A family of Strangers
Read by Rebecca Macauley
Fiona Lowe knows women. As with Lowe’s Home Fires and Just an ordinary family, she has an innate ability to portray women through many generations, in recognisable and realistic depictions. Each has their own struggle, and each benefits from the friendship that develops throughout the story.
In all of Lowe’s stories, she paints a vivid setting and selects a medium for bringing her women characters together so that they can support each other when in need. In A family of strangers, it is a beach town in Tasmania that sets the scene, and a community choir to bring each character’s problems to a head.
Addy has returned to the Cove and bears a shameful secret that she won’t tell anyone. She battles her secret trauma through being a work-a-holic and drinking. Neither of these strategies do her any good and she is unsure who she can turn to for support.
Steph wants to conceive. She and her husband Henry have hatched a dream-like plan for their life that begins now, when they move to the cove. Only, things don’t go at all like planned, and the unexpected addition of Steph’s 13 year old step-daughter adds some potholes to the already rocky road.
Zoe has been sent to live with her dad and step-mum, Steph. She must change schools, change locations and make new friends. There is one girl who wants to be her friend. She’s bubbly and naïve. At first Zoe tolerates her but soon realises that good friends are like gold.
Brenda has a secret. One that she can’t bear to tell her adult children, especially her over controlling daughter Courtney. She does everything she can to keep up appearances and maintain the image of herself as a farmer’s wife, but the secret is doing more damage than it’s worth.
Courtney needs control. When she discovers that her daughter has befriended the far from poster girl Zoe, she fears that the influence of this new 13 year old will lead her own daughter on a terrible path. She uses all of her powers as a mother to roadblock the friendship.
This is a story that you’ll find difficult to put down and as always, as an audiobook, Rebecca Macauley does each character perfect justice!
Garlic and the Witch
Quill Tree Books 2022
Garlic and the Witch is an adorable graphic novel pitched perfectly for middle primary aged children. The story is a modern fable that tackles the fears and challenges of a person going through changes. The lovable characters include little Garlic, a witch called Agnes and a vampire called Count.
As Garlic grows and transforms, she learns that in time, everyone goes through their own changes. The characters in Garlic and the Witch are friendly and accepting of each other’s differences. With gorgeous pictures and unique characters, this story is inclusive and guiding for any young one who feels nervous about changes the future may hold.
Bree Paulsen is a Canadian born comic writer and illustrator. With her expressively drawn characters and cartoon-like settings, the pictures are reminiscent of Ghibli studio images, which may be partly why I fell so quickly in love with this comic book. Paulsen studied animation at Laguna College of Art and has created a webcomic called Patrik the Vampire, as well as the first of this series called Garlic and the Vampire (2021).
The Spectaculars are an artistic group of people who have been gifted not only with natural talents, but also “Star Stuff”- a magical essence that allows them to extend their creative abilities to the paranormal. The Minister, from one of the Sunless Provinces, fears what he cannot understand and has classified the Spectaculars as a dangerous species. It is for this reason that these unique performers have decided to escape the City of Smoke to live a freer life in the land of Wondria. The journey to Wondria is treacherous. Harper Woolfe and her family are separated from the group when a collision occurs just before they cross through the gateway.
Everything changes for Harper on that fateful day and her re-entry to the Spectaculars years later is not a smooth process.
This book starts with action and delivers action all the way through. Similar in theme to Harry Potter, but certainly holding its own with character development, a unique setting and an original problem. The cover art implies a younger audience, however the humour, language and complexity of plot suggest a perfect fit for senior primary students (ages 10 to 12).
Jodie Garnish is a playwright and performer. Her experience in theatre has informed her writing for The Spectaculars. She has also written a sequel “The Spectaculars: the four curses”. This is a great book!
How to be…the new person
Written by Anna Branford
Walker Books Australia 2022
The introduction threw me at first. I’m not keen about kids on YouTube and the premise of the story is about a girl who secretly creates ‘How to’ YouTube videos in her mind. It is her coping strategy. Thankfully I read on. The book is so much more than a grab at engaging non-readers who are obsessed with the internet. This is a book with themes of friendship, bullying and courage. It is what might be classified as a ‘High interest, Low challenge’ text because it is pitched perfectly for a tween readership in content, however, it is a short 17 chapter read with large font and non-challenging vocabulary.
Hazel Morrison, the protagonist of the story is being forced to move house and change school because of something dramatic that is happening in her older sister’s life. The story hints at bullying and harassment without going into detail, and Hazel finds herself getting lost in the shadows of her sister’s drama. She must leave the school and best friend that she loves, and start fresh in a new neighbourhood. Everyone thinks that Hazel is made of ‘tough stuff’ and forgets to ask how she is feeling about all of the changes. When she starts at the new school, fitting in is not a smooth process and Hazel finds it difficult to make friends.
The story concludes with examples of characters speaking up and supporting each other, allowing Hazel to finally settle in to her new life.
Anna Branford is an Australian author and creator.
If the world were 100 animals
Written by Miranda Smith
Illustrated by Aaron Cushley
Red Shed 2022
I was really excited when I began reading this book and an immediate desire to teach maths overcame me. Maths? You might ask- but why? Well Miranda Smith and Aaron Cushley do something really clever in this non-fiction picture story book about animals. The whole book is a beautifully illustrated lesson in animal classification (so I’m keen to teach some science lessons too- and that’s from a self-proclaimed science novice!), however, the way that it helps young minds to imagine these classifications for over “20 billion billion animals all over the world” is through the introduction of percentages. Initially, the book demonstrates how, if we were to imagine only 100 animals in the world, we could understand that 6 of them would be vertebrates and the other 94 would be invertebrates. It then goes on to further classify the vertebrates into birds, amphibians and fish, again breaking these into percentages by asking the reader to image only 100 vertebrates. And the classifications become more intricate and detailed as the book continues.
Illustrator, Aaron Cushley, has created stunning colourful images of the animals in their classifications. The engaging visuals, intriguing facts and ingenious structure make this book perfect for a vast age range starting from 6 to around 12 years, and a wonderful teaching resource for maths, science, reading and writing (and probably plenty more!).
Chai Time at Cinnamon Gardens
By Shankari Chandran
Ultimo Press 2022
Cinnamon Gardens is a multicultural nursing home in Sydney. It houses residents who have moved to Australia from far reaching countries across the globe. Maya, the owner, is also now a resident and has left the management of the business to her daughter. But this is no feel-good book about old people. Each of the characters have a tragic history to share, and Maya, a published author, enlists the help of her linguist carer, Ruben, to record their stories.
Like a run in a stocking, racism may at first be invisible to most, but as it grows and spreads, the shocking ugliness and destruction expands. Through her writing, Shankari Chandra has illustrated this poignantly and although a work of fiction, the stories she interlaces come from a true place in history.
There is a rage in Chandra’s characters and through her writing, this rage ignited in me- almost to trembling point. I felt the grief that these characters feel and I was compelled to know more despite the unpleasant realities of the hatred that I know exists in Australia and around the world today.
I am amazed by the tapestry of love and pain that Chandran has so artfully woven, and I highly recommend this book.
Beautiful World, Where are you
By Sally Rooney
Faber and Faber Ltd 2021
I am envious of Sally Rooney’s writing. In both Normal People and Beautiful World, Where are you, Rooney breaks rules.
I was aware as I read both these books that writerly rules were being broken, but I just wasn’t sure which ones. And the rule breaking had me questioning at times how much I actually liked the story. However, both with Normal People and her latest, Beautiful World, Where are you, I found myself thinking about the characters for days, weeks and even months after reading them.
So my conclusion is that I do like these books; perhaps I even love them. Although the untraditional story telling may make me a little uncomfortable or awkward at times, I develop a vested interest in what happens to the characters as if they were my own friends, and find myself wondering about them beyond the story on the page. A sign of a good book, surely.
In this latest novel, we follow two women in their thirties. Best friends who communicate by letter or email, they talk of their love affairs and losses. They explore existential ideas, insecurities, culture and developments within their work. When they meet up towards the end of the book, it seems that there are some bridges to cross. Their relationship in person is not as easy as their relationship in script. Rooney’s style is unpredictable and as the reader, one starts to fret that there will not be a happy ending.
The concepts and ideas discussed between the characters in this book are deep and thought provoking. The characters are relatable, yet their dialogue seems removed from reality. The narrator is omniscient, yet we are blocked from hearing and seeing absolutely everything, almost as if the spy cameras on these people’s lives got covered or muffled accidentally at certain points in the story.
For someone who enjoys analysing relationships, reading about love and going with the flow of an unusual storyline, this is well worth the read. And who knows, maybe there’ll be a T.V. series made about this novel too, which would be excellent I’m sure.
A Blue Kind of Day
Written by Rachel Tomlinson
Illustrated by Tori-Jay Mordey
Registered psychologist, Rachel Tomlinson, has written an endearing picture story book to help children access themes of depression and sadness. For a young person who experiences a blue day or knows someone who does, this book helps them to understand these feelings as messages to their body.
Through this engaging story and Tori-Jay Mordey’s expressive illustrations, we follow a moment in young Coen’s life. Coen is struggling with some difficult emotions and these translate to different physical symptoms such as heaviness. Coen’s family all try to come up with solutions to help him move beyond his sad feelings, however, Tomlinson shows us that feelings can’t be rushed. Eventually the family curl up with Coen and wait until he is ready, illustrating compassion and sympathy for his journey.
As well as an excellent social emotional text, Tomlinson writes an elegant tale with a variety of similes, metaphors and a vivid array of adjectives. It would be an excellent text to accompany a word choice or sentence fluency writing focus. As a reading mentor text, the facial expressions within the illustrations, the symbolism of the words and actions, all lean towards a useful companion for teaching inference and connections.
Tomlinson, who has also written ‘Teaching kids to be kind’, has provided teachers and caregivers a fabulous resource that is worthy of a place on the bookshelf.
After the Tampa- from Afghanistan to New Zealand
By Abbas Nazari
Allen & Unwin 2021
This isn’t the first time I’ve envied New Zealand’s humane leadership. After The Tampa gives me another reason to wonder how two countries seemingly so similar can have such different approaches when it comes to ethical decision making.
Abbas Nazari at age seven, accompanied his family on the traumatic and exhausting journey to escape the hold of the Taliban in their home country of Afghanistan. As an ethnic Hazara, Nazari’s family and neighbours were at risk of murder.
After the Tampa tells a tale of a people who faced adversity and overcame it time and time again. Their journey started in the trailer of a lorry van, concealed from view with only a few bags of belongings. Nazari’s youngest sibling, an infant, stowed away in a bag. The eldest sibling, fearing that he would be conscripted to a militia group, had already been sent off to Iran on his own.
The journey spanned months including covert journeys in vans, buses, aeroplanes and finally boats. Motion-sickness along with other ailments were standard at each leg of the way. The journey cost the Nazari family everything, their homes, their money and even the wedding ring from Abbas’ father’s finger as they bribed and paid their way from Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to Indonesia and finally New Zealand.
Abbas’ father had a plan to take his family to Australia, a place of security, free from persecution. They never imagined that stuck out at sea, close to death as their small, overcrowded fishing boat tore apart in the storming waves, the Australian government was doing everything they could to prevent the people of the Palapa from touching Australian land.
The Nazaris are eternally grateful not only to the captain of the Tampa who rescued them and looked after them as the political parties of Australia, Indonesia and eventually New Zealand played ping pong with their lives, but also to the New Zealand government who offered them a new home.
Each step in this incredible journey is a leap of faith and it highlights the bravery of families who would do anything to secure a better, safer life for their children. Even when succeeding in New Zealand, the battle and uphill struggle was not over, with homesickness, earthquakes and the horrific, unforgettable massacre by a loan gunman in Christchurch.
Similar to Ahn Do’s ‘The Happiest Refugee’, this is a story of a young man who has done everything to stay positive and live his life to the full despite the hurdles. Courageous and inspirational, we should all be so lucky to have such a positive outlook on life.
Crimes against nature- Capitalism and global heating
By Jeff Sparrow
“We belong to the nature we alter”
Jeff Sparrow, a writer, editor and former socialist activist, writes a polemic novel describing how we have been hoodwinked by big business and capitalism. He argues that humans are dependent on nature no matter the technological advances. Unlike animals who alter nature to survive without conscious thought, our big brains let us choose. For example, we can choose to access water from a lake or build a well. We can build a hut for shelter or build a sky scraper.
The book is not an attack on us, the readers. Not all humans are ruinous, he assures us. “The unmaking of the continent resulted not from human activity so much as the wrong kind of human activity” pg 35. This can be seen through many examples including the evidence of how Indigenous Australians interacted with the land in comparison to the colonists.
Sparrow provides a brief history lesson that outlines some of the biggest tipping points in our journey to destroy the earth we live on. After World War Two, the economy needed to be reignited and so the message sold to us was ‘buy, buy, buy’. It was argued that to move the economy forward, consumption was necessary and that was the message we were sold.
Sparrow takes us through the invention of terms such as planned obsolescence, disposability, the carbon footprint and the jaywalker. His argument is clear: big corporations have been gaslighting the general public for decades- making us feel guilty for the things they have created and urging us to make sacrifices that will ultimately have no positive effect on the climate crisis. In simplified terms; they are pushing consumption while blaming the consumers for the consequences.
Crimes against nature is an enlightening novel that will ignite a passion to fire up against the lies we are being told. Through a calm and measured voice, Sparrow opens our eyes to the marketing tricks of the biggest corporations around the globe.
What's this about?
As a lover of books and a teacher, I read widely. Here you will find book reviews of many genres including picture story, middle grade fiction, graphic novels, women's fiction, short story anthologies, non-fiction and anything else that takes my fancy.