• Books and reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Digging Up Dirt p147

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Another historical fiction gem for younger readers: ‘Night Ride into Danger’ by Jackie French

    From Australia’s amazing Jackie French comes another book that tantalises with a gripping story while immersing readers in the sights, sounds, smells and figures from Australia’s past.

    Night Ride into Danger is set in NSW’s Braidwood district in the 1870’s, the days of the iconic Cobb & Co coaches. In the first few paragraphs we are plunged into the world of young Jem and his widowed father, Paw, a skilled coach driver who takes Jem to ride beside him on the 14 hour journey from Braidwood to Goulburn.

    We get a vivid sense of the coachmen’s work, the adventurousness as well as the hardships of his life, the way the coach looked, smelt and felt for the passengers who entrusted their lives to his care on the rutted, icy or flooded roads common at that time.

    The passengers in this story – six of them – all have their reasons for choosing to take the faster but more dangerous night mail coach. Each of them has a different secret and the ways in which the secrets are gradually revealed make up the connecting spine of this story.

    When Jem’s father is injured, Jem must take over as driver – a tall order for a youngster who has never driven a team of four horses at night on such a long journey. How Jem deals with this challenge and interacts with the six other people who travel with him, makes for an engaging tale.

    The book includes many of the figures of Australian colonial legends: gold diggers, bushrangers, farmers, innkeepers and grooms. There are also women (often hidden in the annals of Australian folklore): dancers, cooks, farmers, as well as women travelling to a new country to be married, or giving birth in difficult circumstances. The author doesn’t avoid describing the racism inherent in white attitudes of the time, or the strictures of colonial society against Chinese immigrants, First Nations people, or unmarried mothers.

    The characters are all active and engaging and the reader will cheer Jem on in his quest to arrive safely in time for both the mail and his passengers to meet the Goulburn train for Sydney.

    Night Ride into Danger is guaranteed to be enjoyed by middle grade readers who like a mix of history, adventure and mystery.

    Night Ride into Danger is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Delightful celebration of babies: ‘Before You Were Born’ by Katrina Germein & Hélène Magisson

    A wonderful trend in children’s books is the move towards more inclusive story-telling, with protagonists and other characters from diverse backgrounds. Before You Were Born, by Australian author-illustrator duo Katrina Germein and Hélène Magisson, is no exception.

    A celebration of new babies, this picture book depicts the preparations by different families for their babies’ arrival. We see the backyard barbecue, the special afternoon tea and lunch, the baby shower, a beach excursion and the first peek inside baby’s room. No matter what type of celebration, it’s clear that every baby’s birth is anticipated with love and excitement by each family.

    The story is told in gentle rhyming couplets, illustrated on each double page spread by Hélène Magisson’s beautiful watercolour and pastel drawings:

    We tumbled and played,
    we cuddled and kissed.
    A special occasion
    Not to be missed.

    But all I could think of
    for all of that time
    was when I would hold you,
    oh, baby of mine.

    Before You Were Born

    Before You Were Born is a joyous affirmation of love and families of all kinds and a beautiful way to share that with a very young child.

    Before You Were Born is published in May 2021 by Working Title Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A heady time: ‘Sisters of Freedom’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor

    Historical fiction and romance author Mary-Anne O’Connor has set her latest novel in the first years of the twentieth century, a heady time in Australia as Federation joined the colonies into one nation, and Australian women – if only white women – looked forward to the campaign for women’s suffrage resulting in success.

    The three Merriweather sisters in the novel have grown up in an enlightened home, with mother Harriet and father Albert supporters of rights for women and for indigenous Australians. Despite their shared convictions, they are otherwise very different: Frankie is passionate about the suffrage campaign and determined to stand for Parliament herself so that she can help make laws that give women more rights and freedoms. Aggie is happily married and longing for a baby, fearful that she and her husband will be unable to conceive a child of their own. She devotes her time to volunteer work at an orphanage, wanting in her own way to make a difference in the world. The youngest is Ivy, who loves beauty and art and hopes for nothing more than marriage to Patrick, a nice home and a family of her own.

    Their lives take a dramatic turn on Ivy’s eighteenth birthday, when an accident on the river sees her rescued by Riley, a young man who makes a living with his supply boat up and down the tiny communities along the Hawkesbury – and some smuggling on the side. While she recovers from her injuries, Ivy sees a very different life in the wild river lands with the people who inhabit its secret coves and reaches. Her time with Riley and his sister Fiona will change her life – and that of her sisters – forever.

    The water was clear at the edges but a murky olive colour further out, mysterious in its flow as it hid whatever creatures lived below the surface. It seemed appropriate that a deeply flowing, concealing river should be the main artery that pumped through this place…It held secrets, this river, and so did the people who lived along it.

    Sisters of Freedom p183

    I grew up in the Hawkesbury Valley – upstream from the locations of this novel – and one of my standout reads of 2020 was Grace Karskens’ fabulous historical work People of the River so I came to this book keen to read about the place and characters its author dreamed into existence. I very much enjoyed the descriptions of places and communities and the political and social milieu of the time; the references to significant people of the Australian suffrage movement (such as Vida Goldstein); and the way in which major national events played out in individual and family lives.

    Ivy’s gradual realisation of the inequities faced by women of all classes, and the particular hardships of the poor, echo those of women in the 1970’s during what has is known as ‘second wave’ feminism. The shocking and absurd ideas about women expressed by some men in the early twentieth century are, sadly, not completely erased from twenty-first century Australia. The struggles of individual women to balance their desire for romance, family, companionship, with their own hopes and goals, is one which never seems to go away. In this way, Sisters of Freedom is a timely novel despite being set more than a hundred years ago.

    There is a strong romance thread throughout, and I thought the resolution a little contrived (almost Shakespearian!) but actually quite fun as well. It’s nice to imagine a ‘happy ever after’ for characters, after all.

    Sisters of Freedom will be enjoyed by readers who like some romance along with strong characters and evocative descriptions of real places, in times past.

    Sisters of Freedom is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises, in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    What we ignore at our peril: ‘You Need to Know’ by Nicola Moriarty

    Jill sees an email from her son’s ex-partner with the subject line ‘You need to know’ but can’t bring herself to read it. So begins a cascading sequence of lies and secrets which come to a crescendo on Christmas Eve as Jill and her sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren are driving in convoy to their holiday house. A devastating accident with consequences no one could have foreseen.

    You Need to Know is billed as a family drama and it is certainly that. As with many if not most modern families, the Lewis clan are dealing with all the complications that life can serve up: the unexpected arrival of twins, relationship breakups and tensions, demanding work, teenagers. Everyone has a secret; something they don’t or can’t discuss with others. That’s normal, of course; but there is a much darker secret at the heart of the Lewis family’s problems.

    Told from alternating viewpoints, the novel effectively conveys each main character’s perspective on things. The three Lewis brothers – Tony, Pete and Darren – and their partners, ex-partners and children, are a believable group of people, three-dimensional characters trying to grapple with life’s challenges. Their mother, Jill, is dealing with her own sorrows and regrets.

    It’s difficult to say more about the plot without giving away spoilers. I found this novel to be a page-turner, with some twists that I didn’t see coming along with a couple that I did; they all contributed to a satisfying story that has some valuable things to say about our world. Most especially, about the secrets that can harm and how what we choose to ignore can come back to damage those we love the most. Readers who enjoy contemporary fiction with well drawn characters and themes will enjoy this new one by Nicola Moriarty.

    You Need to Know is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Books and reading

    Whose stories can we tell? ‘The Truth About Her’ by Jacqueline Maley

    Jacqueline Maley is an award winning journalist and columnist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age whose work I have admired for some time. The Truth About Her is her debut novel and it’s a beauty. Literary, funny and sobering by turns, it takes familiar stories and situations and makes of them a wry, incisive commentary on modern life, motherhood and the nature of truth.

    The main character is Suzy, an almost-forty journalist whose professional and personal lives have both hit major snags. Her article exposing a fraudster, Tracey Doran, who claimed to have cancer which she cured by an organic diet and lifestyle, was published just before the young woman killed herself. Suzy experiences crippling guilt although friends and family reassure her that the suicide wasn’t her fault.

    At almost the same time her casual, secret sexual relationship with her (married) boss is exposed, so Suzy herself experiences the distress of public shaming and the online vitriol and abuse that goes with that. She quits her job and faces a bleak financial future as she tries to support her pre-school aged daughter, Maddy, as a single parent.

    Unexpectedly she is approached by Tracey’s grieving mother who asks her to write the story of her daughter’s life – on her terms. Suzy agrees and so begins a connection that is strange and fraught and laden with secrets and emotional burdens. Through it all, Suzy examines her own life, her beliefs about relationships, truth and the role of the journalist.

    This novel captures with devastating clarity the challenges and moments of joy in the life of a working single parent. Suzy has sudden flashes of what she calls ‘the parallel life’, in which her former partner, Maddy’s father, is still with them and they lead a ‘normal’, middle class life together, with enough money to pay the bills, and love and support for each other. Instead, Suzy’s sadness and confusion mean she has a barely-in-control lifestyle and constant worries about the future.

    The author paints with delicate and humorous brushstrokes the little details of a mother-daughter bond, the small moments of unadulterated love and joy along with the hefty dose of guilt that seems to accompany the parenting role:

    Often, when I inquired about the dolls, or the tiny bunnies, or the little mice, that Maddy was playing with, asking their names and how they were related to each other, Maddy would say ‘Dair mummy is at work.’ Even her toys were latchkey kids.

    The Truth About Her p64

    There were moments when I felt I knew Suzy – that we were friends, perhaps, catching up over a coffee and bemoaning the state of the world. Her take on so many aspects of our modern world – the ‘on demand’ nature of everything, from sex to television; the sad lack of noise-killing soft furnishings in restaurants; the carefully designed nature of corporate premises, just to name a few examples – felt so similar to my own, and many of her wry asides elicited knowing chuckles as I read. A strong theme in the novel is the nature of truth: in a world where people curate their own stories and images for public consumption yet give little away of their inner lives, it poses the question: can we ever truly know another person? And who has the right to tell their story?

    The relationships are beautifully drawn, including Suzy’s sometime lover, Tom, her critical mother Beverley, her loving and good humoured great-uncle Sam, Tracey’s mother Jan, and especially little Maddy – all become real people, alive on the page.

    As the story plays out and reaches its conclusion, Suzy has learnt some things about herself, about the other people in her life, and possibly also what life was for. I enjoyed this novel so much and I can’t wait to read Jacqueline Maley’s next offering.

    The Truth About Her is published by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Mystery & history for kids: ‘The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle’ by Jackie French

    Is Jackie French among Australia’s most productive – perhaps I should say prolific – author? From her busy mind and creative genius pour picture books, fiction and non fiction for older children and adults, and book series to please all ages and tastes. The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is book two in the Butter O’Bryan Mystery series for middle-grade readers.

    Set in the 1930’s during the Depression, the series follows the adventures of Butter who lives with his friends Gil, Olive and Tish, their dog Woofer, and three Aunts with unusual nicknames – Elephant, Cake and Peculiar. The Very Small Castle is just what it’s name suggests – a mini castle built on the shore of Howler’s Beach, and it is complete with battlements and a dungeon as all good castles should be.

    A ‘talking movie’ is being filmed on the beach and the children are asked to join the action, when the beautiful star Delilah Divine vanishes without leaving a trace. Has she been been kidnapped? Lost to the sea? Butter is determined to solve the mystery.

    Ms French incorporates a great many historical references in these books, from the ‘Susso camp’ nearby (a shanty town of the kind found outside many Australian towns during the Depression) to Australia’s early film industry. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is about to be opened, characters speak using early 20th century Australianisms, and food on the menu ranges from the then very new fad of pavlova, to ‘bread and dripping’.

    There’s a wonderful section in the back of the book which explains many of these aspects of Australian history, and includes recipes for traditional treats like Victoria Sponge, Bubble and Squeak and Boiled Fruit Cake. There’s also instructions on how to play games like Knucklebones or Blue Murder (which I knew as ‘Murder in the Dark’ when I was a kid.)

    All of the history is embedded naturally in a rollicking tale of a disappearing actress, a circus performer and a monster, and a crime to be solved.

    Most of all, the story is about friendship, sharing, and embracing difference:

    His family. Not a normal family, maybe. But normal was much less fun…Butter grinned. There were many ways to make a family.

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle p233

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle and the Butter O’Bryan series will be enjoyed by middle-grade readers who like mystery and history together in a story.

    The Vanishing at the Very Small Castle is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Beautiful prose with a dark story: ‘The Ripping Tree’ by Nikki Gemmell

    For me, this new work of fiction by best seller Nikki Gemmell (Shiver, The Bride Stripped Bare, among other titles) is a conundrum. I had been excited to read it as I enjoyed her earlier works and it is set in colonial era New South Wales – my cup of tea. It tells the story of Thomasina, raised by a free spirited father who she is mourning after his death; sent by a manipulative half brother to the colony. His plan is to marry off his vibrant, ‘untameable’ young sister to a vicar, a man she has never met.

    Fate intervenes and the ship they are travelling on goes down just off the Australian coast, with Thomasina the only survivor. She is washed up on rocks, rescued by a mysterious Aboriginal man and deposited, with care, at the doorstep of ‘Weatherbrae’, the home of the respectable Craw family.

    The family takes her in but there is no sanctuary here for Thomasina.

    She befriends Mouse, the young boy who shares her love of nature and passion for life. Mouse’s nervous, dissatisfied mother first sees the strange young castaway as a replacement for the daughter she lost to illness – and a welcome female companion. There is talk of Thomasina becoming governess for Mouse, offering her a home and refuge from an unwanted marriage and constrained life as a respectable wife.

    Very quickly, though, she realises that at the heart of the Craw family there is a dark secret. ‘Weatherbrae’ itself becomes a character, almost gothic in its claustrophobia, while the wild country outside its doors beckons to the young woman on the cusp of adulthood, who is confused and troubled by what she sees, hears and suspects. Told over the space of one week, the story becomes a tale of terrible acts committed, a family eaten away by their secrets, willing to do anything to preserve their respectability in the eyes of themselves and their community.

    As always, Nikki Gemmell’s writing is beautiful, startling in its originality and lyricism:

    ‘Isolated by the alone…’ p21
    ‘I miss my father, corrosively.’ p 9
    ‘…light slips in through a curtain gap as strong as a cat, enticing us both out.’ p11

    I loved the language, losing myself in Ms Gemmell’s beautiful prose.

    And yet…

    There were aspects of this novel that threw me out of the story, annoyingly and at times violently. I could not warm to Thomasina; while I admired her determination to remain true to herself and the way she was raised, her naivety and blindness to the risks around her irritated me. She continually acts in ways that can only increase the risk to herself and to others and while by the end of the story she realises her mistakes, it’s too late. Occasional expressions that feel wrong for the historical period also jarred: ‘I guess’ or ‘Hang on’ seem inconsistent with colonial English, even in a colony planted at the far end of the earth.

    The dark heart of the story is to do with the troubled relations between First Australians and settlers; it’s no spoiler to say that as it is obvious from the beginning that atrocities of the sort committed during the colonial era will be involved. I respect the author’s choice to write a story about difficult events like these.

    ‘Let’s just say my little tale is a history of a great colonial house that was burdened by a situation that was never resolved, and I fear all over this land will never be resolved. It is our great wound that needs suturing and it hasn’t been yet and I fear, perhaps, it never will be, for we’re not comfortable, still, with acknowledging it.’

    The Ripping Tree p339

    This quote from the end of the book speaks to the truth of the novel and the author’s purpose. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed. For me, the disappointment lies in my inability to care for the protagonist or most of the other characters.

    Others may disagree: I would be most interested to know if you have read The Ripping Tree and if so, what you thought.

    The Ripping Tree is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.