• Books and reading,  Uncategorized

    Two new titles to delight children of different ages

    This is a sweet book, perfect for reading aloud or for children beginning independent reading. It is number three in a series, early chapter books, all about six -year-old Evie and her best friend, Pog, who is a dog. They live in a tree house right near Granny Gladys and their friends Noah and Mr Pooch, and Miss Footlights, Evie’s teacher.

    Written and illustrated by Tania McCartney, who lives in Australia’s capital, Canberra, the three stories in Party Perfect are about the various escapades of Evie and Pog, well suited for children of those early school years: such as the school Book Parade, creating a work for the village art show, and a special party. The text is simple yet satisfying, with plenty of repetition to allow familiarity, and important or new words highlighted to help children learn. The illustrations are witty and engaging.

    This is a lovely little book to absorb youngster and encourage reading while being absorbed in the safe and loving environment of Evie and Pog’s world.

    Evie and Pog: Party Perfect was published by Harper Collins in April 2020.

    #AWW2020
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    Starfell: Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale by Dominique Valente, is for older readers, perhaps 8 and older (‘middle school’ ages). The second in a series all about the young witch Willow, her family and friends, and her adventures in the world of Starfell, where magic exists but sometimes (as with Willow in this book) goes awry. Willow’s special magic is supposed to be about finding lost things. Instead, she inadvertently makes things disappear – with perplexing and sometimes humorous results.

    When Willow’s friend Nolin Sometimes is kidnapped, he writes an urgent letter to Willow pleading for her help. Willow sets off with her trusty companion kobold (a cat-like and cantakerous ‘monster’ called Oswin who spends most of his time in a carpetbag) to find and rescue Sometimes. They recruit more helpers along the way, including a strange and mysterious part boy -part raven called Sprig and a ‘cloud dragon’ called Feathering, while travelling across Starfell and finally into the dark land of Netherfell.

    Willow is an entertaining protagonist, full of life and very well-meaning, but sometimes unsure of herself and her magic. The youngest in a family of accomplished witches, she nevertheless faces danger, dark magic and betrayal to find her own magical abilities and help her friend. She doesn’t always get things right, which makes her very relatable for young readers who are also working out their place in the world.

    The world building is terrific, full of vivid descriptions and a fast pace. Emotions (such as grief and fear) are dealt with sensitively. The characters are a delightful collection and there is a great deal of playful use of language, especially Oswin’s utterances from within his carpetbag. The illustrations by Sarah Warburton add the perfect amount of whimsy and context.

    Starfell is perfect for readers who love books such as Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor series, and who are perhaps not ready for the somewhat darker themes of J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter books. It is evidence, if that were needed, of the unfailing delight that can be had from stories of witches, wizards and magic.

    Starfell: Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale was published by Harper Collins in April 2020.


    Thanks to Harper Collins Australia for a copy of both these books to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Accessible and engrossing historical story-telling: ‘The Schoolmaster’s Daughter’ by Jackie French

    What a national treasure Jackie French is! One of our most popular children’s authors (think Diary of a Wombat for picture books, A Waltz for Matilda, Pennies for Hitler, or Nanberry: Black Brother White for older children, she writes everything from historical fiction for adults, to fantasy, sci-fi and non-fiction. Jackie was the Australian Children’s Laureate in 2014-15 and is a member of the Order of Australia for her contribution to literature and especially youth literacy.

    The Schoolmaster’s Daughter is historical fiction for middle school (and older) readers. My love affair with historical fiction began around the age at which The Schoolmaster’s Daughter is aimed – ten and up – and I absorbed much of what I knew about the past at that age from my reading of fiction set in historical times. It’s one of the things that I love most about the genre – a young reader can learn so much from well researched books without it feeling like ‘learning history.’

    This new book by Jackie French is an excellent example. Set in 1901, as Australia enters a new century with a brand-new national Parliament and (as Hannah’s mother hopes) ‘laws made by every man and woman in Australia’ (p92) Hannah begins her new life in northern NSW, with her little brother, mother and father. Her father is about to start work as schoolmaster at the small school in Port Harris, named for the wealthy cane grower and landowner of the district. Hannah is full of excitement and plans about what she will learn at the school, her dreams of writing poetry and later, studying at university.

    Their arrival is marred by their ship becoming stranded and then wrecked in a storm just off the beach, and this sets the scene for what Hannah learns over the next few months. Things are not always as they seem on the surface, adults do not always say and do the right things, and cruelty and injustices exist everywhere. The book introduces the younger reader to important developments in Australia becoming a modern nation: Federation, women’s suffrage, and the right of all Australian children to schooling – but also to darker events such as racism, slavery, education denied to children because of their gender or skin colour.

    The author’s meticulous attention to historical accuracy shows in the tiny details of everyday life in this time and place: dress, food and cooking, transport, children’s games and books, schooling and education practices, popular songs, toys, books and poems. Younger readers might well be shocked to learn of the dark practice of ‘black birding’, where men from Pacific islands were brought (either against their will or through false pretenses) to work as virtual slaves on the sugar cane farms of northeastern Australia. And Australian children today might be surprised to read about the way girls were expected to behave during this period:

    A good girl put her family first. A good girl looked after younger children. A good girl would give Papa a cup of tea and a slice of Mrs Murphy’s horse-droppings fruit cake when he came back from school this afternoon, and apologise for her disobedience and promise she would never do it again.
    A good girl would never keep secrets from her father, like ordering books he didn’t know about, or studying with a young man with darker skin.

    The Schoolmaster’s Daughter p132

    Hannah is a sympathetic character and we feel for her as she puzzles out the hard truths she is confronted with. It’s also interesting to compare and contrast the challenges facing young people in the past with those experienced by their modern counterparts. Another opportunity for learning through historical fiction. I particularly liked that the author drew on her own family history as inspiration for this novel – proof of my belief that every family has stories and characters worth knowing.

    I loved this book and will tuck away my copy for when my grandkids (a boy and a girl) are old enough to read it.

    The Schoolmaster’s Daughter was published by Harper Collins in May 2020.
    Thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    A ‘functionally dysfunctional’ family: ‘When Grace Went Away’ by Meredith Appleyard

    I always enjoy novels about families. The sticky-beak in me enjoys peering into the domestic dramas of others – a bit like glancing through a window to see the activities, furnishings and colour choices of unknown residents as you walk past.

    The blurb for When Grace Went Away describes the Fairley family, around which the story revolves, as ‘functionally dysfunctional’, which really means a very normal family, in my opinion at least. We follow Grace, eldest daughter of Sarah and Doug, who her younger brother Tim describes as ‘corporate suit on a six-figure salary.’ There is envy of Grace’s corporate banking career, her job offer in London, her expensive SUV. Tim remains stuck on the hard-scrabble farm north of Adelaide with his father, longing for a different life but not knowing how to break away. His father, Doug, is bitter – about lots of things but especially about the death in an accident eight years ago of his youngest son Luke, and the way his wife left him and the farm three years later.

    Faith, another sibling, is also angry that Sarah left. Never mind that her mother spent three years (unsuccessfully) trying to reach her husband emotionally so that they could grieve their son together. Or that since she moved to Adelaide, with Grace’s financial and emotional support, Sarah faced a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Faith refuses to engage with her mother or allow her two young children to see their grandmother.

    So, this is a family with a whole lot going on, much of it (though not all of it) stemming from Luke’s death. Grace returns occasionally to her childhood home town of Miner’s Ridge, a small community in South Australia, and this is where the novel opens. She is trying to pluck up the courage to tell her father that in a couple of weeks she will be in London, tackling what she hopes will be an exciting new job and life. But we meet Grace throwing up in the toilet of the local pub after having a few too many wines while waiting for her perennially late brother Tim to join her. This visit ‘home’ does not start well and sets the tone for the rest of the family interactions.

    She meets Aaron on this trip, and he forms the basis of an important romantic thread and the catalyst which propels Grace to make some hard decisions – about her life, her job, her home, family and other relationships. Other characters fill out the small town atmosphere of Miner’s Ridge (where everyone knows everyone’s business) and the equally enmeshed though more glamorous corporate world of London. They are brought to vivid life and very recognisable – especially if you have spent any time in either of those types of settings.

    Grace’s predicament is also recognisable – a very common one in the complicated world of today – torn between career and family, opportunity and duty.

    Grace is a sympathetic character but I found myself relating more to Sarah, her mother – perhaps because some of my own experiences are more akin to hers and we are closer in age. I was especially moved by the portrayal of the decline and death of Sarah’s elderly mum, her grief as she cleared out her mother’s room in the nursing home, her sadness that:

    All that was left of Mum were the memories – and a suitcase and a cardboard box, both sitting in the back of Grace’s SUV. How sad was that? All that was left of her life fit into the back of my daughter’s car.

    When Grace Went Away p104

    I well remember that feeling from when my father passed away.

    For me this is one of the strengths of the novel: exploring experiences and emotions common to many, so that we, along with the characters, reflect on what is important to us. Grace’s brother Tim, sums this up well:

    I’ve learned that we all need to work out who, and what, are truly important in our lives. Then we need to look after what we have, and go all out for what we want. Doesn’t mean we’ll always get it…but at least we will have tried.

    When Grace went Away p328

    When Grace Went Away is published 2020 by HQ Fiction. Thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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  • Books and reading

    Harrowing yet ultimately hopeful: ‘Invisible Boys’ by Holden Sheppard

    Holden Sheppard’s debut novel follows the struggles of three high school boys in the small Western Australian town of Geraldton, as they try to figure out the big things of life: who they are, where they belong, what family and friendships mean, and their sexuality. All three suspect they are gay and each has a different response , as they also try to navigate the various responses to homosexuality by the people around them.

    I recall that during Australia’s sometimes fractious marriage equality debates, there were warnings from those working with young people, especially in rural and regional areas, that the divisiveness and stigma still attached to homosexuality would be worsened by the rancour around the campaign. They worried that it could cause further harm to young people already struggling with questions around their sexual identity. The events played out in Invisible Boys bring these concerns to life in a realistic way.

    The author wrote in his Acknowledgements that each of the three main characters represented a part of himself. And yes, so vividly are they portrayed, the characters and events must surely have arisen from lived experience.

    The three young protagonists are Zeke, a studious boy from a staunchly Italian Catholic family; Hammer, an athletic boy who dreams of becoming a star football player; and Charlie, a punk rocker who has no idea of where he fits – he only knows that it’s not in Geraldton, not in his Catholic high school, and certainly not in his neglectful, dismissive family. A fourth character, Matt, comes from a local farming family and plays an important role as the novel progresses.

    The boys differ in the level of sympathy they engendered from me at the beginning of the novel. Hammer presents as a particularly repellent individual, the result of being raised in a toxic swill of extreme homophobia and sickening misogyny. As events unfold, there are glimpses of other facets of personality and what makes each boy behave the way they do, their fears and insecurities.
    Here is Zeke, for example:

    Why am I so weak? Why do I cower to this? I know homosexuality is natural in the animal kingdom. I don’t think anyone should have fewer rights than anyone else. I don’t hate it in other people as much as I hate it in myself. And yet I fall in line with Father Mulroney’s condemnation.

    Invisible Boys p507

    This quote, incidentally, is from a scene which also has some laugh-out-loud moments – Zeke’s excruciating enforced act of confession in church.

    And here is Charlie:

    I figured you’re allowed to tell other gay guys in the closet. It’s like mutually assured destruction. Either of you tells and it’s catastrophe, like a nuclear winter.

    Invisible Boys p523

    Anyone who can remember their own pathway through the agonies and traps of adolescence will relate to the boys’ struggles. And the added layers of difficulty imposed by their families, friends and community, can only be viewed as absurd, unfair and entirely unnecessary. Why make someone’s path to adulthood harder than it needs to be?

    The last word on this book belongs to its author:

    …my teenage self, who, for a long time, didn’t want to be on this planet anymore because he was a gay bloke. Good on you for staying alive, you resilient bastard. Turns out you were good just the way you were.

    Holden Sheppard, Acknowledgements in Invisible Boys.

    Invisible Boys was published by Fremantle Press in 2019. It was the recipient of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award 2018 (even before publication!) and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2020, as well as being a Notable Book in the 2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) and longlisted in the 2020 Indie Book Awards, among other accolades.

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  • Books and reading,  History

    The story of a generous and beautiful Australian: Archie Roach’s memoir ‘Tell Me Why’

    I remember the first time I saw Archie Roach perform. I’d bought his first two albums (Charcoal Lane and Jamu Dreaming) and already loved his music, his voice, and the honesty of his songs. Walking into Doors always brought me to tears, perhaps because of my own life experiences years before. I’d not seen him perform live, until the Woodford Folk Festival (one of Australia’s biggest and most magical festivals) in the mid 1990’s.
    My sister and I left our arrival at the big tent venue where Archie was going to play a bit late, and ended up perched on a grassy hillock to one side, where we were crammed in with others who loved this man’s music and message. All I could see were his legs and feet!

    It didn’t matter. Archie’s sublime voice sailed out above the gathered crowd, touching hearts with his stories and his humble and generous manner. From that moment I was an avowed Archie fan.

    Tell Me Why is a memoir, tracing his incredible, tragic, wonderful life and career. Just as his songs (like Charcoal Lane, Took the Children Away, A Child was Born Here, Walking into Doors, Jamu Dreaming, or Weeping in the Forest) told the stories of this land and it’s history, Tell Me Why gives us insight into Archie’s own story, his journey through a childhood as one of the Stolen Generations, discovering as a schoolboy in Melbourne that he had a whole birth family elsewhere, and the many years he spent trying to discover and reconcile his indigenous identity.

    I found it shocking to realise that he grew up knowing nothing of the Stolen Generations, either at a personal level or the wider ramifications for indigenous Australians. Nor did he know about the ‘missions’, established in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a way of corralling indigenous Australians into settlements, often away from their traditional country. These were among practices that were either about protection of indigenous Australians, or a form of apartheid making it easier for Europeans to take and occupy land. Whichever way you regard the motives behind these occurrences, the results were mostly tragic, with ramifications felt by generations to come. For Archie and many of his family and friends, this included struggles with addictions of various kinds:

    We were part of an obliterated culture, just intact enough to know it exists, but so broken we didn’t think we could ever be put together again. We’d lost mates and family young, and we would again. We had lineages we knew so little about. There was death in our past, and death in our future, but we craved a carefree and happy present, and booze offered us that.

    Tell Me Why p54

    Archie talks about his own struggles with alcoholism; his painful rehabilitation; grief at the untimely deaths of family members; his health challenges. There is joy, also: meeting Ruby Hunter, his life partner; creating a family together; discovering that for him, music might be more powerful than the drink. (p144)
    I laughed with him at his memory of one of his first big live gigs, opening for Paul Kelly & The Messengers at the Melbourne Concert Hall, when he didn’t know who Paul Kelly was and mistook him for a bouncer!

    Reading Archie’s reflections on life, people, and the ‘old ways’ of Aboriginal culture, there were reminders for me of the beautiful book Song Spirals, with its exploration of indigenous perceptions and beliefs about time, life and death. Here is Archie:

    There was no word for death, because life is an endless continuum – you didn’t die, you travelled; you left one place to go to another. Life kept going on, unceasingly. The Bundjalung didn’t have a word for ‘thanks’, either, with the closest being to ‘wish someone well’. There was no need to say anything if someone gave you something; you would just wish them well because sharing and generosity was expected.
    Even though I couldn’t speak my father’s language, when I sang in Bundjalung it felt as if I was doing something I’d done before long ago. It was in my memory.

    Tell Me Why p274

    Characteristically, the memoir finishes in his inclusive style, reflecting on what joins Australians together regardless of race or background:

    Now my songwriting feels more inclusive, more universal…I have come to realise that it’s about all of us – you can’t really write about yourself without including everyone. What affects you invariably affects others as well…Now my whole outlook on life is about reminding us all of the place where we all began, where we all came from …the ‘place of fire’…{It’s} a place of love and connection.

    Tell me Why pp 351-353

    This memoir will make you cry, feel anger, laugh out loud, and when you have finished, I promise you, your heart will be full of Archie’s generous and resilient spirit.

    Tell Me Why was published by Simon & Schuster in 2019

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  • Books and reading

    New thriller title: ‘Cutting the Cord’ by Natasha Molt

    The opening of this book puts the reader slap bang into the intrigue and action. There is a brief prologue where we are given a hint of the mystery at the centre of the novel: who is Amira’s family? To whom does she owe loyalty? Then we are thrust into the action: an assassination being carried out by the protagonist, Amira. She is very good at her work. But here is another puzzle: why is she killing a wealthy European businessman in his garden greenhouse?

    We are quickly introduced to the reason. Amira, adopted as an infant to parents who lead the Authenticity Movement, has been raised to be one of the Movement’s Warriors, who carry out assassinations of people considered to be ‘infected.’ It becomes clear that what this means is that they are people who have benefited from the capitalist system, accumulating huge wealth, power and advantage. The Movement aims to instigate a global revolution against the capitalist system.

    Here is the catch, and the conflict at the heart of the novel – Amira is beginning to doubt that the methods used by the Movement are justified by its lofty goals. She also starts looking for clues about her birth family. By questioning the Movement and her place in it, she puts herself and others in danger.

    I don’t read much in the thriller genre, but I do enjoy well written crime fiction, especially if there is an intelligent female protagonist and a strong emphasis on character. Cutting the Cord has both, and the narrative is told through tight, snappy sentences and some evocative descriptive language. The tension escalates as all the threads of Amira’s complicated life meet in a pulse raising climax.

    I would have liked more explanation of the Authenticity Movement. It read to me as a type of closed quasi-religious cult in which members are brainwashed and cowed by the powerful leader, Amira’s adoptive father. There were aspects that were familiar from stories of other cults – alternating abuse and favoritism, violence and love welded together in powerful ways. I think I needed to see more about where the Movement’s manifesto came from and the reasons why it’s leader chose acts of terrorism to achieve his aims. This may have helped me to suspend disbelief more easily.

    What I did enjoy was Amira’s journey, as she moves towards discovering who she really is, in all ways:

    She closes her eyes. Cramped tears threaten to tumble. Thoughts scramble around in her mind. She is coming to understand that: slaves have brains and there is so much more to the world than she has been taught. But how can she move on from the past when it stains the present?

    Cutting the Cord p171

    This is a moment familiar to most of us – when we begin to peek through the curtains of childhood or our upbringing to see the wide world outside, and begin to wonder about what we think we know and what we have yet to understand. This is exactly the challenge Amira faces in Cutting the Cord – but with much higher stakes.

    Cutting the Cord is the debut novel by Natasha Molt and published by Impact Press (an imprint of Ventura Press) in May 2020.
    Thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

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    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    An engrossing wartime mystery that crosses generations: Sonya Bates’ ‘An Inheritance of Secrets’

    In her author’s note, Sonya Bates admits that she has a ‘fascination with secrets and mysteries’ and that this led her to write a very different novel than the one she’d planned to write. I, for one, am pleased she did, as I enjoy a tale with some secrets and twists. I read this book in record time, and would describe it as a ‘page turner’, but it is also a book that prompted me to think about some of the issues covered in its pages.

    To begin with, the question ‘How well can we really know another person, even a family member?’

    Juliet, the protagonist in An Inheritance of Secrets, must confront this question after the murder of her beloved grandparents, who emigrated to Australia after WWII. They were German, and Juliet knows that her Opa served in the German army. As events unfold after his death, Juliet realises that there were things she didn’t know about her grandparents’ lives before they came to Australia. She is caught up in a web of intrigue and danger, and urgently needs to find out more about what her grandfather may have been involved in during his youth. She is torn: does she really want to discover the truth if it means knowing that her Opa was not always the kind, loving man she’d believed him to be?

    There have been many real-life cases, in Australia and around the world, where later generations are confronted with unpleasant truths about beloved parents or grandparents – things they would rather not know. So we feel for Juliet, faced with this awful dilemma. Danger stalks her and she must find answers: who killed her grandparents and why? The tension ratchets as Juliet comes closer to the truth, making this novel an engrossing read.

    Along with the mystery, there are interesting characters who interact in believable ways: Juliet’s estranged sister Lily, her current boyfriend Jason, her old school friend Ellis, all of whom play a part in the drama. Juliet’s journey of discovery is about more than her grandparents – she learns about her family, her relationships, and about herself.

    There was so much I didn’t know about my grandparents. I’d known them only in their later years, seen them from the self-centred perspective of a child. Inside that letter were two people I’d never known, who I wanted to know, to bring those people to life in my memories, make my grandparents complete, something I should have done a long time ago.

    Inheritance of Secrets p125

    Who hasn’t had that realisation as an adult – that we need to move beyond the limited understandings of childhood, before we can appreciate our parents or grandparents, with flaws and all, as fully formed people who made choices in life? And don’t we all have to live with the consequences of our choices?

    This novel is a textured, absorbing thriller that ticked many boxes for me: a mystery from wartime Europe, a modern story line with a believable, sympathetic heroine, fast paced action and a satisfying emotional arc. A bonus: much of the modern day action takes place in Adelaide and Victor Harbour in South Australia, settings not often seen in novels but which work wonderfully in this story.

    An Inheritance of Secrets is published by Harper Collins, April 2020.

    Thanks to the publisher for an advance copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    The real stories of life after WWII – from the women of Australia: ‘The Women’s Pages’ by Victoria Purman

    I’ve always enjoyed looking at my mother’s photos of her life in Sydney in the late 1940’s. A young, single woman, she made her living working in a Surrey Hills dressmaking business, and her photos included outings with her workmates, all dressed up in bright, pretty frocks (which they sewed themselves) enjoying life in the immediate postwar time. They looked free from the worries and hardships that had plagued Australians during the long, hard war years.

    Photos only tell part of the story, of course. The apparently carefree expressions of the young women in my mother’s photos no doubt hid a multitude of troubles: financial worries, scars (both visible and invisible) carried by family members who served in the armed forces, grief for those who did not return, lingering shortages of food, fabrics, fuel and other necessities.

    It is these realities that feature in The Women’s Pages and make this novel’s portrayal of post-war Sydney life so convincing. The story opens on ‘Victory in the Pacific Day’ in August 1945. The main character, Tilly Galloway, observes the delirium of victory and the end of the war, in her role as a war correspondent for a major Sydney newspaper. The celebrations across the city last through the night and Tilly records all she sees and hears for her story.

    Tilly is a young woman who has shared the wartime hardships and grief of so many. Her young husband Archie disappeared during his service in New Guinea, and is presumed to have been taken prisoner of war by the Japanese. Similarly, her flatmate Mary is longing for the return of her own husband, a prisoner at the notorious Changi prison camp. Tilly’s father is a waterside worker, with failing health and bitter, recent memories of the ‘Hungry Mile’, where desperate men thronged Sydney’s docks area, hoping to be chosen for a day’s work during the Depression years. (This area is now the Barangaroo development, housing restaurants, bars, offices and upmarket accommodation – a very different space from the grime and grit of its working class waterfront origins.) Money is tight for most people in Tilly’s world, and wartime shortages and rationing not yet eased.

    In addition, Tilly experiences the sexism and opposition of male colleagues who sexually harass, dismiss and disrespect women – and pay them less than the men. The scenes in which Tilly and other women confront these behaviours echo parts of Natasha Lester’s 2019 novel The French Photographer, which chronicles similar struggles faced by female war correspondents in the US and Europe during the same period.

    In The Women’s Pages, Tilly pushes hard to be allowed to cover the war but is only allowed to go as far as Darwin on a tour for female correspondents. When the war ends, she is relegated to stories about the ‘home front’ and things to do with women – though she knows that women want to read about much more than fashion and dinner parties. She is also confronted by the shocking inequities in the way different people are treated – war widows, those women who took on ‘men’s jobs’ during the war years, and those men physically or psychologically damaged by their wartime experiences (and their wives and families).

    While one might have thought the war had been a great equaliser, given death knew no class or rank distinction, Tilly realised that the war had only cemented Sydney’s social strata, not shattered it… Her anger at the inequality made bile rise in her throat.

    The Women’s Pages p363

    Reading about the ways in which Australians battled grief, anxiety and poverty was a timely reminder, in these COVID19 days, that being separated from loved ones, ‘making do’ with what you have, shortages in shops, coping with constant worry and uncertainty, and adjusting to new routines, are not unique to our time. There is even mention of the suspension of international and national cricket competitions – shades of the tumult faced in recent times by athletes and sporting groups around the world. If I didn’t know how long it takes to get a manuscript written, edited and published, I’d almost suspect that Victoria Purman began work on this novel just months ago!

    As news of atrocities committed in all theatres of war begin to filter through, Tilly realises that the suffering of so many – those returning from the front and those waiting for them at home – will continue. There is no instant fix and no guarantee that Australians can resume their previous lives anytime soon. Purman paints a vivid picture of the social and emotional upheavals confronting all Australians in this period. Her heroine, Tilly, and Tilly’s family, friends and colleagues, are believable and sympathetic characters. I cared about them. And Tilly’s decision to do what she can to address the injustices she sees, made me cheer.

    The Women’s Pages will appeal to readers who enjoy their historical fiction firmly rooted in reality, and who like learning about the past while they get lost in a well told story.

    The Women’s Pages will be published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises (Harper Collins) in September 2020.
    Thanks to HQ Fiction for an advance copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Why memory matters: ‘I Want You to Know We’re Still Here’ by Esther Safran Foer

    This book’s subtitle is My family, the Holocaust and my search for truth. It is about momentous events in history (WWII, Nazi-occupied Europe and the Holocaust) but also about one family, their stories, and memory – the role it plays in defining us as individuals, as families and as a people. On the very first page the author sets the scene:

    I am the offspring of Holocaust survivors, which, by definition, means there is a tragic and complicated history.

    I want you to know we’re still here p3

    The title refers to her stated aim in writing the book: to let her ancestors know that they were not forgotten and that the family lives on. Later, she writes, How I wished they could see all the good that came later: the births, bar mitzvahs, the graduations and weddings, the great- and great-great grandchildren. (p179) A lovely moment comes at the end of the book, when at a gathering of the now large extended family living in America, one of her grandchildren quips Take that, Hitler! (p223)

    In the pages of this thought-provoking exploration of what it means to survive, to make decisions about whether to walk away from the past, to learn about it or to silence it, the author traces her own personal experiences. She knew that her parents had memories too terrible to commit to words (p8), she’d seen photos of long-dead relatives who had no direct descendants to tell their stories, and she embarked on the complicated path to tracing her father’s life. This involved meeting and speaking to many people who had knowledge of or a connection with her extended family, her parents, grandparents and others. She travelled to Ukraine to visit the site of the village that had once stood in the countryside and was populated by many Jewish families, but later destroyed after the Jewish residents were murdered. Poignantly she was able to track down and finally meet family and descendants of the man who had hidden her father from the Nazis and thus saved his life.

    There is so much to think about in this book. The author’s personal experiences and reflections are moving. They also touch on issues that resonated with me, an Australian reader with no direct connection with the events described. Reading about the theory of ‘postmemory’ first introduced by an American woman called Marianne Hirsch, I was prompted to consider the experiences of indigenous Australians since European invasion and colonisation. For example:

    The idea is that traumatic memories live on from one generation to the next, even if the later generation was not there to experience these events directly…the stories one grows up with are transmitted so affectively that they seem to constitute memories in their own right…these inherited memories – traumatic fragments of events – defy narrative reconstruction.

    I want you to know we’re still here p23

    This description is also true of the inter-generational trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, from the numerous deaths by disease, the theft of land, the massacres, the policies of forced removal from livelihoods and families, and the incarcerations visited upon indigenous Australians during these years.
    (There are many indigenous authors who have published works of fiction and non fiction that explore some of the ways postmemory might well be a concept relevant to the Australian situation, including Melissa Lukashenko, (my review of Too Much Lip here) Tara June Winch (The Yield), Tony Birch (The White Girl), Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu), and Archie Roach (Tell Me Why), among many others.)

    There are some terrible events described in this book, including murders of men, women and children, mass graves, the theft of clothing and valuables from those killed, other atrocities committed by the Nazis or those who did their bidding. There are also moments of light, love and honourable behaviour, including this reflection:

    From a Jewish perspective, action is what counts. You do the right thing. The feelings come later.

    I want you to know we’re still here p222

    For me, that’s a sentiment impossible to argue against.

    I Want You to Know We’re Still Here will be published in Australia by HQ, an imprint of Harper Collins, on 20 April 2020.
    Thanks to the publisher for the advance copy to read and review.

  • Writing

    A small offering to lighten our days: my short story about magic

    These days of concern and self-isolation due to COVID-19 are strange times indeed. To lighten the mood, here is a little story I wrote, before the craziness got too crazy, for the March Australian Writers’ Centre Furious Fiction competition.

    Photo by Matheus Bertelli from Pexels

    ‘While these visions did appear…’

    From my place in the wings, I can see Ella and her best friend Toni. Ella clutches the edge of the stage curtain, her jaw set with determination to not mess up her scene. Her parents are out there in the audience, their faces probably tight with worry. I know they’d had misgivings about the whole thing.

    On stage, Bottom leans back in Titania’s arms. His ass’s head wobbles precariously but stays in place. Titania rests her head on the cushion of soft ferns in the fairy bower.

    Ella had gasped when she’d first seen the set, hung with greenery to conjure a park, a woodland meadow. The play cast its magic over everything. In the dressing room, she’d looked into the mirror and squealed.

    ‘I’m a fairy!’

    She wears her yellow gown and fairy wings as if born to them. A long blonde wig completes the disguise, transforming snub nosed Ella into a fairy sprite. Even Rick—the handsomest boy in the school—is convincing as Bottom, the fool with a donkey head. It is all working.

    Now here is Ella’s cue. She bounces out on stage beside her fairy friends. Ella has just two words to say, and I know she won’t get them wrong.

     Peaseblossom calls, ‘Ready!’

    Moth and Mustardseed chorus, ‘And I!’

    Within minutes their scene is done and they all run off stage again, giggling and hugging each other.

    Ella spots me in the wings and rushes over, her round face one huge smile. She puts her arms around my waist and hops up and down, her excitement spilling over like a fizzy drink.

    ‘Shhh!’ I warn, but I can’t help smiling back. ‘You did great, both of you.’ I put my finger to my lips, and they quieten to watch the action until the play’s closing lines.

    I give them a gentle nudge.

    ‘Curtain call! Go and take your bow, girls.’

    Ella and Toni hold hands with the other fairies and bow to the audience, beaming. The applause and cheers rise to a crescendo. I blink away tears. When the curtains swish shut for the last time, the whole cast rattle off the stage together, breathless with joy.

    I wait with Ella and Toni until their parents find them. Ella’s dad is shaking his head. Oh no… Is he unhappy with Ella being in the play? I’d fought hard for the chance for Ella and Toni to take part. Does he still disapprove?

    Before I could speak, he takes my hand.

    ‘Thank you, Ms Roberts!’ he says. ‘What a wonderful night. It worried me it might be too much for Ella, up there on stage. I know the school hasn’t had special needs students in the play before. How can we thank you?’

    I grin. ‘Just look at their faces.’ I turn to Ella and Toni. The girls’ eyes shine as they grin back. They are still fairies, inside and out. ‘That’s thanks enough.’