• 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.

  • Books and reading

    Family snapshots: ‘A Country of Eternal Light’ by Paul Dalgarno

    Reading this novel felt rather like flipping through a pile of family photo albums, with a member of that family sitting beside you and explaining the snapshots as you go.

    The person doing the explaining in the book is the protagonist, Margaret Byrne: estranged from her husband Harry, mother of adult twin daughters, loving grandmother to two little boys – and deceased since 2014.

    Margaret takes the reader through her memories, in no particular order, encompassing her childhood and youth in Aberdeen, Scotland, her years as wife and mother, her daughters’ grown-up lives and families in Australia and Spain, her diagnosis with cancer in 2012, subsequent treatment, and her death.

    She is, it seems, condemned to be an onlooker as events play out, those at which she was alive and present, and others where she is a mere observer. She is a wry, humorous commentator, all too aware of her own foibles and weaknesses and those of others. Especially after her death, when she longs to kiss or hold her grandsons, or speak to her daughters, but is obstructed by her lack of – well, a body or voice.

    The narrative is like a stream of consciousness, the sort that could very well occur as photos prompt reminiscences and anecdotes. Once I grew accustomed to the style of the novel, I found it delightful.

    There are reflections on family, living and dying: on children, change and growth, along with episodes that she would much rather forget:

    It’s amazing how completely you can block things out when you want or need to, and how deeply people can take this to heart… I felt ambushed – not by Rachel and not in that moment, but my preconceptions of her over the years, the sense that my instincts had been held repeatedly and unknowingly to ransom by my motherly myopia. I felt guilty for not seeing Rachel for what she was, blindsided and blind by my beautiful daughter.

    A Country of Eternal Light p186-187

    There are references to events that occurred after Margaret’s death: the Black Summer bushfires in Australia in the summer of 2019, for example, and the Covid pandemic soon after. Her bewilderment at observing people walking outside wearing face masks was a nice touch: we are so accustomed to this sight now, but what would an alien from Mars have made of Earthlings during the pandemic, I wonder?

    The single thing I did not like about this novel was the profound twist at the end, which (in the interests of not being a plot spoiler, I won’t divulge.) On reflection, I think it was there to make a point about the fragility of memory, and the different ways in which humans cope with grief.

    A Country of Eternal Light is essentially a book about vulnerability. I found it to be an immersive and thought-provoking novel, with vividly drawn character and settings, evocative prose, and moments of humour, sweetness and melancholy.

    A Country of Eternal Light is published by Fourth Estate in February 2023.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books

    ‘Mothball’ turns twenty! ‘Diary of a Rescued Wombat’ by Jackie French & Bruce Whatley

    Australian children born in the past twenty years (and their parents) will be very familiar with the series of Wombat books, written by Jackie French and beautifully illustrated by Bruce Whately.

    They are all about the simple life and loves of Mothball; a round, cuddly wombat who loves sleeping, digging, eating grass and carrots (not necessarily in that order.)

    These hugely popular picture books introduce youngsters to one of Australia’s most loved marsupials. The text and story lines invite recognition, while the illustrations evoke an emotional response despite the books’ apparent simplicity.

    The latest book tells the story of how Mothball first came into Jackie French’s life (and books.) She was a ‘rescued’ wombat, one of many native animals given a second chance at life after a disaster kills the parent. Sometimes that is bushfire, frequently it is roadkill. Many Australians volunteer with WIRES or other animal rescue services to raise and nurture orphaned young until they are independent. Here’s a short video from the ABC, showing volunteers doing their thing.

    So, Mothball was a rescue wombat before she became a literary star!

    Fans of the Wombat series will love hearing Mothball’s ‘back story’; the book is also a perfect way to introduce her to new readers. It is, as well, a beautiful tribute to those many volunteers who give so much to preserve Australia’s unique fauna.

    Diary of a Rescued Wombat: The Untold Story is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in
    November 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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,  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.