Ghost Bird

It’s a mystery – Laney is missing and Stacey doesn’t believe the story told by Laney’s boyfriend, Troy.

The police don’t seem to be doing much about looking for her, though her family mob are searching where they can. The divide between black and white in the outback community is pretty clear:

“Everyone knows that some parts of the town are ‘white’ territory and others are ‘black’. Even the pub has a whitefulla and a blackfulla side.”

As Laney’s twin, Stacey feels it is up to her to follow her own instincts to find her, despite repeated commands from her mother to stay put. Her nightmares continue and though respectful of her family, she must do something – including speaking with Mad May Miller.

There are many tensions within the community – between black and white, poor and wealthy, current and past landowners.  Thus, Lisa Fuller brings together elements of racism, family loyalty, past conflicts and tradition into this intriguing debut novel.

While covering only a week in a divided community, there are many questions to be answered along the way:

  • What really happened to Laney? Can she be found alive?
  • What was/is it like to live in a divided community?
  • Should Stacey follow her instincts?
  • When is it time to get over old grievances?
  • Can the solution come from the past?

The characters of Stacey and her cousin Rhi are real and relatable, as are her family members and Mad May Miller. This would be a great class novel, but read it before it becomes one to enjoy the language and situations it introduces. A worthy nomination for this year’s CBCA shortlist!

# In this interview, Lisa Fuller responds to the comment: ‘One of the loveliest aspects of Ghost Bird is the infusion of your culture with a strong emphasis on family.’ and more.

EDIT: Ghost Bird is an Honour Book in this year’s CBCA Awards. Congrats!

Between Us: Barriers

Ana lives in a detention centre in Darwin, having escaped her home in Iran, and initially being transported to Nauru. From Wickham Point Immigration Centre, she is able to attend school, but that is about all. No freedom. No hope. No life.

On her first school day, a new guard (Kenny) feels sorry for her and tells her to look out for his son (Jono) if she needs help. Kenny later regrets doing this, as other guards warn him the refugees will take advantage of anyone they can – in their eyes, the asylum seekers do not deserve any special treatment.

Jono is quite taken with Ana, and does befriend her, even after he finds out about her refugee status. Disinterested in school, but interested in Ana, he creates a lot of anxiety for his father. Kenny tells him to avoid Ana, even though the impact of her friendship is a mostly positive one, so the conflict (and distance) between father and son grows.

Set in an actual detention centre, Wickham Point (now closed), ‘Between Us’ addresses the difficulties and misunderstandings which exist around many asylum seekers. In his naivety, Jono occasionally upsets Ana with his insensitive comments and actions, but he does try. Ana is caught between two worlds, with some freedoms at school that she has not experienced for a while, though her family’s refugee status is never far from her mind.

Wickham Point Immigration Detention Centre

In ‘Between Us’, Clare Atkins does a wonderful job raising the issues which confront asylum seekers – their mistreatment, misunderstandings, cultural conflicts and lack of human rights. This is a sometimes gentle, but then confronting tale. (Ana’s home flashbacks are particularly gruesome.)

It contrasts the lives of Ana and Jono as they both deal with normal adolescent issues, which are also tinged with cultural and family expectations, and societal blindness to their personal problems. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture, but makes you think.

Raw but real. Insightful but challenging. Highly recommended read.

Also good for group/class discussion – don’t let that put you off!

Winner, CBCA’s 2019 Book of the Year for Older Readers.

CBCA’s 2019 Notable Book of the Year for Older Readers.

iBBY Australia’s 2020 Honour Book for Writing.

# Available as an ebook.

Dumplings, anyone?

When I first began reading ‘the Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling’ it made me recall ‘Front Desk’ by Kelly Yang (reviewed here). Both stories deal with families of Asian heritage, and their struggles to assimilate in a Western culture and daughters battling with their parents’ expectations of their school achievements. However, as a novel for an older reader, SPOAGD has more layers and detail.

As the eldest sibling, Anna has a lot of responsibility – especially since there are times when her mother won’t get out of bed for weeks on end. Her father seems more focussed on the operation of the family restaurant, and even spends overnights there since it is some distance from home. Thus, Anna, Lily (her younger, smart sister) and Michael (her kindergarten brother) are left to cope as best they can.

Though they recognise that their mother’s behaviour is not ‘normal’, the children are unable, or unwilling to seek help – family pride – and their father appears too weak to act.

Family struggles arise. Michael’s teacher wishes to see his mother. Anna’s teachers push her to lift her game, as she nears the senior years of school. Previously-loyal employees leave the restaurant for better opportunities. Their father spends even more time away from home, seemingly ignoring his wife’s health issues and their impact on the family.

When she goes to help out at the restaurant in the school holidays, Anna meets Rory, who begins work as their delivery boy. Slowly, a vital friendship grows, and Anna is confronted by the struggles that others around her also face.

Dealing with mental illness, SPOAGD highlights how hard it is to take action and get help. In the layers of the story, bullying, suicide, stress and depression are carefully exposed. As a reader, you anticipate some of the key characters opening up to each other, as they identify with similar problems.

But, credit to author, Wai Chim, there is no easy path for Anna, Rory, or others like school acquaintance, Wei. However new friendships and old loyalties form a comforting base for Anna and Rory, as they work through their individual struggles.

The story subtly points out some of the tiny ways in which different cultures critique and antagonise one another – sometimes without even understanding their impact. At the same time, it shows that the nuances of each family’s cultural background is important.

As Wai Chim states, the power of own voice stories is important, and books like ‘the Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling’ provide some interesting insights into different cultures, without lecturing. It’s a coming of age story, with lots of ups and downs to keep you emotionally connected to the very end.

Recommended 13+

# Other books by Wai Chim include ‘Freedom Swimmer’, ‘Shaozhen’ (a CBCA Notable book for Younger Readers for 2018, set in China) and a number of picture books in the Chook Chook series.

# How important is it that authors represent or write about their own culture?

## As someone who now lives in Australia, born in the USA, does Wai have the credentials to write Chinese ‘own voice stories?

Present and past entwined – Catching Teller Crow

Catching Teller Crow is an intriguing mystery, told in two voices through poetry and story.

Sixteen-year-old Beth begins the tale, introducing her death and the need to look out for her father since the accident. He is the only one who can see her (she is a ghost), and she hopes to be able to help him move on with his life. She is also there to help him work through mysterious happenings in their home town, in an effort to get him back to police work.

In crime story tradition, events and clues are revealed gradually, and both Beth and her father have differing interpretations of what they mean.

Some clues are provided by strange revelations from Isobel Catching, who is the second voice in the novel. Her voice differs from Beth’s. Using poetic form creates a wariness in her character and at times implies a reluctance to help solve the mystery.#

Authors, Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina, have created an enthralling, though somewhat disturbing novel, which reflects some of Australia’s past attitudes and actions. The main characters (Beth, Catching and Crow) are Aboriginal, and have each suffered due to that. However, themes of love and family, along with their spiritual beliefs are also strong in the story. When they finally bond together, they become strong together.

A ghost story as well as a psychological thriller, Catching Teller Crow seamlessly weaves together the poetic and everyday life – Justine Larbalestier

Catching Teller Crow goes straight to the heart of Australia’s darkest history – Margo Lanagan

Sister and brother, Ambelin and Ezekiel Kwaymullina speak briefly here about the writing process, and their own personal need to tell their story – “We wanted the strength of those (past Aboriginal) generations to flow through the pages like a river.”

Catching Teller Crow is more than just a crime story. It reaches into the past, hoping to make an impact on the future. It will make you think – what really happened? who is to blame? and finally, who has suffered as a consequence?

Can Beth ultimately be able to let go?

How many similar episodes like this actually happened? 

# This poetic form wasn’t as obvious in the audio version of this book, though the different character voices were well defined by the narrator, Miranda Tapsell. A great option!

Sagas and history – Iceland

‘Saga Land’ was not what I was expecting – but then, the collaboration between broadcaster, Richard Fidler, and Kari Gislason, a writer and academic born in Iceland starts with multiple but different needs to investigate Icelandic history. So really, you could expect something unexpected.

Kári was born Iceland – the product of an affair, hidden by his father. In the spirit of his mother, he has travelled beyond Iceland to Australia (with her) but also discovered an impulsion to study Icelandic literature at university, rather than the law studies he first engaged in. 

‘Saga Land’ moves between the observations of journalist, Vidler, recollections of Gislason and the Icelandic sagas they wish to share.   

There are many different themes which flow through ‘Saga Land’ – providing an insight to the culture of Iceland. Honour, conflict, violence and family heritage are strong elements of the tales.

“Each character is responding to a situation in which violence seems necessary and ceaseless. And somehow, the saga… prompts us to see the strangeness of the characters’ behaviour in the light of their desires, their complexity as human beings.”

The different perspectives of Kari, a native of Iceland, and Vidler, an Australian journalist, provide an interesting balance. Kari’s investigations, as a returned Icelander, reveal a personal insight as he revisits his childhood home – though being half-Icelandic and in search of is heritage. Vidler provides journalistic structure, while being genuinely interested in Kari’s Icelandic heritage and, personally engaged.

What a great and inspiring learning experience for all (readers included). So it doesn’t really matter what I was first expecting when I picked up this book – it has given me a view of history, family heritage and culture perspectives I would have missed, had I not opened this book.

N.B. Another tale readers might enjoy is by Hannah Kent, Burial Rites – also set in Iceland, investigating the last women to be executed for murder in Iceland (an amazing literary debut for a young Australian author). Previously reviewed.

There is also a podcast you can visit, where Richard Vidler and Kari Gislason discuss the journey to create Saga Land if you want to hear from the authors.

Does Saga Land make you want to investigate your family heritage/culture?

Note – loved this as an audiobook/physical book combination. Especially when read by the co-authors, with authentic pronunciations of Icelandic names. (A bit like ‘reading’ Burial Rites by Hanna Kent)

Two boys, two families – the Kite Runner

Two boys, two families, together from ‘babyhood’, but with differing destinies. That is the foundation of ‘the Kite Runner’.

Set initially in Afghanistan in the 1970’s, it is a tale of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, prejudice and forgiveness. With this background of economic crisis, political instability and the uprising of the guerrilla opposition forces, the mujahidin (“Islamic warriors”), life is extremely challenging.

For Amir, the son of a wealthy well-respected businessman (Baba), life should have been almost carefree. But without his mother (who died in childbirth), Amir struggles to gain his father’s love and attention. Blessed with a playmate, Hassan, he is, however, able to enjoy some childhood joy.

Hassan lives with his father, Ali, who works as a servant to Amir’s father. Though Baba and Ali have also been friends since childhood, their status in Afghanistan is defined by their heritage; thus Ali and Hassan, scorned upon as Hazaras, are fortunate to work for Baba.

As a young child, Amir has the undying loyalty of Hassan. In contrast, Amir finds it hard to defend Hassan when he faces the taunts and attacks that come his way from the local Muslim bullies. He also struggles to meet his father’s ideal of a son, except for one particular occasion – and even then, he ultimately fails in another respect.

Having been born in Kabul himself, Hosseini was the child of middle-class parents like Amir. His family, too, left Afghanistan when he was young and were unable to return due to the Soviet invasion in 1979. They sought political asylum in the United States.

Therefore, it seems like much of the Kite Runner is autobiographical, as it certainly provides a thought-provoking story of life in a battle-torn country. Hosseini provides snippets of information about how another country faces clashes of culture and ingrained beliefs and the impact on the lives of children and their families. He pulls no punches in describing some of the dire situations in which a ‘less significant’ person might find themselves in an age of economic struggle and political turmoil.

Amir’s conscience encourages us to hope that not all mankind believes in these class structures, though his inaction is constantly frustrating. After a surprising act from Amir, the families are separated and then external factors force Amir and Baba to flee the country, and they get a taste of the life of the less-privileged as political refugees.

Throughout the story, Amir reflects on the importance of family and traditions, and the rich cultural Afghan heritage is peppered within this. The atrocities of war and violence are also a strong feature which makes some parts challenging, trying to understand how such things can happen. In spite of these dangers, Amir is ultimately compelled to return to Kabul – to seek peace, redemption and more.

the Kite Runner – book to movie

‘The Kite Runner’ was actually a debut novel for author Khaled Hosseini, and the author states that “if I were given a red pen now and I went back … I’d take that thing apart”. However, it has received many many accolades (and sales) since it was first published in 2003.

(Khaled Hosseini: ‘If I could go back now, I’d take The Kite Runner apart’ from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/01/khaled-hosseini-kite-runner-interview)

# I’m not sure I really liked Amir, even at the end of the novel: do we have to allow him forgiveness for his actions? is there a better ‘hero’ in the story?

## I have not seen the film version and wonder if it gave an even glossier finish to the tale?