A meander through love: ‘My Year of Living Vulnerably’ by Rick Morton
A follow up of sorts to Rick Morton’s earlier work One Hundred Years of Dirt, this book is a purposeful meander through life and what happened when he decided to allow love – in all its forms – into his life: to feel it, express it, talk about it. It’s not just about ‘romantic love’; the book touches on many things about the world, about living and being human, that he marvels at, has been touched by, or considers essential to life.
It’s a very personal book. Childhood trauma that changed him and his family forever are a constant backdrop, and he explores how the effects of this has lingered and how he set about to get better (not cured or fixed, just better.)
The topics traversed include touch, forgiveness, wonder, beauty, toxic gender norms, aloneness and loneliness, kindness and doubt. I was reminded, at times, of Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence, which similarly discusses some of the things that make life worth living and give meaning.
There is great beauty in the prose, verging on poetic at times, and also laughter-inducing moments, such as the hilarious description of cephalopods.
If you enjoy a book that invites you to think, and that remains with you long after you have read the final page, this would be a good one to add to your ‘TBR’ list. I’m now going to search out a copy of One Hundred Years of Dirt, wanting more of the Morton brand of philosophy, observation and wry humour.
My Year of Living Vulnerably was published by Fourth Estate in 2021.
Yearning for equality: ‘Pastel Pink’ by Nikki Minty
A new fantasy series for teen readers by Australian Nikki Minty introduces a remarkable new world, while incorporating the everyday preoccupations of teenagers everywhere.
The first in the Zadok series, Pastel Pink is set on one of the four worlds on the Zadok planet. Each of the four races occupies their own part of the planet, speaks a different language, and has wildly different skin, hair and eye colouring. ‘Winter’ is the land of the Zeeks, where colour is like a strict caste system, from the upper level of the Purples, through Magenta, and to the lowest strata, the Pastel pinks.
Harlow is a Pastel, trying to get through life with all the disadvantages of her colour in a society that regards her kind as weak and useful only for the most mundane of work.
She has an added distraction: she moves between her Zeek home and persona, and her knowledge that she was once a human girl on Earth called Ruby. She is tormented by memories of having been murdered by Lucas, and her visions that show Lucas befriending her Earth twin sister – and there is nothing she can do to warn her or to stop him.
In between all of this, she is injured by a ferocious Zadok creature, befriended by Jax, the son of the Purple Commander, ignored by her opportunistic Zadok father, and detested by her Zadok twin sister. Life is complicated – on both worlds.
I enjoyed the world building in this novel, with its recognizable yet different environments, animals, customs and behaviours.
The cast of characters is numerous and complex, and because the action and point of view switches between Harlow and Ruby, and sometimes other characters as well, it did take me a while to get my head around them all.
At its core, this story is a plea for equality. The disdain and outright abuse that Pastels suffer because of their so-called inferior colour makes human discrimination based on skin colour appear as ridiculous as Zadok’s. There are echoes of human far-right fascist beliefs echoed in the Zadok caste system:
Being born a Pastel from two Magenta parents was unheard of until I came along. Lucky me. Purples produce Purples, Magentas produce Magentas, and Pastels produce Pastels. To date a Zeek outside of your colour status is a punishable offence, enforced by Purples. They want their superior bloodlines to remain pure.Pastel Pink, eBook location 25
Pastel Pink will be enjoyed by teenage readers who enjoy fantasy with recognisable and relatable themes and characters. This is the first in the series, so fans can look forward to reading about the other worlds on Zadok.
Pastel Pink was published in 2021; my thanks to the author for an eBook version.
What connects us: ‘One Illumined Thread’ by Sally Colin-James
A triumph of a debut novel, Australian author Sally Colin-James has created a beautiful story that travels between three different time periods, celebrating the things that connect us across centuries.
The beautiful lyrical prose had me captivated from the first chapters, where there are hints of psychological trauma and great loss, but also plunged me into the past with the scents and tastes of the modern-day protagonist combined with those of the past.
We travel back and forth in time and place, from ancient Judea to Renaissance Florence, to Adelaide in the current period.
This is a novel for anyone who is enchanted by the spell that can be cast by an item, work of art, or moment from the past.
The author’s note explains how a Renaissance painting she viewed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence sparked the idea that later became this book. She has woven a story connecting that painting with a black glass artefact from the ancient world and to an embroidery being restored by a textile conservator.
It’s a complex novel, perhaps slightly on the slow side for those who like their fiction fast paced, but well worth persevering with. There is fascinating detail about the different worlds and times the characters inhabit, and the processes used to create things of beauty and meaning.
Ultimately the novel is a hymn of praise to the act of creation in all its forms:
How can I dare say that this work too is sacred, like grinding grain or baking? This is tsar. The act of creating. Of transforming one thing into another with simple breath. An act that might be called sinful should I express the elation it brings, how it makes my heart dance like the flickering fire that transforms grit into glass.One Illumined Thread p96
Through the three main characters’ lives, we see how women’s existence is so often defined by service to others and by their fertility – or lack of – even in the present day. And the author shows how consolation and joy may be found in creative acts, no matter how small or large, fleeting or enduring. Beauty from the past continues to bring us pleasure and wonder, centuries later. This is why creativity matters to humankind as well as to the person who expresses their essential self through it:
The line twists and coils and catches the light. I trace around it with my finger. Not a rope to hold onto, but a single bright stitch holding pieces together. Fragments of the past held in place by the present. Connected by one illumined thread.One Illumined Thread p321
One Illumined Thread is a complex, beautiful novel about connections between women and between the past and the present.
It is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Practical advice: ‘Before Dementia’ by Dr Kate Gregorevic
Dementia hit the headlines this week, having achieved the dubious honour of becoming the biggest cause of death in Australia, surpassing heart disease. This guide to what we can do to prevent, prepare, cope and understand the illness is very timely.
Dr Kate Gregorevic is a geriatrician who works at a Melbourne hospital, and the book is peppered with real life anecdotes from her research and practice.
Twenty questions frame the book’s structure and content, including:
What is dementia and are you at risk?
What are the symptoms?
What causes Alzheimer’s?
What is life like for a person living with dementia?
Do people with dementia have the capacity to make decisions?
Can improving diet help to avoid dementia?
How do we live well with dementia?
Most people have been touched by dementia in some way: we have a loved one who lives with the disease, or we know a workmate, neighbour or friend who has been diagnosed, or who cares for someone who has been. So, these very practical questions and the wealth of information included are welcome and useful guides to the illness and what we can expect as it progresses.
There were sections that resonated strongly with me after watching my mother’s decline with the condition. For example, the insidious way it often begins, creeping up slowly at first, often confused with ‘normal’ age-related memory loss:
The onset of dementia is so insidious that it often takes something really obvious, an example of memory loss that is so stark, so unforgiving, that it is impossible to look away. This is often when the reframing begins, when all the little things that were so small in themselves start to coalesce.Before Dementia pp23-24
Other points that especially resonated with me because of my own experience included the nature and role of delirium, the phenomena known as ‘sundowning’, the creation of false memories, and the sometimes-catastrophic effect of hospital admissions,
There is a fair bit of technical information in the chapters to do with the causes and types of dementia. I admit I glazed over a little here. However, I appreciated the author’s desire to translate the latest thinking and discoveries in what is still a contested field, into language that can be read by a non-medical person.
Ethical challenges are presented openly, and it is up to each reader to decide where they stand on issues such as the capacity of a person with dementia to make decisions about their future care and living arrangements, consent for sexual activity, the right to autonomy and independence. A point that strikes me as a tricky but interesting one, is what Dr Kate terms the ‘dignity of risk’:
Living well with dementia means accepting the dignity of risk. Many people with dementia will be able to live independent lives, but they may not be perfectly safe.Before Dementia p295
I appreciated the plea made in this book for adequate funding for aged care services, for recognition of the disadvantages faced in all areas of life by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, and for the value of putting into place as many protective measures as possible as early as possible: improved diet, regular exercise, giving up smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, social and cognitive activity.
If I were a patient or a family member, and lucky enough to be a patient of Dr Kate, I am sure that I would value her humanist and person-centred approach to living well with dementia.
While I’m certain that most of us would much prefer NOT to have to think about this disease, and just hope that we or our loved ones won’t ever have to deal with it, I can highly recommend this book. It tackles a difficult subject in a helpful, practical way that removes the ‘overwhelm’ and allows the reader to learn from the experts.
Before Dementia is published by HarperCollins in February 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Timeslip: ‘Running with Ivan’ by Suzanne Leal
How do you explain to youngsters an event as unimaginable as the Holocaust in a way that elicits empathy and understanding rather than trauma?
Australian author Suzanne Leal has chosen a timeslip novel that allows readers to imagine themselves in the midst of such horror, while relating it to modern-day concerns of children and teens. In the author’s words:
The enormity of the Holocaust makes it almost impossible to comprehend. Mindful of this, I wanted to bring an immediacy to wartime Europe when writing Running with Ivan. That is why Leo – a boy from the twenty-first century with little understanding of the war and its impact – needed to find himself dropped right in the middle of it. Only then could he begin to understand what actually happened.Author’s Note, Running with Ivan p 308
Leo is thirteen, unhappy at having to share a bedroom in his new home with his detestable stepbrother Cooper. He still misses his mum who died two years ago. Now his dad has remarried: to a nice woman with horrible sons. There is nowhere Leo can go to get away from Cooper and his older brother Troy. Until he discovers a corner of the unused garage, and his mother’s old wind-up music box.
The music box proves to be a portal into the past, and Leo is transported to various times and places before, during and after World War II. He meets Ivan, who grows from a small child to a teenager as Leo appears and disappears. Ivan is Czech, and Jewish, and on each of Leo’s visits to his world, things are getting darker and more dangerous for Ivan and his family.
On a later visit, Leo finds himself in Theresienstadt, a walled ghetto used by the Nazis as a concentration camp, from where they transported trainloads of people to Auschwitz. He takes a terrible risk to save his friends, Ivan and Olinda, from being put on a transport.
The motif of running is used throughout the novel, as Leo discovers he has a talent for speed and finds that it soothes and distracts him from his problems at home and his worries about his Czech friends. There is a lovely link between his elderly coach, Mr Livingstone, and Leo’s wartime experiences, which is revealed at the end of the story.
Throughout the novel, Leo learns more about the experiences of people during WWII; the grim realities of life in Europe at that time; and his own struggles with his family. He also learns that he can overcome difficulties:
“Take it from me, Leo, at thirteen, you can do almost anything. Never forget this. Difficult things, courageous things: they are all possible, even at thirteen. No, especially at thirteen.”Running with Ivan, p39
Running with Ivan is a terrific example of how timeslip stories can immerse a reader in the past (or future) while remaining connected to their own present. I was especially moved to read that the idea for the story came from the author’s friendship with a Czech man who had himself experienced the horrors of Theresienstadt.
The book is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
Colonial immigration scheme: ‘Single and Free’ by Elizabeth Rushen
When we think about immigration to Australia, what springs to mind is sailing ships carrying the first white immigrants: convicts and their military guards. Next, we might think of the huge post-war influx of people from war-torn Europe, followed by successive groups of refugees from other war affected regions: Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa.
Easily forgotten in this mix are the brave, resilient and (for some) desperate women who chose to be part of an early colonial scheme administered by the London Emigration Committee in the 1830’s.
Historian and author Elizabeth Rushen has written a fascinating account of the way the scheme was established, the women who volunteered, and their fates once they arrived in the colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania.)
There were fourteen ships altogether, which carried nearly 3000 single women from Britain and Ireland over a four-year period from 1833 to 1837.
Why did the colonial government invest time and money in such a scheme?
The main reason was the extreme gender imbalance in the colonies at the time. Male convicts and settlers outweighed women by over three men to each woman. This resulted in a shortage of female labour for the strictly gender-segregated jobs of domestic servant, governess, nurse, and agricultural roles such as dairy maid.
Also, the behavioural strictures and preoccupations of the period required women’s ‘moral’ influence to temper the behaviour of men. Not surprisingly, the applicants to the scheme needed to provide evidence of good behaviour and ‘respectability’.
Why would women volunteer for such an enormous, life-changing step? They left behind their homes, families, friends and communities, to face numerous perils and discomforts on a months-long voyage to an unknown place, where safety and decent employment could not be guaranteed.
Rushen’s research shows that, although the scheme initially aimed at recruiting poor women, there were in fact a mix of backgrounds of participants. Some of the women were indeed poor, desperate for an opportunity to make a living. Others were from educated middle class backgrounds. Some were simply up for a challenge, or a new life away from the constraints of their homeland.
The mismatch between the original aims and the realities of the scheme meant that the responses to the new arrivals were also mixed: ranging from welcome and support from some settlers to outright hostility from those who regarded the bounty immigrants as unfair competition for jobs, husbands, and homes.
The book is a deep dive into the scheme itself, the ships that brought the women to Australia, and especially, the women themselves. Who were they, why did they come, and what happened to them once they reached the colonies?
It’s a fascinating account of an often-overlooked episode of colonial history; and as Rushen concludes:
The vast majority of these women…made the voluntary decision to emigrate, their expatriation improving the quality of their lives…These were adventurous and courageous women who embraced the challenges of colonial life. (p176)
Single and Free: Female Migration to Australia 1833-1837
They contributed to the development of the colonies as domestic and agricultural workers, their enterprises as dressmakers, midwives and teachers, as wives and mothers of the rising generation. (back cover)
I have written before about the Good Girl Song Project and the musical production Voyage, which is based on the research and stories in this book. If you haven’t yet checked it out, do have a look at the website. It is a moving and entertaining portrayal through music and drama, of the experiences of some of the women who took part in this early colonial immigration scheme.
Single and Free: Female migration to Australia 1833-1837 was published by Anchor Books Australia, 2016
Trio of new picture books: ‘Grannysaurus’, ‘The Easter Bum Book’ & ‘Dorrie’
Three new picture books for young children celebrate family, dinosaurs, Easter fun and Australian literature.
Grannysaurus by UK best-selling David Walliams riffs on the enduring fascination of littlies for all things dinosaur, with a big dollop of Grandma love. (Whatever did youngsters get obsessed about before dinosaurs became a thing?)
Spike is on a sleepover with his Granny (who is a ‘cool’ grandma with spiky grey hair, big hoop earrings and fashionably round glasses.) He is reluctant to go to sleep but is finally in bed, when he hears the sounds of a party from downstairs. Creeping down to peek, he sees Granny turned into a big blue dinosaur, a spin-osaurus, spinning tunes on the deck, while an assortment of other dinosaurs dance all over the loungeroom. He encounters a tetchy triceratops on the loo, a plesiosaurus in the bath, and brachiosauruses bouncing on the bed. But when a huge T-Rex arrives, dapper in a bowler hat and carrying a walking cane, who flicks Spike out to the moon with his tail, he decides to take himself off to bed at last.
It’s a fun bedtime story with big, colourful illustrations and interesting vocabulary (exploded, lumbering, exclaimed, flicked, surfed, stomped…)
Grannysaurus is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in February 2023.
The Easter Bum Book is a follow-up to Kate Mayers and Andrew Joyner’s Christmas Bum Book, published in 2022. Now, I said in my piece about the first ‘Bum Book’ that I do feel a little bit jaded by the plethora of bums in children’s books. That still stands; however as with its earlier cousin, this new book offers a playfulness about common Easter themes in its text and illustrations, with some sly references to popular culture thrown in (who remembers Tiny Tim’s ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips?) Very young children will enjoy the pictures of all things Easter, cleverly morphed into all things bums.
The Easter Bum Book is also published by HarperCollins Children’s Books and arrives just in time for Easter 2023.
The third of my trio today is another Australian offering, this one about an iconic Australian children’s book author and illustrator. Written and illustrated by Tania McCartney, Dorrie tells the story of Dorothy Wall, the creator of the classic Blinky Bill stories. Overseas readers may not know of the cuddly Australian koala, whose mischievous nature takes him on all sorts of adventures. He has been a much-loved character of Australian children’s literature since he first appeared in the 1930’s; in the 1990’s he starred in a movie and TV series.
Dorothy Wall is one of those well-known Australians claimed by both New Zealand and Australia – a bit like the pavlova! In Dorrie we read about her childhood in New Zealand where she wrote stories, created all sorts of lovely things on her sewing machine, played music and danced.
Her creativity came with her to Australia, which is where she first met Blinky and the stories about him took shape.
Dorrie is a gentle and imaginative telling of the story of Blinky and his creator, beautifully illustrated by the author in soft colours that capture the tints of the Australian landscape in which Blinky lives.
It’s published by HarperCollins in February 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for copies of these books to review.
Delightful take on 40’s noir: ‘The Woman Who Knew Too Little’ by Olivia Wearne
This is an account – with a twist – of the discovery and subsequent investigation of the ‘Somerton Man’ affair: one of the longest running unsolved mysteries in Australian history. In this re-telling of the events, it is a woman who narrates the story.
In 1948, the body of a man is found dead at Somerton, an Adelaide beach. He is dressed well in a nice suit and good shoes – with all the clothing labels removed. He has no wallet or any possessions to identify him, and he is found sitting on the sand against the sea wall.
He is first seen by Kitty Wheeler, a member of ‘Women Police’, tasked with patrolling streets and beaches in what is essentially a social welfare role. She and her partner spot the man but mistake his stillness for drunken sleep, and they decide to let the fellow sleep it off.
When the mystery of the unknown man takes over the city’s police and newspapers, Kitty regrets the missed opportunity to be part of the investigation of the year, if not the decade.
The setting of a novel about a female police constable against the backdrop of a famous mystery allows Olivia Wearne to examine the mores and values of the time. Kitty loves her work, despite the frustrating restrictions imposed on women, who are relegated to the so-called ‘soft’ issues of brothels, child welfare, domestic violence, vagrancy. Rarely allowed to be a part of an actual investigation, she still manages to inveigle herself into key aspects of the Somerton Man case, but she needs persistence and occasionally, impertinence, to be even heard by the ‘real’ police – the male detectives – handling the case.
She also has family issues to contend with, and a loyal and loving fiancé who is eager for her to tie the knot – which Kitty knows would be the end of her policing career. As the days go by, she becomes more and more obsessed with the Somerton Man investigation, consumed by the need to know who he was.
This is very much a character driven novel, with a cast of personalities who come to life in the pages. The pacing was a little slow for me at times, but this was more than compensated by the brilliant use of clever language and descriptive writing. There is witty dialogue as Kitty (at times an ascerbic, prickly sort) engages with her colleagues, members of the public and family, capturing workplace and family dynamics brilliantly. The author makes inventive use of simile and metaphor that gave me some laugh-out-loud moments:
Almost every passenger on the trolley held a newspaper up to their faces. MISSING FATHER AND SON FOUND IN MACABRE DISCOVERY. When the car pitched and swayed the commuters moved with it, like some jolly choreographed performance. Under cover of newsprint, they were feasting on the story, gorging on the Mangnosons’ misfortune.The Woman Who Knew Too Little pp220 &367
Peter let his head sink between his stooped shoulders. A forlorn droop, like a houseplant desperate for water. His torso rose and fell as he heaved in resignation. He hauled himself onto his feet, leaving his head hanging, and addressed his leather boots, whose untied laces appeared to be slithering away from him: ‘I think we need some time apart.’
The delightful cover and title advertise the book’s intent perfectly: take a well-known and long-lasting mystery from the 1940’s, marry it with tropes from classic noir novels and film, then mix it in with delicious irony and wickedly observant swipes and the hypocrisies of the time.
The Woman Who Knew Too Little is published by HQ Fiction in February 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
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.
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.