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.
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.
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…Ming and Marie Spy for Freedom p 271-272
‘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.’
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.
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.
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.Be Careful, Xiao Xin!
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.
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,Be Careful, Xiao Xin!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Can you imagine boarding a ship to voyage across the world to live in an unfamiliar country, learn a new language AND join a man you had never met, as his wife? This was the life changing decision of thousands of young Italian women and their families in the period leading up to WWII, and is the basis of The Proxy Bride. The brides in question were married ‘by proxy’ in Italy (with a male family member standing in for the groom, who was far away in Australia) before leaving to begin their new lives.
Why did they leave their homeland under such circumstances? According to the author, it was a combination of desperate poverty in Italy, Italian men already in Australia outnumbering potential brides of Italian birth, and a desire by families to give their daughters a chance for a better future.
I was surprised to learn of this chapter of Australia’s migrant history. The Proxy Bride tells a compelling and sympathetic story of hope, loss, homesickness, culture and prejudice, putting the historical events into a relatable context.
Gia is a courageous protagonist, travelling towards a future with Taddeo, a quiet man who has established himself in Queensland’s Stanthorpe region, growing apples and peaches and mixing mainly with other Italian migrants in the district. When Gia arrives, there is no spark of romance between the new couple. Some of her compatriots who had travelled with her on the voyage to Australia have more luck with their arranged marriages, others less so. It is essentially a ‘pot luck’ scenario, but mostly, the couples try to make the best of what fate has sent their way, working hard to establish themselves and earn a living.
Unfortunately for Gia (or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint), there is an immediate and lasting spark between her and a neighbouring farmer, Keith, though they both know that nothing permanent can come of their connection.
Then along comes the outbreak of war and Italian men (now considered ‘enemy aliens’) are taken to internment camps for an indefinite period, leaving behind bewildered women wondering how they can support themselves until their husbands return. The women need to learn new skills and manage the tasks previously done by their menfolk, to ensure a harvest that will allow them to live and feed themselves and their children.
They do this by banding together, supporting each other while facing shame, ridicule, and bullying from many in the local community. We must not forget that this was during the era of the ‘White Australia’ policy and before the influx of European migrants brought about by the end of the war. Wartime suspicion of anyone seen as aligned with Germany, Italy or Japan ran deep.
At the same time, newsreel footage portrays parts of Italy suffering under heavy bombardment by Allied forces, so the women live with the agony of not knowing if their families back home are safe.
In between Gia’s story, the author has woven in the first-person narrative of her grand-daughter, Sofie, who has come to spend the summer holidays with Gia. Sofie is sixteen, that tender age during which young people test their boundaries, seek out their own identity, and (sometimes) begin to see their parents and grandparents with fresh eyes, as people in their own right, with lives and loves and experiences apart from those connected with their children.
Sofie’s story is complicated by the fact that she has never known her father, and there seems to be secrecy around his identity. Even as Gia shares with Sofie the story of her early life in Australia, her ‘proxy bride’ status and the painful events during the war, there remains a reluctance to venture into Sofie’s own beginnings.
The way in which Gia’s and Sofie’s stories connect is revealed towards the novel’s climax. It’s not an easy story to tell or hear, but it allows Sofie to move closer to her mother, grandmother, and Italian extended family and community.
Gia plays her beloved Dean Martin albums on near constant rotation, so his voice is the backdrop to Sofie’s holiday time with her grandmother – as is cooking.
Each of Sofie’s chapters is named after a particular dish her grandmother makes, always based on traditional Calabrian recipes. And Gia loves to use chilli, from a plant grown from seeds her own grandmother gave her when she left Italy so long ago. ‘Angry spaghetti’ is a favoured dish (spaghetti all’Arrabbiata Calabrese) and I was delighted to discover the recipe for this and quite a few other special dishes made by Gia in the novel, at the back of the book. It absolutely felt like a gift from Gia to me, the reader!
Cooking is a theme throughout the novel and a beautiful metaphor to express the ways in which love, culture, connection and family can be passed on through favoured recipes, cooking and sharing food together.
‘Go on. Close your eyes. Breathe in.’The Proxy Bride p369
The sharp tang hit my nostrils first, then a little bit of acridity, followed by sweetness and last of all a current of mellow earthy oil. I open my eyes to Nonna Gia beaming.
‘It’s the same scent your ancestors breathed when they cooked this dish.’
And just then it was almost as if the aroma released a trigger of deep memories that let things rise up and take shape in ourselves.
The Proxy Bride shines a light into a little-known or understood corner of the migrant story in Australia, told through complex characters no doubt informed by the author’s own family experiences as Italian migrants. I learnt a lot and enjoyed the read.
The Proxy Bride is published by HarperCollins Publishers in September 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
It’s rare for a novel aimed at middle grade readers to deal openly with issues of family instability and broken or difficult parental relationships. Aussie author Victoria Carless has achieved this, while imbuing her story with a sense of hope (and a smidgen of the supernatural).
Gus is twelve. At the novel’s opening she is in a car with her mum, older sister Alice and little brother Artie. They are driving through the day and night – actually, several days and nights – heading north to Queensland. Her mother, Delphine, is escaping another difficult boyfriend, looking for a fresh start with her kids, somewhere where Troy won’t find them. Equally importantly, she wants to find a place to live where the locals won’t know about her work as a spiritual medium, which she’s keen to leave behind because of all the sadness it brings.
So, not entirely a ‘regular’ family then, especially as it becomes clear that the girls of the family tend to inherit ‘the gift’ (connecting with the dead) at puberty. Will the gift – or curse, depending on your viewpoint – manifest itself in Gus and her sister?
The family lands in the small township of Calvary, surrounded by sugarcane fields, where Delphine plans to restore and run the long-neglected drive-in cinema, the Starlight.
Gus has learnt long ago not to put down roots, make friends, or get used to the places that her family stay in, because it’s too painful when the inevitable happens and they have to leave. Despite herself though, she becomes fascinated by the workings of the old-fashioned film projection equipment and learns to operate it, with the help of Henry, who may or may not be a ghost.
The descriptions of the drive-in and the surrounding Queensland countryside are vivid and will resonate with anyone who remembers drive-ins of yesteryear, or who has driven through such semi-tropical parts of Australia. The novel is, in a way, a homage to some of the terrific films of the 1980’s and 90’s, such as ET, Strictly Ballroom, Ghostbusters, and The Princess Bride. Each film has something to say to Gus and to the locals, who eventually flock back to the drive-in.
Their landlady, Deidre, proves to be problematic, but by the time of the showdown, Gus and her family have developed a degree of self awareness and confidence and prove to be more than a match for their bullying landlady.
Gus and the Starlight is part coming-of-age story, part magical realism, and all heart.
It was published by HarperCollins Children’s books in May 2022.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
If you’ve followed by blog for a bit you’d be familiar with the series of posts I wrote called Travels with my Mother, all about my journey with my Mum’s dementia. Mum passed away last year but the memories of her experiences, and the family’s with her, are still quite fresh. So I was keen to read Dancing with Memories, a unique picture book by Australian dementia care worker Sally Yule and illustrator Cheryl Orsini.
I love the idea of introducing this often misunderstood condition to kids, in an age-appropriate and gentle way. I also applaud the themes of respect, dignity and agency for the person with dementia. Another special thing about the book is that it contributes to understanding of brain health through a little Q&A at the end of the book (by Professor Ralph Martins) and some healthy recipes from Maggie Beer. In this way, the authors plant the idea that brain health starts young!
Best of all, the book tells a story, all about Lucy, who is excited about going to her granddaughter’s wedding.
I am Lucy and I dance with memories.Dancing with Memories
Sometimes I remember.
Sometimes I forget.
Sometimes I remember that I forget.
Sometimes I forget that I remember…
My doctor says I have dementia.
I wish I didn’t but I do.
‘Your brain has changed’, she says, ‘but you are still Lucy.’
She knows that I have a brain AND a heart.
Young readers will go with Lucy on her adventure: she gets lost on her way to the wedding, but a supportive community and local friends set all to rights again and by the end of the story, Lucy is dancing with her granddaughter, along with her memories.
The illustrations are gentle, joyful and colourful and they help to centre the person with dementia within their family, home, and neighbourhood – which is as it should be.
I would suggest that every doctor’s waiting room should have a copy of this book, as well as public and school libraries and places offering services to people with dementia and their families. It will go a long way to demystify the illness and allow kids to continue to love their family member or friend with dementia without feeling frightened or confused.
An interview with the team behind the book can be found here, if you’d like to know more about the project.
Dancing with Memories is published by HarperCollins in July 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.