• 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.

  • 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.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Some things change (and some definitely remain the same!) ‘Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia’ by Matt Murphy

    Hands up if you sometimes think “We are rules by fools and knaves!” Or if you fret about the unhealthy role that alcohol seems to play in our Australian society. Me, too. It may be reassuring (or not) to know that this is not a new thing. In fact, according to this history by Matt Murphy, Australia’s very beginning as a British colony in the eighteenth century was inextricably linked to and shaped by alcohol, and the idiocy and corruption that so often accompanies it. One type of alcohol (rum) played a greater role than others, and this book deftly fills in a history of the beverage itself, how it first arrived on the shores of New South Wales, and what happened after.

    Startling snippets of information are revealed: did you know, for example, that the First Fleet brought sufficient rum for seven years for each marine on board – but only enough food for two years. Rum was packed into the holds of those tall ships at the expense of tools, clothing and food supplies that the penal settlement would need in its early years.

    Alcohol had an immediate, detrimental impact on Aboriginal people around Sydney and further afield; one that is still being felt today. Very quickly rum became a measure of currency and exploited by those in charge of the settlement – the NSW Marine Corps – which earned them the epitaph of ‘Rum Corps’.

    We are introduced to some well-known historical figures: First Nations figures such as Bennelong; colonial Governors; convicts; emancipists and free settlers; those responsible for guiding the settlement all the way from England. Some of these characters are more notorious than others: John Macarthur, for example, is given a lot of attention due to his incessant meddling and blatantly corrupt activities, many of which involved the importation, sale and use of rum to further his own interests.

    Murphy highlights the huge amount of energy expended on dispatches, petitions, orders about rum to and from authorities in NSW and London, canvassing the advantages and pitfalls of importing, distilling, trading, controlling and drinking the stuff. Well meaning but unsuccessful edicts regarding the control of alcohol consumption have echoes in our own times:

    A further law proclaimed in June 1825 was aimed at publicans who condoned disorderly conduct on their premises or permitted patrons to become drunk. While the law pertaining to convicts was somewhat easy to maintain, the second one only meant that boozed-up barflies were being turfed out of hotels to drink in the street…Now there were more drunks on the street than ever before.

    Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia p229

    Is it just me, or could these attempts to curb the negative effects of alcohol consumption be the Georgian equivalents of Sydney’s lock-out laws and today’s ‘responsible service of alcohol’ guidelines?

    Matt Murphy writes with humour and a fast pace, so this is an entertaining read as well as a sobering (no pun intended) look at our modern relationship with alcohol, and it is refreshing to re-visit some well-known people and events from history through the prism of one substance or object – in this case, the bottom of a rum bottle.

    Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Light & deadly by turns: ‘Digging Up Dirt’ by Pamela Hart

    I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the strap line for this new novel by Australian author Pamela Hart, is a beauty:
    ‘Renovations are hell – and that’s before you find a body beneath the floorboards.’

    It neatly ties in two irresistible motifs for many readers: a who-done-it mystery and real estate / renovations – the last still endlessly fascinating for residents of Sydney, which is where the story is set.

    Ms Hart is the author of many novels for children and adults covering several genres, including historical fiction, fantasy and non-fiction. This is her first foray into contemporary crime and I look forward to reading more about Poppy McGowan, who is an engaging, wryly humoured heroine with an interesting job (researcher for kids’ programs with ABC TV). Digging Up Dirt the first of what promises to be a series featuring Poppy.

    She owns the house in Sydney’s inner west which is undergoing renovations at the start of the novel. To begin with she is dealing with a possible heritage order, due to the discovery of animal bones of potential historical significance, which has brought building work to a halt. Poppy’s previous job was in a museum so she is appropriately respectful of heritage issues… but she’s also worried that her renovations might be put on hold indefinitely while investigations into the bones continue.

    Those concerns are compounded the following day, though, as investigations of altogether another kind are required – a murder enquiry, after the body of the archaeologist brought in to look at the bones is discovered in the same pit where the animal bones were discovered. Poppy begins her own bit of investigating, keen to see the matter brought to a close quickly so that her little house can be lived in sooner rather than later.

    Political and religious organisations are involved because the murdered woman had been vying for pre-selection as a candidate for the Australian Family Party, a right-wing conservative organisation with strong ties to the Radiant Joy Church (possibly a thinly disguised version of an evangelical church frequented by a certain prime minister?) As Poppy digs deeper she realises that more than one person who knew the victim had a motive for wanting her gone.

    Digging Up Dirt is essentially a light read, with elements of romantic comedy in the mix, though it does touch on some serious topics such as homophobia, sexism and the theft of Indigenous cultural materials. Poppy is smart and also acerbic at times, which makes for some apt barbs in the direction of politicians, and entitled, white, conservative and prosperous men – and women.

    The great thing about sexism is that men who think women are stupider than they are truly believe it. So they are very, very reluctant to acknowledge that a woman may not be stupid. Thus far, I’d played to their expectations of a young woman who wasn’t really a reporter, and their own mindset predisposed them to believe I wasn’t a threat.

    Digging Up Dirt p147

    Sydney based readers will enjoy the strong sense of the city’s environs invoked. I enjoyed reading about Poppy and can visualise this story made into a film or TV series. I’m sure I will be meeting Poppy again in the future.

    Digging Up Dirt is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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

    ‘100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze’ by Clayton Zane Comber

    Xander is 15, a student at a Sydney high school. He lives with his Mum and his Nanna, who is sick with cancer. Xander’s Dad died of cancer and he wants to do whatever he can to save Nanna, and making lists helps him with anxiety and coping with difficult situations, so he decides to write a list of 100 Remarkable Feats and then achieve them all.

    Xander experiences and sees the world and other people differently than some, and the author has skilfully and sympathetically given readers a ‘Xander view’ of events, allowing us to understand that being neurodiverse is only a problem because it’s thought of as such. Little snippets of his learning pop up as well, such as how to make small talk, how to tell the difference between people being rude and being reserved, how to ‘read between the lines’ of interpersonal communication, and what an idiom such as ‘read between the lines’ actually means.

    The narrative is peppered with lists that Xander makes to help him cope with new or challenging situations. He accesses his memories and emotions via lists as well: #1 Most Trusted Person; Worst Life Moments; Memory Lists; Top Ten Life Moments.

    As he sets out to achieve his Remarkable Feats, he pushes his comfort zone out further than ever before; makes new friends; and tackles some very challenging scenarios. And he learns a great deal about life, family and friends on the way.

    In a letter to actor Emma Watson (#2 Prettiest Girl in the World), Xander writes:

    I also reckon it must have been incredibly hard for you being so famous so young, like you had to learn to be Hermoine Granger before learning to be yourself. That’s how I feel about being a teenager, like I’m always trying to be someone I’m expected to be rather than myself. I think that’s why I’ve had such a hard time fitting in.

    100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze p103

    As well as Xander’s experiences, the story touches on challenges that affect others: eating disorders, childhood illness, agoraphobia, bullying, among others. Yet it’s a quirky and uplifting tale in which the reader will cheers for Xander as he progresses through his Remarkable Feats. This novel will help teens and young adult readers to understand a little more about neurodiversity, and that can only be a positive thing.

    100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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

    Teenagers’ dreams and parents’ worries: ‘Can’t Say it Went to Plan’ by Gabrielle Tozer

    At the risk of giving away my age, I can safely say that when I finished high school, the end-of-school phenomena known in Australia as ‘schoolies week’ did not exist. My cohorts and I celebrated the completion of our formal school years by outings to the local public pool and a restaurant dinner. Not with youth hostel (or five star) accommodation at a resort, youth oriented all night parties, dances and concerts, and all the other accoutrements that make up many a young Australian’s schoolies week.

    A cross between a let-your-hair-down relief from the pressures of final school studies and exams, and a first step into the adult world without parental supervision, schoolies week is something that many young people dream of (and their parents have nightmares about).

    Can’t Say it Went to Plan is a new young adult (YA) novel which follows the schoolies experience of three very different young people and their friends and family. Zoe, Samira and Dahlia have each planned the perfect schoolies week, but of course they also bring with them their individual concerns and preoccupations: anxiety and grief, parental expectations and sibling rivalry, boyfriend troubles, worries about their next steps in life. With alternating viewpoints, the author captures these perfectly along with the language and internal dialogue of this age group.

    I cringed a lot reading this novel in recognition of the all-consuming self centredness of many youngsters and also, winced at the inevitable mistakes made by each of the three protagonists as they navigate their way through the ups and downs of a week in which plans are turned upside down. Parents may well turn green reading some of what they get up to, but in the end, the mistakes are not too disastrous and each character learns from their experiences.

    Ultimately the novel is about what is really important: friendships and family, courage, perseverance and hope. By the novel’s end, the three girls’ trajectories meet, if only briefly, and they are able to reflect on what they’ve learned from their schoolies weeks.

    Can’t Say it Went to Plan is published in May 2021 by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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

    Magic of buttons: ‘Eliza Vanda’s Button Box’ by Emily Rodda

    When I was a little girl, I loved looking through my Nanna’s button collection. At one point she began to give my mother assorted buttons each time we visited; much later on I realised that Nanna knew she was dying of cancer and had begun divesting herself of objects. Perhaps they were special buttons, treasured for some memory they evoked of happier times. I’ll never know. Now I have my own modest button collection and I sometimes think of Nanna when I search through them to replace a missing shirt button.

    The new story from award-winning Australian author Emily Rodda is all about buttons and the mysterious but kind woman who appears in Milly Dynes’ small village with her magical button collection.

    Milly is in the midst of a spate of difficulties in her life, and meeting Eliza Vanda (or EV as she is known) and her companion Victor, takes her into a magical world in which she encounters witches, black jellybeans, a princess, a bewitched frog and a beautiful wedding dress.

    It’s a gentle story with humour and compassion in equal parts, and allows younger readers to explore emotions such as sadness or anger in a safe context. Milly is a sweet and clever girl and EV and Victor quite complex characters; Milly quickly realises that things (and people) are not always entirely as they appear.

    Eliza Vanda’s Button Box endows the humble button with a significance which I think is fully deserved, as I recall the pleasure I had in sorting through my Nanna’s button box all those years ago.

    Eliza Vanda’s Button Box is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.