• Books and reading

    Terrific debut: ‘The House of Now and Then’ by Jo Dixon

    Australian author Jo Dixon has written a terrific debut novel about youth, longing, family – and the hurt that secrets can inflict, even decades old ones.

    Set in Tasmania (one of my favourite parts of the country) it has a dual timeline structure.

    In 1986, we meet Pippa, a restless and adventurous young soul, house sitting with her best friend Jeremy and his girlfriend Rebecca. On a New Year’s Eve outing in Hobart, she falls head over heels with Leo, whose controlling, conservative parents have mapped out his future at university and a law firm. Leo is not so sure, and with Pippa’s encouragement, he decides to contradict his parents and forge his own way in the world.

    Before he can do so, tragedy strikes, and a secret is buried that will have consequences decades later.

    In 2017, Olivia is living in the same house on Hobart’s outskirts, hiding out from the world and trying to heal from a sordid ‘revenge porn’ and blackmail affair that sent her promising life skittering out of control. One day, a young man, Tom, knocks at the door and asks for her help. Does she know anything about Pippa, the young woman who used to live in the house? He has just arrived from England with an envelope to give to Pippa, on behalf of his recently deceased father, Jeremy.

    Olivia and Tom’s quest to find Pippa leads them down a twisty path of long-buried resentments, lies and hidden crimes. When they finally uncover the truth, it is beyond anything they might have guessed, and will have profound implications for everyone involved.

    The characters are wonderful: totally believable, complex, yet recognisable. The Tasmanian setting is vividly drawn: if you have been to Hobart and its surrounds you will recognise it; if not, it might very well make you want to go there.

    This is not a ‘crime’ novel in the usual sense of a police procedural or of gritty portrayals of serial killers. It’s actually a story about families. About the wonderful and the sometimes-terrible things that can occur in a family, and how our lives are shaped by the people who raise us. There’s a suitably surprising twist that kept me turning the pages and a gratifying, though not saccharine, ending. Not all the loose ends are neatly tied in a bow, but there is hope and a sense of realistic optimism.

    I enjoyed this novel very much. I hope Jo Dixon is preparing her next manuscript; I look forward to reading it.

    The House of Now and Then is published by HQ Fiction in January 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Every parent’s nightmare: ‘Taken’ by Dinuka McKenzie

    The tagline of Australian author Dinuka McKenzie’s second novel, Taken, is: A parent’s worst nightmare. So, we know from the start that this will be a story about a missing or abducted child. Every parent’s nightmare, indeed.

    Detective Sergeant Kate Miles has recently returned to work from maternity leave. Her first case is the disappearance of a newborn baby, Sienna.

    Kate works the case while trying to walk the tightrope that all working parents must face. She must balance the heavy demands of her police job with those of her family: husband Geoff, four-year-old Archie, and her own newborn daughter, Amy.

    She’s also under pressure from an unfolding public scandal related to her father, a retired police officer.

    How Amy came into the world (early, due to trauma suffered by her mother in the line of duty) is the subject of McKenzie’s first novel, Torrent.

    There are several things I enjoyed about this novel.

    I love that it is set in the Northern Rivers’ region of NSW, a change from the arid outback settings that feature in much recent Australian crime fiction. I enjoy the outback settings too; Taken provides a change of scenery and pace that is refreshing, and (for a coastal dweller like me) more familiar.

    I also love that Kate’s problems are a welcome change from the common detective-with-demons scenarios such as alcoholism or a murky past. Kate’s struggles are recognisable to many women: dealing with the physical and emotional demands of breastfeeding, for example, while doing a job that is essentially unpredictable.

    She must also try to smooth things at home with Geoff, who is growing increasingly dissatisfied with the full-time dad role that financial and family circumstances have demanded.

    The novel explores the tragedy of infant death, no matter the cause, and intimate partner abuse and violence. It also has something to say about the importance of communication with those we love or must work with; and how assumptions can lead us into troublesome situations.

    Taken kept me turning the pages to the end and is a satisfying read. I’ll now be on the lookout for a copy of the earlier book, Torrent.

    Taken is published by HarperCollins Publishers in February 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Family snapshots: ‘A Country of Eternal Light’ by Paul Dalgarno

    Reading this novel felt rather like flipping through a pile of family photo albums, with a member of that family sitting beside you and explaining the snapshots as you go.

    The person doing the explaining in the book is the protagonist, Margaret Byrne: estranged from her husband Harry, mother of adult twin daughters, loving grandmother to two little boys – and deceased since 2014.

    Margaret takes the reader through her memories, in no particular order, encompassing her childhood and youth in Aberdeen, Scotland, her years as wife and mother, her daughters’ grown-up lives and families in Australia and Spain, her diagnosis with cancer in 2012, subsequent treatment, and her death.

    She is, it seems, condemned to be an onlooker as events play out, those at which she was alive and present, and others where she is a mere observer. She is a wry, humorous commentator, all too aware of her own foibles and weaknesses and those of others. Especially after her death, when she longs to kiss or hold her grandsons, or speak to her daughters, but is obstructed by her lack of – well, a body or voice.

    The narrative is like a stream of consciousness, the sort that could very well occur as photos prompt reminiscences and anecdotes. Once I grew accustomed to the style of the novel, I found it delightful.

    There are reflections on family, living and dying: on children, change and growth, along with episodes that she would much rather forget:

    It’s amazing how completely you can block things out when you want or need to, and how deeply people can take this to heart… I felt ambushed – not by Rachel and not in that moment, but my preconceptions of her over the years, the sense that my instincts had been held repeatedly and unknowingly to ransom by my motherly myopia. I felt guilty for not seeing Rachel for what she was, blindsided and blind by my beautiful daughter.

    A Country of Eternal Light p186-187

    There are references to events that occurred after Margaret’s death: the Black Summer bushfires in Australia in the summer of 2019, for example, and the Covid pandemic soon after. Her bewilderment at observing people walking outside wearing face masks was a nice touch: we are so accustomed to this sight now, but what would an alien from Mars have made of Earthlings during the pandemic, I wonder?

    The single thing I did not like about this novel was the profound twist at the end, which (in the interests of not being a plot spoiler, I won’t divulge.) On reflection, I think it was there to make a point about the fragility of memory, and the different ways in which humans cope with grief.

    A Country of Eternal Light is essentially a book about vulnerability. I found it to be an immersive and thought-provoking novel, with vividly drawn character and settings, evocative prose, and moments of humour, sweetness and melancholy.

    A Country of Eternal Light is published by Fourth Estate in February 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Jackie French magic: ‘Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom’ Book #2 in Girls Who Changed the World

    Jackie French is back with another historical story mixed with a touch of speculative fiction: Book #2 in the ‘Girls Who Changed the World’ series for middle grade readers.

    Book #1 introduced Ming Qong, a twelve-year-old Australian girl who wants more from her school history lessons than the stories of men who won wars or invented things. Where were all the girls and women? Didn’t they do important things too, things that changed the world? Why aren’t their stories told?

    In Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom, Ming is thrown back to the time of World War I, to Belgium in 1916. This time, her brother Tuan is with her.

    They meet Marie, a youngster like them. Marie’s parents were killed, and her village and home destroyed by the German army, early in the war. Gradually Ming realises that Marie is working with the resistance group called ‘La Dame Blanche’ (The White Lady.) These women, men, girls and boys work locally, observing German troop movements, counting ammunition deliveries at the local railway station, passing food and supplies to those in need, hiding Belgians or Allied soldiers wanted by the Germans. They work in great secrecy: Ming and Tuan learn to guard what they say.

    Ming even learns to knit in order to create coded messages in a scarf or quilt square that communicates important information via signals in the number or type of stitches: movements of troop trains, numbers of soldiers, trains carrying ordnance, dates and times. This was a technique actually used in Belgium by women during the war – one thing you can always count on in a Jackie French novel is the accuracy of historical details she includes.

    The other type of work Ming experiences is foraging for firewood and food to feed and warm the orphans cared for in an unofficial ‘home’ by local women. Keeping civilians alive during wartime is also a form of resistance, usually performed by women and girls.

    The clue to how Ming’s presence helps to change the trajectory of the war is revealed at the end. But the underlying message is threaded right throughout the story: the often overlooked and hidden role that women have always played in world history.

    World War I was – big. A million stories or a million million, the story of every person who was there, or was affected by it across the world, for generations after it happened. Women’s stories had been lost in its vastness…
    ‘Hundreds of thousands of women, possibly millions, all through that war,’ said Herstory quietly. ‘The women of World War I are remembered as nurses or mothers, sisters, wives or sweethearts waiting for the men they loved, not as resistance workers, intelligence agents, soldiers and others who fought too. So much work, and sacrifice and courage, all deleted. Tell their stories, because even now the world seems intent on forgetting.’

    Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom p 271-272

    There are some difficult scenes, including an explosion of a trainload of mustard gas, the diabolical new German weapon to be unleashed at the front. Readers are not spared the suffering of those in the path of war.

    Importantly, there is also hope for the future, and an emphasis that it can be small actions by unseen or overlooked people, that can result in big changes to make the world a better place.

    Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom was published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in August 2022.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    All about empathy: ‘Waiting for the Storks’ by Katrina Nannestad

    Australian author Katrina Nannestad is back with another in her series for middle-grade readers, about children in WWII Europe. This one is about Polish youngsters stolen by the Nazis to further their hideous Lebensborn program, during which children and babies who looked ‘Aryan’ were taken to be Germanised and adopted into German families.

    The earlier books in this series, We Are Wolves and Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief dealt with the experiences of some German and Russian children.

    All of the stories are about empathy: understanding that there are always many ‘sides’ in warfare, and that children and non-combatants are always the victims, regardless of which side they come from.

    In Waiting for the Storks, Zofia is eight years old when she is kidnapped and taken away to become a ‘good German girl.’ The story accurately and sympathetically captures the ways in which brainwashing techniques such as punishment and reward, isolation and repetition are used to achieve the desired outcome – in this case, a complete obliteration of Zofia’s memories of her loving Polish family and home, and adoption of her new German identity.

    There are small acts of resistance. A lovely scene is in the camp as the children are forced to learn German, where they use the meaningless phrases they are being taught in a way that expresses their defiance:

    The nurse nods, satisfied. She walks away, but we keep speaking in German, because nurses have stethoscope ears and pinchy fingers and slappy hands and bad tempers.
    ‘Hello’, says Kat, ‘I am a boy.’
    ‘Hello, says Jadwiga, rubbing her bald head. ‘I am a potato.’
    ‘Goodbye,’ says Maria. ‘I must go to the bathroom.’
    We’re giggling now, sniggering into our soup. Even little Ewa. It’s brilliant, because we’re obeying the rules with our words, but not in our hearts.

    Waiting for the Storks p76

    A family game (‘Make a choice!) is used effectively as a motif throughout the story. So, where the choices with her parents were fun and light-hearted (Cream on your salami or gravy on your poppyseed cake? Make a choice!) they now become a survival strategy (Polish or German? Make a choice! and Orphan or beloved daughter? Make a choice!)

    The descriptions of the ‘Germanisation’ process are quite realistic and troubling. This is a book for mature younger readers who can deal with themes of sadness, loss, cruelty. The rewards are many, though, including a deeper understanding of the best and worst in humans. There is light and hope at the end which I believe is important for readers of this age group.

    Waiting for the Storks is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Evocative: ‘The Butterfly Collector’ by Tea Cooper

    On the same day in 1922 when Verity Binks loses her job at a Sydney newspaper (to make way for struggling WWI veterans), she receives a mysterious parcel in the mail. Inside is an invitation to attend the Sydney Masquerade Ball, along with a mask and costume designed to transform her into the guise of a beautiful orange and black butterfly.

    She decides to accept the invitation and attend the ball when her former boss, the Editor at the Sydney Arrow, suggests that she write a profile story about the Treadwell Foundation, a charity for ‘young women in trouble’ (that is, women pregnant outside of marriage.) She hopes to meet Mr Treadwell at the Ball – and also to find out the source of her mysterious invitation and costume.

    Not satisfied with the result, she travels to the little river town of Morpeth, in the Hunter Valley north of Sydney, on a quest to find out more about the origins of the Treadwells and the Foundation. This is also where her beloved grandparents, Sid and Clarrie, lived in their younger days and where her father, Charlie, was born. Gradually, Verity learns that there is much more to the Treadwell story than first meets the eye. Together with Arlo, who has lived all his life in the town, she uncovers dark secrets about some of Morpeth’s past residents.

    The Butterfly Collector is another of Tea Cooper’s successful dual-timeline historical mysteries. Woven in with Verity’s story is an earlier thread which relates the events of 1868 in the town of Morpeth, featuring Sid, Clarrie, Charlie and Arlo’s parents. Arlo’s mother, Theodora, is the butterfly collector of the novel’s title; a young woman fascinated by a spectacular new species of butterfly she encounters: the same orange and black of Verity’s costume.

    Theodora’s and Verity’s stories are intertwined with the Treadwell’s and Verity’s investigations gradually uncover why. It’s cleverly plotted and well-paced, bringing the reader along with Verity and Theodora as they deal with the challenges and questions of their explorations.

    A strength of Tea Cooper’s novels is the historical authenticity which comes from thorough research, but which never intrudes. Rather, we learn about the real-life places in past times incidentally, through vivid and evocative descriptions. I was especially drawn to this story because of its Hunter Valley setting: my father was born and grew up in West Maitland and one side of his family were early settlers around Morpeth.

    Another aspect I enjoyed is that the protagonists are women with intelligence, agency and courage, not content to comply with social expectations for women at the time in which they live. They are not ‘damsels in distress’ waiting to be rescued by their hero. There is romance, but it is never the main point of Cooper’s stories.

    The Butterfly Collector will be enjoyed by those who like well-researched historical fiction with a mystery to solve.

    The Butterfly Collector is published by HQ Fiction in November 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Conquering fears: ‘Be Careful, Xiao Xin!’ by Alice Pung & Sher Rill Ng

    Beloved and award-winning Aussie writer Alice Pung has created a beautiful picture book, with lush illustrations by Sher Rill Ng. It’s all about family, how your own fears and others can hold you back, and about conquering those fears.

    Little Xiao Xin (which means ‘be careful’ in Chinese) is a red fire warrior in his imagination; but the desire of his family to keep him safe means that he is not allowed to do things on his own or take risks.

    The author recalls her own childhood and that of her small son, when parents and grandparents insisted on bundling them into layers of warm clothes to prevent illness, avoiding many sports and physical activities in case of injury.

    These impulses come from a place of deep love and care. Their downside is that children can be prevented from exploring, trying new things, and gaining independence.

    In this story, little Xiao Xin feels frustrated at the restrictions imposed by his family in their efforts to keep him safe. He thinks:

    If I fall, I know how to land on my feet.
    If I land on my feet, I can run.
    If I run, I know where to hide.
    If I hide, I know where they can’t find me.

    Be Careful, Xiao Xin!

    When he sees the same happening to his little sister, he takes action. And the result is that his family come to understand, just a little, that:

    When Little Sister takes her first steps,
    Mum and Dad tell me
    ‘Don’t let her fall or else she’ll be too scared to try again!’
    But I think if she is scared of falling, she’ll never walk.

    Be Careful, Xiao Xin!

    This is a gorgeous tribute to families and to the (sometimes difficult) process of letting go enough, to allow children space to grow into their own lives and futures. Another lovely feature of the book is that the text is written in both English and Chinese scripts: perfect for multi-lingual youngsters.

    Be Careful, Xiao Xin! is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in September 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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

    Teenage troubles & own voices: ‘Sabiha’s Dilemma’ & ‘Alma’s Loyalty’ by Amra Pajalić 

    Perhaps YA (Young Adult) fiction should come with a trigger warning for any older adult reader. It can prompt memories of steering one’s own teens through that fraught period and offer a glimpse of what young people get up to when the adults are not watching. At its best, YA fiction can also invoke empathy in the reader, since most of us can remember some things about our youthful lives that we might prefer to keep quiet about.

    With Amra Pajalić’s Sabiha’s Dilemma and Alma’s Loyalty, readers get an added bonus. She draws on her Bosnian cultural heritage to write ‘own voices’ stories that will resonate with young people navigating the spaces between culture, religion, tradition, family and friends.

    Sabiah and Alma’s stories are narrated in first person, so we experience events and people through their eyes, while also seeing the interconnections between the characters. They are both teenagers from Bosnian Muslim families, and the novels allow readers to learn more about their cultural and political backgrounds.

    For example, when members of the adult Bosnian community get together, they talk about the war in the Balkans, and their expectations as to how their children should behave. Sabiha is sent to weekend Islamic classes to learn about proper behaviour for a Bosnian Muslim girl. She also learns about Bosnia’s past from her grandfather. Alma’s parents cannot accept her friendship with a gay boy, a fellow student at her new school. And they would certainly not condone her sneaking out to attend parties or be with her secret boyfriend.

    Layered in with these teen troubles is the fact that Sabiha and Alma are half-sisters, and Alma has only just learnt of Sabiha’s existence. The shock news threatens to tear her close family apart. Sabiha’s mother struggles with mental illness and wants desperately to be accepted back into the Bosnian community – with implications for her daughter’s freedom.

    Both girls experience the awfulness of broken friendships and betrayal, which can be devastating at a time of life when friendships and peers are so important.

    And of course, there is the age-old tension between boys and girls, who are trying to work out how to behave as the young men and women they are rapidly becoming.

    The novels explore the ways in which teens find and use ways to avoid, erase, or deal with the challenges of growing up:

    I wanted to be someone else and forget about all the things that were bringing me down, and Alex did that. He made me feel good… He’d become my port in the storm, the one place I didn’t have to worry about secret subtexts or hidden agendas.

    Alma’s Loyalty p186

    If the novels were movies, there would certainly be moments where I’d want to cover my eyes as potential disasters loom. Thankfully, both Sabiha and Alma are characters with grit, determination and agency mixed in with the teenage angst and confusion. The love and support of important people in their lives certainly helps, too.

    These are Books 1 and 2 in the Sassy Saints Series, which together will explore the experiences of six young people in Sabiah and Alma’s world. YA readers will find much to recognise in their stories.

    Sabiha’s Dilemma and Alma’s Loyalty are published by Pishukin Press in 2022.

    My thanks to the author and publisher for review copies.

  • Books and reading,  Varuna

    In my happy place with bookish folk: The Blue Mountains Writers’ Festival

    You know that feeling you get on returning home after a holiday or mini break away, when you try to keep the happy vibes going? That’s where I am now, days after a fabulous weekend of all things books, writers and readers, thanks to the Blue Mountains Writers’ Festival, held at Katoomba from October 21st to 23rd.

    Organised by Varuna (the National Writers’ House in Katoomba) the festival was a smorgasbord of author talks, workshops, book sales and signings, children’s events, poetry readings… and the chance to just hang out with other book lovers.

    The inaugural event was held in 2019 but Covid meant two cancelled years, so it was a delight to be back in 2022. I was one of over 50 volunteers who collectively helped make it a success. It is great fun to volunteer at an event like this, so if you’ve not given it a go previously, think about putting your hand up at an event near you.

    My highlights?

    So many! If I had to choose, these are some of my most memorable moments:

    • Finding what I expect will be my 2023 choice for my book group: This All Come Back Now: An Anthology of First Nations Speculative Fiction, edited by Mykaela Saunders (after hearing Mykaela speak on a panel along with Ellen van Neerven and Gina Cole.) A comment by Mykaela that struck me was that she wanted to ‘write her people into the future’ after reading so much speculative fiction/scifi that has ‘genocided First Nations Australians.’
    • Hearing Corey Tutt speak about the Deadly Science book and schools’ program, which aims to ensure all schools (including those in remote areas) have access to the First Nations’ history of science by providing resources that connect students to the First Scientists of Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
    • Listening to Pip Williams (author of the wonderful Dictionary of Lost Words) speak about her writing process in a session titled ‘The Power of Language’. She described the ‘exploded view’ by which her story ideas often arrive. On the Dictionary of Lost Words, she says that she asked herself the question: Do words mean different things to men and women and if they do, does it matter if the original Oxford English Dictionary (the subject of her novel) was essentially a male led and male dominated project? (The answer, by the way, was yes.)
      The exciting news for fans of the Dictionary is that a companion book, The Bookbinder of Jericho, is due for release in March 2023.
      Pip’s warmth and generous spirit were infectious, and it was a thrill to meet her.
    Pip William (right) in conversation with Tegan Bennet Daylight, at Blue Mountains Writers’ Festival. Photo by Denise
    Helen Garner (left) also with Tegan Bennet Daylight. Photo by Denise
    • The fabulous Helen Garner, a living Australian literary treasure, at the sold out ‘A Life of Writing’ talk. As another volunteer said to me just before the session started, ‘Helen doesn’t even have to say anything. Just having her here is enough.’ Yes! – though Helen is an excellent conversationalist, as the audience quickly learned: wry, humorous, self-deprecating and supremely down to earth.
    • Another living treasure, Thomas Keneally, gave an often hilarious, always entertaining ramble through his writing life in ‘A Bloody Good Chat’ on Sunday afternoon.
    • Finally, the joy of just hanging about with a crowd of bookish people, who write books, read them, publish them, sell them, review them, love them. Truly my happy place. I’m looking forward to the 2023 Festival already.

  • 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.