• Books and reading

    Holiday nightmare: ‘Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six’ by Lisa Unger

    A Google search for this novel showed just how well author Lisa Unger nailed its title. I found as many listings for actual holiday rentals as ones for the book itself.

    This book might make you reconsider the advantages of ‘seclusion’ and ‘luxury’ when choosing your next Airbnb rental. In a similar vein to Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers, the novel centres around three young American couples meeting up at a luxury retreat. The rental host is not quite as weird as Masha at Moriarty’s Tranquillium… though Bracken is pretty weird now I think about it.

    There is Mako, uber-wealthy self-made businessman and his beautiful wife Liza; Mako’s sister Hannah and her husband Bruce; and Hannah’s best friend and Mako’s high school sweetheart, Cricket, with her new boyfriend Josh.

    Each of the individuals have secrets and concerns they are hiding from the others. And each couple has its own issues needing resolution. These are gradually revealed throughout the novel by chapters with alternating points of view.

    And there are two additional characters: Henry and Trina, whose role in the drama is initially unclear but who are integral to events as they play out.

    This is a modern-day twisty psychological thriller which will keep you guessing as the characters, and their mistakes and problems, emerge from the pages. It is a perfect summer read.

    Secluded Cabin Sleeps Six was published by HQ Fiction in November 2022.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • 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.

  • Books and reading

    Non-fiction challenge 2022: Completed – now for the 2023 Challenge!

    This year my Non-fiction reading challenge goal was ‘Nipper’: I undertook to read six non-fiction books from six different listed categories.

    The challenge is hosted at Book’d Out (https://bookdout.wordpress.com/2022-nonfiction-reader-challenge/)

    I exceeded my goal for number of books read (ten) though fell short in the number of categories. I read four biographies, three memoir, two books on Australian history. This year I hadn’t planned my challenge reading, rather ‘nibbling’ on books of interest or ones that were part of my book group reading.

    Regardless, I was pleased to incorporate non-fiction titles into my reading during the year. With reading, as with diet and exercise (and, indeed, life!) balance is a good thing.

    There was one big standout book in my list this year: Tongerlongeter by Henry Reynolds and Nicholas Clements. If you are interested in Australian history, this one is must-read. I guarantee you will learn things about this country, and the small island of Tasmania, that you didn’t know.

    Thank you to Shelleyrae for the challenge. I am signing up for the 2023 Challenge, again as a ‘Nibbler’, and I’ll try to cover a few more categories next year.

  • Books and reading

    Raw honesty: ‘Cells’ by Gavin McCrea

    The cells in Irish author Gavin McCrea’s memoir are the spaces in which major scenes of his life played out. There are the rooms of his childhood home, in which he grew up with his clinically depressed father, mentally ill older brother, complicated mother, and other siblings. Other spaces play their part: his schools; single rooms or shared apartments with friends or lovers in the UK, Ireland, or abroad; university campuses where he studied and worked.

    The book begins in the tiny flat where Gavin moved to live with his eighty-year-old mother who was exhibiting signs of encroaching dementia. His plan was to continue his writing while providing care for his mother. Then Covid struck and Dublin, as with much of the world, was in lockdown. Living with an elderly relative with whom he had experienced a complicated relationship, closed in by four walls and dealing with the inevitable repetitious interruptions of someone with dementia: it is easy to see how the description ‘cell’ fits this space.

    Then we move back in time, to a childhood dominated by the emotional distance of his exhausted father, the mental illness and drug addiction of his brother, and by the bullying Gavin experienced at school, primary and secondary. Gavin had, in early childhood, regarded himself as his mother’s favourite, her prince, but she did not protect him from the torment of his school experiences.

    He explores his growing awareness of his difference, later identified as homosexuality, and the reactions of others – dismissive, abusive, or violent – to this difference. Woven through the narrative is his excavation of the complexity of the primary relationship of any child – that with their mother. He draws on Freudian and Jungian theories of dreams, relationships, emotions, and examines his own role in the events of his life with excoriating honesty.

    By this point, I was already making my concrete plans to leave Ireland. I did not deny to myself or others that my planned leave-taking was anything other than the rage of rejection taken out on my surrounding environment: the place I was born, its culture and its people, especially my family, most of all my mother. My rejection, my rage, when it was not spewing over all of this, was aimed at her, or rather at the idea that this particular mother was the only one I would or could ever have.

    Cells p214-215

    This is not a book for the faint-hearted. We, the readers, understand that the author is writing about parents, family, and lovers, as a way of revealing something about himself. He does not hold back: the rawness is at times, almost too much, leading to a sensation of voyeurism. There is the universal difficulty of choosing what to put in and what to leave out of a memoir which references people who are still living.

    The writing is also infused with love, and humour, and beautiful prose about often difficult subjects. I finished this book with a greater understanding of the range of human experiences and the ways in which family relationships contribute to an individual’s life trajectory.

    Cells is published in Australia by Scribe in October 2022.
    My thanks to the publisher 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

    Family & books: ‘The Book Haters’ Book Club’ by Gretchen Anthony

    Irma is grief stricken after the sudden death of her best friend and longtime business partner, Elliott, with whom she ran the ‘Over the Rainbow Bookshop’ for years. Elliott prided himself on his fun approach and his ability to find the exact book for a professed book hater. Now that he is gone, Irma has agreed to sell the business to a local group of property developers who plan to build condominiums on the site.

    The problem is, the price Irma has agreed to is a pittance. Added to that, her daughter Bree, who has grown up at the Rainbow and assumed she would work there forever, is suddenly left high and dry – and Irma won’t even discuss it.

    Faced with this crisis, the family gathers: Irma, her two daughters Bree and Laney, and Thom, Elliott’s romantic partner, who is just as bewildered by Irma’s sudden, rash decisions. Thom and the two younger women decide to take matters into their own hands… with several unexpected results. In the process, long-held secrets are revealed and there is heartbreak and anger along with some deep self-examination by all the parties.

    Ultimately though, The Book Haters’ Book Club is about the deep bonds of family and friendships, and a celebration of how, even in the mayhem of a family argument, love can prevail.

    “I’m talking about your people. Your loved ones. We have a homing device, and when we’re hurting, we turn towards love. Sometimes we turn before we even know we’re in pain.”

    The Book Haters’ Book Club p195

    It’s also a homage to books and the people who love and sell them.

    Let’s keep spreading book magic to the world. Do this for me, won’t you? Tell me, what librarian or bookseller changed your life by placing the right novel in your hands? Where were you? What title did they recommend? What treasures did you find within its pages?

    The Book Haters’ Book Club p328

    The Book Haters’ Book Club is a light romp of a read with genuine laugh-out-loud moments and will be enjoyed by anyone who has a family and also loves books.

    It is published by HarperCollins Publishers in October 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Out of this world: ‘Meanwhile Back on Earth’ by Oliver Jeffers

    Oliver Jeffers’ is back in his inimitable style, this time exploring time, space and human history for young readers. This colourful picture book has such a clever premise: Dad takes his two kids, prone to squabbling as humans do, on a car trip. Suddenly they are space bound, heading for the moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto…while looking into the ‘year-view mirror’ to see what was happening on Earth in each time period.

    Sadly, of course, in every one, humans are still squabbling, warring, building huge walls to keep other humans out, travelling to new places to find other people to fight…

    The story combines a gallop through the history of humanity and its conflicts, with a guide to the universe, and a plea for all people to consider the fragility of our existence in the vastness of our universe and join together rather than continue to battle each other.

    It’s not a ‘downer’ of a story, because of the kind and witty way in which it is told, the deceptively simple illustrations, and because at the end, the children are invited to return home and after all, as Neil Armstrong apparently said:

    No matter where you travel, it’s always nice to get home.

    Here is Oliver Jeffers talking about where the idea for the book came from.

    Meanwhile Back on Earth is another of Jeffers’ surprising, quirky and beautiful picture books for young readers, published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in October 2022.

    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Page turner with a message: ‘Reputation’ by Sarah Vaughan

    British author Sarah Vaughan made a splash with her 2018 novel Anatomy of a Scandal, in which she explored the often-fraught issue of consent in sexual encounters. Later adapted into a TV series, it was a story that somehow reflected and tapped into some of the preoccupations of the time, especially in the worlds of high-profile people and the law.

    Reputation is a worthy successor. It is a cleverly constructed story of a divorced female UK MP, her teenage daughter, mistakes and spur-of-the-moment decisions sorely regretted. The novel opens with a body at the base of a staircase, so it’s not a plot spoiler to say that someone dies.

    What makes it a page turner is that we need to know just how and why this character met their end. It’s clever because the reader is never quite sure where the fault lies: the precise sequence of events that led to this moment. The last third or so of the book is taken up with the trial, in which the defence team lays out all the reasons why the accused is innocent of murder, and the Crown makes the opposite argument.

    The author has embedded timely and topical issues of online and physical bullying (at all ages), hate speech and trolling, and especially, the sexualised invective to which high profile women are subjected. These are all too familiar: readers in Australia will recall the hideous and gendered abuse our first female PM Julias Gillard was subjected to during her time in office – and that speech (often referred to as ‘the misogyny speech‘) which went viral.

    Emma, the main character, faces the usual quandaries of being a working single parent with a teenager who is experiencing her own difficulties. In her role as an MP, Emma speaks out strongly against so-called ‘revenge porn’ – which wins her an army of trollers, death threats and stalking. This is all horribly recognisable – down to Emma holding her house keys splayed between her fingers when walking alone at night, ready to employ as a weapon should she need it. Hands up if you do the same. It was something taught at a self defence for women class I did many years ago – so yes, believable.

    The court room drama forensically examines the various stories, interpretations and impressions by those involved – showing that what we read, hear, even see with our own eyes is not necessarily either the truth, or the whole truth.

    The novel is a psychological thriller, yes; but it delves into issues that perhaps many would prefer to avoid thinking about. As Emma considers the dangers faced by public figures, especially women in male-dominated environments, she feels gratitude for those who worked alongside her without the public profile:

    I think of their loyalty in working for me despite regularly having contempt hurled down the phone at them; of their steadfastness despite knowing that every time they open a parcel, they risk being exposed to something unpleasant or toxic. I think of the Simon Baxters we’ve known. Men who fizz with anger, their aggression only just reined in, the potential for them to erupt, for a situation that appears civil to escalate in a flash, always present.

    I accepted that danger was part of the job, but when did I internalise this belief? When did I accept these precautions as normal? And why did I believe my staff should accept this, too?

    Reputation p405

    I could not put this book down until I’d finished it. It’s engrossing, compelling and entirely believable.

    Reputation is published by Simon & Schuster in 2022.

  • Books and reading,  Varuna

    In my happy place with bookish folk: The Blue Mountains Writers’ Festival

    You know that feeling you get on returning home after a holiday or mini break away, when you try to keep the happy vibes going? That’s where I am now, days after a fabulous weekend of all things books, writers and readers, thanks to the Blue Mountains Writers’ Festival, held at Katoomba from October 21st to 23rd.

    Organised by Varuna (the National Writers’ House in Katoomba) the festival was a smorgasbord of author talks, workshops, book sales and signings, children’s events, poetry readings… and the chance to just hang out with other book lovers.

    The inaugural event was held in 2019 but Covid meant two cancelled years, so it was a delight to be back in 2022. I was one of over 50 volunteers who collectively helped make it a success. It is great fun to volunteer at an event like this, so if you’ve not given it a go previously, think about putting your hand up at an event near you.

    My highlights?

    So many! If I had to choose, these are some of my most memorable moments:

    • Finding what I expect will be my 2023 choice for my book group: This All Come Back Now: An Anthology of First Nations Speculative Fiction, edited by Mykaela Saunders (after hearing Mykaela speak on a panel along with Ellen van Neerven and Gina Cole.) A comment by Mykaela that struck me was that she wanted to ‘write her people into the future’ after reading so much speculative fiction/scifi that has ‘genocided First Nations Australians.’
    • Hearing Corey Tutt speak about the Deadly Science book and schools’ program, which aims to ensure all schools (including those in remote areas) have access to the First Nations’ history of science by providing resources that connect students to the First Scientists of Australia: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
    • Listening to Pip Williams (author of the wonderful Dictionary of Lost Words) speak about her writing process in a session titled ‘The Power of Language’. She described the ‘exploded view’ by which her story ideas often arrive. On the Dictionary of Lost Words, she says that she asked herself the question: Do words mean different things to men and women and if they do, does it matter if the original Oxford English Dictionary (the subject of her novel) was essentially a male led and male dominated project? (The answer, by the way, was yes.)
      The exciting news for fans of the Dictionary is that a companion book, The Bookbinder of Jericho, is due for release in March 2023.
      Pip’s warmth and generous spirit were infectious, and it was a thrill to meet her.
    Pip William (right) in conversation with Tegan Bennet Daylight, at Blue Mountains Writers’ Festival. Photo by Denise
    Helen Garner (left) also with Tegan Bennet Daylight. Photo by Denise
    • The fabulous Helen Garner, a living Australian literary treasure, at the sold out ‘A Life of Writing’ talk. As another volunteer said to me just before the session started, ‘Helen doesn’t even have to say anything. Just having her here is enough.’ Yes! – though Helen is an excellent conversationalist, as the audience quickly learned: wry, humorous, self-deprecating and supremely down to earth.
    • Another living treasure, Thomas Keneally, gave an often hilarious, always entertaining ramble through his writing life in ‘A Bloody Good Chat’ on Sunday afternoon.
    • Finally, the joy of just hanging about with a crowd of bookish people, who write books, read them, publish them, sell them, review them, love them. Truly my happy place. I’m looking forward to the 2023 Festival already.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    ‘In-betweenness’: ‘The Cult of Romance’ by Sarah Ayoub

    In a classic case of judging a book by its cover, my first thought on picking up The Cult of Romance was ‘Oh no, another YA novel drenched in teenage angst about boys!’

    Well, I am here to admit that in that, I was wrong: thoroughly, comprehensively wrong.

    What Australian journalist and author Sarah Ayoub has written is a funny, wise and very relevant portrayal of growing up in multicultural Australia. All about identity, culture and belonging, it explores what it means to be a young Lebanese-Australian women – and a feminist – while trying to be supportive as your best friend heads towards a ridiculously young marriage.

    The novel is full of amusing asides such as: 5 things you expect your best friend to bring back from a Lebanese holiday (the list does not include an engagement ring), that highlight the sometimes difficult, often funny, aspects of contemporary life for the children and grandchildren of immigrants.

    Crucially, it explores the ‘in-betweenness’ of these young people : there is the traditional culture of the homeland as it was when the parent / grandparent left that remains real to that family member; the contemporary society that has developed there since they left; and the world inhabited by the young person who was born into a different country and culture.

    The protagonist, Natalie, comes face to face with this when she travels to Lebanon for her friend’s wedding, as she is confronted with all that she doesn’t know or understand about the country that her grandmother, her Tayta, had left so many years before.

    That night as I lie in bed, I think about my inheritance. Not a house or money or family heirlooms, but that very feeling of straddling two separate identities, crystallised in small moments, like that one on the train today. Lebanese stories on Australian trains, being told to sit like a girl, judgement for my otherness in my own homeland. ‘Your mother made such an effort to teach you Arabic,’ Tayta had said.

    The Cult of Romance p115

    Natalie is an engaging and believable character and I admired her strenuous efforts to understand and to learn. There is a romantic thread (which is in itself interesting as Natalie is a self-proclaimed ‘anti-romantic’) but the true arc of the story is her journey to more understanding and acceptance of herself and others.

    The Cult of Romance is a terrific book for young people to enjoy and to reflect on the differences and similarities that make us human.

    It was published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.