• Children's & Young Adult Books

    Making history: ‘The Story of Us’ by Michael Wagner & Beck Feiner

    This new book for kids is set to warm every family historian’s heart (and I am sure, their children’s). It’s designed to encourage kids to talk to various members of their family: mum, dad, grandparents, cousins, aunties, siblings, and anyone else considered ‘family’. Each double page spread offers an idea for discussion and a way to record the stories that make up the rich tapestry that is a family’s history.

    During the 2021 long winter Covid lockdown in my area, I have found solace and interest in a deep dive into family history, investigating hitherto unexplored parts of my family tree and finding the stories of the people there. It is, for me, always the stories behind the facts, dates and names, that turn a basic family tree into a world peopled by families, with all their ups and downs. Stories are what make family history so engrossing.

    The Story of Us is a wonderful way to introduce this idea to children, and to create a beautiful keepsake that family members can look through in years to come.

    The questions up for discussion include topics like: One of my earliest memories… One of the strangest things that ever happened to me… The best decision I ever made… One of the most precious things I own… My favourite and least favourite parts of school were…

    Each topic has illustrations that invite inclusion and diversity, with bold, colourful block prints by Beck Feiner, plus plenty of space for various family members’ comments and memories to be recorded.

    This book is sure to be a favourite way for families to explore ideas and memories and while they are at it, to write their own history.

    The Story of Us is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Fractured lives: ‘Ten Thousand Aftershocks’ by Michelle Tom

    This memoir by New Zealand born- now Melbourne resident – Michelle Tom is already one of my standout reads of 2021. It cleverly, poetically, blends her story of family violence, love, and bitterness with the devastation of the earthquake that hit Christchurch in 2011. She uses geology and seismology as metaphors to drill down into the strata of her family; its patterns of behaviour and unrest over generations.

    I had some initial confusion in the opening chapters, with their leaps across multiple timeframes, before I realised this is also a metaphor: for memory, and the way past events and feelings come to us in a mélange of seemingly unconnected scraps and layers.

    The book is divided into five sections, each one reflecting the different stages of an earthquake, the final one being the aftershocks of the title. And for each of these stages, she identifies a corresponding period or event in her family’s life. It is such a powerful way of looking at family and individual trauma.

    As children, she and her siblings were burdened with adult secrets they should never have had to hear. Regarding her sister Meredith, she says, in a passage reminiscent of the Victorian idea of dying from a broken heart:

    Some days the weight of daylight was too much, as she hid away in her darkened flat. She fought to carry the secret of her beginning from each day into the next, and several years before she died I realised that she was not really living. Her spirit was fractured, and she possessed no energy for anything other than mere existence.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks pp56-57

    The legacy left for successive generations by parents and grandparents who are emotionally immature, manipulative and volatile is laid clear.

    The descriptions of the earthquake itself and its aftermath are visceral and horrifying. My husband and I visited Christchurch in 2012 and saw evidence of the destruction it had caused, including mounds of strange mud that were left after the liquefaction that can happen during a major earthquake. Even this becomes part of the family metaphor:

    What becomes of liquefaction after it has issued forth from the darkness beneath, into the light of the world? Like shame, it cannot survive being seen. In the heat of the sun it dries to a grey powder as fine as talc and disperses on whatever current of air may find it, gentle zephyrs and howling gales alike, leaving only a scar in the earth where it emerged.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks p278

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks is a profound and beautiful memoir, one I cannot recommend highly enough.

    Ten Thousand Aftershocks is published by Fourth Estate in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Nerdy fun: ‘The Curse of the Vampire Robot’ by Graeme Base

    Who can go past a Graeme Base book, with their clever play-on-words humour and illustrations that you can simply fall into? This new one is especially fun and will bring a smile to parents and teachers, too, chock full as it is with references to all things tech.

    In the Scottish Highlands, a modern-day take on an old folk story plays out. There’s a vampire in a grim castle atop a hill, fearful valley-dwellers, a humble cleaner. Littered throughout are tech references: there is a ‘baby ware-wolf’, a corrupted hard drive, range anxiety, a packet of ‘juicy little USBs’… you get the idea. It’s a playful mash-up of vampire tropes and the world of computers.

    We think you had a virus’, said the ware-wolf.
    “Or a worm.
    We ware-wolves often get them –
    you can feel the malware squirm.’

    The Curse of the Vampire Robot

    It’s a lovely addition to kids’ bookshelves for fans of Graeme Base and those new to his work.

    The Curse of the Vampire Robot is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins, in September 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Brooding and malevolent: ‘The Burning Island’ by Jock Serong

    Jock Serong is one of my favourite Aussie authors. He writes novels that are page turners, taut and beautiful, with characters that don’t leave you. The Burning Island is a sequel, of sorts, to his earlier historical fiction work Preservation, which was a stand-out for me because it incorporated both historical fiction and crime in an unforgettable package. I would recommend reading Preservation first – the latest book can be a stand-alone, but there is so much that links the two books together, it would be a shame to miss out.

    The Burning Island picks up the story of former Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, but told this time through the voice of his daughter Eliza, spinster and governess in 1830’s Sydney. Joshua is a faint shadow of the man we first meet in Preservation – damaged and traumatised by his encounters with the enigmatic Mr Figge and the devastating events that follow, he is an alcoholic and recluse.

    When he is offered a chance for revenge he grasps it – to Eliza’s horror. It will involve a voyage to the Furneaux Islands (located in Bass Strait, between mainland Australia and Tasmania) including the island called Preservation, where the story in the first book begins. Eliza must accompany her father, because he is now not only an alcoholic, but also blind.

    The tragedy of addiction and the strain it places on family relationships is portrayed beautifully, and Serong’s trademark descriptive prose glows throughout this novel, resulting in both a gripping story and an incredible character study.

    We sat like that and neither of us spoke. The boat slipped onward, closing in towards something we couldn’t understand. The dark birds moved about us, specks of cold water lit on our faces, perhaps spray or the faintest rain, drips off the rigging, and here we were, two lost people on a voyage to nowhere.

    The Burning Island p121

    There is much in this novel about the often bloody and violent history of the islands, with sealers, mutton birding and kidnapping of Aboriginal women from nearby islands and Tasmania itself, as well as their kidnapping by white authorities – an attempt at genocide. The dramatic, lonely islands are imbued with a malevolence that echoes the nature of the man being pursued – the vile Mr Figge.

    It all makes for a novel that once read, is not easily forgotten.

    The Burning Island was published by Text Publishing in 2020.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Blend of mystery and historical fiction for younger readers: ‘The Fire Star: A Maven and Reeve Mystery’ by A.L.Tait

    A.L.Tait is an Australian author well known for her adventure stories for middle-grade readers, including the MapMaker Chronicles series. The Fire Star is the first of a new series featuring two very likeable characters, Maven and Reeve.

    Set in a kind of fictional mediaeval world, it is a mystery and adventure story involving the disappearance of a valuable gemstone (the Fire Star of the title). In the kingdom of Cartreff, Reeve has just arrived at Rennart Castle to begin his duties as newly made squire to Sir Garrick. He meets Maven, whose nondescript appearance as a humble maid to the Lady Cassandra belies her intelligent and quick mind – and hides her secret.

    The two young people are thrown together when the Fire Start disappears. In the uproar that follows, the hopes and plans of them both are thrown into jeopardy, unless they can solve the mystery of its disappearance – and do so quickly.

    There are knights, jousting, witches and a hiding place deep in the forest – all elements of a good fantasy or historical fiction.

    What shines in the novel are the two young characters, whose different skills complement each other perfectly. From reluctant beginnings and distrust, they must work together to avert disaster.

    There are some pithy comments throughout on the perils of being an outsider in any society:

    To them, we are outsiders, Reeve, and nobody is more vulnerable than a person who is other.’

    The Fire Star p120

    My favourite revelation in the story is the ‘Beech Circle’ , about which (in the interests of avoiding a spoiler), I won’t say more, other than to agree that every girl and woman needs their own Beech Circle.

    I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the Maven and Reeve series.

    The Fire Star: A Maven & Reeve Mystery was published by Penguin Random House in 2020.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Courage and conflict: ‘Sisters of the Resistance’ by Christine Wells

    I remember being in Paris, on a much-anticipated trip in 2015, falling in love with this amazing city (of course!) and imagining Nazi boots tramping the beautiful cobblestoned streets. I could almost hear the tanks rumbling through the city. I wondered: what would it have been like for Parisians, experiencing the fear and humiliation of German occupation?

    Sisters of the Resistance, by Aussie author Christine Wells, is a novel that plunges the reader into that experience, but also allows us to imagine how cities such as Paris were, straight after the war. How did Parisians survive the relentless assaults on their beautiful city and their lives? How much did rationing and fear impact on everyday experiences and for how long, after peace finally arrived?

    Paris was bleak in the winter with the plane trees leafless and grey. While the bombings had not touched the part of the city in which Yvette now hurried along, the place had the air of a beautiful, damaged creature still licking its wounds. Now that winter had come, all its scars were laid bare.

    Sisters of the Resistance p8

    The novel moves between 1947 and 1944, which was a time approaching the end of the war but still a dangerous one, as the Nazis grew ever more desperate and vicious.

    The sisters of the title are Yvette and Gabby, young women of very different personalities and approaches to their wartime experiences. Gabby is the eldest; sensible and cautious, just wanting to survive the war as best she can. Yvette is more impulsive, driven by a need to do something to help her city and country in its struggle against Nazi oppression. I enjoyed the contrasting characters: one accidentally and reluctantly drawn into resistance work; the other eager, if naïve about the dangers involved.

    As with many good historical fiction novels, this one was inspired by the true story of Catherine Dior, the sister of the more famous French fashion icon Christian. She worked and fought for the Paris resistance before her arrest, torture and incarceration in a German concentration camp. I had been introduced to her story before, via another novel about WWII, The Paris Secret by Natasha Lester. Hers is a remarkable story and in this new novel, Christine Wells has woven a moving and exciting tale about other women who contributed in their own ways to the cause of French freedom.

    The murkiness of the world of the resistance is explored as the characters navigate their way through the difficult (sometimes impossible) choices they are faced with:

    “At what point does it become collaboration? At what point treason? Do we judge by someone’s actions or by their intentions?”

    Sisters of the Resistance p102

    There are hints and glimpses of intrigue, betrayals and danger that kept me turning the page, and prompted me to wonder what I would do, if faced with similar situations and dilemmas that called upon every atom of strength I possessed.

    Sisters of the Resistance is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, in July 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Rollicking re-telling: ‘The Good Wife of Bath’ by Karen Brooks

    In her re-telling of Geoffrey Chaucer’s well-known story within The Canterbury Tales, Australian author Karen Brooks has brought us the dry tone of a mediaeval English woman whose rags-to-riches-back-to-rags life is full of passion, love, misfortune and plain bad luck.

    The author’s extensive and meticulous research into the period makes for a warts-and-all glimpse of England in the fourteenth century, including the awfulness of life for so many women. There is the Wife’s first marriage at twelve years old to a man more than twice her age. There is poverty, plague, domestic violence and abuse. There is also humour, bawdiness and plain speaking, making for plenty of laugh-out-loud moments for the reader.

    The disrespect in which women were generally held at the time is not airbrushed out of Brook’s version, and her Good Wife demonstrates the struggle that women had to gain and retain any agency over their lives.

    Eleanor/Alyson lives out her eventful life against a backdrop of tumultuous times in England and Europe. Death of a king, battling popes, resurgences of the plague, changes in industry and the economy, are all woven skillfully into the fabric of the story, much as the Good Wife herself learns to spin and weave beautiful thread and fabric. Reflecting on her life and the family and community she has created around her, Eleanor/Alyson thinks:

    How did this happen? This marvellous workshop of colour and quality – of bonds tighter than the weave itself. I couldn’t take all the credit. It had been a combined effort… every household, every husband, had added its own ingredient – coin, wool, skills, but above all, people.

    The Good Wife of Bath p313

    Brooks explores the long-standing debate over Chaucer’s intent in writing a story that ostensibly mocked women who wish to be in control over their own lives, opting for the interpretation that it was meant as a satire. Whatever his motives, The Good Wife of Bath offers a modern-day take on his original story.

    It’s an engrossing and rollicking re-interpretation of a classical English story that will please lovers of historical fiction, especially those set in the mediaeval period.

    The Good Wife of Bath is published by HQ Fiction in July 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Books and Magic: ‘The Travelling Bookshop’ by Katrina Nannestad

    A new book for younger readers that illustrates the role books can play in our lives, this delightful offering by Australian author Katrina Nannestad (author of We Were Wolves) also includes magic and travel. Perfect to encourage dreaming, especially in this time of Covid when for many families, travel is just that – a dream.

    Ten year old Mim lives with her dad and her little brother in a wooden caravan that is both their home and a bookshop. Flossy the horse pulls the caravan to where it is most needed – in this story, they arrive in The Netherlands where they meet a little Dutch girl called Willemina.

    Mim’s dad has the task of figuring out what the perfect book is for each person who visits their magical bookshop. That is not always the book the person most wants. It is, however, always the book they most need.

    At first, Mim tries to figure out the perfect book for Willemina, who is sad because of the bullying she receives at school from her classmate Gerta. With Dad’s help, she realises that perhaps it is not just Willemina who needs the perfect book this time…

    As well as spending time in the bookshop, the family loves to explore each new place they come to, enjoying wild days of fun and fantasy. Sometimes, Dad gets confused between things they have done and things they have read in books.

    ‘Huh,’ says Dad. ‘Just like that cow we saw jumping over the moon.’
    ‘Dad,’ I moan. ‘That didn’t really happen. It was something we read in my nursery rhyme book.’
    Dad narrows his eyes. ‘Are you sure about that, Mim?’
    I think about it for a moment.
    I look at Daisy.
    No. I’m not sure. It’s hard to tell with books and real life. The line is not as clear as you think.’

    The Travelling Bookshop p185

    The Travelling Bookshop is about family, friends, the magic of books and being kind. Illustrated by Cheryl Orsini, it’s a sweet story perfect for reading aloud or for younger children starting out on chapter books.

    The Travelling Bookshop is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in July 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for an advance reading copy to review.

  • Books and reading

    Heartbreaking truths: ‘One Little Life’ by Naomi Hunter

    Where to begin to discuss Naomi Hunter’s debut adult novel? There is so much to unpack in this book. A published children’s picture book author, Naomi is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and a seriously problematic early family life. One Little Life is her story, in fictional form.

    I can completely understand her decision to come at the telling of her experiences as fiction. This book describes unspeakable horrors inflicted on a very small child from both family members and a neighbour. And it is detailed. Very detailed. There is no way that anyone with a brain could read this story and not feel visceral revulsion, heartbreak, and anger at what happened to her. Re-telling the events from a third-person narrator about a different little girl would be one way to cope with the remembering and telling of these events.

    I would go so far as to suggest that anyone working in the arenas of policy, funding decisions or the justice system in relation to child sexual abuse, should absolutely read this book. It is an extremely uncomfortable read. Perhaps that is what is needed to bring home the seriousness of the problem. We need to experience the vulnerability of a child who is abused by the very people she should be able to trust. We need to bear witness to the pain, both emotional and physical, that children in this situation endure. We need to care about the child at the centre of this story because she stands in for all the other children that we never hear about.

    My first reaction on beginning this book was dismayed disbelief at the level of immaturity, self absorption and incompetence exhibited by so many people in ‘Lily’s’ little life. The author makes crystal clear how the process of ‘grooming’ works – the insidious, planned way in which a trusted other sets up a child for abuse and the ways in which it is explained away and perpetuated.

    Readers will also see the damage inflicted by uncaring, ignorant or insensitive others – health care providers, family or friends – and the incredibly important contribution by those who get their response right. Believing the victims, allowing awful truths be told in their own time and their own words, offering unconditional love and constant unwavering support. This stuff matters, whether you are a therapist, a GP, or a friend.

    I am glad that the police and justice systems did work for ‘Lily’ in her time of incredible vulnerability.

    Touching on the style of the book, I found the narrative a little overdone. I think the events and emotions are themselves so powerful that they could be described in sparser, simpler language and pack an even greater punch. In stories such as this, I do think that less is more.

    I have nothing but enormous admiration for the author: for choosing to tell her story in such an honest way, for surviving, for her resolution not to be brought low by the things done to her. And her husband, who stood by her every step of the way.

    One Little Life is not an easy read. But perhaps it is a necessary one.

    One Little Life is published by Empowering Resources in 2021.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Cycles of tragedy and hope: ‘Daughter of the River Country’ by Dianne O’Brien with Sue Williams

    Imagine being not quite sixteen, alone in the world and pregnant. Now imagine being faced with two intolerable alternatives: give up your baby for adoption or choose a life of violence, terror and misery.

    This is what happened to the author of this memoir – not a hundred years ago, but in the mid twentieth century. Brought up in a white Australian family in the 1950’s, Dianne experienced unwavering love from her mother, but abuse at the hands of her father. She did not know she was adopted until later and was confused about many things, including why she always felt different from others around her.

    Daughter of the River Country paints a vivid picture of suburban Australia in the latter half of the last century: the casual racism, bullying and violence meted out to those who least deserved it; the White Australia Policy that was still firmly in place; the neglect, jaw-dropping abuse and cruelty by those in charge of institutions meant to care for girls with no safe home to live in. For these reasons the memoir is hard to read at times but no less important for that. It tells of parts of our country’s history that many would prefer to forget, but which must be remembered so that we don’t keep repeating into the future. And as the author reminds us, some things haven’t changed as yet – the shameful gaps in life expectancy between indigenous and other Australians is one example, as is the shocking rate of incarceration and deaths in custody of indigenous people.

    Dianne discovered that she was one of the Stolen Generations, taken from her birth mother when a baby. Her people were Yorta Yorta, from the river country of Victoria. Her adoptive mother had very much wanted her and Dianne had a relatively happy childhood, though with edges of danger from her adoptive father that were fully expressed in cruelty after her mother died. From there, everything fell apart for the young girl: she experienced multiple violent relationships, incarceration in both a girls’ home and gaol; alcohol addiction and indifference or outright abuse from some who should have helped her.

    Discovering her birth family, her Aboriginal heritage and her people, brought about an incredible turn of events and her life took an upward turn, though not without tragedy along the way. It is the true measure of the woman that she was able to rise above the awfulness of her earlier life and work towards a better future for herself and her own children and grandchildren, and for her community.

    I have nothing but admiration for Dianne O’Brien and her memoir sheds further light on what has often been a hidden part of Australia’s past. It is one of the growing number of books that allow Australians to learn, reflect and hopefully understand more about the experiences of First Nations communities.

    Daughter of the River Country is published by Echo Publishing in July 2021.
    My thanks to Better Reading for an advance reading copy to review.