the movement, but the morning froze on my face. It was cold enough to remind me, in every tingling pore, that I was, first and foremost, a physical thing. Before thought or feeling or reason, I was a stretch of skin, a bag of flesh, for the ocean to cradle or drown with indifference.

    Love and Virtue p160

    The author states that she wrote this manuscript – her first novel – during the 2020 Covid lockdown in Australia. It was an excellent use of her time and whilst I have no wish for similar lockdowns to happen again, I do look forward to reading more of her work.

    Love and Virtue was published in 2021 by Ultimo Press.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Hardship, hope and glamour: ‘Dressed by Iris’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor

    If you’ve read a few of my reviews, you will know how much I love – adore – fiction inspired by real people and events, especially when they are people from the author’s own family. This is exactly what Australian novelist Mary-Anne O’Connor has delivered in her latest historical fiction, Dressed by Iris.

    Firstly, the glamour. The cover design is gorgeous; a beautiful young woman dressed in the lush fashions of the 1930’s. It’s lovely, and the story does centre around Iris, a young woman with a dream to design and make beautiful clothes.

    But as in real life, glamour can hide a multitude of sins and less-than-beautiful realities. The novel opens with Iris and her large, Catholic family, living in a tiny shanty house on the outskirts of Newcastle. Times are hard, with the Depression biting deep. The family barely scrape by and to add insult to injury, they experience the ugly prejudice of some better-off townsfolk against ‘Micks.’ Iris is courted by, and in love with, John, a young man from a Protestant family; but fears that the division between their families can never be bridged. It’s very Romeo-and-Juliet.

    Speaking of bridges, the story moves to Sydney, where Iris’s father and brother have found work, helping to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge. That bridge takes on a powerful role as a symbol of hope, modernity and better times ahead.

    Meanwhile, Iris finds work for a well-known Sydney designer of fashionable women’s clothing, and her dream of designing clothes seems a step closer. There are new threats and obstacles to overcome, and the story takes many twists and turns before its resolution.

    The author has given us a vivid picture of Sydney in the 30’s: the glamour of some parts, certainly; but also the rising desperation of the poor and a rising crime rate; entrenched sexism and religious intolerance; evictions of families unable to meet their rent; political turmoil with Fascists, Communists and unionists fighting pitched battles in the suburbs; the drama around the sacking of Jack Lang, the left-leaning Premier of NSW at the time. There are small details of domestic life that help bring the era alive: the careful coin counting and hard choices while shopping for a family’s dinner, just one example of this.

    I found unexpected personal connections with some aspects of the story. The suburb the family settle in is Hurstville – near my mother’s own childhood stamping ground in southwest Sydney. And one of Mum’s vivid memories from her childhood is the day she, her parents and her two younger siblings were evicted from their flat, finding a new home in the then ‘charity estate’ at Hammondville.

    Along with the ups and downs of the story and Iris’ journey from poverty to a career in fashion, Dressed by Iris is a love letter to family and to the lessons we learn from childhood. It’s also a song of praise for the virtues of hope, resilience, counting your blessings and making the best of things.

    I was moved to read in the author’s note that the two ‘leading ladies’ of this story, Iris and her mother Agnes, were modelled closely on the author’s own aunt and grandmother, and so many of the snippets of life included in the novel did, in fact, occur. I confess I shed a tear or two, reading that.

    They endured both tragedy and hardship, these two women, and faced great poverty during their lives, but they did it resiliently, cheerfully, generously and always with love. For me, that makes them two of the richest women that I will ever know.

    Dressed by Iris Author Note, p501

    Dressed by Iris is published by HQ Fiction in February 2022.
    My thank to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    World Between Blinks #2: ‘Rebellion of the Lost’ by Amie Kaufman & Ryan Graudin

    Yes! Another instalment in the World Between Blinks, what I hope will become a long series for middle-grade readers. I loved Book 1 (here’s my review) so this sequel was very welcome.

    Book 2 continues the magical, sometimes chaotic, occasionally scary but always fun world of the Lost. Every item, person, geographical feature and building in the world that has been ‘lost’ to history, ends up in this world. The problem is that the Administrator, in charge of the team of Curators who log and document all the comings and goings of things, has decided it is all way too chaotic for his liking.

    So, he implements strict new controls designed to restore order. The unintended consequences of these rules are separated families, bored inhabitants, and a sterile, humourless World. Enter the rebels: all those who want to see their World returned to the creative, beautiful place it had been.

    Cousins Marisol and Jake, along with Marisol’s older, teenaged brother Victor, are drawn back to try to assist the rebels. What follows is a rollicking adventure with some fearful moments, new friendships and old ones rediscovered.

    On the way, Marisol and Victor learn some new things about each other and get to see their sibling in a new light. This insight stretches to others in the World: a beautiful metaphor for how, if we only stop to look, we can realise that people are not all ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – even individuals like the Administrator has an inner life that guides what he does, even if somewhat misguidedly.

    ‘That’s the thing the Administrator doesn’t understand, or doesn’t want to understand. Put everyone back in their zones, and they’ll be exactly the same forever. But everything changes. I’m not the same person I was back home. I used to think some things, say some things that – well, I’ve learned a lot. That’s what happens when you’re always exploring. You learn new lessons.’

    Rebellion of the Lost p139

    The Administrator has the power to ‘flip’ the hourglasses of every person in the World, thus erasing their memories. The process and its result is rather like an accelerated version of what happens to a person who suffers from a dementia illness such as Alzheimer’s. This could be a good analogy to explain what that disease is, for youngsters who have a family member diagnosed with it.

    On a personal note, I was intrigued that the ‘lost mountain tops’ in the World includes Mt St Helens, the volcano in America’s Washington State that literally blew off its peak in 1980. I’d spent a year in Washington State in 1979 and was very familiar with how that particular mountain top had looked before it became ‘lost.’

    I’m looking forward to Book 3 in the World Between Blinks series!

    The World Between Blinks: Rebellion of the Lost is published by Harper Collins in February 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Tragedy and mystery: ‘The Good Son’ by Jacquelyn Mitchard

    In her author’s note, Jacquelyn Mitchard describes the moment of inspiration for this novel: standing in a coffee line at a hotel, she met a woman who explained that she came there every week, to visit her son at a nearby prison where he was serving a long sentence. While affected by drugs, he had killed his girlfriend.

    And I wondered, could you still love the one you loved most in the world after he had done the worst thing? Then I realized, you would be the only one who could.

    The Good Son, Author’s Note

    That’s the nub of this story. Thea and Jep are loving parents of their only child, Stefan, who has served a prison sentence after being convicted of the murder of his girlfriend Belinda while in a drug induced state. The story begins on the day Stefan walks out of prison, a free man. Thea has not yet realised it, but the family’s struggles have only just begun.

    There are so many squirm-inducing insights into the reactions and feelings a parent might experience in this situation. I found myself asking the question: What would I feel? How would I behave? How would I deal with the shame, the guilt, the pity for the victim’s grieving family and friends?

    The novel also offers insights into why some people commit crime. Stefan, after observing fellow prisoners in the jail, comments:

    Most {habitual criminals} didn’t have the patience for going through a process, trying and failing and trying again…their brain isn’t usually used to that…Trying and failing and trying again is not exciting. Doing a crime is really exciting…a robbery or burglary, it had to feel really exciting…living on a knife’s edge, anything could go wrong, it’s like a race against time, the Olympics of being bad.

    The Good Son p71

    I resonated strongly with the idea of parent-child relationships being ‘a delicate dance of the years, or approach and retreat, offer and hold back.’ (p267) As our children grow into teens and young adults, that dance becomes more delicate and fraught. How must it feel, then, to be stepping through the eggshells that a criminal conviction and prison time create?

    There is a mystery and plenty of tension in this novel, which is resolved by the end of the book. For me, the strength of the story lies in that exploration of the devastating concentric circles that result from a crime, especially a violent one. The characters are well drawn and believable and Thea someone I could very much relate to.

    The Good Son is published by HQ Fiction in January 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Colonial women: ‘No Hearts of Gold’ by Jackie French

    Some girls are born to be loved,
    Some are born to be useful,
    And some are born to be bad…

    No Hearts of Gold

    The strapline of Jackie French’s new historical fiction sums it up: not all colonial women in Australia were wives, mothers, convicts, or servants.

    No Hearts of Gold is about three very different women: one from aristocratic English society; one of a sturdy business-minded nature; and one from a self-made-gone-bust family. They are brought together on a voyage from England to the colony in the 1850’s; the beginning of a complex but staunch friendship against all odds.

    What they find in the booming, bustling, troubled colony defies their own expectations.

    The three women embark on lives very different from the ones they may have envisaged for themselves, back in England.

    Kat, daughter of a fond father whose fortune disappeared with the bust of railway shares that had created it in the first place, makes the quick marriage arranged for her by an aunt. While such a fast marriage seems improbable, they were surprisingly common at all levels of society then, especially in far-flung outposts like Sydney. Marriage offered protection, financial support and a chance to leave the past behind.

    Titania launches a business provisioning the ships leaving the wharves, profiting from her acumen and hard work, but dispensing kindness and help to others where she can.

    Wealthy, loving Viola lives with her guardian, Cousin Lionel, in the lavish house funded by her own inheritance.

    It’s difficult to say much more about the plot while avoiding spoilers. So I will instead focus on the issues and themes canvassed in the novel.

    The Gold Rushes play a major role in the plot line and set the scene for some of the drama. But the focus is also on the destructive nature of these crazy events: on families, on homes and businesses that overnight lost fathers, husbands, workers. And especially, on the fragile environment of this land.

    … the vegetable gardens, the fruit crop, the supplies in their storeroom were a treasure now – a treasure that could keep you alive, when specks of gold could not, and envied by men who had forgotten laws and rules, even if they had once obeyed them. There was no one they could ask for help…

    No Hearts of Gold p177

    Women’s lack of ownership over their wealth, possessions, future and even their children, and the control wielded by men, is another important current running through the novel. As is the ways in which many women, including our three protagonists, defied the systems and conventions that kept these inequities in place.

    An unexpected twist turns the story into a mystery involving a possible murder, a bushranger and a police detective.

    The novel packs in all this and more: but I think, at its heart is the precious nature of enduring friendships between women.

    Viola closed her eyes in sudden, deep pleasure. A friend one could say anything to. A friend who took you seriously, and not as a child, or one who must live up to the concept of ‘lady’.

    No Hearts of Gold p171

    No Hearts of Gold is another beauty of a Jackie French novel: a gripping mystery, a rollicking yarn, and an elegy to women’s strength and courage in a society that discouraged both.

    No Hearts of Gold is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of Harper Collins Punishers, in December 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Words & numbers for sharp-eyed youngsters: ‘Mrs Koala’s Beauty Parlour’ by Catherine Jinks and Tania McCartney

    Mrs Koala’s beauty parlour is so busy, with a succession of alliterative critters lining up to receive the feel-good ministrations of a skilled beauty therapist.

    Each double page spread features different services offered by Mrs Koala, with fun for little ones who can join in the countdown, alliterative text and searching for the beauty parlour key, cleverly hidden in each scene.

    There are 10 fancy frogs getting facials, 9 pampered porcupines getting perms, 8 trendy tigers getting trims, and so on, right down to 1 ‘kaput koala’ on the final page – Mrs Koala is tired after all that work!

    The attractive colour illustrations by Tania McCartney invite close examination of each busy scene – and of course little ones will love to find the key on each page.

    This is a sweet book that simply begs to be read aloud and I’m sure will be a favourite at story time.

    Mrs Koala’s Beauty Parlour is published by Working Title Press (an imprint of Harper Collins Children’s Books in February 2022.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    2022 Reading Challenges

    I’ve enjoyed participating in several reading challenges over the past few years. Kind of like being in a book club, it is an added incentive to read beyond my ‘usual’ genres, and especially to explore new authors or styles of writing.

    For 2022, here’s what I am aiming for:

    The Australian Women Writers Challenge has been going for 10 years and I’ve participated in the past few years.
    In 2022 the AWW blog will focus on ’19th and 20th century writers including authors who may not have achieved prominence in their lifetimes, or whose works have been forgotten and/or overlooked.’ I will join in discussion of contemporary Australian women writers in the AWW Facebook group Love Reading Books by Aussie Women.
    (No need for me to set a goal for this as I already ‘love reading books by Aussie women’!)

    The Aussie Author Reading Challenge hosted by Jo at Book Lover Reviews is a fun one for me: I love to read books by the amazing talented authors we have in this country. This year I will go again for the ‘Kangaroo‘ level, which means I will read and review 12 books written by Australian Authors, of which at least 4 of those authors are female, at least 4 of those authors are male, and at least 4 of those authors are new to me; Fiction or non-fiction, at least 3 different genre.

    Historical fiction reading challenge hosted by the Intrepid Reader : This year I will take on the ‘Mediaeval‘ level, meaning I will tackle a goal of reading 15 books during the year.

    Non Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by Shelleyrae at Book’d Out. I’ll go for the ‘Nibbler‘ level: 6 books, one from any 6 of the listed categories:

    1. Social History 2. Popular Science 3. Language 4. Medical Memoir 5. Climate/Weather 6. Celebrity 7. Reference
    8. Geography 9. Linked to a podcast 10. Wild Animals 11. Economics 12. Published in 2022

    And lastly, my own informal personal challenge: Continue to increase the number of works I read by First Nations authors and/or about First Nations cultures and histories, especially Australian. There are so many First Nations authors publishing wonderful works here just now and I always love discovering new ones.

    So that’s it for me for 2022. As always I expect to vary from my initial goals: either I read way more than I anticipate or miss out on a particular category somewhere along the line. It’s all just fun, and a way to be a little mindful of the books I choose.

    What will be your reading goals or challenges for the year ahead? Let me know in the comments.
    I hope you find yourself lost in the pages of excellent books throughout the year.