The Boy From the Mish


I was very happy to see Gary Lanesborough's debut YA novel, The Boy from the Mish, appear on the recent CBCA Notable Books list for 2021. This is exactly the kind of book we need more of, an own-voices story told with humour, insight and deep inner knowledge.

The 'boy' of the title is seventeen year old Jackson and he spends his days hanging out with friends and cousins, on the 'Mish' (old Mission) and in the country town nearby. When his aunty comes to visit, she brings a gang of young cousins to overrun the house, but also another visitor, Tomas, who has been in and out of trouble with the law his whole life. While Jackson has a loving extended family behind him, Tomas has had to struggle alone; but the two boys have something in common, at first a secret, then gradually revealed.

This is a partly a sweet, shy and sexy queer love story, partly a story about fear and being yourself, partly a story about finding who that 'self' is. The story moves along at a gentle pace but some of the most moving and interesting episodes are when the boys go out into the bush, out onto country, with the older men and Tomas connects to his Aboriginal heritage for the first time; Tomas and Jackson working together on a graphic novel with an Indigenous superhero; and their tentatively unfolding romance. The Boy From the Mish is a great start, and I look forward to seeing what Gary Lonesborough does next.

(Side note: auto correct does NOT like the word 'Mish' -- it's 'corrected' it to wish, fish and mist!)


Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race

 I'm still trying to play catch up with my reading reports -- I'm gulping down books at the moment, and more are arriving from the library every day, so I can't afford to let the pace slacken.

I've been meaning to read Reni Eddo-Lodge's seminal work on racism, 2017's Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race, for a long time, until it finally occurred to me to borrow it from the library. Having libraries offline during lockdown temporarily paralysed my library muscles, I think; but now I'm back. But the way I use the library has completely changed. I used to go in every couple of weeks and browse the shelves for titles that caught my eye; now I'm almost exclusively a reserver. If I hear a radio interview, or see a Twitter reference, or an awards shortlist, I jump onto the library site and put it on my list. I currently have six books out on loan and eleven reserves -- can I possibly keep up??

But back to Reni Eddo-Lodge. This is a short but powerful polemic, fired with anger and frustration about the slow pace of change and the blissful oblivion of those who benefit from systemic racism, ie white people, ie people like me. I have really had my eyes opened in the last ten years or so, since I began working on Crow Country, really, and I wonder if I had known then what I know now whether I would even dare to embark on a project like that. For years I had the privilege of being able to move through the world, almost completely ignorant of the ways I benefitted from Aboriginal dispossession, slavery, and ongoing embedded racism. 

I'm not going to give my white interpretation of the vital points that Eddo-Lodge makes (mostly from a Black UK perspective), but I will urge you to read this important work. It's punchy, furious, impatient, incisive, personal... and essential.


Fragrant Harbour

 John Lanchester seems to enjoy telling stories in multiple voices. He used this technique to great effect in Capital, which swung between about a dozen different points of view to explore various lives in a single street in London, and he also uses it in Fragrant Harbour to tell the history of another city, this time Hong Kong.

At the beginning of this novel, I thought I wasn't going to enjoy it at all. It opens with a narrative from a journalist called Dawn Stone, who talks us through the career twists and turns that end with her winding up in Hong Kong in the 1990s (pre-handover): it's all designer clothes and business gossip and money and yacht parties and all pretty tedious really. Luckily the second, longest section is much more engaging, taking us further back in time with the voice of Tom Stewart, who sails out to Hong Kong in the 1930s and ends up managing a grand hotel. I found his story, including his friendship with Chinese nun Sister Maria, really interesting and I wish the whole novel had focused on the two of them. There is another shorter bookend to finish off the novel, this time dealing with another contemporary character, and these four lives are intertwined in sometimes quite implausible ways.

Overall I did enjoy Fragrant Harbour and learned something about Hong Kong's history, including the horrors of wartime (which were apparently much morose than described here) which is an area I don't know much about. It was really poignant reading about this vibrant, unique city, knowing how hard the government is now clamping down on their former freedoms -- it really seems like a different world. And I've just realised this is another novel with an Asian flavour -- just a coincidence!


Black and Blue


I think I've recovered my reading mojo. During the last couple of years, in and out of lockdown, clouded with Covid anxiety, my instinct was to bunker down and wrap myself in comfort reading -- books I'd read before, childhood favourites, messages of loving hope like Elizabeth Goudge, or pure entertainment like Jill Paton Walsh's Peter Wimsey novels.

But suddenly I find myself with the mental strength and curiosity for some stronger fare: hence I've been reading some fresh new children's and YA fiction, and some more challenging non-fiction. Black and Blue definitely falls into the latter category.

Veronica Gorrie's memoir is divided into two sections. Black deals with her childhood and youth in an Aboriginal family, the impacts of racism, intergenerational trauma and abuse, as well as deep love and connection. In Blue, Gorrie tells of her ten years in the police force. She joined hoping to help change the way her people viewed the police, but ended by realising that she would first have to change the way the police view her community. The stories she tells of cultural discrimination are deeply disturbing, sobering and dismaying for anyone who hopes that things are getting better.

Gorrie has an easy, conversational style, leavened with moments of humour and wisdom which help the reader to swallow the darker episodes. This is such a painful story, I had to break it into small sections and read it slowly, but alongside the catalogue of loss and trauma there is also much love and loyalty. Black and Blue is an essential read for anyone trying to understand race relations in Australia, confronting but enlightening.

EDIT: I didn't realise till yesterday that Black and Blue had been awarded the Victorian Premier's Award for Literature! Congratulations, Veronica!


Tiger Daughter


 The Gaps, A Glasshouse of Stars, Fly on the Wall, Tiger Daughter -- recently I have read a number of children's and YA books by Asian-Australian authors. This wasn't intentional, it's just happened by chance (I also have Alice Pung's One Hundred Days on reserve at the library), but it turns out that they are an outstanding cohort (Leanne Hall, Shirley Marr, Remi Lai and Rebecca Lim respectively).

Tiger Daughter tells a small but deeply moving story about grief, friendship and courage. Wen Zhou feels stuck, trapped inside the rigid boundaries enforced by her strict father. But when tragedy strikes her best friend Henry, Wen finds the strength to reach out and help, and before long this strength spreads to her mother, too. The bond between Wen and her mother and the alliance they form against her abusive father is the foundation of the book, and though the story is simple, it's very powerful.

Tiger Daughter deals with big problems -- mental illness, domestic violence, suicide -- but the remedies turn out to be deceptively small but meaningful: the gift of a meal, the courage to speak up, a message of compassion. This is a terrific book with a message of hope that deserves the awards and shortlistings that it has already won, and will probably attract in the future. 


The Dictionary of Lost Words


Pip Williams' 2020 debut novel, The Dictionary of Lost Words, has a wonderful premise. Taking the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary as its background, Williams explores a parallel collection of words -- women's words -- overlooked or censored by the male academics in charge of building their collection. Literally and figuratively, Esme gathers her own volume of words, picking up lost and discarded words from under the table where the scholars work, listening in the streets and markets, treasuring the words of the suffragettes she befriends.


Women bonded by a shared political goal; comrades.

'Sisters, thank you for joining the fight.'    

                                                    Tilda Taylor, 1906

It's a fascinating idea to build a novel around. I'm sure I've read somewhere (though I can't track it down) about some countries or cultures where women do have a complete and separate parallel language -- maybe that's true, maybe it isn't. But it's definitely true, or was true a hundred years ago, that women use language differently, that they have their own experiences of life that demand their own words to describe them.

The process of compiling the dictionary turned out to be a much bigger project than anyone anticipated when it was begun, which means that the story of Esme's life, which runs alongside the gestation of the dictionary, moves quite slowly, though it's a thought-provoking and enjoyable journey. (I definitely enjoyed this novel a lot more than The Surgeon of Crowthorne, perhaps the most famous book about the making of the Oxford dictionary but one I found too long and unexpectedly dull.)




Wow. I had heard about Tara Westover's memoir, Educated, but I had no idea it was going to be such a remarkable, brutal and exhilarating ride. In clear, calm prose, Westover describes growing up in her fundamentalist Mormon family: her uncompromising, paranoid father; her volatile, violent brother; her midwife mother who begins a business supplying homeopathic remedies and essential oils; her other siblings, some of whom escape from the valley and others who choose to stay loyal.

Some of the elements of Westover's story are extreme -- her father probably lives with bipolar disorder, is convinced of the coming Apocalypse, and believes that all western medicine is literally poison; almost all her siblings at some time or other suffer serious injuries working in their father's junkyard without any safety precautions; the children are 'homeschooled' in theory but in practice are self-schooled. But the heart of the story is an all too ordinary family drama -- a domineering father figure who browbeats the rest of the family into submission, conflicted loyalties, love and anger, attempted rebellions which are sometimes successful and which sometimes backfire horrifically.

Educated is a compulsive page turner, not just in a misery-memoir, how-bad-can-this-get way, but for the determined struggle of Westover herself to break free from the shackles of her upbringing. It's also an enlightening exposure of the way a whole community of people truly believe that any government regulation or intervention in their lives can only be evil, the way they honestly value 'freedom' above all else, whatever its cost. It's terrifying but in its own way, educational.


The Monster of Her Age


I recently had the great pleasure of meeting Danielle Binks in person, but embarrassed myself by not having read her latest book, a YA novel this time. I've now remedied this situation and am pleased to report that The Monster of Her Age is just as enjoyable as The Year the Maps Changed, though they are very different stories.

This time the setting is contemporary Hobart, but in a parallel universe where Australia has a grand film-making tradition equivalent to Hollywood's Golden Age. Ellie Marsden (surely a nod to Tomorrow When the War Began?) is a member of the Lovinger acting dynasty, but she was damaged by her experience as a child actor in a horror movie years before (think of Linda Blair's experience in The Exorcist). Now her famous, beloved, but unforgiven grandmother is dying, and as the family gathers to say goodbye, Ellie confronts her past -- and comes to glimpse a new future.

There is so much to love about this novel: the Hobart setting, the grand old family mansion (alas, fictional, though its location is real), the appeal of horror movies (which, like Ellie, I've never really understood, but this book helped me to see the attraction!), complex family dynamics and a lovely queer romance. It's a rich and gorgeous mix of elements that makes for a rewarding read.


The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and His Ex

Recently I watched the super SBS documentary series Framed, hosted by Mark Fennell, which told the story of the mysterious 1986 theft of Picasso's Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria. I was in my second year of uni at the time and distracted by more pressing matters involving boys and alcohol, but it really is a bizarre story, and the thieves have never been found.

I remembered that I had Gabrielle William's 2015 YA novel, The Guy, The Girl, The Artist and his Ex on one of my to-read piles so I fished it out and thoroughly enjoyed it. Williams weaves her own fictional account of the theft, involving a disgruntled artist, a scheming art dealer and an inside contact in the form of a gallery cleaner who procures the 'special screwdriver' to unscrew the painting from the wall -- something which incidentally, Framed suggested wouldn't have actually been necessary. But Williams' story also draws in a couple of teenagers, a single mother, a near-drowning in the Yarra, and mental illness. I loved the grounded inner Melbourne setting (South Yarra and Richmond) and got a little thrill at the weekend when we drove past the street where 'the guy' lives, and the 80s references took my back to my own adolescence.

Chris Womersley's Cairo similarly revolves around the Weeping Woman theft and the lively 1980s Melbourne art scene, this time centred in Fitzroy. But The Guy, The Girl is pacier and in some ways, more serious than the adult novel. But do watch Framed! Neither Williams nor Womersley reveals the truth of the story, but clearly there are people out there who do know what happened back in 1986. Maybe one day we'll find out...


My Stroke of Insight

Jill Bolte Taylor's memoir about her own brain haemorrhage has been on my to-read list ever since my father had his stroke, seven years ago now, but I hadn't been able to track down My Stroke of Insight until now. Maggie Farrell mentioned it in I Am, I Am, I Am, which reminded me about it!

This is a short but fascinating first person account of what it feels like to suffer a stroke or similar brain injury, written by someone very well qualified to describe it -- Jill Bolte Taylor worked as a neuroscientist for many years before her unexpected brain haemorrhage. The first section of the book is devoted to describing the brain and how it functions, setting the scene for the next, most compelling section, which is a moment by moment recounting of the day of her stroke, the thoughts that went through her mind, her own dim awareness that something was terribly wrong, and her attempts to get help as the left side of her brain began to shut down. She knew that she should call someone for assistance, she could just about remember how to work a telephone, but she couldn't form the words to actually request that help, or recognise the numbers on the keypad. Fortunately, riding intermittent 'waves of clarity' she was able to dial her work office, where a colleague recognised the sound of her voice and sent help immediately.

Gradually, after surgery, and with the devoted help of her mother, Taylor achieved a remarkable rehabilitation, and she lists things she found helpful in her recovery, including LOTS of sleep, patience, not too much stimulation, and in her case, no yes/no answers -- having to explain herself helped her to recover her language skills more quickly.

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of Taylor's experience, and one I've never seen discussed elsewhere, was the sense of deep inner peace, tranquillity and oneness with the universe which overcame her as her left, analytical brain closed down and her right, creative brain took over. I was astonished that my father agreed that the same thing had happened to him! I lent him the book, the first book I think he's read cover to cover since his stroke. I'm so thrilled to have been able to gain this insight into Dad's experience, which because of his loss of language, he has never been able to describe to us himself.


Fly on the Wall


Recently I was very lucky to have my latest book, The January Stars, short-listed for the Prime Minister's Literary Awards. Even though I didn't win, I did get a few days fabulous holiday in Sydney, a lovely breakfast on a sunny morning at the Opera House, a free copy of Jaclyn Moriarty's The Stolen Prince of Cloudburst, a tote bag, certificate and medal, and I also got to meet some fantastic people (not including the Prime Minister, who was "too busy" to come to the ceremony): Annabel Crabb, and all the authors (and illustrator) listed in our category -- Meg McKinley, Matt Ottley, Jaclyn herself, and Danielle Binks. The only author I didn't get to meet was one of the eventual winners, Remy Lai.*

I'm so sad about that, not only because Remy couldn't be there in person to accept her award, but because now I've read Fly on the Wall and it's absolutely delightful, and I would have loved to have met Remy in person. It's a thicker book than I was expecting, written in the form of an illustrated diary, generously punctuated with clever, quirky cartoons drawn by our hero, Henry. 

Henry Khoo is so sick of his family hovering over him and treating him like a baby that he decides to take matters into his own hands and book a flight to Singapore on his own to stay with his father. Over the space of a single day and night, the diary traces all the mishaps you'd expect along the way, as well as the history of his fractured relationship with his former best friend, Chinese words of wisdom from his soap-opera loving grandmother, Henry's hopes and fears, and contributions from the mysterious online gossip monger, the Fly on the Wall.

Fly on the Wall is fresh and funny and sweet and touching -- a worthy winner indeed.

*The prize was split between Remy, and Meg and Matt for their superb How to Make a Bird.


The House of Eliott


Does anyone else remember the BBC series, The House of Eliott, that screened in the early 1990s? I was hooked by the story of the two genteel sisters, Beatrice and Evangeline, who set up a dressmaking business in 1920s London. There were meaty class issues, strong feminist storylines, delicious romance, and of course, sumptuous clothes. I loved it so much that I even named partly one of my daughters after the glamorous bobbed younger sister.

This novelisation was written by one of the series' co-creators, Jean Marsh, of Upstairs, Downstairs fame, and it's a lot of fun. Although the beautiful, original clothes can only be described, not seen, there is more room in a novel to tease out the historical detail, the various feisty and diffident characters, and the subtle class distinctions that become blurred when the posh sisters work alongside, and rely upon, their working-class employees. It was also surprisingly racy! I didn't remember there being quite so many sex scenes in the BBC version. Rack my brains as I might, I can't recall the male leads at all -- just the sisters, the seamstresses, and the fabulous 1920s clothes.


The Marlows and the Traitor


I discover to my (slightly horrified) amazement that this is the FOURTH time I have recorded reading Antonia Forest's The Marlows and the Traitor on this blog. I was prompted to revisit it by a most excellent read-through by Ann Phillips on the Antonia Forest Facebook group -- and I found enough extra material to add my own random thoughts to the discussion.

This time I was particularly struck by the moral ambiguity of Forest's universe. The 'villain' is kind and charming, but also brutal, cold and self-serving. His counterpart, the adult helper/'hero,' is definitely on the side of good, but nonetheless steals a boat, threatens a minor with a knife, is prepared to risk the death of a colleague from appendicitis, and tells numerous lies. No wonder the children at the heart of the story struggle with their own choices as well as battling their personal fears.

Anyway, I won't bang on about this book again. Gee, it is a terrific read though!


Vesper Flights


Helen McDonald's memoir H is for Hawk, about her goshawk, Mabel, was one of my personal books of the year. Vesper Flights, a collection of her essays, doesn't pack quite the same emotional punch, but is still a beautiful, meditative and moving read.

The essays are mostly grounded in nature, but range over a multitude of topics: loss and grief, refugees, climate change, freedom, headaches, mushrooms. Pre-pandemic, she writes of how observing urban falcons can transport us 'away' -- in this case, from personal grief; but as members of the 367 Collins St falcon-watching community can attest, observing our own peregrine family was also a welcome distraction from the monotony of Melbourne's Covid lockdown. 

Again and again, McDonald returns to the themes of close, thoughtful observation and what it can teach us, and to the uses of imagination. She urges us not to be seduced into thinking that animals are just like us, nor to believe that we can be just like animals, but to try to grasp and appreciate them in their own unique strangeness, and above all to recognise that the natural world is there with us, but not FOR us, to try to resist centring their lives on ourselves.