• Children's & Young Adult Books

    “Gus and the Starlight’ by Victoria Carless

    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.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Another celebration of diversity: ‘How Do You Say I Love You?’ by Ashleigh Barton & Martina Heiduczek

    How Do You Say I Love You? is a new picture book in a gorgeous series by author Ashleigh Barton and illustrator Martina Heiduczek, celebrating languages and cultures from around the world. Previous titles are What Do You Call Your Grandpa?, What Do You Call Your Grandma?, and What Do You Do To Celebrate? (links are to my reviews.)

    As well as the focus on the beauty of human expression, something all the books have in common is celebrating connection: through family, friends, community.

    Each double page spread shows a child saying ‘I love you’ in their language to someone special in their life. We see children from places as diverse as Peru, Iran, Canada, Tonga, West and Central Africa, Egypt, and more, with grandparents, pets, parents, friends. Languages include Auslan (the Sign Language used in Australia) along with Farsi, French, Arabic, Korean, Filipino, Mandarin, Spanish and Italian.

    The beautiful illustrations invite close examination and convey the message of commonality and diversity which all these books so skillfully portray.

    How Do You Say I Love You? is a perfect read-aloud book, a beautiful way for youngsters to be introduced to the wonderful world of languages.

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

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

    Terrific new children’s fantasy: ‘The Callers’ by Kiah Thomas

    The Callers is a fabulous new book for middle-grade readers, particularly those who enjoy immersion in a skillfully drawn fantasy world that prompts consideration of the challenges facing our own.

    Quin is the son of Adriana, the powerful head of the Council of Callers who rule the continent of Elipsom. ‘Calling’, the ability to conjure anything out of thin air, is in the DNA of his family and has been for generations.

    But Quin is different. He cannot Call, which puts him at odds with his mother and his talented sister Davinia, and also with the expectations of his world.

    When he discovers that the objects Callers bring into Elipsom are actually taken from another place where people also live, he decides to do something to change this.

    He meets Allie, a girl who is also on the path to correct this long-standing injustice, and together they embark on a quest to preserve the future of Allie’s land. But Quin is now heading for a headlong collision with his own family.

    This novel can be read as a sustained and sensitive metaphor for the risks of the environmental degradation facing our own planet, and also for the injustices perpetrated by centuries of colonialism. Is it fair that some should benefit from other’s loss?

    The story is deeply engrossing and I loved that there was no need for pitched battles or physical violence in Quin’s and Allie’s efforts to change their world. The two work together, using their existing skills – and some previously undiscovered talents – to overcome the obstacles in their way.

    Quin is uncertain, confused about his place in his family and society. Allie, on the other hand, is passionate and courageous and she shows Quin the reality of their two worlds, and how he can live in line with his own beliefs and feelings. There are many profound questions addressed in this slim novel, but it is such a great story that it’s never a lecture. I really cared about Quin and Allie and their quest.

    It’s also, in a way, a coming-of-age story, about growing up and seeing your world, and the adults in your life, through a different lens:

    His head was throbbing. How would he ever know what he believed anymore? Half of him wanted to simply dismiss what Allie was telling him. It would be easier to go on believing what he’d always known to be true. And who was this girl to tell him that every single thing about his life was a lie? What could she know?

    The Callers p86

    I loved this book right away and I hope Kiah Thomas writes more stories like this.

    The Callers was published by Harper Collins Children’s Books in May 2022. My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    ‘The Brightest Star’ by Emma Harcourt

    Recently I have noticed a heartening bounty of books being published that feature women striving and achieving in areas traditionally the preserve of men. It’s a timely redress of a centuries-long imbalance. The Brightest Star is a terrific example.

    Set in Renaissance Florence, it tells the story of Luna, a child born under a full moon and in the eyes of many, doubly cursed, as she was born with a crippled foot and her mother died shortly afterwards.

    Luna is raised by her father Vincenzio (a prosperous wool merchant with an appetite for learning, particularly in the burgeoning field of astronomy), her stepmother and two half-siblings. She has a happy childhood, despite her disability, as she has a quick, intelligent mind and a love for learning, which her father indulges – until Luna grows ‘too old’ for such interests, which are seen by most as inappropriate for a young women.

    To make matters worse, Florence has fallen under the spell of the fanatical preacher Friar Girolama Savonarola, who rails against all earthly pleasures and any view he regards as heresy. The powerful Medici family, who Luna’s father secretly supports, have been banished from the city. These are dangerous times for anyone who questions accepted orthodoxies or who longs for a different life than that set out by church, family and society.

    The reader is plunged into the world of Renaissance Florence: the petty concerns of society are contrasted with ground-breaking developments in science, mathematics, philosophy and the arts; the blossoming of intellectual thought collides with the fundamentalism of Savonarola. Luna’s interests and abilities lead her into conflict with the norms and expectations of her society, just as her father’s political views result in danger for the entire family.

    The hold of the Friar over the great and good of the city has echoes of modern so-called ‘leaders’ whose followers similarly suspend rational or independent thought and swallow all they are told, no matter how improbable or dangerous the lies become:

    It was very clever the way the preacher stood in the halo of luminosity, just as he spoke of the divine light the Lord had sent to him. All around, people murmured in agreement with his words and Vincenzio was astounded. Was he the only sane man to hear the brittleness in the hollow-cheeked voice? How could Savonarola speak of a new era of universal peace whilst ransacking the homes of good citizens and banishing others? Discord was growing and word had travelled that Florence was becoming unstable, yet the people believed the preacher’s promise of riches, glory and power.

    The Brightest Star p138-139

    Sound familiar?

    Reading this book, I had a sense of the ebb and flow of human knowledge; the theories of the ancient Greeks more advanced than some of the ideas of mediaeval Europe; some of the ingrained assumptions about women almost as familiar today as they were over six hundred years ago. Characters from history appear in the novel’s pages, inviting recognition: Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Machiavelli and Copernicus, to name a few.

    The Brightest Star is a welcome addition to the growing number of historical novels in which women’s aspirations and abilities are centre-stage, in settings where such things could be dangerous.

    The Brightest Star is published by HarperCollins in July 2022. My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Secrets: ‘The Silence of Water’ by Sharron Booth

    Are some secrets best left buried in the past? Should we know everything about our forebears’ lives: including things they would much prefer remained hidden? Do the actions of the past affect descendants, even generations later?

    These are some of the questions explored in Sharron Booth’s debut novel, a work of historical fiction that builds on her extensive research. Regular readers of my blog will know that I am a sucker for fiction inspired by real-life people and events: it is what I most love to read (and write).

    The Silence of Water joins other books of this type that I have admired, including Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. It’s a complicated book, told from the experiences and points of view of three characters across three generations of people.

    Fan is unhappy at her parents’ decision to move from Adelaide to Western Australia to take care of Fan’s elderly grandfather, Edwin Salt, a man she has never met and knows nothing about. She develops an unexpected relationship with the old man and becomes curious about his past, as veiled references and clues emerge. When she goes digging for further information about Edwin, she stumbles across long-buried secrets that upset her view of the world and her family.

    The narrative moves from South Australia in 1906, backwards in time to Lichfield in England where Edwin lived with his family in the 1840’s; in between are the experiences of Agnes, Edwin’s daughter and Fan’s mother in Perth.

    These settings and times are the warp of the book; the stories of Edwin, Agnes and Fan are the weft, slowly revealing the true picture of the family and its origins as the novel progresses. Fan’s curiosity about her family’s past and its people is beautifully portrayed:

    ”You’ve got such a lost look about you, poor little bird.’ Ernest rested his hand over hers. ‘Now you know where you fit…. At grandfather Samuel’s funeral, my mother told me that Saint Mary’s was full to the gunnels. Brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, rows and rows of cousins just like you and me, and all those screaming brats that our grandfather’s second wife kept popping out every year like Christmas puddings.’ Ernest drew an enormous circle around the entire family. ‘The point is, all those people in the church that day were your people, Agnes. Every single one.’
    Agnes stared at Ernest’s drawing. So many names, she could hardly take it in.

    The Silence of Water pp79-80

    The rich historical detail gives us an insight into how Western Australia must have appeared to the earliest British settlers and convicts; and also an indication of how late the convict transportation system continued into the western colony (until 1868), having ceased in the eastern colonies by the 1850’s.

    The Silence of Water was shortlisted for the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award for an unpublished manuscript. It tells a complex web of stories from one family and provokes questions about whether family secrets are best told or kept hidden. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend to readers who enjoy stories about Australia’s past.

    The Silence of Water is published by Fremantle Press in May 2022.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    Beloved Aussie star & children’s books: ‘Little Ash’ series

    Ash Barty, three-times Grand Slam tennis champion and much-admired young Australian First Nations woman, has excelled at tennis (obviously!) and also cricket. I suspect she would shine in any sport she chose to try.

    Apart from her amazing sports success, Ash has earned admiration for her positivity and kindness, both on and off the court and playing field. She has become a role model and her example is a shining light for aspiring sports players of all ages.

    Who can forget the look of unalloyed surprise and joy when Ash was presented the 2022 Australian Open winner’s trophy by none other than her own role model and Australian tennis legend, Wiradjuri woman Evonne Goolagong-Cawley?

    After her retirement from professional tennis this year, Ash has moved on to other endeavours, including collaboration in a new series of books for young readers called Little Ash, featuring her own younger self in various adventures that children will relate to. The settings are at school, and various children’s sports activities.

    The little books are perfect for early readers, light and easy to hold in little hands with very short chapters and lots of black and white illustrations throughout.

    Co-authored with Jasmin McGaughey (a young author with Torres Strait Islander and African American heritage) and illustrated by Jade Goodwin (who has Gamilaraay heritage), this book series is a welcome addition to books for children and young adults by First Nations authors and illustrators.

    The first four books in the Little Ash series are published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in July 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for review copies.

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

    Gentle introduction to dementia for kids: ‘Dancing with Memories’ by Sally Yule & Cheryl Orsini

    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.
    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.

    Dancing with Memories

    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.

  • Books and reading

    A slice of Australian life: ‘The Secret World of Connie Starr’ by Robbi Neal

    The Secret World of Connie Starr is a sweeping story of one Australian town, Ballarat, during a thirteen year period encompassing World War II and its immediate aftermath.

    It’s also the story of Connie, a child whose mother knew she was different – and difficult – from the moment of her birth. She sees (and speaks to) angels and demons, and she knows that the world is engaged in a ‘long, long war of good and bad.’ (p.436)

    Connie grows up with her parents, Joseph (a strict and devout Baptist minister), her mother Flora, and step-siblings Thom, Lydia and Danny, and alongside their friends and neighbours, many of whose stories are intertwined with her own.

    The book is written with an ‘omniscient author’ point of view, which allows the reader to engage with the experiences of each of the main characters alongside the broad canvas of the town and the sweep of world events. There are tragedies, loves and dramas; as elsewhere the onset of war means loss and despair for some, while for others it means escape of sorts, from mistakes or from an otherwise tedious life.

    Connie is not an especially likeable character, but the novel is an exploration of difference: individual differences as well as seismic events that can change lives forever:

    ‘I don’t know where I’ll be sent next,’ he said, and the urgency of their world, the shortness of their lives, filled their lungs and they breathed deeply and thought it was their only chance to step into the future.’

    The Secret World of Connie Starr p262

    I appreciated the vivacity of the details in the book: wartime rationing, work and home lives, church activities, the devastation of illnesses like polio which are rarely thought of today in Australia, shortages of goods, and even the drudgery of postwar life with many missing husbands and sons and a loss of faith for so many.

    Ms Neal has spent most of her life in country Victoria and lives in Ballarat, so the setting is particularly evocative, imbued with her own life experiences along with historical research. Some of the details made me smile in recognition, having grown up in country Australia in the 1960’s where many older traditions persisted: exploding ginger beer bottles in the shed, for example.

    The Secret Life of Connie Starr is a beautiful book: both broad and specific, similar to the ways in which Tim Winton’s Australian classic Cloudstreet is simultaneously both a sweeping saga and a slice of Australian family life.
    It is published by Harper Collins in June 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Celebrities, family, paparazzi – and murder: ‘An A-List for Death’ by Pamela Hart

    When reading crime fiction series where the protagonist is not a detective or police officer, you must suspend disbelief: after all, how many murders can one ordinary person reasonably expect to encounter in a lifetime? Fortunately, when a series features characters like Poppy McGowan, it’s such a pleasure to spend time in their company that the ‘who-done-it’ mystery is really an added bonus.

    An A-List for Death is the second in the Poppy novels by best selling Aussie author Pamela Hart (who also writes for children as Pamela Freeman). The first, Digging Up Dirt, saw Poppy dealing with a murder that took place in her being-renovated home in Sydney’s Annandale.

    In this new book, Poppy and Tol’s relationship has moved along, though they face a long period of separation as Tol prepares to spend time in Jordan on an important archaeological dig. The murder this time occurs in the retirement unit complex of Poppy’s delightful Aunty Mary, and Mary’s old and dear friend Daisy.

    Poppy is drawn into the drama and soon finds herself dealing with police, an unpleasant building manager, and paparazzi; the last because Daisy is attacked in her unit – and her son just happens to be a world famous rock star.

    The title is a clever play on the idea of celebrity culture and the ‘A List’ of wealthy, famous and beautiful people. There are plenty of sly digs at the role of social and mainstream media in the publicity circus that occurs when a A-Lister hits the headlines. This time, Poppy herself becomes embroiled in the media feeding frenzy.

    Murder is serious, of course; but there are plenty of chuckle moments, as in the first Poppy novel, juxtaposed against the police work and the serious stuff:

    I read over my statement, nicely printed out, and corrected the punctuation before I signed it. Whoever had typed this up had a tortured relationship with commas. When I saw the way Martin was scowling at me, I guessed it was him, and I was very proud of myself for not winding him up about it.

    An A-List for Death p188

    My favourite bit in the novel is towards the end, when a city-wide search is instigated for a missing man, utilising the power of social media. It captures the quintessential Australian-ness – specifically, Sydney-ness – of the novel’s setting beautifully:

    The longer it went on, the more it seemed like a party – people on the street on a nice night, everyone working together. A couple of guys set up a sausage sizzle near one of the camera crews. Fundraising for the local soccer club. Of course. Where five or more Australians gather, there shall be a Sausage Sizzle. It may even be a law.
    Within minutes, #suasagesizzlesearch had started trending.

    An A-List for Death p273

    If you love Sulari Gentill’s Rowland Sinclair series, or Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher, you’ll be pleased to discover the Poppy McGowan stories. I enjoyed An A-List for Death enormously and look forward to reading the next Poppy novel.

    An A-List for Death is published by HarperCollins in June 2022.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A gripping true tale: ‘Three Sheets to the Wind’ by Adam Courtenay

    Three Sheets to the Wind is a re-telling of the amazing true story of shipwrecked sailors who, in 1796, walked 600 miles through uncharted territory from the far southeast coast of Australia, almost to Sydney Town, before being rescued.

    Adam Courtenay has placed this event in the historical and social contexts of its time: a new (and struggling) colony on the edge of the known world, run by a succession of English governors who tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to weaken the firm hold over its economy by the group of military officers known as the ‘Rum Corps.’

    Alternating chapters allow the reader to follow the voyage of the ship Sydney Cove from its origins in Calcutta, to its wreck just off Tasmania. Its cargo was purely commercial: goods to be sold at a profit to the settlers in New South Wales – and most prized of all was the alcohol loaded into the ship’s hold, especially the 7,000 gallons of rum. This liquor had become an unofficial currency in the colony, to the detriment of all aspects of daily life, and its trade was monopolised by the Rum Corps, despite official efforts to discourage and/or control its import and sale.

    You may have read Rum by Matt Murphy, published in 2021. If so, you will know the network of corruption and cronyism that the control and sale of this liquor encouraged and enabled.

    Into this heady environment, Campbell & Clark, the Scottish owners of the Sydney Cove sent their cargo, hoping for a tidy profit and to establish a trading presence in the colony. The monetary value of the alcohol helps to explain why the ship’s master, Hamilton, and the ‘supercargo’ (responsible for its safe delivery) William Clark, went to such lengths to preserve the cargo when the ship foundered.

    Courtenay gives us gripping account of the shipwrecks – plural, because after escaping the sinking ship in the longboat, the crew endured a second wreck while crossing Bass Strait, the often turbulent stretch of water that divides mainland Australia with the smaller island of Tasmania. (Keep in mind that at this point in time, Europeans did not know for sure if Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then called, was an island or if it was joined to the mainland. They were literally in uncharted waters, because even the renowned English explorer and cartographer James Cook had not thoroughly investigated this area on his earlier voyage.

    Seventeen survivors set out on the trek north to Sydney. They were a mix of European and Indian-born sailors, known as ‘lascars’. (The treatment of the lascars by the Europeans is a story in itself.) The journey was recorded by Clark in a pocket notebook he carried with him. Gradually the seventeen became seven, then reduced further until only three were finally rescued just south of Sydney.

    What is most notable about this story, I think, is the account by Clark of the group’s interactions with the First Nations people they encountered along the way. They passed through the country of at least six Indigenous clans and experienced both generous assistance and firm warnings from them. If it had not been for the local people, the travelers would have died from starvation or exposure many times. They were given food, shown shortcuts, and sometimes helped across rivers on canoes. On other occasions, though:

    Clark soon realised their actions were a warning to keep off certain tracts of land – they were not there to kill the foreigners but rather to protect their country. Clark and his men weren’t being guided through these lands: they were being forcibly marched through them.

    Three Sheets to the Wind p184

    There is much to both admire and deplore about this story. The party of sailors demonstrated enormous personal courage and strength to endure the trials they were subjected to. Clark’s account appears to hint at his changing view of the First Australians he met: from ‘barbarous hordes’ to generous and kind individuals. The observations by Clark and others of numerous seal colonies and plentiful seams of coal instigated the environmental disasters of the sealing, whaling and coal mining industries. And the voyage and subsequent trek north inspired more exploration, by George Bass and Mathew Flinders, among others – which both opened up more territory for the settlers and spelt the end of the sovereignty and sustainable lifestyles of First Australians.

    Three Sheets to the Wind is a detailed and thought provoking account of an amazing story from our history. And I love the clever title: three sheets to the wind being a nautical term that also alludes to drunkenness.

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