• Books and reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Books and reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

    There are several things I enjoyed about this novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom p 271-272

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

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

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

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

    Final 2022 Reading Challenge Results

    I’m happy to say that my final two reading challenges for 2022 are complete.

    For the #AussieAuthor22 challenge, I aimed for the ‘Kangaroo’ level, which meant 12 books by Aussie authors, of which at least 3 had to be by female writers, 3 by male, 3 by an author new to me, and across at least 3 genres.

    I showed my (usual) clear bias towards female authors by reading 24 books. 4 books were by male authors, and 16 by authors new to me (which I’m pleased about as I like to expand my choice of authors.) And finally, 12 were from various different genres, including contemporary fiction, middle grade and young adult fiction, historical fiction (of course!), history, biography, fantasy and crime. As always, being part of a book group contributes to a wider range of titles and authors than I might otherwise choose (and a big thanks to my book group members for great reading and discussions this year.)

    My stand-out reads from Australian writers?
    After Story by Larissa Behrendt
    27 Letters to My Daughter by Ella Ward
    Tongerlongeter by Henry Reynolds & Nicholas
    Tiny Uncertain Miracles by Michelle Johnson

    Now to the #histficreadingchallenge:

    In 2022 I aimed for the ‘Mediaeval’ level, committing to reading 15 books of historical fiction, which I achieved. Just over 2/3 of those were by female authors. I guess that means that I’m more attracted to historical stories by women – perhaps because of the focus on the lives of women in the past that are so often obscured in both fiction and non-fiction?

    My favourite historical fiction reads for 2022?
    The Secret World of Connie Starr by Robbi Neal
    The Silence of Water by Sharron Booth
    The Brightest Star by Emma Harcourt

    pexels-photo-13088176.jpeg
    Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

    And now for 2023:

    I’ll be participating in all three challenges from this year again.

    For the Historical Fiction Challenge, once again I’ll be going for the ‘Mediaeval’ reader with 15 books.

    In the Aussie Author Challenge, my goal will be ‘Kangaroo’ – 12 books.

    And for the Non-fiction challenge I’ll again be a ‘Nibbler’ – 6 books from any of the 12 categories.

    What have been your reading favourites or achievements this year? What are you aiming for in 2023?
    Do let me know in the comments – I always love hearing about other people’s highlights. And happy reading!

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Waiting for the Storks p76

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

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

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

  • Books and reading,  History

    Evocative: ‘The Butterfly Collector’ by Tea Cooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Be Careful, Xiao Xin!

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

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

    Be Careful, Xiao Xin!

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

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

  • Books and reading

    Golden prose: ‘Tiny Uncertain Miracles’ by Michelle Johnston

    Michelle Johnston has written a novel from, and of, the heart. An author and an emergency physician with over thirty-one years’ experience, Tiny Uncertain Miracles encompasses the highs and lows of humans at a busy, underfunded public hospital, with a dash of faith and possible miracles, all wrapped up with a gift of golden prose.

    Marick, grief and guilt stricken after the loss of his child and his marriage, arrives as chaplain at a large hospital after losing his position in a neighboring church. Anyone who has worked for a large bureaucratic institution will recognise The Public: the slow grind of managerial wheels, the KPI’s which all staff (even the chaplain) have to meet, the ways in which the real work of the institution is done by those small cogs in the wheel, the background workers like the cleaners, orderlies and emergency medical staff who labour on, despite the grinding difficulties of their work environment.

    Marick meets Hugo, a hospital scientist who works alone in a basement laboratory he has created from a disused laundry room. Hugo convinces his new friend that the bacteria in his protein production process have begun to produce gold. Marick, aware of the deeply cynical role played by alchemists throughout history, is reluctant to believe what he sees – but Hugo is certain that the transformation is real.

    The novel is a deeply moving and often funny examination of people in all their messy glory: under pressure, in love, exhausted, hopeful, kind.

    Tiny Uncertain Miracles is unlike any novel I have read before. The characters, setting and storyline are unique; but what sets it apart is the glowing, beautiful prose:

    From here, the view of the river was unimpeded. This river, he knew, was ancient. Its own history was born in dreams and stories, and the land fed by it, soaking in it, was even older. Aquifers and blind animals and sacred burial grounds. Bones and antiquities, scars and excavations. Vaults and textures nobody thought to see. Past visitations of fire and ice. Borders. It was a question that never let up. How did the God of Rome square with the epochs of existence, the spiritual history below the soil here? It was a conundrum, overwhelming in its immensity.

    Tiny Uncertain Miracles p43

    Marick’s struggle with the idea of bacteria-producing gold is echoed in his personal life and his journey to – and from – spiritual faith. He questions everything and through this, the reader explores deep seams of human experience: what is love? faith? service? truth? hope?

    This is a hard book to categorise, but it will be enjoyed by readers who like to grapple with deep themes while engaging with characters brought to vivid life by a talented writer.

    Tiny Uncertain Miracles is published in November 2022 by Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Alma’s Loyalty p186

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

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

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

    My thanks to the author and publisher for review copies.

  • Books and reading

    Sydney on display: ‘Dead Man’s Pose’ by Susan Rogers & John Roosen

    The first in what will be called the ‘Yoga Mat Mysteries’ series, Dead Man’s Pose is a fun romp through Sydney, Australia, in all its harbour glory, with its beautiful beaches rubbing shoulders with a glitzy casino. At a peaceful outdoor yoga class, a man dies while in the titular ‘Dead Man’s Pose’, otherwise known as shavasana.

    The dead man is Mario. Elaina, the yoga teacher, is upset at what seems at first to be a misadventure during one of her classes. But when her apartment and yoga studio are both ransacked by unnamed people obviously looking for something – and not finding it – Elaina teams up with another of her students, Ric, to try to work out what really happened to Mario.

    What follows takes the reader across many Sydney places and practices: great espresso coffees and food, the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, Chinatown, the northern beaches, even a foray up to the Central Coast. On the way Elaina and Ric encounter homeless folk, expert crime fighters, corrupt businesspeople, and a youthful computer hacker, among many other vividly drawn characters.

    Their search takes them to the edge of danger and back again, before the mystery of Mario and why he was killed is solved.

    There are many snippets about Sydney’s past and present woven throughout the story which adds colour and flavour. It was great to have this iconic city feature almost as a character in its own right in a novel; something which writers from the US and UK, for example, have done for many years. It’s a welcome trend in Australian literature.

    The descriptions of the (many!) meals, snacks and beverages the two consume made me hungry and craving a good coffee. Occasionally this got in the way of the story, as did Ric’s near-perfection – I had to suspend disbelief a few times. The pacing and narrative technique could also be improved.

    Overall, though, if you enjoy crime fiction that is not too graphic or gratuitous and is full of interesting characters and settings, you will enjoy Dead Man’s Pose. I think the premise of a crime series named after yoga poses is terrific and I wish the authors well in their future books.

    Dead Man’s Pose is published as an eBook by G-EMS Pty Ltd, an imprint of Yoga Mat Mysteries, in 2022.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.