• Books and reading

    An unusual take on bodies and our world: ‘The Octopus and I’ by Erin Hortle

    I was drawn to this book by one of its themes – breast cancer and the effects of this disease on a person’s body and mind. Having myself had double mastectomy, chemotherapy and breast reconstruction, and read a lot of memoir and other non-fiction about breast cancer, it struck me as unusual to find a work of contemporary fiction about these experiences. I was right about this being an unusual novel, in more ways than I’d expected.

    The first pages plunge readers straight into the sea, where the narrator is an octopus, and the lyrical prose conjures the movements of water, seaweed, moonlight, air currents:

    I feel the surface sink and I feel I see moonlight with my skin and it is caught up in the eddies that bubble and swirl about my arms that curl and unfurl and the moonlight envelopes me caressing my arms as they caress the kelpy floor the kelpy shore.

    The Octopus and I p21 (ebook version)

    In this opening we learn that the octopus meets a human woman in the sea. From here the author introduces us to that woman, the protagonist Lucy, who is knitting… breasts.

    So, a unusual opening.

    The breasts, we discover, are prosthetic ones, because Lucy has had her natural breasts removed in surgery for breast cancer. Her psychologist suggests this knitting exercise to help Lucy work through her feelings about her new body and lack of breasts. And the link with the octopus? Well, that soon becomes clear as well.

    I can’t begin to describe the plot of this novel because it would be a spoiler for anyone who has not read it. I will say that it maintains its unusual style throughout, varying straight narrative about human characters with a more stream of consciousness style, when the author is describing experiences as they might be felt by animal characters: the octopuses, of course, but also seals and birds.

    Through these sections, she explores the impact of humans on the environment, at a micro level as well as bigger picture issues. We inhabit the bodies of animals and birds for just a moment and ‘see’ their world as they perhaps do.

    For me, the sections focussing on the human characters worked best, perhaps because of my own interest in the exploration of how people respond to cancer. This includes both the person with cancer but also, acquaintances and people close to her. Ms Hortle does this well:

    It was all avoidance and eggshells before, when all I had were scars and a bald head. And clearer still was the fact that it wasn’t so much the word remission but the fake breasts that relaxed everyone in my presence. That flick of the eyes, from my face to my chest, and I could see – almost feel – their shoulders soften, their exhale. It was if when my breasts entered the room, the elephant that was my cancer exited via the other door.

    The Octopus and I pp73-74 (ebook version)

    The novel is set in the coastal region of south-east Tasmania and I also enjoyed how the setting becomes a big part of the story.

    This novel will be of interest to people who enjoy a challenge in their reading, those who like a book to explore individual dilemmas and losses, and those who like fiction that asks questions about environmental issues we face today. The Octopus and I weaves all three into an unashamedly Australian story that will leave you thinking.

    The Octopus and I was published by Allen and Unwin in 2020.

  • Books and reading

    Domestic noir: ‘Other People’s Houses’ by Kelli Hawkins

    Kate, the protagonist of this psychological thriller set in Sydney, Australia, is not an especially attractive character – but then, in my experience, addicts rarely are. At the very least it can be difficult to live with someone who seems determined to create a train wreck of their life, which is what Kate does for much of this novel.

    Kate began her downward spiral ten years earlier, after the tragic deaths of her young son, Sascha and his father. Since then, she has (barely) held down an uninteresting job at a real estate agency, and spends her spare time drinking, eating junk food, and indulging in a new ‘hobby’ (read ‘obsession’) – attending open houses of properties for sale, and imagining the lives of the occupants.

    The reader is plunged head first into Kate’s world – her grimy, uninspiring flat, her abandoned dreams of becoming a photographer, her old car, frumpy appearance and self-neglect.

    It’s an uncomfortable space to be in, especially as we are also privy to her inner thoughts which are full of both self loathing and self justification.

    Kate fixates on one particular property, her ‘dream home’ in a wealthy suburb, and the apparently perfect family that live there. Her obsession grows deeper and more out of control as the novel progresses, resulting in tragedy and ultimately, danger.

    The cover design features a fractured image, representative of Kate’s fractured life. I empathised with the tragedy Kate had experienced and understood that her subsequent behaviour was due, in large part, to post traumatic stress disorder. Still, I found it hard to like Kate, particularly as the unfolding events are largely the consequence of her own behaviour, and because other people get caught up in the disasters.

    The strengths of this debut novel are its setting – Sydney’s northern beaches and north shore areas are portrayed well – and also the subtleties of a controlling and abusive relationship, as well as the inner workings of a damaged psyche.

    For me, the climax and resolution did not work as well.

    Other People’s Houses is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    More stuff I didn’t know! ‘The Codebreakers’ by Alli Sinclair

    Did you know that Australia had its own version of the Bletchley Park signals and cipher intelligence unit? No? Neither did I, until I read this new historical fiction by Australian author Alli Sinclair. Set in Queensland during WWII, it tells the story of the women and men who worked in a top secret organisation called Central Bureau.

    People were recruited from all walks of life. They needed level heads, problem solving skills, as well as an aptitude for mathematics, patterns, languages, commitment to the war effort and – of course – the ability to keep secrets. They all signed an official secrets act, which meant they could never talk about the work they did. Not to family, friends…anyone.

    I’ve often wondered how people who work in these sorts of roles, or in intelligence services more generally, manage to keep their working lives separate from the rest of their personal lives. For most people, work is such a big part of life and to keep it secret… well, I think it would be almost impossible.

    What I especially liked about The Codebreakers is that this aspect of their role is not avoided. In fact, the secrecy requirements and the difficulties this posed for women forms a key part of the story.

    Added to this is the portrayal of the other factors at play. The women recruited to Central Bureau were young, they lived in barracks and worked together every day, in a garage at the back of a mansion in a Brisbane street (most of the men worked inside the house itself). The women were dubbed ‘The Garage Girls’, and they formed strong bonds as a result of their experiences.

    Brisbane during WWII is portrayed brilliantly – the heady atmosphere of wartime; fear of imminent Japanese invasion; grief and heartache at the loss of loved ones killed in action; conflict between Australian and American servicemen; rationing; the quick courtships and impulsive marriages that sometimes happened; living with continual uncertainty and anxiety. It’s easy for us today, knowing what we know now, to forget that at the time, Australians did not know what the outcome would be. Reading this novel I found it easy to imagine how it would have felt, living with the possibility that Japanese soldiers might well arrive on the shores of northern Australia.

    The other aspect of the novel that is very convincing is the portrayal of how it felt for Australians, once peace was declared. Of course there was elation, joy, relief. For some, there was also sadness and a sense of let-down. We can understand that for the women in Central Bureau, their employment ceased almost immediately. They were expected to return to hearth and home, making way for the men as they returned from the services. The aftermath of war is not always easy, and they had to exchange the exciting, demanding, important work they had been doing, for more mundane roles at home or in jobs seen as suitable for women.

    Shadowed by the mansion at Nyrambla, this little garage had been the centre of her world for two and a half years. Its walls had witnessed the women handling some of the war’s most top-secret messages and ensuring they got into the right hands at Bletchley Park, Arlington Hall and countless outposts around the world. The messages they’d decrypted and encrypted had saved lives and helped the troops come back to their loved ones. All this happened under the roof of a regular-looking garage in suburban Brisbane and no one outside Central Bureau would ever be the wiser.

    The Codebreakers p324

    If you enjoy finding out about lesser known aspects of Australian life during WWII – and particularly the more unusual roles performed by some women – you’ll love The Codebreakers. There is a light touch of romance in the story, though the main themes are to do with friendship, courage and the many ways in which lives are changed by war.

    The Codebreakers is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Confounding and intriguing: ‘One Last Dance’ by Emma Jane Holmes

    As I read this debut by Emma Jane Holmes, it occurred to me that perhaps everyone should read a book like this. Not necessarily this exact book, but a book that confounds and challenges a closely held belief about some aspect of the world.

    This was one such book for me. Let me explain why.

    The subtitle of one Last Dance is this:
    My Life in Mortuary Scrubs & G-Strings.

    So, this is no memoir of an ‘ordinary’ life, lived in the clear daylight. Much of the author’s working life has been spent inside, behind closed doors (a mortuary and funeral home) and also a nightclub, where she worked nights as an exotic dancer under glitter balls and low stage lighting. This is where the G-strings come in, obviously.

    I have always been uncomfortable with what I have regarded as the exploitation of women under the male gaze. I acknowledge that there are women from the adult industry who have begun to speak out about what they do and their role, defying the stereotypes of oppressed women. But my discomfort lingers and that is why I found this book to be a confounding read.

    I also found it engrossing, sometimes amusing, often touching.

    Emma Jane tells of her happy childhood on a farm in rural Australia, her loving family, and her childhood pull toward things to do with death. As a child she buried dead animals she came across on the farm and created headstones for them. She explored cemeteries. Her much loved Nan’s death and funeral propelled her into thinking about a job in the industry that had cared for her Nan after she died.

    Unusual, right?

    Her thinking about dying and death led her to regard it as a beautiful part of life. She approached her eventual work in the funeral industry as a necessary service but also an opportunity to make things better for the grieving people left behind.

    Her memoir includes so much detail about what happens when a person dies, how the deceased are collected (from hospitals, mortuaries, private homes, accident sites and aged care homes); how staff of a funeral home prepare a body for burial or cremation; the wide array of choices available to loved ones as to how to say a final goodbye (and some of the more unusual choices she’s observed); the protocols around Western-style funerals.

    Always, Emma Jane speaks of the clients (both the deceased and living) with utmost respect and recognition: of the life that person lived, of the mortality of us all, and of the sadness experienced by loved ones. I loved her accounts of talking to a deceased as she prepared them, or the little extra tributes she’d offer.

    As someone who has attended quite a few funerals in recent years, including that of a parent, I can only hope that the people looking after those loved ones had a similar approach to their role.

    Inevitably, there are stories of things that can go wrong; of black humour as a way of releasing stress; but also of the camaraderie and support that workers offer each other.

    After a difficult divorce, Emma Jane found bills and debts mounting and she looked to the adult industry, initially anyway, as a way of earning quick money to shore up her finances. Overcoming her initial hesitation she threw herself into her night time role as exotic dancer with the same enthusiasm as she did her day job. She found it to be, in a strange way, a kind of respite, an escape from the world and a way of healing.

    That is absolutely not how I would expect a woman who strips for money to describe her experience.

    Exhausting? Yes, especially after a full day’s work as a funeral director. Degrading? According to this author, never.

    Dancers are just regular – actually, extraordinary – ladies who walk down the street, shop at the grocer, stand in line with the rest of us at the chemist. Just like Death, exotic dancers are all around us. I pine for the day society stops turning their noses up at the adult industry. I wish for people to not be so quick to judge a woman just because she dresses in sequins after dark.

    One Last Dance p264-265

    While Ms Holmes eventually gave away her dancing work, her thoughts on what her dual experiences gave her summed up beautifully here:

    …Death taught me to live my best life. I came to appreciate the smallest of things, like a fresh cup of coffee and the sound of wind at night. In any moment I could cease living… Death has enriched my soul in the most beautiful way and has strengthened my soul like I never thought possible…
    But Madison {her nightclub stage name}…she’s taught me I can be pretty. I can be powerful…She’s taught me how fit I can be and that my body looks damn fine with abs. Madison has taught me that I don’t need a spouse to help me in life if I choose singledom; I can pay my own way.

    One Last Dance p279

    An oppressed, exploited woman? I don’t think so. And if I was to die tomorrow and find myself in the care of Ms Holmes in her funeral director’s suit, I would be fortunate indeed.
    If you read and enjoyed The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein, I’m certain you will be equally intrigued by this insight into two different worlds.

    One Last Dance is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2021. My thanks to the publishers for an opportunity to review the book.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Fact & fiction merge: ‘The Royal Correspondent’ by Alexandra Joel

    I first encountered the work of Sydney based writer Alexandra Joel when I read her work of narrative non-fiction Rosetta: A Scandalous True Story. This book was a good example of how truth is, indeed, often stranger than fiction. In her new novel, The Royal Correspondent, fiction is blended with real people and events from Australia and England in the early 1960’s.

    The author is the daughter of Sir Asher Joel, who was born in the Sydney suburb of Enmore, and went on to a long and esteemed career in journalism and the press. So it is not surprising that much of the action of this novel takes place in the rough and ready (and male dominated) world of daily newspapers.

    Blaise Hill is a young woman from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’, as Enmore was regarded in the sixties, but with a passionate desire to be a journalist. She battles the entrenched sexism and outright hostility of the many men she encounters who believe that a woman’s place is at home and certainly not at a typewriter.

    Much to her surprise and delight, she is sent to London to cover the wedding of Princess Margaret to photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, and then the opportunity to become the newspaper’s permanent royal correspondent lands in her lap.

    Of course, it is not all easy sailing for Blaise. She has a secret that she cannot share with anyone. And there are two men in her life: one with secrets of his own, and one who appears to be kind, attentive, and very much in love with her. Eventually, she has to decide who to trust.

    Blaise finds, to her horror, that she has somehow become entangled in a dangerous set of circumstances – and that rather than reporting on the stories, she has herself become one.

    The novel’s settings (both Sydney and London) are vividly portrayed: the poverty of her childhood, with the scourge of a polio outbreak and the struggle to make ends meet, is contrasted with the glamour and excitement of the ‘swinging sixties’ in London and the pomp and ceremony of Royal events.

    Blaise is a relatable character: her deep love for her family and her determination to succeed in her career are set against her uncertainty in the new situations she must confront. I also liked that she has a bit of a temper which occasionally lands her in trouble!

    What I enjoyed most about The Royal Correspondent was the seamless way in which real-life characters and events from this time are dropped into the narrative. I had fun spotting the personalities and scandals that filled newspapers and magazines in the decade of my childhood.

    It’s also a good reminder, if one were needed, of the barriers that prevented the full participation of women in the workplace and society: unequal pay; the sequestering by men of the important and interesting jobs (leaving most female journalists working on the ‘women’s pages’ of publications); the requirement that women resign from public sector jobs once they married; male-only clubs; a bar against women entering public bars; just to name a few.

    I thought The Royal Correspondent was, in parts, a little reminiscent of a twentieth-century Pride and Prejudice. However, I enjoyed the characters and setting, and the intrigue kept my interest throughout. There is an informative Author’s Note (which I always love to read, especially in novels with an historical setting) which pinpoints the inspiration for many of the novel’s component parts. Overall, The Royal Correspondent is a satisfying read.

    The Royal Correspondent is published by HarperCollins Australia in February 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Gorgeous homage to grandmas everywhere: ‘What Do You Call Your Grandma?’ by Ashleigh Barton & Martina Heiduczek

    The companion to What Do You Call Your Grandpa? is a celebration in words and pictures of the special relationship between kids and their grandmothers.

    Featuring the words for ‘grandma’ in languages such as Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Warlpiri, Greek, Icelandic and Maori, among others, the simple four-line texts on each double page spread invites readers to try out the various words, while enjoying the warm relationships depicted.

    The illustrations present grandmothers of all kinds: fun-loving, musical, glamorous, artistic, excellent cooks and nature lovers.

    This is a beautiful follow up to the first grandparent book, and highly recommended for children and grandmas to enjoy together.

    What Do You Call Your Grandma? is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    A fun mix of history and fantasy for middle grade readers: ‘The World Between Blinks’ by Amie Kaufman & Ryan Graudin

    Amie Kaufman is a much-loved writer of fantasy and adventure for middle grade and young adult readers. She has teamed up with another best-selling author, Ryan Graudin, for a new middle grade series, of which The World Between Blinks is Book One.

    First of all, this is such a cool title reflecting an equally cool premise: that there is another world that exists in parallel with our own, that some people (especially youngsters) can occasionally get a fleeting glimpse or sense of it – in between blinks.

    The book lives up to its promise of terrific world-building by the authors, some adventure, a treasure map and lots of magic, and engaging characters, especially the two protagonists, cousins Jake and Marisol, who arrive in the world by accident and must find the one person who can help them return home.

    Being a history nut, I especially enjoyed the way the story is peppered with figures and events from the past. The World between Blinks is the place where lost things are found, so the cousins come across many ‘lost’ people and things: aviatrix Amelia Earhart; former Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt; a thylacine (the extinct Tasmanian Tiger); brown M&M’s; London’s Crystal Palace; a Viking; the Ninth Roman Legion are just some examples.

    My feeling is that this would be a great springboard for some ferreting in a library or the internet by youngsters keen to discover who and what and when and why. I confess to doing a bit of ‘Googling’ of some of the references with which I was less familiar.

    The historical gems are dropped in with humour and a light touch and they add much to the story.

    At a deeper level, The World between Blinks explores memories, what it means to leave friends and places behind, and what makes family special.

    But what Marisol was really trying to hold on to was her family’s togetherness, and you couldn’t keep that in your hand any more than you could catch a puff of smoke…You couldn’t use a particular thing or a certain place to make your life just the way you wanted.
    But you could hold onto love…
    You could hold onto the things that made you you.

    The World Between Blinks p255

    An added bonus is the way in which so many cross cultural references are included, including American, Australian, Bolivian. Marisol and her parents speak both Spanish and English so Spanish expressions are effortlessly woven into the dialogue without losing the meaning and flow of the narrative.

    The World Between Blinks is a wonderful beginning to a new middle grade fantasy series. It will be enjoyed by readers who like adventure, magic, and a little history, all rolled into a satisfying package.

    The World Between Blinks is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Sweet celebration of friends: ‘Super Cute – The Sleepover Surprise’ by Pip Bird

    Things cute and cuddly have an undeniable appeal for children, so Pip Bird’s Super Cute series of early chapter books are well aimed. The stories feature kittens, unicorns, bunnies, and mice, as well as muffins, milkshakes and sloths. Everything is sparkly, multicoloured and magical.

    In The Sleepover Surprise, Sammy can’t wait for all his friends to arrive for his special sleepover night. He’s planned a spaghetti dinner and a treasure hunt. Everyone turns up, as instructed, in dress-up onesies, ready to have fun at the Museum of Most Important Items (MOMII).

    What Sammy hasn’t counted on is that his party will be gatecrashed by Clive, a particularly nasty and selfish little chihuahua. Even wearing a tutu, Clive is an unwelcome guest, but the friends try their best to include him in the fun.

    They also look after each other, especially when little Pip the Pineapple (who has never been to a sleepover before) has a moment of the collywobbles.

    All is well as the party group find the treasure hunt clues and work out ways to make MOMII an exciting and fun place to visit. But Clive the Chihuahua has one last trick up his onesie sleeve that threatens to turn the party into chaos…

    While I find too much ‘cute’ a bit cloying, I enjoyed the playfulness of the story and language, such as poking fun at oh-so-serious museums, and the rhyming and alliterative jokes.

    I had a chuckle that the ‘baddie’ in this story is a chihuahua, as it one breed of dog that I actually loathe. Don’t get me started on them – you either love or hate chihuahuas, it seems to me!

    Super Cute – The Sleepover Surprise will appeal to young readers starting on chapter books, and the illustrations throughout support the story. Kids who love unicorns, sparkles and cupcakes will love this series.

    Super Cute – The Sleepover Surprise was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2021.

    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Gentle story of loss & resilience: ‘Penguin Bloom: Young Readers’ Edition’ by Chris Kuntz

    If you have been to an Australian cinema this year you will have at least seen the posters advertising the movie Penguin Bloom. It’s based on the real-life story of the Bloom family in Sydney: Sam and her husband Cameron, who with their three young sons faced tragedy head-on when Sam was injured in an accident whilst on a family holiday in Thailand.

    She went from being an active young mum who loved surfing and running on their nearby beach, to a broken woman confined to a wheelchair. She was depressed, traumatised – and angry, too. She struggled with the impact this huge change had on her young family and despaired of ever feeling like a ‘real mum’ again.

    When an injured baby magpie is introduced to the family, this little bird transforms their lives. ‘Penguin’ brings hope, purpose and companionship to Sam and the boys and shows Sam a path back from despair.

    Cameron captured the story of Penguin’s time with the family on camera and Instagram and it was published in Sam’s 2016 memoir of the experience. Now a feature film starring Naomi Watts, it’s been a hit at the cinemas this summer. Perhaps its popularity reflects the need we have just now for stories of hope and overcoming hardships.

    The version of the story published for young readers is based on the screenplay and told from the point of view of Noah, one of the three boys. It expresses the confusion and sadness and yes, guilt, that children can experience when tragedy strikes. It doesn’t shirk from the anger and stress that bubbles within the family but is essentially a story of love and hope.

    Penguin Bloom Young Readers’ Edition is a gentle way to introduce the concepts of loss and resilience to youngsters, from a child’s point of view. It will be particularly enjoyed by children who love nature, wildlife and caring for animals.

    Penguin Bloom Young Readers’ Edition was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in January 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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

    Sibling rivalry with a laugh: ‘Can You Do This?’ by Michael Wagner & Heath McKenzie

    If you had a sibling, or more than one child, you’d be familiar with the tendency of brothers and sisters to try to outdo each other. Sometimes this is a bid for parental attention and approval, and at others it can be put down to plain old competitiveness. Parents the world over have been irritated and amused as their children vie for ‘top dog’ status.

    Can You Do This? brings such situations to life, with a younger brother performing all sorts of antics to impress his older brother, who dismisses him each time with a casual wave, wink, laugh, or ‘too easy’.

    The illustrations are in bright, bold colours; the brothers are depicted as mice, though other animals appear in scenes throughout.

    The feats of the little brother become more and more daring and skilful, and the punchline comes in a laugh-out-loud moment on the final page.

    The moral of the story is ‘Don’t believe everything you’re told’ which feels especially relevant just now!

    Can You Do This? is a fun, light hearted look at sibling rivalry that children – and parents – will enjoy.

    Can You Do This? is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2021
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.