‘Devotion’ by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent has not failed to rip my heart out and then piece it back together again in her latest historical fiction novel, ‘Devotion’. I am in a book slump after reading this book and I’m finding it so hard to get the fictional characters of Hanne and Thea off my mind. Their love story is one for the ages and honestly, if you have not read this book, I strongly encourage you to find your nearest book store and buy a physical copy. Your note taking (if you’re that way inclined to annotate your books) is going to be flooded with pen marks and highlighted passages.

Growing up in the German village of Kay in 1830’s Prussia, Hanne represses her expectations of female friendships and socialising. She much prefers to be a child of nature as from a young age, believing to hear the whispers of trees, the nearby stream and the movement of air. Hanne knows that her love for nature makes her different from the other teenage girls in the village. It isn’t until she meets Thea that Hanne realises her long inherent beliefs of romantic love are also different.

Hanne’s family are set to follow their local Pastor to the new found land called South Australia. Here their community of Kay can continue to practice their Old Lutheran beliefs and spread the devotion of God. However, in order to get there they must sell everything they own and sail for months on end. (This is the part of the story where your heart will break. You will be baffled, you will find it hard to believe that Hannah has put us as the reader through this much horror, but you will also find it incredibly hard to stop reading).

At sea, they travel with their village for months on end. You feel the fear and uncertainly of being in the middle of the ocean without seeing land in sight, you smell the stagnate underneath living quarters and you sense that sickness and death is looming. It is inevitable and the inevitable does happen, but to whom? We see and feel love bloom, to then be ripped away from us. Hanne and Thea’s story falls short in so many ways but it only makes you realise how quickly your expectations of life can change in one moment.

The third section of this books is a mirage of life, yet through a different and troubling lens. It is raw and harrowing and heartbreaking. I continue to be utterly amazed at how hard hitting the writing of this novel is but yet it is delivered in such a rich and vibrant way. This is a big call to make but I truely believe that Hannah Kent had produced another national and international, award winning fiction. If this book does not move you, read it again! In my eyes, Hannah Kent is the reason we read fiction.

Book Review: ‘The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart’

Wow folks it’s been a hot minute! Where have you been Mel, you may ask? Well, it’s a busy time for bookselling and book recommendations! This makes me incredibly happy but it is also quite tiring, leaving me with limited time to write my regular book reviews. Things will slow down soon and uploading will become more regular – I promise 😉

So, a little while back (maybe 2-3 weeks ago), I finished The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland and honestly, I can absolutely see why this debut Australian novel caused a stir of positive discussion in its publication year of 2019. Additionally, I believe it is truely well worth the 2019 Australian Book Industry Award.

To begin with, a little disclaimer that this novel is strongly focused on the effects of domestic abuse and it’s long-lasting repercussions. Don’t let this put you off because it is a beautifully woven story.

Alice Hart is a young girl at the beginning of this novel. She is living on an isolated property with her whimsical, young and intelligent mother who speaks daily with love to her flowers. However her father has a consuming presence in her childhood, utilising narcissistic and abusive behaviours to control both Alice and her mother. Alice is aware of her mothers physical signs of abusive, yet it isn’t until she is on the receiving end of her father’s behavioural abuse does she realise that her childhood is not necessarily a happy one. Events occur and Alice uncovers a hidden secret of her fathers which ultimately leaves her as an orphan. Alice’s world then expands in ways she never knew possible.

Alice’s paternal Grandmother, June (a family member she never even knew existed), becomes her legal guardian. June takes Alice to live on her flower farm, Thornfield. Thornfield actually doubles as both a workplace and a safe house for women and children escaping domestic abuse. This environment of love, support and kindness is all new for Alice and quite hard to comprehend.

We continue to live through Alices’ experiences as a teenager and then as a young woman. Artistically and brilliantly, each chapter starts with an image and description of an Australian native flower. We learn to understand the language of flowers with Alice, where each flower comes from, how they look and what they mean. Without giving too much away, Alice soon becomes tangled up in her own abusive relationship. Interestingly and intelligently, Holly Ringland has peeled back the layers of emotional, mental, financial and physical abusive all in one novel. It is eye-opening, destroying and hard to put down. You want to throw the book across the room in exhausted anger but scavenge it to keep reading! As the reader, you yearn for Alice to see through the behaviours of her partner yet it is so explainable as to see why she doesn’t, creating the perfect depiction for domestic abuse. You’re a witness to her inside thoughts but you’re also weighing up the decisions she’s making from the outside as the reader. It is fantastically terrifying.

I think, if you can give yourself the time before the end of the year, read this book. Or if not, add it to your TBR for 2022. It will stay with you and make you become a full on advocate for exposing and supporting domestic abuse in Australia – maybe even around the world.

Book Review: ‘The Labyrinth’

I am utterly speechless and surprised. Not only in this book but in myself. Literature is not often my forte, nor do I usually find pleasure and addictiveness in reading literary language, plots and character conversations – yet THIS! WOW! I am blown away and can 100% see why ‘The Labyrinth’ by Amanda Lohrey won the Miles Franklin Literary Award for 2021.

Where to start …

‘The Labyrinth’ begins with the introduction of Erica, our main character. She is reflecting on her time as a child where she has just witnessed her mother abandoning Erica and her brother, Axel. They are left in the care of their father, who raises the children on the ground of a psychiatric facility where he also works as the head psychiatric doctor. This environment sets a feeling and acknowledgement of intense mental health and psychotic episodes throughout the novel. This theme reoccurs when Erica is comparing the life and work of her father, to her son Daniel.

Daniel is an incredibly interesting character in this story as we meet him whilst in goal. Erica bought and moved into a small coastal beach shack to be closer to him. We know that he is in goal after obsessing over a person, mostly through painting and drawing this person over and over. It is implied that this obsession then took a bad turn. Daniel connects to the world through his art, and there is an amazingly dark scene where Erica visits Daniel in goal after she has written multiple times to the goal administration to allow Daniel oil pastels. Daniel receives these but at the visitation with Erica, he breaks one in half, sits half on the table for her and proceeds to place the other half in his mouth, chew it and smirk as Erica. It’s twisted and dark and psychotic. You’re left thinking as the reader, what does this mean?! All the while, Erica continues to visit him due to this feeling of responsibility for him being the way he is and self-sabotage.

The idea of building a labyrinth comes to Erica in a dream and she feels this overwhelming urge to create one. The process of designing, developing, finding the right stonemason, obtaining material and the emotional support along the way, is all part of the core plot. The story is quite simple, yet it isn’t. Majority of my book club really enjoyed this novel and felt that Erica’s journey really did represented a Labyrinth. The circling relationship with Daniel, the moving past different characters and not overly investing time in or with them, or getting to know them. Erica’s dreams and final scenes in the novel were incredibly raw and moving.

I love that the Literature Book Club I’m leading is really pushing me out of my comfort zone. The discussions are AWE-some and really switching on this appetite for more Australian literature. If you’re looking for a novel to ponder over long after it’s finished – read this one!

Book Review: ‘Love & Virtue’

Where do I start with this one … I really feel like many more reviews will do this book justice and be able to articulate the pleasurable feeling and satisfaction of fine literature this book provides. I will say that my perspective is one from the outside.

I have not lived a life of luxury, much like Michaela.

I have not lived a life of dominant feminist perspective or political projections thrust in my face like many characters within this novel.

I have not lived a city, elite and/or privileged life. Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware of how privileged I am for living where I do, experiences and opportunities in my life yet in comparison to some expressions and environments in this novel – they truely baffle me (maybe that’s the small town girl in me). What is more baffling, is that these places, events and types of personalities exist within the world. Basing this book in Sydney had a large impact on my perspective of elite social classes and their impact on society.

‘Love & Virtue’ by Diana Reid is an Australian debut novel. One of many stella novels to come from the new kids on the block, Ultimo Press. They are picking up and supporting bold, fresh and impactful Australian writers and they truely knew what they were doing with this one.

The focal themes in this novel are power, privilege, consent and well, love. We love who we love, even when their actions seek to destroy our sense of being. Michaela and Eve have an instant female friendship at university living across from one another in their dorms. This is their commonality yet their lives are completely parallel. Eve is transfixed, shines as the centre of attention and seeks to make an impact in this world – she wants change, particularly in the space of sexual consent and public recognition in their Sydney girls college. Eve believes that her writing and influential abilities on campus deem her the most appropriate person to share Michaela’s sexual experiences in her drunken O-Week. One experience that Michaela was still uncertain of her own standpoint, which in my eyes represented the misinformation of sexual consent and sexual behaviour within the realms of alcohol consumption and college/university behaviour. This, I believe was written well.

The voice of Michaela is so strong in this novel that I found it incredibly hard to remove myself from her talking and thinking. From listening to her navigate both friendship and intimate relationships, succumbing to the opinion of others and attempting to take a step back and view her world from an outside perspective when you’re stuck in this whirlwind/secluded world of privilege. Her character was so unique yet so perfectly placed for juxtaposition that you couldn’t not understand her point of view in comparison to Eve – subtile yet so clear. Social media and the power of technology is also evident and clever within the structure of this book – I liked the contemporary use of texting and Instagramming as dialogue.

I am temporarily leading our Literary Lovers Book Club and I had chosen this for our October read. I think it has challenged me and opened for a wide variety of conversational topics at our meeting. Some questions thus far will be:

  1. Did you connect with the primary voice of Michaela?
  2. What impact do you think the novel would have had being told from Eve’s perspective?
  3. Was there a scene that stood out to you the most? (I won’t tell you mine because it’s a spoiler***!)
  4. Do you think connecting sexual consent to a campus setting was a good move? Why?
  5. What are some of the ways Diana Reid represented elite privilege in characters, events and environments?

All in all, I really REALLY enjoyed this book and if I didn’t have so many books on my TBR, I’d safely say I’d go back and re-read this novel. I’m looking forward to discussing these questions and more at my book club meeting. Oh, and a HUGE congratulations to Diana Reid and Ultimo Press – what an epic way to burst onto the Australian book scene and get Australian society talking about timely topics that need serious attention!

Book Review: ‘100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze’

Oh Xander Maze, what a special and long-lasting place in my heart you’ve got. ‘100 Remarkable Feats of Xander Maze’ by Clayton Zane Comber has flown up there on my top 3 list of Australian Young Adult novels. I finished this book in four sittings as it’s amount of dialogue, perfectly paced character experiences/developments, as well as its heart-warming plot really pulled me in – and QUICK!

Xander Mazes’ Nanna is his #1 person he trusts in his life. His curated ‘Memory List’ includes numerous happy, warm and safe memories with her. But Nanna is terminally ill and has recently moved into end of life care. Xander recognised this new environment of Nanna’s because it has less beep and whir noises than the regular hospital. Xander notes that he will have to make a new mental map of this hospital layout while Nanna is a patient.

Nanna suggests Xander make a list of ‘100 Remarkable Feats’ and ticks them off in the wish it can help his Nanna feel better, yet Xander interprets this as a way he can help save his Nanna’s life and prevent loosing her forever. This list soon goes viral (thanks to the help of his clever Nanna) and Xander’s world is about to change.

Making a best friend, having a ‘yes’ day, asking out Ally (#1 prettiest girl ever), driving a car for the first time, learn to surf, go to a party, befriend weird neighbour Mr. Abramowitz, make Nanna proud – are just a few of the 100 feats. Xander’s development and journey is hard to draw your reading eyes away from. His innocence in the beginning really helps mould his character and maturity throughout the novel. I kind of felt like a proud Mum reading this book. I’m proud of what Xander achieved with his list and how it allowed him to bloom in this new world he created with the help of new friends and family.

I look forward to the day that I can visit Clayton Zane Comber’s book store/cafe ‘Bouqiniste’ in Kiama, NSW! I also look forward to reading more of his work. Okay now that’s me signing off to read ‘The Gilded Cage’ by Lynette Noni 👋🏼

Book Review: ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’

I gave into the hype, I did it and I’m telling you … I really, really don’t regret it. If you have been hesitant like me about reading the ridiculously loved, discussed and recommended novel ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owen – I am here to vouch that this book is great! Buy it, loan it, read it and let’s talk about it 😍✨

Clever. That is my overarching word, expression and summary for this book. Not only has Delia Owens written in a descriptive yet simplistic way, she has allowed us as the reader to connect with Kya who is our main character. We are also strongly invested in the death, or supposed murder of Chase Andrews.

Kya’s life isn’t easy. Her father has strong symptoms of PTSD, domestic abuse and alcoholism. Due to her family living within the deep marshland of North Carolina, the neglectful family environment goes unseen and unknown. Kya’s mother walks out on her uneducated, poor and scared children. Eventually, Kya is left to fend for herself and her father – constantly in a state of pining, grief and hoping her mother may return to the marsh. Eventually, her father also leaves and so Kya is left to completely fend for herself. We see her develop hands-on environmental intellect, sufficiency and resilience from a very young age and well into her teens – where she meets Chase Andrews, ‘the town golden-boy’.

Shifting back and forward of time is something I really enjoy in period novels. Delia Owens has perfected the technique as it provided the reader with suspicion, curiosity and a number of motives as to why/when/how/who may have been involved in Chase Andrews’ death.

The love expressed throughout this book – oh, how good it is!! Over time, Kya was exposed to and learnt how to feel supported and cared for by multiple people. It wasn’t just the assumed modern ‘love story’ scenario. Slang, twang and small town community culture/gossip held this novel in a different light. As the story takes place in the mid-1900’s, African American culture is hugely ostracised and rejected. Kya finds that her reputation as the ‘Marsh Girl’ pockets her in the same category – largely leading to the accusations and theories that spread about her and Chase.

Poetry, mother nature and the interesting scientific facts of insects, birds and animal relationships, really do complement the story. Clever – as I said at the beginning. Trust me, it will all make sense when you read it (which I throughly encourage you to do)! Reece Witherspoon was also behind the push for movie production/ book adaptation of Where the Crawdads Sing. I can’t wait to see this on film in 2022 📽🎞

Book Review: ‘The Wattle Island Book Club’

August 2021

Sandie Docker’s novels always feel like a warm, comfortable and familiar hug to me. I am immersed in them within the first 3 chapters and next thing you know, I’ve been reading for an hour and have myself totally invested in the characters, their challenges and their experiences to come.

The Wattle Island Book Club is a dual perspective story following the wonderful Grace and Anne (with an e, just like Anne of Green Gables 😊). We’re initially introduced to Grace and she is strapped in to bungie jump off a cliff! Writing and curating ‘Bucket Lists’ has always been a tradition for her and she believes that life is full of unexpected curve balls and challenges, therefore it is time to start ticking off some of these adventures. Grace is a librarian and prides herself in the founding and organising of library bookclubs. She gives regular recommendations, offers support and lives to help her members. One day she receives a call from Anne in need of her immediate assistance.

Anne’s character is multi-dimensional as we follow her life in present time, as she works to resurrect her Wattle Island Book Club, and in the past through the period of the 1940-50’s Australia. Anne is made an orphan from a young age and is shipped off to Wattle Island to live with her Aunt. The small, quiet and isolated island prompts her love for reading to grow. Anne’s life has been full of love, loss and trauma as we learn throughout the book and I really resonated with her character – she was so strong and still so kind!

The elements of book clubs, reading lists, book shop and art were so well woven into The Wattle Island Book Club, that I wouldn’t have asked for a better lockdown read. Sandie’s writing takes me away and puts my mind at ease. I always find myself finishing her novels too soon (this one before it is even published!!) and desperately craving more!

Sandies other books are:

The Kookaburra Creek Cafe

The Cottage at Rosella Cove

The Banksia Bay Beach Shack

All of which I have throughly enjoyed and would highly recommend 📚

Book Review: ‘The Reading List’

August 2021

The Reading List was an enjoyable and quick read for me. I found myself at a crossroads of what to read. There were multiple DNF’s before picking up ‘The Reading List’ so I have to say I was incredibly excited when this hit our New Release shelves at work.

Immediately I was captured by our main characters, Mukesh and Aleisha.

Mukesh is an English/Indian widowed older man. He has lost his life long companion to cancer and is starting to feel his life and body slowing down. His three daughters smother him with food, phone calls and check-ups. He feels a loss of independence and cannot stand being talked about rather than talked to by his family.

Aleisha is a 16 year old girl spending her summer break working in her small local library. She isn’t a reader so this jobs comes as a suggestion from her older brother Aidan, mostly to keep her busy while all her friends are away having spontaneous adventures and partying (as she sees on social media and through group chats). Aleisha’s mum also struggles with serious depression and needs full-time shift care from both her and her brother.

On Aleisha’s first day, a grumpy old man asks her for a book recommendation as he has just finished ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ and enjoyed it. This being one of the first books he has ever read, he wants something else to capture him and fill the void of lost connection to his wife. They have a little disagreement, make some quarrelsome remarks and a library book ends up being stolen – it’s quite a funny scene to initiate their meeting!

Taking a breath and walking around the library, Aleisha finds a crumpled up note in a copy of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. The note is a Reading List that has anonymously been left by someone for others to find. The Reading List looks well used and as Aleisha looks around the library, she wonders how many other people have come across this and maybe, just maybe, she can use this list to give book recommendations to that grumpy old man.

From here we see Mukesh and Aleisha’s friendship slowly bloom. Their slow growing connection to the world of books, the lives of each character and the emotional journey they all face creates such meaningful discussions and allows them to see more to life than they did before.The Reading List really highlighted for me the importance of reading. How it can allow us to travel into the worlds and minds of people who think and feel differently to us. Not only that, reading allows us to explore new and exciting worlds – both real and make believe. It encourages us to grow our insight of ourselves and others, learning to understand compassion and empathy. Maybe I may just have to make a little reading list of my own and leave it sitting in my local library 😉📚