On the same day in 1922 when Verity Binks loses her job at a Sydney newspaper (to make way for struggling WWI veterans), she receives a mysterious parcel in the mail. Inside is an invitation to attend the Sydney Masquerade Ball, along with a mask and costume designed to transform her into the guise of a beautiful orange and black butterfly.
She decides to accept the invitation and attend the ball when her former boss, the Editor at the Sydney Arrow, suggests that she write a profile story about the Treadwell Foundation, a charity for ‘young women in trouble’ (that is, women pregnant outside of marriage.) She hopes to meet Mr Treadwell at the Ball – and also to find out the source of her mysterious invitation and costume.
Not satisfied with the result, she travels to the little river town of Morpeth, in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, on a quest to find out more about the origins of the Treadwells and the Foundation. This is also where her beloved grandparents, Sid and Clarrie, lived in their younger days and where her father, Charlie, was born. Gradually, Verity learns that there is much more to the Treadwell story than first meets the eye. Together with Arlo, who has lived all his life in the town, she uncovers dark secrets about some of Morpeth’s past residents.
The Butterfly Collector is another of Tea Cooper’s successful dual-timeline historical mysteries. Woven in with Verity’s story is an earlier thread which relates the events of 1868 in the town of Morpeth, featuring Sid, Clarrie, Charlie and Arlo’s parents. Arlo’s mother, Theodora, is the butterfly collector of the novel’s title; a young woman fascinated by a spectacular new species of butterfly she encounters: the same orange and black of Verity’s costume.
Theodora’s and Verity’s stories are intertwined with the Treadwell’s and Verity’s investigations gradually uncover why. It’s cleverly plotted and well-paced, bringing the reader along with Verity and Theodora as they deal with the challenges and questions of their explorations.
A strength of Tea Cooper’s novels is the historical authenticity which comes from thorough research, but which never intrudes. Rather, we learn about the real-life places in past times incidentally, through vivid and evocative descriptions. I was especially drawn to this story because of its Hunter Valley setting: my father was born and grew up in West Maitland and one side of his family were early settlers around Morpeth.
Another aspect I enjoyed is that the protagonists are women with intelligence, agency and courage, not content to comply with social expectations for women at the time in which they live. They are not ‘damsels in distress’ waiting to be rescued by their hero. There is romance, but it is never the main point of Cooper’s stories.
The Butterfly Collector will be enjoyed by those who like well-researched historical fiction with a mystery to solve.
The Butterfly Collector is published by HQ Fiction in November 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
This year my Non-fiction reading challenge goal was ‘Nipper’: I undertook to read six non-fiction books from six different listed categories.
The challenge is hosted at Book’d Out (https://bookdout.wordpress.com/2022-nonfiction-reader-challenge/)
I exceeded my goal for number of books read (ten) though fell short in the number of categories. I read four biographies, three memoir, two books on Australian history. This year I hadn’t planned my challenge reading, rather ‘nibbling’ on books of interest or ones that were part of my book group reading.
Regardless, I was pleased to incorporate non-fiction titles into my reading during the year. With reading, as with diet and exercise (and, indeed, life!) balance is a good thing.
There was one big standout book in my list this year: Tongerlongeter by Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements. If you are interested in Australian history, this one is must-read. I guarantee you will learn things about this country, and the small island of Tasmania, that you didn’t know.
Thank you to Shelleyrae for the challenge. I am signing up for the 2023 Challenge, again as a ‘Nibbler’, and I’ll try to cover a few more categories next year.
Australian children born in the past twenty years (and their parents) will be very familiar with the series of Wombat books, written by Jackie French and beautifully illustrated by Bruce Whately.
They are all about the simple life and loves of Mothball; a round, cuddly wombat who loves sleeping, digging, eating grass and carrots (not necessarily in that order.)
These hugely popular picture books introduce youngsters to one of Australia’s most loved marsupials. The text and story lines invite recognition, while the illustrations evoke an emotional response despite the books’ apparent simplicity.
The latest book tells the story of how Mothball first came into Jackie French’s life (and books.) She was a ‘rescued’ wombat, one of many native animals given a second chance at life after a disaster kills the parent. Sometimes that is bushfire, frequently it is roadkill. Many Australians volunteer with WIRES or other animal rescue services to raise and nurture orphaned young until they are independent. Here’s a short video from the ABC, showing volunteers doing their thing.
So, Mothball was a rescue wombat before she became a literary star!
Fans of the Wombat series will love hearing Mothball’s ‘back story’; the book is also a perfect way to introduce her to new readers. It is, as well, a beautiful tribute to those many volunteers who give so much to preserve Australia’s unique fauna.
Diary of a Rescued Wombat: The Untold Story is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
The cells in Irish author Gavin McCrea’s memoir are the spaces in which major scenes of his life played out. There are the rooms of his childhood home, in which he grew up with his clinically depressed father, mentally ill older brother, complicated mother, and other siblings. Other spaces play their part: his schools; single rooms or shared apartments with friends or lovers in the UK, Ireland, or abroad; university campuses where he studied and worked.
The book begins in the tiny flat where Gavin moved to live with his eighty-year-old mother who was exhibiting signs of encroaching dementia. His plan was to continue his writing while providing care for his mother. Then Covid struck and Dublin, as with much of the world, was in lockdown. Living with an elderly relative with whom he had experienced a complicated relationship, closed in by four walls and dealing with the inevitable repetitious interruptions of someone with dementia: it is easy to see how the description ‘cell’ fits this space.
Then we move back in time, to a childhood dominated by the emotional distance of his exhausted father, the mental illness and drug addiction of his brother, and by the bullying Gavin experienced at school, primary and secondary. Gavin had, in early childhood, regarded himself as his mother’s favourite, her prince, but she did not protect him from the torment of his school experiences.
He explores his growing awareness of his difference, later identified as homosexuality, and the reactions of others – dismissive, abusive, or violent – to this difference. Woven through the narrative is his excavation of the complexity of the primary relationship of any child – that with their mother. He draws on Freudian and Jungian theories of dreams, relationships, emotions, and examines his own role in the events of his life with excoriating honesty.
By this point, I was already making my concrete plans to leave Ireland. I did not deny to myself or others that my planned leave-taking was anything other than the rage of rejection taken out on my surrounding environment: the place I was born, its culture and its people, especially my family, most of all my mother. My rejection, my rage, when it was not spewing over all of this, was aimed at her, or rather at the idea that this particular mother was the only one I would or could ever have.Cells p214-215
This is not a book for the faint-hearted. We, the readers, understand that the author is writing about parents, family, and lovers, as a way of revealing something about himself. He does not hold back: the rawness is at times, almost too much, leading to a sensation of voyeurism. There is the universal difficulty of choosing what to put in and what to leave out of a memoir which references people who are still living.
The writing is also infused with love, and humour, and beautiful prose about often difficult subjects. I finished this book with a greater understanding of the range of human experiences and the ways in which family relationships contribute to an individual’s life trajectory.
Cells is published in Australia by Scribe in October 2022.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Beloved and award-winning Aussie writer Alice Pung has created a beautiful picture book, with lush illustrations by Sher Rill Ng. It’s all about family, how your own fears and others can hold you back, and about conquering those fears.
Little Xiao Xin (which means ‘be careful’ in Chinese) is a red fire warrior in his imagination; but the desire of his family to keep him safe means that he is not allowed to do things on his own or take risks.
The author recalls her own childhood and that of her small son, when parents and grandparents insisted on bundling them into layers of warm clothes to prevent illness, avoiding many sports and physical activities in case of injury.
These impulses come from a place of deep love and care. Their downside is that children can be prevented from exploring, trying new things, and gaining independence.
In this story, little Xiao Xin feels frustrated at the restrictions imposed by his family in their efforts to keep him safe. He thinks:
If I fall, I know how to land on my feet.Be Careful, Xiao Xin!
If I land on my feet, I can run.
If I run, I know where to hide.
If I hide, I know where they can’t find me.
When he sees the same happening to his little sister, he takes action. And the result is that his family come to understand, just a little, that:
When Little Sister takes her first steps,Be Careful, Xiao Xin!
Mum and Dad tell me
‘Don’t let her fall or else she’ll be too scared to try again!’
But I think if she is scared of falling, she’ll never walk.
This is a gorgeous tribute to families and to the (sometimes difficult) process of letting go enough, to allow children space to grow into their own lives and futures. Another lovely feature of the book is that the text is written in both English and Chinese scripts: perfect for multi-lingual youngsters.
Be Careful, Xiao Xin! is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in September 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Irma is grief stricken after the sudden death of her best friend and longtime business partner, Elliott, with whom she ran the ‘Over the Rainbow Bookshop’ for years. Elliott prided himself on his fun approach and his ability to find the exact book for a professed book hater. Now that he is gone, Irma has agreed to sell the business to a local group of property developers who plan to build condominiums on the site.
The problem is, the price Irma has agreed to is a pittance. Added to that, her daughter Bree, who has grown up at the Rainbow and assumed she would work there forever, is suddenly left high and dry – and Irma won’t even discuss it.
Faced with this crisis, the family gathers: Irma, her two daughters Bree and Laney, and Thom, Elliott’s romantic partner, who is just as bewildered by Irma’s sudden, rash decisions. Thom and the two younger women decide to take matters into their own hands… with several unexpected results. In the process, long-held secrets are revealed and there is heartbreak and anger along with some deep self-examination by all the parties.
Ultimately though, The Book Haters’ Book Club is about the deep bonds of family and friendships, and a celebration of how, even in the mayhem of a family argument, love can prevail.
“I’m talking about your people. Your loved ones. We have a homing device, and when we’re hurting, we turn towards love. Sometimes we turn before we even know we’re in pain.”The Book Haters’ Book Club p195
It’s also a homage to books and the people who love and sell them.
Let’s keep spreading book magic to the world. Do this for me, won’t you? Tell me, what librarian or bookseller changed your life by placing the right novel in your hands? Where were you? What title did they recommend? What treasures did you find within its pages?The Book Haters’ Book Club p328
The Book Haters’ Book Club is a light romp of a read with genuine laugh-out-loud moments and will be enjoyed by anyone who has a family and also loves books.
It is published by HarperCollins Publishers in October 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Oliver Jeffers’ is back in his inimitable style, this time exploring time, space and human history for young readers. This colourful picture book has such a clever premise: Dad takes his two kids, prone to squabbling as humans do, on a car trip. Suddenly they are space bound, heading for the moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto…while looking into the ‘year-view mirror’ to see what was happening on Earth in each time period.
Sadly, of course, in every one, humans are still squabbling, warring, building huge walls to keep other humans out, travelling to new places to find other people to fight…
The story combines a gallop through the history of humanity and its conflicts, with a guide to the universe, and a plea for all people to consider the fragility of our existence in the vastness of our universe and join together rather than continue to battle each other.
It’s not a ‘downer’ of a story, because of the kind and witty way in which it is told, the deceptively simple illustrations, and because at the end, the children are invited to return home and after all, as Neil Armstrong apparently said:
No matter where you travel, it’s always nice to get home.
Here is Oliver Jeffers talking about where the idea for the book came from.
Meanwhile Back on Earth is another of Jeffers’ surprising, quirky and beautiful picture books for young readers, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Michelle Johnston has written a novel from, and of, the heart. An author and an emergency physician with over thirty-one years’ experience, Tiny Uncertain Miracles encompasses the highs and lows of humans at a busy, underfunded public hospital, with a dash of faith and possible miracles, all wrapped up with a gift of golden prose.
Marick, grief and guilt stricken after the loss of his child and his marriage, arrives as chaplain at a large hospital after losing his position in a neighboring church. Anyone who has worked for a large bureaucratic institution will recognise The Public: the slow grind of managerial wheels, the KPI’s which all staff (even the chaplain) have to meet, the ways in which the real work of the institution is done by those small cogs in the wheel, the background workers like the cleaners, orderlies and emergency medical staff who labour on, despite the grinding difficulties of their work environment.
Marick meets Hugo, a hospital scientist who works alone in a basement laboratory he has created from a disused laundry room. Hugo convinces his new friend that the bacteria in his protein production process have begun to produce gold. Marick, aware of the deeply cynical role played by alchemists throughout history, is reluctant to believe what he sees – but Hugo is certain that the transformation is real.
The novel is a deeply moving and often funny examination of people in all their messy glory: under pressure, in love, exhausted, hopeful, kind.
Tiny Uncertain Miracles is unlike any novel I have read before. The characters, setting and storyline are unique; but what sets it apart is the glowing, beautiful prose:
From here, the view of the river was unimpeded. This river, he knew, was ancient. Its own history was born in dreams and stories, and the land fed by it, soaking in it, was even older. Aquifers and blind animals and sacred burial grounds. Bones and antiquities, scars and excavations. Vaults and textures nobody thought to see. Past visitations of fire and ice. Borders. It was a question that never let up. How did the God of Rome square with the epochs of existence, the spiritual history below the soil here? It was a conundrum, overwhelming in its immensity.Tiny Uncertain Miracles p43
Marick’s struggle with the idea of bacteria-producing gold is echoed in his personal life and his journey to – and from – spiritual faith. He questions everything and through this, the reader explores deep seams of human experience: what is love? faith? service? truth? hope?
This is a hard book to categorise, but it will be enjoyed by readers who like to grapple with deep themes while engaging with characters brought to vivid life by a talented writer.
Tiny Uncertain Miracles is published in November 2022 by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Perhaps YA (Young Adult) fiction should come with a trigger warning for any older adult reader. It can prompt memories of steering one’s own teens through that fraught period and offer a glimpse of what young people get up to when the adults are not watching. At its best, YA fiction can also invoke empathy in the reader, since most of us can remember some things about our youthful lives that we might prefer to keep quiet about.
With Amra Pajalić’s Sabiha’s Dilemma and Alma’s Loyalty, readers get an added bonus. She draws on her Bosnian cultural heritage to write ‘own voices’ stories that will resonate with young people navigating the spaces between culture, religion, tradition, family and friends.
Sabiah and Alma’s stories are narrated in first person, so we experience events and people through their eyes, while also seeing the interconnections between the characters. They are both teenagers from Bosnian Muslim families, and the novels allow readers to learn more about their cultural and political backgrounds.
For example, when members of the adult Bosnian community get together, they talk about the war in the Balkans, and their expectations as to how their children should behave. Sabiha is sent to weekend Islamic classes to learn about proper behaviour for a Bosnian Muslim girl. She also learns about Bosnia’s past from her grandfather. Alma’s parents cannot accept her friendship with a gay boy, a fellow student at her new school. And they would certainly not condone her sneaking out to attend parties or be with her secret boyfriend.
Layered in with these teen troubles is the fact that Sabiha and Alma are half-sisters, and Alma has only just learnt of Sabiha’s existence. The shock news threatens to tear her close family apart. Sabiha’s mother struggles with mental illness and wants desperately to be accepted back into the Bosnian community – with implications for her daughter’s freedom.
Both girls experience the awfulness of broken friendships and betrayal, which can be devastating at a time of life when friendships and peers are so important.
And of course, there is the age-old tension between boys and girls, who are trying to work out how to behave as the young men and women they are rapidly becoming.
The novels explore the ways in which teens find and use ways to avoid, erase, or deal with the challenges of growing up:
I wanted to be someone else and forget about all the things that were bringing me down, and Alex did that. He made me feel good… He’d become my port in the storm, the one place I didn’t have to worry about secret subtexts or hidden agendas.Alma’s Loyalty p186
If the novels were movies, there would certainly be moments where I’d want to cover my eyes as potential disasters loom. Thankfully, both Sabiha and Alma are characters with grit, determination and agency mixed in with the teenage angst and confusion. The love and support of important people in their lives certainly helps, too.
These are Books 1 and 2 in the Sassy Saints Series, which together will explore the experiences of six young people in Sabiah and Alma’s world. YA readers will find much to recognise in their stories.
Sabiha’s Dilemma and Alma’s Loyalty are published by Pishukin Press in 2022.
My thanks to the author and publisher for review copies.
British author Sarah Vaughan made a splash with her 2018 novel Anatomy of a Scandal, in which she explored the often-fraught issue of consent in sexual encounters. Later adapted into a TV series, it was a story that somehow reflected and tapped into some of the preoccupations of the time, especially in the worlds of high-profile people and the law.
Reputation is a worthy successor. It is a cleverly constructed story of a divorced female UK MP, her teenage daughter, mistakes and spur-of-the-moment decisions sorely regretted. The novel opens with a body at the base of a staircase, so it’s not a plot spoiler to say that someone dies.
What makes it a page turner is that we need to know just how and why this character met their end. It’s clever because the reader is never quite sure where the fault lies: the precise sequence of events that led to this moment. The last third or so of the book is taken up with the trial, in which the defence team lays out all the reasons why the accused is innocent of murder, and the Crown makes the opposite argument.
The author has embedded timely and topical issues of online and physical bullying (at all ages), hate speech and trolling, and especially, the sexualised invective to which high profile women are subjected. These are all too familiar: readers in Australia will recall the hideous and gendered abuse our first female PM Julias Gillard was subjected to during her time in office – and that speech (often referred to as ‘the misogyny speech‘) which went viral.
Emma, the main character, faces the usual quandaries of being a working single parent with a teenager who is experiencing her own difficulties. In her role as an MP, Emma speaks out strongly against so-called ‘revenge porn’ – which wins her an army of trollers, death threats and stalking. This is all horribly recognisable – down to Emma holding her house keys splayed between her fingers when walking alone at night, ready to employ as a weapon should she need it. Hands up if you do the same. It was something taught at a self defence for women class I did many years ago – so yes, believable.
The court room drama forensically examines the various stories, interpretations and impressions by those involved – showing that what we read, hear, even see with our own eyes is not necessarily either the truth, or the whole truth.
The novel is a psychological thriller, yes; but it delves into issues that perhaps many would prefer to avoid thinking about. As Emma considers the dangers faced by public figures, especially women in male-dominated environments, she feels gratitude for those who worked alongside her without the public profile:
I think of their loyalty in working for me despite regularly having contempt hurled down the phone at them; of their steadfastness despite knowing that every time they open a parcel, they risk being exposed to something unpleasant or toxic. I think of the Simon Baxters we’ve known. Men who fizz with anger, their aggression only just reined in, the potential for them to erupt, for a situation that appears civil to escalate in a flash, always present.
I accepted that danger was part of the job, but when did I internalise this belief? When did I accept these precautions as normal? And why did I believe my staff should accept this, too?Reputation p405
I could not put this book down until I’d finished it. It’s engrossing, compelling and entirely believable.
Reputation is published by Simon & Schuster in 2022.