• Books and reading,  History

    Familiar places through the lens of the past: ‘The Cartographer’s Secret’ by Tea Cooper

    Readers of Tea Cooper’s fiction will know that she likes to write dual timeline stories set in Australia’s past. The Cartographer’s Secret is no exception.

    The protagonists are two young women: Evie in 1880, and her niece Lettie in 1911. The story connects the two: Lettie drives from Sydney to visit her Great Aunt Olivia on the family property in the Hunter Valley, to inform her that Lettie’s brother (and the heir to the property) has died. She soon gets caught up in the secrets and puzzles held within her family’s history, particularly the mysterious disappearance of her Aunt Evie, thirty years earlier.

    Evie had shared her father’s fascination with maps and exploration, and become similarly obsessed by the famous explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who had disappeared without trace in 1848. She sets out to track down evidence that she believes will prove her theory of what happened to Leichhardt and his party, but she is never seen again, leaving her Aunt Olivia heartbroken.

    Poring over the map of the Hunter region that Evie left behind, Lettie begins to put the pieces of the puzzle together. She wants to solve the mystery of Evie to give Olivia, and the whole family, some peace (or closure, as we would call it today.) But things don’t go smoothly and Lettie uncovers more than she’d expected.

    Tea Cooper’s heroines are likeable and relateable: young women with gumption and interests unusual for women at the time (Evie with her maps, Lettie with her Model T motor car.)

    I found some of the details of the plot a little complicated and often needed to refer to the copy of Evie’s hand drawn map. While there is no happy conclusion for all the characters, there is a satisfying and believable resolution.

    For me the strength of Tea Cooper’s novels lie in the central role played by their settings. She takes me on a journey through time of and in doing so, shows me an earlier version of often familiar places, through the lens of history. I believe this is what historical fiction can do best: immerse readers in another time so that we can see the present in a different way.

    I also enjoy how aspects of the everyday inform that picture of the past. In The Cartographer’s Secret, this includes the beginning of rail and motor travel, the genesis of the famous Bulletin magazine, rural economies, the exploits of early European explorers, and the lives of women in both city and country.

    The Cartographer’s Secret is a satisfying addition to Tea Cooper’s historical fiction and fans of her novels won’t be disappointed.

    It is published by HarperCollins Publishers on 29 October 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AWW2020
    #AussieAuthor20

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    A celebration of difference: ‘The Odds’ by Matt Stanton

    Meet the Odds…because fitting in is overrated.

    The Odds by Matt Stanton

    Kip lives in a noisy city with her dad, who makes graphic novels. She’s quiet and has a hard time fitting in at school, where other kids often laugh at her difference.

    One day ten characters, all decidedly odd beings, appear in her bedroom. It takes Kip a while to recognise them from the world of dreams, imagination and stories that she sometimes prefers to real life.

    That’s the start of a mad-cap adventure as Pip and her dad try to figure out how to get the uncooperative Odds back to their own worlds of comic strip, picture book, TV show, video game and dream.

    In the process, Kip learns that it’s easier to tackle hard things with someone you love, and that it’s possible to accept ourselves – and others – for who we are.

    Dad: Hard things are just hard, Kippo. You can’t escape them, but you know what does help?
    Kip: What?
    Dad: You. Even the hardest things are made easier if you have someone to share them with.

    The Odds p104

    The Odds delivers its message with a light touch and lots of humour, deftly pointing out the oddities in everyone:

    Kip: But after all, isn’t odd just another word for special? I’m odd. We’re all odd. And that’s… normal.

    The Odds p139

    It’s a perfect little book for early readers who like stories that make them laugh and invite them to think a bit, too.

    The Odds is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books on 29 October 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Empathy through fiction: ‘We Are Wolves’ by Katrina Hannestad

    There is a theory that people who read a lot of fiction can develop empathy through their reading. Fiction (and some non fiction too) invites us to inhabit other worlds – the characters’ times, places, and situations – and also allows us to see our own world and circumstances through different eyes. This is one way that our empathy ‘muscles’ develop and grow.

    This process begins from the earliest exposure to books and, I believe, continues right through our reading life.

    So it was with interest that I approached We Are Wolves, an historical fiction work by award winning Australian author Katrina Nannestad. Pitched at middle grade readers (approx 10 years and over) it is the story of the Wolf children: Liesl, Otto and baby Mia, who become separated from their mother and grandparents as the family flees from the oncoming Russian army towards the end of WWII.

    The thing is, the family are German, living in East Prussia. They have the requisite photo of Hitler above their dining table. Their father has just been pressed into army service for the Reich as German defeat looms.

    As a child, The Diary of Anne Frank was the only text I knew of that was written from a German-born child’s point of view. I remember my sense of dawning horror as I read about the dreadful things that befell other Jewish children and their families under the Nazis. The Wolf family are not Jewish, nor are they Nazi supporters. They are just an ordinary family trying to get by, to survive the war. They are very fearful of the Red Army troops so when Papa is reported missing in action and the Russians approach their village, they must leave.

    Liesl promised her mother that she will keep her siblings together and protect them. When they find themselves alone, in a bitterly cold winter and the middle of a war zone, with no food or shelter, she and Otto must use all their wits to survive. Sometimes they must break the rules: stealing food, ransacking abandoned luggage for warm clothes or a blanket, killing birds or animals to eat. They live like wild things, like wolves; facing danger, cold and constant hunger.

    The narrative is all from Liesl’s point of view, that of a child who gradually realises that war turns everything on its head:

    All I know is that war does not make sense. The things that people do in a war are not the things they would do if they were at home with their families.

    We Are Wolves p126

    This is how we develop empathy: by living, for a while, in the world of German children whose world has collapsed around them due to a war not of their making. The narrative takes readers far enough into the experience of the Wolf children to be able to recognise their hardships and dilemmas. Darker events and actions are alluded to but not inappropriately so for younger readers.

    There are lighter moments also: acts of kindness from some German and Russian soldiers and citizens, unlikely friendships with other Wolfskinder (wolf children) they encounter, and the playfulness of children, especially little Mia.

    There are lovely illustrations by Martina Heiduczek, which capture the landscape and circumstances of the Wolf family as the story progresses.

    The novel also touches on the importance of identity and language for well- being and sense of self, as at one stage the children must pretend to be Lithuanian so as to avoid Russian retribution.

    ‘German words feel right in my mouth,’ {Otto} says.
    ‘Yes, ‘ I agree.
    “And in my heart.’
    I wrap my arms around him. ‘Yes!’… But from now on,’ I whisper at last, ‘you and I must speak Lithuanian. Always…Even with each other in the middle of the night. Even in our heads and in our hearts…it is the only way we will ever be truly safe…’

    We Are Wolves p290

    If we can transfer our understanding of this to situations closer to home, perhaps we can better appreciate the pain experienced by Australia’s First Nations peoples, so long denied their language, culture and identity?

    We Are Wolves is a beautiful, heartfelt, engrossing read that can contribute to the development of empathy in all who read it.

    It is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books on 29 October 2020. My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

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    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    Another gem from Kate Grenville: ‘A Room Made of Leaves’

    The title of Kate Grenville’s latest and much anticipated novel put me in mind of the famous work by Virginia Woolfe – A Room of One’s Own. The message in both titles includes, I believe, the necessity for all women to have a space (whether that be an actual room, a favourite place in nature, or a corner of their imagination) where they can dream, write, plan, think, or simply be. In this and in many other ways, while A Room Made of Leaves might be a work of historical fiction, its themes are as relevant to today as to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

    Kate Grenville is well known to many Australian readers for her novels of colonial Australia, particularly The Secret River, The Lieutenant, and Sarah Thornton.

    Her new work has a most wonderful premise: that she has stumbled upon and transcribed the private writings of Elizabeth MacArthur, the wife of John MacArthur, Captain in the NSW Corps and so-called ‘father of the Australian wool industry.’ These scribblings are a ‘warts and all’ account of Elizabeth’s life, much more honest than the carefully penned letters that she wrote for public consumption.

    As always, Ms Grenville captures perfectly the voice of her protagonist, a woman of modest background but reasonable education, and convinces us that we are, in fact, hearing a first-hand account of life in colonial Sydney and Parramatta. Through Elizabeth, we meet some of the well-known figures of that time including John MacArthur himself, and Governor Phillip, Watkin Tench, Lieutenant Dawes; also Pemulwuy and other First Nations people who influenced the development of the faltering settlements.

    Of course, her real opinions and feelings about her husband, her life and her new home, as compared to the public ones, form the backbone of the narrative and serve to show Elizabeth MacArthur as a woman of much greater aptitude and empathy than the man she is tied to in marriage.

    I absolutely loved the way in which the author has used snippets of the actual letters and other writings of Elizabeth, in a way that brings her to life and also hints that she may well have had quite a different inner life than the serene and uncomplaining face she presented to the world.

    Elizabeth MacArthur, 1766-1850, from
    oil painting in State Library of NSW

    Writing about a time when women had little agency, she shows that through carefully chosen words, sly irony, and well-kept secrets, some women could and did manage to execute a certain degree of independence of thought, even if that was not always visible to others.

    A Room Made of Leaves joins the list of simply wonderful novels by Kate Grenville about early colonial Australia. If you enjoyed her earlier ones, you will love this book.

    A Room Made of Leaves was published by Text Publishing in 2020.

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    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    Sweet and colourful: ‘The Polar Bear in Sydney Harbour’ by Beck & Robin Feiner

    Kids (of all ages) enjoy incongruities and humour and this is definitely a feature of the new picture book by Sydney-based husband and wife team Beck and Robin Feiner.

    ‘When Hannah spots a polar bear in Sydney Harbour, she knows something isn’t right…But even worse, none of the adults seem to notice him at all.
    Can Hannah help her new friend find his way back home?

    The polar bear in Sydney harbour

    There is the obvious humour in the text – a polar bear in Sydney? – but the clever illustrations by Beck Feiner add another layer, as only Hannah can see the polar bear as they visit well known and beloved Sydney locations. Her parents don’t even notice the bear riding on the roof of their car!

    Kids will love pointing out the absurdities in this gentle book that, below it’s humour, is a child-friendly invitation to consider some of the possible effects of climate change on the animals most affected.

    The illustrations are stylised with gorgeous blocks of colour, portraying places like Bondi Beach, the Opera House and Sydney ferries, all very familiar to many Australian children.

    The brief friendship that develops between Hannah and the bear is heart warming and Hannah is a clever girl to work out a solution to the polar bear’s dilemma.

    The Polar Bear in Sydney Harbour is a welcome addition to picture books that introduce children to environmental themes, with humour and a child’s eye view throughout.

    The Polar Bear in Sydney Harbour is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in September 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    Wild magic: ‘Havoc! The Untold magic of Cora Bell’ by Rebecca McRitchie & Sharon O’Connor

    Havoc! is the second book in the Jinxed! series by Rebecca McRitchie, all about the magical adventures of Cora Bell and her fairy friends Tick and Tock.

    Aimed at independent readers eight years and over, these are chapter books that will enchant and engage, with enough action to please and a focus on the themes of friendship, belonging and being brave.

    Havoc! picks up from the first book, with Cora realising that the magic within her has been ‘syphoned’ from magical beings and threatens to get out of control. If she is not able to do something soon, she runs the risk of turning into a Havoc, and no one wants to be around one of those…

    She sets off in search of other syphons, in the hope that by finding others like herself she will finally have found a family and a place to belong. On the way, she encounters dark magic, powerful enemies and danger.

    Her friends Tick and Tock add some humour into the mix. Forget about sparkly, delicately fluttering ‘Tinkerbells’ – these fairies are bald little men with rather large bellies, and plenty of gumption to help their friend.

    The black and white illustrations by Sharon O’Connor bring characters Cora, Tick, Tock and others to life.

    The world-building in this story is lovely, with riffs on familiar creatures like mermen, warlocks, trolls and vampires. Some of the scenes are a little dark so possibly not suited to very young children – though with the popularity of Harry Potter among even the youngest of tots, perhaps there is not so much cause for concern nowadays?

    Havoc! and the Jinxed! series will appeal to young readers who like their magic fast and colourful, and who enjoy stories about friends facing the odds together.

    Havoc! The Untold Magic of Cora Bell is published by Angus & Robertson (an imprint of Harper Collins Children’s Books) in September 2020.

    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

    #AussieAuthor2020
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading,  History

    Hardship and misdeeds on Victoria’s goldfields: ‘The Goldminer’s Sister’ by Alison Stuart

    Alison Stuart lives in an historic town in Victoria and it shows in her writing. The Goldminer’s Sister is her second novel featuring places and events from Australia’s past. Set in a fictional 1870’s Victorian goldfields town of Maiden Creek, the author conjures the dirt, noise, hard living conditions and gold fever of the times brilliantly. Even more impressive are her descriptions of the mines themselves – the never-ending thud of the ‘stampers’, the ever-present risk of mine collapse, the dark tunnels following the gold seams.

    Around this rich background she has woven a story of greed, loss and love. The protagonist is Eliza, who arrives from England after the death of her parents, hoping to be reunited with her beloved brother Will. Arriving at Maiden’s Creek, she is greeted by her uncle Charles Cowper and the news that Will died in a recent fall at the mine. Shocked, Eliza realises she is now alone in the world and work out how she is to support herself.

    She meets many of the town’s inhabitants; those who have made good money through mining and those less fortunate who live on the edges of the community. Alec McLeod is a mining engineer who works at her uncle’s mine. He has his own sorrows and secrets, but events bring them together as both Alec and Eliza begin to suspect that Will’s death might not have been an accident.

    Stuart has conjured the atmosphere of ‘gold fever’ well – the way the prospect of instant unbelievable wealth drew people from all backgrounds to try their luck at mining. Crime flourished, and if the risk of mining accidents was not enough, there was also the threat posed by bushrangers who roamed the trails between the goldfields and Melbourne or other bigger towns. The author does not flinch from portraying the grim reality of life for those who don’t strike it lucky: the prostitutes, sly grog dealers and children from poor families for example.

    Eliza is a sympathetic character whose circumstances are less than ideal but who nonetheless shows courage and compassion throughout.

    The Goldminer’s Sister is a satisfying novel with intrigue, action and a dash of romance set amidst a compelling and dramatic chapter of Australian history.

    It was published by Mira, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises (subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers Australia), in July 2020.
    My thanks to the publisher for a copy to read and review.

    #AWW2020
    #AussieAuthor20

  • Books and reading,  Life: bits and pieces

    Five months of reading: 2020 Reading Challenges done and dusted

    OK, so perhaps COVID-19 isolation rules had something to do with it. I’ve been reading a whole lot more in the first five months of this year. As a result, my 2020 Reading Challenges are done and it’s not quite halfway through the year yet.

    So, here’s what I’ve achieved between the pages (you can find my reviews for each of the books in the links to my earlier posts):

    And the books I read? Here they are along with links to my thoughts on each in case you missed them the first time. (There are a few additional books read but not listed here because I did not post a review.)
    Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee
    Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl
    The Mind of a Thief by Patti Miller
    Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch
    Bruny by Heather Rose
    The Yield by Tara June Winch
    Songspirals by Gay’wu Group of Women
    The White Girl by Tony Birch
    The Lioness Wakes by Blanche D’Alpuget
    No Small Shame by Christine Bell
    I Want You to Know We’re Still Here by Esther Safran Foer
    Tell Me Why by Archie Roach
    The Women’s Pages by Victoria Purman
    Inheritance of Secrets by Sonya Bates
    The Schoolmaster’s Daughter by Jackie French
    Evie and Pog by Tania McCartney
    Starfell: Willow Moss and the Forgotten Tale by Dominique Valente
    When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard
    The Weekend by Charlotte Wood
    Taboo by Kim Scott
    Invisible Boys by Holden Shepard
    Cutting the Cord by Natasha Molt
    When Grace Went Away by Meredith Appleyard


    Have you set yourself any reading challenges this year? Maybe a new author? Or trying out a genre you don’t normally gravitate to? Perhaps, like me, you’ve also been searching out more titles by indigenous Australian authors.

    Now, on to the next half of 2020 and more reading.
    We’re into winter here in Australia and of course that’s the perfect time to settle in a sunny spot or in front of the fire with a good book or three.

    #AussieAuthor20
    #readthestella
    #2020StellaPrize
    #AWW2020

  • Books and reading

    A sharp, funny and tender portrayal of female friendship: ‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

    The Weekend takes place, as you might expect, over a Christmas weekend during which three friends – Jude, Wendy and Adele – come together to clear out the coastal house of their friend Sylvie, who has died. They have been friends for decades and so their efforts are a final act of love for Sylvie. As the weekend progresses, though, their friendships, along with some deeply held beliefs, are tested.

    The novel is told through alternating points of view interspersed with the memories of each of the three women. I loved this, because it allows the reader to get ‘into the head’ of all three main characters, and sometimes the same situation or event is recounted from alternate perspectives, giving real insight into their personalities. They are such different women, it seems miraculous that they could have become friends in the first place, let alone kept their connection over a long period of time. There is potent meaning associated with the minutiae of their lives: the food each one contributes to the weekend meals, their choice of (and attitude towards) clothing, the colour of nail polish and the like, become rich metaphors for the circumstances and approach to life of the characters. It is these differences that add tension, conflict and also laugh-out-loud moments to the narrative.

    The author weaves in several contemporary issues as her characters move throughout their weekend together: homelessness amongst older single women, dwindling careers and perilous finances, attitudes of younger people towards ‘baby boomers’, dealing with dementia in failing parents, and conversely, the neglect and resentment women can experience from their adult children. There are astute observations on the physical, mental and emotional changes that occur with ageing:

    It was true Wendy was further along the timeline of her life than she might prefer. This was obvious, and yet more and more she found, in place of urgency a kind of spongey spaciousness, commanding her to slow down.

    The Weekend p207 (ebook version)

    A motif for the ageing process is Finn, Wendy’s very old dog which accompanies her. Finn is deaf, incontinent, and suffering from a form of doggy dementia, but Wendy loves him and cannot contemplate having him put down. The women all react to Finn’s presence in ways that describe their personalities. Finn is a perfect symbol of the differences between them but also of the inexorable processes involved in ageing.

    The women snipe, argue and resent each other’s idiosyncrasies during their time together, as only people who have known and loved each other for many years can. Yet their deep bonds of friendship and shared experience are clear.

    Charlotte Wood demonstrates her profound grasp of the power of language, with acute descriptions of the women and their inner thoughts, including this one, as Wendy imagines how lovemaking between two acquaintances might look:

    Wendy imagines him and Sonia wrestling slowly on a bed; one insect carefully devouring another.

    The Weekend p259 (ebook version)

    Or this:

    Wendy looked around the street at the houses, the trees. At the world: the rich, tawdry, unjust, destroyed and beautiful world.

    The Weekend p 355 (ebook version)

    This novel made me wince in recognition of all-too-common human foibles and at the trials we can subject our friends to. As a ‘woman of a certain age’, there was also recognition of some of the less celebrated aspects of growing older. There is pathos and sadness here, but also material that gave me satisfying belly-laughs and much that had me gasping at the beauty of the language.

    The Weekend was published by Allen & Unwin in 2019.

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    #ReadtheStella

    #2020StellaPrize

    #aww2020

  • Books and reading

    Harrowing yet ultimately hopeful: ‘Invisible Boys’ by Holden Sheppard

    Holden Sheppard’s debut novel follows the struggles of three high school boys in the small Western Australian town of Geraldton, as they try to figure out the big things of life: who they are, where they belong, what family and friendships mean, and their sexuality. All three suspect they are gay and each has a different response , as they also try to navigate the various responses to homosexuality by the people around them.

    I recall that during Australia’s sometimes fractious marriage equality debates, there were warnings from those working with young people, especially in rural and regional areas, that the divisiveness and stigma still attached to homosexuality would be worsened by the rancour around the campaign. They worried that it could cause further harm to young people already struggling with questions around their sexual identity. The events played out in Invisible Boys bring these concerns to life in a realistic way.

    The author wrote in his Acknowledgements that each of the three main characters represented a part of himself. And yes, so vividly are they portrayed, the characters and events must surely have arisen from lived experience.

    The three young protagonists are Zeke, a studious boy from a staunchly Italian Catholic family; Hammer, an athletic boy who dreams of becoming a star football player; and Charlie, a punk rocker who has no idea of where he fits – he only knows that it’s not in Geraldton, not in his Catholic high school, and certainly not in his neglectful, dismissive family. A fourth character, Matt, comes from a local farming family and plays an important role as the novel progresses.

    The boys differ in the level of sympathy they engendered from me at the beginning of the novel. Hammer presents as a particularly repellent individual, the result of being raised in a toxic swill of extreme homophobia and sickening misogyny. As events unfold, there are glimpses of other facets of personality and what makes each boy behave the way they do, their fears and insecurities.
    Here is Zeke, for example:

    Why am I so weak? Why do I cower to this? I know homosexuality is natural in the animal kingdom. I don’t think anyone should have fewer rights than anyone else. I don’t hate it in other people as much as I hate it in myself. And yet I fall in line with Father Mulroney’s condemnation.

    Invisible Boys p507

    This quote, incidentally, is from a scene which also has some laugh-out-loud moments – Zeke’s excruciating enforced act of confession in church.

    And here is Charlie:

    I figured you’re allowed to tell other gay guys in the closet. It’s like mutually assured destruction. Either of you tells and it’s catastrophe, like a nuclear winter.

    Invisible Boys p523

    Anyone who can remember their own pathway through the agonies and traps of adolescence will relate to the boys’ struggles. And the added layers of difficulty imposed by their families, friends and community, can only be viewed as absurd, unfair and entirely unnecessary. Why make someone’s path to adulthood harder than it needs to be?

    The last word on this book belongs to its author:

    …my teenage self, who, for a long time, didn’t want to be on this planet anymore because he was a gay bloke. Good on you for staying alive, you resilient bastard. Turns out you were good just the way you were.

    Holden Sheppard, Acknowledgements in Invisible Boys.

    Invisible Boys was published by Fremantle Press in 2019. It was the recipient of the City of Fremantle Hungerford Award 2018 (even before publication!) and shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award 2020, as well as being a Notable Book in the 2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) and longlisted in the 2020 Indie Book Awards, among other accolades.

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