#AWW2017 Review – The Spare Room by Kathryn Lomer

the-spare-room

A couple of years ago I saw Kathryn Lomer in conversation with Cate Kennedy, a fantastic conversation about writing that encouraged me to buy at least one book by each of these fantastic authors. I bought ‘talk under water’ by Kathryn, and loved it, so I was really looking forward to reading this one, and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Spare Room is a beautiful story. Nineteen year old Akira has ben sent to Australia by his very stern, (an as Akira puts it himself) ‘very Japanese’ father.  The plan is that Akira will learn English and will then be able to take over the international arm of his father’s company. But Akira has desires and plans of his own, and his time in Australia shows him that he can have a life outside of his father’s plans.

But there is another story here too. Akira has lost his closest friend, Satoshi, who could not take the pressure of his own father’s expectations. In Australia, there is something off about Akira’s host family. As time goes on Akira learns that they too have suffered their own loss, and to begin with at least, Akira’s presence is not helping the situation.

I love the way Kathryn expresses the struggle of learning a foreign language:

“You often want to say something entirely different but you are limited to the vocabulary you know and you have to try and construct something from the little that you have. A bit like trying to make a salad when you only have braising vegetables, or trying to build a boat using nails. You get kind of warped into the shape of the words you know. There is a big gap between what you think and what you say. It would be a long time before I felt that the real me, the one with ideas and opinions and funny stories to tell, could find his way out again. For a while that person was trapped inside a new language.”

(Sometimes I feel this way with English too… except English is my first language.)

This is a lovely story, of how complete strangers can help each other heal, and how facing our fears often helps us overcome them.

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#AWW2016 Review – Flywheel by Erin Gough

Flywheel

 

I first heard of The Flywheel at the Tamar Valley Writers Festival earlier this year. Author Erin Gough spoke about her experiences discovering her sexuality as a teenager. Attending an all girls school she had never ever heard of anyone who was gay – it wasn’t mentioned at school – there was not even any teasing, and she’d never come across gay characters in any of the books she read. She assumed that the only reason she liked girls was because she didn’t know any boys, or at least, not well enough to develop a crush on.

She wrote this because she wanted other young gay girls out there (and guys too I guess) :), to be able to see themselves in fiction – to learn that they are normal, that there are others out there just like themselves.

I loved The Flywheel, it really is such a sweet story.

Delilah is 17 years old, and gay. It’s the universal high school story – misplaced crushes and the embarrassment that stems from the world finding out – but there’s a twist – the popular girl Delilah has a crush on likes her back, but is not confident enough to admit to the world she’s gay, let alone she’s attracted to one of the uncool kids.

Struggling with the taunts after popular-girl’s friends find out and believe the attraction is all one-sided, Delilah decides to ditch school for a bit and focus on the family cafe she’s supposed to be running while her father is away. This also gives her more time to spy on her newest crush, the beautiful Rosa, who dances flamenco at the tapas bar across the road.

This is such a well written story – and I’m sure totally relatable to anyone who has ever attended high school, regardless of their sexuality. Highly recommended! 🙂

#AWW2016 Review – A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald by Natasha Lester #kissfitz

#kissfitz

I’ve been a follower of Natasha Lester’s blog for some time now – she always has fantastic information for writers – even before I’d read any of her novels! I think I fell in love with ‘A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald’ from the moment I first read about it, and I certainly was not disappointed.

‘A Kiss from Mr Fitzgerald’ is a break from Natasha’s previous publications which were both more literary: ‘What is Left Over, After’ and ‘If I Should Lose You’. (I haven’t read ‘What is Left Over, After’, but I loved ‘If I Should Lose You’ – it reminded me very much of Jodi Picoult’s novels).

#kissfitz (as the twitter hashtag goes), is a historical romance set in 1920’s New York [think Great Gatsby], but it’s not your average romance either. Evie is coming of age in a time where it’s still the accepted thing for young women to marry and stay home with their needle-work. But Evie wants something more – in fact, at a time when Universities were only just opening their doors to female students, she wants to study medicine.  Unfortunately her family and intended fiance, Charles Whitman will not abide by it. Luckily she has a supporter in Charles’ mother, and she soon finds support from another, rather unexpected source.

This is a beautiful book, and such a well-written story! Highly recommended, I was hooked right from the start!

#AWW2016 Review – Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko

Mullumbimby

 

“Circles protect you, if you let them, girl. But you gotta let ’em. Gotta not get in their way.”

After a divorce, Jo has enough cash to go halves in 20 acres of land with her brother, land that is located in the valley where her Indigenous ancestors once lived. She sets about rebuilding her life: raising a thirteen year old daughter alone, and working at the local cemetery mowing lawns and trimming shrubs.

“Spend enough time among the silent majority, Jo discovered, and you found yourself worrying less about tomorrow, and more about today. There are so many tomorrows, after all. How could a person keep track of them all?”

She recalls conversations from her Auntie, who tried to teach her the ways of the land and the spirits, and particularly of dadirri, a way of deep listening. But just as things seem to be falling into place for her, who should turn up but a hot, dark-skinned, dreadlocked fellow by the name of Twoboy. The attraction is mutual, and Jo learns that Twoboy has put in a native title claim for the land along the valley where her home is. Though Twoboy grew up in Queensland his great-grandfather  belonged to the Bundjalung nation, the Valley where Jo’s property is located. The trouble is, Twoboy has competition from local Indigenous folk who did grow up in the area (though their ancestors were from other Aboriginal nations), and who are doing everything in their power to block Twoboy’s claims.

This was such a beautiful story about love, and triumph over adversity, and finding help in the most unexpected of places.

#AWW2016 Review -‘Meet Marly’ and ‘Marly’s Business’ by Alice Pung

Meet Marly

I’m reviewing something a little different this week.

Meet Marly, and Marly’s Business, by Alice Pung, are middle-grade fiction (actually, I noticed on the publisher’s website they are listed as ‘historical’ fiction – hmm… I realise 1983 was in the past, but ‘historical’? I was around in 1983… makes me feel ancient!)

These two books are the first in a series of four, belonging to the ‘Our Australian Girl’ series from Penguin Random House Australia. They follow the life of 10 year old Marly, a refugee from Vietnam, and the struggles she has in trying to fit in at school, when home life is so different to that of her class mates.
Marly's BusinessMy daughter received the first three of these books for her birthday (the third is ‘Marly and the Goat’ and I see the fourth: Marly walks on the Moon is due out at the end of this month – what perfect timing!), and every night we’ve been reading half a chapter or so each (except last night – last night we were so keen to find out what happened in ‘Marly’s Business’ we read the entire last half of the book!)

It’s been a great way to give my daughter not only an example of another culture, but also discuss the differences between growing up now and growing up 30 years ago.

These books are a great read, and certainly have kept me entertained as we work our way through the series. Highly recommended – especially if you have children around that age you can read them with! 🙂

 

#AWW2016 Review – Bantam by Terry Whitebeach

Bantam

Mick is an 18 year old Indigenous man living in the small town of Bantam. He’s just moved out of home and is struggling to find work, a decent place to live, and a girlfriend.

I’ve never read anything quite like this book. Written for those “whose reading skills are dodgy, or even absent, but whose hopes and dreams are as significant as everybody else’s and whose story is just as worth telling” Terry’s writing style is light-heartened, easy to read and enjoyable, and there were lots of things that gave me a chuckle:

“Back in the ute, they bump along the track to visit Rob, a spun-out Vietnam vet who lives up here on the hill. Rob’s been building a crazy house out of booze bottles and concrete and galvanised iron for the last twenty years.

He’s a head case. Drinks himself legless every night. Has to, he reckons, so he doesn’t run out of building materials.”

But the novel doesn’t shy away from the deeper issues facing Indigenous people, such as youth suicide, deaths in custody, discrimination and domestic violence.

Though Mick and his mates go through all the ups and downs of life out on their own; the struggles with girlfriends, finding a place to live, and the adventures of small town life -the story ends in a good place for Mick.

“He imagines for a moment he’s going to say something special, something big, like poetry, or the Bible, but the words don’t come. Somehow it doesn’t matter. They’re there, deep in his belly, and on the wind and in the air and glinting on the scales of the salmon.”

 

 

 

#AWW2016 Review – My Year Without Matches – Claire Dunn

So I’ve fallen in love with this book, and the adventure behind it.

My Year without Matches

It’s a memoir; Claire’s experiences living in the bush for 12 months in a wilderness survival program. With her tribe of 5 others (also taking part in the program) as well as organisers Kate and Sam, and a variety of other ‘elders’ – those who come to lead workshops and teach Claire and her tribe some of the finer details of living on the land: bird watching, basket weaving, pottery making, tanning hides – Claire  navigates not only the outer landscape of her new home, but also the inner landscapes of her emotions.

“Its not being alone that worries me, but the company I keep sometimes when I am alone: the characters who come out to play in the empty rooms of solitude, the shadow walkers within.” (p.160)

Following Claire’s tale fills me with the urge to head out to my own trees, my own wilderness. I’m lucky in a lot of ways – home, at the moment, is a four-acre block, about half of which is bush, and surrounded mostly by bush. The neighbours are not too far away, but not visible either. Unlike Claire who lived in Sydney prior to her escape into the wilderness, I have my own bush, literally at my backdoor, and I find myself wondering how I can duplicate her experiences, here.

But it’s not only her experiences I want to emulate, I’d love to be able to write as she does, too. Her descriptions are so crisp, so clear: “a wisp of campfire smoke, curling….”, “palest of pink dawn skies…”, “Amber spreads in an arc across the horizon as the first star appears”. Beautiful. I know this is a weakness in my own work – the lack of description, something to think about in the next polish of my manuscript.

There were so many things worth reading in Claire’s book, but I’ll leave you with two thoughts:

“Survival is violent. It demands blood and bark, burning the flesh of trees and animals alike. In the city it is hidden under packaging and buffered by distance…Here it is in my face: ugly, raw, and real. A letter arrived from a friend the other day. He asked me what I was giving back to the land. Perhaps it is this, the willingness to confront the violence that supports my life.” p. 140

and…

“The fire gives off a large crack. Mark [a local Gumbaynggirr guide] stops, a serious look coming over his round face. “What you’re doing out here is important. We gotta keep the old ways alive, and it’s not just up to blackfellas anymore. We gotta get back to Mother Earth.”… In an ideal world, Mark would stay and hold our hands as we learn to walk the old ways. He would be our bridge, passing on the customs and gestures appropriate for this land… [Because] the world needs a new  dance more than ever. It needs people who feel so inextricably linked to the Earth that to damage or destroy it is akin to ransacking the family home.” (pp. 66-67)

In a way, this latter quote is what my novel is about – learning the ways of the land from those who knew it best. Fingers crossed I’ve managed to achieve that.

 

 

 

 

#AWW2016 Review – Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven

Heat and Light

I got to hear Ellen van Neerven speak about her book, as well as many other issues faced by Indigenous people today, at the Tamar Valley Writers Festival just a few weeks ago.

Though Ellen’s book, ‘Heat and Light’, is presented as a collection of short stories, she said many people see it as a novel. It’s comprised of three sections – the first two are longer stories following the same story – though the first section it is told by many different characters, while the second follows one character in particular – followed by a collection of shorter tales in the third section of the book.

While I enjoyed all of the stories (though I did get a little frustrated at an unfinished storyline in the last part of the book), it was the second part,  ‘Water’ that really struck a chord with me. Set sometime in the future, this story tells of Kaden, a young Aboriginal woman  who has been employed to liase with the ‘Sandplants’ or ‘Plantpeople’, a recently discovered species of plant that has many human characteristics, including human-like faces, and the ability to unroot themselves from the soil and walk around. Kaden’s job is to convince these plantpeople to give up the islands that are their homes, so that the land can be remade into a new home for Aboriginal people whose land was taken from them. Seen as plants, and therefore not human, the company that employs Kaden, along with many others, do not see the problem in removing these beings from their home.

But as Kaden gets to know the plantpeople in general, and one in particular, she sees that they are more than just plants, and ends up in a relationship with one.

At the festival, Ellen had a bit to say about this story. Many say it is fantasy, speculative, a myth. ‘Speculative’ is a word Eleen was happy with, for the story speculates a possible future, but as she points out, ‘myth’ is a convenient word when discussing Aboriginal stories. It is a word that suggests old, ancient stories. But the stories of the Aboriginal people are held in the land, they’re still there, they’ve always been there. And (I’m aware I’m generalising here, I hope I can be forgiven) the spirits of these stories are as real to the Aboriginal people who hold those stories as they’ve ever been.

I really cannot recommend this book enough, and I desperately hope Ellen is writing more along the lines of her ‘Water’ story. I’ll certainly be keeping my eye out for more of her work.

#AWW2016 Review: Purple Threads by Jeanine Leane

Purple threads

 

 “I couldn’t tell them I wanted to be white then. But if I was white I’d see myself everywhere. In the classroom, when I opened up a book or looked at a picture. In the crowded playground, laughing, skipping and jumping between elastics. Down the main street in town. Or on the movie screen. I’d not stand out from the rest. But … Black? Too hard. Too ugly. Too different.”

It’s every child’s worst nightmare – to be different, picked on by the other kids at school, out of place. It leads so many children to change themselves, pretend to be like everyone else, hide their differences.

But what if you can’t hide the thing that makes you different? What if its the colour of your skin? And what if being picked on and singled out continues beyond the school years and throughout adulthood?

This is the experience of Sunny and her sister, Star, raised by their Nan and Aunties, who are constantly on the alert; cautious of the police who may come to take the children away, all too aware of how easy it might be to loose everything simply due to prejudice and bigotry.

There was so much to love about this story (despite my somewhat depressing opening here) :); the fantastic relationship between Sunny and her Nan and Aunties;  and Petal, the mother who comes and goes, and behaves more like a teenage sister than a mother, most times. Reading this story was like listening to my grandparents yarn about the old days, and as with them I learnt a bit of history while I was at it, including the shameful ‘forgetting’ of two Aboriginal men; Yarri and Jacky-Jacky,  who saved residents of Gundagai during a heavy flood, and received absolutely no reward or recognition for it, while the ‘Dog on the Tuckerbox’ has a statue all his own.

 

 

 

#aww2016 Tangara by Nan Chauncy

Tangara

 

If you’re a ‘liker’ of my Facebook Page, you would have seen the post last month about discovering ‘Tangara’ by Nan Chauncy in a box of books my grandmother gave me.

I posted at the time:

So my grandmother was clearing out some books and gave me two boxes full! In amongst the treasures I discovered ‘Tangara’ by Nan Chauncy. What a wonderful tale – a young white girl comes across a band of Aborigines living in the wilds of the Great Western Tiers cir. 1960’s and makes friends with one of the Aboriginal girls!

Now I’m still only part way through, so no spoilers please (though I have a sneaking suspicion the Aborigines are ghosts?? Praying I’m wrong, but still a good story even if that turns out to be the case.)

Now I’m still not going to give away any spoilers as to whether my hunches were right or not, but safe to say this is a fantastic story. There’s something ageless about the writing, something easy-to-read about it despite the fact it was published in 1960, and I really appreciated reading about so many places familiar to me – the Great Western Tiers for instance, an impressive mountain range stretching across the north coast of Tasmania, not too far from where I live.

Growing up I thought there were no books set in Tasmania, I thought my dream to be a published author was perhaps a bit of a long shot. Perhaps if I’d discovered Nan Chauncy’s books earlier (she has several others based in Tasmania, including ‘Mathinna’s People’, and ‘Tiger in the Bush’), my dream might not have felt so unattainable for so long.