Book Review: We See the Stars, by Kate Van Hooft

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_we_see_the_stars.jpgSimon is an eleven-year-old boy who lives in a world of silence, lists and numbers. He hasn’t spoken for years and at times lives in a fantasy world.

We See The Stars is set in rural Victoria where Simon lives with his Dad and younger brother Davey, and also his Grandma, who spends much of her day at the hospital with Granddad.

School is not easy for Simon as the other kids think he is weird and at times he feels his only friends are Davey and Superman who is always there when he needs him. Simon is often bullied and he has a variety of coping mechanisms when he begins to feel overwhelmed.

‘I tried to go invisible. I tried to turn into air. I stood right where I was, right there on the spot, while it all just kind of played out around me, and I felt heavy in my tummy when the noise came up over the top of me and broke over my head’.

One day Simon shares his Vita-Weats with Cassie, a girl from his class with a physical disability who has also faced ridicule, and a friendship starts to form. Their new teacher Ms Hilcombe also takes a special interest in him, and it is while he is at her house he begins to talk again.

‘I like your class’ I said, but quietly.
‘Oh Simon!’ she said, and her voice came out all in a rush of air. ‘Did you just….?’

This book is listed in the Mystery/Crime category but the author takes the reader on a fantasy journey with Simon as he searches for Ms Hilcombe when she goes missing, while at the same time Simon seems to be the only person in his household who visits his mother in her bedroom.

Kate van Hooft was born and raised in Melbourne and lives there with her husband Paul Carter, also a writer. She is currently working as a disability advisor at Swinburne while finishing a Master of Social Work. She has worked for more than ten years in student wellbeing and disability support in tertiary education and is passionate about youth mental health. We See the Stars is her first novel and will appeal to a wide age range of people especially those working in the disability field.

The novel is a beautifully written, gentle, compelling read and drew me in from the beginning, Simon’s thoughts giving the book a haunting appeal which kept me turning the pages. Mystery and fantasy combine as the story progresses into escapism keeping the reader guessing right to the end and beyond.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

We See the Stars
by Kate Van Hooft
Published by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 9781760632526

Book Review: The Mulberry Tree, By Allison Rushby

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_the_mulberry _tree.jpg‘Do naught wrong by the mulberry tree, or she’ll take your daughters . . . one, two, three.

In the dead of night, spirited away, never to see an eleventh birthday . . .’

Ten-year-old Immy has been forced to move halfway across the world – from her friend-filled, vibrant life in Sydney, Australia to the pin-drop quiet of a tiny village in Cambridgeshire, England. With only three girls in her class – none of whom will talk to her – Immy is alone and feeling lonely in this strange new place. The one upside is the beautiful medieval ‘doll’s house’ cottage her parents find to rent, but it too has a secret – a gigantic, black mulberry tree in the back garden which drenches the house in darkness.

According to village legend, the mulberry tree is murderous: two girls, Bridget in the 1700s and Elizabeth in 1945, disappeared from the same house on the eve of their eleventh birthday, with a bulging knot appearing in the mulberry tree the day after their disappearance. Every person in the village believes the mulberry tree took the girls – so much so that they cross the road to avoid walking past the tree, they refuse to talk to Immy or her parents when they decide to rent the house, and children who sing the rhyme do naught wrong by the mulberry tree are roundly told off out of superstitious fear.

Immy doesn’t believe in the rumours: she was raised by two doctors who believe in scientific truth above all. One day, however, she hears a strange song in her head . . .
With mounting pressure to unravel the mystery of the mulberry tree before her eleventh birthday, The Mulberry Tree is a spooky tale which will appeal to those aged eight upwards. A modern fable by prolific Australian author Allison Rushby, The Mulberry Tree interlaces broad topics such as the difficulties of starting somewhere new, the dangers of black-and-white thinking, and how to help someone you love who is suffering from a mental illness.

With beautifully drawn characters, The Mulberry Tree is infused with heightened tension. A strong, stubborn and compassionate protagonist, Immy takes charge of solving the mulberry mystery – as well as saving injured hedgehogs. As she rides the anxiety and angst that come with change and growing up, her innate empathy for others allows her to not only befriend kids in her class, but the lonely tree in her garden.

A tale about forgiveness, the moral of The Mulberry Tree is bluntly spelled out rather than gently entwined. If the ending is slightly too convenient, Rushby has still successfully managed to balance the telling of a compelling but not-too-creepy tale, which will ensure both upper primary and lower secondary school readers will love this page-turning mystery.

Reviewed by Rosalie Elliffe

The Mulberry Tree
by Allison Rushby
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781760650292

Book Review: Once Upon A Small Rhinoceros, by Meg McKinlay

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_once_upon_a_small_rhinocerosThis whimsical book brought a smile to my face with its positivity, determination and adventure of the small rhinoceros heading out to explore the world.

We meet a young rhinoceros who is delightfully personified in the illustrations but still remains a rhinoceros (thankfully she is not given some cutesy name! – this book never becomes cheesy or juvenile).  And did I mention she is a girl? – great to see girls represented in powerful roles in picture books.

The young rhinoceros lives with the other rhinos next to a river which bring the sights and smells of faraway lands to her rhinoceros world filled with mud, grass and trees.  The other rhinoceroses tell her that this is all she needs, that she is crazy to dream of anything more.

The young rhinoceros smiles and agrees as she continues to collect the supplies she needs to go adventuring – she never loses her dream.  We watch her build a boat before setting sail down the river and over the ocean.  She sails through the day and after each night, through summer and winter.  We see the rhinoceros exploring the world – everywhere is represented (so much to discuss in the illustrations!).

Eventually she has seen more things than a rhinoceros could ever imagine and returns home where the rhinoceroses are waiting.  The rhinoceroses continue to show their lack understanding of her adventures but another little voice speaks up to ask if it was wonderful.  The young rhinoceros becomes a role model of the possibility of the next little rhinoceros being an explorer too.

A tale beautifully told through dialogue and poetic language.  All ages can follow along because the illustrations clearly tell the story through delightful sketches and watercolours.  It is one of the true treasures of children’s picture books – all ages will find something to love in this book, including the adult reader!  This is a story which will be a fantastic addition to any bedtime collection (especially for anyone who likes to dream big and be an explorer in the world).

Reviewed by Sara Croft

Once Upon A Small Rhinoceros
by Meg McKinlay, illustrated by Leila Rudge
Published by Walker Books
ISBN 9781925126709

Book Review: Force of Nature, by Jane Harper

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cv_force_of_natureThis is the much-anticipated second novel from Jane Harper. Her debut, The Dry, won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript and the film rights were snapped up. Jane Harper lives in Melbourne and has worked as a print journalist in Australia and the UK for thirteen years.  I loved her debut and was keen to see if her second novel was as engaging. I was not disappointed.

In Force of Nature, we once again meet Aaron Faulk, a Federal Police Agent working in the rugged outback of Australia (he in The Dry, and too good to be a one-novel wonder). He is asked to help to search for a woman missing in the bush. While five women embark on a corporate team building exercise, only four make it out three days later. For Faulk, this is more than a missing person case, as the woman is his key source for an investigation into her employer’s dealings.

Faulk is a man troubled by his past, a little of which was exposed in The Dry. We again glimpse his background through a series of tramping maps left to him by his late father. These maps include the area of the search, and Faulk is forced to recall his memories and ] re-evaluate his ideas about his father.

The Australian landscape is very much a part of this story. The bush, the mountains and the struggle to exist in a small town. I like Harper’s style. She keeps the pace up but manages to capture patterns of speech and the guilt of survivors. As the story unravels, we discover all is not as it first appears. There are tensions within the family company, and suspicions among the staff. This is the stuff of an excellent crime novel.

Force of Nature is a great Australian crime novel because we are drawn into a world where land and man work together to reveal the truth. This is the Christmas novel that will be passed around our family and never actually make it back to me.

by Kathy Watson

Force of Nature
by Jane Harper
Published by Macmillan
ISBN 9781743549094

Book Review: Ori the Octopus, by Anne Helen Donnelly

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cv_ori_the_OctopusOri is an Octopus who loves to help his friends out. Having eight tentacles he can multitask but this gets him into all sorts of trouble. Ori’s friends are Sally Starfish, Harry Seahorse, Peta Pufferfish, Cathy Clownfish and Reginal Stingray.

Ori decides to make Sally Starfish a cake for her birthday, but then Harry Seahorse rushes into Ori’s home and asks him to look after her baby. Cuddle the baby, mix, mix, mix but then there was a knock at the door. Peta Pufferfish had hurt herself and needed Ori to plaster her cuts. More friends turn up asking Ori to help, and this is when the confusion starts. Poor Ori.

This is a great book using interactive activities and is suitable for children aged 2 – 5 years of age. I read this book to our 2-year-old granddaughter. She got right into the swing of wanting to do all the actions. What I particularly liked was that at the back of this book are all characters to cut out with the suggestion that once cut out you glue or tape them to sticks – we used ice block sticks. Once that is done we acted out the story with much hilarity, mixing up the characters and their actions.

Reviewed by Christine Frayling

Ori the Octopus
by Anne Helen Donnelly
Published by Anne Helen Donnelly
ISBN 9780646962207

Book Review: A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work, by Bernadette Brennan

cv_a_writing_lifeAvailable in selected bookshops nationwide.

The litmus test of a good book about a writer is whether reading it makes me want to revisit the subject’s work – and visit the works I haven’t yet. Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work does both in spades.

Brennan, an academic and researcher in contemporary Australian literature, approached the prospect of mapping the landscape that created Garner, author of some of Australia’s most contentious and beloved writing, with understandable nervousness – shared by Garner herself:

‘She established at the outset that she did not want a biography. I did not wish to write one, but I knew that the intersection and overlap of her life and art made discussion of the biographical essential to understanding her work. Garner gave me access to the NLA [National Library of Australia] files, but went further in answering every query that I have put to her. She has admitted to anxious rumblings about this book.’

But Garner’s work itself is so closely tied to her own life that it’s impossible not to read any discussion of her forty years of writing alongside one of her personal history; her fiction and non-fiction both tap into her own experience, sometimes revisiting the same situation or character over and over again, tilting the mirror or camera slightly for a different angle on the same scene. Brennan was given full access to the NLA archives, Garner’s diaries and Garner herself. One of the main resources from the archives, setting the scene for Part I of A Writing Life, are the ‘Letters to Axel’. Garner was a prolific letter writer and shared everything with Axel, her companion and confidante from a young age:

‘As a twenty-year-old, Helen joked to Axel Clark: ‘One day these letters will be famous¬ – “The Life, Loves and Letters of Helen Ford [her name before marrying writer and actor Bill Garner]”. She envisaged neither her fame nor that Axel would keep and later archive her early correspondence.’

‘Famous for her letters, postcards and, more recently, her emails and texts’, Garner is notoriously self-interrogating, the letters and her own journal entries revealing anguish over the publication of her first novel, Monkey Grip – now considered an Australian classic, it’s a thinly veiled self-portrait of a life of share houses and shared parenting in inner city Melbourne in the ‘70s – as well as her trajectory in the Australian lit scene following the sudden success and dissection of that book. That trajectory has not always been upwards, and Brennan goes deep into the controversies that have dogged Garner and in turn been subject to dogged unpacking by her on the page, in fiction and non-fiction.

Garner ‘redefined and shaped literary genres to accommodate her material’, she’s a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, lyricist and essayist, and a boundary-crosser whose championing of interior lives and the domestic sphere in turn suggested a structure for Brennan’s book, where ‘each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing’. Brennan uses this framework to walk through the ‘rooms’ of Garner’s literary house, considering her work along the way: from Monkey Wrench to Everywhere I Look. It’s a comprehensive and compelling way to travel through an exceptional quantity of material, and, fittingly, the bookend to this story is that Everywhere I Look won the best non-fiction category at the Indie Book Awards shortly after publication of A Writing Life.

Now I’m off to re-read Monkey Grip, which I haven’t read since I too lived in a house in inner city Melbourne, and I expect I might spend the next few months walking through the rest of Helen Garner’s house.

Reviewed by Mitch Marks

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work
by Bernadette Brennan
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925410396

Book Review: Aboriginal to Nowhere, by Brentley Frazer

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_aboriginal_to_nowhere.jpgAboriginal to Nowhere is a love-letter to a world that ultimately rejects its people. It is a celebration of grunge, and a roll call of those things that are lame, cast-off, defunct and unlovable. It is about people divorced from the places they inhabit, and people who are disorientated in their own homes. Like those Talking Heads lyrics, ‘And you may tell yourself / this is not my beautiful house’, its people are bewildered. It also speaks to the profound loneliness ‘of the post-modern dispossessed’, the sort of grubby solitude that finds itself in a throng queuing for the Portaloos.

Frazer’s poems find beauty in the brokenness of things. Like Kintsugi, the Japanese practice of repairing fractured pottery with gold, Frazer conjures rich images from the ‘buckets of colonial rubbish’. While much of his poetry is sprawling and untethered, there are hushed moments:

‘The sky bruised over
slate roofs, the wind
moaning through louvres
leaves brown as coffee
rings.’

Most of his verse has a sort of musical harangue feel to it. The first poetic set, Aboriginal to Nowhere – Song Cycle of the Post Modern Dispossessed, pairs the technological and the ecological, through anxious reflections about man-made worlds and the alienation they can create. Frazer’s characters are watched by CCTVs and crows. They chart a course through a shifting Australia, one where ‘The indigenous goddess exits / stage left’ and people ‘bulldoze dream time for a freeway’. It is a rousing, rambling, and often irreverent, address to the nation. ‘Are you my mother, Australia?’ his speaker asks. The Australia that we find in the poems is more insouciant parent than maternal presence. And yet there are images, beyond the ‘broken hopes’, ‘generational displacement’ and ‘collapsed footpaths’, a sort of nostalgia for an Australia that may never have existed.

Aboriginal to Nowhere explores existential themes. Freewill and determinism wrangle in the cityscape. ‘Man, I didn’t get a choice where my consciousness / landed’. Cultural appropriation is prised open, xenophobia explored. There are questions of meaning in a world where the ‘Eternal Being’ is ‘an angry cynic’. ‘I don’t know what I am doing here’, the speaker exclaims. People depersonalise, aliens in their own skin. ‘Most days I feel like an actor ‘. And in a nod to Plato:

‘You are a piece of nothing,
shadows on the factory wall’

Frazer invites life’s dissonances to the table. Sometimes ‘the music and the lyrics / don’t match the visuals’. He entertains a ‘happy drowning feeling’. In all of this he steps lightly, capering around concepts, toying with the reader’s ability to hold two contrary ideas in mind.

Mostly, though, Aboriginal to Nowhere is about people – all sorts of folk. We meet hipsters and junkies, the mentally ill, beer guzzlers, strippers, rednecks, millennials, academics, immigrants, city slickers and farmers. Frazer’s is a world populated and full of noise, but ultimately nobody’s.

This is a thoughtful and fierce collection. Frazer is a visionary at a time when humanity risks losing touch with its core animality, and the real-world places in which it finds itself.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton

Aboriginal to Nowhere
by Brentley Frazer
Published by HeadworX
ISBN 9780473365677