• Children's & Young Adult Books

    Picture books for Christmas: ‘A Very Play School Christmas’ & ‘The Christmas Bum Book’

    I love giving books at Christmas and these two new picture books arrive at a perfect time for people wanting to squirrel away a few gifts in readiness for the big day.

    For little fans of the long-running ABC series ‘Play School,’ A Very Play School Christmas takes readers on holiday with Jemima, the Teds (Big and Little), Kiya, Humpty and Joey. There are all the delights of a Christmas holiday: a gift treasure hunt, decorating a tree, crackers and Christmas hats, Christmas crafts and a Lucky Dip.

    It’s a gentle tale of fun with friends; the soft illustrations by Jedda Robaard add to the sweetness of the story by Jan Stradling (who was an Executive Producer for the TV show.) Littlies will love spending time with their Play School friends at Christmas time.

    The Christmas Bum Book by Kate Mayes is described as ‘a book for anyone who has a bum or anyone who likes Christmas or anyone who has a bum AND likes Christmas.’ Okay, so that likely includes most preschoolers – bums and toilet jokes are a mainstay of this age group. I must confess, though, that this adult is a little bit tired of the trope.

    What saves this one from being tiresome are the clever illustrations by Andrew Joyner, which creatively take Christmas motifs (a chimney, a manger, turkeys and nuts, glitter and carols, for example) and incorporate a charmingly depicted ‘bum’ somewhere in the mix. Kids will probably love this book for the opportunity to say ‘bum’ multiple times (or even better, to hear adults say it.)

    These two picture books are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for review copies.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Another view of history: ‘Tongerlongeter’ by Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements

    I adore Tasmania, the island state off the southern tip of mainland Australia. One of my special places there is the Freycinet Peninsula and Oyster Bay region, on the east coast. Rimmed by the imposing hills called the Hazards, with pristine bushland and clear turquoise seas, it’s a beautiful part of the country.

    How I wish I had known more of the history of this area when I visited.

    This peaceful corner of Tasmania was home to the Oyster Bay people, who along with the rest of Tasmania’s First Nations, suffered greatly during the colonisation process in the early 1800’s. As white settlers moved further into the countryside with their animals, putting up fences, turning productive hunting and gathering territory into grazing land, the line of farms moving northwards from Hobart began to meet those coming south from Launceston. Kidnappings and sickening abuses of their women and girls by sealers and whalers fractured the economic and social foundations on which daily life had been based. All this resulted in a hairline crack in Tongerlongeter’s world that would soon become a critical rupture. p69

    …as long as there remained some hope of avoiding all-out war, Tongerlongeter and his allies appear to have grudgingly tolerated the strangers’ presence provided they did them no violence. By the middle of the decade, though, enough colonists were actively seeking to harm them that bands like the Poredarame were regularly taking retributive action.

    Tongerlongeter p87

    Tongerlongeter was a leader of the Oyster Bay people who, together with those from further west known as the Big River mob, met this threat head on, with armed and violent resistance. During the 1820’s and early 1830’s the Oyster Bay and Big River war parties launched at least 711 attacks on white farms and property, killing or wounding hundred and damaging or burning huts or homes. Much of this took place close to Hobart and surrounding districts.

    Of course, retribution was swift and brutal. The imposition of British law at the start of the colony meant that any resistance was seen as criminal behaviour or rebellion, not warfare against an invading enemy. The infamous ‘Black Line’ in 1830 saw over 2000 settlers, soldiers and convicts walking across country, trying to capture or kill First Nations people. Not just warriors but old people, women and children were caught up in acts of retribution and killed, injured or captured.

    It is a story of terrible brutality with atrocities committed on both sides. I had known something of the so-called ‘Black Wars’ of the colonial period, and the ‘Black Line’. Tongerlongeter fills out the narrative, painting a picture of the main protagonists, both white and Black.

    The sad ending to this particular chapter came with the exile of Tongerlongeter with his band and others, to a settlement on Flinders Island in Bass Strait. In an all-too-familiar story, illness and death cut a swathe through a people already grieving for their country and their loved ones.

    In this book, Reynolds and Clements argue that the actions of Tongerlongeter and his people should be seen as a military campaign of resistance against armed invaders. They were fighting for their country and their way of life. Not so different, really, from the Allies fighting against the Nazi invasion of much of Europe during the 1940’s. The Black Line was, according to the authors, the largest domestic military offensive on Australian soil. If we look at what happened from this angle, it is an easy step to regard Tongerlongeter and other leaders as war heroes.

    The book questions why Tongerlongeter and his compatriots are not remembered in the same way as other Australians since that time, who were killed or injured in war? Why have the wars of resistance in Tasmania and elsewhere never been included in Australia’s official list of armed conflicts?

    Another point they make is that the ‘Black Wars’ in Tasmania had far-reaching effects both locally and internationally. For example, the fear that the Tasmanian wars inspired amongst settlers and the British government brought about considerations of how to come to agreements with First Nations peoples before new colonies were established – with of course, mixed results. A powerful humanitarian lobby was growing which eventually led to the abolition of slavery.

    I was interested in the reported views of commentators in the 1830’s and 1840’s, some from far away Britain, which canvassed more nuanced, honest and critical views of Empire and its consequences, than are expressed by some people in Australia today.

    I would highly recommend Tongerlongeter as a book to get you thinking; a narrative which presents another view of Australian history.

    Tongerlongeter was published by NewSouth in 2021.

  • Books and reading

    Uncomfortable truths: ‘The Mother’ by Jane Caro

    Jane Caro’s first work of fiction for adults channels the confusion and anger that so many Australians experience when confronted with news of the latest tragedy involving intimate partner/family violence and abuse. The community is forced to look at this when news breaks of a murder-suicide or the slaughter of a mother and her children by a controlling partner or ex-partner. These events happen all too frequently. During the ‘in between times’, people forget and resume their lives. This book tells the story of what can happen during those times, the events leading up to the next tragedy, and what happens afterward.

    The Mother is told from the perspective of Miriam, a middle- aged woman grieving the recent death of her husband, whose daughter Allison has married after a whirlwind romance. Nick, a vet, appears to be a loving and considerate husband devoted to his new wife. There are some historical fractures in the mother-daughter relationship, and this is what Miriam is concerned about the most as she tries to support her daughter through the loss of her father, her marriage and the birth of two babies.

    The novel starts off slowly. In retrospect, I see that this is a way of illustrating the development of an abusive relationship: the controls that start to be imposed by the abuser, sometimes too subtle for family, friends and even the victim to clearly identify. Often there will be an event which results in a sudden escalation of the type and frequency of abusive incidents and behaviours. All too often, as in Ally’s case in this story, it is the birth of a baby, meaning that the abuser increases their threats and controlling behaviour at precisely the time when the woman is at her most vulnerable. Brave, aren’t they, these abusers?

    By the time Miriam realises the dreadful truth of her daughter’s marriage, things are very serious indeed. It’s not a plot spoiler to say that she decides to prepare herself – for what, she is not certain. The book opens with a prologue in which Miriam is at a gun shop, purchasing a weapon, though she cannot say what she plans to do with it.

    Where this book excels is the portrayal of behaviour now called ‘coercive control’: the monitoring, gaslighting, stalking, financial, sexual and emotional control the abuser wields. It can at times be subtle and at others terrifyingly threatening and/or violent. It keeps the victim walking on proverbial eggshells, constantly wondering if it is she who is at fault, when the next blow up will happen, if that will be the time he finally kills her, or the children or pets.

    Thankfully, there is much more awareness and understanding of this today, but in case anyone is wondering if the novel over-dramatises things, I’d suggest reading a few court transcripts or newspaper reports of cases. As with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, there is not a single thing in this novel that is not representative of real-life events. The creativity and energy of abusers to find ways in which to hurt or scare their victims is amazing.

    The other strength of the book is the character of Miriam. Her doubts, fears, and grief are all beautifully portrayed. It is her love for her family that shines through. In this, I can vouch for its accuracy. My mother was the person who accompanied me to the Family Court during long three years in which the person who had most damaged me used the court as a way of hurting me once I was no longer in physical harm’s way. The best way of terrorising a mother is, indeed, through her children. A loving mother will do whatever she can to ensure the safety of her child or grandchild.

    The Mother is written in accessible language and is a quick read, but at times, a confronting one. Thank you, Jane Caro, for writing a book that tells uncomfortable truths in such a relatable way.

    The Mother was published by Allen& Unwin in March 2022.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Wartime, pasta & Dean Martin: ‘The Proxy Bride’ by Zoë Boccabella

    Can you imagine boarding a ship to voyage across the world to live in an unfamiliar country, learn a new language AND join a man you had never met, as his wife? This was the life changing decision of thousands of young Italian women and their families in the period leading up to WWII, and is the basis of The Proxy Bride. The brides in question were married ‘by proxy’ in Italy (with a male family member standing in for the groom, who was far away in Australia) before leaving to begin their new lives.

    Why did they leave their homeland under such circumstances? According to the author, it was a combination of desperate poverty in Italy, Italian men already in Australia outnumbering potential brides of Italian birth, and a desire by families to give their daughters a chance for a better future.

    I was surprised to learn of this chapter of Australia’s migrant history. The Proxy Bride tells a compelling and sympathetic story of hope, loss, homesickness, culture and prejudice, putting the historical events into a relatable context.

    Gia is a courageous protagonist, travelling towards a future with Taddeo, a quiet man who has established himself in Queensland’s Stanthorpe region, growing apples and peaches and mixing mainly with other Italian migrants in the district. When Gia arrives, there is no spark of romance between the new couple. Some of her compatriots who had travelled with her on the voyage to Australia have more luck with their arranged marriages, others less so. It is essentially a ‘pot luck’ scenario, but mostly, the couples try to make the best of what fate has sent their way, working hard to establish themselves and earn a living.

    Unfortunately for Gia (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint), there is an immediate and lasting spark between her and a neighbouring farmer, Keith, though they both know that nothing permanent can come of their connection.

    Then along comes the outbreak of war and Italian men (now considered ‘enemy aliens’) are taken to internment camps for an indefinite period, leaving behind bewildered women wondering how they can support themselves until their husbands return. The women need to learn new skills and manage the tasks previously done by their menfolk, to ensure a harvest that will allow them to live and feed themselves and their children.

    They do this by banding together, supporting each other while facing shame, ridicule, and bullying from many in the local community. We must not forget that this was during the era of the ‘White Australia’ policy and before the influx of European migrants brought about by the end of the war. Wartime suspicion of anyone seen as aligned with Germany, Italy or Japan ran deep.

    At the same time, newsreel footage portrays parts of Italy suffering under heavy bombardment by Allied forces, so the women live with the agony of not knowing if their families back home are safe.

    In between Gia’s story, the author has woven in the first-person narrative of her grand-daughter, Sofie, who has come to spend the summer holidays with Gia. Sofie is sixteen, that tender age during which young people test their boundaries, seek out their own identity, and (sometimes) begin to see their parents and grandparents with fresh eyes, as people in their own right, with lives and loves and experiences apart from those connected with their children.

    Sofie’s story is complicated by the fact that she has never known her father, and there seems to be secrecy around his identity. Even as Gia shares with Sofie the story of her early life in Australia, her ‘proxy bride’ status and the painful events during the war, there remains a reluctance to venture into Sofie’s own beginnings.

    The way in which Gia’s and Sofie’s stories connect is revealed towards the novel’s climax. It’s not an easy story to tell or hear, but it allows Sofie to move closer to her mother, grandmother, and Italian extended family and community.

    Gia plays her beloved Dean Martin albums on near constant rotation, so his voice is the backdrop to Sofie’s holiday time with her grandmother – as is cooking.

    Each of Sofie’s chapters is named after a particular dish her grandmother makes, always based on traditional Calabrian recipes. And Gia loves to use chilli, from a plant grown from seeds her own grandmother gave her when she left Italy so long ago. ‘Angry spaghetti’ is a favoured dish (spaghetti all’Arrabbiata Calabrese) and I was delighted to discover the recipe for this and quite a few other special dishes made by Gia in the novel, at the back of the book. It absolutely felt like a gift from Gia to me, the reader!

    Cooking is a theme throughout the novel and a beautiful metaphor to express the ways in which love, culture, connection and family can be passed on through favoured recipes, cooking and sharing food together.

    ‘Go on. Close your eyes. Breathe in.’
    The sharp tang hit my nostrils first, then a little bit of acridity, followed by sweetness and last of all a current of mellow earthy oil. I open my eyes to Nonna Gia beaming.
    ‘It’s the same scent your ancestors breathed when they cooked this dish.’
    And just then it was almost as if the aroma released a trigger of deep memories that let things rise up and take shape in ourselves.

    The Proxy Bride p369

    The Proxy Bride shines a light into a little-known or understood corner of the migrant story in Australia, told through complex characters no doubt informed by the author’s own family experiences as Italian migrants. I learnt a lot and enjoyed the read.

    The Proxy Bride is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Friendships and memory: ‘True Friends’ by Patti Miller

    Upon opening Australian author Patti Miller’s latest book, I immediately began thinking about my own friends, past and present. I have been fortunate to have experienced sustained, deep, nurturing friendships throughout my life, but of course there have been some that have fallen away as the years went on – mostly gradually through changed life circumstances, but one or two abruptly and somewhat painfully.

    True Friends is an exploration of friendship but also of memory: when considering the people and events in our past, what Patti Miller calls the ‘questionable vault of memory’ will inevitably get things wrong, or in a muddled order. Tightly linked with memories are sounds, smells, tastes, places, feelings; even if we get some facts wrong, these things bind the event or moment to the memory and help to bring it alive once again.

    First there is the original experience, but even at that stage, before interpretation or memory, so much is unobserved, unrecorded. A few moments of colour and sound are partially registered and then all that is left are the neurotransmitters floating from axon to dendrite, hopefully creating a neural pathway. The lovely, faulty, biochemical science of friendship.

    True Friends p167

    She describes the epic poem Gilgamesh, written on clay tablets up to two thousand years before Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey were written, as the first story – and it is, essentially, all about friendship. The need for connection, contact and understanding with another is a fundamental trait from the deep past of humanity right through to modern times. Thinking about this, I wondered why there have not been many more non-fiction books on the topic of friends.

    This book is about friendships generally, and the author’s friendships specifically, but it is told through the framing device of one friendship in particular which did not last, and which ended in a way that left her feeling bewildered and hurt. She describes the period of time during which she struggled to recognise the end of the relationship as ‘the long bewilderment.’

    I’m certain that many reading this book will recognise the pain of this.

    Overall, though, the book is a hymn to friends and the richness they add to our lives, in all their complexities and challenges:

    For me, loving friendship is not a fusion with another, but it is a rickety swing bridge to a separate being, and even though I know it can fall away in to the abyss, the urge to step onto it is always there…when I am with a friend, I am woven into the human mystery.

    True Friends p279

    I have enjoyed every book by Patti Miller that I have read, and this one is no exception. It is a book to savour, one that made me laugh and sigh in recognition, and that I continued to think about long after I’d closed the cover.

    True Friends is published by University of Queensland Press in 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Courage and sacrifice: ‘The Librarian Spy’ by Madeline Martin

    I recently heard a podcast interview with Sulari Gentill, best-selling Australian author, in which she reported a comment made to her that people who love books will pick up any book with the word ‘librarian’ in the title. While it made me chuckle, I have to admit that it’s probably quite correct. I was definitely attracted to this book about a librarian, and also the setting – World War II Europe – combine librarian and spy and it’s a winner!

    The novel actually features two women. There is Hélène, whose husband Joseph has been arrested for suspected Resistance activities and taken to the notorious Montluc prison in Lyon. An act of generosity by Hélène sees her forced to adopt a new identity as Elaine, as she throws herself into work for the Resistance, producing newspapers and leaflets banned by the Nazi occupiers of France.

    The librarian of the title is Ava, sent from her job in the Washington DC Library of Congress to Lisbon in Portugal, where she joins others from the US and Britain, gathering foreign language publications that might assist Allied intelligence efforts.

    These two women exist in very different worlds. The French are under the Nazi jackboot, facing peril and starvation every day. Portugal on the other hand is officially neutral, with plenty of food, wine and fine clothing for those with money, though there is an undercurrent of intrigue and danger, which Ava is at first unaware of.

    Portugal is also the last ‘safe’ place for refugees from German occupied Europe to escape to, and there await precious visas and travel tickets to Britain or the US. Ava witnesses the distress and difficulties faced by these people and she tries to help where she can.

    The descriptions of people in Lisbon during this time bring to mind the setting of the classic film Casablanca, which was similarly a refuge for people fleeing Nazi atrocities.

    Children chased one another about in a game of tag while their parents held cups of coffee and tea, engaged in their dismal low-toned conversations. The faces changed from time to time, but the situations were always the same. Adults waiting for the little ones to be distracted before whispering their fears to one another.
    What if a visa didn’t arrive in time and the PDVE {Portugal’s secret police} came for them? What if a boat ticket couldn’t be found and they had to start the process over again? What if the money ran out? What if Germany attacked Portugal and they had nowhere to go?

    The Librarian Spy p190

    In their attempts to rescue a Jewish mother and child from Lyon, Elaine and Ava connect, unseen across borders, and the events play out with plenty of suspense and heightened emotion.

    As always when reading historical fiction, I learned new things while reading The Librarian Spy, due to the wonderful detail included throughout. I didn’t know, for example, that Charles de Gaulle had declared the city of Lyon to be the ‘centre of the French Resistance’.

    And one regret is that when I visited Lyon a few years ago, I didn’t know about the ‘traboules’, secret passageways originally for silk workers in mediaeval times to aid their movements around the city, and used to great advantage by Resistance members to avoid detection by the Germans.

    The Librarian Spy was published in Australia in July 2022 by HQ Fiction.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    ‘In-betweenness’: ‘The Cult of Romance’ by Sarah Ayoub

    In a classic case of judging a book by its cover, my first thought on picking up The Cult of Romance was ‘Oh no, another YA novel drenched in teenage angst about boys!’

    Well, I am here to admit that in that, I was wrong: thoroughly, comprehensively wrong.

    What Australian journalist and author Sarah Ayoub has written is a funny, wise and very relevant portrayal of growing up in multicultural Australia. All about identity, culture and belonging, it explores what it means to be a young Lebanese-Australian women – and a feminist – while trying to be supportive as your best friend heads towards a ridiculously young marriage.

    The novel is full of amusing asides such as: 5 things you expect your best friend to bring back from a Lebanese holiday (the list does not include an engagement ring), that highlight the sometimes difficult, often funny, aspects of contemporary life for the children and grandchildren of immigrants.

    Crucially, it explores the ‘in-betweenness’ of these young people : there is the traditional culture of the homeland as it was when the parent / grandparent left that remains real to that family member; the contemporary society that has developed there since they left; and the world inhabited by the young person who was born into a different country and culture.

    The protagonist, Natalie, comes face to face with this when she travels to Lebanon for her friend’s wedding, as she is confronted with all that she doesn’t know or understand about the country that her grandmother, her Tayta, had left so many years before.

    That night as I lie in bed, I think about my inheritance. Not a house or money or family heirlooms, but that very feeling of straddling two separate identities, crystallised in small moments, like that one on the train today. Lebanese stories on Australian trains, being told to sit like a girl, judgement for my otherness in my own homeland. ‘Your mother made such an effort to teach you Arabic,’ Tayta had said.

    The Cult of Romance p115

    Natalie is an engaging and believable character and I admired her strenuous efforts to understand and to learn. There is a romantic thread (which is in itself interesting as Natalie is a self-proclaimed ‘anti-romantic’) but the true arc of the story is her journey to more understanding and acceptance of herself and others.

    The Cult of Romance is a terrific book for young people to enjoy and to reflect on the differences and similarities that make us human.

    It was published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    “Gus and the Starlight’ by Victoria Carless

    It’s rare for a novel aimed at middle grade readers to deal openly with issues of family instability and broken or difficult parental relationships. Aussie author Victoria Carless has achieved this, while imbuing her story with a sense of hope (and a smidgen of the supernatural).

    Gus is twelve. At the novel’s opening she is in a car with her mum, older sister Alice and little brother Artie. They are driving through the day and night – actually, several days and nights – heading north to Queensland. Her mother, Delphine, is escaping another difficult boyfriend, looking for a fresh start with her kids, somewhere where Troy won’t find them. Equally importantly, she wants to find a place to live where the locals won’t know about her work as a spiritual medium, which she’s keen to leave behind because of all the sadness it brings.

    So, not entirely a ‘regular’ family then, especially as it becomes clear that the girls of the family tend to inherit ‘the gift’ (connecting with the dead) at puberty. Will the gift – or curse, depending on your viewpoint – manifest itself in Gus and her sister?

    The family lands in the small township of Calvary, surrounded by sugarcane fields, where Delphine plans to restore and run the long-neglected drive-in cinema, the Starlight.

    Gus has learnt long ago not to put down roots, make friends, or get used to the places that her family stay in, because it’s too painful when the inevitable happens and they have to leave. Despite herself though, she becomes fascinated by the workings of the old-fashioned film projection equipment and learns to operate it, with the help of Henry, who may or may not be a ghost.

    The descriptions of the drive-in and the surrounding Queensland countryside are vivid and will resonate with anyone who remembers drive-ins of yesteryear, or who has driven through such semi-tropical parts of Australia. The novel is, in a way, a homage to some of the terrific films of the 1980’s and 90’s, such as ET, Strictly Ballroom, Ghostbusters, and The Princess Bride. Each film has something to say to Gus and to the locals, who eventually flock back to the drive-in.

    Their landlady, Deidre, proves to be problematic, but by the time of the showdown, Gus and her family have developed a degree of self awareness and confidence and prove to be more than a match for their bullying landlady.

    Gus and the Starlight is part coming-of-age story, part magical realism, and all heart.
    It was published by HarperCollins Children’s books in May 2022.
    My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Another celebration of diversity: ‘How Do You Say I Love You?’ by Ashleigh Barton & Martina Heiduczek

    How Do You Say I Love You? is a new picture book in a gorgeous series by author Ashleigh Barton and illustrator Martina Heiduczek, celebrating languages and cultures from around the world. Previous titles are What Do You Call Your Grandpa?, What Do You Call Your Grandma?, and What Do You Do To Celebrate? (links are to my reviews.)

    As well as the focus on the beauty of human expression, something all the books have in common is celebrating connection: through family, friends, community.

    Each double page spread shows a child saying ‘I love you’ in their language to someone special in their life. We see children from places as diverse as Peru, Iran, Canada, Tonga, West and Central Africa, Egypt, and more, with grandparents, pets, parents, friends. Languages include Auslan (the Sign Language used in Australia) along with Farsi, French, Arabic, Korean, Filipino, Mandarin, Spanish and Italian.

    The beautiful illustrations invite close examination and convey the message of commonality and diversity which all these books so skillfully portray.

    How Do You Say I Love You? is a perfect read-aloud book, a beautiful way for youngsters to be introduced to the wonderful world of languages.

    It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in August 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Touchy-feely: ‘That’s Not My Turtle!’ by Fiona Watt and Rachel Wells

    If you have ever had anything to do with sharing a book with a very young baby or child, chances are you’ll have come across one or more of the Usbourne ‘Touchy-feely’ series of board books.

    Title include That’s Not My Kitten, That’s Not my T-Rex, That’s Not My Teddy, That’s Not My Tractor, That’s Not My Elephant… you get the idea.

    Each sturdy little book features aspects of the creature or object in question, with tactile cutouts on each page allowing small fingers to experience the various parts that don’t measure up.

    In this case, it’s the turtle’s flippers that are too scaly, the tail too rough, the eggs too smooth…until on the last page, the correct turtle is identified by its shiny tummy.

    Along with the tactile features, the repetition of the format in the series, and within each book, allows little ones to anticipate and participate in the story.

    This new title will sit happily alongside its Touchy-feely brothers and sisters in the book basket or on the shelf. They are cute, affordable and (almost) indestructible little books that tiny people will love.

    That’s Not My Turtle is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.