• Books and reading

    Page turner with a message: ‘Reputation’ by Sarah Vaughan

    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.

  • Books and reading

    Sydney on display: ‘Dead Man’s Pose’ by Susan Rogers & John Roosen

    The first in what will be called the ‘Yoga Mat Mysteries’ series, Dead Man’s Pose is a fun romp through Sydney, Australia, in all its harbour glory, with its beautiful beaches rubbing shoulders with a glitzy casino. At a peaceful outdoor yoga class, a man dies while in the titular ‘Dead Man’s Pose’, otherwise known as shavasana.

    The dead man is Mario. Elaina, the yoga teacher, is upset at what seems at first to be a misadventure during one of her classes. But when her apartment and yoga studio are both ransacked by unnamed people obviously looking for something – and not finding it – Elaina teams up with another of her students, Ric, to try to work out what really happened to Mario.

    What follows takes the reader across many Sydney places and practices: great espresso coffees and food, the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, Chinatown, the northern beaches, even a foray up to the Central Coast. On the way Elaina and Ric encounter homeless folk, expert crime fighters, corrupt businesspeople, and a youthful computer hacker, among many other vividly drawn characters.

    Their search takes them to the edge of danger and back again, before the mystery of Mario and why he was killed is solved.

    There are many snippets about Sydney’s past and present woven throughout the story which adds colour and flavour. It was great to have this iconic city feature almost as a character in its own right in a novel; something which writers from the US and UK, for example, have done for many years. It’s a welcome trend in Australian literature.

    The descriptions of the (many!) meals, snacks and beverages the two consume made me hungry and craving a good coffee. Occasionally this got in the way of the story, as did Ric’s near-perfection – I had to suspend disbelief a few times. The pacing and narrative technique could also be improved.

    Overall, though, if you enjoy crime fiction that is not too graphic or gratuitous and is full of interesting characters and settings, you will enjoy Dead Man’s Pose. I think the premise of a crime series named after yoga poses is terrific and I wish the authors well in their future books.

    Dead Man’s Pose is published as an eBook by G-EMS Pty Ltd, an imprint of Yoga Mat Mysteries, in 2022.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • 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

    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.

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

    Terrific new children’s fantasy: ‘The Callers’ by Kiah Thomas

    The Callers is a fabulous new book for middle-grade readers, particularly those who enjoy immersion in a skillfully drawn fantasy world that prompts consideration of the challenges facing our own.

    Quin is the son of Adriana, the powerful head of the Council of Callers who rule the continent of Elipsom. ‘Calling’, the ability to conjure anything out of thin air, is in the DNA of his family and has been for generations.

    But Quin is different. He cannot Call, which puts him at odds with his mother and his talented sister Davinia, and also with the expectations of his world.

    When he discovers that the objects Callers bring into Elipsom are actually taken from another place where people also live, he decides to do something to change this.

    He meets Allie, a girl who is also on the path to correct this long-standing injustice, and together they embark on a quest to preserve the future of Allie’s land. But Quin is now heading for a headlong collision with his own family.

    This novel can be read as a sustained and sensitive metaphor for the risks of the environmental degradation facing our own planet, and also for the injustices perpetrated by centuries of colonialism. Is it fair that some should benefit from other’s loss?

    The story is deeply engrossing and I loved that there was no need for pitched battles or physical violence in Quin’s and Allie’s efforts to change their world. The two work together, using their existing skills – and some previously undiscovered talents – to overcome the obstacles in their way.

    Quin is uncertain, confused about his place in his family and society. Allie, on the other hand, is passionate and courageous and she shows Quin the reality of their two worlds, and how he can live in line with his own beliefs and feelings. There are many profound questions addressed in this slim novel, but it is such a great story that it’s never a lecture. I really cared about Quin and Allie and their quest.

    It’s also, in a way, a coming-of-age story, about growing up and seeing your world, and the adults in your life, through a different lens:

    His head was throbbing. How would he ever know what he believed anymore? Half of him wanted to simply dismiss what Allie was telling him. It would be easier to go on believing what he’d always known to be true. And who was this girl to tell him that every single thing about his life was a lie? What could she know?

    The Callers p86

    I loved this book right away and I hope Kiah Thomas writes more stories like this.

    The Callers was published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in May 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.