The Other Side of Beautiful

Life has a way of falling apart sometimes. For Mercy, the solution has been spending 2 years as a recluse in her home. When this house burns down, she is thrown out into the world and flounders to accept the help her ex-husband offers, which can only be temporary anyway.

“This world isn’t easy when your shield shatters. When my character in The Other Side of Beautiful, a woman who hasn’t left her house for two years, watches that house burn down, Mercy Blain has no choice but to be flung into the world.” (Kim Lock discussing her main character, Mercy Blain.)

As this situation is clearly untenable, Mercy comes across a somewhat bizarre alternative. This sees her embark on a physical journey from Adelaide to Darwin, in a beat-up old vehicle with just her dog, Wasabi, as a companion.

For someone who has not left their house for 2 years, this is an amazing challenge, but one that proves to be the physical AND emotional journey she needs.

Mercy’s cautious initial steps mean that she is sparsely equipped, having lost most things in the fire. Her inner struggles also mean that she is often stretched to the limit to move beyond the many barriers she has set up over 2 years. Thus, her journey north is hesitant and full of extreme anxiety.

In Mercy’s steps, we learn about the suffocating effects of panic attacks, and we will her on as she travels north, alongside the movement of grey nomads and other travellers. The characters she meets are totally relatable, as is the Australian countryside they traverse. Those with a  careful blend of friendliness and respect for the privacy of others allow Mercy to feel somewhat comfortable to continue her travels, in spite of early misgivings.

Along the way, certain roadblocks cause anxious situations for her to rise above while forcing her to accept the help and advice of others she meets. We fear her crashing along the way (both physically and literally) – will her solo journey be the end of things, or provide a new beginning? After all, there have been tragic losses in the outback for those unprepared and unwary.

There is a lot to mull over in ‘the Other Side of Beautiful’, including the pressures of social media vs the need to stay in touch. Mercy is trying to overcome past negativity, but needs to stay in communication with the real world she is running from, in order to move forward in life. There could be severe consequences if she doesn’t, but outback travel is not the most supportive in some areas.

Will she make it to ‘the Other Side’?

Note: I loved the references to Australians’ outback travels in RVs and well-appointed vans, but would have preferred Mercy’s vehicle to have been a beat-up old Kombi (but that’s just my personal preference…).

Once There Were Wolves

Once there were wolves in Scotland – until they were viewed as too great a threat to farmers and their animals. In fact, in 1577, James VI made it compulsory to hunt wolves three times a year.

Thus hunting them was rewarded, and the last wolf was reportedly killed in 1680 in Killiecrankie (though there are reports that wolves survived in Scotland up until the 18th century). The long-term consequence of this was major destruction of woodland, overrun by the deer population and other herbivores. They were no longer culled naturally by wolves, the apex predator in the forest ecosystem.

Biologist Inti Flynn arrives in Scotland, leading a team of scientists which aims to reintroduce the grey wolf into the remote highlands. The team’s aim is twofold – to increase wolf numbers in the wild and to heal the landscape. Inti also needs to heal her twin sister, Aggie.

Not unexpectedly, the local farmers and villagers are very wary of the scientists’ plans, fearing their animals and families might fall prey to the wolf packs which are to be introduced. They remain blind to the true nature of wolves and their place in nature.

Inti’s passion for her wolves is deep, and due to a rare condition of mirror-touch synaesthesia, she can even sense their feelings, as well those of others she observes. Her childhood experiences with her twin sister, Aggie, provide some extreme examples of this and have left them both broken to different degrees.

With the disappearance of a local man, the ongoing opposition to their rewilding project comes to a head. Who/what will be blamed?

Naturally, Inti fears for her wolves. But who can she turn to? Who can she trust? Will her upbringing enable her to discover the real truth? And can she bring Aggie back to her senses?

Through Inti’s experiences, Charlotte McConaughy writes a sensitive and sensual discovery of the need to accept the role of wild creatures. Some locals are won over, but fear of the unknown echoes through much of the population.

McConaughy provides both poetic and informative descriptions of the wild, while she slowly reveals details about the nature of the people in this tale. In this, there is much to keep you guessing – and much to give you hope…

For more about the reintroduction of wolves to Scotland, start with this article:

Wolf Reintroduction in Scotland

the Definition of Us

What are your friends like? Do they talk, act and think the same as you? Or do they have a few quirky differences in their personalities?

In ‘the Definition of Us’ it would seem that Florence, Jasper, Andrew and Wilf have little in common, except that they attend the Manor Lane Therapy Centre. Each of them has their own problems and idiosyncracies, so why would they even think to do a road trip to Wales together?

It is when their therapist, Howard, goes missing without warning that they decide to track him down. How could he leave them without notice or explanation? Especially Florence, since she is facing a critical anniversary at the time, and is in need of his support to get through the weekend.

They want answers. They want distractions. They want to get away!

Each of the quartet has their own reasons for needing therapy, and while they are an unlikely friendship group, their shared goal (to find Howard) brings them into some interesting situations. As individuals, they respond differently to the events which happen, but together they rise above the challenges they meet along the way – eventually.

At crisis times, they are even able to provide some sort of reasoned therapy for each other, in the absence of Howard!

Author, Sarah Harris, has developed a fun but thoughtful way of looking at several mental health conditions; even if events are somewhat questionable at times. YA readers should identify with many of the issues within the group and should appreciate the ideas expressed by each individual.

(Even if you don’t have such an issue yourself, there may be food for thought about how others around you feel – though they may hide their own realities.) 

Florence is particularly likeable, with her love for words emitting strong emotions, and her observations seemingly narrating the story. However other characters, like Andrew, also have a lot to say:

“It’s not funny. You think I’m just one big joke. You call me names and put me down but I’m not a robot. I do care. I spend a lot of time trying to understad people because I want them to like me… Why does no-one ever try to understand me?” (Andrew, p. 101, found after he ran away from the group on the freeway)

‘The Definition of Us’ pries into the hidden lives of Florence, Jasper, Andrew and Wilf to make us question what is really ‘normal’ – and make us think about how we treat others and ourselves.

* Do you always have to conform to the expectations of others?

** How can we know our true selves? and the true selves of others?

*** What is ‘normal’ anyway?

Available as ebook.

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.

Wearing Paper Dresses (with feeling)

Wearing Paper Dresses is a story you can feel. In its pages, even a city-slicker can begin to understand the stresses and strains of rural life – and to anticipate the troubles to come.

In this debut novel, Anne Brinsden introduces us to a family dealing not only with the struggles of drought but also the struggles of adapting to a ‘foreign’ lifestyle. For indeed that is what it is like for Elise, who marries Bill while he is working in the city (where she belongs). In the city, they start to build their family life.

When Bill’s father (known as Pa) calls him back to help on the family farm in the Mallee region of Victoria, Elise and their daughters must follow. Her urban background offers little to support her in her new environment (a working farm planted in tough conditions), and her own upbringing stands her apart from the community into which she must now try to blend.

“But Elise wasn’t from the Mallee, and she knew nothing of its ways.”

The Mallee, its weather and even their farmhouse are alive and important in this story. Each of these elements has emotions and thoughts, as they ‘watch’ events unfold. Through them, you are forewarned of looming difficulties. You really feel ominous tremors as you read.

Mallee scrubland

Subtle changes in Elise arise as she tries to adapt to rural life. Unfortunately, Bill is either too busy, or reluctant, or unable to see these changes. While Pa and others try to point these out, their daughters Ruby and Marjorie run wild. They also bear the brunt of Elise’s difficulties and take on many of her family responsibilities.

Thus the girls spend their time ‘on eggshells’ – anticipating the next time Elise will do something strange or moody or threatening. Her attempts to become part of the rural community fail, as she is viewed as too glamorous for the country. Her cooking skills are too fussy (especially for the shearers who want plain country tucker). Some local women find her pretentious and show-offy in her Paris-inspired home-sewn creations. Even her musical talents don’t seem to impress – at least that is what she begins to think.

Indeed, much of the difficulty comes as Elise begins to doubt herself, and as she fails to understand how to adapt to her country home. Lacking emotional support, Elise suffers several breakdowns – which youngest daughter Marjorie identifies as the ‘glimmer’ beginning.

Wearing Paper Dresses speaks to the heart of the many struggles faced by those on the land, even though it focusses on the mental health of an outsider unable to cope, rather than the fraught farmer. But does Bill’s inability to act for Elise simply show a different coping mechanism? and a danger to his family?

At this time of drought, as Australian farmers struggle to survive, this is a challenging story which reminds us of the harshness of our beautiful land. It honours the resilience of many rural communities while illustrating the fragility of some personalities who may live there. It recognises the impact of things out of our control. Ultimately, it reveals the strength of human spirit and the optimism which ties people to the land, which we should aspire to and wholeheartedly applaud.

Recommended for 15+ / adult audience.

Missing by Sue Whiting

What would you do if one of your parents went missing while overseas? Unfortunately, as author Sue Whiting notes over 38,00 people are reported missing in Australia each year – and “roughly 1600 are considered long term missing”.

Mackenzie’s mother could be one of these statistics, after failing to make contact with family and friends while working overseas in the jungles of Panama. Distraught after a length of time, her father decides to take the search into his own hands, and in the dark of night, he and Mackenzie leave home.

What happens as a result of this impulsive move, rushed and without informing anyone, creates a tricky adventure for Mackenzie.  However, she becomes strong and determined, while being rightly cautious in some circumstances. What she holds back from others seems to make her stronger in her search for clues, while unusual circumstances begin to provide clues of her mother’s whereabouts.

In some parts, what Mackenzie is able to achieve is questionable (how old is she really – #12/13 0r older?), but it is easy to be swept away in this puzzling tale – so that you suspend the sort of questions and let the story roll out. All the while you keep hoping for her to be successful in her search, but there is always a lingering doubt.

‘Missing’ is great tale of family love and desperation, trust and wariness – all based on the true concerns for those who go missing from families year after year around the globe. Clearly, Mackenzie loves her mum and shares many strong interests with her (which are important in the story), so it a quite an emotional ride, even right to the end.

Whiting explains here why she wrote such an emotional tale:

 

There is no denying that Missing was a tough story to write and a sad one to read, but I believe it is also an important one. Because it is as much a story about resilience and human endurance as it is about grief and loss. And it’s a story to remind us of the human faces and personal tragedies behind the statistics.

To what extremes would you go to find a missing loved one? Would you be able to match Mackenzie’s efforts?

Are you aware of how important it is to stay in touch? How do we guard our personal safety?

[# I think the story would have worked better if she was older. Some of the initial setting talks about her just finishing primary school.]

Everything I never told you

Should parents’ dreams be lived through the lives of their children? 

Before she married, Marilyn had dreams of becoming a doctor, but then children came along. Her dreams were different from her mother’s, but as a mother, she has great plans for her daughter, Lydia – to make up for what she didn’t achieve herself.

Unfortunately, this dream will not be fulfilled. At the age of 16, Lydia is dead.

The story opens with Lydia’s drowning in the lake near her home. As it unfolds, the intense passion Marilyn has for her daughter to achieve is revealed. The reasons for this drive are clearly tied to her own need to achieve which has been thwarted by marriage.

There are other frustrations in ‘Everything I Never Told You’, in a family which is loving but unable to communicate all they feel. In a small town which is slowly adjusting to multiculturalism, the Lees are a novelty. As a Chinese-American family, they struggle to blend in – a concept James, the father, had battled (though being American-born), and something Marilyn’s mother had warned them of when they first married.

As much as Marilyn dotes on Lydia, there is little attention given to her siblings, Nath and Hannah. Locked out of her attention, both Nath and Hannah fail to speak up about things their parents should really know – about themselves and things they observe about the family. And then it is too late.

Some may find the intensity of Marilyn’s efforts to drive Lydia’s future extreme. Similarly, the treatment of the family within the community and their lack of integration may seem harsh, but set in between the late 1950s and 1970s it is a reflection of life experiences for those with cultural differences.

‘Everything I Never Told You’ also shows how, even in a loving family, there can be differing perspectives on what happens day-to-day. Without good communication, things can go unsaid and misunderstandings arise. There are many examples of what-ifs and story-turns that occur because someone fails to say what they really think or know. Clearly, Lydia’s inability to voice her feelings has fatal consequences.

Some may be frustrated with the way the characters behave in ‘Everything I Never Told You’, but Celeste Ng’s debut novel (which took 8 years and 4 drafts to complete) is both moving and clever. It portrays an unimaginable family drama – the death of a child – and weaves past and present to explain how it came about. It leaves the question at the end – who is really responsible?

Following this best selling debut novel, Ng has written a second one, ‘Little Fires Everywhere’. She talked to Goodreads interviewer Janet Potter about teen drama, race, Twitter, and the fear of writing about a place you love. Read the interview here on  GoodReads.

Here, Celeste introduces ‘Everything I Never Told You’:

Are there times when you don’t speak up for fear of saying the wrong thing?

How might Lydia’s life have worked out better?

N.B. this is adult fiction but accessible for mature readers.

Feeling – Yellow

Life certainly isn’t rosy for Kirra. At school, she is at the mercy of the ‘in’ crowd, at home her mother is drowning at the bottom of a gin bottle and her father won’t offer her a place to escape – even though he still lives close by. In a small coastal town, Kirra faces more than her fair share of challenges in those troubling teen years.

Throw in a ghost who wants her to avenge his murder, and you have a perplexing tale to piece together.

In her debut novel, Megan Jacobsen weaves a clever story which, while dealing with issues like bullying and family dysfunction, is compelling and believable.

Though many of the characters are a bit cliche,  (like the nasty but beautiful in-crowd) ‘Yellow’ will speak to you, and have you wondering about your day-to-day actions and how they impact on others. Kirra’s thoughts reveal how bad life is for her, and how complex life can be for some people. Sorting out who your friends really are is something many teens struggle with, and Kirra’s actions reveal how difficult life is for her.

You may wonder at some of her actions (is she really type to hurt an innocent animal? can a ghost impact your thinking?), but then, there is a lot that is relatable for teens.  There are also lots of twists and turns to keep you wondering in this tragic but challenging tale. How will it end for Kirra? Read it and see!

Yellow is one of this year’s CBCA Shortlisted Books. Will it win?

One wish – Cloudwish

cloudwishCloudwish comes from the creative mind of Fiona Wood, who won the CBCA Book of the Year (Older Readers category) award in 2014 with Wildlife. Her earlier book, Six Impossible Things, was previously reviewed here. So it is no surprise to see her latest novel among the CBCA shortlist for 2016.

While Cloudwish is a school story, with much of the usual angst and issues facing young teens, it has so much more to offer.

What is life like for a young girl, whose parents are Vietnamese refugees with high aspirations for their clever daughter? A scholarship to a prestigious private school  may seem the answer, but Van U’oc Phan faces struggles daily as the realities of her school life and home life contrast immensely and harshly.

With shades of Laurinda (by Alice Pung), Cloudwish is a wonderful portrayal of how different cultures may either mix or clash in our multicultural Australian society, and the extra struggles faced by children of immigrant families. Like Lucy Lam in Laurinda, Van moves between 2 worlds, and faces the challenge of fitting into both worlds. Poverty and privilege, blending in or maintaining a low profile, meeting parental expectations or following her own dreams – these are some of the issues for Van to deal with. Mix in a little magic and the fun begins.

References to Jane Eyre (Van’s role model?), Sylvia Plath and IB studies will strike a chord of recognition for many student readers. They also make it clear that Wood has worked in a school and indeed, she has tutored students from non-English speaking backgrounds (like Van) for many years. (See the SMH article, Working with a young Vietnamese-Australian girl inspired the author’s latest novel for more interesting details aout Fiona).

Cloudwish is a great read, and possibly, a relaxing contrast to the authors Van (and our own students) studies and admires!

One Thousand Hills – Remembering Rwanda

One Thousand HillsFor Pascale, life had a predictable routine which included regular chores at home, regular teasing by his older brother and a pattern to the week. As a child in Rwanda, life was simple, but set in a loving and supportive family. He knew the happiness of running around with his friend, Henri; the pestering of a (lovable) little sister, Nadine, and the warmth of his loving parents.

But things were set to change, as events with catastrophic impact on the country of Rwanda ignited.

James Roy has set his novel ‘One Thousand Hills’ in April 1994, in the days leading up to, and during, the first of 100 days the genocide in which eight hundred thousand Rwandans were slaughtered. Through the eyes of Pascale, we view some of the horror and the impact of civil strife on innocents – innocents who are caught ‘hiding or running in fear’ when they should be running around in the playful games of childhood.

Through the voice of Pascale, we slowly learn of the whispers and hushed tones that alert him to something being amiss. His neighbour, Mrs Malolo released her chickens, explaining to them:

We can’t take you with us… I hope you lay your eggs somewhere peaceful and safe.

Things were even noticeably different at church on Sunday, in what was usually a joyous occasion in the week. The sermon was ominous, and afterwards people were less cordial to one another. ‘An uncomfortable heaviness hung in the air.’ Pascale notes. He also noted glances and nods  between his parents, as if there was something secret they were sharing.

As a 10 year old boy, the explanation of events Pascale is able to give is cloudy, fragmented and incomplete. Interjected in between these descriptions, however, is the record of counselling sessions with Pascale as a 15 year old – a 15 year old dealing with a traumatic past. But waht we read is enough to imagine the horrific times.

The ugly divisiveness of cultural differences between the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda is introduced in several ways, including the tearful break-up of his teacher, Miss Uwazuba and her boyfriend – ‘A Hutu Romeo and a Tutsi Juliet’. Many others with whom Pascale had friendships within his village Agabande, end up rejecting him – and slowly, with increasing uneasiness, he begins to understand the radio news about ‘crushing the cockroaches’.

In ‘One Thousand Hills’ James Roy tackles an enormous event in world history, in partnership with Noel Zihabamwe, who actually lived through these events as a ten year old. Their reasons are clear:

We wanted to tell this story because we believe it’s only by understanding the terrible and tragic events of the past that we can prevent similar events happening again in the future. (Author’s Note)

A challenging read. While ‘One Thousand Hills’ is not a happy tale, it reminds us of a bleak part of world history which has had far-reaching consequences (including two decades of unrest in neighbouring DR Congo, which have cost the lives of an estimated five million people) – something we cannot simply brush aside or ignore.

Sometimes we need to take on challenging reads like this, or those listed below. What do you think?

Further reading

Rwanda genocide: 100 days of slaughter (BBC News) explains more.

For an older (biographical) perspective on Rwanda, read: