The Ruby Locket by Melissa Wray

Set in a dystopian future, the novel begins with Saxon and Manny finding a young girl (Kerina) in the wasteland at the edge of their village, presumed dead. The distance between towns is large and the terrain is unforgiving. To their complete surprise the young woman is alive and despite potential ramifications for hiding a rambler, they decide to take her in.

Saxon and Kerina embark on a fraught journey where they both discover their fates are more intertwined than either of them could believe. The Burn (a catastrophic event that left people with solar power as their only source of energy) has taken so much from the people of these towns and the village leadership is of an authoritarian nature. It is the early decisions of these dominating rulers after the Burn that seal Saxon and Karina’s fate and the drastic events that unfold.

Wray sets a cracking pace in this book and her characters are very well developed. I found myself many times unable to stop reading as I wanted to find out the fates of all the characters not just Saxon and Kerina. Despite the dystopian setting of the novel and the authoritarian nature of the government, Wray still manages to infuse optimism and hope throughout. Something that is very important given the trying times experienced in the last few years.

I really enjoyed this great read from Melissa Wray and look forward to future novels. I feel there could be a sequel to this as one of the thoughts Saxon has is ‘The Burn was selective in its damage’ when detailing the consequences of the disaster. This has really intrigued me. Does this mean the Burn was on purpose? It’s not really discussed further, and I feel it could potentially be a great storyline.

Great read, well written

4 out of 5.

Borderlanders by Gillian Polack

This fantasy novel is set in Melbourne, Australia and regional New South Wales, mainly in Robertson (It even mentions my hometown of Wollongong!). We meet three protagonists, Melissa, Zelda and Bettina. These women are old school friends, who are not as close as they once were. Each of these women are intelligent and talented in different ways. All of these characters have an artistic talent, which becomes an important element of the story.

All three women win a two-week residency in a mysterious house in Robertson, New South Wales. It is there they are reunited and the old tensions that existed in their childhood are exacerbated by time and habit. These tensions also highlight each protagonist’s acceptance of magic. The stubborn and forthright Zelda is all about her career progression and has a total unwillingness to accept or understand the clearly magical house she is residing in. Bettina is slightly similar but when she encounters magic, she explores, then becomes angry when she can’t explain to her best friend Zelda what she is experiencing and then rejects it. Melissa has an openness and a wonder in the magic she encounters and to people in general.

Polack also highlights the journey people with chronic conditions encounter in daily life with friends, family and in social circles. Melissa’s treatment by her two friends is woeful at best. The complete unwillingness to accept that Melissa suffers from chronic debilitating pain and is just ‘all in her head’ is an example of how society can treat people with ‘invisible disease’. Melissa’s story also mentions the daily microaggressions that are inflicted on people with chronic pain or other conditions. In places such as parking lots, with acquaintances and medical professionals. Her journey also shows how a supportive spouse can make life bearable when operating on a day-to-day basis with health conditions. It can be said that Polack is likely making a statement on the willingness to accept magic and the understanding of people with ‘invisible’ disabilities. Both require an open mind.

The use of fantasy and magic in this novel is explained by magical realism, the protagonists encounter magic in their daily lives. All of the protagonists have long had some kind of magical ability or to at least see magic. In Polack’s novel it is not whether magic exists but whether the characters will accept and open their mind to it.

I grew to care and empathise with Melissa’s struggle while reading this novel and believe that it is a point of view that has long been ignored. I love the idea of a sentient dwelling as well.

Thought provoking read.

2.5 out of 5.

***Trigger Warning… this book review discusses child sex abuse, predators and domestic violence***

Wimmera by Mark Brandi is a period novel, set in rural Victoria in the late eighties and later in the nineties. Brandi’s novel follows two protagonists Ben and Fab, beginning year 6 of primary school. They are best friends, united against the harsh reality of Australian school playgrounds and anti-immigrant rhetoric. The novel begins with the tragic suicide of his neighbour, a young thirteen-year-old girl. The rumoured motivation for her demise is referenced throughout the novel. It is used as a foreshadowing for things to come for the protagonists and the adults around them. The silence of things left unsaid about this tragedy sets up a common theme within this novel. 

The new neighbour that moves into his neighbour’s house is a mystery to Ben and Fab initially until he decides to befriend Ben and his family. What follows is Ben being unwittingly groomed by his neighbour Ronnie. The town of Wimmera has a dark underbelly to its suburban facade and many of its residents are completely oblivious. The everyday minutiae that Brandi highlights, shows such as Knightrider, back yard cricket and cartoons show us how treacherous events and people can lurk underneath seemingly normal life. 

What is perhaps more striking in this novel is how paralyzing silence actually is and how remaining silent when uncomfortable about someone can have disastrous consequences.  Both protagonists are completely powerless from the adults in their lives and do not feel they have a voice. The crippling culture of silence is highlighted in an important scene where Fab is informed by his father, that his Dad does not have long to live. This is met by a few minutes of silence from Fab and his father and then his parent leaves and walks away. 

 

If Ben were in an environment where he felt his feelings would be taken seriously, I feel many of the events that took place could have been avoided. I also feel if Fab had have felt there was an adult he could turn to in regards to the domestic violence and alcoholism his father inflicted he would have had a much happier life. Fab’s prospects are bleak after school, due to his low self-confidence and lack of support or direction in his life. 

After I finished reading Brandi’s novel I was struck by how voiceless the two protagonists were and the need to provide safe spaces for children and teens to voice their feelings if they are uncomfortable or unwilling. 

The novel is prefaced with a passage from Faulkner’s ‘As I lay Dying’. It is interesting because I read through the novel I was reminded of how like Faulkner, Brandi also uses the buildings the characters are living is as metaphor’s for the circumstances of the inhabitants. Strong attention is paid to the conditions of roofs, ceilings, size and shapes of the dwellings itself. 

 

All in all, I found this book powerful, moving and thought-provoking. The ending left myself feeling a little unsatisfied.  There was more I wanted to know about both protagonists and I feel this book could be developed further. However, it was brilliantly written with sensitivity and capturing the essence of the late eighties and early nineties, perfectly. 

7/10

Silver by Chris Hammer

 

In Hammer’s second novel we are once again following Martin Scarsdale, in the wake of his time in the Riverina. He has written a book and is joining his partner from Riversend, Mandalay. As soon as the protagonist arrives in seaside town Port Silver where his partner and her son have been living, it doesn’t take long for hell to break loose. Upon Scarsdale’s arrival, he finds a man bleeding out in his kitchen, from a stab wound. 

Later, we find out the victim was his longtime childhood friend Jasper Speight from Port Silver, Martin Scarsdale’s hometown. This is just the start of the investigative journey that the novel takes us on. The events that transpire also take us through the protagonists eventful and painful childhood. 

For myself, as the reader, I enjoyed the descriptions of the town of Port Silver in both past and present as it reminded me of growing up in a small coastal area. The struggles and the people seemed very familiar. I also deplored that Scarsdale, as a partner was largely absent in a physical and emotional way, when his journalistic instinct kicked in. This is largely due to the emotional journey that Martin was navigating. I also loved the line ‘When Martin had his first sip of coffee, he almost started to believe in God’. As a fellow coffee lover, I completely understand! I empathised with many of the characters and their circumstances. 

 This second instalment from Hammer delves much further into what makes Martin Scarsdale tick and how he became the intrepid, nomadic journalist that we know so far. The pace is generally slower, much like the seaside town the novel is based in. However, there is enough intrigue to keep the reader invested. The characters in this book are very well developed and complex. The author highlights throughout the novel, how the famous quote by John Lennon ‘Life is what happens when you are busy making plans’  is an incredibly apt description of life and the plans we make. Scarsden and Mandalay are true examples of this throughout the book. Hammer’s second instalment is a great achievement with a complex plot, richly interwoven characters and realistic storylines. 

Slower paced than the first novel but just as satisfying as Scrublands. 8/10

The Postmistress by Alison Stuart.

Stuart’s novel is set in Victoria, Australia and I will freely admit that this setting, had a deciding factor in selecting this novel to review. It is set in the late half of the nineteenth century where many issues were on the world stage. Gold was still firmly on everyone’s mind in Victoria, the Civil War in the now United States is over, but not forgotten and immigration from the United Kingdom to start a new life in Australia is in full force. Stuart combines all of these events on her novel in the fictional town of Maiden’s Creek which is actually based on the very real Walhalla.

Adelaide Greaves, the Postmistress of said Maiden’s Creek, fled Liverpool, England after becoming pregnant to a man who is subsequently drowned in a shipwreck before they can be married. She has worked and fought hard for her independence in a small gold mining town on the other side of the world. Caleb is a newcomer from the United States, former Confederate soldier, who is unused to pretty much everything that happens in a rural country town in Australia. The situations they find themselves in are anything but dull. The characters of the town, both old residents and new, are richly interwoven throughout the novel. Stuarts writing makes one really feel for the residents of this fictional town. This novel also highlights the class issues present in the late nineteenth century and how they can be overcome. It was really interesting to find that throughout the novel that having high-class status does not guarantee morality, kindness, compassion, love or life satisfaction. This is also reminiscent of Bronte’s representation of the upper class in ‘Wuthering Heights’.

It was very enjoyable meeting the inhabitants of the Maiden’s Creek and also was thrilled by the deep level of research of life in the nineteenth century that Stuart undertook to write this novel.

Great read: 8/10.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper Book Review

The Lost Man by Jane Harper

***WARNING! This review contains themes of domestic violence***

 

This book sees Harper’s return to form in the beautifully written book, ‘The Lost Man’. We meet the Bright family, a hardworking farming family, and their land throughout the novel. Cameron Bright has been found dead in the outback, far away from everyone and everything that could have kept him alive. His brothers are left to pick up the pieces and find that they don’t add up.

The characters mirror the tough and hard to understand landscape of the Australian Outback. Each member of the family is complex with many layers to their story. The title ‘The Lost Man’ could apply to every single character in this story as they are lost in the complex labyrinth that humans intertwine with another. The distance and size of the outback is a great metaphor for the distance between each family member and the secrets they hold.

The fate of Cameron Bright isn’t as important as his life and how he chose to lead it. Harper shows us that our actions have greater impacts on people that we can ever know. And how we can imprison people with the intent and result of those actions. This novel by Harper also highlights the horrific effects of domestic violence on a whole family, not just the intended victim. However, this novel also shows the power of redemption for some of the Bright family through the actions of some or by letting the time pass and gaining perspective.

An intriguing and enjoyable read with each family member’s plight detailed with empathy. Harper is excellent at creating suspense and delivers a great novel right to the final page.

A wonderful read 9/10

Interstate Histories: Parramatta NSW

Instituting The Past

While we are a Victorian History Library we do hold information on areas outside Victoria, to complement the Victorian history collection. An example is this history of Parramatta. Thanks to our volunteer Renee for the insight into Parramatta’s fascinating history.

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For this local history article, we will be focusing on Parramatta in New South Wales. It is a town that was instrumental in the survival of the colonialists when they first arrived. Many livestock and agriculture experiments were conducted in the area to ensure that sustainable living in this new colony was viable. The first wheat was harvested by James Ruse, and the Macarthurs wool dynasty created and nurtured the establishment of what would become one of our greatest exports, wool.

The original inhabitants were the Burramattagal people. Their name comes from their proximity to the now named Parramatta River and the eels that inhabited it. Their name literally translated…

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Graphic Silence

Being deaf can be pretty raw deal for someone wanting to live a full and happy life. Describing deafness in illustrated form requires an understanding of how it feels to be deaf in the first place. Cece Bell describes the journey very cleverly in her illustrated world using the graphic novel genre to her advantage In Her novel El Deafo. We the readers are always reminded visually of Cece’s hearing impairment due to Bell’s choice of using rabbits as the characters. Rabbits have large, quite noticeable ears and Cece’s hearing aids are always shown as a result. Speech bubbles in grey indistinct font or just filled with blank white colour truly illustrate to the rest of the world what a person is feeling when they cannot hear in clear distinct detail.
It is white noise or an indistinct jumble of words that can lead to some peculiar challenges and assumptions when you are deaf….bake or lake? Cake or fake?.CeceBell also addresses the hardships and isolation endured with hearing loss.
How do I know these challenges? I was born deaf in my right ear. This is something I have in common with the author, Cece Bell. El Deafo’s protagonist Cece contracted viral meningitis at the age of four. While I don’t have the harrowing experience Cece did being in hospital, being deaf does put you in a certain club. Many deaf people I am certain, would really like to leave the club if they could. Cece’s formative years are spent dealing with the everyday difficulties of being deaf and trying to fit in with her classmates and friends who are not deaf… I was always aware that something wasn’t right hearing wise, I suspected that I was deaf long before I was officially diagnosed when I was sixteen. My formative years were spent undiagnosed and looking back it explains so much about my childhood.
Deafness has a profound impact on your life. The self-esteem of many hearing-impaired children is usually much lower than in other children in their formative years. It can cause the delay of speech and language skills leading to social anxiety and poor social skills generally. This can also make you less willing to try and work on these skills, if like me, you don’t know why everyone else is getting along so much better than you. I just assumed I was dumb.
This also flows onto poor academic achievement. Many schools are now employing the use of trained aides to sit with hearing impaired children or the use of electronic microphones as depicted in El Deafo. I really struggled with mathematical concepts, which apparently is common with deaf children. Visual and English subjects are more readily picked up by the hearing impaired. As many people will understand this leads to isolation and poor self concept, which can follow through to adulthood which has its own unique challenges.
Deafness poses everyday challenges to your most important one to one relationships. Asking small favours may seem to hard if you need to sign or talk loudly to your hearing impaired loved one. Deafness has one of leading divorce rates for disabilities. Simply put, communication really is one of the main aspects of any relationship. If spontaneous communication isn’t really available, for example, you really like that flower over there and you want to say it to your partner, you may be discouraged if it feels like too much effort to sign. Harsh but true, sorry to say. Which leads to frustration, for both people. For Cece, in El Deafo the inability to hear, when her microphone is dropped, leads her teacher to interpret Cece’s lack of hearing as disrespect. If I had a dollar for every time I got in trouble for ‘daydreaming’ as a child I’d be a rich woman today. Daydreaming was interpreted as laziness or disrespect.
My deafness does pose some amusing relationship issues as well. My incredibly lovely partner will occasionally whisper sweet nothings into the wrong ear…and all I’ll feel is the tickle of his breath. I then have to gently remind him it was the wrong ear…awkward. But worth it when I get to hear what he wants to say.
However it can become a major obstacle in major life circumstances. Only very recently a Georgia, USA hospital awarded damages to a deaf mother that had given birth and wasn’t provided an interpreter that could sign. This actually violated legal standards within the hospital but what was the worst part for me was that during the birth by C-section, this poor woman would have felt so isolated. I imagine that being wheeled into surgery and having your abdomen being cut open would already be a harrowing experience.
While thankfully most of the time this doesn’t happen, when it does, it reinforces the isolation deafness brings. Deafness makes even the smallest things like crossing the road a little more tinged with anxiety as I ran out in front of many cars as a young child, not hearing them coming. In fact Id say I’m probably more anxious due to the need to constantly be aware, listening for sounds. My work in a retail store relies on my hearing, so I need to be constantly alert. Many times I think I’ve heard my name, but it’s a word that rhymes with mine, something I am sure Cece would have dealt with too. Basically it’s a world of unease.
That’s what makes this book so remarkable and inspiring. Cece, the protagonist turns the things she needs to do like lip reading, into a detective story, still wants to have friends and socialize with the world. But best of all she finds a way to turn her disability into positive by realizing that she can hear her teachers when her other classmates cant. She helps them skive off class and her newfound ability leads her to renaming herself ‘El Deafo’. She becomes a super hero to herself, classmates and importantly to ‘deafo’ readers like me.

Literature as a method of understanding the past

The concept of fiction as a way of understanding the past is one that resonates with me quite strongly. Call me a Pollyanna but I don’t think I could have ever understood at all the despicable standards that slave traders and Colonial ideals subjected slaves to. The sheer depth of indignity that a slave endured during this time is still slightly unfathomable to me. To have work for a master that potentially was violently cruel, would rape and take away your offspring.
As a counter point though, I can’t imagine ever treating a fellow human differently because of his skin type, much less kidnapping them from their only home to work in servitude. If it weren’t for Toni Morrison, Sue Monk Kidd, Joseph Conrad, films like ‘The Help’ and ‘Lincoln’ I would never appreciate the scope and magnitude in which slaves suffered and even after slavery was officially abolished how hard the fight was. There are so many people who have read similar works and would have similar experiences. Literature allows us to empathise and experience another way of life.
This is the great gift that fiction gives us, the ability to see both sides of an experience and still agree that both sides are wrong in how the society was run. We are able to see how things can change for the better with the almost 20/20 vision that history gives us. (Im slightly cynical that all historical texts are all ‘truth’….. at least with fiction you can sometimes concede some artistic license has been given, forgive my cynical nature!)
What book or real life adaptation really resonated with you on the topic of slavery? It doesn’t need to be highbrow literature or even based on real life events to make an impact. Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences….