Book Review: ‘A Place Near Eden’ by Nell Pierce

Wow. Wow. Wow. Nell Pierce coming through with the award winning literary fiction. Nell is the prestigious winner of the 2022 Australian/ Vogel’s Literary Award. Okay cool Mel, but what does this actually mean? My fellow reading friends, it means that Nell had worked dang hard on her book like all authors, was selected out of a HUGE bunch of unpublished manuscripts, fit the bill of being under the age of 35 AND has now had this manuscript published, promoted and sold with Allen & Unwin. So let me tell you, this book is a no brainer for you to pick up in 2022.

A Place Near Eden follows three main characters; Tilly (Matilda); Sem; and Celeste. Their intricate, manipulative and submissive relationships with one another creates the whirlwind of events and downward spirals in this novel. The overall theme that has really kept me thinking and pondering long after I finished, is manipulation. A Place Near Eden shows the different types of manipulation a person can face in real life. This novel shows strong instances of verbal manipulation, tv and film consumption that had been manipulated to make you believe a persons’ innocence, and manipulation through the streams of social media. There has been a tragic ‘accident’ near Eden and we begin to slowing unfold who was involved by back tracking Tilly’s story, but is Tilly’s story real and honest? Or has it been created through the manipulation and impression of those around her, who are aiming to save themselves by throwing Tilly in the firing line.

At the beginning it is brought to the reader’s attention that teenage Tilly is facing a change in home environment. Her new foster brother Sem, has moved in and her parents are at odds over Sem’s behaviour and his influence on her. Tilly idolises Sem and begins to develop romantic feelings towards him. Now bring Celeste into the mix – she is Sem’s ‘girlfriend’ and next door neighbour. Celeste is older than Tilly and has a teenage strength about her. She wears her midriff tops without the worry of wandering eyes, lies and boasts about going all the way with Sem. Celeste creates arguments with her Mum and Sem for no good reason other then wanting to have a fight, she talks Tilly into drinking a lot, she criticises and makes fun of Tilly for getting a job and then goes and gets one herself, she also convinces Tilly to not keep any other friends. Celeste is clever, manipulative and calculating. She can also strongly influence and convince Tilly’s change in mindset, mood and memory.

For me, quite early in, Tilly reads as an unreliable narrator and this kept me flipping the pages. Tilly talks in the past of her coming and going relationships with Sem and Celeste, moving out with Celeste, drinking a lot, counselling sessions arranged by her Dad to draw out information on Sem, her unusual relationship with her near absent mother, and the place of spiritual awakening that Sem and her mother would visit way out bush. Tilly is talking to someone in the present, someone who will be learning about Tilly, Sem and Celeste’s story through a documentary. This documentary has been created, aired and viewed to expose the possible scenarios leading up to the accident near Eden and who is responsible. Due to Tilly being an unreliable narrator, for a long time she is convincing you, as the reader, that she is responsible. She is telling you she has destroyed someone’s life and should be punished – yet as Celeste and Tilly’s relationship begins to unravel, we can’t be so sure as to who’s the guilty one.

This novel is challenging for me to write about without giving too much away. I really enjoyed the not knowingness of jumping in with just the blurb for reference. I want you to experience that unknown feeling too! Therefore, I will finish this review with one of my favourite lines in the book. This stood out to me the moment I read it, as I felt it can sum up Celeste’s mind games, Tilly’s influenced inability to make choices and Sem’s unreliable nature. It can also sum up young adulthood, pivots in life paths and personal growth;

“Don’t look at me like I’m crazy,” Sem said. “It’s okay if you don’t see things the way I do. It’s just important to me that I make my own choices, that’s all.”

One big cheer and shout out to Allen & Unwin, as well as Nell Pierce for generously sending me this (now well read, tagged and already passed around) copy of ‘A Place Near Eden’. I am so SO very grateful for the experience 💖

4 June book releases I’m ecstatic about

‘The Woman in The Library’ by Sulari Gentill

Crime Fiction. A murderous scream. One dead woman. Everyone in the reading room is a suspect.

Excitingly, Sulari is a close friend of ours at the bookstore, so we celebrated the book launch of ‘The Woman in the Library’ in style! She is adored by our local book community, our staff and our readers. For the month of June, ‘The Woman in the Library’ is the centre of our events, our discussions and our bookclubs. I am privileged enough to be organising an enlarged book club meeting with Sulari and three of our Collins Book Clubs. This will take place in a calm and relaxed setting, with myself and Sulari facilitating the conversations.

The Woman in The Library is about Hannah and Hannah is writing a crime fiction novel. The main character in Hannah’s crime fiction novel is Winifred, or Winnie. Winnie is also writing a novel, therefore the physical book in your hands has another book and ANOTHER BOOK inside of it. Trust me, it is harder to explain than it is to actually read this fantastic book 🤣 In Hannah’s world, there is a scream in the Boston Library Reading Room and of the people surrounding her in this Reading Room, one of them is the killer – but who is it …

I, for one, could not put this down! I will have a full review coming in the next few weeks as I re-read ‘The Woman in The Library’ ready for our book club event.

‘Paperbark Hill’ by Maya Linnell

Maya is such a kind, caring and honest soul and this comes through in her novels. She writes country romance with all the drama, love and addictiveness that we all need in our lives!

This series of Maya’s follows a family of sisters, with each individual novel showing each different sisters’ stories and perspectives. Paperbark Hill surrounds Diana and her four sons after a tough eighteen months. Diana is trying to get her family back into the routines of normal life when locum pharmacist, Ned Gardiner comes to town and creates a whole lot of change. Change in feelings, change in life plans, change in family structures. I am excited to feel all the feels and fall right into Maya’s comforting writing.

‘The Blood Traitor’ by Lynette Noni

AHHHHHHHH!!!!! This is a finale I have been waiting all YEAR FOR!!

You guys know from my reviews, suggestions and recommendations – how much I adore Lynette Noni’s ‘Prison Healer’ series. I first discussed them in my ‘5 Reasons to read YA Fantasy’. I have raved about them in the shop and also listed the second novel in the series, ‘The Gilded Cage’ as one of my top books of 2021! Big call folks, big call ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This story will be the end of Kiva’s story and reading her as our main character. Kiva has been a prisoner in Zalindov for more than half her life. She practices as the inmate prison healer and learnt all her skills from her Father. Life is dull, dangerous and blood thirsty in Zalindov, until the Rebel Queen enters the prison unconscious and Kiva is tasked with healing her. An additional secret message finds Kiva; “Don’t let her die”. Being the Rebel Queen, many want her dead, so when she is sentenced to the Trial by Ordeal – a series of elemental trails and tasks that with the Queen being so sickly, she will surely die within the first minute of entering. Kiva bravely and cohesively takes her place – this is where her action packed story begins! This series is so fast-paced, full of heart dropping chapter endings and beautifully woven connections. The Blood Traitor is the third and final instalment. I am sure it will not disappoint!

‘You made a Fool of Death with your Beauty’ by Akwaeke Emezi

Now this book, I have to admit honestly – captured my eye with its bright cover 😍 How spectacular is it! Additionally, there were a number of limited independent bookstore copies brought out especially with the BookBar in London, UK. I LOVEEE following this bookstore online!! Luckily, this bookstore is set to host Akwaeke for a signing and special book event which will include a number of funky giveaways.

The brightness and eclectiveness of this cover represents a romance novel at its core. Described as a decadent and delightful new age novel, our main character Feyi is about to be given the opportunity of a lifetime. Feyi has the chance to escape the City’s blistering heat for a dream island holiday: poolside cocktails, beach sunsets, and elaborate meals. As Feyi opens her heart to new experiences, new friendships and new romance, there is only one problem – she’s falling for the one man she absolutely cannot have. dun dun daaaaa… not to be dramatic but doesn’t this sound like a nice, fun read! When I’m needing my next “get me out of a book slump read” this will be it!

Will you be adding any of these books to your TBR? Are there any other new releases you’re excited about this month? Share them with me in the comments 💬

Author Talks with Isobel Beech

Isobel Beech is an up and coming, young Australian writer. Her first fictional novel ‘Sunbathing’, was published with Allen & Unwin this month (May, 2022). 📸 by Claire Summers

Isobel Beech is going to take Australia by storm! With a background in copywriting, creative and internet news media, she is well versed in the book world. Her first book titled ‘How To Be Online and Also Be Happy’, was published in 2021. Her spectacular debut fiction called ‘Sunbathing’, has been published with Allen & Unwin this month (May, 2022).

Welcome Isobel and thank you so much for being a part of my Author Talks space online! It is an absolute pleasure to be discussing your new novel and writing experience with you 😊💬

Isobel – wow congratulations on such a moving debut novel! How long has it been in your heart to write fiction? Have you always seen fiction in your writing journey?

Well, I only started doing writing stuff around ten years ago but the first few things I ever wrote were fiction because I was studying a Bachelor of Creative Writing at RMIT. A lot of the curriculum revolves around poetic and narrative-based writing techniques, so I suppose I learned how to write – or learned how I might someday want to write – with fiction.

 I’ve done a fair bit of non-fiction writing since then for online and print media but fiction writing is just less of a pressure cooker I think. It’s so much more open-ended, so much more creative, you can really go wherever with it and say whatever needs to be said. And with it you can build the worlds you wish you lived in, or the worlds you wish you had access to. Like with Sunbathing, so much of the driving force behind the story there is about having a final conversation with a person you’ve already lost. That kind of closure you can only dream about. Writing this book gave me that.

The feeling of your writing style had me captivated from the very instant I started reading Sunbathing. That feeling of connection didn’t waver and had me finishing your novel in less than 48 hours. How long did it take you to plan, write and have Sunbathing published with Allen & Unwin?

Thank you! I’ve heard that people are finishing it quickly which I definitely take as a compliment; I love being able to read a book in a couple of days, I think it really helps to feel like you’ve been transported and lived it yourself.

And I didn’t plan the writing process at all really, I just began. I was at a writing residency in Italy and just wasn’t sure what to do with my time; I wasn’t feeling very motivated or like I had anything worthwhile to say at the time, so I just started writing some stuff down to pass the time. Things I saw that day, dreams I had, the smells and sounds around me. Then the document gained momentum and I began to find bits I liked in it that I wanted to interrogate more. And then I realised I wanted to bring the grief stuff into it – something I was kind of wading through at the time. 

The writing of the first manuscript took around three weeks, then probably six months to sort out and edit and rearrange on my own. Which is remarkably quick for a novel, but I think I just had this spare time and was obviously really invested in telling this story and a lot of it wasn’t fiction – not the feelings or the essence of it – so it kind of tipped out of me. That was in 2019.

By the time I decided it was finished, I actually didn’t know if I wanted to share it with the world at all. Because it felt like a pretty big thing to write about and I was afraid of putting it out there, I guess. But I met with Kelly (from A&U) and we talked about how we saw the book and what it might mean to me or to others as a published thing and she just made the decision really easy. We edited it in 2021 between March and December, and so all up it was probably just under a two-year project. 

So, quick to write and quick to read as it turns out.

I really enjoyed the namelessness of the main female character. She is one person healing from grief, yet she is many. She is one 21st century woman, yet she is many. Through this, I ultimately felt extremely connected to her. What does her namelessness mean to you in the story? Did you begin with a character name or was she always nameless?

She was and absolutely for that very reason. I’ve always enjoyed being able to step right into a character and I feel like the less information you’re given about them – particularly the superficial stuff – just makes that easier.

In the beginning she was genderless, too, and a lot the talk of ‘women’ and ‘men’ stuff included ideas and feelings on gender identity and how there’s so much outside of that binary and what that means for us and our relationships. But in the editing process I was convinced, and rightly so, that these ideas weren’t being given enough air time within the narrative to be doing them justice. So we culled that stuff and she became a she. 

I think it works and is good, particularly for the function of her experiences as a daughter of a dad and what that means for their dynamic, but I’ll have to save the gender dysphoria for the next book.

What has the feeling been like for you, to walk into a bookstore and see your debut fiction novel on the shelf? Or turn on your social media to see your novel pictured, shared and reviewed with so much love?

It’s just a total smoothie of feelings right now! I feel lucky, confused, delighted, exposed. I had no idea what this time was going to be like but thinking about a few months ago, I realise I was being super pessimistic (my editor will attest to that). I just had this idea in my head that it was going to be really challenging, I guess because I’m writing about something that makes me feel vulnerable, and I was thinking I’d be having a hard time with it out there in the world, being consumed by people and commented on. But it’s just been the total opposite of that. It helps that people are saying really nice things about it, like I haven’t really been hit with any criticism yet so maybe ask me again then, but so far it’s felt like a really worthwhile thing to have done. 

A friend said to me the other day, like, how great it is that somehow, this thing that used to cause me all this agony is now the source of all this solace and warmth, and that’s true. I’m suddenly associating this pretty painful thing with good feelings, with these incredibly meaningful conversations and connections. And that’s just the most beautiful, strange, incredible thing.

Thank you Isobel for sharing a piece of your time with me on melreviewsherbooks.com 💖

Book Review: ‘Sunbathing’ by Isobel Beech

I sit here, writing this review with a cup of Italian coffee and biscuit in tow. I do not think I could have a set up any more fitting. Isobel Beech has created a novel that draws you in from the very beginning. ‘Sunbathing’ by Isobel Beech, takes place mostly in Abruzzo, Italy. The setting is described in such an emotionally and physically connecting way that you feel the Italian breeze, smell the freshly cut tomato salad with basil and olive oil, hear the gurgling of fresh coffee on the stove in the morning, and can imagine the footfalls and efforts of love in the vegetable garden below your window.

I need to preface that this novel does surround the topic of suicide, therefore please read this review with caution and/or pop back onto the blog for another book review soon xx

“… ‘Sunbathing’ explores the workings of the self in the wake of devastation and deep regret, and reveals the infinite ways that the everyday offers solace and hope.”. Transcribed from the back cover of ‘Sunbathing’. In summary, this quote covers the essence of this novel completely.

After suffering the great loss of someone close, an Australian woman books a plane ticket to Italy. She is travelling to stay with her best friend, Giulia, and her fiancé Fab, in their old stone village home. Isobel lets your mind wander as to the setting of this home, and I say home because this is the instant feeling the Beech portrays. It is a place of comfort, warmth, support and hope. We know there is a vegetable garden that Giulia tends to and waters from the buckets of water both the women go walking for every few days. We know that Fab is a writer and pops up to say “Ciao” whenever he hears his name being discussed, either inside or outside the home. We know Giulia and our female main character sit and talk over homemade meals deep into the evening, under the big shady tree in the back yard. We know our main character feels responsible for the loss of a significant figure in her life to suicide. We know that this feeling is one that plagues her mentally and emotionally. Her grief is incongruent to the way she believes is ‘expected’ of her – her grief does not follow a pattern.

It is incredibly unique how connected a reader can feel to the main character through the workings of their inner most thoughts and internal dialogue. The main character utilises online platforms to try and refresh her mind, yet only finds herself feeling more self-destructive after seeking it out. The online and in person conversations about suicide and taking ones life, she finds quite flippant. There is a sense of nobody knowing what she is going through, therefore nobody can help fix her and the significant shift to her life. However, the slow pace of life with Giulia and Fab in Abruzzo, learning to understand the language, making friends with a stray cat called Bric and taking care in planting, tending and caring for, then harvesting their own food and appreciating all it does for the human body, becomes her salvation. Day by day, the sun would rise, the coffee would boil and the routines would begin to heal her.

One of my favourite parts of this novel was seeing how the main characters perspective about Bric, the stray cat, changed over time. To begin with, Bric would only visit Giulia and Fab’s home every so often for food. He was more of a neighbourhood cat but this worried our main character. She was terrified that he wouldn’t return, he would become lost and starve. This became comparative to the loss of the significant person in her life. She felt that if she looked for Bric, fed him and cared for him, he would stay with her. Sadly, no matter how much nurturance and love she expressed to Bric, she couldn’t make him stay. Towards the end of the novel, our main character comes to accept Bric’s coming and going, taking the pressure off herself and understanding that Bric can only extend a portion of himself to her. Nor is he something she, and only she, can feel responsible for on her own.

I also really enjoyed the overarching concept of the old birthing room, turned guest bedroom, that our main character resides in while staying at Giulia and Fab’s home. Throughout the novel, our main character is rebirthing herself into a new person that lives with the loss and grief experienced in her life. It does not leave her completely, it just becomes a manageable part of the new person she’s growing into.

This is one of the most touching books I’ve read this year and I can see myself re-reading it in the future. It is surely one I will be recommending to my local literary book clubs. It is a novel to read with openness and care. I believe it is greatly worth it.

Book Review: ‘The Girls of Lake Evelyn’ by Averil Kenny

Before I jump into this book review, I would love to give one big hug and cheer out to Allen & Unwin, Echo Publishing and Averil Kenny for sending me this beautiful copy of ‘The Girls of Lake Evelyn’.

‘The Girls of Lake Evelyn’ is a story about a curse, a playwright and a runaway bride. It is a story that wraps you in hopes and dreams, and allows you as the reader to escape into a world where the essence of small community care, love and support trumps all adversity and challenge.

💬 Let’s talk main characters:

Vivienne Brinsley is a high society young women living in Sydney at the beginning of the novel. It is the night before her wedding to Sydney’s biggest catch and high market man – yet she’s torn with feelings of dread and despair at signing up to a life she doesn’t truely want. Her mother cannot stand to listen to her discontent, so Vivienne turns to her Uncle Felix. Uncle Felix helps Viv escape her loveless relationship and expected life. He sets her travelling on a path to a small town in tropical North Queensland. Here Viv will find her confidence again, explore new friendships and possibly even fall in love with a rugged, handsome and hilarious dairy farmer, Owen.

Josie Monash is a small town gem! Even as a young woman, she has grown up to be a pivotal part of her community. Side stepping her dreams of city starlight and broadway, Josie has remained on her family dairy farm to take care of her Father and two brothers after her mother passed away. Josies’ Grandmother plays a big role in guiding her life choices and has always been a headstrong woman (maybe this is where Josie gets it from). Her Grandmother is determined to see Josie’s theatre directing skills have hit reviews in Sydney’s biggest newspaper. Her Grandmother can see such potential and how tirelessly she works to help others – now it’s Josie’s turn to bloom. So when Vivienne arrives to town and starts swimming in the cursed Lake Evelyn, Josie’s hit play seemingly comes to life.

✏️ Let’s talk plot:

Not so many years ago, a beautiful movie actress, Celeste Starr, tragically died in the lake and it spawned a curse that has plagued the town ever since. Josie’s play is set to uncover the true story behind the life of Celeste, yet it will not come without some adversity and unsettlement from community members. Lake Evelyn has been barricaded off for years now because of community fear. Josie is up against a number of people who do not trust Lake Evelyn and its ghosts.

As Josie persists with the play, people will begin to show their true colours. A number of characters are not who they seem and their small, unsettling parts in the novel, eventually surface what true motives lie beneath. Long kept secrets slowly reveal themselves in the most well paced and slow burning way!

⭐️ Final thoughts:

I loved that this novel, much like Those Hamilton Sisters by Averil Kenny (click on the title to read my Author Talks with Averil). ‘The Girls of Lake Evelyn’ has all the good things you’re looking for in a time period novel. Drama ✅ Mystery ✅ Romance ✅ Perfectly paced reveals ✅ Escapism ✅

I’m not lying to you when I say we have had to restock this novel in the book shop over 5 times now! Averil is a hit!! Her writing is DEvine and captures the reader with such lyricism that it becomes hard to put her novels down. I am so incredibly grateful to see, hold and enjoy another novel from her and can only predict that Averil is set to continue creating beautiful stories in the future. She is an instant purchase for me and I will be recommending her until the cows come home (🐮 I hope this was an Owen approved pun!).

‘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!

Author Talks with ‘Katrina Nannestad’

Katrina Nannestad is an Australian Children’s Author who spent a number of years of her childhood in Wagga. She is a multi-award winning writer and is pictured here with her beautiful pup.
📸 by Rebecca Rock

Hello Katrina and a warm welcome to melreviewsherbooks! It is an absolute pleasure to have such a talented and articulate children’s writer such as yourself featuring on my ‘Author Talks’. Katrina is the author of over 10 published children’s novels and we will be talking about two of her recent historical releases in this interview, those being ‘We Are Wolves’ and ‘Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief’.

Katrina, congratulations to begin with on having your novel, We Are Wolves, awarded the winner of ARA’s Historical Children and Young Adult Novel of 2021, winner of the Book Links Award for Children’s Historical Fiction 2021, and winner of the ABDA’s Best Designed Children’s Fiction Book of 2021. Wow – when writing We Are Wolves, did you know you were onto something big?
I really enjoyed writing We Are Wolves. I found the research fascinating and fell in love with my characters as I wrote their story. But I wasn’t quite sure whether or not I’d created something worthwhile until my agent and publisher had read it. Their response and that of the early readers was encouraging. But still, I was most anxious to learn what young readers thought of the story. Once I got the thumbs up from my target audience, I was able to relax and get excited about writing further historical fiction.

Did you follow the same planning, research and writing process for Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief as you did with We Are Wolves? If not, how was it different?
Yes, it was a similar process. I began by doing some reading around the topic before deciding what form my story might take. I spent some time developing my main characters, then took them with me – holding their imaginary hands – as I continued my research. Their presence helped bring the facts, the details and the big historic events alive, and helped me to decide what was relevant to their journey. Finally, I refined my plan and got writing.
But of course, the process is not quite so linear as that. There’s a lot of scrambling back and forth between all the steps, and extra research takes place right through to the very end.

World War II is known as such a dark, emotive and traumatic time in our world history. What has inspired you to write two novels set in this time period?
I stumbled across the story of the Wolfskinder (We Are Wolves) by accident. I hadn’t planned to write a war story, but what I read about these children amazed me – that they survived on their own in a hostile environment, sometimes for years after the war. I was also surprised that I’d never heard of these children before. I thought perhaps others were unaware of the Wolfskinder, too, in which case it would be meaningful story to tell.
I really enjoyed the challenge of writing We Are Wolves, and the response of readers was positive, so I was keen to attempt a second war novel. Again, with Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief, I have tried to share a lesser-known aspect of the Second World War.
I think it’s really important that young people are aware of the events that have shaped our world, and many are keen to explore big issues. Historical fiction allows them to discover these stories in a format that is accessible – interesting and age-appropriate.

In Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief, Sasha is a 6-year-old boy thrown into a war-torn and violent journey that will shape him forever. How do you ‘get into character’ per-say and write from the perspective of a young male child?
I always try to live in the story with my main character, whether I’m writing comedy, mystery, adventure or history. It’s the way I work, and I don’t really know any other way to do it. I can’t dip in and out. I need to be emotionally involved, to feel like the characters and setting and events are real.
I had to do a lot of research for Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief, because I knew so little of the war from the Soviet point of view. My head became filled with details about Russian village life, the sufferings of the Soviet people, the Red Army, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the westward advance all the way to Berlin. But the thing that was most helpful in gaining an understanding of how a child might experience these events, was Svetlana Alexievich’s book, Last Witnesses: Unchildlike Stories. This book records Soviet people’s personal accounts of what they experienced as children during the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War). I have never been so affected by a book in my life.

My goodness Katrina, I have to admit, the last line of this novel broke me! Did you always know how Sasha’s story would end at the beginning of your writing process?
I had a fair idea of how it would end but played a lot with those last lines so they’d have maximum impact.
As I got towards the end of the story, I did consider a different conclusion. I actually wrote two endings, but my original idea won out!

From the bottom of my heart, thank you Katrina for joining me on ‘Author Talks’! It has been an absolute pleasure 💐 What’s next for you?

I am currently writing my third historical novel. It’s also set during the Second World War and tells the story of a little Polish girl. More will be revealed later!
At the same time, I am writing a lighter adventure series for younger readers (7-10-year-olds) called The Travelling Bookshop. Book 1 is out now and I’ve written the next two. You can take a peek at books 1 and 2 at www.harpercollins.com.au/cr-110017/katrina-nannestad/ 📚
This year has been very quiet, of course, but I have some lovely bookish adventures penned into my 2022 diary already – writers’ festivals and school visits. I can’t wait to be out and about once again, sharing the delights of reading and writing and daydreaming with fellow enthusiasts.

You can find a number of Katrina’s books at Collins Booksellers Wagga Wagga online or in person.

For more information on Katrina and her books, you can visit her website, Facebook and Instagram 📚

Book Review: ‘Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief’

If I was not in public right now writing this, I’d be crying. I’m not a crier when it comes to novels but, just wow, this book moved me! Regardless of age demographic and whomever this book is targeted towards, I strongly encourage all ages to read this – no restrictions. Now let me tell you why:

This Russian inspired story is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Reading and hearing from the perspective of a young 6 year old boy by the name of Sasha, we learn what living through the trauma of World War II was really like. This novel is fresh, current and important. The title ‘Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief’ is so critical to the story.

Rabbit. As a child before the thick of war, Sasha was know a ‘Little Rabbit’ to his Mama. I believe this represents his time of innocence and pure joy as a 6 year old living life in a small loving village. His Papa has been lost in the war effort thus far, but this is the extent of his loss and tarnished childhood. His Russian community works together on their collective farm, known as a kolkhoz. This was his sense of normality. His life at this point was surrounded by love, flowers and games.

Soldier. Soon Sasha is thrown into a life he’s forced to live – a war-torn orphan who is taken in by soldiers of the Red Army. This new journey of his story is a violent push into the reality and consequence of war times and what will now define his life. The Russian people turned soldiers (as many of them were because they genuinely just wanted to protect their ‘Motherland’) become his new family. The way Sasha identifies and describes them in the novel is very child-like, which allows us as the reader to see this environment through his eyes. The regiment included Papa Scruff (a father figure to Sasha who had a dark unmanageable mop of hair), Grumpy Boris (constantly grumpy and not interested in childish antics), Invincible Ivan (get’s injured in every German encounter but survives every time), Windy Rustkov (who’s stomach really cannot handle cooks food and limited ingredients of potatoes and cabbage) and many more. This time as a solider was very crucial to the next part of his journey.

Angel. The Angel of Stalingrad. Sasha’s regiment takes in a frightened and lone newspaper reporter for a short time. During his stay, Sasha shares his story thus far with whisps of humour, storytelling, song and dance. Again, this is the child-like element of the story and showing the reader how different experiences, significant events and conversations can be altered through a younger perspective. This reporter named Sasha ‘The Angel of Stalingrad’ for his his ability to boost moral through song, story, affection, personal care and cuddles in the Red Army. Papa Scruff played a huge role in who he became through this time on his journey.

Thief. This is where we are currently, in the present with Sasha. He is in a war hospital healing from incredible trauma and he refuses to speak. He instead is collecting and thieving from other war patients, doctors and nurses around him. They know he is doing this but they allow him to take the items anyway because as they believe it will help him relive and recover his story. Spoons, feathers, watches, flowers, eight buttons, a shovel and a pair of clean underpants are just some of the items he takes. We live through these items with Sasha and learn his story along the way. A clever, clever plot structure.

All in all, I look forward to seeing how this novel is received in the book world. Katrina Nannestad‘s novel ‘We Are Wolves’ was selected for the 2021 Children’s Book of the Year Awards Shortlist. I have no doubt this novel will be a strong contender for the 2022 CBCA winner. Her writing is literary, emotive and honest but appropriate for a younger audience. Perfect for younger readers who like to delve into historical fictions and wonderful for adult readers looking for a little escapism.