A debut novel by Sri Lankan-Australian Ayesha Inoon, Untethered offers a vivid insight into the culture of a Muslim family in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the experiences of two people who try life as immigrants to Australia.
The title evokes the dual meaning of ‘untethered’, conjuring both the sense of isolation from being apart from one’s homeland, and the possibility and freedom that can come from breaking with old behaviours and expectations.
Zia, a young adult woman at the outset of the story, has her marriage to Rashid arranged by their families with the help of a matchmaker. It is fascinating to learn about the customary ways in which engagement and marriage are celebrated by some Muslim members of the Sri Lankan community. I enjoyed how the author effortlessly wove Sri Lankan words, foods, clothing, and cultural references throughout the narrative.
As she waits for the ceremony to begin on her wedding day, Zia ponders the contrast between her childhood dreams and the reality of a wedding:
She had imagined that was how she would feel when it was her turn.Untethered p50
She hadn’t known that there would be hope but also fear, that there would be love but also doubt. She hadn’t known that the tools with which she had to build their dreams would be so fragile.
The story is told from both Zia’s and Rashid’s points of view, allowing the reader to experience their life together as a couple, and the process of emigration, with each character.
Especially, once they arrive in Australia, their differing expectations and experiences are stark. Rashid feels deeply the ignominy of being unable to find work commensurate with his Sri Lankan work experience as an IT manager; Zia feels lonely and isolated, missing her close family and friends left behind.
The couple must traverse rocky ground and tragedy before the slow tendrils of hope appear.
Immigration, it seemed, was the great equaliser – no matter where you came from or who you were before, you had to let it all go and reinvent yourself.Untethered p129
Zia is young and somewhat naive at the novel’s start, but her self confidence grows over time. She is a sympathetic character whose awareness of the world around her also develops, allowing her to see and empathise with others who are in more difficult circumstances than her own. Both Zia and Rashid learn about other Sri Lankans held in offshore detention for years, after trying to reach Australia as refugees from the terrible civil war in Sri Lanka.
On a personal note, Australia’s capital city, Canberra, is where the couple settle when they get to Australia. Having spent ten years there myself, I very much enjoyed reading about familiar locations and landmarks there; a story set in Canberra is long overdue!
Untethered is a highly recommended read; I think it is a wonderful debut from an author with a promising future.
Untethered is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of HarperCollins Australia, in June 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution is book no 3 in Jackie French’s superb series of middle-grade historical fiction, ‘Girls Who Changed the World’. These stories are all about putting women and girls back into the historical record.
In this book, Ming is sent by Herstory back to the 1800’s, on a sailing ship heading from Europe to Australia. Her companion, Hilde, is one of several girls looking after royal Saxon sheep that are being imported, to add to the flocks of Merino sheep made famous by the Macarthurs, amongst others.
I love that Ming has to guess at the specific timeframe she is in, judging it by the various historical facts she knows. And as always, she needs to work out which girl she meets will change the world, and how.
This particular setting and scenario were new to me: I knew nothing of this particular breed of sheep and how it contributed to the success of the Australian wool industry in the nineteenth century. Which is odd, seeing as how in my primary school classes we learnt all about how Australia ‘rode on the sheep’s back’ – until mineral resources overtook wool as a major export a century or so later.
Not so odd, though, when you think about it. Because according to this story, it was the young women shepherds from the part of Europe that later became Germany, who went on to demonstrate a radical new way of taking the fleece from the sheep – ushering in the technique that we now recognise as ‘shearing’. And yet, the quintessential image of Australian shearing is a Tom Roberts painting, featuring muscled bronze men grappling with woolly sheep in a colonial shearing shed.
Another example of girls and women being written out of history.
Young readers can learn these gems of history from this book, along with an understanding of earlier attitudes to Asian and First Nations Australians, the sexism taken for granted in colonial society, and attitudes to crime and punishment. The daily life on a wealthy rural estate is portrayed beautifully, especially the contrast between conditions for the rich and poor.
And as always in a Jackie French novel, the past and present are both shown in a balanced way, neither wholly bad nor wholly good. The actions that bring about change often have unforeseen and unintended consequences – the environmental consequences of colonialism and the introduction of animals such as sheep, being one example in this book.
The poor bare hills, the animals killed or driven off, and the people of this land too. The country had seemed so beautiful as they passed through it, not wild at all, but tended enough to keep its natural beauty. But we’re in the past, she reminded herself. This is the beginning of the Australia I live with today: most of its forests cleared, its rivers shrinking, its wetlands drained, so many animals extinct of in danger of it.Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution p150-151
This was how it began.
Ming is a delightful, thoughtful character, learning more about herself, her country and its past each time she is sent on another adventure by Herstory. I can’t wait to see where and when she lands next time.
Ming and Hilde Lead a Revolution is published by HarperCollins Children’s Publishing in June 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
This beautiful picture book by Gumbaynggirr author and artist Melissa Greenwood reads as a bedtime story from a mother to her child.
With soft illustrations in pastel and ochre shades, it is a perfect introduction to a First Nations language and contemporary art style for very young Australians.
The text follows the path of the sun and moon across a day and night, incorporating words and phrases from her Gumbaynggirr language from the mid-north coast of NSW.
As the sun shines throughout the day,My Little Barlaagany
it warms your cheeks while we play.
As the sun sets in the evening sky,
say, ‘Yaarri Yarraang, goodbye.’
Now it’s time for Giidany (the moon) to rise
and we say, “Darrundang, thank you,’
for the gift of the night skies.
It is wonderful to see First Nations language included in texts for children, and I look forward to more works of this kind to add to children’s bookshelves across the country.
My Little Barlaagany was published by ABC Books and HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.